LEON THOMAS – “The John Coltrane Of Jazz Vocalists”

“Leon is a singer beyond category”

  • Nat Hentoff, music historian and critic

Hearing Leon Thomas for the first time, the uninitiated may not quite appreciate Leon Thomas’ vocal gymnastics. That is, he might start out innocently enough in a straight-ahead Blues / Jazz dialect only to suddenly launch into a stretch of scatting, warbling, growling, yodelling that might seem incongruous with the song at hand. Indeed, it’s a stretch for the casual listener to understand that Thomas doing so serves not only as an example of his unique vocal skills, but also demonstrates his intention of continually expanding the possibilities of the human voice.

I can relate personally to this scenario upon introduction to Leon Thomas’ music. I knew of Leon Thomas in name only when I picked up a copy of Leon Thomas In Berlin in late 1971. I bought it for the most unmusical of reasons – I thought the album cover looked interesting. I knew virtually nothing about Thomas let alone anything about the quintet backing him, led by Oliver Nelson on alto sax. In my search for something new and different from my usual preference for Blues / R&B / Soul, suffice to say that I was drawn in by Leon Thomas’ soulful voice. And, the album, in general, was an intriguing eye opener that led to me buying more Leon Thomas albums.

Digging deeper, I found that listening to Leon Thomas and reading about him and his musical direction brought to light a transitional artist who moved from an excellent Blues steeped singer to one that went on to be part of the front line of avant-garde Jazz, incorporating a certain spirituality. That being said, this article tracks Thomas’ path to being “one of the most distinctive and powerful voices in modern music”**

** quote source unknown

Amos Leon Thomas, (or Amos Leone Jr; as cited in some accounts), was born on October 4, 1937 in the industrial town of East St. Louis Illinois. (Incidentally, Miles Davis, a Thomas influence, spent his formative years in East St. Louis). To provide some context, this was at the height of the Great Depression; at a time of high unemployment especially among the Black community.

The Thomas family made do with what they had. Leon recalls having a somewhat typical childhood and growing up in a house where music was always all around. His parents sang in the church choir, and their record collection included all of kinds of music. As Thomas said, “There were a lot of old things around. Recordings going all the way back to Blind Lemon Jefferson”. The records left an impression on Thomas and steered him from an athletic pastime, (track & field, baseball, and basketball), to one of singing. Influenced at the time by the big band singers such as Billy Eckstein, Arthur Prysock, and B.B. King, Thomas capitalized on opportunities to sing whether it be in the school choir, with friends, or on his own.

One such opportunity presented itself when the 16 year old Thomas started hawking the local clubs. At one of those clubs, he happened to catch and meet Latin percussion master Armando Perazza. After introductions, and learning that Thomas was a singer, Perazza invited him to sit in with his band. This led to not only regular appearances at the club, but also catching the eye and ear of prominent DJ Spider Burks**. Burks was immediately taken with his formatively unique vocal style and intuitive command of Jazz melodies. Accordingly, Burks offered him a spot on his radio show where Thomas sang a new song live on the air for several weeks to an already committed audience. It proved to be a confidence booster, served as significant personal promotion, and cemented Thomas’ plans to sing professionally.  

** Jesse Dillon “Spider” Burks was a radio show host for KXLW in East St. Louis. KXLW championed Jazz radio, and Burks, one of the first Black DJ’s in East St. Louis, in turn, was very influential in the Jazz world

After attending Tennessee State University – where he studied music and drama, and played gigs in the surrounding area with a band that included future Ray Charles sideman Hank Crawford on sax – Thomas returned home and continued to play local dates. After witnessing a Thomas performance, R&B and Gospel singer Faye Adams encouraged him to go to New York City and try his luck there. Adams also offered to help with contacts.  

Heeding Adams’ advice, Thomas landed in New York in 1959 and doors soon started to open for the 22 year old. Not long after his arrival, Thomas landed an Art Blakey led big band job at The Apollo Theatre. Suitably impressed, Blakey, a drummer at the vanguard on the emerging Hard Bop genre, took Thomas on the road with him. Subsequently, calls started coming in from other band leaders including pianist Randy Weston and multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk.

And there was more on the horizon. Leon ran into singer Joe Williams – who was nearing the end of a seven year stretch with Count Basie at the time – backstage at The Apollo. Williams told Thomas of his plans to leave Basie to go on his own, and suggested that Leon give Basie a call. Thomas did just that and started singing with the Basie band in January 1961. Thomas was in his new role for a month when he was called into the army, but he rejoined Basie upon his release in 1963. His ensuing two year stay with Basie would prove to be a major stepping stone in Thomas’ nascent career. That career, for all intents and purposes, began as a purely Blues / Jazz vocalist for Basie’s band. Thomas emerged from his time with Basie as a well known and well regarded commodity at 28 years of age. Thomas was now empowered to chart his own course in his quest for new challenges.

Thomas, as was his nature, was constantly listening, learning and searching. That searching led him to a short stay in L.A. that provided an invaluable musical experience and helped shape his views on both music in general and the human voice in particular. Thomas described his (well spent) time in L.A.: “I worked with members of UGMAA, (Underground Musicians and Artists Association). It was an extraordinary musical experience for me. They were really into the avant-garde, into freedom type music. And I began to hear all kinds of possibilities as I got rid of a lot of prejudices I had about the limitations of the voice”. Further, in L.A. Thomas learned to “stretch in all directions”.

It should be noted that an offshoot of this free, avant-garde Jazz was Spiritual Jazz or Astral Jazz – so named because it reflected a spiritual consciousness. This new Jazz subgenre was defined by saxophonist John Coltrane whose work centred on looking for ways to escape spiritually and soar free. Coltrane’s explanation of his playing, (where he generated an idea and continually improvised on it), was “like someone who started a sentence in the middle, and then going to the beginning and end at the same time”. It proved to be a style that was highly influential and adopted by a number of his followers. Leon Thomas was one of his admirers.

At this point in time Thomas was listening intently to King Pleasure, (born Clarence Beeks), a master of vocalese – the art of writing and tailoring a lyric to fit a well known instrumental – and especially Joe Carroll, a scat singer who performed with Bebop inventor Dizzy Gillespie. (Scatting is performing a vocal solo mimicking an instrument such as a trumpet or sax, and using whatever syllables and sounds the singer can call on to form a cohesive “solo”. Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day were both quite adept at this art form). Thomas commented that “I found I could do what Carroll was doing but there was a little extra of my own”. He didn’t know what that “extra “was until he heard Coltrane: “Trane was running all those changes as was I, and he was also into something else – new ways of using sound to get deeper expression”.

Accordingly, incorporating both vocalese and scatting, a new Leon Thomas started to emerge. He combined Jazz and Blues sensibilities with a newly developed howl with a trilling quality that he referred to as “Soularphone”. He further characterized this mannerism as “an elastic throat articulation” that he believed was passed on to him by his ancestors. Thomas would use this new manner of vocalizing going forward. (Thomas’ vocal style wouldn’t go unnoticed in the Jazz community. In fact, Thomas’ innovative vocal tendencies served as a primary influence for future singers such as Bobby McFerrin).

Back home in New York in1968, Thomas got reacquainted with tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders who he had met previously in the East Village. Sanders, a Coltrane acolyte, was a dominant musician and composer. And coinciding with Thomas’ new musical direction, Sanders played a key role in the expansion of Free Jazz and Spiritual Jazz movements established by Coltrane.

Sanders recorded prolifically starting in 1965 though till his death in 2022. His high water mark is arguably Karma recorded in 1969. Karma is Sanders’ third release as a leader, and Thomas plays an integral role as the featured vocalist. It’s a work that consists of only two tracks, (both co-written with Thomas): the 32 minute “The Creator Has A Master Plan” and the five and a half minute “Colours”. Thomas and Sanders prove to be master improvisors, and the recording stands as a showcase for Leon’s wordless yodelling over band vamps. The album reinforced Sanders’ position in the Free Jazz / Spiritual Jazz stratum, and propelled Thomas to stardom. Although Thomas recorded first with Count Basie, and produced superlative work on his own, he is probably best known for his work with Pharoah Sanders, particularly for his contributions on Karma.

Buoyed by his successful experience with Pharoah Sanders, Thomas embarked on a solo career that included a number of recordings. It can be said that on all of the albums Thomas surrounded himself with “name’ top flight talent. Of the available releases, 5 on the Flying Dutchman imprint stand as a true testament to Thomas’ unique artistry:

Spirits Known And Unknown (1969)
The Leon Thomas Album (1970)
Leon Thomas In Berlin (!971)
Blues And The Soulful Truth (1972)
Full Circle (1973)

All are satisfying, genre expanding, excursions that are grounded in the best of what Blues and Jazz has to offer. As a footnote in his recording career, Thomas joined Santana for a year – and, in so doing, coincidentally reunited with Armando Perazza – in 1973. During his one year stint with the band Thomas was the featured vocalist on two of Santana’s finest records: Welcome and the live Lotus

Leon Thomas lived out his last years in the Bronx and played regularly locally – usually at The Lenox Lounge in Harlem. He died of heart failure resulting from leukemia on May 8, 1999. Thomas was 61 years old.

Described in some circles as an experimental vocalist, Leon Thomas was a true pioneer. He led the way in combining the spirit of the Blues and mixing it with the most unconventional qualities of Jazz. It’s proved to be a lasting form that’s been copied but never duplicated.

A LEON THOMAS PLAYLIST

  1. The Creator Has A Master Plan
  2. Echoes
  3. Song For My Father
  4. Malcolm’s Gone
  5. Let The Rain Fall Down On Me
  6. Come Along
  7. Bag’s Groove
  8. Straight No Chaser
  9. Sweet Little Angel
  10. Just In Time To See The Sun
  11. It’s My Life I’m Fighting For
  12. Balance Of Life
  13. Let’s Go Down To Lucy’s
  14. L-O-V-E
  15. Gypsy Queen
  16. Shape Your Mind To Die
  17. Boom-Boom-Boom
  18. China Doll
  19. Love Devotion & Surrender (with Santana)
  20. When I Look Into Your Eyes (with Santana)
  21. Black Magic Woman (with Santana)
  • Rico Ferrara, January 2023
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LaVern Baker

Her’s was one of the voices that brought Rock & Roll to glory”

  • journalist Nick Tosches

Jim Dandy was one of the greatest records I heard as a kid. Even when I was a kid in Southern California, I knew the real deal when I heard it”

  • Bonnie Raitt

Despite claims such as those above, I’ve always contended that LaVern Baker was / is somewhat underappreciated by keen music followers and critics alike. That is, although Baker was white hot at the dawn of the Rock & Roll era – making a major contribution to both Rock & Roll and R&B, (that were virtually interchangeable at the time) – based on her accomplishments, with the passage of time, her star has dimmed considerably. To the point that when exploits of her peers are discussed, the name LaVern Baker, rarely enters the conversation.

Given Baker’s many triumphs, this perspective may seem to some to be totally unfounded. Granted, Baker has received some recognition for her efforts such as being the second female performer, (after Aretha Franklin), to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; and receiving the R&B Foundation Pioneer Award, but there were a number of achievements that have been somewhat glossed over. For instance, consider that, (among other noteworthy accomplishments):

  • Over her 12 year career at Atlantic Records, (1953-1965), Baker had 25 charting singles including the million sellers “Tweedle Dee” and “Jim Dandy”. This success rivaled label mates Ray Charles’ (1952-1959) and Ruth Brown’s (1949–1961) feats.
  • Baker was one of the first women promoted by Alan Freed as part of his Rock & Roll / R&B programming. That promotion included putting Baker in rotation on Freed’s radio playlists, as well as having her appear at his early shows at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theatre, and featuring her in two Freed produced 1956 movies: Rock Rock Rock! (1956) and Mr. Rock & Roll (1957), alongside notables such as Chuck Berry and Frankie Lymon
  • Baker was the first R&B artist to appear on the nationally televised Ed Sullivan show, (then called “Toast Of The Town”), in 1956 (singing “Tweedle Dee”)

The discounting of Baker’s efforts can be attributed to a couple of primary factors. Firstly, although enjoying the same number of hits, Baker was overshadowed by Ruth Brown. That is, while Baker was saddled with what can be justifiably characterized as novelty tunes like “Tweedle Dee”, “Jim Dandy”, and “Tra La La”, the extremely talented Brown, (“Miss Rhythm”), had the good fortune to record more hard-hitting material like “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean”, “5-10-15 Hours”, and “Teardrops From My Eyes” among others. Although, Baker did have other more temporal entries, and to her credit, Baker injected as much sensuality as possible into the noted songs, the subject material of her most popular songs paled in comparison to Brown’s selections. And, although they were hits, they seriously undermined Baker’s talent. That is, Lavern Baker, one of the most important and successful 50’s R&B vocalists, was, in truth, a throwback to Blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Blessed with a powerful voice; she unleashed a fiery combination of Blues, Jazz, and R&B.

The second factor that played a role was that LaVern, for all intents and purpose, was out of the public eye for more than 20 years, (from 1969 till the early 90’s). Of her choosing, Baker “retired” from the U.S. scene and took up residence in the Philippines. As such, a true case of “out of sight; out of mind”; the lack of visibility Stateside surely didn’t help her cause of maintaining popularity.

Matters being as they may, all started out promising enough for LaVern Baker, one of the first female R&B performers to cross over and reach a large segment of the white audience. Born Delores LaVern Evans in Chicago on November 11, 1929, Baker was singing in the Baptist church choir by the time she was 12 years old. But young LaVern, a music lover from the get-go, didn’t find Gospel fulfilling as she was drawn more and more to secular music. Baker was initially influenced by her aunt, Blues singer Merline Johnson. In an interview Baker recalled: ”I wanted to be just like her. I would sit in the studio and watch her record”.

It wasn’t long before Baker was following in her aunt’s footsteps. At the age of 17 Baker started playing local Chicago clubs – after getting her first big break at Club DeLisa – using the stage name “Little Miss Sharecropper”. “LMS” was a fully formed stage persona that featured Baker dressed in rags and belting out Blues numbers. (It’s not known who initiated the role of “LMS”, but it’s certain that the act was a thinly veiled attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Pop singer Mildred Jorman who had a somewhat similar act and went by the moniker “Little Miss Cornshucks”).

Baker continued to use the “LMS” stage name when she made her recording debut in 1949. Baker’s recording career started with forgettable Blues flavoured sides for both the National and RCA Victor labels. That was followed with Jazz forays for Columbia and its subsidiary Okeh (under the name Bea Baker) before trying her hand at Rock & Roll on the King label as LaVern Baker. In all, she recorded some 15 sides from 1949 to 1952. Although unremarkable in sales and notoriety, the recordings benefitted from Baker’s displays of vocal power and rhythmic energy – a foreshadowing of the LaVern Baker whose Blues driven, Gospel tinged vocals set the standard for future female Rock & Roll / R&B singers while reeling off hits at Atlantic Records.  

LaVern Baker’s time at Atlantic was indeed career defining and proved to be a building block for the fledgling independent label. Atlantic was fairly new – in its’ fifth year of existence – and aspiring to be as successful as established West Coast indies like Aladdin, Modern, and Specialty when Baker came aboard in 1953.

At the time of Baker’s signing with the label, Ray Charles had yet to have a hit and label’s most consistent hit maker was Ruth Brown. Brown had 3 charting hits to date: “Teardrops From My Eyes” (1951, Atlantic’s first million selling single) “5-10-15 Hours”, (1952, hitting # 3 on the R&B charts), “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (1953, # 1 on the R&B charts).

Recognizing LaVern Baker’s obvious talent, owners Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, and Jerry Wexler sensed that she could readily duplicate Ruth Brown’s success and help springboard Atlantic to the next level. LaVern, certainly not a novice in the recording studio or in live performance, was already seasoned veteran at 24. Accordingly, she used her skills, experience, and business savvy to produce hit records with the label that consistently crossed over into the Pop charts. And, in doing so, Baker provided profile for Atlantic, as she established her identity of the one of the most unconventional and beautiful divas of her time.

