New York City was never a great town for blues and R&B. Audiences here tended to think of themselves as more sophisticated and uptown they bought mostly jazz and gospel, downtown it was show tunes and pop singers, but that doesn’t mean there were no blues or R&B recorded here, in fact there was a thriving blues scene, much of it centered around a group of players who had grown up in the North Carolina area and included Sonny Terry, Brownie and Stick McGhee, and today’s subject– Allen Bunn, aka Tarheel Slim. Born Alden Bunn in the country side outside of Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1924, Bunn is rarely written about these days, which is suprising and sad since he made quite a few good records, one certified two sided masterpiece, not to mention a couple of almost hits. Somebody must have bought his records since he kept making them, recording for over 21 years, and they’re all fairly easy to find today which means they pressed plenty of copies.
So who was Allen Bunn/Tarheel Slim, and why should we care?
Bunn grew up in the countryside, working in the tobacco fields and listening to his mom’s Blind Boy Fuller 78’s. Eventually he learned to play guitar, and was heard singing and playing in church by Thurman Ruth, the leader of a local gospel quartet called the Selah Jubilee Singers (they’d soon drop the Jubilee part of their name). Ruth recruited Bunn into his group (putting off his debut until tobacco season was over) and for the next eight years he sang baritone and played guitar with the Selah Singers, who also recorded secular material as the Larks, the Four Barons, and possibly a few other names. As the Larks they cut some nice sides for the Apollo label, and Bunn’s lead vocals and guitar can be heard on their 1951 single My Little Sidecar. He had already been recorded as a blues singer by the Gotham label in 1949 cutting four sides with only his guitar for backing, but these would not be released until the 1980’s. His first solo sessions to see the light of shellac were for Apollo in ’51 where he recorded two sessions that produced four singles– The Guy With The .45 b/w She’ll Be Sorry, Discouraged b/w I Got You Covered, Wine b/w Baby I’m Gonna Throw You Out, and My Flight b/w Two Time Loser. These were issued under the name Allen Bunn, and good as they are, none of them sold very well. He was still touring with the Larks/Selah Singers when he cut his first session for Bobby Robinson, the Harlem based record store owner/producer/entrepreneur who is one of the most important figures in the history of New York City rock’n’roll and until recently could be found sitting out front of his record store on 125th Street until a rent hike finally forced him out. For Robinson’s Red Robin label Bunn cut Too Much Competition b/w My Kinda Woman. Some of these discs were issued under the name Allen Bunn others as Allen Baum. Around 1955 he met and married Lee Sanford aka Little Ann and they began singing together, first as The Lovers, under which name they recorded some fairly dull sides for the Aladdin’s Lamp subsidiary in 1957. He also recorded with a group called The Wheels on Premium whom he evidently managed (they also recorded as the Federals on Deluxe), these are also some forgettable sides although enough people like Let’s Have A Ball that it regularly shows up as a repro, as well as appearing on recordings by the Southern Harmonaires and Mahalia Jackson on Apollo.
In 1958 he entered the recording studio again, this time renamed Tarheel Slim, under the aegis of producer Bobby Robinson and with Wild Jimmy Spruill on guitar and Horace Cooper on piano cut his greatest record, a two sided monster– Wildcat Tamer b/w Number 9 Train, issued on Robinson’s Fury label, it remains one of the pinnacles of New York rock’n’roll. Both sides feature Slim’s burning guitar, with Spruill’s scratchy rhythm guitar driving both tunes at full steam, they remain the type of classic performances that never sound old or dated. Strangely enough, he never again had a solo record released. His next session, held nearly a year later, introduced the public to the recording duo of Tarheel Slim and Little Ann, and their first disc– It’s Too Late b/w Don’t Ever Leave Me was a minor hit. The record was released by both Robinson’s Fire label and Chess’ Checker subsidiary out of Chicago, not to mention pressing that have turned up on the Hermitage and Bobby Robinson labels. I assume Robinson leased the record to the Chess brothers and then changed his mind. It’s Too Late is a doom laden dirge with Slim’s tremolo laden guitar work and Ann breaking down into a sobbing fit at the end. Robinson really liked these overwrought crying ballads, and would later have some success with the kings of the genre– Jackie and the Starlites.
The follow up– Much Too Late reversed the formula, basically it’s the same tune, only this time it’s Slim who breaks down. While neither record charted, they were good sellers in the New York area and can be found cheap even today. Speaking of which, I once stumbled onto an entire dumpster of Fire, Fury and Enjoy 45’s and 78’s on Broadway and dragged home hundreds of free records, every one of them was good. Getting back to our subject, in 1959, Tarheel Slim and Little Ann cut a couple of killer rockers- Security and Lock Me In Your Heart, both tunes are excellent with Slim and Jimmy Spruill’s guitar work predominant on both tunes, kind of like Mickey and Sylvia playing rockabilly. Unfortunately their commercial peak had already passed with their second release and soon they were recording drek like covers of country tunes Send Me The Pillow You Dream On and I Love You Because and standards like Good Night Irene. Leaving Robinson briefly they recorded for Atco, then returned to record for Robinson’s Port and Enjoy labels. Bobby Robinson had more labels than some people have hairs on their head. Since he was an indie with no way to collect from distributors, every time he’d get a hit record– Wilbert Harrison’s Kansas City, Lee Dorsey’s Ya Ya, etc., he’d end up getting run out of business since he had to pay to have the discs pressed but couldn’t collect from the distributors until he delivered another hit. Each hit record seemed to be followed by a bankruptcy. Still, Bobby Robinson was a tenacious sort, and always bounced back with a new label, and kept making great records. He would go on to record Lightnin; Hopkins, Lee Dorsey, Elmore James, Wilbert Harrison, and dozens of street corner doo wop groups. Meanwhile Taheel Slim and Little Ann pretty much dropped from sight, their career seemed to peter out around the early 60’s and nothing was heard from them until the early 70’s when blues researcher Peter Lowery dug up Tarheel Slim to play a few gigs where he performed with an acoustic guitar in the style of Brownie McGhee (who was earning a good living playing to white college audiences in a style that has been dubbed “folk blues”). Tarheel Slim played a few festivals in 1974 and was well received, but once again he seemed to drop from sight. How he spent the years from 1974 until his death in 1977 we do not know, I imagine some of it was spent watching Sanford and Son, Good Times and The Jeffersons. That’s what I was doing.
In 1977 he was diagnosed with throat cancer and died from pneumonia brought on by the chemotherapy. These days he’s best remembered for Number 9 Train and Wildcat Tamer, which remain favorites among rockers worldwide. A better legacy I cannot imagine.