Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Robert Ward: Another Dead Guy....

Another great one gone, Robert Ward died Christmas day, he had been sick for years, been through two strokes and finally his kidneys rotted out. He left his family, including 68 grand children destitute. If you'd like to help them you can bundle up some money, gold or diamonds and send them to his wife at:
Roberta Ward
P.O. Box 217
Dry Branch, GA, 31020
US of A
Ward, who never really had a hit record under his own name was one of the greatest unheralded R&B/soul guitarist and singers of the sixties. He issued many fine sides
on the LuPine, Thelma (run by Berry Gordy's sister) and Groove City labels both under his own name and as leader of the Ohio Untouchables who, after Ward's departure would later morph into the 70's funk superstars/superstuds the Ohio Players. He also worked with the great Detroit vocal group the Falcons, an early super group of sorts led by a young Wilson Pickett along with at various times Sir Mack Rice (who wrote "Mustang Sally"), Eddie "Knock On Wood" Floyd, and Joe Stubbs (brother of the Four Tops' Levi Stubbs) who sang lead on their biggest hit You're So Fine).
Ward was best known for the "watery", tremolo laden guitar sound produced by his Magnatone amp, Lonnie Mack was his most famous disciple, adapting Ward's sound on his early hits on the Fraternity label-- Wham, Memphis, Omaha, et al.
Robert Ward popped out of the womb on October 15 of 1938 in the country side near Luthersville, Georgia to sharecropping parents. He sang in the church, learned guitar from his mother and listened to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Dixie Hummingbirds
and post war blues singers like John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1957 and upon discharge formed the Brassettes in LaGrange, Georgia eventually finding steady work as albino rocker Piano Red's backing band. In 1960 he relocated to Dayton, Ohio in search of work where he put together the Ohio Untouchables. They were discovered by Detroit record producer Robert West who signed them to LuPine and also used them to back up the Falcons on some incredible 45's including their timeless and heart wrenching hit I Found A Love (perhaps the closest Wilson Pickett ever came to matching the shouts of his idol
Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales) and other sides including this one: Let's Kiss And Make Up on which Ward solos prominently.
Amongst the Ohio Untouchables' best sides are some monster guitar instrumentals like Uptown, Workout, and Hot Stuff as well as Robert Ward's gospel tinged vocal efforts like Your Love Is Amazing, Fear No Evil, I'm Tired, and The Swim. Finer sides you shall not hear, not in this world, not in this life. His complete 1961-67 discography can be had on the Relic CD Robert Ward- Hot Stuff.
The aforementioned sides failed to sell and Ward ended up playing on many sessions for Motown including hits like the Undisputed Truth's paranoid classic Smiling Faces (Tell Lies) and the Temptations uber-smash Papa Was A Rolling Stone. In 1977 Ward's first wife died of a cerebral hemorrhage leaving him with six children. He moved back to Georgia working outside of music in a lumber mill and in small time crime, eventually landing in the poky (where he played in a prison band with Major Lance). He was rediscovered in the early 1990's by New Orleans' Black Top records owner Hammond Scott who had been searching for him for several years. Scott recorded Ward on the 1990 LP Fear No Evil. I had several friends working at Black Top at the time and I remember hearing the original undubbed tapes of that LP and they were fantastic, Ward playing and singing magnificently. Unfortunately, Scott took the tapes and added all sorts of awful 90's touches like ugly digital reverb and lame horn charts. Ward's talent overcomes Scott's shortcomings as a producer on Fear No Evil but his next Black Top record Rhythm of the People (1993) wasn't very good (although if you want it, try here), although the Black Top discs did help him to find work and a small amount of money gigging including a European tour, the discs however do not do his talent justice. I find Black Top one of the most offensive labels of the 90's blues revival in that they could make lame records with some of the finest artists of all time (Snooks Eaglin being another who comes to mind) by attempting to make their discs 90's radio friendly, as if Robert Ward's record was going to get airplay next to Madonna. Had Scott issued the undubbed session tapes in their raw form he would probably have sold a lot more records, as the non-production success of Fat Possum records later in that decade would prove, the audience for old blues and R&B likes it because it is raw, and attempting to market the old masters in competition with the MTV made celeb-u-tards was simply foolish both artistically and commercially. This of course is one of the reasons Black Top no longer exists, and nobody misses it. It doesn't matter now, least of all to Mr. Ward who led a hard life, and left some beautiful sounds. He must be in a better place now. And, hey, dig that leopard print pick guard on his Jazz Master! Hot stuff indeed.


