Thursday, April 29, 2010

John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker: early promo shot.
Looking menacing for the camera.
Down In The Alley.
Demonstrating his favorite chord.
John Lee Hooker (b. Aug. 22, 1917 outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi) was probably the most recorded blues artist of all time. I don't know how many John Lee Hooker albums, CD's, 78's and 45's I own, and I'm not about to try and count them, but let's just say there's a mess of 'em here, some of 'em are great, some are good and some aren't so good. But he was not only one of the most famous blues singers of all time, he really was probably the most primitive artists to sell a lot of records. His best sides are usually one chord boogies or stomps, crude, distorted and utterly compelling discs, but often obscured by the amount of crap he later recorded and that fills up the record bins. I'm always suprised at how the group of record collectors and fans that grew up in the eighties and ninties know all about obscure acts like Esquerita and Kid Thomas but don't own one John Lee Hooker (or Lightnin' Hopkins or Jimmy Reed) record. They were the rare case of the cream rising to the top, they were the best, but since all three singers made piles of records, I think it confuses people, some of whom bought one or two mediocre or crappy records then gave up. If you are perplexed as to how to go about sorting out the good records from the bad ones, my advice stick with his earliest, Detroit recorded sides, where he mostly plays solo with just his distorted guitar and stomping foot (which was amplified and is an essential part of his sound). He made some good records with bands, especially the early ones on Fortune which are so chaotic they're almost funny.
Since, like Lightnin' Hopkins he kept no regular meter, most musicians found it nearly impossible to follow him, although he did cut some good sides with a small group for Vee Jay in the early 60's (using many of the same players that appeared on Jimmy Reed's sides), some of which were even hits (Boom Boom, Dimples), and are probably his last great records. He'd go on to record with many rock stars including Canned Heat, all the various superstars that appeared on his last (Grammy winning!) albums like The Healer, even Miles Davis (on the soundtrack to the film Hot Spot). These discs are best left to completest and fans of dull bar band blues. Hooker's recording career was always like this, right from the start, Hooker would record a few tunes for anyone with cash in hand, often changing his name, so he appeared on labels like Chess, King, Modern/RPM, Fortune/HiQ, Specialty, Regal, Gotham, Sensation, etc. not only under his own name but as John Lee Booker, John Lee Cooker, The Boogie Man, Birmingham Sam, Johnny Williams, et al. When Hooker himself wasn't out hustling the record companies, his first producer Bernie Bessman was leasing the many sides he stockpiled to as many labels as he could find to take them. Bessman was a good producer for Hooker, he came up with the idea to amplify his foot, and even when his judgements were questionable (such as the strange organ overdubs on some tunes like It Hurts Me So), they were at least interesting, even hilarious on occasion. No matter, what ever name Hooker used, whatever label he ended up on, there was no mistaking his sound.
When I want to hear Hooker, I prefer to pull out a few 78s and spin 'em. Since he usually only played one chord, listening to an entire box set, or even a whole CD, can be a tiring experience, but hearing Boogie Chillen', Burnin' Hell or Cry Baby blasting out of the speakers is a lot of fun. I still think the cheesy old Crown album, which can still be found at reasonable prices, despite the crappy pressings, are a lot of fun and are my favorite Hooker albums. If you want to get started on the cheap you can check out the links below, I don't feel bad directing you to free downloads since none of these labels ever payed Hooker any royalties anyway, and he didn't expect them to, he never signed a contract and got his cash up front. Of course it's good to move fast, these things disappear pretty quick. A quick browse through the Captain Crawl MP3 search engine turned up enough good Hooker sides to keep you busy for a month. Try these for starters, and then you can find you way around the ones you want to actually buy:
One of my personal favorites is the Crown LP- John Lee Hooker Sings The Blues (early Modern/RPM sides), here are 137 early Detroit sides (1949-52) including Modern/RPM, Sensation, Fortune/HiQ, Specialty and King recordings. Charley Records' This Is Hip collection of early 60's Vee Jay hits are his last great sides in my estimation and show him in a band setting that for once sound great. This site has three CD's worth of mostly alternate takes from the early Detroit years, issued under the dumb title Alternative Boogie. Here's some more early sides including all his Fortune material and the RPM sides with Eddie Kirkland (1953-54).
Despite his crude guitar playing, his style is nearly impossible to replicate. It was a sound that was as much a part of him as his earlobes and toenails. If you don't believe me, try playing along to any of the above records.
That said, Hooker who died in June of 2001, was a rare blue man who was able to capitalize on his talents. For a guy who stuck to one chord for fifty years, he did pretty well for himself. He outlived virtually every one of his contemporaries and died a very rich man. His later day appearences with his Coast To Coast Blues Band may have exemplified the worst examples of an authentic bluesman catering to suburban, white tastes, but when he perfomed solo (I only remember him making one such appearence in NYC at Hunter College in the early 80's when he played an indredible solo set. Later shows I saw where interesting for the in between song tuning up which was the only time you could his his guitar) he was still the master of a style that he pretty much invented. There is no school of John Lee Hooker, although R.L. Burnside
and African player Ali Toure Farka were obviously inspired by his one chord drone, and his music deserves to be heard by everyone who likes that sort of thing, if only such folks could sort the great sides from the dull ones. Well, I hope this helps.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Velvet Underground- Pre-Op

