Tuesday, July 27, 2010

? & the Mysterians

Question Mark in 1997, stylin'!
One of my proudest moments as a bar owner was back in '98 when we got Camel cigarettes to pay for our Christmas party at the Lakeside Lounge (nowadays, in NY State it's illegal to take advertising money from cigarette companies), which allowed us to hire perhaps the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world at the time (and maybe still are, their only competition being the Stooges)-- ? & the Mysterians to grace the tiny stage of the Lakeside Lounge. They were great in 1966 when they first released 96 Tears on the Pa-Go-Go label out of Bay City, Michigan (it would go to #1 when Cameo leased it the same year), and they have been great ever since. They've never changed their sound, they sound exactly like their original records. Front man-- ? (name on his passport Rudy Martinez) was born on Mars, where they all wear cool sunglasses,
and arrived on earth to settle in Flint, Michigan. It was there he joined up with the Mysterians, a Chicano quartet made up of brother Robert Martinez (drums), Frank Rodriguez (organ), Robert Balderama (guitar) and Frank Lugo (bass).
Anway, Dr. Ike is presenting another Ponderosa Stomp in New York, celebrating the music of Detroit this coming weekend. ? & the Mysterians will be appearing as part of the show at the Damrosch Park Bandshell in Lincoln Center, the bill goes like this: 5 PM- Death, 6 PM- the Gories, 7:15 PM- ? & the Mysterians, 8:30 PM- Mitch Ryder. Earlier that day at the Hearst/Barclays Capitol Grove will be a Detroit Soul Review, also part of the Ponderosa Stomp series, Eddie Kirkland plays at 2 PM followed by the Motor City Soul Review (Dennis Coffey, Melvin Davis, Spyder Turner and the Velvettes) at 2:30 PM. More info here (the Lincoln Center info sight) and here (the Detroit Breakdown page on the Ponderosa Stomp sight).

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Robert Nighthawk

Robert Nighthawk (far right) and the Nighthawks. Robert Lee McCollum aka Robert Lee McCoy aka Robert Nighthawk. Ernest Lane, Robert Nighthawk, Hazel McCollum.
The First Rockabilly Record? Dig the slap bass, 1951.
Recording as "The Nighthawks", 1949.
His First Disc For the brothers Chess, 1948.
At Home 2010.
Live On Maxwell Street, 1964. From the film ...And This Is Free (aka Maxwell St. Blues).
Robert Nighthawk (born Robert Lee McCollum, Nov. 30, 1909 in Helena, Arkansas)-- now there was a slide guitar player! He not only had the speed and accuracy of Tampa Red, but he had a unique, dirty, brooding style of playing that put him at the very top of the list amongst his peers. Muddy Waters liked him so much he hired him to play at his first wedding reception, a party that got so wild that the floor of the juke joint it was held in collapsed.
Young Robert had taken up playing harmonica as a tyke, and when his family relocated to a farm in Murphy Bayou, Mississippi he began playing the guitar under the tutelage of his cousin Houston Stackhouse. He was restless sort who spent most of his life on the road, legend has it he had killed a man in self defense back in Mississippi which led him to change his surname from McCollum (sometimes spelled McCullum) to his mother's maiden name McCoy. With Stackhouse he traveled around Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri, meeting and sometimes playing with better known bluesmen such as Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Sleepy John Estes and Will Shade, even backing up country yodeler Jimmie Rodgers for a night.
By the mid-30's he was in St. Louis where he fell in with a group of musicians that included Big Joe Williams, John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, Charley Jordan, Peetie Wheatstraw, Speckled Red and Walter Davis, this led him to his first recording contract with RCA Victor's Bluebird subsidiary where he cut sides under the name of Robert Lee McCoy in 1937 and Ramblin' Bob in '38. These sides were very much in the Bluebird Records Chicago style popular at the time and one can hear the influence of Tampa Red and Kokomo Arnold in his playing. On some of these recordings he is backed by Big Joe Williams (he of 9 string guitar fame), Speckled Red on piano and Sonny Boy Williamson on harp. The best of these sides include Prowlin' Nighthawk, G-Man, Tough Luck, his first recording of Take It Easy Baby, Mean Black Cat, Freight Train Blues, and Ol' Mose (aka Oh Red). In 1940 he waxed for Decca four sides, two of which feature his girlfriend Ann Sortier on vocals and washboard, Nighthawk was billed as "Peetie's Boy", an attempt to cash in on the fame of Peetie Wheatraw, the Devil's Son-In-Law and Decca's best selling blues artist of the day. He also appeared playing guitar and harmonica on records by other artists too numerous to mention here.
