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GETO BOYS AND D.J. SCREW: Where the Dirty South Began

Posted by mcorcoran on June 9, 2019


It’s East Austin in 2003 and the slow and furious promenade rolls almost non-stop. When an SUV, spewing trunk-rattling bass, sidles up to the corner of 12th and Chicon, the intersection sounds like Vietnam, 1968.

You’ve heard the stuff — that rap music with the nuclear bass that flattens out and sustains like a heavy appliance on the fritz. You’ve heard it whether you wanted to or not.

Houston-based hip hop, slowed and manipulated to sound like a hallucinogenic flashback, is the new punk rock. 

Three years after his Nov. 16, 2000, death, DJ Screw still rules the streets, wreaking havoc with his psychotic-sounding remixes. Forget the trippy delicates like PM Dawn and De La Soul; DJ Screw made rap music psychedelic. But the attendant lifestyle, which included “sippin’ lean,” codeine cough syrup, to get the full sluggishly hallucinogenic effect of the music, ended up killing him at age 29. Screw protege Big Moe dubbed Houston “The City of Syrup” with his 2000 album, but by the end of the year, the mayor of the screwheads was gone. The autopsy reported the cause of Robert Earl “DJ Screw” Davis Jr.’s death as an overdose of codeine, with traces of Valium and PCP also in the bloodstream.

Not since the death of Selena have so many Texas music fans grieved as when Screw died, quite simply, from trying to get too slow.

Other Houston producers, most notably Michael “5000” Watts of Swisha House, keep pumping out the slowed-down jams. But even Watts has to admit that, “Screw started the revolution. He slowed it down and chilled it out when all the other cats were trying to go faster, harder.”

The “Dirty South” sound (originally called “Down South”) was pioneered by the Geto Boys, rode dirty with UGK (Underground Kingz) in the mid-’90s and then was taken to the bank by Master P in the late ’90s. Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans joined the rumble and in December 2003, Southern hip hop accounted for six of the top ten slots on the Billboard Hot 100.

Houston was so hot it was hard to believe that in the late[KD1]  ’80s, the only Texas rap acts of any note were Donald “The D.O.C.” Curry, the Dallasite who hooked up with Dr. Dre and the N.W.A. crew, and the Geto Boys, who set out to make West Coast gangstas come off like Young MC. Houston rap was inferiority’s revenge, a reign of audio terror from a town tired of everyone saying they ain’t got shit!

Where Miami was known for its heavy bass sound in the late ’80s and L.A. was the home of “gangsta” rap, Dirty South mixed those elements and slowed ’em down with a beat equally influenced by ’60s Memphis soul and New Orleans funk.

With the 1989 release of the Geto Boys’ Grip It! On That Other Level, it became apparent that the other level was to rhyme more explicitly, more violently than anybody else. Just as the Sex Pistols hijacked standard rock riffs and forced them into their rebellion, the Geto Boys pinned traditional rap formats to the wall by the sheer intensity of their anger and confusion. The group’s motto — “We’d rather be hated for what we are, than loved for what we’re not” — was not an empty pose.

Featuring a dwarf with a slasher fixation named Bushwick Bill, a suicidal poet in Brad “Scarface” Jordan, and boxer playa Willie D, fresh from a stint in prison for robbing a Texaco station, the G.B.s pushed the envelope of bad taste so far it required extra postage. Rapping about urban paranoia over an Isaac Hayes sample, the Boys had a huge hit with “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me” in 1991, then became every frat boy’s favorite rap group after “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” (a resurrected forgotten single from 1993) became the nuts-swinging sound of Mike Judge’s 1999 cult hit Office Space.

The quartet, soon to be a trio with the exit of DJ Ready Red, began the ’90s in a haze of controversy. When producer Rick Rubin signed the Geto Boys to his Def American label in 1990, his distributor, Geffen, refused to release the group’s self-titled CD. The depictations of rape and mutilation, which the G.B.’s argued was a common subject of horror flicks, was too much for Geffen, which had no problem putting out Andrew Dice Clay’s sexist, homophobic comedy albums or the Satanic metal of Slayer. In an interview with Rap-A-Lot Records’ honcho James “Lil J” Smith in 1993, he implied that the G.B.’s were used by Rubin to get out of his Geffen deal and onto one with Warner Brothers that gave him more autonomy.

“Think about it,” said Smith, who now goes by J Prince. “It was a good business move on his part.” WB treated Geto Boys like a dirty diaper and after the musically powerful CD didn’t launch the trio onto the top tier of the gangsta world, they were back on Rap-A-Lot with a word to the record biz establishment: We Can’t Be Stopped.

Scarface, who wrote most of Bushwick’s rhymes and co-produced with his childhood friend Bido and a cat he met in New Orleans called N.O. Joe, had the most successful solo career of the group. The Diary (1994) and The Fix (2002) are considered masterpieces of streetwise rap.

Between those releases came D.J. Screw, who built on the bottom to change everything. One can debate which was the first rap record, who invented house music or whether punk rock started with the New York Dolls or the Ramones, but there’s no denying that Smithville native Robert Earl Davis originated the bass-heavy remix sensation that still reverberates today. It doesn’t matter who’s at the mixing board, the slowed down stuff is still called “screw,” in deference to the originator.

Working as a Houston DJ in the late ’80s, Davis accidentally hit the pitch button while a rap record was playing, slowing everything down and accenting the bass. There’s your big swang ‘n’ bang. Named after his penchant for damaging wack records by scratching them with a screw, Davis became DJ Screw and the subgenre he invented was called “screwed and chopped.” Chopped refers to the technique of repeating and rearranging lines, first utilized in Houston by ’80s mixtape king Darryl Scott.  

“When you get hooked on screw, you can’t listen to anything else,” says Ahneris LaPicca, who co-owns Non-Stop Music in Austin. “The radio sounds too fast, like Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

A customer asks to sample the new Lil’ O CD, but rather than play a bit on the store sound system, LaPicca hands it to the guy, who takes it out to his car. It’s a new twist on listening stations. “This is ridin’ music, man,” LaPicca says. After a few minutes listening to the CD in his car, the customer says he’ll take it. He drives around the parking lot, swerving to the beat (“swangin’”) and cutting the wheel sharply (“bangin’”).

LaPicca calls his place a “screw shop,” not a record store, and estimates that 90 percent of his sales are screwed and chopped CDs from Houston. LaPicca estimates that there are about four or five “screw shops” in Austin, but there are also several fly-by-night entrepeneurs who sell bootlegged DJ Screw CDs out of their houses, flea markets, and the trunks of their cars. “It’s really hard to get the legit stuff,” says LaPicca.

In the beginning, you had to buy DJ Screw’s music like you were buying drugs. After he came upon his accidental innovation of slowing down hip hop, Screw started making tapes, remixes of national acts like N.W.A. and Above the Law, and selling them for ten dollars each at his house in the South Park section of Houston. Sometimes working around the clock for three days straight, with a crew of up to 15 rappers, Screw produced hundreds of albums, which he chose to sell on tapes he bought in bulk from Sam’s Club rather than on CD. Such was the demand in the mid-’90s, that Screw had to install a security gate that stayed closed until 8 p.m. every night. When it swung open, there were usually about a dozen fans, many who drove in from Dallas, New Orleans, Memphis, and even Atlanta, ready with their crisp twenties and fifties.

Eventually, the producer opened Screwed Down Records & Tapes on Cullen Blvd. in South Houston, where you shoved your money in a sliding tray to a clerk behind a plexiglass window. When his music first became widely available on CD in 1998, Screw caused such a single-minded sensation that thieves who broke into Austin’s hip hop mecca Musicmania stole only DJ Screw CDs and didn’t touch anything else in the store. The early rumor was that the selective heist was in retaliation for the DJ’s appropriation of other rappers’ work without compensation. (In Screw’s world, a royalty statement is something the Queen might say.) But the culprits were never caught.

Chuck D of Public Enemy once said that he understood the rage of the Geto Boys and the hard-edge of H-Town, when he visited the Fifth Ward, a beat-down neighborhood with its dirt roads and shanties. In comparison, Chuck D said the ghettos in NYC were like Club Med.

Everything about the Geto Boys was harder, even their posse’s choice of drugs. When you rode with the G.B.’s you snorted PCP or smoked “fry,” a marijuana-filled cigar soaked in embalming fluid which produces psychotic thoughts.

When Screw took over in the mid-’90s, his legion of “screwheads” popularized codeine cough syrup as a new form of mental dishevelment when they rode around sipping from large styrofoam cups of spiked Big Red. In actuality, Houston’s been partying on codeine since the late ’40s, when the Bronze Peacock Dinner Club served cough syrup sodas as soft drinks after “last call.”

In Houston in the ’90s — and far beyond — skull-melting volume became its own kind of drug. Listening to screw on a factory-installed system was like watching a killer whale in captivity. If you wanted to really free Willy, you had to get a custom job. You wanted the bass to fry your neck hairs, to knock your fillings loose.

Bass is a sound that you can physically feel. It grabs you and shakes you. In recent years, car shows have added competitions for the loudest bass sound, but instead of decibel meters, judges use a device that measures air pressure. It’s a physical thing, like surviving Houston as ghetto boys and girls.

It’s all about the big bottom end, those menacing sound waves that won’t back down. It’s about being the baddest mammal on the planet, about slinking in your ride, embracing the bass and feeling ten feet low and bulletproof.



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Roky’s Return to the River of Golden Dreams

Posted by mcorcoran on May 31, 2019

A rafter-shaking chant of “Raw-Key! Raw-Key! Raw-Key! Raw-Key!” with an ocean of overhead hands clapping in rhythm. Walking onstage at the Hultsfred Festival in June 2007 was psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson, who just six years earlier was in such a state of mental and physical dishevelment that it seemed unlikely he’d ever play another show.

But when Erickson and his band opened the Swedish set with “Cold Night for Alligators” – Erickson’s voice confident and shimmering, his guitar-playing forceful and instinctive – it became sensationally apparent that this wasn’t going to be a freak show, but a stunning resurrection.

