In our last episode, that in-depth investigation of Ivory Joe Hunter’s later work, we had focused mainly on the singles he released during the last two decades of his storied career. Within that same period, he had cut a number of obligatory LPs for a variety of labels, but I figured we’d leave those alone. Before going into ‘airplane mode’ on a recent foray to New Orleans, I downloaded the eight Ivory Joe albums on Apple Music to my phone, plugged in my AirPods and hit shuffle (not that bad for an old guy, huh?). Most of it was pretty standard LP track filler, sprinkled with a few greatest hits, but then this song came up that just kind of blew me away, Working On Me. Whoah! I had to listen to it twice. Sounding more Frogman Henry than Ivory Joe, it’s just a rollicking production in full stereo – awesome background vocals, great guitar… where the hell did this come from, and why hadn’t I ever heard it before? Apple Music had it included on a Fuel Records compilation called An Introduction To Ivory Joe Hunter, but there were (of course) no liner notes (a situation which remains one of my pet peeves in this digital age). Once I got back on the ground, I was able to track down the song’s initial release. It had first appeared on a 1989 LP on Home Cooking Records, I’m Coming Down With The Blues. I found us a copy on Ebay, and picked it up for next to nothing.
As it turns out, the Home Cooking label was owned by a ‘colorful’ character named Roy C. Ames. Described as a notorious producer and ‘thief’ on the Texas Blues scene in the 1960s, he recorded untold hours of sessions at Bill Holford’s Audio Company of America (ACA) Studio in Houston on artists like Johnny Winter, Johnny Copeland and Juke Boy Bonner. Roy Ames was sent to prison in 1975, after police seized literally tons (!) of child pornography from a warehouse that he owned, apparently leaving behind the mountain of ACA master tapes that he had squirreled away. Upon his release eleven years later, he had started up Home Cooking as an outlet for those tapes, with complete disregard for little things like songwriter’s credits or artist royalties. According to John Lomax in The Houston Press, when people objected he would tell them “If you don’t like what I’m doing, sue me!” and when you Google his name, lawsuits are the first thing that pop up.
Ivory Joe Hunter, however, had conveniently been dead for fifteen years when HCS-112 was released. On the label, Hunter is credited as the sole songwriter of all fourteen tracks on the album, with Ames’ own firm, Clarity Music, listed as their publisher. Although Ivory Joe was reputed to have written something like 7000 songs, a quick check of the BMI Repertoire Database reveals that “Working On Me” was not one of them. There areforty nine songs listed with that title, by a variety of composers, but none of them seem to have been published by Clarity Music. At this point, I’ve been unable to determine which (if any) of these titles refers to the track in question. I’m open to suggestions… detectives?
Amazingly, the back cover of the Home Cooking LP actually listed session dates and personnel, claiming that most of the tracks (including our cut here) had been produced by Roy Ames and Bill Holford and recorded at ACA on April 15, 1968. Credited for both lead guitar and background vocals was a gentleman named Ted Hawley. Hawley and his band have remained active on the local club scene, and I was able to track him down through the Houston Blues Society, and a page on Facebook. After he heard the songs I sent him, Hawley told me:“I played on a couple of Ivory Joe Hunter’s tracks years ago but not on these songs… I was doing work for Roy during that whole time so he might have confused who did what.” Ugh. None of the other names listed seem to ring any bells… was the whole thing just a fabrication?
The other equally great tune from the album that I had asked Ted about was called The Cold Gray Light Of Dawn. Just pure Country, it pre-dates Hunter’s Nashville period by about five years. With lyrics like, “Every morning in my room, I feel like a body in a tomb,” it’s a song so good that Nick Lowe chose to cover it on his 1998 album Dig My Mood where, sure enough, Ivory Joe is listed as the songwriter, with Clarity Music as the publisher – credits which have been replicated as recently as last year, when a remastered version of the album was issued by Yep Roc Records in North Carolina. As you might have guessed by now, astute reader, according to BMI, the song was neither written by Hunter, nor published by Clarity… hmmm.
As you may recall, we had mentioned a Billboard review of Ivory Joe’s first Sound Stage 7 single that had him ‘returning to the disk scene’ in December of 1968. It had been cut at ACA, with (the mis-spelled) Steve Poncio as the producer. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that all of the previously unreleased Hunter tracks that Ames had put together on the 1989 Home Cooking album were actually from the 1968 sessions held by Poncio, and had been paid for by Monument (Sound Stage 7’s parent company) in Nashville.
So I started poking around…
There it was – picked as a ‘best bet’ by Cash Box in March of 1969 (just a few months after the release of the Ivory Joe Ivory Tower single), Ray Pennington’s version of Cold, Gray Light Of Dawn. Produced in Nashville by Fred Foster, I love that ethereal pedal steel, and that incisive late sixties Nashville string section. Pennington had started out in Rockabilly as Ray Starr in the late fifties, before hitting the Country charts for Capitol in ’66 and ’67, including his biggest hit, Ramblin’ Man, which climbed to #29. Foster had signed him in late ’68, and this was his second single for the label. Although that best bet didn’t pay off this time out, Pennington would go on to cut a few moderate hits for Monument before moving to RCA where Waylon Jennings would take I’m A Ramblin’ Man all the way to #1 in 1974. He would found his own One-Step label in Nashville later on – but hold on a minute…
The song hadn’t been written by Ivory Joe after all, but by the songwriting team of Mitchell Torok and his ‘beauty queen’ wife, Gale Jones. Torok had started out in Houston himself, before hooking up with The Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, where he would break things wide open with his runaway #1 Country hit Carribean in 1953. In 1956, Torok took a song Gale had written, When Mexico Gave Up The Rhumba (To Do The Rock And Roll), into the top ten in the UK (go figure) and became a much celebrated figure over there when he toured England the following year. Using the pen-name Ramona Redd, Gale continued to write, usually with Torok in tow, for Country artists like Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, Glen Campbell, Skeeter Davis and Willie Nelson. Cold, Gray Light Of Dawn is indeed listed on BMI, published by Fred Foster’s Combine Music, as is stated on the label. With Combine now owned by Sony, I wonder what they might have to say about all this…
Roy C. Ames died in 2003, and in the Houston Press article mentioned above John Lomax said: “No one man caused more harm to Houston’s music community than Roy Ames… consider all that is decent in the world. Roy Ames was as far from that as you could get.”
Ivory Joe Hunter, on the other hand was as decent as they come. After all the digging I had done about him for the site, a listing popped up on eBay for a promo photo with an accompanying letter, written by his manager and biggest champion, Bettye Berger. It seemed like somehow this was meant for me… I had to get it.
Written in response to a postcard from a fan in 1979 who was unaware that Hunter had passed, I think it’s a priceless little piece of history…
“I think his greatest time of all was when the barriers were broken and a black man could sing and not be labeled. The times he shared with his friends and playing his music just prior to his death, just living was a good time. He laughed a lot, and he made the people around him laugh… Ivory Joe would say ‘God Bless Your Soul’, and I say God Rest His.”
Special Thanks to Ted Hawley, Billy Sanders, Jay Halsey, Billy Lawson, John Nova Lomax, John Broven and Mark Nicholson.
YouTube Playlist of all tracks below …if you scroll down and hit ‘play’ you can listen while you read the notes!
By the time Ivory Joe Hunter signed with Atlantic in late 1954, he had been a regular visitor to the upper echelons of the R&B Charts for almost a decade. Of his thirteen prior top ten hits, three had climbed to number one and spent over two months in the top position, including two massive hits for MGM in 1950, I Almost Lost My Mind and I Need You So. Since he had taken the follow-up, It’s A Sin, to #10 R&B for the label in early 1951, however, the hits had dried up, and MGM apparently chose to not to re-sign him. Wexler and Ertegun, who were fast becoming THE force to be reckoned with in R&B music, were only too happy to offer Hunter a contract.
Hunter’s first release for Atlantic, It May Sound Silly, was picked as the Cash Box ‘Rhythm ‘N’ Blues Sleeper of the Week’ in January of 1955, the same week that I’ve Got A Woman, the Ray Charles tune that changed everything, broke into the charts for the label, eventually cruising to #1. Ray would go on to just own the R&B top ten for the next few years, but Ivory Joe’s ‘sleeper’ didn’t do too bad either, climbing to #14. As Cash Box had predicted, Hunter’s composition had ‘every quality that will lead to Pop covers’ and it did. When The McGuire Sisters took it to #11 on Billboard’s Honor Roll of Hits for rival Coral Records that Spring, Atlantic’s in-house Progressive Music Publishing reaped the rewards.
After another 1955 release that went nowhere, Cash Box would again pick an Ivory Joe and His Ivorytones release as ‘Sleeper of the Week’ in February of 1956, A Tear Fell. Picked up pretty much immediately by Coral this time, Theresa Brewer’s cover version would chart the same time as Hunter’s, going top five Pop, while Joe had to settle for #15 R&B. Although Hunter was not the songwriter this time out, the Burton-Randolph composition had been published by Progressive Music… cha-ching!
The Industry was paying attention, and Randy Wood at Dot Records decided to cut the ultimate R&B cross-over crooner, Pat Boone, on a remake of Ivory Joe’s 1950 classic I Almost Lost My Mind. Just a huge record, it would go nation-wide in the Summer of 1956, spending a full month at #1 on the Billboard charts. Nat ‘King’ Cole had also taken the song to #26 Pop (#7 R&B) for Capitol in 1950, but this was a whole new ballgame. Somewhere around in here, 1650 Broadway publishing giant Hill and Range went from ‘Sole Seller’ of the sheet music, to owning the song outright. In any event I’m sure Hunter, as the sole songwriter, was still getting paid.
Atlantic was not amused. As Jerry Wexler told Rob Finnis: “…we were very hipped on what Pat Boone was doing. He lifted a technique and a style from Ivory Joe, and we went back and lifted from Boone.” They released what was essentially a re-write of the same song, with new lyrics and an updated arrangement by Ray Ellis, for the label that December. Since I Met You Baby turned out to be an unprecedented success, becoming Atlantic’s first million-seller, spending three weeks at the top of the R&B charts, while crossing over on its own (without the benefit of a white person covering it) to just miss the top ten, climbing to #12 on Billboards’s Pop Honor Roll of Hits as 1956 gave way to 1957. The publishing on this one? Why, Progressive of course…
Joe made the cover of Cash Box on March 30th, 1957, receiving his Gold Record in front of millions on The Ed Sullivan Show. This was the big time! Right there on the front page, it was also reported (as it had been in Billboard) that Hunter had ‘just signed a three year contract with Atlantic’…
On February 23rd, Elvis Presley, with Too Much then at #1 on the Pop Charts (#3 R&B), had been at Radio Recorders in Hollywood cutting tracks for an upcoming LP to be be issued in conjunction with the Paramount Pictures film Loving You, which would premier that Summer. By all accounts a big fan of our man Ivory Joe (whose gigundo smash for Atlantic was then still riding the charts) Elvis chose to cover Hunter’s 1950 #1 R&B hit I Need You So for the album. On March 26th, four days before Joe graced the cover of Cash Box above, Elvis officially purchased Graceland on the outskirts of Memphis.
Hunter’s follow-up for Atlantic, his own composition, Empty Arms, had been chosen as ‘Disk of the Week’ in Cash Box on March 23rd, but had to share that honor with the Teresa Brewer version, which was released on Coral the same day. Joe was hot, and the boys on Broadway knew it. The Atlantic single would spend sixteen weeks on Billboard’s Pop chart, but only make it to #43. Coral’s ‘whitebread’ version, however, would hit #13 during its own seventeen week run. Hunter was all smiles though as, if you notice, the publishing credit on both labels now reads ‘Ivory Music’. As a veteran performer, I’m sure Joe knew where the real money was in the business, and had apparently demanded his own publishing as part of his new deal with Atlantic.
Aside from Ivory’s newfound Pop crossover success, it was the R&B charts that had always been his stronghold. Sure enough, Empty Arms made it to #2 in Billboard on May 15th, kept from the top slot by Chuck Berry’s fourth top five hit in a row, School Day. As you can see, Hunter had taken the number two spot that Elvis’ All Shook Up (which had been selected as the Cash Box ‘Disk of the Week’ in the same issue that featured Joe on the cover), occupied a week earlier. By May 22nd, however, that monster of a record came roaring back, hit #1 R&B and stayed there for the next month (not to mention the nine weeks it spent leading off Billboard’s Pop Honor Roll of Hits). The flip of Joe’s record, Love’s A Hurting Game, would also chart, but only make it to #7 R&B. Rock & Roll was definitely here to stay, and Ivory Joe Hunter would never see the R&B top five again.
Elvis, much to his eternal credit, invited Ivory Joe to visit him at Graceland in July, while (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear was in the midst of it’s seven week stay at the top of Billboard’s Pop charts. George Klein told Peter Guralnick about that visit in Last Train To Memphis: “Elvis said, ‘Ivory Joe, I sure do like your songs. You ain’t got any more of them for me, do you?’ Now, Ivory Joe was a real friendly guy. Great big kind of guy. You just immediately liked him, and he said, ‘Well, baby, I just have – I got one just for you.’ So we went in the piano room, and he sang My Wish Came True and Elvis said, ‘Shit, I’m cutting that at my next session!’ Which he did, even though it didn’t come out for a couple of years… and they sat there for hours, mostly singing Ivory Joe’s songs, a few of Elvis’ – man I just wish I had a tape machine!” We wish you did too, George.
Despite Atlantic’s boastful full-page ad in Cash Box that August, Hunter’s next release for the label (now published by something called ‘Desiard Music’) missed the charts entirely, as did his next three subsequent Atlantic singles. For whatever reason, the R&B record-buying public had appeared to move on, and Ivory Joe couldn’t buy a hit for over a year. In September of 1958, perhaps due to its great baritone-heavy arrangement, Yes I Want You (with Progressive back as the Publisher) did crawl to #94 on Billboard’s newly instituted ‘Hot 100’ and climbed as high as #13 R&B that October. It would be Hunter’s last R&B chart appearance, ever. There would be one more Atlantic single, released in March of 1959, but by then (amazingly) both parties seemed to have agreed to dissolve that three year contract a year early.
True to his (and George Klein’s) word, Elvis had cut My Wish Came True at the September 1957 ‘Christmas’ sessions with Leiber & Stoller at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. Released as the flip of yet another #1 record, A Big Hunk Of Love, it would also chart on its own, going to #12 on that Hot 100. The King had also recorded another Ivory Joe tune, this time in June of 1958, Ain’t That Loving You Baby (penned with Joe’s pal Clyde Otis), but it wasn’t released until 1964, when it hit #16 in Billboard.
