TASTY HOLIDAY LEFTOVERS: FESS, RAY, & JCB3
Hey, what happened to December? Suddenly its the new year. Life is a constant stream of surprises for the short-term memory deficient geezer. I seem to recall working on a new, Xmas song, “Santa’s Just A Front For the NSA” (maybe that was a nightmare), participating in some seasonal festivities, and watching the Saints lose games played outside in any place where the temperature was under 40 degrees Now, all is forgiven. They went to their playoff game in Philadelphia the day after a blizzard and won (anything is possible!). With Carnival season coming up fast there will soon be more reason to celebrate.
Oh, yeah, I’ve also been readying my next Big Q post to drop sometime between a few weeks from now and eternity. Place your bets. It will have more geeky revelations, so you’ll surely want to clear your schedules once it appears. But, before that, I’ve got some lagniappe leftovers that I intended to put up last month to close out 2013, before it slipped away.
In 2012, I did a feature on three organ-playing New Orleans pianists, then followed-up with another post on one of them, Ray Johnson, doing some cool, funky piano instrumentals. Sad to say, he passed away last March; so I wanted to put up few cuts that I mentioned in the earlier pieces.
James Booker was another one of those organists; and I’ve been meaning to get to several of his lesser known singles as a piano sideman and soloist. Several people over the past few years [the uptake is slow here at HOTG] have requested more from Booker. Not that I really take requests; but, if you wait long enough I’ll deliver in spite of myself.
Finally, seeing as last month was the anniversary of Booker’s birth, I thought I’d put up some overlooked sides by another December-born New Orleans icon, Professor Longhair. So, let’s dig in.
Professor Longhair On ebb
Utterly original pianist, vocalist, songwriter, former tap dancer and inveterate petty gambler, Henry Roeland ’Roy’ Byrd, a/k/a Professor Longhair, recorded for and had releases on Star Talent (in 1949, though the two singles issued were withdrawn when sanctioned by the musicians’ union), Mercury (also in 1949), Atlantic (in 1949 and 1953), Federal 1951, and Wasco (1952), prior to being recruited for the California-based ebb label in 1957.
ebb was owned by Leonora ‘Lee’ Rupe, who had recently divorced Art Rupe, head of highly successful Specialty Records, and decided to go into the independent record business herself, maybe to spite the ex and/or squander her settlement, who knows. She started the company in 1957 with Jesse Jones; and it lasted until 1959, issuing around 60 singles, only one of which was a significant hit, “Buzz Buzz Buzz” by the Hollywood Flames. For reasons obscure, ebb chose as one of their early artists Professor Longhair, whose recording career was far from hot at the time. He had one R&B hit for Mercury in 1950 and was coming off a hiatus following a stroke that had affected his playing for several years.
Call it a gutsy or kind of crazy move on ebb’s part; but Fess was again capable of performing and probably required minimal compensation. So, they arranged for him to record at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in the French Quarter on Governor Nicholls Street, where he cut enough original tunes for three singles. Backing him were some of the top session players in the city, all regulars at the studio: Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams on drums, bassist Frank Fields, Justin Adams on guitar, and the world famous sax attack of Lee Allen on tenor and Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler on baritone.
The first Professor Longhair 45 on ebb, “No Buts - No Maybes”/”Cry Pretty Baby” was only the label’s second issue; and promisingly it proved popular around town.
“No Buts - No Maybes” (R. Byrd)
Professor Longhair, ebb 101, 1957
Fess used the same intro on this song that he used on his first and only hit, “Bald Head” (Mercury 8175), from seven years earlier, either for good luck or lack of something better. Both songs are similar, in that they are on the simpler pop side of his songwriting and playing, without the bluesy latin funk groove and complex keyboard running that define his style.
It’s easy to understand why local jukebox and radio listeners went for the upbeat “No Buts - No Maybes”. It was eminently danceable and plain head-bobbin’ fun to hear. The B-side ballad, “Cry Pretty Baby”, while decently done, put Fess more in the crooner mode, which was not his strong suit. Contrary to the hometown appeal of the top side, it didn’t fare well too far beyond the city limits; but ebb was encouraged enough to try another.
“Look What You’re Doin’ To Me (OOOH-Wee, Baby)” (R. Byrd)
Professor Longhair, ebb 106, 1957
On this A-side, you have to listen closely to hear just snatches of what Fess was doing on the piano, because it was mixed so low on the original master; but it’s still evident that he was back on his game radiatin’ the 88s. His wickedly intricate playing stands out better when Lee Allen takes his fine solo turn on this surging rock ‘n’ roll track, cut with many of the musicians who helped Little Richard make music history at the studio the previous year. Smokin’. Overlooked at the time and to this day, it’s one of Byrd’s classic sides, but it seems he rarely if ever included it in his performance repertoire.
