Thursday, February 23, 2006


Harmonica Frank Floyd, Rockin' Chair Daddy.
Kenneth Banks, High.

Sam Phillips had finally found what he wanted. It had happened just in time: the blues musicians who Phillips had been recording since 1950 were getting difficult to sign--with growing demand for R&B records from teenagers, inculcated into the music by DJs like Alan Freed, suddenly the obscure and penny-ante business of taping blues artists was becoming competitive and lucrative. By 1954, Phillips had been in legal brawls with larger labels, had watched his most established artists (like Junior Parker, who broke his Sun contract to sign with Duke) fly away and realized that, lacking the budget of an Atlantic or Chess, he was going to be consigned to the minor leagues.

Then, of course, came Sun 209, "That's All Right"/"Blue Moon of Kentucky", in July, and Sun 210, "Good Rockin' Tonight/"I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine", in September. Having at last hit a vein of gold, Phillips greatly curtailed his recording sessions so that he could market and promote Elvis Presley.

So Sun blues records became increasingly rare--by 1956, they were all but extinct. One of the last examples of the wild, guttural blues Phillips had routinely captured on disc for four years was Kenneth Banks' "High"--a vulgar, honking glorification of getting rocked to the gills, featuring some psychotic guitar work by Pat Hare (he of "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" infamy). And "High", like many Sun blues recorded in the mid-'50s, was never released.

As the Sun Records: Blues Years set puts it, Banks is "another blank ledger in the filing cabinet of blues biography." Little is known about the man, other than he was a regular bassist on Sun sessions. "High", recorded on January 8, 1954, featured Mose Vinson on piano and Houston Stokes on drums. Find here.

And when Phillips began recording again in earnest, he focused more on country music--particularly wild, jet-age hillbilly bop. Soon enough would come Perkins, Cash, Orbison and the Killer.

However, Phillips' first attempt to find this sort of country-fried rock & roll had been in 1951, when he recorded an intinerant singer/harmonica player named Frank Floyd. Floyd, born in Toccopola, Mississippi in 1908, had bummed around the country for 40 years, working odd jobs, playing in medicine shows, woodman halls, and on street corners. (Much of the information on Floyd comes from Greil Marcus' Mystery Train.)

Who knows how Floyd and Phillips found each other, but in '51, Phillips was hungry for something he could barely define. "Gimme something different," Phillips told Floyd in the little studio on Union Ave. "Gimme something unique." Phillips passed on the tracks that came out of the session to Chess Records, which released some sides that utterly flopped. This was odd, screeching, simply weird music that no one wanted to hear--the Floyd singles could have been slipped in among the host of scratchy 1920s sides that Harry Smith would collect the following year on his American Folk Music anthology, and none would have been the wiser.

In spring 1954, Phillips and Floyd tried again. The result--Sun 205, "The Great Medical Menagerist"/"Rockin' Chair Daddy", was Phillips' first true rock & roll single, a boast sung by a wild 46-year old man who likely would have scared the hell out of most of the teenagers who bought the record.

Well I never went to college

And I never went to school

So when it comes to rockin'

I'm a rockin' fool!

"Rockin' Chair Daddy" is on Sun Years Vol. 1.

In September '54, one of the greatest bits of American humor ever published (in my opinion, of course) appeared in Mad magazine (issue #16). Called "Restaurant!", it was drawn by the brilliant Will Elder, the Brueghel of comic books, and detailed a hapless family's attempt to get served at a overcrowded chow-mein restaurant, with so much bizarre detail crammed into the margins and backgrounds that ten or twenty reads are needed to get all of it in. I first came across it in The Bedside Mad, one of the best anthologies of the early Mad days, and it's been making me laugh for over 25 years.

Bonus Round

Today's my birthday, so here are some tracks reflecting my state of mind:

The Pretenders, Middle of the Road.
Traveling Wilburys, End of the Line.

"Maybe somewhere down the road aways/You'll think of me and wonder where I am these days. " RIP Roy and George. And to the rest of you, happy weekend.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Ruth Brown, Oh What a Dream.
Patti Page, Oh What a Dream.
LaVern Baker, Tomorrow Night.
Elvis Presley, Tomorrow Night.

The fecund period of pop music between the mid-'50s and the mid-'60s was marked, among a host of other things, by the courtship and intermingling between "black" and "white" musical styles, something that, while it had been present in pop since the 1920s, had never before been achieved on such a massive and popular scale, much to the ire of racists and bewilderment of radio programmers.

