Monday, August 30, 2010

Larry Williams

Larry Williams (center) meets some fans, 1958.
Picture sleeve for his two sided smash.
Specialty Records gig poster-- The Atomic Rock Buster.
Larry Williams was born May 10, 1935 in New Orleans, where as teen he put in some time as Lloyd Price's chauffeur. Price, then riding high on Lawdy Miss Clawdy remembered the well dressed teen-- "Larry couldn't decide whether he wanted to be a musician or a pimp". Worried about his future, his family sent him to live with relatives in the Bay Area, and it was in Oakland, fronting a group called the Lemon Drops he came to the attention of Specialty Records producer/A&R man Bumps Blackwell. Blackwell saw the nineteen year old Williams as a possible successor to Specialty's meal ticket of that time-- Little Richard, who having seen the trail of Sputnik in space while touring Australia (or more likely, seen how small his royalty checks were, having signed a publishing deal with Art Rupe that gave him a mere half-cent a disc), threw his jewelry into the ocean, denounced rock'n'roll and enrolled in Bible college.
Lloyd Price, whose own career had lost momentum when he was drafted, was no longer recording for Specialty, and attempting to launch his own label (KRC) with manager Harold Logan (later assassinated at his own Times Square nightclub-- The Turntable). Price and Logan knew they had a sure fire hit in the tune Just Because. Specialty's owner Art Rupe had Blackwell and their newly newly inked young protege Larry Williams record a note for note cover of Just Because, and with Specialty's better distribution and more money for promotion, Williams cover beat out Price's original, to rise to #11 on Billboard's R&B chart in 1957.
Larry Williams was more than a good mimic however, he was an excellent singer, pianist and songwriter, and backed by the greatest studio band ever assembled, was soon churning out classic, original rock'n'roll discs. He was indeed the crown prince to Little Richard's claim as the King Of Rock'n'Roll, and in the years 1957-1958 he would give Richard, and everyone else a run for their money.
Larry Williams' Specialty sessions, produced at various times by the aforementioned Bumps Blackwell, and later by Art Rupe, Harold Battiste and finally, Sonny Bono, employed the creme de la creme of West Coast session musicians, many of them New Orleans transplants, and veterans of countless rock'n'roll classics by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Smiley Lewis, Shirley & Lee, Ritchie Valens, etc. ad infinitum. Drummer Earl Palmer, guitarist Rene Hall, bassists Ted Brinson and Jewel Grant, saxophonists Plas Johnson, Alvin "Red" Tyler, Lee Allen, and Harold Battiste played some of their most inspired rock'n'roll behind Larry Williams. At least one of Williams sessions was done in New Orleans with Charles "Hungry" Williams on drums, Frank Fields on bass, and Roy Montrell on guitar.
It was Larry Williams sophmore disc that set the template-- -- Short Fat Annie b/w High School Dance (the b-side from the pen of future U.S. congressman and ski spazz Sonny Bono), a Little Richard styled rocker, lyrically rather dumb in fact, it still rocked like crazy and it became a #1 R&B hit, rising to #5 on the pop charts, and for the moment Larry left behind his stable of whores for the equally sleazy pastures of rock stardom.
That same year ('57) came Williams third disc, another lyrically trite, but musically smokin' platter-- Bonie Moronie b/w You Bug Me Baby, the a-side, another Williams original, it would be the commercial zenith of his career when it peaked on Billboard's pop charts at #14 (#4 R&B), while the flip, co-written with Bono-- You Bug Me Baby had its own chart run, where it rose to #45. Larry Williams was white hot shit, appearing on American Bandstand (one of the few to refuse to lip sync, where is that clip today?), and in February of '58 he hit his musical pinnacle of his rock'n'roll style with another two sided slammer-- Dizzy Miss Lizzie (heard here in the extended version that appeared only on the 78 rpm pressing) b/w Slow Down. Although it only got to#69 on the pop charts, it was a steady seller and over the next two years probably sold as many discs as his previous three hits. Rupe understood the importance of jukebox play, mastering Specialty's 78's especially "hot" (i.e. loud), and jukebox hits would sell over a long period of time. Most especially to juke box operators, since most jukes at the time still used 78's, which would wear out after several dozen plays, and a tune that took in the coins would have to be replaced every week, and would stay on the juke for many months, if not years.
Of course, Larry Williams hit the road, where he could make some real money, billed as "The Atomic Rock Buster" he tore up package shows, appearing with virtually every big name rock'n'roll and R&B artist of the era, while still maintaining a regular schedule of club gigs.
Larry Williams cut two more records for Specialty in '58, neither as good as what had come before-- Hootchie Koo b/w The Dummy and Peaches and Cream b/w I Was A Fool both failed to chart. By 1959 Art Rupe was tiring of the record biz, having lost Little Richard, he also made the ill advised decision to give Sam Cooke (who'd been recording for Rupe as a member of the gospel shouting Soul Stirrers)'s contract to Bumps Blackwell in lieu of royalties owed, he started to concentrate on his other investments, mostly in real estate. Hence, when Larry Williams recorded one of his finest discs-- She Said Yeah b/w Bad Boy it failed to chart.
Bad Boy was one of the greatest rock'n'roll records of all time and some of the alternate takes might be even better than the issued verion. One alternate, created by splicing various takes together showed up on the 1986 LP The Unreleased Larry Williams (the splicing was done by Little Walter DeVenne who was transfering the tapes) and was not included by Ace on their definitive Larry Williams-At His Finest (The Specialty Years) double CD as the compilers of that package thought that Billy Vera (who compiled the LP) and Little Walter were re-writing history by fucking with the original master tapes, which is true, but it's still fun to listen to, since Rene Hall lets loose a blistering guitar solo that seems to burn right through the stylus. For more on the subject see my Rene Hall posting from June 2009. Specialty would issue three more singles by Larry Williams that year-- Steal A Little Kiss b/w I Can't Stop Lovin' You, Give Me Love b/w Teardrops, and his swansong at Specialty-- Ting A Ling b/w Little Schoolgirl, the best of the three. Specialty also issued the LP Here's Larry Williams, a collection of his singles that year. Rupe had some excellent un-issued material in the vault which wouldn't see release for three decades or more.
