YouTube Playlist of all tracks below…
(here’s a quick tip, if you scroll down and hit ‘play’ on the playlist first, you can listen to it while you read the notes. Thanks!)
With Stax cranking out hit after hit around the corner, by 1967 other major record companies began looking for ways to cash in on some of that Memphis Magic. Let’s check it out…
One of the first people to book an ‘outside’ session at Hi was Don Robey, who would cut some of the greatest Soul records ever made there on O.V. Wright in late 1966. Those Back Beat releases had yet to see any chart action (although they soon would), but Robey was apparently impressed enough to record Bobby Bland, his biggest star, there in early 1967. In Charles Farley’s Soul Of The Man, he reports that the session took place on Valentine’s Day, but both Reggie and Bobby’s books confirm that the session was actually held on February 6th. Farley goes on to list the three sides that were cut that day as Lover With A Reputation (which, in true Robey fashion, stayed ‘in the can’ until 1970), Set Me Free (an Lp only track), and the sublime A Touch Of The Blues, with Reggie’s tasty Blues licks helping to propel it to #30 R&B in early 1968. What a great record…
The songwriter credit here reads ‘D.Malone’ which, as we all know, stands for Deadric Malone, the nefarious alias that Robey employed as he routinely ripped off many an actual composer. As I said nine years ago, “The source of much speculation over the years as to whether or not this was an actual person (some said it was his wife), I’ve come to believe he just made it up. It was the ever vigilant [Preston] Lauterbach who pointed out to me that there are two Memphis streets which follow each other in quick succession as you cross over Lamar Avenue on Airways Boulevard on the way out of town – Deadrick and Malone! One can only imagine the wily Robey on his way to the airport, seizing on this random sequence as his new nom de plume…” Incredible, huh?
Robey would bring O.V. Wright back to South Lauderdale in August to cut three more sides, one of which was the soulful What About You, which would enter the Billboard charts the same day as the Bland single that November, and climb as high as #48 R&B. Written by Don Bryant (although the flip was ‘composed’ by Ol’ Deadric), it was only the second of O.V.’s records to credit Willie Mitchell as producer, a role which Mitchell would continue to play until Wright’s sad demise in 1980.
I never realized, until I started working on this episode, that Don Robey’s sudden interest in recording at Hi in September of ’66 was probably precipitated by the fact that Mercury had decided to cut Junior Parker there the month before. At this point, I’m not sure of the exact details of Junior leaving Duke and signing with Mercury that Summer, but I’m sure Robey was none too pleased about losing a man who had been one of his biggest stars. The big label was certainly going for it, importing Bobby Robinson to Memphis as Parker’s producer and all that, but Robey may have had the last laugh after all. Despite being picked as a ‘best bet’ in Cashbox, Mercury’s Just Like A Fish (with an uncredited Howard Grimes on drums), eluded the Billboard charts entirely, while a 45 Robey issued on Duke shortly after that, Man Or Mouse, enjoyed a ten week run on their R&B Top 50, peaking at #27 in early 1967, scoring higher than Parker had in almost five years.
A check of John Broven’s coveted copy of The Blues Discography, reveals that Man Or Mouse was cut in Memphis on August 4, 1966 – three days after the first Mercury session on Junior listed by Reggie in his log book. I guess Robey was never one to care much about contractual details! On the flip, Wait For Another Day, ‘Malone’ shares the songwriting credit with Gilbert Caple and Larry Davis. As we discussed in our Clarence Nelson investigation, after leaving Satellite, Gilbert Caple had hooked up with Earl Forest at the former Fernwood studio on N. Main, which is no doubt where the session was held, with Larry Davis on guitar. Robey was one slippery character!
Mercury was definitely not amused, and ran this announcement of their plans to expand their R&B presence in The Bluff City on the front page of Billboard in January, while the Duke 45 was still on the charts. “Roy Dea and I went all the way back to the first grade in Shreveport,” Jerry Kennedy told me, “and I brought him to Nashville to work with me in the mid-sixties… there was a big to-do in Memphis. Irv Green and Steinberg came down, the President and Vice-President of Mercury, and threw a cocktail party, the whole deal. The office was located in the original Holiday Inn building, and I brought Roy in to help me run it.”