When the set ended a euphoric hour later with a powerful version of the 1966 cult classic “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the former 13th Floor Elevators frontman reviving the banshee wail that turned Janis Joplin into a rocker, the crowd demanded an encore with such intensity that if it hadn’t gotten one, there probably would have been a riot.

The comeback of Roger Kynard Erickson (“Roky,” pronounced “Rocky,” combines the first two letters of his first and middle names) was the most improbable in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, as if Syd Barrett had rejoined Pink Floyd and stole the show.

Offstage, the man credited with inventing “acid rock” with the Elevators in the ‘60s was blowing minds by doing everyday things like driving a Volvo and exercising his right to vote. “It’s really a miracle,” said younger brother Sumner Erickson, who was awarded legal guardianship of Roky from their mother in 2001. Evelyn Erickson was an unorthodox caregiver, who supported her oldest child’s decision to not take his meds, even though it meant he sometimes had to sit between walls of white noise to quiet the voices in his head. Evelyn did not want to numb her gifted child.

Roky’s recovery started with medication and therapy and a move out of the section 8 housing , where he lived like a hermit except for daily visits from his mother. Sumner took him up to his home in Pittsburgh for a year and when Roky came back down to Austin he had new teeth and a smile, though he clearly still had mental issues.

For decades, Erickson wouldn’t let anyone touch him, but on recent tours of Europe and North America, he hugged fans back, signed autographs and posed for photos after shows. But it’s not like Roky could appear on a talk show. His words and thoughts don’t follow usual patterns.

“Where Roky’s concerned, ‘normal’ is just a setting on a washing machine,” said tour manager Troy Campbell. “He just comes out of left field sometimes, like the other day we had pizza and I asked if he’d had enough to eat and he said ‘I’m full as a ghoul.’”

“His musicianship, his voice is 100% back,” said Clementine Hall, the queen of the acid ball when the Elevators were the house band. “But I don’t know if he has the same wit and intellect. He didn’t say a thing at dinner.” Her and ex-husband Tommy Hall, the Elevators’ jug player and LSD guru, met with Roky after his San Francisco return in March 2007. The Roky she met in 1965, when Tommy poached the hellfire singer from his high school band, the Spades, and put him in front of an adventurous combo from Kerrville called the Lingsmen, was funny, unpredictable, full of offbeat energy.

Although it’s assumed, because it’s such a garage rock classic, that “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was a hit in the summer of ’66, the record peaked at #55 on the Billboard singles chart. It’s noted more for what it inspired, plus the way it’s turned into a Texas “last call” rock anthem. The debut LP The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (International Artists), which includes that first single, plus “Roller Coaster,” “Reverberation” and three songs from Powell St. John, was the first time “psychedelic” had been used to sell music. But this was no mere marketing ploy. This was a band that backed that far-out lifestyle all the way, with a “play the acid” mantra. They were right in time with Haight-Asbury, though 2,000 miles away.

“Tommy just wanted to get everybody high” Evelyn Erickson told me in 2007. “Well, Roky was already high. That’s where the trouble started.” Roky was the oldest of five boys, but always doted on like he was the youngest. Evelyn was a former opera singer turned religious, who liked to dress up and wrote poetry. Roky’s father Roger, an architect, was a workaholic and alcoholic, often away on business, so the first born became Evelyn’s neurotic obsession.

The band’s habit of ingesting LSD before every performance (except drummer John Ike Walton, who swore off after a bad trip) was not conducive to a long run. Who was thinking about the future during the time of assasinations and Vietnam? The band, featuring Stacy Sutherland’s proto-psych guitar, peaked with second LP Easter Everywhere, released 11 months after the debut. Third and final studio album Bull of the Woods, which finds Sutherland stepping up front for a barely-there Roky, was a frazzled double LP that had its moments. But mind expansion had turned into musical excess. Without Roky’s voice, the Elevators were too much like everybody else.

And that was it for the beloved cult band, which experienced a flashback of kudos after the inclusion of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (which Roky wrote as the 15-year-old and originally recorded with the Spades) on the landmark 1972 Nuggets compilation.

The band became moot when Roky pleaded insanity to avoid the penitentiary after a marijuana bust on Mount Bonnell in Feb. 1969. But after repeated escapes from the Austin State Hospital to see his girlfriend Dana, Erickson was shipped off to the maximum security Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane, where he spent two nightmarish years.

“The patient, a 21-year-old male, was incoherent when arrested for marijuana on Feb. 28, 1969. He has had private psychiatric care at Hedgecroft Hospital in Houston and has had electro shock treatments.”  – from Roky’s medical report, 3/19/69, Austin State Hospital

Clementine Hall said Roky was damaged from the EST, performed without consent. “Roky escaped from Hedgecroft, and Tommy brought him to stay with me in San Francisco,” she said of the summer of ‘68. “He was different. He said the Russians were talking to him through his teeth and that they wanted him to do bad things.” Clementine took him to the beach where he let the waves crash into his body, the only thing that calmed him.

After Rusk, Erickson’s once-trippy music took on horror movie themes, such as “Creature With the Atom Brain” and “I Think of Demons.” He called himself the Evil One, his band the Aliens and made some pretty good records on his good days. His 1976 single “Red Temple Prayer (Two-Headed Dog)” shared Rolling Stone’s top single of the year with “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols. “Don’t Slander Me”/”Starry Eyes” was another triumph in 1984. On the eve of that single’s release, Roky told Third Coast magazine, “When I write a song I like to do it for an audience, but a lot of times my music scares them because they don’t understand what I’m trying to say.”

When he played the Ritz Theater in Austin in 1987, backed by Will Sexton, Speedy Sparks and other longtime supporters, it felt like the final Roky Erickson concert. He struggled and seemed lost. The magic was gone.

Roky didn’t play a show for 18 years. The resurrection started in March 2005 when Keven McAlester’s engrossing documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me premiered at SXSW. Days later, a clean-shaven and cordial Erickson played three songs at Threadgill’s to great acclaim. “It was advertised that Roky would do only one song, ‘Starry Eyes,’” said Peyton Wimmer, a longtime mental health counselor and family friend. “So, when he played a second and a third song, we were pretty shocked.” Four years of anti-schizophrenic medication and a new set of teeth, paid for by Henry Rollins, had given Roky the confidence to get back up in front of people. Six months later, he played to a crowd of well over 10,000 at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, tears of joy and disbelief streaming down the faces of fans. The next year, Erickson and his band, featuring Cam King on guitar, played Coachella and first-ever appearances in New York, Chicago and London.

“Guys like Roky make music that’s an amazing place to go,” Rollins told the Austin American Statesman as the comeback roared. “Coltrane and Miles and Hendrix were able to do this. It becomes more than the music and more than the lyrics- a total environment.”

On Christmas Day 2006, Erickson weaned himself off Zyprexa, his final medication. “I’ve seen some pretty remarkable recoveries,” said Wimmer, “but none as dramatic as Roky’s. It’s very rare for someone to come completely off meds and do so well.” 

Sumner Erickson has to laugh. “It turns out Mom was right about Roky not needing medication.” The family reconciled after the screening of You’re Gonna Miss Me, with Evelyn telling her sons that she had no idea how much stress she’d been under. 

Roky Erickson is the way he is because of the weird and lovely Evelyn, who could’ve been played by Ruth Gordon the day I met her. I think she was about 80, but you could see in her the 24-year-old. She was the kind of woman that might get up and dance to the jukebox at a bar. At 80. “He was babied and babied and babied by his mother into total helplessness,” Clementine Hall told writer Paul Drummond in the exhaustive bio Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators. “But I’ll say for her that she also made him an extremely loving and generous person.”  

In 2010, Erickson made his first album in a decade and a half, backed by Austin indie-rock darlings Okkervil River. It seemed an odd musical coupling at first- Austin’s mystical madman and its articulate Pitchfork band. Erickson’s triumphant return to performing was based on his ability to rock hard on such setlist exclamations as “Don’t Slander Me,” “Two-Headed Dog” and “Slip Inside This House,” so it was assumed that his comeback album would be one of screeching vocals and big sonic strokes.

But producer Will Sheff, the Okkervil River guide, had a different idea. True Love Cast Out All Evil (Anti Records) is a record of tattered little songs that had practically been abandoned, brought back in a spiritual whirl of dust and hope. 

“I obsessively listened to about 60 songs that Roky had written, that were either never recorded or minimally released,” Sheff said. Although he’s a fan of Erickson’s “horror rock” material, Sheff found himself drawn more to the songs of simple grace. “Roky was in a prison for two years and he had to come to terms with the thought that his musical career could be over,” said Sheff. Such freshly recorded songs as the title track, the delicately moving “Forever,” the haunting “Goodbye Sweet Dreams” and the album’s hinge “Please Judge” were the soundtrack to the years when he went from Austin’s golden child to its most notorious recluse. “These songs were written to serve the immediate purpose of keeping him sane,” said Sheff. “They’re so powerful.”

“Roky’s one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll singers of all time and a completely unique guitar player,” said Sheff, who earned a Grammy nomination for his liner notes. “But I think the way I’ve most been influenced by working with him is in his lyrics, the way he puts words together in a totally jarring way. He’s created his own private vocabulary.”

If not the greatest musician Austin has produced, Roky Erickson is certainly the most influential. In March 1966, Janis Joplin and the 13th Floor Elevators shared a stage for the first and only time. It was a benefit for ailing fiddler Teodar Jackson at the Methodist Student Center on the U.T. campus. Janis belted out blues songs accompanying herself on an acoustic guitar early in the show and stood at the side of the stage when Roky and the Elevators practically levitated the crowd with their intense mind and soul control. “Janis took a long, hard look at Roky and his energy,” recalled St. John, who was also on the bill. “She was riveted.” Three months later, Joplin was a screeching rocker herself, fronting Big Brother and the Holding Company.

The year Joplin died of a heroin overdose, 1970, Erickson was locked up in a hospital with murderers and rapists. His mind was going, going, going…

But coming on 50 years later, Roky was touring the world in the palm of worship. He’s not only a garage rock legend, but the living lesson ‘60s psychedelia ignored. Time, it turns out, is the one that has the answer.

