The day I was born (May 23, 1959) the #1 record was Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City“. A re-make of a tune originated by Little Willie Littlefield and written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (itself based on an old tune by Jim Jackson), it featured an ultra-twangy guitar solo by Wild Jimmy Spruill. For this and other reasons I’ve always felt some sort of cosmic bond with Jimmy, who was in my opinion one of the greatest guitar wranglers in the history of rock’n’roll. You won’t find his name in the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame (unlike such great talents as Art Garfunkel, Steven Stills and Bono and I don’t mean Sonny), but if you have any taste in music at all you’ve heard his playing. As a session musician he played on hits like Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin & Turnin'”, King Curtis’ “Soul Twist”, Dave “Baby” Cortez’ “The Happy Organ”, the Charts “Deserie” and tons of others. Today however we shall be discussing his best records, including those issued under his own name. First let’s get the background part out of the way.
James Spruill was born in shack in the country outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina on June 9, 1934. His family was so poor Jimmy remembered them using newspapers and paste to seal the cracks in the wall of their house to keep the wind out.
His parents tried sharecropping but couldn’t make a living and eventually moved north first to Norfolk, Virginia, then Washington, D.C. Jimmy started playing guitar as a tyke, building his first guitar out of a cigar box (he would build guitars his whole life, when I met him he was working on a custom job for John Hammond Jr.). As soon as he could raise a hard on he hopped a bus to New York City where an older brother was already settled and got a job as the super of a Harlem tenement. While practicing his guitar on the stoop he was spotted by record producer Danny Robinson (brother of Bobby Robinson, another local record mini-mogul who would figure large in Jimmy’s career). Robinson got Jimmy his first record date, playing with the Charlie Walker on “Driving Home pts. 1 & 2” , and another date days late with the Charlie Lucas Combo where he cut a tune called “Walkin‘” which featured his already fully formed “scratchy” guitar style. The year was 1957 and for the next eight years Spruill was the regular session guitarist on dozens of discs the Robinson brothers produced for their many labels— Fire, Fury, Enjoy, VIM, Holiday, Everlast, etc.
One of the most musically fruitful associations was with Allen Bunn aka Tarheel Slim, another North Carolina transplant who played guitar, and together with Spruill they cut one of the greatest rock’n’roll records to ever come out of Harlem– “Number 9 Train” b/w “Wildcat Tamer” (Fury). He would go on to play on nearly all of Tarheel Slim’s Fury recrordings including his sole hit (with Little Ann) “It’s Too Late“.
Perhaps the greatest pairing however was with the aforementioned Wilbert Harrison. Harrison (also from North Carolina, he sang in a Geechie accent that betrayed his Georgia Sea Island roots) had been kicking around for years, cutting sides for Savoy, but he really hit pay dirt both musically and commercially when Bobby Robinson put him together with Spruill for a series of discs that are among the greatest rock’n’roll records ever made: “Goodbye Kansas City“, “Don’t Wreck My Life“, “Let’s Stick Together” (which Wilbert would re-record one man band style as “Let’s Work Together”, it was copied note for note by Canned Heat who had a hit with it, Bryan Ferry would take his version of it to the top of the U.K. charts in the early 70’s), “The Horse“, Willie Mabon’s “Poison Ivy” (which has one of the best lyrics ever– “Each day when I shave/in my house coat/two men have to hold me/or I’ll cut my throat….I’m like Poison Ivy/I’ll break out all over you”), and “1960” among them.
Robinson also brought Elmore James to New York City for his last sessions in ’63, recording him with a band fronted by Jimmy Spruill, here on “Bobby’s Rock” you can hear them trading licks.
Another great pairing was sax honker Noble “Thin Man” Watts’ who utilized Spruill on his best records such as “Hard Times (The Slop)” (Baton), “Jookin‘” (Enjoy) and “Blast Off” (Baton), they would strike up a life long friendship. The best of Noble Watts Baton sides can be found here. And before it’s slips my mind here’s a great one, Bobby Long’s “Jersey City” on the obscure Fountainhead label that features one of Spruill’s finest solos.
