S.Q. in '58, gettin' a reaction from the ladies....
The b-side of his first disc, it was the theme song for my radio show for 13 years...
Meeting of the mindless (left to right) Me, Billy Miller, Julie Whitney, Esquerita, Todd Abramson, Miriam Linna, Tramps, 1981.
"If a producer or arranger was deputed to the sessions he must have been bound and gagged and put in a corner, for there was little sign that anyone responsible for the records had been concerned for their commercial potential...The violence that was normally only a promise (or threat) in rock'n'roll was realized in Esquerita's sound"-- Charles Gillett- The Sound Of The City: The Rise Of Rock'n'Roll (Dell, 1970)
"Truly the farthest out man has ever gone"-- liner notes to Capitol LP 1186 (1958)
S.Q. (Steven Quincy) Reeder, Jr. was born in Greenville, South Carolina on November 20, 1935. He started playing piano in church,-- Greenville's Tabernacle Baptist, and also fell in with two aspiring opera singing sisters-- Cleo and Virginia Willis, who gave him singing lessons. Soon, as a teenager he set out on the Gospel Highway first with the Three Stars and later playing behind Brother Joe May, the "Thunderbolt Of The Midwest", a flamboyant gospel singing sissy best remembered for his hit Search Me Lord on Specialty. He recorded as a pianist behind the Heavenly Echoes, a Brooklyn based quartet, appearing on their version of Didn't It Rain (Baton, 1953). He returned south, working clubs from Atlanta to Greenville with someone called Sister Rosa, an evangelist of sorts. Then began putting together a rock'n'roll act, establishing himself with a residency at the Owl Club on Greenville's main black drag-- Washington Street. This is where Little Richard first encountered him, their first meeting was in the bathroom at the bus station where they were both "trying to catch something---you know, have sex".
Richard was already singing professionally, often in drag, sometimes balancing a chair on his chin as part of his act. S.Q. taught him his thundering piano style, this would be the key element in Little Richard's development of the style that would take him to the top of the charts. While Richard returned to Macon, then New Orleans (he'd already cut discs for RCA and Peacock in a style that owed much to Atlanta's Billy Wright) and finally in '55 hit paydirt with a cleaned up version of the drag queen anthem Tutti Frutti on Specialty.
S.Q., now renamed Esquerita was discovered at the Owl Club by Paul Peek, then a member of Gene Vincent's Blue Caps. Esquerita played on Peek's single The Rock-A-Round b/w Sweet Skinny Jenny (NRC) and was then spirited off to Dallas by Gene Vincent where he hooked up with a band- Ricardo Young- drums, Vincent Mosley- guitar, Tony White- bass and a tenor sax player whose name no one remembers. In Dallas he cut a set of wild demos including early versions of tunes he'd later wax for Capitol-- Rockin' the Joint, Please Come Home, Oh Baby, Sarah Lee, et al, that wouldn't be released until 1987, when Norton Records issued them as Vintage Voola.
Capitol which was enjoying great success with Gene Vincent as their own answer to Elvis, took the bait and signed Esquerita as their response to Little Richard's commercial breakthrough. Esquerita was sent to Nashville to record under the tutelage of Ken Nelson (who produced Gene Vincent and would go on to great success with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard). In August on 1958 his first session produced two singles-- Oh Baby b/w Please Come Home, and perhaps his finest two sider- Rockin' The Joint b/w Esquerita & the Voola (drummer Ricardo Young getting a label credit). These discs failed to sell but Capitol stuck with Esquerita, releasing two more singles - Laid Off b/w Just Another Lie, and Hey Miss Lucy b/w I'm Battie Over Hattie and an entire LP, ten of it's of twelve tunes not issued on 45 including Hole In My Heart, Gettin' Plenty Lovin' (also cut as My Baby's Tops on Federal by the Gardenias with Ike Turner's Kings Of Rhythm in support) and a whacked out rendition of Buddy Holly's Maybe Baby. The LP was also released as three four song EP's, all quite rare today. Nobody bought these records and they became legendary amongst collectors. These sides remain one of rock'n'roll's greatest legacies. This was the real thing-- out of tune piano, screaming vocals, crashing cymbals, the entire band seemed on the verge of either falling apart of shooting off into space like a rocket. Every record collection should include these discs, which are easy enough to find on CD nowadays.
In the U.K. a re-issue on the Ember label-- Wildcat Shakeout collected his entire Capitol output and appeared in the early 70's, later French Capitol put out a two record set that included all the un-issued stuff from the Nashville sessions as Believe Me When I Say Rock'n'Roll Is Here To Stay in 1979.
Esquerita cut a striking figure, as the above photos (which can be seen in the Kicks Magazine publication The Great Lost Photos Of Eddie Rocco) illustrate. Six inches of processed conk, rhinestone shades, all manner of make up and jewelry, it's amazing he wasn't killed on the streets of the southern towns he played in.
