Willie Joe Duncan & his Unitar

Willie Joe Duncan, his Unitar and the horse he rode in on.

Bob “Froggy” Landers classic with Willie Joe Duncan & his Unitar

Rene Hall instrumental with Willie Joe.

Willie Joe (1988) and the b- side of Cherokee Dance.

Although he only made one and a half singles, there are some people out there, me for instance, that have spent an inordinate amount of their life wondering, just who the fuck was Willie Joe Duncan? It wasn’t hard to figure out what a Unitar is. A Unitar is a home made one string electric guitar. Willie Joe Duncan was remembered by many folks in Chicago who saw him in the early 50’s playing on Maxwell Street with Jimmy Reed. Jimmy Reed, who called Willie Joe by the nickname Jody, reminisced about Duncan in his final interview (Living Blues #1, June 1975):

“…he was doin this old crazy thing, with this one strand of wire, he wasn’t lettin’ me lose him nowhere; now, how he was catchin’ me on that one strand of broom wire I don’t know! But he was doing it all right. He could play that string of wire with a bottle, if he didn’t do it with his finger he’d do it with a little old piece of leather on his finger or something he’d pick it with. But on that one strand of wire on that board he could find whatever I was playin’ on that guitar. Now that was somethin’ I sure hated to lose. Yeah, I hated to lose Jody because it just was a crazy old thing”.

The last thing Jimmy Reed heard about his old busking partner “Jody” was that Duncan had taken up preaching in California. He hadn’t seen Willie Joe since 1955 when Duncan left Chicago for the coast, taking his crazy, one stringed instrument with him. Having settled somewhere in the greater L.A. area, in 1956, Duncan recorded with Bob “Froggy” Landers appearing on Landers’ classic– Cherokee Dance (Specialty), his rockin’, distorted, Unitar was the most predominate instrument on the record. On the b-side was Unitar Rock which was credited only to Willie Joe & his Unitar. It’s a classic of instrumental rock’n’roll, proving, less is more…but we already knew that. Bob “Froggy” Landers would go on to make one more record– River Rock parts 1 and 2 for Ensign on which he is backed by a band called the Cough Drops, but Willie Joe was nowhere to be heard.

Guitarist/A&R man/producer Rene Hall, one of rock’n’roll’s greatest unheralded guitar players brought Willie Joe back into the studio in 1957 to re-cut Unitar Rock under the title of Twitchy and it appeared on the flip side of Rene’s instrumental single Flippin’, also released on Specialty. And that, dear readers, appeared to be the extent of Willie Joe Duncan’s musical career. Or so it seemed.
The other day I was browsing the Roots & Rhythm mail order catalog that arrived via e-mail and something caught my eye (the one that’s permanently bloodshot)– One String Blues Masters (Delta Cat 1001). A new CD on a label I never heard of. In the brief description of the CD were the words– “Willie Joe Duncan & his Unitar, previously un-issued 1988 recordings“. Needless to say, out came the credit card, and for $16.98 + $5.00 for priority shipping, I am now the proud owner of the complete recorded works of Willie Joe and his Unitar, as well as One String Sam, Eddie “One String” Jones, and Louis Dotson. The later name being completely new to me. Pardon me, I’m going to pull five strings off my Telecaster now… I’m back, that felt good.
So what are these 1988 tracks with Willie Joe Duncan? Recorded in East Palo Alto, California, by a guy named Charlie Lange, we get Willie Joe talking about Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters (whom he claims to have played with), and some unheard recordings where Willie Joe is backed by Chester D. Wilson on guitar, Lone Cat on harmonica and Willie G. on spoons. I have never heard of these three, but while they may not be Rene Hall or Froggy Landers, they do a nice job of backing up Willie Joe, all playing in pretty much the style of Jimmy Reed. There’s several instrumental jams, which are very loose and yet another instrumental using the riff that we know of as Unitar Rock and/or Twitchy, this time called Joe Duncan Instrumental. There’s also a jam in which he basically recreates what he sounded like playing on Maxwell Street with Jimmy Reed (Chester and Lone Cat filling in for the long gone Reed), called Key Of Jimmy Reed. Had Duncan never moved to L.A., Jimmy Reed’s records, might have sounded quite different. Perhaps they would have a Unitar on them. Back to the One String Blues Masters CD –I’m glad I bought it. It’s a bit short on liner notes and photos, in fact there’s no liner notes at all or even a booklet. But you do get One String Sam’s classic I Need $100, originally released on J-V-B, (owned by Joe Van Battle, who recorded John Lee Hooker’s first sides, I guess he figured if he did so well with a guy who knew one chord, a guy with one string couldnt’ miss. Anyway, it’s said to be Don Van Vliet’s favorite record, although don’t ask me who said it, I forgot, still it’s a classic by any one’s standards, and these parenthesis are making me claustrophobic). It’s also as rare as an honest politician. Personally, I wish the whole package was on vinyl, but clocking in at eighty minutes it would have to have been a two record set (or thirteen 78’s) which economically was probably not feasible. Of course if you don’t own the original 78 or 45 (does it exist on 45?) of One String Sam’s I Need $100 b/w My Baby Ooo, which, unless you’re extremely lucky, you could never find for a mere $100 nowadays, this compilation is double essential. There’s also a live version from the ’73 Ann Arbor Blues Festival and two other tracks from the same date. There’s really not a bad track on this CD, although One String Sam and the Specialty sides from Willie Joe are the best things here, Eddie “One String” Jones’ Rollin’ & Tumblin’ is excellent, as is his version of The Dozens, although it’s admittedly a hard song to fuck up.
There’s no law (yet) that says you need six strings on a guitar. Keith Richard played some of his best stuff with five, the live version of Midnight Rambler for example. Tiny Grimes and Alton Delmore used four, Big Joe Williams played with ten strings, in his case it being like a twelve string minus two, not a regular guitar plus four (does that make sense, if not, send me a telegram and I’ll explain it). But when you get down to one string, you really need some imagination. Willie Joe Duncan had that and more. He had a distorted, dirty, sound to go with his unique style. Now what became of the guy? This liner note-less CD does not tell us. If anyone knows please write in and tell me.
Note: if I’m steppin’ on any toes here with posting the sounds, e-mail me direct and I’ll yank ’em. I figure this blog thing is like radio, if you hear a tune and like it, you’ll go buy it. I certainly wouldn’t want to hurt Willie Joe’s royalty statement. Or hurt a label with the good taste to release Willie Joe Duncan and One String Sam records.

