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.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Stranger In My Own Hometown

New York City, 2008, welcome to the Paramus Mall. Since the Republican takeover of NYC with Adolph Guiliani in the 90's we've seen more and more chain/big box type stores and less and less of the weird little mom and pop shops. Endless branch banks, fast food joints (the NY Times put the number of Dunkin' Donuts opened in Manhattan in the last five years at over 500), cell phone stores, Duane Reade drug stores (that sell aisle after aisle of psuedo-ephedrine products), and if you live in Park Slope lots of designer baby clothes. There's only two decent book stores left in Manhattan (St. Marks Books and the Strand), there's not a good record store in the borough. Even the movie theaters are starting to suck.  I used to go the the movies every day, now I doubt if I go twice a year. Film Forum plays the same stuff over and over, year after year (latest schedule, Les Blank retrospective, Godard's Made In The USA, Preston Sturges retrospective, Fellini's Amacord, not exactly breaking ground here are we)? There are multi-plexes in every neighborhood.      Of the "art houses", or what's left of them only the Anthology Film Archives shows any imagination and that place is the coldest, dirtiest most rat ridden theater since the Deuce was cleaned up. At least they showed the Monks documentary. There's three movies showing in Europe right now that are probably the only three current films I want to see, there's The Baader-Meihof Complex, a film about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands called Hunger and Gomorrah which is supposed to show at the IMF theater in the Village in January. A clip from the Monks film and the trailers for The Baader-Meinhof Complex and Hunger are above. Getting back to the point, what gives? Is there no market in New York City for adventurous film programming? A cool records store?  Or anything that you can't find in any mall out there in that wasteland we used to call our country? I guess not. It seems the suburbanites who moved here in the 90's to be closer to their now non-existent Wall Street jobs, the proximity to 5,000 Starbucks, and idiot celebrity watching, rather than absorb the culture that this city once had to offer, prefer to bring their suburban life with them, and they've killed our town. There's not much of the New York City I loved left.  When I moved here in the late 70's we (rejects from society) had the town to ourselves, no law and order (I ran an illegal after hours club for a year before the cops showed up in 83-84, now even a legal bar is subject to endless police harassment). I never saw a kid get carded at CBGB. If this city is to have any sort of cultural life we need an atmosphere for creativity to grow in. Not a police state.  Whether it was abstract expressionism or punk rock, virtually every interesting thing that happened in NYC in the 20th century was incubated in bars and clubs.  Maybe this economic meltdown will help by driving commercial real estate down but it's unlikely since most landlords would rather let a space sit empty for years than rent at a reasonable price.  And if they let it sit the city gives them a tax break!   If you don't like the noise, go back to New Jersey. And when you come visit don't set your car alarm when you park here. ******************* On a different subject has anyone noticed on the latest CD release of the Rolling Stones More Hot Rocks (Big Hits & Fazed Cookies) has an alternate take of "Let It Bleed" ? I only noticed by accident. BTW one of the best Stones live/rehearsal tapes to ever surface, a mix of a show in Dallas, '72 and the afternoon rehearsal can be found here. Amazing sound quality (stereo!), and probably the best they ever sounded without Brian.  In the UK, a few years back the the Elvis Blues CD  had this unheard take of Stranger In My Own Hometown, one of my all time favorite Elvis tunes. Neither of these alternates are mentioned on the packaging so I assume they were released by mistake. BTW, if you never heard Percy Mayfield's original version of "Stranger In My Own Hometown", from Ray Charles' Tangerine label, here it is. ********************* Here, from an old Hound show aircheck is my musical re-creation of a Thanksgiving dinner: Lionel Hampton- Turky Hop, Nat Kendricks & the Swans- Mashed Potatoes, Robert Williams & the Groovers- Cranberry Blues, Andre Williams- Please Pass The Biscuits, Nite Caps- Wine Wine Wine, Marvin & Johnny- Cherry Pie and of course Alfred E. Newman- It's A Gas. Happy Holiday.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Guitar evanglists, singing preachers and the like....

