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Make It Beautiful: the Bobby Doyle story

Posted by mcorcoran on August 8, 2017

“Seventh Son” by Bobby Doyle

      1. 11 Track 11-1

The blue TV at the corner of the bar had the Late Night show on as the man at the piano was taking a break.

David Letterman to country music icon Kenny Rogers: Who’s the greatest musician you’ve ever worked with?
Rogers, without hesitation: Bobby Doyle.

The night that show aired in 1996, Doyle was most likely playing a solo piano set at Ego’s, a South Congress dive in the parking garage of an apartment complex. Unlike his former bass player Rogers, Doyle had to work hard for little money, playing five or six nights a week for tips and, sometimes, a small guarantee.

But if Bobby Doyle was bitter, you wouldn’t know it. While the rest of the country was going “Bobby who?” this blind man in a jacket too nice for the room, was wailing on a Jerry Lee Lewis number, then crooning “Fly Me To the Moon” with an extended jazz piano solo, then thumping and testifying on “Rugged Old Cross” like it was a Leon Russell number. At times he sang like country Ray Charles and then he’d channel Mose Allison on some blues that wants to be jazz that wants to be blues. It didn’t matter that only a couple dozen drunks and floozies were on hand. When Bobby Doyle played, Ego’s was as cool as any Greenwich Village basement club.

Who would take fame over talent? Not Bobby Doyle.

It doesn’t happen very often, so when it does, it’s something you never forget. Going into a club for no real reason and getting blown away by someone you’ve never heard of. It happened to me at Ego’s in 1995 when I went to meet a friend who lived in the apartments. The first thing you realized about Bobby Doyle was that he knew he had IT. There’s that old line about someone playing a crappy bar like it was Madison Square Garden, but in Bobby’s inward eyes he was playing Carnegie Hall. A maestro’s palace.

Bobby sings on Playboy After Dark

One man, one mic, one piano: nobody could do it better than Bobby Doyle. Nobody. Yet, aside from a few brushes with fame- appearances in the 1960s on the Joey Bishop Show and Playboy After Dark were highlights- Doyle was a working musician with bills to pay. A man of hire who could light the fire.

“If Bobby was wearing his tuxedo and playing music for four hours, all was right in his world,” says Austin pianist Nick Connolly, who met Doyle in the early ‘80s on the piano bar circuit. Doyle played soft enough for it to be background music, understanding that everyone in the joint was trying to get laid that night, but his romps of soul no doubt made the sex better. “They want (the music) played for them,” Doyle told an interviewer in 2005. “Not on them or around them. For them.”

Austin is a town full of musicans who never quite make it big as their talent, but nobody was more overloaded with gifts than Doyle, who was a rock n’ roll piano prodigy busting out of McCallum High in the late ‘50s, played the jazz cocktail circuit nationwide and sang for Columbia Records in the ‘60s, replaced David Clayton Thomas in Blood Sweat & Tears for a minute in 1972 and then spent the last three decades of his career in the piano bars of Austin.

To the mainstream he’ll remain a footnote- the man who showed Kenny Rogers the way to a musical career. But to those of us lucky enough to sit so close to that musical force, Bobby Doyle left a lasting impression as a solo artist as intense as any five-piece band. He understood how to communicate a song. The rest is noise.

Tommy Laird, Roscoe Beck, Magda Trager and Bobby in 1975.

A heavy smoker, as were most of his fans, Doyle succumbed to lung cancer on July 30, 2006 at age 66. Folks that knew him well, like Threadgill’s owner Eddie Wilson, a former McCallum High classmate, said Doyle “was ready to go the day after (wife) Mary died” two years earlier. Mary Cockrill Doyle, who he wed in 1988, was much more than her husband’s eyes, providing vocal support near his side at every show. Their interplay made every gig fun.

After putting Ego’s on the map in the mid-‘90s, it turned into something else, a rock club, and Doyle left for gigs at Eddie V’s and the Driskill. His kind of places with his kind of people. He kept playing until he got the diagnosis that his cancer was terminal and became too weak. In March 2006, about five months before his death, Doyle set up a couple mics at his home in North Austin and invited his former musical partner Joyce Webb, whom he met in the ‘50s when she went to Austin High, to lay down some tracks.