No doubt encouraged by Hunter’s recent Pop crossover success, and the fact that Pat Boone had had such a huge hit for the label with Joe’s material, Dot Records signed Joe in late 1958. There doesn’t seem to have been any mention of it in the trade papers at the time, which seems odd, really. I mean, it must have been one sweet deal, and would certainly have been newsworthy, I’d think. Oh well. In any event, Dot managed to effectively end any shot Joe had at staying relevant as an R&B artist with their first release on him. At the time that City Lights was recorded, Ray Price’s version of the song was in the midst of its thirteen week stay at #1 on Billboard’s new Hot C&W Sides chart. It’s hard to imagine what Randy Wood was hoping to accomplish here. Although Ivory’s waxing of it did make it to #92 on the Hot 100 in early 1959, that would prove to be his final appearance on any chart whatsoever. Hunter had now essentially become too white for the black people, and had remained (of course) too black for the whites. How the mighty had fallen, and in less than two years!
Ivory Joe would soldier on for Dot out in Hollywood, releasing three more singles that went un-noticed in 1959. By 1960, he was back in New York recording for George Goldner. Of the four sides released that year on Goldisc, Let Them Say is probably the best, but even Goldner’s golden touch as producer didn’t help. Apparently signing a one year contract with Capitol in 1961, his three underwhelming singles cut for the big label that year once again failed to connect with the public. A great one-off for Ewart Abner’s Vee-Jay imprint in 1962, You Only Want Me When You Need Me (written by veteran songwriter Charles Singleton), died on the vine as well, even though the previous release on the label had gone top twenty both R&B and Pop for Jerry Butler… Ivory Joe couldn’t catch a break.
In June of 1963, Cash Box reported that Joe had become “…a part of the talent line-up of Smash Records. Inking, made by A&R man Shelby Singleton, is a continuation of the label’s ‘name’ artist build-up.” I’m not sure what ‘names’ they were referring to, as at this point Roger Miller and Jerry Lee had yet to sign with the label. Be that as it may, after Ray Charles had taken Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music to the top of Billboard’s LP charts the Summer before, I imagine Singleton had high hopes of replicating that kind of cross-over success with Ray’s former Atlantic label-mate. Shelby put Hunter together with Bill Justis to cut an album’s worth of material in April of ’63. The first of two singles for the Mercury subsidiary would be released in May. Joe’s own composition, My Arms Are Waiting (once more published by Desiard), is just Nashville all the way, and no doubt features our friend Jerry Kennedy on guitar. Perhaps it was too Country for the Pop Charts, but it would be another three years before Charley Pride would break through the color barrier there in Music City. Singleton then tried sending Joe back to New York to work with Sigma Seven Productions, but the resulting single just wasn’t that good. There didn’t seem to be any room at the Inn for Ivory Joe, no matter where he turned.
Where he turned next was Memphis.
Here was Hunter, on the ‘comeback trail’ right there on McLemore Avenue at the dawn of the ‘Soul Explosion’ as Stax was coming into its own. On Can’t ExplainHow It Happened, in addition to ‘big Joe’s’ laid-back ‘vocal chords’, he lets loose on the piano more than he had done in recent years, I think. Along with those Memphis horns, Cropper’s stinging guitar and Duck Dunn’s strolling bass line, it’s the drums on this one that make it a truly great record, in my opinion. Although again published by Desiard, the ‘Shaw’ credited as Joe’s co-writer here, refers to the Memphis based itinerant record man and all-around operator Jimmy Shaw, who we talked a little more about here.
I hadn’t noticed it the first time I read it, I don’t know, maybe I wasn’t paying attention. I had started writing this piece in February, just before I got the news that our friend Howard Grimes had passed. On the plane on the way down to Memphis for the funeral, I decided I’d read Timekeeper: My Life In Rhythm one more time. When I saw this, I got chills, man. It was almost as if Howard had reached out and grabbed me…
I have to admit, I wasn’t familiar with the record but, for Bulldog to say it was ‘the most complicated rhythm I ever cut’ (in an entire lifetime of complicated rhythms), I knew I had to check it out… Whoah! Kind of like Smokey Johnson meets Ray Barretto or something, here’s yet another example of Howard’s innovative percussion work and sheer genius behind the drum kit. This Kind Of Woman just cooks along, with Joe apparently playing the organ on this side and slyly spelling out just what kind of woman he wants (along with the kind he doesn’t), punctuated by some punchy latin-tinged horns. No wonder I thought the drums on the A side were great… it was Howard! Like he said, they ‘gave it everything every time’, and it shows.
One has to wonder how such a solid single failed to get noticed (aside from those 17 Louisiana and Texas dee-jays). Did Atlantic, as the Stax distributor, possibly still harbor some ill will over Hunter’s prematurely jumping ship five years before? Hmmm…
There is one other 1964 Ivory Joe single that is usually dated as being cut after his lone Stax outing, Joie 720. Apparently a subsidiary of something called L & S Records out in Los Angeles, not much else seems to be known about Joie other than that there were two other releases on the label around the same time. Hunter, who had cut his teeth cutting hits on his own West Coast labels in the late forties, was credited here as the producer, with the mis-spelled ‘De Saird’ now sharing the publishing with ‘Portulaca Music’. I suppose it doesn’t much matter, but I think the Joie single may have been recorded first, as the copyright for the A side, I Need A Woman, was registered in June, while Howard’s complicated Stax B side above was copyrighted that August, around the same time that it was released. Pretty much a straight ahead West Coast Blues number, I wonder who the guitar player might be… Arthur Adams? It is also interesting to note that, even though it says Desiard on the label, the song was registered by Morris Levy’s Frost Music Corp. which ‘In August of that year  had… recently expanded via the purchase of other publishers.’ What a tangled web Joe (and Joie) wove…
Not one to sit still, it was another year, another record label for our man Ivory as he teamed up with Huey Meaux sometime in 1965. Meaux’s ‘Crazy Cajun Enterprises’ was based in Conroe, Texas, just about 100 miles west of Kirbyville, where Joe grew up. Not sure why Huey decided to place Hunter on his Tear Drop imprint, on which about half of his recent releases had been Chicano, instead of on Tribe (the label he had just scored big on with The Sir Douglas Quintet), but there it is. Hunter would cut four sides that year for Huey in Houston at Gold Star Recording. With the great Joey Long‘s guitar mixed front and center, Meaux succeeded in putting a little bit of the ebony back in ol’ Ivory’s records. For my money, the pure Blues of I’ve Asked You For The Last Time still holds up as one of Joe’s best records from this period. You have to wonder if Shelby Singleton, who had gotten his start plugging Huey’s productions, was instrumental in hooking Hunter up with him, and if the subsequent signing of the SDQ to Smash while Meaux was otherwise engaged a few years later was part of the deal…
Bettye Jo Elliot got her start in the industry working for Sam Phillip’s ‘all-girl’ Memphis radio station WHER in the mid-fifties before becoming one of their much-loved on-air disk jockeys. In 1957, she met and married Louis Jack Berger, owner of the West Memphis nightclub The Plantation Inn. Under her guidance, it soon became one of the few places where white kids could go and hear black music, influencing an entire generation in the process. Impressed with the sheer talent of the acts they were booking, she would start her own record label, Bet-T, in 1960 and release a single on William Bell’s Del-Rios, a full year before Chips Moman cut him at Stax. In 1965, Bettye began working for Ray Brown’s National Artist Attractions which, according to Travis Wammack, ‘booked everyone in town’. Convinced she could do better for her artists, she left a year later and formed her own agency, Continental Artists Inc., naming Don Dortch as her vice-president. Ivory Joe would become one of Continental’s first clients, which may have been what lured him back to Memphis in 1966.
It certainly seemed like the right move as, when Hunter signed with Goldwax that Spring, James Carr was climbing the charts for the label, eventually breaking into the R&B top ten. According to the liner notes for The Complete Goldwax Singles, Volume Two, Quinton Claunch had cut Every Little Bit Helped Me on Joe in 1964 (apparently before his stint at Stax), and released it ‘out of the can’ in June of ’66. After nobody seemed to notice, Claunch changed gears a bit and recorded Hunter in a more pop-oriented, Bert Berns style production, leasing his next 45 to United Artists subsidiary Veep in early 1967. Despite being picked as a ‘best bet’ in Cashbox in March, no ‘secure chart berth’ ever did materialize for Don’t You Believe Him, or it’s B+ B side, What’s The Matter Baby.
As discussed earlier, Goldwax brought both Reggie Young and Bobby Emmons across town for an Ivory Joe session at Sam Phillips Recording on June 26th, 1967. Issued that September as Veep 1270, the flip, From The First Time We Met (essentially a re-make of his biggest hit for Atlantic) was predicted by Billboard to reach the Hot 100, but didn’t. It’s the ‘Plug Side’, Did She Ask About Me, however, that just knocks me out. Quinton’s immaculate production, Reggie’s shimmering guitar and Hunter’s heartfelt vocal delivery combine to make this one a winner. It was written by Goldwax ‘Country Series’ artist Carmol Taylor, in a genre which fit Ivory Joe like a glove. Claunch was just a couple of years ahead of his time…
At this point, there is no mention of Ivory Joe Hunter in any of the trade magazines for well over a year, until he is mentioned in Billboard in December of 1968 as ‘returning to the disk scene’ for Sound Stage 7.
Signing with the Monument subsidiary during the exact period when John Richbourg’s ‘exclusive production arm’ had been cutting all of its artists at American in Memphis, it is inconceivable to me that Fred Foster would not opt to send Ivory Joe there as well, especially in light of the great record we just talked about that Hunter had cut in 1967 with most of Moman’s ‘Memphis Boys’ at Sam Phillips.
Although only the Joe Simon and Ella Washington singles mentioned as ‘chart bound!’ in the Cash Box ad at right actually charted, all of them (except for Ivory Joe’s) had been cut with Moman at 827 Thomas, and still hold up today as the stone classics they are.
A Billboard article about Monument from the week before states simply that John R “currently produces all Sound Stage 7 artists with the exception of Arthur Alexander and Ivory Joe Hunter,” but gives absolutely no reason why that might be.
Production duties for Ivory Joe would be handled by Monument’s Vice President and National Sales Director Steve Poncio, who had joined the company in August of 1967. Prior to that, Poncio had come up through the ranks in Houston, and had been running his own company, United Record Distributing, there since 1949. Instead of Memphis, Poncio chose to cut Hunter at the ACA Studio in Houston with local session musicians. His choice of material seems questionable as well as, rather that let Joe cut his own compositions, the label had him cover a tune that Otis Williams and his Charms had taken to #11 Pop (right behind Cathy Carr at #2 and Gale Storm at #6) in 1956, Ivory Tower. Although ol’ Joe is singing his heart out, the tune sounds, if you will, dated – because it was.! Poncio would produce two more singles for the label on Hunter at ACA in 1969 which are, in my opinion, virtually unlistenable. It all just seems a shame, and such a missed opportunity. I’d love to have heard what magic Chips might have created with Ivory Joe in the house…
In January of 1969, Sonny James, cut Ivory Joe’s Since I Met You Baby. When it was released that August, it went straight to the top of Billboard’s Country chart – Sonny’s tenth number one hit in a row. On April 10th, 1971, his version of Hunter’s Empty Arms became the fourteenth [James’ unparalleled streak of #1’s would grow to 16 by the end of the year]. In his book Willful Shadows, Sonny said, “I was doing a personal appearance in Monroe Louisiana, where he [Joe] lived… he said ‘Son back there when you did those songs for me my catalog of songs was… just laying there and wasn’t anybody touching them, any of the recorded ones or the one that had never been recorded… all of the sudden my whole catalog – they started doing songs I’d forgotten I’d written!’ ”
On May 4th, 1971, Elvis was featured on the cover of LOOK magazine, with a feature about his ‘hidden life’ promised inside. Since Suspicious Minds had gone to number one in November of ’69, The King’s chart position had been steadily slipping, and I’m sure RCA (and The Colonel) were glad for the exposure. On May 15th, Presley returned to RCA Studio B, the site of his ‘marathon sessions’ the year before, to work on a proposed new Christmas Album. Somewhere around 2am on May 20th, Elvis sat down at the piano and performed an Ivory Joe B side from 1950, I WillBe True, a favorite of his which he had also recorded while in the Army in Germany. With engineer Al Pachuki rolling the tapes, Elvis then launched into five takes of another Ivory Joe song that nobody in the studio had ever heard before, It’s Still Here. When RCA decided to include it on the ‘Fool‘ album in 1973, it was Gladys Music (the publishing arm named after Presley’s mother) that registered the copyright. In the Elvis Collectors Forum, it says the song is “intriguing, as there’s no known recording of it prior to Elvis.”
Long time contributor, Tom Erik Ogland (Norway’s own Soul Detective) begs to differ…
After some world-class digging, Tom unearthed a previously unknown single by Ivory Joe on Delta, a small Louisiana label. He first found the B side, I’m Looking For A Girl (Who’s Looking For A Boy), on YouTube, where there was a comment about the A side of that single actually being It’s Still Here, but he could find no confirmation of that. Then the real detective work began. Through the comment on YouTube, eBay and a Popsike listing, Tom was able to track down the owner of one of the two known copies. Although it had recently been sold again, luckily he had kept scans and mp3 rips of both sides, which are presented here for the first time. With the help of Praguefrank and another knowledgeable record collector friend from Finland, Tom was then able to use the matrix numbers to definitively date the record as being released in early 1968, before Hunter’s first sessions for Sound Stage 7 in Houston.
Now, how about that?
Although now sharing the BMI publishing with what must have been Delta’s own Ark-La-Miss Music, Desiard is still listed first, which would certainly suggest (although there appears to be no record of it) that the song was indeed copyrighted at least five years before the Gladys Music entry mentioned above. As it turns out, Desiard is the name of the bayou and main drag that wind their way through Ivory Joe’s adopted hometown of Monroe, Louisiana. Who knew? In a 1970 Commercial Appeal article, Hunter is quoted as saying, “Now, Elvis, he’s something else. He recorded some of my songs and they all sold over a million for him. He’s money in the bank when they put a record out on him…” I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine Joe sending Presley a copy of the Delta 45 when it was released. The fact that Elvis was able to sit down at the piano and perform it through from memory in 1971 seems to indicate that he had played it many times before, and knew it by heart. Thanks, Tom!