Atlantic released more than 30 LaVern Baker singles, including a number of hits. The following are some of the most memorable records that established her spirited and joyful sound without sacrificing commitment to the nature of the material at hand:
“Soul On Fire” (1953) – from Baker’s first session; a hit on both the R&&B and Pop
                                       Charts
“Tweedle Dee” (1955) – Baker’s second single; Atlantic’s first Top 20 hit (# 4 R&B, #
                                         14 Pop); a million seller
”Bop-Ting-A-Ling” (1956) – # 3 R&B
“Still” (1956) – # 2 R&B
“Play It Fair” (1956) – #2 R&B
“Jim Dandy” (1957) – topped the R&B charts, # 17 Pop; spent 18 weeks on the charts;
a million seller; included in Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Songs Of All-
|                                  Time”; included in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame’s “Songs That
                                  Shaped Rock”
“Jim Dandy Got Married” (1957) – # 7 R&B
“I Cried A Tear” (1959) – Baker’s biggest Pop hit (# 6 Pop); # 2 R&B
“I Waited Too Long” (1959) – # 3 Pop, # 5 R&B
“See See Rider” (1964) – # 9 R&B

Although Baker enjoyed a measure of success with her various hits during her tenure at Atlantic, like a number of R&B artists, her “Race” records fell prey to inferior white covers. (For example, Pat Boone’s hilariously insipid cover of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” comes to mind). In most instances, these sanitized versions were released by white Pop singers on major labels who had access to a large white record buying public through the label’s influence on playlists and the sheer magnitude of distribution that small independent labels couldn’t match. Those same buyers would – as a general statement – not have an interest in or even be familiar with the originals. And, as a result, the covers would outsell the originals by a wide margin.

In LaVern Baker’s case, Jazz inflected Pop singer Georgia Gibbs scored hits with Baker’s “Tweedle Dee” and “Tra La La” on Mercury Records using identical arrangements to that of the originals. Gibbs’ rendition of “Tweedle Dee” had the most success hitting # 2 Pop. In response, Baker – one of the more outspoken critics of the practice of the covering of Black R&B material by white artists – filed suit and lost. As a last resort she issued an open letter to Ms. Gibbs in 1957 that bears mentioning if for no other reason than to illustrate Baker’s combative nature and feisty spirit:

“Dear Georgia,

In as much as I’ll be flying over quite a stretch of blue water on my forthcoming Australian tour, I am naturally concerned about making the round trip safely and soundly. My thoughts naturally turn to you at this time, and I’m enclosing an insurance policy on my life in the amount of $125,000. This should at least be partial compensation for you if I should I be killed or injured and thereby deprive you of the opportunity to copy my songs and arrangements in the future.”

LaVern left Atlantic and signed with Brunswick Records in 1965. But before moving on from the Atlantic chapter of her career it would be remiss not mentioning her excellent 1958 album LaVern Baker Sings Bessie Smith. One of the first concept albums, and her most popular album, LaVern Baker Sings Bessie Smith was named by DownBeat Magazine as one of the top ten Blues albums of all time. Rivalling Dinah Washington Sings Bessie Smith, released the same year, the album showcases a different LaVern Baker on her only true Jazz / Blues album. Backed by a stellar cast of musicians, LaVern delivers songs associated with Bessie like “Gimme A Pigfoot”, “Empty Bed Blues”, and “After You’ve Gone”. She does so in her own style, but includes the sass and swagger found in the originals while adding a welcome mix of drama and excitement.

Baker’s stop at Brunswick wasn’t a long one. LaVern recorded 7 sides for the label including her last R&B charting hit, “Think Twice” – a 1966 duet with label mate Jackie Wilson that landed at # 37 R&B.  It’s rather surprising that the record got any airplay whatsoever given the subject matter and the ribald lyrics. (You’ll have to Google them; I’ll leave it at that).

In the late 60’s Baker was on a USO tour in Vietnam. (The United Services Organization tour was a morale boosting entertainment tour for service men and women stationed overseas). There she fell ill with pneumonia and by the time she recovered the touring company returned to the U.S. leaving her behind. Rather than return to the States, Baker accepted an offer to work in the Philippines and serve as Entertainment Director at a nightclub at Subic Bay Military Base. Under contract to the U.S. government and primarily entertaining troops in Southeast Asia, Baker took a liking to her new situation. So much so that she remained in the Philippines till the early 90’s. Baker described her situation this way: “I got to book the musical talent, act as emcee, and sing on the weekends with a really talented band. It wasn’t the bright lights of Broadway although there is really a thriving and very professional music scene in the Philippines. But there is no doubt who was in charge. I don’t mind admitting I liked the situation”.

But LaVern Baker couldn’t stay away from home forever. Upon her return she continued with her career, touring extensively –
playing clubs and concerts as opportunities presented themselves. One such opportunity was Atlantic Records’ 40th Anniversary concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Displaying an undiminished strong robust voice, the 59 year old Baker performed “Jim Dandy” and “Saved”; drawing an enthusiastic response.

Following soon after, LaVern (ironically) replaced Ruth Brown in the Broadway play “Black And Blue”, a musical revue celebrating the Black culture of song and dance in wartime Paris. Baker made the most of her stage time singing a trio of Blues standards: “Body & Soul”, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”, and “St. Louis Blues”.  

Baker remained active in the business throughout the 90’s. She continued to record, (including her first studio album in 20 years, Woke Up This Mornin’), worked on several movie soundtracks, and played numerous live dates. Not even having her legs amputated due to diabetes could dampen her spirit, as she forged on performing in a wheelchair.

LaVern Baker could howl the Blues or sing with sweet playfulness and sophistication. Commanding an alluring voice, she fused Blues, Jazz, and R&B with the fervour of Gospel. Added to that, Baker had a magnetic stage presence that could capture and hold an audience, (regardless of race). To sum up, LaVern Baker set the stage for R&B and Rock & Roll in the 1950’s and beyond.

LaVern Baker died March 17 1997 in Queen’s NY of cardiovascular disease. She was 67 years old.

The legend lives on.

LaVern Baker Playlist

  1. Soul On Fire
  2. Tweedle Dee
  3. Bop-Ting-A-Ling
  4. Still
  5. Play It Fair
  6. Tra La La
  7. Jim Dandy
  8. That Lucky Old Sun
  9. Jim Dandy Got Married
  10. Gimme A Pigfoot
  11. Back Water Blues
  12. Empty Bed Blues
  13. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out
  14. After You’ve Gone
  15. St. Louis Blues
  16. Love Me Right
  17. I Cried A Tear
  18. I Waited Too Long
  19. Tiny Tim
  20. Voodoo Voodoo
  21. Saved
  22. See See Rider
  • Rico Ferrara, December 2022

JIMMY WITHERSPOON – ‘Spoon

Jimmy Witherspoon – commonly referred to as ’Spoon by his audience, peers, and those in the industry – was, in the main, a Blues shouter in the Kansas City tradition. Although extremely versatile, he shared some of those traits with others of that same practise such as Jimmy Rushing and his idol Big Joe Turner. ‘Spoon did so while displaying a smooth rich baritone.

**At this juncture, it should be noted that Witherspoon and his contemporaries were considered Blues singers – albeit with Jazz tendencies. That being the case, it’s informative to make the distinction between their take on Blues and the popular and accepted Urban and / or Country Blues. That is, Urban and Country Blues were generally guitar centred, and the singers who sang that particular style of Blues, (e.g. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf), were instrumentalists as well as singers; affected by their own particular environment. In contrast, ‘Spoon, Rushing, Turner at al were exclusively singers that were heavily influenced by the big band styles of the day. So much so that both their style and phrasing evolved from their involvement with Jazz musicians. Their training as Blues singers came in the Jazz era, and they stand as essentially singers in a Jazz band. Finally, it could be rightfully stated that, while their Blues were more refined / sophisticated than the likes of Waters and Wolf, their Blues carried just as much emotional weight**.  

** The root of this paragraph is drawn from liner notes of The Spoon Concerts written by journalist and musicologist Ralph J. Gleason

Like his peers, ‘Spoon straddled the Jazz and Blues worlds while making a valued contribution in both. However, although he proved to be a major inspiration for a number singers that came after him such as Bobby Bland among others; he didn’t benefit from the same level of acclaim, during his prime, accorded those same artists.

Never to be deterred, Jimmy Witherspoon’s story is one of steadfastness in not ever losing sight of his calling. In so doing he proved to be a model of resiliency facing any of life’s hurdles that presented themselves.  Even after a bout with throat cancer in his 50’s he forged on, altering his vocal style to compensate for changes that resulted from the disease. Indeed, he continued working up until his final days.

Witherspoon’s career started out promising enough but hit a flat spot with the advent of Rock & Roll and associated preferences on the part of the record buying public. For instance, unlike Big Joe Turner, ‘Spoon didn’t cross over into the burgeoning market, and it remains to be known whether it stemmed from a reluctance on ‘Spoon’s part, (to vary his Jazz / Blues style to suit), or whether he wasn’t afforded the opportunity to do so

Interestingly, the fact that he didn’t cross over – and thereby increase his popularity – didn’t impede his many chances to record. (Witherspoon released 25 albums in the 50’s – 60’s period, and more than 50 in a career that spanned 50 years). While certainly commendable and indictive of his talent that labels would continue to take a chance on Witherspoon, the subsequent sales, generally moderate at best, were not sufficient to enhance his drawing power. As a result, ‘Spoon was relegated for long periods to mainly playing the Chitlin’ Circuit. Although not in total obscurity – as there were many highlights – it would lead to a checkered career going forward.

James John Witherspoon was born in in Gurdon (Clark County) Arkansas on August 8, 1920. Like many singers in the Blues tradition, before and after him, Witherspoon got his start in church. In Witherspoon’s case, he was born into a very religious family where both parents attended the First Baptists Church and were members of the church choir. A young Jimmy Witherspoon followed suit by singing in that same choir at the tender age of 5.  

Jimmy won a Clark County talent contest soon after, singing “Water Boy”, a traditional Folk song. That proved to be the jumping off point. As he grew he was drawn more and more into singing; and he listened to a variety of singers and styles, including Blues. He was taken especially with the big band singers like Jimmy Rushing and Herb Jeffries, (both rising to fame with Count Basie); stirred by their diction: “… I was inspired by them because of the way they pronounced their words”. This attention to detail would become a trademark of ‘Spoon’s style throughout his career.

At 14 years of age, he was convinced that he was destined to be a singer. Hearing about the developing scene on a club lined Central Avenue in Los Angeles, he ran away from home, (making his way there by train). Once in L.A., while he was determined to do whatever it took to be successful, he did so with some reservations. He knew that Blues were popular, but he was initially reluctant to sing songs in that vein to be successful. The product of a religious household, it was ingrained in him that Blues were profane. ‘Spoon explained: “I didn’t dig Blues because I’d been told it’s a dirty word…you couldn’t sing in church and sing the Blues”. (As a matter of fact, Witherspoon’s mother didn’t hear him sing in person until much later in life – in 1959 at the Monterrey Jazz Festival – when Jimmy was 39 years old). Of course, ‘Spoon’s hesitancy to sing Blues would diminish as future opportunities presented themselves.

The early days in L.A. were spent washing dishes at a local drug store by day and hawking the Central Avenue clubs by night. Over the next few years ‘Spoon sat in with whoever would allow him the chance to do so. Of those various bands ‘Spoon guested regularly with T-Bone Walker and the Jazz piano great Art Tatum. He recalled proudly that “They didn’t know I was a dishwasher – they thought I was a professional singer”.

Witherspoon started to build a local following singing primarily Jazz standards. His world and outlook on material changed in 1941 when he saw Big Joe Turner in the cast of Dule Ellington’s musical film “Jump For Joy” at Hollywood’s Mayan Theatre. Proclaiming “I liked Jimmy Rushing but Big Joe Turner was my idol. He’s a Blues singer”, ‘Spoon decided then and there to be a Blues singer. (‘Spoon would later become personal friends with Turner who offered him encouragement in chosen path).

Before Witherspoon could get any real momentum, he was called to join the Merchant Marines in 1941. While he worked as a cook and steward Spoon continued on his quest to be a singer when an opportunity presented itself while on a 5 day furlough in Calcutta (now Kolkata) India in 1943. There he ventured into The Grand Hotel where Chicago pianist Teddy Weatherford was leading a band of ex-patriots from the U.S. and Europe. Invited to sit in, Jimmy got up to sing a rendition of 40’s R&B singer Lil Green’s “Why Don’t You Do Right” to confidence building applause. Being so well received, ‘Spoon was invited back to sing on a regular basis during his leave. Coincidentally, ‘Spoon earned some notoriety when his performances with Weatherford were broadcast on the U.S. Armed Forces Radio Service. (The Armed Forces Radio Service, that was created by a service department of war in 1942 to entertain military personnel stationed overseas, aired regularly for the duration of WW II).  

‘Spoon’s Merchant Marine stay ended in 1944. Upon his return Stateside he moved in with his mother who was living in the Bay area. There, not losing sight of his singing ambitions, he worked in a steel mill and sang on the weekends at various clubs – most prominently at The Waterfront front near Vallejo California.

Around this time, Jazz pianist and bandleader, Jay McShann made a stop nearby on his current tour. It just so happened that McShann was looking for a singer with both Walter Brown and Max “Blues” Bailey having recently left his employ. Subsequently, ‘Spoon approached McShann, and was invited to sit in at The Casino Ballroom. McShann remembered the evening: “He came up and sang ‘Wee Baby Blues’, the Big Joe Turner hit, and a couple of other numbers and got a nice hand”. Having passed his “audition” ‘Spoon officially joined the band the next night in Stockton California.

Witherspoon would go on to perform and record – appearing on a number of releases on various labels – with McShann for the next 3 years. He left the band to go solo in 1948 at the age of 28. ‘Spoon was not widely known at the time, and it was reflected in his first two singles, covers of Big Bill Broonzy’s “When I Been Drinkin’” and Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” with both being only minor hits. But his fortunes changed with the release of his 4th single in 1949. Backed by McShann and his band, ‘Spoon hit with a two part remake of Bessie Smith’s “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”. Not only did the single go to # 1 on the R&B chart, (Billboard’s “Best Selling Retail Race Records“ Chart); but it would stay on the chart for 34 weeks – longer than any other R&B tune at the time! “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” would prove to be ‘Spoon’s signature song going forward.

Benefitting from the halo effect of “Business” ‘Spoon would step forward in short order with 4 additional top ten hits:
“In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down” (a Leroy Carr cover; # 5 R&B, 1949)
“No Rollin’ Blues” (# 4 R&B, 1949)
“Big Fine Girl” (# 4 R&B, 1949)
“The Wind Is Blowin’” (# 7 R&B, 1952)

The 50’s, for the most part, found ‘Spoon recording sporadically, and, accordingly, not commanding the most high profile engagements. For all intents and purposes, Witherspoon all but disappeared until 1959 when, somewhat surprisingly given his relatively low profile, he was invited to perform at the 2nd annual Monterrey Jazz Festival in October of that year.

Leaving nothing to chance, for his performance ‘Spoon surrounded himself with what amounts to a virtual “who’s who” of Jazz including Roy Eldridge on trumpet, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxes, Woody Herman on clarinet, Earl “Fatha” Hines on piano, and Mel Lewis on drums. And to top it off, he used his 25 minute set to lead the band through the hits: “No Rollin’ Blues”, “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, “Big Fine Girl”, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” and “When I Been Drinkin’”.

All in all, the show is considered the high point of his career. The performance, (and response to it), was so successful that it launched a “second” career for Witherspoon. He immediately started receiving higher paying jobs and drawing larger crowds. The performance also provided entry into new markets, (of which his 60’s European excursions proved to be the most lucrative). In addition, Witherspoon was featured in Jon Hendricks’ historic program and recording Evolution Of The Blues Song in 1960.

