Blues Train – His Master’s Voice – NE 1006 India 1969
I’ve decided to feature two 7’s this time around, as this some what lost and elusive coupling from Usha Iyer, who these days is more commonly known as Usha Uthup, should not be separated. Obviously I’m still hanging on to that recent India experience, that happily refuses to leave from beneath my skin.
Usha Iyer was born on November 8th, 1947, into a Tamil brahmin family that hailed from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, in Madras (now Chennai). She has three sisters, all of whom are singers, and two brothers, herself being the the fifth of six children. As a child, she lived in the police quarters at Lovelane in Byculla in Bombay and attended a local school (her father Sami Iyer, later became the police commissioner of Bombay). When she was in music classes at school, she was a bit of a musical misfit, because “she didn’t fit in” with a voice like hers. But thankfully her music teacher did see something, and recognised her passion and determination, and would encourage her with simple instruments like clappers and the triangle.
Even though she was not formally trained in music, she grew up in an atmosphere of music. Her parents used to listen to a wide range from Western classical to Hindustani and Carnatic. “Along with Beethoven and Mozart, we listened to Bade Ghulam Ali, Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, K.C. De, Pankaj Mullick, Manna De, Shyamal Mitra M. S. Subbulakshmi, and a host of other great classical and modern masters,” reminisces Usha to The Tribune India. Her next door neighbour was S.M.A. Pathan, who was then the deputy commissioner of police. His daughter, Jamila, inspired Usha to learn Hindi, wear salwar kameez and take up Indian classical music. This fusion approach helped her to pioneer her unique brand of Indian pop in the 70s. Her first public singing occurred when she was nine. Her sisters who were already exploring a music career, took her to a musician called Hamir Sayani who gave her an opportunity to sing on the Ovaltine Music Hour in Radio Ceylon. She sang a number called Mockingbird Hill, and several more appearances followed through in her teenage years. A 20 year old Usha started singing in a small nightclub in Chennai called Nine Gem, which was in the basement of the Safire Theater complex . Her performance was so well received that the owner of the nightclub asked her to stay on for a week. She also began singing in Calcutta at night clubs such as Talk of the Town, now known as Not Just Jazz By The Bay, and the infamous Trincas.
Trincas – In 1969, when performing at nightclubs and restaurants was considered taboo, Usha became the highest-paid crooner in Chennai, Kolkata and New Delhi. But in the beginning it was nervous times for Usha. Trincas, originally a Tea Room owned by the eponymous Mr Trincas, was converted into a nightclub in 1959, an run by Om Prakash Puri and Ellis Joshua. It went on to become the launch pad for many acts of the Indian live music scene. The hip club was more in trend with Anglo-Indians, fair-skinned and blonde haired glamours, so when Usha asked if she was allowed to perform in her sari, she was relieved to get managements full support. On 1 October 1969, some of the stereotypes surrounding female nightclub singers in India were shattered. That is when a young Usha Iyer took the spotlight at the crowded restaurant, wearing her sari and her hair lit up in flowers, and singing Little Willie John’s Fever. The first reaction of the crowd was one of disbelief, but they quickly fell in love with her and the club and patrons accepted her whole-heartedly! Also in those days, female singers in bars had to get a permit from Lalbazar, the police headquarters, with strict guidelines forbidding interaction with guests or soliciting. It basically meant that she wasn’t allowed to socailise with guests or sit at their tables. However Usha did break the rule once, and that was the moment she found her husband Jani.
This early recording period of Usha Iyer is very difficult to track, with even her official website failing to mention anything about these “Flintstones” recordings. I can tell you that in 1968, Usha recorded what was supposedly her first 45, released on the His Master’s Voice label (45-N.79858), where she was labelled as just Usha. Hecke Kingdom, who cut a distinctive figure on the Bombay jazz stage in the 1950s and ’60s with his enormous baritone saxophone, recorded the sessions with his Jazz Quartet. The two compositions were covers, the first was Hank Williams Jambalaya and then flipped with The Kingston Trio’s Green Back Dollar, and are apparently the only tracks he recorded on vinyl during his whole career.
Now it seems there was a popular “house” band at Trincas that went by the name of The Flintstones, and by the sounds of it, they were very impressionable and were a group that really left quite a heavy stamp on the face of the late 60’s-early 70’s Indian rock music scene. As this is also the time that Usha was playing at Trincas, I have to assume that this is the same band that appears on these two featured 7″ records. Apparently this cult band were the big deal, could consistently pack out the venue and could get some pretty wild dancers in action. There must have been some pretty crazy nights there on Park Street, with other psychedelic rock acts also appearing such The Combustibles, The Savages, The Fentones, The Playboys and other bands with names like Black Cactus, The Urge and The Hurricanes.
