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Straight Into Compton: How a Texan Became the Wordsmith for N.W.A.

Posted by mcorcoran on July 15, 2017

The D.O.C. at the top of the game.

January 1996 DALLAS.
His mother begged him not to sue. Rapper Tracy “The D.O.C.” Curry says this in a rasp that sounds a little like resurrection’s whisper and a lot like Miles Davis’ parched bark. “She’s afraid something bad is going to happen to me,” the 27-year-old Dallas native says from his new hometown of Atlanta. Once a chief lyricist for N.W.A., as well as a hit artist on his own, Curry claims he was also a founding partner in Death Row Records, the $100-million home paid for by Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre, Tha Dogg Pound, and run by a CEO The New York Times recently called “the godfather of gangsta rap.” Now Curry, the forgotten soldier, is taking on this music business posse that’s beginning to look more like an army every day.

“I ain’t sayin’ I’m not a little scared,” he says, but “it’s time to get what’s mine.”

As usual, though, Curry will have to go through his ex-manager and former best friend, Marion “Suge” Knight, to get his money. The 320-pound Death Row Records chairman is not a soft touch. A former football star at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who left behind the pads but not the spectre of violence, Suge Knight has a reputation for intimidation and an uncanny knack for getting competitors, like the late Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, to sign over assets for absolutely nothing in return except, perhaps, the opportunity to see another sunrise.

But Curry and L.A. Records chairman Dick Griffey have decided to take on the big man and his cash cow Andre Young (better known as Dr. Dre) anyway. Curry and Griffey are suing the label and its distributor, Interscope Records, for more than $75 million in general damages and $50 million in punitive damages. According to a 21-page lawsuit filed January 8, 1996 in Los Angeles Superior Court, Curry and Griffey entered into a partnership agreement with Knight and Young in January ’91 to form a music-publishing and record company that was first called Future Shock Entertainment and later renamed Death Row.

D.O.C. upper right with NWA

“I’m the one who told Dre to change the name to Death Row,” Curry says. “Dre was on Curtis Mayfield’s dick at the time, but I told him that name was corny as a muthafucka. [Mayfield had a hit in ’73 with ‘Future Shock.’] At the time, D.J. Unknown was trying to start a label called ‘Def Row’ and I told Dre, ‘Fuck that nigga, let’s call our shit Death Row,'” recalls Curry. (Curry is also credited by none other than Dre for “talking me into doing this album,” in the liner notes to The Chronic, Death Row’s first release.)

After Griffey procured a million-dollar publishing advance from Sony Tunes Inc./Sony Songs Inc. in 1991, the new corporation that became Death Row bought recording equipment, blocked out studio time, acquired the rights for Def Row from Andre “D.J. Unknown” Manuel, and started signing artists–including Cordozar Broadus Jr., better known as Calvin Broadus and completely known as Snoop Doggy Dogg.

You can’t tell it from his scratchy bray on the new sinister Helter Skelter LP on Giant Records, but the D.O.C. himself was once the most elastic and free-flowing rapper on the West Coast, with his 1989 debut LP, No One Can Do It Better, going double platinum. But just months after the record “blew up,” so did Curry’s follow-up dreams, as he fell asleep, drunk, behind the wheel of his car and drove off the road and into a coma.

The first concern was that Curry might not live, but after 22 hours of surgery, much of it reconstructive, he pulled through. The lasting injury, however, was damaged vocal chords that left him unable to speak for several months. “The only thing wrong with my voice is the way it sounds,” Curry says almost six years later, “and that’s getting better all the time.”

No longer smooth enough to rhyme “lyrical” with “superior,” Curry had to change his style to fit his excoriating voice. “I crossed over to the dark side, man, and I’ve seen what’s coming up at the end of the millennium,” Curry says. “The gangsta shit is gettin’ old. You can’t just get out there with a fine bitch and a blunt and a 40 [oz.] and work the crowd. That shit’s been played out.”

On the apocalyptic Helter Skelter (not-so-ironically, the working title for the proposed Dr. Dre-Ice Cube collaboration), Curry raps about rebirth, secret master-plans, the here-after, in addition to the usual odes to “Bitchez” and his “Doggs.” There’s also a rhyming legal brief, titled “From Ruthless to Death Row (Do We All Part),” which summarizes Curry’s past nine years: “I rose up quick from the pit/I was in 454 300 Benz/Nothin’ but ends/But friends got me in a cross/Now everything’s lost.”

“I don’t like to toot my own horn, but ‘toot-toot,'” Curry says. “I’m a lyricist f’real. My job at Death Row was to make sure that all the words that came out on the albums were the shit. I’m one of the only people I know who’s meticulous enough to go over every line, every word, to make sure it’s all there.”

Before the Dre-produced No One Can Do It Better hit on Eazy-E’s Ruthless label, the D.O.C. made his name in his new home of Compton as a writer, with early credits including tracks on N.W.A.’s instant blacktop classic, Straight Outta Compton (’88), and Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It (’88).

“I was Eazy’s pen, because he couldn’t write lyrics,” Curry says. “The nigga couldn’t rap, either. Man, he had the worst rhythm.”

Better with numbers than words, Eazy-E turned Ruthless Records–a company he claims to have started with profits from drug dealing–into the hottest label in rap. The strain of violent, sexist “gangsta rap” established the previously ignored South Central scene as the vortex of new harder-edged hip-hop and infiltrated suburbia with tales of drive-by shootings and hooker mutilations.

At the same time, Curry insists, Eazy conducted business as if he were still on the street corner, with a focus on incoming funds and a disregard for paying out what was owed.

“In the hip-hop world, Eazy-E was the personification of evil,” Curry says. “He paid my hospital bill, about $60,000, but he made me pay him back, which is cool, except that I later found out that he paid the bill out of my share of a publishing deal he made for me. The muthafucka used my money and then made me pay him back.”

Curry also tells about the time he traded his publishing rights to Straight Outta Compton, which has sold more than five million copies and counting, for a gold necklace. “I was 19 years old,” Curry says. “I didn’t know about publishing back then, and I didn’t care. I was part of the hottest team in the rap game, and I just wanted to keep makin’ dope records.”

It was Suge Knight–whose Knightlife publishing company hit it big by owning seven tracks on Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme blockbuster–who convinced the D.O.C. and Dr. Dre they were being ripped off by Ruthless. When Knight exacted their release from the label–allegedly giving Eazy-E a choice between a pen in hand or a lead pipe upside the head, according to Eazy-E in Jory Farr’s music-biz insider book Moguls and Madmen–Eazy-E and Ruthless filed a $250 million federal racketeering and extortion lawsuit against Dr. Dre, Curry, Knight, and Griffey. The suit was eventually dismissed, but Knight’s reputation as “the wrong nigga to fuck with” was solidified.

“The four of us had a plan and we set it into motion,” Curry says about the seeds of the partnership. “We used the money from Sony to build that company, and we did everything the right way, only I didn’t get no money, but now I goin’ get it.” He says the last part with a singsong swagger that sounds like one of his old raps.

“I’ve known Suge Knight a long time. Hell, I was even tighter with him than Dre was for a while,” Curry insists, “and to be totally honest with you, the dude ain’t all he’s cracked up to be.”

Now, if Curry can only convince his mother of that.

Dr. Dre met Curry in Dallas in 1987, when Curry was a member of the Fila Fresh Crew and Dre was in town as guest DJ on a weekly rap show hosted by Dr. Rock on KKDA-FM (K104). “Rap was just being born in Dallas, but I’d been rappin’ since I was 13, and I was already real good at the shit,” Curry says. “Dre heard me rap and, he says, ‘If you come to California, nigga, we can make some money.’ Me and Dre just clicked.”

Curry had no qualms whatsoever about leaving a Dallas rap scene that was full of copycats. “When they first came out, Nemesis [Fila Fresh Crew’s crosstown rivals] sounded like they were from Brooklyn or Queens, but then I came back two years later and they sounded like they were from Compton,” Curry says. “I’m a leader, not a follower, so I moved from the projects of West Dallas to the projects of Compton.”

Once in L.A., where he slept on Dre’s couch for the first year, Curry says he was reborn. “In Dallas, I was pretty good, but when I hit Cali I was suddenly the best. I don’t know what happened, but I was un-fucking-touchable.” Indeed, with No One Can Do It Better, the D.O.C. established himself as a raging new talent on the West Coast rap scene. Dr. Dre, who cooked up an awesome stew of live instrumentation and silky soul samples, left no question about who was rap’s best producer.

“Dre is the Quincy Jones of my generation, the complete master of the studio,” Curry says. “Every little sound you hear on his records, the nigga done complexed on for hours. He runs shit through his head a million times before he puts it down.”

Asked if he’s sad that his association with his mentor has apparently ended, Curry says, “It ain’t ever over. You just go through phases of your life when you do fucked-up shit, but the real problem ain’t Dre. In fact, Dre’s the one who’s been telling me that I needed to get a lawyer and go after my money.”

“This shit ain’t hidden,” Curry says of his claim that he was shafted by Death Row. “Everything I’ve been telling you is known by those muthafuckas, but they ain’t gonna say nothing because it ain’t their play. This is Suge’s shit, and what he says, goes.”

According to the lawsuit, Interscope heads Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field, who could not be reached for comment, met privately with Knight and Dre and induced them to breach their partnership with Griffey and Curry, with Iovine calling Griffey “a crook.” Dr. Dre was really the franchise, and Knight was his manager: Interscope saw no need to deal with anyone else.

Suge Knight

“They just wrote me out,” Curry says. “[Suge and Dre] have a gangsta mentality, and that’s not really my mindset. Plus, I was there by myself. I didn’t have no gang with me. I was lost. I didn’t have no voice. I didn’t know what to do, so I just rolled with the punches until I could figure out what to do.”

