Me And Famous People…Vol. 1

As a teen I used to love Rock Scene magazine. It was mostly just pictures of Richard and/or Lisa Robinson at Max’s or CBGB’s or parties with their version of celebrities: the Stooges, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Bowie, Roxy, etc. but it seemed so glamorous and exciting. Well, I’m away this week and too lazy to write a full blog entry before I leave so I thought I’d do my version of Rock Scene and just run some pix of myself and some famous faces I’ve stumbled into over the years.

Me and Rosco Gordon, WFMU Record Fair, 1992.

With Ernie K-Doe, Mother In Law Lounge, New Orleans, 1999. Left to right: Michelle Kozuchowski, Me, Ernie (R.I.P.), Kelly Keller (R.I.P.)
With Rudy Ray Moore (Dolemite), WFMU Record Fair, 1992.
With Cordell Jackson, Lakeside Lounge, 1997.

Me with Phil May, Lakeside Lounge, 1999? What’s the difference between a straight Englishman and a gay Englishman? Three pints.
With Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder, 2000 at Nick Tosches book party (photo by Wayne Kramer).
With Robert Quine, I really miss him, Jeremy Tepper in the back, Hangover Hop, 1993.

With Ike Turner, 1997 (Photo by Bob Gruen)

No Se No, 1984, Ray Kelly (w/Cowboy Hat), Me and the World Famous Blue Jays (Jay Sherman Godfrey and Jeremy Tepper).
Hasil Adkins and Me, 1985 (from 3-d original)
With Hank Ballard, 1987.
Esquerita in the center, the rest of the gang, left to right Me, Billy Miller, Julie Whitney, Todd Abramson, Miriam Linna. 1982?

Viv Prince 2

Just got back to town and found this in my mailbox courtesy of Scott, the earliest known photo of Viv Prince as a professional musician– that’s him second from left, with Carter-Lewis & the Southerners. This came out in Belgium, 1963. I haven’t heard it but Scott says the b-side ain’t’ bad. Thanks Scott.

Gillian’s Found Photos #17

This week’s edition of Gillian’s Found Photos carries on last week’s look at the Murray The K holiday shows at the Brooklyn Fox Theater. That’s the Rolling Stones onstage. Playing in front of the curtain, which is drawn, I find that a bit odd. Brian looks rather lonely all the way over on the left. Can anyone date this? Does anyone know what songs they played? Generally the acts only did 2-3 songs. I assume this was before Satisfaction which really changed things for the Stones. Until Satisfaction they weren’t all that big a deal in the States. They were well known, appeared on all the big TV shows: Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin (he made fun of them), Shindig, but certainly they were nowhere as big as the Beatles. In fact, the way I remember it, the Dave Clark 5 and Herman’s Hermit’s were bigger than the Stones in 1964. History tells us the Stones were the second biggest group of the British Intrusion, but as we know history is often wrong. And in the case of rock’n’roll, controlled and written by morons and hacks. The Rolling Stones struggled for a year and a half to make it in the States, only grabbing the #2 slot after Satisfaction went to #1 in the summer of ’65, leading off an incredible string of hit singles that would last nearly eight years. Up until then, It’s All Over Now and Time Is On My Side were their biggest hits, both were covers, and neither of them went to #1. I do remember The Last Time, issued a few months before Satisfaction as totally blowing my six year old mind with it’s guitar sound. I’d been following the Stones since I got their first album for Christmas 1964,

but nobody else I knew seemed to care that much about them until the following summer. Not that I had a wide social circle at age six, but I knew they were cooler than Herman’s Hermits, Gerry and the Pacemakers, or the Monkees.
It’s almost forty years since Brian Jones died, I’ve been thinking about him a lot. More on the subject to come. Here’s the Dean Martin clip:

Wacko Jacko Ain’t Comin’ Backo!

Amazing, trashy, tell all, no publisher listed!

Jordie’s drawings of Jacko’s genitalia reproduced in the above book.