Rene Hall

Rene Hall, as an arranger and session guitarist was one of the most influential men behind the scenes of rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues for over twenty years, yet he has been ignored and/or written out of history to such an extreme that I can’t even find one photo of him to go with this posting. * He gave one interview in his life, to the U.K. collector’s mag New Kommotion in 1980.
Hall had a long career and was in demand constantly, he never seemed to lack for work, mostly as an arranger. Today’s posting however will examine only a small part of that career, his work as a session guitarist, and from there we will focus on the years 1957-60 when he recorded the records that best fit my own personal definition of what great rock’n’roll is. After all, it’s my blog.
Rene Hall was born in New Orleans in 1912 and began his musical career picking six string banjo in Papa Celestin’s Orchestra, playing traditional New Orleans jazz. He worked on the riverboats in the 1940’s with Sam Morgan’s Orchestra and later with Sydney’s Southern Syncopaters. Somehow he ended up in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he switched to guitar and played with Ernie Fields’ band (he’d record with Fields in the fifties). With Fields he moved to St. Louis where he got a job writing arrangements, conducting and playing trombone with jazz piano giant Earth “Fatha” Hines. For an example of Hines genius find a copy of Louis Armstrong’s Weather Bird.
Hall hit New York City in 1945 where he got arranging work at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, working with acts like Roy Milton and Louis Jordan. At the Apollo he discovered Billy Ward and the Dominos, with their incredible lead singer Clyde McPhatter and got them their first record deal with Federal Records out of Cincinnati, a subsidiary of the R&B/C&W giant King. He appeared playing guitar on many of their early hits including Do Something For Me, the 1951 smash. He toured with the Dominos, making it as far as England where they played army bases, then moved with them to Las Vegas when they settled in for a long term job at the Dunes Hotel.
He stayed with Billy Ward and the Dominos two and a half years. He also had started a solo recording career before leaving New York, his earliest sides appeared on the Jubilee label in 1950– Blue Creek Hop (sorry about the messed up beginning, it’s the only copy I could find)
was his first release. Jubilee issued a second single — Rene’s Boogie later that year, but I’ve never heard it. He also recorded for Decca and Victor in 1952-3, these sides are very rare, and are in the same light jazzy R&B style as Blue Creek Hop. Well executed, but lacking the spark of true genius that would mark his playing a few short years later.
Pardon the digression, back in Vegas, Hall was growing bored with the Dominos and soon headed for Los Angeles where he found a job at club at 42 Street and Western but trouble with the musician’s union forced him to give it up (they required a six month residency in state, so as a new comer he was shut out of any steady gigs) so on the recommendation of a friend– Carl Peterson at Universal Attractions he approached Art Rupe the owner of Specialty Records, then flying high on the success of Little Richard, for a job, which he got. Rupe immediately put him to work with Bumps Blackwell working on a Little Richard session cutting Hey Hey Hey. Hall told New Kommotion’s Stu Coleman “That was my first experience with hard rock”, a style to which he would adapt well. He was sent to Bakersfield where Richard was appearing in a club, then worked out some arrangements for sessions that were later cut in L.A.. Rupe was so pleased with Rene’s arranging abilities that he put him in charge of his latest discovery– Larry Williams a pimp turned rocker being groomed by Rupe as the next Little Richard. Working with producer Sonny Bono and using many of the same musicians that appeared on Richard’s sides (Earl Palmer on drums, Plas Johnson on sax, Roy Montrell on guitar) they soon produced three hits with Larry Williams– Slow Down b/w Dizzie Miss Lizzy, Short Fat Fannie b/w High School Dance, and Bad Boy b/w She Said Yeah, tunes that would later be recorded by everyone from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to the Flamin’ Groovies. On some of these session Hall played guitar along with Roy Montrell. In the 1980’s Specialty issued two LP’s of Larry Williams outtakes (Unreleased Larry Williams and Hocus Pocus), recordings much rawer then the issued sides. These discs went out of print fast and much of the material has never appeared on CD**, but one of these included a version of Bad Boy where Rene Hall plays what must be one of the most out of control guitar solos of all time. You can practially smell the smoke coming from the tubes in his amp.
