Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Dusty Springfield - So Much Love (Atlantic 2673)

So Much Love

At the risk of an Atlantic overdose, I'm posting this now because I just didn't want the month to pass us by without talking about Jerry Wexler, who quietly turned ninety years old on January 10th.

Wexler grew up in Washington Heights where he developed a fondness for poolrooms, reefer, and Jazz. He and his record collecting pals would scour the city for rare 78s by day, and hang around the clubs by night, listening to the hottest music they could find. They got in on the ground floor of the 52nd Street Bebop explosion, and were usually smoking the same stuff the cats in the band were. It must have been a time! Jerry would often run into John Hammond out there, the man who had brought Bessie Smith and Bille Holiday to Columbia Records. Hammond was all Fifth Avenue money and class, while Wexler, the son of an immigrant window washer, was anything but. He longed for 'the life'... someday, baby, someday.

After a stint in the Army (which he spent stationed in an art deco hotel in Miami Beach), 'Wex' got himself a job writing copy for the newly formed BMI, which led, eventually, to his being hired by Billboard magazine, the music industry bible. He became a Brill Building regular, 'working' the offices of all the writers and publishers, while keeping his ear to the ground to pick up what was happening on the streets. In 1949, Paul Ackerman, editor-in-chief of Billboard's music division, asked his employees to come up with a better term for their 'race records' chart, which was geared towards African-American music. It was Wexler who came up with the term 'Rhythm & Blues'... it stuck.

As we've discussed before, when Jerry was offered a job at Atlantic Records in 1953, he told Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson that he wouldn't work for them unless they sold him an interest in the company. Much to his surprise, they agreed. He dove right in, handling much of the mundane details of running the store ("licking stamps," as he put it), while picking up the nuts and bolts of 'producing' from Ahmet and Tommy Dowd as they recorded Atlantic 'product' right there in his office. He was a fast learner, and was soon an equal member of the team. Whether composing Honey Love with Clyde McPhatter or chiming in with the background vocals on Big Joe Turner's Shake Rattle & Roll, he quickly became an integral part of Atlantic's 'sound'.

He began traveling down south with Ertegun, running sessions at Cosimo's studio in New Orleans with legends like Professor Longhair and Guitar Slim. Jerry truly loved the city in those days, and prides himself on being one of the few white guys to ever stay at the Dew Drop Inn. This kind of 'field recording' would continue, with Wexler and Ertegun flying south to record Brother Ray whenever he was ready. He was there at the Atlanta session that produced I Got A Woman... imagine?

By the time Herb Abramson got out of the Army in 1955, it was obvious that Wexler had taken his place. It was no coincidence that Atlantic's rise to prominence on the R&B; charts had occurred while Jerry was 'working the phones'. Abramson saw the handwriting on the wall, and decided he wanted out. Ahmet's brother Nesuhi, meanwhile, had worked out a deal with west coast writing and production team Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller to bring them to Atlantic. Closing down their own Spark label, they brought their unique story-telling style to ATCO, a new subsidiary label that Atlantic had created. They turned operation of ATCO over to Abramson (along with a new kid they had just signed named Bobby Darin), hoping they could make that arrangement work. After Darin's first few singles tanked, Abramson demanded that they buy him out. Scraping together all the money they could find, Ahmet, Nesuhi, and Jerry did just that, becoming equal partners in the company in 1955.

By 1960, the heyday of Atlantic's R&B; roster was just about over. Ray Charles had left for greener pastures at ABC and Bobby Darin (after his run of smash hits like Mack The Knife and Beyond The Sea) was on his way out the door. When Solomon Burke showed up one day out of the clear blue sky, Wexler signed him right then and there. His production of the Country ballad Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms) was absolutely fantastic, going top ten R&B; and top 40 pop. The 'Soul Era' at the label had begun.