The Primitives, 1964
Lou Reed with an early high school group- The CHD (Dry Hump Club, backwards).
L.A. & the Eldorados, Syracuse, N.Y., early 60's.
Primitives 45.
Even the Velvet Underground seem to be sick of the subject of the Velvet Underground. Recent years have seen such holy grails as an acetate version of their first LP with four alternate takes, and a killer live set from the Gymnasium in New York City, '68 (John Cale's final show) surface, and neither the group members or their record companies couldn't be bothered to cash in on them. Both items, essential for the Velvets fans are all over the web for free download.
Yet, like the Stooges, the Velvets represent to me one of those things you discover as a teenager that changes your life. Their music hinted at a world different from the one I'd grown up in, full of all sorts of forbidden pleasures, stuff that you didn't see on TV or hear on the radio (there was no Internet back then, only fanzines). But their story has been told so many times there's really nothing to add to it, other than the handful of discs that Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico left behind in the years before the Velvet Underground. This stuff has been bootlegged (and some of it legally re-issued) a thousand times, but it's worth revisiting one more time, since there's some great rock'n'roll there, and if the Velvet Underground had never formed, we'd all be wondering just who the fuck where the Primitives? So, for those who've heard and read it all before, my apologies for not digging up some obscure, old cotton picker to blogerate about, and for those of you who haven't heard this stuff, I think you're in for a treat, as these are some of the most unique garage style rock'n'roll records what ever been made.
Lou Reed had been playing guitar in high school rock'n'roll bands since his early teens, and one of his earliest bands-- the Shades managed to get an audition with record man Bob Shad who had been an A&R exec at Mercury and produced sides by Charlie Parker at Savoy before starting a handful of his own labels, recording the likes of Lightnin' Hopkins, Sonny Terry, and Smokey Hogg for the Shad label. Eventually he'd score with Big Brother and the Amboy Dukes on his Mainstream label.
Shad was based out of Long Island, and someone Reed knew from high school knew his daughter. As he was just starting up his Time and Broadway labels, he signed the Shades, changing their name to the Jades to avoid confusion with the Shades of Sunglasses (Big Top) fame. According to Reed they weren't a real group, just Lou and his guitar and two other guys he knew from Freeport High, Phil Harris (an interview with Harris on the subject of the Shades/Jades can be found here) and Al Walters. Their one 45-- So Blue b/w Leave Her For Me was issued in 1958 on Time, written by Reed and Harris (who sang lead), it's charmingly inept high school rock'n'roll, unfortunately for the Jades, Time's next release-- the Bell Notes' I've Had It would become a huge hit and steal their thunder. I've Had It is a much better record anyway, when playing guest DJ on the old WPIX-FM in 1979 Reed played it, noting it was one of his favorite records. Soon Reed was off to college, attending Syracuse University, where he majored in English Lit. and on spring break of '62 he returned to Shad to record demos for two tunes-- Merry Go Round and Your Love, both tunes featuring King Curtis on sax and Dave "Baby" Cortez on organ, they weren't released until the nineties when the UK Ace label put them on a Time/Broadway compilation. If you want to hear these records they way they were meant to be heard, at 45 RPM and on vinyl, you can order the Norton Records EP- Lou Reed: All Tomorrow's Dance Parties, which not only has all four tunes but great photos of the Shades and Lou's high school year book shot.
After graduating from Syracuse, in 1963 Reed went to work for Pickwick Records, a budget label based in Long Island City, Queens, that specialized in cheesy rock'n'roll records that sounded sort of like recent hits. Teamed up with Terry Phillips (whose family might have owned the label) and Jerry Vance (real name Jerry Peligrino), he was put to work writing and recording tunes in the pre-Beatles rock'n'roll styles of the day. From this period we get some excellent garage rockers including the Roughnecks' You're Driving Me Insane and the Beach Nuts' Cycle Annie, both of which feature Lou singing lead. They appeared on an LP called Soundsville on the Design label, Cycle Annie also showing up on another Design album called Out Of Sight. Other noteworthy tunes from this team are the Intimates I've Got A Tiger In My Tank, which was also issued under the Beachnuts name, the versions are slightly different. Another excellent Reed-Phillips-Vance tune from the Out Of Sight LP is Soul City by the Hi-Lifes, a tune that also appeared on 45 by the Foxes on the Bridgeview label in a much inferior version. The Fleshtones would cover Soul City for Henry Jones' experimental short film in 1979. Another Reed-Vance-Phillips tune, this one issued under Terry Phillips name-- Wild One isn't half bad.
Enter John Cale, a Welsh expatriate who was studying classical music at Tanglewood on a scholarship and had shocked his professors with a recital that featured him demolishing a table with an axe. He had played with John Cage and was working with experimental "new music" composers like Lamonte Young and Terry Riley. There are two stories as to how he came to hook up with Reed. The first, as he tells it, was at a party. Reed, Phillips and Vance were in attendance and being the only other long hairs in the room they naturally gravitated towards each other. Another story emerged in Branden W. Joseph's book The Dream Syndicate-- Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage. According to Joseph, Tony Conrad, who wrote long, droning symphonies which Cale played on, the bridge of his viola filed flat and electrified to create a high decibel drone, had a tape of the Primitives, Lou Reed's group, which featured Lou's "Ostrich" guitar, that is, a guitar with all the strings tunes to one note (Metal Machine Music was recorded using one). Conrad had a tape of the group rehearsing and played it for Cale who demanded to know who they were and then sought them out and joined the band in time to collaborate on their first and only disc-- the incredible single-- Do The Ostrich b/w Sneaky Pete which came out on Pickwick in '64 and with the writing credited to Reed-Vance-Phillips-Cale.
How Tony Conrad came to have a tape of the Primitives, and if the Primitives even existed before Cale met Reed, and where is that tape today? Those are three questions that we may take to our graves, but if someone out there really wants to dig up the story, I for one would love to read it, and hear that tape. On the other hand, the story can be so much ho-hah.
But with Cale involved the quartet came up with one of their best records yet-- Why Don't You Smile Now, which appeared on the b-side of the All Night Workers 45 Don't Put All Your Eggs In One Basket on Round Sound. The All Night Workers were a Syracuse based frat band that Reed occasionally played with, their organ player Steve McCord having been Reed's college roommate. Somehow the tune made it across the pond and was covered by the dear stalker wearing R&B/garage band the Downliner's Sect. Some people prefer the Sect's version, but I like the All Night Workers better for its drone factor. There were a few more tunes that emerged from these years, unfortunately they pretty much suck--- Roberta Williams- Tell Mama Not To Cry b/w Maybe Tomorrow (Uptown), Donnie Burkes' version of Why Don't You Smile Now (Decca) and Ronnie Dickerson's Maybe Tomorrow (same tune as the Roberta Williams, it's on the Out Of Sight LP) aren't really worth all the work of burning them to MP3 format. Sorry, completests, I'm feeling lazy, and they're only worth hearing once, if that. There may be more tunes out there, anyone know? The above are pretty much what I am sure are records with Reed (and Cale's) involvement. By 1965 they'd both left Pickwick and joined forces with fellow Syracuse graduate Donald "Sterling" Morrison and Angus Maclise (soon replaced by Maureen Tucker) on guitar and drums respectively to form the Velvet Underground. Enter Andy Warhol, and the rest is history.
Meanwhile, across the pond, German born Christa Paffgen, who had renamed herself Nico, had done some modeling and acting (appearing in Fellini's La Dolce Vita) and was seen on the arm of Brian Jones and Bob Dylan. She began her musical career in 1963 singing the theme song for a French film called Strip-Tease, in which she also starred. I've never seen it, but the theme song is typical of the Ye-Ye girl style popular in France at the time. Except she sings in French with such a thick German accent it's almost like a Mel Brooks parody of a Ye Ye girl. Nico next showed up in London in 1964 and Andrew Loog Oldham signed her for one single issued on his Immediate label, produced by Jimmy Page I'm Not Saying b/w The Last Mile, it was released without a picture sleeve, which would have been the best part of the record if it had. A year later in New York she would be forced on the Velvet Underground by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrisey who thought they needed a more charismatic front person. After a short affair with Lou Reed, she was fired from the group for stopping a rehearsal dead with the words-- "I can no longer sleep with Jews". My own account of a night babysitting Nico back in the late 70's were the subject of an early posting on this blog back in 2008. It would be a long, hard road for Nico from Strip Tease to her version of Das Lied Der Deutschen (Island, 1974) to her untimely death in Ibiza where she fell of her bicycle.
Evidently the Primitives did do a few live shows to promote The Ostrich, and there's even been mention of a tv appearance. Talk about holy grails, perhaps somewhere right now, in a warehouse in Long Island City sits a reel of tape of the Primitives live, or some video footage of them performing the Ostrich and Sneaky Pete. Stranger things have turned up. Can a Pre-VU box set be somewhere in our future?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tarheel Slim (Allen Bunn)

