Sunday, October 29, 2017

Checker Records: The Soul Stirrers

While focusing on blues and rhythm and blues, Chess Records was also one of the premier gospel labels in the 1950s and 1960s featuring a number of artists that would reach greater fame. The gospel releases spilled over to Chess’ subsidiaries of Checker Records and Cadet Records.

On Checker alone, 82 gospel singles and 57 gospel albums were released between 1953 and 1970. According rock historian Ed Ward, these recordings are difficult to find: “If you want to hear them . . . you'll have to go find the records. Gospel has never sold well, and it was the lowest-priority item for labels when the great reissue boom that the CD started came along.”

One of the premier gospel recording acts that made their mark on several labels, including Checker, were The Soul Stirrers. They may be the longest, continuously operating vocal group, as they formed in 1926 and are still performing today. A group with that length of tenure is also plagued with numerous personnel changes. The Soul Stirrers provided a proving ground for several artists including Sam Cooke and Johnnie Taylor.

When The Soul Stirrers moved to Checker, Johnny Taylor, who had replaced Sam Cooke in 1957 would remain year before embarking on his solo career. “Don’t You Worry,” our Spiritual Sunday release, was the ninth single for The Soul Stirrers recorded for Checker and the lead track for their 1969 album, “The Judgment.”

“Don’t You Worry” was penned by Leonard Caston, Lloyd Webber, and Sonny Thompson. Thompson also provided the arrangement and Ralph Bass produced the single. Bass, who was later inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 as a non-performer, also composed the single’s flip side, “When the Gates Swing Open.” The Soul Stirrers were inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 as early influences of rock ‘n roll.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Checker Records: Good Advice

On Saturday, I typically feature songs that didn’t chart in the Top 40, and today is no exception with a rhythm and blues treatment on Checker Records by Koko Taylor. Our “bubbling under” selection is “Good Advice” by Koko Taylor – a song that was composed by bluesman J.B. Lenoir. There is reason to this rhyme, as Willie Dixon discovered Koko Taylor and rediscovered Lenoir about the same time in the early 60s.

Dixon, a Chess producer, A&R man, songwriter, and session musician, knew talent when he heard it. Although “Good Advice” was released twice in 1966 on Checker, neither single produced a hit for Koko Taylor. The original issue as Checker 1140, with “When I Think of My Baby” as a “B” side, failed to attract attention. This version of the record is extremely rare and copies may have only been distributed to radio stations.

Later in September 1966, “Good Advice” returned as a flip side of “Tell Me the Truth” on Checker 1148. Billboard predicted that “Tell Me the Truth” would be a Top 10 R&B hit; it didn’t happen despite Billboard’s assessment that a “Powerful performance makes this disk one to be reckoned with.” Apparently because of radio’s preference for “Good Advice,” the single was flipped, but it failed to chart in the Hot 100 on its second go-around.

Recorded on December 16, 1965, Taylor is joined by Gene Barge on tenor sax, Dillard Crume on bass, Johnny Twist and Rufus Crume on guitar, and Al Duncan on drums. The Crume brothers may be credited incorrectly, as Rufus was the bassist and Dillard the guitarist of The Soul Stirrers – another Checker act. A piano player is present, but not credited. Willie Dixon, the song’s producer, provides the low vocals.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Checker Records: I'm A Man

It’s time for a Friday Flipside, and today’s selection is the “B” side to one of Checker Records’ better known artists: Bo Diddley. “I’m a Man” appeared as the flip of “Bo Diddley,” the eponymous record that shared his name with the artist. There are several competing stories how Ellas McDaniel got the name “Bo Diddley,” so we really can’t be certain.

But we can be certain about “I’m A Man.” This 1955 flip was inspired by Willie Dixon’s composition “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” that was recorded for Chess Records during the previous year. One month after Bo Diddley recorded “I’m A Man,” Muddy Waters took it and created “Mannish Boy” as his answer to the tune. Bo Diddley was given writing credit along with Waters and Mel London.

Bo Diddley is joined on  “I’m A Man”  by Billy Boy Arnold on harmonica, Jerome Green on maracas, Willie Dixon on bass, and Otis Spann on piano. There are conflicting accounts on who played drums on this cut. Some say Clifton James and others credit Frank Kirkland as who handled the backbeat.