I’m not much a fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but as I media figure I always found him quite interesting, especially in recent years. How can you not love somebody who would hold a baby over a balcony just to entertain his fans? Anyway, this book, Michael Jackson Was My Lover (The Secret Diary Of Jordie Chandler) by Victor M. Gutierrez, which lists no publisher (although it has a copyright date of 1995 and two printing dates, first edition 1996 and second edition 1997) is one of the great, sick, celeb reads. I found a copy at Shakespeare and Co. sitting on a table. The next day I went back to buy a second copy and the pile was gone, I never saw another copy again. Here are some chapter headings: Jackson’s Use Of Enemas and Tampons (p. 64), The Staff Knew About Jordie (p. 77), Jordie’s Description Of Jackson’s Genitalia (p. 158). If you ever see a copy, grab it, it’s a hoot and a half.
After the announcement of Jacko’s death, I turned on CNN to watch the media circus and a CNN reporter had cornered a woman, stalker-fan who spend all her time camped out outside of Jacko’s rented Holmby Hills house. This woman had a teenage daughter in tow, both of them covered in Jacko ephemera. I felt sorry for the daughter, it was obvious that she wasn’t so much Jacko crazed as her mother, but enjoyed having something to bond with her mom over. The mother was insane. When the CNN reporter asked her what it was about Jacko that made her spend all her time camped out in the street waiting for a glimpse of his head in a car speeding away, all she could say, over and over again was– “He invented the Moon Walk! He INVENTED the Moon Walk!” Her eyes were bulging out of her head. Amazing. The other thing I’ll miss are the N.Y. Post headlines: “Wacko Jacko Backo!”,” Wacko Jacko Flees Flacko” (with a photo of paparazzi chasing Jacko into the Courthouse). Who can forget his court appearance in his PJ’s? Who can forget him jumping onto the roof of an SUV after his arraignment, as if he’d just won twenty more Grammy awards? The press conference where he took even Al Sharpton by surprise by accusing Tommy Mottola of being a racist, white devil (“he’s been acting very devilish”), when he thought Sony wasn’t promoting his record Invincible enough. (Sharpton, who looked shocked was speechless for the first time in his life, eventually mumbling “I’m friends with Tommy Mottola, I don’t think he’s racist”). How about Jacko as the Scarecrow in The Wiz, Motown’s re-make of Wizard Of Oz? Or the bizarre television appearances with Lisa Marie Presley, Martin Bashir, and others? He was as entertaining off the stage as on, maybe more. What a nut. The type only America could produce.

Sky Saxon 1946-2009

In all the Farrah-Jacko mania you might have missed the passing of Sky
Saxon of the Seeds. They made some great records– Pushin’ Too
Hard, Can’t Seem To Make You Mine, etc. In fact their first two LP’s:
The Seeds and Web Of Sound (GNP Crescendo) are great, as their fake
live LP Raw & Alive and the collection of outtakes issued in ’77:
Fallin’ Off The Edge Of The World. I know the Doors totally
modeled themselves on the Seeds, but I’ll forgive ’em.
Sky Saxon 1946-2009, RIP.

Viv Prince

Viv Prince after a night out in Denmark.

