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Make It Beautiful: the Bobby Doyle story

Posted by mcorcoran on August 8, 2017

“Seventh Son” by Bobby Doyle

      1. 11 Track 11-1

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

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

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

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

Who would take fame over talent? Not Bobby Doyle.

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

Bobby sings on Playboy After Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      2. Beautiful02

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      3. Cripple Creek - Bobby Doyle

 

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

Kenny Rogers, upper left.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring”

      4. 04 Their Hearts Were Full of Spring

“Cryin’ Time”

      5. 12 Track 12 - Bobby Doyle

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

An interview with Bobby Doyle from 1975:

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

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

Posted by mcorcoran on July 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

D.O.C. upper right with NWA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suge Knight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Barbara Lynn: True Hero of Texas Music

Posted by mcorcoran on July 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Swan Song of the Austin Moser Awards

Posted by mcorcoran on June 29, 2017

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

Story originally published March 2014 on Arts & Labor blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by mcorcoran on June 12, 2017

Wash Phillips circa 1950

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Teague Chronicle 1907

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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RIP Roscoe: Death of a True Believer

Posted by mcorcoran on April 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Posted by mcorcoran on April 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

Photo by P.F. Bentley

Photo by P.F. Bentley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moffatcolumn

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

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

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

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Austin’s ‘Street of Dreams’: From Pecan Street to Dirty Sixth

Posted by mcorcoran on April 10, 2017


“A big rat came out of one of the old buildings and scampered into an alley. A discarded newspaper fluttered against a parking meter in the early morning breeze. Keys grated in locks and doors opened and the smell of hot coffee came into The Street.
East Sixth Street was open for business.”

– Dan Grover, Austin American Statesman, July 1953

Austin’s most famous street has earned the nickname “Dirty Sixth” over the past few years, with a boozy, unruly Bourbon Street-like atmosphere and a YouTube driven reputation for violence. You almost forget the history of the street whose majority of buildings, even those housing tattoo parlors, frat bars and gawdy gift shops, were erected in the late 1800s.

The mob that mills between the barricades on weekends tripled during South by Southwest and became menacing, with street brawls and cops in riot formation. “SXSW has lost Sixth Street” was my shortest tweet of the week, as I gave up trying to see a band that was just two blocks away. The few, miserable-looking badge-wearing registrants I saw moved through the roving street gangs and drunken frats like they were navigating chest-high swampwater. This was not in the brochure!

The proximity of clubs on Sixth, many of which change to live music venues for a week to catch a whiff of the windfall, was a key to the appeal of SXSW in the early years. But during this past fest, two forays into the fray reminded me of that line from Apocalypse Now: “Don’t get out of the boat.” Absolutely goddamn right. Why would I ever leave South Austin during the third week of March?

This Saturday will be another crazy time on Sixth, as the last night of the Texas Relays has become the traditional Black Party Night in Austin. Not only will there be the Urban Music Festival at Butler Park (starring Kool and the Gang), but Sixth will be packed from Brazos to Red River Streets with tens of thousands of African-American teenagers and young adults trying to hook up.

Stubb’s tried to capitalize on the crowd one year and held a big hip-hop show with national acts. But they sold fewer than 60 tickets to the 2,000-capacity venue. Two blocks was too far from the real action, called “parking lot pimpin’,” with the closed-off street creating a free venue.

Some Sixth Street merchants and club owners made news a few years ago when they closed the night of Black Saturday, some nailing plywood over their windows. Their venues didn’t cater to the crowd and none of their usual customers could get through the mob, they argued, but the moves smacked of racism.

History reminds us that Sixth Street, which turns 175 years old in May, was built on true diversity. While the rest of Austin abided by rules of Jim Crow segregation, East Sixth was always open to every race. Black businesses were next to white, Lebanese, Chinese and Hispanic storefronts. White businesses on Sixth, like Hyman Samuelson’s Crown Tailors at 408 E. Sixth, advertised on black radio shows, such as Lavada Durst’s “Dr. Hepcat” on KVET. “Now if you want to be draped in shape and hep on down, get your frantic fronts at Crown,” Durst would say.

Master tailor Eli Gonzales and owner Hyman Samuelson help a customer at Crown Tailors 408 E. Sixth St. circa 1950.

