Rene Hall, as an arranger and session guitarist was one of the most influential men behind the scenes of rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues for over twenty years, yet he has been ignored and/or written out of history to such an extreme that I can’t even find one photo of him to go with this posting. * He gave one interview in his life, to the U.K. collector’s mag New Kommotion in 1980.
Hall had a long career and was in demand constantly, he never seemed to lack for work, mostly as an arranger. Today’s posting however will examine only a small part of that career, his work as a session guitarist, and from there we will focus on the years 1957-60 when he recorded the records that best fit my own personal definition of what great rock’n’roll is. After all, it’s my blog.
Rene Hall was born in New Orleans in 1912 and began his musical career picking six string banjo in Papa Celestin’s Orchestra, playing traditional New Orleans jazz. He worked on the riverboats in the 1940’s with Sam Morgan’s Orchestra and later with Sydney’s Southern Syncopaters. Somehow he ended up in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he switched to guitar and played with Ernie Fields’ band (he’d record with Fields in the fifties). With Fields he moved to St. Louis where he got a job writing arrangements, conducting and playing trombone with jazz piano giant Earth “Fatha” Hines. For an example of Hines genius find a copy of Louis Armstrong’s Weather Bird.
Hall hit New York City in 1945 where he got arranging work at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, working with acts like Roy Milton and Louis Jordan. At the Apollo he discovered Billy Ward and the Dominos, with their incredible lead singer Clyde McPhatter and got them their first record deal with Federal Records out of Cincinnati, a subsidiary of the R&B/C&W giant King. He appeared playing guitar on many of their early hits including Do Something For Me, the 1951 smash. He toured with the Dominos, making it as far as England where they played army bases, then moved with them to Las Vegas when they settled in for a long term job at the Dunes Hotel.
He stayed with Billy Ward and the Dominos two and a half years. He also had started a solo recording career before leaving New York, his earliest sides appeared on the Jubilee label in 1950– Blue Creek Hop (sorry about the messed up beginning, it’s the only copy I could find)
was his first release. Jubilee issued a second single — Rene’s Boogie later that year, but I’ve never heard it. He also recorded for Decca and Victor in 1952-3, these sides are very rare, and are in the same light jazzy R&B style as Blue Creek Hop. Well executed, but lacking the spark of true genius that would mark his playing a few short years later.
Pardon the digression, back in Vegas, Hall was growing bored with the Dominos and soon headed for Los Angeles where he found a job at club at 42 Street and Western but trouble with the musician’s union forced him to give it up (they required a six month residency in state, so as a new comer he was shut out of any steady gigs) so on the recommendation of a friend– Carl Peterson at Universal Attractions he approached Art Rupe the owner of Specialty Records, then flying high on the success of Little Richard, for a job, which he got. Rupe immediately put him to work with Bumps Blackwell working on a Little Richard session cutting Hey Hey Hey. Hall told New Kommotion’s Stu Coleman “That was my first experience with hard rock”, a style to which he would adapt well. He was sent to Bakersfield where Richard was appearing in a club, then worked out some arrangements for sessions that were later cut in L.A.. Rupe was so pleased with Rene’s arranging abilities that he put him in charge of his latest discovery– Larry Williams a pimp turned rocker being groomed by Rupe as the next Little Richard. Working with producer Sonny Bono and using many of the same musicians that appeared on Richard’s sides (Earl Palmer on drums, Plas Johnson on sax, Roy Montrell on guitar) they soon produced three hits with Larry Williams– Slow Down b/w Dizzie Miss Lizzy, Short Fat Fannie b/w High School Dance, and Bad Boy b/w She Said Yeah, tunes that would later be recorded by everyone from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to the Flamin’ Groovies. On some of these session Hall played guitar along with Roy Montrell. In the 1980’s Specialty issued two LP’s of Larry Williams outtakes (Unreleased Larry Williams and Hocus Pocus), recordings much rawer then the issued sides. These discs went out of print fast and much of the material has never appeared on CD**, but one of these included a version of Bad Boy where Rene Hall plays what must be one of the most out of control guitar solos of all time. You can practially smell the smoke coming from the tubes in his amp.
While at Specialty, Rene Hall also cut three solo 45’s, only one was a guitar instrumental, and he only played on one side, but it’s quite a classic– Twitchy b/w Flippin’. The a-side features Willie Joe Duncan, who played a Unitar (one string guitar), and the tune is basically a re-recording of Unitar Rock, which had appeared on the b-side of Bob Froggy Landers’ Cherokee Dance a year earlier. Duncan not only had one string on his guitar, he seems to have known only one tune, but a hell of a tune it is. Flippin’ features Hall’s guitar and is a pretty good rocker in it’s own right. His next Specialty 45, also issued in 1957 was a version of venerable wino classic Thunderbird b/w When The Saints Go Marching In. For more on the Thunderbird connection see my April posting on the subject. His final Specialty 45 came in early ’57, a slice of novelty exotica that I’ve always loved– Cleo, it was backed with an instrumental version of Frankie & Johnny that featured Plas Johnson’s blaring tenor.