The Pretty Things 1965:Viv Prince front and center

Feelin’ down? Me too, maybe it’s the rain, but here’s something that might cheer you up, it worked for me. It’s footage of the Pretty Things with maniac drummer Viv Prince. If don’t have a smile on your face by the very thought of Vivian Prince and the Pretty Things circa 1964-6 then you need to re-evaluate your entire life.
Viv was the original wild man of British rock’n’roll. It’s like he took all the uptight suppression of British society at the time and channeled it all into an explosive force that was himself. He is often sited as an influence on, and precursor to (and a few times fill-in for) Keith Moon. But Viv didn’t need a gong. You rarely see anything written about Viv Prince that doesn’t include the word lunatic. He was a perfect fit for the Pretty Things who hired him after burning through two other drummers (Pete Kitley and Viv Brougham, session man Bobby Graham played on their first recordings). Every rock’n’roll fan should own at least the first two Pretty Things albums (The Pretty Things and Get The Picture). In fact, put the Live On The BBC onto the must have list. If you don’t have ’em, a good way to get the best early songs is via the Norton Records Pretty Things EP series (great covers and R&R sounds best at 45 rpm), or their entire catolog was re-issued by Snapper Records, these CD’s all have bonus tracks and the first LP has some great CD-Rom video footage (although it no longer plays on my computer since they were released before Mac OS X). There’s plenty of great early television clips of the Pretties on YouTube, most of it never shown in U.S (I do remember seeing the Honey I Need clip above as a tyke) although the best quality clips have Skip Allen on drums, so since they were not pertinent to today’s posting, I didn’t include them. Don’t get me wrong, Skip was a great drummer (I love his fills on Midnight To Six Man), but Viv Prince was truly one of a kind. Viv doesn’t play on that many of the Pretty Things recordings, if fact I’m not even sure which ones he does play on, no matter, they made many great records– Don’t Bring Me Down, Honey I Need, Get The Picture, Can’t Stand The Pain, Come and See Me, Midnight To Six Man, LSD, killer renditions of Bo Diddley’s Road Runner and Mama, Keep Your Big Mouth Shut, just off the top of my noggin’, I’d say are right up there with the best of the Beatles, Stones, Kinks and Yardbirds.
Anyway, getting back to today’s subject, the above footage all features Viv Prince on drums. If you’re interested in the subject, and how can you not be? I highly recommend the book- Don’t Bring Me Down….Under (The Pretty Things In New Zealand, 1965) (UT Publishing, 2006) by Mike Stax, Andy Neill and John Baker, one of the greatest tales of rock’n’roll debauchery, mayhem and crustaceans ever told. The story of perhaps the most legendary rock’n’roll tour of all time. It was certainly the funniest. I swear, I just about shit my pants laughing while reading this book, you can find it here. The photos and newsclippings alone would be worth the price, the story itself, I could not possibly do justice to here, treat yourself and get this one.
After getting the boot from the Pretties, Prince went on to record this solo single– Light Of The Charge Brigade b/w Minuet For Ringo (Columbia, U.K. the b-side is bad so I’m not including it, only Cathy on the Patty Duke Show likes minuets). The Pretty Things went off the track on their third LP Emotions, changed directions and became a great psychedelic pop combo with the single Deflecting Grey and the concept album S.F. Sorrow, then Dick Taylor quit and they were never quite the same although they made some good records, it wasn’t until he returned in the early 90’s that they truly reclaimed their original sound. The Pretty Things are still around, God love ’em, they came through New York about ten years ago (seems like yesterday)and were incredible, I’ve gotta dig out the Lakeside photo booth pix of the drunken night I spent hanging with Phil May and Dick Taylor and post ’em one of these day. Those guys know how to have fun! BTW did anyone notice at the Royal Wedding back in ’81 when Princess Di came down the aisle, Phil May sitting in an aisle seat? I thought I was imagining things, but it really was him.
Viv Prince is still alive, living somewhere in Portugal, and evidently as crazy as ever. God bless Viv Prince, the Pretty Things, and everything they ever demolished.

Lafayette "The Thing" Thomas

The Thing demonstrates how to keep white shoes clean while playing.
Jerhl was his middle name, but why did they call him “The Thing”?
Killer 1957 instrumental.

The Thing gets top billing on this 1955 b-side.

