THE TEDDY ROYAL STORY (continued)
In November, I featured the first part of my special feature on guitarist/composer Teddy Royal’s musical story, much of which centered around New Orleans, where he lived and worked for over a decade, playing countless, almost daily recording and/or club dates. The final segment picks up during that active time in his career, when, out of the blue, a job offer he couldn’t seem to refuse changed his life in unexpected, unimagined ways.
PART 2: MOVING ON - THE ROYAL ROAD TO JAZZ
Besides his steady session work during the later 1970s, Teddy Royal was a frequent member of a band headed by keyboardist Sammy Berfect. This gifted musician became one of Teddy’s many musical mentors, using him on gigs in various popular clubs around New Orleans, such as the Mardi Gras Lounge and the Shangri-la, and even taking him into churches to play gospel music. One night in 1979, when Berfect’s band was on the tail end of an engagement at the Shangri-la, two well-known members of Fats Domino’s band, saxophonist Fred Kemp and guitarist/bandleader Roy Montrell, dropped in. During a break, Kemp approached Royal and asked if Montrell could borrow his guitar and sit in on some numbers, saying Montrell might return the favor sometime and get him a gig with Fats. Teddy, of course, was a longtime fan of Domino and had met him several times, when the legend sat in at gigs on Bourbon Street; so he easily agreed to let Montrell play some tunes with the band. When Montrell came off the stage after playing a while, he had this exchange with the younger guitarist:
Montrell: “You want to go to Europe?”
Montrell: “Do you play bass?”
Royal: “No, I don’t. I play guitar.”
Montrell: “Well, you’re gonna play bass now.”
Royal: “I don’t know anything about no bass.”
Montrell: “Well, you’re gonna learn.”
Royal: “But, I don’t have no bass.”
Montrell: “I’m going to the phone right now and call Reggie [Hall, road manager] and Fats and tell them that we found who we want.” And that’s exactly what he did, coming back to tell Teddy to be at the airport at 9:00 AM the next morning, packed and ready to go.
Montrell: “You got a passport?”
Royal: “Um, yes, I do have a passport.”
Montrell: “So, we’re leaving tomorrow.”
Royal: “OK; but I don’t play no bass.”
Montrell: “We’re gong to rent you one.”
Depsite Montrell's hard sell, still not quite believing he would or could play bass, Teddy brought his guitar and amplifier with him when he showed up at the New Orleans airport the next morning. There he met the many other band members, including drummer Smokey Johnson, trumpeter and legendary record producer/songwriter Dave Bartholomew, and sax men Lee Allen and Roger Lewis, among others. When Fats arrived, the instruments and luggage were loaded; and everybody boarded a plane bound for Munich, Germany.
Once overseas, the band started rehearsals for a European tour in the lounge of their hotel. Reggie Hall showed Teddy the basic changes for the songs on piano. Then, Teddy picked up the white Fender Precision bass they had rented for him and tried to get his fingers to work the four fat strings, thinking, “What I am I going to do with this? I guess they’re going to send me back home.” When Fats came down that first day, he sat at the piano and began to show various musicians the specific parts he wanted them to play; but, the designated guitar player, David Douglas, couldn’t seem to get a handle on one part in particular. Fats was making him do it over and over, but without success. So, Reggie Hall says to Fats, “You know, Teddy plays guitar, too.” With that, Fats asked Teddy to play the lick on guitar; and, when he quickly did, Fats proclaimed, “David, you play the bass; and, Teddy, you play the guitar.” As simply as that, the switcheroo was on; and Teddy began what was to be a long term association with the Fats Domino band on the right instrument. It’s a good thing he brought along that guitar!
On the road with Fats over the next few years, touring much of Europe and parts of the US, Teddy’s roommate was often baritone saxophonist, Roger Lewis, who co-founded the Dirty Dozen Brass Band around that same time. Lewis and Fred Kemp made it a point to school Royal on jazz theory and improvisation in their off-hours. Prior to coming to New Orleans in 1970, the guitarist had only fleetingly encountered jazz, and didn’t really start to get a feel for it until he had been submerged in the atmosphere of Jazz City for a while. Many of the session and band regulars Teddy associated with during the 1970s were well-versed in modern jazz, but made their living playing r&b, soul, and funk. Among them were such notables as Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler, James Rivers, Wilson Turbinton (Willie Tee), his brother, Earl, and James Black, all of whom gave Teddy crucial exposure to the idiom. The more he heard; the more he explored; the more he learned, the more he realized that jazz was how he wanted to creatively express himself.
By the early 1980s, Fats began playing fewer concerts, freeing up Teddy to form a jazz group and do some touring on his own. Relocating to Chicago to expand his horizons, he played with Koko Taylor’s band for a spell in 1982, but continued to follow his jazz muse, gigging in the North and on the East Coast with his quartet or trio. Chicago was also where Teddy found the large Epiphone hollow-body electric guitar he uses to this day; and it was the perfect fit for his developing jazz style, heavily influenced by Wes Montgomery’s finger picked octave soloing. Through Brother Jack McDuff’s wife, Doll, who worked for the Ambassador Talent Agency in Chicago, Teddy got booked to do several well-received Wes Montgomery tribute performances in 1984 and 1985. She also took him to a Southside jazz club called The Other Side where he started sitting in with the jazz combo, led by organist Jon Logan, that played weekends there. Teddy was soon asked to join Logan’s group and received more valuable jazz ensemble schooling right on the bandstand. Often on those gigs, various giants of the genre such as Jimmy Smith or Arnett Cobb would come into the always hopping joint late at night and sit in with the band; and those close encounters further stretched the guitarist’s boundaries.
