I’m always looking for new artists to listen to. While I tend to stay close to my twin loves of R&B and Blues, in recent years I’ve been drawn more and more to Roots – or Americana as it’s referred to in some circles. It’s appealing to me because of the variety; it’s typically known to draw on a number of styles: Blues, Country, Folk, and R&B among them.
All of which brings me to Rodney Crowell, one of the cream of the crop of Roots musicians.
I was first introduced to Rodney Crowell by a friend of mine who passed me a cassette of his first release, 1977’s then new “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This”. I played it a lot for a while; then put it and Rodney aside.
Fast forward to 2013 and I was in 4th row centre seats at Massey Hall for an Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell concert. (They were touring in support of their first release “Old Yellow Moon”). They had me at the opening number when Rodney stepped up to the mic and sang “Won’t you scratch my itch sweet Annie Rich; and welcome me back to town…”. Nothing like starting off on a high point, (with “The Return Of The Grievous Angel,” one of Gram Parsons’ best songs). And things stayed at that level for the next 90 minutes. The show made quite an impression – I bought the CD and again listened intently to Rodney again for a spell.
Fast forward still to 2018. The last artist that I booked for Beaches Jazz, before walking away from the business, was Roots musician Shannon McNally. It happens that Crowell had produced Shannon’s latest release – the excellent “Black Irish”.
After her performance I got into a conversation with Shannon. In the course of that conversation, covering a number of musical topics, Shannon expressed her admiration for Crowell and said that she hoped to have him in the producer’s chair again on her next record. And she also mentioned, in passing, that she was on one of Crowell’s CD’s, “Tarpaper Sky”; and that I should check it out.
Well, on Shannon’s recommendation, I bought the CD and was completely taken with it. It checked all the boxes: great singing, musicianship, songwriting, and production. What struck me the most was the conversational tone of the entire CD. It was a highly personal style that, in again being drawn into his web, I’ve become accustomed to when listening to any of Crowell’s recorded work.
Rodney Crowell grew up in East Houston, and lived an early, hard scrabble life typical of others in the area. A constant cloud of violence invariably hovered over his home life as an only child raised by two alcoholic and, some may say, abusive parents. But Rodney loved his mother dearly and idolized his mean spirited father. And that dirt poor existence and subsequent emotional and physical survival helped shape his view on life. He developed a deep level of understanding and empathy in his learning that people, (such as his parents), are, at worst, flawed human beings. Further, wise beyond his years, Crowell understood that forgiveness is possible, and that even the most complicated relationships can be redeemed.
Rodney Crowell is deserving of his place in the upper echelon of songwriters. His life lessons served him well as his skills evolved from that of a lighthearted Country maverick to a more somber, emotionally intimate, often confessional player in life’s game. Guy Clark, who would prove to be a mentor, provided valuable guidance by urging Crowell to evaluate his songwriting by viewing the lyrics as poetry stripped of the music. In so doing the lyrics stood naked, and had to tell the story without the support of the music and production values. Moving forward, Rodney heeded Clark’s sage advice.
Crowell, who always saw himself primarily as a songwriter, did what hundreds of would be songwriters did to prove their worth – he moved to Nashville. It was in Nashville where he got his first big break when Emmylou Harris – looking for songs for her debut “Pieces Of The Sky” – selected his “Bluebird Wine” from the hopefuls presented to her. Harris then convinced him to move to L.A. and join her new band that was slated to pick up where she and her former musical partner, the late Gram Parsons left off. Although Crowell didn’t feel he was up to the task as a musician alongside the likes of guitarist James Burton, he could sing harmony and Emmylou had the utmost admiration for his song writing skills. Said Emmylou: “I always wanted everything he wrote, and I was lucky enough to kind of have him all to myself for a while, before other people discovered what a great writer he was”.
Crowell would stay on with Emmylou’s Hot Band for 3 years before returning to Nashville in 1977 and striking out on his own. Steeped in Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, Crowell unveiled his own persona fusing singer songwriter with reverent traditional Country roots laced with a Rock & Roll thump. That formula worked to success on his debut “Ain’t Living Long Like This” and in varying degrees on subsequent releases.