His days as a hitmaker over, and Williams drifted back into the life-- pimping and dealing drugs. He spent part of late 1959 in jail on a narcotics charge. His next recordings would be a on the Chess label-- starting with My Baby's Got Soul b/w Everyday I Wonder. He was attempting to update his sound, and was a bit ahead of the curve. Four more singles were issued by Chess (1960-1), solid but unspectacular R&B, not quite soul, not quite rock'n'roll, they garned little airplay and almost no sales. He had no discs released in 1962 and only one in '63, on Mercury, I Can't Help Myself b/w Woman, a below par soul outing. In 1964 Williams struck up a partnership, musical and other, with another giant talent from rock'n'roll's gravy years who had fallen into obscurity-- Johnny "Guitar" Watson, although their first disc together-- Beatle Time pts 1 & 2 on Jola was less than something to shit your panties over.
One can understand why Williams would want to pay tribute to the Beatles, since they covered no less than three of his tunes--Dizzie Miss Lizzy, Slow Down and Bad Boy, while the Rolling Stones opened their Out Of Our Heads (UK) and/or side two of December's Children (US) LP with a seething rendition of She Said Yeah, sporting one of Keith Richard's coolest guitar riffs ever, and paced at a balls to the wall tempo.
In the 1965 Larry Williams toured the U.K., bringing along Johnny Guitar Watson, where he cut two live LP's-- Larry Williams On Stage (Sonet), a live run through of his hits filled out with Little Richard and James Brown covers, and The Larry Williams Show featuring Johnny Guitar Watson with the Stormville Shakers (Decca) which was highlighted by a version of the Yardbirds' For Your Love. From here he'd leave the old sound of rock'n'roll behnd for good.
Back in the States he signed to Columbia's Okeh subsidiary, first re-cutting his old hits with modern, horn heavy arrangments, and producing a similar venture for Little Richard. Both are fairly dreadful. Larry Williams was not the type of guy to look back, and was constantly trying to keep up with the times. His most successful attempt at a comeback would come with his next LP, recorded in tandem with Johnny "Guitar" Watson-- Two For The Price Of One (Okeh), a soul album in the style today called "Northern soul" (not because it was recorded in the Northern U.S. but because it gained popularity in Northern England at clubs like Manchester's Twisted Wheel). Two For The Price Of One produced one minor hit, a version of Cannonball Adderly's Mercy Mercy for which they added lyrics. Actually my favorite part of the record is the cover on which the two players, decked out in their finest sharksin pimp wear are seen surfin' (or is that water skiing?) on their new Cadillac Eldorados.
They followed it up with a psychedelic soul single on which Williams and Watson were backed by the Frisco rock group Kaleidoscope (featuring a young David Lindley on electric sitar)-- Nobody b/w Find Yourself Someone To Love, which went nowhere, but stands up today as an interesting piece of cross cultural confusion. They pre-dated Norman Whitfield's psychedelic soul productions for Motown by a good year or so. Mercy Mercy would be Larry Williams final commercial success, and after the Okeh stint, Williams cut sides for Venture, MGM and Bell, all with Johnny "Guitar" Watson. They would part musical ways in the mid 70's, after which Johnny Guitar Watson would finally strike gold in the late 70's, re-igniting his career as a funk meister with A Real Mutha For You and Love Jones. By this time, Williams had once again returned to "the life", not only pimping but dealing coke. In her autobiography I, Tina, Tina Turner blames Williams for turning Ike Turner onto freebase, Andre Williams who spent a lot of time around Ike at his Bolic Sound studio around the time remembers Larry as Ike's main connection in the early 70's. Somehow I think Ike would have found his way to the drugs with or without Larry Williams, but pimping and dealing are how Larry Williams supported himself for most of his life. He would record one last album, in 1978 for Fantasy-- That Larry Williams
appeared with little fanfare. It opened with a disco remake of Bonie Moronie, the rest of the songs all had the word funk in the title, the less said about this disc the better.
On January 7, 1980, Larry Williams was found in his Laurel Canyon home with his hands cuffed behind his back and a bullet in his head. The LAPD deemed it a suicide but most people who knew him thought he was murdered. Various theories on who might have killed Larry Williams have been floated over the years, suspects named include Watson (which is almost certainly not true) and the LAPD. The rumor that the words Space Guitar were carved into his chest however can me traced back to yours truly and my own sad attempt at humor when writing the liner notes for the CD re-issue of Two For The Price Of One. I made it up, thinking most fans would get the joke, unfortunately I've seen the story re-printed as evidence that Watson had something to do with Williams murder. Not everyone gets my jokes. Anyway, at this late date it's unlikely we'll ever know the truth about who pulled the trigger on Larry Williams.
From the mid-80's through 2004 many outtakes from his glory days at Specialty have surfaced, and not all of them created artificially. The aforementioned Ace package-- At His Finest, is an essential part of any record collection and contains a wealth of previously un-heard material including versions of Sugar Boy Crawford's Jockamo (Iko Iko), Huey Smith's Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu, Little Richard's Heebie Jeebies, Lloyd Price's Lawdy Miss Clawdy, and among the originals left on the shelf are alternate takes and unnisued tunes like Baby's Crazy, Bad Boy (take 5, take 6), Hocus Pocus, You Bug Me Baby, The Dummy, Slow Down, and Hey Now, Hey Now.
Larry Williams-- pimp, rocker, fashion plate. He sure was something.