What the announcement doesn’t mention is that, according to Cash Box, Mercury had already hired promotion man Boo Frazier to ‘helm’ their R&B division in November of ’66, the same week that Bobby Robinson was at Hi with Junior Parker. The article goes on (and on) about Frazier’s past accomplishments, but it’s interesting to note that, just prior to inking his pact with Mercury, Boo had been the ‘eastern representative’ for Don Robey at Duke-Peacock. Hmmm… I wonder how ol’ Deadric felt about that?
The arranger credited on all the Mercury Junior Parker sessions held at Hi in 1966 was Gene Miller. As we mentioned in episode one, ‘Bowlegs’ and Willie Mitchell had a ‘falling out’ at Hi right around this time. According to Howard Grimes, Miller would kind of ‘improvise’ a little while reading Mitchell’s horn charts, with Willie scolding him to “Just play what’s on the damn paper!” As Willie’s star began to shine brighter there on South Lauderdale, Bowlegs no doubt saw the writing on the wall, and hitched his own to the Mercury operation, where he would serve as their ‘secret weapon’
Mercury sent Boo Frazier to Memphis in February to work as a ‘co-producer’ with Roy Dea. Their first assignment was a four side session on Margie Hendrix at Hi on Valentine’s Day. The label had signed Margie in 1965, after her tumultous reign as a Raelette, and issued two singles on her that went nowhere. With Bowlegs’ cookin’ arrangement, and Reggie’s trademark guitar work, I Call You Lover But You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Tramp (written by Mack Rice) is just about as good as it gets. The second 45 released from those sessions is right up there as well, with Margie giving Otis Redding a run for his money on Restless, which was written by Curtis Johnson. Johnson had started out at Satellite as a member of The Chips (re-christened The Astors after the Moman split), and was now with Bowlegs’ band. Just pure Memphis ‘in yo’ face’ Soul, it’s hard to believe neither of these records connected with the public.
According to Chuck Berry, “On June 17, 1966, after much negotiation, I signed with Mercury Records, obtaining a sixty thousand dollar advance on future royalties.” After an ill-conceived album of re-recordings of most of his Chess hits fell on deaf ears, Mercury handed him over to Dea and Frazier in Memphis, who booked him into Hi and cut an album’s worth of material on March 22nd and 23rd. A major guitar hero of Reggie Young’s, “I cut an album with Chuck Berry,” was one of the first things he told me when we started talking about all this. The problem is, however, that Berry appears to have just been ‘phoning it in’, and the record just isn’t that good. On the title track, Back To Memphis, released as a single that April, it’s cool to hear Reggie and Chuck trading licks, but overall the whole project feels like a missed opportunity.
By contrast, Memphis Soul, the album Boo and Roy produced at Hi ten days later on Bowlegs’ organ player Jesse Butler, is just da bomb! Released on Mercury subsidiary (or is it the other way around?), Philips, it’s a lost testament to just how great the Bowlegs Miller outfit was. Check out Butler killing it on that big fat Hammond (the same one Charles Hodges would come to own within a few years?). The entire Lp is phenomenal (including the obligatory cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis’), but, Drown In My Own Tears, the plug side of the single they pulled from the album just knocks me out. I asked Charlie Chalmers if that was him blowing that amazing sax on here, “Yeah, that’s me, but I didn’t finish playin’ the whole verse. That’s not like me, to stop playin’ in the middle of a solo. Oh well, they must have mixed it out,” he said, “I did lots of sessions with Jesse… but, he had a punctuality problem. You never knew if he was going to show up to the session until he got there, so that didn’t help him any.” I guess not, as he continues to fly way under the radar. Thanks, Charlie!
As Reggie and Bobby began to make the move to American, Mercury wasn’t far behind. They apparently had signed Norman West away from Joe Cuoghi, and cut two sides on him at American on April 18th, possibly because Hi was booked (more on that next episode). This sweet cover of the Sonny Thompson penned Little Willie John classic Let Them Talk was released on their Smash subsidiary, and features some of Bobby’s best Gospel-flavored piano work. Although there’s no mention of Bowlegs on the label, I’m betting that’s his horn charts. Kind of like Robey had with Junior Parker, Hi would release the M.O.C. single on Norman we talked about last episode within a few weeks of this session but, hey, at least the material was already ‘in the can’!