Lafayette “The Thing” Thomas was a guitarist who sure knew how to liven up a record. His style has been described as “incendiary”, as good an adjective to describe his playing as any I could think up. All but forgotten today, he appeared on dozens of records in the fifties and sixties, most prominently those of Jimmy McCracklin & his Blues Blasters whom he spent fifteen years with, as well as the best releases on the Oakland, California based Irma label, a handful of solo releases, and a smattering of other sides scattered over a bewildering variety of indie labels.
There’s not a whole helluva lot of information on Lafayette Thomas. He was born in Shreveport, Louisiana on June 13, 1928 (a Gemini, like me), there’s a nineteen year gap before our next sighting of the one who would be called, for reasons that seem lost to time, The Thing.
In 1948 he was living in San Francisco. He started out playing a steel guitar, he saved up for his first regular electric guitar by working at the American Can Company. He began his career he gigging around the Bay Area with Al Simmons, Little Bob Young, and Bob Geddins’ Cavaliers. His first recordings were with Geddins’ and with R&B shouter Jimmy Wilson for the tiny Cave Tone label, the first of many labels Bob Geddins would own. These 78’s are so rare I’ve never heard them, but you can look at them, as some candidate for canonization has seen fit to devote a page of cyberspace to an illustrated discography of our subject de jour.
Somehow, The Thing shows up in Memphis in 1951, were he recorded his first solo record for producer Sam Phillips, who leased the sides to Chess in Chicago. Sam’s Drag b/w Baby Take A Chance With Me were released under the name L.J. Thomas and his Louisiana Playboys on Chess in ’52. The a-side was a wonderfully primitive guitar instrumental with plenty of the speaker blowing distortion that Sam Phillips loved so much.The flip was a vocal blues, in fact it still is. Try finding an original copy today.
Soon he was back in the Bay Area, working at a joint on Filmore Street called the House Of Joy where he caught the ear of piano pounding rocker Jimmy McCracklin, whose band the Blues Blasters he joined in 1951. With McCracklin he would record for Swing Time, Modern, Peacock, Irma, Art-Tone, Checker and Mercury, producing more good records than any sane person can count. Some highlights of his early years with McCracklin include Blues Blaster Boogie (Peacock), Blues Blaster Shuffle (Modern), Josephine (Modern) , Beer Tavern (Irma), She’s Gone (Peacock), The Swinging Thing (Peacock) and You’re The One (Irma).
He also recorded solo sides, the next, which appeared the ridiculously obscure Trilyte label was a brilliant instrumental called The Thing b/w Weekly Blues in 1955. Another appeared in 1957 on Bob Geddins’ Jumping label — Cockroach Run, a killer guitar romp that was so low budget it didn’t even have a b-side (a goofy comedy break in called The Trial was used as the flip). Don Robey’s Peacock label in Houston recorded him as a leader after a McCracklin session with the blazing Jumpin’ In The Heart Of Town and Standing In The Doorway Crying but these, probably his finest solo recordings were left in the vault to rot until the U.K. Ace label salvaged them and released them in 1987 on the LP Bay Area Blues Blasters (Ace 224) which featured a photo of The Thing himself wielding a Stratocaster as if it were a battle axe.
In these years he played lots of sessions in the Bay Area, working for producers Bob Geddins (Art Tone, Irma, Big Town, Oak City, and others) or Ollie Hunt (Trilyte, Olliet, Oliver and Scotty’s Radio). Hunt paid him $128 a week at a time when session union scale was $44.25 for a four hour session. We can assume that not many people bought these records as they’re rare as hell.
Point in question, this rockin’ monster by Texan, Juke Boy Bonner (mis-spelled Barner on the label)– Rock With Me Baby b/w Well Baby (Irma), one of the greatest rockin’ blues sides ever recorded, Thomas sounds like his guitar has barbed wire strings. Collector Dick Blackburn says that less than ten copies are known to have survived*.
Some of the best of Lafayette Thomas’ playing can be heard on these mid-50’s recordings like Jimmy Wilson’s Big Town recording like Oh Red and Tell Me on which he solos. He also appears up on this classic by bad ass Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thorton– Big Mama’s Comin’ b/w Don’t Talk Back (Irma).
