Pee Wee Crayton

Classic Crown budget LP- where’s that Stratocaster today?

Pee Wee Crayton when he was a star, 1951.

Pee Wee Crayton takes his Strat to the Apollo, 1954.

Pee Wee Crayton, sharkskin suit, Strat and trash can, the trash can’s a nice touch.

With the Johnny Otis Show, 1970.

Once again, it’s back to the same bargain bin full of .99 cent LP’s, the year is 1974, the place is Broward County, Florida. In addition to finding the first two Stooges LP’s, the first MC5 album, the Flamin’ Groovies’ Kama Sutra LP’s, all the Chess/All Platinum double LP’s, were tons of albums on the Crown and Kent labels, and it’s where I bought my first Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and Ike Turner albums, not to mention those weird Blues From Detroit/Arkansas/Mississippi, etc. albums full of obscure names like Boyd Gilmore, Charley Booker and Eddie Kirkland. These albums were so cheaply made they didn’t even have inner sleeves, and the covers were either generic photos (not of the performers) or horrible paintings by a guy named Fazio. The vinyl was of the worst quality. The stock at this bargain bin changed twice weekly, and some records only showed up once, never to be seen again, like my copy of Ike Turner Rocks The Blues and Elmore James’ Blues After Hours, both still sitting near the turntable, thirty six years later.
One album really caught my eye because it was the only Crown LP I’d ever seen with a photo of the performer on the cover, and what a photo. A nattily attired black man with a greasy conk,
a boat necked cardigan sweater over a striped shirt and a tiny mustache, the guy was holding a battered Stratocaster, one of the knobs was cracked, the pick guard worn to a sheen and the neck worn to shit. I took Pee Wee Crayton home with me.
My first impression (remember, I was fifteen at the time) was that it wasn’t the most exciting record I’d ever heard. He was no Howlin’ Wolf, whose music I had just discovered and had become obsessed with (Wolf had his own crappy Crown album, two tracks of which weren’t even him, but it had the incredible House Rockin’ Boogie with its immortal call of “Blow Your Top!”), nor was it the ultra crude guitar boogies of John Lee Hooker or Lightnin’ Hopkins. To me it sounded like someone who had influenced B.B. King (who had about a dozen albums on Crown or Kent). But it had a nice sleazy vibe to it, and over the years I’d come back to it more and more often. He played a lot like T-Bone Walker, but more unpredictable, often adding strange chord substitutions, big jazz chords like diminished 7th’s or 9ths, thrown in at the end of a blues riff for no rhyme or reason. The record really grew on me, and soon I would find many more of his discs. The Modern sides were fairly easy to find, although they were often “juked”, meaning they had been on an old 78 jukebox, which had a quarter pound tone arm and steel needle, which would wear the hit side of the disc out in a dozen or so plays.
Record collecting back then was like being an archaeologist, you couldn’t just Google somebody and get their life story and discography. What I would eventually put together is that most of the material on the Crown and Kent albums was originally released on 78 and 45 RPM singles by the Modern, R.P.M., and Flair labels out of Hollywood, California, owned by the Bihari brothers– Saul, Jules, Joe and sometimes Lester (who had the Meteor label in Memphis). The Bihari’s labels were among the most influential in the history of rock’n’roll, equal to that of Chess, Sun, Specialty, Imperial, Aladdin, Atlantic, etc. They had their own pressing plant and manufactured everything including the covers, much like Syd Nathan’s King/Federal operation in Cincinnati. Pee Wee Crayton released at least twenty 78’s on Modern between the years of 1948-1951, maybe more. Few made it to 45 rpm, although I have stumbled across some Modern 78’s re-issued on Flair 45 over the years. He would go on to record for at least ten more labels over the years. His story goes something like this.
