The day I was born (May 23, 1959) the #1 record was Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City“. A re-make of a tune originated by Little Willie Littlefield and written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (itself based on an old tune by Jim Jackson), it featured an ultra-twangy guitar solo by Wild Jimmy Spruill. For this and other reasons I’ve always felt some sort of cosmic bond with Jimmy, who was in my opinion one of the greatest guitar wranglers in the history of rock’n’roll. You won’t find his name in the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame (unlike such great talents as Art Garfunkel, Steven Stills and Bono and I don’t mean Sonny), but if you have any taste in music at all you’ve heard his playing. As a session musician he played on hits like Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin & Turnin'”, King Curtis’ “Soul Twist”, Dave “Baby” Cortez’ “The Happy Organ”, the Charts “Deserie” and tons of others. Today however we shall be discussing his best records, including those issued under his own name. First let’s get the background part out of the way.
New York City was never a great town for blues and R&B. Audiences here tended to think of themselves as more sophisticated and uptown they bought mostly jazz and gospel, downtown it was show tunes and pop singers, but that doesn’t mean there were no blues or R&B recorded here, in fact there was a thriving blues scene, much of it centered around a group of players who had grown up in the North Carolina area and included Sonny Terry, Brownie and Stick McGhee, and today’s subject– Allen Bunn, aka Tarheel Slim. Born Alden Bunn in the country side outside of Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1924, Bunn is rarely written about these days, which is suprising and sad since he made quite a few good records, one certified two sided masterpiece, not to mention a couple of almost hits. Somebody must have bought his records since he kept making them, recording for over 21 years, and they’re all fairly easy to find today which means they pressed plenty of copies.
So who was Allen Bunn/Tarheel Slim, and why should we care?
Bunn grew up in the countryside, working in the tobacco fields and listening to his mom’s Blind Boy Fuller 78’s. Eventually he learned to play guitar, and was heard singing and playing in church by Thurman Ruth, the leader of a local gospel quartet called the Selah Jubilee Singers (they’d soon drop the Jubilee part of their name). Ruth recruited Bunn into his group (putting off his debut until tobacco season was over) and for the next eight years he sang baritone and played guitar with the Selah Singers, who also recorded secular material as the Larks, the Four Barons, and possibly a few other names. As the Larks they cut some nice sides for the Apollo label, and Bunn’s lead vocals and guitar can be heard on their 1951 single My Little Sidecar. He had already been recorded as a blues singer by the Gotham label in 1949 cutting four sides with only his guitar for backing, but these would not be released until the 1980’s. His first solo sessions to see the light of shellac were for Apollo in ’51 where he recorded two sessions that produced four singles– The Guy With The .45 b/w She’ll Be Sorry, Discouraged b/w I Got You Covered, Wine b/w Baby I’m Gonna Throw You Out, and My Flight b/w Two Time Loser. These were issued under the name Allen Bunn, and good as they are, none of them sold very well. He was still touring with the Larks/Selah Singers when he cut his first session for Bobby Robinson, the Harlem based record store owner/producer/entrepreneur who is one of the most important figures in the history of New York City rock’n’roll and until recently could be found sitting out front of his record store on 125th Street until a rent hike finally forced him out. For Robinson’s Red Robin label Bunn cut Too Much Competition b/w My Kinda Woman. Some of these discs were issued under the name Allen Bunn others as Allen Baum. Around 1955 he met and married Lee Sanford aka Little Ann and they began singing together, first as The Lovers, under which name they recorded some fairly dull sides for the Aladdin’s Lamp subsidiary in 1957. He also recorded with a group called The Wheels on Premium whom he evidently managed (they also recorded as the Federals on Deluxe), these are also some forgettable sides although enough people like Let’s Have A Ball that it regularly shows up as a repro, as well as appearing on recordings by the Southern Harmonaires and Mahalia Jackson on Apollo.
In 1958 he entered the recording studio again, this time renamed Tarheel Slim, under the aegis of producer Bobby Robinson and with Wild Jimmy Spruill on guitar and Horace Cooper on piano cut his greatest record, a two sided monster– Wildcat Tamer b/w Number 9 Train, issued on Robinson’s Fury label, it remains one of the pinnacles of New York rock’n’roll. Both sides feature Slim’s burning guitar, with Spruill’s scratchy rhythm guitar driving both tunes at full steam, they remain the type of classic performances that never sound old or dated. Strangely enough, he never again had a solo record released. His next session, held nearly a year later, introduced the public to the recording duo of Tarheel Slim and Little Ann, and their first disc– It’s Too Late b/w Don’t Ever Leave Me was a minor hit. The record was released by both Robinson’s Fire label and Chess’ Checker subsidiary out of Chicago, not to mention pressing that have turned up on the Hermitage and Bobby Robinson labels. I assume Robinson leased the record to the Chess brothers and then changed his mind. It’s Too Late is a doom laden dirge with Slim’s tremolo laden guitar work and Ann breaking down into a sobbing fit at the end. Robinson really liked these overwrought crying ballads, and would later have some success with the kings of the genre– Jackie and the Starlites.