Meanwhile, Jimmy McCracklin finally hit paydirt with the smash hit– The Walk on Chess subsidiary Checker in 1957 which featured Thomas’ classic guitar lick. McCracklin cut a handful of rockin’ singles and an LP for Checker (in fact, the Japanese re-issue of the LP adds the words “featuring Lafayette Thomas” to the cover) in 1957-58. My favorites are Everybody Rock b/w Get Tough, and this instrumental LP track Trottin’. Checker also recorded Lafayette solo on this great track which remained in the vault until the 1980’s when it showed up on the aforementioned Japanese album– Claim On You.
In ’58 McCracklin moved to Mercury Records, recording another batch of excellent singles in the same mold as The Walk, Georgia Slop being the best of the batch. Although no discography credits Thomas on the McCracklin Mercury sides, anyone with ears can hear it is him. He seems to have left McCracklin’s band somewhere around this time. McCracklin would go on to have hits on Geddins’ Art Tone (including Just Got To Know a #2 R&B in ’61) and Imperial (Think, #7 R&B in ’65) and release over thirty albums and hundreds of singles spread out over dozens of labels. In fact, he’s still at it.
Around ’59 or ’60 Lafayette Thomas moved to New York City briefly, working with rockin’ pianist Sam Price he cut one excellent single for Savoy– Lafayette’s A Comin’ b/w Please Come Back, he also played on two Prestige LP’s with Little Brother Montgomery, played in Memphis Slim’s band for awhile then returned to the Bay Area for good.
By the mid-sixties work was getting scarce and he took various jobs outside of music, including working in a factory assembling hoses. He was signed by Liberty subsidiary World Pacific and cut some sides with blues pedal steel player L.C. Robinson in ’68, he can be heard on the Arhoolie LP Oakland Blues, his final job was backing up Sugar Pie DeSanto whose 1972 single Hello San Francisco was his last recording. At this point music was a sideline for Lafayette Thomas. In the early 70’s he made some blues festival appearances and then 1977, only 48 years old, he dropped dead of a heart attack.
Today he’s mostly forgotten except for me, Jimmy McCracklin and the guy with illustrated discography web page. So what? Who cares? That was fifty years ago! Why do I keep digging out these obscure names and writing this swill? I asked myself these questions while I’m logging the tunes onto this page for anyone who wants to hear (or download) ’em. I mean, I already have the records, I can hear ’em whenever I want. I guess I’m still amazed at how many incredible, unique characters were out there that could channel their personal idiosyncrasies through rock’n’roll. It sometimes astounds me how many great records there are to hear. Like a bottomless well of great, wild records that only a handful of people have heard. Sadly, the well seems to have dried up sometime around the mid-sixties. In a way, there’s probably more good guitar players around today as ever, but good as in technically proficient, the wrong kind of good, because unfortunately they all sound the same to these ears. I guess back before the corporate takeover of the music biz, the guys who ran these little labels were always looking for something new, something unique. Unique was Sam Phillips’, the first to record Lafayette Thomas solo, mantra. Nowadays the knuckleheads in charge want everything to sound the same. Same drum beat— just pick a setting on the machine (there’s probably one built into your computer, there’s one on mine), even the Rolling Stones do it, sample the drums that is, but it’s the same with guitar players, a stage full of effects pedals don’t help, it still sounds like the same shit. But these old guys, they all sounded different. Lafayette Thomas didn’t sound anything like Ike Turner who didn’t sound anything like Johnny Guitar Watson who didn’t sound anything like Link Wray who didn’t sound like Lowman Pauling….you get the picture. You hear one of these guys, none of ’em were technically great players, some of ’em can hardly play, and some of the best played out of tune (i.e. Chuck Berry) but you can recognize their sound in a second, it was them, their whole personality, all the bullshit in their lives, channeled through six strings and fed into a broken down amplifier. I guess that’s the so called point of all this. And that’s what I like about driving myself crazy trying to find every record Lafayette Thomas played a guitar solo on.