“Misery”, the flip side, was nothing more than a new set of lyrics applied to the music of “Tipitina”, which had been another hit for him on Atlantic in 1954, at least around New Orleans and environs, and became his signature tune. He would likely have had better luck just re-cutting the original.
Speaking of redoing hits, Fess’ final ebb single featured a new version of “Bald Head”, which had been his first and only national success, with an altered title.
“Looka, No Hair” (R. Byrd)
Professor Longhair, ebb 121, 1957
Running with the same intro as on the Mercury take [also used on “No Buts - No Maybes”, as noted above], Fess took “Looka” a bit slower, which unfortunately somewhat deflated its bounce. Other than that and the title, there were a couple of other changes to the song. With no backing vocals singing “bald head” in the chorus (the only place in the song those words ever appeared), the horns took over the melodic responses. Also, after the second chorus in “Looka”, Fess added a short segment that sounds kind of like part of “No Buts”, before the final chorus closes things out right at the two minute mark. Slip-up or improvisation?
Actually, Fess’ first version of the song was called “She Ain’t Got No Hair”, one of the Star Talent sides he recorded in a Treme bar in 1949 that were pulled after the union cracked down. So, technically, the Mercury hit was a remake, too. Around 1963, he redid the tune, titled “Bald Head” once again, on a single (#6338) for the Watch label with Wardell Quezergue doing the arrangement. I’d say it beats out this ebb take in terms of quality.
Meanwhile, the more interesting offering lies on the other side.
What we have here is an adaptation by Fess of the structure and melody of a much earlier blues song, popularized on record in 1938 by Blind Boy Fuller as “Mama Let Me Lay It On You” [another later variant was “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”]. I don’t know for sure when Fess came up with this, but assume that it was something he had played on gigs. If so, I trust he did it closer to Fuller’s version in bars, since these lyrics seem sanitized for possible airplay.
When nothing happened for this single either, Ms Rupe and her label moved on to other artists. Starting in 1958 Fess recorded for Ron Records, including “Go To The Mardi Gras”, his perennial Carnival favorite, which was a remake of “Mardi Gras In New Orleans”, previously done for both Star Talent and Atlantic. Scattered singles followed on Rip and Watch, but his career fell apart during the 1960s and was not revived until Quint Davis and Allison Kaslow rediscovered and rehabilitated him, starting with his appearance at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Ray Johnson on Mercury, Goad, and More
Ray Johnson recorded for Mercury a few years after Fess, but cut his sides in Los Angeles where he had relocated with is brother Plas, famed jazz saxophonist and session stalwart. For some more background on Ray, check out my previous posts:
Some Locally Grown Organics
More of Professor Ray’s Funk Ways
This segment is a follow-up or sorts to those. As I noted at the time, I had just scored a copy of Ray’s second Mercury single, but it turned out to have a warp that my turntable tonearm could not track. A while back, I decided to try the old trick (only recommended for short durations) of putting a coin on top of the stylus to hold it in in the groove. I don’t know why I hadn’t tried it the first time, but it worked well enough for me to get a digital transfer of the top side, which you’ll hear. If it’s too noisy for you, you can still hear the track via YouTube, too.
“Boogie The Blues” (Ray Johnson)
Ray Johnson, Mercury 70231, 1953
Ray did his Mercury sessions with Plas leading the horn section; but, on this A-side from the second single, it was really his turn to shine on the solo, displaying a piano attack heavy on the Professor Longhair influence which extended to the song’s calypso boogie groove, as well. On the other hand, Ray’s smooth vocal style owed far more to Charles Brown and maybe Nat Cole than to Fess’ raw, let-it-rip delivery. So the track had a split-personality of West Coast and New Orleans sounds. Not so the other side, “Smilin’ Blues”, which was all West Coast downtempo cool.
Ray only had two releases on Mercury. The earlier one, “House Of Blues”/”I’ll Never Let You Go” (#70203), featured a slow blues in the Charles Brown mode coupled with a jump number. Neither record seems to have done particularly well, as he was not asked to make any more.
Next is a track that came before the brothers’ move out West, when they were still playing around New Orleans in their own hot group, the Johnson Brothers Combo. They recorded a number of tracks for the Deluxe/Regal labels in 1949, resulting in four issued singles, “Our Boogie”/”Worried All The Time” (DeLuxe 3227) as the Johnson Brothers Trio, “”No Good Man Of Mine”/”Jump and Shout” (DeLuxe 3303) and “Blues At First Sight”/”Spare Time Papa” (#3305), both featuring vocalist Erline Harris, plus “Jump and Shout” reissued on Regal 3233 with “I Never Miss My Baby” credited to Harris and the Johnson Brothers Combo.