Sixth Street is the closest Austin’s ever gotten to 14th St. in Manhattan. And yet today it’s become synonymous with hooligans and loud, stupid noise.

Sixth Street is at a crossroads, with most business owners and patrons pining for the more manageable past. Downtown streetscaping plans have been submitted to wash that “Dirty” right offa the street, making Sixth an “18 hours a day” family-friendly destination. Vote yes on the proposition, known as the Good Luck With That bond.

But when you consider the history of Sixth Street, it’s an avenue well worth saving. Sixth Street is actually the coolest thing about Austin.

I’ve been learning about Sixth in the 2010 book Images of America, Sixth Street, by Allen Childs, an Austin doctor who worked as a boy at his family’s shoe store on E. Sixth St. A lot of things I didn’t know, like Austin’s first HEB, then called H.E. Butts was at 600 E. Sixth Street. The Academy retail chain started as a military surplus shop on Sixth. Twin Liquors grew out of Jabour’s. And Austin’s first J.C. Penney’s was in the building at 204 E. Sixth St. where Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson once ran a boardinghouse on the second floor, while her husband made caskets on the ground floor.

E. Sixth has the greatest concentration of limestone Victorian commercial buildings west of the Mississippi. But even more impressive is the street’s human legacy. In a 1978 article in the Austin Sun about a fight between preservationists and developers over the 100 block, home then of Antone’s blues club and O.K. Records, Sixth Street was described as “breathing with a truly diverse urban life all its own.” But developers won that battle.

Why Sixth Street and not Fifth or Seventh? Sixth, originally called Pecan Street, became Austin’s east-west Main Street because it was the most level path from the east. And it was the closest street to the Colorado River that didn’t flood when the water would jump the banks in the years before a dam was built in the 1890’s. It was safe to build on well-traveled Sixth Street and so settlers and immigrants built dry goods stores and saloons and sporting houses and hotels. When the Houston and Texas Central Railroad came to Austin in 1871, the town’s population doubled to 10,000 in a year. Pecan Street was dubbed “The Street of Dreams.”

Austin’s red light district of gambling dens and houses of prostitution was called Guy Town and located between Lavaca and Colorado Streets south of Fifth until Mayor A.P. Wooldridge cleaned it up in 1913. But most legitimate business happened on Congress Avenue and Sixth Street.

Congress was segregated, so blacks couldn’t go to the Paramount Theatre. But they could watch movies at the Lyric Theater at 419 E. Sixth St., which was opened by prominent African-American dentist Everett Givens in the 1920s. Blacks were also welcome at the Ritz Theater, which opened in 1929, though they had to sit in the balcony. Austin’s first black business owner Ed Carrington bought an empty lot at 518 E. Sixth (Pecan) St. in 1872 and built a grocery store. Brother Albert opened a blacksmith shop behind the store. You don’t even notice that building at Sixth and Red River on weekends because there’s so much barking human traffic.

The 700 block of E. Sixth became mostly Hispanic at the turn of the 20th century, with Garza’s Meat Market and Austin’s first Tex-Mex restaurant, El Original, across the street from where Easy Tiger is now.

Sixth Street had various Chinese laundries in its early years and a Chinese Restaurant, Joe Lung’s, which opened in 1916 at the current location of Shawn Cirkiel’s Parkside eatery. Lung had been recruited, along with thousands of other Chinese natives, from his home near Canton to help build the U.S. railroads and decided to stay.

Sixth Street in the 1890’s.

Austin and Sixth Street were born the same day. Mirabeau B. Lamar, who succeeded Sam Houston as president of the Republic of Texas, discovered Waterloo, as Austin was originally called, while camping near the mouth of Shoal Creek while on a buffalo hunt. The town was home to two families at the time. Lamar suggested the location to the commission created to select a permanent site for the capital of Texas and they agreed, renaming Waterloo, Austin in April 1839. Lamar’s agent, Judge Edwin Waller, arrived the next month to lay out the town. In that original 15-block square, he named the north-south streets after Texas rivers and all the east-west streets after indigenous trees.

Sixth Street was Pecan Street until 1884, when the city had overgrown available tree names and decided to go numerical. Two years later, Sixth Street had its crown jewel when cattle baron, Col. Jessie Driskill built Austin’s first grand hotel at the corner of Sixth and Brazos. (Col. Driskill would lose his namesake hotel in a card game about 10 years later.)

