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Margaret Moser 1954- 2017

Posted by mcorcoran on August 31, 2017

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

A high school dropout with no discernible skill when she came to Austin as a 19-year-old in 1973, Margaret Moser used guile, guts and no small amounts of talent and instinct to become the most celebrated and influential female music journalist in Texas. Her 40-year career started with a music/gossip column in the Austin Sun in 1976 and was capped with a 4,000-word memoir of her unconventional life in the esteemed Oxford American magazine.

She came in through the back door, she said, so when she was welcomed at the front entrance, as Queen Bee of the Austin music scene, she’d always go to the back to see who else she could let in. One of those was Kevin Curtin, who continues the music news/gossip column in the Austin Chronicle Margaret started in 1981. “She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” said Curtin, working at a head shop when Margaret saw something special.

That sentiment was echoed hundreds of times this week, after Margaret passed away from cancer, at 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 25. Everybody had a story of how Margaret went out of her way to be kind, how she helped them when she didn’t have to. Or they talked about an article she wrote that moved them to tears. It’s rare to see a music critic’s name on a grand marquee, but the Paramount Theater’s lit up “Margaret Moser 1954- 2017: The Patron Saint of Austin Music” on Saturday, when the news hit. She was 63.

“She made nurturing her true religion,” said John Cale of the Velvet Underground, who had a two-year fling with Margaret in the late ‘70s.

The “Margaret Loves John Cale” graffiti she wrote all over town has been faded or painted over, but the pair remained friends through the years. “If there’s anything to learn about true loyalty and a diehard love of life, she’s the master,” Cale said in a 20-page special section the Austin Chronicle published in tribute to Margaret in June, after she announced she was entering home hospice care in San Antonio.

But even as her condition worsened Margaret wasn’t done, presenting an exhibit at Antone’s on bluesman Robert Johnson, just two days after the Chronicle tribute section hit the streets. The show, presented earlier at the South Texas Museum of Popular Culture (or “TexPop”) in San Antonio, which Margaret founded in 2012, drew more than 150 of Margaret’s closest friends at the July 1 opening. Overwhelmed and sickly, Margaret lasted only a few minutes, but everyone got to see her one last time and that was the point. She never stepped inside an Austin nightclub again.

“Death has been my companion for awhile, so I’d rather make the most of it,” Margaret said in July about her four-plus years with terminal cancer. “I’m into the mystery of it, not the fear.”

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

 

Margaret Romaine Moser was born in Chicago, where her father was attending seminary school, on May 16, 1954. As a Presbyterian minister based in New Orleans in the ‘60s, Dr. Willard Cummings Moser participated in several Civil Rights protests, including the march in Selma, where nonviolent protestors were beaten by police and state troopers as the world watched in horror. Those years instilled a rage against injustice in Margaret, the oldest of four.

Margaret was always smarter than the other kids. Instead of typical bedtime stories, her father read her Greek mythology. She skipped second grade and was always reading. But mother Phyllis noticed a change in her attitude about school in fifth grade. “She came home one day and said her teacher was the devil incarnate,” Phyllis recalled. Her time as an ideal student was over. There was also trouble at home when the parents started living separate lives. Willard realized he was gay, but the couple stayed together several years for the kids.

Margaret’s rebellion had a soundtrack. She was crazy for rock n’ roll and saw Jimi Hendrix in San Antonio at age 14. But her first rock star crush was Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders, whose face plastered her walls. Once after a bad report card, her parents tore down the pictures. They had doctorates and education was important. Margaret steamed, perhaps for years.

Margaret read all the teen beat magazines and wrote concert and album reviews in her journal. It didn’t occur to her that a female could be a music journalist or that anyone would ever care what she thought. She wrote because it gave her a greater connection to the music.

That first rush of being moved by music. Margaret never forgot that feeling. It ruled her life for a time and not content to be just fan, she found greater access to the mesmerizing power of music as a self-proclaimed groupie. Along the way, she found she could write and journalism became her connection to the muse. If Margaret profiled you in the Chronicle, it was like winning an award. She didn’t just write about the music that moved her, she championed it at all times. She’d grab your arm, sit you down and say “listen to THIS!” She had a way about her that was completely unique. Anybody who said they knew someone like Margaret was lying.