Crowell continued to write songs, (covered by an assortment of artists counting Waylon Jennings, Bob Segar, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Johnny Cash among them), and produce records for other artists, including Rosanne Cash’s breakthrough release “Seven Year Ache”. And, while all of his records were critically acclaimed, commercial success had eluded him until 1988’s “Diamonds & Dirt”, (his fifth release, with his then wife Rosanne Cash at his side), that yielded no less than 5 consecutive # 1 singles on the Country chart! Amid those hits was the stunning Country Pop duet with Rosanne, “It’s Such A Small World”.
Among Crowell’s always outstanding work, another album – the 2001 release “The Houston Kid” – rivals “Diamonds” as possibly his best. After a self-imposed 6 year recording hiatus “The Houston Kid” takes an abrupt left turn, trading his Country Pop sensibilities for a decidedly autobiographical perspective. Mixing fact and fact inspired fiction, Crowell tells determined stories of marginalized characters. There’s no self-absorption or judgmental stance here, just Crowell trying to come to terms and make sense of the situation. If you don’t believe that he makes it so real that you can almost taste the grit, have a listen to ”The Rock Of My Soul” or “I Wish It Would Rain” or “Highway 17”. Separate or together they are a songwriting tour de force.
Over the course of his 40 year career, Crowell has released 21 albums and has been recognized a number of times for his artistic achievements:
2 Grammy Awards:
“After All This Time”, 1989, ‘Best Country Song’
“Old Yellow Moon” (w/ Emmylou Harris), 2013, ‘Best Americana Album’
14 Grammy Award nominations
Nashville Song Writers Hall Of Fame, 2003
Music City Walk Of Fame, 2007
If you follow someone’s work long enough you tend to get the impression, to whatever degree, that you know them. And you might think that it would be cool to actually meet them and have a casual conversation. It’s only after careful consideration that you think better of the notion because, from your vantage point as a fan, you can’t really know them and be guaranteed that meeting them would be a positive experience.
But, based on what I’ve heard and read about Rodney Crowell, if given the opportunity, I’d take the chance.
Suggested Rodney Crowell Playlist:
Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight – from Ain’t Living Long Like This 1977
I Ain’t Living Long Like This
I Couldn’t Leave If I Tried – from Diamonds & Dirt 1988
When I left my corporate marketing job to promote shows some friends thought I was crazy giving up a steady, above average, income. But, what they didn’t know was that I had a burning, long-time, desire to be in the music business. And, that I had a partner in crime – my supportive wife Deb – in my corner who would encourage me and help me fulfill my dream.
Looking back, the seed was planted in January 1996. I was sitting in the Toronto airport getting ready to leave for my annual trip to Europe. To pass the time, I was reading the current issue of Blues Revue. The magazine had an offer for tickets to the then named W.C. Handy Awards as well as associated music business symposiums. And, as an added bonus, the Awards were being held during the annual Memphis In May celebration including the MIM International Music Festival at Tom Lee Park on the banks of the Mississippi. Now all of that sounded really interesting.
Having already made up my mind to leave marketing to pursue my dream of promoting Blues in some fashion, I decided right then and there that I would go to Memphis. I sensed that attending the Awards and symposiums would provide insight for a novice like myself. I’d also get to see some live music at the festival, and I’d have an opportunity to visit Memphis and stand on the hallowed ground where Stax once stood.
A quick aside:
Having landed in Memphis, as soon as I got in the cab at the Memphis airport I told the driver that I wanted to make a brief stop at 926 E. McLemore Avenue on the way to my hotel. He gave me a quizzical look, shook his head, and said okay. I understood his reaction when we got there. My heart sank as I gazed upon a fenced in, empty, rubble filled field. That was all that remained of the location where heroes such as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & The MG’s et al recorded all those classic Stax hits.
That night I walked into The Rum Boogie Café on Beale Street and saw that they had one of original Stax neon marquee signs on the wall behind the bar. While grabbing a beer I casually mentioned to the young bartender how cool it was for the bar to have the sign. Rubbing salt in the wound, his comment was “Oh, is that what it is? No one ever told me”.