27 comments:

MM said...

I'm practically speechless. Damn, you write so well - I think I should just close up shop right now. Thanks for the 78 version of Dizzy Miss Lizzie and all of this information without one dull moment.

MM said...

P.S. LAPD deemed it a suicide? How can someone cuff their own hands behind their back and then shoot themselves in the head (or alternatively, shoot themselves in the head and then cuff their hands behind their back?

Mihaleez said...

Hey Hound! Great piece again. I was waiting for this post for a long time so i'll grab the opportunity to ask you some things, so please advise:

"...First re-cutting his old hits with modern, horn heavy arrangments, and producing a similar venture for Little Richard. "
- I do have Little Richard's Okeh sides but i never saw something similar on Larry Williams' Okeh toons (or Chess...). I wonder if there's a comp in the market gathering those cuts?

- On Little Richard's Okeh stuff Jimi Hendrix played on two songs ("Poor Dog" etc). Did Jimi played also on Larry's?

"They pre-dated Norman Whitfield's psychedelic soul productions for Motown by a good year or so."

That's a masterpiece and i'm not a huge fan of what is now called "psychedelic". But this single it's up there with 13th Floor Elevators best sides.

The Hound said...

" but i never saw something similar on Larry Williams' Okeh toons (or Chess...). I wonder if there's a comp in the market gathering those cuts?"

I don't think the Okeh LP Larry Williams Greatest Hits (Okeh 12123) has ever been re-issued, and I'm pretty sure the guitar playing on it is Johnny Guitar Watson.
As I said, I think it's pretty lame myself, if you want to hear those songs, the Specialty versions are what you want to hear.