From what I can work out, band members of The Flintstones were Eddy Ranger (lead vocals), Noel Martin (bass), Claton Saunders, Rhett May, and possibly Gautam Chatterjee, who was also playing at Trincas with another band, The Urge. It was the seventeen year old Clayton Saunders, who it seems was a musical genius from a young age, formed this band that took India by storm. Not long after this lively Indian rock spell, he would move over to my home country of Australia, and became successful with the country bands Hotspurs and Stoney Creek. At the tender age of 11, Saunders became the youngest talent to perform regularly on All India Radio’s renowned program The Children’s Hour. Rhett May also left the band and headed for Australia, and was in a band called Lucifer in the 1970s, and he is still quite active in the music scene releasing records today. Noel Martin still to this day, plays at Trincas, with his band Sweet Agitation, which was formed in 1984. I did track down evidence of another Flintstones 45 which was released in 1968, again on the HMV label (45 POPV 8085), with the tracks titled Be Mine and Happy By My Side, a mover credited to Clayton Saunders, that one could believe to have come from a Beatles track list, from their more raw early days.
The Caluatta Telegraph reported in 2008,”After 1972, the band’s popularity and also that of other live bands waned because of two reasons: anglo-Indians were leaving Calcutta and the popularity of the first discotheque in Calcutta, In & Out in Park Hotel. For a cover charge of merely Rs 10, patrons could hear DJs play the celestial music of Jethro Tull, ELP, Yes and Grateful Dead. These records were hardly heard in Calcutta then. No one would any longer pay to hear the cover versions”.
Thankfully someone back then did have the sense to bring Usha and The Flintstones into the studio, to lay down a handful of tracks. Today we can gratefully be transported back and experience if but a taste of those exciting vibrant times of that particular period of Indian psychedelia. On the first single, the A sided The Trip is absolute killer material from both Usha and the band. With it’s psychedelic brilliance, hard hitting break beats, snappy mod blues guitar work, and Usha’s beautiful acidic jazz vocals, it’s raw, dirty and dope, and for me, it feels like bathing in the richest soil of the Indian earth! As the only credit on the label is to Usha, again I have to assume the lyrics are hers. She sing’s of a faraway trip, leaving someone that was obviously close to her, behind, and whether it’s spiritual or literal, we don’t really have to know. For me this has to be her biggest tune, and to finally find it on a lost record that is about journey, is quite a trip. The flip to this big track is a cover of Tommy Roe’s 1960 number 1 hit song Dizzy, which for me is a bit too pop and doesn’t really suit the band’s dangerous edge. On the other hand, Blues Train, the second single featured here, we’re back on track, enjoying another dark journey with the brilliant combo. Like very many blues songs, this song is about loss, and this time it’s a tale of a dear soul to the story teller, that has taken their life. Usha sings of her desire to do what needs to be done, so they can be together again…”Every time I hear a train, I’ll be on the railway line, hang myself on a telegraph pole, then I’ll be with you body and soul. I know what to do, I’ve got to be with you tonight”. This moment of brilliance is tastefully complemented with the A-sided Summertime, which can be proudly added to the many amazing interpretations that exist, of Gershwin’s 1934 masterpiece.
In around 1974, Usha was invited by the legendary Goan composer Chris Perry to record an album of Konkani songs. Perry had just had a professional bust up with the ever so popular “Goan nightingale” Lorna Cordeiro, and was looking for a female vocalist who could fill that prodigious void. With compositions already to go, Perry approached her one day when Uthup was singing with the trumpet player at the Ritz near Eros cinema. The outcome was a successful record release comprising five Konkani songs performed by Usha including Meu Amor, Beautiful and the desirable Paka Paka!
If we want to talk about some of Usha’s LP releases, an interesting record that needs to be mentioned here, is the album she recorded with producer Nabil Sansool while touring in Nairobi, Kenya in 1978. Titled Usha In Nairobi, this album is infamous and sort because of one particular killer version of Fever that Usha lays down! It a crazy good, spacey trip hop-drum n’ bass version way ahead of it’s time, and perhaps one of the best versions I have ever heard of that fine tune. The band involved is said to have gone by the name of The Fellini Five, with the line up including Fausto La Venia on drums, Pino Solitro on guitar, Massimo Sperduti on keyboards and on percussion was Fausto La Venia. The songs Malaika and Kirie Kirio, were released as a Kenya 7″ from this recording on EMI. Earlier in 1969, Usha also released an alternate version of Fever, on her jazzy Scotch And Soda LP (Odeon SMOCE 2006) along with other versions fine standards including Sunny and A Taste Of Honey. Bombay’s finest beat band, The Savages provide accompaniment on Midnight Hour and also on a cracking version of California Dreaming, while on all other tracks, The Ronnie Menezes Quartet are her support. Now don’t get confused with the other Fever track she recorded with Bappi Lahiri for the film Love In Goa a few years later in ’83.