The follow up– Much Too Late reversed the formula, basically it’s the same tune, only this time it’s Slim who breaks down. While neither record charted, they were good sellers in the New York area and can be found cheap even today. Speaking of which, I once stumbled onto an entire dumpster of Fire, Fury and Enjoy 45’s and 78’s on Broadway and dragged home hundreds of free records, every one of them was good. Getting back to our subject, in 1959, Tarheel Slim and Little Ann cut a couple of killer rockers- Security and Lock Me In Your Heart, both tunes are excellent with Slim and Jimmy Spruill’s guitar work predominant on both tunes, kind of like Mickey and Sylvia playing rockabilly. Unfortunately their commercial peak had already passed with their second release and soon they were recording drek like covers of country tunes Send Me The Pillow You Dream On and I Love You Because and standards like Good Night Irene. Leaving Robinson briefly they recorded for Atco, then returned to record for Robinson’s Port and Enjoy labels. Bobby Robinson had more labels than some people have hairs on their head. Since he was an indie with no way to collect from distributors, every time he’d get a hit record– Wilbert Harrison’s Kansas City, Lee Dorsey’s Ya Ya, etc., he’d end up getting run out of business since he had to pay to have the discs pressed but couldn’t collect from the distributors until he delivered another hit. Each hit record seemed to be followed by a bankruptcy. Still, Bobby Robinson was a tenacious sort, and always bounced back with a new label, and kept making great records. He would go on to record Lightnin; Hopkins, Lee Dorsey, Elmore James, Wilbert Harrison, and dozens of street corner doo wop groups. Meanwhile Taheel Slim and Little Ann pretty much dropped from sight, their career seemed to peter out around the early 60’s and nothing was heard from them until the early 70’s when blues researcher Peter Lowery dug up Tarheel Slim to play a few gigs where he performed with an acoustic guitar in the style of Brownie McGhee (who was earning a good living playing to white college audiences in a style that has been dubbed “folk blues”). Tarheel Slim played a few festivals in 1974 and was well received, but once again he seemed to drop from sight. How he spent the years from 1974 until his death in 1977 we do not know, I imagine some of it was spent watching Sanford and Son, Good Times and The Jeffersons. That’s what I was doing.
In 1977 he was diagnosed with throat cancer and died from pneumonia brought on by the chemotherapy. These days he’s best remembered for Number 9 Train and Wildcat Tamer, which remain favorites among rockers worldwide. A better legacy I cannot imagine.
James Spruill was born in shack in the country outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina on June 9, 1934. His family was so poor Jimmy remembered them using newspapers and paste to seal the cracks in the wall of their house to keep the wind out.
His parents tried sharecropping but couldn’t make a living and eventually moved north first to Norfolk, Virginia, then Washington, D.C. Jimmy started playing guitar as a tyke, building his first guitar out of a cigar box (he would build guitars his whole life, when I met him he was working on a custom job for John Hammond Jr.). As soon as he could raise a hard on he hopped a bus to New York City where an older brother was already settled and got a job as the super of a Harlem tenement. While practicing his guitar on the stoop he was spotted by record producer Danny Robinson (brother of Bobby Robinson, another local record mini-mogul who would figure large in Jimmy’s career). Robinson got Jimmy his first record date, playing with the Charlie Walker on “Driving Home pts. 1 & 2” , and another date days late with the Charlie Lucas Combo where he cut a tune called “Walkin‘” which featured his already fully formed “scratchy” guitar style. The year was 1957 and for the next eight years Spruill was the regular session guitarist on dozens of discs the Robinson brothers produced for their many labels— Fire, Fury, Enjoy, VIM, Holiday, Everlast, etc.
One of the most musically fruitful associations was with Allen Bunn aka Tarheel Slim, another North Carolina transplant who played guitar, and together with Spruill they cut one of the greatest rock’n’roll records to ever come out of Harlem– “Number 9 Train” b/w “Wildcat Tamer” (Fury). He would go on to play on nearly all of Tarheel Slim’s Fury recrordings including his sole hit (with Little Ann) “It’s Too Late“.
Perhaps the greatest pairing however was with the aforementioned Wilbert Harrison. Harrison (also from North Carolina, he sang in a Geechie accent that betrayed his Georgia Sea Island roots) had been kicking around for years, cutting sides for Savoy, but he really hit pay dirt both musically and commercially when Bobby Robinson put him together with Spruill for a series of discs that are among the greatest rock’n’roll records ever made: “Goodbye Kansas City“, “Don’t Wreck My Life“, “Let’s Stick Together” (which Wilbert would re-record one man band style as “Let’s Work Together”, it was copied note for note by Canned Heat who had a hit with it, Bryan Ferry would take his version of it to the top of the U.K. charts in the early 70’s), “The Horse“, Willie Mabon’s “Poison Ivy” (which has one of the best lyrics ever– “Each day when I shave/in my house coat/two men have to hold me/or I’ll cut my throat….I’m like Poison Ivy/I’ll break out all over you”), and “1960” among them.