Tired of going nowhere fast at Sound Stage 7, in early 1970 Joe decided to return to Memphis on his own. In the same article in The Commercial Appeal mentioned earlier, Bettye Berger outlines Hunter’s own appeal to ‘put his career in her hands’. Bettye circled the wagons at that point, and asked Charlie Chalmers to put together a session in late March at Sam Phillips that would include heavy hitters Bowlegs Miller, Jack Hale, James Mitchell and Isaac Hayes, who would also write this poignant note about Hunter being ‘copped and then dropped’ for the back of the album cover.
Epic apparently won the bidding for Berger’s tapes and, on May 19th, 1971 (the day before Elvis sat down at that piano), they released a single from the album (now aptly titled The Return Of Ivory Joe Hunter), Heartbreak And Misery. “That’s Jackie Harvell on guitar,” Charlie Chalmers told me, “I hired him to do that record.” Arranged by Chalmers and Sandra Rhodes, who also plays bass on the album, that’s her sister Donna on drums. “That was before I started singing backup with them,” Charlie said, “I wrote those strings, but I didn’t do horns… must have been in a hurry!” Seeing as the whole album was cut in two days, I’d say so. It’s interesting to hear the Rhodes – Rhodes backup without the Chalmers in the middle. It was Willie Mitchell who would figure out that equation just a few months later.
In October of 1972, Ivory Joe was a special guest at The Grand Ole Opry’s 47th birthday celebration, and the crowd went wild as he launched into some of those recent Sonny James hits. Perhaps the best of the surviving live audio from The Ryman is Hunter’s version of the Charlie Rich tune that Jerry Lee Lewis took into the Country Top 20 in 1958, I’ll Make It All Up To You. Just a consummate performer, Joe and his under-stated piano make the song his own as he holds the audience in the palm of his hand. Wow! He would make three more appearances on that stage over the next couple of years…
In November of 1972, with the migration of Moman’s Memphis Boys to Nashville almost complete, Bettye Berger would book Ivory Joe into Jack Clement’s Studio B to work on a new album. One of his first real jobs in Music City, Reggie Young’s log book shows him cutting with Hunter on his days off between the Quadrophonic Dobie Gray sessions that yielded Drift Away. Berger brought in other Memphis stalwarts like Tommy Cogbill and Stan Kesler to work with Cowboy Jack, and began shopping the album around to various labels.
Although, as we’ve seen, certainly not his first, Cash Box reported that Ivory Joe was forming his own publishing firm there in Nashville in March of 1973 – that would be four months before the Elvis’ Gladys copyright outlined above. Always the optimist, Hunter is quoted as saying “I have always been Country, but I happened to hit with a Blues song and then after that I was categorized Blues”[a situation, by the way, that continues at The Grammys to this day] By November, Record World announced his signing with Paramount Records, a division of Gulf + Western that had purchased Randy Wood’s Dot label (and Stax!) a few years before. According to the article, the label was going all out on promotion, with ‘appearances on nationally syndicated radio and television shows’ including WSM’s Music City U.S.A.
Issued on October 3rd, 1973, He’ll Never Love You, with Lloyd Green on pedal steel and Charlie McCoy on harmonica, is a top-shelf Country record. Just a great song, it had been written by Bettye Berger for Donnie (Dortch) Dexter for a previous release on her Bet-T label. Be that as it may, Ivory’s pleading vocals, Hank Levine’s arrangement (and Reggie’s guitar) make this one a winner. Joe’s LP, I’ve Always Been Country, made up mostly of covers of Country standards, was released in early 1974.
Then, tragically, just when it seemed that Hunter might have had a shot at making it in Nashville, he was diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer, which had him in and out of Methodist Hospital in Memphis for most of the year. In Guralnick and Jorgensen’s Elvis Day by Day, they report that, on August 5th, the King sent Bettye Berger a check for $1000 to help defray the cost of Joe’s medical bills, accompanied by this note: “I am very sorry to hear of Joe’s illness. I have been a long-time admirer of Ivory Joe and his talent. Please tell Joe for me that I wish him a speedy recovery. Joe is a great talent and has been an inspiration to many artists that have come along. It hurts me deeply to hear of his condition. I sincerely hope that this check will be of some help. Thank you for letting me know about Joe. – Sincerely, Elvis Presley.”
On October 1st, Bettye Berger organized a benefit concert at the new Opry House location. A testament to Ivory’s wide appeal, it featured such diverse talents as Isaac Hayes, William Bell, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. They airlifted Joe from his hospital bed in Memphis, and brought him on stage in a wheelchair. He would perform three songs, his current single, “He’ll Never Love You,” “Empty Arms” and a song he had recently co-written with Berger, God Just Lent Them To You, There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. When you think of this as the last song Hunter ever performed, well… I can certainly see why.
On November 8th, 1974, Ivory Joe Hunter was called home.
As Bettye Berger said: “It was his realness, that uniqueness of expression that enabled his message to relate to everyone. His Blues were a very soft variety, his gentle but determined nature always obvious even throughout his long period of illness, when he insisted: ‘I plan on being around for a long time… forever!'”Record World 11/23/74
You know what? Joe was right… he’s still here!
Ivory Joe had recorded a second Country album in 1973 at Pete Drake’s studio in Nashville. Tentatively titled Just Tell My Friends, it was shelved after his death, and had remained in the can until it was released digitally on Tim Whitsett’s LocoBop label as This Is My Country, which, for some reason has been erroneously dated on YouTube as having been originally recorded in 1964… the version of It’s Still Here on the album was indeed recorded after Elvis…
In Loving Memory: Bettye Berger passed away at 89 years old in January of 2020
Special Thanks to: Tom Erik Ogland, Charlie Chalmers, Mark Nicholson, PragueFrank, Rob Finnis, Rob Bowman, Peter Guralnick, John Broven and Richard Tapp
…and now that heart, that kind and generous heart, beats no more. I know the Memphis Beat that Howard helped to create will live on, but I, and the city he so loved, will miss this gentle and steadfast man who gave his entire Heart and Soul to his music… Memphis will be a smaller place without him in it.
I first met Howard in 2008 as we made preparations for the O.V. Wright Night benefit concert that Preston Lauterbach and I were organizing to help O.V.’s family defray the costs of placing a headstone on his then unmarked grave. Soft spoken, humble, yet somehow ‘Bulldog’ connected all the dots, and was holding down the fat bottom of what was left of The Soul of Memphis. He was just so thrilled that we were doing this, and would tell us again and again how much it meant to Memphis to be re-claiming the all but forgotten legacy of O.V. and the magic they had forged there on South Lauderdale. It was an incredible night.
Just living History, every time I spoke with Howard I learned something new, and began to understand the unique place he held in all of this. He knew everyone in town, and went out of his way to make sure I did too, opening so many doors for me that I never knew existed. God-based, spiritual, Howard made his way in this world with a quiet light that shone through his being and filled the room. His laugh was infectious. Of all the people he introduced me to, there were two men that he held close to his heart – two men who shared his spirituality, and understood his deep relationship with God, Darryl Carter and Otis Clay.
As we’ve talked about in the past, Sir Lattimore Brown had that same kind of profound connection with something greater than ourselves and, when I brought him to hang out with Howard and Darryl on McLemore Avenue in 2009, I began to understand the meaning of the phrase ‘Joy is the infallible sign of the Presence of God.’ We had us a time up in there, rocking at full volume to the Gospel tunes the inseparable friends had been working on, with lines like “I’d be nowhere, I’d be lost, if He hadn’t died upon The Cross…” I was in Heaven that night, man!
When Willie Mitchell passed in January of 2010, I drove to Memphis and gave Howard a ride to the Funeral Home for the wake. I walked beside him to the casket, and will never forget the moment when he placed his hand gently on Poppa Willie’s chest and said goodbye…
The next day at the Memorial Concert, Howard was back on the drum kit where he belonged, backing up everyone from J. Blackfoot, Preston Shannon and Willie Clayton to Don Bryant, Solomon Burke and, yes, Otis Clay. Once again, thanks to the Bulldog, I found myself hanging out with all these amazing people whom I had been listening to for years – God was definitely in ‘da house! It was Carla Thomas who said to me later that evening, “Why do you think they call it SOUL music?” I was beginning to understand.
“Kelly,” Howard said (that’s what he called me, ‘Kelly’), “God told me to go and see Scott at Electraphonic Recording. When I got down there, I knew. He had the same feel for the music that Willie had. I knew I was in the right place.” As the drummer for The Bo-Keys, Bulldog was once again on the cutting edge of what was happening in Memphis. Along with legendary band-mates like Floyd Newman, Skip Pitts, Ben Cauley and Archie Turner, The Bo-Keys’ great 2011 album Got To Get Back! would feature Memphis giants William Bell, Don Bryant, Percy Wiggins, Charlie Musselwhite and Howard’s main man, Otis Clay. As they toured that year in support of the record, Howard made sure I got backstage, and felt like ‘one of the boys’.
In 2012, Scott Bomar was kind enough to allow us to bring the Soul Detective Road Trip & Fact Finding Mission to Electraphonic to film interviews with Howard, The Masqueraders and Darryl Carter. It was our graphic design guy Paul Pollman (a ‘stick man’ himself) who hatched the idea of surprising Bulldog with an ‘International Award’ for what was then almost sixty years as a Memphis Soul drummer. Presented here for the first time ever is some of the footage that Chase Thompson shot that sweltering August afternoon…
Focusing chiefly on his early recording career with Chips Moman at Satellite, and his continued involvement as part of ‘The Stax Family,’ we learned a lot that day that we knew nothing about. I don’t think we were prepared for how much the award would mean to Howard, and you couldn’t help but be touched by the genuine tears that welled up in his eyes. “Praise God,” he said, and everyone in the room agreed. It had all turned out even better than we expected and, as The Bulldog climbed into his prized mid-seventies Mercury Marquis, he drove away one happy man.
At the American Studio historic marker dedication at Chelsea and Thomas in 2014, Scott Bomar helped me accomplish something I had been trying to do for a couple of years, to re-unite Howard with Chips Moman, the man who had believed in him, and given him the ‘thumbs up’ as his go-to drummer at Stax. They hadn’t seen each other in almost fifty years. Chips had been slowed down a bit recently by a stroke and some health complications, but the minute he saw Bulldog he perked right up, “Howard!” Chips recognized him right away, and they were both so genuinely glad to see each other again, after all those years. These two men right here were there at the very birth of Memphis Soul. It simply would not have existed without them… Say Amen, Somebody!
I couldn’t help but notice that day that Howard had traded in his NY Yankees cap for one that said ‘Jesus’… from that moment on, I never saw him without it. “My wife bought me that that cap,” he told me, “I didn’t even know she bought it… but God told me, wear that cap for people to see. God’s people ask me questions when they see it… that’s when I get a chance to give someone a testimony and share God Jesus with them.”
Howard had had what he called an ‘out of body experience’ in which he knew that he had died and passed from this world. He had a profound vision in which he had seen the face of God, yet returned to this life on Earth. As you may imagine, this left him with little doubt about the reality of some kind of life after death, and that unwavering Faith had become his guiding principle. Both Otis and Darryl had told him that God must have sent him back here for a reason, and that he had yet to fulfill his purpose here on Earth… I soon came to believe that as well.
At Ponderosa Stomp #12 in 2015, I was asked to moderate an interview and presentation at The Music History Conference with Willie Hightower, who had all but vanished from the public eye. The next day, it was Preston Lauterbach’s turn to interview Howard Grimes. Both events were packed to the rafters, and resulted in standing ovations for both men. Scott Bomar’s Bo-Keys (now featuring real-deal guitarist Joe Restivo and the Memphis Horns of my pals Kirk Smothers and Marc Franklin) were called upon to be the backing band for the first night of the Rock ‘n’ Bowl shows, playing behind Mabel John, Betty Harris, Brenda Holloway, and the man who absolutely stole the show that night, Willie Hightower. Check out the 74 year old Bulldog just killing it on the drums… wow!
When Darryl Carter called and told me that Otis Clay had died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack in January of 2016, I couldn’t believe it. Here was a man who was just so full of the Spirit, who didn’t just talk the talk, but worked hard to make the world a better place. We had seen him sing When The Gates Swing Open at Poppa Willie’s funeral, and now they had opened for him. I called Howard, and I think I was more upset than he was. He had Faith. He knew Otis was with God. Shortly after that I heard that Darryl had pulled up stakes, left Memphis, and headed to Clarksdale, Tennessee (of all places). That Summer my wife and I made it a point to go visit, and see how he was doing. Although he played the part of the same old gruff ‘Tell Me About It!’ Darryl, it felt like something had shifted… there was a sadness there that I hadn’t noticed before.
Howard meanwhile, besides continuing his great work at Electraphonic, had become Soul Detective’s secret weapon. Any question I had about the development of Memphis music, I knew I could call him and he’d talk for hours (if I let him) about everybody from Bowlegs and Ben Branch to Earl The Pearl, Flick and Frog. He had been there and back, with a rare and remarkable memory for names and dates. He had become our Ace in the Hole. On the way to the next Ponderosa Stomp in October of 2017, John Broven and I stopped off in Memphis to chew the fat with Howard (the Jesus cap) and his old boss Floyd Newman on Beale Street. We were planning to meet up with Bulldog again at The Stomp, as The Bo-Keys were scheduled to back up Don Bryant, with whom they had just cut Don’s phenomenal come-back album Don’t Give Up On Love. A mandatory curfew and evacuation order by a nervous New Orleans mayor as non-hurricane Nate approached during the blood red moon put the kabosh on that, and unlucky Stomp #13 would, sadly, turn out to be the last.
Darryl Carter always sent us a Christmas card, that’s the way he rolled. I had just gotten ours that December when I heard the news. He had died there in Clarksdale, alone. I couldn’t quite take it in. The special bond that I had witnessed between Otis, Howard and Darryl went so deep, and now Howard was the only one left. I called him, essentially in tears. Once again, somehow his unshakeable Faith in the reality of the God they knew carried him through. He was so strong.
They brought Darryl home to Memphis and laid him to rest in January, surrounded by the people who loved him. If there was any possible way, I would have been there too. I began speaking with Howard a lot more.“Kelly,” he would say, “God told me to call you…”Uh-Oh… I was always a little nervous about what God might have wanted, but it was always good. Howard spoke the truth.
