An excerpt from “Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music” (TCU Press) by Michael Corcoran. Illustrated by Tim Kerr.
Charles Brown and Amos Milburn became associates in 1946, when Charles was ridin’ high with “Drifting Blues” and Amos, just back from the war, was the new boogie-woogie prince of Houston. “Charles was an admirer of mine even before I moved to L.A.,” Amos told bluesologist Charlie Lange. When he sang blues ballads, it was obvious Milburn also looked up to Brown.
According to the liner notes of Mosaic’s 1994 set The Complete Aladdin Recordings of Amos Milburn, the piano prodigy had an early act billed “He-Man Martha Raye,” performing novelty numbers he’d heard the comedic hoofer sing in movies like 1941’s Navy Blues. Raye joined the USO in 1942 and in November of that year a 15-year-old Amos became 17 on his paperwork and enlisted in the Navy. He was assigned to the food crew of a ship based in the Phillipines, and it’s not known if Seaman Milburn ever met “The Big Mouth,” but you can be sure he entertained the fellas with his Martha routine. And he certainly had access to a piano, because just a month after returning to Houston from the Navy in Oct. ’45 to attend Amos Sr.’s funeral (pneumonia), he was playing Sid’s Ranche chicken shack in Houston backed by the house band. Six months later Milburn opened for T-Bone Walker at Don Robey’s Bronze Peacock.
The big three of boogie woogie piano- Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis- were big influences on Milburn, as were jazz pianist Art Tatum, R&B great Louis Jordan and Nashville’s Cecil Gant, “the G.I. Sing-sation,” who also moved between ballads and boogie-woogie. But the most significant musical moment of his life as a listener, he’s said, came when his ship pulled into the harbor at Long Beach, CA at the end of WWII and the radio picked up “Blues at Sunrise” by Ivory Joe Hunter. It was a new day on the coast and Milburn heard a world he wanted to be part of. Backing Kirbyville, TX native Hunter on the smooth and lowdown 1945 recording were Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers with Charles Brown playing that sly, sparkling piano that Amos took right to his heart.
African -American musicians from Texas didn’t flock to Memphis or Chicago, they went to South Central L.A., Harlem with palm trees. They brought the heavy blues and gospel feel from home, refining it with inventive instrumentation and smooth vocals. In the mid-‘30s blues guitarists T-Bone Walker from Dallas, Rockdale’s Pee Wee Crayton and Austin-born Johnny Moore came looking for more opportunities in a relaxed racial climate. The ‘40s saw the migration of piano men, with Floyd Dixon of Marshall joining Milburn and Brown, plus tenor saxmen Illinois Jacquet and Don Wilkerson of Houston and Joe Houston from Bastrop. Songwriter Jessie Mae Robinson, who wrote #1 hits for Brown (“Black Night”) and Milburn (“Roomin’ House Boogie,” “In the Middle of the Night”), as well as the rockabilly classic “Let’s Have a Party” for Wanda Jackson, was originally from Jasper. Others finding success out west were Esther Phillips of Galveston, Peppermint Harris from Texarkana, Little Willie Littlefield from El Campo and first choice bassist Shifty Henry (immortalized in the lyrics of “Jailhouse Rock”) from Edna. Nat Cole, from Chicago, was still the King on the L.A. club scene, but even he had an essential Texan, Johnny Moore’s younger brother Oscar Moore, who crafted the small combo jazz guitar style during his 10 years (1937-’47) with the King Cole Trio.
Charles Brown made it to L.A. in late ’44 and quickly drew notice on Central Avenue by winning a talent show at the Lincoln Theater with a wry segue of Earl Hines’ “Boogie with St. Louis Blues” into “Warsaw Concerto.” Brown, who’d been a high school science teacher in Texas just a year prior, proved to be the kind of cultured bluesman that Central Avenue was looking for. He was hired on the spot to play piano at Ivie’s Chicken Shack (ironically, an upscale joint), where he rotated with his best friend from Prairie View A&M (class of ’42) Richie Dell Archia. The sister of noted jazz saxman Tom Archia, Richie got Charles that teaching job at Carver High in Baytown right out of college because her father was the principal. But sheer talent is what opened the doors for Brown in the music field.
Johnny Moore was in the audience at the Lincoln the night Brown dazzled on those piano instrumentals. His band was a Blazer short, needing a piano player who could handle lead vocals, so Moore tracked down Brown, who was working during the day as an elevator operator at a department store. Asked to audition, the pianist said he wasn’t a vocalist. But Charles gave it a try, singing 1941 hit “Embraceable You” by his favorite singer Helen O’Connell, and the Blazers were Three again.
Milburn was discovered at San Antonio’s Keyhole Club in the summer of ’46 by Lola Ann Cullum, the 50-year-old wife of a prominent Houston dentist. Active in Houston black society, the Cullums made the Houston Informer front page when they put up W.C. Handy, “Father of the Blues,” in March 1946. The visit seemed to have strengthened musical aspirations in Lola Ann, whose life of transitions began when she went from Weimar farm girl to the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority at Howard University circa 1914. Cullum trekked to the Keyhole, a 350-capacity former movie theater at the corner of Pine and Iowa Streets, that summer night to see Duke Ellington. Way down on the bill was Milburn, who played his own set and backed the brother-sister dance team of Mack & Ace. “When you come back to Houston,” Cullum told 19-year-old Milburn, “let’s make some recordings.” Lola Ann had just bought a Soundmirror tape recorder, the first available to the public, and was eager to get in on the postwar R&B explosion.
(“Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music” (TCU Press) is available via amazon.com. For a copy signed by the author and the painter, paypal $37 to firstname.lastname@example.org.)