Segwaying into some of her film scores, Usha was quite big within the Bollywood circuit, which I’m only going to briefly touch on here. This particular road started back in the early 70’s in Dehli when she sang at the Oberoi hotels. By chance, a film crew that included actor-director Shashi Kapoor, visited the nightclub, and obviously liked what they saw, because she was offered a chance to sing for an upcoming film score. As a result, her Bollywood career started with singing along side Asha Bhosle on Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Originally, she was supposed to sing Dum Maro Dum along with Lata Mangeshkar, however it seems there was some internal politics going on with others singers that didn’t allow that to happen, and as we all know the role went to Asha Bhosle (who deservedly won the 1971 Filmfare Best Female Playback Award). As mentioned on the previous R D Burman post, Usha’s incredible Listen To The Pouring Rain from the 1972 Bollywood adventure-comedy film Bombay to Goa, is classic Usha mastery!
Another big and dynamic film track from Usha is the title song for Dard Ka Rishta, named Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. Released in 1982, and produced and directed by Sunil Dutt (and starring Smita Patil, Reena Roy and Ashok Kumar), the track is said to have been inspired by the 1955 Henry King directed film of the same title. Yet another Burman masterpiece, with killer breaks, rapid space funk keyboards and Usha leading it all with her best Shirley Bassey sass! A must have LP for all Indian soundtrack collectors!
Usha also had a platform into the disco dance scene which was sweeping the whole world at that time, although truth be told, India was a little behind by a few years. Her best for me is Auva Auva Koi Yahan Nache from Bappi Lahiri Disco Dancer masterpiece. And in true Bappi “borrowing”tradition, this time he channels The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star, so wickedly! In 82, Bappi and Usha were at it again with another disco rework, this time bravely mashing up Gibson Brothers’ Que Sera Mi Vida, with dare I say it, Donna Summer’s classic, I Feel Love on the Aarman soundtrack, titled as Ramba Ho-Ho-Ho Shamba Ho-Ho-Ho. There’s a far hotter and somewhat psychedelic version of “Love” on Usha’s earlier ’78 album You Set My Heart On Fire, which you’ll get far more respect from in the dance halls. I can’t leave this disco convention without mentioning Chhupke Kaun Aya, a pretty great hair flick towards to Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.
Usha has performed for so many young and old adoring fans, and has sung in 13 Indian languages as well as 8 foreign languages. Her name and her distinctive big voice is attached to many famous Bollywood productions, and has also made a quite a few on screen performances. This iconic Indian star has also received numerous awards not just for her musical talents, but also for her devotion to charities and for mainly just trying to make the world a fair and better place.
Usha has continued singing unlike many of her contemporaries who have long stopped as they felt out of sync with the new age style. “I don’t like to live in the past. Nostalgia is fine”. She recently to told The Indian Express. She has given people in far flung cultures an unexpected image of an lndian woman: strong,independent, humorous, intelligent and loaded with talent. Jani and Usha who today reside in Kolkata, West Bengal, enjoy life with their daughter Anjali and son Sunny, and today Usha will occasionally appear on stage singing alongside with both her daughter and her granddaughter.
References and recommendations…
Track 1: Defrost 1963 Track 1: Thaw – Out 1964
Albert Collins was born on 1 October 1933, and was raised by two farming parents in Leona, Texas, approx. 100 miles north of Houston. He was introduced to the guitar at an early age through his cousin Lightnin’ Hopkins, also a Leona resident, who frequently played at family reunions. In 1938 his family relocated to the third ward district in Marquez, eventually settling in Houston in 1941, where he later attended Jack Yates High School. Collins initially took piano on lessons when he was young, but during periods when his piano tutor was unavailable, his cousin Willow Young would loan him his guitar and taught him the altered tuning (that he used throughout his career). His idol when he was a teen was Hammond B-3 organist Jimmy McGriff, but the growing teenager made the decision to concentrate on learning the guitar after hearing Boogie Chillen‘ by John Lee Hooker.
Aged 18, Collins started his own group called the Rhythm Rockers (a seven-piece group consisting of alto, tenor, trumpet, keyboards, bass, and drums) in which he honed his craft. But Collins would still hold his jobs which around this time, included working on a ranch in Normangee, Texas for four years, followed by twelve years of driving a truck for various companies. In 1954 Collins, then aged 22 and still without a record release, was joined in by the 17-year-old Johnny Copeland who had just left the Dukes of Rhythm (a band he had started with Houston blues musician Joe “Guitar” Hughes). Collins started to play regularly in Houston, most notably at Shady’s Playhouse, where James “Widemouth” Brown (brother of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown) and other well-known Houston blues musicians would meet for the Blue Monday jams.
By the mid 1950s he had established his reputation as a local guitarist of note and had started to appear regularly at a Fifth Ward club called Walter’s Lounge with the group Big Tiny and The Thunderbirds. The saxophonist and music teacher Henry Hayes had heard about Collins from Joe “Guitar” Hughes. After seeing him perform live, Hayes encouraged Collins to record a single for Kangaroo Records, a label he had started with his friend M. L. Young. Collins recorded his debut single The Freeze b/w Collins Shuffle, for Kangaroo Records at Gold Star Studios, Houston, in the spring of 1958, with Henry Hayes on saxophone. Shuffle is an upbeat rippin R & B groover while Freeze, in contrast, is a slow but deadly creeper with sharp plucking knife cries that Collins is so now renown for. What an incredible wax debut, and a sure definite sign of things to come from this master!