I have to say that the Handy Awards Show was mostly nondescript save for a few performances, but one of symposiums really caught my interest and made my first of many Memphis trips worthwhile. The topic of the symposium in question was on promoting a show. I’m not sure, but I think Miki Mulvehill, (artist management), was the moderator with a panel that included Jay Sheffield (an agent), and Bluesman Bobby Rush among two or three others. Bobby Rush left the biggest impression because he laid it all out so logically.
He explained that all offers were open for discussion but that a promoter had to understand that, as a band leader, he had certain expenses that needed to be paid to keep the band together and on the road. Any offer had to cover those costs and then some.
He talked about the extras, e.g. accommodations, hospitality, whether he could sell merchandise and determining if the promoter was taking a percentage of the merch revenue, and whether there would be backline. He also talked about routing and how there would have to be a reasonable travel time to the gig and from that same gig to the next one. (He said the band would generally travel a maximum of four hours between shows). This was all invaluable information.
I left my job in November of that year and started to lay the groundwork for starting my own business in the Blues. I felt that I had to quickly establish an identity so, as a starting point, I chose to name my soon-to-be company. I decided that I should come up with a Blues oriented name instead of simply using my name, (e.g. “Rico Ferrara Presents”). My reasoning was that it would give the business a profile and the perception of being a bigger operation than that of a sole proprietor. Also, I wasn’t confirmed at the outset as to what my business would be. Would I be a promoter? Would more opportunities present themselves as an agent? In using a general name, I would be free to pursue any opportunity that came my way.
I tossed a lot of ideas around and shared those notions with friends and family. Our oldest thought “Blues Express” was the way to go and I was partial to “Big Road Blues”; and even had a graphics friend of mine, Ed Campbell, design a logo. Then one day I was listening to Anson Funderburgh and Sweet Sammy Myers, and heard Sam sing “I woke up this morning; I had the blues for a big town”. There it was: “Blues For A Big Town”! I quickly registered the name and had Ed Campbell design a logo:
So I had a company name and logo; now what? My thinking was, equipped with my “Bobby Rush information”, I had a knowledge base that I could lean on in conversations with people in the business while I obtained more firsthand information. I spoke to several people, and the following all were very generous with their time and guidance: Joe Ruicci who owned Joe’s Place in my hometown of Port Colborne; Glenn Smith who, at various times, ran The Hoodoo Lounge and Pop The Gator in Kitchener; Gary Kendall the talent buyer from The Silver Dollar Room in Toronto as well as the bass player for Downchild Blues Band; and the person who would be my mentor, Gary Cormier.
Gary Cormier – half of the famed The Garys – was managing The Phoenix in Toronto when I met him. He quickly agreed to a meeting, answered all my questions, commented on the “Bobby Rush information”, and provided some further info of his own, including all the elements that went into developing a prospective show financial. And, not to be discounted, like me, Gary was, first and foremost, in it for the music.
I determined my next logical step to be scouting talent and talking to agents. I decided to go to Memphis once again for the Awards and Music Festival. In addition, I would also attend the annual Chicago Blues Festival. I established contacts with artists, agents, and management – all U.S. based – at both events and came home with the thought of being a booking agent. But before starting on that journey I had an idea that I needed to explore, if nothing else.
When I was at the MIM Festival I happened to catch Boz Scaggs on one of the main stages. It was an outstanding show with Boz playing a lot of guitar just like the old days, (before “Silk Degrees”), and “Loan Me A Dime” was again included in his set list. (I’m sure that a good portion of the audience didn’t know that Boz is a fine, T-Bone Walker influenced, guitar player). He was showcasing his two most recent releases – “Some Change” and the Grammy nominated “Come On Home” – plus selections from “Silk Degrees”. And, he was more than enthusiastically received.