On yet another road trip, this time to Arkansas to honor Reggie Young at The Osceola Heritage Music Fest in May of 2018, it dawned on me that Memphis was kinda on the way. I took a quick detour down Highway 51, past the Family Dollar that used to be American Sound, and made a few phone calls. Howard (and the Jesus cap) came through for me again, and that morning we had breakfast at The Cupboard with the fabled brothers that put the SOUL in soul brother, Percy and Spencer Wiggins, who were looking forward to their upcoming appearance at The Porretta Soul Festival that July… amazing!
In 2019, Praise the Jesus cap, I got to hang out with Howard twice. The first time was at the end of July as we stopped in Memphis on our way back from The Handy Fest in Muscle Shoals. Once again Scott Bomar invited me down to Electraphonic where he was punching in the horns on the new album he had just cut on Don Bryant. The next time was in November when I finally did get to see Bulldog and the Bo-Keys back up Don at his induction into The Memphis Music Hall of Fame. The next day, Broven and I took him to lunch at Soulfish. He had a picture with him that he wanted to show us. It was an artist’s depiction, he said, of the vision he had during that out-of-body experience… I hugged him there in the driveway of his house on McLemore. “Don’t you die on me, Howard,” I said, “What would I do without you?”“I ain’t dying, Kelly,” he answered, and that was the last time I saw him.
I talked to him around Christmas, but after that his phone just rang and rang. As Covid began to take hold in the Spring of 2020, I started to worry. He finally picked up the phone in May.
“I been in the hospital, Kelly… they had me on the fourth floor, where the Corona patients were. All the thoughts I had were what Otis and Darryl had said to me on that porch before they passed away. They had already given me the signs of what I was gonna see and what was gonna be happening, what God was going to use me for. So really, I heard it, but I didn’t truly understand it but, after they passed away, it happened to me. It started in that hospital, because Jesus was with me day and night in that hospital. God touched me, man. ‘I give it to you the first time you was 12,’ He said, ‘now you 78. He said, I’m gonna give it to you again… you said you didn’t get paid, but you’re going to get paid. You’re gonna work with the right people.”‘
After that, it all started to fall into place.
In November, You Make Me Feel, the great Don Bryant album Scott had produced at Electraphonic, with Howard on the drums, was nominated for a Grammy.
Bulldog had been working on the idea of a book with Preston Lauterbach for years, and that dream had finally come true in the Spring of 2021 when Timekeeper: My Life In Rhythm was released to rave reviews on both sides of The Atlantic. On July 21st, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music hosted a book release event, which included an interview by Preston followed by a Bulldog and The Bo-Keys show featuring some of those early Stax/Volt instrumentals, and both Percy Wiggins and Don Bryant joining them on vocals. Howard was then presented with a Mayoral proclamation declaring July 21, 2021 Howard Lee Grimes Day in Memphis and Shelby County. Imagine?
Our man Howard, who would be turning EIGHTY within a month still delivered the goods that day. He was as great as ever, man.
I talked to Howard just before Christmas, the way I always did. He told me he had been contacted by The Rolling Stones. I was like, ‘hey, they’re short a drummer right now…’ – but, as it turned out, it was for an in-depth interview for Rolling Stone, the magazine: “‘Nobody ever thought about interviewing me, man,‘ Grimes says, speaking over the phone with a soft drawl… ‘I stopped worrying about it. I stayed in my place. I did what I was told. I played my heart out.‘ Grimes appears to have the inverse of an ego; he is self-effacing to the point that he almost becomes invisible in his own story,” Elias Leight wrote, and I think that’s exactly right. Howard was never about Howard, about being the ‘big man’ in the story… maybe that’s why God loved him so much
He was finally getting paid.
On January 6th, I was working on episode six of the Reggie Young Discography Project, and I came across something in some CD liner notes that didn’t seem to add up. As usual, I picked up the phone and called my Ace in the Hole. “You know, Kelly, like Darryl Carter told me, and Otis told me back in the day, they used to tell me all the time, ‘Howard, they can’t find and trace all the records you recorded ’cause you started out so young recording in the studio,’ he said ‘they don’t even have a record of how many records you actually cut!'” I told him I was gonna send him down a CD of those tracks for him to listen to, and see if he thought that was him on the drums.
After about three weeks, I called him. His wife Juanita answered, and told me Howard was back in the hospital with kidney problems, but that he seemed to be improving. He came home shortly after that, and held Juanita tight.
The next day his son-in-law was driving him to his dialysis treatment, and Howard turned to him and said “I’m tired, man. I just want to go home and rest.” …and that’s just what he did. Preston called me February 12th. Howard had been called home
At the funeral a week later, Reverend Charles Hodges delivered a powerful, heartfelt eulogy to the man he called his brother. “You don’t have to wonder if Howard is with Jesus now that he’s passed, he was already with Jesus while he was here!” Amen.
I walked slowly up to Howard’s casket, placed my hand gently on his chest and said goodbye, just as I had seen him do with Willie a decade before…
I’m gonna miss you, Bulldog… a lot.
Special Thanks to: Juanita Grimes, Scott Bomar, Kerri Mahoney, Preston Lauterbach, Floyd Newman, Carla Thomas, Percy Wiggins, Spencer Wiggins, Don Bryant, Joe Restivo, Archie Turner, Kirk Smothers, Marc Franklin, Reverend Charles Hodges, Tex Wrightsill, Harold Thomas, Sam Hutchins, Bruce Branoweth, Boo Mitchell, Ira Padnos, Willie Hightower, John Broven, Paul Pollman, Chase Thompson, Mark Nicholson and Robin Tomlin
In Loving Memory: Otis Clay, Darryl Carter, Chips Moman, Skip Pitts, Ben Cauley, Sir Lattimore Brown, Willie Mitchell, J. Blackfoot, Preston Shannon and Solomon Burke
I just want to say a word here about how great and influential a talent Howard Grimes was. In the Rolling Stone article, they talk about how many times he was ‘sampled’ and all that, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface. The conversation usually goes something like this: “Yeah, he was Al Green’s drummer.” “Really? Wow… like on Let’s Stay Together?” “Um, no, well kinda, but… it’s a long story.” – and the take-away from that is that people think he played on some of his records. That’s crap. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like Al Jackson and everything, but Bulldog was the Hi Records drummer – period.
I wanted to put together this playlist of some of the early, lesser known material Howard mentioned in our 2012 interview, along with some of my personal favorites of his work from later on… without even mentioning Al Green.
…if you scroll down and hit ‘play’ you can listen while you read the notes!
By 1966, Ernie Young had been releasing J.D. Miller’s Crowley, Louisiana productions on his Excello label for over a decade, resulting in some truly great records. When Slim Harpo’s Baby Scratch My Back hit the airwaves that January, it took the country by storm, soaring to #1 R&B in both Billboard and Cash Box, and staying there atop all that Motown for a couple of weeks, while even crossing over into the Top 20 on the Hot 100. Young’s usual method of distributing his singles through Ernie’s Record Mart couldn’t keep up with demand, and he was forced to ship orders directly from the pressing plant, a situation he was none too happy with. I’m not sure if that had something to do with it (or if he just decided to strike while the iron’s hot) but, by July, the 74 year old Young had sold everything lock, stock and barrel, to something called The Crescent Amusement Company.
Miller had been under the impression that his productions had been ‘leased’ to Nashboro/Excello, and that he had retained ownership of his master tapes. Crescent’s legal team felt otherwise, and sent new label president Jack Funk and newly named VP Shannon Williams (shown here re-signing The Thunderbolt Of The Middle West) down to Crowley to try and smooth things over and continue the arrangement he had with Young. J.D. would have none of it, and in the ensuing battle of wills, the last two Miller-produced Slim Harpo singles (including the future Jagger & Richards’ favorite, Shake Your Hips), were virtually ignored by the folks in Nashville and, consequently, by the record-buying public as well.
With his eye on the future, Harpo took advantage of a loophole in his contract with Miller to sign directly with the new regime at Excello. This was seen by J.D. as the final betrayal, and embroiled him in an extended legal battle with the label, one which he would eventually lose.
As Shannon Williams told John Broven in South To Louisiana: The Music Of The Cajun Bayous, “Well, of course, after we signed him the question was ‘What are we going to do with him now?’… Nashville just is not a Blues location, and the players are not here; let’s take him somewhere that we think maybe he can turn out a hit… We got in touch with this guy Ray Harris; he set the whole thing up, said he could get the pickers and Willie Mitchell and these guys that played there. It was like a house band, I guess, and they loved to do it.” Martin Hawkins, author of Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge, sent me this great ad for an ‘All Star Rhythm & Blues Show’ in El Dorado, Arkansas (just over the Louisiana state line) in December of 1966. “The interesting thing is that he was part of a package led by Willie Mitchell,” Hawkins said, “and may have been backed by Mitchell’s guys rather than carrying his own group… Harpo had Memphis in mind, even if he didn’t hatch a plan with anyone else.” In other words, Slim might have let Williams and Ray Harris think it was all their idea.
“So we’d all go down to Memphis to do this and it turned out very well…” Williams went on to tell Broven, “He [Slim] loved it. He felt this was such a good switch; he was very up on this whole thing… I think the Hi session men got down with him. Willie Mitchell didn’t have much to do with the session; it was mostly directed by this fellow Harris… it didn’t seem like Harris was too much on for Harpo’s harmonica, but that of course is a trademark. We insisted on it… I recall the difficulty in mic’ing as to where Harpo could both do his guitar and his harp and sing. Played guitar on all the records, it was sort of ordinary.”
Hmmm… So, it was a known fact that Slim had recorded at Hi sometime in the Spring of 1967. In 2012, Broven and I asked Howard Grimes if he had ever worked on a session with Harpo – “Nope, that’s one I would remember,” he said, “I backed him up a few times when he came through Memphis, but I never cut with him.” In October of 2016, when I first got my hands on Reggie’s 1967 session log book, one of the first things I did was look for any mention of Slim’s visit, to no avail…
In May of 2020, when the late great Sherry Emmons Brugman sent me Bobby’s 1967 log book, BINGO!, there it was. The fabled session had been held on April 18th but, if that was the case, why hadn’t Reggie made note of it in his book? Well, the last date entered from his New York sojourn for Atlantic was the 15th, after which begins the first of those inexplicable ‘black holes’ in Reggie’s journal, with no entries at all for the ensuing two weeks. Although that may indicate that he hadn’t worked at all for the rest of the month of April, it seems highly unlikely.
The first record released from the session was the timeless TipOn In, which would climb to #37 R&B during that long hot Summer. Driven by what Colin Escott describes as “One of the most elegant grooves in all of R&B,” the bass, the drums and that shimmering rhythm guitar are just locked in behind Harpo’s ‘trademark’ harp and sly vocals. I’d say that’s Satch Arnold on drums and either Mike Leech or Tommy Cogbill on the bass – the question remains, though, is that Slim on guitar? Hawkins: “It is likely that Slim Plays the dry scratch that keeps time while Teenie Hodges plays lead, and in that case Slim must have overdubbed his harp solo” Escott: “I don’t think Harpo could have played the through-riff AND sung. He could have overdubbed his vocal, but the guitar still sounds too professional. Sounds like a studio guy – no flubbednotes or changes.”Hmmm…
I think I’d have to agree that the tremelo ‘scratch’ rhythm is being played by a ‘studio guy’ – it could be Reggie, or it could be Teenie Hodges (or even Cogbill), but there is no doubt in my mind that the lead guitarist here is Clarence Nelson! ‘That fellow Harris’ would have brought him in to ‘Blues things up a bit’ as he had done with Amos Patton a few months before and, as we mentioned in episode four, we know Nelson was in the house for the Ace Cannon session held the following day. Very cool!Bob Holmes, who Excello had recently hired as a producer and arranger, is listed as a co-writer on Part 1, which may have been to give him a share of the royalties, as he’s not credited on Part 2. In any event, this is just an awesome record all the way around… who knew there was that much ‘Swamp’ right there on South Lauderdale?
Even though it was the notation in Bobby Emmons’ book that opened this can of worms in the first place, there does not seem to be any keyboards on either side of Tip On In. They do appear, however, on Harpo’s next release from the session, with Bob Holmes (whom Williams described as “the respectable black front to the company”) now earning his ‘mechanicals’ via a producer’s credit. I’m Gonna Keep What I’ve Got, grooves along in the same elegant fashion, and features more of Clarence Nelson’s ‘vise-grip’ guitar work. According to Martin Hawkins, the flip of that single, the straight ahead Blues number I’ve Got To Be With You Tonight, was also cut at the Memphis session, as was Hey Little Lee, which was only released on 45 in France (go figure). The reverb-y lead guitar on both of these sides is played by someone else entirely, and I believe it to be ol’ Slim himself! This would reconcile the Williams’ comment about him ‘playing guitar on all the records’. Also, in Hawkins’ chapter on these recordings, he says that Harpo “…had recently taken to playing some electric lead,” then goes on to quote Slim’s wife Lovell, who said “He would never finish an engagement until he had played his guitar.”There ya go, folks!
Speaking of Louisiana…
New Orleans’ Minit label was formed in 1959 by Joe Banashak and WMRY radio personality Larry McKinley. Once Ernie K-Doe’s Mother In Law went positively viral for Minit in 1961 (topping both the R&B and Pop charts), it ushered in the ‘second wave’ of popularity for Crescent City R&B. No doubt encouraged by that success, a local woman named Connie La Rocca (then working at her brother-in-law’s hoppin’ chicken restaurant on Carrolton Avenue) started up the Frisco label with WYLD deejay Harold Atkins in 1962. According to Earl King, “Harold was the key to Frisco’s success. Harold was a genius. He knew everybody in the business and could get records played. He was a soft-spoken person; a gentleman in every respect.”
After a couple of releases of his own, as ‘Al Adams‘ (and an awesome instrumental by Porgy & The Polka Dots), Hal and Connie signed local legend Danny White who was, without question, THE most popular entertainer in New Orleans. White’s Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye would become a local phenomenon that Fall, blaring from every juke box and car radio in town but, due to a lack of any real distribution, only managed to ‘bubble under’ the Hot 100 nationally. Undaunted, Frisco continued to issue great sides on White, with Earl King’s Loan Me A Handkerchief picked up by ABC-Paramount in early 1964, along with two more ABC 45s released later that year.
1964 was also the year that Hal Atkins got a job at WDIA and relocated to Memphis. With his gregarious personality, and his continuing ability to ‘get records played’, he would soon became a player on the local music scene. At that point, Isaac Hayes and his new songwriting partner David Porter had yet to realize their full potential at Stax, and were looking for an outlet for their considerable talents. Atkins was impressed with what they had to offer, and convinced Connie La Rocca to fly Danny White up to Memphis to record.