Austin’s first financial center, the Littlefield Building, opened at the northeast corner of Sixth and Congress in 1911. For the first half of the 20th century, Sixth Street was bustling. As evidenced by the 1953 Statesman article which remarked that one could buy a reefer on any corner, Sixth Street started to fall on hard times after WWII, when Austin’s first shopping centers and suburban flight drew away customers. When I-35 was built in 1959, erasing the prosperous East Avenue melting pot, it created a barrier from East Austin.

Sixth and Neches, 1968.

The almighty Driskill closed in 1969 and was saved from demolition only through a campaign that raised $2 million. The next year the Ritz became a porno movie house. “The Street of Dreams” had become Skid Row.

But various Austinites wouldn’t give up on what was once Austin’s most vibrant thoroughfare. Architect David Graeber and wife Jean paid $13,000 for a condemned building at 410 E. Sixth St. in 1968 and turned it into an Architectural Digest-worthy home, with an indoor swimming pool.

Four years later, Ralph McElroy and Randy Baird opened the Old Pecan Street Café, Austin’s continental cuisine debut, in the former Zegub’s shoe repair store at 314 E. Sixth. It became such a sensation that they expanded next door to the former Big State used furniture location.

In 1974, Jim Franklin turned the abandoned Ritz Theater into a music venue. Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton kept the Ritz going, then gave Sixth an entertainment anchor with Esther’s Follies, at the same corner of Red River Street where Skinny Pryor once ran the Spanish-language moviehouse, the Cactus Theater.

History should be important to everyone, not just those born here, but the couple in a U-Haul asking directions to Oltorf. So much of our foundation as a city, as a people, is built on six blocks from Congress Avenue east to Waller Creek. Six blocks “with just enough danger to make it interesting,” as the Sun reported in ’78. Six blocks that have represented all of Austin for 175 years.

A little bit of danger and a whole lot of history makes Sixth Street worth revitalizing, no matter what the cost or inconvenience.

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Pulling Out All the Stops: Mike Flanigin’s B3 Shot

Posted by mcorcoran on April 8, 2017

Mike Flanigin at the Continental Gallery, where he plays every Friday and Saturday night.

Mike Flanigin at the Continental Gallery, where he plays every Friday and Saturday night.

Mike Flanigin was a guitar player, a real good one. In 1992, the Denton native toured the country with the Red Devils, the L.A.-based blues band whose debut King King was produced by Rick Rubin. After the Devils broke up in ’94, he moved to Austin because this is where guitar players go to chase work and tail and, maybe in the process, get a real education.

And then one night at Antone’s, in the corner of his eye, he saw the Hammond B3. Flanigin was playing an organ song- Big John Patton’s “Let ‘Em Roll”- on a steel guitar and he asked himself why wasn’t he playing it on that B3? Which was all it took. The first time Flanigin pressed his fingers down on the B3, he was no longer a guitar player. “Even when I didn’t know how to play, I knew this was the instrument I was meant for,” he said from the 1960’s house he rents in Rollingwood. “The B3 required all my attention, so I didn’t have time for the guitar anymore.” You don’t dabble with that four-legged cabinet that holds an empire of sound- it takes over your life.

Flanigin’s debut solo LP The Drifter, which comes out August 21 with special guests Gary Clark Jr., Billy Gibbons, Kat Edmonson, Jimmie Vaughan, Rev. Gean West and Alejandro Escovedo, is the culmination of two decades of learning how to lock it down on the B3. But it also tells the story of his life in lyrics that this son of an Air Force pilot has been accumulating through his travels in the wild blues yonder. The title track of The Drifter is a Gatemouth Brown cover sang by Gibbons, but the other nine songs are Flanigin originals.

When he was still quite green, with his only organ experience in Doyle Bramhall Sr.’s band for a few months, Flanigin opened for B3 kingpin Jimmy Smith at the Mercury. Considering that Smith had recorded nearly 40 classic soul-jazz records for the Blue Note and Verve labels beginning in 1956, this would be like opening for Richard Pryor with knock-knock jokes. But Flanigin, then 32, got the gig because the club needed to provide a B3 and Flanigin had one. Luckily, this was the ground-floor version of the Mercury, not the one upstairs that’s now called the Parish, because hauling a 425-lb B3 and a Leslie speaker almost as heavy up a flight of stairs has caused many a roadie to consider another line of work.

mike_flanigin

Mike Flanigin in Marfa. Photo by Ashley McCue.