Tarheel Slim and Little Ann (guess which one is which).
Early Apollo 78, his orchestra was a trio.
New York City was never a great town for blues and R&B. Audiences here tended to think of themselves as more sophisticated and uptown they bought mostly jazz and gospel, downtown it was show tunes and pop singers, but that doesn't mean there were no blues or R&B recorded here, in fact there was a thriving blues scene, much of it centered around a group of players who had grown up in the North Carolina area and included Sonny Terry, Brownie and Stick McGhee, and today's subject-- Allen Bunn, aka Tarheel Slim. Born Alden Bunn in the country side outside of Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1924, Bunn is rarely written about these days, which is suprising and sad since he made quite a few good records, one certified two sided masterpiece, not to mention a couple of almost hits. Somebody must have bought his records since he kept making them, recording for over 21 years, and they're all fairly easy to find today which means they pressed plenty of copies.
So who was Allen Bunn/Tarheel Slim, and why should we care?
Bunn grew up in the countryside, working in the tobacco fields and listening to his mom's Blind Boy Fuller 78's. Eventually he learned to play guitar, and was heard singing and playing in church by Thurman Ruth, the leader of a local gospel quartet called the Selah Jubilee Singers (they'd soon drop the Jubilee part of their name). Ruth recruited Bunn into his group (putting off his debut until tobacco season was over) and for the next eight years he sang baritone and played guitar with the Selah Singers, who also recorded secular material as the Larks, the Four Barons, and possibly a few other names. As the Larks they cut some nice sides for the Apollo label, and Bunn's lead vocals and guitar can be heard on their 1951 single My Little Sidecar. He had already been recorded as a blues singer by the Gotham label in 1949 cutting four sides with only his guitar for backing, but these would not be released until the 1980's. His first solo sessions to see the light of shellac were for Apollo in '51 where he recorded two sessions that produced four singles-- The Guy With The .45 b/w She'll Be Sorry, Discouraged b/w I Got You Covered, Wine b/w Baby I'm Gonna Throw You Out, and My Flight b/w Two Time Loser. These were issued under the name Allen Bunn, and good as they are, none of them sold very well. He was still touring with the Larks/Selah Singers when he cut his first session for Bobby Robinson, the Harlem based record store owner/producer/entrepreneur who is one of the most important figures in the history of New York City rock'n'roll and until recently could be found sitting out front of his record store on 125th Street until a rent hike finally forced him out. For Robinson's Red Robin label Bunn cut Too Much Competition b/w My Kinda Woman. Some of these discs were issued under the name Allen Bunn others as Allen Baum. Around 1955 he met and married Lee Sanford aka Little Ann and they began singing together, first as The Lovers, under which name they recorded some fairly dull sides for the Aladdin's Lamp subsidiary in 1957. He also recorded with a group called The Wheels on Premium whom he evidently managed (they also recorded as the Federals on Deluxe), these are also some forgettable sides although enough people like Let's Have A Ball that it regularly shows up as a repro, as well as appearing on recordings by the Southern Harmonaires and Mahalia Jackson on Apollo.
In 1958 he entered the recording studio again, this time renamed Tarheel Slim, under the aegis of producer Bobby Robinson and with Wild Jimmy Spruill on guitar and Horace Cooper on piano cut his greatest record, a two sided monster-- Wildcat Tamer b/w Number 9 Train, issued on Robinson's Fury label, it remains one of the pinnacles of New York rock'n'roll. Both sides feature Slim's burning guitar, with Spruill's scratchy rhythm guitar driving both tunes at full steam, they remain the type of classic performances that never sound old or dated. Strangely enough, he never again had a solo record released. His next session, held nearly a year later, introduced the public to the recording duo of Tarheel Slim and Little Ann, and their first disc-- It's Too Late b/w Don't Ever Leave Me was a minor hit. The record was released by both Robinson's Fire label and Chess' Checker subsidiary out of Chicago, not to mention pressing that have turned up on the Hermitage and Bobby Robinson labels. I assume Robinson leased the record to the Chess brothers and then changed his mind. It's Too Late is a doom laden dirge with Slim's tremolo laden guitar work and Ann breaking down into a sobbing fit at the end. Robinson really liked these overwrought crying ballads, and would later have some success with the kings of the genre-- Jackie and the Starlites.
The follow up-- Much Too Late reversed the formula, basically it's the same tune, only this time it's Slim who breaks down. While neither record charted, they were good sellers in the New York area and can be found cheap even today. Speaking of which, I once stumbled onto an entire dumpster of Fire, Fury and Enjoy 45's and 78's on Broadway and dragged home hundreds of free records, every one of them was good. Getting back to our subject, in 1959, Tarheel Slim and Little Ann cut a couple of killer rockers- Security and Lock Me In Your Heart, both tunes are excellent with Slim and Jimmy Spruill's guitar work predominant on both tunes, kind of like Mickey and Sylvia playing rockabilly. Unfortunately their commercial peak had already passed with their second release and soon they were recording drek like covers of country tunes Send Me The Pillow You Dream On and I Love You Because and standards like Good Night Irene. Leaving Robinson briefly they recorded for Atco, then returned to record for Robinson's Port and Enjoy labels. Bobby Robinson had more labels than some people have hairs on their head. Since he was an indie with no way to collect from distributors, every time he'd get a hit record-- Wilbert Harrison's Kansas City, Lee Dorsey's Ya Ya, etc., he'd end up getting run out of business since he had to pay to have the discs pressed but couldn't collect from the distributors until he delivered another hit. Each hit record seemed to be followed by a bankruptcy. Still, Bobby Robinson was a tenacious sort, and always bounced back with a new label, and kept making great records. He would go on to record Lightnin; Hopkins, Lee Dorsey, Elmore James, Wilbert Harrison, and dozens of street corner doo wop groups. Meanwhile Taheel Slim and Little Ann pretty much dropped from sight, their career seemed to peter out around the early 60's and nothing was heard from them until the early 70's when blues researcher Peter Lowery dug up Tarheel Slim to play a few gigs where he performed with an acoustic guitar in the style of Brownie McGhee (who was earning a good living playing to white college audiences in a style that has been dubbed "folk blues"). Tarheel Slim played a few festivals in 1974 and was well received, but once again he seemed to drop from sight. How he spent the years from 1974 until his death in 1977 we do not know, I imagine some of it was spent watching Sanford and Son, Good Times and The Jeffersons. That's what I was doing.
In 1977 he was diagnosed with throat cancer and died from pneumonia brought on by the chemotherapy. These days he's best remembered for Number 9 Train and Wildcat Tamer, which remain favorites among rockers worldwide. A better legacy I cannot imagine.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Waiting For The Big One

The Minister Of Silly Walks can be seen off to your right in the reviewing stand.
This is a military ceremony that was presented to close the border between India and Pakistan who don't like each other much. The roots of their political problems seem to stem from some sort of jealousy over which side has made the best use of that always snazzy fashion accoutrement-- the moustache. Both sides have great uniforms, in fact best I've seen since the Third Reich. Both sides march in a neo-fascist goose step style. Man, them are some amazing mustaches. Now keep in mind, both sides have nuclear weapons. Nobody really remembers what kicked off The Great War (or World War I as we Yanks call it), and it's likely there will be few around to even remember what kicked off WWIII, but mark my words, it's coming. It's obvious the evil cretins that are running the show (our show, their show, the whole show) haven't learned anything from history, and since our entire economic system is based around war, war it shall be. It'll be people dressed like this that will set off the first big explosion, then everyone else will have to retaliate. Modern life does imitate art, more to the point, it imitates the movies. We're way past Clockwork Orange and only moments away from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Dr. Strangelove looks positively quaint these days). In a decade from now the world will look like Road Warrior. Or at very best Solyent Green (notice how the homeless population of New York City seemed to disappear right around the time those "protein bars" started showing up at deli counters everywhere? Where did all those bums, I mean homeless people go? Don't tell me they all bought one bedroom condos for a million bucks?). Yes, there is something big and ugly looming right over the horizon. Duck and cover.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wilson Pickett