The reason I’m writing about Bobby Doyle today is not because he’s expected to be featured in next month’s Kenny Rogers exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, which opens the day after Doyle would’ve turned 75. It’s because of the recordings Doyle made that day at his house when he was too frail to play gigs. He was known as a song interpreter, not a writer, but his composition “Beautiful” is one of the most haunting songs I’ve heard in some time. I played it over and over again, that tune about finding a balance between the loneliness that creativity requires and the need for human love. At least that’s the way I heard it.

“Beautful” by Bobby Doyle (March 2006 home recording)

      2. Beautiful02

 

Thanks to 91-year-old Fleetwood Richards of Onion Creek, whose association with Doyle goes back to Houston in the early ‘70s, I was able to copy several Doyle CDs that were never in print, as well as the terrific 1996 studio recording with engineer Spencer Starnes that Mary Doyle sold at gigs. My favorite of the seven CDs is probably “Live From the Roulette Club Houston 1973,” which features Doyle and Webb trading lead vocals for the first hour, then the whole quartet- including drummer Steve Kellar and bassist Bob Buelow- singing four-part harmonies on “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” to close it out. This cover of the 1960 song by the Four Freshmen was the first song played at Doyle’s funeral- at the angels’ request.

I knew Bobby Doyle as a piano man, a lounge lizard, a soul belter. “Spring” told me I didn’t know Doyle at all, so I went searching into details from his life that might piece together some kind of a story. The Austin great was never the subject of a major feature.

He was born in Houston on Aug. 14, 1939 to Edward and Ella Doyle, a carpenter and a housewife. Robert Glen, the youngest of six children, was born blind, an affliction attributed to his mother contracting German measles while pregnant with him. When Bobby reached school age, the Doyles moved to Austin so he could attend the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired on W. 45th St.

Bobby wanted to be like the other kids, so he opted to attend high school at McCallum High, becoming the first blind graduate in 1958. The next year, a school organization that had raised $1,700 for a bus trip to Mexico instead donated the money to Doyle for a surgery that was thought might restore his eyesight.

It didn’t and Doyle had to be content with having, what Austin bassist Jon Blondell said was “the ears of a bat.” Eddie Wilson recalls Doyle with a transistor radio in his pocket in class, bopping to Clyde McPhatter or listening to his beloved baseball at a volume level the teacher couldn’t hear.

Doyle lettered in wrestling at McCallum, and also tried out for the team at University of Texas, which he attended from 1958-60 before dropping out to play music fulltime. “He told me once, ‘never let a blind man get his hands on you, because he’ll never let you go,’” recalls his old pal Fleetwood. “He was a wiry Irishman, not to be messed with.”

Kenny Rogers remembers, in his recent Luck Or Something Like It autobiography, that Doyle struggled with alcohol and once was so soused at a gig in Houston that he snubbed the great Tony Bennett, who had asked if he could sing a couple with the band. “In a minute, Tony,” Doyle said, going in to his next number while Rogers and drummer Don Russell shook their heads in apology. “But even at his worst,” Rogers wrote of a lit-up Doyle, “he was better than anyone else I’d ever heard.”

“Up On Cripple Creek”- Bobby’s return to the Blind School circa 1979

      3. Cripple Creek - Bobby Doyle

 

By the time Doyle formed his trio with Rogers in 1960, he’d already gone a few rounds with rock n’ roll. As a senior at McCallum and a member of the school’s Talent, Incorporated club, Doyle played a 15-minute set of rock and doo-wop on KVET-AM every Saturday. He was enlisted by fellow McCallum classmates to join the Spades, a white doo-wop group that soon changed their name to the Slades to shake negative racial connotations. Doyle played bass on the single “You Cheated,” a regional sensation that reached #42 on the Billboard charts. The song, written by singer Don Burch, would’ve done much better if a hastily-assembled black group called the Shields didn’t rush into an L.A. studio and record a version that beat the original to record shops and radio stations.

Kenny Rogers, upper left.

“You Cheated” was the only hit on Austin-based Domino Records, the we-can-do-it label which grew out of a class at the YWCA on Guadalupe Street. The night school teacher Jane Bowers, who was a bit of a local bigwig for penning “Remember the Alamo” for Tex Ritter, soon left Domino and took Doyle with her to Trinity Records, which she founded in San Antonio with her lawyer husband.