Never one to sit still for long, Robert Nighthawk was next sighted in Mississippi in 1942 where according to Big Joe Williams was leading a full band and playing electric guitar. It was electricity that became the final ingredient in Nighthawk's sound and style, giving him a uniqueness that remains singular to this day. Back in Arkansas, he hosted a local radio show on KFFA sponsored by Mother's Best Flour (the same company that would later sponsor Hank Williams) and Bright Star Flour, and among the musicians that passed through his band were his mentor Houston Stackhouse, Ike Turner, Earl Hooker, Pinetop Perkins, and Ernest Lane. He would not record again until 1948 when he was signed to Chess who had been alerted to his talents by Muddy Waters. His cut three sessions for Chess in 1948, '49 and '50 resulting in three issued 78's-- Return Mail Blues b/w My Sweet Lovin' Woman (Chess 1484), Black Angel Blues b/w Anna Lee Blues (Aristocrat 2301) and Jackson Town Gal b/w Six Three O (Aristocrat 413) and a handful of outtakes (my favorite being Someday) that would surface many decades later. Black Angel Blues was the closest thing he ever had to a hit, and would be the template for B.B. King's Sweet Little Angel, one of King's first hits. These discs were issued under the name of The Nighthawks (vocal by Robert McCullum), and later Robert Nighthawk and his Nighthawks, which would become his professional name until the end of his life. The Chess sides didn't sell, Chess was putting all its promotional energy into their budding star Muddy Waters and they parted ways. In 1951 he was recording for Leonard Lee's United label and its States subsidiary, these were his finest studio recordings. On the United/States discs, Nighthawk is backed by a rhythm section that consisted of Randsome Knowling on slap bass, Jump Jackson on drums and Roosevelt Sykes on piano. They issued three discs which appeared as follows: Kansas City Blues b/w Crying Won't Help You (United 102), the a-side being a flat out rockabilly thumper later covered by Ernest Tubb on Decca, the flip featuring one of his most durable slide solos, Feel So Bad b/w Take It Easy Baby (United 105), and Maggie Campbell b/w The Moon Is Rising (States 131), again, the a-side, best known from Tommy Johnson's 1928 Victor rendition, is taken at a rocking pace with predominant slap bass and Sykes' barrelhouse piano. Given their 1951/52 release dates a case could be made by some someone who likes making cases that Nighthawk recorded the first examples of what we would later come to call rockabilly. All that's missing is the hiccups. United and States would release no more discs by Robert Nighthawk but in 1978 the Pearl label (a subsidiary of Chicago's Delmark Records) would issue the six sides along with some equally rocking outtakes -- all excellent, as good as what was issued, including Seventy-Four, You Missed A Good Man, Feel So Bad, Bricks In My Pillow, an alternate take of Maggie Campbell, US Boogie, Nighthawk Boogie, and Take It Easy Baby on the LP Bricks In My Pillow (Pearl PL-11), one of the finest albums I've ever heard. This would pretty much end Robert Nighhawk's recording career, although he would cut an album for Testament with Houston Stackhouse in 1967, his failing health had diminished his skills to the point that he could only play some perfunctory rhythm guitar behind Stackhouse's leads.
The best recordings Nighthawk would make after the United and States discs, in fact, perhaps the best recordings he would ever make period, were recorded on Maxwell Street in Chicago's Jewtown section one Sunday afternoon in 1964 by a film crew who were shooting the documentary ...And This Is Free (the title was later changed to Maxwell Street Blues). Originally issued on vinyl in the early eighties by Rounder (with some tracks mislabeled including Mike Bloomfield's rendition of Charlie Parker's Ornithology being credited to Nighthawk), and then re-issued as a two-CD set with all the other performers that were filmed (including Johnny Young, Carey Bell, Big John Wrencher, Blind Jim Brewer and the ever popular Unknown) called And This Is Maxwell Street (Rooster). Here we get a rare earful of electric delta blues the way it was played in the jukes and at frolics, on the street and early morning radio broadcasts--distorted, dirty, and gloriously shambolic. Among the highlights are Robert Nighthawk's seething version of Dr. Clayton's Cheating and Lying Blues (aka I'm Gonna Murder My Baby), a foreboding Peter Gunn, the ever popular Dust My Broom, a rollicking Honey Hush, a medley of Annie Lee and Sweet Black Angel, the simmering I Need Love So Bad, and a chuggin' take on Honky Tonk. The sound is so ominous, so brooding and foreboding, there are no other blues recordings even close to these. Shortly after the filming, Nighthawk headed back down south, his health was failing and he knew he didn't have long. He took over Sonny Boy Williamson #2 (Rice Miller)'s King Biscuit Flour radio show on KFFA when Williamson died in '65, but he was fading fast. Convinced he had been poisoned with bad whiskey (the same way Robert Johnson went), Houston Stackhouse took him to a hoodoo woman healer in Arkansas who diagnosed him as having "old time dropsy", she told him had he not been a sinner, if he had lived a Christian life, she would have been able to heal him, but her magic could not undo a life in the blues, and on Nov. 5, 1967 he died in a hospital in Helena, Arkansas, the death certificate sighting "congestive heart failure due to myocardial infaction", no mention of "old time dropsy" or his life as a sinner. Among his peers, Robert Nighthawk was not only well liked, but well respected, he was the bluesman's bluesman, the favorite slide player of Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams, both Sonny Boy Williamsons, and Earl Hooker. Mine too. Robert Nighthawk may have never had a hit record, and he didn't live long enough to cash in on the white blues revival, but he had his own sound, dark and ominous, it's lost none of its power.
Essential Robert Nighthawk: The sound samples here are just that, if you like what you hear, I suggest buying them and hearing it in its full glory. The complete Bluebird and Decca pre-war recordings can be found on the Catfish label's Robert Lee McCoy:Prowling Nighthawk (Catfish CD 150), although the label is out of biz, the CD is still easy to find. His Chess output was issued on Charly Records Black Angel Blues (CD Red 29) on which his twelve Chess/Aristocrat sides share a CD with Forrest City Joe's ten tracks, again, it's out of print but easy to find. Pearl/Delmark issued Bricks In My Pillow (Delmark DD-711) as a 14 track CD in 1998, it's still in print and is an essential purchase. The live Maxwell Street recordings have been issued in several different forms, but for sound and completion, I suggest getting the triple CD box-- And This Is Maxwell Street (Pearl). It has tons of music not seen in the film, all of it great, and a long interview with Nighthawk by Mike Bloomfield. Speaking of the film, And This Is Free: The Life and Times Of Chicago's Legendary Maxwell St. was released on DVD in 2008 and is available from Amazon in a multi disc package (one DVD, one CD, one booklet), again, it's pretty essential as the above clip proves.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Percy Mayfield

Percy Mayfield, Specialty Records promo shot, 1950
Percy Mayfield with Ray Charles, 1961.