These clips come from a short documentry of Wilson Pickett on tour in Germany, 1968. The Wicked Pickett indeed. From the same show.
I'd had this short, German TV documentary of Wilson Pickett and his band touring Germany circa 1968 for years on VHS tape. I just noticed some clips from it on Youtube and decided to post 'em since it's some of the best classic soul footage I've ever seen.
Wilson Pickett, born March 14, 1941, in Pratville, Alabama, to an abusive mother, was sent north to live with his father in Detroit at a young age. He began singing in church and was influenced mostly by the Sensational Nightingales' screaming lead singer Rev. Julius Cheeks.
Pickett joined the Violianaires as a teenager and hit the gospel highway. He eventually left and went R&B, replacing Joe Stubbs in the Falcons, an early Detroit super group, best known at the time for You're So Fine, the group included at various times Sir Mack Rice and Eddie Floyd. He sang lead on their biggest hit- I Found A Love, one of the greatest soul records ever made, Pickett would re-record it several times over the years, but never matched the original version on the Lupine label. Here's another great Falcons record that Pickett sings lead on, Let's Kiss and Make Up with an incredible guitar solo from Robert Ward.
Striking out on his own in the wake of I Found A Love, he signed with Lloyd Price and Harold Logan's Double L label (Logan would be murdered at his Turntable club in 1970) where he charted with a couple of minor hits including If You Need Me (which the Stones covered in '65).
He signed to Atlantic in 1966 and was sent to Memphis to record with the Stax crew including Booker T. & the MGs, kicking off an incredible string of hits- Midnight Hour, Mustang Sally, his killer re-working of Land of 1000 Dances, Funk Broadway, etc. When Atlantic and Stax split he recorded at Muscle Shoals and in Miami with the Dixie Flyers, but Pickett seemed to run out of material and his later Atlantic records were usually covers of recent pop hits-- Hey Jude, Sugar Sugar, Born To Be Wild, good versions, but songs are rarely hits twice in a row, and Pickett's career suffered. Despite selling millions of records, his royalty statement showed him owing Atlantic money. Atlantic, for all their self serving re-writing of history, took the money they made in R&B and re-invested it in white, English rock groups like Led Zepplin, Yes, the Rolling Stones, etc. and left the soul and R&B stars who built the company out in the cold. Pickett was dropped from Atlantic and never had a big hit again, although he had a few minor R&B chart showings as late as 1987 (Don't Turn Away which went to #74 R&B that year).
I miss Wilson Pickett, he was truly nuts, and was always fun for making local news headlines, doing crazy things like taking a loaded shotgun into a bar, doing donuts with his Cadillac on the mayor of Englewood, New Jersey's (where he lived) lawn, shooting one of the Isley Brothers in the head, and other headline grabbing antics. He barely avoided jail time. A friend of mine who will remain nameless played in his band briefly and said if he didn't like the way you played that night you were in for a pistol whipping. The Wicked Pickett indeed. He died in 2006.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gillian's Found Photo #46

I'm at a loss as to any information as to the who, where and when of this photo. Perhaps Dad is showing off his latest invention in poop proof kid pants? The same style of trousers would later be sported on the rock stage first by David Lee Roth in the eighties, and then by Marilyn Manson in the nineties, not to mention Howard Stern's Fartman appearance on various award shows. Anyone out there have a clue as to what manner of people we have here? My first guess is somewhere in Mexico, but if you told me it was from Malaysia I wouldn't argue. Where/whatever is going on here, it's a great photo.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Conway Twitty- The Rock'n'Roll Years

Conway Twitty & the Rockhousers: Limbo rock or just bad breath?
Conway Twitty 1958- His music was as greasy as his hair.
Twitty re-invented as a country singer, pre-perm.
Conway Twitty, born Harold Jenkins, September 1, 1933 in Friar's Point, Mississippi seems to have been written out of rock'n'roll history for some reason. Perhaps his rock'n'roll output was overshadowed by his incredible sucess as country singer, for from the mid-60's until the late 80's he was one of the biggest stars in country music history, he had something like thirty eight top ten country singles in a row, not even counting duets with Loretta Lynn (the best of those being You're The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly). His country records which included such monster hits as Hello Darlin' (1970) You've Never Been This Far Before (1973), Slow Hand (1974) are likable, catchy, well made, countrypolitan schlock. They turned him into one of the oddest sex symbols in the history of popular culture, with permed hair and a glazed look in his eye. Compared to George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard who all made their best country sides during that same time period, Twitty's country output is nothing special. But his rock'n'roll sides (1957-63), to my ears, are much better, in fact he cut out a pretty nice niche for himself as a rocker, with a penchant for making histrionic ballads sound just a tad sleazy. Best remembered for It's Only Make Believe, a disc I can take or leave (for now, let's leave it) his catalog if full of great rockers and sleazy ballads, issued on 45 and LP spread over six years and two labels (three if you count the un-issued Sun recordings) and are worth revisiting since I have no better ideas today. He charted at least half dozen times, starred in three fairly retarded but watchable teen exploitation schlock flicks-- College Confidential (with Mamie Van Doren), Platinum Highschool (with Dan Duryea and Yvette Mimieaux!), and Sex Kittens Go To College (with Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld), all released in 1960, the year It's Only Make Believe topped the charts, and made some excellent albums like R&B '63, Saturday Night With Conway Twitty and Lonely Blue Boy (all MGM) at a time when very few artists really made good albums. Oddly enough, there's not much of a story here, but there's more than enough good music. Twitty was a notoriously private character, in fact he was almost paranoid, and left little hint as to just who he was. Nearly every interview I've ever read with him is full of easy to spot lies and misrepresentations. As Colin Escott wrote-- "It's unlikely that a full picture of him will ever emerge".
Friar's Point is just across the Mississippi River from Helena, Arkansas, where Twitty's father worked for the WPA and on river boats. Twitty, who had begun singing country music at age eleven, was also playing baseball, at one point he was even drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies for their triple A farm team. Twitty, when forced to choose between music and baseball, picked the former after witnessing an early Elvis show and seeing the reaction of the girls. Northern Arkansas had it's share of rockers-- Sonny Burgess and the Pacers (Burgess and Jack Nance would both end up in Twitty's band at various times), Billy Lee Riley, Andy Starr,
and Ronnie Hawkins were all doing well locally and Twitty figured if they could do it, so could he. Unfortunately for him, Uncle Sam stepped in and in 1954 he was drafted and sent to Yokohama. Upon his return he set out for Memphis with an eye on a contract with Sun Records.
Sam Phillips recorded two sessions with Twitty, producing three credible rockers and one ballad, none of which he released, my favorite of the lot being I Need Your Lovin' Kiss, a straight ahead rockabilly number complete with hiccups. The only good thing for Twitty that came out his attempt at becoming a Sun artist was selling the tune Rockhouse (this is Twitty's demo) to Roy Orbison, who'd record it as his second single and the title track for his first LP.
Around this time Twitty, still called Harold Jenkins, hooked up with a fast talking manager named Don Seat. Despite Twitty's repeating over and over of the story of picking his name off of a map of Texas, Seat claims his girlfriend had come up with the name long before young Harold came into the picture. Either way, now renamed Conway Twitty, Seat put him on the road with his band the Rockhousers (here's an early example of what they sounded like live, a version of Maybellene using the same arrangement as Elvis used on the Louisiana Hayride Broadcasts), and soon got him a deal with Mercury. At Mercury he cut three good singles, straight ahead rockabilly tunes like Shake It Up, Double Talk Baby, and I Need Your Lovin', being the best of the batch, but by 1957 rockabilly had already peaked, and Twitty's discs went nowhere. Seat took his young charge to MGM where he cut dozens of singles, EP's and LP's. The highlight of his tenure at MGM commercially being It's Only Make Believe which topped the charts in 1960. Twitty would score lesser hits with Lonely Blue Boy, Dan Penn's Is A Bluebird Blue, the goofy C'est Si Bon, rocked up versions of Danny Boy and Mona Lisa, all doing good business. Since they're easy to find, I won't bother posting them, instead I'd rather hip you to some of the oddball stuff buried in Twitty's catalog, as some are truly fine records, and some records I just dig for whatever reason it is that makes somebody dig a record. One of the best, which he'd picked up while at Sun is Mack Self's I Vibrate, then there's non-chart singles like Hey Little Lucy, the Drifters' Hey Miss Ruby (done before Dion's hit version), Teasin', Golly Gosh Oh Gee, Beach Comber, LP tracks like his sleazy reading of Fever, Long Black Train, Touble In Mind, Just Because and of course, the theme song to Platinum High School. Okay, not exactly Don & Dewey, but I like these sides, they prove Twitty was more than an Elvis impersonator, he was a rocker with his own unique style. Despite the goofy girlie chorus and the producer's attempt to make them sound "teen", Twitty sounds like a sleazy, lounge lizard trying to pass himself off as Troy Shondell. I find these discs tremendously likable, if not earth shattering.
Long after the hits dried up he kept rockin', making records like the aforementioned R&B '63. I found an odd bootleg on the Demand label many years ago at the old Rock On shop in Camden Town, London. I've never seen another copy. It's Conway Twitty and his band Recorded Live At The Castaway Lounge, Cleveland, Ohio, 1963, and with thumpin' versions of Money, Elmore James' Shake Your Money Maker, Ain't Goin' Home, a killer reading of Is A Bluebird Blue that is way better than the string laden studio take, as well as many Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley tunes, we see that Twitty's 1963 set list was pretty much the same as that of the Rolling Stones who were just learning to tune their guitars across the pond, and whose U.S. arrival on the heels of the Beatles a couple of years later would end Twitty's career in rock'n'roll.
What I like about this album is that it's a rare recording of rock'n'roll as it was heard in night clubs that served booze, not teenage package shows full of screaming kids. I can just see the crowd-- bikers, blue collar workers, beehive hair-do's and capri slacks on the women. Twitty knew how to play for these folks, they like their music raw and greasy, and that's just how Twitty played it for them.
The British Intrusion sealed his fate, and by 1965 Twitty was a dead issue as a rocker, he hadn't had a hit in years and MGM dropped him. Soon Owen Bradley signed him to Decca as a country singer and the rest is history. Millions of records later, Twitty would be a country music icon. He would earn and lose huge sums of money, investing in such sure fire losers as Twitty Burgers, a mobile home business, a resort in Mississippi and Twitty City, his amusement park, Twitty blew through millions. Only his music publishing company Twittybird made any money.
In 1993, just 59 years old, he was en route from a gig in Branson, Missouri when he had a brain aneurysm and dropped dead, taking with him a lot of good stories he never got to tell. I know, it's not much of a story, except the part about the Twitty Burgers. Anyone every try one?