One of the unsung heroes of the Atlantic saga was a guy named Joe Galkin. He worked as their southern promotion man, driving around in a constant flurry of activity from one radio station to another, bestowing gifts and pearls of wisdom amidst the clouds of cigarette smoke and banlon shirts. He called Wexler regularly with updates on what was hot and what was not down south. It was Galkin who hipped Jerry to Jim Stewart's fledgling Sattelite Records label (soon to become STAX), and got them their infamous Atlantic distribution deal. It was Joe Galkin who had started a label with Otis Redding (Jotis), and was instrumental in recording These Arms Of Mine at the tail end of a Johnny Jenkins session at STAX. It was Galkin who handed Rick Hall the phone one day, so he could tell Jerry about When A Man Loves A Woman. Suffice it to say that Wexler valued his opinions highly, and loved him for the character that he was.

Jerry was astonished by the southern style of recording that used 'head arrangements' and wasn't bound by charges for studio time. When he brought Wilson Pickett down to STAX in 1965, they were just as amazed with his hands on production style, and it was reportedly his demonstrating the 'Jerk' that put the beat of In The Midnight Hour squarely 'on the one', and helped create the studio's trademark sound. After Wexler brought Don Covay down there to wax See-Saw later that year, Jim Stewart apparently felt that Atlantic was trying to take over, and barred them from recording there again. Although he'd probably never admit it, I think Wexler was heartbroken at that point. According to Tom Dowd, "They were sweet, beautiful people, the folks in Memphis, and they'd be the first to say they learned as much from Wexler as he learned from them. Jerry would be demanding; he made them less laid back..."

Joe Galkin got Jerry hooked up with Rick Hall at FAME at that point, and he brought Pickett down to Muscle Shoals in the summer of 1966. To the young kids in Hall's rhythm section, Wexler (now almost 50) was like this mythic musical figure, and they were essentially scared to death. Wexler had brought Tommy Cogbill and Chips Moman with him from Memphis, and once the sessions got going things were just fine. Once again, his production was 'hands on', coming out from behind the board to coach the players and make sure he got what he wanted. It was Wexler's idea for Pickett to sing those "1, 2, 3s" at the beginning of Land Of 1000 Dances, very cool.

We've already talked about what happened when Jerry brought Aretha down to Fame in early 1967... Finding himself shut out of yet another southern studio, he brought the musicians to New York and finished production on the first of fourteen albums he would make with her. That incredible record, I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You), was so important on so many levels. Wexler had shown his old hero John Hammond what Aretha was capable of (something Hammond had been unable to find at Columbia), while cementing his relationship with the Muscle Shoals crowd (telling them to give him a call if they ever wanted to go out on their own), and forging a new sound with the help of his in-house production team of Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin. "What Tommy was to engineering, Arif was to arranging, the super pro. What's more," Jerry said, "the two could easily switch roles. No producer has ever enjoyed better backup. they freed me up to direct, concentrate on the groove..."

I think it says a lot that when Otis Redding died in December of 1967, it was Jerry Wexler that was asked to eulogize him at his funeral in Macon. Unable to control his emotion, Wexler spoke of Otis' "love and tremendous faith in human possibilities... a man whose composition Respect has become an anthem of hope for people everywhere." A heavy moment.

Seeking to continue the sucess he'd been having recording down south, Wexler had loaned some money to Chips Moman to upgrade the equipment at his American Sound Studio in Memphis. In the summer of 1968, he hatched a plan to bring Atlantic's latest acquisition, British pop superstar Dusty Springfield, down there to record. Springfield had come up as a 'folkie' in the early sixties, before being captivated by American soul music. Her career took off with hits like Wishin' And Hopin' and You Don't Have To Say You Love Me keeping her high in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Touring in those days, she became fast friends with Martha Reeves (performing as a Vandella from time to time), and introduced the British public to Motown as a host on the popular TV series Ready, Steady, Go. When her contract with Philips was up, she decided to sign with her idol Aretha Franklin's label in America.

Wexler did his homework, and prepared a list of about 100 songs for Dusty to consider for the album. She didn't like any of them. He wasn't sure what to make of that, but he hung in there, and after "months of agonizing evaluations" they were able to settle on eleven tunes. One of those songs, Son Of A Preacher Man, had been slated for Aretha initially, but she turned it down. "All Jerry did was talk about Aretha, and I was frankly intimidated," Dusty later said,"If there's one thing that inhibits good singing it's fear. I covered the fear by being in pain. I drove Jerry crazy."