*The quote from Dick Blackburn about the rariety of the Juke Boy Barner Irma 45 comes from Angel Baby’s radio show Lost In Paradise, which Blackburn appears on monthly. Angel Baby broadcasts live every Monday night at 7:30 PM PST and can be heard streaming or on podcast. If you want to hear some really rare and great records give a listen.

Gillian’s Found Photos #16

These found photos are dated Febuary 3, 1964, and were taken at the Brooklyn Fox Theater during one of Murray The K’s package shows. Murray the K was a motor mouth DJ on New York’s WINS, then the biggest top 40 station in the city, Murray was known for his “Ah bey” howl and hyping himself as the fifth Beatle and sixth Rolling Stone (he turned the Stones’ onto the Valentinos’ It’s All Over Now which they soon recorded and had a hit with).

Yes, that’s the Shangri-Las, notice the motorcycle onstage in the second shot from the top. I like the view from the third row, especially the backs of the audience’s heads. In the second and third photo down, second from the left in the back is Eric Burdon, the Animals must have been on the bill, I assume this is the big finale of the show.
The Shangri-Las will always be best remembered for Leader Of The Pack, (Remember) Walking In The Sand and Give Him A Great Big Kiss, but their best record was Out In The Street. I remember seeing them sing it on Shindig as a kid (the clip is below), they made a huge impression on my pre-pubescent brain. Out In The Street still gives me the chills. It was, oddly enough the last song WINS played before switching to an all news format. Out In The Street wasn’t a hit because Red Bird records was in the process of going out of business when it was released, but in a better world it would have been #1. In case you’ve never heard them, here’s some funny vintage radio spots from lead singer Mary Weiss, the first is a Revlon endorsement, here’s one is about etiquette, and here’s a funny Dating tips spot.
In case you’ve been in the Khyber Pass for the last year and missed it, lead singer Mary Weiss cut her first record since the Shangs breakup, released last year on Norton RecordsDangerous Games, features tunes mostly from Greg Cartwright of the Reigning Sound/Oblivions, and a great album it is. I don’t like too many modern records, but I sure like Dangerous Games. Norton also issued a 45 from the LP– Don’t Come Back with a non-LP b-side (A Certain Guy, a re-write of Benny Spellman’s A Certain Girl), which is essential for any Shangri-Las fan.

Twins Mary Ann and Marge Gasner both passed away, Mary Ann in 1970, Marge in 1989. The Shangri-Las name was sold to an awful trio that still tours under that moniker (featuring a singer who was once the fake Reperata, in a fake Reperata and the Del-Rons), avoid these fake Shangs at all costs, but Mary occasionally gigs and she’s still a fantastic performer.

Anyway, these pics came out of a pile of snapshots from two Murray The K shows at the Fox, the other pile of out of focus snaps are dated January 2, 1965. There’s some shots of the Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, the Hullaballoos, the Animals, Clay Cole, Dick and Dee Dee, the Drifters, and some groups I can’t identify. Oddly enough, I can’t find the Stones mentioned in any advertisements or programs for any Murray The K shows, but it’s definitely them in the photos, so they must have played. I’ll post ’em one of these days. Danny Fields was the publicist for the last Murray The K shows at the Fox in ’66, he gave acid to at least one of the Cream, and met the Who for the first time. Danny’s got a lot of good dirt on Pete Townshend, hopefully he’ll write it all down someday. But that’s another story…

The Ventures’ Bob Bogle 1934-2009

Bob Bogle of the the Ventures died yesterday, he was 75. Bogle started as the lead guitarist and switched to bass after Nookie Edwards who originally played bass switched to guitar. Whatever…in their own way the Ventues probably influenced more guitar players than anyone in history.
The Ventures made dozens of albums, my favorites are the one just called The Ventures (I think it’s their second album, they’re all wearing red jackets on the cover), The Ventures In Space, Twist With The Ventures, Play Electric Guitar With The Ventures (which was great to tune to before guitar tuners were invented), Guitar Freak Out, and Twist Party Vol. 2. They also star in one of the coolest rock’n’roll documentaries of all time: Beloved Invaders, which chronicles their 1965 tour of Japan, where it was said they outsold the Beatles two to one.
Anyway, Bogle’s death gives me an excuse to run the above clips, all from Beloved Indvaders. Here’s a few favorite tunes: Drivin’ Guitars, Exploration In Terror, He Never Came Back, The Bat, RoadRunner, and War Of The Satellites. The Ventures were really the quintessential American band, no leader’s name out front, they seemed practically faceless, yet together it was as if they were all part of the same living organism. How many kids picked up their first guitar after hearing Walk Don’t Run? How many bands formed, inspired by the Ventures? How many Fender and later Moserite guitars did they sell? And how many albums did they make? Anyone ever try and count ’em?