The set – that was released on what many critics view as ‘Spoon’s finest album, Witherspoon At Monterrey – can also befound on the 1989 CD release, The ‘Spoon Concerts. The CD, (this writer’s favourite ‘Spoon release), also includes another live performance – this time from December 1959. Originally released under the title Witherspoon, Mulligan, Webster At The Renaissance, the performance features another high profile collection of Jazz artists. Backed by, (among others), Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax, Ben Webster on tenor sax, and Mel Lewis once again on drums, ‘Spoon reels off 10 selections from his live performance repertoire and recording catalogue. Included here are songs long associated with ‘Spoon such as “Times Gettin’ Tougher Than Tough (Money’s Gettin’ Cheaper)” and tributes to Big Joe Turner – “Corina Corina” and “Roll ‘Em Pete”. More than 70 minutes in total of undisputed artistry.

Banking on his 60’s successes, the 70’s through the 90’s found a productive Witherspoon reaping long overdue recognition and rewards. Re-establishing himself through re-issues and new releases, he continued to perform frequently. Not even the aforementioned cancer scare could hold him back. Although as ‘Spoon said in reflection “I had to learn to sing all over again”, he found that he could now hit a lower register providing a new found depth to his vocals. And, in that same year – 1975 – he returned to the charts with “Love Is A Five Letter Word” reaching # 31 on the R&B charts.

Accolades followed. ‘Spoon received Grammy recognition with 4 nominations:
Jimmy Witherspoon Sings The Blues with Panama Francis and The Savoy Sultans (Best Jazz Vocal Performance Male, 1981)
Patcha Patcha All Night Long (Best Traditional Blues Recording,1986)
Midnight Lady Called The Blues (Best Jazz Vocal Performance Male, 1987)
Live At The Mint (Best Traditional Blues Recording,1997)

He was also inducted into both The Arkansas Jazz Hall Of Fame (Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation) and The Blues Hall Of Fame (The Blues Foundation).

Jimmy Witherspoon – standing a 6’ 3” and weighing 235 pounds was a physically imposing figure. He was a prideful man who was well aware of his vast talent. But while revered as an exceptional singer who was adept at a number of styles, and viewed as the main attraction, ‘Spoon always saw himself as a member of the band. He credited his backing musicians for playing a key role in any personal success. In an interview shortly before his death ‘Spoon was asked what made it possible for him to get such a wide range of work. His reply: “It comes from your environment, being with top musicians who have class…and also knowing that musicians are 99% of any singer. Where a lot of singers think they are greater than any musician …they are fools”.

And the band played on. It can truly be said that ‘Spoon never stopped singing – his last live date was just 2 months before his death from natural causes on September 18, 1997.

A ‘SPOON PLAYLIST

  1. In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down
  2. Wee Baby Blues
  3. The Wind Is Blowin’
  4. Love Is A Five Letter Word
  5. When The Lights Go Out
  6. I Had A Dream
  7. New Orleans Woman
  8. Evenin’
  9. One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer
  10. Times Gettin’ Tougher Than Tough
  11. How Long Blues
  12. Corina, Corina
  13. C.C. Rider
  14. Roll ‘Em Pete
  15. Every Day
  16. Goin’ To Kansas City
  17. Outskirts Of Town
  18. Trouble In Mind
  19. St. Louis Blues
  20. No Rollin’ Blues
  21. Good Rockin’ Tonight
  22. Big Fine Girl
  23. Ain’t Nobody’s Business
  24. When I Been Drinkin’
  • Rico Ferrara, November 2022.

SLIM HARPO – The King Bee

When considering geographical sources of the Blues, a number of areas immediately come to mind. For example, when the topic of Country Blues enters the conversation, Clarksdale Mississippi jumps to the fore. If the conversation turns to Urban Blues, Chicago immediately comes to mind. That being said, Baton Rouge is hardly the first name that registers when discussing foundational hubs of the Blues.

Although, in time, it would be identified as the home of Swamp Blues, (and Swamp Pop), there are a number of factors that play a role in Baton Rouge taking somewhat of a back seat to other better known and more established Blues locales. Not the least of which were the limited recording opportunities available to the many musicians of Baton Rouge and environs. Simply put, there was a dearth of recording facilities coupled with a scarcity of viable labels and accompanying required distribution networks. Accordingly, any exposure that artists could muster was generated by, and confined primarily to, local live performances. And, although there were a number of venues; generally speaking, those appearances were not enough to establish artists outside the Baton Rouge area. Adding to that fact is that without the recognition, local musicians tended to remain just that – local. (And, to make ends meet, they tended to keep their day jobs.) Unless one happened to frequent Baton Rouge’s Black clubs, they wouldn’t know of musicians such as Lightnin’ Slim, Silas Hogan, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown, Tabby Thomas, Boogie Jake, and Raful Neal, among others.

(The well-informed will cite that Buddy Guy of Lettsworth Louisiana – located some 60 miles north of Baton Rouge – went on to Nationwide fame and fortune. But, he did so by leaving town in 1957 for the streets and stages of established Chicago Blues clubs – where he earned his celebrity. The very fact that Guy left Baton Rouge rules him out as an exception to the experiences and conditions as noted.)

Having said that, there was one true exception to the above – James Moore AKA Slim Harpo. Harpo had both the talent and good fortune to not only get established locally, (through gigs and records); but also, to record and tour sufficiently to gain National recognition. Added to that, and not to be overlooked, was Slim’s unbending drive and determination to be successful in the music business. This resolve included a willingness to adapt his repertoire to entertain an audience, without compromising his downhome Blues style. (And, as the norm for local working Baton Rouge musicians, even at the height of his stardom, Harpo maintained his various jobs through every stage of his career whether they be as a dock worker, working construction, or hauling steel and sugar cane.) In sum, Slim Harpo would establish Baton Rouge as a base for the Blues.

In keeping with Baton Rouge’s “well kept secret” status, details of both Slim Harpo’s personal and professional life are somewhat clouded in mystery. He gave few interviews and information can be found primarily through accounts from fellow musicians. And, as always with oral history, facts tend to vary when human memory and aligned perspective come into play.

This much we know. Slim found success utilizing a homegrown style that came to be known as Swamp Blues. Swamp Blues is best explained as an amalgam of Blues styles originating from Texas, Mississippi, and Chicago and adapted by Baton Rouge musicians who incorporated popular local genres such as Zydeco and Cajun.

Single releases were the order of the day and Slim Harpo released 22 singles of the more than 40 sides recorded for the Excello label out of Nashville from the years 1957 through 1969. Of those there are 7 titles, in particular, that found prominence, continue to endure, and continue to be covered by other artists: “I’m A King Bee” (1957), “Rainin’ In My Heart” (1960), “Still Rainin’ In My Heart” (1964), “Baby Scratch My Back” (1965), “Shake Your Hips” (1966), “Tip On In (1967)”, and “Tee Ni Nee Ni Nu” (1968).On the strength of these releases particularly and other releases generally, Slim  crossed over into the Pop charts and proved to be a great influence on and inspiration to the British Invasion bands. A prime example is The Rolling Stones who introduced Harpo to white teenage North Americans with their cover of “I’m A King Bee”. Other noteworthy covers included: The Kinks with “I Got Love If You Want It”, Them with “Don’t Start Crying Now”, and Dave Edmonds / Love Sculpture with “Shake Your Hips”.  

The Slim Harpo story began in his birthplace of Lobdell, West Baton Rouge Parish on January 11, 1924. To provide some context, Lobdell is located some 10 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. Baton Rouge, in turn, can be found 80 miles northwest of New Orleans. A number of accounts state Slim’s full name as James Isaac Moore; but his birth certificate states his (only) given name as Isiah. Further, there’s no information as to how or when he started to call himself James. If nothing else, it stands as further evidence that facts surrounding Slim tend to get a little murky.

Harpo grew up in nearby Port Allen and would live in the area for his whole life. Slim’s father died when he was in the 10th grade forcing Slim to leave school to support the family; (his mother, brother, and 3 sisters). As a male adolescent, taking on a provider role was an expected and common occurrence in country living. Slim elaborated on that reality in an interview with Jim Delehant of Hit Parader magazine in describing his rough childhood: “In the country when you get to be 12 you’re like a grown man, and you have to go to work”.

Listening to and playing music was a popular pastime for Harpo and fellow residents when not working in the fields or whatever menial jobs that presented themselves. That is, if one could afford a radio, or an instrument, or even the means of transportation to Baton Rouge to buy one on a relatively meager income. (Slim, for his part, as previously mentioned, was gainfully employed throughout his career. The fact that the harmonica, Slim’s primary instrument of choice, was a comparatively cheaper purchase than, say, a guitar, may have initially steered him in that direction.)

Slim‘s first exposure to music was Blues played by people that he lived and worked with as well as listening to Blues exclusively on the radio. Harpo stated that his favourite performers were B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and, most of all, Blind Lemon Jefferson. (Jefferson, from Coutchman Texas, was immensely popular in the area having worked the streets, brothels, saloons, and parties in Texas as well as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia).     

Having already taught himself harp and guitar at an early age he began blowing harp in jam sessions and at local parties. As Harpo started to shape his hard driving and straightforward style, he gained sufficient confidence to play Baton Rouge’s Black clubs. Using his newly adopted stage name “Harmonica Slim”, he performed as a sideman with various guitar players. One of those guitar players, Otis Hicks – soon to be known as “Lightnin’ Slim”; and coincidentally Harpo’s brother-in-law – would play a vital role in his career by bringing him to the attention of J. D. Miller of Crowley Louisiana.  

J. D. (Jay) Miller, a former Country and Cajun player turned entrepreneur, had a makeshift recording studio in Crowley Louisiana, (located 75 miles southwest of Baton Rouge). There he developed a distinctive, echo laden recording technique that proved to contribute to the Swamp Blues sound as much as the songs themselves that were committed to tape. Rarely using a full drum kit, he still managed keep the groove with unusual percussive support such as a saddle and / or wooden blocks.

Miller recorded a number of local musicians on various labels that he owned, but reserved the works of his roster of Baton Rouge based Blues musicians for his arrangement with Ernie Young’s Excello Records out of Nashville Tennessee. The arrangement as such was that Miller would record Lightnin’ Slim, Lonesome Sundown, and Lazy Lester and the like; and send the master tapes of what was deemed the best material to Young who would release the songs, (as singles), on the Excello label. As part of the agreement, Young and Miller would each take a predetermined share of the royalties and sales. Although distribution was primarily confined to Young’s retail and wholesale business, (Ernie’s Records), and his mail order business, Excello did make inroads with discerning Blues record buyers on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was at a planned 1955 recording session with Otis Hicks / “Lightnin’ Slim” that Miller was first introduced to James Moore / “Harmonica Slim”. Hicks, after having partnered with a number of harp players, was now teamed up almost exclusively with Moore for his live dates; and brought him to the session to back him on prospective recordings. At the recording date Hicks took Miller aside, and, as a favour, asked him to record Moore as a feature artist as well. Miller reluctantly agreed to listen to one of Moore’s songs but remained skeptical. He remarked that he liked his harp playing but wasn’t enamoured with either his singing or his material. He invited Moore to come back when he had something better to record.

It was sometime later that Moore returned with songs, two of which – “I’m A King Bee” and “I Got Love If You Want It” – met with Miller’s approval. “King Bee” in particular appealed to Miller. After listening to the playback, with the objective of making a unique sounding recording, Miller urged Moore to alter his vocal delivery to a more nasal sound. Miller also told Moore that a name change was in order because there was already someone recording as “Harmonica Slim” on the west coast. With that, Miller claimed that he came up with the name Slim Harpo. (This is disputed by Harpo’s wife, Lovell, who maintains that she and Slim himself came up with the name).

Whatever the case may be, “I’m A King Bee” b/w “I Got Love If You Want It” was Slim Harpo’s first release in 1957, and marked the start of Harpo’s 12 year recording career. With Miller’s help** of artist management, bookings, and providing transportation through occasional use of his van, Slim leveraged the success of those singles, other Excello recordings, and selected covers to hire a supporting band and start to expand his gigging and touring horizons.

(**It’s worth noting that the Jay Miller / Slim Harpo union didn’t last for the duration of Slim’s career. Although the parties proved to be a winning combination, Slim’s relationship with Miller was always somewhat strained. Slim, (and Lovell, his wife and business partner), continually questioned some of Miller’s business practices. That led to a parting of ways in October of 1966 after the Miller / Harpo contract had expired – a split that was fuelled by a disagreement over royalties. Harpo, in turn, then signed directly with Excello Records. Business disagreements aside, Harpo always acknowledged Miller’s expertise and role in developing his sound).

While the line-up of Slim Harpo & The King Bees frequently changed dependent on the opportunity and economics, Slim’s core band at the time was comprised of:
Slim Harpo – vocals, harp, guitar
Rudolph “Rudy” Richard – guitar*
James Johnson – guitar*
Willie “Pro” Parker – tenor sax
Sammy K. Brown – drums
(*Slim didn’t use a bass player. Instead, Richard and Johnson would alternate playing the bass parts on guitar).

With his band Harpo solidified his following among African Americans through constant gigging at the various Baton Rouge clubs. He also started to build a younger white fan base through playing the local Sunday night CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) dances, as well as college fraternity parties. It proved to be a slow climb, but his local success on both of these fronts led to jobs outside of Baton Rouge. (Harpo aspired to play for a white audience not only to expand his following but also because those gigs proved to be comparatively better paying jobs).

Harpo started to tour more extensively outside of Baton Rouge with increasingly lucrative engagements. On out-of-town tours Slim was accompanied by his wife Lovell who provided much needed and welcomed support on the road. If Jay Miller can be termed a major contributor to Slim’s success, Lovell stands on an equal plane with him in that regard. Among other matters was her contribution to Slim’s songwriting efforts. Although Jay Miller may have disagreed, Harpo was quoted as saying: “I write most of my songs with my wife Lovell. If I got a melody, she’ll come up with the words”. Lovell herself chimed in with: “We wrote songs while we were travelling – songs like ‘Tee Ni Nee Ni Nu’, ‘Mailbox Blues’, ‘Scratch My Back’. We also did ‘I’m A Bread Maker’, all that stuff; we did just about all of them while we were travelling”. Slim’s sometime drummer Jesse Kinchen went even further: “She was his backbone. She took care of all the business and wrote down all the stuff and took care of all the money for him”.

Although Slim wasn’t on a high profile label as some of his peers, he still sold records, and continued to make his mark based on his well received live performances. Given Slim’s somewhat alternative status, surprisingly, the ball started rolling with a 1961 appearance on the hugely popular Nationally televised American Bandstand. There, on Bandstand, he mimed his first entry onto the Pop charts, the Billboard Top 40 Swamp Pop classic “Rainin’ In My Heart”.

Other highlights included a 5-week Eastern U.S. tour with James Brown that culminated in a March 1966 sold out show at Madison Square Garden. That was followed soon after with a stint at Chicago’s Regal Theatre. Slim Harpo was on a roll.

One of Slim’s most memorable appearances – and one that received considerable media coverage – was in 1968 at Steve Paul’s celebrated New York venue The Scene. Slim’s introduction was publicized as “The Blue Rock Event Of The Year! The American Underground Debut Of Slim Harpo!”. Performing as a 3 piece to keep it as basic and gritty as possible – Harpo on vocals, harp and guitar; Lightnin’ Slim on guitar and vocals, and Jesse Kinchen on drums; he was an instant hit. After a stellar opening week performance, Slim would triumphantly return 4 times in a 2-month period.

The following year would find Slim playing venues such as the Fillmore East and Electric Circus in New York as well as L.A.’s famed Whiskey-A-Go-Go to great fanfare and reviews. (Slim, hoping to capitalize on his new found success, as well as appear “hip” and current, reflected on his new found success with releases such as “The Hippy Song” and a cover of Charlie Rich’s “Mohair Sam”). 

And it didn’t stop there. It seemed that Slim Harpo, at 45 years of age, was going to reap the benefits of his labours. Plans were in place for Slim’s first ever European tour in 1970. That was to be followed by a planned recording session in London joined by admiring name UK Blues Rockers. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be as Slim Harpo was felled by a heart attack on January 31, 1970.

Thus ended the highly acclaimed, short career of Slim Harpo. Of all the Baton Rouge artists, Slim Harpo enjoyed the most mainstream success. Employing immediately recognizable forceful tight arrangements, he wrote and recorded in a variety of styles – whatever was judged to please his audience.