 

Doyle’s single on the label “Here Now” went nowhere and he followed his family back to Houston. There he came to the attention of notorious Duke/ Peacock label owner Don Robey, who had started the Back Beat label to cash in on the rock n’ roll craze. Robey’s off-shoot hit paydirt with “Treat Her Right” by Roy Head and the Traits, but Doyle was dropped after two singles on the label: “Pauline” b/w “Someone Else, Not Me” (9/59) and “Hot Seat” b/w “Unloved” (3/60).

Doyle used to sometimes compare his diverse musical interests to living in a house with many rooms, so you could say he spent 1960 walking the hall between rock/ doo-wop and vocal jazz. Doyle found Rogers, a struggling singer, in Houston and turned him into a bassist/high harmony singer in the Bobby Doyle Three. Drummer Russell sang as well on 1962’s In a Most Unusual Way (Columbia) which sounds almost psychedelic today for its over-the-top vocal arrangements.

It was a style which didn’t catch on with the mainstream, though the trio became popular on the cocktail jazz circuit across the country. When they played the Melody Room on Sunset Strip, better known today as the Viper Room, a young actor and piano fanatic named Clint Eastwood was in the audience every night. Before he was known as Dr. John, L.A. session player Mac Rebennack was another Doyle fan. The public had no idea who Bobby Doyle was, but the musicians knew.

“How could you be a player and watch Bobby and not be impressed?” says Nick Connolly. “He could play every kind of music imaginable for four hours and it was all in his head.”

After Rogers and Russell left to play in the more popular Kirby Stone Four, still riding that 1958 hit “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” Doyle reconfigured the trio with Webb sharing leads. The new Bobby Doyle Three got a regular gig at a private club in L.A. called the Factory, where all the movie stars and other celebs went so they wouldn’t be mobbed. It was the Rat Pack’s West Coast haunt, and one night an impressed Sammy Davis Jr. offered an opening gig in Las Vegas.

Connolly says he was watching a documentary about Las Vegas in the 1960s recently when something in a tiny corner of the screen caught him. “They had a 1959 Cadillac convertible with a tripod in the back panning the marquees,” he says. “I rewinded a few seconds and paused it. Yep, right there, in a row, were the names ‘Frank Sinatra,’ ‘Buddy Hackett’ and ‘The Bobby Doyle Three.’”

 “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring”

      4. 04 Their Hearts Were Full of Spring

“Cryin’ Time”

      5. 12 Track 12 - Bobby Doyle

 

Doyle was a regular on the Strip and in nearby Lake Tahoe until he, first wife Sammie Lou (a Beaumont native he married in 1961) and their four young children moved back to Austin in the mid-‘70s. He got a gig four nights a week playing a Vegas-themed club named Caesar’s, which had recently opened at 1907 E. Riverside. After that club closed around 1978, he worked regularly at such joints as the North Forty, the Cloak Room, the Blue Parrot and the Ramada Inn on E. 11th. He was a journeyman with 88 keys in his toolbox.

He also traveled to Las Vegas on occasion for solo lounge gigs. He had flings and fathered a son out of wedlock, which may have led to his divorce around 1980. “Bobby had reconnected with his son before he died,” says his former drummer Tommy Laird. “His son was a musician and Bobby went to Vegas to see him.”

The pain in his songs became real in 1992 when Doyle lost his only daughter Kathleen to a suspected suicide at age 22. His three sons by first wife Sammie Lou still live in the Austin area, according to friends, but couldn’t be reached for this story. Joyce Webb reportedly recently got married and moved away from Wimberley, where she had a stained glass business for years.

Sadly, Doyle’s records are all out of print, including 1970’s “Nine Songs” on Bell Records, with Steve Cropper on guitar. Recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis, Doyle called “Nine Songs” a favorite of his records, but the Bobby Doyle Three was “the best band I’ve ever played in.” Bobby, Kenny and Don worked their tails off for five years.

Hopefully, some one will put together a proper Bobby Doyle reissue. A career retrospective for a guy who never had a hit and played out-of-fashion music for lonely people in dark rooms. But the musicians knew. Bobby Doyle was always a star among players. When Kenny Rogers flew Bobby to Los Angeles for a 50th birthday show in 1988, producer Quincy Jones was the first to his feet after Doyle’s segment, leading a rousing standing ovation.