Billy Wright

Billy Wright 1955 with gold teeth and process.

Billy Wright hosting disco drag show circa 1977

Billy Wright was a purveyor of the style of rhythm and blues that reached it’s ultimate crystallization with the rise to stardom of Little Richard via the earth shattering sides issued by Specialty starting with Tutti Frutti 1955. Wright was gay and flamboyant, he had worked the tent shows in drag, a great southern, show biz tradition in itself and an important influence on rock’n’roll–hence the term “tent show queen”. He sang the repertoire of said tradition, many of the same tunes Little Richard would clean up and take to the bank– Tutti Frutti ( original lyrics– “Tutti Frutti/Good bootie/if it don’t fit/don’t force it/just grease it/make it easy”), Busy Bootin’ aka Keep A Knockin’, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me, etc. Other well known recording artists that came out what was a true underground movement of it’s time include Frankie “Half Pint” Jackson, who recorded with Tampa Red in the 1930’s, Esquerita, who taught Little Richard his piano style, Larry Darnell, and of course Little Richard, himself a protege of Billy Wright’s back in Atlanta at the start of his career. A career that began with Richard performing in drag, balancing a chair on his chin while he sang.
Billy Wright is mostly forgotten today, if he’s remembered at all it’s because of his influence on Little Richard who has never been shy about recognizing Wright’s importance, but in the years 1949-51 he had four top ten R&B hits, he was a good draw in nearly every city with a significant black population, and was a sizable star in his hometown of Atlanta.
Everything starts somewhere, Billy Wright popped out of his mother in Atlanta, May 21, 1932. He began singing in church, but he started his show biz career as a dancer, working at the 81 Theater in Atlanta as a young teenager. The 81 had its own traveling tent show, and Billy joined it a teenager, signing on as a dancer. He traveled with the show which toured all over the mid-west and south from Minnesota to Arkansas, and everyplace in between. Billy danced in a chorus line of female impersonators. Eventually he began singing– “I did whatever was popular on the jukeboxes at the time: Wynonie Harris, Dinah Washington, Joe Turner, Buddy and Ella Johnson”*. In the winter the show would be back in Atlanta at the 81 Theater. Atlanta was hopping back in the late 40’s, and Auburn Avenue, the main drag in the black section of town had dozens of clubs– the Poinciana, the Congo, the Zanzibar, the Peacock as well as rhythm and blues and jazz shows at the Piedmont Theater and the VFW hall. Billy played them all. After a few seasons learning the ropes with the folks in the 81 Club show, Billy went solo and got his big break while appearing on a bill at the Auditorium in Atlanta that included Wynonie Harris, Charles Brown and Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams. It was Williams, a honking tenor sax player who had once been with Duke Ellington, then riding high with “The Hucklebuck”, the best selling R&B disc of 1949, who brought Billy Wright to Savoy Records.
Savoy signed Billy Wright in 1949 and recorded him at two sessions at a radio station in Atlanta. Teddy Reig came on as his manager and producer, putting his name as co-author on most of Billy’s original tunes. Wright’s first record: Blues For My Baby b/w You Satisfy was a double sided hit, the a-side rising to #3 on Billboard’s R&B chart in early ’49, the flipside made #9 in October of that year. Billy Wright took on the sobriquet ‘Prince Of The Blues’, and so he was. Wright recorded over thirty tunes for Savoy (some issued on the Regent subsidiary), including two more hits– Stacked Deck (#9 in June of ’51) and Hey Little Girl, a re-write of the Professor Longhair number which rose to #10 in October of ’51, his last chart showing.
His Savoy output includes some truly great records, rockers like Billy’s Boogie Blues, When The Wagon Comes and Mean Old Wine, the sexual nod and wink innuendo of A New Way Of Lovin’,
his sublime reading of St. Louis Jimmy’s Goin’ Down Slow, an updated re-write of Baby Please Don’t Go retitled Turn Your Lamp Down Low, the latin inflected If I Didn’t Love You, and we can hear the emerging sound of rock’n’roll with Live The Life and After Awhile. He also managed to work in a great, rockin’, Beer commercial that was issued on the Atlanta label in 1950– Man’s Brand Boogie.
