Monday, December 26, 2005

Little Milton - Lovin' Stick (STAX 0148)

Lovin' Stick

James Milton Campbell grew up in the Mississippi delta, the son of local blues guitarist Big Milton (becoming forever "little"...). He developed his own unique country blues style, and performed in local juke joints and clubs with his band "The Playmates of Rhythm". Ike Turner heard him playing around Clarksdale, and brought him to the attention of Sam Phillips at Sun Records over in Memphis.

Milton signed with Sun in 1953, joining the likes of Howlin' Wolf and Junior Parker at the very roots of rock & roll. By 1954, Phillips had signed another Mississippi musician by the name of Elvis Presley and essentially turned his back on Sun's black talent.

Following Ike Turner's lead once again, Milton moved to St. Louis where he became co-founder and A&R man of Bobbin Records, giving artists like Albert King and Fontella Bass their first break. When his own single I'm A Lonely Man became a big regional hit in 1959, Chess Records worked out a deal as distributor for Bobbin.

Campbell became friends with Leonard Chess around this time, eventually signing with his Checker subsidiary the following year. When Blind Man crossed over onto the pop charts in 1964 it got the attention of Chess, and he assigned his A-Team of songwriters, Carl Smith and Raynard Miner (think "Rescue Me", "Higher and Higher"...) to come up with something for Little Milton. The resultant We're Gonna Make It shot straight to the top of the R&B charts (#35 pop) in the summer of 1965, and became somewhat of an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, establishing Milton as a huge success. He continued to chart regularly for Checker with classics like Grits Ain't Groceries, If Walls Could Talk and Who's Cheating Who up until Leonard Chess' death in 1969.

He signed with Stax shortly thereafter, and kept on keepin' on with great records like Walking The Back Streets And Crying. Here's a photo of Milton from around this time with B.B. and Albert King... love the threads! Today's B side is the flip of Rainy Day and was released in 1972. Written by The Vontastcs' Bobby Newsome, it rocks with the same great Don Davis production of so much other Stax Wax from this period. Dig that crazy harmonica, baby!

Little Milton toured constantly throughout his career, playing small clubs all over the South, further solidifying his place as one of the giants of Southern Soul and Blues.

When Stax went under in 1975, Milton recorded a few singles for the funky Glades label, as well as an album for MCA in 1983. The following year he came home for good, signing with Jackson Mississippi's Malaco Records. It was here that he wrote and recorded what was to become his signature tune for the rest of his life, The Blues Is Alright. The international success of this rockin' love song to the groove put him right back on top.

I saw him at the fabled Apollo Theater in NYC in 1988, and he just blew me away! The audience knew every word to like song after song, really bringing home to this suburban white boy what a big star Little Milton was in the black community. That same year he recieved the W.C. Handy Award and was inducted into The Blues Hall of Fame.

He would go on to record 14 albums for Malaco, culminating in Welcome To Little Milton, a kind of tribute album that featured folks like Lucinda Williuams, Keb Mo', and Delbert McClinton and earned him a Grammy nomination in 2000.

Little Milton released Think Of Me this past May on the Telarc label. He suffered a massive stroke less than two months later, and died in Memphis on August 4th.

He was 70 years old.

I'm gonna miss him.

I'd like to take this opportunity to say goodbye to some of the other greats who passed on in 2005:

Shirley Goodman Pixley - sweetheart of the B side

Joe "Boogaloo" Jones - the Talk Too Much man

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown - indirect casualty of Katrina

Harry "Big Daddy" Hypolite - the zydeco blues guitar great

Eddie Shuler - legendary proprietor of Goldband Records

John Fred - Louisiana playboy

Tyrone Davis - Chicago Soul's 'wonder boy'

Jimmy Smith - father of the funky organ

George Scott - founding Blind Boy of Alabama

R.L. Burnside - in heaven sittin' down

Johnnie Johnson - Chuck Berry's piano pioneer

Lyn Collins - The Female Preacher

Willie Hutch - Motown giant

Luther Vandross - smooth as silk

Ray Davis - original Parliament/Funkadelic wildman

Obie Benson - original Four Top

Detroit Junior - blues legend

I'm sure you'll join me in offering condolences to their families and friends... knowing they will live on forever through the legacy of great music they've left behind.