As we discussed in the 1966 notes, Shelby Singleton had cut Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun with Reggie that July for a Smash single that hadn’t become one. Singleton had moved on since then, and Jerry Kennedy was left to run that show. As Kennedy told us for the Soul Of The Memphis Boys project: “I’m not sure whose idea it was to cut the Soul My Way album on Jerry Lee, it might have been Shelby’s, but at that point we figured we had nothing to lose. It was Roy’s idea to cut it at American with some of Chips’ folks, and he was right. He asked me to come in as producer…all in all it was a great experience.”
As Jerry Kennedy told us this past Summer, he liked to play guitar on his productions whenever possible. Having Chips behind the board at American certainly afforded him that opportunity, and we were able to confirm that thanks to the session details provided by Jay Halsey. On It’s A Hang Up Baby, the plug side of the single pulled from the album, you can hear Kennedy and Young working the groove together, kind of like Jerry and Billy Sanford had on Oh, Pretty Woman. As with Roy Dea, Jerry knew Reggie (and Sanford) from the Shreveport days and fit right in with ‘Chips’ folks’. It may not quite be ‘Soul’, but it’s still a damn good record.
Mercury had signed Gloria Lynne to their Fontana subsidiary in 1965, where she would score her biggest hit (#8 R&B) with a Hal Mooney produced version of Watermelon Man, featuring new lyrics she had written for the Herbie Hancock standard.
Nothing much seemed to be happening after that and so, just as with Jerry Lee, Mercury decided to try and cut her as more of a ‘Soul’ artist, booking her into American a week later to record The Other Side Of Gloria Lynne. Despite Charlie Fach’s call in Billboard to ‘get material’ to Roy Dea for the album, it’s mostly covers of other people’s R&B hits which, in my opinion, is rarely a good idea. A Dea and Frazier production, with Moman’s Memphis Boys playing Bowlegs’ arrangements – how bad could it be? Gloria’s take on the 1964 Soul Sisters’ R&B charter, I Can’t Stand It, would be the single released from the album that July, and is classic AGP all the way, with Tommy Cogbill and Gene Chrisman solidly in the pocket, Charlie Chalmers’ beefy saxophone, and Lynne just belting it out. It could have been a hit in its own right but, alas, it wasn’t.
This next one may have been cut at Hi during two Mercury sessions noted in Reggie’s book on April 4th and 5th, but it seems odd that he wouldn’t have listed Junior Parker as the artist, especially since he had for those late 1966 dates. The fact that I Can’t Put My Finger On It is a Donnie Fritts composition, however, has led to some speculation that it may have been cut at Fame in Muscle Shoals, so we asked David Hood; “…with Charlie Chalmers, Bowlegs Miller and Reggie on it, I would definitely say it is a Memphis cut, possibly American.” Thanks David, we concur. I absolutely love Bowlegs’ funky arrangement here, with the baritone holding down the bottom while, once again, Charlie Chalmers just wails on the sax break. Yeah, Baby! Breaking into the R&B Top 50 in August, it would be the last record to have ‘Produced by Roy Dea & Boo Frazier’ printed on the label.
Shortly after it was released, buried deep in Billboard’s back pages, it was announced that Roy had ‘departed’ Mercury Records, with no further explanation given. I’m not sure what happened there, but I imagine ‘creative differences’ may have had something to do with it.
Let’s talk for a minute here about Charlie Chalmers, and how important a figure he is in American music. In addition to his own great production work at Sam Phillips we talked about earlier, by 1967 he had become one of the most ‘in demand’ horn men in the nation. Between Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett’s records for Atlantic, Charlie’s saxophone would spend an incredible EIGHTEEN WEEKS at NUMBER ONE on Billboard’s R&B chart in ’67 alone! Small wonder he seemed to be on just about every record cut in Memphis as well. “I was working somewhere everyday it seems like,” Charlie told me, “a few short years, but countless sessions. A magic time!” Magic indeed!
The next two singles to emanate from Mercury’s Memphis operation were issued back-to-back in September. The first of these was Junior Parker’s take on the Brook Benton standard Hurtin’ Inside. According to the liner notes of I’m So Satisfied, it was cut in August while Junior’s previous release was still on the charts. The label credit now reads ‘A Boo Frazier Production’, with no mention of Roy Dea. Both Reggie and Bobby logged a session on Margie Hendrix on June 6th at American where they would cut another Mack Rice gem, Don’t Take Your Good Thing, which was the second release.
