The October full moon, some times a “harvest moon” (a full moon right after the fall equinox, we’ll see one in 2010) or the “hunter’s moon” has always made me a bit nuts. I can feel it pulling on my skull. When I was young it usually led to crazy alcohol benders, now, in my old age it just causes terrible insomnia. So I didn’t sleep last night, just puttered around and listened to records. I was filing records and came across several versions of “Night Train” then got all obsessed and started pulling out different versions of “Night Train” (sometimes spelled “Nite Train”). Like “Louie Louie” or “Route 66”, “Night Train” seems almost impossible to fuck up. I don’t think I’ve heard a version I couldn’t stand, and there’s at least a dozen versions that, as Phil Schaap would say enter “the pantheon of sides”.
The first recording of “Night Train” was (still is, come to think of it) by Jimmy Forrest on Chicago’s United label (on beautiful clear red wax) in March of 1952 and had a twenty week chart run where it eventually hit #1 R&B. Jimmy Forrest a seasoned jazz tenor saxophonist had played in Andy Kirk’s Clouds Of Joy and Jay McShann’s band (where Charlie Parker got his first national exposure) before replacing Ben Webster in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The Ellington band had been playing “Night Train” which was in reality written by the great alto sax man Johnny Hodges under the title of “That’s The Blues, Old Man” also using the famous riff as a vamp in the “Deep South Suite”. Ellington version here.
When Forrest left Ellington he took “Night Train” with him, claiming composers credit. I assume the title is a tribute to the fortified wine favored by skid row bums.
That must’ve burned Hodges’ ass as it became a very valuable copyright with dozens of cover versions recorded over the coming decades, the most famous being James Brown’s 1962 smash on the King label (the above version is from the 1965 T.A.M.I. Show) and here’s one from the Live At the Apollo LP.
With it’s infamous bump and grind beat, “Night Train” became a sort of national anthem for strippers right up until Motley Crue ruined music in strip clubs for ever.
According to Nick Tosches’ The Devil & Sonny Liston (Little, Brown 2000) Liston used to train to a tape that played “Night Train” over and over again. In the U.K. Nick’s book is called Night Train, the American publisher changed the title over here because Martin Amis had a novel of the same title hitting the marketplace as the same time as Nick’s. I can just imagine Liston, perpetual scowl on his face pounding away on the speed bag to it.
Even groups I usually hate have recorded killer versions of “Night Train”. Here’s a truly perverse rendition by the 4 Lovers (who would change their name and mine gold as the neo-castrato 4 Seasons). Here’s a version with lyrics sung by feral child Wynonie Harris. Now compare that to this blazing gonzo guitar freak out courtesy of Travis Wammack . He was seventeen when that was cut (in 1966, best vintage of the entire ’60’s for recordings). Here’s one from the Viscounts (of “Harlem Nocturne” fame). They really sound like they’re playing at a strip club near the airport. Now here is a version that smells like chitterlings with a side of grits and red gravy courtesy of Brother Jack McDuff and King Curtis (Marc Ribot told me when playing with McDuff he showed up late for rehearsal once and McDuff pulled a knife on him, Curtis was stabbed to death on the stoop of his Upper West Side brownstone by a wino in 1971). Another unique and classic version is this junkie vs. speed freak drum duet from Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Rich might’ve been technically the better musician but I prefer Krupa’s thudding tom toms any day. Is that Jethro Tull on the flute? To quote Rich at a later date “there’s no sound in flutes”!
Even the clean cut Duane Eddy sounds greasy playing “Night Train”. Eddy drew his backing bands from the formidable ranks of Kip Tyler’s group The Flips (including at various times Steve Douglas or Jim Horn on sax, Sandy Nelson, Jimmy Troxel on drums, Bruce Johnston and Larry Knetchel at the piano, Mike Deasy on guitar, Kim Fowley was their roadie for a while) who were managed by Phil Spector’s soon to be institutionalized sister Shirley. As an side dish here’s both sides of their best single: Rumble Rock and it’s flip side: She’s My Witch (Ebb. 1958), one of my all time favorite discs. I wish Kip Tyler would give me (or somebody) an interview, there’s a great story there waiting to be told.
I think I ran off the track (ouch! sorry….). Yup, “Night Train”, great song.
Addendum To Yesterday’s Post: In response to Tom Sutpen’s comment (see comments below) here is the Louis Prima/Sam Butera version of Night Train.