Sunday, November 30, 2008

Wild Jimmy Spruill

      The day I was born (May 23, 1959) the #1 record was Wilbert Harrison's "Kansas City". A re-make of a tune originated by Little Willie Littlefield and written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (itself based on an old tune by Jim Jackson), it featured an ultra-twangy guitar solo by Wild Jimmy Spruill. For this and other reasons I've always felt some sort of cosmic bond with Jimmy, who was in my opinion one of the greatest guitar wranglers in the history of rock'n'roll. You won't find his name in the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame (unlike such great talents as Art Garfunkel, Steven Stills and Bono and I don't mean Sonny), but if you have any taste in music at all you've heard his playing.  As a session musician he played on hits like Bobby Lewis' "Tossin & Turnin'", King Curtis' "Soul Twist",  Dave "Baby" Cortez' "The Happy Organ", the Charts "Deserie" and tons of others.  Today however we shall be discussing his best records, including those issued under his own name.  First let's get the background part out of the way.
James Spruill was born in shack in the country outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina on June 9, 1934.  His family was so poor Jimmy remembered them using newspapers and paste to seal the cracks in the wall of their house to keep the wind out.
His parents tried sharecropping but couldn't make a living and eventually moved north first to Norfolk, Virginia, then Washington, D.C.  Jimmy started playing guitar as a tyke, building his first guitar out of a cigar box (he would build guitars his whole life, when I met him he was working on a custom job for John Hammond Jr.). As soon as he could raise a hard on he hopped  a bus to New York City where an older brother was already settled and got a job as the super of a Harlem tenement.  While practicing his guitar on the stoop he was spotted by record producer Danny Robinson (brother of Bobby Robinson, another local record mini-mogul who would figure large in Jimmy's career).  Robinson got Jimmy his first record date, playing with the Charlie Walker  on "Driving Home pts. 1 & 2" , and another date days late with the Charlie Lucas Combo where he cut a tune called "Walkin'" which featured his already fully formed "scratchy" guitar style. The year was 1957  and for the next eight years Spruill was the regular session guitarist on dozens of discs the Robinson brothers produced for their many labels--- Fire, Fury, Enjoy, VIM, Holiday, Everlast, etc. 
 One of the most musically fruitful associations was with Allen Bunn aka Tarheel Slim, another North Carolina transplant who played guitar, and together with Spruill they cut one of the greatest rock'n'roll records to ever come out of Harlem-- "Number 9 Train" b/w "Wildcat Tamer" (Fury).  He would go on to play on nearly all of Tarheel Slim's Fury recrordings including his sole hit (with Little Ann) "It's Too Late".
     Perhaps the greatest pairing however was with the aforementioned Wilbert Harrison. Harrison (also from North Carolina, he sang in a Geechie accent that betrayed his Georgia Sea Island roots) had been kicking around for years, cutting sides for Savoy, but he really hit pay dirt both musically and commercially when Bobby Robinson put him together with Spruill for a series of discs that are among the greatest rock'n'roll records ever made:  "Goodbye Kansas City", "Don't Wreck My Life", "Let's Stick Together" (which Wilbert would re-record one man band style as "Let's Work Together", it was copied note for note by Canned Heat who had a hit with it, Bryan Ferry would take his version of it to the top of the U.K. charts in the early 70's), "The Horse", Willie Mabon's "Poison Ivy" (which has one of the best lyrics ever-- "Each day when I shave/in my house coat/two men have to hold me/or I'll cut my throat....I'm like Poison Ivy/I'll break out all over you"),  and "1960" among them.
Robinson also brought Elmore James to New York City for his last sessions in '63, recording him with a band fronted by Jimmy Spruill, here on "Bobby's Rock" you can hear them trading licks.
      Another great pairing was sax honker Noble "Thin Man" Watts' who utilized Spruill on his best records such as "Hard Times (The Slop)" (Baton), "Jookin'" (Enjoy) and "Blast Off" (Baton), they would strike up a life long friendship. The best of Noble Watts Baton sides can be found here. And before it's slips my mind here's a great one, Bobby Long's "Jersey City" on the obscure Fountainhead  label that features one of Spruill's finest solos.