Bobby Doyle knew he was the shit. That’s important. To have that much of a gift and never make it big is better than having only marginal talent and selling a million copies. That’s the true artist creed and Doyle lived it to the very end.

 

An interview with Bobby Doyle from 1975:

      6. Bobby Doyle interview 5-27-75 cleaned 32 bit rate

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Bassist/ Bookbinder: Glenn Fukunaga 2012

Posted by mcorcoran on August 7, 2017

Photo by Alberto Martinez AAS

Most people would feel lucky to master one art in their lifetime, but Austin’s Glenn Fukunaga is not only an in demand bass player (Robert Plant, Dixie Chicks), but he’s a noted restorer of rare books.

Playing bass and restoring books wouldn’t seem to have much in common, but Fukunaga says, “they both require an attention to detail and that you work well with your hands.” And the longer you do it, the better you get.

The Hawaii native, who’s been in Austin since 1974, has played in an estimated 300 recording sessions. But this year he released the first CD with his name on the front cover and not just in the liner notes. “Not a Word” is just that, an album of six jazz instrumentals, flavored by spooky exotica and sprawling rhythms. Moods range from somber and serene on “Song For Glenn,” written in homage to Glenn Fukunaga Jr., who lost a battle with cancer at age 39, to exuberantly experimental on “Drivin’ Into a Donut Hole.” The overall effect of this half hour of music is meditative, without being new age.

Fukunaga and his band of Joel Guzman on keyboards, Alex Coke on woodwinds, Kevin Flatt on brass and Dony Wynn on drums, celebrate the release of the CD this week with an in store appearance at Waterloo Records May 2 and a set at the Continental Club Gallery the next night. The May 3 event doubles as an art show opening for the album’s cover artist Dana Smith.

“After all these years of backing other people, I was getting a little frustrated with the rules of the session guy,” Fukunaga says from his book binding workshop behind the home in Barton Hills he shares with wife Sandy. “I wanted to make a record where no one was telling me to ‘walk to the four’ (a standard bassline),” he says.

Fukunaga says he didn’t give his seasoned bandmates any directions. “These are my favorite guys,” he says. “I just said ‘do what you do.’” Most tracks were recorded in three takes or less.

Wynn calls Fukunaga “the quintessential quiet storm,” who doesn’t need to say much because he’s fully able to express himself non-verbally. “His confidence in life, and thereby, on his instrument (shows) a master at work.”

Though he now specializes in standup bass, Fukunaga was not really a big jazz fan earlier in his career. His resume included blues (Lou Ann Barton), punk (Project Terror), folk (Terri Hendrix, Eliza Gilkyson), country (“Home” by the Dixie Chicks) and rock (James Burton), but almost no jazz.

“The big turning point was about 10 or 12 years ago. I was listening to KUT and they played a song by (jazz pianist) Bill Evans and it knocked me out,” he says. He started buying every Evans record he could find and studied up on the man and his bassist Scott LaFaro, perhaps Fukunaga’s biggest inluence besides Motown’s James Jamerson. “Bill Evans had this philosophy that everyone plays together, having a musical conversation, as opposed to one guy soloing and everyone else laying back.” This style of “collective improvisation” was the musical mindset of “Not a Word.”

Fukunaga grew up in Hilo on the island of Hawaii, which was not immune to Beatlemania. “Me and some friends all went from ukulele to guitar, but someone needed to play bass, so I volunteered under the condition that it would be for one year only,” Fukunaga says with a laugh. That was 1964. He overshot his limited period on bass by 47 years.

Last year Fukunaga was enlisted to play bass with one of his early rock heroes, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. “It was only one show in Marfa,” Fukunaga says of his time in Crown Vic, which also featured Patty Griffin, Michael Ramos, David Grissom and drummer Wynn (who played with Robert Palmer for two decades). “But it was a pretty amazing experience. There’s nothing like hitting the stage in front of a great crowd.”