My idea? How about presenting Boz Scaggs at a Toronto venue? I posed that very question to Cormier. But Cormier was skeptical for, as it turned out, very valid reasons. Among others, Cormier noted three primary concerns:
Boz had been away too long and was not top of mind with even loyal fans. (Boz had a history of touring infrequently, and last played Toronto some 20 years previous – in 1977 in support of “Silk Degrees” )
There wasn’t enough time to promote a show of this magnitude. (It was early June and the prospective date was August 18th)
Any promotion would fall on deaf ears because all efforts would be in place during the height of summer holiday season and attendance would suffer accordingly
But I had stars in my eyes. I can remember myself saying to Gary; “But this isn’t just anybody. This is Boz Scaggs!” Against his better judgement, and with more than a little help from Cormier – who rode shotgun on the project – we pulled off the show anyway.
It was a great show although the attendance was less than we / I had hoped for. If there was a silver lining, it was that I was now in the music business.
I decided to circle back to my initial plan of working as a booking agent using contacts that I had made on my trips to both Memphis and Chicago. Based on the economics that were laid out for me by both Gary Kendall and Cormier it was evident that any acts would have to be somewhat cost effective. That insight coincided with my strategy to represent and establish less than high profile / emerging artists. (One of my learnings in scouting talent in the course of my limited travels is that there was a wealth of high quality artists in the Blues world irrespective of marquee value.)
In contacting prospective venues, I encountered a problem when presenting the lesser known acts. Club owners and talent buyers were universally reluctant to take a chance on hiring them. After several failed attempts to sell the acts that I brought to the table, it was evident that a change in direction was warranted. Simply put, if I wanted to establish my artists I would have to promote the shows myself. And, further to that – working exclusively with U.S. acts – I would have to provide a number of gigs to make it worthwhile for them to make the trek to Canada.
(I also learned that conflicting mindsets came into play in dealing with clubs. As a promoter, the entertainment for me was of prime importance; but for the bar owner, the entertainment served as a means to sell beer. Even if an act turned the place out, the final yardstick remained the quantity of beer consumed.)
So I started work on being a promoter. I set up meetings with prospective clubs in London, Kitchener, Kingston, Peterborough, Ottawa, and Toronto. I established what my friend, (and former Johnnie Bassett band leader), R.J. Spangler would later call “the Blues For A Big Town circuit”. If all went according to plan, I would line up 5 gigs and I would personally promote 3 of the shows. The tour would usually be routed as follows:
Tuesday – L’Autre Cascerne, Quebec City
Wednesday – Café Campus, Montreal
Thursday – The Rainbow Bistro, Ottawa (A BFABT production)
Friday – The Legendary Red Dog, Peterborough (A BFABT production)
Saturday – The Silver Dollar Room, Toronto (A BFABT production)
At various times other venues would come into play in as well, including clubs in Kitchener, Wingham, and Coburg.
I produced over 200 shows while maintaining the objective of presenting only artists that were to my liking. That is, although, of course, I wanted to turn a profit, I never promoted a show on the basis of whether it would sell. From day one, it was always about the music. Various artists that I introduced to the Canadian market include Tab Benoit (Houma LA), Tad Robinson (Greencastle IN), Chico Banks (Chicago), Deanna Bogart (Woodbine MD), Reba Russell (Memphis), Jimmy Burns (Chicago), and Michelle Willson (Boston), among others.
Due to several factors, (the details of which would be enough for an entire article on its own), times became increasingly tough for an independent promoter like myself. That being the case, after primarily promoting shows for a number of years, I turned my attention to being, what I like to term, a music business generalist. That is, utilizing the skills that I learned and the contacts that I’d made as a promoter, I started to diversify by adding talent buying and stage management (including the Beaches Jazz and Waterfront Blues festivals), media, booking, and business planning to my portfolio. Of these endeavours, Waterfront Blues merits special mention. The Festival ran for 10 years, and I enjoyed the responsibility and privilege of selecting and hiring of artists, of media initiatives, and of stage management.
In all, my time in the music business was a true labour of love that lasted more than 20 years. And, it goes without saying, that I had the good fortune of working with some great industry people and numerous outstanding artists – some of whom I can still call friends today.
I’ve always found L.A. in the 40’s and 50’s and its’ associated entertainment scene – including Hollywood and the movies – captivating. One of the definitive glamour eras, it’s not hard to envision a who’s who Tinsel Town crowd mixing with show business types, navigating a packed dance floor at some hip supper club on Central Avenue. Invariably there would be someone like Charles Brown – the “Sepia Sinatra” – onstage “tickling the ivories”.