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Memphis 1994

Posted by mcorcoran on May 11, 2019

It’s the latest in a series of dead Friday nights on Beale St., and if 11-year-old “Little Momo” Tabron appears any more bored, you’ll be tempted to snap your fingers in front of his face.

This kid – who’s spent half his life playing drums for tips on Beale – looks as if he’d much rather be playing video games. And yet he never drops the beat.

His father, Moses Tabron, yelps the vocals and plays the trumpet as if this family trio (rounded out by wife/mother Laurie on keyboards) were a full-fledged R&B revue. Instead of headlining at the New Daisy Theatre, they’re playing on the sidewalk in front, where three drunken guys, one in a cowboy hat, smile and sway to the mobile soul music.

One of the three guys puts a dollar bill in the tip jar and whispers a request to Moses who gives him a “you must be kidding” glance.

“Ah, man,” says Moses, “you’re in Memphis.”

It’s anyone’s guess what song the man wanted to hear, but you can be sure that it wasn’t one of the thick, raw, gritty, soulful, greasy, heart-pumpin’ songs that Tennessee’s real music capital is known for. Just as they won’t serve you bland gumbo in New Orleans or a nine-ounce lobster in Maine, no Garth Brooks covers are allowed in the city that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll and sweet soul music.

The home of Elvis Presley – the fans still flock to his grave at Graceland in Memphis – Sun Records, B. B. King, Carla Thomas, Al Green, Hi Records, Booker T. & the MG’s, Junior Parker, Stax Records and Carl Perkins – Memphis is where straw-chewin’ country music belly-ed up to gritty R&B and where the down-and-dirty blues went to church and came out screaming about R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Memphis is the mystical crossroads where the blacktop collides with the sky to create blessed percussion.

Those familiar with Memphis describe it as they might an exciting street corner, where intersecting ideas lean up against the lights and wait for something to happen . . . and it always does.

Perched on one of the Mississippi River’s highest bluffs, Memphis has long been a place that drew people. Before humans inhabited the area, animals flocked to the Chickasaw Bluff, on which Memphis is built. The main thoroughfare of Poplar Ave., in fact, was once a buffalo trail.

Producer Jim Dickinson, who’s worked with everyone from bluesman Furry Lewis to the Replacements, theorizes that the same force that makes people gravitate to Memphis makes its recording climate so special. “Recording is just magnetizing tape, so whatever pull there is in the air can have an effect in the studio,” he says.

Led Zeppelin used to record at Ardent Studios. ZZ Top still does. Even such alternative groups as the Replacements, Gin Blossoms, Tragically Hip, Afghan Whigs, Primal Scream and the Dallas band Spot have trekked to Memphis, hoping that some of the storied groove would rub off on them.

But even as Memphis earned a national reputation for creating thrilling sounds, the city fathers discouraged its image as a center of black music and culture, Dickinson says. Under the auspices of urban renewal, much of Beale St. was torn down in the ’70s. And the old converted theatre on East McLemore Ave. that housed the legendary studio and offices of Stax Records met with the wrecking ball in the late ’80s.

“It’s just a case of the city getting rid of black history,” Dickinson says. “They were always embarrassed that Beale St. had this wild reputation, so they tried to erase it. And the ironic thing about Stax being torn down is that it was done by the black church that owns the land.

“There were no plans to put up anything else, they just wanted it gone so they wouldn’t be reminded of the sinful music that came out of that building. It’s awful to think about just how much has been lost.”

Dickinson says that, in the past few years, the city leaders have tried to embrace the Memphis musical legacy, realizing that it’s the city’s No. 1 attraction to visitors. But it’s nostalgia that’s thriving, at the expense of contemporary sounds.

“Beale St. goes through spurts,” Moses Tabron says after his family’s last set, “but right now it’s sputtering. The people just ain’t comin’ out like they used to, and the feeling ain’t there.” He counts the night’s take – about $100 – while Little Momo breaks down his drum kit and Mom packs up her keyboards.

“Beale St.’s comin’ back,” he says, as if to convince himself. “There’s just too much history here, too many memories. You know, it’ll always keep comin’ back.”

Tabron looks over at his station wagon and gives the “on my way” signal to Momo, who drums the dashboard and shoots back an “any day now” look. He just wants to go home.

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Rock Critic Confessions

Posted by mcorcoran on February 8, 2019

Notes on a rock critic life

It’s a risky business, having ideas in public. Sometimes it’s better to let a thought simmer in your head for a few days before airing it out.

Example: Backstage at the opening date of Lollapalooza ’94 in Las Vegas, I was having a nice conversation with Kirk Hammett, the friendly and unassuming guitarist from Metallica. Since profiling his band for Creem a few years ago, I’ve run into Kirk a few times, and he’s always been very cool. Just a regular guy.

We were talking about Billy Corgan’s proficiency as a guitarist – me saying the big Pumpkin was a great player, the true guitar hero of alternative rock, and Kirk calling him “a little too retro.” Then Kirk qualified his opinion with a joke:

“How many guitarists does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

Answer: “Fifty: One to screw it in and 49 to say they could do it better.”

I was the envy of my rock-scribe peers, who drifted closer to me and Kirk, hoping to overhear something for their story and maybe pick up a few pointers about how to be so hip that rock stars will talk to you without someone named Heidi having to set it up.

Everything was going well until Nick Cave’s guitarist walked by wearing tight black pants, a pink shirt, pointy shoes and a cowboy hat. He was holding his ax, and I had this thought that I couldn’t wait to share.

“Being in a band used to be so cool,” I said when the Cave-man passed. “It was real daydream material, but nowadays it’s kinda ridiculous to be in a band. The rock scene is all over. In five years, we’ll be talking about rock musicians the way we think of mimes today.”

I hit my stride and kept going. “I think the public is finally catching on to the rock ‘n’ roll facade,” going on and on about how insincere and cynical rock has become. I questioned the motives of the modern musician and, with a sweep of my arm across the stage and the audience, I said, “This is all based on myth and illusion, and heaven help the poor saps who believe in it.”

This didn’t sit well with either Hammett, who suddenly realized he had to be somewhere else, or the eavesdropping crit clique, which pretty much jumped me for the next 10 minutes. Heck, they were just about to introduce themselves to Metallica’s guitarist, and I blew it.

The more I think about what I said, though, the more I’m convinced that I was right. And you know what? A good example of this devitalization of rock is Metallica. They used to be a great band because they stood for something more than playing chords and flinging hair. Unpretentious and hard-working, Metallica was the home team, the good guys, the one metal band that received universal respect.

But now we see that the band, which held off making a video until its fourth album, is slated to play at the 25th anniversary of Woodstock, in tribute to the naive, sunshiny hippie spirit that Metallica’s songs blow to smithereens. Tickets to Woodstock ’94 cost $135 each and originally were sold only in blocks of four. If Metallica cared as much about their fans as they used to, they’d realize that most fans don’t have that kind of money, let alone three friends.

When drummer Lars Uhlrich hooked up with guitarist James Hetfield and original lead guitarist Dave Mustaine (now with Megadeth) in 1980, it was a time when hard-rock bands were a blur of leather, sparkles, headbands and poofy hair. But Metallica, which took its cue from several obscure European metal bands like Diamond Head and Tygers Of Pan Tang, went onstage wearing T-shirts and jeans.

Riding Hetfield’s unique lead guitar style, the influenced became the influential with their 1983 debut LP, Kill ‘Em All. As inspirational to the current thrash scene as the Ramones’ first album was to punk, Kill ‘Em All set the blueprint for most of the heavy metal that would come after it. When early stage fright speeded up its songs, Metallica found a new beat that plugged right into the socket of frustration and alienation. The sound was a raw conspiracy of jackhammer beats, guitars that sounded like huge Wagnerian bees and the voice of Hetfield, which implied Satan possessing a choirboy.

A blast of integrity in the face of all the phonies who formed bands just so they could get chicks, Metallica was one of the first Los Angeles metal bands that could find the righteous groove.

Every two years they’d get off tour long enough to make a pretty decent metal album. And they always had the best T-shirts.

In 1991, however, something horrible happened to Metallica: They became hugely successful rock gods, selling more than 10 million copies of their self-titled album and even having a Top 10 hit with Enter Sandman. The band members tried to keep things from deviating into the usual rock star trappings, but they changed anyway, if only in perception.

Metallica tried to rekindle that closeness they’d once had with their fans by designing a stage that had about 50 seats sunk down into the middle of it. The problem with the pit was that it felt like a pit and the “lucky” fans looked like carnival geeks. You half expected the road manager to poke ’em with a stick every once in a while, which is not exactly the “we are you are we” effect the band was going for.

Metallica is a case of a band reaching the point where its music is overtaken by its popularity. What does Metallica mean anymore? Can Enter Sandman still have any relevance after we’ve heard it on the car radio about a thousand times? Metallica was cool in the beginning because it was so unlike the other hard rock bands. But its music has been made ordinary by its accessibility. Metallica used to be a band that someone had to tell you about, but all of a sudden its music was everywhere and its members’ faces were everywhere and we wondered if, you know, maybe they did start the band just to get chicks. The only thing they did wrong was to play the game and become superstars, but by doing so Metallica has become the band it once revolted against.

Sure, they can still kick heads in concert; they’re a very tight and powerful band. But look closely at Metallica onstage and you see guys with guitars around their necks and sticks in their hands. And hundreds of people backstage waiting to tell them how great they are.

Next?

