Nite Riders, doin’ biz as the Nightriders and Night Riders.
The Nite Riders aka The Nightriders, the Night Riders, sometimes with Doc Starkes (aka Starks) or Melvin Smith’s name out front, formed in 1954, put together by bassist James “Doc” Starkes, and was made up of seasoned R&B pros, all of whom had plenty of previous experience. Vocalist Melvin Smith had recorded for RCA with honker Clyde “Blow Top” Smith’s Houserockers, and for RCA’s Groove subsidiary as a solo act. Guitarist Harry Crafton has recorded many rockin’ sides for Gotham and Oscar. The rhythm section featured piano man Harry Van Walls (who can be heard on Stick McGhee’s Atlantic recording of Drinkin’ Wine Spo-De-O-Dee), and seasoned session man Jimmy Johnson on drums. Joe Sewell played tenor sax. In the next ten years they recorded at least 29 singles (maybe more) for small labels, they varied in quality from great to mediocre, but most are quite good.
They were not kids, these were seasoned professional musicians, all had extensive recording experience in the R&B field and felt the oncoming onslaught of rock’n’roll. Starkes knew a tight, pro rock’n’roll band could find steady work, and maybe even a hit record. The first they found in abundance, the latter alluded them for the ten years that they existed. Formed in Philadelphia, they eventually were based in Hartford, Connecticut, with extended stays in Montreal, Quebec (where it seems Harry Van Walls settled in to form his own band) and the Jersey Shore, although they were booked almost constantly up and down the eastern seaboard. They went through the usual dozens of personal changes, Starkes and Mel Smith being the constant members. They received almost no press coverage then or now and facts are hard to come by. No one thought it important to interview Doc Starkes, or Mel Smith. Crafton and Van Walls careers were covered, the former on the liner notes to the Krazy Kat re-issue LP of his Gotham sides, the latter in the old Wine Women and Whiskey R&B zine. What we have to tell the story are the discs they left behind.
Their recording debut was backing up female R&B singer Fay Simmons which appeared on Grand in 1954– Whim Wham Whop b/w Making A Fast Getaway. The same year came their first disc as the Nite Riders, perhaps their best and easily their hardest rockin’ — Women & Cadillacs b/w Say Hey (the flip being a tribute to baseball great Willie Mays), it was issued on New York’s Apollo label, where the “5” Royales and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins got their start. The same year Apollo released another double sided rocker– Rags b/w Doctor Velvet. A year later they were signed to the Phili based Teen label, and billed as Doc Starkes & his Nite Riders came Apple Cider b/w Way In The Middle Of A Dream. A somewhat toned down affair that seemed aimed at teens. Teen put forth six more singles that year without Starkes top billing– I Know You’re In There b/w Starlight and You followed by Got Me A Six Button Benny b/w Don’t Hang Up The Phone, and then Waiting In The School Room b/w When A Man Cries. Their final single of ’55 came out on Teen’s Sound subsidiary with Starkes name again restored to top bill, a pair of Night Train style instrumentals– The Vacation Train b/w Night Ridin’, it was their best seller was leased to Capitol and sold well in the North East. Their final single for Teen/Sound was Tell The Truth b/w Never. The year of 1956 passed with no new vinyl from the Nite Riders but in ’57 they appeared for one disc on MGM with Sittin’ Sippin’ Coffee b/w Tank Town, the a- side a sort of jiver, the flip another Night Train styled sleazy sax instro, while Swan re-issued Teen’s Apple Cider with Got Me A Six Button Benny on the flip. A fine hard rocker followed in ’58 on both the Linda and Modern Sounds labels– Love Me Like Crazy b/w Rockin’ To School. Once again, it disappeared without a trace. The next three singles were on Juggay Murray’s New York based Sue label (which released several excellent Ike Turner instrumentals as well as Ike & Tina’s early hits): The first, and best was a frantic Bo Diddley styled rocker Pretty Plaid Skirt (and Long Black Socks) b/w I’ll Never Change. The a-side might have been a hit had it been issued in Japan. It came out in the spring of 1959, followed by Lookin’ For My Baby b/w St. Loo, and
a remake of Night Ridin’ b/w Talk To Me Baby later the same year. They kept recording, in the early 60’s just before splitting up they cut sides for Cherry and Courtesy, neither of which I’ve ever seen or heard.
In this day and age of over documentation, when every knucklehead with who needs to express their precious feelings in public can be found on Youtube and their mom’s phone, it makes it even harder to grasp that their is no film footage, photos, or live recordings of a great band like the Nite Riders (or Guitar Slim, Esquerita, ad infinitum). Perhaps in some one’s basement lurks such an entire box of such ephemera, perhaps some day we’ll all see it. For now, I’m just glad we have the discs.
A full discography including solo sides can be found at the great Wang Dang Dula site.