And Charles Brown would be a fitting presence in this scenario because it would be here in L.A. in the 40’s and 50’s that both Brown and R&B rose to prominence.
While Atlantic Records shifted the industry’s centre to New York City in 1947 under the guiding hand of Ahmet Ertegun, and blew the doors open for R&B in 1953 when Jerry Wexler came aboard, the fact is that the genesis of the genre took place in L.A. in 1945.
Not to discount Atlantic’s efforts and the significant impact the label had on the genre and its recording artists, as well as the music industry in general; this is a snapshot of the emergence of R&B in the late 40’s and early 50’s L.A.
The story begins with the significant African American population growth in western cities – specifically L.A. – of approximately 35% or 350,000 between the years of 1940 and 1950. The stated growth was a direct result of a steady migration from mainly Texas and Oklahoma, and, to a lesser degree, Louisiana. The attraction was potential employment, especially the manufacturing jobs that the West Coast had to offer, as well as a choice of lifestyle. That is, while other urban centres offered employment possibilities, (e.g. Chicago, Detroit) and nightlife (e.g. New York), L.A. offered a relaxed racial climate and more desirable weather. It’s been said that L.A. was viewed by the new arrivals as “Harlem with palm trees”.
Employment brought new found discretionary income that gave rise to a vibrant live entertainment scene primarily along Central Avenue. The thoroughfare at its peak was home to no less than 14 high profile venues featuring both local and touring marquee acts. Places like The Dunbar Hotel and Club Alabam presented artists such as Louis Jordan, Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan showcasing at various times Little Esther (Phillips) and Etta James, Dinah Washington, Big Joe Turner, Charles Brown, T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, and more. (Not to mention Jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie to name a few).
By the 1920’s Central Avenue – previously populated by a multicultural mix including Mexicans, Asians, and Europeans – was the heart of African American L.A. And, in later years, it provided a pleasant downtown for a majority of the L.A. African American population, and presented a friendly, respectable, primarily middle class lifestyle. At night, as alluded to above, it transformed into a dynamic magnetic destination of music, entertainment, and merriment.
Keeping in step with the appeal of live entertainment was home entertainment that remained a staple of African American life. And, as the incomes rose, so too did the demand for in home entertainment, namely phonograph records, and more precisely R&B phonograph records.
The surging popularity of R&B was a result of a new found acceptance by urban African Americans who wanted something more sophisticated than the down home blues of the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, and even Robert Johnson. It’s not so much that they viewed the music as lowbrow or distinctly lower class, but more because they didn’t want to be reminded of a less affluent time associated with the form, (before their collective move to the city).
R&B, largely viewed as good time dance music, was born out of the churches of black America. It consisted of, or contained elements of, Gospel, Boogie Woogie, as well as the jump beat of Swing. While Gospel was the source, R&B was heavily influenced by African American Swing era bands; (e.g. artists like Louis Jordan, the “Father Of R&B”, came from the Swing tradition). In its most basic form it mirrored the African American experience – the grit and passion of life in the black ghetto. That is, the music, while joyful, dealt in basic needs and desires. (This paragraph is inspired by copy found in Arnold Shaw’s excellent book Honkers And Shouters).
(Billboard in the late 40’s listings referred to the genre as Race Music. The category encompassed a catch all of Big Band, Pop, Boogie, Jazz, Gospel, and Blues. It wasn’t until 1949 when Jerry Wexler, then editing the Billboard charts, changed the name to the more culturally sensitive R&B.)
The increased interest in records coincided with the lifting of what was effectively a World War II recording ban. That is, during WW II, The War Production Board ordered a 70% reduction in the production of phonograph records. The thinking being that record production required shellac, a much needed component in the manufacture of flares, explosives, and artillery shells.