According to the liner notes of the 1998 Ace release The Frisco Records Story, compiled by John Broven and Tad Jones, the session on White was at ‘Hi’ that Summer, anchored by Bowlegs Miller, Floyd Newman and what would eventually become known as The Memphis Horns. That (?) there no doubt refers to Miller’s bass player, Cleve ‘Frog’ Shears, whom we met last episode. The interesting thing is the inclusion of Howard Grimes and Teenie Hodges on the list, a full two years before I thought they’d arrived there on South Lauderdale. I asked John Broven about those A.F.of M. contracts, “I’m afraid all the Frisco files were submerged by Katrina,” he said, so I called Howard, but the name Danny White didn’t ring any bells. Hmmm…
Composed, ‘Arranged & Conducted by D. Porter & I. Hayes’, the four tracks cut that day would comprise White’s last two Frisco singles, the best of the lot being Can’t Do Nothing Without You, named by Sir Shambling as a ‘personal favourite’, “…with White snarling and growling his way through the lyric in fine style.” Just excellent stuff, man, I agree – but it just doesn’t sound like The Bulldog on the drum kit to me, you know? I sent the tracks down to Howard (who doesn’t do the ‘computer’ thing) and he’s gonna listen to them and report back…
With Connie La Rocca winding down things at Frisco, Hal Atkins decided to try his hand at forming another label with his newfound compadres Hayes and Porter and (wait for it…) Chips Moman! Isaac had been one of the first artists through the door at American, cutting a single there for Youngstown in 1962, and knew Chips well. Calling the label Genie, they brought in a local kid who had also been having a hard time ‘breaking in’ at Stax, Homer Banks, in early 1965. The soaring Lady Of Stone (a ‘Hamp Production’, as in Hayes-Atkins-Moman-Porter) was selected as a ‘regional breakout’ in Billboard that Summer, along with a Youngstown single cut there on Thomas Street around the same time. Although Homer’s single never quite broke out, the other single would become the one that put American Sound on the map
In Rob Bowman’s indispensable Soulsville, U.S.A., he reports that cutting the Genie single with Moman (of all people) had Jim Stewart ‘more than a little piqued’. “Somehow or another, the word got out that I was responsible,” Banks told Bowman, “I lured [Hayes and Porter] into doing it. That closed the door even tighter. For a long time I was barred from the studio. I wasn’t allowed to come in there.” Be that as it may, the incident may have been the first step towards Stewart further appreciating what he had there in Hayes and Porter.
Perhaps that’s why he consented to allow Atkins to cut Danny White there as one of the last ‘outside sessions’ held on East McElmore in late 1965. Hayes and Porter’s groovin’ A side Keep My Woman Home, is right up there with any of the other Stax/Volt records cut there at the time. The flip (with Steve Cropper now joining Isaac and David as a songwriter), I’m Dedicating My Life To You is even better. Wow! It seems a shame that Stewart didn’t sign White as an artist right then and there, but he may still have been annoyed enough with Atkins to make sure that didn’t happen. Instead the single was released on the one-off Atteru label before being leased to New York based Atlas where it disappeared without a trace.
Shortly after Lew Chudd at Imperial purchased Minit Records from Joe Banashak in 1963, he sold the whole shooting match to Liberty, who then moved all operations to the West Coast and discontinued Minit as a subsidiary label entirely. With the dawn of the ‘Soul Era’ upon them in early 1966, Liberty wanted to get back in the game and re-activated Minit as their R&B outlet under the direction of the energetic Renny Roker. Roker had no qualms about swooping into Memphis and picking up the crumbs that fell off the Stax table. On April 23rd, Billboard announced that the ‘new’ Minit’s first release would be by none other than McLemore Avenue outcast Homer Banks. The article went on to say that the single was being recorded in Memphis by ‘an outside production company’. “It was Bowlegs,” Howard Grimes told me, “Bowlegs knew everybody and had the connections, he was the one rounding up the musicians up to do those sessions” One of those musicians, we now believe, was Reggie Young.
You may recall, as mentioned back on the 1966 Discography Page, that Young kept two log books in 1966, the second one being an attempt to ‘clean up’ and keep better track of his session work. A notation for ‘Peacock’ on April 16th (a week before the Billboard article) had us mystified. I mean, there didn’t appear to be any evidence of Don Robey cutting at Hi before he brought O.V. Wright there that November. A ‘memoranda’ that read ‘Izak’ didn’t help matters either. After being clarified in the second book as referring to ‘Isaac Hayes’, that actually made things worse. We were like, Huh? Now, due to the dogged persistence of Mark Nicholson, I think we might have figured it out.
Arranged by Gene ‘Bowlegs’ Miller, there is absolutely no doubt that the supremely excellent Fighting To Win has Reggie’s guitar all over it. Banks shares the composer’s credit with Hayes and Porter on this one, and with Deanie Parker (another Stax employee who had yet to come into her own), on the plug side, ALot Of Love (think Spencer Davis might have owned a copy?). How this was not a major hit (I mean beyond the Twisted Wheel ‘Northern Soul’ boys) is beyond me… These are definitely two of the ‘3 tunes’ that Reggie says he cut that day, with the third one issued as a B side that September, Do You Know What, another Hayes and Porter gem.
So, what’s with the reference to Peacock? Something Howard Grimes said may hold a clue; “Bowlegs was working for Don Robey…” At first I was, like, ‘Ummm… no’ until I noticed this entry in Reggie’s 1966 book for September 28th. Hmmm… As we discussed last episode, the former Fernwood Studio on North Main had been purchased by Don Robey and was run by Earl Forest and Gilbert Caple, another dis-affected member of the Stax family. The upper left hand corner notation in Reggie’s book always indicated the name of the studio where a session was held (as in ‘Sun’, ‘Pepper’, ‘American’ etc.) and, with ‘Peacock’ being the name of Robey’s primary label and Houston nightclub empire, that may have been how the studio was known in those days – a hypothesis I have yet to corroborate… Detectives?
With artists like Louis Jordan, The Ink Spots and Buddy Johnson, Decca Records had been a major player in the post-war ‘race’ records market. Once Owen Bradley took over the reins of their Nashville division in the late fifties, it had become primarily a Country label. Now, just as we’ve seen with Mercury, Decca was looking to recapture their slice of the lucrative R&B pie.
Washington D.C. disk-jockey Al Bell had formed the Safice label with former member of The Rainbows, Chester Simmons, and Falcons founder Eddie Floyd in 1964. Although distributed by Atlantic, their releases failed to make much noise outside of Bell’s WUST listening area. In Eddie Floyd’s great book Knock! Knock! Knock! On Wood, he relates, “Al Bell was benefiting from his closer ties to Atlantic. Joe Medlin, the label’s head of national promotion, introduced Al to Milt Gabler, who ran A&R at Decca. Milt was well known, a sophisticated jazz man, and he brought us the singer Grover Mitchell… he sung a ballad that I wrote with Chester and Al, called I Will Always Have Faith in You. Nobody really heard it at the time, but it’s a song with a deep gospel feel to it that would come back for me many times over.” – most notably, when Carla Thomas took it to #11 R&B a few years later. Eddie had first met Carla (by then already an established star at Stax), when she was attending Howard University in 1965. She had been impressed with his songwriting, and agreed to cut a couple of demos for Bell and Floyd that Spring. “It must have been some kind of karma,” she said later. The kind of karma that brought all three of them back to Memphis to cut one of those ‘Isbell-Floyd’ compositions, Stop! Look What You’re Doing at Stax, and send it to #30 R&B that Summer.
On the basis of that success, Jim Stewart would allow Safice to cut another of those last ‘outside’ sessions there on Eddie and Roy Arlington, whose soulful rendition of ‘Isbell-Floyd’ tune, Everybody Makes A Mistake Sometimes just lays me out.
At the time, Stax was in need of a full-time promotion man and, once Jerry Wexler agreed to pay half his salary, they hired Al Bell in October of ’65. According to Rob Bowman, Bell was “…taken around the country and shown the tricks of the trade by Atlantic promotion man and longtime friend Joe Medlin.” Medlin had been one of the first artists signed to Atlantic in 1948, before recording for a variety of labels in the 1950s. He began his career as an A&R and promotion man for United Artists in 1962, and secured his position there at Atlantic shortly thereafter. In August of 1966, he received the National Association of Radio Announcers Dave Dixon Award (named after the NARA president who had perished in a tragic accident in 1964) for his distinguished service at Atlantic. Within a month, he had resigned.
Further demonstrating their commitment to resuscitating their R&B division, Decca had hired Medlin away from Atlantic for what must have been a princely sum that September. “I know about 500 R&B deejays by name – and I know the names of about 300 of their wives,” Medlin told Billboard shortly thereafter, “When I want play on a record I visit the deejay or call him up, ask about the family, chew the fat awhile, and relax. More often than not, he’ll ask me what looks like it might happen.” Joe knew that at that point, more often than not, what might happen might happen in Memphis.
One of the first things Medlin did was sign Danny White. Although I’m sure he would have rather cut him with his friends at Stax, by then the doors had been closed to outsiders for good. Medlin booked a session at Hi instead, with Bowlegs (once again) serving as the arranger. There has been some mystery about when this might have been held, as Reggie makes no mention of White in his 1966 book.
According to the Discography Of American Historical Recordings, Decca logged the four song session as being held on October 12th, a date for which Reggie had no entry. At first I thought that perhaps the actual date was the September 28th ‘Bo Legs’ session discussed earlier, but now I believe it was held the week before, on the 20th. I hadn’t associated the ‘from N.Y.’ with Decca, but there it is plainly stated on the label… duh!
With Eddie Floyd’s blockbuster Knock On Wood then climbing the charts on its way to #1 R&B, Decca chose Floyd composition Taking Inventory as White’s first release. Although predicted to reach the R&B singles chart in Billboard that November, it didn’t. If our calculations are correct, the B side of that single, then, would be the first recording of Don Bryant’s Cracked Up Over You which, as we’ve seen, would be cut by both Lee Rogers and Junior Parker shortly thereafter. This may well be the best version of ’em all, with Danny just going for it over those kickin’ drum breaks… Satch Arnold? Sammy Creason? Howard Grimes? Hmmm…
Released in March of 1967, You Can Never Keep A Good Man Down (another Don Bryant tune), would become the next single pulled from that session. It was selected by Billboard as ‘destined for top-of-the-chart honors’, but somehow that failed to materialize. Just a great record, punctuated by Reggie’s unmistakable guitar, you have to wonder why it didn’t make it – especially in light of all of Medlin’s ‘fat chewin’… The flip was the last of the ‘4 Tunes’ Danny cut with Bowlegs that day, another stab at his big Sugar Town smash, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. It’s not bad, but I do miss those Irving Banister guitar fills… just sayin’. All four of these sides were ‘Produced by D & A Productions’ – anybody have any idea who that might have been?
A month later, Joe Medlin was back at Hi with a young lady he had discovered singing in a Church Street nightclub in his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia. Maydie Myles had come up singing Gospel, but took the name of Debbie Taylor when she began performing R&B. With Medlin now credited as producer (and no mention of Bowlegs on the label), Don Bryant’s I Get TheBlues sure sounds like a Gene Miller arrangement to me. That fat baritone, the two guitars (Cogbill and Reggie?), the background singers, those smokin’ drums… another hidden South Lauderdale gem, folks!
Reggie would log one more session in 1966 for Decca, on November 14th, with ‘Bo-Leggs’ listed as the leader. Although we may never know for sure, at first we thought that may have been when these two unreleased tracks, discovered among the Decca masters, were recorded, but now I don’t think so…
The first of the tracks is a high voltage duet featuring both Debbie and Danny White, I Don’t Mind Overtime With You. Whew! The second, I’m Gonna Use What I’ve Got To Get What I Need, is by Danny White and is, in my opinion, every bit as good as the issued recordings, if not better. Initially, I thought the guitar player on here was definitely Reggie but, after repeated listenings, I became convinced it was someone else… I think it’s Bobby Womack. Wait… what?
Catalogued as ‘Overtime’, according to the Discography of American Hisorical Recordings, the duet was recorded on June 30, 1967, with consecutive matrix numbers assigned to two Danny White tracks, with ‘[Unknown Title(s)]’ no doubt referring to the unreleased song featured above. On June 30th, both Reggie and Bobby had logged a Goldwax session at Sun, followed by a Don Bryant session at Hi. This could mean, of course, that Decca hadn’t assigned those matrix numbers to these earlier recorded tracks until then (as we’ve seen), or that they were cut somewhere else, without Emmons and Young. The Atlantic Records Discography places both Bowlegs and Womack in the house at American the following day for the start of the Wilson Pickett sessions on July 1st. What if they got there the day before?
As we saw last episode, Bowlegs had worked as an arranger at American for Mercury in May. Medlin, I’m sure, was itching to get Decca in the door there as well and may have booked a session, leaving it up to Miller to ’round up’ the musicians. With Reggie unavailable, Bowlegs (who ‘knew everybody’) could have heard that Womack was in town and hired him instead. With Moman’s former partners Hayes and Porter also on board as songwriters (and defacto producers), it seems extremely possible that those June 30th sessions may have been held at 827 Thomas.
The magnificent Check Yourself would go on to chart in early 1968, and whoah, is it good! A slightly modified version of the song had also been cut on Ruby Johnson at Stax, but had remained unreleased – possibly because of Debbie’s smoldering take on it here. Think it was cut at American?
Lending creedence to the theory that the Debbie and Danny session was actually held on the date Decca said it was, is the fact that the Gladys Tyler session they logged as being held on March 24th is confirmed by Bobby Emmons’ book. Gladys, like Debbie, hailed from Virginia and had cut a single for Decca subsidiary Coral in 1963. After another release on the tiny Brooks label out of Richmond, Decca had re-signed her in 1966, pairing her with Ray Scott and The Scottsmen. Scott’s real name apparently was Walter Spriggs, whom All Music describes as a ‘musician/manager/songwriter/hustler’. Spriggs had hooked up with Jesse Stone at Atco in the late fifties, before changing his moniker and label-hopping a bit before Decca picked him and Gladys up shortly before Joe Medlin got there.
Medlin had booked both of them into Hi for that March ’67 session, while heavily tapping the Stax talent pool around the corner. With Bowlegs getting the label credit this time as arranger, the producer is listed as James Cross. James had started out working at The Satellite Record Shop before engineering late night sessions for Chalice, the Gospel subsidiary that Al Bell had created soon after he came on the scene. Jim Stewart shut down Chalice in late 1966, after only eight releases. According to Rob Bowman, Cross would then wed “…one of the great unkown Stax singers, Wendy Rene (nee Mary Frierson). Being close to Packy Axton, Cross was never a favorite of Jim Stewart’s.” I’m sure he was only too happy to help out the competition.