Teddy had begun writing his own jazz compositions while based in Chicago, recording some there and later in New Orleans. By the mid-1990s, his first CD, Morning Groove, was released in England, where his new manager was based; and he was poised to begin making a name for himself overseas. So, let’s pause the commentary and play a cut from that debut effort.
"Josiah" (Teddy Royal)
Teddy Royal, from Morning Groove, Sunshine Productions, 1994
From 1994, Morning Groove was a seven song sampler containing over a decade’s worth of Teddy’s compositions, four of them recorded in New Orleans and nicely arranged by his old
friend, collaborator, and employer, Wardell Quezergue [pictured with Teddy]. I chose “Josiah” from this batch because I like its hip moves and grooves, with fine drumming from New Orleans ace Bernard ‘Bunchy’ Johnson. Royal’s Domino bandmate, Fred Kemp, takes the tenor sax solo. Also playing are Alonzo Bowens on tenor sax, Bruce Hammond on trombone, Stacy Cole on trumpet, with pianist Richard Knox and bassist Charles D. S. Moore. Double-tracking his guitar, Teddy displays both his smooth, seemingly effortless Montgomery-inspired octave attack and agile single string riffing. Written around 1985, this deftly structured, Latin-influenced piece shows Teddy expressing himself with well-developed, higher order musical sensibility you can dance to.
His second CD, Keep On Moving On, came out the next year and had Hank Crawford and Henry Butler sitting in, upping the chops ante considerably. As Royal started playing dates at various London venues and breaking into the scene there, his continued association with Fats helped him get good foot-in-the door billing; but, once inside, the highly favorable response he got to his music was rightfully earned. So, after doing Domino’s 1995 European tour, Teddy returned to England to capitalize on his auspicious start.
1996 turned out to be big for him, starting out early in the year with engagements at some of the London’s better clubs. For one of those, Hank Crawford came over to join him, which increased the buzz considerably. Also, Paul Jones, host of a popular FM jazz program, began regularly playing “London Blues” from Keep On Moving On, and interviewed Teddy on the show. With that boost, the song was soon on the UK jazz charts..
Later in the year, Teddy and some of the other members of Fats’ band were booked to play at the Pizza Express Jazz Club (which was more upscale than it might sound) in Soho. They performed as the aptly named Fats Domino’s Sidemen and drew in large, enthusiastic crowds on their two week run, playing, not exclusively jazz, but lots of classic New Orleans music. Joining Teddy for the highly successful engagement were Hebert Hardesty, another legendary tenor sax man who had played with Fats since the 1950s, Emile Vinette on piano, bassist Erving Charles, and Bobby Wilson on drums.
In 1997, Royal returned to London to promote the release of his third CD, Royal Blue; and, over the next few years, he and his own jazz group would play New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and return to London several times. Then, he had a serious career setback with the death of his manager. He lost many of the connections and bookings that they had built up; and his CDs eventually went out of print.
Coming back from that, Teddy moved to the Philadelphia/New Jersey area a few years ago and married a charming woman he met at one of his gigs. He has kept playing as much as possible, with club dates around Philly and in Cape May, NJ. Also, recently, he has done several concerts at the Mainstage Center For the Arts in Blackwood, NJ, one of which was just this January. And, last summer, he was asked to play with funky jazz organist Jimmy McGriff’s band at a show in Mt. Vernon, New York. Coming up in April, Teddy and his group will take part in another tribute to Wes Montgomery at the Cape May Jazz Festival. Future plans also include releasing a CD compilation of material from his first three albums, which were never issued in the US; and a CD of newer material, since he never stops writing.
As so many of us, Teddy has been personally devastated by the physical and cultural destruction wrought in Crescent City since Katrina. But, as he wisely says, “New Orleans has a spirit that will never die. It’s just been interrupted.”. A first choice player for some of the greats of that music scene, he never hesitates to express his gratitude to the city for all it has given him: working with and learning from the city’s best players, writers, arrangers and producers.
Through the years, he has maintained regular contact and continued to perform with Fats, whenever his semi-retired old friend gave him the call. It has been a way to stay linked to New Orleans and its musical traditions, even as he has moved on with his own music projects and settled elsewhere. Although Mr. Domino has not taken the stage since his harrowing rescue from his flooded home, Teddy and all of us hope he will soon play again. When he does, more than likely you’ll find a righteous jazz guitarist up there proudly popping four fat strings of a bass Fats bought him! That’s right. In an ironic twist to this story, in 2003, Fats implored Teddy to take over for long-time bassist Erving Charles, who had just passed away; and, always wanting to please the man who befriended, frequently housed, and employed him for over 20 years, Teddy stayed at Fats’ house for a month and taught himself to become, after all, the new bass player in the band. Somewhere, the late Roy Montrell must be laughing.
It has been both and honor and a pleasure to talk with Teddy Royal and present an overview of his life in music, so far; and I appreciate his time and patience. As for his own ambitions and prospects as a first rate jazz musician and composer, who has seen his share of the ups and downs of the music business over a 40 year career, the characteristically soft-spoken, humble guitarist sums up this way:
I’m always going to keep playing my box and keep creating. I feel good about myself, because the Lord has given me the energy to keep on movin’ on!
Amen to that.
--- To purchase Teddy Royal's latest CD, see his upcoming gigs and contact him for bookings, visit his website: Royal Blue.
Go directly to Part 1 of the TEDDY ROYAL STORY