While the requirement for R&B recordings grew, it became evident from the outset that the major record companies interests lied elsewhere. That is, it’s believed that the majors viewed R&B as a niche market with product that catered to a comparatively smaller audience (African American buyers), and not worth the investment. (To be fair, their target market, consisting of predominantly white consumers, showed no noteworthy interest in African American R&B)
By ignoring the potential market, the majors created a vacuum and, in turn, provided an opportunity for small independent label owners that were only too willing to fill the void. Notable entrepreneurs like Art Rupe (Specialty Records), the Bihari brothers (Modern Records), Jack Lauderdale (Swingtime Records), and the Mesner brothers (Aladdin Records), established viable businesses. By the dawn of 1950 there were no fewer than 8 independent labels specializing in R&B.
If there had to be a designation as to the top West Coast independent companies, it would arguably be Modern Records (plus later formed subsidiaries RPM, Flair, and Meteor), and Specialty Records. The respective label owners shared the same passion for the music and business acumen.
The Bihari Brothers (Jules, Saul, and Joe) who formed Modern in 1945, were in the business of leasing juke boxes in the early 40’s, including African American neighbourhoods. The brothers quickly recognized the significant growth potential in African American neighbourhoods when they realized that, while they had a distribution network, they didn’t have enough records to satisfy demand. Utilizing the same manufacturing space and supply network used to service and deliver juke boxes, the brothers were well positioned to record and distribute some of the most influential R&B records of the day.
The Bihari Brothers, with their supply network in place, had a distinct advantage over the other independents because of the important role that jukeboxes played in making a record a hit. That is, historically approximately half of the records produced were destined for jukeboxes. The Biharis, with some suggestive selling, could effectively control both the selection and quantities of titles placed in the respective jukebox locations. Accordingly, by being able to play a key role in the supply, they increased the likelihood that prospective record buyers would hear a Modern release played on the jukebox. Logically, this would lead to more sales. Add to this scenario that a number of jukebox operators also doubled as distributors further increased prospective sales of their product. As such, they built Modern into a force among labels that recorded African American music.
On the talent side of the equation, the Bihari brothers personally scouted and developed an outstanding roster of artists and recorded them. The list included Etta James, Little Richard, Ike & Tina Turner, and John Lee Hooker. On the same list were 1950’s discoveries by their talent scout Ike Turner: Bobby Bland, Howlin’ Wolf, and Roscoe Gordon. Notable singles included: “Boogie Chillen” (Hooker), “Good Rockin’ Daddy” (James), and “Goodnight My Love” (Jessie Belvin). RPM boasted B.B. King’s “3 O’Clock Blues”, B.B.’s first hit and one of the bestselling R&B singles of 1952.
Art Rupe, the founder of Specialty Records, was determined to get into the entertainment business in some shape or form. Spurred by his love for Gospel, Rupe turned his attention to the music industry. But before diving in, he took a decidedly unique analytical approach, studying the hit records of the day in search of what he hoped would be a successful formula. He came to the conclusion that a record should be less than 3 minutes in length, and emulate the power of a big band sound with a pronounced Gospel feel.
Rupe founded Specialty in 1945 and applied his research findings to produce exceptional R&B, Gospel, and early Rock & Roll recordings. An aforementioned lover of Gospel, Rupe had the good fortune to record both The Swan Silvertones (with Claude Jeter), and The Soul Stirrers (with Sam Cooke), among others. And he developed an impressive R&B and Rock & Roll line-up including: Roy Milton – with a string of hits from 1946 to 1951 including ”Hop Skip Jump” in 1948, Percy Mayfield – “Please Send Me Someone To Love” in 1950, Lloyd Price – the classic “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” in 1952, Guitar Slim – “The Things I Used To Do” in 1953, Little Richard – 8 definitive singles from 1955-1957 including his first hit “Tutti Frutti”, and Larry Williams – a number of hits from 1957-1959 including “Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu” in 1957.
There would have been no significant R&B scene without the efforts of the Biharis, Rupe, Lauderdale, or the Mesner brothers providing an outlet for the genre. But, more importantly, that scene would not have existed without the talented artists whose compositions, and live and recorded performances defined the idiom.
There are numerous artists that played a role in the growing popularity of R&B in L.A. and none more so than Louis Jordan (and his Tympany Five), Johnny Otis, and Charles Brown. All have been mentioned in passing but should be given their due in greater detail.