While at Specialty, Rene Hall also cut three solo 45’s, only one was a guitar instrumental, and he only played on one side, but it’s quite a classic– Twitchy b/w Flippin’. The a-side features Willie Joe Duncan, who played a Unitar (one string guitar), and the tune is basically a re-recording of Unitar Rock, which had appeared on the b-side of Bob Froggy Landers’ Cherokee Dance a year earlier. Duncan not only had one string on his guitar, he seems to have known only one tune, but a hell of a tune it is. Flippin’ features Hall’s guitar and is a pretty good rocker in it’s own right. His next Specialty 45, also issued in 1957 was a version of venerable wino classic Thunderbird b/w When The Saints Go Marching In. For more on the Thunderbird connection see my April posting on the subject. His final Specialty 45 came in early ’57, a slice of novelty exotica that I’ve always loved– Cleo, it was backed with an instrumental version of Frankie & Johnny that featured Plas Johnson’s blaring tenor.
Bumps Blackwell, with Rene Hall as arranger had taken Specialty gospel star Sam Cooke of the Soul Stirrers and recorded a pop tune, complete with white back up singers, called You Send Me, which Rupe hated and refused to release, fearing it would offend the gospel fans. Blackwell was sure he had a hit record and a future star in Cooke and worked out a deal with Rupe where in exchange for back royalties he was owed he could have Cooke’s contract and take You Send Me elsewhere. They took it to Bob Keane who issued it on the Keen label and of course it was a huge hit. Hall stayed on with Cooke as his guitarist and arranger until his death, but that’s away from our subject today.
Keene had just signed a chubby Chicano kid from Pocoima and needed someone to help develop his songs and his sound for recording. Keane put Rene Hall and Valens together and they created what I consider to be one of the coolest sounds in all of rock’n’roll history. Using Earl Palmer on drums, Bill Pitman on six string bass, Carol Kaye playing acoustic guitar, Ritchie Valens on electric rhythm and Rene Hall on lead guitar, he created the “Ritchie Valens sound”. Listen to the backing track to La Bamba (that’s Rene Hall playing the solo). Pure genius! The six string bass really gives the record drive, and Hall flat out rocks. Here’s a few other of my favorites– Ooh My Head (which Led Zepplin stole and retitled Boogie With Stu, later Valens mom sued and got her name on half the song, later still both parties were sued by Little Richard since the song is basically a re-write of Ooh My Soul), and this instrumental two sider that was issued under the name of Arvee Allens— Fast Freight b/w Big Baby Blues. Rene Hall arranged and played on all of Valens Del-Fi material except In Concert At Pocoima Jr. High and some scraps of demo tapes that were issued after Ritchie’s tragic death. Poor little guy, he was only 17 when he died. I don’t need to repeat that story.
Valens death left Bob Keane and Del-Fi records without a meal ticket, but soon a demo arrived in the mail from a Montana born Chicano with an uncanny ability to sound like Valens, so Robert Lee “Chan” Romero was brought to L.A. and Keane teamed him up with Rene Hall and using the same formula and musicians he used with Valens, Romero produced an absolute classic with Hippy Hippy Shake, which would later become a staple of early Beatles live sets and a smash hit for Liverpool’s other fab four– the Swinging Blue Jeans. Unfortunately for Romero his version didn’t sell so well. Here’s the demo if you’re curious. Hall worked with Chan Romero on several more records, the best of which was I Want Some More (and here’s the demo of that one). Great sides, but no sales. What became of Chan Romero I do not know. Rene Hall also cut a solo single for Del-Fi, The Untouchables, a pretty good record but lacking the fire of the Valens and Romero discs.
All through the late fifties Rene Hall kept busy free lancing, he did arrangements for Patience and Prudence, Jan & Arnie (Gas Money), Bumble B. & the Stingers (Nut Rocker) and others. As a guitarist he showed up on all of Googie Rene’s Class sides including this killer that Bob Quine turned me on to– Side Tracked. One of my favorite discs to feature a Rene Hall guitar solo is this raucous piece of slop by Earl Palmer & the Partytimers with the Jayhawks– Johnny’s House Party Part One which appeared on Aladdin around ’58. Everything about this record is great, in fact they all sound drunk, but it’s the guitar solo that gives it the extra push over the edge into what we can call genius.
Rene Hall would spend the early sixties doing all sorts of studio work, mostly as an arranger but his main meal ticket was Sam Cooke. As an arranger his greatest moment was probably A Change Gonna Come, Cooke’s last and greatest record. When Sam Cooke died he went back to free lancing, he never lacked for arranging work. He even returned to Specialty to play bass on a Little Richard session (Bama Lama Loo b/w Annie’s back, which also featured Don and Dewey on guitars). In the early 70’s he signed on as Marvin Gaye’s musical director, working on all of Gaye’s classic hits– Let’s Get It On, What’s Goin’ On, etc. When Gaye died he found himself one of the most in demand arrangers in the business and worked constantly until his death in 1988.
It’s not like Rene Hall was unsung in the industry, he was a highly paid professional, and a successful one at that. Rock’n’roll guitar playing was only a small part of his career, but one that should surely be acknowledged since he was so brilliant at it. So I guess it’s up to me, since nobody else seems to give a hoot. Rene Hall– I salute you.