The truth: I’ve attended almost every single concert I reviewed

I had this reputation for reviewing shows I didn’t actually see. Normally, a music critic would fight that sort of character assault, but I played it up. Rock n’ roll bad boy. Like preachers, music critics are in the myth biz.
In truth, it only happened twice, both times in Chicago. One was a popcorn offense- a local band promoting their new release with a pre-show Jagermeister party. This was 1990 and I’d never had the chilled liqueur before that tastes like licorice. After about six shots, I said “Are you sure there’s booze in this?” At least that’s what they told me. I was assisted to the couch they had in the dressing room at Lounge Ax to nap it off until show time.
I woke up to see the members of New Duncan Imperials toweling themselves off, with clumps of powder blue tuxedos on the floor. OK, no problem. They gave me the set list and told me a few of their antics and no one was the wiser when my 10-inch review ran in the Chicago Sun-Times.
The second time was much worse. It was the next year and my drinking had gotten way worse as I was on the outs with The Love of My Life #3. Got a call one day with a question that my mind answered “Fuck, yeah!” while my mouth said let me check my schedule, why, yes, I am available that day. “Do you want to review the Neil Young concert in Chicago for Rolling Stone magazine?”
This was back when Rolling Stone really meant something. And Neil was hot again with “Ragged Glory,” the album with Crazy Horse, topping many year-end lists. This was the tour with Sonic Youth and Social Distortion opening. You dream about reviewing Neil Young for Rolling Stone. And it was big money for me.
It didn’t matter that I was only moderately familiar with Mr. Young’s oeuvre. I brought my friend Dave Suarez, who knew every burp. We were a couple of lunks in the crowd, drinking beers during the opening sets. When it was my turn to get more, right after Sonic Youth, I was in this massive line (thinking “Five dollars for a fucking beer!”) when my old friend from the Continental Club Terry Pearson walked by and did a double take. He had left Austin to be Sonic Youth’s sound man. “Hey, man,” he said after we hugged, “we’ve got beers backstage and the band is not big drinkers.” I had the full-on “Rolling Stone reviewing Neil” pass, so I just followed him back there.
OK, you’re way ahead of the story, but you’re not wrong. One Heineken became six or seven. I got along pretty well with Lee Renaldo, who took photos of my John-John tattoo, and I knew Steve Shelley from Debbie Pastor, while The Couple kinda checked me out like I was a sociology project. They want to see demented? We could hear Neil and Crazy Horse onstage, but I had to have just one more.
As I was leaving to go back into the arena, a single man was walking my way. Neil Young. Shit! The set was over, so I caught just the encore, which led off with the disposable “Welfare Mothers.” That song had never received as much ink as on the subsequent RS review. I scrambled back to Suarez. “You missed a great show, man.” What did he play, what did he say, details, details, details? But I guess Dave was pissed I never came back with his beer. He couldn’t remember shit.
The biggest Neil Young fan I knew was Rick from 11th Dream Day, so I called him up the next day. I could’ve been coy, like “What were your favorite songs last night?” But I just came out and told him what happened and he saved my ass. Not only knew the entire set list, but which guitar tunings were used. So I wrote the review and everything was cool.
Made one big mistake, though. I trashed Sonic Youth, who bored the hell out of me. (As always.)
About a week after the full-page review was published, I got a call from Barbara O’Dair, the assigning editor. Someone narked on me, most likely The Couple. “We heard you were getting drunk backstage for most of the show,” she said. Um, well, um, I was taking some new medication, and um, I felt faint, um, and I have a friend with Sonic Youth, um, do you know Terry Pearson? Great sound man. You know he got the gig with Sonic Youth because they were double-booked one night in Austin with Brave Combo and clear-headed Terry made it all work, and, um, he saw I was having trouble with the medication, and said why don’t you come backstage and lay down, and, um…”
I was fucked. No more assignments from Rolling Stone. But the weird thing is, I got a contract a few weeks later from Rolling Stone asking to reprint my review in a book they were doing on Neil Young.
A later Neil Young assignment would even further exemplify the kind of anti-critic I was. The editor called and said they were starting a new feature called Overrated/ Underrated, where two critics would state the pro-and-con cases for a certain artist. The first one would be Neil Young. I guess he read my Rolling Stone rave. Are you interested? Sure, I said, and we discussed money, length, deadline and all. But just before we hung up I said wait a second. “Which side do you want me to argue?”

Going through Manhattan to interview a neighbor

I’m like the Cat Lady of pet peeves I’ve got so many running around. One of my big ones is when an Austin musician hires a high-powered NYC publicist that you have to go through to set up an interview. I’ve been emailing back and forth six times, like a negotiation, to talk to someone whose house I pass on the way to and from HEB. This is the kind of publicist I hate, the one who wants to make sure you focus on what they want, which, in this case, is a new album coming out in a couple months. (I should point out that I’m not trying to interview Beyonce, but someone who plays the Continental Club.) Normally, at this point I would say “forget it” and move on to the next story. But I’m having fun toying with this woman. She kept asking me how much of the article is going to be about the new album (how the fuck do I know?) and I either ignored her or was intentionally vague. She was persistent because, you see, it makes her day when the story comes out and she can harangue the writer about how it ended up different from how he or she “promised” it would be.
After the third email, in which she specified emphasis points on the release, I almost emailed back “what album?” but I caught myself.
I’m not going to tell you who the Austin artist is, but if you read a 2,000-word article that mentions an upcoming album, without naming it or giving the release date, you’ll know they have a pushy NYC publicist. God, I love my job!

GRAMMY STORIES? YEAH, I GOT ONE

I’m not a great talker. I couldn’t sell earmuffs to an Eskimo. But I talked my way into the Grammys once. It was the night after I crashed Clive Davis’ A-list black tie party at the Beverly Hilton. Something was going on that year- 1995.

The Dallas Morning News sent me to L.A. for five days to cover the Grammys because this was back when big newspapers had a lot of money for shit like that. But I had to write different stories every day. I reviewed club shows by Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark, did a party scene report and hung out in the lobby during Clive’s big bash, just taking note of all the celebs for my daily column. I knew the publicist for Arista, Clive’s label, who was at the entrance checking credentials, then she came over to me and said, “Carlos Santana is coming on next and his new album (Supernatural) is going to be HUGE (it was). Clive would want a critic to see this, so I’m gonna turn my head and you’re gonna walk right past me, OK?”

So I did just that. I scooted by her in my black t-shirt and ripped jeans and found myself in a huge ballroom, full of big stars. Jerry Seinfeld, Mike Tyson, Puff Daddy, Bobby DeNiro, Will Smith – they were all sitting 10 feet away from me. Whitney Houston was onstage singing “Heartbreak Hotel” and then she was off and Santana came on with Wyclef from the Fugees. As soon as their song was over, I was being led out of the room by security, but I was grinning. I’d be able to write about attending the most exclusive Grammy party of them all, as if I was invited. Also, I talked to Dallas native Erykah Badu for 10 seconds when she was walking through the lobby, so I had a quote from a big local. Shit, man, I was gold.

Which was a relief because I had kinda fucked up a couple weeks earlier. I sent in my request for press credentials to the Grammys a little late and there was no room for me. But I’d covered the Grammys before and spent most of the time in the press room watching the show on TV. They’d parade the winners by every minute or so, but the quotes were hardly ever any good, so I figured that I could just cover the show from my hotel room and no one would be the wiser. The Associated Press had a file of backstage quotes I could pull from. Just had to give them credit at the bottom.

So I was getting all set up in my room. Beer on ice, joints rolled, just had to find what channel the show was on. This was about an hour before the Grammys were to start. I went to the channel menu for 5 p.m., which was 7 p.m. Dallas time, and no Grammys. I scrolled to the right and it said that the show aired at 8 Pacific. FUCK! They delayed the broadcast on the West Coast. I wouldn’t be able to watch it on TV and make my deadline. WTF! I didn’t know what to do but throw on some clothes and run down to the lobby and get a cab to the Shrine Auditorium.

Here’s a detail I don’t really need, but I’m gonna throw it out there to show just how fucked my day was going. About three blocks down Hollywood Boulevard I saw Elvis Mitchell on the sidewalk. My friend who was a bigwig in L.A. “Pull over!” I told the cab driver and I went over to Elvis to see if he had any suction with Rogers and Cowan, the Grammys publicists. Only, it wasn’t Elvis Mitchell. It was a black guy with long dreads in expensive clothing and black horn-rimmed glasses, but it wasn’t fucking Elvis! I turned around to see my cab leaving, so I had to run back to the hotel lobby and get another cab. I’m dripping with sweat, heart palping, all the way to the Shrine.

Every road was blocked off for about a quarter mile except for limos, so I had to run the rest of the way to the Grammys. So, I finally got there. Now what? I couldn’t get credentials a couple weeks ago; how were they going to let me in, sweating like a dopesick junkie, 10 minutes before the show started? But I didn’t have any other choice.

Luck shined on me, however, when I saw my old friend Chris Morris of Billboard. “Chris, please, could you send someone from Rogers and Cowan out here?” I said from outside a chain-link fence. About five minutes later there was some guy in a suit, looking at me with the right amount of skepticism. I told him my story and how I would probably get fired if he didn’t let me in. “There’s no place for you,” he said. Just let me watch the show from a monitor somewhere, I said. I don’t care if it’s in the men’s room. The guy, whose name was neither Rogers nor Cowan, said, “OK, but you owe me, big time.” Brother Theresa led me to the press room, picked up a big bowl of lettuce on the catering table and said “sit here.” And I did, for the whole show. Press folks would come by with their plates and fill up with cold cuts and carrot sticks and the like and then they’d get to me and turn around.

But I was in heaven. The adrenaline of just getting there had my fingers flying on the keyboard. I was sending all these great dispatches from backstage at the Grammys. Got a few short one-on-one interviews even (Chris from Soundgarden, Don Was, Booker T, Tony Bennett in the men’s room). Bruce Springsteen was winning everything for his “Streets of Philadelphia” song and so during the commercial break before Record of the Year, I finished my A1 recap. Just needed to hear the name “Bruce…” and I’d be sending before they got to “…steen.” I had really kicked ass.

“And the Record of the Year goes to…” My finger was ready. “Sheryl Crow for ‘All I Wanna Do’!” Are you fucking kidding me?!! Goddammit, man. Now I had to rewrite the whole first part of the article. And my final deadline was in 10 minutes. But I did it. And I was done. Shit, man, I even talked my way into the A&M Records party, just two blocks from the Roosevelt Hotel, where I was staying. What a motherfucking day!

That’s kinda like how every day is. I mean, not insanely hectic or heart-racing. But we just take things as they come- bring it on-  and do the best we can. But sometimes you look back and go “how did I pull that one off?”

Bitch!