Another ‘Boo Frazier Production’, I’m sure he didn’t have to do a whole lot considering all the talent in the room. With Margie’s swaggering delivery, Bowlegs punchy horn lines, and Moman’s American Group just locked in, it’s difficult to understand why this record wasn’t a hit. I’m beginning to get the feeling here that, once Roy pulled out, Mercury may have lost interest and not put much promotion behind Boo’s productions… I don’t know.
Bobby Hebb’s Everything Is Coming Up Roses was released on Philips around the same time (yes, that’s Charlie Chalmers on the sax). With this side of the 45 written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, and the flip by Darryl Carter (both published by Press Music), I’d say it’s pretty much a lock that it was cut at American… only neither Reggie nor Bobby mention the session in their books. There may be a reason for that. While still a ‘Boo Frazier Production’, under that on the label it reads ‘Produced by: Curtis Johnson, Cleve Shears, Jesse Butler’. Now, why would that be? Well, Cleve ‘Frog’ Shears was Bowlegs’ bass player, and we’ve already met the other two guys. I’m thinking that Frazier used Bowlegs’ band on this one, for one reason or another, hence the mention on the label. I’m not sure why, but this would be the last of the Frazier productions to credit Miller as arranger.
Frazier’s next trio of releases, although still listing Johnson, Shears and Butler as co-producers in one form or another, would be arranged by Gilbert Caple. As alluded to earlier, I believe this would indicate that they were cut at the North Main Street studio run by Earl Forest. Could there have been some ‘bad blood’ between Boo, Bowlegs and his boys? We may never know, I guess.
Gilbert Caples’ arrangement of Helen Davis’ That’s My Man (another Curtis Johnson tune) is, in my opinion, right up there with the stuff Ruby Johnson had been cutting across town at Stax. Dig as I might, there doesn’t seem to be any information out there about Ms. Davis… detectives? Released around the same time, Norman West’s Words Won’t Say (How Much You Mean To Me) was written by Wylie Sappington, composer of Don Bryant’s equally ‘deep’ Is That Asking Too Much, which we discussed last episode. According to Sir Shambling, Norman’s soulful side here is “one of the best unknown soul ballads from the city. Pure Memphis magic.” I couldn’t agree more, yet both of these great records would sink without a trace.
According to Michael Ruppli’s The Mercury Labels: A Discography, the following consecutive matrix numbers after the West single were issued as both sides of Mercury 32731, by a group called The Shadows. I didn’t think that referred to Cliff Richard’s UK chart toppers, so I started looking around. The record wasn’t listed on 45cat, not on Discogs, not on eBay, yet somehow it turned up on YouTube.
It was next to impossible to read much information off of the low resolution scans on the video, so I decided to look up the composers on the BMI Repertoire database. The names didn’t mean anything to me, and at first I thought it must have been some kind of typo, but then I started googling and asking around. Thanks to John Ridley, Martin Goggin, Mark Nicholson, John Broven and ol’ Jukebox George, I’ve been able to get a better handle on who these Shadows might have been…
Like Curtis Johnson’s Astors, Memphis vocal group The Lyrics started out recording with Chips Moman at Satellite. When Jim Stewart passed on releasing the tapes, Chips took them over to Slim Wallace at Fernwood who did. The group would go on to have the inaugural release on Goldwax in 1963, before their lead singer, Percy Milem, decided to leave the group and pursue a solo career, resulting in some truly great records. As we saw in episode three, Reggie and Bobby had cut two sessions at Sun with Percy for Goldwax in June. What I hadn’t realized, is that there was another member of The Lyrics who had remained active in the music business, first tenor Fonnie ‘Tuna’ Harley. “My Mom was a school teacher, and she said she wanted to be different,” Harley told Martin Goggin in Juke Blues 66, “so she called me ‘Fonnie’ and my sister ‘Donnie’… Donnie said ‘I can sing, let’s do something together’.”