"Tom Dowd wrote the horn parts for Son Of A Preacher Man on the plane on the way down to Memphis, and they're f#@*ing brilliant!," says Wexler. Oh yes, they are. With the 'Memphis Boys' and The Sweet Inspirations rarin' to go, Jerry, Tom and Arif were all set to produce this killer album. Only Dusty wasn't. She was so overcome by her fears that she refused to sing a note while they were down there at American. "I became paralysed by the ghosts of the studio!," she said, "I knew I could sing the songs well enough, but it brought pangs of insecurity. . . that I didn't deserve to be there." She ended up screaming at Dowd, calling him a 'prima-donna'. "The only prima-donna here, Madamoiselle Springfield, is you," Wexler retorted.

They returned to New York and began the excruciating task of capturing Springfield's vocals over many takes and re-takes (Don't get me wrong, I'm not trashing Dusty here, far from it... I think the final result stands as one of the truly great albums in Atlantic's long history, and is a testimony to the talent and hard work of everyone involved). Son Of A Preacher Man was released as a single first, and quickly reached the top ten in December of 1968. When the album was released in January, for whatever reason, it didn't sell. Undaunted, Wexler released Don't Forget About Me and Breakfast in Bed as a two-sider over the course of March and April, but they barely made it into the Hot 100.

The Windmills Of Your Mind had been used in the soundtrack to The Thomas Crown Affair, and was nominated for an Oscar. Ever the promo man, Wexler pressed up thousands of copies of the single, labeled "Academy Award Winner - Open Immediately", and sent them out to radio stations around the globe as soon as they declared it the winner. It apparently helped, as the song broke into the top 40 that May. Amazingly, the flip of our current selection, In The Land Of Make Believe (a much better song), didn't chart at all - much less the awesome B side we have here today. Originally a minor hit for Ben E. King in 1966, Springfield takes this King/Goffin Brill Building hunk of shmaltz and turns it into a breathy pledge of undying love and gratitude that still knocks me out every time I hear it. You go, girl!

While Wexler was making his move into southern soul, Ahmet Ertegun had moved his base of operations out to L.A., picking up some of the pieces left behind by Sam Cooke's ill-fated 'soul stations' in the process. He scooped up Harold Battiste and the rest of the expatriate New Orleans crowd and was using them as arrangers and studio musicians on ATCO. He also signed a young couple that had been hanging around Battiste and Phil Spector, Sonny & Cher. Their first single for the label, I Got You Babe (produced and arranged by Battiste), went straight to #1 in the summer of 1965. Ertegun became a fixture of the scene out there, and started his move into what would come to be known as 'rock', signing groups like Buffalo Springfield and Iron Butterfly.

Wexler had grown close with Barry Beckett, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood and Roger Hawkins over the years, and considered them almost like a second family. When they finally came to him in 1969 saying they were ready to leave Rick Hall and Fame behind, Jerry was ecstatic. He gladly loaned them the money to set up shop in an old casket factory located at 3614 Jackson Highway in Muscle Shoals, and promised them beaucoup business from Atlantic. The first album recorded there, oddly enough, was by Cher. Considered somewhat of a cult classic, it was re-issued as part of Rhino's 'handmade CD' series a few years back.

In an oft-repeated story, Wexler heard Mac Rebennack playing his Professor Longhair style of piano one night during a break at the studio, and turned on the tape machine. He had no idea of Mac's incredible R&B; roots, and he was just blown away. He sent copies of the resulting tape out to his friends. The music brought him back to those days down at Cosimo's almost twenty years before, and he convinced Mac to lose the whole 'night tripper' persona and record the great Dr. John's Gumbo album in 1972. Although it didn't sell (of course), Wexler still considers it one of the best things he's ever produced.