Noted New Orleans music expert, (and author of I Hear You Knockin’), Jeff Hannusch summed it up best: “He (Harpo) was one of the toughest Blues artists of his generation, but he was also comfortable embracing Rock & Roll, Pop, and even Country music”.

‘Nuff said.

SLIM HARPO PLAYLIST

  1. I’m A King Bee
  2. I Got Love If You Want It
  3. Buzz Me Babe
  4. Don’t Start Crying Now
  5. Blues Hangover
  6. Rainin’ In My Heart
  7. Still Rainin’ In My Heart
  8. Baby Scratch My Back
  9. Shake Your Hips
  10. I’m Your Bread Maker, Baby
  11. Mailbox Blues
  12. Tip On In
  13. Tee Ni Nee Ni Nu
  14. Just For You
  • Rico Ferrara September 2022

DONNIE FRITTS – The Alabama Leaning Man

Born: Florence Alabama November 8, 1942

Died: Birmingham Alabama August 27, 2019 (at 76 years of age)

“See The Legendary Alabama Leaning Man
Back home they say he grew that way before he tried to stand
The nickname some folks gave him then was Cool Breeze and it fits.
As easy as an undershirt on Funky Donnie Fritts”

  • Kris Kristofferson, from the liner notes of Fritts’ first solo album Prone To Lean

With the exception of those of a certain age that pride themselves as ardent followers of American Roots Music and specifically, Southern Soul and Country, the general music appreciative public would not be familiar with Donnie Fritts. But those same people might know some of his songs that have been covered by such diverse artists as Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Lulu, Robert Plant, John Prine, The Box Tops, Waylon Jennings, Tony Joe White, and Dusty Springfield to name but a few.

It might also be of interest to know that Donnie Fritts, AKA “Funky” Donnie Fritts, AKA “The Alabama Leaning Man” was – as a songwriter, session musician, and bandmate – an unsung, behind the scenes titan of Soul music in Alabama in the 60’s and beyond; and a major factor in the “Country Outlaw” movement prevalent in 1970’s Nashville. A pioneer of Country Soul, the man that John Prine referred to as “a living walking character actor”, through his association with director Sam Peckinpah, also had roles in 9 Hollywood films. Included in those productions were: Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, (that also included Bob Dylan), Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, and Convoy. Suffice to say Donnie Fritts was truly one of many talents.

And it doesn’t stop there. Fritts was known for his easy going manner, and his out and out soulfulness in the course of displaying a deep passion for his craft. Having made his statement in a confluence of Country, Soul, and Southern Rock, he broke down musical, racial, and socioeconomic barriers. But that might not be his most enduring legacy. Rather, that gift was his championing and encouragement of a new generation of artists in both the Muscle Shoals music community in particular and community at large. Although the expression of their art may differ – sometimes widely – from Fritts’ approach, Fritts made it known that it was no less relevant and played an integral role in keeping the spirit of the music alive. Alabama singer / songwriter / guitarist Jason Isbell, (of Drive By Truckers et al fame), said as much: “Donnie Fritts was a legend back home and a guide for many of us when we started writing and making music”.

It was indeed a long road for Fritts that began at home with a father who lit the musical fuse. A contractor by day, Fritts’ father played around the house and was a “weekend warrior” – he played bass and guitar in swing bands in the 20’s and 30’s. Fritts recalls his father being “a great musician… a big influence”. 

Donnie, who would become known for heartfelt songs and his signature Wurlitzer piano, actually started his musical journey as a drummer at 15 years old. The most noteworthy of the bands that Donnie kept the beat for were The Mark V’s and The Pall Bearers (both led by future song writing partner Dan Penn); and Hollis Dixon & The Keynotes. Noting that they were all kids learning to play their instruments, Donnie said that the various outfits got their chops while making their money and presence felt by playing R&B on the local frat circuit.

At the same time, Fritts’ more than a passing interest in movies, would lead him to strike a friendship with a local movie buff, (and music fan), Tom Stafford. It was a friendship that would circuitously lead to the jumping off point for Fritts as a songwriter. Stafford, (and his business partner Rick Hall), established Stafford Publishing And Recording, (SPAR), with a studio on the floor above Stafford’s father’s store – City Drugs – in downtown Florence Alabama; (that would serve essentially as the legendary FAME’s original location).

The studio became a gathering place for – among other resident personalities – Fritts, Dan Penn, David Briggs, and local bellhop Arthur Alexander, a budding songwriter and singer that would be instrumental in Fritts’ songwriting career. It was the start of a close, life long relationship with Alexander who encouraged Fritts to hone his craft as a songwriter. Fritts elaborated:
“Arthur was a big influence on me. Always trying to get me to write… I was playing drums at the time and I had to start to slowly get started to playing a little bit of piano… It just took me forever to learn, but I learned it so I could write songs …The first time that I wrote a song I took it to straight to Arthur and he really bragged on it”.

As it happened, when Rick Hall split with SPAR and Stafford in 1961 to establish FAME, (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises), Studios in Muscle Shoals; Fritts, Penn, and Alexander followed. It was Alexander’s initial recording, the much covered, “You Better Move On” that served as FAME’s initial release and put the company on the map. Alexander and FAME would benefit later with his recording of “Rainbow Road” – the first Fritts / Penn co-write.

Fritts stayed on as a staff writer at FAME, (along with Penn, Spooner Oldham, and others), till the mid 60’s when he opted for the promise of more lucrative opportunities in Nashville. Although Fritts didn’t immediately move to Music City, (choosing to remain in the Muscle Shoals area). He initially signed a songwriting contract with Nashville producer Shelby Singleton and subsequently wrote for other companies while showing promise as a noteworthy writer.

Having remained in Muscle Shoals, he befriended 22 year old singer, songwriter, and guitar player Eddie Hinton. Hinton, a Jacksonville Florida native, arrived and settled in Muscle Shoals in 1966; and found a kindred spirit in Fritts. Together they would go on to write a number of major hits including “Choo Choo Train” for The Box Tops, “You’re All Around Me” for Percy Sledge, and the duo’s biggest claim to fame, “Breakfast In Bed” for Dusty Springfield. “BIB” appeared on the classic 1969 release Dusty In Memphis as well as serving as the B side for Dusty’s hit “Son Of A Preacher Man” taken from the same album. When invited to submit songs by producer Jerry Wexler – and knowing that established songwriters such as Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, and Burt Bacharach and Hal David would be forwarding material as well – Fritts and Hinton sensed that they would have to provide something more refined than gritty Southern Soul. “BIB” broke with their established writing style, thankfully was well received, and became an album standout. The success of “BIB” went a long way in providing credibility for both Fritts and Hinton as songwriters.

At the end of the decade Fritts made the move to Nashville and signed with Combine Music, the music publishing arm of Monument Records. At Combine he met Monument recording artist Kris Kristofferson, (and Tony Joe White who would also prove to be a huge influence). Donnie accepted Kristofferson’s offer to join his band in 1970, beginning a musical association with Kristofferson that would last over 20 years, and a friendship that would last a lifetime.

Fritts noted that his years with Kristofferson were very special as were his years in Nashville. In Nashville he enjoyed growing success as a songwriter providing hits for major Country artists, (e,g, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ronnie Milsap, and Dolly Parton); and playing a role in the emerging Outlaw Country scene. The Outlaw movement was led by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson; (and followed closely behind by Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson).

The Outlaw phenomenon – exemplifying a hard living lifestyle – was a Nashville marketing strategy, and, as laid out for public consumption it was, for the most part, independent of the underlying call for changes that really defined the movement. The legitimate Outlaw stance, as spearheaded by Jennings, was one of a demand for artistic freedom. That is, having the right to record material that they wanted to record while employing songwriters and musicians of their choosing. Specifically, the songwriting issue came to the forefront in that the “new breed” insisted on recording their own material as opposed to material provided by in-house writers. In the course of fighting the accepted style and approach of the sterile Nashville Sound, Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson changed the way things were done in the capital of Country Music forever. As Fritts recalled, it was an exciting time for all concerned:
“That was my favourite time, by a million years, to be in Nashville. Things were changing and a lot of it was due to Kris and his style of writing…All of those songs were brilliantly written…Waylon started having hits, and Willie. Then Kris came along and changed everything. He changed the way everyone wrote songs to a much more intelligent way of writing songs.”

The change in approach to writing songs wasn’t lost on Fritts. Writing Southern Soul inflected material was already second nature to him. Now, in addition, as in the case of the aforementioned “Breakfast In Bed”, Donnie’s songs started to take on a more advanced, poignant quality. Reflecting these properties and having personal significance for Donnie was “We Had It All”, written with Troy Seals for Waylon Jennings’ 1973 ground breaking release Honky Tonk Heroes. The song went on to be covered by others including Tina Turner, Dolly Parton, and, much to Donnie’s delight, Ray Charles. Speaking of the Ray Charles cover, Fritts couldn’t contain himself:
“It’s never been a hit but it’s the most important song I got because I got to hear Ray Charles sing it…I listened to it and I got tears in my eyes…After that no matter how low I got, if there wasn’t anything happening or whatever I could put that on and say you know what? That’s Ray Charles singing my damn song”.

The above display of unabashed fervour comes through in every song that Fritts ever wrote or recorded. Many of them are treasures and captured on the five albums released under his name:
Prone To Lean (1974)
Everybody’s Got A Song (1997)
One Foot In The Groove (2008)
Oh My Goodness (2015)
June (A Tribute To Arthur Alexander) (2018)

In keeping with the love and regard held by Donnie’s friends and contemporaries, supporting musicians on the various releases reads like a celebrity who’s who including: Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Lee Roy Parnell, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Brittany Howard, Jason Isbell, and Jack White. All the albums have something to offer and are delivered in a rough-hewn voice. That voice might take some getting used to; but there’s no mistaking the desire and commitment evident in Donnie’s vocals.

If allowed to weigh in, my personal favourite, is the debut Prone To Lean – produced by Jerry Wexler and Kris Kristofferson – recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, and backed by the Muscle Shoals house band and a star set of guests. It features a number of gems including Fritts’ versions of “We Had It All”, “You’re Gonna Love Yourself In The Morning”, and “Rainbow Road”. All are delivered in a Band like lazy groove.

Donnie Fritts moved back to the Muscle Shoals area in 1990 and was a local fixture there for the rest of his life. He was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall Of Fame in 2008; and continued to perform well into his 70’s. When “Funky” Donnie Fritts passed in his sleep after a series of ailments in 2019, he left behind not only a treasure trove of great songs but also a boatload of fond memories for those that knew and loved him. 

A DONNIE FRITTS PLAYLIST

  1. Three Hundred Pounds Of Hongry
  2. When We’re On The Road
  3. You’re Gonna Love Yourself In The Morning
  4. Sumpin’ Funky Going On
  5. Prone To Lean
  6. We Had It All
  7. Rainbow Road
  8. Short End Of The Stick
  9. A Damn Good Country Song
  10. Breakfast In Bed
  11. One Foot In The Groove
  12. Memphis Women And Chicken
  13. Tuscaloosa 1962
  14. Lay It Down
  15. Choo Choo Train
  16. Oh My Goodness
  17. I’d Do It Over Again
  • Rico Ferrara, July 2022

BOBBY “BLUE” BLAND

“He’s my favourite Blues singer.”

  • B.B. King

“Bobby Bland was just the man…He had exceptional delivery and understanding. He made you understand what the song means to him”

  • Dan Penn, celebrated Southern Soul songwriter and singer

“He is considered the pioneer of as distinct form of R&B called ‘Soul Blues’ thereby influencing a host of later Blues singers. Bobby Bland brought the sound of Black Gospel music into the Blues and thereby helped transform Black music of the 1950’s into the Soul style of the 60’s”.

  • Robert Palmer, N.Y. Times

My first memory of Bobby “Blue” Bland was seeing him on TV on The Lloyd Thaxton Show around 1965. The L.A. based Thaxton show, in full swing in the 60’s, was fashioned somewhat similarly to the more popular American Bandstand. That is, among other elements, it was primarily a teenage dance party with featured musical guests. Where it differed was the selection of those musical guests that coincided with the eclectic tastes of the Memphis born Thaxton. Audiences would just as likely see Sonny & Cher and The Byrds as they were to see Les McCann, James Brown, Solomon Burke, and Bobby Bland.

On this particular day, not being familiar with Bland, I can’t remember the song that he performed. What I do recall was that it was more polished, sophisticated, and “adult” than what I was used to listening to. I filed it away with the thought that Bland didn’t have enough grit to suit my tastes.

It’s three years later and I’m listening to my “go-to” station for Soul – WUFO out of Amherst NY. After a brief intro, the airwaves were filled with Bland singing “Save Your Love For Me”, a marked departure from the Wilson Picketts, Otis Reddings, and Sam & Daves of this world, that were in constant rotation on the station. While acknowledging my initial impression of three years previous, this time I was drawn in. It was the swell of the introductory horns, that voice, (that B.B. King would refer to as “satin”), and the attention to detail in the shaping of the lyrics. The voice and the diction brought those lyrics to life and haunted me for days after: I wish I knew / Why I’m so in love with you / There’s no one else in this world will do / Darling, please save your love for me. The song may have originated with Nancy Wilson, and also been credibly covered by a number of artists, but Bland’s take will always stay with me as the definitive version. Having already decided that Sam Cooke was the best singer on the planet, now I was thinking Bobby Bland should be held in high regard as well.

Little did I know of the hard work that was put forth in perfecting those vocals and the overall approach that would result in the much copied but never duplicated Bobby Bland sound. Or of that diligence resulting in Bland having the fourth highest number of singles placed in the R&B charts in the course of the 60’s. (Included in those hits were three that garnered #1 status: “I Pity The Fool” 1961, “That’s The Way Love Is” b/w “Call On Me” 1963, and Bland’s highest crossover hit “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do” 1964).

In defence of my unawareness of Bland’s stature, his releases weren’t on a comparatively more visible and well distributed Black oriented label such as Motown or Stax. That this fact didn’t detract from Bland’s obvious success is due to Bland’s camp’s selectivity to capitalize on Bland’s appeal with a mature, female dominated, African American market rather than target one of more mass prospects. (While stating this well laid out strategy, it’s noted that Stax also mined the African American market but was not one who’s energies were directed specifically to a female weighted audience).   

The direction taken wasn’t simply a marketing ploy, but one that coincided with Bland’s personal preference as well as one that took advantage of his rich baritone, urbane style, and sensual delivery. In opposition to the “hard Blues” of the day that Bland explained “… I never did care for really”, Bland offered quiet pleading, a sense of humility, and a soothing vulnerability (with obvious appeal for the ladies). Further, Bland explained the mindset and point of difference this way: “I kept wondering what would happen if I took the growl out of the Blues and replaced it with some kind of mellow moan. Would people still like it or call me a traitor to the Blues? It didn’t take long to learn that the women sure enough liked it and brother that’s all I needed to know”.

The man, who would go on to be known at various times as “the Black Frank Sinatra”, got his love for music – and singing in particular – at a young age, growing up in his birth home of Rosemark Tennessee, (population 500, located 25 miles north east of Memphis). After a local musician and Blues singer, Mutt Piggee, spurred his musical interest, young Bobby could be found on the street corners of Rosemark singing “Hillbilly Music”, (that he learned listening to The Grand Ole Opry), for nickels and dimes. It was a pastime that Bobby much preferred to picking cotton and attending school. In fact, Bobby would only get as far as grade three and would go through life without ever learning to read or write.

Bobby and his mother learned to rely on each other and formed a close bond after his biological father abandoned the family. (His mother would re-marry and Bobby would take his step father’s surname, “Bland’). And, it was with Bobby’s future prospects in mind that his mother initiated the move to Memphis when Bland was 17 years old. Her reasoning was that the move would give Bobby a chance to follow through on his interest in singing, all the while fearing that – with his aversion to school – he would end up picking cotton if they stayed in Rosemark. Alternatively, Memphis, at that time viewed as the focal point of the Mississippi Delta, and referred to by southerners as “The main street of Negro America”, offered the possibility of some level of prosperity.