Joe Bonomo said...

Whoa that alt of Bad Boy smokes. Thanks for throwing that on there.

Mighty High said...

The Larry Williams story is indeed a fascinating one. He's been a favorite of mine for many years. Cheers!

Ken K. in NJ said...

(Larry Williams was white hot shit, appearing on American Bandstand (the only artist to refuse to lip sync)

Didn't Jerry Lee Lewis appear "live" also? If this isn't live, it's the best lip-synching (and intrument-synching) I've ever seen:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lidFipyLG8k

Jed said...

Thanks for this great post! I remember hearing Larry Williams for the first time the same way I remember hearing Little Richard's "Keep A-Knockin" - another world beckoned, a world that up to that point I had no idea existed.

The Hound said...

"Didn't Jerry Lee Lewis appear "live" also? If this isn't live, it's the best lip-synching (and intrument-synching) I've ever seen"

One of the best R&R clips of all time, but I don't think it's from American Bandstand, it doesn't look anything like the Bandstand set and the guy who introduces JLL is certainly not Dick Clark.

Ken K. in NJ said...

(I don't think it's from American Bandstand, it doesn't look anything like the Bandstand set and the guy who introduces JLL is certainly not Dick Clark.)

I think the guy certainly is Dick Clark (1st 3 seconds of the clip), he always sat in the audience when introducing the acts. At one point the audience is even doing that dopey hand jive thing they always used to do. It's got to be AB.

My guess is the set had to be re-configured that day for the live performance.

I know I've also read somewhere that Jerry Lee was the only act that performed live on the show, but I'll take your word for it that Larry Williams did too. Hopefully a clip will be found someday.

Jed said...

Definitely is Dick Clark - looking even more youthful than usual. Possibly before the show went national?

The Hound said...

"Definitely is Dick Clark - looking even more youthful than usual. Possibly before the show went national?"

Your right, it's DC, but I think the clip, which I remember seeing before is from the film Jamboree:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050557/

Mark said...

Ski spazz Sonny? Hound you are too cruel !!! :)

flamingo said...

From the youtube comments by someone named "twinamp55":
"This is actually the Dick Clark Saturday Night Beech Nut (chewing gum) Show. Note the auditorium setting as opposed to the American Bandstand weekdays set. The performers usually were live on the Saturday night show."

Joe Bonomo said...

Yeah, Beech Nut chewing gum was a big supporter of JLL. They ran a promotion where you sent in a wrapper or proof of purchase and got a copy of "Breathless." Moved a lot of units. Right before the wedding scandal. Clark was a pretty loyal supporter but even he got nervous after the scandal, though he stuck relatively close to Lewis commercially during and after.

Chris said...

Hannibal told some great stories for the liner notes to Norton's Hannibalism LP. There's one about him and Larry bringing an obese singer to audition for Ray Charles's Raelettes and another about Hannibal, Williams and Watson taking a boat out to the Terminal Island women's prison to bring BBQ to Larry's wife. Plenty more than that too.

Anonymous said...

Hound: A little dimissive of Larry's Okeh output I think. He cut some great soul sides for that label. His duets with Johnny Watson like Too Late, Two For the Price of One and A Quitter Never Wins are smokin' soul tracks. I Don't Want to Discuss It by Little Richard and produced by Larry on Okeh is equally brillant. Give them another listen! -Barry Soltz

The Hound said...

"Hound: A little dimissive of Larry's Okeh output I think. He cut some great soul sides for that label. His duets with Johnny Watson like Too Late, Two For the Price of One and A Quitter Never Wins are smokin' soul tracks. I Don't Want to Discuss It by Little Richard and produced by Larry on Okeh is equally brillant. Give them another listen"