Friday, April 16, 2010

John Gilmore

John Gilmore (bottom right) with the Sun Ra Arkestra, 1955 (Sunny in light colored jacked behind Gilmore)
Sun Ra's Science-Myth Arkestra swing out in some cool head gear.
A different John Gilmore than the last one I wrote about. This John Gilmore (b. Oct. 29, 1931, d. Aug. 29, 1995) was one of the premier tenor saxophonists in jazz for over thirty years, yet he played constantly in the shadow of Sun Ra whose band (or Arkestra, or Solar-Myth Arkestra, or Astro-Infinity Arkestra, or whatever variation of the name they used at any given time) he played with since 1953. Gilmore pretty much joined the group right out of highschool and was a staple of Sun Ra's front line reed section for his entire recording career. In fact I know of only one album Gilmore cut without Ra- Blowin' In From Chicago (Blue Note, 1957) on which Gilmore is co-leader with fellow tenor sax player Clifford Jordan, backed by the rhythm section of Horace Silver (piano), Curly Russell (bass) and Art Blakey (drums). Blowin' In From Chicago is a great album. Gilmore, freed from the tight discipline of Ra's band gets to let loose a bit. I guess it's what is considered amongst lovers of sub-classifications as hard bop. Is there such a thing as soft bop? Never mind... here it is, Blowin' In From Chicago: Status Quo, Bo-Till, Blue Lights, Billie's Bounce, Evil Eye, Everywhere. The six selections show us what Gilmore sounded like just jamming, stretching out, groovin' along with a dream rhythm section band behind him. It's obvious that he could have been a big name in jazz had he pursued a solo career. Or he could chosen to play with almost any other band, surely Miles Davis would have hired him in a minute. Or made a killing doing studio work. Instead he stuck with Sun Ra, working for almost no money and suffering Ra's rigid discipline, which meant it Sunny felt like calling a rehearsal at 3 AM to teach the band a new number he just wrote, the band would assemble and rehearse at 3 AM, for as long as Sun Ra felt like rehearsing. It takes a rare type of person who can dedicate such great talents to the vision of another, even if that other is from Saturn.
If the Sun Ra Arkestra was a sort of jazz cult, John Gilmore was Ra's most ardent disciple, and greatest student. He made his best music in the context of the Arkestra, but I post this album because, a) It's rare, it's good, and it's out of print. b) Few people know it exists. c) A friend asked. d) And (this is the important part)-- I like it. As good as Blowin' In From Chicago is, if you want to hear Gilmore's best playing try starting with the Sun Ra albums like Jazz in Silhouette, El Is The Sound Of Joy, Atlantis, The Magic City, Super Sonic Jazz, The Saturn Singles Collection, or any of the other Saturn discs re-issued by Evidence (there's at least 200 Sun Ra albums, nearly all of them good, and all very different from each other). And while you're at it, the blaxplotation/sci-fi clssic film-- Space Is The Place (1974), starring Sun Ra & his Arkestra is readily available on DVD and is like no other film I've ever seen.
John Gilmore's tenor sax (he also played the occasional bass clarinet and various percussion instruments) was/is a remarkably flexible instrument. The music and story of Sun Ra is too big a subject for one blog entry, or even one book, although John Szwed's Space Is The Place (Pantheon, 1997) is a good start. I wrote about Sun Ra's rock'n'roll output in December of 2008 (the links have expired, you'll just have to buy Norton Records three discs worth of Ra's rock'n'roll, a wise investment). John Gilmore was the Arkestra's featured soloist for over four decades and he could swing, play inside, outside, free, modular, straight, blues, and all of the above, often at the same time. When Sun Ra passed away in 1993, the leadership of the Arkestra passed to Gilmore who ran the band until his death two years later, unfortunately at that point his health and teeth were so bad that he couldn't blow much sax, although he was an excellent band leader. When Gilmore died, alto player Marshall Allen took charge and still leads the group today which operates as sort of a Sun Ra repertory company. Meanwhile, for you who are already hip to the alternate universe that was/is the music of Sun Ra, John Gilmore's one session away from the Arkestra- Blowin' In From Chicago is an interesting record, as well as plain old good listening. Like all Blue Note albums of that era, it's well recorded, uses the finest musicians, and has that Blue Note vibe, that late night, smokey night club feel of what 52nd St. must have been like in its heyday. There's not much jazz like that around these days and it's a great loss. I was lucky enough to have been able to see the Sun Ra Arkestra on a regular basis, they seemed to play New York at least once a month for years, and every show I saw was different. Sometimes they just beat on tom toms, shook rattles and chanted. Other times they played the vintage swing charts of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, other times they played long, free style jams, or entire sets of blues, classic swing or Disney tunes. Often they just made a lot of noise. A glorious noise at that. But they were always well dressed, in spangled robes, turbans, moo-moos, etc. And they played their asses off. Rest assured, there will never be another band like that again Well, at least they were well documented.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gillian's Found Photo #45