I've been collecting gospel records since 1977. It started at a bargain bin in a Woolworth in Ft. Lauderdale's only black neighborhood where I spotted a peculiar looking LP in the 39 cent bin. The cover photo showed a heavy set, middle age black woman wearing a turban and a huge feathered boa playing an arch top electric guitar. It was Sister Rosetta Tharpe (bottom clip) and I'd never heard of her but for 39 cents it was worth it just for the photo. When I brought the record home and played it imagine my surprise when the sound of Sam Price's boogie piano backed by a slapping string bass and drums came rolling out of my speakers. This was followed by a guitar solo that could have come off of an obscure Sun rockabilly 45, then a woman's voice began belting out "Strange Things Happening Everyday". A call and response rocker that except for the religious bent of the lyrics could have easily fit in with the rockabilly and R&B 45's I was just then discovering. Record collecting of course is part archeology, and I'd struck a new layer in the excavation of rock'n'roll's past. I've been mining that vein ever since, especially since the rise in prices, record conventions and Ebay have taken most of the fun out of record collecting. Gospel discs though are still relatively cheap, and you can still find 'em if you know where to look.
In his groundbreaking book The Gospel Sound (Good News and Bad Times, revised and updated Limelight Editions, 1985, still the only decent book on the subject) author Anthony Heilbut divides the Gospel sound into to three major groups, the solo singers, usually female best exemplified by the big voiced contraltos like Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams, choirs such as New York's famed Abyssinian Baptist Choir, the Edwin Hawkins Singers (who scored maybe the only real gospel pop hit with "Oh Happy Day), etc. and the quartets (which usually have five members but all gospel singing groups are called quartets) like the Golden Gate Quartet, Dixie Hummingbirds (middle clip), 5 Blind Boys Of Alabama (top clip), Pilgrim Travlers, the Soul Stirrers (where Sam Cooke first came to national attention, heard here in a church rattling live rendition of "Nearer To Thee" from the Shrine Auditorium Concert in '53), the Swan Silvertones, et. al.
There are performers who don't fit into the above categories like the Staple Singers, female groups like the Ward Singers, and my favorite, the guitar Evangelists.
One thing they all have in common is they developed in the Holiness In God Church Of Christ also known as the Sanctified Church where music is extremely important and folks "fall out" (lose control of their brains) and often speak in tongues. The white branch of the HIGCOC are often called Holy Rollers for this reason. Elvis is just one white rocker with such a background.
Hardcore gospel fans usually prefer the big voiced female singers whose art is
comparable to opera singing in the level of physical difficulty although unlike oper, gospel singing usually involves a great degree of improvisation. Anyone who has heard Clara Ward sing "When I Get Over" understands that Aretha Franklin (just voted by the ever irrelevant Rolling Stone magazine the all time greatest pop singer) has not an original cell in her large body. Every nuance, every vocal trick and aside that makes Aretha a star was copped from Clara Ward (who also influenced Little Richard in a very different way, check out the Ward Singers' "Packin' Up" to hear where Richard's "wooo" came from).
Record companies started recording gospel music almost as soon as they started recording and singing preachers and guitar Evangelists as well as jubilee style groups were among the first "race" records issued.
Columbia had a winner on their hands with Blind Willie Johnson, whom they recorded from 1927-30, a street singer and great slide guitar player who would come to the attention of white folks when Sam Charters devoted a chapter to him in his groundbreaking 1959 book The Country Blues (revised edition De Capo, 1975).
I first heard him on the Folkways compilation LP that was issued as a companion to the book. It was said a cop arrested him for trying to incite a riot by singing "If I Had My Way, I'd Tear This Building Down" on a Dallas street. Ry Cooder practically made a career out of rehashing Johnson's ethereal "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground", one of the true masterpieces of slide guitar playing. Johnson's music is easy to find, Sony has a two cd set of his complete works and Yazoo has a nice collection which last time I looked could be found here. Johnson's collection of voices, from a the gruff, throat full of broken glass heard on "If I Had..." to a fluttering falsetto, show an instrument every bit as sensitive as his heralded guitarmanship.
Another favorite from the scratchy old 78 collection is under the nome du disc Black Billy Sunday (real name: Dr. J. Gordon McPherson) whose 1931 session for Paramount produced this masterpiece--"This Ole World's In A Hellava Fix". It's the kind of record that is always timely.
It was said that this was Hank Williams' favorite, the Guitar Evangelist (aka Rev. Edward W. Clayborn) 1927 Vocallion recording of "Death Is A Dream". Good enough for Hank, good enough for the Hound.
I have no idea who the 2 Gospel Keys were but they made two of the greatest records I've ever heard. "I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore" and "You Got To Move" (which the Stones' covered using Mississippi Fred McDowell's version as their template) capture the sound of the Holiness church in all it's earthly glory. It's enough to get you saved, or at least shaved. They recorded for New York's Apollo label in 1948, then went back to church and never recorded again.
Rev. Anderson Johnson was from Miami, Florida and issued his own discs on his Glory label. He was a rockin' electric guitarist and had a declaiming style of singing
that added a touch of humor to his rockin' electric sermons. My favorite is this one,
"God Don't Like It"(especially the apology at the end) and also his version of "Let That Liar Pass On By" which bears no small resemblance to Ray Charles' hit "Leave My Woman Alone".
Rev. Utah Smith was from New Orleans where he ran the Two Wings Temple branch of the Holiness Church. He recorded these two songs twice each, and each version was issued on two different labels. Maybe he was also into numerology?
It matters not, but "Two Wings" and " Take A Trip (Gospel Ship)" are two of the greatest post-war guitar Evangelist recordings, both recorded in '53 these versions were on the Kay-Ron label.
One of the most prized 78's I own is this one on the Chart label out of Miami, Elder Beck's utterly crazed "Rock'n'Roll Sermon". Whilst in the process of warning of the sins of rock'n'roll, Rev. Beck just can't help hisself and the whole thing mutates into a version of "Rock Around The Clock" that would make Bill Haley's spit curl stand up straight. It's rare as hell but can be found on the great R&B compilation Blowin' Through Yokahama (Atomic Passion), one of my all time favorite LP's (Norton Records has it in their mail order catalogue).
Although they didn't record for the "race" market, Rev. Louis Overstreet, his guitar, his four sons, and the Congregation of St. Luke's Powerhouse Church Of God In Christ (pictured above, his sons bearing no small resemblance to Alvin & the Chipmunks, and where's that Stratocaster today?) were captured by Arhoolie's Chris Strachwitz in 1962 at their Phoenix, Arizona church, and as heard here on "Yeah Lord"
rafter shakin' was their business.
Rev. Charlie Jackson, from New Orleans was influenced by the aforementioned Rev. Utah Smith and recorded a whole bunch of 45's for the Booker label in the 1970's, the best of which are "Morning Train" (here's the Sensational Nightingales original for comparison's sake) and "Wrapped Up and Tangled Up". All his sides were re-issued on LP on Crypt and CD on Casequarter, the LP sounding much better to my ears.
The only white singer who can compare to any of the folks I've been talking about here is Brother Claude Ely who recorded for King in the 50's. His rendition of "Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down", "You Gotta Move" (said to be the inspiration for Elvis' version) and "Holy Holy Holy" make him a credit to his race.
Another disc I should mention, issued on Savoy's Gospel imprint in '58 is the Selah Singers' "The Wicked Race" which gets snaps for mentioning Sputnik. A bit scratchy but it's never been re-issued.
I end today's blogism (blogatin'? blogation? blogeration?) with two version of one of my favorite tunes, it's called "This Is A Mean World", again, some lyrics never go out of style, the first is done quartet style by the Trumpeteers on King and the second singing preacher fashion by Rev. C. L. Johnson for Savoy. And then I'm off into the sunset with one last tune from the Swan Silvertones on Specialty-- I'm A Rollin'. Get right with God, motherfuckers.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Jody Reynolds 1932-2008

          Jody Reynolds died Nov. 7 of liver cancer, I didn't know him, but I've always loved his records on the Demon label. "Endless Sleep" was a huge hit, it's the all time greatest teen snuff ballad (it can be heard above along with somebody's homemade video tribute). Jody Reynolds was born in Denver, Colorado and raised outside of Pheonix , Arizona where "Endless Sleep" was cut. After "Endless Sleep" got to #6 on the Billboard chart in '58  he relocated to California where he cut a handful of great sides for the Demon label (cool looking label too), here's my favorite:Fire Of Love. You punk rockers might remember the cover versions by the Gun Club and Panther Burns, neither version can touch the original. Here's the flipside-- "Daisy Mae" His back up band the Storms with the great Al Casey on guitar and/or six string bass are featured on this instrumental-- "Thunder" b/w "Tarantula" which came out on the Indigo label. Al Casey   All seven Demon 45's are Reynolds originals and all of them are good. I'd like to add some of his other tunes like "Tight Capris" (which was on the first tape Quine ever made for me, see Oct. Quine posting), "Beaulah Lee", "Whipping Post" and "The Storm" but as I've mentioned before I don't have a turntable with USB plugs at the moment and I only have his records on 45's not CD. Bear Family did a complete Jody Reynolds CD a few years back and it's well worth buying. Here's R&B singer Jimmy Witherspoon's cover of "Endless Sleep". A rare example of the reverse of the trend at the time of white singers covering black originals. This time it's the white original that is superior but Witherspoon's version is still pretty cool. Reynolds last record was a duet wit Bobbie "Ode To Billy Joe" Gentry called "Stranger In The Mirror". Dying is usually a good career move but in Reynolds case I doubt it'll do him much good.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tielman that's entertainment!

I love these clips, the group is called the Tielman Brothers and they were from, Surabeya, Indonesia. Can you imagine what their rehearsals where like? They were evidently big in the Netherlands and Germany and made tons of records. I don't know of any of their records that were issued in the U.S. (although there's a Tietman Brothers' record on Sceptor, I don't think it's the same group). They have a huge discography of surf instrumentals (they evolved from a straight ahead rock'n'roll/rockabilly sound into a stellar surf instrumental combo by the early sixties) issued on Dutch Imperial. I'm sure their discs are good but let's face it, this was a very visual act. Later they added a va-va-voom girl singer. This clip is from 1960 but they recorded up to 1981. Check Youtube to see what they looked like in '81 with their DA's morphed into greasy mullets, they look just like the sleazy dope dealers you find at the bottom end of Amsterdam's Seldick. More info than you need on them can be found here. Their mixture of showmanship, musicianship and acrobatics are perfect. It makes the crap that passes for rock'n'roll, or even entertainment nowadays even more unforgivable. I mean what the hell is going on? I can't stand all these lame ass singer songwriters who stand there looking at their toes like they can't figure out how they got there? (fill in the name of your least favorite). Not to mention the combination of drone and whine sound that was pioneered by groups like U2 and REM who seem to have influenced the under thirty crowd to emote their precious feelings in public in a way that's downright undignified. It's hard to say what makes a great rock'n'roll record, but I do know it doesn't take a genius to make one. I mean total lames like Paul Simon, Dr. Hook's Ray Sawyer, Bread's David Gates, R. Dean Taylor ("Indiana Wants Me") and even Wayne Newton managed to make great rock'n'roll records. Yes that last one was Wayne Newton. It's called "Comin' On Too Strong" and is one of the all time greatest Beach Boys rip-offs. Better than anything on the last three Brian Wilson LP's or anything the Beach Boys themselves cut since 20/20. I believe Gary Usher, Roger Christian and Terry Melcher were all involved in the production of "Comin' On Too Strong", the idea being to make a killer backing track and then bring in the worst person they could find to cut the lead vocal. Sort of part joke, part challange. It takes might take a genius to make a dozen great rock'n'roll records, but anybody could get do it once or twice. So why aren't there any great records anymore? Sure there's one or two a year, usually put out by some tiny label (last year I liked the Mary Weiss disc, two years ago it was the Dirtbombs, this year I like the Lost Crusaders, but it's a rare year I find more than one). Let's face it, people have changed. They have (or make that we have) finally bred a generation too dumb for rock'n'roll! The mind reels. Kids who grew up under Bush/Cheney and fed on reality TV seem to have both their shame and cool chromosones missing. Darwinian? Maybe the coming depression will humble the mall brats and bring forth some sort of positive creativity but if you ask me the under 30's haven't come up with one good musician, writer, film maker, artist ....they've got nothing. Makes me glad I'm old. In fact I wish I was older, I wish I saw Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Reed in their prime. I wish the Tielman Brothers were playing down the block....