Now let's get together and boot this most tragic of years out the door, and hope for better days in 2006.

See ya next year!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Amos Milburn - Christmas (Comes But Once A Year) (KING 5405)

Christmas (Comes But Once A Year)

In 1942 15 year old Amos Milburn lied about his age to join the Navy. He spent the next three years fighting the enemy in places like Guadalcanal and The Phillipines. When the war ended in August of 1945, the party was on!

Amos returned home to Houston and began playing in local clubs. When he landed a gig in San Antonio fronting the Slam Stewart Trio, he was "discovered" by west coast talent scout Lola Cullum. She shopped a homemade demo around to a few record companies back in L.A., but it was Eddie and Leo Mesner of the newly formed PHILO Records who offered him a contract. Lola boarded a train to Los Angeles with Amos in 1946, and he cut some of the first sides for the (now renamed) Aladdin Label. One of these records, the rollickin' "Down The Road Apiece", hit pretty big and set the stage for what was to come.

After returning to Houston, he introduced a young guitar player named Sam Hopkins to Lola (now Amos' manager), and she brought him along on their next trip to the coast. Aladdin signed him as well, and legend has it that it was Mrs. Cullum that gave him the nickname "Lightnin'"...

Anyway, Amos decided to move out west permanently and concentrate on recording. In late 1947 Aladdin released what was to become his signature tune, "Chicken Shack Boogie". The record was a huge successs, selling over 100,000 copies, a truly incredible number for an independent label at that time. This was to be the first in an amazing string of 19 top ten R&B hits for Milburn. Aladdin sold to the "race market", and sales were based primarily on jukeboxes that spun their 78s in roadhouses and juke joints across America... holes in the wall just like the fabled "Chicken Shack".

By mid-1948, "Amos Milburn & his Chickenshackers" were a major draw on the R&B circuit, playing to sold out houses wherever they went. He was named Downbeat's "Best Blues and Jazz Star" in 1949, and Billboard christened him "Top R&B Artist" in both 1949 and 1950.

The #1 smash "Bad Bad Whiskey" in late 1950 further solidified him as a barroom jukebox favorite, and songs like "Just One More Drink", "Let Me Go Home Whiskey", and the classic "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer" kept him in the R&B top ten.

By 1954, however, things started to change as the new "rock & roll" market was geared more to teenagers (both black and white), and the booze angle just didn't cut it. Amos tried to fit in, working the "package shows" pounding the piano just like those he had influenced (i.e. Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis), but the kids weren't buying it.

Aladdin went so far as to send Amos to New Orleans to cut an absolutely SMOKIN' remake of Chicken Shack Boogie at Cosimo's studio in 1956 (when just about everything that came out of there was a #1 hit), but it was no use. In 1957, he left Aladdin for good.

He and good friend Charles Brown then did some work for Johnny Vincent's Ace label, resulting in a 1959 duet single "I Want To Go Home" (although it didn't sell, it was to become the blueprint for Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me" three years later).

Amos and Charles then signed with KING records, and gave us some of the greatest Christmas music ever made! Today's B side was actually released as the flip of Charles Brown's classic "Please Come Home For Christmas" in 1960. Talk about yer double-sider, huh? It just rocks! Dig that like 'ska' guitar, the bass, da drums - even the silly orchestral bells... not to mention Amos' smooth vocals and rockin' piano! (His talent as a songwriter is often overlooked as well, I mean how cool are these lyrics?) I just love it, man.

Amos Milburn actually released an album on Motown in 1962, with a young Stevie Wonder on harmonica, but it didn't do much. He continued working small clubs throughout the sixties until the first of a series of strokes hit in 1970. Johnny Otis brought him out of retirement to sing on a Blue Spectrum LP in the mid-seventies, but his health steadily declined until his death in 1980.