The goal of any true rock critic is to create music with his or her words, to not be just an accessory, but an artist themselves. Margaret achieved that with a unique writing voice as personal and candid and soulful as a deep track on a favorite LP. “Her words jumped off the page,” said Alejandro Escovedo, who met Margaret soon after he moved to town with Rank and File. “You have to understand,” Escovedo’s former True Believers mate Jon Dee Graham said in June. “(Margaret) was in the middle of any and everything interesting that went down.” Her business card could’ve read “Magic Chaser.”

Later in her life, she brought exposure and performing opportunities to teenagers with her Under 18 series with the Chronicle. “If you want to have a good audience,” she’d tell the kids, “BE a good audience” and she’d watch the young bands turn out for each other. Margaret was a community builder. Unable to have children after a hysterectomy in her ‘20s, Margaret became a mother-like figure, not only to musicians, but younger journalists like Andy Langer, Raoul Hernandez and Chris Gray. Folks gravitated towards Margaret for a simple reason: she was fun!    Outrageous singer Dino Lee saw that in the mid-‘80s when he tapped Margaret to be one of his naughty backup singers, the Jam and Jelly Girls.

“She was always the life of the party,” said singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, a close friend since the ‘70s. “She was just this wild woman in the most brilliant way.” The Margaret laugh could be heard over the rumble of a five-piece band. That’s how you knew you were in the right place.

Photo by Margaret’s first husband Ken Hoge. With Dayna Blackwell

Her flashy entrances during her ‘70s and ‘80s nightlife heyday leading “the Texas Blondes” groupie troop have been compared to a hurricane force, so it was fitting that she passed just as category 4 Harvey started beating down on San Antonio, her childhood home, returned to. She knew her stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis in February 2013 was grim, but Margaret used her precious remaining years to prove she could also make a grand exit.

Margaret’s final all-access pass was to her own wake. The outpouring of emotion from the many whose lives she had touched was never more than what Margaret could handle. She knew she’d earned it.

In 2014, when Margaret retired from both the Austin Chronicle and the Austin Music Awards (which she founded in 1983), the City of Austin dedicated Margaret Moser Plaza on West Third Street. It’s right next to where Margaret once ruled the Austin Music Awards, when the site was the Austin Music Hall. The music awards ran on Margaret’s personality, giving it a campy prom feel. But her favorite part was booking special combinations of musicians: Roky Erickson backed by Okkervil River led to a lauded collaborative LP.

Margaret Moser ( C ) at the Austin Music Awards during SXSW on March 12, 2014 in Austin, Texas – USA.

 

“The Good Ship Margaret is a fleet unto itself,” wrote Louis Black in June. As editor of the Chronicle and Margaret’s booking consultant for the AMAs, Black knew her as well as anyone. She was not just one way, she was many. To experience all sides of this complicated soul, was to know tenderness and tenacity, kindness and cunning, and empathy you didn’t want to cross. You don’t survive in the music business as a female journalist for 40 years by being a pushover.

Even in a city known for individuality, Margaret was fiercely independent. As a 15-year-old, the year her parents divorced, she ran away from home and joined a cult. In 1974, the year after she arrived in Austin, her beloved father Willard, whose piano-playing was the first music Margaret ever heard, took his own life.

Margaret went about building a new family for herself, the Austin folks as crazy about music and partying as she was. The key word is “family.” The Austin music scene lost its big sister this week.

“She left an indelible mark,” said Cale. “Never to be removed.”

Margaret is survived by her husband Steve Chaney, mother Phyllis Jackson Stegall and brothers Stephen MacMillan Moser, Scott Cummings Moser and Willard “Bill” Jackson Moser. She also leaves behind musicians, writers, historians, artists who might not otherwise be doing what they do to enrich Central Texas. She was preceded in death by her father Willard, infant brother Peter Carson Moser and second husband Michael “Rollo Banks” Malone. Private family services will be held in Port Arthur and New Hope, PA, where her ashes will be interred in family plots.

Margaret did not forget about Austin friends and family. She wrote out details for her memorial celebration of life to be held at Antone’s on a Sunday afternoon to be named later. Music directors will be Charlie Sexton and Monte Warden, who she championed when they were kids more than 35 years ago. Let what Margaret Moser cultivated long live on.

by Michael Corcoran

Unattributed quotes are from the Austin Chronicle’s “The Importance of Being Margaret Moser” special section 6/30/17.

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“Where To Begin” by the Damnations

Posted by mcorcoran on August 24, 2017

Here’s “Where To Begin” from the 2006 Bruce Robison-produced Damnations LP which was never released.