Curry stuck it out with Death Row, overseeing and writing some lyrics for Dr. Dre’s massively selling The Chronic LP, as well as Snoop Doggy Dogg’s multiplatinum debut Doggystyle. “They were fuckin’ with me, but I got a love for my work, and I wasn’t ready to give it up,” Curry says.

Whenever Curry needed money, he insists, he had to go to Knight, and “Suge wouldn’t give me shit.” When Curry complained and talked about getting a lawyer, he was threatened with bodily harm, according to the suit.

Suge Knight could not be reached for comment, nor could Death Row’s attorney David Kenner, who’s busy defending Snoop Doggy Dogg at his trial for his alleged part in the 1993 shooting death of Philip Woldemariam.

“They intimidated the D.O.C. right out of Los Angeles,” says Joseph Porter, Curry’s attorney. “He was afraid for his life. I’ve been threatened, too. Someone from Death Row told me that bad things happen to people who go up against them, but where does it all stop? When you do evil for a long period of time, it catches up to you, and I think we have an incredible case with stacks of documentation.”

Curry says he’s all the way back, and the accident that took his rapping skills and almost his life was a message from God.

“When I was in that hospital bed,” he recalls, “I’d think back when I was a little kid in Dallas, and I’d pray to God: ‘Please let me be the best. If you do that, I’ll do right and let everybody know that it was you that put me there.’ But after I got there, I reneged on my part of the deal. I was arrogant, and I thought I was invincible.”

The night of the ghastly car accident, Curry says he was stopped by police in Beverly Hills and charged with a DUI. Instead of being arrested and taken to jail to sober up, however, Curry was simply given a ticket and sent on his way. Before driving off, however, he joked with the cops and took pictures of them holding his platinum record. Three hours later, Curry went through the windshield of his car and into what he calls “the edge of darkness.”

“Can you believe those cops letting me go?” he says in that fucked-up voice. “Hey, maybe I should sue them.” Then Curry lets out a gruff guffaw. Irony is not lost on this rapper who was deserted first by his voice, and then by his friends.

 

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Barbara Lynn: True Hero of Texas Music

Posted by mcorcoran on July 6, 2017

Barbara Lynn appears Wednesday, July 12 at Antone’s, with Lou Ann Barton, Marcia Ball and Angela Strehli. This chapter is one of more than 40 profiles in “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” by Michael Corcoran.

“Crazy Cajun” Huey P. Meaux was still working as a barber in Winnie and a DJ on KPAC-AM in Port Arthur, when he started making his name as a record producer and talent scout in the Houston/ Golden Triangle area. His first Top Ten hit was “Let’s Talk About Livin’” by East Texas rockabilly singer Bob Luman in 1960, and Huey was hungry for Meaux.

He’d heard about a left-handed Creole girl who played electric guitar and sang like Guitar Slim’s sister and as soon as he could, Meaux was there at The Palomino Club in Vinton, LA, just across the Texas border, watching Barbara Lynn Ozen fronting the band Bobbie Lynn and Her Idols. Meaux’s jaw dropped when he watched the guitarist pick out leads with her thumb, while strumming with her index finger. Just seeing a female playing an electric guitar was impressive enough back then, but this southpaw had her own style. Then, when the 20-year-old sang with such soul and clarity, the regional music wildcatter knew he’d found his next strike!

The big bonus was that Barbara Lynn, as became her billing, also wrote her own songs, which was very rare for a female singer of the era. While attending Hebert High in Beaumont, Lynn penned such tunes as “Until Then I Suffer,” “Teen Age Blues” and “You’re Losing Me,” based on her own experiences. She’d come up with the title first, then sit in her room for hours writing lyrics and melodies. One day she told her boyfriend Sylvester, whom she’d caught with a roving eye, that if he didn’t watch it, he was going to lose a good thing and a great song just came rolling out.

“You’ll Lose a Good Thing” was Barbara Lynn’s only Top 40 hit, but it was a big one, knocking Ray Charles out of No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1962 and hitting No. 8 on the pop charts. Simple and bluesy, the tune was a ladies’ choice slow dance favorite with an unmistakable New Orleans feel, because that’s where it was recorded, at Cosimo’s studio in the French Quarter. Lloyd Toups set the song’s mood with mournful tenor sax, while piano player Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack pounds a Gulf Coast rhythm.

Follow-up single “Second Fiddle Girl,” which hit No. 63, was the closest Lynn would ever get to the Billboard Pop Top 40 again, though 1963 single “You’re Gonna Need Me” did reach R&B No. 13. Still, calling Lynn, who turned 73 last month, a “one-hit wonder” cheapens her influence. One hit wonders don’t have streets named after them in their hometown, an honor Lynn received three years ago. Every female who ever picked up an electric guitar and fronted a rock or soul band owes a debt to the trailblazer who still lives in the house in Beaumont she had built with her first royalty check ($85,000!). “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” (which lists Meaux as a co-writer) was covered by Aretha Franklin in 1964 and 12 years later taken to No. 1 on the country charts by Freddy Fender.

“There weren’t really any women playing electric guitar that I knew of coming up,” says Lynn, who says she didn’t play guitar on her early records because she wanted to concentrate on singing. “But after I saw Elvis Presley on the TV when I was just a kid, I just wanted to play the guitar so bad.”

She started off with a $10 right-handed ukulele, which she played upside down, but her factory-worker parents eventually saved up enough money to buy her an electric guitar down at Swicegood Music in Beaumont. “They had to special order a left-handed guitar, so I had to wait,” Lynn says. “Longest three months of my life.”

Playing mostly covers of Elvis, Chuck Berry and Brenda Lee, Lynn was the queen of the teen talent shows in the Golden Triangle, often performing with some of the other musically gifted kids in the area, including Johnny and Edgar Winters, Jerry LaCroix and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. The big man in Beaumont back then was guitarist Clarence “Bon Ton” Garlow, who had a couple of Cajun-flavored, minor R&B hits and played guitar for Clifton Chenier. As Lynn would do 20 years later, Garlow moved to Los Angeles after regional success in the Golden Triangle, but came back to Beaumont. The returning local hero got a part-time job as a DJ on East Texas R&B powerhouse KJET-AM and had an eye of discovering talent.

“Clarence Garlow had a little studio there at the corner of Houston and Washington Boulevard,” she recalls, “and he wanted to cut a record on me, but that’s around the time I met Huey Meaux.” After Lynn signed with Meaux’s Starfire label, Garlow and the Crazy Cajun had a falling out, Lynn says.

After Lynn’s first single “Dina and Patrina” failed, “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” didn’t and was quickly picked up by Philadelphia-based Jamie Records. As the bluesy number shot up the charts and led to two appearances on American Bandstand, Lynn’s simple life became wonderfully complicated almost overnight.

“Oh, boy, that was something!” Lynn remembers of the time Beaumont topped Billboard. “I went out on tour with all the big acts – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye. I met Michael Jackson when he was nine years old.” Those package shows could get a little crazy out on the road, with gambling, drugs and sex at every stop, so Lynn’s mother Mildred Richard quit her job at the box factory to look after her daughter, still a choir member of Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church. Other musicians learned that you didn’t have to watch out for just the authorities, but Mildred, or “Mag,” who once interrupted a drug deal and told those boys to “get on away from here” and they did. “My stepdad thought I was too young to go on tour by myself, and he was right,” says Lynn.

A true triple threat, singer/guitarist Lynn wrote 10 of the 12 songs on her debut LP You’ll Lose a Good Thing, and also penned most of the 1964 follow-up LP Sister of Soul, including “Oh! Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin’), which the Rolling Stones covered on their 1965 LP Now!

After recording four singles for Meaux’s Tribe label, circa 1966, which yielded the minor hit “You Left the Water Running” (later covered by Otis Redding), Lynn signed to Atlantic Records. This was the deal she’d been waiting for. But after 1968’s Here Is Barbara Lynn didn’t take off, she was dropped from the label.

There were some big things happening in her life away from music at the time- like marrying an Army man from back home while he was on leave from Vietnam- and Lynn didn’t make another album for 20 years. Instead, she and her husband moved to Houston, where he got a job as a conductor for the Southern Pacific Railroad and they raised a family. Occasionally, Lynn performed in clubs and released singles for Meaux’s R&B label Jetstream that went nowhere, a Jetstream trademark.

In 1975, Lynn and a girl friend went to Las Vegas on vacation and when Barbara hit two jackpots on the slots in two hours, she decided to go on to Los Angeles, while her friend went back to Beaumont. “I wasn’t divorced from my husband, but I needed a fresh start in L.A.,” she says. Her three kids came out to live with her. “When word got around that I’d moved to L.A., I started getting booked at all the chitlin circuit clubs on the West Coast. I’ve never worked an 8- 5 job in my life.”

 

Her estranged husband died of emphysema, and Lynn remarried in L.A., But the singer moved back to Beaumont in ’85 after her second husband died of a heart attack. “I came home to take care of my mother,” says Lynn, but back in Texas, she was tracked down by Port Arthur native Clifford Antone, who gave her an open invitation to play his blues club in Austin whenever she wanted. Lynn told Antone she didn’t have a band and he said to just show up with a guitar and he’d take care of the rest. So a 42-year-old Barbara Lynn took a Greyhound bus from Beaumont to Austin and ended up playing one of the most memorable gigs of her life.

“They knew all my songs,” she says of both the house band and the singing-along crowd. “That shocked me, but then I found out that Lou Ann (Barton) and Sarah Brown and Marcia Ball and Angela (Strehli) had been doing my songs for years.”