Especially when you’ve spent all day rescuing tattered and crumbling books. “We used to have a storefront on South Lamar and we’d always get people coming in with their family Bibles falling apart,” Fukunaga recalls. “I’d look them over and say ‘that’s about 10 hours worth of work, so you’re looking at $650’ and they’d look at me horrified. ‘I thought it would be twenty dollars.’ Thank God we’re out of the Bible business.” Fukunaga sold the storefront six years ago and works from home mainly with longtime clients, including Austin-based Mark Twain collector Kevin MacDonnell. Recent tasks for Fukunaga included binding special books for Mark Twain Award for American Humor winners Tina Fey and Bill Cosby.

Fukunaga’s introduction to the world of rare books was entirely coincidental. Being a broke musician when he arrived in Austin in the mid-70s at the behest of booking agent Charlie Hatchet (who caught Fukunaga’s touring cover band Bamboo in Amarillo), Fukunaga hired on as a UT shuttle bus driver, then a chauffeur. One of his first limo clients was notorious rare book dealer and publisher John Holmes Jenkins, who kept the multi-million dollar Eberstadt Collection of books and papers in a vault in the corrugated metal building on South I-35 that currently has the seven-foot high letters “XXX” on the side.

“Mr. Jenkins was quite a character,” Fukunaga says of the high stakes poker player nicknamed “Austin Squatty” in Las Vegas for the way he sat at a card table with his legs crossed under him. Jenkins died in 1989 near Bastrop from a gunshot wound to the back of the head which was ruled a suicide, though the gun was never found.

Though Jenkins hired his driver Fukunaga as a book binder, it was a restoration expert from Switzerland called Mr. Brunner who taught him the tricks of the trade.

A born perfectionist, Fukunaga took to the craft right away. “There were three or four of us working on the books and after a few months, clients started asking for me,” he says. It’s a slow process that requires a deft touch and complete concentration. One mistake could knock thousands of dollars off a rare book’s value. Fukunaga has worked on million dollar projects, such as restoring a dozen first edition copies of the Book of Mormon, worth about $90,000 a copy.

“It’s funny. I could do this deaf,” he says, slowiy raising the spine of an old and tender book. “And I could do that blind,” gesturing to the standup bass he always keeps by his side in his workshop.

Sometimes he’ll think of a piece of music when he’s repairing a book and he’ll get behind the bass taller than him and work it out. But he’s got book deadlines, so he’s back at the big table before too long.

“I’ve definitely made more money with books than music in the past, but it’s getting to be 50/50,” says Fukunaga.

Hand in hand. Whether on stage, in the studio or in his workshop table piled with decaying literary classics, Fukunaga has enjoyed a life of exquisite balance.

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Patty Griffin 2002: Let Her Fly

Posted by mcorcoran on August 5, 2017

From the Austin-American Statesman, April 2002

by Michael Corcoran

She was raised in a small town in Maine, graduated to Boston, where she fell in with the rock crowd and then it was on to Nashville after a solo career blossomed. But for the past four years 38-year-old singer Patty Griffin, the eternal up-and-comer who’ll soon be released from major label limbo when her first album since ’98’s “Flaming Red” hits stores, has called Austin home. Practically invisible to the local music scene, where her concert appearances are rare, the nationally-prominent singer lives in a modest, charming Hyde Park duplex close to the constant roar of the 45th St. east-west thoroughfare.

Like Griffin’s songs, her living room is spare, tasteful, airy, detail driven. But it’s not comfortable. The chairs are straight-back with minimal padding, the couch a vinyl ’50s number. There’s no CD collection to peruse as a conversation starter, no place to curl up on a rainy night with a good book. What’s more, a small, black, dog named Bean, comes in and out of the house through a tear in the screen door, yipping and scurrying all the way, every minute or so. During the course of a 90-minute interview, Griffin never loses track of the Bean, who uses his barkette like sonar. At one point, she’s talking about how Austin feels right for her, but then stops in mid-sentence and pricks up her ears when the dog’s yip comes from the side of the house and is perhaps delivered in an unusual cadence. A few seconds later Bean is back in front and Griffin continues her thought. “I’m inspired by all the people in Austin who are working on their stuff. Not just music, but visual arts, theater, film- there’s a creative spirit here that I find very appealing.”