In Memphis Bobby worked at various jobs including washing dishes and cleaning up at his mother’s restaurant, delivering groceries on a second hand bike, and working at a local garage. But it was learning to drive and getting his driver’s license that provided freedom, opportunity, and that would pay dividends both immediately as well as down the road. Instantly, it offered a new revenue stream generated by parking cars at The Peabody Hotel as well as driving labourers from Downtown Memphis to cotton fields in Mississippi and Arkansas, and driving prospective customers to local bootleggers.

Singing remained Bland’s main interest, He attended the Baptist Church with his mother and sang in the choir. In addition, on weekends, he sang Spirituals with The Miniatures – a group of five that patterned themselves after The Pilgrim Travelers. The Travelers were a Houston based collective that was popular in the 40’s and 50’s and whose members included among others, Lou Rawls. And while Bland listened intently to other popular Gospel groups of the day, i.e. The HWY QC’s, The Mighty Clouds Of Joy, The Soul Stirrers, and his personal favourites Ira Tucker & The Dixie Hummingbirds, he also started frequenting Beale Street.

Bland felt a certain kinship with the more refined, Jazz oriented artists on Beale rather than the gritty Blues predominantly found in the bars or Handy Park, (where many aspiring Blues musicians ventured to showcase their talents including B.B. King). His artists of choice matched those that Bobby listened to and would prove to be a major influence: Amos Wilburn, Charles Brown, Lowell Fulson, T-Bone Walker, Louis Jordan. Jimmy Witherspoon, and Nat King Cole.

It was also on Beale that Bland started hanging around “with a bunch of guys” in the early 50’s who became known as The Beale Streeters. The Beale Streeters were a loose affiliation of performers that often backed one another, and included at one time or another B.B. King, singer / piano players Johnny Ace and Roscoe Gordon, drummer Earl Forrest, and sax man Adolph Duncan. It was through this association that Bland started a lifelong friendship with B.B. King who was 5 years his senior. Bobby said of B.B.: “I idolized him and still do”.

B.B., refuted the much repeated claim that Bland was his valet. Instead, King would welcome Bland’s open offer to help in any way, including driving duties. Bland did so in the hopes of learning as much as he could from his hero both in performance and about the business. Ever thankful, Bland said of B.B.: “He let me hang around and get some kind of experience”.   

Bland admitted that he was initially on the fringe of The Beale Streeters; that while he continued to sing, he was rough, had bad timing, and had no style of his own. (At this point in time he was relying primarily on a falsetto that he copied from B.B. King). But he forged on including participating at Amateur Night at The Palace Theatre. MC’d by then WDIA disc jockey Rufus Thomas, similar to Apollo Amateur Night, The Palace presented a tough environment for contestants. In addition to musicians, there were magicians, acrobats, jugglers, comedians, and others with assorted talents that were subjected to an audience that hurled tomatoes and various sundry items. And, if that wasn’t enough, the competition featured the “Lord High Executioner” who would leap from the wings and shoot a blank gun at many an uninspiring contestant. Contestants were judged by applause, and winners would be awarded $1 for their efforts. Like other contestants, Bobby Bland entered not for the $1 prize but the hope of catching a talent scout‘s eye. Bland won on a number of occasions thus opening the door to his first recording dates.

Nothing commercially significant resulted from these sessions that were recorded in 1950 and 1951 on various independent labels including Chess, Modern, and Duke. Usually “scheduled” when there was remaining studio time at the tail end of someone else’s session, the recordings went nowhere and were quickly forgotten. However, there was some interest generated in that David J. Mattis, the owner of Duke Records, signed Bobby to his first recording contract in 1951 when Bobby was 21 years old.

Bobby’s hopeful road to stardom hit a snag when he was drafted into the army. While “running in place” as he waited to resume his quest for a music career, he still managed to find opportunities to sing. By the end of his tour Bobby was performing in Special Services, the entertainment branch of the American military. Special Services – one of the few U.S. Army units to be racially integrated at the time – was created to provide recreational opportunities for the servicemen, with the objective of boosting morale.

For his part, Bobby covered material by Nat King Cole and Charles Brown. And, always looking to learn, improve, and remain current with trends, Bland continued to listen to whatever was hot on the jukebox. In so doing, he started to gravitate to the “softness” of such singers as Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstein, and Perry Como – a trait that Bland would later incorporate as he found his own style.

After being discharged in 1955 Bland started working with the already established Junior Parker who, at the time, was leading his own band The Blue Flames. Bobby assumed a defined support role with Parker in that he did the driving, set up the bandstand, and opened the show. Presenting themselves as “Blues Consolidated”, starting in 1956 they hit the road playing stops on the Chitlin’ Circuit – venues found generally in southern areas of the U.S. that were played almost exclusively by Blacks for Black audiences. Bland stayed with Parker till 1961 before he went out on his own (and initially taking The Blue Flames with him).

Like Bland, Parker was a Duke recording artist and had to adjust to the intimidating business practices of the new sole owner of the label, club owner and entrepreneur Donald Deadric Robey. Robey, who would play a vital role in Bland’s career, had formed a partnership with then owner David Mattis in 1952. Wanting to run the business on his own terms, Robey sought to gain full control of the label; and was successful in doing so in 1953. (In illustration of Robey’s way of dealing with obstacles in his path is an often told story of his meeting with Mattis with the sole purpose of negotiating a buy-out. At the outset of the meeting Robey supposedly put a pistol on the table to demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, his determination to get his way).

As the new owner of the Duke label, Robey drew up new contracts for the various Duke artists including Bobby Bland. Knowing that Bland couldn’t read or write Robey helped him sign a contract that awarded Bland ½ ₵ per recording instead of the industry standard of 2₵. In variation of this theme, Robey also bought or stole songs assuming songwriting credits as well as accompanying royalties under the pseudonym of “Deadric Malone”.

When questioned on such Robey strong arm tactics, Bland defended Robey and his time at Duke mentioning a family environment and saying: “Well he’s in business. Each company that you get with does the same thing. But Robey did a lot of people a lot of favours, like me for one. Getting a chance to record”. While honourable in his loyalty to Duke and Robey, it should be taken into consideration that the shy, insecure Bland – who at times had to be led – needed, more so than other artists, what he perceived as Robey’s paternalistic posture.

If nothing else, it’s to Robey’s credit – regardless of how the songs were obtained – that he knew good material, and had a sense as to what songs fit Bland the best. And it goes without saying that the tracks that Bland recorded in the 20 years that he was on the label represented the apex of his career. Not only were there numerous hits on the R&B charts – many of which having become Blues / R&B standards – but more than 2/3 of those hits crossed over into the Pop charts. His first major hit, 1957’s “Farther On Up The Road”, was followed by a long line of memorable songs including: “It’s My Life Baby”, “I Smell Trouble”, “Little Boy Blue”, “Cry Cry Cry”, “Don’t Cry No More”, “Ain’t That Lovin’ You”, “Stormy Monday”, and “Turn On Your Lovelight”, among countless others. Coupled with the single releases were critically acclaimed albums, that contained the aforementioned songs, such as Two Steps From The Blues 1961, (cited by many as one of the best Blues albums of all-time); Here’s The Man 1962; Call On Me 1963; The Soul Of The Man 1966; and Touch Of The Blues 1967. If you’re not familiar with the titles, suffice to say that they’re all well worth searching out. Lastly, it can truthfully be said, in addition to those mentioned, there’s merit to be found in all of Bland’s Duke albums.

It was around 1957, that Bland’s singing style started to emerge. Among the honing of vocals skills that was to follow, having lost the falsetto that he had adapted, he felt the need to develop “another gimmick”. That device was his signature squall that he admitted was lifted from Gospel records by Rev. C. L. Franklin (Aretha’s father). Specifically, he got it from Franklin’s “The Eagle Stirreth His Nest”.

But the squall is only one element in the evolution of the Bobby Bland voice and overall sound. Playing a crucial role in that development was arranger, band leader, and occasional 1st trumpeter Joe Scott. No one was more influential in Bobby’s career than Scott; to the point that in some circles it was said that Bobby Bland was Joe Scott’s creation. Bland’s perspective didn’t veer very far from that viewpoint: “I would say he was everything. Without Scott I wouldn’t be the singer I am”.

Joe Scott was fully in charge of Bobby Bland’s band and method from 1958 through 1968 thereby overseeing Bobby Bland’s most revered work including the recording of Two Steps From The Blues. He arranged the sessions, hired the musicians, and demonstrated an instantly clear vision of the sound he wanted. He built on the existing Bobby Bland sound – that centred on spare Blues accompaniment featuring traditional Blues guitar – by adding a new dimension of bold brassy horn arrangements that became an integral part of the Bobby Bland sound. Those arrangements borrowed from the Big Band sound of the 40’s – with the likes of Louis Jordan, Lional Hampton, and Count Basie in mind – and bridged them with the Soul revues of the 60’s.  Lastly, the arrangements had a free swinging quality that made them quite unique

At the same time, recognizing Bobby’s existing vocal talents and growth potential, Scott spent countless hours with Bobby perfecting his diction and phrasing in addition to teaching him the proper approach to a lyric, and mic technique. Taking Scott’s lead, it’s been said that Bobby would work on a song for endless hours, breaking down its components while looking to master to every aspect of a song. Only after such successful attention to detail was a song deemed ready for live performance and / or recording.

The final element, with the objective of maintaining a link to the Blues tradition while remaining contemporary and providing an earthy quality, Scott continued with the employment of a scorching guitar player such as Pat Hare, or Clarence Hollimon, or possibly the most famous, Wayne Bennett. (Those are Bennett’s superb lines on Bland’s take on T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday”).

Although continuing to work together periodically, Scott and Bobby, for all intents and purposes, parted ways in 1969. But the groundwork had been laid, and Bland learned his lessons well. Learnings that would hold him in good stead for the rest of his career.

Bobby Bland earned his popularity, and a corresponding reputation, not only from his critically acclaimed and commercially successful recordings but also from constant touring that helped get the word out about his talent and artistry. In his prime Bland played more than 300 one nighters annually. And, solidifying his following with, and maintaining his ties to the African American audience, he continued to perform in juke joints, country fairs and cafes, and Black Blues dinner clubs in the South among his many appearances.

Duke was sold to MCA in 1973. Although the Duke years set a high bar; and Bland was, in effect, competing with himself, the book wasn’t closed on Bobby Bland as some critics might have you believe. Maybe not quite as dominant, but there were more noteworthy chapters in that book as Bland’s career continued, including his time at MCA, for another 30 years.

Shade was cast on the MCA years by various critics because of geographical factors and what was perceived as a more commercial direction taken in the music. Geographical in that the work was recorded in L.A.; and viewed as somewhat foreign turf, and not fitting the Bobby Bland persona. As far as the music was concerned, listeners were cautioned that the studio band was comprised of slick session players who had no real affinity for the material – material deemed not worthy of an artist of Bland’s background and stature. Further, the recordings were presided over by Steve Barri and Michael O’Martian, who had a background in Pop rather than one in Blues or R&B. Given all of that, his albums sold respectably, as Bland maintained a strong following. In particular the first two releases: His California Album and Dreamer merit a mention. “California” contained the R&B Top Ten “This Time I’m Gone For Good”; and Dreamer featured his follow-up single “I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog” that finished in the Top Five R&B. It also must be said that MCA and its’ distribution helped Bobby expand his listenership beyond his established Black audience. (Capitalizing on his “new found fame”, Bobby reunited with B.B. King on record with two highly regarded albums: a studio effort Together For The First Time and a live recording of their performance at The Coconut Grove in L.A., Together For The First Time… Live.)

Bobby’s next, (and last), stop was Malaco Records in Jackson Mississippi where he signed on in 1985 and would stay for 18 years. Differing from Bland’s MCA experience, Malaco directed concerted efforts to a Black audience. Accordingly, the record company brought Bobby closer to a core African American audience that he had spent his entire career courting. Malaco also provided Bland with artistic freedom and encouragement that moved Bobby to remark: “Malaco had a family atmosphere like Duke used to have”.

Bland responded to Malaco’s confidence in him by recording a dozen albums and receiving 7 Grammy nominations for those releases. Meriting special mention is Midnight Run that Bobby released in 1990 and stayed on the R&B charts for over a year and a half.

Bobby Bland justifiably received recognition for outstanding achievement over the course of his career including the following:

  • Inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 1981
  • Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1992
  • Received the R&B Foundation Pioneer Award in 1992
  • Received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997
  • Inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1999

Robert Calvin Bland died of congestive heart failure on June 23, 2013. He was 83 years old. Forever a humble man, Bobby stated in an interview: “I’d like to be remembered as just a good old country boy that did his best to give us something to listen to and help them through a lot of sad moments, happy moments, whatever”

Bobby “Blue” Bland did just that.

Bobby Bland Playlist

  1. Ain’t Nothing You Can Do
  2. Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City
  3. Two Steps From The Blues
  4. Cry Cry Cry
  5. It’s My Life Baby
  6. Poverty
  7. Lead Me On
  8. I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog
  9. Save Your Love For Me
  10. Farther On Up The Road
  11. Ask Me Nothin’ But About The Blues
  12. Wouldn’t You Rather Have Me
  13. Stormy Monday
  14. Turn On Your Love Light
  15. I’ll Take Care Of You
  16. You’re The One
  17.  Ain’t That Lovin’ You
  18. St. James Infirmary
  19. Ain’t Doin’ Too Bad
  20. You Got To Hurt Before You Heal
  21. I Pity The Fool
  22. How Does A Cheatin’ Woman Feel
  23. Don’t Want No Woman
  24. Twenty-Four Hour Blues
  25. Little Boy Blue
  26. Don’t Cry No More
  27. Who’s Foolin’ Who
  • Rico Ferrara June 2022

Laura Nyro

“Sometimes I think being a star is kind of silly. I’d sooner be looked at like a comrade rather than a star”

  • Laura Nyro in an interview with Melody Maker in 1976 after re-surfacing from the first of two self imposed retirements from the music business

“The purist artist I’ve ever met in my life”

  • Felix Cavaliere, musician and co-producer of Nyro’s highly acclaimed album Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat

“I idolized her. The soul, the passion, the out and out audacity… like nothing I ever heard before”

  • Elton John, one of Laura Nyro’s many admirers

To say that Laura Nyro had no aspirations to be a star is, if nothing else, a huge understatement. A true original and brilliant composer; one would be hard pressed to name a worthy equal of her uncompromising talent. Her deeply personal statements that made her hard to categorize also endeared her to many.

Truth be told, Laura Nyro’s work is hard to get into and hard to get out of. I’ve always found Laura Nyro’s music somewhat unsettling. Even as a fan, there’s always an uneasiness when listening to her songs. Her compositions are too raw, too real. They’re a down to the bone chilling of emotions laid bare. And if that’s not enough, a number of her songs are delivered in pitch perfect multi octave banshee wailings against a backdrop of Nyro’s unique time changes and abrupt stream of consciousness detours. In saying that, Laura Nyro is nothing short of captivating. The listener can’t help taking notice because her renderings demand the utmost attention. This isn’t background music to be taken lightly. Rather, it’s thought provoking, highly inventive, and intelligent. It demands that the listener go back to a time when one actually sat down and gave the music their undivided attention – as opposed to having it serve as background while doing whatever mundane chores of the day. Finally, Laura Nyro simply deserves consideration.

Laura Nyro never had a Gold album or a hit single yet commanded a legion of ardent supporters comprised of both peers and devoted fans during her lifetime – and that dedication continues long after her passing in 1997. (Her only appearances on the charts were a Top 40 album (# 32) New York Tandeberry in 1969 and a pure New York Soul cover of The Drifters’ “Up On The Roof” that placed # 92 in 1970. The song was included on the album Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat.)

While that may be the case, it should be noted that although the general public may have not been familiar with Laura as a performer and recording artist during her time, they were certainly aware of some of her material that became hits for other artists. For example, supper club Soul group, The 5th Dimension, built a career on Laura’s songs. Here’s a brief list, in no particular order, of her “second hand” songs heard on the radio.

