Monday, July 07, 2008

Lattimore Brown - It Hurts Me So (Zil 9005)

It Hurts Me So


We went looking for a hat...

The plan was to pick up a straw hat for Lattimore on our way out of town. After a couple of unproductive stops in Gulfport, I happened to look in the window of a little store called New York Hi Style as we went walking by. I couldn't believe my eyes. There, in sartorial splendor, were arrayed dozens of straw hats in every color of the rainbow. That's what drew us inside.

As it turned out, it was a stop we needed to make. The owner, Sunder Ramchandani, who had also lost most of everything he owned in the storm, listened to our story. Before we knew it, he had put together a full outfit for Lattimore. From suit to shoes, this man had impeccable taste! After giving us a great price on all of this (as the Soul Detective budget, as usual, was strictly from hunger), he introduced us to the lady who does the alterations at his shop, Susie Lee. She wasn't scheduled to work that day, she said, but something told her to come in. Amazingly, Lattimore had sung with her huband, Donnie, in the choir at the Main Street Missionary Baptist Church in Biloxi up until Katrina hit. She hadn't seen him since the storm, and had wondered what became of him. This wonderful woman was the first to tell us "This ain't nothin' but God!", as we recounted the sequence of events that had brought us there. She called the pastor at the Church, and before we knew it, we were on our way back to Biloxi to meet with him.

You really can't make these things up, folks. Believe it or not, Dr. Kenneth Haynes, the pastor of Lattimore's church, is Bo Diddley's brother. We spoke for a while about Bo's recent funeral, and extended our condolences to the family. Bo, he said, had been ill for some time, and pretty much confined to his bed for the last few months of his life. He rose up there at the end, Reverend Haynes told us, and lifted up his hand. "I'm going to Heaven" were his final words. Incredible. We talked about the storm, and how the whole neighborhood had been pretty much destroyed. We held hands and we prayed. I won't go into details here, but there was power in the room. You could feel it. As Lattimore said, the fact that we set out looking for a hat, and somehow found ourselves back in Church made you believe that all of this was indeed a part of some greater plan.

Now truly a team, we headed out of town, up Highway 61 on a journey back through time. As the miles drifted past, Lattimore shared his incredible life story...

He was born into a sharecropping family in 1931. He never knew his mother or his father. His earliest memories are of 'chopping cotton' with his grandfather, 'from the front to the back, and back again'. The family worked a parcel of land known as 'the lost forty', because it was so far back in the woods. After the harvest every year, when it came time to settle up, somehow they ended up owing money to the white man who owned the land. Treated no better than slaves, they were working merely for the overpriced food they were forced to buy from the land owner.

Lattimore told us this chilling tale:
"When I was about eight years old, one Friday, my grandfather told the white man 'I ain't got no groceries here to feed my family. There ain't but a dust of flour in the barrel.' The man just nodded his head and walked away. Come Monday, my grandfather said, 'None of you go out to the fields today.' Once the land owner saw that nobody was chopping that cotton, he came flying up the road, all the way out to our cabin. 'Why ain't you nigras out in them fields where ya belong?' he said. My grandfather just lifted up his shotgun and said 'I told you on Friday my family was hungry, and you didn't care, we ain't going out in the field until we eat.' The man threw up his hands and drove off. Well, we thought my grandfather had really done it now. We thought that the man was gonna come back with a lynch mob or worse. 'I'd rather die like a man, than starve here like a dog!' my grandfather told us, and he sat there on the porch with that gun on his lap. After a while, we could see the dust from the wheels of that man's pick-up far off... he was coming back. 'You children get out there in them corn fields and lay down out of sight,' he told us. We didn't know what was gonna happen. We were scared stiff, man, watching that cloud of dust come closer and closer, thinking maybe we all gonna die. Well, that man came back, and he had him a truckload of groceries, apologizing to my grandfather for being so forgetful and all of that... and we went back to the fields."

It was that same kind of fiercely independent spirit that had founded the municipality of Mound Bayou, which was the closest town to Lattimore's lost forty, back in the 1880s. The first black town in America, it had been organized as a sort of colony by ex-slaves, and was the first place where blacks could actually use their newly won right to vote. Life wasn't easy. As the cotton industry in the delta grew, Mound Bayou became internationally known as the purveyor of the highest quality product, and Blacks found it hard to make it amidst white economic pressure to control the land.

Nevertheless, Mound Bayou has survived with its history intact, due in large part to the efforts of people like Darryl Johnson (pictured here with Lattimore) whose comprehensive vision of the town as the 'Black Jerusalem' includes such efforts as the Eagle Music & Media Academy, which seeks to preserve and promote the rich musical heritage of the region. Lattimore himself hadn't been back to Mound Bayou in 55 years, and it was a rare privilege to walk those fields and country roads with him once again.

Known back then simply as L.V., he was sent by his grandfather at the age of nine to go live with his Uncle Jim. Jim had been crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, and was unable to work his fields. L.V. set about the tasks of providing for the family, chopping, picking, and bailing cotton alongside the men, growing up real fast in the process. "I'll never forget walking behind that mule all day, with him farting in my face, and me sweating out there in the fields... to this day, if I see cotton, I gotta turn my head." His aunt and uncle were 'church people', and he had soon organized a vocal group called the Shady Grove Specials at their congregation.