The Fang is back. And what has she dug up this week? No, this wasn't taken in Germany in 1942, nor it is the Pope with his Nazi scout troup, it's actually from somewhere in the mid-West of the good old USA. There were plenty of pro-fascist "bund" groups in the U.S. before we entered the war, and plenty of folks (Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Ambassador Joseph Kennedy among them) who thought maybe we should have sided with the Narzis as Mel Brooks would call 'em, to fight communism, don't you know.
Hence, there were American Nazi rallies in Madison Square Garden and youth groups like the fun lovin' bunch above who can't wait to grow up so they can wear those snazzy SS uniforms.
Speaking of snappy uniforms, check out this clip here and keep in mind the wearers of the wild head gear also posses atomic weapons. As for the above group, I gotta admit, Nazi youth groups looked a lot less creepy back before the skinhead look became fashion De rigour.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Payday (1974)

Daryl Duke's Payday (1973) with Rip Torn and a cast of fabulous unknowns, is the best movie ever made about American music. Written by Don Carpenter, who never got another screen credit, it appeared two years before Robert Altman's overrated, condescending, Nashville.
Both cover the same territory, the world of country music in the early 70's, but where Nashville attempts to stand above its subject in dismissive judgement, Payday revels in the down and dirty world of country singers; a life of pills, booze, one night stands, and gladhanding assholes at every stop. It gives the viewer an unflinching look at the life a of mid-level country star, played with gusto by Rip Torn, on the road eleven months a year, and it tells the story without the mythologizing and/or moralizing that seems to be built into the music film genre.
I bring up Payday mostly, because I happened to notice that Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for his portrayal of a country singer in an innoucous little film called Crazy Heart. I didn't hate Crazy Heart, I just thought it was dull, but I've always liked Jeff Bridges and I'm glad he won the Oscar simply because he's been in so many good movies over the years (and saved some mediocre ones) that have gone unacknowledged-- Fat City, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Last Picture Show, Heaven's Gate (very underrated), Cutter's Way, Masked and Anonymous (I know it was awful, but I liked it for reasons I can hardly explain), American Heart, insert your favorite here. Now both movies are supposed to be roughly based on the life of Waylon Jennings with a bit of Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams thrown in. If you've seen both films, it's hard to believe anyone two people could examine the same subject(s) and come away with such different view points. I can assure you Payday is a lot closer to real life.
Okay, film critic I'm not, but discounting documentaries (and there's not even a whole lot of great music documentaries), great films about popular music-- This Is Spinal Tap, A Hard Day's Night, Expresso Bongo, Performance, Round Midnight, The Connection (which is more about dope than music, but it does star Jackie McClean), and for you low budget sleaze fans (count me in)-- Wild Guitar, Space Is The Place, Rock Baby, Rock It, The World's Greatest Sinner, hell, you can count 'em in a cigarette pack, are indeed a rare breed. More common are films so bad you can only laugh, or if you're Elvis (who never made a great movie, and only four watchable ones*) shoot out the screen-- Cadillac Records, What We Do Is Secret, Velvet Goldmine and I'm Not There are more recent examples of films that stand out as some of the worst crap I've ever sat through (okay, I turned the channel on Cadillac Records thirty minutes into it, but I just can't imagine it was going to get any better). This dearth of intelligent use of multi-million dollar budgets only makes Payday that much more special. I won't even get into the tired, cliches of the bio pics like Ray, I Walk The Line, and Control, the first two are practically the same movie, the later put me to sleep within minutes.
Getting back to Payday, it's star Rip Torn turned in one of his very finest performances. In his portrayal of country singer Maury Dann, Torn created a character that tells us more about the world of country music than you'll learn by watching ten years worth of CMT. As of late his great talent seems to be going to waste, he hasn't had a decent role since his classic portrayal of Artie, the TV talk show producer (a character based on real life Tonight Show producer Freddie De Cordova) on the Larry Sanders Show, except a tiny part in No Country For Old Men (easily the best thing the Cohn brothers have ever put their stamp on). These days Rip's most entertaining when getting arrested for his drunken antics (he recently broke into a bank after midnight thinking it was his house). Which brings us back to the fact that Payday is an overlooked masterpiece, and anyone who cares about music owes it to themselves to see it at least once.
* Okay, I'll name what I think are the good Elvis movies, if you're curious-- Jailhouse Rock, Loving You, King Creole and Flaming Star. I guess if you held I gun to my head I'll admit I like Viva Las Vegas but it's hard to call it a good movie. In fact it's hard to call any of them good movies, if Elvis wasn't in them, they'd all be unwatchable, except Flaming Star which might have been better off without him.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Black Cracker

Back in October of 2008 I blogged (is that a word?) about Josh Alan Friedman's incredible book Tell The Truth Until They Bleed (Coming Clean In The Dirty Business of Blues and Rock'n'Roll) (Backbeat Books, 2008), which if you haven't read, give yourself detention for a month. Anyway, I mentioned that I'd read Friedman's autobiographical novel Black Cracker, which had been passed along by a mutual friend as a computer file and which had not yet found publisher. Well, the brave souls at Wyatt Doyle Books have finally published Black Cracker, and I take it as my responsibility to hip you to its charms as I just don't think the N.Y. Times Sunday Book Review is going to feature it anytime soon. Friedman's memoir takes us back to Long Island, New York, 1962 where he and his brother (cartoonist Drew Friedman) are the only two white students left at South School, in Glen Cove, L.I., and here we find a cultural tell all that will leave you howling. There's an unforgettable cast of misanthropic tykes led by a kid called Bobo, who lives with his family in a shack on back road. Despite the family attempt at lynching young Josh, Bobo and Josh soon bond, and for the next few years Friedman experiences a cultural metamorphosis where once he leaves the confines of his suburban home, he becomes the black cracker of the title. Kind of pre-pubescent, anti-Johnny Otis if that makes any sense. In these peculiar times when "political correctness" fights it out with
Ann Coulter, while the rest of us keep our heads down, try and pretend that none of it matters, and avoid the tough questions (Does the president's wife straighten her hair? Why are the Little Rascals banned from TV? Why does all hip hop sound like "humpty dumpty sat on a wall"? Is Patti Smith really a Rock'n'Roll Nigger?), I simply can not recommend this book highly enough. It may or may not enlighten you about the dual nature of race relations in this country, but it will sure as hell make you laugh, shake your head, and maybe even think.
BTW Josh Alan Friedman's blog-- Black Cracker Online is well worth checking out, especially for his Josh' Lost New York features.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Wayne Cochran & the C.C. Riders