Percy near the end, notice the facial scars from the car accident.
At home with Percy Mayfield, early 80's.
For those of you who like their geniuses tortured, Percy Mayfield (b. Aug 12, 1920, in Minden, Louisiana), may have been the greatest song writer in the history of rhythm and blues, he was certainly the most uncompromisingly bleak tune smith the music has ever known. While Robert Johnson might've had to "keep movin'" to stay ahead of the hellhound on his trail, Percy Mayfield knew there was no place to run. In the sound of his voice, and the subtlety of his lyrics you can hear him genuflect to the horrors of every day life, resigned to the shitty luck of being born into a world that tore apart sensitive souls like himself as a matter of course. He took these forlorn feelings and made them into some of the greatest rhthym and blues records of all time. And of course, he has a story.
Mayfield left Louisiana as a teenager, kicked around Houston for a bit and washed up on the west coast. Most bios put the beginging of his musical career at 1949 when he showed up at Supreme Records, supposedly to attempt to sell his song Two Years Of Torture for Jimmy Witherspoon to record. The owner of the label liked Mayfield's singing so well that he insisted that Mayfield record the tune himself, and this set him on his path to a musical career. This may have well happened, but what virtually every bio I've read leaves out is that Mayfield had already recorded a version of Two Years Of Torture for the Gru-V-Tone label in the Bay Area (where last week's subject Pee Wee Crayton had started) at least two years (possibly three) earlier. Gru-V-Tone not only released the first recording of Two Years Of Torture b/w Get Way Back (Gru-v-Tone 102), but first released, from the same session, a two part Louis Jordan styled jive number called Jack You Ain't Nowhere Pts. 1 & 2 (Gru-v-Tone 101), a somewhat trite record, but a record none the less.
Whatever, history is just whatever some one manages to get published somewhere. What ever happened, Supreme re-recorded Mayfield singing Two Years Of Torture releasing it with Half Awake (Baby You're Still Square) in 1949 (Supreme 1543) and it must have been a decent seller since they also leased it to Swing Time, King and Recorded In Hollywood at various times. The a side would eventually be covered by Ray Charles, the flip by B.B. King. But Percy Mayfield, for whatever reason never gave Supreme a follow up disc, and was soon recording for Art Rupe's Specialty Records, the label that would give us Roy Milton, Joe and Jimmy Liggins, Guitar Slim, Lloyd Price, Wynona Carr, Professor Alex Bradford, Little Richard, Larry Williams, The Soul Stirrers (with Sam Cooke), Dorothy Love Coates, Mercy Dee (of One Room Shack fame), Don & Dewey, Sonny Bono, Willie Joe & his Unitar, and may have had the highest ratio of great records of any label in history. His initial session for Specialty, produced and arranged by the great tenor sax player Maxwell Davis (the man who taught Leiber and Stoller how to make records, his importance to R&B and rock'n'roll is criminally under acknowledged) birthed Percy Mayfield's biggest hit, and one of his greatest compositions-- Please Send Me Someone To Love, a clever plea for racial harmony disguised as a torch ballad, it struck a deep chord in record buyers in 1950 spending 27 weeks at the #1 spot on the R&B charts and becoming one of the most enduring standards in the blues canon. The flipside- Strange Things Happen had it's own chart run, hitting #7 R&B in early '51.
Between 1950-1952 Mayfield put seven discs in the R&B top ten, recording with Maxwell Davis, he waxed some of the greatest, and most desolately beautiful blues ballads ever heard.
Among these spine tingling dirges were this catalogue of pain: Hopeless, Life Is Suicide, Nightless Lover, Cry Baby, The Lonely One, Lost Love, Lost Mind, Wasted Dream,The River's Invitation, The Hunt Is On, Memory Pain, You Don't Exist No More, Nightmare, The Big Question, and to my mind, his greatest moment at Specialty-- The Voice Within.
A slim, handsome man with wavy hair and suave demeanor, he was becoming a major attraction on the Chitlin' Circuit, but as if to fulfill his recorded litany of gloom, a 1952 car wreck disfigured his handsome face, leaving a huge, Quasimodo like hole that ran from his eye to the hairline, (he would spend five months laid up in the hospital recuperating and underwent multiple operations to put his face back together), it virtually ended his career as a live performer. Over that five months laying in a hospital bed, I can't help but wonder if the chorus to Memory Pain-- "It serves me right to suffer" rang in his ears as some sort of cosmic, sick, ironic joke.
It was at this point in late '52 he parted way with Art Rupe and Specialty Records, although their exists a heartbreaking letter he wrote to Rupe begging to let him record again even though he was "too ugly to be seen in public". He wouldn't record again until 1955 when he cut Double Dealin' b/w Are You Out There for Chess in Chicago. He made another single for the tiny Cash label in L.A. the same year--Look The Whole World Over b/w The Bluest Blues, and then returned to Specialty for one final session, the rather goofy pop tune Diggin' The Moonglow b/w Please Believe Me. He would cut singles for Home Cooking, Imperial and 7 Arts in the next two years. None of these are good as his earlier Specilty work, and his career was losing momentum fast. Enter Ray Charles who signed Mayfield to a contract as both a songwriter (a move which would immediately pay off with the massive Hit The Road Jack, one of Charles' biggest and most enduring hits, here's Mayfield's demo), and as a recording artist to his Tangerine/TRC labels, for which he recorded two excellent albums-- The Jug and I (1963, the single from which Stranger In My Own Hometown was perhaps his greatest recording, and later covered by Elvis in the King's last truly transcendent recorded performance) and Bought Blues (1966). Excellent as these two LP's are they produced only one minor hit, a remake of The River's Invitation that peaked at #25 R&B in July of '63.
