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