Wayne Cochran in a get up only he could (or would) wear.
Wayne Cochran: The Man, The Hair. On The Jackie Gleason Show, 1968.
Late 70's, Wayne on guitar.
Another tune from the Jackie Gleason Show.
From C.C. & Company (1970) with Joe Namath and Ann Margret.
Re-Union of the C.C. Riders at Wayne's church in Margate, Florida, 1999.
Growing up in South Florida, which had an eighteen year old drinking age, but nobody ever got carded, you could have driven into most bars on a tricycle back then and gotten served, something we used to do for yuks about once a year was to go see Wayne Cochran & the C. C. Riders, a wacky show band whose home base was a club in Miami on the 79th Street Causeway called The Barn. Usually drugs were involved. I distinctly remember tripping on at least one of these occasions. When the Barn closed, Cochran would often appear at some of the swankier hotels like the Diplomat in Hollywood, Florida (which was full of New York wise guys waiting for things to cool off back home), or Fontainebleau at the north end of Miami Beach (back in those days, the south end of Miami Beach was like an ocean front version of the Bowery), which had a real borscht belt type of crowd, or clubs like the Bachelor's Three in Ft. Lauderdale (one of the three Bachelors being football star Joe Namath, Jerry Lee Lewis played for two weeks straight one night, or for him it was one long night, his long time guitarist, Kenny Lovelace told me on their final night "Jerry ain't been to sleep since we got here, we been havin' so much fun"). Wayne Cochran spent a lot of time in Vegas, where he made lots of money, so when he came back to Florida, three or four times a year, he would really packed 'em in. Most of the audience were middle aged couples in polyester leisure and pants suits trying to act hip, the kind of folks who bought Chicago and Chuck Mangione albums. At least they seemed middle age to me then, when you're sixteen everyone seems old, when I think about it now, the crowd was probably in their early 30's for the most part. Often the places he appeared at didn't want to let me and my friends in (to them, we probably looked like Manson family) and on more than one occasion we were refused entrance for the way we were dressed and/or for having long hair (same thing used to happen at Disney World). It's hard to fathom in this day and age of tattooed and pierced faces that not so long ago you could be beaten or killed for having hair over your collar. But I'll always have a soft spot in my admittedly soft brain tissue for Wayne Cochran, he was like the (wrestler) Gorgeous George of the music world. By the time I got to see him, Wayne Cochran wasn't exactly a rock'n'roll singer, he pitched himself as a white soul man ("The White Knight Of Soul"), but he was closer to Tom Jones, the Elvis of American Trilogy/Never Been To Spain/Steamroller Blues, and Blood, Sweat and Tears (remember David Clayton-Thomas? Don't you hate "muscle" singers?) Anyway, the horn rock sound was very popular back then. But Wayne Cohran was something of a genre unto himself. He wore a huge white pompadour that had to be seen to be believed, fitted out in outlandish outfits that would have embarrassed Liberace (self designed but tailored by Nudie), he was a hoot, but he put on a great show and really worked his ass off onstage.
Wayne Cochran (b. 1939), from Thomaston, Georgia, had been scrappin' around the music biz since the mid-50's. In his late teens he moved to Macon, Georgia and there, in 1955, formed his first band. His debut record, a sleazy rockabilly grinder called The Coo, on the flip was My Little Girl, a light weight, guitar rocker, it was released on Scottie in '59, and became a minor local hit (an even sleazier version-- The Naughty Coo was issued under the name of The Great Sebastian, you'll have to buy the Norton compilation The Rock-A-Round (Norton 332) to hear that one). The Coo was followed by the Buddy Holly style bopper Cindy Marie b/w Edge of The Sea, a snuff ballad in the Endless Sleep vein, it foreshadowed Last Kiss, and was released on the tiny Aire label. He cut a nice a couple of more singles, wrote and produced a good rockabilly record by Bobby Cash on King, he even played bass on Otis Redding's screamer Shout Bamala. Wayne Cochran never scored a hit single and as a recording artist he is best remembered for writing and recording the original version of uber teen snuff ballad, Last Kiss which became a huge hit for J. Frank Wilson, and, I'm told (but have never heard) Pearl Jam. By the early 60's, Wayne's band--the C.C. Riders, had morphed from a small, guitar oriented, rockabilly group into a big, horn driven, soul revue. The money was in live performances, and having acquired a beat up old bus, he hit the road. At this point he had adopted the style of fellow Maconite James Brown (another performer who was inspired by Gorgeous George, that's where Mr. Brown as he liked to be called, got the cape routine from). Wayne Cochran & the C. C. Riders, as they were billed, toured the chitlin' circuit and cut sides for Confederate, Gala, King, Mercury, Chess, Epic, Bethlehem, Drive and I'm sure a few other labels I missed. He made many memorable TV appearances, and in addition to the above clip from The Jackie Gleason Show, he was seen on the Wild Wild West, The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show (great show, once Douglas had John and Yoko as his guest hosts for a whole week), and dozens of others. He even shows up in the 1970 Joe Namath/Ann Margret biker flick CC & Company. But it was the hair that really got wowed 'em in Miami and Vegas. Where as fellow white soul man Roy Head impressed the audience by doing splits, flips, knee drops, and all manner of acrobatic showmanship, all Wayne Cochran needed was his hair. What sat atop his dome was a magnificent work of art. It was a golden, teased, bouffant meets ducks ass kinda thing that was about eight inches high and sprayed, shellacked, and greased until it was the texture of granite. Swept back and piled high, when it caught the spotlight it seemed to glow like a full moon over the ocean. No matter how much he sweated and strained, his hair never changed shape or drooped even a little bit. In fact his hair alone could have been the basis for a religion. I'm sure the religion idea was suggested to him because after the not unusual sad show biz story--struggles with cocaine and booze, etc. , Wayne indeed went into the religion business (where income is tax free, why do you think so many R&B singers go in that direction when the pop hits dry up?) in the early eighties. Starting out with the Abundant Life Christian Church in Margate, Florida he made a brief move to Hialeah, Florida and a name change to The Voices For Jesus Family Center. Today, Wayne and his wife Monica are back in Miami where he's raking it in as a televangelist. He can be seen on the Church TV channel (to find out when/if he's on in your area click here). I watch him when ever I go back to visit my mom in Florida. He's a natural, almost a white Reverend Ike. Every once in a while the C.C. Riders hold a reunion show, usually in his church, the last one was in 2001.
As far as his recorded legacy goes, even without the hair to mesmerize you, Wayne Cochran has made some fairly cool rock'n'roll records early in his career, and even some enjoyable non-rock'n'roll later on. For you rockers are The Coo, My Little Girl, Cindy Marie, Edge of the Sea (sorry about the skips) and his original version of Last Kiss. From the "White Knight Of Soul" days I kind of dig Get Down With It, a re-make of The Coo, these (possibly fake) live versions of John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom and Don & Dewey's I'm Leaving It Up To You , his theme song Goin' Back To Miami, and a sappy version of Charlie Rich's Life's Little Ups and Downs that I sort of like.
As a teenagers who thought we were cool, my friends and I used to laugh at Wayne Cochran, but in my feeble old age, I appreciate what a hard worker and great showman he was. I got a lot of respect for the guy. And even more for his hair. In fact, when I think about it, he was a much harder worker than Johnny Thunders, the only other performer I'd seen at that point who teased his hair that much, and hell, Johnny couldn't be bothered to tune his guitar half the time. When punk rock came in, Thunders, rest his battered soul, sold his hair to Motley Crue for a bundle of dope and started sporting a greasy da (while I'm at it, I refuse to recognize that crappy band that David Jo-has-been has been attempting to sell as the New York Dolls, Johnny and Jerry Nolan where the best part of the group, and without them, they're just a crappy bar band, it looks silly seeing 60 year olds wearing their grandma's clothes). Come to think of it, Wayne Cochran, for sheer flamboyance made the New York Dolls, Gary Glitter, David Bowie, Slade, and all the other glam rockers of the day look like the Allman Brothers' road crew. Wayne Cochran, the man, the legend, the hair.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Willie Joe Duncan & his Unitar