     In 1957 Bobby Robisnon began issuing Wild Jimmy Spruill's solo 45's, the first "Jumpin' In" on Everlast wasn't very good but after that he cut a string of hard stinging classics where his guitar twangs, scratches and practically bounces off the speaker cones.  Issued on labels like Fire, Enjoy, Vest, and VIM were monsters like "Hard Grind", "Scratchin'", "Slow Draggin'", "Scratch 'n Twist", "Cut and Dried", and even a vocal (something Jimmy wasn't so good at) "Country Boy".  If you're the CD buying sort all of the above solo discs are available on the new Night Train CD Wild Jimmy Spruill-  Scratch & Twist (Released and  Unreleased Recordings 1956-1962).  I recommend it highly, I bought one myself. Here's one of the un-issued tracks-- "Raisin' Hell".
     From 1957 into the early 1990's Jimmy led a band-- Wild Jimmy Spruill & the Hell Raisers who in addition to backing up acts from Chuck Berry to James Brown played all over the New York City area from long gone joints like the Rockin' Palace on 156th St and 8th Ave to the Central Ballroom, Small's Paradise, the Baby Grand (all still there) and had a long residency at the Sportsman's Lounge on 8th Ave that lasted into the 90's. When not working clubs they played weddings, parties, private clubs, and bar mitzvah. As great as his records are, you really had to see Jimmy to believe it. He played guitar with his feet, elbows, teeth, butt, over his head, between his legs, behind his back, throwing the thing around the stage and never missing a note.  Hence the Wildman moniker. In the early nineties he began appearing downtown, mostly at a club called Tramps with a version of the Hellraisers augmented by guitarist Larry Dale of "Let The Door Bell Ring" (Glover) and "Drinkin' Wine" (Atlantic) infamy and pianist Bob Gaddy  who cut the great "C'mon Little Children" for Old Town.  They were one of the greatest bands I ever saw in my life.  
     At that time (around '93-4) I was occasionally contributing short pieces to the New York Times' Style Of The Times section.  I suggested to my editor an article on these guys ("...these were the guys that invented rock'n'roll boss...").  In the process of interviewing Jimmy for the piece (which never ran, it wasn't exactly a "style" piece, what was I thinking?) we became friends, as a fellow Gemini we got on great.  Truth be it, I loved the guy.  He was brilliant, funny and crazy in the best way. One time
I took the train way up to the Bronx, where Jimmy lived with his wife and one of his adult twin daughters in a self decorated apartment across from the playground the locals call "the coops".  Jimmy, who bragged at having over fifty jobs (Geminis get bored easily), and was then working as a decorator. His apartment had self installed stucco walls and a giant built in fish tank.  Very cool.  He never made much money in music but he was a happy man, he liked to go to Atlantic City and gamble a bit, he built guitars for friends and still played when ever some one called with a gig. In his own mind he was a success because he did whatever he wanted and money be damned, he refused to be a slave to it.
 In February of 1996 he headed to Florida by bus to visit old pal Noble Watts who was recording a new record for Rounder in his home studio.  Jimmy stopped in North Carolina to visit friends en route and lost his wallet.  On the return trip he had a heart attack on the bus and passed away.  Since his body carried no ID he was interned in a morgue in the North Carolina town where he'd been discovered dead.  In the meantime, back in the Bronx his wife and daughters were frantic.  It wasn't like Jimmy to not call and after he'd been missing for weeks the local TV news ran stories about the missing blues man, until finally his corpse was located and identified.  Had he lived no doubt he'd have been rediscovered by fans and collectors who were just becoming hip to his old records (the Krazy Kat label in the UK issued a quasi-bootleg in the late 80's of his best solo records, they didn't even have a photo of him for the cover, using an awful drawing instead). He would have toured Europe (a place he was anxious to see), played festivals, maybe even made a few bucks.  But it was not to be. I think about him all the time.  Wild Jimmy Spruill, there's one I really miss.