Griffin’s gorgeous new “1000 Kisses,” which comes out Tuesday on Dave Matthews’ ATO label, is an album without distractions. At first all you hear is that voice, so dominating is its pure, breathy magnificence, singing words to hang on to for dear life. “It’s hard to know when to give up the fight/ The things you want that will never be right” she sings on “Rain,” the album’s first single to radio. “Ain’t nothing left at all in the end of being proud” she sings as a wife standing over the casket of her husband of 40 years in “Long Ride Home.” When Griffin and her ensemble played its first show in more than a year March 7 at the Mercury, the club had a poster made that showed a heart surrounded by snippets of Griffin lyrics. She liked that.

But getting Griffin to talk about her lyrics is like asking Gary Condit to characterize his relationship with Chandra Levy. She’ll say that “Tony,” the tragic character who “got a gun and blew himself away” on “Flaming Red” was a real person, but she’ll leave it at that. Ask for parallels and she’ll move laterally, explaining that the new LP’s “Chief” is “a guy from Maine who came back from the war and used to march night and day.” But what’s it all mean?

“My songs aren’t poems,” she says on a recent morning, slightly overinsulated in her living room in a thrift store coat. “They’re lyrics meant to be sung. I write words that will feel special coming out of me when I sing them.”

There’s no denying, however, that Griffin, like her songwriting heroes Springsteen and Waits, has the ability to explore grand themes with her little stories of everyday people. “Making Pies” is a plum example as Griffin uses the hard, lonely life of an early morning bakery worker to reflect on the dignity of moving forward and living life when there’s seemingly nothing to live for. “You could cry, or die, or just make pies all day/ I’m making pies,” she sings in a voice that’s anything but mundane.

“1000 Kisses” is cathartic, soothing and a direct reaction to the kind of radio-driven music her former major label wanted Griffin to record. Just by tacking on “Mil Besos,” a traditional Spanish song she first heard by Little Joe y la Familia, attests that this one was made completely without label input.

“As far as record story horror stories go, mine was pretty mild,” Griffin says with a laugh. The plot went this way: About a month after A&M released “Flaming Red,” the rocking counterpart to the ’96 solo acoustic debut “Living With Ghosts,” the label was swallowed whole by Universal Music. Griffin was shipped off to Interscope, which had been built on hard rock and gangsta rap.”The timing couldn’t have been worse,” says manager Ken Levitan. “We were able to finally convince them to work one more single to radio, but then they let it drop.” Many of those who did hear “One Big Love” on the radio probably went out and bought a Sheryl Crowe record instead – it sounds that much like Patty’s A&M labelmate who was getting a big push.

More bad timing came when Griffin delivered her next album “Silver Bell” in the spring of 2000, just weeks after the huge international Vivendi conglomerate bought Universal. “When these corporations acquire other corporations they end up owing billions and billions of dollars,” Griffin says. “They’re not gonna make that kind of money back with records by folks like me. “Silver Bell,” which included Griffin’s French Canadian mother on guest vocals, was returned to a heartbroken Griffin with a terse instruction: write ten new songs that could be played on the radio.

“That was pretty suffocating because that’s not how I like to write songs,” Griffin says. In the meantime, Griffin had a financial windfall when the Dixie Chicks recorded her song “Let Him Fly” on their 10-million selling 1999 album “Fly.” Touting Griffin as their favorite songwriter, the Chicks took the red-haired songbird on tour. “It was a lot of fun hanging out with the Chicks, but not very musically satisfying playing in hockey arenas,” Griffin says. Back home after the three-month stint, she got back to writing new songs, but when she sent the demos to Jimmy Iovine, the Interscope honcho still didn’t hear a million-seller. In March of 2001, a year after “Silver Bell” had been finished, Levitan had a meeting with Iovine and other label brass that he says “just didn’t feel right” and soon he was negotiating a way out of Griffin’s contract. As part of the agreement to let her go, Griffin would have to buy back the masters if she wanted to shop “Silver Bell” to another label. Also, she could re-record only five songs from “Bell” without payment to the label.

“The thing that no one would say, but I’d bet they were all thinking it was that I’m 38 years old,” Griffin says. “It’s a kids game now and the feeling is that if I hadn’t made it by now, I wasn’t going to make it.” But seeing the likes of Britney Spears at #1 only inspired Griffin to make the sort of dark and introspective (i.e. uncommercial) record that was inside her.