Direct line to Billy Ray Cyrus

I became a pretty decent obit writer because of my time at the Dallas Morning News (’92-’95), which didn’t really hold entertainment writers in high regard unless they consistently landed on 1A. And the easiest way to get a front page byline was writing a celebrity obit. The Morning News didn’t use a single AP obit for a musician in the three years I was there.

When Coway Twitty died, however, I was busy as hell and kinda hoping my bosses would let me outta that one. But I was the country music critic at the time and CW was a major dude, I guess, so I had to fit it in. The reason the day was so stressful was that I had a phoner with Billy Ray Cyrus that took me two weeks to set up. It was during that period, right after “Achy Breaky Heart” came out, when Cyrus was the biggest thing in all of music. His first LP “Some Gave All” debuted at #1 on Billboard and stayed there for 17 consecutive weeks, a maiden run that’s never been matched. He was a sensation who hardly did any interviews, but since the DMN stories were picked up on the wire, his handlers felt they could just do mine and that would cover the country. It was a major coup. But then Conway Twitty died and I was distracted.

I was finishing up my Twitty obit when Billy Joe called for the 15-minute phoner. He politely asked me how I was doing and I said I had been gutted by the news of Conway Twitty (not really) and then Cyrus, very poignantly, told me how listening to Twitty when he was a boy made him realize that country music could also be pop and rock n’ roll without losing its twang. Boom, there was my lead quote on the obit! The next day I got all kinds of congratulations from the big editors, who thought I’d moved mountains to get a quote from the biggest star in the music biz. Today, this would be like Patti Labelle dying and getting fresh quotes from Beyonce. Even the New York Times couldn’t get ahold of “the new Elvis of country.” My Cyrus story wasn’t scheduled to run for another two weeks so they were sixpence none the wiser.

 

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12th and Chicon Soundtrack

Posted by mcorcoran on December 18, 2018

East Austin’s most infamous corner used to be called “The Ends” in the 1930s because that’s as far as the streetcar went on East 12th St. When buses replaced streetcars in 1940, 12th and Chicon was still the last stop. “We called it the Ends when I was coming up,” said Dorothy McPhaul, whose grandfather Simon Sidle, the antique dealer, lived on 12th and Chicon in the early ‘50s. The corner had it’s own language, like everyone called the liquor store “Blue-eyed” because the proprietor was an African-American with blue eyes.

From its 1935 opening until it burned down in 1973, the Harlem Theater anchored entertainment on the Ends. “They showed anything and everything that the ‘white only’ theaters were done with,” said Ed Guinn, one of the few blacks who was part of Austin’s hippie scene as a member of Conqueroo. “Saw lots of scratchy versions of films there for years.”

Our first entry is Willie Hutch’s “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” from The Mack, one of the last films shown at the Harlem Theater:

2.“I Got Rhythm” by Teddy Wilson Trio

Samuel Huston College dean of boys James Wilson and his teacher wife Pearl had a son Teddy, born in Austin in 1912. The family moved to Alabama when Teddy was six to take teaching jobs at the prestigious Tuskegee Institute. Teddy became the Jackie Robinson of jazz in 1935 when he integrated the Benny Goodman Trio (with Gene Krupa) and then went on to play with all the greats, but especially Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. (Ironically, THE Jackie Robinson taught P.E. at Huston in 1945.) This number features Gene Ramey, also born in Austin, on bass. Ramey’s illustrious career included stints in the bands of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

3. “Blues After Hours” by Pee Wee Crayton

Rockdale-born guitarist Pee Wee Crayton moved in 1935 to the West Coast, where he was a contemporary of Dallas guitarist T-Bone Walker. But he played Austin often after that, visiting some of his old haunts like Manning’s Café at 1810 E. 12th or the Club Alabama next door at 1808, currently the home of Dozen Street. He sat in at the original Charlie’s Playhouse at 1201 Chicon before it moved to E. 11th in 1957. Crayton had his first R&B #1 in 1948 with this instrumental on Modern Records.

“No Way Out” by Joyce Harris and the Daylighters

In 1960, rock n’ roll history was made when black band Clarence Smith (nee Sonny Rhodes) and the Daylighters backed Joyce Harris, a white female singer on Domino Records. Their raucous single “One Way Out” is a classic, highly valued by collectors. To this day some still think Joyce Harris is black. But the logistics could get hairy in Jim Crow Austin. Harris recalled looking for the Daylighters the day of the session. Finding them coming out of the White Swan (currently King Bee Lounge) she called out “Get in, fellas, we’ve gotta make a record,” but they initially refused to get in the car of a white woman in East Austin. They eventually got in and rode to Roy Poole’s studio on East Sixth Street ducked down below the windows. 

“Stop Now” by Bells Of Joy

Gospel and blues resided next to one another in urban neighborhoods and the best acts of those genres learned to borrow from the other one. Ray Charles has credited the smash 1951 religious smash, “Let’s Talk About Jesus” by Austin’s Bells Of Joy with inspiring his first #1 hit “I Got a Woman” (1954). In turn, the Bells, influenced by Ulit Street barrelhouse piano player Lavada Durst, put a lot of R&B into their sound.

“Tuxedo Junction” by Erskine Hawkins

Legendary band director B.L. Joyce, who founded the L.C. Anderson High Yellow Jackets in 1933, was a tailor by trade at 1706 E. 14th St. He also taught alterations at Sam Huston College and made sure all his musicians looked tight. Disciplinarian Joyce was a J.P. Sousa man- if he caught you playing jazz he’d throw you out of the band, so the top players like Kenny Dorham, Hermie Edwards, Ray Murphy, Paris Jones, Warner “Rip” Ross and Buford Banks (trumpeter Martin’s dad) would sneak off after band practice to play improvisational jazz in the backyard of Roy and Alvin Patterson at 1709 Washington Ave. Joyce bent his “no jazz” rule only once, when Anderson was not only getting its butt beat on the football field, but in the band section, by archrival Wheatley High of San Antonio. “They were showing us up, playing all these hot, big band swing numbers,” recalled Alvin Patterson, who replaced Joyce as band director in 1955.  “So Mr. Joyce called me over and said, ‘What was that swing thing you and Kenny were playing the other day when you thought I was out of listening range?’ I said that was ‘Tuxedo Junction’ and he said, ‘OK, let’s hear it.” The crowd went crazy when the band came out swinging.

“Runaway Love” by Linda Clifford

Another graduate of the Yellow Jackets was Gil Askey, the Motown trumpet-player/ arranger who was Diana Ross’s music director for 10 years. Askey’s mother was Ada DeBlanc Simond, the noted African American historian and author who penned the “Looking Back” column in the American-Statesman for several years. Nominated for an Oscar for his score for Lady Sings the Blues, Askey also wrote and produced this 1978 disco hit for NYC singer Linda Clifford.

“Night Train” by James Brown

All-black Anderson High produced not-only substantial musical talent, but a couple of major NFL players: Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson and Richard Lane. Nicknamed “Night Train” by fellow Los Angeles Ram Tom Fears in 1952, Lane intercepted 14 passes (in a 12-game season) that rookie year- a record that’ll probably never be broken, even in 16 games, plus playoffs.

“Here Comes the Judge” by Pigmeat Markham

Blues music integrated Austin like nothing before it. Bill Campbell, a white guitarist from Smithville, picked up blues singles at King’s Record Shop at 1812 E. 12th and East Side Records at 1213 E. 12th and learned to really play by sitting in with guitar slingers like Freddie King at Ernie’s Chicken Shack (1167 Webberville Road) and Sam’s Showcase at 1922 E. 12th. He showed a couple of brothers from Dallas named Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan where to find the real stuff. Campbell was especially valuable on tour with musical comedian Pigmeat Markham, whose 1968 recording of “Here Comes the Judge” laid the blueprint for hip-hop. Fellow guitarist Major Lee Burkes recalls that Campbell would rent two or three rooms in all-white motels and the black musicians would sneak in. Campbell was also the take-out king at restaurants in the south.

“I’ll Save the Last Dance For You” by Damita Jo

Gil Askey’s cousin was R&B/jazz singer Damita Jo, the only child of Creole chef Herbert DeBlanc and schoolteacher Latrelle Plummer DeBlanc. They both stayed at 1010 Olive Street with their grandmother Mathilde when they returned to Austin on yearly visits.  Damita Jo had hits with “answer songs” to “Save the Last Dance For Me” by the Drifters and “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King. She also possessed comedic flair and was a regular on Redd Foxx’s 1977 TV variety show.

“Scuttle Buttin’” by Stevie Ray Vaughan 

When Stevie Ray Vaughan was recording his second LP Couldn’t Stand the Weather in New York City in 1984, he wasn’t getting the right feel, so he had someone call up Sam’s BBQ at 2000 E. 12th for an overnite shipment of his favorite food. That got the record back on track.

“Alone Together” by Kenny Dorham

Dr. James Hill (chief of the University of Texas community relations department), John Q. Taylor King (former Huston-Tillotson College president and head of King Tears Mortuary), longtime H-T music department head Beulah Curry Jones and educator Charles Akins, who became the first black principal of a predominantly white high school in Austin in 1973, were all former Yellow Jacket band members. But, musically, the standout has to be Kenny Dorham, who replaced Miles Davis in the Charlie Parker Quintet in 1948. Although Dorham, “the thinking man’s trumpet player” was on the bandstand with Parker on the sax great’s final public performance in 1955, he spent most of the early ’50s freelancing for Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt and others. In 1954, he co-founded the highly influential Jazz Messengers with Art Blakey.

This selection is an instrumental version of a tune made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. The lyrics speak out for a segregated East Austin community that may have lived in the shadow of mainstream Austin, but shone brightly on its own.

“Alone together, beyond the crowd/ Above the world, we’re not too proud/ To cling together, we’re strong/ As long as we’re together”

Bonus track:

“Sweetback’s Theme” by (an uncredited) Earth Wind & Fire from the soundtrack to Melvin Van Peebles’  Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, which was held over at the Harlem Theater in 1972.