That debut 7″ really was just the begins of a long run of singles which Collins would release the next few years, for regional labels. Conflicting research is telling me that he’s big million seller Frosty (though it apparently never landed on any national chart, so it’s not easy to check that claim’s veracity), happened for him in ’62. However it looks like the release date for that one was in fact in ’64, after being recorded at Gulf Coast Recording Studio, Beaumont, Texas, for Hall Records. Owner Bill Hall, had signed Collins on the recommendation of Cowboy Jack Clement, a songwriter and producer who had engineered sessions for Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash at Sun Records. Possibly there’s an earlier pressing that I can’t find any info on?
In 1963 he recorded De-Frost, a low grinding icy cool instro that burns like cold fire. With driving percussion, keyboards and horns, it’s embodies and slowly devours the listener. From that very first guitar note, most blues lovers will pick that technique and sound, and call out “The Master of the Telecaster”. The following year in 1964 he recorded Thaw-Out, which is likely a reworking of De-frost, but this time the driving is now the ploughing! The shards are deadlier and sharper, and let me tell you that this is one for the early keen dance floor, who are eager to warm up the bones.
During this period, even more of Collins’ song titles were uniquely associated with freezing temperatures, like Tremble (1964), Sno-Cone and Dyin’ Flu (1965), Don’t Lose Your Cool and Frost Bite (1966). These singles, along with his cold, crisp guitar technique, earned Collins his nickname “The Iceman.”
In ’65 Collins’ debut LP, The Cool Sound of Albert Collins (TCF-8002), was released by Hall. Mainly a collection of his singles with the exception of some label additions, Kool Aide (another De frost reworking?) Shiver N’ Shake the very sophisticated Icy Blue. In ’69 the Blue Thumb imprint repressed it with a new title and cover upgrade as Truckin’ with Albert Collins. Through the rest of the 1960s, Collins pursued his music with short regional tours and recordings for other small Texas labels while continuing with his work day jobs. In 1968, Canned Heat’s Bob “The Bear” Hite, had a very strong interest in the guitarist’s music, and took Collins to California, where he was immediately signed to Imperial Records. By later 1968 and 1969, the ’60s blues revival was still going on, and Collins got wider exposure opening for groups like The Allman Brothers at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and playing the San Francisco psychedelic circuit.
Collins didn’t have a lot of success in the most part of the seventies and actually hid into retirement as a result. It was his wife that pushed him back up on his feet and just as well! In 1977 he was offered a record deal by Bruce Iglauer of Alligator records in Chicago, which led to his most successful release Ice Pickin’. It won the Best Blues Album of the Year Award from the Montreux Jazz Festival, and was nominated for a Grammy. Finally it was time for Collins to receive some of that overdue and so well deserved success. With his new signature backing band the Ice Breakers, he would release successful “cool” themed LP’s, and take home a bunch of awards. In 1987 he won his first Grammy Award for Showdown, an impressive three-way guitar duel with Johnny Copeland and the newcomer Robert Cray.
Collins’ technique, his “attack” guitar style, and his minor tunings, were incredibly influential. In the live setting he was known for his showmanship, and his stage presence was legendary, with his famous “guitar walks” into the crowd. It was not unusual for Collins to conclude his concerts with a grandiose exit from the stage by walking straight through the crowd (with the use of his legendary 150 foot guitar cord) and out the front door of the venue, to stand in the middle of the street wailing on his guitar while bringing the city traffic to a halt.
The Iceman was robbed of his best years as a blues performer, after a three-month battle with liver cancer that ended with his premature death on November 24, 1993. He was just 61 years old.
References and recommendations…
Track 1 – Number 9 Train Track 2 – Wildcat Tamer
Alden Bunn, aka Allen Bunn, Tarheel Slim, was born in the country side outside of Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1924, and grew up working in the tobacco fields and listening to his mom’s Blind Boy Fuller 78’s. Eventually he learned to play guitar, and by around 20, was singing and playing in church right by Thurman Ruth, the leader of a local gospel quartet called the Selah Jubilee Singers. But before we ride on the Number 9 Train, there was quite a journey that “Slim” lead, with other groups and ventures, that we should know about.
THE JUBILATORS – THE LARKS
The story of The Larks begins sometime around 1927, when singer Thermon Ruth founded the Selah Jubilee Singers in Brooklyn, New York. Later in the 40’s, The Selah’s based themselves in North Carolina where they had a radio show…a daily program of jubilee music that aired over WPTF in Raleigh. In 1945, Ruth tried to persuade Eugene Mumford (from The Four Interns) to join the Selah Jubilee Singers, but before he could do so, Mumford was falsely charged and convicted with quite an ugly crime (1*). His incarceration would put his life on an unpleasant hold.