Meanwhile, after leaving Capitol, Esquerita headed for New Orleans where he appeared at the Dew Drop Inn regularly, cut sides for Okeh, Instant, and Minit (including an instrumental version of Green Door, one of his best post-Capitol sides). On these sides he reverted to the name Eskew Reeder but by the late 60's he was doing business as the Magnificent Milochi, recording for Brunswick under that name. He did sell a couple of tunes to Little Richard-- Freedom Blues and Dew Drop Inn which Richard recorded for Reprise in '69 (Eskew's version of Doo Drop Inn was issued on 45 by Norton with the Dallas demo of Rockin' The Joint on the flip side). Dew Drop Inn would be his swansong recording. A full discography can be found here.
The seventies were tough on Esquerita who got by with whatever gigs he could get. He played New Orleans, showed up in Puerto Rico where he also did some time in prison and by the end of the decade washed up in New York City where he lived in a series of SRO Hotels in midtown, doing some small time dealing and pimping, put in a few short stints at Riker's Island, and finally got a gig at a tiny club on West 17th Street called Tramps, a strange combination of blues club (Lightnin' Hopkins, Big Joe Turner, and Johnny Shines all appeared there) and hang out for the Westies, a bunch of Irish mobsters that were used as muscle by the Mafia and also ran the west side docks in Hell's Kitchen. Tramps was a stones throw from Max's Kansas City,
the Gramercy Gym (where Cus D'amato would soon be training Mike Tyson), Julian's Poolhall, and the Dugout Bar (where a frosty mug was .50 cents).
I think it was the fall of '81 when me and my friends, Esquerita fans all, noticed that Tramps' tiny ad in the Village Voice was advertising "Every Monday: Esquerita!". Could it be?
Rare discs in hands, we headed for Tramps, and there he was: the legend, the man-- Esquerita himself! His hair was short, and he looked like he'd ridden some hard miles, but it was he, the guy who made those insane records way back when. There must have been a dozen people in the audience that first night, but he was amazed and thrilled that anyone, never mind bunch of white kids who were either in diapers or hadn't been born yet, knew of his great achievements at Capitol Records. He signed our discs, had his photo taken with us, and he was our pal--- our very own pet legend.
Billy Miller and Miriam Linna got very close to Esquerita, they had not yet started Norton Records (Vintage Voola would be their second release), but were then publishing Kicks magazine and put Esquerita on the cover of the second issue. Billy's liner notes to Vintage Voola are among the funniest and most entertaining liner notes ever, it's worth the price of the disc just to read them. Esquerita showed up at a party at I can't even remember whose house and gave a private recital, rocking through versions of Slow Down and Dizzy Miss Lizzie while a bunch of drunken white kids danced around the piano. I got to know him around this time also. I was leaving an afternoon double feature on 42nd Street and I bumped into him on the Deuce, he remembered my face from Tramps and the party, and we got to talking. He came back to the lower east side where I then lived with me. Back then, what is now the East Village was something of a drug supermarket. Between 1st and 2nd ave. you could buy nickel bags of pot in storefronts like the Red Door and the Black Door, between Ave. A and B. were the coke spots, selling garbage head blow in $5 and $10 bags at places like the Rock and the Pony Pack. From B east it was dope land-- heroin, with lines forming at 5 PM in front of infamous spots like Laredo (10th & B) and the Toilet (3rd & B). Esquerita liked drugs, and they were much cheaper in the east village than in mid-town where he lived, or Harlem, where he had enemies. We did some hanging out, although our tastes in drugs were very different, I took him around and showed him the ropes a bit. A move I'd live to regret as he took to banging on my window at all hours of the night wanting to borrow money. Finally, I stopped answering the door or the phone for him (I'd move from a front, ground floor apartment on 10th St to a rear, four floor walk up on 11th between A & B). I think he owed me around $300 when he died, at which point I had been avoiding him for months. Big Joe Turner referred to him as "Give Me Money, Give Me Money Esquerita". He got busted a few times, ended up in Rikers for a few six week bids (he had lost an eye in prison in Puerto Rico, at Riker's he was segregated and kept with the drag queens in their own wing). Near the end of his life a friend of mine had seen him out in Brooklyn, washing windshields for change. That was around the time I started doing the radio show, late '84. Esquerita and the Voola was my theme music. Crack had hit in late '83 and Esquerita became very hard to deal with around that time. I'd lost touch with him when I heard the news, he'd died of AIDS in Harlem Hospital on October 23, 1986. He was the first person I knew to die of AIDS but he wouldn't be the last. When Vintage Voola was released I wrote about him in the Village Voice, so I got back $150 of the $300 he owed me. I wished I had taped our conversations (he knew everyone worth knowing in rock'n'roll and had amazing stories, most of which I forgot). I wish I'd had him on the radio show. I wish he was still around...