Connie Curtis Crayton (b. Dec. 18, 1914 in Rockdale, Texas), got a late start in music, enthralled by the sound of Charlie Christian’s electric guitar (then appearing with the Benny Goodman Sextet) on the radio, he went out and bought himself a cheap guitar. He was almost thirty and his only other musical experience was a ukulele he had as a child. Having relocated to the California Bay Area to find work during World War II, Crayton, who was known to all by his childhood nickname Pee Wee, managed to go right to the top for lessons. T-Bone Walker was appearing at Slim Jenkins Place in Oakland, California, and Crayton pestered the blues star until Walker agreed to teach him to play. Crayton went out and bought an expensive Gibson hollow bodied guitar and amp, and took to practicing what T-Bone was teaching him. First just chording behind Walker, then learning the single string leads that made Walker the first (and at the time virtually only) electric blues guitar star. Until this time rhythm and blues was a saxophone driven music, the guitar, when present at all was well in the background. Guitar at that time was the instrument of hillbillies and country blues players. After wood shedding with T-Bone Walker, he sought out another guitar teacher– John Collins, then a member of Nat King Cole’s Trio. The only other place guitar players were prominent were in the west coast “cool” blues trios such as Cole’s group and Oscar Moore’s Three Blazers whose guitarist Johnny Moore would become another early, influential electric guitarist (the Three Blazers’ singer and pianist- Charles Brown would become a huge star on his own in a few years with Drifting Blues). Collins would teach Crayton the big jazz chords, the diminished 7ths and 9ths, chords that take all four fingers (imagine that?), that would give Crayton’s music its unique edge.
Pee Wee Crayton joined his first group in the early 40’s, playing with Count Otis Mathews’ House Rockers, the same group that Johnny Otis had started with a few years earlier. Soon he formed his own trio in the classic west coast style and made his first records for the Laurent and Gru V Tone labels around 1946-7. A local record distributor clued in the Biharis down in L.A. and Joe Bihari traveled to Oakland to catch Pee Wee’s act, signing him immediately.
His first session for Modern, in September of ’48 would produce the huge “race” hits Blues After Hours (#1 R&B) and I Love You So (#6 R&B) and as well as Pee Wee’s Boogie, Bounce Pee Wee,
Rock Island Blues, and Rosa Lee. All good sellers. His second session, three months later birthed Texas Hop (#5 R&B), which along with the afore mentioned Blues After Hours were the first electric guitar instrumental hits ever. It was also Crayton’s last top ten hit although Pee We Crayton would record for Modern for the next three years cutting some great sides, often with Modern’s secret weapon– tenor sax player/band leader/arranger Maxwell Davis soloing on sax. Among the highlights of his years at Modern are Austin Boogie, Poppa Stoppa (named for the New Orleans DJ), Crayton Special, Central Avenue Blues, Huckle Boogie, Rockin’ The Blues, Crayton’s Blues, Oh Yeah Boogie, Blues For My Baby, and my favorite– Pee Wee’s Wild. Many of these were good regional sellers, especially on the West Coast. By the way, for these sound samples, on the tunes from the Crown LP, I used samples taken from the vinyl since I like the cheesy echo effect they added to the LP, although Ace’s remastered CD’s are actually much better sounding.
Soon Crayton formed a band and hit the road, drawing big crowds where ever he played, often booked in a “Battle Of The Guitars” with T-Bone Walker. It was while stranded in San Francisco with a down and out mambo band that Mickey “Guitar” Baker encountered Crayton’s electric blues guitar act and women showering him with dollar bills. The spectacle is what turned Baker from a struggling jazz player into an R&B guitarist supreme. “I said to myself– I cant do that!”, Baker was quoted many years later. Legend has it that Pee Wee Crayton, who had relocated to the L.A. area, hired a young Ornette Coleman to play alto sax in his band, only to leave him stranded by the side of the road in Texas for playing too weird. He appeared at the Apollo in Harlem and was a favorite in the sepia joints on L.A’s Central Avenue. Guitar players of the era were often showmen, T-Bone Walker was known for playing guitar behind his head and doing splits while taking solos, and Crayton adopted a lot of his moves, even getting a 300 foot chord at one point so he could walk around the club while played.