“Stoned Soul Picnic” – The 5th Dimension
“Wedding Bell Blues” – The 5th Dimension
“Save The Country” – The 5th Dimension
“Sweet Blindness” – The 5th Dimension
“Stoney End” – Linda Ronstadt, Barbara Streisand
“Hands Off The Man (Flim Flan Man)” – Barbara Streisand
“Eli’s Comin’” – Three Dog Night
“And When I Die” – Blood sweat & Tears, Peter Paul & Mary

Although the covers would provide some awareness for Nyro – accepting that the listener bothered to find out the identity of the writer for any of the respective songs – a drawback to these versions is that they don’t convey the musicality, passion, and commitment of the Nyro originals. Coupled with that is that some of the interpreters of her work, (e.g. Three Dog Night), lacked credibility with “serious” music critics and some listeners. As a result, Nyro conceivably could be mistaken as a MOR, (Middle Of The Road), artist, (which plainly she was not).

Laura Nigro was born in the Bronx in October 18, 1947 and was raised in an Italian – Jewish household. Her father was a Jazz trumpeter and piano tuner; and her mother was a bookkeeper. Music was omnipresent in the house as Laura heard her father play for countless hours daily, and her mother played records by a wide spectrum of artists.

Through those records Laura was exposed to the likes of soprano Leontyne Price, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and composers Ravel and Debussy. By her own admission Laura was not a particularly happy child; music as well as poetry served as her only refuge. Somewhat of a child prodigy Nyro was a self-taught pianist and began writing songs at eight years old. (She wrote the above mentioned “And When I Die” when she was 17).  

As Laura entered her teenage years, she found a growing attraction to music from and on the street. Jazz was Nyro’s first love; she cited Miles Davis and John Coltrane as early heroes and providers of inspiration. A product of her inner-city environment, Nyro was receptive to all the musical experiences the city had to offer: “When I was 16 years old, and used to go out and sing…the music was happening then; that’s when Trane was happening with Jazz, when Soul music and Girl Groups and everything was just really rich, and things were very open. I would go out singing, as a teenager, to a party or out on the street because there were harmony groups there, and that was one of the joys of my youth”. She would go on to say that singing on street corners soon became “an everyday occurrence”.

In addition, relating to her urban environment, Laura felt a kinship to the Blacks and Hispanics in her neighbourhood saying “I was brought up in a melting pot in New York with Spanish and Black people and I felt very close to those people”. Thus was provided a distillation of a personal musical direction – with shades of Jazz, Motown, Soul, New York R&B, Doo-Wop, and the ever prevalent Girl Groups – that both initiated and perpetuated her career. Adding another element to her work was her mother and paternal grandfather’s progressive mindset that shaped her outlook on life. Laura stated as such in an interview: “… I feel at home in the Peace Movement, and in the Women’s Movement, and that has influenced my music”.

Before honing skills that would set her apart from her contemporaries, Laura attended the High School Of Music & Art in Manhattan. “Attended” is a term used loosely, in that fellow classmates recalled that she was rarely went to class but made her presence felt nonetheless. She was remembered as a unique personality; making a Gothic statement in flowing black dresses, purple lipstick, and bright red nail polish. Added to the mystery is that she used a variety of surnames (settling on “Nyro” at the time of her discovery and subsequent first recording).

Nyro, who would record 15 albums in her 30 year career – 10 studio works (1 posthumously), and 5 live offerings (3 posthumously) – was already a seasoned performer when she recorded her first album at 19. (One year previous she drew rave reviews in the course of her live debut in a 2 month stay at San Francisco’s bohemian the hungry i. There, audiences caught a glimpse of her live performances that would prove to be fervent affairs as her career evolved).

That she was more than a novice prior to that first recoding performer is borne out by the fact that she had first rate songs ready to commit to tape including the aforementioned “And When I Die”, “Stoney End”, and “Wedding Bell Blues”. The album More Than A New Discovery was released in 1967 on the Verve Folkways label, (and re-released by Columbia in 1973 as The First Songs after they purchased the masters from Verve).

While selling moderately, the critically acclaimed first outing was a factor in Laura being invited to play The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Slotted between The Byrds and The Jefferson Airplane on the Saturday evening, Nyro chose not to play piano during her set. Instead, she stood at the mic and sang backed by a Soul band comprised of top Hollywood session players and 2 background singers. Her set included “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Eli’s Comin’”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, and “Poverty Train”. The stage shy Nyro felt out of her element to the point that she was convinced that she was shouted off stage; and, as a result, refused to be included in D. A. Pennabaker’s documentary. Her impression was later repeated many times as truth. But recovered footage of the documentary demonstrated that she was, at the very least, reasonably received.

One person who was suitably impressed with her performance was soon to be impresario David Geffen who would prove instrumental in her career. It was Geffen, who, after freeing her from her existing recording and management contract, (that Nyro signed under age), subsequently signed her as his first client to a management contract, and brought her to the attention of Columbia Records. The Columbia contract offered Nyro full artistic freedom; she would stay with the label for 25 fruitful years.

(There’s a great story of Nyro’s audition for Columbia exec Clive Davis that underlines her eccentricity and quirky personality. The story goes that the audition took place in a hotel room. After Laura took a seat at the piano she said that she found the lighting upsetting; and insisted on performing with only the light of the muted TV in the room. Perfect.)

It was Geffen that managed to heighten her profile as a songwriter by getting other artists to record Laura’s songs. He did so when he sensed that she was content to write and record and not get involved to the extent that was required to get established in the business. Geffen’s observation was that Laura lacked a certain level of ambition and really didn’t want to do the things that people do to become known. So I thought I’d better get people to record these songs and make them hits so that people will see that she’s a great songwriter”

It was also Geffen who started a music publishing company with Nyro – Tuna Fish Music – that they later sold to CBS for $4.5 million. The transaction made Laura a millionaire at 21. (Geffen used his share to start Asylum Records with the hopes of having Nyro move from Columbia and sign with his new label. To his dismay, Nyro opted to remain at Columbia).

At Columbia, in the years 1968 through 1976, Laura made 5 albums in quick succession including a “trilogy” considered to be her finest moments: Eli And The Thirteenth Confession (1968), New York Tendaberry (1969), and Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat (1970). Of these “Eli” is the highest profile; it’s an autobiographical statement charting her journey from childhood to that of a mature woman. “Eli” contains two of Nyro’s best known songs: “Eli’s Comin’” and “Stoned Soul Picnic”. New York Tendaberry is a darker, moodier account than its predecessor with no recognizable hits outside of “Save The Country” – an anti-war song that Nyro wrote after Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Although it may not be for general consumption the release is heralded by hardcore fans as a definitive statement. Finally, Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat draws heavily of Nyro’s always superb songwriting filtered through her love of Jazz and R&B. The album is produced by Felix Cavaliere and Arif Mardin and boasts a dream cast of backing musicians including Muscle Shoals’ Swampers, Duane Allman, Felix Cavaliere, Dino Danelli, and a number of New York’s top session musicians. Standout titles include “When I Was A Freeport And You Were The Main Drag”, “Christmas In My Soul”, and Nyro’s sublime take on “Up On The Roof”.

(An interesting aside. In the midst of recording her “trilogy” Laura had become friends with the members of Blood Sweat & Tears. After group founder Al Kooper left the collective – and before David Clayton Thomas joined – Laura apparently received an offer to join the group as the lead singer. Nyro was giving it serious consideration when Geffen convinced her otherwise. The thought of Nyro fronting BS&T is mind-boggling.)

The following year Nyro decided to record a particularly uncommercial covers album that paid tribute to the music of her childhood in the Bronx: predominantly Motown, Doo-Wop, and Girl Groups. A personal favourite, Gonna Take A Miracle, was produced by the Philly Soul team of Gamble and Huff. The album features LaBelle – Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendrix, and Sarah Dash – backing Laura on selections including “I Met Him On A Sunday” (Girl Group / Doo-Wop, The Shirells 1958), “Spanish Harlem” (New York R&B, Ben E. King, 1961) and “Jimmy Mack” (Motown, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, 1966). All 10 recordings are first takes and are delivered with joyous intensity.

Gonna Take A Miracle stands as an artistic achievement but didn’t fare well commercially. The non-success may have played a role – and added to the strain of Nyro having to play the game – in Laura walking away from the business in 1971 at 24. She got married, (to carpenter and Vietnam vet David Bianchini), and moved to Danbury Connecticut. Although seemingly at peace and acclimating to the rural life, in 1975 Nyro had to endure the hardship of her mother passing away at 49 of ovarian cancer as well as the dissolution of her marriage. After her divorce was finalized, Nyro’s response was to try the music scene once again in1976.

Nyro’s return was to be short lived. After the birth of a son in 1978 Nyro retreated once again. This time her retirement lasted until 1984. At that time Nyro started a relationship, (that would last for 17 years), with painter and artist Maria Desiderio, and meanwhile turned her attention musically to touring extensively. Both with a full band and on solo excursions, Nyro spent a good part of the 80’s and 90’s playing various venues resulting in 4 live recordings released during her lifetime. The most prominent of these is Laura: Live At The Bottom Line (1989) that finds Nyro fronting a full band playing a wide spectrum of her material.

In 1996, Nyro was on the west coast for a series of shows when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. At the time of her diagnosis Laura, without a current label, partnered with a friend, Eileen Silver-Lilywhite, to form Luna Mist Records. While the two had their eyes on a number of ambitious projects for the label, work started on Angel In The Dark – the last music that Laura Nyro recorded. (The recording would stay on the shelf for more than 5 years before Scott Billington finally released it on the Rounder label in 2001).

Laura had been through two chemo sessions when they started recording. As one might expect the record is masterful. Half of the songs are covers; some with just Laura on piano and others with a full band including John Tropea on guitar, Christopher Parker and Bernard Purdie on drums, and the Brecker Brothers on horns. Remarkably, given her state of health, Nyro is in great voice. Her takes on Smokey Robinson’s “Ooo Baby Baby” and Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” are particularly impressive.

In the liner notes Nyro describes herself as singing “Soul songs with Jazz phrasings”. In keeping with that thought – and knowing that she inspired the likes of Rickie Lee Jones, Wendy Waldman, Suzanna Vega, and Kate Bush among others – I can’t help thinking, when hearing this last offering from Laura Nyro, that Cassandra Wilson is listening intently.

Laura Nyro passed away on April 8, 1997 at the age of 49 from ovarian cancer, (as her mother had before her). Adding further irony, Nyro’s former partner, Maria Desiderio would also die from ovarian cancer two years later.

Laura Nyro’s career was marked by letting her inspiration rather than commercial prospects guide her. The result of that inspiration were usually highly personal, dark and edgy offerings with Nyro always steadfastly remaining true to her art.

Laura Nyro was inducted into The Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 2010 and The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2012. Both inductions were well deserved.

A LAURA NYRO PLAYLIST

  1. Stoned Soul Picnic
  2. Billy’s Blues
  3. Wedding Bell Blues
  4. Save The Country
  5. Sweet Blindness
  6. Stoney End
  7. Hands Off The Man (Flim Flan Man)
  8. Eli’s Comin’
  9. And When I Die
  10. Poverty Train
  11. Captain St. Lucifer
  12. When I Was A Freeport And You Were The Main Drag
  13. Up On The Roof
  14. Beads Of Sweat
  15. I Met Him On A Sunday (w / LaBelle)
  16. Spanish Harlem (w / LaBelle)
  17. You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me (w / LaBelle)
  18. Jimmy Mack (w / LaBelle)
  19. It’s Gonna Take A Miracle (w / LaBelle)
  20. Ooo Baby Baby
  21. Walk On By

Rico Ferrara, May 2022

Joe Simon

“I went from the cotton field, to the chicken coop, to a star of R&B”

  • Joe Simon commenting on the ascent of his career and the corresponding hard work required in establishing that career

Chances are, in discussions of great Soul singers, that Joe Simon’s name is rarely mentioned. That’s both unfortunate and surprising given that, over the course of a career that spanned more than 6 decades:

  • he had 3 # 1 hits, 14 top ten hits, 38 top forty R&B hits, 4 Grammy nominations including 1 Grammy win
  • he released 20 acclaimed albums
  • he’s an R&B Foundation Pioneer Award winner
  • he was inducted into the Louisiana Hall Of Fame
  • he was inducted into the Gospel Hall Of Fame
  • he was the first artist to be inducted into both a religious and secular Hall of Fame

Reasons for his omission in said discussions are left to varied opinions. It could be that the smooth singing Simon wasn’t an attention getting “in your face” screamer. Or the fact that Simon wasn’t on a more noteworthy Soul / R&B label like Stax, or Atlantic, or Motown could conceivably play a role. Or that a good part of his career and subsequent recordings were more in the Country Soul vein rather than straight ahead R&B / Soul / Funk. Also, it can’t be discounted that, although he had a career of over 25 years in secular music, he left “worldly music” for the ministry in the early 80’s for some 40 years when contemporaries were still invested in more high profile R&B recording and performance settings. Running counter to these points is that the line that separate R&B and Gospel gets blurred. Granted the lyrics, subject matter, and performance venues may differ but the commitment remains the same. And, similarly, there’s a thin line of demarcation that separates Country Soul and R&B especially in the rural areas of the deep south as evidenced by the Country Soul that permeates the works of artists like Percy Sledge, Joe Tex, Solomon Burke, and Clarence Carter. And one could also add that legitimacy of Country strains in Soul music was confirmed when Ray Charles, who’s synonymous with Soul, championed the idea of a Black artist singing what has been generally accepted as white Country music.

Whatever the case, while highly regarded by his peers*, Joe Simon remains one of the most underrated of Soul singers, and thereby commanding comparatively less media attention. And, giving credit where credit’s due, regardless of his lack of notoriety, Joe Simon sought to control his own destiny and career. Further, from humble beginnings including a poverty stricken childhood, it shouldn’t be discounted that Simon’s achievements were as a result of hard work.

*A little known associated fact:

Joe Simon was a close personal friend of Otis Redding. Simon sang “Jesus Keep Me Near The Cross” at Otis’ funeral and acted as one of the pallbearers along with Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Sam Moore, Percy Sledge, Johnny Taylor, and Joe Tex.

Joe Simon spent his formative years picking cotton in his birth home of Simmesport Louisiana, a farming community 150 miles north of New Orleans. His father, a Baptist preacher, and mother raised Joe, his brother, and three sisters in a religious household. In search of a better life the family moved to the San Francisco Bay area when Simon was 15. The move suited Simon in that he hated picking cotton and would make it his life long goal to never pick cotton again. Instead, young Joe turned to singing, firstly with his brother in The Town’s Pilgrim Baptist Church choir, before performing with a number of local Gospel groups including The Vallejo Gospel Singers.

In the mid fifties, Simon left home to try his luck at a singing career, and settled near Oakland in Richmond California. He began singing professionally with The Golden West Gospel Singers; and by 1959 – at 23 years of age – Simon was performing as the lead singer of a secular group, The Echo Tones. The Echo Tones played the California chitlin circuit, and although they had no hits, the group, and Joe in particular, was very popular in the Black clubs.

By Joe’s account, the Richmond period of his career was a tough go. He claimed that over the course of the next two years that he lived in a chicken coup and survived on sardines and crackers provided by his best friend, (and future band leader), Roland Williams. In addition to suppling Joe with food, Williams also gave him spending money, and arranged for Simon to borrow clothes and shoes for upcoming performances.

As Joe was still defining his personal sound – and influenced by a divergent group of singers including The Soul Stirrers, The 5 Blind Boys, Brook Benton, and Nancy Wilson – The Echo Tones started to expand geographically to Los Angeles and as far south as Dallas. While in L.A. the group came to the attention of Hush Records and early Simon mentor Gerrie Thompson. It was on the Hush label that that The Echo Tones, (now The Golden Tones), made their recording debut with modest – mostly local – hits “Doretha” (1959) and “You Left Me Here To Cry Alone” (1960). And, in addition, as a solo artist, Joe would record “It’s A Miracle”. The releases demonstrated that Joe was now starting to find his style, one that echoed Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, and Jackie Wilson. He would continue to draw comparisons to the three for the rest of his career – particularly Wilson given his, at times, almost operatic approach.