Another of his favorites is the incredible Doug Sahm and Band, which was recorded in New York in October of 1972. Wexler has described Sahm as "the best musician I ever knew, because of his versatility, and the range of his information and taste." He surrounded him with great musicians (and Bob Dylan) and produced an all-time classic. It didn't sell either. This was around the same time that Jerry conceived the idea of establishing himself as the king of 'Atlantic South', setting himself up at Criteria Studios in Miami.

It had been Jerry's idea to sell Atlantic to Warner Brothers back in 1967. Fearing the fate most of the other R&B; indies had suffered, he reasoned that they should sell while they were at the top of their game. Warner ended up paying only about half of what the company was worth, and although they had guaranteed that all three partners would continue to conduct business as usual, Wexler just couldn't abide the 'corporate types', and he let them know it. As people like David Geffen began to insinuate themselves further and further into the company, Wexler grew more and more apoplectic, becoming persona non gratis at Board meetings and company functions. By removing himself to Miami, he had done them all a favor. The records he produced weren't selling, they continued to remind him, as they successfully marginalized his work. Perhaps the last straw came when Jerry decided to open a country division in Nashville, and produce two great albums on Willie Nelson that flopped. Finally, both sides had had enough, and in an emotional meeting in Ahmet Ertegun's office in 1975, Wexler basically painted himself into a corner. There was no way he could continue on as merely an employee, he said. It was time to go.

Jerry soldiered on as a freelance producer, and would win a Grammy for bringing another of John Hammond's discoveries, Bob Dylan, down to Muscle Shoals to record Slow Train Coming in 1979. "If there was any constant in my life, it was Muscle Shoals," Jerry said, "...maybe because the people in Muscle Shoals were both friends and admirers. Maybe because Muscle Shoals made me feel the way I'd felt when I first arrived there back in the sixties - like a participant in the music, a member of the rhythm section... I fell into a groove of comfort."

The music Wexler's been a part of has stood the test of time, as has he. In a recent interview he said "Everybody seems to be coming to my door; BBC, NPR... well, there aren't too many people at the age of 90 that are coherent or even alive!"

He never compromised his vision, ever.

We should all thank him for that.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Herbie Mann - New Orleans (Atlantic 2621)

New Orleans

Two Cool New Yorkers with Goatees

Let's continue on with another part of the Atlantic Records story.

Tom Dowd came up on the West Side of Manhattan. A bright and inquisitive kid, his classical piano training soon gave way to tuba and then upright bass in his high school band. He graduated early, and by 16 was enrolled as a student in the Physics Department at Columbia University. Too young to be drafted, he became a member of a Government sponsored team that was developing a rudimentary understanding of particle theory. He was inducted into the Army when he turned 18, and they sent him right back to Columbia.

He didn't know it at the time, but Dowd was a part of what became known as the Manhattan Project, the effort that created the Atomic Bomb. When the war ended (due in large part to the work they had done), he was sent to the South Pacific to witness the earliest Bikini Atoll nuclear explosions. (Can you imagine?) Upon his discharge from the service, Tom learned that the education he had received at Columbia had all been 'top-secret', and he wouldn't be geting a degree unless he started from scratch. That was the end of that!

He got a summer job helping out at a recording studio in 1947, and tackled the then primitive process of sound recording as his own peronal science project. It wasn't long before he became known as a 'whiz-kid', and his services were in demand. Herb Abramson, impressed by his skills, began using him at Atlantic's sessions around town. It was Tommy Dowd that delivered the clean and punchy sound that came to be associated with the label. The trouble was that he was delivering it to their competitors as well, and it wasn't long before Herb and Ahmet Ertegun offered him an exclusive deal as the Atlantic engineer.

Tired of paying for studio time, they asked Dowd to figure out a way to record right in their office on the top floor of 234 W 56th Street. "The floor sagged and creaked," Tom remembered, "and the sloped ceiling had a skylight in the middle of it. The whole office wasn't more than nineteen feet by twenty eight. The walls were treated with plywood.... there was no studio. The office was the studio, and I had to make do." Make do he did, recording some of the hardest hitting and influential R&B records ever made... songs like Shake, Rattle and Roll, Money Honey, and Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean were cut straight to disk in that room with the desks piled up on top of each other. Limited to one live mono mix 'on the fly', Tommy Dowd made it happen... "He turned microphone placement into an art," said Jerry Wexler. Ahmet Ertegun called him "the best in the business," and he was.