Griffin decided to start again from scratch and make a completely different album than the one which had led to such an aggravating time in her life. Where “Silver Bell” had 15 tracks, from all over the musical spectrum, “1000 Kisses” would have only nine , and they would flow seamlessly together like sweet dreams. Songs would be stripped to their essence and the backing tracks would create an atmosphere of warmth. What’s more, this would be a record that no one in the music industry would hear until it was completely finished.

“We were all so completely into this project,” Ramos says of the musicians on “1000 Kisses.” “When we played our first show after making the record (Mar 7 at the Mercury) we were all so nervous, but it was a good kind of nervous. We knew we were about to go on this emotional musical adventure and when the new songs went over with the crowd we all got chills.” Ramos says the band was so drained after the show, which followed weeks of hardcore rehearsals, that they all suffered flu-like symptoms.

The youngest of seven children of an Irish father and French Canadian mother, both schoolteachers, Griffin grew up singing. “My mother was a great singer, still is. My grandmother could really sing, too,” she says. “I didn’t think my voice was anything special when I was young because everybody around me could sing, except for a couple of siblings who are tone deaf.” As a teenager, Griffin sang in a new wave cover band Patty and the Executives. “It was all that stuff on MTV in the early days- Blondie, Pat Benatar. The band was a bunch of teenaged guys in business suits,” she says, laughing. Although Griffin had been writing songs since age 16 when she got her first guitar, she was too shy to sing in front of anybody until she started taking guitar lessons and had to. Her teacher, John Curtis, was astonished at his charge’s immaculate vocals and asked her if she wanted to start a duet.

Even though she’d broken the ice as a singer-songwriter, Griffin did not see that as a serious pursuit for several more years. She moved to Boston, was married briefly and, from ’86- ’91 waited tables at the Cambridge franchise of Pizzeria Uno.

“Have you seen ‘Office Space’ where there’s this big, stupid discussion about how much flair the waitress is wearing? Well, it was like that at Uno. We had to wear two watches- one with the time and the other with the time 20 minutes later so we could tell customers when their pizza would be ready. Like we couldn’t add 20 to whatever the time was.” Griffin says that when Jennifer Aniston’s character gave her boss the finger in the movie, she let out a big “YEAH!” That finger, she says, was for former waitresses everywhere.

“That job didn’t really support the dignity that I needed to get up in front of people and sing,” she says. So she quit and, after a short stint as a Harvard telephone operator, decided to concentrate on a career in music. The timing was perfect.

“In 1994, Lisa Loeb and Sheryl Crowe had big hits, so the labels were all of a sudden signing all these women,” Griffin says, “and I caught that wave.” Based on a group of solo acoustic demos recorded in a basement studio, Griffin was signed to A&M in early ’95 and went to Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway studio in New Orleans to record her debut. “I was uncomfortable with the whole situation,” she says. “The hype machine was in overdrive and people were talking about conquering the marketplace and I just wanted to make a good record so I could tour and make a living.”

A&M hated the Malcolm Burn-produced, full-band treatment of Griffin’s demo songs, so they asked her to start over on another record. “I was too depressed to get back in the studio, so I said, ‘You loved the demos so much, why not just put them out?'” The resulting “Living With Ghosts” received critical raves and made great strides with Americana radio stations like Austin’s KGSR.

But although she considered herself a rocker- and “Ghosts” was simply her “Nebraska” – Griffin was lumped in with the touchy-feely chick folksinger crowd. “I hate the perception of female acoustic artists, that we belong in the fields with the daisies or baking tollhouse cookies. There are real hard and heavy issues that women have to deal with, like rape and domestic abuse and everyday sexism. These are not la-la fantasies.”

Griffin’s next album opened with a blaze of kick drums and caterwauling guitars. An update on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Red Shoes,” the title track of “Flaming Red” was a vitriolic spit in the face of attitudes that murdered prostitues or raped party girls deserved their fate. Where the fable, in which a girl puts on a pair of red dancing shoes, to the chagrin of pious townspeople, is a cautionary tale that ends in tragedy, Griffin’s take is that the defiant twirl of individuality is worth it. “So many women are working so hard to be everything to everyone, but in the end they find just how ineffective that is.”

Her dog Bean has finally settled in her lap and Griffin has somehow managed to slink down in the stiff chair. Ramos says that in the eight years he’s known Griffin she’s never been as centered, as content with her place in the world as she is now.