Johnny Otis, a native Californian, was a true jack of all trades. Otis, at various times, served as a singer, bandleader, arranger, songwriter, producer, booking agent, tour promoter, club owner, record label operator, publisher, disk jockey, and television personality.
When mentioned; more often than not, his name brings to mind his 1958 Capitol Records hit “Willie & The Hand Jive”. But what’s not part of the conversation is that he had 15 Top Ten records before “Willie”.
In the course of his career that started in 1939, Otis, originally a drummer by trade, performed with Count Basie, Charles Brown, (notably on the “Driftin’ Blues” session), Nat “King” Cole, and an assortment of R&B stars before becoming a band leader himself. On his own, among other hits, he recorded a hit version of the popular “Harlem Nocturne” that opened a number of doors for him, allowing Otis to tour Nationally.
By the 1950s he had a nightclub – The Barrelhouse in Watts – that featured strictly R&B acts – as well as a radio show in Los Angeles. And, for a short period he had his own weekly TV show, on which musicians such as Sam Cooke performed live.
Along the way, he wrote songs and produced his own releases as well as others. He used the steady stream of artists that he booked at The Barrelhouse as a foundation of his revue, the Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan.
Forced by economics of the times, Otis abandoned the big band while opting for a smaller outfit, adept at a bluesier, more hard edged sound, to back the Caravan. The Caravan, (a true floor show, including comedians at times), featured personal discoveries Esther Phillips, Willie Mae “Big Momma” Thornton, Etta James, the Robins (who became the Coasters), Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Jackie Wilson, and Little Willie John.
As a songwriter and producer his credits include the hits “Wallflower” (“Roll With Me Henry”) for Etta James (1958 on Modern) and “Every Beat Of My Heart” for The Royals (1954 on Federal). In addition to producing the record, it has also been claimed that Otis had a hand in writing Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” for Big Mama Thornton (1953 on Peacock)
In sum, Johnny Otis must be considered as a true forerunner of R&B.
Charles Brown will probably be forever known for “Merry Christmas Baby”, “Please Come Home For Christmas”, and with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, the definitive “Driftin’ Blues”. But Brown – who was a major influence on both Ray Charles and Sam Cooke – was much more than that. The man dubbed the “Black Bing Crosby” and the “Sepia Sinatra”, in the years spanning 1945 to 1956, was, simply put, one of the premier entertainers in black America.
The college educated Brown was born in Texas City Texas. His grandmother set him on the road to be being a top notch piano player by teaching him rudimentary skills at the tender age of five. A quick study, by high school he was playing in bands and the church choir, and got the blues bug at 14.
But before taking the musical path, Charles, first taught high school and then worked as a chemist. It was only after being transferred to Berkeley California in 1943, and moving to L.A. soon after, that his life changed course permanently. That’s when he teamed up with Johnny Moore (guitar) and Eddie Williams (bass) to form Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers.
The group signed with Aladdin Records and recorded the million dollar hit “Driftin’ Blues” – one of the top black records of 1945 and 1946. And although Brown’s name wasn’t on the marquee, for all intents and purposes, Brown, the front man, was the band’s main attraction. This wasn’t lost on Brown and in 1949 he struck out on his own.
That same year Aladdin released the first Charles Brown solo effort “Get Yourself Another Fool”. It wasn’t the instant hit that Charles and Aladdin were hoping for, but it did bolster his reputation, (featuring his trade mark plaintive vocals and sparse piano), and would become a staple of his live performances. And the song proved to have some lasting power as well in that it was covered many times in subsequent years (including a rendition by Sam Cooke).
It was with his third release of that year that Charles Brown distinguished himself as a solo artist. The record, “Trouble Blues” hit number one and stayed there for 15 weeks. Brown was gaining momentum but would have to wait another two years for a second number one hit, “Black Night”, which stayed at the top of the charts for 14 weeks.
Times were changing rapidly and although Brown would remain a box office attraction, the hits proved more difficult. With a harder R&B style becoming popular, Brown cut three more numbers that sold respectably before leaving Aladdin in 1956: “Hard Times”, “Please Don’t Drive Me Away”, and “Merry Christmas Baby”.