Allen Bunn who had joined The Southern Harmonaires in 1945, soon joined Thermon Ruth in the Selah Jubilee Singers as the group’s guitarist and second lead singer. The group recorded for Decca from 1939 to ’44, with their most well remembered recording I Want Jesus To Walk Around. Three years later, Ruth and Bunn decided to break away to form a new group, The Jubilators. They linked up with Mumford, now released from prison, and with three members of The Southern Harmonaires, David McNeil, Hadie Rowe Jr., and Raymond “Pee Wee” Barnes.
Thermon hired two teachers to get them into shape according to his standards, and for a few months they were taught how to sing together and also got a few lessons on stage presence. The Jubilators then competed against other gospel and jubilee groups in the state, even winning a 50 pound cake in a contest with the Selah Jubilee Singers!
Finally, the Jubilators decided it was time to get on record. So all six of them piled into Bunn’s car and drove up to New York. They stayed with some of Ruth’s relatives on 143rd Street in Harlem and for about a week they rehearsed constantly. Then, on October 5, 1950, they were ready, and they set out for what was possibly the most amazing day of recording in history. In one single day, they recorded 17 songs for four different labels, under four different names (2*). Apollo owner Bess Berman recognised the realm of possibilities, and signed them to a contract which allowed the other companies to release the other recordings, but wanted to promote them as an expansive R&B group rather than a gospel group. So the Jubilators faded into history (at least for several years), and “The Five Larks” emerged (even though there were still six of them). Thermon Ruth deliberately selected the name to fit in with the Ravens and Orioles, as a “bird group.”
The Larks were then booked on their first tour, and drove down to Washington, D.C., when they lost Hadie Rowe to the army (after receiving his draft notice, he was no longer able to continue on with the group…this probably is the reason why the “5” was dropped from the group’s name). In December 1950, they had their first session for Apollo, featuring Mumford on lead vocals. The session produced two masters, Coffee, Cigarettes And Tears and a cover of My Heart Cries For You (3*), but in the end, the recording didn’t even hint at the greatness inherent in the group. But on January 18, 1951, they returned to the studios to cut a couple of new tracks, which would prove far more successful and are really now Larks “classics”. With Gene on the lead once again, they laid down It’s Breaking My Heart (a pretty ballad that Apollo chose never to issue), When I Leave These Prison Walls, and Hopefully Yours. The latter two songs had been written by Gene when he was in jail and show a certain hope for the future.
On February 14, 1951, they got national exposure by singing Lucy Brown on the Perry Como TV show, a Norfolk Jazz Quartet original, which was recorded in 1938 and known as Suntan Baby Brown. Their take is a much more upbeat snappier version, and it’s dynamite! While Thermon would sing lead on the recorded version, it’s Gene out in front on the Como show. Please I beg you, look it up on you tube…Allen Bunn plays the guitar, but rarely opens his mouth to sing. If you’re into 78’s, try and get Lucy Brown as it has the great I Ain’t Fattening Frogs For Snakes on the flip.
Finally chart success would come later in 1951, with the bluesy Eyesight To The Blind, with Bunn on lead vocals and guitar… it made # 5 on the R&B charts. This was followed up by another R&B top ten hit Little Side Car, a reworking of Smokey Hogg’s Too Many Drivers, and again with Bunn on lead vocals. This is one sweet 45 and has the drifting Hey, Little Girl on the flip.
Another standout track that has to be mentioned is Shadrack written by Robert MacGimsey in 1938. While Louis Prima, Louis Armstrong and even The Wanderers all do amazing versions of this biblical classic, The Lark’s jiving version is so super! Again live footage out there with Allen Bunn singing lead! This period was the height of The Larks’ popularity, however, Bunn decided this was also the right time to go out own his own.
Going Solo – His first solo sessions were for Apollo in ’51 where he recorded two sessions that produced four singles, and were issued under the name Allen Bunn (accompanied by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee). Amongst the recordings were The Guy With The .45, Wine, Discouraged, Baby I´m Going to Throw You Out and the very down and dirty Two Time Loser. He was still touring with The Larks when he cut his first session for Bobby Robinson Red Robin label. One of these tracks is the amazing Too Much Competition (reissued in ’73), which stands mighty and tall, and you could call it the big brother to Betty James’ I’m a Little Mixed Up (it really makes me wonder sometimes, if that is in fact Bunn on that killer Betty James track).