      1. Where To Begin

The great cover of “Sally Go Round the Roses”

      2. 04 Sally Go Round The Roses

Here’s a more bluegrass track from the sessions. Title unknown. This is the kind of material the Damnations built their name on.

      3. Unknown title - Damnations

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Unsung Pioneers of Austin Music Mural

Posted by mcorcoran on August 10, 2017

Tim Kerr photo by Joe Salinas 8/10/17

As a musician, Tim Kerr has been on the ground floor of punk-funk (Big Boys, Bad Mutha Goose), grunge (Poison 13) and neo-soul (Now Time Delegation), so it’s fitting that he paint an homage to Austin music pioneers at the corner of E. 9th and Red River Streets. Commissioned by Public City, we worked together (me: research, Tim: paint) on bringing these obscure artists to life on the side of a building: Here are their stories:

 

Singer-pianist Ernie Mae Miller, born in 1927, grew up in East Austin royalty. Her grandfather, L.C. Anderson, is the namesake of Anderson High School, which was Austin black high school until closed by desegregation in 1971. (Anderson High reopened in 1973 on Mesa Drive as an integrated school.)

But none of Ernie Mae’s fans at such downtown joints as Dinty Moore’s and the Driskill Hotel knew her backstory- or cared. They came out for the songs, for Miller’s voice, for her piano playing.

She played saxophone in the Anderson High Yellow Jackets marching band, under the tutelage of legendary band director B.L. Joyce, who also mentored jazz trumpet great Kenny Dorham and Charlie Parker’s future bassist Gene Ramey. After graduating from Anderson in 1944, Ernie Mae attended Prairie View A&M, where she joined that school’s 16-piece, all-girl swing band, who toured the country in the summers, including a stint at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Miller’s home base from 1951- 1967 was the downstairs Creole Room of the New Orleans Club at 1122 Red River St. She played “The Saints Go Marching In” every night, but also sang standards made famous by Billie Holiday, who she was often compared to. On UT football game days, the N.O. Club would be packed and Ernie Mae would get everyone on their feet with “The Eyes of Texas.” She had the talent and the repertoire to play both fancy lounges and lowdown blues joints.

“Among Austin’s legendary pianists such as Robert Shaw, Erbie Bowser and Roosevelt “Grey Ghost” Williams, Ernie Mae Miller takes her place with everlasting honors,” wrote Margaret Moser in the Austin Chronicle on the occasion of Ernie Mae’s 80th birthday.

The great singer-pianist, who recorded a “Live At the New Orleans Club” LP in the 1960s, passed away three years after that 2010 cover story.

 

The Gant Family Singers have been called “Austin’s First Family of Song,” having recorded over 40 folk tunes for ballad hunter John A. Lomax and his son Alan for the Library of Congress in 1934 and ‘35. The Gants, led by mother Maggie, with her daughters on vocals and sons on guitars, were discovered by John Henry Faulk, who told UT classmate Alan Lomax about them. The Gants had a repertoire of about 200 genuine folk songs, ranging from jailhouse ballads to play ditties to cowboy songs and minstrel tunes. The most prominent of those, in retrospect, was “When First Unto This Country a Stranger I Came,” which Joan Baez and Bob Dylan sang live and Jerry Garcia and David Grisman recorded in 1993. They all learned it from the 1960s folkies the New Lost City Ramblers, who heard it from the Gants’ Library of Congress recordings.

The Lomaxes had just started recording the Gants when they left town with their prized discovery Leadbelly in 1936.

Even though their contribution was incomplete, the Gants left a body of work that puts them as “among the most important informants on traditional music that no one’s ever heard of,” says Minnesota musician/folklorist Lyle Lofgren.

In her 2008 memoir “Sing It Pretty,” John Lomax’s daughter Bess Lomax Hawes, who was 12 when she met the Gants, recalled that the family’s house on the Colorado River about half a mile west of Deep Eddy Pool, was constantly flooded. “But that old river never could stop the flow of their extraordinary repertory of Anglo-American balladry and folksong.”

The family proudly accepted an invitation to sing at the Texas Centennial in Dallas in 1936. Tragedy hit that same year, however, when oldest son Nephi was shot to death after a fight at Ollie’s Place at the corner of E. Fourth and Waller Streets. The family moved to Houston in the late ‘30s for jobs in the Ship Channel and never played in public again, aside from Mormon church functions.

Here’s how I found out about them.