After Brown’s exit Aladdin would never realize the heights achieved with Brown’s contributions. Thereby reinforcing that, based on the strength of his accomplishments and prominence on the R&B scene, Charles Brown was Aladdin Records. (This is stated with all due respect to Amos Milburn who recorded a number of hits among the approximately 100 sides he cut for Aladdin).
Louis Jordan, a seminal figure in R&B and Rock & Roll has been called at various times “The Father Of R&B” and “King Of The Jukebox”. Both monikers are more than fitting.
Born in Brinkley Arkansas, Jordan was in show business since his teens, (performing in minstrel shows). Jordan proved adept at both keeping pace with the trends and moving ahead of the curve. He was part of the Swing Era that was blossoming in 1935 when he moved to New York and added his alto sax to the reed section of Chick Webb’s band. But he found the experience stifling; in his words “Jazzmen play for themselves. I want to play for the people”.
So, in 1939, eschewing the big band pursuits of his contemporaries, Jordan formed The Tympany Five; (he would front his own band for the next 20 years), that would revolutionize the band structure forever. Although, The Tympany Five would actually usually number seven members, the line-up of drums, bass, piano, guitar, trumpet, tenor sax, and alto sax would not only be as loud and as effective as larger bands of the day, but would also set the template for groups for years to come – including present day.
Louis and the band moved to L.A. in 1942 and signed with Decca Records. Jordan immediately had a couple of highly regarded hits: “Knock Me A Kiss” and “I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town”. With his combination of witty lyrics and crisp rhythm, by 1944 his recordings were charting regularly on both the R&B and Pop charts, (Jordan was the first major figure to cross over). But it wasn’t until 1946 that Jordan started his climb to the peak of his career. It was in 1946 that Jordan’s release “Buzz Me” was stocked in 400,000 jukeboxes! In the same year his recording of “Choo Choo Ch’boogie” garnered a million sales, and he and The Tympany Five were featured in a number of movies. The trend continued: “GI Jive” stayed on the Billboard charts from 1948 through 1950 for an unbelievable 101 weeks! In the same time frame he had 18 songs on the charts.
Jordan stayed with Decca until 1954. At that point the burgeoning forces of Rock & Roll, a genre along with R&B, that Jordan helped create, made his style and sound somewhat passé. But, it doesn’t discount, that in his prime, Louis Jordan was a major creative force in R&B while being credited with breaking down racial barriers and broadening its appeal for all.
There were a number of elements that contributed to the emergence of R&B in the 40’s and 50’s in L.A. All that came into play were co-dependent and interrelated:
L.A.’s relaxed racial climate and employment opportunities that were inviting to the significant migratory African American population
The acceptance of R&B by African Americans who formed the core consumer base of the genre
The need for product that provided the opportunity for entrepreneurs and independent labels
The venues that offered an opportunity for artists to hone their skills, promote themselves and their recorded works, and make a living while doing so
The abundant available talent waiting to be discovered
All were convergent forces making L.A. the home of the birth of R&B in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
1. “Driftin’ Blues” – Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers / Charles Brown 1945, Aladdin Records
2. “Choo Choo Ch’boogie” – Louis Jordan And The Tympany Five 1946, Decca Records
3. “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” – Jimmy Witherspoon 1947, Swingtime Records
4. “Hop Skip Jump” – Roy Milton 1948, Specialty Records
5. “Please Send Me Someone To Love” – Percy Mayfield 1950, Specialty Records
6. “Everyday I Have The Blues” – Lowell Fulson 1950, Swingtime Records
7. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” – Lloyd Price 1952, Specialty Records
8. “The Things I Used To Do” – Guitar Slim 1953, Specialty Records
9. “The Wallflower” – Etta James 1955, Modern Records
10. “Tutti Frutti”– Little Richard 1955, Specialty Records
11. “Goodnight My Love” – Jessie Belvin 1956, Modern Records
12. “Willie & The Hand Jive” – The Johnny Otis Show 1958, Capitol Records