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(Above: Paul McCartney goes to Kansas City with a little help from his friends.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Big Apple has “New York, New York,” “Empire State of Mind” and dozens more. The Windy City has “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” Tom Waits gifted the Twin Cities with not one but two songs (“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” and “9th and Hennipen”). Visitors to the Bay City are encouraged to “wear some flowers in (their) hair” while the City of Angels gets “California Love,” “Beverly Hills” and “Hollywood Swingin’.” Heck, the even the Gateway City has “St. Louis Blues.”

But there’s only one universally known song about my hometown: “Kansas City.” (Only obsessive music fans and listeners of a certain age will recall “Everything Is Up To Date in Kansas City” and “Train to Kansas City.”) When listening to Jay-Z, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong boast about other American cities I try to find comfort reminding myself that the Beatles only sang about one city during their career and they chose “Kansas City.”

“Kansas City” is the only song visiting performers feel obliged to work into their setlist. Willie Nelson played it at Farm Aid earlier this month and Paul McCartney used it to open his 1993 show at Arrowhead Stadium (the recording from that night also appears the album “Paul Is Live”). I’ve heard the song so many times in concert I feel like someone should tell all touring acts that no, really, they don’t have to play “Kansas City” on our behalf.

It’s not like the song is invisible around town. Twelfth Street and Vine may be gone (typical of my hometown – undermining its greatest assets), but the song is still very present. Go to a Royals game and if you stick around until the end you are guaranteed to hear “Kansas City.” If the boys in blue win, fans are treated to the Beatles version. If they lose then Wilbert Harrison is piped through the speakers.

“Kansas City” was seven years old by the time Harrison got his hands on it. Originally recorded by bluesman Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, the song was written by a couple of 19-year-old Jews inspired by a Big Joe Turner record. Littlefield’s performance featured a somewhat racier chorus, ending with the line “with my Kansas City baby and some Kansas City wine.” When Federal Records received Littlefield’s recording they promptly rechristened it “K.C. Lovin’.”

Wilbert Harrison

Harrison had been performing “K.C. Lovin’” for years before he decided to record it in 1959 under its original title and with the sanitized chorus we all know today. Released on Fury Records, the platter went straight to No. 1 and spawned an army of imitators. Within weeks, interpretations of “Kansas City” by Hank Ballard, Rockin’ Ronald, Little Richard, Rocky Olson and a reissue of Littlefield’s original recording could be found in record shops. Paired with his own “Hey Hey Hey,” Little Richard’s cover hit No. 27 in the UK and inspired the Beatles’ recording.

The men – boys, really – who penned “Kansas City” wouldn’t visit the town that inspired their song until the mid-‘80s, nearly 35 years after handing the tune to Littlefield. Despite this handicap, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller nailed their vision of “a melody that sounded like it could have come out of a little band in Kansas City,” as Stoller later explained on a UK television show.

Hot on the heels of “Hound Dog,” “Kansas City” cemented Leiber and Stoller’s reputation as rock and roll’s hottest songwriters. Before the decade was out they would write scores of hit songs for the biggest singers of the day – Elvis Presley, the Drifters, Phil Spector, Ben E. King and, especially, the Coasters – and shape the young days of rock and roll more than anyone else. A sampling of their songs from the time reads like an early rock and roll greatest hits collection: “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Riot in Cell Block Nine,” “On Broadway,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Young Blood,” “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me” and on and on.

Jerry Leiber (left) and Mike Stoller show the King of Rock and Roll his next hit.

The duo’s use of strings on the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” predates (and foreshadows) the Motown sound that would dominate pop music in the coming decade. In fact many of their arrangements and innovations were so prescient that Leiber and Stoller found themselves on the sidelines for much of the 1960s. The Beatles and other British Invasion bands learned to write emulating Leiber and Stoller and other Brill Building songwriters, making third-party songwriters largely redundant. The expansive use of the recording studio rendered Leiber and Stoller’s pioneering arrangements sounding (for a while) like quaint relics of the past.

Despite these advancements, rock and roll and pop music will never outgrow the shadow of Leiber and Stoller. Grammy awards, hall of fame inductions and songwriting royalties stand as a testament to Leiber and Stoller’s perpetual influence. Even “American Idol” paused to pay tribute with an all Leiber-and-Stoller episode last spring.

Jerry Leiber, 78, died Monday. His survivors include Mike Stoller, his songwriting partner of 60 years, his family and everyone who ever picked up the guitar or sat down at the piano and tried to write a song or become a star.

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 (Above: The groundbreaking “Working on a Building,” which the Swan Silvertones cut for King Records.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

James Brown is certainly the best-known artist to record for Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati-based label, but King Records had forged a reputation long before Brown emerged. For a quarter century, from 1943 to 1968, King recorded some of the top performers in not only R&B, but gospel, jazz, bluegrass, rockabilly, blues and early rock and roll.

Here are some other King artists worth checking out.

Bill Doggett
Organist Bill Doggett was the biggest-selling instrumentalist on King. He joined the label after leaving Louis Jordan’s band in 1951, and recorded several sides with a trio. When the results weren’t what he’d hoped, Doggett added saxophone and guitar to the lineup and scored big hits with “Ding Dong, “Hammer Head” and “Shindig.” Doggett’s biggest success, though, was the 1956 smash “Honky Tonk.” The record sold 1.5 million copies that year, spent seven months on the chart and won several awards Doggett left King for Warner Bros. in 1960 when King owner Syd Nathan refused to increase Doggett’s royalty rate.