Much to the trepidation of his employers, he was among the first to record using magnetic tape, eliminating the bulky acetate disk. Dowd became a master of the 'slice and dice', combining different takes of a song by actualy cutiing and splicing the tape itself. He also began experimenting with the concept of 'binaural' sound, a precursor to stereo that was played back using a separate needle for each channel. Literally on the cutting edge, Tom heard the incredible things that Les Paul was doing with the prototype Ampex 8 track recorder, and convinced Wexler and Ertegun to buy the next one they made.

When Atlantic moved around the corner to 157 W 57th, Tom was able to design their studio from the ground up, and built his own console around the 8 track machine. He was the first to incorporate 'sliders' rather than knobs into the board, and innovations like this made the company's records truly 'state of the art'. Dowd insisted on cutting each session in stereo, in addition to the mono master, even though there was no market for it at the time. When audiophiles began buying stereo LPs in the late fifties, Atlantic was ready, and was able to release much of their back catalogue in 'true stereo'.

Ahmet's older brother, Nesuhi, came aboard in 1955, and was given the task of building up the label's Jazz roster, and handling their expansion into the 12" LP format. Like his brother, Nesuhi had great taste, and those early Atlantic LPs were just dripping with 'class'. He would sign legends like Mingus and Coltrane, and was a champion of the Modern Jazz Quartet. It was Nesuhi's idea to tap in to the Jazz chops of Ray Charles and pair him with MJQ vibe man Milt Jackson for great albums like Soul Brothers and Soul Meeting. Dowd recorded it all. In 1959, Ertegun signed a flute player named Herbie Mann.

Mann rose up out of Brooklyn to become one of the first to play the flute in a Jazz setting. His early fifties quartet recordings for the Bethlehem label (which had been engineered by Dowd) didn't do much, but it was his groundbreaking Verve excursions into Cuban and African rhythms that put him on the map. He continued that groove at Atlantic, recording albums with folks like Baba Olatunji, and Ray Barretto. In 1961, Tom Dowd recorded Herbie and his band live At the Village Gate, and when a single from the record, Comin' Home Baby broke into the top 30 on the pop charts, he became a household name.

In Ahmet Ertegun's words, "Although there are certain limitations to the flute, Herbie Mann is a master of the instrument. He went through many incarnations and he crossed over. He did some R&B sides, some Bossa Nova... I think we made over fifty albums with Herbie, more than with any other artist. One reason being that he kept getting different kinds of groups around him and was very clever at being able to increase the range of what he could do. He brought the music, therefore, to a wider audience without commercializing it. See, there's no such thing as popularizing Jazz, because the minute any Jazz becomes popular, all the Jazz musicians say it's not Jazz."

As Mann himself said, "I was the Kenny G of the sixties" (ouch!).

As Atlantic made their move into soul music, Tom Dowd was an integral part of the sound, upgrading the equipment at every major southern studio they worked with. He was the man that brought both Stax and Fame out of the stone age, and was the first to record in stereo at both locations. When Jerry Wexler helped set up Chips Moman at American and Jimmy Johnson at Muscle Shoals Sound, he sent Dowd down there to make sure it was done right. He worked closely with everyone from Otis to Aretha, and became a much loved figure in the studio. It was no accident that Dowd's recordings made you feel like you were 'in the room', and it was that transparency that helped reveal the best in each artist, without adding any of himself to the mix. On most of the records from this era, he was still only credited as 'engineer', but towards the end of the decade Wexler apparently felt guilty and began billing him as a 'co-producer'. He delivered the goods.