 

Gilbert Askey left Austin for good at age 17 in 1942, but the former Motown arranger, who received an Oscar nomination for his work with Diana Ross on “Lady Sings the Blues,” told the American-Statesman in 2011, “Austin has never left me.”

Askey helped discover the Jackson 5 and was musical director on tours by the Four Tops, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Supremes. He co-wrote hits for Curtis Mayfield and Linda Clifford, and yet while in town from Australia, where he lived the last 30 years of his life, Askey wanted to talk more about musicians he played with on the Anderson High Yellow Jackets marching band, including Kenny Dorham, Roy and Alvin Patterson, Ray Murphy, Paris Jones, Warner “Rip” Ross and Buford Banks (trumpeter Martin’s dad).

What set Askey apart from all the other horn players of East Austin was a gift for arrangement and composition that he didn’t know he had until after getting out of the Army Air Corps in 1944 and enrolling first at the Boston Conservatory of Music and then the prestigious Harnett National Music Studios in Manhattan.

Askey got his first call from Motown in 1965 to produce and arrange the “Prime of My Life” album for Billy Eckstine. When the Supremes’ hits slowed down in 1967, Motown mastermind Berry Gordy decided to make a record that crossed over to an older Broadway crowd. He tapped Askey for “The Supremes Do Rodgers & Hart” and also appointed him the group’s musical director on live shows, including the 1970 “Farewell” performance in Las Vegas that was Ross’ last show before going solo. Askey was also an arranger on the legendary “Motown 25” show where M.J. debuted his moonwalk.He passed away in April 2014 at age 89.

Leon Payne was born in the Northeast Texas town of Alba in 1917, but learned to play music in Austin at the Texas School For the Blind, which he attended from ages 5- 18. One of his teachers was Henry Lebermann (the grandfather of future Austin Councilman Lowell Lebermann), whose pupils also included the famous whistler Fred Lowery and Pat Garrett’s daughter Elizabeth, who went on to write the state song of New Mexico.

After graduating, Payne was known as the Blind Hitchiker, and one of the buses that picked him up had “Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys” painted on the side. Payne played with the group in 1938, but soon set out with his own band the Lone Star Buddies. As a solo artist, Payne had a No. 1 country hit in 1949 with “I Love You Because,” written for his wife Myrtie, a former classmate at the School for the Blind he reconnected with and married in 1948. Payne is best known today as a songwriter, penning big hits for Hank Williams (“They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me,” “Lost Highway”), Dean Martin (“You’ve Still Got a Place In My Heart”), Jim Reeves (“Blue Side of Lonesome”), Carl Smith (“You Are the One,” later covered by Smith’s daughter Carlene Carter) and many more. “I Love You Because” was the first song Elvis Presley recorded for Sun Records.

Payne died in San Antonio in 1969 and was inducted into the Nashille Songwriters Hall of Fame the next year. But received his greatest honor in 1971, however, with the LP “George Jones Sings the Great Songs of Leon Payne.”

 

Blind George McClain was described as a cross between George Jones and Ray Charles. It was his R&B side that had a big influence on the Austin club scene. Jimmie Vaughan has said pianist McClain, who stomped out a beat in his stocking feet on a wooden board, was the musician who convinced him that the One Knite, at 801 Red River St., could be a blues club. Before Jimmie, brother Stevie Ray, Joe Tex’s guitarist W.C. Clark, Angela Stehli, Denny Freeman and others took over and made the One Knite the first blues club west of I-35, it was primarily a folk/country haven, with acts such as Kenneth Threadgill, Joe Ely, Alvin Crow and Bill Neely. Blind George was the link.

McClain, who worked by day at the state blind school where he graduated, was a fixture at such clubs as the Split Rail on South Lamar and Sit N’ Bull on Guadalupe St.. But his most notorious gig was at the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1973, when he opened for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. A notorious crank, Zappa would’ve rather not had an opening act, but he made a compromise, stating that his opener be a solo act with no set-up requirements. McClain took his seat at the Armadillo piano that night and impressed Zappa so much that he took the blind piano player out on tour with him.

 

Camilo Cantu, the accordion great nicknamed “El Azote de Austin,” the Scourge From Austin, because he’d go to towns and blow everybody away, was never recorded. He gave up performing in 1963 to concentrate on the accordion repair business he ran out of his house in South Austin, and gave his songs to protégé Johnny Degollado. “He was up there with all the greats — Narciso Martinez, Valerio Longoria, Don Santiago Jimenez,” Degollado said in 1998, after Cantu died, at age 90.

