April 14, 2006

One of Larry Williams' Last Ventures

"Shake Your Body Girl" (C. Paul/T. Bowden/L. Pauling)
Larry Williams, Venture 622, c. 1968

This concludes our adventure

Continuing on the subject of vast interconnectedness in the musical universe, and what finding and examining some forgotten single can reveal about it, I was reminded when doing the prior piece on Lloyd Price of another 45 from the same era by Larry Williams, “Shake Your Body Girl” b/w “Love I Can’t Seem To Find It”. So, I pulled it out, too, mainly because of the island-flavored groove of “Shake Your Body Girl” – admittedly a “fake” calypso feel; but, I am a fool for lots of percussion; and this one presses the right buttons (hits the right skins?). Besides, I’ve always kinda dug ersatz genre dance music done well, like this. The flip has a funky feel to it; so I’ll have to roll that out for tasting at some later date.

From the R&B Indies and a nice discography piece by Davie G that appeared on the Soulful Detroit forum in 2002, I’ve learned that Venture Records was a short-lived (1967-1969), Los Angeles-based offshoot of MGM that seems to have been set up exclusively for soul acts. It had numerous former Motown staffers involved behind the scenes, including the great
Clarence Paul, who co-wrote and co-produced our featured tune (Clarence also co-wrote “Mojo Hannah”, covered by several HOTG artists). Williams recorded this Venture single and another (#627) probably in 1968; but I don’t know anything else about the sessions.

Born in New Orleans, Larry Williams relocated with his family to the Bay Area when he was ten years old; and, by age 17, he had joined a local group, the Lemon Drops, as a singer and pianist, around 1952. He often made trips back to his birthplace, and there, in 1954, met Lloyd Price, who was riding high on his records for Specialty. Williams toured in Price’s band as a pianist for a short time until Price was drafted. At that point, Williams auditioned the Lemon Drops for Specialty; but they didn’t get signed. After completing his service, Price jumped labels and signed with ABC, seeking a more pop sound and larger audience, starting with the 1957 ballad, “Just Because”. Specialty then brought Williams to L.A. to do a quick cover of the song and steal a little thunder from Price’s hit. While that ploy didn’t really do much commercially, it did allow Williams some follow-up sessions; and his next release, “Short Fat Fannie”, went gold (I still have the copy I bought back then – wore it out). It rocked and rolled in the mode of Little Richard (the label’s biggest artist at the time), with some of the same session players backing Williams. In short order, his next record, “Bony Maronie”, was another million seller.

By 1958, Little Richard had gotten religion and was out of play; and Williams was touring strongly and doing more great records, such as “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”, “Slow Down”, “Bad Boy’ (all covered by the Beatles in the next decade) and “She Said Yeah” (to be similarly covered by the Rolling Stones). When none of those records were big hits, his rocket ride started getting the gravitational tug. Then, to really bring him back down fast, Williams' arrest on a narcotics charge in 1959 caused Specialty to drop him, although they issued a few more singles on him from what they had left in the can.

Williams went on to make some legless records for Chess, L & W, and Okeh, with which he had a production deal into the mid-1960’s. Always a big spender, high roller, and wild side walker, he increasingly supported his larger-than-lifestyle with burglary, drug dealing, and pimping. A collaboration with the also outrageous Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson resulted in a few singles and a pretty good album for Okeh, Two For The Price of One; and they toured together in 1966-67. After the two subsequent Venture releases, Williams put out a single ("Call On Me" b/w "Boss Lovin'") on his own El Bam imprint, and produced several more by other artists between 1969 and 1971, then was seemingly not heard from again on record until a 1979 Fantasy funk album, That Larry Williams. The next year, he was found dead at his California home of a gunshot wound to the temple, which was ruled suicide.

Though a true gangsta bad boy in his parallel career path, Larry Williams is an important New Orleans-related music figure. Most of his
seminal Specialty recordings were made in Los Angeles, but employed such great expatriate hometown area players as drummer Earl Palmer, saxophonist Plas Johnson, and guitarist/arranger Rene Hall. He wrote most of his own material, as well. On the road, one of the first bands he hired to back him was the Hawketts out of New Orleans, whose pianist and leader was a young Art Neville. Williams got Neville his first solo recording deal, also with Specialty. Through Art, he met the other Neville brothers, befriending them and helping them over the years (in Aaron’s case, also helping get him arrested!). So, even as a relative outsider, he had plenty of connections to the musical culture of his hometown. Ultimately, his groove ventures contributed to that legacy and overshadowed those misadventures outside the law.

His bad self


Blogger Larry Grogan said...

Cool one Dan. I've always loved Larry Williams early stuff but never knew he recorded anything after the Okeh stuff. A seriously underrated artist.

5:46 PM, April 16, 2006  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Well, Paul, I wasn't dismissing Williams' Chess sides necessarily. What I meant when I called Willams' post-Specialty singles 'legless' is that they went nowhere commercially - they didn't sell or chart. There are a lot of good or great records that fell into a black hole from that standpoint. Such is the music business. Such is the subject matter of this blog, most of the time.

As you note, Williams' Chess singles are a bit hard to find. I haven't heard "My Baby's Got Soul" or "I Can Hear My Baby". I've got one of his Chess singles, "I Wanna Know" b/w "Like A Gentleman Oughta". And they're not bad sides.
I'll be on the lookout for those others on your recommendation. Thanks!

11:56 AM, May 08, 2006  

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