Friday, October 30, 2009

Forgotten Classics of Arkansas Rockabilly

As a result of some research on Arkansas rockabilly, a few months back I posted on some of the better known Arkansas rockabilly recording artists, a few of whom are have become veritable legends. Arkansas rockers Sleepy La Beef, Sonny Burgess, Ronnie Hawkins, Larry Donn and Pat Cupp are still with us and active and recently we lost the legendary Billy Lee Reilly. Yet some of the lesser known rockers from Arkansas who also made significant contributions to rockabilly have seen their work has fall into relative obscurity for any number of reasons.

What I have come to discover in my research on Arkansas rockabilly is that the state produced more than its share of of recording artists, well over fifty according to my research. Due to its geographical location and demographics, Arkansas was perfectly situated to produce to hybrid fusion of black rhythm and blues and country "honky tonk" sounds. Most of the musicians listed here are from the eastern, Delta region of the state, where the proximity to Memphis and the exposure to African American music, either through radio or direct contact would have been highest. Many would also have been influenced by Joe Manuel's Saturday Night Jamboree in Memphis, The Louisiana Hayride and Porter Wagner's Ozarks Jubilee in Springfield, Missouri. One interesting feature of Arkansas rockabilly seems to be the use of the piano, which is featured on the majority of the selections offered here. While many of these tracks have appeared in reissued rockabilly anthologies, no attempt to recognize their cohesion from a regional perspective has been offered.

1) Skeets McDonald was born in Greenway, Arkansas and was a prototypical rockabilly figure. Most of his work is rooted in "honky tonk," yet his sound anticipates the Bakersfield sound and has a distinct rockabilly feel. Check out "Fort Worth Jail" from 1958. Outstanding cut with fantastic piano solo.

2) Doug Poindexter: From Vandale, Arkansas is an important precursor to rockabilly and one of the earliest white Sun recording artists whose association with Scotty Moore, Bill Black and the Starlight Wranglers and Elvis has been documented. "My Kind of Carrying On," a historical Sun recording from from 1954, predates the rockabilly wave and shows Hank Williams influence.

3) Mack Self from West Helena is now a living rockabilly legend. Mack also recorded for Sun, his "Easy to Love" and Vibrate have become classics in the genre. Self still lives in West Helena.

4) Jimmy Lee Fautheree, from Smackover, Arkansas, home of Sleepy Labeef. Jimmy is best known for his work with Johnny Mathis, with whom he performed on the Louisiana Hayride and made several early recordings that were to foreshadow the rockabilly sound. Here he teams up with Mathis to perform the classic "Sweet Love on my Mind" later recorded by Johnny Burnette. Nice guitar work here by Jimmy.

5) Jimmy Evans from Mariana in eastern Arkansas is known for his association with Conway Twitty, Billy Lee Reilly and Mack Self during their Sun years. Jimmy's classic, "The Joints Really Jumpin" is a great example of late rockabilly from 1962. Jerry Lee Lewis influence is obvious. Also check out "What am I Gonna Do?" from the same period. Very nice cut.

6) Glen Garrison from Searcy, Arkansas recorded "Lovin Lorene" in 1958 and, according to Rockabillyville, a very reliable source, is now considered a rockabilly classic. Not much is known about Glen, who died at age thirty.

7) Bill Carter from Eagleton, Arkansas. Not much known about Carter but he did move in and out of country and rockabilly throughout the late 1950's. What we do have is outstanding. Carters remarkable "Cool Tom Cat" from 1960 on the small Ozark label must be hard to come by these days. Nice guitar solo and vocals. Also check out his wonderfully conceived "I Wanna Feel Good" from 1957, great guitar.

8) Al Coker from Conway is a unique figure; he is the father of recording female recording artist Alvadean Coker . Al recorded a few classic rockabilly numbers for Decca in the late 1950's. "Don't Go Baby" is his best known recording. Very nice electric guitar lead.

9) Roy Moss, from Plainview, Arkansas, got a spot on the Louisiana Hayride with help from Elvis. He then joined the rockabilly rave, making several recordings in the late 1950's, beginning with "You Don't Know My Mind" and "Your My Big Baby" from 1956 and then the well produced "Wiggle Walkin Baby" from 1958. Great cut.

10) Sonny Deckelman, from Harrisburg, Arkansas made several rockabilly recordings during the the late 50's and early 1960's. Sonny's "I've Got Love" is from 1959 and contains a classic rockabilly guitar solo.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

News on Two American Legends: James P. Johnson and Thelonious Monk

The history of American Jazz piano begins in the late nineteenth century with the advent of ragtime pianists, whose initial recordings in the 1920's helped to define the style that would merge with others to eventually crystallize into the definitive jazz sound. One of the transitional figures who advanced the linkage between the ragtime and the emerging jazz sound is stride piano legend James P. Johnson. In remembrance of his artistry, a small group of contemporary jazz musicians and enthusiasts gathered at the small West Village New York club Smalls to raise funds to purchase a headstone for Johnson's grave. Wonderful gesture by musicians and jazz fans alike.