 

 

 

 

 

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Nanny Dearest

Posted by mcorcoran on November 23, 2018

I told y’all a couple months ago about the time an on-the-clock dancer from the Yellow Rose babysat my three-year-old son. Well, on the 7-hour drive from Marfa, I remembered quite a few more details of that night in ’97 or ’98. To refresh: Don King, who managed the Yellow Rose, invited me to cover a special event at the strip joint. It might’ve been an anniversary, but the guest-of-honor was Augustus Busch, the CEO of Budweiser at the time. A bunch of local celebrities (Dale Dudley, that baseball player Kelly Something, etc) were going to be on hand, so it would be good for my popular “Austin Inside/Out” column.
At the time, Sugar’s and the Yellow Rose were in heavy comp to be THE gentlemen’s club in town and they were both feeding me items about celebrities stopping in. I had just had something about George Clooney partying at Sugar’s (and leaving with a dancer in the middle of her shift) and so the Yellow Rose wanted to get some attention, too. DK said I was VIP all the way, but I had to call him that day and say I couldn’t make it. My babysitter had canceled. “I’ve got a whole list of babysitters here,” Don said, and in my mind he was holding a sheet of paper with names of actual babysitters that maybe the employees had shared with each other. “I’ll send her in the car and you get in and come to the Rose, then when you want to leave, the car will take you home and pick up the babysitter.” OK, I said. Not 30 minutes passed before a black limo pulled up to my Hyde Park shanty and a tall, platinum blonde with heavy makeup stepped out. She introduced herself with a normal name, like Melanie, but even with all that perfume, you could still smell the pole on her. She was a stripper who probably danced as Destinee.
I didn’t know what to do. I made some small talk, while wondering if I should send her back. But then I made a decision. I could either stay home with my toddler and watch “Fox and the Hound” for the third time or go to the VIP room full of naked women and booze. The column was important to me, so I went. But I felt guilty right away. What if she was abused as a child and that’s why she’s a stripper, I thought. The abused become abusers. When I arrived at the YR, I tried to drum up a column item as soon as I could- then head back to Hyde Park before she was showing little Jackie how to cut up lines. At the time, Budweiser had a campaign where they stamped “Born On” dates on their beer, to show how freshly they’d been bottled. I came up with the line that Mr. Busch wasn’t at the party for pleasure, necessarily, but to check the “Born On …” dates on the dancers’ derrieres to make sure they were of legal age. Had my item! I was out of there in 10 minutes.
I came home to see Jack laying on the couch, blissfully, with Melanie patting his head. They were watching MTV- a Madonna video, I believe.
As if this night could not have been more memorable, it was also when three-year-old Jack uttered his first curse word. When I came in the front door, he sat up and said, “Why the FUCK are you home so soon!”
OK, I made up that last part, but the rest is true. Don King should be able to verify it.

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The worst thing I ever went through never happened

Posted by mcorcoran on November 11, 2018

Was this really happening? Being marched, handcuffed behind my back, through the crowd of about 5,000 at Waterloo Park, sobered me up and gave me time to think practically. Busted for hitting on a joint a friend passed me, I would certainly be fired from my job as music critic for the Austin American Statesman and so as the faces, some familiar, stared at me with looks of shame, horror and amusement, I considered my options. Maybe this newfound notoriety would help me get an edgier new job. Maybe this was a sign that I should switch fields and start writing screenplays. Maybe Willie Nelson, the great hemp activist, would play a benefit concert to keep me out of the shelters. Maybe this would end up being a good thing.

But the dominating thought was this: who the fuck gets arrested for smoking a joint at an outdoor music festival in Austin?! A concert here sans marijuana smoke is a hockey game without a fight. If there’s a balcony at a Raffi concert, there’s a parent torching up in the darkness.

And those guys don’t get arrested. Oh, but not me, public enemy number one. On March 30, 2000, while I was reviewing the Cajun/Zydeco-themed Swamp Romp, I accepted an offer to make the music sound better and was about to go from “My Toot-Toot” to my cellmate. When the park police (“there are a lot of kids and families here”) emptied my pockets onto a table, I recognized a song being played from the stage a quarter mile away. “Excuse me, officer,” I said. “Could you please write ‘Hot Tamale Baby’ in my notebook?” If I was going down, by God, it would be as a professional.

As the cops ran my name for priors and warrants, I pictured that crackling police scanner on the desk in the Metro section of the newspaper. “C-O-R-C-O-R-A-N, Michael. Age 44.” He had to spell the last name two or three times because they always do, thinking the second “C-O-R” is repeating the first one for clarity. Then, after about a 30-minute wait, they cut me loose. Just like that. “On your way and don’t come back tomorrow.”

I understood, in that moment, how it feels to win a Super Bowl. Instead of “I’m going to Disneyland!” I was “Not going to jail!” But instead of thanking my lucky stars and going home, I went to a club and celebrated not hitting rock bottom.

Then reality hit the next morning. My bosses were going to find out. Someone in the audience who didn’t like an old Alanis Morrissette review or something, was going to dime me. What are the chances in a crowd of 5,000 that no one wants to see the rock critic fired? That’s 5,000 movie critics giving the new Adam Sandler movie a pass. If not the crowd, the Statesman cops reporter was going to blab. I was done at the Statesman. And maybe in journalism.

This couldn’t have happened at a worse time for me. Just a week earlier, my popular “Austin Inside/Out” column had been suspended and I was publicly flogged for material deemed not up to the paper’s standards of accuracy and tone. It had been building for awhile since Michael Dell’s people called the publisher about a little Jewish holiday joke, but last straw status goes to two items: 1) my account of a Texas Monthly photo shoot in which the art director, speaking of clothing, said “there are too many whites over here and too many colors over there.” Everybody laughed because she pointed to a section of mostly white people over here and then black people over there, and singer Malford Milligan joked “I haven’t been called colored in awhile.” It was all in fun, but there were charges of racial intent, the guy who wanted me fired would stop at nothing and my peeps caved in. That was bullshit. 2) But the second reason was all my fault. I fucked up by reporting that Matt’s El Rancho was towing cars during SXSW, when, actually, they had someone stationed at the entrance to turn festgoers away. My contention that Matt’s was towing out of jealousy of Maria’s Taco Xpress next door, which was attracting thousands a day to the music and tacos, made it potentially libelous, so I fell on the sword. But that wasn’t the end of it.

The Monday after all this went down, Austin talk radio all over the dial blasted the Statesman and talked about things that only myself and my superiors were privy to- mainly the Texas Monthly incident- and I was called on the carpet. Holy crap, was that editor fuming! I explained that my then-girlfriend, one of the most well-connected public relations persons in town, had simply told her curious friends what had happened and how can I control what my girlfriend says? I couldn’t even get her to go to Emo’s with me. “Well, you’d better get her under control or you might get fired!” the editor told me.

Six days later I was in handcuffs with a cop leading me through the crowd. As a pre-emptive strike, I went to my first-ever, long-overdue AA meeting the next day. I figured that on Monday, when I was called in again, I could say I’m currently a member of a 12-step program blah, blah, blah and maybe they might think treatment instead of termination. It was worth a shot.

That first meeting was uncomfortable, of course, because it meant trading what I loved- getting high- for what I hated- public speaking. I was terrified of being called on to share and so I used the same “not me not me not me” look as I do when a magician is looking for “volunteers.”

The guy leading the meeting introduced a theme: “the worst thing I ever went through never happened.” The worst thing. I ever went through. Never happened. I kinda thought about it a little, boiled it down to “stop worrying so much” and went back to watching the clock like the big hand was my kid playing soccer.

The next day I went back to work expecting it to be my last day. A friend called and said he’d heard I got arrested at the Swamp Romp. Great. It was just a matter of time until the word hit the glass offices. But that first day nothing happened.

Tuesday was also a day of dread, as I realized, the sleepless night before, that the editors needed time to figure out how and when to sack my sorry ass. Again, nothing. I went by the Metro desk to see who would avert their eyes, but it was business as usual. By Wednesday and Thursday I started wondering about those sadistic fucks in management. It seemed cruel to draw out the obvious. I kept going to meetings.

A week went by without mention of my RWI, reviewing while intoxicated, arrest. Then another. I was out of the woods. I stopped going to meetings. But I never forgot what I heard that first one.

The worst thing I ever went through never happened.

I ended up working at the Statesman another 11 years after the Swamp Romp incident. I drank and smoked heavily during that time, aside from a couple months here and there, when I sat with other Catholics in the basements of Protestant churches. So many times I gave it all up one day at a time. But then one day I’d be at the beer barn drive-through telling myself just this one time to blow off steam. Nobody needs to know. Then three years later, I’d be back at the meeting with the worst hangover of all time.

I quit drinking after going to rehab in November 2012. It’s holding this time like never before and some days I don’t miss it at all. Most days, actually.

The concept of embracing the higher power was easy because I grew up in a time when the Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Cream and the like were Top 40 artists. Whatever I was going through, there’d be a song on the radio that would tell me what to do. “Slip Slidin’ Away” by Paul Simon convinced me to quit a job that I was miserable in. “When a Man Loves a Woman” kept me in a trying relationship until it was really time to move on.

But it was in a dark room stained with cigarette smoke that a song that didn’t need music taught me a lesson I access every day. Stop punishing yourself needlessly. Don’t obsess over things you can’t control. Let the angels help.

My Swamp Romp review ran as planned, though the evening’s headliner was inexplicably not mentioned. And nobody cared. The highlight of the night to me was “Hot Tamale Baby,” written in my notebook in a different hand.

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Hunt Sales Memorial- from 2012

Posted by mcorcoran on November 1, 2018

With Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life,” Hunt Sales laid down the most famous drum intro in rock history, the rollicking jungle beat heard on TV commercials, in the movie “Trainspotting” and daily on Jim Rome’s sports radio show. But that perch in posterity will have to be reward enough, as Sales has never received a dime in royalties for the distinctive beat. “Lust For Life” was written by Iggy Pop and David Bowie for the 1977 album of the same name; drummer Sales was paid a work-for-hire fee for the sessions.

“At least ‘Trainspotting’ used the whole song,” said Sales, who has lived in Austin since 1993. “In most cases, they just use my drum beat or copy it.” Sales said the money he was paid should’ve covered only the album, not the music’s re-use in commercials and movies. But litigation is expensive and there has long been a gray area in copyright law about backup musicians receiving royalties. “At this point, I’ve moved on,” he said.