Willie Joe Duncan, his Unitar and the horse he rode in on.
Bob "Froggy" Landers classic with Willie Joe Duncan & his Unitar Rene Hall instrumental with Willie Joe.
Willie Joe (1988) and the b- side of Cherokee Dance.
Although he only made one and a half singles, there are some people out there, me for instance, that have spent an inordinate amount of their life wondering, just who the fuck was Willie Joe Duncan? It wasn't hard to figure out what a Unitar is. A Unitar is a home made one string electric guitar. Willie Joe Duncan was remembered by many folks in Chicago who saw him in the early 50's playing on Maxwell Street with Jimmy Reed. Jimmy Reed, who called Willie Joe by the nickname Jody, reminisced about Duncan in his final interview (Living Blues #1, June 1975):
"...he was doin this old crazy thing, with this one strand of wire, he wasn't lettin' me lose him nowhere; now, how he was catchin' me on that one strand of broom wire I don't know! But he was doing it all right. He could play that string of wire with a bottle, if he didn't do it with his finger he'd do it with a little old piece of leather on his finger or something he'd pick it with. But on that one strand of wire on that board he could find whatever I was playin' on that guitar. Now that was somethin' I sure hated to lose. Yeah, I hated to lose Jody because it just was a crazy old thing".
The last thing Jimmy Reed heard about his old busking partner "Jody" was that Duncan had taken up preaching in California. He hadn't seen Willie Joe since 1955 when Duncan left Chicago for the coast, taking his crazy, one stringed instrument with him. Having settled somewhere in the greater L.A. area, in 1956, Duncan recorded with Bob "Froggy" Landers appearing on Landers' classic-- Cherokee Dance (Specialty), his rockin', distorted, Unitar was the most predominate instrument on the record. On the b-side was Unitar Rock which was credited only to Willie Joe & his Unitar. It's a classic of instrumental rock'n'roll, proving, less is more...but we already knew that. Bob "Froggy" Landers would go on to make one more record-- River Rock parts 1 and 2 for Ensign on which he is backed by a band called the Cough Drops, but Willie Joe was nowhere to be heard.
Guitarist/A&R man/producer Rene Hall, one of rock'n'roll's greatest unheralded guitar players brought Willie Joe back into the studio in 1957 to re-cut Unitar Rock under the title of Twitchy and it appeared on the flip side of Rene's instrumental single Flippin', also released on Specialty. And that, dear readers, appeared to be the extent of Willie Joe Duncan's musical career. Or so it seemed.
The other day I was browsing the Roots & Rhythm mail order catalog that arrived via e-mail and something caught my eye (the one that's permanently bloodshot)-- One String Blues Masters (Delta Cat 1001). A new CD on a label I never heard of. In the brief description of the CD were the words-- "Willie Joe Duncan & his Unitar, previously un-issued 1988 recordings". Needless to say, out came the credit card, and for $16.98 + $5.00 for priority shipping, I am now the proud owner of the complete recorded works of Willie Joe and his Unitar, as well as One String Sam, Eddie "One String" Jones, and Louis Dotson. The later name being completely new to me. Pardon me, I'm going to pull five strings off my Telecaster now... I'm back, that felt good.
So what are these 1988 tracks with Willie Joe Duncan? Recorded in East Palo Alto, California, by a guy named Charlie Lange, we get Willie Joe talking about Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters (whom he claims to have played with), and some unheard recordings where Willie Joe is backed by Chester D. Wilson on guitar, Lone Cat on harmonica and Willie G. on spoons. I have never heard of these three, but while they may not be Rene Hall or Froggy Landers, they do a nice job of backing up Willie Joe, all playing in pretty much the style of Jimmy Reed. There's several instrumental jams, which are very loose and yet another instrumental using the riff that we know of as Unitar Rock and/or Twitchy, this time called Joe Duncan Instrumental. There's also a jam in which he basically recreates what he sounded like playing on Maxwell Street with Jimmy Reed (Chester and Lone Cat filling in for the long gone Reed), called Key Of Jimmy Reed. Had Duncan never moved to L.A., Jimmy Reed's records, might have sounded quite different. Perhaps they would have a Unitar on them. Back to the One String Blues Masters CD --I'm glad I bought it. It's a bit short on liner notes and photos, in fact there's no liner notes at all or even a booklet. But you do get One String Sam's classic I Need $100, originally released on J-V-B, (owned by Joe Van Battle, who recorded John Lee Hooker's first sides, I guess he figured if he did so well with a guy who knew one chord, a guy with one string couldnt' miss. Anyway, it's said to be Don Van Vliet's favorite record, although don't ask me who said it, I forgot, still it's a classic by any one's standards, and these parenthesis are making me claustrophobic). It's also as rare as an honest politician. Personally, I wish the whole package was on vinyl, but clocking in at eighty minutes it would have to have been a two record set (or thirteen 78's) which economically was probably not feasible. Of course if you don't own the original 78 or 45 (does it exist on 45?) of One String Sam's I Need $100 b/w My Baby Ooo, which, unless you're extremely lucky, you could never find for a mere $100 nowadays, this compilation is double essential. There's also a live version from the '73 Ann Arbor Blues Festival and two other tracks from the same date. There's really not a bad track on this CD, although One String Sam and the Specialty sides from Willie Joe are the best things here, Eddie "One String" Jones' Rollin' & Tumblin' is excellent, as is his version of The Dozens, although it's admittedly a hard song to fuck up.
There's no law (yet) that says you need six strings on a guitar. Keith Richard played some of his best stuff with five, the live version of Midnight Rambler for example. Tiny Grimes and Alton Delmore used four, Big Joe Williams played with ten strings, in his case it being like a twelve string minus two, not a regular guitar plus four (does that make sense, if not, send me a telegram and I'll explain it). But when you get down to one string, you really need some imagination. Willie Joe Duncan had that and more. He had a distorted, dirty, sound to go with his unique style. Now what became of the guy? This liner note-less CD does not tell us. If anyone knows please write in and tell me.
Note: if I'm steppin' on any toes here with posting the sounds, e-mail me direct and I'll yank 'em. I figure this blog thing is like radio, if you hear a tune and like it, you'll go buy it. I certainly wouldn't want to hurt Willie Joe's royalty statement. Or hurt a label with the good taste to release Willie Joe Duncan and One String Sam records.

Let's Hear It For The Orchestra

Let's Hear It For The Orchestra
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