After parting way with Ray Charles, Percy Mayfield would cut one LP for the mob run Brunswick label-- Walking On A Tightrope, followed by three really good ones for RCA--Sings Percy Mayfield, Weakness Is A Thing Called Man, Blues and Then Some, again only one minor hit, To Live In The Past which scraped its way to #43 R&B in March of 1970. These records were far outside the type of R&B that ruled all important radio in the early 70's, there was simply no niche for Mayfield's music that the record companies radio and marketing department could find (good music is hardly enough for these generally dullwitted types). He cut one single for Atlantic with Johnny Guitar Watson producing-- I Don't Want To Be President, his final chart entry, only making it to #84 R&B in the fall of '74, it would also be his final studio recording.
Sometime in the early 80's Percy Mayfield returned to performing live, appearing mostly in small clubs around L.A., a new generation of mostly white fans had been turned on to his music through re-issues of his Specialty sides by both Specialty (who would issue two killer CD's full his classics and un-issued material from it's vaults, Poet Of The Blues Vol. 1 and Vol. 2,) and in Europe through the U.K. Ace label. In his final days he was fronting a band that featured guitarist Pee Wee Crayton and plans were made for them to record together when he died of a heart attack on his 64th birthday-- Aug. 12, 1984.
In the years since his death, Rhino Handmade has re-issued his Tangerine sides, his Specialty output remains in print both in the U.S. and the U.K. , although his various one off 45's, as well as Brunswick and RCA LP's get tougher to find every year (I can use a new copy of the Brunswick album myself), but his songs remain, he's been covered by hundreds of artists, in fact, a CD compilation of the best Percy Mayfield covers would be a good idea. Speaking of which, they're is supposedly in RCA's vault a third, x-rated, take of Elvis' version of Stranger In My Own Hometown (the first was the stunning finale to the Elvis In Memphis LP, an alternate take surfaced on the UK Elvis Blues CD in the late 90's), anyone out there have a copy they want to send to the old Hound?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Fugs, Goodbye Tuli Kupferberg

The Fugs 1966 (Tuli w/tambourine)
Tuli Kupferberg near the end, he never lost his looks.
Tuli Kupeferberg of the Fugs died last Monday, age 86, he looked exactly the same as he did
46 years ago (full obit here). For someone who lived in the East Village and Lower East Side for over thirty years, the Fugs, even more than the Velvet Underground were what the streets of the neighborhood sounded like for white Bohemians. Salsa might have been the sound of the neighborhood streets blasting from the ghetto blasters and car radios, but the soundtrack for our lives sounded more like the Fugs. I remember the first time I heard the Fugs, I was eighteen and sitting on a stoop on East 9th Street with a gallon of Canadian Ace beer and passing a joint with some friends, we'd been up all night tripping on acid, and some hippy was blasting the first Fugs album in an apartment above us. It sounded so perfect. I mean who hasn't fallen for a Slum Goddess on a hot summer night in a Polish bar drinking .75 cent draft beers? Or done the Amphetamine Shriek in the middle of Tompkins Square Park after being up for four days? The Velvets moved among the beautiful people, the art fags, the rich and famous, but the Fugs were like us, ugly and frustrated, singing for the speedfreaks and glue sniffers, drinking in Polish bars and eating Challah french toast at 5 AM to soak up the booze. They had a long and glorious career, better documented in other places, they even reformed several times and were making records into the nineties. Co-founder Ed Saunders also wrote the two greatest books on the so called counter culture-- The Family (about the Manson family, easily the best book on the subject, look for the first edition with the chapter on the Process Church which was removed in subsequent editions) and Tales Of Beatnik Glory. While Ed Sanders and Ken Weaver may have been the main musical forces behind the original Fugs, they wouldn't have been what they were without Tuli Kupferberg. Probably best known as the character in Ginsberg's poem Howl who "jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and walked away.....", he edited small poetry zines like Birth (1958), wrote books like 101 Was To Beat The Draft (1966) and The War Against the Beats (1961), and was still active into the 21st century. He made two solo albums, No Deposit No Return (1966) and Tuli and Friends (1989), neither of which I own a copy of anymore (some things just disappear over the years). Anyway, I thought I put up a few of my favorite tunes as a memorial to Tuli who will be missed: Slum Goddess, Frenzy, Mutant Stomp, In The Middle Of Their First Recording Session The Fugs Sign The Worst Contract Since Leadbelly's, and probably Tuli's greatest musical contribution to the Fugs-- Carpe Diem.
Goodbye buddy, the neighborhood won't be the same without you.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Gillian's Found Photo #51

Among the strange rituals found in the American suburbs in the late 20th century, perhaps one of the most peculiar, and least studied is that of "ass Twister", a rite of passage said to be particularly popular with Mormons, swingers, and certain country club sects gone culturally astray. Here is rare photographic evidence of an ass Twister cult ceremony in practice. I'm not sure what to make of it, has anyone out there ever witnesses such a thing in person? If so, we'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pee Wee Crayton

Classic Crown budget LP- where's that Stratocaster today?
Pee Wee Crayton when he was a star, 1951.
Pee Wee Crayton takes his Strat to the Apollo, 1954.
Pee Wee Crayton, sharkskin suit, Strat and trash can, the trash can's a nice touch.
With the Johnny Otis Show, 1970.
Once again, it's back to the same bargain bin full of .99 cent LP's, the year is 1974, the place is Broward County, Florida. In addition to finding the first two Stooges LP's, the first MC5 album, the Flamin' Groovies' Kama Sutra LP's, all the Chess/All Platinum double LP's, were tons of albums on the Crown and Kent labels, and it's where I bought my first Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and Ike Turner albums, not to mention those weird Blues From Detroit/Arkansas/Mississippi, etc. albums full of obscure names like Boyd Gilmore, Charley Booker and Eddie Kirkland. These albums were so cheaply made they didn't even have inner sleeves, and the covers were either generic photos (not of the performers) or horrible paintings by a guy named Fazio. The vinyl was of the worst quality. The stock at this bargain bin changed twice weekly, and some records only showed up once, never to be seen again, like my copy of Ike Turner Rocks The Blues and Elmore James' Blues After Hours, both still sitting near the turntable, thirty six years later.