Hey, I wrote the liner notes for the CD re-issue of that thing! I like the stuff, sorry if I sounded dismissive, I guess it's just a matter of personal taste, or perhaps in my case, lack of taste. I just prefer the crude, raw, qualities of Bad Boy, Slow Down (and in JGW's Space Guitar, 3 Hours Past Midnight, etc.) to the polished,
more urbane sounds of the stuff on Two For The Price Of One. It doesn't mean it's not a great record, its just not my favorite kind of music. As you know I sold and traded off most of my soul records for older R&B and R&R years ago, I probably kept about 200 singles and 200 LP's (not counting stuff I simply replaced w/re-issues). That said, if I'm out and I hear one of those tracks that some DJ plays I think it sounds great, but I never find myself playing them at home. Also, they made some really lame records for Okeh too, like JGW's Fats Waller tribute album (In A Fats Bag). But the cover (of Two For The Price Of One) is one of the greatest album covers of all time, so I guess in my mind it sort of overhsadows the music. BTW- I'm told A Quitter Never Wins is a big UK club favorite.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I was lucky enough to see Larry in April of 58 when I was all of 8 years old at an Alan Freed show in Canton Ohio. It was the "Big Beat" spring tour. I came away from that performance addicted to rock and roll. The headliners were Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry and Buddy and the Crickets. They were all unbelievable. Jerry Lee set the 88's on fire that night too, and Buddy really tore it up, but Larry Williams was a MADMAN. Probably did only 3-4 songs
but I sure remember Bonry Maronie.That crowd went crazy. He had his own band with him that night too. Thanks to my Mom for taking me to that show. I ain't been the same since especially after Screamin Jay got out of that coffin that night. One last thing,the show was hosted by the late Pete Mad Daddy Myers from Cleveland. WHEW! Bebop Billy

The Hound said...

" I was lucky enough to see Larry in April of 58 when I was all of 8 years old at an Alan Freed show in Canton Ohio. It was the "Big Beat" spring tour. I came away from that performance addicted to rock and roll. The headliners were Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry and Buddy and the Crickets. "

Wow! I really feel like I missed the boat when I hear stories like that (I was born in '59). The funny thing is, my late pal Robert Quine saw the same show in Akron, Ohio, probably within days of the show you saw. Mad Daddy also hosted that one.
I was always bugging him to tell me every little detail he could remember from the show. Quine actually use to tape the Mad Daddy off the radio w/alligator clips, except being a dumb kid he'd stop the tape when MD talked and just tape the songs! BTW: Quine's cousin has a blog which can be found here:
http://rubbercityreview.com/

Ken K. in NJ said...

(except being a dumb kid he'd stop the tape when MD talked and just tape the songs!)

Glad to hear I wasn't the only dumb kid doing that. I used to do the same thing in the early-mid 60's in NY. Wish I had done it the other way around.

One more Larry Williams tidbit: According to an interview I heard with Kenny Vance, he said that Larry Williams was on the "made-up" Alan Freeed show for the movie, but his performance wasn't included in the movie. Not sure if it's true or not (I think Vance was the one who actually put together the show for the movie), but I'd love to see the footage if it exists.

Ken K. said...

Sorry, I just re-read my post above. I forgot to mention the movie I was talking about was American Hot Wax, although I guess people could figure that out.

The Hound said...

" I was talking about was American Hot Wax, although I guess people could figure that out."

I know Floyd Mutrux who directed that one, next time I talk to him I'll ask.

Anonymous said...

Once again, if the dog in charge had done his homework (it's was even touched on here, in a past Specialty entry, as I recall), the TRUTH of the matter of the "spliced" material would be properly blamed on Little Walter (DeVenne), and not Billy Vera. Not to bark up the wrong editing dawg's tree of expertise, but maybe this error can be corrected (above).

Vera, of course, did have a hand in some of the early Specialty CD issues, so maybe there was some of those "doctored" tracks on that "Bad Boy" collection... (the one with the awful cover shot of our guy Larry bowing his head!)

- Brian

The Hound said...

", the TRUTH of the matter of the "spliced" material would be properly blamed on Little Walter (DeVenne), and not Billy Vera. Not to bark up the wrong editing dawg's tree of expertise, but maybe this error can be corrected (above). "

Youre' right that's my screw up, I'll go back and fix it.

frankai said...

your internet is fun and full of suspense ,plus a big THANK YOU for offering attention to the soundfile of "nobody" .
something i stumbled upon a while ago, checking my 45s : it is the same song as the hodges ,james ,smith and crawford version ,even if it sounds not very similar
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2LTwMjz7qE

although the hodges,james,smith and crawford version (mpingo) is often mentioned to be a coverversion of kim weston's "nobody"(mgm,1967). since i noticed in 1967 larry williams in was working as a producer and A&R man for okeh(and other labels) ,it made me think the larry williams & johnny watson version of "nobody"(okeh,1967) came up first ...

for detailed informations wich 45 was recorded first ,i'll sure be thankful

viagra online said...

Can you post some photos of chuck berry when he was young? please that guy rules!

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