The Lovers – Around 1955, Bunn married his sweetheart Lee Sanford, who were intertwined with deep love and affection for one another, but they also shared a strong musical chemistry. “Little Ann” and Bunn sang and recorded together, first as The Lovers, for Lamp, Aladdin’s subsidiary in 1957. Together the tight partnership would go on to release a string of 45’s for other labels including Fire, Fury and Port. They’d also have name variations on some releases, and while Bunn was now pretty much going by the name “Tarheel Slim”, his writing credits were mainly represented as Bunn. The earlier Lovers tracks were slow dancers and appropriately very cutesy love songs. Once they ditched the “Lovers” tag, I feel it was then, that they got a bit more “down with it” so to speak. Can’t Stay Away and the charming dancer Security, proved they both could let their hair down some and get a bit shakey. The heart wrenching 1959 It’s Too Late, is a stunning blues ballad with a broken hearted poor little Ann weeping hysterically… literally (this song would get a reworking as Two Time Loser a few years later, only this time it’s Slim who breaks down). I Submit To You is also high on recommendation.
Bunn also released a couple of 45’s with a group called The Wheels whom he evidently managed. Let’s Have A Ball was on Premium in 1956 and the upbeat Clap Your Hands was released on Folly in 1959.
Tarheel Slim – So now to the real reason why we’re here reading all this. While “Slim” made his official entrance in 1958 with his wife Little Ann, it was the next year when he would release his solo and most desired red hot screamin’ 45 on Fury. The A side Wildcat Tamer is a perfect rhythm and blues dancer. Nice and raw and perfectly tempo-ed. But despite the track name, it’s more of a tempting entree of what’s to come steaming your way when you journey to the flipside. And the monster that awaits is named Number 9 Train. Tarheel’s vocals and rhythm here is sharp and classic blues rocker material. But there’s another element going on here underneath, that’s adding even more to the fire, and the name of that wild spark is Wild Jimmy Spruill. Although session guitarist Spruill is best known as a sideman (4*), he was a wild and sought after guitar player. His sound was unconventional, notable for its hard attack and sense of freedom, unexpectedly going from assertive lead parts to rhythmically dynamic, scratching rhythms. At no time did Spruill use picks or any effects on his guitar – his sound was solely the result of his fingers. You can hear more of his impeccable finger work on his solo recordings, notably Hard Grind from ’59, The Rooster and Cut and Dried from ’64 and I believe he also played on Tarheel Slim’s Security. Together these two cats mix up a storm, and make both sides of this 45 hard to pass. Train really does come to life when it’s up loud on a worthy amplifier…and preferably with a dance floor close by!
Unfortunately Taheel Slim and Little Ann’s career seemed to fade away around the early 60’s and nothing was heard from them until the early 70’s when blues researcher Peter Lowery dug up Tarheel Slim to play a few gigs where he performed with an acoustic guitar in the style of “folk blues”. Slim played a few festivals in 1974 and was well received, and even got back into the studio and would release a couple albums for Pete Lowry’s Trix label, which harked back to Bunn’s Carolina blues heritage. The 1972 single release No Time At All is a beautiful melon collie finger picking instrumental which I believe was his last 45. These later sessions would prove his last. In 1977 he was diagnosed with throat cancer and died from pneumonia brought on by the chemotherapy.
(1*) On July 1945, Mumford had been arrested and jailed by the army Military Police who were rousting people looking for marijuana. They turned him over to civilian authorities, whom he satisfied of his innocence. But just as he was leaving police headquarters, a white woman pointed him out as a recogniseable criminal. Subsequently re-arrested, he was charged with attempted rape, housebreaking, and assault. The case took a year to come to trial and, in spite of an alibi, he was found guilty, a conviction that was upheld in the subsequent appeal. Sent to prison, Mumford spent two and a half years on a prison work gang. Finally, enough evidence came to light that he was granted a full pardon from the governor of North Carolina. (This was treated as a miracle; a black man in the 1940s South being pardoned after having been accused by a white woman.) On June 1949, after having served 29 months in jail, Gene Mumford was a free man. For a more detailed account of his sentence, click onto Marv Goldberg’s in-depth Larks entry below.
(2*) Initially, billing themselves as the Selah Jubilee Singers, they recorded four gospel songs for Jubilee Records, before moving on to record as The Jubilators for Regal Records in New Jersey. Then they drove to Newark, recording four secular blues songs, including Lemon Squeezer, as The 4 Barons for Savoy Records. Finally, they drove back to Apollo Records in Manhattan, where, as The Southern Harmonaires, they recorded four more gospel tracks. For a more detailed account of this day, click onto Marv Goldberg’s in-depth Larks entry below.
(3*) My Heart Cries For You was a hit for Guy Mitchell, Dinah Shore and Vic Damone.
(4*) Other notable Wild Jimmy Spruill moments are The Happy Organ by Dave “Baby” Cortez, Wilbert Harrison’s Kansas City, and Bobby Lewis’s no.1 hit Tossin’ and Turnin, which by the way, Peter Criss from KISS covered on his solo album! Also check out Dale Hawkins version of Number 9 Train!