“I hoped and prayed that Jimmy Smith would show up right before he went on and miss my set,” said Flanigin, feeling insecure about his pairing with the absolute genius of grit n’ soul. “At one point I looked over and there he was. JIMMY SMITH WAS WATCHING ME PLAY THE ORGAN! I just froze up, man. I stopped playing,” Flanigin was able to compose himself after a long minute and finished the set.

The B3 actually belonged to Mike Judge, who Flanigin knew from Dallas, when the Silicon Valley creator played bass for Anson Funderburgh. Since Hammond stopped producing B3s in 1975, the organ had to be over 20 years old, but it had never been played in public when Judge bought it. Smith, who’d been playing every beat-up piece of shit organ the clubs provided on his tour, loved the pristine instrument.

After the crowd had cleared out, Smith went back onstage and sat at the organ. Flanigin was up there to get the B3 ready to move, but Smith motioned for him to sit next to him on the bench. And for the next 30 minutes, the master showed the novice a few things on the B3.

“I had heard that Jimmy Smith could be difficult and moody- that was his reputation,” said Flanigin, “but he was nothing but nice to me that night.” Flanigin would, a few years later, see the temperamental side of Smith, when the icon refused to go back onstage at Antone’s after the club’s B3 temporarily died on him. But that night at the Mercury was a magical experience that will stay with Flanigin forever.

“It’s all the blues, man,” Smith told the kid after one adventurous run. “I was thinking ‘that’s not like any blues I’ve ever heard,’” Flanigin said with a chuckle. The legend’s impromptu tutorial showed Flanigin just how much he had to learn.

Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith

James Oscar Smith of Philadelphia started off as a piano player, but switched in 1953 when he heard Wild Bill Davis play the Hammond organ in Milt Larkin’s Houston-based big band. A key selling point for music school graduate Smith was that the organ never went out of tune. The first great electric organ player of note was piano legend Fats Waller, who grew up playing church organ at his father’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Waller taught Count Basie, who made the organ swing in the ‘30s. Chicago’s Les Strand earned the nickname “the Art Tatum of the organ” in the ‘40s and recorded with Coleman Hawkins, and there was also Smith’s Philadelphia neighbor Bill Doggett, who played a Hammond in Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five before forming his own band and having a smash with sax man Clifford Scott on “Honky Tonk (Pts. 1 and 2)” in 1956. But improvisational virtuoso Smith created much of the language of the Hammond B3 organ and anybody who’s played it after, even the rock and R&B players like Steve Winwood, Gregg Allman, Brian Auger, Keith Emerson, Jon Lord of Deep Purple, Greg Rolie of Santana, Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals and Booker T. Jones and Billy Preston, have got some Jimmy Smith in their heads. He is the Source, like T-Bone Walker on the electric blues guitar.

The B3 came out in 1954, just when Smith was starting out, and he pioneered the walking bass lines with his left hand and fleet-fingered single note runs on his right that emulated Charlie Parker. Smith’s hands clasped the relationship between the upper and lower keyboards, while his feet on the pedals colored the undertones like a mournful string bass. The 1956 LP, The Incredible Jimmy Smith, changed everything.

The Philadelphia area was as fertile for B3 players as Chicago was for electric blues guitarists, with Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Charles Earland, Don Patterson and more coming from Philly and New Jersey. The Garden State is where Flanigin tracked down one of his favorite organists Big John Patton, in 1999. “As a blues guitarist coming up, almost all your heroes had passed away,” Flanigin said. “But when I really started getting into the B3, I found out that most of the greats who played on my favorite records were still alive.” He knew that if he was going to get better he had to apprentice with a total pro.

Big John Patton tutored Flanigin for almost two years.

Big John Patton tutored Flanigin for almost two years.