*Well after two days, reader Tony Watson from Australia sent the above photo, thanks Tony.
** Again, from Tony Watson: “Your article also makes mention of the w Larry Williams albums of Specialty material which appeared in the 80s and the fat that alot of those tracks have not appeared on CD. I can tell you the reason for that – a lot of the songs were MANUFACTURED by Little Walter Devenne.  He created quite a few of the tracks from various outtakes in the vaults, as well as playing around with the speed.  This only came to light when I worked with John Broven & Stuart Colman in compiling the 2CD Larry Williams set for Ace – ‘The Specialty Rock & Roll Years’ in 2004.  We felt it would be playing with history to reissue those ‘constructions’ rather than issue takes just as Larry recorded them.  Hope that clarifies things.”

What’s The Word- Thunderbird!

Me and Quine were standin’ out in front of CBGB’s one night, around 1980, smoking cigarettes, catching a breeze, shootin’ the shit when an old black wino came stumbling out of the Palace Hotel next door. He was dressed in a ragged sharkskin suit, wore a battered, Lester Young style pork pie hat, and he had the mouthpiece of a sax hanging from a cord around his neck. He stuck a dirty, calloused hand out—“Yo, young blood, lemme hold a dollar“. “Yo, professor, lemme hold a dollar“. His eyes were milky red, his lips were cracked. “I used to play with Bird“.
Me- “You played with Bird?” “Yeah, man” he replied. “I played with Bird. I played with Trane too..Bird and Trane….Thunderbird and Night Train! Ahhahahaha“. I gave him a dollar.