17 comments:

Chuck said...

Bravo! A great post honoring a great guitarist. THANKS.

davespazz said...

Another great post. My favorite guitar solo of all time is Hot Dog Dooley Wah.

The Hound said...

Is that the Kodaks? Gotta dig that one out and give it a spin, can't remember it at all....

davespazz said...

It's The Pyramids I think on Times Square records.

The Hound said...

Ah! The flip side of "Ankle Bracelet"! It's on Shell.
Are you sure that's Jimmy on guitar? Sure sounds like Mickey Baker to my tinitus....

davespazz said...

You were the one who told me that it was Jimmy many years (and braincells) ago!

I'd be happy if it were Mickey doing that also...

The Hound said...

I must've thought so at the time, but listening to it now I'm gonna guess it's Mickey Baker. Or maybe
Yngve Malmsten .....does your version credit it to the Pyramids or the Original Pyramids?

Devil Dick said...

i don't think i own one bad 45 on that fire label. good stuff.

The Hound said...

There is one bad one-- Schooltime by Vinnie & Kenny (Fire 1005) but Bobby Robinson had the best batting average in rock'n'roll producer history. Of course he's never mentioned by the R&R Hall Of Fame morons.
Fire issued 64 singles I think, and 63 of 'em are worth having, at least 40 are brilliant. That's not counting all the great stuff on Fury (Lee Dorsey, Wilbert Harrison, et al), Enjoy, and all his other labels. You can't say that for Sam Phillips or Ahmet Ertegun, but then again they eneded up a lot richer than Bobby Robinson.

Anonymous said...

I have that Jimmy Spruill album on Krazy Kat!! Even though, according to New Yorkers like you, he wasn't a hard man to track down, they made him look like some mysterious cat who vanished without a trace, even though he was still alive at the time. They couldn't find a photo so they had someone draw a generic picture on a tan background ("Bluesman With Guitar"), making the LP look like an acoustic country blues record. Despite the weird packaging, it's still an excellent record.

Anonymous said...

I played with Jimmy a few times at the Blue Frog, a bar in the Bronx at the upper end of Jerome Avenue. He was a great, great guitarist and a fascinating person. Most of the time he played a Gibson Explorer that he had customized by cutting off the top wing with a bandsaw. Jimmy explained that he liked the sound of the instrument but didn't like how it poked into his chest. So he did something about it! The modification gave the guitar more treble, which he always liked, as you can tell by listening to his records. He played mostly with his thumb and index finger and had tremendous rhythmic drive and power. Jimmy was always attuned to what was happening on the bandstand and was especially aware of what everybody was bringing to the music emotionally. It was obvious why he'd done so many records. He was an extremely funky player and could easily play any of the later R&B styles. I always wondered why he hadn't pursued a session career after the fifties but didn't feel I knew him well enough to ask. Perhaps he got bored with it...he did mention playing on a Fats Domino session in New York but couldn't remember the songs or the name of the record. I never saw him do any acrobatics when I played with him, but that could have been because there was hardly anybody in the club most of the time. Jimmy also did excellent drywall work and was very handy with all sorts of tools. Unlike many great musicians, he struck me as basically a very happy person who was aware of who he was and what he had done but had no need to wear it on his shoulder. His family was very important to him, as was, I think, intellectual stimulation (Jimmy was very bright) and I think that those needs often took precedence over a desire for recognition or a higher profile. I still live in the neighborhood and think of him often.

Bruce said...

There's a handful of tracks on the Wild Jimmy CD that I can't work out the origins of.
They're either unreleased or other people's sessions - "Little School Girl", "If You Just Woulda", "Mind On Loving You", "Please Don't Hurt Me", "Sweet Little Girl" and "Party Hardy".
I'm also trying to work out which label the Rose Marie, Bill Ivey & the Sabers "Most Of All" (that's on the comp) appeared on.
Can anyone throw me a crumb or two?

Anonymous said...

I haven't heard the record, however 2 other people have told me that 'Jumpin In' on Everlast "was the best thing Jimmy ever did". You state that it wasn't very good. Who am I to believe???

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crispy critter said...

Hey come to your blog late- but have to chime in for representing Jimmy I love the personal info- he is one of my favs and never heard the info here-thank you for a great blog!

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with an earlier comment, 'Jumpin In' - his solo debut on Everlast 5004 WAS the best track Jimmy ever recorded! I can't understand how the Hound doesn't rate it, according to his notes above. Incomprehensible! A great track which is available on the CD "New York on Fire - Vol2".

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Pour Jimmy his death was so sad there's no words to describe it.

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