Monday, November 17, 2008

Robert Nighthawk & Link Wray- Two Guys I Never Met....

.      I know I just posted this clip (see the Ike Turner posting) but it's so great and it fits today's subject Robert Nighthawk so here it is again, from the film ...and this is Free a documentary about Maxwell Street in Chicago's Jewtown section which used to be a flea market and gathering place for street musicians every Sunday. The city tore down all of Maxwell St. and moved it across the road into a mall several years back so scenes like these are long gone as is Mr. Nighthawk (born Robert Lee McCollum in Helena, Arkansas, Nov. 30 1909, next year is his centennial. He died on Nov. 5, of '67 just before the blues revival that might have put a few bucks in his pockets arrived).      Nightawk had a long recording career in years, short in output. He recorded under the name of Robert Lee McCoy for BlueBird in '37-38, and again billed as "Peetie's Boy" (to cash in on the popularity of William Bunch aka Peetie Wheatstraw "The Devil's Son In Law") in 1940. After World War II he changed his name to Robert Nighthawk (supposedly on the run from the law, but who knows...).  His post war sides are great, some of them are almost rockabilly (, best are the ones recorded for the United and States labels which are incdredibly rare although they've been re-issued on the Pearl label which is owned by Delmark (which is owned by the guy who runs the Jazz Record Mart, one of the last great record stores in the U.S.). A 78 of "Maggie Cambell" just sold on Ebay for over $500 (the financial meltdown doesn't seem to have effected the price of rare records yet, at least not the ones I want). He recorded for Aristocrat (which became Chess) in '48 and '49, I have a Japanese LP of all those recordings which are also scattered about on various compilations. Here's one of  rockers, his version of  "Kansas City Blues.  Oddly enough Ernest Tubb would cover this one and his version (here) is as bluesy as Nighthawks' is country. Don't you love the way Tubb says "chump"? "Nighthawk cut a last session for the Testament label in '66 with his guitar teacher Houston Stackhouse. Here's a five song tribute with some interview stuff spliced in, taken from an old aircheck. The tunes are "Prowlin' Nighthawk" from Blue Bird, 1937, "Maggie Cambell" issued on States in '52, ""Goin' Down To Eli's" and "Anna Lee Blues" were recorded live on Maxwell Street in '63 (and are from the film) and the final tune, a version of Tommy Johnson's "Big Road Blues" is from the Testament LP
When talking about slide players, the old timers always put Robert Nighthawk at the top of the list, he was one blues man who really could play. He was so good he was hired to be the entertainment at Muddy Waters' wedding party. The Link Wray clip is from the Jack Spector TV show which showed locally in Providence, RI, an after school Bandstand type show. Not Link's best tune but dig that Danelectro Longhorn! It's the only early TV footage of Link I've ever stumbled across. He'll be gone three years now this month, he died on Nov. 5, 2003. Here's an aircheck set of five Link instrumentals to remember him by. The tunes are "Fat Back", "Slinky", "Vendetta", "The Swag" and "The Earth Is Crying". The good folks at Norton records have an incredible amount of Link Wray stuff in their catalogue including four volumes of rarities (Missing Links Vol.1-4), a double CD of the complete Swan Recordings, and best of all the Norton Jukebox 45 series which has a dozen killer 45's which is still the best way to hear rock'n'roll.
Link lived in New York City for many years and played at Max's many times and except to get a record signed I never really talked to him. The only impression I got of him was that he was rather nice and very taciturn. He did lend Quine his Ampeg amp which Quine used on much of Richard Hell & the Voidoids' Blank Generation album.   Even when Link descended into bar band heavy metal in the later years, he shows always started off great, nobody could smoke a cigarette, play an E chord and walk backwards quite like Link could.
If you're keeping up with the financial bail out plan you need to look at this.
I still think my plan was better (see "The Hound Saves Capitalism"). If Obama is serious about change something has to be done about the way business is done these days, as in, fuck the workers, fuck the stockholders, let's downsize and/or out source to save money and redirect our savings to executive pay/bonus/benefit packages.
That bail out money that was supposed to jump start the banks is not being lent out, it's being used to leverage buyouts and of course huge executive paychecks. Now that we have a guy headed to the White House that's got our hopes up that he's serious about doing the right thing I gotta wonder, is it even possible? Bush's speech at the UN last week, where he blamed the financial meltdown on "too much regulation" needed a laugh track. The subtext however was painfully obvious-- "we tried to give the poor blacks and Latinos home ownership, they just don't deserve it"!    My prediction, to
paraphrase Hallie Sallasse is "War! War in the east, war in the west, war everywhere".
Look at history and then look at the world. Pick your spot and watch it explode.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Non avete letto qui