Lynn also discovered she had a big following in Japan and was signed to record her first album in 20 years for the Ichiban label in 1988. You Don’t Have To Go stayed in the Gulf Coast, with Lynn’s cover of Lazy Lester’s “Sugar-Coated Love” a standout. She also made it to the soundtrack of John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray, giving legs to “You’ll Lose a Good Thing.” In the ‘90s, she released So Good on Bullseye and took to the road to promote it. Club owners loved Lynn, whose sweet and accommodating personality is the opposite of diva.

Some nice royalty checks came in 2002 when Moby used “I’m a Good Woman,” which Lynn released on Tribe in 1966, as the foundation of “Another Woman” on the platinum LP 18. The latest career uptick was in 2014, when Light In the Attic reissued This Is Barbara Lynn as a vinyl-only release, introducing her to the turntable-crazed hip crowd. When Lynn played a one-off show at the ND venue in Austin in December, the average age of the audience looked to be about 30-35, and that included all the pot-bellied grayhairs who used to see her an Antone’s in the ‘80s.

She started off the set with a cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” with the guitar in her lap like a Fender Pomeranian, and it seemed like it might be one of those walkthrough performances by an aging legend. But then Lynn and the pick-up band went into “I’d Rather Go Blind,” the Etta James song she recorded in 1996 for oldies soul label ITP, and she picked out a lead on the guitar that excited and stung like a goodbye kiss. At age 73, Barbara Lynn has still not lost that good thing.

“Everybody knows her hits like ‘You’ll Lose a Good Thing’ and ‘Oh, Baby, We’ve Got a Good Thing Going,’ but until you see her live, you don’t realize what an incredible guitar player she is,” says Ira Padros, who booked Lynn to play his Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans for 10 straight years. He recalled a rehearsal at the November 2008 tribute to Les Paul at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, where Lynn was playing with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. The side of the stage was full of guitar greats, including James Burton, Slash, Duane Eddy and Lonnie Mack, and after Lynn ripped out the notes from her soul on one lead, percussion was provided by slaps on the forehead.

She may be the sweet grandmother of seven, but when she’s got a guitar in her hands, Barbara Lynn will always be “The Empress of Gulf Coast Soul.”

 

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Blind Willie Johnson chapter cut from new “All Over the Map”

Posted by mcorcoran on July 5, 2017

painting by Olivia Wise

When Jack White of the White Stripes announced at Stubb’s Austin in June 2003, “It’s good to be in Texas, the home of Blind Willie Johnson,” you can be sure that few on hand had ever heard of the gospel blues singer/guitarist from Marlin, who pioneered a ferocity that still lives in modern rock.

The first songs Blind Willie recorded, on a single December day in Dallas in 1927, are more familiar. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” was covered by Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton did “Motherless Children,” Bob Dylan turned Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” into “In My Time of Dying” on his 1962 debut LP and “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down” has been appropriated by everyone from the Grateful Dead to the Staple Singers.

Johnson’s haunting masterpiece “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground),” also recorded in that first session, was chosen by musicologist Alan Lomax for an album placed aboard the Voyager 1 in 1977 on its journey to the ends of the universe. Should aliens happen upon the spacecraft and, with the record player provided, listen to that eerie, moaning, steel-sliding memorial to the Crucifixion, they will know almost as much about Blind Willie Johnson as we do.

Beyond five recording dates from 1927-1930 that yielded 30 tracks- 10 each in Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta- the rough-voiced singer has remained something of a biographical question mark. Just finding his death certificate corrected such misinformation as his dates of birth (1897, not 1902) and death (1945, not ’49).

But finding witnesses who knew Johnson was about as easy as interviewing folks who lived through World War I. Most were dead or too old to remember. Or, like Sam Faye Kelly, the only child of Blind Willie that we know of, they were too young to realize what was going on six, seven decades ago. “I remember him singing here in the kitchen and reciting from the Bible,” said Kelly, who was 72 when I interviewed her in 2003. Kelly, whose mother Willie B. Harris sang backup on Blind Willie’s later records, was back in Marlin, living in the falling-down house at 817 Hunter St. where she was most likely conceived. She passed away in 2005, without ever receiving a penny for her father’s songs and arrangements on albums that have sold many million copies. It’s almost as if her father didn’t exist.

Folks started looking for Blind Willie Johnson when his “John the Revelator” jumped out of Harry Smith’s monumental Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 like a Pentecostal preacher. “Well, who’s that writin’?” B. Willie called out in a fog-cutter bass, with his amen queen Willie B. responding, “John the Revelator.” The repetition of those dissimilar, tent revival voices created a rhythm of dignified hardship, a struggle redeemed by faith. Thumb-picked guitar lines danced around the rough/smooth tension as the devil slid into the back pew. In just three years, Blind Willie Johnson produced a significant body of work that transports the listener from ancient Africa to modern times. The mystery gives the music more pull.

Just as the Book of Revelation was written on a scroll fastened by seven seals, Blind Willie Johnson’s story was one that begged to be unlocked.

He sang in three distinctive voices: the gruff false bass, the soulful natural tenor and through his expressive slide guitar, which often finished verses for him. They were the father, the son and the Holy Ghost of his music, with Johnson a one-man Holy Trinity on the old “lining out” hymn “Dark Was the Night.” His guitar preached and his inner congregation hummed in response.

There are no words in Blind Willie’s version of “Dark,” but lyrics can be found to the Baptist hymn where it originated. It’s about the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested and tormented on the night before the Crucifixion. “Dark was the night and cold was the ground/ On which the Lord was laid/ His sweat like drops of blood ran down/In agony he prayed,” wrote Thomas Haweis in 1792.

It’s a song about the Passion and Blind Willie nailed it on the first take. Basing his soundtrack of Paris, Texas on “Dark,” Ry Cooder called it “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all of American music.”

You have to wonder what Columbia’s Frank B. Walker, who produced the Dallas sessions (which also discovered Washington Phillips), might have been thinking when this fully-formed blind artist came in out of nowhere to lay down that pure, primal sound. Even though Walker had signed blues superstar Bessie Smith in 1923, he probably wasn’t ready for Blind Willie’s wails and moans in that voice from the depths. But that experience probably helped Walker 20 years later when he auditioned and signed Hank Williams to his first recording contract.

Johnson’s initial popularity on Columbia’s 14000-D “race records” series was such that he was one of the only gospel blues artists whose ‘78s were reissued during the Depression (four records on Vocalion in 1935). He recorded 18 months before the debut of the more celebrated Delta blues icon Charley Patton and perfected a slide guitar style with open D tuning that influenced everyone from Robert Johnson and Elmore James to Jimmy Page and Duane Allman. Vocally, you can be sure Patton understudy Chester Burnett took notice of Johnson’s wolflike howl.

And yet by the release of Harry Smith’s gateway drug, Johnson had been known as “the other Blind Willie,” not McTell of “Statesboro Blues” fame. The first to try to expand our knowledge of the gospel blues guitar hero was 24-year-old Samuel Charters (1929-2015), who set out for Texas in 1953 to see what he could find about two bluesmen named Johnson, who made their first records there. But while the icy trail of Robert Johnson, who recorded in San Antonio in 1936 and Dallas the next year, made even hellhounds call it a day, Charters got lucky with the gospel Johnson. Sam and his wife Ann followed leads from Dallas to Beaumont, where they eventually met Blind Willie’s widow Angeline Johnson.

The Charters-produced 1957 album Blind Willie Johnson: His Story (Folkways) reissued more of Johnson’s music, including “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear the Building Down,” which the Grateful Dead called “Samson and Delilah” when they recorded it on 1977’s Terrapin Station. Side one was filled with Johnson’s biography, containing spoken remembrances from people who knew Blind Willie, most prominently Angeline.

Rather than detail what was wrong in some of those eyewitness reports, let’s tell you what we now know to be certain about Blind Willie Johnson, who died in Beaumont at age 48 on Sept. 18, 1945. The truth starts with a 1918 WWI draft registration card which popped up on ancestry.com around 2007. The card’s 21-year-old Willie Johnson lived in Houston’s Fourth Ward, a block east of the red light district nicknamed “The Reservation.”

It seemed unlikely that this Willie Johnson, blind, was Blind Willie Johnson, who had always been identified with Dallas and the area between Temple and Waco. But we know draft card Willie is our guy because the 1935 Temple city directory lists a “Willie Johnson, musician” living at the same 308 S. Fifth St. address as four other children of the man he said was his father in 1918. When Sam Faye was born in 1931, the birth certificate said father Willie was born in Temple. He was actually born at home in Pendleton, just a few miles north of Temple.

Blind Willie’s parents were Dock Johnson and Mary King, married May 2, 1894 in Meridian, Tex., the town closest to the ranch where famed folklorist John A. Lomax grew up. The Johnsons moved about 50 miles south, to Bell County, before Willie Johnson was born.

According to Angeline Johnson, Willie became blind at age 7 when his stepmother threw lye in his face to avenge a beating from his father. Willie B. Harris told Dallas blues fan Dan Williams that her former husband lost his sight by looking at an eclipse of the sun through a piece of broken glass. Whatever the reason, Johnson’s blindness left him two options for survival: beggar or musician.

Johnson was not the first gospel singer to play slide guitar on record. He was beat to the studio by a year and a half by Pittsburgh preacher Edward W. Clayborn and Delta player Sam “Boll Weevil Jackson” Butler. For blues, you can go back to 1923, when Louisville’s Sylvester Weaver recorded “Guitar Rag” (covered by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys as “Steel Guitar Rag” in 1936) for OKeh. Those guys were crafty and talented, but when Blind Willie started playing slide it’s like he invented the dunk. He paired gifts for improvisation and control in a way that’s unsurpassed.

“Anybody who’s ever played the bottleneck guitar with some degree of accomplishment is quoting Blind Willie to this day,” said Austin slide guitarist Steve James.