Robinson also brought Elmore James to New York City for his last sessions in ’63, recording him with a band fronted by Jimmy Spruill, here on “Bobby’s Rock” you can hear them trading licks.
Another great pairing was sax honker Noble “Thin Man” Watts’ who utilized Spruill on his best records such as “Hard Times (The Slop)” (Baton), “Jookin‘” (Enjoy) and “Blast Off” (Baton), they would strike up a life long friendship. The best of Noble Watts Baton sides can be found here. And before it’s slips my mind here’s a great one, Bobby Long’s “Jersey City” on the obscure Fountainhead label that features one of Spruill’s finest solos.
In 1957 Bobby Robisnon began issuing Wild Jimmy Spruill’s solo 45’s, the first “Jumpin’ In” on Everlast wasn’t very good but after that he cut a string of hard stinging classics where his guitar twangs, scratches and practically bounces off the speaker cones. Issued on labels like Fire, Enjoy, Vest, and VIM were monsters like “Hard Grind“, “Scratchin‘”, “Slow Draggin‘”, “Scratch ‘n Twist“, “Cut and Dried“, and even a vocal (something Jimmy wasn’t so good at) “Country Boy“. If you’re the CD buying sort all of the above solo discs are available on the new Night Train CD Wild Jimmy Spruill- Scratch & Twist (Released and Unreleased Recordings 1956-1962). I recommend it highly, I bought one myself. Here’s one of the un-issued tracks– “Raisin’ Hell“.
From 1957 into the early 1990’s Jimmy led a band– Wild Jimmy Spruill & the Hell Raisers who in addition to backing up acts from Chuck Berry to James Brown played all over the New York City area from long gone joints like the Rockin’ Palace on 156th St and 8th Ave to the Central Ballroom, Small’s Paradise, the Baby Grand (all still there) and had a long residency at the Sportsman’s Lounge on 8th Ave that lasted into the 90’s. When not working clubs they played weddings, parties, private clubs, and bar mitzvah. As great as his records are, you really had to see Jimmy to believe it. He played guitar with his feet, elbows, teeth, butt, over his head, between his legs, behind his back, throwing the thing around the stage and never missing a note. Hence the Wildman moniker. In the early nineties he began appearing downtown, mostly at a club called Tramps with a version of the Hellraisers augmented by guitarist Larry Dale of “Let The Door Bell Ring” (Glover) and “Drinkin’ Wine” (Atlantic) infamy and pianist Bob Gaddy who cut the great “C’mon Little Children” for Old Town. They were one of the greatest bands I ever saw in my life.
At that time (around ’93-4) I was occasionally contributing short pieces to the New York Times‘ Style Of The Times section. I suggested to my editor an article on these guys (“…these were the guys that invented rock’n’roll boss…”). In the process of interviewing Jimmy for the piece (which never ran, it wasn’t exactly a “style” piece, what was I thinking?) we became friends, as a fellow Gemini we got on great. Truth be it, I loved the guy. He was brilliant, funny and crazy in the best way. One time
I took the train way up to the Bronx, where Jimmy lived with his wife and one of his adult twin daughters in a self decorated apartment across from the playground the locals call “the coops”. Jimmy, who bragged at having over fifty jobs (Geminis get bored easily), and was then working as a decorator. His apartment had self installed stucco walls and a giant built in fish tank. Very cool. He never made much money in music but he was a happy man, he liked to go to Atlantic City and gamble a bit, he built guitars for friends and still played when ever some one called with a gig. In his own mind he was a success because he did whatever he wanted and money be damned, he refused to be a slave to it.
In February of 1996 he headed to Florida by bus to visit old pal Noble Watts who was recording a new record for Rounder in his home studio. Jimmy stopped in North Carolina to visit friends en route and lost his wallet. On the return trip he had a heart attack on the bus and passed away. Since his body carried no ID he was interned in a morgue in the North Carolina town where he’d been discovered dead. In the meantime, back in the Bronx his wife and daughters were frantic. It wasn’t like Jimmy to not call and after he’d been missing for weeks the local TV news ran stories about the missing blues man, until finally his corpse was located and identified. Had he lived no doubt he’d have been rediscovered by fans and collectors who were just becoming hip to his old records (the Krazy Kat label in the UK issued a quasi-bootleg in the late 80’s of his best solo records, they didn’t even have a photo of him for the cover, using an awful drawing instead). He would have toured Europe (a place he was anxious to see), played festivals, maybe even made a few bucks. But it was not to be. I think about him all the time. Wild Jimmy Spruill, there’s one I really miss.