I love books. Nearly every room in my house seems to have grown its own library. Even the kitchen. Novels, photography books, cookbooks, hundreds of books on music, film, history, reference books. An earthquake would bury us under the damn things. There's an entire sub-industry of the publishing biz that seems to feed off the publics insatiable appetite for mafia books. Since the mafia no longer controls city politics, unions or even gambling, they've come to the point where their main function in our society is cultural, that is they exist mostly to entertain us. HBO has reaped nearly a billion dollars off of the Sopranos concession alone! Any prosecutor looking to make a name for himself need only find an Italian who may have committed a crime and a journalist to write about it and he's or she's assured of higher political office. Or as I once heard one old guinea say to another--"FBI, For Botherin' Italians"!
Unfortunately the since the rise of John Gotti, whose personal vanity and publicity crazed ego may have been the worst thing that every happened to the American mob, these goombahs have gotten progressively less interesting. Good thing for us readers the Sicilian branch of La Cosa Nostra and their Neapolitan cousins the Camorra are so crazy or we'd have nothing to left read on the subject.
The Sicillian mob, or La Cosa Nostra, who were greatly empowered by the CIA in the period immediately following WWII to fight unions and communism, witnessed one of the bloodiest corporate take overs in history with the rise in the 1970's of the Corleonese. Corleone, if you somehow missed the Godfather movies is a village about forty minutes by car from Palermo, and its sons are known as the most savage in LCN history. Led first by bloodthirsty boss Luciano Leggio who was succeeded by the even more brutal Toto' Riina and then Bernardo "the Tractor" Provenzano (who was arrested suspiciously enough the day after Silvio Berlusconi lost the election in 2006 to Romano Prodi, he was arrested less than a mile from his home, the police had been looking, albeit not very hard, for him since he was tried and found guilty of murder in absentia in 1963). Great reading, these guys were nuts. In one chilling acount after another they left a trail of blood and guts from one end of Italy to the other. They murdered, in addition to at least three judges (prefects in translated legal lingo) in charge of prosecuting them, the president of the Sicilian region, the head of the Communist party,, the General prefect of Palermo, the deputy chief of police, and dozens of other assorted politicians, policemen, judges, prosecutors, bystanders, etc.
They made the their American cousins look like the Bowery Boys and I try and read everything published in English on the subject. Here's are my findings: Alexander Stille's Excellent Cadavers: The Rise And Death Of The First Italian Republic (Vintage Books, 1995) is probably the best written and researched source in English (maybe in any language) on the rise of the Corleonesi. Centering on the 1992 assassinations of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the magistrates who were in charge of the famed "maxi-trial" (where 366 suspected mafia thugs were kept in a cage during the trial), the story follows the rise of Leggio, Riina, Michel Greco, and their ties to politicians at the very top of the Italian pasta chain, including then prime minister Giulio Andreotti (who would go on to be tried for ordering the murder of a journalist, and you think American politics is dirty?). The "Excellent Cadavers" of the title are the high profile victims of the Corleonesi, and their take over of the billion dollar heroin business from the traditional Palermo family bosses is jaw dropping reading. This book also inspired an excellent documentary and a terrible feature movie. Definitely the place to start. Despite the rather bland title John Dickie's Cosa Nostra: A History Of The Sicilian Mafia (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2005) is an excellent all around history of the Sicilian mob starting off in 1860 it documents the rise of it's first real boss Antonino Giammona (who I'm pretty certain was either my great-grandfather's father or uncle), its entry into political system, its importation into the U.S. then follows the story through the mob's persecution under Mussolini and his "Iron Prefect" Cesare Mori, and it's rehabilitation under the auspicious of the CIA. The story then documents the mob's rebirth, and such golden memories as "the Sack Of Palermo" (the tearing down of beautiful historic buildings so the Mob could get the construction contracts to build the "mafia slums" that scar the landscape today), the take over of the international heroin trade, two bloody Mafia wars ('62-'69 and again with the Corleonesi takeover from 1970-82), the Michele Sindona affair in which the mafia laundered money through the Vatican bank (covered best in Nick Tosches' classic Power On Earth, Arhbor House, 1986), the era of terror covered in more detail in Excellent Cadavers and the era of "Bombs and Submersion" that followed Toto Riina's imprisonment and Provenzano's more low keyed management style bring book up to date circa 2003 when it was published. Octopus: The Long Reach Of The International Sicilian Mafia (W.W. Norton, 1990) by Claire Sterling was written before the pile of "excellent cadavers" grew into a small mountain, and before the Falcone and Borsellino murders but covers much ground not found in the above books. This one centers on the Corleonesi take over of the heroin trade, the cross fertilization with the American Bonnano family, the American 1985 "Pizza Connection" trials, the testimony of Palermo boss Tommaso Buscetta, the highest ranking Zip (as they're known over here, because they talk so fast) to ever turn rat. Well researched, this is a fascinating look into the day to day mechanics of the heroin business on four continents. Men Of Dishonor: Inside The Sicilian Mafia by Pino Arlacchi (William Morro, 1992) is translated from the Italian version by Marc Romano and follows the thirty year career of a mid-level mafiosi, one Don Antonino Calderone. This is a priceless look at the customs, mores, and day to day life of what turns out to be a rather shitty job. Being a Sicilian gangster just isn't as much fun as it looks on TV. This volume is valuable as a documentary look at life inside a mob clan and quite a good read to boot. The latest entry into the field Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, translated from Italian) is probably the only book in English the covers La Cosa Nostra's cousins to the north in Naples, the Camorra. Conventional wisdom tells us that La Cosa Nostra are Italy's most powerful organized crime group and that their Mezzigiorno bretheran like Naples' Camorra and Calabria's 'Ndrangheta are small time in comparison. Saviano's book however turns conventional wisdom on its ear as he presents evidence that the Camorra are in reality today's big time players. They are historically the older organization and are an international outfit with global reach that will make you shutter. Since Camorra history and lore is all new to me I can't vouch for it factually but it's a hell of a story, one of the best crime books I've ever read. It also inspired a fictional movie Gomorrah that was the hit of the recent New York Film Festival (although it doesn't seem to have a U.S. distributor yet). The Camorra has been making some fun headlines in the European news of late with the women of the various families opening up on each other wild west style in public (it seems most of their men are doing time). I can't recommend this one highly enough. I've added the trailer for the movie above. Leonardo Sciascia's The Moro Affair (New York Review Books Classics, 1978, reprinted 2004) covers one of Italy's most intriguing cases. The 1978 kidnapping and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigade), a left wing political action group. How does this case tie in with the Sicilian La Cosa Nostra? As Sciascia explains it they (the mafiosi) immediately made contact with Red Brigade members in prison and arranged for Moro's release. However, as it turns out, the politicos, led by Christian Democrat Andreotti didn't want Moro back, he knew too much and when the Brigate Rosse conveniently kidnapped him it presented to them the opportunity to silence a potentially dangerous voice. Sciacia does the detective work, and using the letters Moro sent to newspapers from his Red Brigade prison cell tells a chilling story of how Italian politics and the mob worked together to cover their bloody tracks, and how they forced the hand of the Brigate Rosse into a murder they really didn't want or need to commit. Sciascia has also written many excellent novels concerning Sicilian crime , now translated into English courtesy of the New York Review of Books Classics series I'd say The Day Of The Owl, The Wine Dark Sea and Equal Danger are mandatory reading for fans of genre fiction. Or just plain old great books. Although it covers much more than just organized crime, Tobia Jones' The Dark Heart Of Italy (North Point, 2004) has excellent chapters on the Corlenesi rise, and other Italian crime stories (like Berlusconi's inexplicable ability to avoid prison and get himself re-elected again and again). It's extremely well written and a good all around look at modern Italian culture. His chapter on Lampadusa's masterpiece The Leopard is the best anaylsis I've ever read on the subject. The above photos were taken by Palermo born photo journalist Letizia Battaglia and are from her book Passion Justice Freedom: Photographs Of Sicily (Aperture, 1999). Battaglia uses her camera to document not just the mob murders but the entire spectrum of influence that La Cosa Nostra has on day to day life in Sicily, and her riveting images of the other victims, such as the women and children left behind, living in slums, mourning over the bodies of the fallen, sharing a meal with rats, are among the most compelling you will ever see. The photo of the mother of a missing mafia punk, holding a photo of her missing, beloved son (middle) is one of the most haunting things I've ever seen. Battaglia raises photo journalism to high art. Unfortunately, after many years of documenting La Cosa Nostra crimes and a brief stab at Palermo city politics she's been forced to flea Sicily and currently works in Paris. The photos here (pardon my crappy scanner) are reproduced strictly for review purposes and give just a hint at her great talent. Buy the book and you'll see what I mean.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hank Ballard

