Friday, September 05, 2008

Lattimore Brown - Warm And Tender Love (Ace 3012)

Warm And Tender Love

Part Eight

The seventies were pretty rough on Sir Lattimore. After he left Knoxville, he told me that he drifted back to 'where he started out' in Little Rock, Arkansas. He re-connected with a woman he had known 'back in the day', and they got married. She was a chain-smoker, he said, and only used her lighter once a day, lighting the rest of her non-filtered Pall Malls one from the other. Within a couple of years, she died of cancer. Alone once more, Lattimore headed back out on the road.

Phil Walden's priorities had changed by then, and he was no longer representing his chitlin' circuit artists. Left to fend for himself, Lattimore knew musicians in just about every town in the South, and was usually able to put a gig together 'on the strength of his name'. He didn't know it, but all of that was about to change. When he was back in Nashville, he had often worked with one of the seminal R&B bands to rise up out of Jefferson Street, Louis Brooks and his Hi-Toppers.

Despite the huge national hit they had cut with Earl Gaines in 1955, Brooks kept a low profile, and didn't stray far from Music City. His outfit would become a proving ground for many an upcoming musician, as they essentially became the 'house band' of the North Nashville scene. One of those musicians was a young keyboard player named Benny Latimore. Originally from Charleston, a small town outside of Chattanooga, he had come to the big town to make a name for himself.

When that didn't seem to be happening, he relocated to Florida, where he became a part of the nascent Miami soul scene, signing on with up and coming producers Brad Shapiro and Steve Alaimo. After a couple of releases on the tiny Dade and Blade labels went nowhere, Alaimo took him with him when he joined up with Henry Stone at T.K. Records. I'm not sure who made the decision, but somewhere around in here they decided to drop the 'Benny' and from then on he was known simply as Latimore.

Stone put him on his Glades label, and a cover of Stormy Monday would break into the R&B top 40 in 1973. That's when the trouble started. According to our Lattimore, this led to all kinds of confusion, with his gigs being misrepresented as Latimore's and vice-versa. The people that printed up the posters he said, were used to seeing his name on there, and assumed that this new 'Latimore' must be him, which began creating major problems. When Let's Straighten It Out was released in 1974 things got really crazy.

Spending two weeks at #1 R&B (and even cracking the Pop top 40), this monster song propelled Latimore onto the national stage, and his suave and sexy good looks fit right in with the new breed of seventies soul singers that seemed to be everywhere. How could Lattimore Brown compete with that? There were near riots at clubs along the circuit where people (mostly ladies) showed up expecting to see this new sensation, and found out it was this other Lattimore who, of course, had been there all along. However inadvertently, Benny Latimore had stolen his name, and the gigs got fewer and farther between.

Down in Jackson, old friend Sam Baker's father ran a few night clubs, and Lattimore was always able to get work there. It was Sam who introduced Lattimore to Johnny Vincent in 1975. Vincent had already lost a couple of fortunes by then, and the once mighty empire he had built up in Jackson was now operating out of his shoestring studio at 209 West Capitol Street downtown.

Vincent had re-activated his Ace label in 1971 (it had been dormant since 1962, when the records stopped selling), and was trying to recapture some of the magic, independently recording and releasing 45s just like he had in the old days. He brought Bobby Marchan (who, as the lead vocalist for Huey Smith and the Clowns, had sung on some of the label's biggest records) back, and picked up Geater Davis as John R's labels were unraveling, bringing Sam Baker in to produce a couple of songs on him at the studio.

This is the scene Lattimore walked into in Jackson, producing both sides of what would become his final release. Today's selection, no doubt chosen to appeal to the ladies, is a cover of the timeless Joe Haywood song that Percy Sledge had taken into the top five back in 1966. Although it stays pretty close to the Atlantic arrangement, his smooth introduction and Otis-like improvisations there towards the end, keep it interesting. The flip is a duet with Marchan (although his name doesn't appear on the label) on Sam & Dave's first hit, You Don't Know Like I Know.

At this point, Lattimore told me, Johnny Vincent (whose real last name was Imbragulio) took him aside and told him that he had heard there was a 'hit' out on him. He said that the southern mob that controlled the R&B circuit down there had seen enough, and didn't like all that name confusion business messing with the money they made from the clubs. You can take this any way you want to, folks. I know it seems hard to believe at this late date, but Lattimore Brown was convinced. For what it's worth, Jim Lancaster, who worked with Vincent shortly after this, told me that he heard Johnny tell that 'hit' story several times, and that it was certainly no joke. "Since Johnny was a Sicilian (or descended from them) folks had a tendency to believe him when he went into his 'Mob' stories..." Jim said.