Hunt Sales 2018 Photo by George Hancock.

“Iggy thinks that everything happens because he’s Iggy,” said Sales, who met fellow Michigan native Pop when he and bassist brother Tony were recruited by Stooges guitarist James Williamson to play on the “Kill City” LP in 1975. The Sales brothers and guitarist Ricky Gardiner backed Iggy on a world tour in 1977. Later that year they all went into the Tansa Studios in Berlin, right next to the Wall, to begin work on the “Lust For Life” album. Bowie and Pop were co-producers.

“The band was so tight after ‘The Idiot’ tour,” Sales said. “I think we made the whole record in five days.” Among the better-known tunes on the LP is “The Passenger,” which has also been used in movies, Vera Wang commercials and as the lead-in instrumental music for “Anderson Cooper 360.” Again, no royalty cheese for Major Tom-Tom.

“Iggy is a great songwriter and has a lot of good ideas,” Sales said, “and David was one of the only guys to catch on to that at the time.” Iggy directed drummer Sales to come up with a “George of the Jungle”-type rhythm for “Lust.” Sales also incorporated a favorite beat from 11 years earlier — “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes — as well an intro he heard on Armed Forces Radio.

Sales threw all those elements together to create an intoxicating rhythm that underscores Iggy’s lyrics about drugs and debauchery. The inclusion of “Lust For Life” at the beginning of “Trainspotting” is routinely included in lists of best-ever uses of music in film.

On the other hand, the employment of the ironically titled ode to drug culture in a Royal Caribbean Cruise Line commercial was chosen in 2006 by NPR listeners as the most inappropriate use of music in an advertising spot.

Sales, whose new project Hunt Sales Memorial plays Thursday at the Continental Club, could talk about his past for a couple hours and still leave out some cool stories. The son of TV pioneer (and jazz fanatic) Soupy Sales, Hunt can recall eating his cornflakes on Sunday morning while his dad’s good friend Frank Sinatra was crashed out on the sofa. Before his pie-in-the-face routine became a national sensation, Soupy Sales had a nightly TV show in Detroit called “Soup’s On,” which hosted the biggest jazz performers in the country as they passed through Detroit.

Through his father, Hunt met his drum mentor Shelly Manne, an icon of the West Coast Jazz movement and the go-to studio drummer of the ’50s and ’60s. Manne gave Sales his first set of cymbals at age 7 and, along with another mentor Buddy Rich, gave the youngster words to drum by: “Don’t play the beat, BE the beat.”

When Hunt was 11, the Sales brothers’ band Tony and the Tigers was signed to Roulette Records by reputed mobster mogul Morris Levy (the model for Hesh in “The Sopranos”). By 15, Hunt was on his own, living in New York City and hanging out with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon. He played on his first hit single the next year, “We Gotta Get You a Woman” by Todd Rundgren.

Hunt Sales first became captivated by Austin in 1976 when he toured Texas with the short-lived Capitol Records power trio Paris, featuring Bob Welch (ex-Fleetwood Mac). “There was definitely a cool Texas music vibe,” he said. He found the scene much more supportive than the cutthroat world he grew up in. But it wasn’t until after Sales finished a three-year stint (’89-’92) as the drummer in David Bowie’s Tin Machine that Sales finally moved to Austin.

Aside from a year in Nashville in 2006, Sales has lived in South Austin for almost 20 years. His oldest daughter Cali, a talented visual artist, is finishing up at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. He also has a 4-year-old daughter, Sugar, with Heather, his wife of six years.

The 58-year-old said he doesn’t dwell on what he might be owed for past work. “The music I care about is the music I’m making now.” Hunt Sales Memorial includes former Ronnie Dawson guitarist Tjarko Jeen and bassist Bobby Perkins. “We’re going for a modern version of the Jazz Messengers,” said Sales, who also handles vocals. “Art Blakey’s always been one of my favorites.”

The band’s name is inspired by another drum hero: Buddy Miles. “I met him when he was a 15-year-old kid playing with Wilson Pickett, and, of course, I loved him with Hendrix in Band of Gypsies,” Sales said. “So I was excited when I heard he was living in Austin.”

When Sales went over to see Miles, the icon was in deteriorating health and had few visitors. He died of congestive heart failure in Austin in February 2008 at age 60. “They had a big Buddy Miles Memorial at Threadgill’s and it was packed,” said Sales. “There were these guys in leather pants and white tennis shoes onstage playing in homage to Buddy and I was thinking, ‘Where were these guys four months ago when Buddy was sick and lonely?’ I decided to call my band Hunt Sales Memorial so we’d always get a big crowd.”

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Sometimes we use others as a source of pride. Lisa Pankratz is happy to help.

Posted by mcorcoran on September 24, 2018

I was married for a little while in the ‘90s. Future ex-wife was in the art business, but her previous boyfriend was MC 900-FT Jesus so she knew a little about electronica, jazz and hip hop lite. Didn’t know- or seem to care- anything about the roots and country music I covered for the Dallas Morning News. I kept taking her to shows I was reviewing and she sat there, bored, making lists about stuff to do the next day. Uncle Tupelo made No Impression. Billy Joe Shaver, John Anderson, Patty Loveless and many more of my favorites played great shows and the wife’s mind was at the furniture store.

One night we went to a rockabilly revival concert at the Hard Rock Café. I remember that it was February or March of 1993 because we were getting along. The headliner was regional ‘50s fave Johnny Carroll, and the backing band was a group from Austin called High Noon, who usually played as a drummerless trio like Elvis and Scotty and Bill. But this night, they had a pretty woman with that great silent movie hair.

“Who is THAT?!” the wife asked. She became obsessed with the elegant drummer, who bit her red lip while pounding out the boss beat.

You don’t forget the first time you see Lisa Pankratz on stage. She’s not showy, doesn’t do any look-at-me tricks, and yet you can’t take your eyes off her. Other drummers will tell you she’s always in the pocket. She looks so natural behind the drums, whether playing a country shuffle or a 4/4 rock beat. But at the same time she looks like she stepped out of a 1950’s glamour magazine. You watch her crack out the beat and after awhile you forget she’s a woman and wonder what planet she’s from.

Unless you’d had a few and worked up the courage to approach her after a show. “You play as good as a man,” the drunks tell her. She’s heard it so much after two and a half decades of dancehalls and rock clubs, it’s not really even an insult anymore.

When Pankratz first became known on the Austin scene in the early ’90s, almost all female drummers were in punk bands. Watching her at the Broken Spoke or the Continental with the Derailers or Chaparral or Cornell Hurd was an anomaly because she was keeping authentic honky tonk beats, not trying to play up her uniqueness. “Yes, you will get extra attention sometimes,” she says of being the opposite sex when it comes to drummers. “But the novelty won’t get you a second call for a job. If I’m there, it’s because I earned it.”

Near the end of the Hard Rock show, an unannounced guest named Ronnie Dawson came bounding onstage. “The Blonde Bomber” of “Action Packed” and “Rockin’ Bones” fame strapped on a guitar and just took it for a ride. In three songs he and High Noon destroyed the place. It was rockabilly reborn, not rehashed. A complete revelation.

A package of rockin’ positivity, Dawson was an important mentor who taught a sometimes studious Pankratz to “put some stank on it.” The drummer complied by rocking Carnegie Hall and the Conan O’Brien show with Dawson in 1995. She would be the rockabilly icon’s favorite drummer until he succumbed to cancer at age 64 in 2003.

Pankratz’ main gig these days is with Dave Alvin, the Los Angeles roots rock king. “Listen man, when it comes to musicians you have to play with night after night, looks don’t mean a thing,” says Alvin, whose new project with brother and fellow Blaster Phil Alvin is an album of Big Bill Broonzy covers. “You gotta be able to really play, and Lisa’s got the ability, no question. But even more importantly, she’s got the attitude. That’s ‘let’s go out there are have some fun’ thing she brings to every gig.”

Pankratz came into Alvin’s band at a sad time. His best friend and guitarist Chris Gaffney died of cancer in 2008 and Alvin knew he had to change up his Guilty Men backup. For a fast-approaching gig at the Strictly Hardly Bluegrass Festival, Alvin decided to fly in an all-female band, the Guilty Women. He had only one choice for drummer.

“We did that show without a rehearsal,” Alvin says of the gig in front of 20,000 people. “Lisa’s always watching what everyone else is doing, so I told her to follow my left hand on the top of the guitar.” That cued her onto the turns. Alvin says the show went perfectly.

After making an album with “Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women” and touring behind it, the band, now co-ed, is just called the Guilty Ones.

“I knew Lisa as a great country shuffle drummer when she played with the Derailers,” says Alvin, who produced the Derailers’ Jackpot in 1996. “Then when I saw her with Ronnie Dawson, she was this great rock n’ roll drummer. Since she’s been in the band, I’ve found out she can play reggae, funk, everything. When she’s onstage I feel like I can go anywhere and she’ll be right there with me.”

Pankratz’s background in Jamaican music comes from her father Mike, who played drums for I-Tex and other reggae bands for years. Still does. A teenaged Lisa often sat in at gigs at Liberty Lunch and other clubs. While she was at Rice University, earning a degree in English literature in 1990, Pankratz had a reggae show on the student radio station. “Reggae really isn’t a big part of my musical life right now, but playing percussion with my dad gave me a chance to really hear how parts fit together and where fills and accents could go within a groove,” she says.

Pankratz also got her love of Buddy Holly from her father, who used to play covers of “Peggy Sue” and “Rave On” with Roky Erickson in high school.

“My parents were pretty young when they had me and so they were still growing and exploring life and music,” Pankratz says. “They took me to a lot of shows at the Armadillo when I was a kid.”

The Dripping Springs native received a toy drum kit when she was four, but didn’t start taking drums seriously until she was about 12 and started messing around with her father’s kit. “I almost accidentally figured out how to play a fill between one drum and the next and something clicked,” she says. “It’s what I wanted to do, what I couldn’t wait to get home from school and do. It was always on my mind.”