It was a 1942 performance by Cantu at the old La Polkita joint in Del Valle that inspired a 7-year-old Degollado to learn the accordion. “I just stood there, watching Mr. Cantu’s fingers move and that big sound from the accordion,” J.D. said. “I was hooked.” Cantu later taught Degollado the “sordita” tuning that gave the accordion a fuller sound.

In Austin, Cantu played mainly at Janie’s Place on E. 7th Street, owned by his first wife. He wrote an instrumental in homage to the bar called “La Calle Siete,” one of his few compositions that he gave a title to because drunks would request it by singing (badly) the melody.

When El Azote was inducted to the Conjunto Hall of Fame in 1987, he sent an emissary to pick up the award. “Mr. Cantu didn’t care about recognition,” said Degollado, who has recorded many of Cantu’s songs so they’d never be forgotten.

Long before Eric Johnson there was Oscar Moore, who blueprinted the role of jazz guitar in small combos when he backed Nat King Cole from 1937-1947. He and brother Johnny Moore, whose Three Blazers had a huge hit with “Driftin’ Blues” in 1946, learned guitar in Austin, where they lived on E. Fifth St. and Red River. The Moore family moved to Phoenix when Oscar was a teenager. Influenced by fellow-Texan Charlie Christian, Oscar Moore switched from blues to jazz in L.A., playing with Lionel Hampton and Art Tatum before Cole. He won Downbeat’s poll as best guitarist three years in a row.

He left the King Cole Trio after Nat’s new wife Maria convinced the singer to pay the other two members as sidemen, instead of splitting the money evenly, as they’d been doing. That ended up being a bad move for a proud and bitter Oscar, who didn’t have much success on his own. He worked as a bricklayer in his later years and died in Las Vegas in 1981 at age 65.
But when you listen to the original version of “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole, you’re hearing Oscar Moore (born Dec. 25, 1915) on guitar, so his sound lives on.

 

Pentecostal piano pounder Arizona Dranes (b. 1889) was probably the most influential musician Austin’s ever produced. Before she recorded for OKeh Records in Chicago in 1926, no one had ever played keyboards on a gospel record. Dranes is credited with inventing “the gospel beat,” which was revved up years later as rock n’ roll.
A native of Sherman, TX, Dranes attended the Institute for Blind Colored Youth off Bull Creek Road in Austin from age 7 until she was 21. Playing music was one of the main ways the blind could make a living, so Dranes began her training in first grade. By fourth grade she was playing classical music and singing arias. But her records were more barrelhouse than Beethoven. She was among the very first to put religious lyrics to secular sounds, which Thomas A. Dorsey, “the Father of Gospel Music” picked up on when he switched from blues to spirituals.

The first musical star of the Church of God In Christ, Dranes spent most of her career helping to open new COGIC ministries in Atlanta, Birmingham, Cleveland and Oklahoma. At Roberts Temple in Chicago, Dranes’ fiery performances, often playing piano with her elbows and leaping mid-song when the spirit overtook her, inspired a young churchgoer named Rosetta Nubin, who would later find fame as Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Dranes’ obscurity today suggests the adage that what happens in church stays in church. Her last recording was in 1930, with a duet on “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room,” with fellow former Texan Rev. F.W. McGee. Dranes died in 1963 in Los Angeles, at age 74, with nary an obit to mark her passing- or her influence. But in 2012, a retrospective CD “He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes” was nominated for a Grammy as best historical recording.

 

 

 

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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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Damnations “Heart Like a Hotel” bio

Posted by mcorcoran on August 3, 2017

Note: this was written in 2005 for an album that never came out. The Damnations broke up soon after.

They’re one of the hippest bands in a hip scene, able to channel the Minutemen and the Carter Family, sometimes on the same song, but ask the Damnations which recordings influenced their third album “Heart Like a Hotel” and for a second there you’d think you posed the question to a feather-haired cover band from 1978.

“We would go up to Bruce’s (co-producer Robison) office and listen to records like “Rumours” by Fleetwood Mac, just to key on certain sounds that they were getting down,” says Deborah Kelly, who fronts the band vocally with sister Amy Boone.

They’ve been pegged “the Everly Sisters” by one critic for shimmering harmonies such as those on album-opening “Where To Begin,” but Kelly and Boone sang together in unison, not harmony, on the new LP’s “Shoulda Been Water,” an effect they learned from the Mac.