Take Chuck Willis' "Oh What a Dream", featured here in two 1954 versions--one by Ruth Brown, the soul queen of Atlantic Records, and the other by Patti Page, the poster girl for '50s mainstream pop vapidity. Yet even while Willis wrote the song especially for Brown, there isn't that much difference between the two takes--Page's version swings far more than you'd imagine, with a piano riff straight out of New Orleans R&B, while Brown's, though she offers a richer vocal (in my opinion), is fairly stately.

And "Tomorrow Night" has an even more mixed pedigree. Composed by the Broadway songwriters Sam Coslow and Will Grosz in the late 1930s, it first became a standard for big bands, such as Ozzie Nelson (of "Ozzie and Harriet" fame) and Horace Heidt; then converted into early R&B by the Ink Spots and Lonnie Johnson. In 1954, there were two distinctive takes--one by LaVern Baker, in a rich, lavish pop production with Ink Spot-like backing vocals and even a 4-bar saxophone solo. And then, from Sun Studio, another take by Elvis Presley, in which the song is reduced to its sinews.

"Oh What a Dream": Page's version, which was a top 10 pop hit, is a bit hard to find on CD (those who want to spend $100 on Page, go here); Brown's, recorded on May 7, 1954, was released as Atlantic 1036 (find here).

"Tomorrow Night": Baker's take, recorded on October 20, 1954, was released as Atlantic 1047, the b-side of "Tweedle Dee" (find here); Elvis' masterful version, recorded on either September 9 or 10, 1954, was not released until 1985 (find here).

Top painting: one morning in 1954, the painter Jasper Johns woke after having dreamt about painting the American flag, so he set about doing so. He began with cheap furniture paint--house enamel--and found it wasn't drying fast enough ("it's a very rotten painting - physically rotten - because I began it in house enamel paint", Johns said later) so he decided on something he had heard about a while before, wax encaustic. Wax encaustic, the same type of material used by ancient Egyptians to adorn mummies, consists of taking pigments, dissolving them in molten wax and then applying the result to a canvas.

So Johns, after covering a bit of plywood with enamel, then layered scraps of newspaper on the surface, to which he applied the wax encaustic (bits of newspaper text are still visible on the final painting, which hangs at the Museum of Modern Art--you can't really see them in a compressed, digitized image).

American flags are "things the mind already knows", Johns would say later. Prints of it now are available as "patriotric art" under the category "September 11th" here.

Friday, February 17, 2006


Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Delilah.
Art Farmer and Gigi Gryce, A Night at Tony's.
Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers, Stop Time.
Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers, Doodlin'.

So what was "hard bop", really? The cynical might say it's a handy bit of jazz taxonomy, in which the variegated ambitions of dozens upon dozens of musicians were conveniently assembled under a category so broad that it seems like Barnes & Noble designed it.

Or you could try to twist a metaphor out of it (A preacher playing fours with a nightclub drummer? A New Orleans boy walking in Chicago in a new suit? Who gets mugged?), though that gets ridiculous fast.

In a simple sense, hard bop is bebop played with more structure and, some would say, more soul. You can start hearing it in recordings from the late 1940s, in Tadd Dameron/Fats Navarro's band, or some of the Bud Powell trio sessions, or in the early recordings of the musicians who would be most identified with the label--the drummers Max Roach and Art Blakey, the pianists Horace Silver and Elmo Hope, saxophonists like Hank Mobley, the trumpeters Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown (the protean Miles Davis shows up for a while too).

It was, in a way, a correction--bop, now ten years old, had never found a mass audience, which had been drifting away from jazz for some time. Hard bop, with its gospel and blues influences, was a way to reconnect with the street.

Where a Charlie Parker bop piece like "Ornithology" begins with a head theme played instensely fast and simultaneously by trumpet and saxophone, a typical hard bop piece would, instead, feature more counterpoint--the saxophone playing the melody, the trumpet chiming in, providing accents, chords, coloring. Bop would go at Chuck Yeager speeds; hard bop favored a medium-tempo groove. Bop often sounded raw, almost brutal, offering only shards of melody the listener had to dig up; hard bop reveled in lyricism and arrangements--even the drum solos had structure.

Listen to Clifford Brown and Max Roach's "Delilah", from their first LP, which follows most of the hard bop rules (in effect, writing the book).

