Or should that be rare obscurities? Either way, a glance at Ebay will tell you these little buggers are getting quite pricey, which takes a lot of the fun out of collecting records. What we have today are five great records by five little known artists, all can be classified in the genre that collectors now call Black Rockers, a classification given its baptism in the recently published second edition of Tom Lincoln and Dick Blackburn’s Guide To Rockabilly and Rock’n’Roll 45 RPMs (so you know I’m not makin’ it up). This begs the question, just what is a Black Rocker? What makes one record a Black Rocker and another an upbeat blues record or a fast paced R&B record? I honestly couldn’t tell you, although I think the influence of Little Richard would surely be one of the marks of a Black Rocker. So whatever you want to classify these five rare discs, they’re all long time favorites of mine, and I thought, this being the dreaded holiday season, I’d share them with you, dear reader.
Pardon the crappy scan….
Same tune, different version…
Today’s subject was born Alexander Lightfoot in Natchez, Mississippi on March 2, 1924, he would go through life calling himself George and recorded as Papa Lightfoot, although he would also be known Little Papa Walter and Papa George just to confuse matters. He taught himself to play harmonica, kicked around little clubs in Natchez and New Orleans where he hooked up with Edgar Blanchard’s Gondoliers, an important R&B band that featured Tommy Ridgley on piano. In 1949, with the Gondoliers he cut his first record, recorded in Houston for Don Robey’s Peacock label, backing up a singing drummer named Silver Cooks. Mr Ticket Agent Man b/w Coming Back Home while wasn’t a particularly great record, it does have its charm, but it did not sell. Probably recorded at the same session were two tracks with Lightfoot as leader– Papa George Blues b/w Lightfoot Boogie, which were evidently released, but I know of no one who has ever seen or heard this disc. A third set of sides from the session with Edgar Blanchard as vocalist were issued under Blanchard’s name– Creole Gal Blues b/w She’ll Be Mine After A While, this disc is also extremely rare and couldn’t have sold more than a few hundred copies at most. It is of interest mostly because the players are so out of tune with each other they sound drunk. Maybe all for the best, Lightfoot and Blanchard weren’t a great match, Blanchard’s band was urbane, and Lightfoot’s own sound primitive and distorted.
Returning home, his next disc was issued in 1950 on the tiny Sultan label out of Natchez–Winding Ball Mama b/w Snake Hipping Daddy is again so rare I have never seen nor heard it, although one must exist since there’s a picture of it on his trail marker on the Mississippi blues trail.
I include this information not because I want to see these discs on your want lists, but because I live with the dim hope that some reader somewhere, will sell, trade or better yet, give me copies of both the missing Lightfoot discs, which I will then file away and pull out and stare at, and maybe even listen to, into my waning days.
Two years later, back in New Orleans, Papa Lightfoot cut another four sides with Blanchard’s band, this time they played mostly in tune. Issued on Aladdin– first came P.L. Blues b/w Afterwhile, followed a few months later by Jumpin’ With Jarvis b/w Blue Lights which were were all instrumentals, a fast boogie on the a-side and a blues on the flip, both discs very much in the style of then chart topper Little Walter. Again these sides sold naught and it would be two more years before anyone let Papa Lightfoot near a recording studio again. It was on April 17, 1954 in New Orleans when Papa Lightfoot cut his best session, this time for Imperial, backed by unknown musicians, he waxed the double sided distorted masterpiece Mean Ole Train b/w Wine Women Whiskey, singing through his harmonica mike, and backed by a driving beat, Papa had found his sound. Two more tracks recorded that day– Jump The Boogie and a whacked out rendition of When The Saints Go Marching In would later see the light of day on Liberty’s (which bought Imperial in the early 60’s) Legendary Masters: Rural Blues series that Canned Heat’s Bear Hite compiled in 1970. These four sides represent not just the best of Papa Lightfoot, but are among the crudest, most distorted, driving, and therefore best blues records ever made. His harmonica playing and singing are totally original, and the band just about thunders along behind him.
From there, Lightfoot recorded behind Champion Jack Dupree for King, toured the south, appearing on package shows with Fats Domino and Dinah Washington, cut an un-issued session for the ultra obscure Jiffy label, before washing up in Atlanta in 1954 for one session for Savoy where backed by Edwin “Guitar Red”Marie’s band, he recut Mean Ole Train and a rockin’ instrumental called Wildfire.
No matter what Wikipedia says, Lightfoot never recorded for Excello. In ’54 he won a talent contest in Atlanta sponsored by middle of the road band leader Horace Heidt (who orchestra Art Carney had started with as a singing comedian) and toured theaters with Heidt’s orchestra until 1958. What this music sounded like is anyone’s guess, but I can only imagine what Mean Ole Train sounded like with Papa Lightfoot bellowing into his harmonica mike and Heidt’s goofy arrangements behind him. Later Papa Lightfoot would tour with Smiley Lewis, appear in an obscure fifties film called Spooky Loot (1956), then he returned to Natchez where he hosted a radio show, and eventually found some sort of real job. In 1969 he recorded a pretty good album for Steve LaVere’s Vault label in an attempt to build an audience amongst white blues fans. He would appear at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1970, and drop dead less than a year later from respiratory illness. The best of early Papa Lightfoot (minus the Peacock and Sultan sides) can be found on a CD bootleg called Papa Lightfoot/Sammy Meyers, the Vault material, titled Natchez Trace, has been re-issued with many extra tracks, both are fairly easy to find. A full discography can be found here.