In 1957 Bobby Robisnon began issuing Wild Jimmy Spruill’s solo 45’s, the first “Jumpin’ In” on Everlast wasn’t very good but after that he cut a string of hard stinging classics where his guitar twangs, scratches and practically bounces off the speaker cones. Issued on labels like Fire, Enjoy, Vest, and VIM were monsters like “Hard Grind“, “Scratchin‘”, “Slow Draggin‘”, “Scratch ‘n Twist“, “Cut and Dried“, and even a vocal (something Jimmy wasn’t so good at) “Country Boy“. If you’re the CD buying sort all of the above solo discs are available on the new Night Train CD Wild Jimmy Spruill- Scratch & Twist (Released and Unreleased Recordings 1956-1962). I recommend it highly, I bought one myself. Here’s one of the un-issued tracks– “Raisin’ Hell“.
From 1957 into the early 1990’s Jimmy led a band– Wild Jimmy Spruill & the Hell Raisers who in addition to backing up acts from Chuck Berry to James Brown played all over the New York City area from long gone joints like the Rockin’ Palace on 156th St and 8th Ave to the Central Ballroom, Small’s Paradise, the Baby Grand (all still there) and had a long residency at the Sportsman’s Lounge on 8th Ave that lasted into the 90’s. When not working clubs they played weddings, parties, private clubs, and bar mitzvah. As great as his records are, you really had to see Jimmy to believe it. He played guitar with his feet, elbows, teeth, butt, over his head, between his legs, behind his back, throwing the thing around the stage and never missing a note. Hence the Wildman moniker. In the early nineties he began appearing downtown, mostly at a club called Tramps with a version of the Hellraisers augmented by guitarist Larry Dale of “Let The Door Bell Ring” (Glover) and “Drinkin’ Wine” (Atlantic) infamy and pianist Bob Gaddy who cut the great “C’mon Little Children” for Old Town. They were one of the greatest bands I ever saw in my life.
At that time (around ’93-4) I was occasionally contributing short pieces to the New York Times‘ Style Of The Times section. I suggested to my editor an article on these guys (“…these were the guys that invented rock’n’roll boss…”). In the process of interviewing Jimmy for the piece (which never ran, it wasn’t exactly a “style” piece, what was I thinking?) we became friends, as a fellow Gemini we got on great. Truth be it, I loved the guy. He was brilliant, funny and crazy in the best way. One time
I took the train way up to the Bronx, where Jimmy lived with his wife and one of his adult twin daughters in a self decorated apartment across from the playground the locals call “the coops”. Jimmy, who bragged at having over fifty jobs (Geminis get bored easily), and was then working as a decorator. His apartment had self installed stucco walls and a giant built in fish tank. Very cool. He never made much money in music but he was a happy man, he liked to go to Atlantic City and gamble a bit, he built guitars for friends and still played when ever some one called with a gig. In his own mind he was a success because he did whatever he wanted and money be damned, he refused to be a slave to it.
In February of 1996 he headed to Florida by bus to visit old pal Noble Watts who was recording a new record for Rounder in his home studio. Jimmy stopped in North Carolina to visit friends en route and lost his wallet. On the return trip he had a heart attack on the bus and passed away. Since his body carried no ID he was interned in a morgue in the North Carolina town where he’d been discovered dead. In the meantime, back in the Bronx his wife and daughters were frantic. It wasn’t like Jimmy to not call and after he’d been missing for weeks the local TV news ran stories about the missing blues man, until finally his corpse was located and identified. Had he lived no doubt he’d have been rediscovered by fans and collectors who were just becoming hip to his old records (the Krazy Kat label in the UK issued a quasi-bootleg in the late 80’s of his best solo records, they didn’t even have a photo of him for the cover, using an awful drawing instead). He would have toured Europe (a place he was anxious to see), played festivals, maybe even made a few bucks. But it was not to be. I think about him all the time. Wild Jimmy Spruill, there’s one I really miss.