Decca selected two more Hayes & Porter tunes for the plug sides of the 45s cut at the session, but check out these two awesome Mack Rice flips. Just as we’ve seen with Mercury, Rice’s music was now in demand since Mustang Sally tore up the charts for Atlantic earlier in the year. Gladys is really belting it out on the rockin’ Mr. Green, Mrs. Green, with Reggie’s galvanic guitar and that barking baritone combining to make this one a keeper! Yeah, baby! The Ray Scott record, Can’t Get Over Losing You, isn’t far behind. Ray’s pleading delivery over those hypnotic background vocals, Bobby’s piano, Reggie’s bluesy guitar and that driving bass, this is just pure Memphis, y’all! As far as I can tell, these are the only tunes James Cross was ever credited as producing. What a shame.
Decca was back on South Lauderdale in November, for a session ‘directed’ by Willie Mitchell, as Bowlegs had apparently moved on by then. The producers are credited as Joe Medlin and Jack Gibson. Quite a colorful character, ‘Jack The Rapper’ had launched the first black-owned radio sation in the nation in 1949, become the founder and guiding force behind NARA in 1955, and had joined Berry Gordy at Motown in 1963. Landing him for Decca’s renewed R&B resurgence in late 1966 must have been seen as quite the coup. I’m not sure if Jack and Joe were present at the studio when they recorded it, but Tony Ashley’s hard-hitting vocals on We Must Have Love are just pure Soul, with Reggie’s incisive guitar mixed right up front, no doubt at Willie Michell’s ‘direction’. As we saw in episode four, Willie was still including Reggie and Bobby on sessions at Hi as late as November of 1967, and we believe this to have been another indication of that…
Ashley may have been one of the ‘two others’ noted in Emmons’ book on November 6th, with ‘Jackson’ no doubt referring to George – or in this case ‘Bart’. What’s up with that? Well, as you may recall, we had speculated that it was ‘music industry attorney and agent’ Alex Migliara who was behind recording George’s lone 1967 Hi single that Summer, and that perhaps Jackson had failed to mention that he was still under contract to Goldwax at the time. In any event (although I’m sure the name change didn’t fool anybody in Memphis), when Migliara arranged to have this one picked up by Decca, he had decided to play it safe (while helping himself to a piece of both the songwriting and production credits in the process). The rockin’ Dancing Man just cooks along, with Jackson’s wit and way with words hinting at his future work in Muscle Shoals…
Special thanks go to Howard Grimes, Charlie Chalmers, Rob Bowman, John Ridley, Martin Hawkins, Colin Escott, John Broven, Mark Nicholson, and 45cat.
Every year around this time, a 45 reaches out of the ol’ Christmas Jukebox and just slays me…
After Stax Records’ first stab at running a Gospel subsidiary label, Chalice, sort of faded away once Atlantic pulled out, Al Bell decided it was time for another foray into that lucrative market in early 1972. Hiring Dave Clark, who knew a thing or two about Gospel Music after spending most of the previous two decades working for Don Robey at Peacock, Bell put him in charge of newly created imprint The Gospel Truth. According to Rob Bowman, Clark had been ‘awestruck’ by a group of three brothers when he served as a judge at a Gospel competition in Detroit, and signed them on the spot. After cutting some tracks with local producer Toby Jackson, Clark brought the tapes down to Memphis, where The Rance Allen Group would have the first release on the label that January.
The raw power of the trio’s performance at Wattstax that August helped put them on the map, and had Dave Clark promoting Stax’ new vision of ‘Gospel Rock’ to anyone who’d listen. It apparently paid off, as Rance and the group broke into the R&B Top 40 for the label with I Got To Be Myself in the Spring of 1973.
In 1974, faced with increasing financial pressure, Al Bell decided to phase out ‘The Gospel’ and rechristen the label as simply ‘Truth’. Stax would then be able to release new Soul product on there as well, in an effort to sidestep their dismal distribution agreement with CBS. It appeared to have been a good move, as Shirley Brown would take Woman To Woman (Truth 3206) all the way to #1 R&B that Fall. Paired with David Porter and the man who had taken Isaac Hayes’ place as his writing and production partner, Ronnie Williams, The Rance Allen Group’s first Truth release, Ain’t No Need Of Crying, made it to to #61 R&B in early 1975. According to Williams, It was a tune which became ‘the company’s unofficial theme song’ as Stax continued to crumble around them.
Be that as it may, at Stax’ 50th Anniversary Celebration at The Orpheum Theater in 2007, Rance Allen and his brothers literally stole the show with their performance of it that night…
We lost Bishop Rance Allen in 2020. His music continues to uplift and inspire all those who have ears to listen…
Merry Christmas, everybody – I hope Santa treats you good!
(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.
Lattimore Brown was deep. There was a certain compassion, a spirituality about him that was hard to define. You can see it in the Cheryl Gerber portrait above. When you were around him, things happened. Unexplainable, almost mystical things. He lived his life on the edge, walking a fine line between Heaven and a Hell that never seemed too far away.
“I’ve thought about it a lot since then,” I wrote after I first met him in 2008, “and for me it’s come to represent the apparent contradiction of absolute beauty living right next door to the ultimate evil… of the dark as a necessary component of the light. It’s helped me to understand the reality of a life of tragedy that is continually redeemed through faith, of art that is purchased with pain… of the true meaning of Soul.”
From the blistering heat of a broken childhood spent picking cotton in the Mississippi Delta, to the unspeakable cold of a Korea that froze his Army comrades to death, Lattimore had become well acquainted with that pain before he turned twenty, yet he went on to live an incredible life. He was there with Sunbeam Mitchell in Memphis in the early fifties, with Ernie Young at Excello later on in Nashville. In Houston, in Dallas, in Little Rock, he made a name for himself leading one of the best ‘reading bands’ on the circuit. Busting out of the Club Stealaway on Jefferson Street in the mid-sixties, he would become known as ‘The Tennessee House Rocker’. Before long, Brown was recording with The M.G.’s at Stax, with The Memphis Boys at American, and with Rick Hall’s Fame Gang in Muscle Shoals…
Yet, success remained elusive. Despite the inherent quality of his records, for one reason or another, they never made the charts. By the time Benny Latimore dropped his first name in the early seventies, our Lattimore felt he was fighting a losing battle, and just walked away, into an obscurity that all but devoured him.
Everyone thought he was dead.
By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard the story of how Hurricane Katrina nearly blew what was left of him away – of how it led, instead, to his miraculous re-discovery. It seemed he still had a tale to tell – unfinished business on this side of the line, in the land of the living…
Sir Lattimore would have turned ninety this year, and in honor of that fact, Chase Thompson and I are collaborating on a ‘documentary mini-series’ that will attempt to convey the power and the personality of this American original in his own words, using unreleased video footage that we shot of him along the way.
We’ve completed two episodes so far, and I’m including them here, as well as on the completely re-imagined sirlattimorebrown.com, where we will post more of them as they become available.
This episode is dedicated to the memory of Sherry Emmons Brugman who, like her father, was much loved by all who knew her. Her enthusiasm and warmth of spirit shone like the sun. It was Sherry’s kindness that made it possible for us to digitize Bobby’s session log books, thereby insuring that his music will live on for future generations… May God Rest Her Beautiful Soul.
As we discussed in episode one, 1967 was a transitional year at Hi Records. Let’s take a closer look at what was happening down there on South Lauderdale:
Despite being listed as the lone songwriter of the soulful The Goodest Man (the flip of Gene ‘Bowlegs’ Miller’s only single for the label in 1967), despite her superb lip-sync performances of unreleased Hi tracks on back-to-back episodes of The!!!!Beat in 1966, the great Veniece Starks would have no 1967 releases of her own on Hi. As a matter of fact, of the four sessions held on her that year, the only track listed by name in Bobby’s book to see the light of day was 18 Days, which wasn’t released until 1971 (as a B side, and then again as one in 1974!), and the label couldn’t even bother to spell her name correctly. This classy lady (who passed away, sadly, in 2019) deserved better (there, I’ve said it).
Up until this point, there was no producer credit given on Hi 45 labels, and it’s interesting to note that both Bowlegs Miller and Willie Mitchell were the first to receive one on back-to-back Hi releases that Summer. Miller’s production of Love What You’re Doing To Me on Janet & The Jays is pure uptown Soul, kind of like Stax meets Motown. Small wonder it sounds like a Stax record, as it was written by McLemore Avenue heavyweights William Bell, Joe Shamwell and Harold Beane. Picked as a ‘Best Bet’ in Cashbox, apparently all bets were off as once again Hi seems to have dropped the ball on promoting another highly talented young lady (even though they managed to spell her name correctly this time out). According to Sir Shambling, the group hailed from Holly Springs, Mississippi and, in addition to Janet Wallace, included Essie Brown and Marilyn James. As far as I can tell, this would be their final release… what a shame.
It was the next Hi 45, however, that was the first to credit Willie Mitchell as producer. It was the A side of that record that was predicted by Billboard to make the R&B charts (although it didn’t), and was a song so good that Hi would issue it again in 1972, but let’s focus on this hidden gem of a B side. George Jackson had been working with Quinton Claunch and Dan Greer at Goldwax, where they had had a 1966 single release as George and Greer which went nowhere. Alex Migliara was a Memphis music industry attorney and agent, who had been writing liner notes for Hi LPs on Ace Cannon and Willie Mitchell. I imagine it was Migliara who brought George to Willie at Hi, even though he may have still been under contract to Goldwax (more on that next episode). In any event, Magliara helped himself to a share of the writer’s credit on both sides (along with another Goldwax mainstay, Dot Hester) on this August release. So Good To Me just cooks along, once again mining some of that Motown magic, with Tommy Cogbill just going off on bass. What a record!
There were two sessions held on Don Bryant in January, but Hi chose to use a track recorded six months earlier, The Call Of Distress, as the flip of his first single release from those sessions that April (maybe because Ray Harris claimed half the songwriting credit?). In episode one we already mentioned the top side of Don’s next Hi 45, identified by Reggie as being cut on January 6th, but not released until July. Check out the equally great B side of that record (given a B+ by Cashbox), Is That Asking Too Much. Probably cut at the June 30th session (with Willie Mitchell listed as the producer), I’m thinking it features both Teenie Hodges and Reggie on guitar. As Don recently told Heikki Suasolo, “It was not all the time I was trying to sound like somebody else. I was trying to get ideas from what was going on at the time and, depending on the type of song, I would model it on somebody.” Judging by those killer unreleased Detroit demos (that we talked about in episode one), they were often better than whomever it was he was modeling them on! Bryant had one more 45 issued by Hi that October, but by then both Reggie and Bobby Emmons had pretty much flown the coop. [If you haven’t already, you should buy Bryant’s Grammy nominated 2020 album You Make Me Feel. I swear, the man is singing better now than he was back then! You go, Don!]
Hi subsidiary label M.O.C. would issue only three singles in 1967. The first one, an awesome record by Norm West (with both sides penned by Don Bryant) was issued in May, but had been cut at a session back in February of 1966. The next release would be by the way cool Big Amos. Although both books list a split session held on him on February 9th, they only mention the flip side, Going To Vietnam (and yet another unreleased Veniece track). The big fat Willie Mitchell production here on the plug side, I’m Gone, may have been cut at an earlier session in November, as I’d say that’s definitely Reggie on guitar and Bobby on the organ. In any event, it’s another little known slice of the emerging ‘Sound of Memphis’. Except for a couple more songs trotted out of the can in 1970 for Hi Lp Rivertown Blues, Big Amos Patton’s career ended, unfortunately, here.
The final 1967 M.O.C. 45 was cut during two separate sessions held on a local kid named Finley Brown in May and June. Just a wild record, I Can’t Get No Ride (with both Bill Cantrell and Ray Harris sharing the songwriting credits with Don Bryant) kinda sounds like Sam The Sham meets The Hombres (or something). Billed as a ‘mind-blowing… groovy effort’ in the same August 5th edition of Cashbox mentioned earlier, Hi was no doubt looking to grab a piece of that psychedelic Summer of Love thang. The predicted ‘chart ride’ never happened though, and Finley would go on to cut a couple of singles for Stax subsidiary Enterprise before fading from view.
Jerry Jaye & The Jaywalkers were a Rockabilly outfit that had been out there working the Arkansas club circuit since the late fifties. After a couple of releases on local labels that withered away, they came to Roland Janes at Sonic and cut two sides in the Fall of 1966. Jaye then created his own label, Connie, and pressed up 500 copies of the record to sell at the band’s gigs. He then brought a box of 25 of them to Joe Cuoghi at Poplar Records, who used his considerable clout to get the B side chosen as ‘pick of the week’ at Memphis radio station WCM, after which the initial run sold out in a flash. Cuoghi (and Ray Harris) offered Jerry a deal…
Hi would re-issue the 45 (this time with the correct title and songwriting credits), and sign Jaye as an artist for future releases. With London’s distribution behind it, My Girl Josephine would spend nine weeks on the Hot 100, climbing as high as #29. Hi Records hadn’t dented the charts since Willie Mitchell’s Bad Eye in 1966, and the pressure was on to cut an LP while the record was hot. According to Jerry, “We cut the album in one day. We started around two in the afternoon, took a break around ten and went for a bite to eat, came back and by four the next morning wehad the album cut. It was really rushed.”
According to Bobby’s session notes, that would have been on April 10th and 11th, despite the fact that Jerry Wexler had flown Reggie, Tommy Cogbill (and like half of Muscle Shoals) up to New York on the 10th. Predictably, Jaye’s album (which lists Cuoghi himself as the producer) just isn’t that good. The follow-up single, another cover of a Fats Domino tune pulled from the Lp, fell on deaf ears, as did four more Hi releases on him. I think it says a lot about the state of affairs on South Lauderdale at this point that the only real chart hit that Hi would have in 1967 was cut at Sonic…
According to Reggie, he had gotten a phone call from Ray Harris somewhere right around in here that had changed everything. “Listen, I know we’ve been paying you guys fifteen dollars a session,” Harris told him, “but we’re gonna have to cut it to ten…” Within a few hours, Young said, he got a call from Joe Cuoghi telling him to disregard what Ray said, assuring him that things would continue on as usual, but the damage had already been done. From that moment on, Reggie told me, he had made up his mind that it was time to move on.