Referencing and recommendations…
The Larks photo from top left clockwise…Allen Bunn, Gene Mumford, Raymond Barnes, Thermon Ruth and David McNeil
Track 1 – My Babe Written By – Willie Dixon Track 2 – I Got To Go written by Marion Walter Jacobs Track 3 – Roller Coaster Written By – E. McDaniels
Marion Walter Jacobs was born in Marksville, Louisiana, on May 1, 1930 and picked up the Harmonica at a very early age.
By the age of 12, the “unruly” but vastly talented youth decided to quit school and head for the Chicago, to become an itinerant street musician. On his travels, he would stop for the bright lights of New Orleans where he would pick up on odd jobs and busking. He would proceed to Memphis Tennessee, and then over to Helena Alabama, and also Arkansas and St. Louis Missouri, and then finally grounding down into the Windy City in around 1946. The thriving Maxwell Street strip clubs offered a spot for the still-teenaged phenom to hawk his wares, where he played with Tampa Red, Bill Broonzy, and Memphis Slim.
During this time, he also honed his musical skills on guitar performing with much older bluesmen such as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sunnyland Slim, and Honeyboy Edwards, but garnered more attention for his already highly developed harmonica work.
Ora-Nelle. Little Walter would have been around 17 when made his first debut recording for Bernard Abrams’ tiny Ora-Nelle label in 1947. The label was set up out of the back room of Abrams’ Maxwell Radio and Records store and only operated for a year or two. In that time the label only managed two releases, although 10 sides of alternate takes and unreleased material have since been discovered. Ora Nelle was named after a female relative, and the release series began at 711, not for numerological reasons, but on account of the winning combinations when shooting dice.
Ora Nelle was the first label to record Little Walter, although according to fellow Chicago bluesman Floyd Jones, who suggests Walter’s first recording was an unreleased demo recorded soon after he arrived in Chicago on which Walter played guitar backing Jones. Ora Nelle was the only label to record guitarist Othum Brown, and the second to record guitarist Jimmy Rogers. On the debut 771A side we have the hard and heavy Ora-Nelle Blues, with Othum Brown accompanying Walter’s harp skills. Lovely stuff! And on the 711b flip, there’s the much faster foot stomping tune called I Just Keep Loving Her. Incredible! Still trying to confirm whether Othum or Walter sang on these tracks.
Note that the label never had distribution; Ora Nelles were sold out of the store, where copies were still in stock 20 years later, or resold by people who had bought them there. Good luck finding this original 78!
Little Walter joined Muddy Waters’ band in 1948, and by 1950, he was playing acoustic (unamplified) harmonica on Muddy’s recordings for Chess Records. In October of that year, they recorded the Waters classic Louisiana Blues. Nearly a year after Little Walter used an amplified harmonica for the first time on a groundbreaking July 1951 session that yielded She Moves Me.
Little Walter reportedly grew frustrated with having his harmonica drowned out by the electric guitars, but would soon find a way to attack that problem. He adopted a simple yet effective method…he cupped a small microphone in his hands along with his harmonica, and plugged the microphone into a public address system or guitar amplifier. And now he could compete with any guitarist’s volume. There were other contemporary blues harp players such as Sonny Boy Williamson I and Snooky Pryor, who had also begun using the newly available amplifier technology for added volume, however Walter purposely pushed his amplifiers beyond their intended technical limitations, using the amplification to explore and develop radical new timbres and sonic effects previously unheard from a harmonica, or any other instrument. Madison Deniro wrote a small biographical piece on Little Walter stating that “He was the first musician of any kind to purposely use electronic distortion.”
Waters was among the earliest to recognize that blues possessed a formidable power when electrified, and along with Jimmy Rogers on electric guitar, Muddy had himself the hottest blues band in Chicago.
Little Walter And His Jukes – Walter had put his career as a bandleader on hold when he joined Muddy’s band, but stepped back out front once and for all when he recorded as a bandleader for Chess’s subsidiary label Checker Records on 12 May 1952. The first completed take of the first song attempted at his debut session became his first release. The cracking instrumental was called Juke (the retitled Your Cat Will Play), and it was the first real success for him. Deservedly, it topped the R&B charts for eight weeks, and is still the only harmonica instrumental ever to be a number-one hit on the charts, securing Walter’s position on the Chess artist roster for the next decade.
Walter’s now had a pretty impressive band to himself, recruiting a young backing band that was already working steadily in Chicago backing Junior Wells, The Aces. They consisted of brothers David Myers and Louis Myers on guitars, and drummer Fred Below, and were re-christened “The Jukes” on most of the Little Walter records on which they appeared. Their first recordings were for the Checker subsidiary of Chess in 1952.
Some great stomping 45’s were to follow in the next couple of years including Crazy Legs which was released in ’53, Rocker from ’54, and Hate To See You Go, released in ’55. But for this post I’ve decided to showcase this fab Little Walter And His Jukes EP for a couple reasons! Firstly, that packaging! The art is eye popping and graphic, and the label itself with the gold text on the deep red, is just class in it’s purist form. Secondly, here’s a few of what I think are Little Walters’ best tracks, all one the one 7″!