Flanigin relocated to Boston at the turn of the 21st century when his wife at the time had a job there. Checking the New York City papers one day he saw an upcoming gig by Big John Patton at the Jazz Standard, so he took the train from Boston for the show. “He was a pretty dark cat, not really very approachable,” said Flanigin, but when it turned out that the older woman he’d struck up a conversation with was Patton’s wife Thelma, she introduced Flanigin to his hero. “I said, ‘I’d sure like to come to your house some day and learn a few things,'” Flanigin recalled, “and he said ‘sure, how ’bout tomorrow?'” Flanigin took the bus to Montclair, NJ, expecting to knock on the door of a mansion. After all, Patton, guitarist Grant Green and drummer Ben Dixon made some of the greatest jazz organ trio records ever at Blue Note in the ’60s. This man was musical royalty, so Flanigin was surprised to see the Pattons living in a one-bedroom apartment. Flanigin slept on the couch and every morning for a week, he woke up to Big John’s B3 sounds while Thelma cooked breakfast. “All John ever wanted to do was play,” said Flanigin. For ten hours every day, the jazz great would show the student some things, then watch him try them on his own. You can’t get training like that at music school.

Flanigin visited the Pattons regularly over the next two years, usually staying over for about a week at a time, before heading back to Boston. Some nights Patton took Flanigin to organ-centric jazz clubs in Harlem. “He’d say, ‘This is my man, Mike. He’s a great organ player,'” and I’d feel like a million bucks.”

Flan and the Man. Billy Gibbons sings the title track on The Drifter, which comes out in August.

Flan and the Man. Billy Gibbons sings the title track on The Drifter, which comes out in August.

Patton died in 2002 at age 66 from complications due to diabetes. His Hammond B3, which he bought in 1963 at Macy’s, sits in Flanigin’s living room. “We tried to get the Smithsonian to take it, but they wouldn’t, so Thelma gave it to me,” said Flanigin, who paid about $1,000 to have it shipped to him in Austin.

On a recent afternoon, Flanigin sat at Big John’s “desk,” which is what a lot of players call their B3s, and showed its features. Besides two 61-note keyboards, the organ has 24 foot bars, a volume pedal and 38 drawbars, also called “stops,” which a player can customize for his own sound. The term “pulling out all the stops” refers to an organ player who’s opened all the drawbars for crescendos. “It looks really complicated,” Flanigin said of the setup before him, “but it’s like driving a car. There are all those knobs and pedals, but after a while it becomes second nature.”

****

The electric organ was invented by Laurens Hammond of Evanston, IL in 1934 and advertised as an economical alternative to the massive pipe organs of churches, theaters and baseball stadiums. In that way, it was the first synthesizer. A non-musician, Hammond held 110 patents and had earlier invented an electric clock, which gave him his fortune, plus 3D movies and a card-shuffling contraption. Needing a new money-maker after the Hammond Electric Bridge Table ran its course, selling 14,000 units in two years, Hammond based the organ on the synchronized motor he used for his clock. He realized that it could produce tones that would never go out of tune. That was the gimmick, but Hammond’s accountant, a church organist, persuaded Hammond to go further and invent a new kind of electric organ. The sound on a Hammond is produced by 91 tone wheels, which revolve around a magnetic coil. Much of the appeal was that the keyboard action could be fast, like a piano, but it had the ability to sustain notes.

The B3's AC signal created a pop sound with each keystroke, which rotating Leslie speakers were designed to smooth out. The tremelo effect added to the Hammond sound.

The B3’s AC signal created a pop sound with each keystroke, which rotating Leslie speakers were designed to smooth out. The tremelo effect added to the Hammond sound.

In 1935, the first year of production, Hammond sold 1,750 organs to churches, but also drew the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which looked into a complaint by pipe organ manufacturers that Hammond was using deceptive advertising when it claimed that the $2,600 Model A could duplicate the sounds of a $75,000 pipe organ. A blind listening test was held and about 1/3 of the participants guessed that the Hammond was the pipe organ, which ended up being great publicity for Hammond.

Chicago-based Hammond introduced the BC model in 1936, the C model in ’39, the B-2 and C-2 in ’49 and the B-3 and C-3 in 1954. Besides churches, radio soap operas were early Hammond organ customers. Then, when Ethel Smith of Pittsburgh had a huge hit with “Tico Tico,” from the 1944 Red Skelton film Bathing Beauty, the home market exploded for Hammond, which produced the spinet organ in 1949.