Mann was paying attention, and in Dowd's words, he "came busting in on me and said 'What do you think of me going down to Memphis with you and making a record?' I said, 'Okay, that's cool.' He said, 'Okay let's go.' So we went down there and cut the album Memphis Underground. When it became a big hit, Herbie said 'You know what, once every five years you and I make a record that's kind of wild!" Today's wild B side is the flip of the title track from that album, which bubbled just under the top 40 on both the R&B and the pop charts in the summer of 1969. Dowd, finally credited as the producer he was, was able to bring seasoned Jazz musicians like Roy Ayers and Larry Coryell together with Memphis mainstays like Tommy Cogbill and Reggie Young and still find the pocket. I just love the whole 'flute groove' bag here, man... tres late sixties car commercial!

Dowd made the move to Miami around this time, joining Wexler in upgrading yet another southern studio, Criteria. Known as 'Atlantic South', Tom (although now back working freelance) remained behind the board. On a trip to Macon to help out with Phil Walden's new Capricorn Studio, he heard The Allman Brothers Band, and was just knocked out. He talked Walden into sending them down to Miami, where he produced the stunning Idlewild South. Setting a new standard for live recording, he then wired the Fillmore East and captured the band at the absolute peak of their powers in 1971. It was Dowd who got 'Skydog' Allman together with Clapton in the studio and captured the magic that would become Layla and other assorted Love Songs in 1972. "When I walked out of the studio after having done that album, I said, 'That's the best album I have made since The Genius of Ray Charles'," Dowd recalls. "When it didn't sell I was talking to myself saying 'I'm wrong. There's something missing somewhere.' But Atlantic stuck to their guns and a year later the thing was the rock 'n' roll national anthem of the world." There ya go.

Once again, Herbie Mann had been watching his old friend and imported Duane Allman, Duck Dunn, and Al Jackson Jr. to Atlantic's New York studios to create another classic groove record, Push Push (produced by Dowd's cohort Arif Mardin). Released on Mann's own Embryo label, the album made it's way into the collection of many a high school kid (like yours truly) through the presence of Allman and the groovy orange velvet soft porn image on the inside cover which left no doubt as to the meaning of the title.

During this period, Dowd referred to himself as the '5 M Man' saying that you were guaranteed to find him in one of five places; Manhattan, Miami, Macon, Memphis, or Muscle Shoals. When Duane Allman died on his motorcycle during Tom's production of Eat A Peach, he was truly devastated, and has described it as a 'great loss'. Dowd soldiered on, however, producing number one hits on everyone from Rod Stewart to Lynyrd Skynyrd over the course of the next thirty years. The positively fantastic documentary Tom Dowd & The Language Of Music chronicles Dowd's unique and inspiring life, and gives a sense of how wonderful a man he was.

Tom Dowd passed on due to complications from emphysema in 2002.

Herbie Mann went on to chart a few more times during the disco era with dance records like Hijack and Superman, but would return to his pure Jazz roots with albums like Deep Pocket and Beyond Brooklyn later on. An excellent retrospective of Mann and his intrepid groove quest appeared in waxpoetics in April of last year.

Herbie Mann lost his fight with prostate cancer in 2003.

The legacy of great music these men left behind is ours forever.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Roy "C" - Open Letter To The President (Alaga 1006)

Open Letter To The President


As we join together to celebrate the life of this great American, it's good to reflect on how far we've come, but just as important to remember how far we have to go. Today's great B side was released in 1971, and its powerful message still rings true today. Recorded during the heyday of New York Soul (when Godfather still lived off 178th Street in Saint Alban's), it's the real deal.

As the proprietor of his own label, Roy C Hammond was able to speak his mind, and often did (according to Roy, his Impeach The President has been 'sampled' over 200 times).

The awesome song you're listening to now is the flip of the classic Got To Get Enough (Of Your Sweet Love Stuff) and was written and produced by Roy and his long time partner, J Hines. If you've been following case three over at soul detective, you know that Hammond and Hines had their differences over the years, but the body of work they created together withstands the test of time. Hines' guitar is just phenomenal here, as is the rest of the band (check out the cool stereo mix), but it's Roy's lyrics that reach out and grab ya:

"Listen, Mr. President, yeah, this is an open letter to you. I want to know, why don't you stop the fighting and bring all our boys home, that's right..."