At least one track featuring Ray on lead vocal did not come out at the time, and was finally compiled in 1986 on the Jump ‘n Shout LP with some of the group’s single sides and cuts by other Deluxe/Regal artists recorded in New Orleans around the same time.
“Mellow Woman Blues”
While the album does not identify him, Ray definitely was the singer on this track, and also played piano in a supporting role, with Plas and the great, well-arranged horn section grabbing the instrumental attention. Ray’s early assimilation of West Coast R&B is evident and makes his later decision to seek his fortune there quite understandable - though you have to wonder what would have happened if he had stuck around to work with Dave Bartholomew and the fine studio cats at home.
I mentioned in my September, 2012 post on Ray that I had discovered a limited edition, self-produced LP, The Birth Of A Scene, his trio made around the mid-1960s. As far as I know, it was his only album on vinyl. He also released a CD on his own in 2000.
The title of the record refers to the long-running weekly gig Ray and this group had at a hotel lounge, the Cellar Club, in Long Beach, CA. Probably only sold at his gigs, it was a sampler of the material the band played at the club, mostly jazz covers tunes, but with two originals, “The Cellar Waltz”, and this self-descriptive tune.
“The Funk Story”
from The Birth Of A Scene, Goad 1001, 196?
If you heard and/or are familiar with the tunes I featured in that previous piece on Ray’s ultra hip piano 45s on the Loma and In-Arts labels later in the decade, you can certainly see how his approach on this cut presaged what he did on “Sherry’s Party” and “Funky Way”. Rather than dazzling technique, Ray’s focus here is his rhythmic attack, working off and around the beat - after all, it’s “The Funk Story”. Recall that these were the days when funk was not common parlance, except in the realm of musicians in the know. Ray certainly had been exposed to and absorbed his share of the organic funk of New Orleans before he left.
James Booker’s Pianistics on Duke, Date and Jamil
For more background on James Carroll Booker, III’s association with Don Robey’s Peacock and Duke labels, refer back to that July 22, 2012 post. As discussed there, not only did he do some classic organ instrumentals for Peacock in the early 1960s, he also worked as an occasional sideman at the Houston studio. There he played on Memphis drummer Earl Forest’s final two singles for the label - organ on three of the tracks, and piano for the second B-side.
“The Crown” (Forest-Malone)
Earl Forest, Duke 363, 1962
This rocking little instrumental sounds to me like a break song that a band would play at the end of a set with some improvised solos before the leader would come on mike to say they were taking a “pause for the cause”. Though the horns were prominent on the raucous intro and first quarter of the song, the rest of the soloing is pretty much Booker let loose on piano. I’ve no doubt it’s him, considering the energetic attack, intricate runs and rhythmic comping. There is one short organ break along the way, but it is so perfunctory that I think there was someone else playing it, rather than Booker having overdubbed it.
The track was certainly just intended to be filler for the back side of the 45 and was probably done in one take with not much attention paid to instrument levels, etc. Nobody bothered to figure out an ending, either, or even bothered to fade it out. Still, I love this sloppy track for its spontaneous energy. Even though the piano was not quite loud enough, the take still offers an excellent window into Booker’s playing.
Another record with Booker in a supporting role that I’ve mentioned before but haven’t featured is one that not many people seem to know he was on. It’s from a session he did with the Coasters in NYC on November 18, 1966.
Earlier that year, partners Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller “sold” Redbird Records and its affiliated labels, which they had started in 1964, to business partner George Goldner for $1.00, supposedly because Goldner had borrowed too much money from the Mafia, who were calling in the debt. Preferring the creative side of record making to such business challenges, they returned to what they did best, working as an independent production and songwriting team. One of their first projects was for the Coasters, the singing group they had worked with extensively in the 1950s and early 1960s for Atlantic’s Atco label, writing and producing loads of hit records. For their reunion, the team ran several sessions on the group in New York City over the course of a year that resulted in three singles released on the Date label, a division of Columbia Records.
According to Claus Rohnisch’s thorough, informative The Coasters - Session Discography, songs on the group’s first Date single (#1552) were cut at A&R Studios with Booker on keyboards, Melvin Lastie and Ernie Royal on trumpets, trombonist Benny Powell, Thomas Palmer on guitar, bassist Jesse ‘Preacher’ Fairman, George Devens on vibes or percussion, and drummer Charles ‘Honeyman’ Otis.