Amos Milburn was a giant of the post-war R&B era and, quite simply, one of the premier architects of Rock & Roll.

He doesn't get enough credit.

"I'm gonna finger pop till New Years Day,
and I don't care what I have to pay,
let the good times roll,
Christmas comes but once a year!"

Merry Christmas to you and yours from all of us here at the B side ranch!

Ho-Ho-Ho, baby!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Shirley & Lee - Now That It's Over (ALLADIN 3338)

Now That It's Over

As you may have noticed, we've been focusing on the "NOLA in LA-LA" crowd over here quite a bit lately. I walked into the local Salvation Army thrift store here last week, and this 49 year old record was staring me in the face... there are no coincidences. I got the message - it's Shirley's turn!

Shirley Goodman grew up in the 7th ward down in New Orleans, singing with her neighborhood pals every chance she got. They wrote a song together, and would walk over to Cosimo's studio and pester him to let them "make a record". He finally relented, and for $2.00 he cut them a demo of their tune. Cosimo played it for Eddie Mesner of Alladin Records and he went crazy, beggng him to "get me that girl!". When they finally tracked the kids down, Eddie auditioned several of the boys before deciding on the rich-voiced Leonard Lee as her partner.

Dave Bartholomew produced the session they did on the kids' song with the legendary house band, and "I'm Gone" just took off, climbing to #2 on the R&B charts in 1952. Shirley was 15.

Aladdin billed them as "the Sweethearts of the Blues", and followed with a string of releases that chronicled their supposed romance. Songs like "Shirley's Back", "Lee Goofed", and "The Proposal" were like an ongoing soap opera that kept them in the charts. They worked the "chittlin' circuit" relentlessly in support of these records and became enormously popular in the South.

By 1955 (the year Shirley married her real sweetheart, Calvin Pixley), the romance angle was wearing thin, and the great "Feel So Good" (with vocal backing by The Spiders) hinted at the new direction the duo was taking. Shirley and Lee actually wrote their own material (although only Lee was credited on the records!), and in 1956 they took something a fan had hollered at them at one of their shows and came up with the amazing "Let The Good Times Roll".

The record was very suggestive for its day, and although many radio stations refused to play it, they just couldn't kill this monster of a song. It ate up the R&B charts, then crossed over and smashed into the Top 40 (settling in at #20)... white America's worst nightmare!

Shirley and Lee were now dubbed "the Sweethearts of Rock & Roll", and were playing to a whole new audience. They toured the country with the biggest acts (read: Elvis), and were among the first to truly integrate the music scene in the 1950s (so much so that they got caught up in the Little Rock riots in 1956 and had to be evacuated by helicopter!). They were a HUGE success.

Today's B side is the flip of "I Feel Good", the follow-up record to their smash hit, and also cracked the Top 40 that year, landing at #38. Check out that Sugar Town roll, that incredible Cosimo's studio sound that literally defined music in the 50s. Word.

A few more singles were to follow, but none that would reach the heights of these two. (A CD of most of their Aladdin tracks is available, but our current B side isn't on there...) By 1959 Imperial records had taken over Aladdin, Eddie Mesner was dead, and the new management (Lew Chudd) showed no interest in recording the couple. They signed with Warwick, and released a few minor records with them before breaking up the act in 1962.

Shirley moved to the west coast to raise her newborn son shortly after that, and stopped singing for a while. It wasn't long before Harold Battiste found out she was available and started using her on some sessions. This was when she got paired with Jessie Hill and recorded a number of sides on the Wand label (although these records didn't do much at the time, I just saw one go on eBay for $100!). She also did a few things with Brenton Wood, but the duet concept was no longer happening.