Although “I’m a Man” was a flip side, it got into the hands of numerous consumers as “Bo Diddley” was a #1 R&B hit for two weeks. “I’m a Man” was covered by several artists with The Yardbirds recording four versions of the tune. Each of the three recorded live tracks feature one of their famous guitarists: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. Beck played on the studio version, which by the way, had its basic tracks recorded at the Chess studios at 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago where Bo Diddley cut the original.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Checker Records: We're Gonna Make It

On Tuesday, we featured Checker Records’ Little Walter, but today we feature the label’s other little artist: Little Milton. James Milton Campbell, Jr., known throughout his life as Little Milton, had an impressive, but not very successful musical career. In the mid-1950s, he was signed by Ike Turner to Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, but never had a hit with the regional label out of Memphis.

By 1959, while unable to get another record deal, Milton set up his own label in St. Louis: Bobbin Records. During this time, he secured a distribution deal with the Chess Brothers. Within two years, his singles were appearing on the Checker imprint.

Finally, after eight releases on Checker, Milton scored the biggest hit of his career: “We’re Gonna Make It.” This 1965 recording, that echoed sentiments shared with the Civil Rights movement, charted at #1 on the R&B charts, and it was Little Milton’s only single to chart in the Top 40; it peaked at #25.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Ain't That A Shame, Fats Domino Has Passed

Being busy today, I didn’t hear about Fats Domino’s passing until I returned to my office and saw a post by Rebekah Canada stating that October has been a “Lousy month.” Another great legend has been ushered off into eternity. “Ain’t that a Shame,” Fats Domino, 89, died of natural causes yesterday, October 24, 2017.

An innovator from the very beginning, Antoine Domino, was once called the “real king of rock ‘n roll” by Elvis Presley. In the 1950s, Domino was second only Presley in releasing a string of hits. When asked about this new “Rock ‘N Roll” sound in the 1950s that he helped to create, he stated that he’d been playing rhythm and blues for 15 years – which what rock ‘n roll really is.

His influence went far and wide, with “Ain’t that a Shame” being the first song John Lennon learned to play on the guitar. Paul McCartney later wrote “Lady Madonna” in the style of Fats Domino. Domino returned the favor by recording the tune, as well as “Lovely Rita” on his 1968 comeback LP “Fats is Back.”

“Ain’t that a Shame,” which was mistakenly credited as “Ain’t it a Shame” on the original Imperial Records’ releases was co-written by Domino and his long-time producer, Dave Bartholomew. It was a #1 R&B hit that crossed over to pop audiences and landed at the #10 position. Rolling Stone considered “Ain’t that a Shame” as one of the top recordings of the rock ‘n roll era.

We’ll miss you Fats – Rest in Peace.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Checker Records: Juke

I teach a class in Media and Society at a small university and today before class, I was getting my computer, projector, and speakers set up for a multimedia presentation. Today, I decided to test the audio with Little Walter’s “Juke.” One of my students asked, “What’s that?” He was no doubt referring to Little Walter’s amplified harmonica. I responded, “That’s Little Walter playing the premier instrument of the blues – the harmonica.” To which he retorted, “I thought the harmonica was the premier instrument around camp fires.” We both laughed.

Yes, Virginia, the harmonica was used quite often for the blues and it’s not your pioneer great-great-grandpa’s instrument anymore. Recorded in 1952 at Universal Recorders on Chicago’s Northside, today’s Bluesday Tuesday hit, Little Walter’s “Juke,” was a number one R&B record for Checker Records. It held that position for eight consecutive weeks.

Billed as “Little Walter and his Night Cats,” the recording featured Muddy Waters and his back-up band. With Little Walter Jacobs on amplified harmonica, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers on guitar, and drummer Elga Edmunds. The song was originally titled “Your Cat Will Play,” but the title was changed to “Juke,” by the time the single was released. Only two takes were recorded with the first being issued as the release.