One album really caught my eye because it was the only Crown LP I'd ever seen with a photo of the performer on the cover, and what a photo. A nattily attired black man with a greasy conk,
a boat necked cardigan sweater over a striped shirt and a tiny mustache, the guy was holding a battered Stratocaster, one of the knobs was cracked, the pick guard worn to a sheen and the neck worn to shit. I took Pee Wee Crayton home with me.
My first impression (remember, I was fifteen at the time) was that it wasn't the most exciting record I'd ever heard. He was no Howlin' Wolf, whose music I had just discovered and had become obsessed with (Wolf had his own crappy Crown album, two tracks of which weren't even him, but it had the incredible House Rockin' Boogie with its immortal call of "Blow Your Top!"), nor was it the ultra crude guitar boogies of John Lee Hooker or Lightnin' Hopkins. To me it sounded like someone who had influenced B.B. King (who had about a dozen albums on Crown or Kent). But it had a nice sleazy vibe to it, and over the years I'd come back to it more and more often. He played a lot like T-Bone Walker, but more unpredictable, often adding strange chord substitutions, big jazz chords like diminished 7th's or 9ths, thrown in at the end of a blues riff for no rhyme or reason. The record really grew on me, and soon I would find many more of his discs. The Modern sides were fairly easy to find, although they were often "juked", meaning they had been on an old 78 jukebox, which had a quarter pound tone arm and steel needle, which would wear the hit side of the disc out in a dozen or so plays.
Record collecting back then was like being an archaeologist, you couldn't just Google somebody and get their life story and discography. What I would eventually put together is that most of the material on the Crown and Kent albums was originally released on 78 and 45 RPM singles by the Modern, R.P.M., and Flair labels out of Hollywood, California, owned by the Bihari brothers-- Saul, Jules, Joe and sometimes Lester (who had the Meteor label in Memphis). The Bihari's labels were among the most influential in the history of rock'n'roll, equal to that of Chess, Sun, Specialty, Imperial, Aladdin, Atlantic, etc. They had their own pressing plant and manufactured everything including the covers, much like Syd Nathan's King/Federal operation in Cincinnati. Pee Wee Crayton released at least twenty 78's on Modern between the years of 1948-1951, maybe more. Few made it to 45 rpm, although I have stumbled across some Modern 78's re-issued on Flair 45 over the years. He would go on to record for at least ten more labels over the years. His story goes something like this.
Connie Curtis Crayton (b. Dec. 18, 1914 in Rockdale, Texas), got a late start in music, enthralled by the sound of Charlie Christian's electric guitar (then appearing with the Benny Goodman Sextet) on the radio, he went out and bought himself a cheap guitar. He was almost thirty and his only other musical experience was a ukulele he had as a child. Having relocated to the California Bay Area to find work during World War II, Crayton, who was known to all by his childhood nickname Pee Wee, managed to go right to the top for lessons. T-Bone Walker was appearing at Slim Jenkins Place in Oakland, California, and Crayton pestered the blues star until Walker agreed to teach him to play. Crayton went out and bought an expensive Gibson hollow bodied guitar and amp, and took to practicing what T-Bone was teaching him. First just chording behind Walker, then learning the single string leads that made Walker the first (and at the time virtually only) electric blues guitar star. Until this time rhythm and blues was a saxophone driven music, the guitar, when present at all was well in the background. Guitar at that time was the instrument of hillbillies and country blues players. After wood shedding with T-Bone Walker, he sought out another guitar teacher-- John Collins, then a member of Nat King Cole's Trio. The only other place guitar players were prominent were in the west coast "cool" blues trios such as Cole's group and Oscar Moore's Three Blazers whose guitarist Johnny Moore would become another early, influential electric guitarist (the Three Blazers' singer and pianist- Charles Brown would become a huge star on his own in a few years with Drifting Blues). Collins would teach Crayton the big jazz chords, the diminished 7ths and 9ths, chords that take all four fingers (imagine that?), that would give Crayton's music its unique edge.
Pee Wee Crayton joined his first group in the early 40's, playing with Count Otis Mathews' House Rockers, the same group that Johnny Otis had started with a few years earlier. Soon he formed his own trio in the classic west coast style and made his first records for the Laurent and Gru V Tone labels around 1946-7. A local record distributor clued in the Biharis down in L.A. and Joe Bihari traveled to Oakland to catch Pee Wee's act, signing him immediately.
His first session for Modern, in September of '48 would produce the huge "race" hits Blues After Hours (#1 R&B) and I Love You So (#6 R&B) and as well as Pee Wee's Boogie, Bounce Pee Wee,
Rock Island Blues, and Rosa Lee. All good sellers. His second session, three months later birthed Texas Hop (#5 R&B), which along with the afore mentioned Blues After Hours were the first electric guitar instrumental hits ever. It was also Crayton's last top ten hit although Pee We Crayton would record for Modern for the next three years cutting some great sides, often with Modern's secret weapon-- tenor sax player/band leader/arranger Maxwell Davis soloing on sax. Among the highlights of his years at Modern are Austin Boogie, Poppa Stoppa (named for the New Orleans DJ), Crayton Special, Central Avenue Blues, Huckle Boogie, Rockin' The Blues, Crayton's Blues, Oh Yeah Boogie, Blues For My Baby, and my favorite-- Pee Wee's Wild. Many of these were good regional sellers, especially on the West Coast. By the way, for these sound samples, on the tunes from the Crown LP, I used samples taken from the vinyl since I like the cheesy echo effect they added to the LP, although Ace's remastered CD's are actually much better sounding.