Billy worked all over the country appearing at the Apollo in Harlem, the Howard in Washington D.C., the Bronze Peacock in Houston, the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, the Regal in Chicago, these were all the best paying places an R&B singer could play in those days. He was known as a great performer and could always be counted on to draw a crowd.
It was also Billy Wright who recommended Little Richard to RCA records, Richard’s first label. Richard’s earliest sides– Taxi Blues, Every Hour, Get Rich Quick are basically impersonations of Billy Wright. So were his second group of recordings for Peacock in ’54– Little Richard’s Boogie, Directly From My Heart, Fool At The Wheel, and Red Beans, Rice and Turnip Greens (some of these weren’t issued until after he hit big with Tutti Frutti on Specialty).
Billy Wright parted ways with Savoy in ’54, he cut one session for Don Robey’s Peacock label in Houston in 1955, which resulted in one killer single– Bad Luck and Trouble b/w The Question, both sides featuring Roy Gaines’ stinging guitar, but the two songs left in the vault were even better, the old drag show standard Don’t You Want A Man Like Me and Let’s Be Friends which are probably the best recordings he ever made. You can really hear how much Little Richard took from Wright on Don’t You Want A Man Like Me, a tune Richard himself would record (there’s also a great version by Jay Nelson on Excello). Wright didn’t record again for four years when he made his final disc for the tiny Carrollton label out of Atlanta, a cover of the Dominos’ Have Mercy Baby. He also cut a session in New Orleans in 1959 with Bobby Robinson for Fire Records but it was never issued (do the tapes still exist?).
In 1981 eight sides by Billy Wright were released by the reactivated Savoy label on an LP called Southern Blues, followed in ’84 by a full LP of his 1949-54 sides titled- Goin’ Down Slow while the Swedish re-issue label Route 66 issued fourteen more sides on the album Stacked Deck around the same time (although two cuts are repeated from the Savoy LP). The final cut on Stacked Deck is this amazing rendition of the Dominos’ Do Something, recorded live at the Harlem Theater in Atlanta in ’52. Despite the scratchy acetate it was taken from, one can hear what an incredible live performer Wright was. Listen to the way he shrieks at the crowd and the way the crowd responds in kind, screaming right back. It’s a shame there’s so few live recordings from this era. Nowadays every time some idiot plugs in a guitar there’s eleven people with video phones to document it, but when American popular music was at it’s zenith, live recordings of blues, R&B and early rock’n’roll are mighty hard to come by. This old acetate was something Billy had saved over the years, not realizing its importance until Route 66’s Jonas Bernholm contacted him while compiling the Stacked Deck LP in the early eighties.
Despite the end of his recording career Billy Wright found steady work in Atlanta through the seventies, although Atlanta was no longer the jumping R&B central it had once been. Eventually he gave up singing and took up emceeing shows, such as the one advertised in the above poster. In this manner he was able to support himself until dying at the age of 59 in 1991. A series of strokes in the eighties left him in considerably diminished health in his final decade, but at least he lived to see the better part of his catalog re-issued. Of Billy Wright, Little Richard said: “I thought he was the most fantastic performer I’ve ever seen”, and listening to Wright’s recordings it’s not hard to hear just how much Richard’s singing style was based on Wright’s (just throw in Clara Ward’s “wooo” and Esquerita’s pounding piano and you’ve got the entire recipe). The tent show queen tradition that produced performers like Billy Wright and Little Richard is a chapter of rock’n’roll’s history that has been edited out by the stupid and misinformed people who have deemed themselves keeper of said history. Them and their idiotic Hall Of Fame. Kind of like the way the Catholic Church edited the Book Of Paradise and other parts of the Bible out in the Middle Ages. Well, I guess it’s my job to set things straight…

* Billy Wright quote comes from an interview with Jonas Bernholm done in 1977 and printed in the liner notes to the LP Billy Wright-Stacked Deck (Route 66 Kix 13)

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