It was her backround vocal work during this period that just blows me away. As a founding member of "The Night Trippers", she added her own special magic to the early Dr. John records. Mick Jagger had sat in on the European sessions for Rebennack's Sun, Moon, and Herbs album (the tapes of which were mysteriously sabotaged later on), and asked the Night Trippers to provide background vocals during the Exile On Main Street overdub sessions in Los Angeles in late 1971. Dust off yer copy and give a listen to the incredible "Let It Loose"... Man! I'd put her in the freakin' Rock & Roll Hall of Fame if all she ever did was like the last minute of that song and Walk On Gilded Splinters!

But Shirley wasn't done yet.

In 1974 she got a call from old pal Sylvia Robinson (she of another fabled duo, Mickey & Sylvia) about recording a song she had written. Goodman took a day off from her job as a receptionist at Playboy Records and flew to New Jersey to lay down the vocals. Sylvia had envisioned Hank Ballard as Shirley's male partner on the song, but when that fell through they went with a studio musician named Jesus Alvarez and nailed it on the first take.

Shirley flew back to work, Sylvia plugged the record through her radio connections in New York, and within a week Shame, Shame, Shame by Shirley & Company was a million-seller. The album cover, with Shirley chastising a recently resigned Richard Nixon was everywhere you looked during that summer of 1975. It was great. The song topped the R&B (as well as the new Disco) Charts, and made it to #12 Pop.

Shirley was back on top, with TV appearances, a European Tour, the works. She was a shoo-in for best R&B female vocal performance that year and was awarded a long overdue Grammy.

By 1979, Shirley Goodman-Pixley had returned home to New Orleans , and the only singing she was interested in doing was as a member of the choir at the Genesis Missionary Baptist Church. In 1988 she won a Federal Court case that finally awarded her half the royalties from the songs she wrote with Leonard Lee (who had been felled by a heart attack in 1976), but the decision was continually appealed by his widow.

In 1994, Shirley suffered a stroke and moved back to California to live with her son. She died there at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles on July 5th of this year.

She was 69 years old.

Rest In Peace, Sweetheart.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Dr. John - Mos' Scocious (ATCO 6957)

Mos 'Scocious

If you're a regular over here at the B side, one thing you might have noticed is that the name "Rebennack" is all over this music like, well... white on rice.

Mac Rebennack spent his childhood sneakin' into places like The Brass Rail and The Dew Drop Inn just soakin' up the incredible R&B scene that was New Orleans in the 1950's. He took guitar lessons from the likes of Papoose Nelson and Roy Montrell. At 15, he got himself kicked out of High school so he could spend more time playing gigs with his band.

It was also around this time that he began to hang around Cosimo's studio with his runnin' partner James Booker.They were there for sessions that produced amazing records like "Tutti-Frutti", and eventually became part of the scene. It was there at Cosimo's that "Max", as they used to call him, learned his chops as a producer and arranger.

He was writing songs for people like Art Neville and Larry Williams over at Specialty Records before he turned 18, and had a regional hit of his own with "Storm Warning", released on Cosimo's Rex label in 1959. Johnny Vincent used him as the creative force behind his ACE records of the period, and eventually Mac had his own small office at Cosimo's studio.

When Joe Ruffino formed his RIC and RON labels in 1959, he made Rebennack the "president and A&R man", which basically meant that he was songwriter, producer, talent scout, arranger, and back-up musician for the fledgling company. It was here that he worked (and played) on such amazing records as Irma Thomas' "You Can Have My Husband", Johnny Adams' "Losing Battle", Professor Longhair's "Go to the Mardi Gras", and on and on. Although he wasn't making much money, he was doing what he loved, being part of the music.

In addition to all this success, he also managed to become a full-fledged junkie by the time he was 20 years old. In those days, it kinda went with the territory. When he almost lost a finger trying to wrestle a gun away from some guy in Mississippi, he thought it was all over. James Booker picked him up and taught him how to play the Hammond Organ, so he could keep on working.