     Tues, Nov. 18th would have been Hank Ballard's 81st birthday. I guess it still is,
unfortunately he died. Every November in addition to remembering my Mom's birthday and where I was when Kennedy got it, I think about Hank, because for thirteen years I'd do a tribute to him on my radio show this time of year, and even though I haven't done the show in a decade I still pull a bunch of Federal and King 45's off the shelves and give 'em a spin because to me Hank was one of the Kings of Rock'n'Roll, right up there with Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. He was a rock'n'roll star while Elvis was still popping zits in back of the classroom at Humes High and on his first comeback before Elvis got out of the Army.  Hank Ballard saw the music biz from the top and the bottom, but mostly the middle for nearly fifty years and came out of it an incredibly decent human being. Somebody I really loved and admired, he was perhaps the most unaffected lead singer I ever met.
     This is the part where we back pedal.  He was born in Bessemer, Alabama in 1927, and moved to Detroit as a tyke. Flo Ballard of the Supremes was his first cousin. His first inspiration was country music and his favorite singer was Gene Autry (he was even a California Angels fan because Autry owned the team). Hank first came to the attention of  bandleader/producer/talent scout/singer/songwriter/etc. Johnny Otis at a Detroit talent show where he was competing against Jackie Wilson (who won with his rendition of "Danny Boy") and Little Willie John.  The official story goes when Federal Records recording act the Royals lost their lead singer to the draft, producer Ralph Bass got a line on Hank via Otis, although according to Hank he knew a member of the Royals from working on the Ford assembly line and was brought in to the group.  Both good stories, I believe Hank's version because he was there.
No matter, Hank's first disc with the Royals-- "Get It" was a sexy, single entedre  fuck tune with a greasy bump and grind rhythm and gave the Royals their first hit, rising to #6 on Billboard's R&B chart in the summer of '53.  Federal, a subsidiary of King had just signed Apollo R&B stars the 5 Royales and to avoid confusion they changed their name to the Midnighters, a name more applicable to their new, greasier sound.  "Get It" pointed the direction and Hank didn't need a road map, the next number he brought to the group " Work With Me Annie" (originally titled "Sock It To Me Mary") was even more blatant and it became a monster smash, hitting #1 R&B in the spring of '54.  It would spawn dozens of sequels and answer records, including several from the Midnighters themselves ("Annie Had A Baby", "Annie's Aunt Fannie", et al), not to mention Etta James' great "The WallFlower (Roll With Me Henry)" (that's Richard Berry, author of "Louie Louie" doing the spoken bit on the intro), Buddy Holly's "Midnight Shift" (his best record in my opinion), Danny Taylor's "I'm The Father Of Annie's Baby", and many others.  In fact, here's a whole Annie set pulled from an old aircheck from my radio show. In addition to the Midnighters originals are Linda Hayes and the Platters' "My Name Ain't Annie", Hazel McCollum and the El Dorados' "Annie's Answer", along with the aforementioned Buddy Holly song and an accapella group doing a tune called "Daddy Don't Work" who for the life of me I can't identify.
The Midnighters, who like all vocal groups  had a bewildering amount of personnel changes were at this time in addition to Ballard, Sonny Woods  (bass vocal), Henry Booth and Charles Sutton (tenors) with guitarist Aruthur Porter and electric bass player (one of the first) Alonzo Tucker.  In late '54 Cal Green would replace Porter on guitar and they issued a string of 45's on the Federal label that need a better word than classics.  However, I cannot think of such a word to do justice to these fine discs which include "Sexy Ways",  "Switchie Witchie Twitchie", "Tore Up", "It's Love (24 Hours A Day)", "Let 'er Roll", "What Is This Is See" and "Open Up The Back Door".
Most prevalent on these discs are Cal Green's distorted guitar work, he was a genius and his name is rarely mentioned today but he deserves to be credited as one of the inventors of rock'n'roll guitar. Federal would sign him to a solo deal where he cut some killer instrumentals like "The Big Push" and "Red Light".  Green would get busted in Texas in '56 for a small amount of marijuana and serve five years of a nine year sentence in a Texas state penitentiary. He was replaced by Billy "Spunky Onions" Davis.
     1956 was the breakthrough year for rock'n'roll, Elvis hit and all hell broke loose. You know the story. These should have been the gravy years for the Midnighters who were making their best records but Syd Nathan the owner of King/Federal was a cheap prick who refused to fork over the payola for airplay and the Midnighters were absent from radio, and in turn from the charts.  From 1955 when they scored their last Billboard top ten with "It's Love (24 Hours A Day)" (a cover of a tune Earl Gaines cut for Excello, Ballard thought the original was better) which hit #10 R&B, the Midnighters would go hitless for four years.  They made a good living on the road, especially on the Chitlin' Circuit (black clubs and theaters, mostly in the South) and at southern frat parties where, like Jimmy Reed, they had a huge white following, and these Animal House style gigs were often their best paying jobs.
     Hank Ballard wrote "The Twist" in 1958 but Nathan hated it and refused to release it. He took it to Chicago's Vee Jay records where he cut this demo version, but Nathan would not release Ballard from his contract. Eventually, in 1959 "The Twist" was issued by Hank Ballard & the Midnighers as they were now called, as the b-side of a ballad-- "Teardrops On Your Letter" which would go to #9. "The Twist" was based on the Drifters' "Watcha Gonna Do", itself based on an old gospel ring chant. The Midnighters had used the melody for "Is Your Love For Real", an earlier recording. Here's a genealogy of the twist from an old Hound show aircheck. It starts with the Drifters tune, followed by the two Midnighters recordings then to show how the twist covered pop culture like a fungus we have the "Muddy Waters' Twist", rockabilly legend Bobby Lee Trammell's "Arkansas Twist" and the Ravens' attempting a comeback with the bizarre "Ungowa Twist". The entire segment is heard here.
     "The Twist" first broke on Baltimore's answer to American Bandstand, the Buddy Dean Show  an after school time dance show which John Waters' used as the basis for the Corny Collins Show in the movie Hairspray. The kids in Baltimore went twist crazy and Dick Clark was quick to pick up the ball and run with it, he had a two-bit singer named Chubby Checker do an exact copy of the Hank Ballard version (the first time Hank heard it on the radio he thought it was his own version) on a label which he owned shares in (Cameo-Parkway, soon to be taken over by Allen Klein). Clark knew he was being unscrupulous and must have felt guilty because he gave heavy play to Ballard's next few  singles, pushing them up the charts. The new sound of Hank Ballard & the Midnighters was more upbeat, less sleazy, but still rockin' and he enjoyed a string of excellent minor hits-- "Finger Poppin' Time", "Let's Go  Let's Go Let's Go", "Hoochie Coochie Coo", "The Float", and others. Hank was back on top for a minute.
     Hank Ballard & the Midnighters cut dozens of fine singles and albums, churning 'em out and many of his best sides never made the charts and were issued only as b-sides or album cuts.  Here's a few of my favorite rarities, first of dig this one, the flip side of "Do You Know How To Twist", it's got the most thundering bass line in R&R history--- "Broadway". "C'mon Baby Let's Shake It" was only issued on the LP The 1963 Sound of Hank Ballard & the Midnighters but it's a killer. "Daddy Rollin' Stone" is another LP track, it's not the Otis Blackwell tune but a great Ballard original. "Little Sister" didn't chart but later became a huge money maker for Hank when Stevie Ray Vaughn recorded it. He cut this duet with Little Willie John shortly before John ended up in Walla Walla prison, it's called "I Want To See My Baby".  I've always like this one too-- "I'm Young".  Eventually the hits dried up and so did the touring money. The original Midnighters had become Black Muslims and refused to play the frat houses.  Eventually in desperation Hank took to recording junk like "How You Gonna Get Respect (When You Ain't Cut Your Process Yet)".  Hank went solo, putting in time in James Brown's entourage, cutting some good Brown produced sides like this re-make of "It's Love (24 Hours A Day)" from 1967. Hank told me that Brown was smoking angel dust as early as the mid-sixties and had never written a song in his life, all  his tunes were written by band mates like Bobby Byrd (who according to Hank wrote "Please Please Please") and bought flat out on the cheap or else just stolen by Brown. He was not surprised when James freaked out and ended up  in jail. He stayed with the James Brown Revue on and off into the early 70's, even scoring a minor hit with "From The Love Side" on Brown's People label in '73.  
     By the late 70's Hank was back to small clubs, he had a female Midnighters and wore a headband. It was in one of these dives he met Teresa McNeil, a girl many years his junior and a big fan of old rhythm & blues and rock'n'roll.  They fell in love and she took over Hank's career, advising him to lose the headband and female back up singers and put together a real version of the Midnighters in the same style that brought him fame in the fifties. Hank took her advice and with a great new group went back on the road, even playing England where they cut an excellent live album for Charley.
   I reckon from the above photo you'd have guessed it, here's where I enter the picture.
In the fall of 1987 the reconstituted Midnighters hit New York, booked into the old Lone Star Cafe on the corner of 5th Ave and 13th Street.  Dressed in tuxedos and led by guitarist Billy Davis, they were truly amazing.  The last real R&B show on the road.  They did the all the old tunes throwing in some apporpiate new covers like Elmore James' The Sky Is Crying". It was one of the best shows I ever saw. I gave them a good review in the Village Voice and Teresa McNeil called to thank me.  Hank loved the review, he liked that I called the early Midnighters' singles "fuck songs". He was like that. A straight talker.  The next time they came to town I had Hank on the radio show.  Here's an excerpt from the WFMU broadcast with songs spliced in. I got to be friends with both Hank and Teresa and spent time hanging out with them in New York and New Orleans where they played a showcase at the Fairmount Hotel ballroom and also at Jazz Fest.
     Teresa pushed hard to get Hank in the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame. A dubious distinction to be sure, and it's not like Hank gave a shit, but she correctly surmised it would raise his profile and get his price for gigs up. At that point they were losing money on the road. She also helped Hank get his publishing back, and when Charley Records issued the '58 demo of "The Twist" on a compilation, it allowed him to recover full control of his most valuable copyright.  The only people who really make money on the old hits are the publishers and sometimes songwriters, and it can be a substantial sum, especially on a tune like "The Twist" which has been recorded by dozens of artists.  Luckily, on the Hall Of Fame front Hank had a powerful mentor in Sire Records mogul Seymour Stein who'd begun his career working for Syd Nathan at King.  Hank was inducted in '88 (I wrote the bio for the booklet that year which unfortunately was edited by a hack Rolling Stone editor named Sid Holt who rewrote it into so much  advertising copy pablum....I know some day we'll meet face to face, and I'll slap the shit out of him). I have no idea why the rest of the Midnighters were shunned, mostly likely because Seymour Stein couldn't remember their names. The night that Hank's induction was announced, Hank and Teresa were in New York City and later that night when they were returning to their hotel she was the victim of a hit and run cab that ran her over on Lexington Ave, dragging her several blocks. She died in surgery that night.  Hank appeared at the Lone Star Roadhouse the next night, in shock, somehow he managed to get through his set.  Later that week he appeared on the Hal Wilner produced TV Show Night Music. Fellow guest Miles Davis took Hank aside for a chat and a toot to help ease the pain. Hank got through the show in good form considering what he'd just been through.
     Keeping the Midnighters (three vocalists, two guitars, two saxes, bass and drums plus a road manager all on salary) on the road was an expensive proposition. Hank knew he wasn't going to get a hit record at that stage of the game and keeping the band together was getting problematic.  Billy Davis  had remarried and his new wife didn't want him to tour so  he went back to his day job teaching music to disabled children.
To his credit, Seymour Stein did  his bit to help Hank, getting his tunes into many movies including River's Edge.  With a good income from his song writing and without Teresa McNeil around for encouragement Hank eventually lost interest in the music business, especially touring which isn't much fun even when you're making money.
     Hank was a Buddhist and he no longer sought the fame or adulation or even riches he did when he was young, he was happy to stay home and tend his garden, smoke reefer and watch the Angels lose on TV. He played his last shows in the early 90's and became something of a recluse in his last decade.
      We stayed in touch, calling each other every now and then to catch up, the last time we talked was around 2001, he sounded relatively happy. We talked about music, we both really liked early Fleetwood Mac and agreed Jeremy Spencer and Peter Green where an unbeatable team. I'm pretty sure that was our last conversation.  He said missed singing less and less as the years passed.  Eventually, he too passed, in March of 2003, at age 76 he went from throat cancer.  Hank Ballard, a great man, I miss him.
Top) First Midnighters EP on Federal.
Middle) Detail from first Midnighters LP which I bought at the Thunderbird SwapShop Flea Market in Ft. Lauderdale in 1975. A life changing find. Hank's autograph in lower right corner.
Bottom) Me and Hank Ballard, Lonestar Cafe, 1987. I look drunk. Photo by Teresa McNeil.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Is it okay to laugh?