Bumps Blackwell, with Rene Hall as arranger had taken Specialty gospel star Sam Cooke of the Soul Stirrers and recorded a pop tune, complete with white back up singers, called You Send Me, which Rupe hated and refused to release, fearing it would offend the gospel fans. Blackwell was sure he had a hit record and a future star in Cooke and worked out a deal with Rupe where in exchange for back royalties he was owed he could have Cooke’s contract and take You Send Me elsewhere. They took it to Bob Keane who issued it on the Keen label and of course it was a huge hit. Hall stayed on with Cooke as his guitarist and arranger until his death, but that’s away from our subject today.
Keene had just signed a chubby Chicano kid from Pocoima and needed someone to help develop his songs and his sound for recording. Keane put Rene Hall and Valens together and they created what I consider to be one of the coolest sounds in all of rock’n’roll history. Using Earl Palmer on drums, Bill Pitman on six string bass, Carol Kaye playing acoustic guitar, Ritchie Valens on electric rhythm and Rene Hall on lead guitar, he created the “Ritchie Valens sound”. Listen to the backing track to La Bamba (that’s Rene Hall playing the solo). Pure genius! The six string bass really gives the record drive, and Hall flat out rocks. Here’s a few other of my favorites– Ooh My Head (which Led Zepplin stole and retitled Boogie With Stu, later Valens mom sued and got her name on half the song, later still both parties were sued by Little Richard since the song is basically a re-write of Ooh My Soul), and this instrumental two sider that was issued under the name of Arvee Allens— Fast Freight b/w Big Baby Blues. Rene Hall arranged and played on all of Valens Del-Fi material except In Concert At Pocoima Jr. High and some scraps of demo tapes that were issued after Ritchie’s tragic death. Poor little guy, he was only 17 when he died. I don’t need to repeat that story.
Valens death left Bob Keane and Del-Fi records without a meal ticket, but soon a demo arrived in the mail from a Montana born Chicano with an uncanny ability to sound like Valens, so Robert Lee “Chan” Romero was brought to L.A. and Keane teamed him up with Rene Hall and using the same formula and musicians he used with Valens, Romero produced an absolute classic with Hippy Hippy Shake, which would later become a staple of early Beatles live sets and a smash hit for Liverpool’s other fab four– the Swinging Blue Jeans. Unfortunately for Romero his version didn’t sell so well. Here’s the demo if you’re curious. Hall worked with Chan Romero on several more records, the best of which was I Want Some More (and here’s the demo of that one). Great sides, but no sales. What became of Chan Romero I do not know. Rene Hall also cut a solo single for Del-Fi, The Untouchables, a pretty good record but lacking the fire of the Valens and Romero discs.
All through the late fifties Rene Hall kept busy free lancing, he did arrangements for Patience and Prudence, Jan & Arnie (Gas Money), Bumble B. & the Stingers (Nut Rocker) and others. As a guitarist he showed up on all of Googie Rene’s Class sides including this killer that Bob Quine turned me on to– Side Tracked. One of my favorite discs to feature a Rene Hall guitar solo is this raucous piece of slop by Earl Palmer & the Partytimers with the Jayhawks– Johnny’s House Party Part One which appeared on Aladdin around ’58. Everything about this record is great, in fact they all sound drunk, but it’s the guitar solo that gives it the extra push over the edge into what we can call genius.
Rene Hall would spend the early sixties doing all sorts of studio work, mostly as an arranger but his main meal ticket was Sam Cooke. As an arranger his greatest moment was probably A Change Gonna Come, Cooke’s last and greatest record. When Sam Cooke died he went back to free lancing, he never lacked for arranging work. He even returned to Specialty to play bass on a Little Richard session (Bama Lama Loo b/w Annie’s back, which also featured Don and Dewey on guitars). In the early 70’s he signed on as Marvin Gaye’s musical director, working on all of Gaye’s classic hits– Let’s Get It On, What’s Goin’ On, etc. When Gaye died he found himself one of the most in demand arrangers in the business and worked constantly until his death in 1988.
It’s not like Rene Hall was unsung in the industry, he was a highly paid professional, and a successful one at that. Rock’n’roll guitar playing was only a small part of his career, but one that should surely be acknowledged since he was so brilliant at it. So I guess it’s up to me, since nobody else seems to give a hoot. Rene Hall– I salute you.
*Well after two days, reader Tony Watson from Australia sent the above photo, thanks Tony.
** Again, from Tony Watson: “Your article also makes mention of the w Larry Williams albums of Specialty material which appeared in the 80s and the fat that alot of those tracks have not appeared on CD. I can tell you the reason for that – a lot of the songs were MANUFACTURED by Little Walter Devenne. He created quite a few of the tracks from various outtakes in the vaults, as well as playing around with the speed. This only came to light when I worked with John Broven & Stuart Colman in compiling the 2CD Larry Williams set for Ace – ‘The Specialty Rock & Roll Years’ in 2004. We felt it would be playing with history to reissue those ‘constructions’ rather than issue takes just as Larry recorded them. Hope that clarifies things.”