Johnson's talents were multifaceted: composer of short pieces as well orchestral arrangements, technical wizard who integrates classical music into his hybrid style and innovator of the "stride style" that laid the groundwork for jazzier improvisations and whose influence on jazz legends like Duke Ellington should not be understated. Johnson's famous composition "The Charleston" helped define the decade of the Roaring Twenties in American Roots music. His well known "Carolina Shout" showcases his prodigious technical mastery in the stride piano style. Johnson's influence is simply fundamental to the development of American piano, his imprint on later greats like Eubie Blake, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson is unmistakable. Johnson's influence on other disciples was even more direct. The stride pianists such as Fats Waller, the incredible Missouri born Ralph Sutton and also his contemporary Jelly Roll Morton and the "professor school" of New Orleans boogie woogie rooted piano are all deeply indebted to Johnson's innovations. Johnson was a prototypical artist whose pioneering piano conmpositions help to define American Roots music.

Another hugely influential force in American Jazz is Thelonious Monk, an enigmatic figure who shunned the limelight and retreated into seclusion to produce some of the most strikingly innovative compositions of American post war jazz. The complexities of the artist and the "aura of cryptic genius" that have surrounded Monk and made him almost as inaccessible as the peculiar harmonic language he created on piano, transforming him into an almost mythical figure in American Jazz are all explored extensively in a new biography by Robin D.G. Kelley entitled "Thelonios Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original." This biography has just been released and promises to be a fascinating read for fans of Monk and of American Jazz in general. Based on extensive interviews with surviving members of Monk's family, including his wife Nellie Monk, this biography promises to lift the shroud of mystery that has surrounded Monk since his explosion onto the jazz scene in the early days of Bebop. Drawing on diverse sources such as Monk's own LP collection, access to the writings of Monk's producer Teo Macero, manuscripts from his British patron, lover and longtime associate Baroness Panonica known as "Nica," and extensive interviews with those close to Monk make this long awaited contribution to jazz scholarship a must read for jazz enthusiasts. I can't wait to get my hands on it.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Hillbilly Boogie and Western Swing - A Few Classics

One of the more interesting strains of American Roots Music that advances the genesis of rockabilly is "Hillbilly Boogie." Related in many ways to Western Swing, this style's origin is rooted in boogie - woogie piano styles that take us back to Meade Lux Lewis in the 1920's and the broader popularity in the 1930's, spearheaded by Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. By the 1940's, the Delmore Brothers had begun to embrace the boogie woogie style and helped launch its popularity among musicians recording in the country western music scene. At the same time, Western Swing was evolving along similar lines in Texas in Louisiana, and polka and some jazz based rhythms to the style. Both Hillbilly Boogie and Western Swing were essentially dance music genres whose popularity coincided wit the rise of honky tonk dance clubs in the south and western states. Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma and it's association with Bob Wills is a legendary venue from the late 1930's, as are the famous California Western Swing Ballrooms: Venice Pier Ballroom of Spade Cooley fame, the Riverside Rancho and the Santa Monica Ballroom, all very popular in the late thirties up to through the end of the WW II.

Hillbilly Boogie is characterized by and upbeat tempo, steel guitar, traditional and electric guitar and, as in jazz, an allotted lead space for featured instruments. Many of the electric guitar solos here are outstanding examples of the convergence of jazz and country sounds. In contrast to later rockabilly, percussion is not present, heavy bass lines are. Collectors on youtube have been putting up a quite a bit of this fascinating style that predominated country music during the war years before the unique amalgamations of the 1950's emerged.

1) Tex Williams: A little humor and advice in Tex's style and the band is tight and top notch with a jazz based sound. Check out "Never Trust A Woman" from 1947. Great western swing guitar lead.

2) Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West: The famous duo is caught live here on a boogie number here. Jimmy has a searing guitar solo and Speedy follows suit. Nice piano too. Superb.

3) Johnny Lee Wills: Coyote Blues is a quintessential boogie woogie number by another of Bob's bothers.

4) Zeb Turner: No More Nothing is from the early 1950's and is a fantastic example of the hillbilly boogie sound featuring piano, steel guitar and electric guitar. Outstanding work here by one of the most important forerunners to rockabilly.

5) Moon Mullican: Cush Cush Ky Yay is a classic cajunesque boogie by the pianist Mullican, one of the kings of the genre who helped build the bridge to rockabilly and rock n' roll.

6) Red Smith/Luke McDaniel/Jeff Daniels: Whoa Boy is listed as a rockabilly number on youtube but I would classify it in the hillbilly boogie genre. Nonetheless, an outstanding number by Red, aka Luke McDaniel. Some very nice guitar work and vocals.

7) Eddie Hill: The Hot Guitar is an absolute gem of the genre with some outstanding guitar work in classic medley style imitation of some of the other greats in jazz and country. "Smilin Eddie" was a deejay who worked to advance the popularity of the style. Could be Hank Garland of guitar.