“Soul Pad” (J. Leiber - M. Stoller)
The Coasters, Date 1552, 1967
Booker was in good company, as at least three of the players, Lastie, Powell, and Otis, were top notch New Orleans cats. As a matter of fact, he probably got the date on Date through Lastie, who was a regular on the NYC scene, working on sessions for King Curtis among other notables.
On the oh so lyrically quirky “Soul Pad”, hiply arranged by Mike Stoller, Booker played piano, organ, and maybe even an electric piano. His frequently clever contributions were mixed fairly low; but at the end he had a chance for some frantic, finger-flying fun. Even beyond his playing, Booker was a perfect fit for the outre vibe of this hilarious song, being a character right out of some 60s psychedelic soul pad himself [I should know, I hung out in plenty of ‘em!]. I loved the song before I knew he was on it, and finding out made it sweeter.
In 1964, Leiber and Stoller produced the original version of this song with Alvin Robinson (a/k/a ‘Shine’) on lead vocal for their new Red Bird label. New Orleans songwriter, music promoter and bandleader Joe Jones was in New York managing artists and had gotten Robinson signed to Leiber and Stoller’s Tiger Records which scored a minor hit with his version of “Something You Got”. The producers soon set up Red Bird and signed another Jones act from back home, the Dixie Cups, keeping Shine on board to cut the gritty and somewhat sexually suggestive “Down Home Girl”, which had a strutting arrangement by Jones himself; but to everyone’s surprise, it was not a hit. The next year, the Rolling Stones faithfully covered the song on their Rolling Stones #2 LP in England and earned it a lot more attention.
I bring this up because Robinson’s recording of the song had obvious New Orleans connections and references, but the Coasters’ version was altered with almost completely different verses. While the first verse mirrors the original, the remainder are rewrites, removing talk about the perceived hotness of the girl in questions, the Catholic church, and, indeed, New Orleans. What’s up with dat? I have no idea. Maybe the producers/writers wanted to give the Coasters less, um, specific lyrics in hopes of getting more airplay.
Stoller’s arrangement took the groove at a slower pace. Where the original had a whiff of bump and grind strip-club feel to go with the thrust of the lyrics, the Coasters track had a less edgy rhythm suitable for the toned-down wording. It was a different approach,, for sure. Booker didn’t have much to do on the track. Playing what sounds like a tack piano, he came in on the second verse doing a repeating figure pretty much for the rest of the tune, except for some flourishes on the turnarounds. Instead, the horns and their well-written charts are what stand out musically. But ultimately the group vocals carried the day, making this track memorable, if not sellable.
Finally, I bring you certainly the rarest record of the lot [beating out even the Ray Johnson LP], recorded, as the label indicates, at Virtue Studios, in Philadelphia, PA. I failed to dig up any further revealing facts about it. Anybody?
James Carroll Booker, ‘The Black Liberace’, Jamil Records 9172-D
“On The Sunny Side of the Street”
One thing I do know is that “Dan’s Dilemma” is actually Booker’s song, “Pop’s Dilemma”, but I have no idea why he retitled it, unless he somehow knew that doing so would cause me to do mental contortions years later. I’m going to discount that theory….for now.
If I had to guess, which is actually what I have to do, I’d say that this was Booker circa mid- to late 1970s. Both of these songs appeared on his famed 1976 LP for Island Records, Junco Partner and were part of his live repertoire. The Jamil takes are every bit as well-played as those tracks, but are shorter versions and not as well-recorded..[Update: A kind but anonymous commenter has found that JCB3 did an extended stint at a coctail lounge in a suburb of Philadelphia around 1972. See the comments to this post for sources. Why and how he got the gig are unknown, but the Musical Gumbo book cited suggests that he was laying low while trying to get past his long-term addiction to opiates. That would explain why and when he was in the area and provide the opportunity to record at Virtue. Appreciate the tip!]
I can imagine several scenarios for the making of this record. Someone might have paid Booker needed quick cash to cut these tracks when he was in Philly. Or, since it shows a more full (but lacking the "III") version of his name plus the promotional appellation 'The Black Liberace', he may have paid to have a box of records made to use to get gigs (or sell at gigs, as anon points out) when he was out on one of his off-the-radar tours. I can’t find any references to Jamil Records as a going concern; so I figure it was a one-off label set up for that short run of the 45s. Whatever the case, there don’t seem to be many around. The one I bought a few years ago (cheap!) was the first I’d seen. There was one auctioned off on Ebay, autographed (and not at all cheap!), last summer. Let me hear, if you know more.
Well, that’s all for now. Like I said, I’ll be back in a vague amount of time with more, some sort of Mardi Gras music for sure, plus the promised next Big Q series segment. So, plan a return visit, if the spirit moves you. Happy 2014!