It sure is.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five - Super Rappin' Theme (Enjoy 6009)

Super Rappin' Theme

When they announced the 2007 'inductees' to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame yesterday, I was amazed to hear they had chosen Grandmaster Flash alongside people like R.E.M. and Van Halen. Flash, unlike the others, was a true pioneer who changed the music forever. He came up out of The Bronx in the mid-70s as one of the first DJs spinning at the very dawn of what would become Rap Music. His techniques were legendary, applying the electronics he was learning at his vocational high school to manipulate the turntables and create something that was more than the sum of its parts. As the 'MC' became an essential part of the music, Flash hooked up with Kurtis Blow for a time before developing the concept of The Furious Five.

They soon dominated uptown, and by the fall of 1977 Flash had blown by fellow innovators Afrika Bambaataa and Kool DJ Herc as the king of the Bronx and Harlem dance scene. He was also one of the first to experiment with the 'beatbox', and turned the electronic drum machine into an artform. Spoonie Gee, meanwhile, was developing his own 'love rap' style and kept begging his uncle, Bobby Robinson, to record him. Bobby basically just laughed him off until he saw the success that Sugar Hill Records was having with the music. He decided to re-activate his Enjoy label and offered a contract to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Flash's prowess on the beatbox along with the funky groove laid down by Pumpkin & Friends (Bobby's 'house band') helped make Super Rappin' a big local hit in 1979. Although it didn't get any radio play, Bobby's Happy House was selling over 2000 copies of the 12 inch single a day! Today's selection, that original backing track, was the flip of Super Rappin' #2 in 1980, and appears to have been the only 7 inch 45 released by Flash.

Flash and the Five wanted more exposure than they were getting at Enjoy, and signed with Sugar Hill themselves later that year. Tracks like Freedom and The Birthday Party began charting for the label, and the groundbreaking The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel showed off Flash's chops as a DJ, while creating the concept of 'sampling' in the process. It was 1982's The Message, however, that put them over the top, and let the world know that hip hop had arrived...

"So what are you saying here, Red... that you're finally happy with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?"

You know me better than that. The fact that they are 'inducting' Grandmaster Flash is great and everything but, aren't they putting the cart before the horse here? I mean, places like the 'all' music guide invariably say 'R&B legend Bobby Robinson', but I don't think these people have a clue what that means. Time and time again we run into him here on these pages, and I thought it was high time we took a closer look:

Originally from Union, South Carolina, Robinson settled in New York just after World War II. He opened a record store on 125th Street in Harlem, a couple of doors down from the Apollo Theatre, in 1946. Along with his brother Danny, he soon became a fixture in the neighborhood, and was on a first name basis with the performers and music industry types that hung around the Theatre. In the liner notes for the now out-of-print The Fire/Fury Records Story, Bobby goes on to say "I also got to know the fellows who had their own record labels. I remember spending a lot of time with Ahmet Ertegun and his partner, Herb Abramson, when they founded Atlantic Records. They would come up to the store and ask me for advice."

In What'd I Say, Ertegun (pictured here with Robinson and Clyde McPhatter around 1954) says that he used to give Bobby 25 free copies of their releases if he agreed to play them on his outdoor speakers. As Atlantic's records began flying out of the store, Bobby soon decided to start his own company. Ertegun told him "Listen Bobby, you are making such a mistake. You've done so well out of the record shop, you're going to sink all your money into this ridiculous idea. Please, please don't do it..."

Robinson didn't listen, of course, and started up his own Robin label in 1951. That was soon replaced by Red Robin, and a succession of others that were run by Bobby, Danny or both. Local Doo-Wop and Jazz releases on Whirlin' Disc, Holiday, Everlast, Vest and Fling would follow, and the records sold well locally. Bobby longed for national distribution, however, and made a series of bad deals that caused him to close down most of his original labels in 1957.

He would start up Fury Records (and its accompanying Fire Publishing Company) later that year, and business continued as usual. As we mentioned last month, Bobby hired a young southerner named Marshall Sehorn as his new A&R and promotion man in 1958. It was Sehorn that brought in Wilbert Harrison to record Kansas City at the Bell Sound Studios in New York in March of 1959. The record just took off, going straight to number one on both the R&B and pop charts while selling over 4 million copies (something Ahmet Ertegun had yet to do with Atlantic), and Bobby was on top.