Gary Giddins: "Delilah, the most unlikely of vehicles (an undulating Hedy Lamarr prop), begins single-file—bass vamp, cymbals, piano vamp, tenor vamp—before Brown states the theme as though staring down the throat of the cobra he's charming. Harold Land [tenor sax], who had much of Wardell Gray's sandy sound and finesse, offers a bouquet of melodies; then Brown enters with a three-note figure that he develops through the bridge. He ends the chorus blazing and detonates the next one with a heart-stopping rip. [Pianist Richie] Powell, who wrote the inventive chart, plays trebly chords, neat modulations, and a Grieg finish, followed by fours with Roach, who adds a melodic chorus of his own."

"Delilah" is the opening track of Clifford Brown & Max Roach; it was recorded on August 2, 1954, in Capitol Studios in Hollywood.

A lesser known but also brilliant hard bop duo was the trumpeter Art Farmer (above) and the alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce, who here offer up "A Night at Tony's." Farmer takes the first two choruses, and then it's a turn for Bryce and Horace Silver on piano. Recorded on May 19, 1954,with Percy Heath on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. On When Farmer Met Gryce.

And then listen to the aristocrats of hard bop: the Jazz Messengers, anchored by Horace Silver and the phenomenal Art Blakey.

Silver's "Stop Time" retains a strong traditional bop flavor, opening with 16 bars of a fast unison theme. The soloists in order are Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Hank Mobley (who turns in a sinuous tenor solo), Silver's piano and then Blakey, who spars with Dorham and Mobley and then stomps out on his own.

The glorious "Doodlin'", a soulful 12-bar blues, is a showcase for Silver who, after a sweet opening solo, also provides brilliant comping behind Dorham and Mobley; Blakey comes in again toward the end for some demolition work.

Both recorded on December 13, 1954. Find on Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers.

Give the last word to Art Blakey, talking to Nat Hentoff in 1957: "All we do is try to play music, just basic music. Other people put names to it; I don't put names to music. It's just swinging. If we don't swing, it isn't jazz. That's all. That's all we've got is swinging. How are you going to swing if you don't swing hard? How can you swing easy? Even if you play soft, you have to swing hard. Jazz is going to sell itself; it doesn't need any names like 'hard bop.'"

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Arthur Gunter, Baby Let's Play House.
Pat Hare, I'm Gonna Murder My Baby.

"That's all wife-beaters need: an anthem," Roseanne Barr once said, talking about one of the descendants of Arthur Gunter's "Baby Let's Play House," the Beatles' "Run for Your Life." Of course, all John Lennon took from Gunter is the line "I'd rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man", and he took it from Elvis Presley's 1955 version of the song at that.

Where "Run for Your Life", one of the more rancid tracks the Beatles ever recorded, is built around the singer's monotonous threats towards his woman, Gunter's "Play House" is a mix of braggadocio, tenderness and, of course, veiled threats. Gunter's singing, however, is so lackadaisical that you don't get a sense of real menace.

But then there is Pat Hare, who recorded "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" for Sam Phillips in 1954, and ten years later actually did kill his girlfriend, as well as a police officer.

Auburn Hare was born in Cherry Valley, Arkansas, in 1930, a son to sharecroppers. He began playing with an uncle's band (allegedly, his first gig was at a Memphis whorehouse), and in 1952, he first appeared at Sun Records, playing guitar for a Walter Bradford session. He left Memphis soon after he recorded "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby", a cold-blooded bit of premeditation (the singer seems almost elated by the fact his woman's cheated on him--he's itching for violence) anchored by Hare's vicious guitar, whose jagged sound is a result of Hare turning up his Sears Roebuck amplifier as high as it could go. Hare played with Muddy Waters for most of the late 1950s, until being sacked for drunkenness around 1960. What followed was a vile epilogue of murder, prison and death by cancer in 1980.

"Baby Let's Play House" was recorded in autumn 1954 and issued as Excello 2047, the biggest seller in the label's history, and one which Chess Records distributed nationally. Find on King's Record Collection. "Murder My Baby" was recorded in Memphis on May 14, 1954, (with Billy Love on piano and Israel Franklin on bass).

Happy Valentines Day!

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Marilyn Monroe, I'm Gonna File My Claim.
Marilyn Monroe, After You Get What You Want, You Don't Want It.
Marilyn Monroe, River of No Return.

No, it's not a great voice, but it's far better than you might think. She loses her way sometimes holding a note and her confidence shakes, but she's also got a mellow, sweet huskiness to her tone; she's funny, and she's got charm. That's something almost completely lost today--when was the last time you heard a charming singer? Nellie McKay, maybe, but there's a bite to her that Marilyn never had.

I was watching "American Idol" the other night, and saw a singer with a voice similar to Marilyn's, small but sweet, get shot down by the judges. It's the type of voice that, because it cannot perform the sort of pyrotechnics that "great" singers of today are required to do, gets consigned to scrap. It's our loss.