If Hi as a company at this point seemed a bit behind the times when it came to Soul or Rock & Roll, when it came to Country they were a bit ahead of them – with the same results. Narvel Felts had first recorded on South Lauderdale in 1959 with Cowboy Jack Clement, and had been signed by Roland Janes at Sonic shortly after that. With over a dozen releases as a Pop artist that failed to click with the public, Hi signed him in 1966. After two more lackluster singles, somebody at the label (probably Ray Harris) decided to ‘cut him Country’ on Carl Butler’s 1962 smash hit, Don’t Let Me Cross Over. Nobody bought it. When Jerry Kennedy cut the same song on Jerry Lee and Linda Gail Lewis two years later, it went top ten Country. Go figure. Ironically, Narvel would break into that same top ten himself in 1973 with a cover of Dobie Gray’s (and Reggie’s) masterpiece Drift Away, the first of over forty chart entries in the decade to follow.
In late 1966, Hi had signed Charlie Rich with the stipulation that his manager, Seymour Rosenberg (yes, the same guy who had been a partner with Chips at American), could produce him. After one lavish release that didn’t sell, ‘Sy Rose’ was back at it in February, recording Rich on a slew of demos that would go unreleased, including some of the same tracks that Willie Mitchell had cut on the folks from Detroit (see episode one). According to Colin Escott’s liner notes for I’ll Shed No Tears, it was Ray Harris and Joe Cuoghi who “came up with the concept of a Hank Williams tribute album recorded in an uptown Country style.”
On the surface, it seemed like a great idea, only once the tracks for the record were completed in March, Hank’s widow supposedly objected to Hi using his name on the album… although the real story is probably that she wanted Hi to fork over some cash to use it, and that wasn’t gonna happen. “It was just a shot,” Ray Harris told Hank Davis, “we were trying to be successful for Charlie. You never know in the record business.” No, you sure don’t. Released in May as Charlie Rich Sings Country & Western, it didn’t sell, nor did the single culled from the album. Although a lot of it is a little too ‘syrupy’ for my taste, the great head arrangement here on Cold, Cold Heart (despite the cloying background vocals) still holds up, I think.
Finally given the green light to record his own compositions, Rich was back at the studio in July to cut what would become his final Hi release that Fall. This great ‘undubbed’ version of the top side of that single (sans background singers), Only Me, kind of foreshadows the work Reggie and Bobby would be doing with Elvis in a year or so. Once again, though, nobody seemed to notice, and when Charlie’s one year contract was up, Rosenberg brought him to Billy Sherill in Nashville where he would begin his incredible onslaught of Country chart hits within a few months, and become recognized as the superstar he was. I’m sure Ray Harris and Joe Cuoghi were left shaking their heads.
Instrumental albums had been Hi’s bread and butter for years (people used to think that ‘Hi’ stood for ‘Home of the Instrumentals’), and it was Ace Cannon who told us that Joe Cuoghi liked that “middle-of-the-road, Sinatra stuff.” According to BSN Pubs, Hi would issue three albums on Ace in 1967. Bobby Emmons, in addition to performing on over fifteen live gigs with Cannon, also lists six sessions on him at Hi in his log book. Reggie, on the other hand, only noted two. This may possibly be due to the aforementioned gaps in his log entries, but one session they both made note of was on March 1st, when Since I Fell For You was recorded. Released as an album track on The Incomparable Sax Of Ace Cannon, it’s another obscure ‘head arrangement’ of a great song that’s gone unnoticed all these years.
Ace Cannon would only have two single releases in ’67. The first of those, issued in July, was his unique take on Johnny Cash’s I Walk The Line, which later appeared on his Hi Lp Memphis Golden Hits. I hadn’t realized it until I started writing this episode, but that’s CLARENCE NELSON on guitar! How do I know? Well, the first clue is that Clarence always recorded with his guitar plugged straight into the board, which sounds right in this case. Secondly, it was no doubt one of eleven sides cut on Ace during sessions which Bobby (but not Reggie) had listed as being held on April 17th and 19th. It is our considered opinion that Clarence was also in the house for the April 18th session… but more on that next episode. Very Cool!
The backbone of the label, of course, had always been Bill Black’s Combo, who had started the instrumental ball rolling back in 1959. Hi would release four albums on them in 1967, none of which sold very much. Bobby Emmons lists nine Bill Black sessions in his log book, Reggie only one, held on March 20th. The title track from their second release, King Of The Road, was recorded that day, and is one of the few tunes that we know for sure featured both Bobby and Reggie. Produced by Joe Cuoghi, it comes across, in my opinion, as a hackneyed holdover from a formula which had run its course by then. Black had been dead for two years, and I’m sure that by this point Young was all too ready to lay down his pencil and hit the road himself…
Amazingly, there would only be one single released by Bill Black’s Combo in 1967, neither side of which appeared on any of the albums. As we’ve discussed in the past, when we asked Jerry ‘Satch’ Arnold why he hadn’t left Hi for American when pretty much everyone else did, he answered “I wasn’t asked.” As the only founding member of the Combo left there on South Lauderdale, he may have felt it incumbent upon himself to carry on in Bill’s name. Both sides of the single had been written (and I imagine, produced) by Arnold, which was chosen as a ‘Best Bet’ in Cashbox in April. The plodding B side, Peg Leg features a guitar player that is (once again) neither Reggie Young nor Clarence Nelson. Theories abound about who it might be – from Teenie Hodges to Tommy Cogbill to Chips Moman himself! Detectives?
Check out this cool photo recently unearthed by Mark Nicholson in a 1964 Billboard. Tommy Cogbill is on guitar here as the picture was taken on a promotional River Boat cruise to celebrate Hi Records’ fifth anniversary on September 23, 1964, when Reggie was still touring the UK with Bob Tucker and the road version of The Combo. That’s Satch on drums, and Bill himself on electric bass. The gentleman on sax is Charlie Chalmers, who was about to play a significant part in the label’s history.
Even though, for the most part, it was the same studio crew playing on all of Hi’s instrumental releases, Willie Mitchell was the only one who had broken out of the nether regions of the Billboard charts since Cannon’s Tuff in 1961. Three Willie Mitchell 45s would be issued in 1967, with Slippin’ & Slidin’ crawling to #96 that Summer, but let’s take a look at the B sides of those three records, shall we?
Cut in late ’66, the top side of this one was another Cashbox Bet that didn’t pay off, but it’s the stunning B+ B side that highlights one of the most unsung of all Memphis musicians, saxophonist Fred Ford, whose elegant rendition of Erroll Garner’s Misty just knocks me out. It would later be included on Hi Lp The Hit Sound Of Willie Mitchell, where Elton Whisenhunt proclaims “Fred Ford… does a terrific job. His fullness of sound, as he weaves back and forth between melody and original styling, is something to behold.” It sure is. What an awesome record!
As discussed, Willie had begun bringing Teenie Hodges to the studio in 1966. Aw Shucks, the flip of the #96 ‘hit’ mentioned earlier credits Andrew Love and Teenie as songwriters (along with Willie), and that’s definitely him on guitar. On the B side of Mitchell’s next release Lucky, though, I’d say that’s definitely Reggie. Such was the nature of things on South Lauderdale at the time I imagine, as Reggie wasn’t always around. Bobby Emmons is just killing it on both of ’em, though! Neither of these sides would be included on Lp.
Mitchell had released two albums already but, that November, with Joe Tex’s Skinny Legs And All dominating the charts with that ‘live from the studio’ sound, and Buddy Killen working on Tex’s Live And Lively Lp in Nashville, Hi decided to cut one on Willie. When I first saw the personnel listed in the credits on Discogs, I figured they had to be wrong. By then Reggie, Bobby and Mike Leech were with Chips at American full time, I thought, and there was no way the drummer at Hi could have been Gene Chrisman… so I ran it by Charlie Chalmers, who told me “Yup. that sounds about right!” So there ya go. So much for Moman having everybody tied up at 827 Thomas, I guess! I find that whole ‘live’ concept kind of annoying, but check out Chalmers (who, of course, had cut the Wilson Pickett version with Chips at Fame) deep in the pocket with them Memphis Boys on Mustang Sally. Yeah, baby!
In early 1968, when Hi traditionally would have released a single from the album, they put Willie’s ‘live’ cover of Joe Zawinul’s Mercy, Mercy, Mercy out as the B side, but chose a track from the previous Lp, Ooh Baby, You Turn Me On, as the plug side. Cut back on March 8th, Soul Serenade features Teenie Hodges’ guitar front and center, with the role of King Curtis being played brilliantly by Charlie Chalmers. The record took off, soaring into the top ten on the R&B charts, and even climbing as high as #23 on the Hot 100. In many ways, the success of this 45 paved the way for the future at Hi Records in the post Reggie (and Bobby) era as, within a year, the rest of the Hodges brothers would join with Teenie and Howard Grimes to form Hi Rhythm and, shortly after that, Charlie would lay down his horn to anchor the distinctive background vocals of Rhodes-Chalmers-Rhodes on dozens of Hi hits to come…
Special thanks go to Howard Grimes, Charlie Chalmers, Ace Cannon, Jerry ‘Satch’ Arnold, Don Bryant, Scott Bomar, Colin Escott, Hank Davis, John Ridley, Tom DeJong, Mark Nicholson and John Broven.
Entire Episode also available on Soul Detective, where the in-line audio links actually work… also, don’t forget to check the 450 or so other audio tracks on the 1967 Discography page.
Back in 2007 I wrote something about an amazing James Carr B Side Forgetting You. “…the band (led by that incredible Reggie Young guitar) shifts things down to a minor key, then just builds and builds,” I said. Years later, when I asked Reggie about it he said, “That’s not me.” Hmmmm… as we delved further into the Memphis guitar player thing with our Clarence Nelson investigation, I thought maybe we had our man. I asked Goldwax founder Quinton Claunch point-blank like ten times… “No, it wasn’t Clarence. It was some other guy – Chips found him for me.”
The song had been written by the great O.B. McClinton, who was there on the ground floor with Quinton, both as an artist and songwriter, cutting this seminal B Side for Goldwax in 1964, She’s Better Than You. In the liner notes to The Complete Goldwax Singles Volume 1 Quinton is quoted as saying, “He wrote that for James… I brought Steve Cropper to do guitar on that thing. He wasn’t tied up exclusively at that time. I just employed him to play on that one track.” Hmmm… The following year, Carr would wax the definitive version of the song that O.B. had composed for him, She’s Better Than You on Goldwax 119, featuring a guitar player that is not Reggie Young, nor Clarence Nelson…
James would then take another song O.B. had written for him and break into the Billboard R&B top ten, taking You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up all the way to #7 for Goldwax in early 1966. The liner notes for The Complete Goldwax Singles Volume 2 mention “Reggie Young’s distinctive opening guitar…” but it is quite obvious that whomever the guitar player is on here is the same as on the record that started all this in the first place, the flip of Carr’s next release for the label, Forgetting You. If we are to believe Reggie’s assertion that it’s not him (and why wouldn’t we?), then who on earth could it be?
I’ve been working behind the scenes here deciphering the 1967 log book as part of our Reggie Young Discography Project with (besides the usual suspects) my friend Mark Nicholson, the proprietor of the excellent American Sound Archive on YouTube. As it turns out, he is also quite the Soul Detective…
‘Bloodhound’ Nicholson recently pointed out this review of Carr’s 1967 You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up LP by Thom Jurek, a ‘Senior Staff Writer’ at AllMusic, in which he states “By the album’s end with the title track, listeners hear the totality of the force of Memphis soul. With Steve Cropper’s guitar filling the space in the background, Carr offers a chilling portrait of what would happen to him in the future…”
Wait, WHAT??? STEVE CROPPER???
Hmmmm…Well, come to think of it, it does kind of sound like him, and we’ve already established that he was employed by Goldwax “to play on that one track…” Do you think it’s possible that Quinton Claunch, that sly old fox, has been keeping Cropper’s name out of it all these years because of his being ‘tied up’ at Stax when James cut these landmark recordings?
Now THAT would be something!!
Please let us know your thoughts on all this… Thanks!
UPDATE MAY 2021:
Scott Ward asked Steve Cropper if that was him on ‘Forgetting You’“Nope.”
Rob Bowman asked Steve Cropper if that was him on ‘You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up’ “Nope.”
The crew at Diggin’ Deep Records recently sent me a copy of their new James Carr release (bless their hearts), with two rare Goldwax era cuts new to 45. I Don’t Want To Be Hurt Anymore is quintessential Reggie Young all the way. The flip on the other hand (which Quinton had left ‘in the can’ at the time) is Carr’s smoldering take on Roosevelt Jamison’s There Goes My Used To Be which, I believe, features our same mystery guitar player… There is one more track that we hadn’t mentioned yet that, without a doubt, has our mystery man on guitar – the awesome Quinton Claunch penned Love Attack, which would cruise to #21 R&B in the Summer of 1966.
With Quinton Claunch now passed on, the quest to identify this great Memphis musician becomes even more compelling… detectives?
UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2021:
While we were down in Muscle Shoals last month, we played the ‘mystery guitarist’ tracks for our man Travis Wammack, who was a Memphis guitar slinger himself in those days, working with Roland Janes at Sonic. “I don’t know for sure,” he said, “it could be Chips.” Larry Rogers had said the same thing, as did Juke Blues founder Cilla Huggins… but I wasn’t buying it. Why wouldn’t Quinton have just said that, instead of saying it was ‘a guy Chips found’ for him? I don’t know.
Then I realized there was one other Memphis guitar player from those days that I hadn’t asked, Bobby Manuel. What he said kind of blew me away:
“I just had a wild thought. If it has that telecaster sound like Reggie or Cropper it possibly could have been the Bar-Kays first guitar player, Jimmy King. I know James Alexander founder of the Bar-Kays was friends with Chips. James took me to American to meet Chips, so I know there was a relationship there. Chips could have been made aware of Jimmy King, the next in line to take Cropper’s place until he was killed with Otis in that terrible crash…”
WHOAH!!!Let’s check it out…
As far as I can tell, King’s first appearance on record was with The Pac-Keys on Stone Fox. According to Rob Bowman, it was cut at Hi in mid 1966 as ‘revenge’ for Jim Stewart refusing to cut Packy Axton at Stax. The Bar-Kays themselves had been turned away at Stax’ door by Steve Cropper, and were only too happy to help out, I’m sure. In addition to Jimmy, that’s James Alexander on bass, and ‘prodigy’ Carl Cunningham on drums. The earliest of the James Carr ‘mystery’ tracks above (She’s Better Than You) was cut in the latter half of ’65, and the guitar sound is pretty close, I’d say. Chips Moman, of course, had his own axe to grind with Stax, and may have recommended King just to aggravate Cropper.