Bobbie Nelson, who plays with her brother Willie’s band, got a job demonstrating Hammond organs in Fort Worth and paid the bills for years that way. Also up in Fort Worth in the late ’60s was Austin B3 favorite Red Young, “the Organizer,” who played organ on Wanted: The Outlaws in 1976, toured with Sonny & Cher, Dolly Parton and Joan Armatrading, recorded on sessions with Nelson Riddle and now plays all those great organ parts for Eric Burdon and the Animals. And we can’t forget Austin’s first great B3 player Dr. James Polk, who plays most Monday nights at the Continental Gallery with sax player Elias Haslanger.

During the ’70’s, jazz moved into a rock fusion sound that ditched the B3 in favor of clavinets, synthesizers and electric pianos. And the home market was taken over by cheaper digital keyboards. Hammond discontinued the B3 in 1975 and filed for bankruptcy 10 years later. But the B3 has gotten even hipper, especially after such acts as Medeski, Martin and Wood and Galactic introduced organ jams to festival crowds.

Hammond was bought by Suzuki Music of Japan, which produced a new B3 in 2009, but no self-respecting soul-jazz player would go for that digital model. Everybody wants to play what Jimmy Smith played. You’ve gotta have that attitude if you’re going to give your life to the B3. And this is the many-faceted instrument which is known to inspire such desire.

 

ORGAN PORN

Ethel Smith becomes a thing with “Tico, Tico”

Jimmy Smith delivers “The Sermon”

Unsung: the Billy Preston Story

“Let ‘Em Roll” by Big John Patton

 

 

Posted in Austin, Austin-Zeitgeist, Featured, Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Mississippi 1963: Waking up to racism

Posted by mcorcoran on January 15, 2017

martin-luther-king-jrOn an unseasonably breezy August afternoon in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. ready to give the speech of his life. But first there would be songs, untamed by social order, from a dignified, 260-pound African American queen who contorted her face, jerked her body and chomped on lyrics as if a legacy of suffering flowed through her. Mahalia Jackson. Could any name better fit the physical and spiritual embodiment of Mother Church? Ma- HAIL- Yeah. There’s a song in those syllables.

“How I got over,” she began, softly. “Well, how I got over,” her voice gained strength in the repetition. “Well, my soul looks back and wonders how I got over.” Like most gospel performances, the song grew in intensity with each verse and the crowd’s response built from murmur to “Amen!” shouts. It took several minutes for the energized crowd of 250,000 to settle down, then Dr. King stepped up to the podium. “I have a dream,” the Civil Rights leader intoned, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”

It was appropriate that the Civil Rights movement adopt as its soundtrack a style of music rooted in the African American struggle against oppression. The church has long provided a sanctuary for those who wish to express their blackness in all its glory.

– Intro to my “History of Black Gospel Music” (2002)

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I went to grade school in Biloxi, Miss. from 1963-65. We lived on Keesler AFB, but attended Catholic school off-base. Every morning the bus would drop off the black kids at one Catholic school and then the white kids at another. Long after Brown vs. Board of Education 1954 made school segregation illegal, Mississippi schools were not integrated. Even Catholic schools. Even next to a military base, where blacks and whites lived side by side, preparing to fight side by side for freedom.

The bus route took us through the black shantytown and the first few times I had to look away, the poverty was so grim. I didn’t want to think about it. There was no electricity, so the front porches were lit by kerosene lanterns, which gave an eerie glow in the dawn darkness. The school janitor lived on the route and told me one day that he saw us kids on the bus go by every morning. After that, I looked for Old Joe.

His shoes were falling apart, so one day my dad brought him some old Army boots and his thankfulness was so genuine, I have never forgotten the look on his face. It was like the first time I heard the blues and knew I was a certain way.

We were Kennedy liberals and my mother sent Julian Bond $10 for some campaign after seeing him on TV, which put us on the Civil Rights mailing lists for several more years. Driving through Mississippi, we saw a billboard that said “MARTIN LUTHER KING IS A COMMUNIST!” I said something like ‘is a communist worst than a Negro?” and my mother lit into me, even though that’s not what I meant.