In any event, it worked. Lattimore Brown was done performing and recording for the remainder of the decade, literally in fear for his life. Latimore, meanwhile, would chart ten more times for Henry Stone during the same time frame, and sail through the disco era in fine shape. Don't get me wrong here, I'm not trashing Benny Latimore. I like his music. It just seems kind of unfortunate the way all of this went down. To this day, the similarity of the names of these two artists is the source of much confusion, and I can't help but wonder whose idea it was to drop the 'Benny' in the first place.

The 1980s found Lattimore back in his comfort zone in Little Rock, where he went back to doing what he enjoyed the most, running a juke joint. Known as the "Owl's Club", he and his partner operated this one as an after hours establishment where the bands didn't even start until every place else had closed down. There were epic all-night jam sessions, he said, as the musicians from the other clubs would show up and hang out till they closed at eight the next morning. Dale Hawkins was a regular, as was Texas blues man Larry Davis. Another frequent visitor to the club was then Governor Bill Clinton, who would drop by to blow his sax with his brother Roger's band. As the neighborhood around the club became increasingly unstable, they were forced to close their doors in 1989.

After that happened, Lattimore's 'feet got itchy', he told me, and after a life spent out on the road he was ready to move on. He poked around a bit in places he had lived before, like Dallas and Shreveport, but nothing much was going on. In 1997, he was involved in an incident which found him in fear for his life once again. He asked me not to go into detail here and, believe me, I can understand why. Suffice it to say that it was in his best interests to relocate to a place where he thought he would be safe. A place where he could take advantage of the VA benefits he had earned all those years ago in Korea. He moved to Biloxi, home to the massive VA Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System.

As we've seen, it was that very same Coast which betrayed him, with Katrina (and now Gustav) delivering him into a cataclysm of almost biblical proportions. Through it all, Lattimore has remained a profoundly religious man, who reads that very same bible every day of his life. When we finally got back to his hotel room in Biloxi after our journey together, he asked me if I'd like to pray with him. We knelt on opposite sides of the bed, and as he thanked God for the blessings he'd received, and for sending him people like me and Chase and Bob Wilson who had come and found him after all these years... I couldn't contain myself.

I went outside and I wept.

The next morning, it was time to leave. A huge storm was blowing in off the Gulf. Fast moving steel grey clouds swirled overhead as I headed out in the rented car. The sky felt like a reflection of what was going on inside my brain. I knew the experience we had all just shared was deep, deeper than I could even imagine. I knew that somehow things had changed, and that I would never be the same. As the wind howled, the heavens suddenly busted open, sending massive sheets of tropical rain tumbling sideways through the streets. Thunder echoed through the canyon of casinos, as I made my way slowly out of town.

All at once the rising sun burst through the clouds, and illuminated the retreating storm off to the west. There in front of me was the most brilliant rainbow I had ever seen, standing out in stark contrast against the charcoal sky. It seemed to span the entire peninsula, from the Gulf to the Back Bay... with Lattimore's hotel directly underneath. I watched in disbelief as bolts of lightning seemed to actually strike their way through the bands of color. I had never seen anything like this. It felt like a vision. What did it mean? I don't know - maybe nothing.

I've thought about it a lot since then, though, and for me it's come to represent the apparent contradiction of absolute beauty living right next door to the ultimate evil... of the dark as a necessary component of the light. It's helped me to understand the reality of a life of tragedy that is continually redeemed through faith, of art that is purchased with pain... of the true meaning of soul.

Such is the legend of Sir Lattimore Brown.


I'd like to thank all of you who have taken the time to contribute to our effort to get Lattimore back on his feet. As of this morning, he was going into the VA Hospital for some kind of exploratory surgery for a spot on his lung. FEMA has agreed to place him back in a hotel room temporarily upon his release, pending a more permanent arrangement.

I told him about the money people have been sending in, and he said to tell all of you that he loves you. If you'd like to join us as a 'Friend of Lattimore', please click on the photo above to make your donation.

You guys are the greatest!


Blogger wzjn said...

A poignant tribute to a great voice. Hopefully things will turn around.

7:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love to the man from everyone in the UK. This would make an excellent film/book/documentary and hopefully make him a few $$$$.

5:52 AM  

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