8) Luke Wills: Take Me Back live here with brother Bob.

9) Casey Simmons: Jukebox Boogie is an obscure cut in the genre with some great piano work.

10) Spade Cooley: Steel Guitar Rag is a classic instrumental by Spade, one of the founding fathers of Western Swing. Wonderful guitar break.

11) George Stogner: Hard Top Race, from the mid 1950's, is situated within the enormous "auto race" genre which is boogie with a real rockabilly feel. Very nice guitar and piano leads from this largely forgotten musician.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Top R&B Tenor Kings from the 1950's

The origins of the predominance of the guitar as the featured instrument in much of contemporary music is rooted in the birth of rock n' roll in the fifties, as rockabilly merged with R&B. As combos became smaller, the prevalence of wind instruments began to fade. Interestingly, before the emergence of the electric guitar in the combo setting, the saxophone was the considered the ax, and the original "cutting sessions" were actual bouts between both jazz and R&B tenor and alto players.
By the late 1940's, a fascinating diversification was taking place in African American music that coincided with the onset of be bop and hard bop in jazz circles. Two different tracks began to bifurcate: be bop or hard bop, which was seen as the experimental track was shadowed by the increasing popularization of R&B based groups also rooted in jazz, many of which formed the instrumental backing of the Jump Blues phenomenon discussed in a previous post. What is particularly interesting is that some musicians, and many very talented saxophone players, moved in and out of both R&B and Bop oriented combos with facility. Some of the great players of the late 1940's and early 1950's such as Johnny Griffin, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Gene Ammons, Teddy Edwards, Harold Land, Jack Mcvea, Jimmy Forrest, Benny Golson, Earl Bostic, Hank Mobley , Clifford Jordan and Pervis Hensen could all move in and out of bop and R&B formats with equal fluency, and could also work with equal ease on ballads. In a sense, these players were drawing from the blues/ballad tradition established by Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and extending themselves into bop material that Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon were popularizing in the late 1940s. Most of the aforementioned players moved into more bop related material as the fifties progressed, yet most still laid down some wonderful R&B arrangements on occasion.

In this post I would like to foreground some of the fantastic sax players who worked primarily in R&B during the same period. On some of these recordings one can hear some of the raunchiest, most raucous sax solos in the history of R&B from the heyday of the great R&B bands. Also, it could be said that these players lay the groundwork for the later work of King Curtis, Junior Walker and Eddie Harris. I do think this is a somewhat incomplete offering however, some of the best work from Sil Austin and Big Jay McNeely from this period are simply not available. That said, many thanks to the collectors on youtube.

1) Buddy Johnson with Pervis Henson on saxophone. This great tune, Down Yonder from 1949, in a big band setting, has an authentic R&B flavor with a great sax solo by Henson.

2) Joe Houston and his Orchestra: Houston recorded with greats Big Joe Turner and Amos Milburn. His Sand Storm from 1951 is another absolutely fabulous R&B based number with Houston laying down some unbelievable smooth and raucous blowing. A true gem of the genre that goes a little outside. Also, check ot Joe's All Night Long from 1955. Outstanding.

3) Red Prysock: Jump Red Jump is a classic from 1954 and really showcases Prysock's extraordinary talent in the R&B genre. A true headcutter, Prysock's playing is legendary.

4) Marvin Phillips: Mamo Mamo from 1955 is a unique tune that combines a Jump Blues feel with jive like vocals. Great tenor solo here by West Coast R&B legend Maxwell Davis.

5) Jimmy Forrest: Jimmy is best known for his 1952 hit Night Train. Here, on Blue Groove Jimmy lays down a slow R&B masterpiece. Unbelievably tight riffing and tone, sets up the King Curtis sound to come later. Absolutely top notch recording with only 68 views on youtube.

6) T. J. Fowler: Back Bite from 1951 is a very obscure recording but a real gem of the genre, great playing here in a more classic blues format.

7) Bill Doggett: Rum Bunk Shush is from a few years later, probably 1956 or 1957. Doggett is best known for his classic crossover hit Honky Tonk but here sax ace Percy France really tears loose and lays down some wonderfully tight R&B sax.

8) Willis "Gator"Jackson: Later Gator is a wonderfully tough 1957 R&B instrumental. Incredible playing here. Shuckin is later, from the early 1960's off the Prestige LP "Really Groovin." This is a jazzier arrangement with the great Tommy Flanagan on piano and the unbelievable Kenny Burrell on guitar. Jackson shows his mastery of the genre on the extended lead time.

9) Big Jay McNeely Jay made some premium recording for Savoy and King back in the late 1950's and this cut"Ice Water" probably comes from that period. Career spans over fifty years. Very nice sound, McNeely has made a comeback since the 1980s and is still playing today.

10) Jimmy Liggins: Cadillac Boogie from 1954. This is really more of a Jump Blues tune but the incredible Harold Land takes this R&B sound outside a little as he shows his versatility.