From The Detroit News, Wednesday, November 5, 2008: Nathaniel Mayer funeral set for Tuesday Susan Whitall / The Detroit News Motown singer and Detroit city councilwoman Martha Reeves will speak Tuesday at the funeral for Nathaniel Mayer, the dynamic Fortune Records singer of "Village of Love" and other hits. The funeral takes place at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Swanson Funeral Home, 806 E. Grand Blvd. (at Mack Avenue) in Detroit. Mayer, 64, died on Saturday after a long illness. Survivors include his widow, Marie; sons Monkeith, Shron and Shmar; and daughter Terry Mayer Williams. "He just loved show business. He loved to sing," Marie Mayer said. She and Mayer married in 1963, when she was a 17-year-old model and he was 19, a rising star in music with his 1962 hit song. Check out his sons names-- Monkeith, Shron and Shmar Those are spelled right. None are listed on the Afro American Baby Names website. But then again neither is Obama. I went to High School with a pair of twins named Mali and Femali, they had a little brother named Pyjamas.Now that we have a president named Obama how long before white people start naming their Kanisha or LaShonda? I'd imagine pretty soon. Anyone out there heard any good baby names?
Since the source of this next website was a Japanese girl I guess it's not racist, either way is a hoot and maybe a look into our own future.
It's amazing that records and photos are still turning up of old blues guys. The above photo ran in this month's Vanity Fair and was purchased on Ebay. The owner thinks it's Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines, I think it's probably Johnson on the left but not Shines on the right who was much darker skinned than that guy, who ever he is.
I'm sure there's a big legal battle ensuing over the rights to said photo, so if anyone complains I'll have to pull it, if that's the case it's actually worth buying the Nov. VF for, the article is interesting if you don't know anything about the legal battle over Johnson's estate (which is a good story). One thing not mentioned is that there's still Robert Johnson music that's never been heard. I believe one risque track exists on the metal stampers which has never been issued. Since Sony lost track of the stampers ages ago (which is why the box set sounds so bad, the first few notes of "Traveling Riverside Blues" are even missing!). Compare an old vinyl copy to the CD and see for yourself. I believe the metal parts (from which records are pressed) where dumped in a dumpster years ago, somebody did salvage them but he's keeping a low profile. If you haven't noticed that's Johnson's death certificate at the top of the page. You can't even die without doing the paperwork, as I found out once (see Quine posting in Oct. for my experience with the NYC  Medical Examiner and meat wagon folks). Getting back to the blues, in the past few years we've seen tracks by Tommy Johnson, Son House, Blind Blake, Ben Curry and others turn up, not to mention the full color photo of Charley Patton. All the aforementioned tracks (and the photo) can be had from record dealer John Tefteller who puts out a blues calender with a bonus CD every year, the Patton photo is on the 2008 calender, the Blind Blake and Ben Curry tracks are on the 2009 CD. You can find 'em here if you follow the links to calender. The calenders are priceless with lots of original, old Paramount advertising art (and some modern reproductions) and well worth the $20 since that's what the CD would cost anyways. I rarely buy any CD's nowadays but I recommend this package. No matter how obscure your interests are these days, somebody's got something to sell you.  But this guy is actually pretty cool and really does love the music and does a great job presenting it.
Speaking of shit turning up, there's been some great Velvet Underground crap crawling out from under rocks in the past few years. I've been wanting to post these four alternate takes from the first Velvet Underground LP for a while now but I really have nothing new to say about the Velvets. They've been written about more than any American rock'n'roll band ever. These four tunes come off an acetate found at a stoop sale around the corner from my house, they're every bit as good as the takes used (some , including Mo Tucker like this version of "Heroin" better). Here they are: "Heroin", "Waitin' For The Man", "Venus In Fur" and "European Son". Just something to liven up a Sunday. While I'm at it, here are a couple of killers from that live at the Gymnasium tape, with John Cale early '67: "I'm Not A Young Man Anymore", "Sister Ray", "Run Run Run". This is Cale's last show with the Velvets. I think these are better than anything on the Quine box (which is all post-Cale recordings). Quine would have loved this stuff, too bad he killed himself. Why didn't Universal issue the Gymnasium show? Who knows, too late now, it's all over the net and easy enough to find complete. I guess I did have something to say, but that's pretty much it.
    Another just thought I'd throw it in there is this one, a South African rock'n'roll 78 from the late 50's. "Zulu Rock" by the King Brothers, I thought at least Brendan in S. Africa would get a kick out of it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Call Of The Wild