Mr Twang said...

Thanks for this...the Relic disc is great, and Hammond Scott's post-production notwithstanding the "Fear No Evil" album is head and shoulders above most modern soul/blues records I have heard.

Anonymous said...

I was the fanatic who worked behind the scenes for several years to locate Robert Ward, which eventually led to my first phone chat with him in the fall of 1989, after which he journeyed back to Dayton where the encounter with Dave Hussong at Shakin' Dave's guitar store led to Dave hearing Robert do a gig with some of his old buddies from the Ohio Untouchables, and inspired by what he heard Dave got on the horn to Hammond Scott who flew up to hear Robert and signed him to Black Top. Dave was down in New Orleans with Robert with the sessions for the first Black Top album were cut, and Dave sent me a cassette of some of the rough takes from that session. I disagree strongly with the assertions here that Black Top somehow messed up Robert's sound -- what you hear on that first CD is what you hear in the studio. The only thing Black Top did to accomodate Robert's being 30+ years older than when he first cut songs like "Love Is Amazing" is that when they found that he could no longer hit the high notes dead on, they had him take a weekend off from talking, drink a concoction of lemon juice, honey and a few herbals, and then the next week he came in to cut the vocals over instrumental tracks that were slowed down just enough for Robert to hit the highs, then the whole thing was restored to the correct pitch and speed. That is not adulterating Robert's music at all, just giving him the respect due for a guy in his '60s who needed something good to happen in his life. Trust me, Robert appreciated all that ensued. I spent a day at his home in Dry Branch, where Robera cooked up a wonderful southern meal and the grandkids played, while I got my photo taken standing next to K-Po-Kee out in the front yard. Quite a day! I never managed to get Robert any gigs up here in the Seattle area where I live, but we had several good years of contact by phone and letter. I wish Black Top was still around, even though it is true that they did not do a great job on the money end with their artist roster. But that is a subject for some other time.

Anonymous said...

Oops, sorry for the typo; Robert's wife was of course named Roberta!

John Berg

marty spaulding said...

Your posting is pretty rude and condescending. I knew Robert Ward. he had a lot more class than you do.

Anonymous said...

Marty, I just caught up with your brief comment. When you say "rude and condescending", are you referring to my postingof 21 December 2009, or the original article posted here upon Robert's passing? If my comments, I'm not sure where you would be coming from. What did I write that was rude? Or condescending? I simply recounted how I got involved in finding Robert, the role Dave Hussong played in connecting RW to Hammond Scott, the tape that Dave sent me from RW's first Black Top session in New Orleans, etc. Like I said, based on that tape and other details conveyed to me by Dave, the first Black Top album is pretty much what was recorded -- the horns and so forth are oretty much true to the original charts and at least to my ears do not try to make any concessions to "modern" production values -- they simply let Robert's wonderful music get out to a lot more people who needed to hear it. If only the Scotts had handled money better...

John Berg, Seattle area, May 2010

Anonymous said...

One more comment here concerning Robert Ward: A fellow fan in Australia has asked me about an album that Robert is credited (by an interview in Living Blues magazine, No 106 Nov /Dec 1992) playing on by the Sermon gospel singers. Living Blues says the album was recorded in Nashville. Does anyone here know more about such an album? I have several other LPs featuring Robert's wonderful guitar, e.g. the Tad Robinson one, but would love to hear more of his accompaniment work.

Anonymous said...

Was referring to the "another dead guy" header. No offense intended. I was a friend and great fan. "Just another dead guy" offended me.

vibradores said...

Well, I don't actually consider this is likely to have success.

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