Pankratz is an intense drummer. She takes her craft seriously. The Lisa I met that night in Dallas and got to know the next few years seemed intent on just taking it all in. That’s the way she is onstage, in tune with the other players. She was all business.

But she found love while on tour with singer Roger Wallace in Europe in 2000. Lisa and the band’s bass player Brad Fordham, who’d been her platonic friend for about 10 years, started hanging out romantically, begin living together in 2001 and got married a couple years later.

Although they often work independently, with Pankratz in a couple all-female bands with bassist Sarah Brown and steel/dobro player Cindy Cashdollar, and Fordham sometimes gigging with Jerry Jeff Walker and others, they often come together as a package. They’ve backed Hayes Carll on the road and will tour the U.S. and Europe with the Alvin Brothers this summer. “It’s great when it works out and we play in the same band,” she says, then laughs. “At least I know I’ll like my roommate.”

She will also love getting back with her 1968 Ludwig drum set with the silver sparkle finish, which sits in L.A. between Alvin tours. After one particularly long separation, Pankratz bent over and hugged her favorite kit when they were reunited. “They’re warm and full and I can tune them in various ways to suit the gig,” she says of her beloved Ludwigs. She also has a 1958 kit in Austin that she uses for the pick-up gigs- about three a week- that pay the bills.

Pankratz reminds us that the richness of the Austin music scene is not just in the bands or headliners, but it’s also in the backing musicians. Ask a singer-songwriter why they’re glad they moved to Austin and they’ll say it’s the caliber of musicians for hire.

The same goes for fans. Who of us lucky enough to attend Antone’s at 2915 Guadalupe Street in the ‘80s didn’t swell a bit when Sarah Brown played bass for all the greats from Buddy Guy and Junior Wells to Albert Collins and Albert King?

I saw so many blues legends in the years between ’84 and ’88, but probably my favorite moment at the world’s greatest blues club was the night Lone Justice, very hot at the time, stopped in to see Marcia Ball, who had the same manager, Carlyne Majer. They were all leaned up against the bar, these L.A. hotshots, and Marcia’s guitarist David Murray pulled out an epic, serpentine, blues/jazz solo that had one of the guys in LJ smack himself on the forehead. That’s the kind of stuff that makes me proud to live in Austin.

I’ve seen Carolyn Wonderland have the same effect on out-of-towners. Barton Springs is nice, but it’s nothing compared to the beauty of Texas Guitar Women with Wonderland, Cindy Cashdollar, Shelley King, Sarah Brown and Lisa Pankratz.

Pankratz used to put all thoughts of being in an all-female band way to the back of her mind. That seemed to just multiply the novelty factor. But these days she’s down with Girl Power.

For every dummy who asks to see her muscles there are ten women who come up to Pankratz and call her an inspiration. “They tell me that they want their daughters to come see me play. Just to show them that they can do it, too.”

“I used to call it ‘the elephant in the room,’ being a female drummer,” Pankratz says after a recent pick-up gig at the Broken Spoke. “But sometimes it’s pretty cool.”

Sometimes it’s pretty cool for everyone in the room.

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“Professor” Jackson: Diboll musician who mentored Harry James

Posted by mcorcoran on September 15, 2018

This oral history was originally published in the Diboll Buzzsaw newspaper in August 1947, when Will “Professor” Jackson was 77 years old.

by William James Jackson (1870- 1972)

My musical career began when I was six years of age.  A Dr. J. L. Tylon took me in his care with three other colored boys and taught us to sing, dance, and play all kinds of musical instruments from a Jews Harp to a Pipe Organ.  He ran a medicine show and we furnished the entertainment for his audiences. During the winter months the Doctor had us all in school, then in the summer on the road. He manufactured his own medicines such as Herbs of Joy Tonic; Friend of Foot Ease Corn Salve; Oil of Gladness, Liniment of Leisure, and many others.

The first time I was on the stage I broke the “E” string on my mandolin in the middle of my first number.  The audience laughed. I cried and trembled, and then the Doctor fixed the Mandolin and I went back on filled with confidence and was never scared again on a stage anywhere in the world.  One time the Doctor’s medicine stock was getting low so he told us we were all going to South America to gather herbs. We were all very happy until we told our families and then we wanted to back out because the prospects of so long a journey made them very sad.  But Doctor Tylon took us on to New Orleans where we boarded a ship for Rio de Janeiro in South America. Everywhere I looked there was nothing to be seen but water and it made my heart pump fast and tears come in my eyes. The first night out I didn’t sleep a wink and I had no appetite.  The second day out the other boys were up on the deck looking for fish or something in the water. I was looking for land. The Doctor came up and got us to dancing and singing and we drew a crowd of everybody on the ship which made us forget our worries and on we went toward South America happy again.

One morning we all were thrilled to see something in the distance that looked like land.  It was, and a sailor told us it was Brazil. When we reached the shore and landed, a great crowd of people met us there.  They were jabbering something but we couldn’t understand what it was. The Doctor said they were speaking Portuguese. He could understand it but it sounded like just a lot of nonsense to me.  After two weeks in Brazil we went to a place called Para in Brazil, also known as Belem. There we moved about from place to place and into the jungles to gather herbs for the Doctor’s medicine.  There also we went to the banks of the Amazon River and deeper into the jungles where monkeys were numerous as were Boa Constrictors and other snakes; beautiful birds-many very rare-and other animals and thousands of varieties of flowers and plants of every description.  All this was unusual sightseeing for four little colored boys who had never even dreamed of such a wonderful opportunity to see so much. But all this, plus the sight of trees they took sap from to make rubber; big coffee fields, and “Milk Trees” was nothing compared to what I was destined to see and encounter in Asia, Central America, Africa, and many other parts of the world, about which I will tell in next month’s issue of the Buzzsaw.  I will also tell you about teaching a young white boy to play trumpet who later became well known as a musician. His name was Harry James.

Part Two

In the last issue of the Buzzsaw I told you about my first trip to South America with three other little colored boys-the four of us furnishing entertainment for Dr. Tylon’s Medicine Show.  It was quite an experience and the first trip any of us had ever made. But not the last.

When we returned from this particular journey we landed in New Orleans and were quarantined for 31 days because of a yellow fever epidemic, then were released and went to Milwaukee and home.  It was the happiest day in the lives of the Four Wills as we were known-all our first names being the same by coincidence. Anyway, we started out again very soon and traveled all over the United States with the medicine show selling Dr. Tylon’s products.  Then he said he was out of herbs again and we set sail for Central America, stayed there for six weeks, then took another boat for South America. We were there this time nine months and left as a result of Mrs. Tylon becoming suddenly ill. She died about five weeks later in MIlwaukee and the Doctor grieved so much we thought he would go too.  One day he called the four of us together and said: “I’ve raised you four Wills up from little boys. Now, as a result of losing Mrs. Tylon, I am a wreck, but I want you to stay with me. We’re going to travel all over the world so that I can forget my sorrow and I want you all to stick together and come with me”. We left thirty days later for New York, then across the Atlantic to Liverpool England.  We went all over Europe-France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, the Balkans, and Italy-but the Doctor was still unhappy and still had a traveling mind. So we went on down to Capetown in South Africa, then to Asia where we travelled from place to place for many months, and all of us thought the Doctor was searching for the Spring of Youth or the Tree of Life because it seemed that he would never stop.  But we finally made it back to the U.S.A. and then the Doctor died. The Four Wills got separated and were never again together.

I joined the Richard and Pringle Famous Georgia Minstrels with Billie Kersand and went to England for a six month stay.  I left this show soon afterwards and joined the Black Patties Troubadours and spent two seasons with them, later joining the Fourteen Black Garzas out of New York and returning to Europe for three months with them.  Then came association with several small minstrel shows and finally carnivals and circuses. I was with Lee Brothers Circus in 1925 when I met Mr. Everett James, the band master of the sideshow band. Mr. James had a little boy by the name of Harry who loved to come over and talk to me and listen to the music.  He especially liked to hear me play the trumpet, so I soon began teaching him how to play it. After his father found out he had been spending so much time with me trying to learn to play the trumpet, he bought one for him. (Everett James took over trumpet lessons when Harry was 10). Little Harry would come over and ask me if he could rehearse with us and I would always let him.  He loved his trump more than anything else in the world and caught on faster than anybody I had ever seen with it. Sometimes in rehearsal I would have a trumpet part and would let him play it. He tried so hard that sometimes his face would turn bright red, but he never gave up. In fact, the more difficult the part the harder he would try and he never quit a single time  until he had mastered it.

Harry James married WWII pinup girl Betty Grable in 1943

After Harry James got a little older his father would let him out at night to go with us when we played for dances. He would always be there if he could, no matter where we went, and we let him play the trumpet all he wanted to because he was trying to get experience playing orchestra music. After five years with this show, Mr. Everett James, Harry, and I left and joined the Christy Brothers Circus where Mr. Everett was the bandmaster of the big show, and, like in the others, I was bandmaster of the sideshow.  In this show Harry played second trumpet in his father’s band and was very proud of his job. By this time he was getting to be really good on the trumpet-and better and better as the days went by because he practiced constantly and talked to me about improving his technique all the time. He also thanked me often for teaching him music and getting him started of on the right foot. He was a kind man-both he and his father-and did many favors for me that I appreciated. They left Christy Brothers and I never saw Harry again, though I did meet his father in Beaumont while I was still with Christy Brothers in 1933.  I wrote him for some music which I needed for my band and he came from Houston to Beaumont and brought music for the entire circus program and gave it to me free of charge. Harry James by this time had established quite a name for himself and his own orchestra. I know he didn’t forget me because I had several letters from him in which he told me he hoped to see me again some day and in which he again thanked me for my music teachings. I am naturally proud to have been instrumental in the development of so fine a musician. The fact that he became one of the great trumpeters was no surprise to me-he loved to play the trumpet so much as a child, and throughout his young manhood, that he couldn’t have been anything but the best.  And incidentally, I can still recognize his playing after listening to only a few notes even when I don’t know it is Harry James. I can still distinguish the technique-and I feel good inside when I hear it. Because I helped put it there.

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