Charles Isaiah Ross was born in Tunica, Mississippi on October 21, 1925. That’s on Highway 61, about 40 miles south of Memphis, a few miles east of the Mississippi river. He wasn’t a real doctor, the title added to front of his name was a nickname said to come from his habit of carrying his harmonicas and a bottle of booze in a black, doctor’s bag. He was one of eleven children who grew up on a plantation, working the fields. His father Jake taught him to play harmonica. He did two stints in the army and by 1951 was back in Mississippi trying to make a living with his harmonica. Soon he was appearing on various radio stations including KFFA in Helena, Arkansas (where Sonny Boy Williamson hosted the King Biscuit Flour Hour), KLCN in Blyetheville, Arkansas, WROX in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and WDIA in Memphis where he was billed as “Medical Director of the Royal Amalgamated Association of Chitlin’ Eaters of America”. In 1951 he was one of the first musicians to be recorded by Sam Phillips at his newly christened Memphis Recording Service, and on November 21st of that year recorded several songs, two of which Phillips would send north to brothers Leonard and Phil Chess in Chicago who released them on their Chess label– Doctor Ross Boogie
b/w Country Clown
(Chess 1504), on which Ross was accompanied by only guitarist Wiley Galatin (although the label credited “his Jump and Jive Boys”, only Ross and Galatin can be heard on the record). It was a good a start in show biz, although not a hit, it was certainly a unique sounding record. Although quite rare today in its original Chess pressing, someone must have bought it because Phillips called Ross back for another session in early ’52, this time Ross was playing guitar himself, upside down since he was left handed, and brought along pianist Henry Hill and the clattering washboard playing of Reuben Martin. Five or more songs were recorded that day, none of which saw release until the 70’s when they’d show up on various Arhoolie and Charley albums, the best of which was a version of Polly Put The Kettle On
, a song much older than the blues. A year later Phillips had Ross back in the studio again, this time without the piano player, and among the tunes he waxed were his first Sun release– Chicago Breakdown
b/w Texas Hop
(Sun 193), a clattering, rocking, boogie on both sides of the shellac. Another year passed, by now Ross was mastering his one man band approach to music, playing guitar, harmonica and drums simultaneously. But when Phillips recorded him in July of ’54 (only weeks before Elvis’ first session) he used Tom “Slam Hammer” Troy on second guitar and drummer Bobby Parker, although I can’t hear a second guitar, perhaps one of them was unplugged. The disc issued from that session– Boogie Disease
b/w Jukebox Boogie
(Sun 212) was an absolute classic, and perhaps the finest song ever written about the clap (the Flamin’ Groovies would re-arrange it and record it as Dr. Boogie
on their 1971 classic Teenage Head
, giving themselves writing credit). “I may get better, but I’ll never get well…gimme one of them penicillin shots”! shouts the good Doctor over a distorted blues shuffle. Phillips would record Ross only one more time in a solo session from which no discs would be issued until the titles showed up on an Arhoolie LP (and later extended CD) in the 70’s and the Charley Sun Blues Box in the 80’s.
Meanwhile, Ike Ross as his friends knew him packed up and headed north looking for work, landing in Flint, Michigan (later home to ? & the Mysterians, the greatest and longest running American rock’n’roll band ever, and Terry Knight & the Pack who would morph into Shea Stadium packing Grand Funk Railroad). Ross got a job on the G.M. assembly line, which he would hold down for the next thirty years, from here on music would be a sideline.
On the music front, in 1958, Doctor Ross tried his hand at the record biz, releasing his next disc on his own DIR (guess what that stand for?) label– Industrial Boogie
(DIR 101). Although recorded with just an acoustic guitar, Industrial Boogie showed the change in his music working on the assembly line brought. His sound now had the churning, propulsive rhythm of an automobile plant. But running your own label after eight hours on the line is hard work, and he would release no more discs on DIR. In 1959 he was recording for Jack and Devora Brown’s Fortune label, and backed by a group called the Orbits, about which we know nothing other than their name, he cut his greatest masterpiece– Cat’s Squirrel
b/w The Sunnyland
(Fortune 857), it’s thundering beat takes the normal blues/boogie shuffle and turns it into a supercharged throb. The tune would be covered by U.K. rock bores Cream in ’68, I hope Ross got a big check out of that deal.
By 1965 the white blues audience had “rediscovered” (as if he’d been lost) Doctor Ross, who was recorded solo at the University of Chicago and then again for the Testement label. He began doing package tours of Europe were he entertained other blues singers on the tour bus by dancing something called “The Flying Eagle”. He cut an LP on Blue Horizon called The Flying Eagle
, so rare only a handful of copies have ever been seen. He also cut live LP’s in Germany, Switzerland and maybe a few others I missed out on. He even had a track on the Grammy winning LP Rare Blues
in 1981. In Japan, P-Vine issued a now rare LP of his best Sun recordings. Despite all this activity he still worked at G.M. to pay the rent and it’s unlikely he ever saw any royalties other than some songwriting mechanicals for Cream’s version of Cat Squirrel. He finally retired from G.M. in 1992. A year later, a day before he was to begin filming his first film role, in Dan Rose’s Wayne County Ramblin’
(an indie feature starring Iggy Pop along with appearances by Jeff “Mono Man” Connelly, the late Bill Pietsch, the Dirtbombs’ Mick Collins, Nathaniel Mayer (the narrator), Tav Falco, Lorette Velvette, and Otha Turner amongst others), he died of a heart attack. I was supposed to have him on my radio show a few days later. Doctor Ross was as great and unique an artist as had ever been heard in American music, and one of only two to have cut sides for both Sun and Fortune Records, perhaps the two greatest and strangest labels ever (the other was Johnny Powers). An illustrated discography can be found here
. Doctor Ross, they sure don’t make ’em like that anymore. Come to think of it, they only made one of ’em like that back then.