By 1951 the hits started drying up and Crayton was disillusioned with the Bihari’s who rarely paid royalties and padded out the songwriting credits with fake names to steal writing credits and song publishing royalties. He cut a one off session for Aladdin– When It Rains It Pours, which Pee Wee was convinced somehow jinxed his career, and another session produced an insanely rare EP for soon to be murdered John Dophin‘s Recorded In Hollywood label before finally signing with Lew Chud’s Imperial Record.
In the wake of Crayton’s success, electric guitarists were coming out of the woodwork and more aggressive players like Guitar Slim, Gatemouth Brown and B.B. King were scoring hits with a more violent, distorted, sonic attack. B.B. King’s success was especially a problem for Crayton since he recorded for Modern’s R.P.M. subsidiary, and the Bihari’s began promoting his records over Craytons. It was time for Pee Wee to update his sound, and in 1954 he paid a visit to Leo Fender who gave him a prototype of his new solid body electric guitar– a thing he dubbed The Stratocaster. The very same guitar seen on the cover of the Crown LP. In April, of ’54 Crayton took this guitar to New Orleans where Imperial had booked him studio time at Cosimo Matiassa’s Rampart Street Studio. In New Orleans he was backed by Dave Bartholomew’s band, the same musicians that appeared on hits by Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis, Little Richard and too many others to list here. These were probably the first recordings to ever feature a Stratocaster, which Fender wouldn’t start mass producing for another six months. At Cosimo’s he cut four extraordinary performances– Every Dog Has His Day, Hurry Hurry, the lyrically bizarre Win-O (“I’m a wino/I’m as high as I can be/I have an office in the white house/all the laws are made by me…I have a seat in Congress/right next to Santa Claus”) and Do Unto Others. Many collectors over the years have wondered if the latter title didn’t somehow find its way into John Lennon’s record collection since it sounds exactly like the Beatles’ Revolution. This session didn’t produce any hits but a second session in New Orleans was held in January of ’55 and a third in April of ’55. The best of these sides were I Need Your Love, Runnin’ Wild (actually a cover of Bartholomew’s Country Boy) and Blues Before Dawn, a twangy guitar instrumental update of Texas Hop with a pronounced New Orleans feel– dig how the horns kick in after Pee Wee’s solo, then how Salvador Doucette’s rolling piano which doesn’t appear until halfway through, drives the tune home.
Pee Wee Crayton would have no more hit records and soon gave up his band, traveling as a solo, using pick-up bands. He recorded for many more labels, usually one or two singles before moving on. The best of these one offs was on Vee Jay in 1956– A Frosty Night b/w The Telephone Is Ringing. By the early 60’s Pee Wee Crayton was a forgotten man and he took a day job, music would be a weekend hobby from then on. In 1970 he recorded with the Johnny Otis Show (see clip) and this led to a deal with Vanguard for whom he made the surprisingly good album The Things I Used To Do. He appeared at festivals, did club gigs, often backing singers like Big Joe Turner and Big Mama Thorton. His playing was always excellent, but somewhere along the way that candy apple red Stratocaster disappeared, replaced by a Les Paul. Crayton stayed in the L.A. area and his final gig, in ’85 was backing up Joe Turner in a small club. They both died the same week in June of ’85. Shortly before Crayton’s death, the British Ace label issued a 10″ LP of Modern sides called Blues Guitar Genius, and in the years after his death all his early recordings, including a slew of un-issued stuff would appear, the best being two Ace CD’s– The Modern Legacy Vol. 1 and 2, and one issued in the U.S. on Capitol called Pee Wee Crayton: Pee Wee’s Blues: The Complete Imperial and Aladdin Recordings.
Pee Wee Crayton, despite being well served in the re-issue world, is a name that rarely comes up today. It’s a shame, since he was not only a pivotal figure, and the second in the line of blues guitar stars that carries on to this day, but he made some unique and excellent music, especially the Modern and Imperial sides. Anyone know what happened to the candy apple red Stratocaster?
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