The Jesters with Sam C. Phillips.
Jesters promo 45 with Jim Dickinson’s scrawled autograph.
“The best performances never get recorded, the best recordings never get released and the best records don’t sell”, so proclaimed the late Memphis musician/producer/philosopher Jim Dickinson the last time I saw him alive. Never was that adage so true than in Memphis where Dickinson plied his trade for four decades.
Today’s subject, a great Memphis garage band who called themselves The Jesters (not to be mistaken for the Jesters from Brooklyn who covered the Diablos’ The Wind, or or the Jim Messina led surf group, or Charley Pickett’s cousin Mark Markem & the Jesters who cut the all time classic Marlboro Country or any any of the other dozens of group who had previously used that name) are one of the greatest examples of said truism, even though they did release one of the greatest 45’s of the era, and the last great Sun record.
The aforementioned Jim Dickinson is of course, part of the story, since the Jesters’ only released platter was as much his record as theirs, although in fact the only time he ever played with the group on whose contribution to the pantheon of sides he sang and pounded piano, was the January 1966 day it was recorded at (the second) Sun Studio (639 Madison) in Memphis.
I, as they say, digress.
The Jesters were formed in 1964, led by guitarist Edaward LaPaiglia aka Teddy Paige, who had previously led a teenage aggression called the Church Keys, and was heavily into the ‘5’ Royales (then living in Memphis and recording for the Home Of The Blues label), Carl Perkins, Bo Diddley and Freddie King. Paige hooked up with singer Tommy Minga, previously of the Escapades, and added rhythm guitarist Jerry Phillips, son of Sun Records Sam C. (and fresh from a stint as a fake midget wrestler), bassist Bill Wulfers and drummer Eddie Robertson in short order. Their set list was heavy on old blues, R&B and rockabilly tunes as well as originals, some re-writes of classic R&B tunes, some quite unique, and short of British Invasion hits that were the staple on most local white groups at the time.
At this time Jerry’s older brother Knox Phillips was pretty much running the show at the much diminished Sun Records, Sam was disillusioned and bored with the record biz and preferred to concentrate on his radio stations, and Knox began recording the Jesters. Tapes from two sessions with eleven tracks from the original band have survived, as well as the two sides issue on 45, although these would not see release until the late 1980’s when they were first issued on Charley’s Sun: Into The 60’s box set and later in 2009 on the Ace/Big Beat CD Cadillac Men:The Sun Masters which added four Escapades tracks to fill out the CD.
The sides with Tommy Minga singing are all first class, snot nosed, garage howlers– What’s The Matter Baby, Get Gone Baby, Strange As it Seems, the original, Minga fronted version of Cadillac Man, a version of Bill Doggett’s Hold with added lyrics and retitled The Big Hurt, the ‘5’ Royales Slummer The Slum barely re-written as Stompity Stomp, as well as versions of Boppin’ The Blues, Night Train From Chicago, Heartbreak Hotel and the Bo Diddley cop– Jim Dandy and Sweet Sixteen would all fit perfectly on any volume of Back From The Grave (Crypt). Certainly had it been released at the time What’s The Matter Baby could have given the Standells, Shadows Of Night, Knickerbokers and other crude hitmakers of that year a run for their Beatle boots.
How and why Tommy Minga’s voice was deemed unsuitable for issued wax is unclear, but once it was decided to bring Jim Dickinson in on piano and lead vocals, Cadillac Man was transformed into another creature all together. Rather than a snarling, Them/Rolling Stones styled garage rocker, it became a throw back to an earlier era at Sun, that of full throated screamers like Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Riley. Sam Phillips was said to be highly excited by the possibilities, and secured Jim Dickinson (who had previously cut two singles under the tutelage of Sun alumni Bill Justis) contract release and put the band back in the studio to cut a b-side, a version of Little Walter’s My Babe (itself a version of Sister Rosette Tharpe’s version of the old gospel standard This Train). Cadillac Man b/w My Babe was issued by Sun in 1966 and died a quick death. In a year (’66) that saw the Shadows of Night, 13th Floor Elevators and Standells hit the charts, the Dickinson led version of Cadillac Man had probably less commercial appeal than the material cut with Tommy Minga singing. It was also the beginning of the end for the Jesters. There would be no follow up. At some point they recorded a version of Smokey Robinson’s What So Good About Goodbye with Jimmy Day singing, but it too sat on the shelf for decades.
The band, with Minga back in front, briefly resumed gigging, but soon fell apart. Lack of success had halted their forward motion, and when a rock’n’roll group is not moving forward, it is dying.
By late ’66 it was over for the Jesters, Tommy Minga put together a new version of the Escapades. They released two singles I Tell No Lies (issued on both Arbert and XL) and Mad Mad Mad (Verve) both in late ’66. Teddy Paige played some sessions, ending up on discs by David Allen Coe and Cliff Jackson, left music to work construction and eventually relocated to the U.K where he was said to have taken to wandering around in medieval minstrel garb, complete with saber. He was briefly institutionalized in the nineties after a run in between said sword and a neighbor. Jerry Phillips would find work at the family radio stations, the other two got real jobs.
The Jesters were among the best and most unique garage bands in that peak year for garage band rock’n’roll. Paige’s guitar playing is especially noteworthy, he works in quotes from Lowman Pauling, Freddie King, and Bo Diddley, yet still retained a unique and biting sound. Tommy Minga too had his own style, having perfected the requisite ‘teenager with hard on who hates his parents’ delivery. Jim Dickinson would of course go on to long and colorful career, recapped after his 2009 death here. Had What’s The Matter Baby been issued on 45, it may have been a hit, or sold so few copies that it would got for $500 on Ebay today, either way, the best sounds the Jesters left behind are among the best garage punk I’ve ever heard.