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!