This memory was sparked by an entry a few days ago on the Blues For Redboy blog, one of my favorites. Red Boy had posted the Casual-Aires version of (What’s The Word)Thunderbird (Brunswick) along with a record I’ve never heard before, and now want very much– Thunderbird Twist by the Thunderbirds on the Delta label, from here in NYC, year unknown to me. Great record, I hope you agree. And I hope Redboy doesn’t mind my borrowing his copy for my blog (feel free to lift anything from this blog for your page, R.B.). There’s a lot of good versions of Thunderbird, and a lot of good songs called Thunderbird that ain’t the (What’s The Word) Thunderbird tune that sparked the ignition in my brain that led to this blogeration.
For those who don’t know, Thunderbird is a fortified wine much preferred by degenerates and alcoholics everywhere. I drank a lot of this shit hanging out at the Seminole reservation next to where I grew up in Florida when I was a teen. My liver still hurts from it….well, my liver hurts because I have hepatitis C and cirrhosis, but the memory of Thunderbird, and Night Train (see the October posting All Aboard….The Night Train) and Mad Dog 20/20 bring back memories of
some truly foul hangovers. These wines are created for one reason– fast inebriation, and they have been celebrated in song for just that reason. Shall we proceed to the vinyl?
My favorite version of Thunder Bird is by Hal Paige & the Whalers, a fine New York based R&B stomping outfit who recorded excellent sides for Atlantic and Fury as well as this one on the Bronx based J&S label (which originally issued Johnnie & Joe’s Over The Mountain, Across The Sea before Chess picked it up). It’s a raw, crude, fast paced rocker with the classic lines– “what’s the word?/thunderbird, where do you cop?/ beauty shop, what’s the price?/ cut it twice” giving it cross audience appeal (alkies and dope fiends). It was covered on Mercury by tenor sax honkin’ man Red Prysock, retitled What’s The Word? Thunderbird! The label dates it to Oct. 11, 1957.
The same tune shows up again, missing the dope references on the Roselawn label by the Thunder Rocks, this time titled What’s The Word in version that is pure guitar rock’n’roll.
West coast guitar great Rene Hall cut a tune called Thunderbird for Specialty that is a completely different song, but still a great record. That’s Plas Johnson on the tenor sax and Earl Palmer beating out the drums. Hall is one of the most under rated guitarists (and arrangers) in rock’n’roll history and is a subject I will get around to writing about one of these days.
Blues man Little Walter Jacobs knew from shitty wine, it killed him at age 32, and he too used the Thunder Bird title for one of his greatest Checker sides. It was the b-side of his second biggest hit– My Babe, and it’s classic Little Walter all the way with his saxophone like tone soaring over Fred Below’s always propulsive drumming. That’s Robert Jr. Lockwood on lead guitar. It was issued in January of 1955.
Sonny Burgess, the great Sun rockabilly singer mastered the art of sounding inebriated on such killer discs as Red Headed Woman b/w We Wanna Boogie (Sun 247, 1956), and Ain’t Got A Thing b/w Restless (Sun 253, 1957). Oddly enough, like Elvis he was a teetotaler. Sam Phillips couldn’t get a hit with Burgess’ magnificent voice, so in the wake of the mega smash Raunchy he tried Burgess out as an instrumental artist issuing his tune called Thunderbird backed with the slow groove Itchy (Sun 304, 1958). Much confusion has ensued over the years since virtually every copy pressed had the labels reversed! The fast song is Thunderbird. Itchy is the slow, Link Wray style side. Issued under Burgess’ name, it’s something of an early supergroup with Billy Lee Riley providing the harmonica and Charlie Rich tickling the ivories. James Van Eaton who played on all the Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Lee Riley Sun sides is on the drums. He was one of the great unsung heroes of Sun Records (dig the way he propels Jerry Lee on his early Sun discs). That’s Sonny’s autograph on the label pictured above, he signed it when he came out to my radio show in the early nineties. Sonny’s a heck of a nice man, and one of the greatest rockers of all, in my opinion.
On the Ermine label is a group called the Thunderbirds who are almost certainly not the guys performing the Thunderbird Twist heard above, but this oddball instro-mental– Stalkin’ The Thunderbird was issued in 1962 and that’s about all I can tell you about it.
In this era of economic collapse I’m sure we’re going to see a lot less Cristal and a lot more Thunderbird in the alcoholic intake of musicians, and while it may be vile tasting stuff, it surely inspires better music than fine champagne. This I know is true.
ADDENDUM TO YESTERDAY’S POST: Comedy writer/producer/archivist and all around genius Eddie Gorodetsky sent a version of Thunderbird by Slim Gaillaird from a Dot LP which I’ve never heard before and it’s so incredible I just had to add it.
Check out these lyrics: “What’s the word/Thunderbird/what’s price?/thirty twice/what’s the flavor?/Ask your neighbor/what’s the reaction?/Satisfaction/Who drinks the most?/Us colored folks!” Talk about having a way with words! Thanks Eddie, you’re the best. And thank you Slim Gaillard in heaven-a-roonie.

ADDENDUM TO THE ADDENDUM: Reader KevanA pointed out that I used to play the Nitecaps (of Wine Wine Wine fame) version of Thunderbird on my radio show quite often. That version, which is great, slipped my mind when I was writing the above. It can be found here. Thanks Kev….
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