Johnson grew up one county over from Blind Lemon Jefferson and they often played on opposite street corners in Hearne, according to Adam Booker, the blind Brenham preacher interviewed by Charters in 1955. Yet, Blind Willie sounds little like the first national star of country blues. They played in the same general genre, with religious/ secular lyrics being the core difference, but had their own styles. Jefferson didn’t play the slide. And Johnson didn’t make the people dance like Blind Lemon did.

Together, apart, these two black, blind icons from Central Texas led the way in the country blues guitar field (religion optional). They taught, through example, Rev. Gary B. Davis and Mance Lipscomb, who each brought songs from the BWJ canon to the ‘60s folk revival.

 

Blind Willie and Wash Phillips

Mississippi has its Delta and in Texas the blues cradle was the basin lands between the Brazos and Trinity Rivers, east of Dallas and north of Houston. Besides Jefferson and Johnson came Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas (Big Sandy), Texas Alexander (Jewett), Lillian Glinn (Hillsboro), Lightnin’ Hopkins (Centerville), Frankie Lee Sims (Marshall) and Mance Lipscomb (Navasota), as did gospel acts the Soul Stirrers (Trinity), Pilgrim Tavelers (Cleveland), F.W. McGee (Hillsboro) and Wash Phillips (Simsboro).

The busy season for corner singers was when the cotton came in and the streets were full of folks ready to party. Such money-making opportunities took Johnson to Hearne, Marlin, Brenham and Navasota, as well as the big cities. Because he was blind, he rode the train at reduced fare, if he had to pay at all. “Play us that ‘Titanic’ song!” was probably enough to carry Blind Willie wherever he wanted to go. His mentor Blind (Madkin) Butler of Hearne taught Willie “God Moves On the Water,” according to Mack McCormick, but it was the younger man who took it someplace out of this world.

We know he was wed to a woman named Mary Brown in San Antonio in 1932. A blurb in the Shiner News has Johnson playing the New Jerusalem Baptist Colored Church in Oct. 28, noting that there would be “reserved seats for white people.” He played the Hippodrome in NYC in 1938 according to a review. But there are few other traces left behind after his final recording session in April 1930.

In the 1945 Beaumont city directory, Johnson is listed as a Reverend living at the House of Prayer at 1440 Forest. According to his death certificate later that year, Johnson died from malarial fever, with syphilis and blindness as contributing factors.

But Angeline Johnson painted an even bleaker picture of Willie Johnson’s final days. She told Charters that her husband died from pneumonia after sleeping on wet newspapers the night after a fire. His life could’ve been saved, she said, except he was refused service at the hospital because he was black and blind. But such a scenario was “highly unlikely…,” said McCormick, who had worked in a Houston emergency room in the Jim Crow era of legalized discrimination. “He would not have been turned away.”

The “malarial fever” cause of death seemed strange for East Texas and led many to believe Angeline Johnson’s pneumonia story. But before penicillin became available to the public in the late ‘40s, doctors sometimes treated degenerative syphilis with injections of malaria. The high body temperatures could sometimes kill the syphilis bacteria, but the downside was that many- as high as 25%- of those treated died from malarial fever.

This many years later, the cause of death is unimportant. What he did with a guitar and a blessed bellow is all that matters. The music’s so supercharged with self-expression that the truth is right there for all to hear.

That’s why Alan Lomax chose “Dark Was the Night” to represent the human spirit on the “Golden Record” aboard Voyager 1, which continues its journey to the galaxy’s back yard. The interstellar space probe left the solar system in 2012 and continues its mission to find intelligent life in other planetary systems.

Should that record ever be played, beings billions and billions of miles away will know that the people of Earth are a spiritual people, that we hurt and we heal. We do indeed have souls that live long after we’re buried.

 

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The Swan Song of the Austin Moser Awards

Posted by mcorcoran on June 29, 2017

Margaret Moser recognized by SIMS Foundation director Heather Alden at the Austin Music Awards during SXSW on March 12, 2014.

Story originally published March 2014 on Arts & Labor blog.

I sometimes refer to the Austin Music Awards as the Austin Moser Awards and it wasn’t a jab so much as the truth. Margaret Moser’s Olympic-sized personality dominates every aspect of the proceedings. Her graciousness is reflected by the vast number of categories and her almost cornball sense of family carries over to her loyal crew – hippies in tuxedos, barmaids in bouffants, old friends in sparkled gowns. I’ve long called the AMAs the prom for the Austin Music Scene and have been quick to mock its smalltown nature in the midst of the music industry’s biggest week. But to tell you the truth, it’s the one thing during SXSW I have almost never missed.

There’s just no atmosphere anywhere quite like the Austin Music Awards. The awards show used to be the Austin music scene’s biggest night until SXSW started five years in and slowly began to tower over Moser’s event like the condos around the Broken Spoke.

But SXSW didn’t change much, if anything, about the AMAs, except that superstars like Bruce Springsteen and Pete Townshend, in town to keynote, took the stage in surprise appearances. Certain bookings, like Okkervil River backing Roky Erickson in 2009 or Moser’s old beau John Cale joining Alejandro Escovedo, would bring in the badgeholders, but the AMAs have remained a mainly local event. This is the traditional last chance for everyone who kept Austin music going for 361 days of the year to have one last hug before the invasion.

Moser’s broad musical taste – she’s both a careful historian and a giddy booster for kiddie bands – is manifested by her bookings. At the March 12 awards show, for instance, the stage of the Convention Center’s Austin Ballroom will hold everyone from the Texas Tornados to the Young Bloods Choir of musicians’ kids like William Harries Graham and Marlon Sexton.

And, as always, there will be a beaming Margaret, with her hair piled high, making everybody feel special.

This is the last year the Austin Music Awards will feel like it has for the past 31, as Margaret Moser is stepping down as director/queen. And in May, she’ll retire as staff writer at the Austin Chronicle, a position she’s held since the paper’s inception in 1981. Margaret was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer in February last year and began chemo the week after last year’s awards show. She needs to concentrate full time on her health.

Next year there needs to be a new category at the AMAs, the Margaret Moser Award for music community service. It’s hard to specify just what Margaret has given to the musicians and the fans of this town, but when you meet her you know Austin is a special place.

She’s flawed – who isn’t? – but she’s managed to turn a negative, caring too much about stuff that doesn’t mean shit (celebrity, gossip), into a positive by crafting ways to make it interesting. In this regard, Margaret and I have always been kindred spirits. But we’re sometimes an estranged brother and sister; after all, I took over her popular column at the Austin Chronicle in 1984 and she took my best friend.

When I started to work at the Statesman in 1995, coming from the Dallas Morning News, certain folks at the Austin Chronicle saw it as a betrayal. The Statesman’s new Thursday entertainment tab XL was in direct competition with the Chron. We spent a couple years messing with each other, sometimes in good-natured kidding and sometimes in all-out war. Once I left a notebook behind somewhere and Margaret went through it and found my idea to start a column at the Statesman called “Austin Confidential.” I didn’t know this until months later. But I ditched the idea when I was watching Moser’s access TV show “Check This Action” and she introduced a new segment called “Austin Confidential.” It was something we laughed about later.

In 1996, things heated up and got a little mean. I had written a piece about “The SXSW Keynote Jinx,” which was in the wake of maiden keynoter, producer Huey Meaux’s, arrest for having sex with a slew of underage females. It was a low blow on my part. Someone at the Chronicle, either Margaret or one of the young writers she controlled, dug up some quotes from an old Chron where I proclaimed Meaux as my new idol, marveling that such an elder was always accompanied by young women. My cheeks were on fire. They got me good.

But that same night, I struck back. I was covering the awards show for the newspaper and on the way out to make my deadline, I encountered a young musician carrying a couple of winner plaques. He was known for his cynicism and when we joked about the awards, he noted an incident at the most recent Grammys when Eddie Vedder’s acceptance speech was about how little the arbitrary recognition really means in the whole scheme of things. “After he said that, Pearl Jam probably sold a million records,” said the musician. “But these awards,” holding out his AMAs, “really don’t mean anything.”

I used that quote to end the article and the next time I ran into the musician he said Moser had called him that morning in tears.

Hell of a thing to do to the person that helped get you started in this town, but competition makes me a little crazy. When Margaret and I went at it, it was kinda like a brother and a sister unloading on each other at the Thanksgiving dinner table. There was love at the bottom of all the pettiness.

The first thing I wrote for the Chronicle, two months after moving here in 1984, was a mostly-negative review of Joe Ely (backed by the jazz band Passenger) at the T-Bird Riverfest, which was then the biggest annual concert in town. I sent it in, completely unsolicited, and it sat on editor Louis Black’s desk for a couple days. He had no intention of running it. But Margaret read it and insisted. I was pleasantly shocked when the Chron came out the next week and there was my review. And a couple days later came a letter telling me off. I still remember the first paragraph: “HORSESHIT!”

I introduced Margaret to my roommate Rollo Banks, figuring there might be a love connection, and five months later they were married. While on their extended honeymoon in Hawaii, where Rollo still had a tattoo shop, I subbed on Margaret’s “In One Ear” column and basically became the opposite of her. She wrote nice things about the bands, I made fun of them. And my approach became instantly popular. “Margaret’s column says ‘fuck me,’,” I’d tell people. ‘My column says ‘fuck you’.” I talked about myself a lot back then.

Margaret still thinks that I orchestrated the whole thing to take over her column, but that’s not true. Only because I didn’t think of it. It just so happened that Margaret now had a husband (they stayed together a few years) and didn’t want to go out anymore. I was new to town and didn’t want to stay home. I called my column “Don’t You Start Me Talking.”