Piano pounder Freddie Hall came from Chicago where he cut a single for Chance in ’54 backed by Little Walter’s Aces (sans Walter) and didn’t record again until 1959 when he cut this crude rocker– She’s An Upsetter b/w I Love This Carrying On for C.J., the first and best of three 45’s he’d wax for that tiny label. Ike Perkins guitar playing is especially noteworthy on this one. On his next disc (Little Baby’s Rock, C.J. 602) the band would be dubbed the Night Rockers, cuz that’s exactly what the were. Oddly enough, in the latest edition of Blues Records 1943-1970 the personal on this record are listed as unknown. One look at the label tells us who the personal were, they’re names are printed right there on the label! Someone should write in a correction, I’m way to lazy to get around to it. Anyway, the a-side bears a strange musical resemblance to the Cochran Brothers’ Tired & Sleepy (Ekko, 1957), while the b-side is perhaps the crudest Muddy Waters cop ever recorded. A double sided winner.
Not much is known about Square Walton but his first session for RCA, back in 1953 produced two killer singles– my preference is for the first, Bad Hangover b/w Fishtail Blues, although the follow up– Pepper Headed Woman b/w Gimme Your Bankroll is also great (I still need a 45 of that one if anyone’s selling or trading, my 78 RPM copy has seen better days). These sides feature the feral guitar playing of Mickey Baker as well as Sonny Terry on harmonica and were produced by Leroy Kirkland who was involved in more records than even the most crazed collector could count. Square Walton recorded one more session for RCA in ’54, another four sides were cut, again with Mickey Baker on guitar, but none these sides were released. I know nothing about Square Walton and have never even seen a photo of him. Maybe for the best, perhaps he was ugly? I do know he was not Mercy Dee Walton (of One Room Country Shack fame) nor was he Jesse James Walton who recorded for HiQ although he is often mistaken for one or the other.
Alexander “Papa” Lightfoot recorded for Peacock in ’49 (one of the rarest singles of all time), Sultan in 1950, Aladdin in ’52, and Imperial in ’54 (including an earlier, cruder, version of Mean Old Train) before arriving at Savoy who recorded him in Atlanta in 1955 with Edwin “Guitar Red” Maire’s band. Both sides– Mean Old Train b/w Wildfire, the only tunes from that session to see the light of vinyl are wild, distorted harmonica rockers. The a-side a vocal, the b-side an instrumental. Both are first class blues wailers. He wouldn’t record again until 1969 when he cut an LP for Vault. Papa Lightfoot never made a bad record. If you ever run into those old Imperial Rural Blues/Legendary Masters LP’s that Bear Hite compiled in the late 60’s, Papa Lightfoot’s Aladdin and Imperial recordings (including the un-issued stuff) are on volumes 2 and 3.
Dennis “Long Man” Binder started out recording for Sam Phillips in ’52 although nothing was issued from his one session at 706 Union Ave. He appeared briefly singing and playing piano with Ike Turner’s King’s Of Rhythm who backed him on his only Modern single- Early Times b/w I Miss You So, two more songs from that 1954 session would later surface, one (Nobody Wants Me) on the great Ike Rocks The Blues (Crown) LP, the other on an Ace CD that appeared in the nineties. Here, on his only disc on Chicago’s United label– The Long Man b/w I’m A Lover, issued in 1955, he’s backed by another guy named Guitar Red, Vincent Duling in this case (there are at least three Guitar Red’s I know of), as well as Al Smith on bass, the man who produced all of Jimmy Reed’s greatest discs. Two more tunes from the session would eventually be issued on Delmark. Binder would record one more record time, for the ultra obscure Cottonwood label out of Clovis, New Mexico in ’59 (She’s Sumpin’ Else b/w
Crawdad Song), then disappear forever.
Our final selection is yet another mystery artist. Joe McCoy cut two singles for the New York based Tiara label in ’58. Tiara was the label that released the Shirelles first two singles, before they went on to a stunning string of hits on Sceptor. Anyway, Hey Hey Loretta b/w Too Much Goin’ On was McCoy’s first and best single for the label, although his second– Dizzy Little Girl is quite good. No one seems to have a clue as to who Joe McCoy was, or even if he was black or white (me thinks he sounds black, others disagree). Either way, Hey Hey Loretta is a classic rockin’ r&b stomper, with a rolling beat that sounds more New Orleans than Broadway. Too Much Goin’ On get extra points for putting a UFO in the lyrics. You don’t find many records as good as this one.
Classifications are for critics and egghead writers, the line between R&B, rock’n’roll and blues is often non-existant, which is why I chose these five records as they all seem to illustrate my point. The moral of the story being, forget the classifications, records come in two types– good and bad, and that’s all you need to know*.
* I once stopped into a pub in London that was a Teddy Boy hang out and overheard a conversation about what “proper rock’n’roll” was that nearly ended in a knife fight!