That time in Mississippi had a profound effect on me. Afterwards, I read every book I could find about growing up black in America. James Baldwin, Claude Brown, Nikki Giovanni, Malcolm X. Later in the ‘60s, the two groups of people I could tell you every little thing about were the starting lineup of the New York Yankees and Civil Rights leaders. I was that kid. Motown and Stax were on the radio when I was a teenager and that’s what we danced to at the youth center.

I’ve said it before: the story of African Americans, to come up from when they were treated like animals, is the greatest history of all time. I wanted to be part of it, but I could only observe and be inspired. And question what I didn’t understand.

When I left my job at the Austin American Statesman in 2011, there were a lot of reasons. A big one was that I no longer had to worry about being fired over something I wrote. I could lose assignments or freelance avenues, but those were small stakes for this newfound freedom. I decided to write more about race, which for a white male is a no-win situation. Louis C.K. is the only white person who’s ever benefited from his candid views on race. And I’m no Louis C.K. But I am the kind of writer who just feels compelled to put out there what he’s thinking. I know where my heart is. But sometimes I smh at my own shit. My friends on Facebook are more aware of this than the rest of you.

But this is an era where race is again an issue as divisive as it was in 1963. What side are you on? That seems to be the question of the day. Are you for Trayvon or George Zimmerman? Michael Brown or Darren Wilson? The unarmed black men killed for resisting arrest or the cops who, in turns out, are just as scared shitless as the rest of us.

I’m on the side of the truth. Tell me what really happened. Don’t say a man died on his knees with his hands up, when eye witness testimony says he was fighting the police officer before being shot. That’s when you lose me. Don’t come into every issue with an agenda that twists to help your cause. WHAT REALLY HAPPENED? We can handle the truth.

Whenever I post an opinion on Facebook that has a racial context, I close my laptop and walk away for at least a couple hours. I know I’ve done something unwise- opening up myself to charges and accusations and very strongly-worded disagreements. I know someone’s going to call me a racist. But Kris Kristofferson sure hit a home run when he wrote that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. I put myself in this position because it’s a rare one. I can write whatever I want with little consequences. Some would call my life pitiful, living in a broke-down trailer without hot water, but since 95% of my life takes place in my head, I feel like I’m living like a king.

This is a long, long way to say Happy Birthday to Martin Luther King Jr. You were my first hero who wasn’t white or wearing a sports uniform. You knew you were going to win in the long run, so the constant evil setbacks were endurable. There’s no greater power than knowing you’re right and they’re wrong.

The first big project I took on in my semi-retirement was a book/CD on Austin-educated blind gospel pioneer Arizona Dranes. The recordings she made in 1926, which, for the first time mixed juke joint R&B styles such as ragtime and boogie woogie with religious lyrics and speaking-in-tongues fury, set the template for rock n’ roll. The designer of the book He Is My Story: the Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes (Tompkins Square) was Atlanta artist Susan Archie. She was just great to work with and we were in constant communication during the design (and de-facto editing) process. She was good friends with James Bond, the brother of Julian Bond, and offered to give my mom’s hero a copy of the text. About a week later, I heard back from Susan. Former NAACP chairman Bond had a small problem with one part of the book. I had made an assumption, based on research about the male/female dynamic of slaves, that Mr. Bond said wasn’t quite accurate. “OK, change it to what he says is true,” I told Susan. Julian Bond knows more about that subject than I do, I was sure of that. I smiled for my mom, who was around for only my first 18 years.

The exchange with Julian Bond made me think of all that mail we used to get in the ‘60s, asking for contributions for various organizations dedicated to the Civil Rights movement. As far as I know, one folding dime was all we sent it. We were poor, or at least we thought we were. “What was the mail?” would come a call from the kitchen after I got back from the mailbox. “Just some Julian Bond mail,” I’d say. That’s what we called the Civil Right circulars. But I read it all. It wasn’t junk mail to me.

Those two years in Mississippi, when I would lie in bed wondering how people could treat other people that way, provided the foundation to everything I know about race in America. That’s the truth. Seen it with my own eyes. I know it’s not the same experience as being black, which is a place I’ve put myself in my mind since second grade. A writer goes with a feeling. If he or she is true. I can’t help what I feel and I don’t want to, even if it sometimes gets me in trouble with readers. Those feelings. On some days, they’re all I’ve got. And all I need.

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