The local hits showed Hush to have minimal visibility and, as a result, failing in attempts to acquire a noteworthy distribution deal. That being the case, and still looking for a breakthrough hit, Joe moved to Vee-Jay Records in 1964. Vee-Jay, out of Chicago, one of the few Black owned labels, recognized Simon’s talent and purchased his contract from Thompson / Hush. Unlike Hush, Vee-Jay had a national distribution deal with Polydor. Joe’s first Vee-Jay release immediately put him on the map. Featuring a backing band that included Sly Stone and Larry Graham, (Sly was a San Francisco based DJ at the time), Simon cut that much needed step-forward hit, “My Adorable One”. The release was still a minor hit in the grand scheme of things, but Joe Simon was now a known commodity.

Simon now had enough of a profile that he caught the eye of Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. Wexler, an R&B power broker, in the hopes of signing Simon to his label, suggested that Joe try recording at one of his affiliated studios, FAME, in Muscle Shoals Alabama. Simon did just that and delivered his first hit, 1965’s “Let’s Do It Over” (# 13 R&B). The Dan Penn – Spooner Oldham co-write was cut in Muscle Shoals with the R&B defining resident studio band.

Around this time Simon happened to be passing through Nashville where he made the acquaintance of John Richbourg. Better known as John R, Richbourg was a renowned WLAC DJ who also promoted shows and produced records. When Vee-Jay folded later that year Simon joined forces with Richbourg; who became Simon’s manager, producer, and mentor. Although pursued by both Motown and Atlantic, Simon chose to forge a partnership with John R based on a non exclusivity arrangement. That is, Simon would work with Richbourg but was free to capitalize on any outside opportunities that might present themselves. Simply, Simon would explain “Joe Simon always controlled Joe Simon’s career”.  

Over the course of the next four years John R would help establish Simon as one of the definitive Country Soul singers of his day, (or any day). Richbourg brought Simon to the Monument subsidiary Sound Stage 7 where Joe would record a string of hits including:

“Teenager’s Prayer” (1966) # 11 R&B
“(You Keep Me) Hangin’ On” (1968) # 11 R&B
“Chokin’ Kind” (1969) # 1 R&B # 20 Pop, Grammy award winner
“Farther On Down The Road” (1970) # 7 R&B

In addition to producing the hits John R also assembled an all-star backing band of Country players that played on virtually all the sessions; and usually consisted of: Kenny Buttrey – drums, Tim Drummond – bass, Mac Gayton and Troy Seals – guitar, and Charlie McCoy – harmonica.

In 1970 Richbourg, who continued to maintain ties with Joe for another couple of years, engineered a move to Spring Records, (with Simon eventually becoming a minority owner of the label). Simon had a million seller right out of the gate with “Your Time To Cry” (# 3 R&B) before working with Philly Soul pioneers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The Gamble & Huff alliance would introduce Simon to a whole new Uptown R&B audience and take his career to yet another level. The success was measured not only in sell-out appearances but also in radio play and record sales of such notable hits as:

“Drowning In A Sea Of Love” (1971) # 3 R7B # 11 Pop
“Power Of Love” (1972) # 1 R&B # 11 Pop
“Theme From Cleopatra Jones” (1973) # 3 R&B
“Get Down, Get Down” (1975) # 1 R&B # 8 Pop
“Music In My Bones” (1875) # 7 R&B
“I Need You, You Need Me” (1975) # 5 R&B

Simon continued touring and recording but was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the R&B lifestyle; and in 1980, without declaring his future plans, started publicizing that he was retiring after 20 years in the business. In 1983 Joe Simon gave up “worldly music” to become an ordained minister. He did so following a dramatic on-stage moment at a concert in New Orleans when he couldn’t remember the lyrics to songs that he’s sung for over 20 years. Simon described the setting as follows:

“I said to the people, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like for everyone to sit down. I want you to know that I’m not able to sing these songs tonight…I want everyone to go to the front door to the office and get your money back. Because I’m going to church’. And 10,000 people said Hallelujah”.

He would go on to explain that he only sang R&B to make a living, and that the expected behaviour, given his religious upbringing, was diametrically opposed to the life he should have been living. Accordingly, after joining the ministry, Simon was quoted as saying ”To sing R&B you had to act the fool…you had to be arrogant”. He went on to say that he was “serving Satan when he should have been serving God”. And, finally, that his true job was to teach because “That’s what the ministry is all about”.

Joe Simon would go on to preach and sing Gospel for the next 38 years. He also continued to record with the release of 2 Gospel albums: The Story Must Be Told (1998) and Time To Change (2007).

When he passed at 85 on December 13, 2021, he was remembered not only as extremely talented but also as a kind and gentle man. Summing up perfectly the regard held by those that knew him, songstress Bettye LaVette on his passing said “We lost another one of the good guys. RIP Rhythm & Blues legend, Joe Simon. One of the nicest men that I ever met in show business.”

It could be added that Joe Simon spoke and sang straight from the heart. Nothing more needs to be said.

Joe Simon Playlist

  1. Doreetha (w / The Golden Tones)
  2. You Left Me Here To Cry Alone (w / The Golden Tones)
  3. It’s A Miracle
  4. My Adorable One
  5. Let’s Do It Over
  6. When I’m Gone
  7. Teenager’s Prayer
  8. Trouble In My Home
  9. In The Ghetto
  10. (You Keep Me) Hangin’ On
  11. I’m Too Far Gone To Turn Around
  12. Chokin’ Kind
  13. Rainbow Road
  14. Looking Back
  15. Farther On Down The Road
  16. My Special Prayer
  17. Your Time To Cry
  18. Drowning In A Sea Of Love
  19. Power Of Love
  20. You’re The One For Me
  21. Theme From Cleopatra Jones
  22. Get Down, Get Down
  23. Music In My Bones
  24. I Need You, You Need Me
  25. Time To Change (Bishop Joe Simon)
  • Rico Ferrara April 2022

ANITA O’DAY – “First Lady Of Swing”

“Anita O’Day is demonstrating at The Blue Note why she is one of the little handful of great stylists among Jazz singers. She can give any song her unmistakable imprint…The girl is so modern she’s almost ahead of herself. Her minor keys and off-beat phrasings have a weird otherworldliness…”

  • Chicago Sun-Times

“She was an original, and there’s very few of them in this life. Nobody sang like that before her, but a lot of people tried to sing like that after her.”

  • Songwriter, arranger, and band leader Johnny Mandel

From her own viewpoint, Anita O’Day was emphatic in saying that she was not a singer per se but rather a song stylist. O’Day, whose idols were 30’s Native American Jazz singer Mildred Bailey and comedic actress and singer Martha Raye, admitted to copying Billie Holiday for a long time before establishing her own sound and style. That style revolved around using her voice like a musician uses their instrument. Studying the phrasings and forays of sax players like Stan Getz and Zoot Sims, O’Day was a supreme improvisor. She fashioned lines of rapid-fire syllables, bending and twisting lyrics and melodies. And like any Jazz musician, she would never perform a song the same way twice.

Further, as O’Day explained in a NY Times interview: “I’m not a singer because I have no vibrato*…If I want one, I have to shake my head to get it. That’s why I sing so many notes so you won’t hear that I haven’t got one. It’s how I got my style”.

*O’Day’s lack of vibrato was attributed to a botched tonsillectomy when O’Day was 7 years old. It would be many years later that Anita came to the realization as to the cause of her not having vibrato.

Anita O’Day was often promoted as “The Jezebel Of Jazz” – no doubt primarily due to the high profile drug busts that punctuated her time in the world of Jazz. But there’s more. The moniker also alluded to the fact that Anita O’Day marched to her own drumbeat. She was a hip talking non-conformist who lived for and lived in her music. Like her contemporary Ella Fitzgerald, O’Day only knew true joy on stage and couldn’t reconcile life when she wasn’t performing. And like Ella, O’Day enjoyed a long career; (Anita’s lasted 7 decades; Ella’s lasted 6).

Anita’s life was her art and her art was her life. Any obstacles were dealt with as required to serve her singular devotion to that art with no looking back. By some accounts, Anita lived a lonely life. What’s for sure, for all intents and purposes, O’Day lived her life on the lam, never having money or success commensurate with her obviously abundant talent. Her’s is a story of survival and an endurance of that talent till her last days. Simply put, Anita O’Day was one of America’s greatest Jazz singers; and she can rightfully be mentioned in the same conversation as the A-list: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae.

Anita Belle Colton was born in Kansas City Missouri on October 18, 1919 and moved to Chicago as a young child. Prompting the move was the fact that Anita was born out of wedlock; and as a consequence, her parents were looking to both avoid scrutiny and hoping for a fresh start in a new town. It was an unwanted pregnancy leaving Anita forever scarred; sensing that she was – in her words – “excess baggage”. It was a feeling perpetuated by a mother’s lack of affection and a father who ran out on the family not long after settling in Chicago. To cope, at a young age, Anita learned to be self-reliant, and hid any related pain under a tough, cynical veneer. (Later Anita would turn to alcohol and drugs to numb any suffering associated both with her loveless childhood and the rigors of the life that she had chosen).

Anita, whose “biggest dream was to be a singer”, started on that road at 12 years of age. At 14 she left home to compete in marathon dance contests that were popular during the Depression. O’Day entered this phase of her life with her eyes wide open. She was well aware of the gruelling hours that she signed up for – staying on her feet for days / nights at a time. She also knew that the bare necessities, (e.g. meals), would be provided along with the opportunity to make more money than anyone that, like her, lacked a formal education. Directly in line with that thinking was Anita’s decision to change her name from Colton to O’Day explaining “I decided that O’Day was groovy because in Pig Latin it meant dough, which is what I hope to make”.

It was during one such marathon that O’Day was asked to sing. “Waiting for this moment my whole life”, Anita responded with a rendition of Al Jolson’s “Is It True What They Say About Dixie”. The song was met with applause, stamping of feet, and an appreciative shower of coins. Anita viewed the moment as a jumping off point to her dream. But, in reality, it was a hint of the success that would only be achieved after a long hard road that lied ahead. That road included three more primary stages: chorus girl, Big Band singer, and finally Jazz singer in her own right.

Returning to Chicago, and confirmed to becoming a singer, Anita started on her quest by working as a chorus girl in uptown locations such as The Celebrity Club and Vanity Fair. That was followed by a stint as a singer/ waitress at various clubs. (One such venue, The Vialago, was where Anita met her first husband, drummer Don Carter. Although the marriage would only last a year, Carter furthered her career by introducing O’Day to music theory).

In 1938, at age 19, Anita started guesting with various bands at clubs around town when DownBeat editor Carl Cons hired her for his new Off-Beat Club. The club quickly became a hangout for Jazz musicians of all stripes. Flashy and charismatic drummer Gene Krupa, on a tip, decided to check her out. Impressed, Krupa promised to call Anita if his current vocalist, Irene Daye, ever left the band. It took 3 years, but after the call finally came in 1941, Krupa and O’Day started to make Big Band history. 

Anita, would do two year-long stints, (1941 and 1945 respectively), with the Krupa band early in her career. She was hired as a featured female vocalist as was the custom with Big Bands. That is, Big Bands would employ a female singer, (or “canary” as they were termed in the day), as a change of pace, performing a limited number of songs in the course of an evening. It was an accepted glamour role with the singer usually dressed elegantly with a strapless or flowing evening gown. This was in stark contrast to the musicians in the band who would be dressed in matching band uniforms, (jacket and trousers). Once established, O’Day, knowing full well that she had a lot to offer musically, balked at being perceived as just “the girl singer in the band”. Instead, she insisted that, as part of the band, she be allowed to dress as the members of the band. In so doing, O’Day was a trend setter appearing with a jacket and either a skirt or trousers. Anita wasn’t pursuing an agenda or making a statement as such, she was just being herself. (Although it wasn’t lost on all concerned that O’Day wanted to be treated as a musician and an equal to the rest of the band).

In the two terms that O’Day served with Krupa she would record 34 sides and 5 hits. Those hits would include two duets with impressive trumpeter Roy Eldridge who was hired at about the same time that Krupa hired Anita. O’Day and Eldridge had a natural chemistry that paid dividends on both tracks: “Let Me Off Uptown” and “Thanks For The Boogie Ride”. The first, “Uptown” – that sold more than 100,000 copies – not only made Anita a star and boosted the popularity of the Krupa band; it stands as ground breaking in that it also was one of the first interracial duets on record.

The audience and the media took notice. O’Day, who Krupa described as “…a wild chick but how she could sing”, was named as “Outstanding New Star” in an Esquire poll. At the same time, DownBeat named her “New Star Of The Year”. A year later DownBeat would select Anita as one of the top five Big Band singers. (Anita would place fourth behind Helen O’Connell, Helen Forrest, and Billie Holiday; and ahead of Dinah Shore). Lastly in 1945, having rejoined Krupa, DownBeat named her “Top Girl Band Vocalist”. These were the first of many more accolades that would be bestowed on O’Day in the course of her lengthy career.

Anita would continue with singing with other Big Bands after leaving Krupa including those led by Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie. While having some moments, e.g. a # 4 hit with Kenton “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine”, O’Day’s career and popularity went to the next level when she launched her solo career in the late 40’s, (usually opting to perform in live settings with a trio that allowed her room to experiment and improvise). This is especially true during the 50’s that defined Anita’s career.

______________________________________________________________________

Given that her popularity and success surged and sagged in unison with her continued dependency on drugs and alcohol it may be best to get this element of her life out of the way so that we can concentrate on Anita’s artistic endeavours. Anita was busted for pot possession in 1947 and 1952, and for heroin possession in 1953 when she served 6 months in jail. O’Day started smoking pot when she was young (and it was still legal). And, given her surroundings and the times, alcohol was always readily available to her. Further, not to give her a pass, but the truth is that as a heroin user, she didn’t take advantage of those close to her to the degree that others had in order to feed her habit, (like, for instance, a Chet Baker). Rather, the only person she really harmed was herself, denying herself not only of consistently good health, but also of fame and fortune. Anita estimated that she spent close to $400,000 on heroin in the course of her career. And living a junkie life, in the 15 years that she was addicted – 1952 through 1967 – her daily objective to score was all consuming. O’Day needed a fix to simply maintain the required bodily chemical balance so that she could function somewhat normally. It was only after a near death overdose in 1967 that Anita kicked the habit cold turkey. Reflecting on those years in a 1973 interview with the L.A. Times O’Day summed it up this way: “The narcotics thing was just there. It was what was happening and it kept me in and out of trouble for 20 years”.

As a last point on the subject, while enablers played a role, the perception in the 40’s and 50’s specifically was such that the Jazz life was viewed as synonymous with drug use. Accordingly, to put things in perspective, in the course of drug enforcement, Jazz artists were tailed and hounded continually. And, on more than one occasion, it was proven that informants were sent to plant evidence on musicians thereby ensuring an easy bust.
_______________________________________________________________

Anita’s career took flight when Norman Granz signed her to his Verve label in 1952. (A year after Anita’s first substantial solo success with a cover of Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz”). Granz started the label primarily as a platform for Ella Fitzgerald. In addition to Fitzgerald, (who didn’t use drugs of any kind), Granz built his label on artists that other companies wouldn’t touch because of their respective drug histories. Such notable Verve artists included Jazz giants Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Billie Holiday.

For her part, Anita recorded some 17 quality albums for the label with both small group and larger ensemble settings. To everyone’s mutual benefit Granz allowed her more say in the material that was recorded as well as how it should be presented. None put her talent on full display more than Anita (released 1955), Anita O’Day Sings The Most (1957) and Anita O’Day Sings The Winners, (1958). Anita features O’Day’s unforgettable takes on standards such as “You’re The Top”, “Honeysuckle Rose”, and “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square”. “The Most” matches O’Day with the Oscar Peterson Quartet – his regular trio is augmented with O’Day’s long time platonic musical partner John Poole on drums – on a set that includes O’Day’s special treatment on standards like “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Them There Eyes”. “The Winners” features covers that O’Day has been long associated with like Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The ‘A’ Train” and “Sing Sing Sing”, a Louis Prima composition that Benny Goodman turned into a classic Swing hit. Also included is an outstanding take on Woody Herman’s instrumental “Four Brothers”. In this instance, because there are no lyrics, O’Day was given only sheet music and left to her own devices. As such, Anita – whose improvisational skills are legendary – proceeds to give a graduate course in scatting that’s nothing short of amazing. Her interaction with the horns is such that her instrumentally inspired lines are virtually interchangeable with theirs.