The day Margaret was going to move into Rollo’s apartment, we got a truck and went to her dilapidated duplex on Red River near First at about 9 in the morning. When me and Rollo got there, we heard laughter from outside. Margaret and her friend E.A. were sitting in the middle of the living room, around a pile of posters, letters, postcards and all sorts of rock flotsam and jetsam. There was not a box packed. The girls had stayed up all night, their last as sister groupies, reminiscing.

Rollo was livid and slammed the door behind him. “Call me when you’re ready!” We came back around 4 hours later and the whole place was packed up and ready to go. Margaret was apologetic. She just got carried away by all the memories.

That’s how this year’s Austin Music Awards will be for many. A hundred awards will be given out, but the night will be about the one person who kept the show going on these years. For Margaret it’ll be a time to recollect all the memories, but for the rest of us it’ll be a thanks for those she’s created.

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Washington Phillips, a son of freed slaves, created sacred porch songs for the ages

Posted by mcorcoran on June 12, 2017

Wash Phillips circa 1950

by Michael Corcoran
The mystery of Washington Phillips begins the first time you hear his sweetly-sung Christian blues, bathed in a celestial haze of notes from an instrument that sounds like a child’s music box. For me that was in 1999, when Phillips’ mournful, moralistic “Mother’s Last Word To Her Daughter” on a knock-off compilation of 1920’s black church singers knocked me out. His music is a simple prayer, with the blessing in the asking, the singing, the playing. But his ethereal sound is also intricately developed to the point of being almost psychedelic. From what background did this completely original artist emerge fully formed?

His grandfather, also named Washington Phillips, was a slave, born in Kentucky in 1801 and most likely ”sold down the river” to a Texas landowner in the 1850s, along with his wife Ann and teenaged sons Austin, Houston and Tim. Not long after they were emancipated on “Juneteenth,” June 19, 1865, the Phillips men started buying farmland in the freedmen’s community of Simsboro, about 80 miles southeast of Dallas.

Both Tim and Houston Phillips had sons they named after their father, who lived to be 81. The oldest grandson, Tim’s boy “Little Wash,” was born in 1880 and went on to record for Columbia Records from 1927-29.

Houston’s son Washington Phillips, born in 1891, was a farmer who went crazy, was committed to the Texas State Hospital in Austin in 1930 and died there eight years later.

When the haunting spirituals of Washington Phillips were first made available on CD in 1991 with I Am Born To Preach the Gospel (Yazoo), the liner notes incorrectly based biographical information on the death certificate of the cousin who died in the state asylum at age 47. The Washington Phillips who recorded such distinctive gospel tunes as “Denomination Blues,” What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” and “Paul and Silas In Jail” lived until 1954, when he died at age 74 after a fall down the stairs at the city hall in Teague, the nearest town to Simsboro.

I stumbled upon this case of mistaken identity in 2002 when I was a music critic for the Austin American Statesman and used the Austin death of the “wrong” Washington Phillips as a local connection that would justify a lengthy profile of an intriguing gospel obscurity.
Another bit of misinformation passed on was that Phillips backed himself on a dolceola, a rare “portable grand piano” produced only from 1903-1908 in Toledo, OH. What a weird tale this was, a preacher with a head full of voices playing heavenly tunes on a doomed miniature keyboard!

But the dolceola theory has also been discredited, once and for all, by a recently-discovered article which ran in the Teague Chronicle in November 1907. Under the headline “A Unique Instrument,” the brief detailed “a negro in town, named George Washington Phillips,” who played music from “a box about 2 X 3 feet, 6 inches deep, and which he has strung violin strings, something on the order of an autoharp…He uses both hands and plays all sorts of airs.” The 27-year-old Phillips called his homemade instrument a “Manzarene,” the article said. East Texas had never seen or heard anything like Washington Phillips, who dropped the “George” as his grandfather and cousin did. Sixty years after his death, the world still hasn’t heard anything like the 18 tracks this son of freed slaves recorded in Dallas on five December days from 1927-29.

Washington Phillips was the sixth of 11 children born to  Tim Phillips (b. Kentucky 1843) and Nancy Cooper Phillips (b. Tennessee 1848), who were married in 1867. The family lived on a farm in Simsboro whose ownership can be traced to Dr. James Wills, the great grand-uncle of Western swing king Bob Wills (born in nearby Kosse). According to Freestone County deed documents, James Wills sold “Abstract 217” in 1854 to H.M. Ewing, who sold it to James McMillan just before the Civil War.

In 1870, Tim and Houston went in together on 320 acres, purchased for $240 from neighbor McMillan, head of one of the last few white families in Simsboro. Their older brother Austin (b. 1838) and wife Drucilla bought their first parcel in 1867 and accumulated 203 acres over the next two decades. Land was freedom to the ex-slaves. Music was just something you sang and played to lighten the burden.

Prejudice has long been the social soot in the farming community of Freestone County, where slaves surpassed the number of whites, about 3,600 to 3,200, in 1860. From 1850 to 1860, the decade the Phillips family is believed to have relocated from Kentucky (because of place of birth information on the children), the slave population of Texas grew from 58,161 to 182,556, as white planters fled south and west to keep their slaves from deserting and joining the Union Army.

Kentucky was one of the northern slave states known for “stocking and raising” slaves for sale to the southern states after the transatlantic slave trade was discontinued in 1808, according to Michael Tadman’s seminal 1996 book Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders and Slaves in the Old South.

Wash’s family took the Phillips name from the plantation they worked on, according to an 85-year-old Earl Phillips, the grandson of Wash Phillips’ uncle Austin. Earl served as the family historian in 2002 when I interviewed him by phone from Denver, but like so many elderly witnesses from 13 years ago, he’s passed on since. Earl told me his great-grandfather Washington Phillips was owned by the men named Karner and Phillips, who founded Mexia’s Karner-Phillips department store. But I originally dismissed that info because Karner-Phillips wasn’t established until 1878. There were a few bits of Earl’s family history disputed by public records, so everything had to be independently verified.

Reading the 1860 Slave Schedules for Freestone County with my index finger, however, it shows that a John Karner owned slaves whose ages (names weren’t listed) roughly matched the elder Washington Phillips (60), his wife Ann (45), sons Houston (20) and Tim (17) and daughters Katy (12) and Susan (6). Patriarch Phillips was actually 59 and Houston 19, but it wasn’t uncommon for census takers of the time to round up ages, especially for African-Americans, who often didn’t know their own birthdays.

A native of Bavaria, Karner stowed away to the land of opportunity as a teenager and fought with Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto that brought Texas independence in 1836. Later, known as “Dutch John,” the Indian fighter, Karner was given land for his service and he also bought up parcels around his grant- 65 properties in all- in the 1850s. According to deed documents kept at the Freestone County clerk’s office in Fairfield, some of his dealings were with a man named Frank A. Phillips, who may have owned the plantation Earl Phillips told me about, but I was unable to find any other information to back that up. A 1860 county agricultural report said there were seven plantations of over 500 acres in Freestone County, where cotton was king and corn was queen, but didn’t name any of them.

When the Civil War broke out and Freestone County voted 585-3 to secede from the Union, Karner joined the Confederate Army. His slave quarters were empty soon after he came home in defeat. On June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Union Army General Gordon Granger read the order that proclaimed slaves were free men and women.

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

Although Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865 ended the Civil War, it took awhile for the Union Army to come to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.

“Juneteenth was always a big day for Wash Phillips,” said Doris Foreman Nealy, a retired nursing school instructor who grew up on a farm next to Phillips “He’d dig a pit and slaughter a hog and cook it all day.”

Juneteenth, the oldest statewide celebration commemorating the end of slavery, was sponsored in Simsboro by the Magnolia Burial Club and held in the grassy picnic area common to all three black churches: Hogie Primitive Baptist, Wesley Tabernacle A.M.E. and Mount Pleasant Trinity Baptist Church. Phillips was acquainted with the pulpits at all three and often led the preaching and singing, Nealy said..

That Phillips was well-versed in the varying beliefs and customs of different churches is evident in “Denomination Blues,” the song which forged a  bond with the counterculture crowd when it was discovered on a blues compilation in the 1960s and covered by Ry Cooder on 1972’s Into the Purple Valley. Coyly denouncing hypocrisy in organized religion, Phillips mocks six different black denominations before launching into the verse: “You can go to college, you can go to school/ But if you ain’t got Jesus, youse a educated fool.” On the second part of “Denomination,” Phillips hits harder, singing of preachers who “think they’re doing well” and that “all they want is your money and you can go to hell.”

Wash Phillips was a product of post-slavery black America, when blues and gospel music were next door to each other- like a liquor store and a church on many a ghetto street- and yet spiritually an ocean apart. Not only were blacks separate from whites, they were divided amongst each other as sinners and saints. Then once again in church, split between the mainstream Baptist and Methodist denominations and the screeching, pounding “holy rollers” of the Pentecostal sect.

But Phillips, an unordained “jack leg preacher,” wasn’t made for those categorical times. “He was just so different from everyone else,” said Nealy. As a younger man, Wash would roam Freestone County on Sundays to sing and testify at Pentecostal and African Methodist Episcopal services. The 1930 U.S. Census found him living in Dallas, occupation “Holiness minister.”  But later in his life he settled into his role as Rev. Wash Phillips at the Pleasant Hill Trinity Baptist Church, just down the road from his 87-acre farm. “He was an enlightened person,” his second cousin Earl Phillips said in 2002, recalling that the singing farmer/preacher smelled of linament oil and made herbal remedies that he sold from his mule cart, along with plums and ribbon cane syrup.  