Only it didn't last. Harrison was already under contract to Savoy Records (although he neglected to tell Robinson that) and they sued him for a million dollars. Although they eventually worked it all out, Bobby was unable to release a timely 'follow-up' record on Harrison, and he never charted again. Undaunted, Robinson took the name of his publishing company, and started up a new label at that point so he could continue to record. He would hit the #1 R&B spot again in early 1960 with Georgia transplant Buster Brown's smokin' Fannie Mae (Fire 1008).

He would go on to record classic Blues records by people like Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup, Sam Meyers, Lightnin' Hopkins and Elmore James (James even cracked the R&B top 20 that year), while making it to #1 once again with the amazing Bobby Marchan's There Is Something On Your Mind. The Savoy lawsuit was finally settled in 1961, and Bobby was able to fire up his Fury label once more. One of the first artists he recorded was a recent high school graduate from Georgia who, along with her brother and two of her cousins, made up Gladys Knight & the Pips.

The great Every Beat Of My Heart had been released on the small Atlanta based Huntom label first, but Bobby flew Gladys and the Pips to New York to re-record it. After the song began to hit, Vee-Jay records in Chicago leased the original master from Huntom, and with their superior distribution network, took it to #1 R&B (the Fury single stalled at #15). Bobby sued this time, and the courts forced Vee-Jay to pay him a nickel for every record they sold. Not bad (the white guy in the above photo is Marshall Sehorn, by the way).

We've already spoken about the circumstances regarding the label's next #1 R&B smash, Lee Dorsey's Ya-Ya. Sehorn and Robinson's southern connections were paying off big time as the record even broke into the pop top ten. His next big chart successes were to come from closer to home, however. Small's Paradise was a legendary Harlem nightspot located just ten blocks from his record store, and Bobby was a regular. In 1962 he made a bet with the saxaphone player in The Noble Knights that he could deliver him a hit.

He started a brand new label called Enjoy just for that purpose, and its very first release took King Curtis all the way to #1 R&B with Soul Twist. Curtis had lost the bet, and so had to sign a contract with the new label. The house band at Small's featured Don Gardner on drums and Dee-Dee Ford on keyboards. Bobby heard them singing an incredible song called I Need Your Lovin', and put it out on Fire in the summer of 1962. It coasted to #4, and the follow-up Don't You Worry broke into the top ten as well. Robinson would close out the year with Les Cooper And The Soul Rocker's #12 smash Wiggle Wobble on his Everlast imprint.

I'm not sure what happened at this point, but Bobby's chart days all but dried up. In Jeff Hannush's great I Hear You Knockin' he says that "By early 1963, Robinson's labels were in financial difficulty. One of Robinson's silent partners, Fats Lewis, pulled out of the operation just as a major deal with ABC was about to consummate."

Whatever the case may be, Robinson kept on keepin' on, continuing to make great records, some of which, in my opinion, are even better than the hits. He had developed into a great producer, and it was said that he had 'the best ear in the business'. Deep soul by the likes of Willie Hightower and Joe Haywood went nowhere, as did cool proto-funk sides by groups like The Ramrods. He remained a much respected figure in Harlem, and often held court backstage at the Apollo. As I've said before, legend has it that he pitched Warm And Tender Love to Jerry Wexler on one such occasion. As near as we can figure it over on soul detective, the last sides he recorded back then were on his new Front Page label circa 1969...

That is until he started it all back up again ten years later to record the first wave of Rap as it happened on the streets around him. This is a seminal figure, folks. This is the man that ties it all together... the missing link, if you will. He is still around, working most days at his 'Happy House', which (like we talked about a couple of weeks ago) remains an important cultural focal point in the Harlem community.

Where is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame... or the Rhythm & Blues Foundation for that matter? As the Furious Five said on the A side of today's record - "His name is not found in the Hall of Fame."

That, my friends, is just plain wrong.