Me and Ike, 1991 with the Crown LP and a bad hangover (worst photo of me ever).
Ike Turner, 1974, dressed to audition for The Band?
In the years 1951-52 Ike Turner was employed by the Bihari brothers– Joe, Jules and Saul who owned the Modern/RPM/Blues & Rhythm/Kent family of labels in Hollywood, California.
The Bihari’s seen their sales in the “race” market skyrocket when they acquired the services of such downhome blues singers as John Lee Hooker (whose Boogie Chillen went to #1 R&B), Lightnin’ Hopkins and Smokey Hogg. These artists had all been with smaller labels and the Bihari’s bought out their contracts. They had set up a deal to buy blues masters recorded in Memphis from Sam C. Phillips who had just opened his own recording studio. Phillips began sending them masters of Joe Hill Louis, Rosco Gordon, Howlin’ Wolf, and B.B. King before they had a falling out over Phillips’ similar arrangement with the Chess brothers in Chicago. When Phillips sent Chess top ten hits by Howlin’ Wolf (Moanin’ At Midnight) and Jackie Breston (Rocket 88), the Bihari’s stopped dealing with him, and started suing the Chess brothers (they would win the services of Rosco Gordon, Chess got Howlin’ Wolf).
Ike had been recording for Sam Phillips and was pissed off at him when Rocket 88 came out credited not to Ike Turner & his Kings of Rhythm but under the name of saxophonist/vocalist Jackie Breston & his Delta Cats. Breston immediately quit Turner’s band and hit the road to capitalize on his hit. He’d be back in a few years, but meanwhile Turner had worked out a deal with the Bihari’s where he’d record his own band as well as producing sessions for other artists.
The complete Ike Turner output for the Bihari’s can be found on the Japanese P-Vine double CD Ike Rocks The Blues (with the same goofy Fazio painting on the cover as the old Crown album seen above). Ike took to producing sessions around Memphis and when he sent the Bihari’s a hit by B.B. King they put him on salary as a talent scout and soon Turner, sometimes with Jules Bihari in tow, was driving around the south accumulating masters. He recorded some fine sides with Howlin’ Wolf (including one of my all time favorites House Rockin’ Boogie) and Elmore James (whom the Bihari’s had lured away from Lillian McMurray’s Trumpet label and gave to their older brother Lester for his Flair/Meteor imprint), whom Ike tracked down and recorded at an empty nightclub in Canton, Mississippi. Among the highlights are Hawaiian Boogie where Ike can be heard playing second guitar and Canton, Mississippi Breakdown with Ike at the piano. One, however doesn’t find a Howlin’ Wolf or an Elmore James everyday, even back then when the pickings were far more fertile, and on these road trips Ike recorded many second string bluesman, and made some excellent sides with them.
At a session held in Greenville, Mississippi in January of ’52 Ike recorded guitarist Boyd Gilmore at the empty Club Casablanca with himself playing the piano.
Gilmore was said to be a cousin of Elmore James’, and recorded Ramblin’ On My Mind b/w Just An Army Boy (Modern) and All In My Dreams b/w Take A Little Walk With Me (Modern)–crude, juke joint blues sides in a solid Elmore James mold. In fact, to spice up All In My Dreams, back in Hollywood, the Bihari’s had an engineer take a piece of tape from an Elmore James session with Elmore playing his signature riff, and spliced it into the Gilmore master!
Charley Booker, who himself had recorded for Sam Phillips (the great, but not issued for four decades I Walked All Night), also recorded that day and his sides– Rabbit Blues b/w No Ridin’ Blues (Blues & Rhythm) and Moonrise Blues b/w Charley’s Boogie Woogie (Modern), are more of the same, the sound of a Mississippi juke joint on any Saturday night. Primitive, distorted, loose, and wild. Nothing sounds like this anymore.
In the spring of ’52 Ike Turner and Jules Bihari hit Little Rock, Arkansas with their portable recording machine and set up shop in a music store, recording a bunch of musicians that revolved around Sonny Boy Williamson influenced drummer/harmonica player Drifting Slim (Elmore Mickle) and killer guitarist Baby Face Turner, who would be murdered in the mid 60’s. Among the highlights of those sides cut that day are Drifting Slim’s Down South Blues b/w My Little Machine (Modern), as well as Baby Face Turner’s fantastic Blue Serenade b/w Gonna Let You Go (Modern). They also cut harmonica player Sunny Blair’s rocker Step Back Baby (issued on brother Lester’s Meteor label) and 5 Foot Three Blues b/w Glad To Be Back Home (RPM).
Not an Ike Turner recording, but worth posting for sure is this live recording that sat in the Modern/RPM vaults for fifty years before it was issued, probably recorded by one of the Bihari’s live in a club in Detroit in 1955, Washboard Willie and Calvin Frazier’s Rock House
captures the late night feel of a juke joint so well you practically smell the pig snouts.
Ike Turner left Memphis for St. Louis in 1954 (although not after cutting one last un-issued session for Sam Phillips) where he’d be based out of until the mid-sixties. He also left the Bihari brothers, although he did sell them a live Ike & Tina Turner LP issued on Kent in ’69. The Bihari’s re-issued most of these sides (and their outtakes) on a series of very cheesy budget LP’s on their Kent label in the seventies, so cheap they didn’t even have inner sleeves, these LP’s- Blues From Mississippi, Blues From The Deep South, Blues From Arkansas, etc. introduced me and an entire generation to some great music for a mere .89 cents a pop. Today these sides can be heard in incredible sound quality on Ace’s Downhome Blues Sessions series
and also The Travelling Record Man CD. I think of these as sort of Nuggets albums for the blues. If Sunny Blair and Charley Booker are not “where the soul of a man never dies” as Sam Phillips once said of Howlin’ Wolf, they are surely where the soul of a man gets shit faced drunk, plugs in an electric guitar and has a great time on a Saturday night. He might’ve even gotten some pussy or made five bucks in the deal. And that’s good enough for me.