My Babe, which was written by Willie Dixon, who also wrote (Little Red Rooster and I Just Want to Make Love to You), was originally released in 1955 on Checker Records. This composition was based on the traditional gospel song This Train (Is Bound For Glory), a hit when recorded by recorded by Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1939. Dixon reworked the arrangement and lyrics from the sacred (the procession of saints into Heaven) into the secular (a story about a woman that won’t stand for her cheating man). The song was the only Dixon composition ever to become a #1 R&B single. (Note that Ray Charles had famously, and controversially, pioneered the gospel-song-to-secular-song approach also, and just prior to Walter’s release, with his reworking of the gospel hymn It Must Be Jesus into I Got A Woman,which hit #1 on the Billboard R&B).
Backing Little Walter’s vocals and harmonica were Robert Lockwood and Leon Caston on guitars, Willie Dixon on double bass and Fred Below on drums. Guitarist Luther Tucker, then a member of Walter’s band, was absent from the recording session that day. My Babe was re-issued in 1961 with an overdubbed female vocal backing chorus and briefly crossed over to the pop charts. Ricky Nelson would release a far more pop version in 1958, while Dale Hawkins released a pretty fiery rockabilly version that same year.
I Got To Go is an up-tempo rocker reminiscent of his earlier 1953 Tell Me Mama…and this really is a rocker in it’s full glory. His playing of minor key scales over the major chord guitar backing adds, to a tension and energy to the piece as does his slightly fuzzed out vocal! Wild blues!
Roller Coaster, I have to say, is one of my favourite Walter tracks, and it’s the tasty icing on this sort after EP! His take on Diddley’s groover is quite sneaky, before it takes off with electrifying force. One glorious minor chord arpeggio throughout, nice and low and slithering, and it’s not long before Walter’s expressive tones really start to howl up a nice, maybe even gentle storm. With Diddley himself providing some rattling fretwork alongside the snappy kick and snare, it is just nothing but a blues dance floor masterpiece!
Thunderbird, the fourth track on this Ep, shouldn’t be ignored either, with it’s strong hustling locomotive rhythm. A more mild tempo possibly, but that does not deter Little Walter for a moment, as he burns up his harmonica skills quite feverishly and cleverly. Originally flipped to the 10″ My Babe, I’m almost certain this is the only 45 it was released on. Even another reason why you must seek this 7″ down!
Between 1952 and 1958, Little Walter on his own, charted 14 Top Ten R&B hits for the Chess label’s Checker subsidiary, including two number one hits, a level of commercial success never achieved by his former boss Waters, nor by his fellow Chess blues artists Howlin’ Wolf & Sonny Boy Williamson II. In the first part of the sixties he traveled to England winning over a new audience of white blues fans, and in 1964 he toured with the Rolling Stones (although this seems to have recently been refuted by Keith Richards). But Walter’s once phenomenal instrumental skills also diminished during the 1960s, plagued by alcohol abuse, a quick temper, and the bluesman’s penchant for barroom brawls. He did have a mean streak, and would never back down from a fight…and it was this belligerent attitude which lead to his death, after suffering head injuries from a street brawl. On Feb 1968, in Chicago, he sadly passed away at only 38 years old, a victim of his own indulgence.
Of all the great bluesmans who were part of Chicago blues school, he is the only one that has never been imitated. He’s solos were carefully constructed masterpieces of energy that were never self indulgent. With his precision and control he was able to regulate the length power and sharpness of every note he played with furious yet calculated speed. His influence remains inescapable to this day, and it’s unlikely that a blues harpist exists on the face of this earth who doesn’t worship Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs. He was a skilled guitarist, and hell of a singer and songwriter, and is widely considered the greatest blues harmonica player ever. From the outset, he was a true original, a visionary musician and his influence goes beyond harmonica players.
Little Walter was inducted to the The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 in the “sideman” category, making him the first and only artist ever inducted specifically as a harmonica player. His grave remained unmarked until 1991, when fans Scott Dirks and Eomot Rasun respectfully had a marker designed and installed.
photo credits: Don Bronstein, Jim O’Neal
Ora Nelle reord is from the collection of George Paulus
Essential reading by George Paulus & Robert L. Campbell
Blues Singers: Biographies of 50 Legendary Artists of the Early 20th Century By David Dicaire
Footage of Little Walter backing the great Hound Dog Taylor and Koko Taylor on a television program in Copenhagen, Denmark on 11 October 1967 was released on DVD in 2004 (performing Wang Dang Doodle). Further video of another recently discovered TV appearance in Germany during this same tour, showing Little Walter performing his songs My Babe, Mean Old World, and others were released on DVD in Europe in January 2009, and is the only known footage of Little Walter singing. Try and find it…sometimes some clips appear on you tube for brief moments. Amazing!