I Am Born to Preach the Gospel and I Sure Do Love My Job

The lyrical distaste found in “Denomination Blues” and “The Church Needs Good Deacons” was perhaps born from too many Sundays waiting to be called to the pulpit while less-pious men with degrees spewed their pretentious babble. But his former neighbors said he didn’t carry the same bitterness about a promising musical career that didn’t happen. None of the half-dozen former Simsboro residents I interviewed were even aware that Wash Phillips had ever made a record. Nobody from back home knew that one of his songs “You Can’t Stop a Tattler” was covered by Linda Ronstadt on her platinum-selling 1976 LP Hasten Down the Wind. Royalties never rolled his way, because no one knew anything about this Washington Phillips, who could’ve come from anywhere.

When the Teague Chronicle ran an article about Phillips’ death on Sept. 20, 1954, there was mention of the mule cart, but not the musical career. They didn’t even get his name or age right, calling him Wash Williams, 77. But posterity holds Phillips in high regard.

Calling the music of Washington Phillips “the absolute height of rural originality,” musicologist Garry Harrison wrote in his fretlesszithers.com blog in 2005 that, “It would have been unusual enough if he had merely acquired and learned to play a fretless zither, an instrument with virtually no known performance tradition. But it appears that what (Phillips) did was to re-configure two fretless zithers, to expand the range of both the melody and accompaniment sections… and then to become a highly skilled player on his creation, producing other-worldly tones unlike those made by any other instrument.” While playing two zithers simultaneously, one hand for the chords and one hand for the melody, this self-made virtuoso also sang in a vulnerable, penetrating voice of faith.

From the Teague Chronicle 1907

Washington Phillips recorded 18 sides for Columbia in five sessions in Dallas, from Dec. 1927 to Dec. 1929. His first three ‘78s- all released in 1928- registered his best sales, topping off with 8,725 copies of the debut “Take Your Burden To the Lord and Leave It There” b/w “Lift Him Up That’s All.” But then came the Stock Market Crash in Sept. 1929 and suddenly food became a bigger priority than buying downhome gospel blues records at 75 cents per. Forty-seven when he made his first recordings, Phillips was washed-up by 50. By the time Sister Rosetta Tharpe changed “Denomination Blues” to “That’s All” and had a secular hit with it backed by Lucky Millinder’s orchestra in the early ‘40s (the first record on which she played electric guitar), Phillips had completely recessed into the country life.

But there’s too much talent and originality in Phillips’ music for it not to eventually find an audience and what Cooder revived continues to grow slowly. A swell in interest in the zither-playing preacher came when his song “Mother’s Last Word To Her Son” wove a spiritual thread through We Need To Talk About Kevin, the 2011 Tilda Swinton film about a school massacre. Covers of Phillips songs by the likes of Vince Gill, Mogwai, Phish, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch, Rodney Crowell and Mavis Staples continue to bring attention, while many more musicians are content to listen and be inspired by the true artist who created against all odds.

 

 

“Leave it there, oh leave it there,” he sang in that sweet tenor of the truth. “Take your burden to the lord and leave it there.” Sometimes it can be as simple as that, knowing when and where to let go. Sometimes 18 songs is the whole shot.

The three men named George Washington Phillips- the grandfather from Kentucky and his grandsons from Freestone County- are buried in the Cotton Gin Cemetery in the countryside six miles west of Teague. But several searches of the “colored” side could locate only two tombstones. That the Washington Phillips who was gospel’s great disappearing act would take his eternal rest in an unmarked grave seems about par for this course in music history.

The great musician didn’t die in the state asylum. And his instrument was not a dolceola. It never really mattered what he played- it doesn’t change the music he left behind. But it’s comforting to know, that the singer who has affected so few people so profoundly, didn’t live out his last few years in mental torment, but surrounded by the people who knew and respected him for who he was.

 

 

 

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Hear Jimmy LaFave sing “In My Life” (John Lennon)

Posted by mcorcoran on May 24, 2017

      1. 07 In My Life

On Oct. 9, 2000, which would’ve been John Lennon’s 60th birthday, Jody Denberg hosted a tribute concert at the KGSR studios. On Facebook, Marsha Milam posted about how Jimmy LaFave just walked in, asked Jody which songs were left (Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin and many other acts were involved) and when he found that “In My Life” hadn’t been claimed, LaFave walked up to the stage, without rehearsal, and sang this number.

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Still Freewheelin’: Happy 76th birthday Bob Dylan

Posted by mcorcoran on May 24, 2017

The best Bob Dylan show I ever saw, will ever see, was in November 1995 at the Austin Music Hall. This was not long after his friend Jerry Garcia died from substance abuse-related causes, and Dylan seemed sharper, more in-the-moment, than the barely coherent legend I saw at the Chicago Theater a couple years earlier. I distinctly remember his great guitar playing on “Silvio” that night in Austin, when he was joined onstage near the end by opening act Ian Moore and Charlie Sexton. The next night was also great, with old friends Doug Sahm and Ray Benson sitting in.

This was the article I wrote for the Statesman to advance the AMH show.

DYLAN COMING TO AUSTIN MUSIC HALL

Someone once asked Pete Townshend of the Who what effect Bob Dylan had on him. “That’s like asking me how I was influenced by being born,” Townshend said.

In a conversation about Dylan in the late ’60s, John Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine, “I used to write a book or stories on one hand and write songs on the other. I’d be completely free-form in the book, but when I went to write a song I’d be thinking `dee duh dee duh do dooo, do de do de doo.’ And it took Dylan to say `Oh, come on now, they’re the same thing.”’

Dylan and the Band debuted in Austin in 1965

You wanted to laugh when you first heard it, but then you started listening to what that voice was saying, and you didn’t laugh. You changed and started noticing things, such as all the black maids waiting to catch buses to the rich part of town. Or you looked beyond the daily Vietnam body count on the news and saw the faces of dying youths. You started asking questions.

Bob Dylan is the most important musician of the 20th century because he changed a generation’s way of thinking and forged a literary style of rock that is still vital 35 years after Robert Zimmerman boarded a Greyhound bus in Minneapolis, and Bob Dylan stepped off in New York City. To give you an idea of how much younger musicians look up to Dylan, two recent hits (Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones” and Hootie and the Blowfish’s “I Only Wanna Be With You”) were based on Dylan songs, as if those works have become ingrained into America’s emotional landscape.

He took his name from poet Dylan Thomas, but in his early days on the Greenwich Village folk circuit, Dylan was styled after Woody Guthrie, whom he’d often visit in the hospital where the pioneering protest singer was wasting away with Huntington’s disease. Steeped in the folk tradition of stealing out of respect, young Dylan did Guthrie right down to the Huck Finn cap and the penchant for talking blues.

From the Beats, especially Jack Kerouac, Dylan found an undercurrent of jacked-up expression to tap into. But on his second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” the 22-year-old established himself as a major talent in his own right with such moving compositions as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” In his nasal, stretched-out voice, Dylan wiped the likes of Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell off the face of the earth.

Critics often trace the roots of punk back to the Velvet Underground, but that band’s leader, Lou Reed, was a cheesy pop songwriter until Dylan came around to meld poetry with popular music. The song that probably triggered the punk- rock tradition was “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which, truth be told, was inspired by Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.” What Dylan brought to Berry’s rapid-fire wisecracks was a streetwise swagger and a sound as exuberant and dangerous as a bus speeding downhill with arms sticking out of all the windows.

The year was 1965, when Dylan was booed by the folk Nazis of Newport because he came out with an electric band and snarled holes into the kumbaya night as he spit out “Johnny’s in the basement/ mixin’ up the medicine/ While I’m on the pavement/ thinkin’ ’bout the government,” as the band plugged into the audience’s hostility and flailed away. That was a great punk-rock moment, nine years before the Ramones first counted off “1-2-3- 4” at that bar in the Bowery called C.B.G.B.’s. Rage and release are the cufflinks of punk, and Dylan’s early rock material remains some of the most snarling music ever made. The lyrics didn’t always follow some apparent meaning, but just hearing them, you know exactly what they’re about.

The generation whose voice was Dylan’s has grown old and had kids and sought comfort where adventure once reigned. And for a while, Dylan did, too, performing infrequently from his alleged 1966 motorcycle accident until his born-again Christian period in the late ’70s. As evidenced by Dylan’s 1984 appearance on the David Letterman show, backed by L.A. punk band the Plugz, the singer-songwriter has opted for a rawer sound during his last 10 years of almost nonstop touring.

Sometimes Dylan’s stripped-down approach works great, as with the recent “MTV Unplugged” segment and subsequent album. Plus, recent reviews have been raving about Dylan’s creative rejuvenation of late. With an ever-changing repertoire (“Drifter’s Escape,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “All Along the Watchtower” and a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Alabama Getaway” seem to be the only constants) and a solid, unflashy band in drummer Winston Watson, bassist Tony Garnier, guitarist John Jackson and steel guitarist Bucky Baxter, this season’s edition of a Dylan concert is purported to be a winner.

This is good news to fans who’ve followed Dylan’s inconsistencies lately. Like Frank Sinatra, who was tagged for forgetting the words of his signature tunes on his latest tour, Dylan has good days, when his dark genius shines through, and he has bad days, when the audience is forced to play “name that tune.” Such standards as “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Just Like a Woman” have been rendered almost unrecognizable with Dylan’s mumbling and aimless rearranging.

But then, as with Sinatra, there’s no denying the powerful presence of Dylan, even on an off night. He’s Bob Dylan, whose music touched and helped change the world, and to many fans, that’s enough.

Throughout his startling career, Dylan has often been two people simultaneously: the folky and the rocker, the hedonist and the moralist, the Christian and the Jew, the imitator and the original, the gypsy and the sofa lump, the center of attention and the pained recluse. And now he’s the living legend who plays the kind of joints that Natalie Merchant plays. But that’s how he seemingly wants it, plugging in with his overachieving garage band and rolling down Highway 61 one more time.