“That whole ordeal with Universal seemed really frustrating at the time,” she says, “but looking back I’m glad it all happened. I wouldn’t be where I am today. That’s the lesson I learned from all that- in the end you get what you need.”

She decided to call her album, the one she made all on her own with a small circle of friends, “1000 Kisses” when Ramos told her what “Mil Besos” means. Produced by Ramos in the style of a 40’s cabaret song from Madrid, the tune grew in significance when Griffin, who doesn’t speak Spanish, asked Ramos what she was singing. “I lost my heart on the thousand kisses that I left on your lips,” Ramos translated. “I have to keep loving you until my heart comes back.”

“That just blew me away,” says Griffin. The Bean suddenly springs from her lap and hits the hardwood floor with a skid. “I think what the song is saying is that pain doesn’t go away. Life doesn’t get easier, but you just have to keep living it.”

“I don’t think you can ever get comfortable in this world,” she says, “but you can get dignity.”

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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.

 

Posted in Gospel, Music, Texas Music History | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

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.

 

 

 

Posted in Austin-Zeitgeist, Music, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

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.

 

Posted in Austin, Austin-Zeitgeist, Music, Uncategorized | 16 Comments »

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!

Moffatcolumn

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.

Posted in Austin-Zeitgeist, Music, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

SXSW Stories #1: The Russians Ain’t Goin,’ the Russians Ain’t Goin’

Posted by mcorcoran on March 9, 2017

International housing: Marriage, MTV, half-hearted defections and Taco Bell!

Was that Russian band serious about wanting to defect after a SXSW showcase? Or did they just want to stay in Austin for free as long as they could?

It was in the early ‘90s, soon after implementation of SXSW’s international housing program, where bands from overseas are put up in local homes at no cost. The Russians (nobody can remember the name) were matched with someone who gave up their space and privacy for a few days in exchange for a pair of wristbands. So, SXSW ended on Sunday and by about Tuesday the hosts realized the Russians were staying, the Russians were staying! The distraught couple called SXSW, which sent over a van to pick up the group and take them to a cheap motel near Ben White. The reasoning was that the band would get sick and bored at the fleabag and start heading to Florida, where they could get a flight back to Moscow. “The only problem was that the motel had MTV, which they had never seen before,” says Roland Swenson of SXSW. “They just sat in their room watching MTV all day, happy as shit.”

After SXSW stopped paying for the room, the band would try to hang out all day at SXSW, having announced their intention to defect. But nobody really took them seriously.

The Russians were stranded because they had spent all their money buying a van in Florida that broke down in Austin. When SXSW suggested the band sell their van for bus tickets to Florida, that’s what finally got them on their way. “We heard they were really insulted because (another Russian visitor) told them only the lower class rides buses in the U.S.,” Swenson says. Whatever, it did the trick, as the group got their van fixed and headed out.

There have been far more positive stories about the international housing setup,

like when Casis Elementary teacher Celeste Hackney hosted a Danish band and ended up marrying the sound man and moving to Copenhagen. And there’s the time computer engineer Mitch Gottlieb put up a broke, unknown British rock band, then toured Europe with them after the Darkness became huge.

The housing program is not for the picky or deluded. “Two guys are going to have to sleep together, so if you have some macho problem, either get over it or get a hotel room,” reads part of the form e-mail that goes to prospective ocean-crossing lodgers.

The hosts aren’t responsible for food or transportation, but most pick up the bands at the airport, feed them and cart them around town to music stores, thrift shops, barbecue joints and Western wear shops. It’s fun to show off the cool parts of Austin, but sometimes you have to adjust quickly, as one host learned when he tried to take a band from Iceland to his favorite Tex-Mex restaurant. “Taco Bell!” they chanted until he succumbed.

Although the bands are sometimes stars in their home country, they are almost always unknown in the United States. Some bands just don’t get it. “One year a band had sent emissaries to check out the house ahead of time, to make sure the mattresses were firm enough and the place was clean, that sort of stuff,” SXSW international housing director Marilyn Faust recalled in 2006. “The host family was hurt. The manager was saying, ‘Do you know who this band is? They’re big stars,’ and so I said, ‘Then they can afford to stay in a hotel.’ ”

About 90% of the overseas acts at SXSW do just that.

 

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