For those who need a bio: Marilyn Monroe was a gifted comic actress, who, upon her lonely death, was placed, like a medieval saint, in a pantheon of the Famous, Beautiful Dead, along with her lover JFK, Elvis, Princess Di and a few other worthies.

Three Marilyn tunes from '54: Irving Berlin's "After You Get What You Want", a breezy romp from There's No Business Like Show Business. And "I'm Gonna File My Claim" is a gold digger anthem (Marilyn got stuck with a number of these, but manages to invest the lyric with some sass and blues.)

And then there's "River of No Return", her loveliest record. After a party, a girl returns to her studio apartment. With a cocktail napkin wetted at the corners, she dabs off her makeup, and goes to sit out on the fire escape for a last cigarette before bed. The dawn is coming over the East River, waking the Chrysler Building, and the girl thinks for a moment about Natchez, or Dubuque, or wherever she came from. Absently, she twists the sapphire costume ring off her finger. Out on the river, she hears a huff and cry--tugboats? Longshoremen? Her attention's drifted already. In her head is a refrain she can't shake. She can't think of where she heard it--the radio? At the nightclub, while she was waiting for him to get her coat? "No return, no return, no return.." Back at home, it's still dark, she thinks. And then she goes off to bed while her neighbor creaks around on the ceiling, getting ready for work...

"Claim" was recorded on April 9, 1954, with the 20th Century Fox orchestra under Lionel Newman backing her up, and "River of No Return", the title track to a pretty crappy film with Monroe and Bob Mitchum, was recorded on the same date; "After You Get What You Want" was recorded with the same lot on Dec. 10. Find them on Very Best.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Big Maybelle, You'll Never Know.
Big Maybelle, One Monkey Don't Stop No Show.

Bessie Smith's greatest heir, the mightiest voice of the '50s, and a singer whose reputation is unfortunately in some neglect today--here is Big Maybelle.

Mabel Louise Smith, born in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1924, was singing professionally by her early teens and spent the war years in a variety of minor-league swing bands. Producer Fred Mendelsohn found her singing in Cincinnati and, renaming her Big Maybelle (perhaps in the hopes of setting up a female rival to Big Joe Turner), signed her to Columbia, which was reviving its storied blues label OKeh for a rather ill-fated second life in the 1950s.

Maybelle was mainly given torch ballads to record at first, the finest of which is Harry Warren and Mack Gordon's "You'll Never Know," on which she bestows a marvelous vocal--the way she grips the phrase "you'll never know" with a cold fever each time she hits it, or how she suddenly transforms an ordinary bit of lyric to an aching lament (i.e., the way she sings "you went away...and my heart/it went with you" @1:20 into the track). The arrangement is first-rate as well--after a sax intro, Maybelle enters, lightly buoyed by vibes and bass/drums in the first verse; the sax dances in on the second verse, to become her full partner in the third.

"One Monkey Don't Stop No Show", by contrast, is pure, nasty rock & roll. Maybelle sings the verses in a loopy, lazy, hilarious drawl (reminiscent of the way Clyde McPhatter sang "Money Honey" the previous year) and then just belts the hell out of the chorus. A fantastic, fantastic track. (To make things confusing, this is not the Joe Tex song from 1964--Tex wrote that one, while Big Maybelle's was written by Singleton/McCoy--nor is it the Stick McGhee track from @1950. Nor is it the same as the Honey Cone version from the 1970s. It was a popular title to use, evidently.)

"You'll Never Know" was recorded on January 20, 1954, and released as OKeh 7026 (b/w "I've Got a Feeling"). "One Monkey" was recorded on September 23, 1954, but held until the following summer, when it was paired with Maybelle's mighty "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (OKeh 7060). This single, produced by the young Quincy Jones, didn't do much on the charts, but Sam Phillips definitely heard something in it...

Find on Big Maybelle's Complete OKeh Sessions.

Top photo-- fun in Guatemala, '54: one of the sadder, more forgotten Cold War battlefronts. The CIA arms and aids the coup toppling Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, in the rather uneuphonic "Operation PBSUCCESS" (that was the best they could do? How about "Operation: Snakefire" or something?) , in which "PBSUCCESS used an intensive paramilitary and psychological campaign to replace a popular, elected government with a political nonentity." View memos from the period, including the "selection of junta group", and various assassination proposals. Fifty years of corruption, violence and general awfulness later, even the CIA's historian admits "in light of Guatemala's unstable and often violent history since the fall of...Arbenz, we are perhaps less certain today than most Americans were at the time that this operation was a Cold War victory."