Having grown up in South Florida, wildlife in my mind was alligators and poisonous snakes. Both of which I'm terrified of. I then lived for thirty five years in New York's East Village where wild life consisted of rats, roaches, pigeons and the occasional feral dog (New Orleans where I spent time had packs of feral pooches roaming the streets of the Bywater at night, my late pal Kelly Keller got cornered by a pack one night that got between where she was living and where her car was parked, pretty damn scary). Now I live on the west side, in Chelsea and have a backyard with two giant black walnut trees, and in adjoining yards giant Maple trees, a tri-sected elm (one part of which grows over my yard) and tons of smaller trees and bushes. I now seem to have a personal relationship with urban wildlife, which includes a woodpecker (I'm not sure if you can see him in the top photo, it depends on how big your computer screen is, he's on the left branch with a red tuft on his head), a pair of cardinals, a red winged hawk (who eats mice alive, quite a show), robins, blue jays, various water fowl, six thousand sparrows and a family of squirrels. Reminds me of one of record that's evaded my grasp for years-- Nat Couty's Woodpecker Rock, one of the best black rockabilly records ever. I like squirrels, they're like lobotomized monkeys. Very much like the people I know. It started off with one malnourished kitten who lived off the paltry walnut output of the aforementioned pair of trees (they seem to be over a hundred years old and are covered in ivy six floors high, great for privacy, probably strangling the trees to death). I started feeding the squirrel, whom I named Peaches (after the brat in Gavin Lambert's Running Time who gets devoured by coyotes). Soon Peaches (bottom photo) had grown to normal squirrel size and became quite friendly, parking herself on the ledge outside my office window when she got hungry. Then Peaches found a mate-- Large Boy, who I once saw get attacked by a male cardinal (he now bears two talon scars down his back so I can tell him apart from other squirrels). Peaches and Large Boy, who maintain separate residences (Peaches lives on top of the carriage house behind St. Peter's Episcopal Church, right behind my house, Large Boy over a shed in a yard of a brownstone that faces 20th Street several doors east of Peaches abode). I think this is a good spot for one of my favorite records ever, from one of two guys to record for the two of the coolest labels ever Sun and Fortune-- Dr. Issiah Ross' (Doctor of what you ask? I dunno but one of his Sun records was called "Boogie Disease") Cat Squirrel. I know Cream covered "Cat Squirrel" but I'm proud to say I've never heard it. I hate Eric Clapton. By the way, the other guy who recorded for Sun and Fortune was Johnny Powers. He also recorded for Fox ("Long Blond Hair") the label that issued the above Nat Couty disc. Boy am I getting off the track... Back in my yard, nature took its course soon the squirrels had little duffer-- I call him Bingo. Bingo soon grew larger than his father and commandeered the entire yard as his turf. Peaches manages to hold her own when they fight over the food (I try and throw her food on one side of the ten foot stone wall that separates us from the church, and Bingo's on the other to keep them from killing each other) but Peaches is starting to show the scars from raising a brat, one of her ears is now in shreds. Large Boy is terrified of his spawn and shyly comes around begging for nuts only when Bingo is off doing what ever the hell he does. I forgot to mention, Bingo is retarded. I know this because I can throw a nut inches from him and it will take him a half hour to find it. Sometimes he sniffs around in circles for fifteen minutes, missing the nut that is inches from his snoot, then gives up and goes back to his post in the walnut tree. When he does find the nuts he hides them in places where Large Boy can easily steal them, which is good because otherwise the older squirrel would starve to death. Where my wife comes from in New Brunswick, Canada they have quite the wild life, mammals all over the place, some of them are gigantic. Once she was talking on the phone of the breakfast nook at her parents' house and a brown bear jumped out of the garbage can below the window. Moose hunting is big up there and the first moose bagged during moose hunting season of 2002 pushed 9/11 off the front pages of the local newspaper. Here's the best rock'n'roll record ever made about a moose, from the Specialty label Roddy Jackson's "Moose On The Loose". Above is a New Brunswick moose, I don't know his name. I imagine somebody shot and ate him by now as he's a pretty big target. If I can put that Moose together with Peaches I can live in a Jay Ward cartoon (I can be Boris!). These are the things that have occupied my mind since the election was driving me nuts and tv has been crappy lately (except the final season of The Shield which has been pretty good). Sure signs of brain damage....

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Ike Turner- King of the Misanthropic Piss-Shiver Guitar