Off the road, he’s just another schlub at home, taping “Larry Sanders” and cooking spaghetti. But on the stage — any stage — he’s Bob Dylan, the greatest songwriter of the rock era. On tour, he gets to be Bob Dylan all day long, and can you blame him for wanting that?

BOB DYLAN WITH THE IAN MOORE BAND

WHEN: 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday

WHERE: Austin Music Hall

HOW MUCH: $29-$32

INFORMATION: 416-7827

(from box)

Dylan: The essential recordings

1. “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (1963). Dylan’s self-titled debut consisted mostly of reworked traditional numbers, but this follow-up was filled with powerful originals such as “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “Masters Of War” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” All hail the new songwriting genius.

2. “The Times They Are A-Changin”’ (1964). More future classics including the title track, which still serves as the anthem of the turbulent ’60s, “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

3. “Bringing It All Back Home” (1965). Dylan goes electric on the first side of this album, offering up “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm,” among others, but then ends the album with a string of his greatest acoustic songs, including “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” If you can afford only one Bob Dylan album … you need to find a better-paying job.

4. “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965). The title track is perhaps Dylan’s most electrifying number, and this album ends with what could be his darkest tune, “Desolation Row.” This is a record of extremes, with the classic first track, “Like a Rolling Stone,” leading into the snarling “Tombstone Blues.”

5. “Blonde On Blonde” (1966). This double album generally is regarded as Dylan’s greatest recorded triumph, but that’s mainly because it had twice as much music, because everything Dylan did during the amazingly prolific ’65-’66 period was absolutely brilliant.

6. “John Wesley Harding” (1968). It was the height of ’60s freakdom. The Beatles just had made “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” while the Stones were working their bit of weirdness with “Her Satanic Majesty’s Request.” Meanwhile Dylan bucked the trend by making an album of acoustic moral parables. You’ll find “Drifter’s Escape,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” on this one.

7. “Blood On the Tracks” (1974). Dylan’s latterday masterpiece opens with the enduring “Tangled Up in Blue” and just keeps on rolling through material such as “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” Don’t call it a comeback!

8. “Infidels” (1983). After his puzzling, yet not altogether meritless born-again period, Dylan launched this return to Philistine-like prowess. “Neighborhood Bully,” an indictment of U.S. foreign policy, rocks hard, while “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” and “Sweetheart Like You” are tuneful emotional workouts.

9. “Oh Mercy” (1989). Producer Daniel Lanois gave Dylan a textured bedrock sound that inspired such groove-oriented tunes as “Political World” and “Everything’s Broken.” Never before has a producer’s stamp been so evident on a Dylan album, but one can’t argue with the results.

10. “The Bootleg Series” (1991). This three-disc set shows that Dylan’s throwaways and unused tracks are better than almost anyone else’s keepers. It’s amazing that “Blind Willie McTell,” recorded 10 years earlier, never made it on an album until now.

 

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‘All Over the Map’ Dedication: Stephen Bruton

Posted by mcorcoran on May 9, 2017

Stephen Bruton, T Bone Burnett and Flex Fleming, Fort Worth circa 1964.

One Saturday, every Saturday, in Fort Worth, 1960: A pair of 12-year-olds in the T.H. Conn music store messing around with the various stringed instruments hanging from the walls. The shorter of the kids always went back to his favorite guitar, a beat-up Epiphone Texan acoustic, which had the sweetest tone he’d ever heard. Finally, he brought it over to owner Woods Moore, and they talked for a while, with Moore scratching his chin before agreeing to a deal. “Stephen got that guitar for about half of what it was worth,” T Bone Burnett recalled in 2009 of his smooth-talking friend, musician Stephen Bruton. “He took it home on the city bus in a brown paper wrapper.”

Five decades later, the lifelong friends earned critical raves for their original film score to Crazy Heart, which got Jeff Bridges his Oscar as a washed-up country singer with one good song left in him. “This film has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” said Burnett, who was one of the movie’s producers in addition to sharing music supervisor credit with Bruton. “When we won the L.A. Film Critics award, it was so sad for Stephen to not be there. This was really his film. I turned the music over to him.” Austin music mentor Bruton died at 60 in May 2009 at Burnett’s home in Los Angeles after a 2 1/2-year battle with throat cancer. Burnett and director Scott Cooper screened Crazy Heart for Bruton about two weeks before he died.

“We just set out to do something really good, and Stephen knew we had done that,” said Burnett, whose wife Callie Khouri based the Nashville TV series character Deacon Clayborn on Bruton. A recovering alcoholic, Bruton made some really good records under his own name, but thrived mostly in the shadows. He had looks and ambition, but his talents were as guitar player, songwriter, producer.

Stephen Bruton photo by Todd V. Wolfson.

After leaving Cowtown for good in the early ’70s, Burnett and Bruton took separate career paths, with Bruton plying the guitarist trade with Kris Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt, among other notables. Burnett made his name as a producer with the first Los Lobos record, Elvis Costello’s King of America, Gillian Welch’s Revival and other fantastic records, but he really shot into the stratosphere as a producer with the multiplatinum touch on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in 2000 and then seven years later topped it with Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

As a guitarist/songwriter for hire, Bruton was sometimes frustrated that his oldest friend, now a music industry mogul, wouldn’t throw much work his way. But T Bone said he was just waiting for the perfect project. “When Crazy Heart was a go, Stephen was the first person I called,” he said in 2009. I visited with Bruton while he was undergoing treatment for cancer in 2007. He was going to beat it, no two ways about it. He was a South Austin Superman, able to resuscitate an ailing club called the Saxon Pub, not to mention the careers of Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Alejandro Escovedo, and the livers of hundreds he helped get sober. In his home studio, Bruton had a picture on a music stand of him playing guitar with Brownsville native Kris Kristofferson for the first time, in 1971 at the Lion’s Share in San Rafael, California. Bruton was 20 and Kristofferson was on a Jimmy Webb-like songwriting tear that included “For the Good Times,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Me and Bobby McGee” in quick succession.

The two had met in Fort Worth a couple years earlier and when a spot opened in his band, Kristofferson asked Bruton if he was interested in playing the guitar. “Man, that’s all I’m interested in.” Stephen ended up playing with Kris for 17 years. Playing with Raitt was his main gig in the early ‘90s, but then Bruton came off the road to write songs, produce records (After Awhile by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Gravity by Alejandro Escovedo) and play his own gigs. At age 40, he became a first-time frontman. And the star of meetings in the basements of Protestant churches. The night he died, I was on the phone with Kristofferson to write the obit. He talked about proudly watching the hotshot guitar-playing kid become a man. “When my son was going through some hard times, Stephen was there to help him get sober,” said Kristofferson, on the verge of breaking down.

It was good karma for what Kris had done for an insecure songwriter decades earlier. “Kris was always so encouraging,” said Bruton in 2007. His confidence grew when he co-wrote the title track of Kristofferson’s 1972 album Border Lord, but Bruton’s greatest writing thrill when Raitt and Willie Nelson sang a duet of “Getting Over You” on Willie’s terrific 1993 LP Across the Borderline. Between T Bone and Kristofferson was Delbert McClinton, who was Bruton’s running buddy in the ’60s, when a teenaged Stephen and his older brother Sumter III were guitarists in the house band of a Fort Worth juke joint called the Bluebird. Their father, a jazz drummer, owned the hippest record store in Fort Worth, and the Bruton brothers soaked up all that rhythm and blues. In McClinton, who would later teach John Lennon how to play blues harmonica, Bruton found a kindred musical spirit. They grooved to Texas music, that lowdown blues/funk/country sound, where the juke joint met the honky tonk. Bruton would come home from a Kristofferson tour of concert halls, and then just as happily play dives with Delbert. Through his association with Kristofferson, who always kept his band with him when he was shooting movies, Bruton beefed up an acting resume. He loved being in movies so much that when he was late for guitarist Jon Dee Graham’s wedding in 1998, someone joked, “turn on a movie camera and he’ll be here in five minutes.” Though he had a bigger role in the 2004 remake of The Alamo, Bruton’s most memorable movie scene was in Songwriter, when Bruton, shivering in his skivvies, has a beer bottle shot off his head by Rip Torn, as punishment for fooling around with the Torn character’s wife.

Bruton and Jeff Bridges were inseparable on the set of Crazy Heart.

Bruton knew the road life, both sides, as well as anybody, and he used pieces of that in helping compile the character of Crazy Heart’s Bad Blake. It was his idea, for instance, to have Blake empty out a urine-filled water bottle after a long drive. But Bruton’s chief contribution was crafting such songs as “I Don’t Know,” “Somebody Else” and “Fallin’ & Flyin’” that would fit Blake’s career.

Before a song was written, Burnett and Bruton listened to the records Blake would’ve grown up on- from bluegrass to Haggard to Dylan- to get inside his musical evolution. The listening sessions brought the pair back to Record Town, which father Sumter Bruton Jr. opened near the Texas Christian University campus in 1957 and is still there (as of 2017). “Back then you couldn’t order records unless you had a record store,” Burnett said. “So Stephen could get, like, old blues and bluegrass records from the Library of Congress that nobody else could get.” The teens would thumb through catalogs and then wait for records by Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt and Howlin’ Wolf to arrive. At night, the underage pair and McClinton would dive into the musical melting pot that was Fort Worth, hiding under pool tables to catch black rockabilly great Ray Sharpe and slipping in some Jacksboro Highway roadhouse to hear Ernest Tubb.

“From my point of view, Stephen embodied the soul of Texas music,” Burnett said. “He went deep into what made it unique. I learned so much from him.” Asked what was it about Fort Worth that made it special, Burnett recalled a scene from The Last Picture Show, when the main characters are sitting out by a desolate stock pond. “The ground is gray and the water’s gray and the trees are gray, and the Ben Johnson character says, ‘Isn’t this beautiful?’” Burnett said. “(Fort Worth) didn’t seem like much to most people, but it was a magical place to us.”