Soon Crayton formed a band and hit the road, drawing big crowds where ever he played, often booked in a "Battle Of The Guitars" with T-Bone Walker. It was while stranded in San Francisco with a down and out mambo band that Mickey "Guitar" Baker encountered Crayton's electric blues guitar act and women showering him with dollar bills. The spectacle is what turned Baker from a struggling jazz player into an R&B guitarist supreme. "I said to myself-- I cant do that!", Baker was quoted many years later. Legend has it that Pee Wee Crayton, who had relocated to the L.A. area, hired a young Ornette Coleman to play alto sax in his band, only to leave him stranded by the side of the road in Texas for playing too weird. He appeared at the Apollo in Harlem and was a favorite in the sepia joints on L.A's Central Avenue. Guitar players of the era were often showmen, T-Bone Walker was known for playing guitar behind his head and doing splits while taking solos, and Crayton adopted a lot of his moves, even getting a 300 foot chord at one point so he could walk around the club while played.
By 1951 the hits started drying up and Crayton was disillusioned with the Bihari's who rarely paid royalties and padded out the songwriting credits with fake names to steal writing credits and song publishing royalties. He cut a one off session for Aladdin-- When It Rains It Pours, which Pee Wee was convinced somehow jinxed his career, and another session produced an insanely rare EP for soon to be murdered John Dophin's Recorded In Hollywood label before finally signing with Lew Chud's Imperial Record.
In the wake of Crayton's success, electric guitarists were coming out of the woodwork and more aggressive players like Guitar Slim, Gatemouth Brown and B.B. King were scoring hits with a more violent, distorted, sonic attack. B.B. King's success was especially a problem for Crayton since he recorded for Modern's R.P.M. subsidiary, and the Bihari's began promoting his records over Craytons. It was time for Pee Wee to update his sound, and in 1954 he paid a visit to Leo Fender who gave him a prototype of his new solid body electric guitar-- a thing he dubbed The Stratocaster. The very same guitar seen on the cover of the Crown LP. In April, of '54 Crayton took this guitar to New Orleans where Imperial had booked him studio time at Cosimo Matiassa's Rampart Street Studio. In New Orleans he was backed by Dave Bartholomew's band, the same musicians that appeared on hits by Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis, Little Richard and too many others to list here. These were probably the first recordings to ever feature a Stratocaster, which Fender wouldn't start mass producing for another six months. At Cosimo's he cut four extraordinary performances-- Every Dog Has His Day, Hurry Hurry, the lyrically bizarre Win-O ("I'm a wino/I'm as high as I can be/I have an office in the white house/all the laws are made by me...I have a seat in Congress/right next to Santa Claus") and Do Unto Others. Many collectors over the years have wondered if the latter title didn't somehow find its way into John Lennon's record collection since it sounds exactly like the Beatles' Revolution. This session didn't produce any hits but a second session in New Orleans was held in January of '55 and a third in April of '55. The best of these sides were I Need Your Love, Runnin' Wild (actually a cover of Bartholomew's Country Boy) and Blues Before Dawn, a twangy guitar instrumental update of Texas Hop with a pronounced New Orleans feel-- dig how the horns kick in after Pee Wee's solo, then how Salvador Doucette's rolling piano which doesn't appear until halfway through, drives the tune home.
Pee Wee Crayton would have no more hit records and soon gave up his band, traveling as a solo, using pick-up bands. He recorded for many more labels, usually one or two singles before moving on. The best of these one offs was on Vee Jay in 1956-- A Frosty Night b/w The Telephone Is Ringing. By the early 60's Pee Wee Crayton was a forgotten man and he took a day job, music would be a weekend hobby from then on. In 1970 he recorded with the Johnny Otis Show (see clip) and this led to a deal with Vanguard for whom he made the surprisingly good album The Things I Used To Do. He appeared at festivals, did club gigs, often backing singers like Big Joe Turner and Big Mama Thorton. His playing was always excellent, but somewhere along the way that candy apple red Stratocaster disappeared, replaced by a Les Paul. Crayton stayed in the L.A. area and his final gig, in '85 was backing up Joe Turner in a small club. They both died the same week in June of '85. Shortly before Crayton's death, the British Ace label issued a 10" LP of Modern sides called Blues Guitar Genius, and in the years after his death all his early recordings, including a slew of un-issued stuff would appear, the best being two Ace CD's-- The Modern Legacy Vol. 1 and 2, and one issued in the U.S. on Capitol called Pee Wee Crayton: Pee Wee's Blues: The Complete Imperial and Aladdin Recordings.
Pee Wee Crayton, despite being well served in the re-issue world, is a name that rarely comes up today. It's a shame, since he was not only a pivotal figure, and the second in the line of blues guitar stars that carries on to this day, but he made some unique and excellent music, especially the Modern and Imperial sides. Anyone know what happened to the candy apple red Stratocaster?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Gillian's Found Photo #50

Fang's back with her 50th found photo, and it's a classic. This young lady not only got her trip to Vegas complete with tickets for Elvis himself, she got to meet the man. Date: February 18, 1970 and Elvis was lookin' good. Dig that belt! I wonder what the paper back book she's showing Elivs is? Anyone want to guess? Found photo fans keep an eye on this spot for our first delve into the world of vanity publishing.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Otis Rush

Otis Rush, southpaw.
Otis Rush's recording debut.
Another good 'un, the horns seem be laughing at him.
Otis Rush's masterpiece, with Ike Turner on 2nd guitar.
Otis Rush, a conk and shades. Circa '66, wailin'.