“Juke” has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. The song influenced several generations of blues harpists to pick up their harmonica with a handheld microphone and blast the night away.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Checker Records: Susie Q

My Facebook page tells me that five years ago this month, I started the fourth week label feature on Reading Between the Grooves. This month, I going to feature seven sides from Checker Records of Chicago. It’s hard to put a finger on the style of music that Checker featured, as there were so many different styles released by this subsidiary of Chess Records. You could hear blues, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n roll, gospel, zydeco (at least one record), and other styles on the Checker imprint.

Formed in 1952 as a subsidiary of Leonard and Phil Chess’ eponymous primary label, the Checker name played on the chessboard theme. It was hoped that, by having two imprints, it would increase the brothers’ output to receive more airplay. On the early Checker releases, the Chess connection and name were not stated, but it was not difficult to determine that Chess was in control. Many of the songs carried publishing by the Chess publishing arm Arc Music, BMI.

In 1969, the Chess family sold their labels to General Recorded Tape Corporation. By 1971, GRT consolidated the Chess/Checker/Cadet/Argo catalog under the single Chess imprint. The Checker catalog is currently available through Universal Music Group and has been since the 1980s.

Our first selection from Checker is a 1957 recording that was sold to Checker by Jewel/Paula Records in Shreveport, Louisiana: Dale Hawkins’ “Susie Q” – a song that reached greater fame eleven years later by Credence Clearwater Revival. This rockabilly hit was one of several recordings by Dale Hawkins released by Checker. “Susie Q” was recorded at KWKH in Shreveport. James Burton, who would also play with Ricky Nelson and Elvis, played guitar on this recording.

Written by Dale Hawkins and band-mate Robert Chaisson, credit was given to Hawkins, Jewel/Paula Records owner Stan Lewis, and Eleanor Broadwater, the wife of WLAC Nashville radio announcer Gene Nobles. Chaisson never received credit or royalties for his part of the composition. When the master was transferred, the publishing was assigned to Arc Music, an arm of Chess Records.

While the later CCR recording would place at #11 on the Hot 100, the original only charted at #27 on the pop charts. Although not a rhythm and blues recording, Hawkins’ version did much better on Billboard’s R&B charts at #7. What a great song and a great introduction to this seminal label from the past.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Tom Petty: I Won't Back Down

It’s a few days since we got word that Tom Petty died at age 66; these were followed by alerts that it was a false report. Since being taken off life support, his demise was certainly eventual and he passed away on Monday, October 2, 2017 at 8:40 PM Pacific Daylight Savings Time at UCLA Medical Center. He had suffered a cardiac arrest and was found at his home on Sunday.

It seems as I get older, more and more of my heroes of the stage and screen, as well as family and friends, are passing away. This is a reminder of my own mortality – but with life comes death. As with Tom, it will be for all of us when our number is called.

I wasn’t an early follower of his music, but I must thank Dave Alley, who worked at West Virginia Public Radio in the 1970s, for alerting me of his musical genius. I remember particularly one afternoon Dave was making the argument that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were the musical descendants of one of my favorite groups, The Byrds.

I’ve been busy and couldn’t get to this tribute until tonight and am sorry I couldn’t post it sooner. Since it is a Wednesday, I thought an acoustic version of one of his hits – “I Won’t Back Down” is in order. Recorded live, the song comes off well with the organ being the only electric instrument on it. Listen for Mike Campbell’s mandolin parts. We’ll miss you Tom. Rest in peace.

Monday, October 2, 2017

National Lampoon: Catch It And You Keep It

Sometimes, I do my best thinking in the shower. Yesterday morning while rinsing and repeating I was contemplating the passing of Monty Hall and remembered a comedy routine from 1972: “Catch it and you Keep it.” The cut was found on “Radio Dinner” the first of National Lampoon’s 11 comedy records that were released over the next 11 years. I remember hearing “Catch it and you Keep it” on Pittsburgh's WDVE in early fall 1972 and knew I had to have this record. It was the first release on Banana Records, which was distributed by Blue Thumb.

While the “Catch it and you Keep it” spoofs all game shows from the period, there is a subtle reference to Monty Hall’s “Let’s Make a Deal,” as one of the contestants is dressed as a turnip. Forty-five years later, I still find this cut hilarious and I hope you do as well.