Crazy Heart ends with an a capella version of “Live Forever,” the Billy Joe Shaver song, sung by Robert Duvall, then the credits end with a dedication to the memory of Stephen Bruton. He passed six months before the movie opened.

On the night of May 9, 2009, Bruton told his loved ones keeping a vigil at his bedside that he was going to sleep. He never woke up. Leaning up against his bed was that old beat-up Epiphone Texan, the guitar he bought in Fort Worth in 1960. It’s the guitar he played in the score of Crazy Heart. They made it almost 50 years together.

Let’s also dedicate this book to Turner Stephen Bruton, who tapped into the soul of Texas music whenever he was onstage, in the studio or just alone at home, writing a song he couldn’t wait to play for someone.

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RIP Roscoe: Death of a True Believer

Posted by mcorcoran on April 21, 2017

It’s fashionable to bitch about newcomers in Austin, even though we all came from somewhere else. But some transplants are more like reinforcements, letting us know through their unbridled enthusiasm that we live in a special place.

Ross Shoemaker, who everyone here called Roscoe, came down with the great Oklahoma migration of the ‘80s. At first he was known as “the guy who recorded The Shit Hits the Fans,” the legendarily awful/perfect, drunken Replacements set at the Bowery, where he worked in Oklahoma City. God, how Roscoe loved the ‘Mats! But after you ran into him a few times and hung out at a couple 3 a.m. living room parties, you knew him as the guy who loved ALL his music deeply and sincerely. He was the pure fan, not a snob. I would tell him the Replacements were way overrated and he would laugh and rattle off 26 song titles that told me it didn’t matter what I thought.

Roscoe, who got jobs at Waterloo Records and Liberty Lunch so he could be around music fulltime, died last night in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He’d moved back to his home state at least 20 years ago. Got married, had a daughter, stayed in touch. At about 9 p.m. Wednesday, Ross was driving his Ford Focus when a Cadillac Escalade crossed into his lane and hit him head on. Cause of the accident is being investigated.

The word spread through Facebook Thursday morning like a Roscoe whoop at a True Believers show. The first things folks who knew him mentioned was that he was a great friend of music and a devoted father to teenaged daughter Sadie. To me he represented Austin in the ‘80s, when you toyed with excesses daily because that party was too good to end. All the bands we were getting tired of- Doctors’ Mob, Wild Seeds, True Believers, Poison 13, etc.- almost became new again in Roscoe’s pure and devout worship. “His love of music was contagious,” Max Crawford of Poi Dog Pondering posted on Facebook. Words that should be engraved somewhere meaningful.

Following Ross on Facebook was a human roller coaster ride. His bad days were painful, especially after he lost his job a couple years ago, but then he’d see a great band or run into an old friend and it would be the Roscoe of old. “Awesome” was his favorite word and it meant something when he said it.

I enjoyed a perfect day with Roscoe in June 2014 when I was sent to Tulsa for a story about the lawyer who represented the wife in a divorce that was settled for $1 billion. I couldn’t wait for the interview to be over because I was meeting Ross for lunch at Goldie’s, a hamburger joint recommended by former Tulsa musician Ron Flynt. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly about the highs and lows of being a single parent. We both married dumb, but conceived wisely. Roscoe’s ex was a newlywed or about to be, so she was always calling him to modify the custody situation, he said. “I always say ‘sure,’” Roscoe told me. “I’ll take every minute I can get with my daughter.” We had a lot in common, but not all of it good. I think Roscoe was 9 months sober at the time and went to meetings.

The best part of the day was when Roscoe proudly showed me around Tulsa, with its rich musical history. We went inside the famous Cain’s Ballroom, which would probably be a CVS right now if it was located in Austin, then drove to Leon Russell’s old church studio where so much great Leon, Tom Petty, Freddie King and J.J. Cale stuff was recorded. He took me to the Woody Guthrie Museum, which is worth a long drive in itself, then showed me Guthrie Green, a fantastic free live music venue bankrolled by a billionaire music lover. He showed me the small club where Alejandro Escovedo had played just a few days earlier and where Roscoe got to catch up with his old friend. He moved away, but never really left. Last stop was the intersection of Greenwood, Archer and Pine Streets, from where Tulsa’s GAP Band got their name. It was a great day to talk about the music we love, where some of it was made.

About two weeks ago, Roscoe proudly posted the list of Rolling Stone magazine’s “50 Greatest Live Records of All Time,” which ranked The Shit at No. 50. M’man produced one of the 50 greatest live records of all time! Then gave the tape to the band because that’s the kind of fan, the kind of man, he was.

If you can live a life like Ross Shoemaker did, so full of love and enthusiasm, you will have a great one. It will be a real life of ups and downs, deep sorrows and bursts of euphoria. A life that touches many.

“Alex Chilton” is a song about being a fan. I’m playing it for Roscoe now and it’s never sounded sadder. This is gonna take some time.

 

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Mirth, Sins & Fire: 40 years of throwing my life away

Posted by mcorcoran on April 13, 2017

525 Cummins St. The former home of Sunbums and me.

525 Cummins St. The former home of Sunbums and me.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer my senior year of high school. She died at the end of freshman year of college and I never really went back, for a variety of reasons. But mainly I was using my license to go a little crazy.

In December 1974, an Islands sensation named Aerosmith- who were totally unknown on the Mainland except in Boston- opened for the Guess Who at the HIC Arena. The sold-out venue of 7,500 had about 1,000 left when Guess Who were done. Half the crowd left immediately after Aerosmith. Never seen an opening act blow a headliner off the stage like that, so I decided to write a review and send it in to Sunbums, Honolulu’s counterculture rag.

Photo by P.F. Bentley

Photo by P.F. Bentley

Within days I got a nice letter from the new Sunbums editor Kathryn Hellenbrand, saying that they already had the Aerosmith review covered, but she liked the other piece I had sent in as a sample of my non-musical writing. It was a first-person account of getting my ear lobe needled called “Preparing For Piercehood.” She set up a meeting, and the rest, as they say…

I don’t know what I would’ve done in 1975 without Sunbums. My dad remarried horribly and I was set out into the world. Kathy became my mentor and 525 Cummins Street, in the hideous Kaka’ako neighborhood of Honolulu, became my new home. I was sleeping in the back room of my job at the Ford Island Gym in Pearl Harbor, but if I wasn’t there, I was at Sunbums or reviewing concerts or down on Hotel Street, where the transvestite prostitutes were better looking than the girls.

Better known today as “Shanghai Kate,” Hellenbrand was 31 at the time, living with the tattoo artist Mike Malone, and they had bought Sailor Jerry’s famous tattoo shop at 1033 Smith Street. Having come from New York City, Kate and Mike were streetwise as hell, something I decidedly was not. They took in strays and I was ready to follow anyone. Boy, did I hit the lowlife highlife lottery!

When I arrived on the masthead of Sunbums in January 1975, it was pretty full of rock critics. Or folks pretending to be, so I mainly wrote “humor” pieces at first, but I exhibited a real flair for concert reviews, so after a few months I was the lead guy.

Now, while my mother was alive I had never smoked a joint, never gotten drunk, never shoplifted, never did anything illegal. I even waited until my 18th birthday to go to the porno shops, when there was nobody checking IDs.

But I was on my own at 19, basically orphaned, so I made up for lost time. The first time I got stoned was driving over the Pali Highway with Kate and her prostitute friend/ Sunbums associate editor, going to see Blazing Saddles. The three of us were howling uncontrollably to the point that the usher came to ask us to please keep it down.

I had never purchased drugs until the day of the Earth, Wind & Fire concert I was to review at the Waikiki Shell in June 1975- 40 years ago this week! I split a gram of coke with Kate and she pulled over at McDonald’s and I ran in for some coffee stirrers, which looked like plastic coke spoons back then. Just having drugs in my pocket made me high.

When I got to the Shell that night and went to pick up my ticket, it came with a backstage pass. Since Sunbums was owned by mid-level promoter JFL Concerts, I knew that backstage passes had varying levels of access. One of my jobs at JFL shows, even the ones I reviewed, was as gofer for the VIP area, so I saw how most of the folks sporting those passes couldn’t get in there, with the free booze and nice food spreads. So when I slapped on the sticker at EW&F I didn’t expect much. But I thought I would just keep walking backstage until someone said “that’s far enough,” and to my astonishment I was waved through all the way to the VIP. Now I could do that coke! So I went into the men’s room and found a stall and started dipping in that McDonald’s spoon and, basically, blowing white powder all over the bathroom floor. After a few minutes there was this big rush of people into the bathroom and I could hear the door lock behind them. They were black guys yelling at each other about getting high before the show. They were Earth, Wind & Fire!

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They settled their deal in about 10 minutes and after they left, I remember sitting there on the commode with my clothes on thinking “this is the life I want to be part of.” And I’ve never looked back.

Been some lean years. Been an intervention or two. Been times when I wished I’d had a job pounding nails or digging ditches- anything but this writing that won’t come. But I have to say it’s been a great life overall. I’m good at it and it pays the bills.

Anyway, all this came up again like bad Chinese, when I read all those posts from Bonnaroo, where by most accounts Earth, Wind & Fire were the hits of day one. (They’re coming to Austin July 23 on a double bill with Chicago). I found a recent nostalgia column written by Hawaii’s legendary promoter Tom Moffatt (unfortunately named “Uncle Tom’s Gabbin’”) that quoted from my June 1975 Earth Wind & Fire review and there seemed to be some juice in the 40th anniversary. Forty years of throwing my life away, the best way I know how.

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