Tuna went on to tell Goggin, “We organized a group called Act III with a guy named LaVorn Smith. We cut a ballad called I Can Feel The Tears… over at Sonic Studios with Roland Janes. Donnie did the lead and Lavorn did the arrangement.” Fonnie told Goggin that the single had been released on his own Harley label in 1967, but our research seems to indicate that it may have actually been cut in 1970, and that may indeed be Reggie playing that amazing guitar…
The single that was actually released in 1967 was the aforementioned Mercury 72731 [now added to 45cat by Jukebox George], with the copyrights of both sides being registered that October. I’ll tell you what, Donnie Harley was one great singer! Check out the movin’ and groovin’ Beautiful Heaven and the sweet uptown Soul of Time Is Running Out. Both tunes were co-authored by Fonnie and Donnie and arranged by Gilbert Caple, with Curtis Johnson and Cleve Shears listed as Boo Frazier’s co-producers. A solid record all the way around, how is it that it is virtually nowhere to be found? John Broven thinks that perhaps Mercury realized the conflict with the group’s name and, with the UK Shadows then signed to Epic in the US, pulled the record to avoid any legal problems with CBS. I’d say that sounds about right… ugh.*
A similar thing might have happened with Act III, as there was another group recording under that name for Larry Uttal at Mala/Bell. In 1965, Charles Stewart produced a single on Texas vocal group The Van Dykes and released it on his own Hue label. When Mala picked it up for national distribution, it climbed to #24 R&B in early ’66, and three more chart hits would follow. According to the Goggin article, Fonnie’s friend Willie Bean convinced Stewart to re-issue the Harley single on Hue but, apparently to avoid any conflict with Mala, he changed the name of the group to Gents & The Lady. It was the astute Mark Nicholson who pointed out this entry in Reggie’s 1970 log book for an overdub session on September 22nd… I’d say he’s our guitarist!
The ‘Trump’ notation refers, not to the future orange president, but to the unfortunately named Capitol subsidiary label run by Tommy Cogbill. Just about a month earlier, Cogbill had produced a great two-sider on them, under yet another moniker, Donnie, Fonnie & LaVorn. A Woman Who’ll Let You Be A Man is just great, and reminiscent of the material Tommy had been producing on The Masqueraders around the same time… only nobody seemed to notice.
Changing their name once again to Numbers, Fonnie and Donnie would work with Curtis Johnson (who had gone on to become a member of proto-funk outfit Brothers Unlimited), and cut the disco-era Got To Pull Away as the sole release on the Rolashed label in 1977. I’m lovin’ it!! Sadly, Fonnie Harley passed on in Memphis in 2017. Donnie moved to Texas and, as far as we can tell, is still around… talk about under-appreciated! If you ever read this, Donnie, thank you!
“…um, red, I thought we were talking about 1967.” Oh yeah, sorry.
Just as with Junior Parker, Mercury had signed Roy Head away from Don Robey. Head had barely managed to crawl out of the 90s on the Hot 100 in 1966, so I’m sure Robey wasn’t too broken up about losing him. For his big label debut, Boo Frazier brought him to American in September to cut Mickey Newberry’s Got Down On Saturday (Sunday In The Rain). One of the coolest cats ever, Roy’s delivery here puts you in mind of The Hombres’ Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out), which would begin it’s climb to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 within a few days of this session.
Billboard had also predicted that Roy’s effort here would put him ‘back on top in short order’, but it didn’t. ‘The American Studio Group’ shares the production credit on this one which, as far as I can tell, was the last of Mercury’s Memphis ‘Boo Frazier Productions’.
In late 1965, Mercury had decided to discontinue it’s Blue Rock subsidiary, which had been the Chicago label’s primary outlet for R&B product. A decision which led directly, I believe, to their increased presence in Memphis. After the lack of any real chart action on the records we discussed above, Mercury opted to re-activate Blue Rock in 1968, naming our man Boo Frazier as ‘director of artist relations and national promo director’ of the label – as cogent an illustration of ‘The Peter Principle’ in action if ever there was one, I’d venture to say.
* While doing research for this episode I came across this on a 45cat page for an ultra-rare Jimmy Hart record: “Based on info from soul 45 experts it is likely to be a ‘test press’, albeit in full store-ready stock form, run by RPC in Richmond, Indiana prior to a planned commercial run. However, no such full run occurred. According to those in the know, protocol for some contract pressings at the time was to run 6 copies with full retail-ready labels and provide four to the label, with the plant keeping two file copies (also happened for promo copies sometimes). The timing of this planned release (fall 1965) coincides with the parent company putting Blue Rock on hold until its return in 1968…” Which may well have been the case with Mercury 72731 – no full run may have ever existed!
Special thanks go to Jerry Kennedy, Charlie Chalmers, Mark Nicholson, John Ridley, Martin Goggin, Jay Halsey, Richard Tapp, John Broven, 45cat and Jukebox George.