Ike Turner was most of the most profoundly influential musicians and band leaders in the history of rock'n'roll, and one of the greatest rock'n'roll guitar players of all time. His story goes like this (ah one, ana two...). He was born Ike Wister Turner in Clarksdale, Mississippi on Nov. 5th, 1931. His dad got lynched in front of his house, giving him a somewhat jaundiced view of life. He grew up hustling around the streets and soon took to playing piano. He was inspired by local talent like Robert Nighthawk, whom he played piano behind on a local radio show (here's the great Nighthawk recorded live on Maxwell St. in Chicago in the early sixties doing Dr. Clayton's "Cheatin' & Lyin' Blues" aka "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby", you can watch the footage above, thanks JD). Soon Ike was leading his own band with Willie Sims (drums), Jesse Knight (bass),Willie Kizert (guitar), Raymond Hill (baritone sax) and Jackie Breston (tenor sax). He dubbed his combo The Kings of Rhythm. The Kings Of Rhythm did not play the blues style known in Mississippi but the latest up to date jump band R&B sounds. Ike took his band to Memphis were he wound up at the fledgling Sun studio whose boss Sam Phillips was recording local talent and leasing the sides to Chess in Chicago and RPM out in L.A. Their first session produced a huge hit for Chess -- "Rocket 88" (a hyper reworking of Jimmy Liggins' "Cadillac Boogie") which went to #1 R&B and is often called the first rock'n'roll record, as if there could be such a thing. Somewhere between Phillips studio and the Chess pressing plant however the credits were changed and the band was no longer Ike Turner's Kings Of Rhythm but had been renamed Jackie Breston & his Delta Cats. Breston, with a #1 hit under his own name briefly went solo (he's return a few years later and a few dollars poorer) while Ike left Phillips and stuck up a partnership with the Bihari Brothers who ran the RPM/Modern/Meteor family of labels. Ike would record and play on sides by Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Joe Hill Louis, and tons of others, driving around the south with Joe Bihari, recording musicians in juke joints and make shift studios. The U.K. Ace label has issued an incredible CD of some of the more interesting and obscure sides (and out takes) called The Travelin' Record Man which is well worth buying. Ike also cut his own band for RPM and even had an LP issued (Ike Rocks The Blues on Crown) which culls together the best of his guitar instrumentals from this period (Ike, having switched to guitar after "Rocket 88", figuring it would be harder to over look him if he was standing up). Here's one of my favorites from that period: "Bayou Rock" (as it was known on the LP aka "Cubano Getaway" which is what it was called on the 78). The Bihari's were cheap fucks who didn't pay much so Ike returned to Sun on several occasions to record sides that Sam Phillips never bothered to release. Some of these are incredible but the world wouldn't hear them until England's Charley label started digging through the Sun vaults in the late 70's. Here's "I'm Gonna Forget About You" a tune Ike would recut several years later in Chicago for the Cobra label. One can hear his already perfected "piss shiver" (as Roscoe dubbed it) guitar style which involved pulling the whammy bar on his Stratocaster hard enough to nearly yank the bridge off the body. While we're at it, here's an oddball tune that was left sitting in Sun's storage room, it's Ike and first wife Bonnie Turner duetting on a number called "Down In The Congo". Memphis soon proved too small for a man of Ike's ambition and his next stop was St. Louis. In St. Louis Ike cut sides for labels small and smaller, appeared on local TV (where the above clip came from), and built a sizable audience, especially with white women while appearing in local nightclubs. According to Jimmy Thomas (in a classic interview in Blues Unlimited mag from 1983), the cops would regularly round up Ike and the band and send the white gals back to their parents and husbands. Among the great tunes he recorded while in St. Louis are these two singles for the Stevens label issued under the name of Icey Renrut (Ike Turner spelled sideways), both rockers feature vocalist Jimmy Thomas- "Jack Rabbit" and "Hey Hey". By 1956 Ralph Bass signed Ike and his crew to the Federal label, a subsidiary of Cincinnati's King Records one of the largest and best of the indies, and home to such hit makers as Wynonie Harris, the Delmore Brothers, Moon Mullican, the Midnighters, the Dominoes, Bill Doggett, and later James Brown. Here Ike cut his finest sides, some under the name of vocalist Billy Gayles, others as by Jackie Breston (who'd come home, all was forgiven) and some under Ike's own moniker. Check out this one: "No Coming Back", a fairly standard blues ballad until Ike's solo which sounds like somebody is hitting the guitar with a frying pan. On "Just One More Time" Ike's guitar intro combines the piss shiver with tremolo for a sound that we have no words to describe (shiverelo?). On Breston's "Gonna Wait For My Chance" he displays equally brutal guitar technique. Here is "She Makes My Blood Run Cold" where the Kings of Rhythm move into Screamin' Jay Hawkins territory to great effect. Alas, the Federal years also left Ike hitless and soon he was in Chicago where he cut one side each for the Cobra and it's sister label Artistic, the best being "Box Top" on Cobra, a re-make of an earlier Sun recording. The best thing Ike did while at Cobra was his contribution to Otis Rush's "Double Trouble", that's Ike playing the solo which is usually attributed to Rush. Together they create one musical foul mood (that's a compliment). It was in St. Louis that Anna Mae Bullock, who entered the picture as Raymond Hill's girlfriend became the lead singer of the Kings Of Rhythm, with three Ikettes added to the band Ray-lette style, their first record on Juggy Murray's Sue label -- "A Fool In Love" shot to the top of the R&B charts and Ike re-named Anna Mae Tina Turner and took the sound to the bank. The story of Ike and Tina Turner has been told many times, in many books. I'm sure Tina didn't lie about the amount of abuse heaped on her, but our subject today is Ike's music, and all through Ike and Tina's recording career Ike kept recording great R&B, some under Jackie Breston's name like this one on Sue- " Much Later" from the early sixties, it has all the fire of his fifties recordings. Ike also kept recording killer guitar instrumentals, Sue even issued an LP of 'em called Ike & Tina Turner Present The Kings Of Rhythm-- Dance! Here's some of his wilder guitar workouts from the sixties starting with his theme song "Prancin'", here's a great two parter issued only on a Sue 45--" New Breed pt. 1" b/w "New Breed pt. 2". And let me throw in some highlights from the aforementioned Dance LP-- "The Gully", "Twisteroo", "Trackdown Twist", a mind bending take on "Steel Guitar Rag", the ultra wild "Double Mint", and as a bonus an un-issued out-take "Twisting The Strings". Another killer guitar solo from Ike found its way onto my favorite Ikettes' single-- "Camel Walk", and dig that rhythm section! Ike last truly incredible moments on wax can be found on the 1974 LP Blue Roots (UA). Recorded at Bolic Sound, the studio/fortress he built in L.A. (Andre Williams put in time at Bolic, even he thinks things had gone beyond excess at that point). Ike re-creates his 50's style on "Broken Hearted" (a rare vocal from Ike) and leaves us with this mind boggling spoken word piece (also issued on a 45), an homage to Ike's favorite drug and one of the most amazing sides ever waxed by anyone-- "Right On" (when I turned Quine onto this one his jaw literally dropped). I met Ike a few times. In the early 90's somebody gave him my home phone number and he had his manager call and ask if I could make him a tape of his old tunes. He had some blues festival gigs booked in Europe that summer and they sent a list of tunes they wanted him to play and he couldn't remember any of them. I made a nintey minute cassette of the old stuff and we met at his hotel room. Ike was nice enough, he was just out of jail and clean. He was very polite and funny, he spoke with a stutter. When we sat and listened to the tape, the first tune was "Prancin'" which had been his theme song for a good twenty years but he looked at me like he had never heard it before. "That's pretty good" he said with a grin. I got him to sign some records (his autograph on my copy of Ike Rocks The Blues reads-- "What's love got to do with it not a dam thing" spelled just like that). Later I went to a party thrown in his honor and he made me feel really important by introducing me to everyone as his close friend. In his last years Ike tried to return to his old blues rockin' style and although the records weren't very good, live he could still bend them strings. At least once a night he'd let loose on the guitar and give it the old piss shiver, and when he did I'd get a chill up my spine. Ike died last December at age 76 from a cocaine overdose. Hell, at age 76 what's the point of living clean? To save yourself for those really great years from age 90-100? If we had to judge our musical heroes by their personal life we'd have no musical heroes, and beating up your old lady is certainly bad form, I blame it on the coke. It really brings out the inner asshole in people. As a musician however, Ike Turner really was a helluva guy. The above photo of Ike and me was taken by Bob Gruen, backstage at Tramps, NYC, 1997.

Let's Hear It For The Orchestra

Let's Hear It For The Orchestra
copyright Hound Archive