Otis Rush (born April 29, 1935 in Philadelphia, Mississippi) was one of the last truly original blues guitarists, and one of the triumvirate of players (along with Magic Sam and Buddy Guy) who recorded for Cobra Records in the 50's that would became known as the masters of the West Side Sound, even though they sounded nothing like each other. There was no West Side Sound, just a bunch of guys who mostly played clubs in Chicago's west side.
Rush's family moved to Chicago when he was in his early teens and by his early 20's he was playing all over the south and west side making a name for himself. It was the sides he cut from 1956-58 for the Cobra label that remain his finest studio recordings and the basis for his reputation as one of the greats. A left handed, upside down guitarist, his style is as unique as it was stunning. He could summon up a nasty, dirty, bad feeling like no one I've ever heard. Lester Bangs wrote in one of his last articles that it was the sound of "being mugged by an iceberg".
Which is fairly accurate. I'll never understand why, in a world where there are so many guitarists who can play their instrument really well, they mostly sound exactly the same in terms of tonality, phrasing, etc. Anyway, Rush began recording for Cobra in July of '56 and his debut disc-- I Can't Quit You Baby b/w Sit Down Baby (Cobra 5000), was a minor hit that would become something of a standard. Sit Down is a version of Willie Dixon's (who produced and played bass) Little Red Rooster, later a hit for Howlin' Wolf and the Rolling Stones. Here's an interesting alternate take. Wayne Bennett is on second guitar and Big Walter Horton is playing the harmonica. He returned to the studio that fall to record the awful (despite the promising title) Dixon tune Violent Love and a b-side My Love Will Never Die, issued as Cobra 5005. In early 1957 Cobra brought him back in the studio to wax Groaning The Blues and If You Were Mine (Cobra 5010) in a session with Little Walter on harmonica and young Jody Williams on second guitar. A few months later he was again recording, with Love That Woman and Jump Sister Bessie issued as Cobra 5015, and again Little Walter is present along with Louie Myers from Walter's band on guitar. Rush closed out the year with his fourth single for Cobra-- Three Times A Fool b/w She's A Good 'Un. Otis Rush's first single in 1958 was It Takes Time b/w Checking On My Baby (Cobra 5027) on which he is supported by Little Brother Montgomery on piano, and the great Freddie Below who gave Muddy Waters' Live At Newport it's propulsion on drums. I love the way the horns seem to be laughing at Rush on Checking On My Baby, as though they're part of fate's evil plan for him. These discs didn't sell very well and until recently were fairly easy to find on 45 or 78 RPM, I found copies of all his discs at both speeds for less than a dollar in Boston in the early 80's.
Otis Rush's greatest moment in the studio came at some point in mid-58 when he waxed Double Trouble and Keep Lovin' Me Baby (Cobra 5030) along with All Your Love and My Baby's A Good 'Un (Cobra 5032). The all star band behind Rush on these two discs was made up of members of Ike Turner's Kings Of Rhythm (Ike Turner-guitar, Jackie Breston- baritone sax, Carlson Oliver- tenor sax, Eddie Jones- tenor sax) along with Willie Dixon on bass, Odie Payne on drums, and Little Brother Montgomery on piano. Now that's a band! There's a question as to who's playing the solo on Double Trouble, some think it's Ike, but after many careful listens, I think it's Rush. Here's an alternate take of Double Trouble. The way that Rush and Ike Turner's guitars mesh set a truly bad vibe for the song, it's one of the most bleak and unrelenting performances in the entire blues canon. It sounds like Rush's whole world is caving in on him, only Percy Mayfield would make greater records of such a depressing nature. This session would also be the end of his tenure at Cobra, which soon went out of business, but Rush and Cobra went out with a bang, if not many record sales.
Otis Rush wouldn't record again for two years when he signed to Chess who recorded him in two rather lacklustre (compared to the Cobra sides) sessions, the best tune being So Many Roads, So Many Trains, which Chess issued in 1960 to little notice. Another two years would go by until his next session, this time for Duke he waxed the amazing soul pumpin' Homework b/w I Have To Laugh, using a large horn driven studio band that included Lafeyette Leake on organ and Lefty Bates on guitar. Homework was a regional hit, but he never recorded for Duke again, and whatever momentum he had built up in his recording career was lost.
From there on, Rush would record for strictly for the white blues market. There are a few decent tunes and perfomances on the Vanguard Chicago-The BluesToday! Vol. 2 LP (the instrumental Rock is particularly good), but from there his discs would get progressively duller.
Mourning In The Morning (Cotillion) in 1969 was the album that was supposed to make Rush into the new Albert King, produced by some goofy San Francisco rock musicians whose names I can't remember, it's not much of a record. Some folks like his 1975 Cold Day In Hell (Delmark), but I find it quite stiff and lacking in the pathos of the Cobra sides.
In the late 80's and early 90's Otis Rush was a regular at the old Tramps on 17th Street (see my Esquerita posting on for more on that place), and his performances ran the gamut from painfully dull to stunningly brilliant, burning, searing, guitar workouts, although I think I saw more of the former than the later, on a good night, he could not be topped. Something of a misanthrope, he seemed to take pleasure in boring the audience to tears, then when the club was empty, start wailing away, playing amazingly to the empty seats.
Otis Rush really didn't start receiving the acolytes due to him until the late 90's when he won Grammy for "best traditional blues album", but by that point his skills had diminished quite a bit. He had a stroke in 2004 and has not been able to perform since. So somewhere, in some bed, sits Otis Rush, no longer able to support himself with music. What is is day like? Is he in pain? Does he have decent medical care? He is still alive, but few seem to care. It's a shame, because as one of the last authentic bluemen left, he could have finally made some real money.