At the other end of the listening spectrum was Frank Sinatra’s “One For My Baby,” which set the model for the moody piano on “Fool’s Errand,” a song that exemplifies the expansion of repertoire on “Heart Like a Hotel.” The black and white keys add new colors to the country and rock forms explored so engagingly on the Damnations previous albums, “Half Mad Moon” from 1999 and 2002’s “Where It Lands.”

The records in Robison’s collection that best define “Heart” are by artists like Dusty Springfield and Bobbie Gentry.

L-R Deborah Kelly, Amy Boone-Corcoran, Rob Bernard

This is the latest in a growth pattern fans have followed since the band almost instantly became an Austin club sensation, then a major label act, soon after forming in 1997. The Damnations are the typical Austin music story in reverse. Where many talented bands struggle for years for a big break, the Damnations were signed to Sire Records less than a year after ace guitarist Rob Bernard joined to solidify the lineup.

But now, after recording two albums on Sire’s dime, the band is getting the scuffling days they were deprived of by the quick ascent that landed them on “Conan O’Brien” in 1999 and on a cross-country jaunt members jokingly called the Star of David tour because tracing the route looked like a five-pointed diagram.

“We knew we weren’t ready,” Boone says of the major label deal, “but it’s hard to say ‘no’ to someone who wants to give you money to make records.” The sisters from Schoharie, New York, who moved to Austin in the early ’90s, were having the times of their lives, touring with Cake, recording “Sally Go Round the Roses” for the soundtrack to “A Walk On The Moon,” and being hailed as hometown heroes when they returned to sold out dates. It all happened so fast.

“Our manager wanted us to be famous,” Kelly says, “but we were just happy to have a band and to be able to make money from playing music.”

After getting some airplay with the soulful “Unholy Train” from the debut, the pressure was on to sell records with album #2. Although the band loves the results of “Where It Lands,” they were ready to get off the major label merry-go-round so they asked Sire president Seymour Stein if they could take the finished album as a parting gift and he generously agreed.

But that silver lining was soon consumed by a black cloud. Just as “Where It Lands” was picking up steam, getting major airplay in Austin on both mainstream country (KVET) and Americana (KGSR), the band’s distributor Southwest Wholesale crashed into Chapter 7 bankruptcy, owing the band several thousands dollars in unpaid royalties. Band members had to re-enter the work force to help pay off the debt created when the cash flow dried up.

Fried and frazzled by the music biz experience, the band found solace, as always, in their songs. When they had a few they liked, the stepped into the studio with Jim Eno of Spoon, who’s long been a fan. But after laying down tracks for three numbers, Eno’s home studio was shut down for several months for expansion.

Another musician fan of the Damnations, hit songwriter Bruce Robison (“Angry All the Time,” “Travelin’ Soldier”) heard the demos and asked the band if they wanted to make their album at his new analog studio, Premium Recording Service.

Robison understands that what sets the Damnations apart are the vocals of Kelly and Boone, which meld together like a warm spoon and sherbet, so he enlisted the help of engineer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Trail of Dead, Fastball), a master of mic placement. Robison also made full use of his natural reverb room, which helps give the album an overall warm sound.

In Robison, the Damnations found a kindred musical spirit, who had also been through the major label wringer. “He’s so open-minded,” says Boone. “He didn’t try to push us to do something that didn’t feel right to us.” Kelly, Boone, Bernard and drummer Conrad Choucroun may be somewhat shy and soft-spoken off-stage, but they know exactly what they want to do when it comes to their music. Their vision does not suffer tampering gladly.

By understanding that, Robison has gracefully pulled a wonderfully engaging album out a group that defies labeling.

They are now completely ready for their major label deal, but even though none is forthcoming, and “Heart Like a Hotel” will be released (date) on Robison’s Premium Records, the Damnations do finally feel blessed in the area of timing.

There’s financial debt and creative debt. The Damnations are not ashamed to admit that they’re still saving for a new van. But “Heart Like a Hotel” finds their inspiration level shooting way into the black.

 

 

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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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The Swan Song of the Austin Moser Awards

Posted by mcorcoran on June 29, 2017

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

Story originally published March 2014 on Arts & Labor blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by mcorcoran on June 12, 2017

Wash Phillips circa 1950

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Teague Chronicle 1907

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

Posted by mcorcoran on May 24, 2017

      1. 07 In My Life

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

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