The remaining Carr sides mentioned above were all recorded prior to Moman cutting The Dark End Of The Street. with Reggie Young at Hi in November of 1966.
According to Bowman, it was Jim Stewart who suggested to The Bar-Kays that they come and audition at Stax when Cropper wasn’t around. On March 13, 1967 they cut the song that would become an international phenomenon, Soul Finger in ‘about fifteen minutes’. It would climb as high as #3 R&B (#17 Pop) that Summer of Love, before the B Side, Knucklehead (with Booker T. on harmonica! ), began charting as well, going to #28 R&B on its own.
With Isaac Hayes and David Porter now assigned to produce them, The Bar-Kay’s follow-up single, Give Everybody Some, would break into the R&B top 40 as well. Once you hear “alright, guitar, you got it,” (at about 1:10) Jimmy King launches into a smoldering Memphis guitar solo that may be the best evidence yet that he is indeed our mystery man… but allow me to call your attention to exhibit B – this ‘deep’ track from the obligatory Lp Stax would release on them that Fall, With A Child’s Heart. There’s that slight distortion, that superb tone we hear on the Carr sides… I have to agree with Bobby, I think we have our man!
Not more than a child himself, Jimmy King (in glasses above) was just 18 when he perished along with Otis Redding, Carl Cunningham and four others in the icy plane crash that tore the heart out of Memphis.
May God Rest Their Souls.
YouTube Playlist of all tracks below:
Special thanks to Quinton Claunch, Bobby Manuel, Travis Wammack, Steve Cropper, Rob Bowman, Scott Ward, Larry Rogers, Cilla Huggins, Diggin’ Deep Records, Thom Jurek, Mark Nicholson and John Broven.
Some new revelations straight from the horse’s mouth…along with a major discovery!
(YouTube playlist of all tracks below, as always…)
Down in The Shoals, it was kinda like ‘all Travis all the time’ as, in addition to being asked to speak at the unveiling of his ‘star’ at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, we got to see him and The Snakeman Band perform at no less than three different gigs over the course of the few days we were down there – the Johnny Belew Benefit at Champy’s, the Rally by the River benefit for St. Jude’s Hospital, and the tenth annual Sheffield Street Party later on the same day. The fact that he and his band were willing to set up and play all three shows, knowing they were only getting paid for one, says a lot about the type of people these guys are, and further demonstrates the warm and welcoming vibe of the ‘Quad-Cities’ area… it always feels like goin’ home.
Having the opportunity to hang out and bother Travis in between sets enabled me to clear up a few things, and answer a few questions I had after our big investigation last time out…
As you may know, Sam Phillips left more records ‘in the can’ at Sun than he actually released. Over the years, that material has seen the light of day on myriad compilations, CDs and box sets. In 1985, a company called Redita Records in The Netherlands issued an LP called Rock ‘N Roll Fever, composed of mostly obscure tracks by Rockabilly era artists, one of whom was named ‘Little Louis’ Robertson. According to the liner notes on that album, his identity is “…a mystery, appearing only on some Memphis demos from 1957…” Actually, according to the excellent resource 706 Union Avenue, the session for Robertson’s previously unreleased track on the album, I’m Gonna Rock, was held at Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service on August 12, 1958.
In the early nineties, Dave Travis purchased Eddie Bond’s Stomper Time Records and ‘relocated it in England as a reissue label’, according to Discogs. I’m not sure what happened next, but somehow Mr. Travis must have decided that the pre-pubescent dulcet tones of ‘Little Louis’ must actually have belonged to ‘Little Travis’, and released the same recording of I’m Gonna Rock in a few different formats as a Travis Wammack cut, an error which has now been carried over in the digital age to places like YouTube and Spotify.
It’s gotten so out of hand that on Discogs, Wammack is actually listed as an ‘alias’ of Robertson. Well let’s set the record straight once and for all:“That ain’t me,” Travis told me, “and I never heard of anybody named Louis Robertson, little or otherwise, back then. I’m not sure where they got the idea… I told Stuart Colman that it wasn’t me when I was over in England with Little Richard… I remember a guy named Lou Roberts, but I don’t think it’s the same person.” There ya go.
Lou Roberts headed a ‘blue-eyed Soul’ band, The Marks, that played the same circuit in and around The Muscle Shoals area as groups like The Fairlanes, The Del-Rays, The Pallbearers and Hollis Dixon’s Keynotes in the early sixties. He did record at Sun (by then Sam Phillips Recording on Madison Avenue) in early 1965, cutting four sides for Stan Kesler, who leased them to MGM. Known locally as ‘King Louie’, he would continue to record for Kesler’s Sounds Of Memphis subsidiary in the early seventies. Roberts’ keyboard player, Don Culver, was quite the songwriter and (as we discussed earlier) wrote one of the truly great Soul songs, picked up by Charlie Chalmers for Barbara & The Browns, and later by Papa Don Schroeder for James & Bobby Purify. So, detectives, do you think Lou Roberts is actually the grown-up version of Little Louis Robertson? Hmmm…
One of the absolute highlights of our road trip was getting to see J.M. Van Eaton, the fabled Sun Records drummer, perform Great Balls of Fire with Travis Wammack. At 83 years old, Van Eaton still seems as spry as ever, beating them skins with the same kind of energy he displayed as one of the architects of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He recently re-located to Muscle Shoals, he told me, to be closer to the music, and you never know where he might turn up, sitting in with local acts like The Snakeman Band whenever he gets the chance. Along with Roland Janes, he was one of Billy Lee Riley’s Little Green Men, and had a couple of cool instrumental releases under his own name on Riley’s Rita and Nita labels after leaving Sun in 1959.
In 1988, Bear Family Records in Germany issued an LP called The Roland Janes Sessions that pulled together some obscure tracks by the Green Men, including three previously unreleased cuts attributed to J.M. Van Eaton that were recorded at Sonic in 1964 with Travis Wammack on guitar. As it turns out, one of those tunes, entitled Something Else on the LP, actually was released as the flip of one of Travis’ ARA singles as Somethin’ Else in late 1965. Written by Van Eaton, it sounds more New Orleans than Memphis, with those punchy horn lines over that second-line drumbeat. In any event, I guess it doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, it’s just great to see these two Memphis legends back playing together after 57 years!
“I’ve got something for you,” Travis said after his set at Champy’s… I had no idea what he was talking about. After the ‘star’ ceremony at the Hall of Fame, he handed me a near-mint copy of the Red West Combo 45 we featured in our last post. “Just my way of saying thank you,” he said. I was pretty much blown away… I mean, I didn’t expect anything. Very Cool! Just a great record, My Babe has this early-Stax Memphis instrumental vibe goin’ on, and holding it there in my hand afforded me the opportunity to ask him who else was in the ‘Combo’ – “That’s Prentiss McPhail on bass, James (Brown) Hooker on organ and Danny Taylor on drums… Danny and Jerry ‘Smoochy’ Smith had a duo that was kickin’ butt in Memphis at the time.”
As it turns out, that butt kickin’ duo actually had a release on what appears to have been their own label, Smo-Dan. I’m not sure how Shelby Singleton got the publishing on The Only Thing Wrong With Her, but there ya go. Speaking of arcane Memphis records, Travis told me that, as part of the same deal with Red West, they cut Elvis’ ‘drop-dead gorgeous’ girlfriend, Anita Wood, at Sonic, resulting in a couple of Santo 45s of her own. Released in April of 1964, This Has Happened Before, with Roland Janes employing the same kind of ‘vocal doubling’ that Chips Moman would begin using on Sandy Posey a couple of years later, is just a great ‘popcorn’ record that has flown under the radar for far too long.
You know, every time Mister Wammack opens his mouth, it seems like there’s more to be learned about his history in the music business. I just found out that, in addition to his band playing behind Peter and Gordon on their first U.S. tour in 1964, the Pop duo also covered two of Travis’ compositions on their U.K. album released shortly after that, My Little Girl’s Gone and Two Little Love Birds. Travis would cut his own more rockin’ version of that one for Janes’ ARA label in 1965.
At the Hall of Fame event, Travis told us “I was always on the look-out for a new sound for my guitar, and one night I was at the Drive-In Movies and I started thinking about what my guitar might sound like coming out of that little speaker that you hung there in the car window… so I just kind of forgot to take it out of the window one night, and drove home with it. I hooked it up to my amplifier, and it sounded pretty good!” I asked him later on if he had used that set-up on any records – “Stay,“ he said. Released in June of ’66, I wonder if Wexler knew what Travis was up to… you can’t make this stuff up!
Travis went on to say, “When I was a kid, my family would tie up the butter and milk on a rope, and lower it down into the well so the cold water would keep ’em fresh. I used to love to hang over and stick my head down in there and yell… I loved the big fat sound the echo made. One day, I found this like ten foot length of pipe and I dragged it down to the studio. ‘Roland,’ I said, ‘I’m gonna put my amp at one end of this pipe, and I want you to put a microphone on the other.’ Sounded good, man!” Once again, I asked him if there were any records with that set up on them – “Have You Ever Had The Blues,” which was his next release on Atlantic. “I told you George Jackson grew up in the same neighborhood as me in Memphis, and that’s him that asks ‘Tell me, have you ever had the blues?’ at the start of that record. Years later, when I was playing those like ‘Legends of Rock & Roll’ shows with Little Richard, Lloyd Price[who wrote the song with Harold Logan] made it a point to come up to me and tell me how much he liked my version. I was amazed he had even heard it!” Ya gotta love it…
After the re-discovery of the incredible Ray Harris produced A-Bet 45 by Dee and Don in our last installment, I asked Travis about them: “I used to feature Dee and Don as part of my live shows, and I was the one that brought them to Ray at Hi.” I then started ‘googling’ a bit to try and find out more about who they were. As it turns out, there is a page about them on Sir Shambling’s Deep Soul Heaven (of course) on which Jim O’Neal, the founding editor of Living Blues reports:
“Don’s real name is Homer McMinn, better known now as Papa Don McMinn, a regular performer on Beale Street since the 1980s. He has been called ‘The Pale Prince of Beale Street’ and ‘The Boogie Man.’ He is a white singer and guitarist originally from Kansas, where he made a 45, Mary Jane, in the 1960s on the Runnin’ Wild label under the name Tiny Lyman & the Jukes. He’s mostly known for blues and boogie but also does country, rock and R&B.” Well, alright… John Broven then sent along an obituary confirming the sad news that the Pale Prince had passed away in 2017. There was, alas, still no information on Dee, but through Broven I was able to reach out to O’Neal directly and get him on the case…
“I found Don McMinn’s Facebook page still accessible today and started tracing a Dee Martin who was mentioned and connected somehow. One thing led to another and I have attached my file on her: born Catherine Virginia Fisk, she married McMinn (here in Kansas City), recorded as a backup singer as Dee McMinn (with Roy Head), Dee McKinnie (with John Mayall), Virginia Fisk (with McMinn) & Dee Martin (on the last sessions she did in Memphis).. . . Please forward to Red under condition that I be awarded an honorary Soul Detective badge for this!” [Actually, folks, Jim earned his badge years ago providing us with vital information about Sir Lattimore Brown and Cosimo Matassa… thanks, Jim!]
“Dee began performing in public at the age of four, by the age of 7 Dee made her first TV appearance on The Red Foley Show. By the early 70s Dee found herself in Memphis, TN singing backup in many of the Memphis studios . Jeff Beck is just one of many artist Dee sang back up for. While working in Memphis, blues legend John Mayall came into a club where Dee was preforming. Three months later Dee is in LA recording the first of three albums with MAYALL… over the next three years Dee did two American and European Tours, from here Dee went to New Orleans to record her album which was produced by ALLEN TOUSSAINT. As if that is not enough Dee has performed with such artists as Robin Trower, Buddy Miles, Rufus Thomas, The Memphis Horns, Joe Cocker, Greg Allman, Larry Taylor (Canned Heat), Rick Vito (Fleetwood Mac) and The Amazing Rhythm Aces just to name a few…”Just, like, wow!
Sadly, however, Jim O’Neal also discovered that she too had passed away, in December of 2015. According to her obituary: “Her character and temperament can best be shown from the first time she was diagnosed with that ugly word cancer until she left this world for the beauty and promise of the next. Although she had every right to cry, be mad, or even fall into a depression after her diagnosis, she instead loved and lived every moment she was given. Neither hard times nor cancer would rob her of who she was. Always graceful, until God called her home.” May She Rest In Peace.
It was through Facebook, once again, that I was able to make contact with Papa Don and Dee’s daughter, Lorina, who is carrying on in the family tradition, singing The Blues in Memphis: “Papa Don was indeed my father. I have some extremely fond memories of Allen Toussaint and those days… The one you posted [A-Bet 9429], I had never heard. I even sent it to my stepmother, Don’s wife, and she had never heard it. They had to have been The same age as their youngest grandson is now then. Lol. We did a family album at Ardent about 7 years ago and thankfully I got Mom in there too to do one song. I forgot all about the Travis Wammack stuff that they both told me about in the past. You’re just now saying that jogged my memory about that. It’s weird how things go full circle… that they were at Hi back then, and I have recorded there independent of them since their passing blows me away.” All of this pretty much blows me away, too.
Now, courtesy of Lorina, please allow me to present the first known photograph of Dee and Don:
How awesome is that? Thanks so much, Lorina – You Rock!
Before I go, let’s take a look at another of those Congress sides that Wammack waxed at American with Tommy Cogbill producing in 1969, recently unearthed by Frank Bruno and Mark Nicholson. The breezy folk-rock of Don’t Walk Out Of My Life really does feature Travis ‘singing like a Bee-Gee,’ and with Reggie Young and the 827 Thomas Street Band behind him, definitely could have been a hit. It wasn’t, but remains just another indication of how broad and varied Travis’ solo career was before he even got to Muscle Shoals…
He’s Somethin’ Else!
…and just in case you missed our Soul Detective Road Trip Special Report, here ya go:
Special thanks go to Travis, Mitzi and Monkey Wammack, Lorina McMinn, J.M. Van Eaton, Jay Halsey, Jim O’Neal, John Broven, John Ridley, Mark Nicholson, Frank Bruno, Billy Lawson, Johnny Belew and all our friends in The Shoals.