They would tune in to King Biscuit Radio on KFAA out of Arkansas, he told me and, like most of his contemporaries, it was these twin influences of Gospel and the Blues that helped form his musical identity. After a few years, his uncle miraculously got better, and was able to resume taking care of the family. His aunt, who was jealous of the attention her husband gave the young L.V., physically abused him, beating him whenever Uncle Jim wasn't around. One day she hit him with a piece of 'stove wood', and that was it. L.V. set off on his own. He was 12 years old. He traveled around a bit, walking most places on foot, doing whatever odd jobs he could find to survive. By the time he was fifteen, he was married, and became a father the following year. Traveling to San Antonio to be with his wife's family, he went to the recruiting office there to see about joining the Army. At only seventeen, they told him he was too young. He told them his life story, and begged them to reconsider. "You know son, it sounds to me like you've had a tough time coming up. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to give you a break... well, I'm gonna be that person in your life," the officer told him, "you're in the Army now."

They were sending him overseas, and when it came time to sign the papers, he said the only name he had ever known was L.V. "Well, make something up," they told him, and that was when he gave himself the name Lattimore Vernon. Although it was 'no picnic', he told me, the time he spent in both Korea and Vietnam helped to make him a man, and defined the person he was to become. During those war years he listened to The King Cole Trio and Big Joe Turner. Together they taught him the unique combination of R&B shouting and smooth vocal phrasing that he would carry on into his later work.

When he was discharged after his three year stint in the service, the bus left him off at the crossroads in Cleveland, Mississippi. He walked the four or five miles out to the place where his wife was now staying with her mother. After a while, his mother-in-law came to see him. "Now don't get upset." she told him, "but your wife's made some mistakes while you were away. She's pregnant and about to have the baby..." Lattimore couldn't believe it. He had to walk another four or five miles to borrow his brother-in-law's car, and drive her to the hospital... after the baby was born, the nurse came out and showed it to him. "Mr. Brown, this calls for a celebration!" she said. "Celebration? This calls for an Investigation!" he told her. Needless to say, he didn't stick around long, and made the trip that so many others were making around the same time, arriving in Memphis in 1953.

They say that Highway 61 ends at the Peabody Hotel, and in Lattimore's case, they were right. He got a job as a bellhop, and loves to tell the story of how when he first got into town "B.B. King was playing on the corner of Beale Street for nickels and dimes, and Elvis Presley was driving a furniture delivery truck, wearing these raggedy-ass overalls..." Brown was there when it all began. From the Amateur Nights at the Palace Theater, to eating the legendary chili upstairs at Sunbeam's, he was there. He remembers fondly the big bands of Tuff Green, Ben Branch and Al Jackson, Sr. "He'd have little Al set up there on a Coca-Cola crate, playing the drums..." The man is a walking history lesson, man. He remembers Ike Turner bringing Howlin' Wolf to town for the first time, and Bobby Bland and Junior Parker recording at Sun for Sam Phillips.

He left town as a singer with the ambitious King Reid Amusements, as part of a sort of 'minstrel show' attraction that Reid put on under the big top several times a night. It included black dancing girls, comedians, and musicians from the American South, and Lattimore played all over the U.S. and Canada, spreading the exotic music of the Delta to places it had never been before. He encountered many fellow musicians out there on the road and, with his affable personality (and the gift of gab), was a favorite of everyone he met.

Enter 'The Buzzard'. One of the hidden heroes of this music, Jimmy Stewart was a trumpet player who had come up through the ranks, working for Don Robey as a member of Junior Parker's Blue Flames and backing everyone from Bobby Bland to Little Richard on the road for the label. In 1957, when west coast impresario Joe Scott took over, Stewart (who was nicknamed 'Buzzard', apparently partially due to a permanent cleft that had formed in his upper lip as a result of his trumpet playing) was looking for a gig. He was originally from Arkansas, and had the opportunity to put together the house band at a place called the Cameo Club in Hot Springs. He called Lattimore and told him to come on up.

They were a huge success, and Lattimore carried that band on out of there to Little Rock and beyond, as they made a name for themselves out there on the Chitlin' Circuit. Another early member of that group was sax player Jimmy Beck, who lived in Nashville. It was Jimmy who introduced Brown to Ernie Young. Ernie owned the best record store in town, and had built his Nashboro and Excello labels up into a force to be reckoned with. In those days, most Excello product was recorded in the funky little studio he had built in a room over the store, and today's cool selection is no exception. Lattimore's first single (which for some reason was released on a subsidiary label called ZIL), I imagine that's Beck blowing that fine saxophone...

After one more release on Zil, the countrified Chick Chick Chicky Chick (which Lattimore maintains could have made him a million if Colonel Sanders ever got a hold of it), and Somebody's Gonna Miss Me on the main Excello label went nowhere, Brown moved on...

We'll talk more about that next week.

continued in PART THREE
At this point, I'd like to thank my friends and fellow Lattimore Brown fans Greg B. (who provided the audio) and Peter H. (who came up with the Zil and Excello scans for me at the last minute), without whom this post would not have been possible. You guys are the greatest!


Blogger SoulBoogieAlex said...

Great stuff Red. I'm always fascinated by the way American music and history got so entwined. Few countries in the world found their music quite as the integral part of their culture and historic background as in the US. L.V.'s story reads like another example of that.

5:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done, sir. We await the next chapter.

12:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this amazing story with us!

8:40 PM  
Blogger whiteray said...

My jaw has dropped permanently. This is amazing stuff, Red! Thank you for following the road where it went and for sharing it with us.

12:14 AM  

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