I hope he has decent life and cable tv. He certainly earned them.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Emmett Miller

Emmett Miller with F.E. Miller, the math bit would later be adopted by Abott & Costello, and later by Bernie Maddoff.
There is little I can add to the subject of Emmett Miller that hasn't already been covered by Nick Tosches in his definitive volume Where Dead Voices Gather (Little, Brown & Co. 2001)
or in early pieces he wrote in Country: America's Biggest Music (Stein & Day, 1977, reprinted as C0untry: The Twisted Roots of Rock'n'Roll by DeCapo, 1996) or the long history of Miler he wrote for the Journal Of Country Music (can't remember which issue or volume and am too lazy to dig through the cellar for it), except for the above clips of Mr. Miller himself, segments from very rare films.
Miller, for the un-inititated is best remembered for recording the original version of Lovesick Blues, the tune that catapulted Hank Williams to stardom . A white man who sang in blackface,
he was an anachronism even in the late 20's when his records where originally released by Okeh, a throw back to the Minstrel Shows that became popular after the civil war. Other singers who performed in black face at some point in their careers were Jimmie Rodgers,
Al Jolson, even blues singer Furry Lewis. Back then every major record company had a section
of their catalog devoted to "coon songs", and judging by how many of these things still turn up, they must have been very popular. One can argue that the Rolling Stones are nothing but an updated version of a Minstrel show. In 1996 Sony's Legacy division issued a twenty song selection of Emmett Miller & his Georgia Crackers (actually studio musicians including the Dorsey Brothers and Eddie Lang), it's still available and Miller's music, although it may be an acquired taste, is well worth hearing. It falls between the cracks of country, blues and jazz, but his voice, with it's weird yodel was a wondrous instrument, and the original version of Lovesick Blues is one of the greatest records ever recorded. You can also find the complete works of Emmett Miller here if you want to sample before you buy (BTW, did anyone notice on page 11 of the booklet to the Legacy edition that the liner note writer claims that no copies of Miller's first record have ever turned up, but on page two of the booklet is a picture of the record! No great fact checkers those Sony people....). I'm not going to argue the political incorrectness of blackface, you can read Nick's book for that, but Miller's music was important, unique and great. The above footage is of historical interest not because it's funny (it's not funny at all, which almost makes it funny) but simply because it's the only look we have at a great and mysterious musician, a name from the past thought to be lost to time. Ah, the wonders of the internet.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cockfighter (1974)

From Cockfighter, Monte Hellman's best movie.
I was quite surprised a few months ago while leafing through the New York Times Sunday Arts section, to see that director Monte Hellman was not only still alive, but at age 78 has a new movie coming out (called Road To Nowhere, it hasn't been released yet, if it gets a theatrical release it will be a minor miracle).
Hellman's career consists of twenty films of varying quality, and I must admit, I don't quite get what many consider his masterpiece-- Two Lane Blacktop (1971), a fairly dull, counter culture road movie in the style of Easy Rider that follows Dennis Wilson and James Taylor around in some hopped up muscle cars (the cars are the best part of the film). But Hellman made one of my favorite movies of the 70's, a peculiar thing called Cockfighter, based on the novel by Charles Willeford (who also wrote the screenplay), whose plot line it follows closely. Starring the always great Warren Oates, with a supporting cast led by Harry Dean Stanton, Laurie Bird, and in lesser roles Ed Begely Jr., Troy Donahue, Richard B. Shull, and even a cameo by Willeford himself, Cockfighter is a genre film without a genre. The story revolves around a professional game cock fighter who has just lost everything including his car, trailer and birds, and has vowed not to speak until he wins the coveted award for best cockfighter (there really was such a thing, probably still is in Puetro Rico and the Philippines where cockfighting is still legal).
It is one of Oates best performances, and the film captures the hidden world of pro cockfighting circa '74 in all its gory, southern white trash glory. Like very few other movies (I can think of Payday and Walking Tall, both covered in recent posts), it capture the south at a strange and pivotal time, when things were going from redneck to suburbia fast. I was a teenager in Florida at the time, and I can attest to the accuracy of the characters. The world it shows is long gone, put to death by Federal legislation that banned all cockfighting (it was still legal in parts of Louisiana and Arizona until the late 90's). All the extras and bit players look like real people, not actors, the settings are real, even the bird fights look real (and probably were, it's hard to get chickens to act).
While I'm not advocating that the laws against blood sports like cockfighting be rescinded (although some of the mixed Martial Arts you see on TV are almost as bloody), you can loathe the subject matter and still enjoy this movie for what it is. A look at a piece of the underside of Americana long gone. Cockfighter really is a great, forgotten movie. It deals with a man and his personal code of honor, and about living with and up to that code. And about keeping your mouth shut. I'm not sure who the producers of this film envisioned as their audience, but it is a riveting film. I first saw it at a drive in when it came out in '74, and re-watching it on DVD all these years later, it really holds up, in fact, it seems to have improved with age. Oates was one of the most under rated actors of his generation, he never gave a bad performance, but Cockfighter was one of his low budget best. Harry Dean Stanton, as his nemesis is equally great, and also quite believable in his role (as an aside, I wish they didn't kill off his character in the HBO polygamist soap opera Big Love, he was perfect as the old time Mormon prophet). You can rent Cockfighter from Netflix or buy it on DVD. I think it's Monte Hellman's real masterpiece.
Addendum: Check out this documentary on Screamin' Lord Sutch with some very rare footage of Joe Meek over at thee Bedazzled blog. It was made in the early 60's and I'd never heard of it before. Also, check out Ben Vaughn's interview with Jerry Blavant-- the Geater with the Heater, legendary Philadelphia DJ, and probably the last of the great old time motor mouth jocks still on the air (50 years!).

Let's Hear It For The Orchestra

Let's Hear It For The Orchestra
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