Although struggling with her addiction, that caused periods of inactivity, O’Day remained popular, securing high profile club gigs and festival dates, (usually in the company of other featured Jazz greats). One such festival appearance was the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival where she shared the stage with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, and Miles Davis. Many critics cite Anita’s performance – that made her an international star – as the highlight of her career. (At the very least it opened doors to global markets – especially Japan where Anita returned for well received shows and festival dates numerous times starting in 1960). Anita performed both an afternoon and evening show on the closing Sunday backed by a trio including John Poole on drums. Two songs from her nine song afternoon set are captured in the film “Jazz On A Summer’s Day”. Anita is a striking figure in high heels, a tight black dress, a matching wide brimmed hat with ostrich feathers, and long white gloves. Not only is she impeccably dressed; despite, (in her own words), being, “high as a kite”, she lays down a version of “Tea For Two” at breakneck speed and a take on “Sweet Georgia Brown” that Newport producer George Wein lauded as the best rendition of the song ever. Her performance rivals all others’ featured in the documentary.

As the 60’s approached Anita would continue to record and tour but the effects of the substance abuse were starting to take its toll. It’s safe to say that her career nosedived as her heroin addiction effectively took control of her life. Compounding the issue, after her overdose in 1967, O’Day started to experience heart problems as a result of her heroin use.

But the ever resilient O’Day made a comeback in 1970 at 51 years of age. A highly acclaimed performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival effectively got her career back on track. Starting with a live recording of her performance at the Berlin festival, Anita would release 8 albums in the decade proving that even as her considerable vocal skills were diminishing, she still had a lot to offer her legion of fans. And given how interwoven her life and music were, Anita acknowledged the support and encouragement of those fans despite her personal battles:
“Without them you’re nothing…That’s where my heart lies. That’s all I’ve got. I had a couple of boyfriends. Duds. A Couple of husbands. Gone. But you always get something back if you give. That’s never changed”.

The 80’s kicked off with the release of her autobiography High Times Hard Times that made the New York Times best seller list. It’s a no holds barred account of both Anita’s joys and hardships. Although documenting O’Day’s triumphs, the book is chilling with stories of sexual assaults, backroom abortions, and failed marriages. On a brighter note, the 80’s were also marked by a stellar performance in 1985 concert at Carnegie Hall celebrating Anita’s 50 years in Jazz.

Settling in Los Angeles, O’Day wasn’t done yet. Anita released 12 more albums in the 80’s and 90’s. (Her last release, appropriately titled Indestructible, hit the streets in 2005 – when Anita was 86 years old!). And she remained a popular live attraction in her adopted home until the end of her life.

Anita O’Day lived a full, albeit hard, life on her own terms. She was constantly crashing, and learning to stand up again. She always appeared to be struggling despite her brilliance as evidenced by her earnings that swung from $2,000 a week to $200 a week at various junctures in her career. But, in all, she persevered and survived. Following continuing health issues Anita died in her sleep on Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 2006.

Anita O’Day was once defined as “The greatest white girl Jazz singer in the world”. Anita legitimately earned the title and also paid the cost.

A Selected Anita O’Day Playlist

  1. Georgia On My Mind
  2. Let Me Off Uptown
  3. Thanks For The Boogie Ride
  4. Just A Little Bit South Of North Carolina
  5. Ain’t Misbehavin’
  6. And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine
  7. Boogie Blues
  8. Tennessee Waltz
  9. You’re The Top
  10. Honeysuckle Rose
  11. A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square
  12. Stompin’ At The Savoy
  13. ‘S Wonderful / They Can’t Take That Away From Me
  14. Them There Eyes
  15. Love Me Or Leave Me
  16. Take The “A” Train
  17. Easy Come, Easy Go
  18. Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered
  19. Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me
  20. The Ballad Of The Sad Young Men
  21. Johnny One Note
  22. Four Brothers
  23. Tea For Two
  24. Sweet Georgia Brown
  • Rico Ferrara, March 2022

BIG JOE TURNER – “Boss Of The Blues”

… Ma Rainey is ‘Mother Of The Blues’… Bessie Smith is ‘Empress Of The Blues’…‘Big Joe Turner is ‘Boss Of The Blues’…”

  • Atlantic Records press release

“Rocket 88” released on the Chess label and performed by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats is credited in a number of circles as the first Rock & Roll song. Written by Brenston and Ike Turner, (The Delta Cats were actually Ike Turner & His Kings Of Rhythm), the song hit # 1 R&B in 1951. A case can be made, however, for another R&B chart topping hit having that distinction – “Shake Rattle And Roll” released in 1954 by renowned Blues shouter Big Joe Turner on Atlantic Records. The “Shake Rattle And Roll” claim fits perfectly with a quote by legendary Blues and R&B songsmith, (and former R&B singer), Doc Pomus when inducting Big Joe in The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame posthumously in 1987: “Rock & Roll couldn’t have happened without Big Joe Turner”. It wouldn’t be the first time that Big Joe Turner played an integral role in a sustaining musical trend.

Turner was born and raised in Kansas City Missouri and during his formative years Prohibition – a national constitutional ban in place from 1920 to 1933 banning the production, importation, and transportation of alcohol – was at its height. Kansas City in the 20’s and 30’s was a wide open town that, for all intents and purposes, ignored the Prohibition laws. Run by gangsters and aided by corrupt political boss T. J. Pendergast who controlled Kansas City at the time, the manufacture and sale of alcohol, as well as gambling and prostitution were viewed as harmless sidelines. Kansas City, meanwhile, was in its musical heyday, a hotbed of Blues and Jazz. The Kansas City Jazz sound was a distinctly raucous, and untamed outpouring topped with shouting Blues that could be heard in thriving clubs and speakeasies that operated 24 hours a day.

In further illustration of the situation at hand, in an interview, Big Joe Turner described a typical night at The Sunset where he and Boogie-Woogie piano player Pete Johnson had a residency:

“All the working people came early…and got high and had a ball. Then things would quiet down and finally there wouldn’t be nobody in there except the bartender, waiter, and the boss; and we’d start playing about 3 o’clock in the morning. People used to say that they could hear me hollerin’ five blocks away. It would still be the morning and the bossman would set up corn liquor and we’d rock. Just about that time we’d be started to have a good time, here come the high-hats, and we’d set the joint on fire then and really have a ball till 10 or 11 o’clock in the day. Sleep? Who wants to sleep with all the Blues jumpin’ around?”

And in the event of an infrequent raid by the police:

“The boss would have his bondsman down at the police station before we got there. We’d walk in, sign our names and walk right out. Then we would cabaret till morning”.

This was the backdrop of the times when Turner was forced to be resourceful early in life. His father passed away when Joe was quite young; leaving him as the only means of support for his mother and sister. It was the early 1920’s, and the enterprising Turner’s first job was leading a blind singer through the streets of Kansas City for 50¢. (Interested in singing himself, Turner started by singing along with an uncle who was a nightclub piano player and in church choirs before doing so on street corners for tips from passersby that were drawn to his natural deep booming voice).

At 14 years of age, Big Joe was already, in fact, big – standing 6’ 2”. Appearing older than his age, (aided at times by a pencilled mustache and his father’s hat), Turner quit school and found work in Kansas City bars. He was first hired as a cook whose job included hauling bootleg whiskey. Turner was soon promoted to the role of “The Singing Barman”. Specifically, between serving drinks to patrons, Turner shouted the Blues – unamplified – into the street to attract prospective customers. Big Joe Turner would soon become the greatest Blues shouter / singer in town; and rivalled only by Jimmy Rushing, “Mr. Five By Five”, who came to prominence with Count Basie’s band in 1935.

The next stage, and a major factor in Big Joe Turner’s career, occurred when he teamed up with Boogie-Woogie piano player Pete Johnson. The story goes that the two met in the early 30’s when Joe happened to stop in at one of the local haunts, The Backbiter Club, where Johnson and his band were playing. After some conversation, Turner convinced Johnson to let him sit in. The fact that there was no P.A. system – Johnson’s band performed strictly instrumentals – didn’t pose a problem because, as Turner had done many times in his bartending days, he could make himself heard without a mic over the din of a rowdy crowd. Also, material wasn’t a challenge either in that Turner – through his experience in numerous jam sessions, including those with big bands – had developed a talent for improvising on a large vocabulary of traditional Blues phrases and verses. Thus was formed a partnership that would play a key role in the establishment of the Boogie-Woogie era that came to prominence in the late 30’s and early 40’s and would serve as a staple of early Rock & Roll.

Once well-known, the duo’s regular gigs at The Sunset were a proving ground that would deliver a further significant breakthrough in Big Joe’s career. It was in 1938 at The Sunset that legendary talent scout John Hammond first discovered Turner and booked him for his “Spirituals To Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. Turner performed along with The Boogie-Woogie Boys: Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Meade Lux Lewis – a trio of Boogie-Woogie piano players. (It wasn’t Turner’s first attempt to break into the NYC scene; in 1936 Big Joe and Johnson appeared on a bill with Benny Goodman but were not well received. Turner’s take on that experience was “they weren’t ready for us”). Turner’s performance led to further opportunities with appearances at various New York clubs before landing a lengthy residency at Café Society.

Big Joe’s popularity wasn’t only confined to New York. After his initial recording with Pete Johnson, “Roll ’Em Pete”, earned him some notoriety, he and Johnson expanded their musical horizons nationally, eventually working their way to the West Coast. (Well established there, Big Joe called Hollywood home for a time, and he and Johnson briefly owned a bar in L.A., The Blue Moon Club). 

“Roll ‘Em Pete” continued to be one of Big Joe’s best known songs that he would record several times through the course of his career with various combinations of musicians. It was the first of a number of sides recorded on the Vocalion label, including another popular single “Cherry Red”. Like “Cherry Red”, “Roll ‘Em Pete” is basically a collection of traditional Blues lyrics that Joe used to maximum effect:

“Well I got a gal, she lives up on the hill (2X)
Well this woman’s tryin’ to quit me
Lord but I love her still

She’s got eyes like diamonds, they shine like Klondike gold (2X)
Every time she loves me
She sends my mellow soul”

“Roll ‘Em Pete” not only ignited a Boogie-Woogie craze, but it also showed Big Joe’s Blues to be an exuberant display of fun and sheer delight: “Roll ‘em boy, we all jump for joy”. For those who hadn’t experienced Big Joe in live performance, the song was an introduction to a sense of freedom apparent in Turner’s Blues that helped usher in a new world for urban Blacks, and stood in stark contrast to the images and spirit of Country Blues. And, (primarily independent), record companies were quick to realize the market potential and the readily expanding market needs. Indeed Turner, with his physical vocals, (and supported by Johnson’s percussive piano), helped cultivate a thriving independent record industry while developing a genre of Blues shouting that became a major force of WWII R&B.

In addition to Vocalion, in the late 40’s Turner would record for a number of the newly founded West Coast indies including Alladin, Imperial, RPM, Varsity, Okeh, and Decca. Unfortunately, there were no hits as Turner saw a decline in popularity for artists performing and recording in a similar Blues / R&B/ Jazz style. Consequently, as the 40’s drew to a close, Turner retreated to Kansas City as a base while he contemplated future opportunities. Unbeknownst to Big Joe, he would soon embark on the most successful period of his career.

Turner, who never stopped working and touring, was appearing at The Apollo Theatre in 1951 when he was visited after his show by Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun of Atlantic Records. (The Ertegun brothers were big fans having first seen Turner at Café Society in 1938 as well as hiring Turner when they organized the first Jazz concert in Washington D.C. in 1942). Certain that it would be a successful venture, they convinced him to sign with Atlantic. Their instincts served them well as Turner’s 20 single releases repeatedly hit the charts. In addition, they benefitted from several critically acclaimed albums that were released from 1951 through to the end of the decade. Although the songs cut on Turner were R&B based they competed in the burgeoning Rock & Roll arena as playlists of the day featured prospective hits regardless of genre. As such, Big Joe Turner was one of the few of the Boogie-Woogie era to successfully cross over into Rock & Roll; (even though Turner was 40 years old when he signed with Atlantic – old by Rock & Roll standards).

The hits started immediately with the Ahmet Ertegun penned “Chains Of Love” a million seller in 1951. Other million sellers included “Honey Hush”, “Flip Flop And Fly”, and “Corrine, Corrina”. And, of course, no discussion of Big Joe’s Atlantic years would be complete without mentioning the R&B chart topper “Shake Rattle And Roll” that was arguably deprived of million selling status because of a lack of airplay due to perceived risqué lyrics. (Record buyers instead bought Bill Haley And The Comets‘ sanitized version that included a simplified beat and “cleaned up” lyrics. However, it bears mentioning that the most well known song of Turner’s resurgent career received significant play on juke boxes in an era that saw approximately half of the records produced destined for jukeboxes.)

Of the various albums released on the Atlantic, two deserve special mention. The first, was originally released in 1956 as Joe Turner Sings Kansas City Jazz: The Boss Of The Blues, and reissued in 1976 as The Boss Of The Blues. The album reunites Turner with Pete Johnson on piano and features remakes of their Vocalion hits “Roll ‘Em Pete”, “Cherry Red”, and “Wee Wee Baby”. The second notable album is the big band dominated Big Joe Rides Again, (also featuring Johnson), that was originally released in 1959 and reissued under the same title in 1988. “Rides Again” contains the stellar recordings “Switchin’ In The Kitchen”, “Nobody In Mind”, “Rebecca” (a partner to “Roll ‘Em Pete” / “Cherry Red”), and “Don’t You Make Me High” (AKA “Don’t You Feel My Leg”).

The success, however, would soon run its course. The early 60’s saw Atlantic change their approach when recording Turner by softening the sound with vocal choirs and symphonic stings. This tactic was foreign to Turner’s straight ahead no frills attack; and, as a result, Big Joe grew disenchanted and left the label. Although he would continue to record, (on obscure labels), Turner, now a full time West Coast resident, spent his time mostly playing clubs in L.A. – primarily with small Jazz and Blues combos – and making movie appearances.

In the 70’s Turner was reintroduced to the National audience with recordings on the Bluesway and Pablo labels. Of note in this era is the Pablo release The Best Of Joe Turner. Somewhat less powerful but still employing his boisterous style in his late 60’s, Big Joe is backed by Jazz heavyweights including Roy Eldridge, Milt Jackson, Blue Mitchell, Sonny Stitt, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Turner continued recording into the 80’s, and was in constant demand by major Jazz and Folk festivals in North America and Europe. His last release, Blues Train, backed by the collective Roomful Of Blues and produced by Doc Pomus, earned Turner a Grammy Award in 1983. The honour is added to other acknowledgments received including:

  • 1945 Esquire Magazine “Best Male Singer”
  • 1956 Downbeat “Top Male Singer”
  • 1965 Melody Maker “Top Male Singer”
  • 1965 Jazz Journal “Best Blues Record”
  • 1987 Induction into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

Doc Pomus, upon hearing Big Joe Turner’s powerful, unmannered vocals for the first time, was quoted as saying “that this is how a man should sound”. Adding substance to that statement, Big Joe Turner’s voice reflected his personality – direct and forthright. Big Joe Turner’s powerful baritone was silenced on November 24, 1985 at the age of 74.

BIG JOE TURNER PLAYLIST

  1. Piney Brown Blues
  2. Still In Love
  3. Chains Of Love
  4. Careless Love
  5. I Want A Little Girl
  6. Wee Wee Baby
  7. Roll ‘Em Pete
  8. Cherry Red
  9. Honey Hush
  10. Lipstick Powder And Paint
  11. TV Mama
  12. Corrine Corrina
  13. Midnight Special
  14. Switchin’ In The Kitchen
  15. Nobody In Mind
  16. Rebecca
  17. Don’t You Make Me High
  18. Bump Miss Susie
  19. Love Roller Coaster
  20. Flip Flop And Fly
  21. Shake Rattle And Roll
  • Rico Ferrara February, 2022