Monday, February 06, 2006


Sugar Boy Crawford, Jockomo.

The voice of New Orleans, distilled into 2 1/2 glorious minutes. "Jockomo", or "Jock-o-mo", is better known in its later incarnation as "Iko Iko", a hit for the girl group the Dixie Cups in 1965, but it was first recorded in 1954 by a New Orleans singer named James Crawford, who performed under the name of Sugar Boy & The Cane Cutters.

Crawford was born in New Orleans on October 1934, growing up on Lasalle Street, the home territory of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Crawford was part of the next, upcoming generation of New Orleans musicians, learning his craft from the likes of Dave Bartholomew and Paul Gayten. At the age of 12, Crawford was sneaking into the Dew Drop Inn and playing piano.

By 1951, Crawford's group, which at times included Professor Longhair, Jake Myles, Big Boy Myles, Irv Bannister, and Eugene 'Bones' Jones, had a regular Saturday morning show hosted by Doctor Daddy-O on WMRY--the DJ named them the Chapaka Shaweez (one of many spellings), after an instrumental the band had begun playing. (When Crawford signed with Chess Records, Leonard Chess, realizing "Chapaka Shaweez" would be a tough sell to national DJs and record buyers, rechristened the band "the Cane Cutters.")

Dr. John: "The song was originally called 'Jockomo' and it has a lot of Creole patois in it. Jockomo means 'jester' in the old myth. It is Mardi Gras music, and the Shaweez was one of many Mardi Gras groups who dressed up in far out Indian costumes and came on as Indian tribes. The tribes used to hang out on Claiborne Avenue and used to get juiced up there getting ready to perform and 'second time' in their own special style during Mardi Gras. That's dead and gone now because there's a freeway where those grounds used to be. The tribes were like social clubs who lived all year for Mardi Gras. getting their costumes together. Many of them were musicians, gamblers, hustlers and pimps."

Recorded in January 1954 and released as Checker 787. Find here.

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Thursday, February 02, 2006


Hello, Dolly

The Royal Players, Omnyakane.

Dolly Rathebe, Tihapi Ke Noga.
Manhattan Brothers, Thaba Tseu.

In 1954, South Africa had been living under apartheid for six years. With the rise of the right-wing National Party in 1948, legislation was passed banning interracial marriage and sex, and requiring all citizens to register by race. In '50 came the Group Areas Act, which assigned the races to their designated areas; in '53, came the Native Labour Act, which prohibited blacks from striking, and the Separate Amenities Act, which imposed a sort of hyper-fused version of the public segregation still going on in the American South (separate water fountains, etc.). And on it went.

For black South Africans, in the process of being demoted to third-class citizens and forcibly herded into alleged "homelands", one bit of solace was their love of Western swing and jazz. Throughout the 1950s, black South African musicians and audiences devoured records and styles which the West had begun to consider out of date, and converted swing into a new, ebullient African music.

The Manhattan Brothers were the biggest black South African act of the '40s and '50s, essentially superstars, whose sound and look influenced a generation. The Brothers, enthralled by groups like the Ink Spots, also incorporated Zulu melodies into their songs, but as their popularity grew, the grip of the state tightened on them. They were denied visas to leave the country, and were required to use white musicians on their recording sessions (at the expense of their touring musicians, like the young Hugh Masekela). At last, the Brothers left South Africa at the end of the '50s to tour in Europe and eventually dissolved--their records, naturally, were banned in their home country.

The Brothers' "Thaba Tseu" is a pretty amazing track, a conduit through which the Mills Brothers meet Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Dolly Rathebe, who died in 2004, was the belle of Sophiatown, the racially mixed suburb of Johannesburg that was the last hope for black South Africans, one of the few places they could still own property. It was akin to Prohibition-era Chicago, full of gangsters and molls, great music, danger and freedom. In February 1955, the government began bulldozing Sophiatown to the ground and dispersing its citizens. In all, about 65,000 people were forcibly relocated to faraway places like the Meadowlands township, in Soweto.

Like "Thaba Tseu", "Tihapi Ke Noga" is sung in Sesotho (I believe "thaba" = mountain and "tihapi" = fishes, but my ignorance is pretty striking on this stuff, so anyone with a better grasp of African culture/languages/music, please correct me.)

Of the Royal Players, I know little--there seems to be scant information on them. But with a testament like the rollicking "Omnyakane", you don't really need it.

These tracks are on the now out-of-print Township Jazz and Jive, a wonderful compilation of '50s and '60s South African jazz and boogie.