A combination of union squabbles and over-zealous DA Jim Garrison's efforts to "clean up" the town began to put the squeeze on work for musicians in the Crescent City. Small record labels went under. National acts that had begun recording in New Orleans in an effort to capture "that sound" now looked elsewhere. When Harold Battiste shut down AFO (a venture Max truly believed in) and moved west, he took a piece of Rebennack's heart with him.

It wasn't long before Max was set-up, busted on a heroin possession charge, and shipped off to Federal Prison in Fort Worth, Texas. As a condition of his release in 1965, he was forbidden to go "to or through" New Orleans. This was when he joined Battiste in Los Angeles.

Harold got him jobs as a studio musician, working on everything from Phil Spector's "wall of sound" recordings, to sessions with Iron Butterfly and Buffalo Springfield ("lames", as he called them). This only served to make the bond between the relocated NOLA musicians out there stronger, and they began to plot and scheme a way to recapture the essence of their old hometwown.

What they came up with, on borrowed Sonny and Cher studio time, is one of the truly classic albums of all time; Gris-Gris. People like Battiste, Jessie Hill, Alvin Robinson, John Boudreaux, Shirley Goodman, Ronnie Barron, and Plas Johnson joined together to create a strange and spooky Voodoo Gumbo that would, much to Atlantic Records' surprise, go on to capture the imagination of a generation.

I remember being in 9th grade, laying in bed listening to Rosko playing "Walk On Gilded Splinters" on WNEW, and feeling like maybe there really was an "underground", man. It was cool.

With his new "Dr John" persona (a mantle which Ronnie Barron declined) in place, Mac began touring with his "Night-Trippers". They put on incredible stage shows complete with Mardi Gras Indian costumes, snake charmers, and fire eaters... a definite trip! Three more albums would follow in the same vein (with people like Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger joining the party), but none would be able to capture that same elusive vibe.

Jerry Wexler at Atlantic convinced Rebennack to get back to his R&B roots, and produced the classic Dr John's Gumbo album in 1972. In addition to the usual suspects, they brought in people like Lee Allen and Melvin and David Lastie from the Cosimo's studio days and came up with a great record. Mac continued on with this hometown "fonk" concept, hooking up with Allen Toussaint and The Meters to record the incredible In The Right Place, with two singles off the record hitting the top ten in 1973.

This week's offering comes from the follow-up, Desitively Bonnaroo, a record some people refer to as The Meters' second best album (after, of course, Rejuvenation which was recorded the same year). Mos' Scocious (the flip side of "(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away", which topped out at 92 on the pop charts) is one of my all-time faves. Dig that Toussaint 'hercules goes latin' production, the '74 Meters stone groove, the spacy background vocals by Jessie Hill and former Ikette Robbie Montgomery... da bomb, y'all!

Max would go on to corroborate with Doc Pomus on City Lights and Tango Palace in the late seventies, and record a few more, mostly solo, albums before winning a grammy for his work with Rickie Lee Jones on In A Sentimental Mood in 1989. This was also the year that he entered re-hab for real. Goin' Back To New Orleans, his 1992 roots revival just rocks da house! He continues to churn out quality records (highlighted by the great Creole Moon in 2001) to this day.

The Dr John band has, over the years, been like a veritable who's who of New Orleans musicians, a tradition that is still alive. We saw him in Lowell, Massachusetts this past August, about two weeks before Katrina hit. His band, "The Lower 911", included Crescent City veterans David Barard on bass and Herman Ernest on drums. Da Fonk was In Da House!

After the flood, Dr John was quoted as saying that his beloved New Orleans was a victim of cold-blooded murder! He recorded a benefit album, Sippiana Hericane, with The Lower 911 shortly thereafter.

As pointed out by Dan Phillips a couple of weeks ago, Mac Rebennack turned 65 last month. In addition to being a walking history lesson, he is (along with Allen Toussaint) heir-apparent to people like Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair, and Huey "Piano" Smith.

Read his excellent autobiography Under A Hoodoo Moon.

He's the Real Deal.