Swan Silvertones
Claude Jeter’s Swan Silvertone’s were the biggest gospel act to record for King. They were only with the label for five years, from 1946 to 1951. The 45 songs cut for King bridged the transition from the traditional barbershop-based style of gospel singing to a more spontaneous, emotional approach. Jeter’s duet with co-lead singer Solomon Womack on “Working on a Building” epitomized the potential of the new method and influenced future stars Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke. The Slivertone’s later recordings on Specialty and Vee-Jay receive more attention, but the half-decade at King cemented the group’s sound and reputation.

Charlie Feathers
Rockabilly guitarist Charlie Feathers is one of those criminally forgotten musicians whose talent outshines his reputation. Feathers grew up in Mississippi listening to the Grand Ol Opry, but learned guitar from bluesman Junior Kimbrough. Feathers briefly recorded for Sun before coming to King in 1956. After cutting several raw, visceral rockabilly numbers that went nowhere, commercially speaking, Feathers decided to model himself after Elvis Presley. When the sanitized new records also refused to budge, a frustrated Feathers left King. He bounced around from label to label, continuing to perform until his death in 1998. In 2003, director Quentin Tarantino resurrected a couple Feathers songs for his “Kill Bill” films.

Stanley Brothers
Bluegrass legends Carter and Ralph Stanley were already stars when they signed to King in 1958. That fall, the duo released one of the genre’s landmark albums, an untitled recorded nicknamed after its catalog number, King 615. Along with old-timey mountain music, the Brothers recorded gospel and even R&B numbers, putting their stamp on Hank Ballard’s “Finger Poppin’ Time.” The Stanley Brothers reached new audiences during the folk revival of the early ‘60s, and cut their final album for King in 1965. Carter Stanley died the following year, but his Ralph kept the flame alive. In 2006, Ralph Stanley found improbable acclaim for his a cappella reading of “O Death” on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.

Little Willie John
Soul singer Little Willie John had one of the longer tenures at King, spending one third of his life on the label. Unfortunately, John only lived to 30 and all his success came early. The Detroit native was just 18 when he landed his first big hit, “All Around the World.” In the next few years, John racked up 10 more To 20 R&B hits, including his signature number, “Fever.” A has-been at 25, John struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. He was charged with manslaughter after stabbing a man to death following a concert in Seattle. In 1968, John died in prison.

(Below: “Can’t Hardly Stand It” was one of several great rockabilly songs Charlie Feathers cut for King in the 1950s.)

Keep Reading:

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(Above: The Delmore Brothers landed a hit with “Blues Stay Away From Me” in 1949 on King Records.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

In a musical landscape that lionizes pioneering indie labels Chess, Motown and Atlantic, Cincinnati’s King Records is at best remembered as a footnote and the early home of James Brown.

Author Jon Hartley Fox aims to correct that perspective with his new book “King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records.” While Brown receives his due, Fox spends a great deal of time making the case that King was the most diverse and innovative label of its time.

King Records was founded in 1943 by Syd Nathan, a 40-year-old Cincinnati businessman with asthma and poor eyesight. Nathan’s got into the music business started by reselling old jukebox platters at the tail end of the depression. The venture proved so successful he opened Syd’s Record Shop on Cincinnati’s Central Avenue in 1940.

The first artists Nathan signed to King were Grandpa Jones and Merle Travis. Their success, coupled with the early hit “I’m Using My Bible for a Road Map,” led Nathan to advertise with the slogan, “If it’s a King, it’s a hillbilly.”

In 1945, Nathan dipped his toe in the waters of “race music” (the term “rhythm and blues” wouldn’t be coined for another three years), with Queen Records. The success of early artists like Bull Moose Johnson led the subsidiary to be moved onto the proper King label.

Nathan’s pursuit to make records for the “little man” took him into nearly every conceivable genre of music. Throughout his quarter century at the helm of King, the label produced hits on the country, blues, gospel, pop, R&B and jazz charts. A cross section of King’s staggeringly diverse roster includes Freddie King, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, the Stanley Brothers, Homer and Jethro and, briefly, John Lee Hooker, Hot Lips Page and Johnny Otis.

The label’s biggest artist, however, nearly didn’t make it out of the studio. James Brown came to King through a demo of “Please, Please, Please.” Nathan hated the track with a passion, and released it only to humiliate the producer, who staked his career on its success. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business went on to have an unprecedented string of hits on King beginning with “Please, Please, Please” 1956 and continuing until 1971, when Brown and his back catalog moved to Polydor.

The label’s success went beyond its across-the-board chart triumphs. In the early 1940s it was the first independent label to have its own fully functioning recording studio. Nathan was also at the vanguard of race relations, hiring black producers to supervise sessions with white musicians. Eight years before the hometown Cincinnati Reds would let blacks and whites play on the same team, Nathan had integrated crews in nearly every facet of the label.

Clearly, Fox has a lot of ground to cover in his book, and he does a good job of presenting the material in easy-to-digest portions. Each chapter covers a different facet of the label, such as country, gospel, solo or group R&B acts, production and distribution. From one-hit wonders to major performers, Fox does a good job breaking down the biographies of all the key players. In one or two pages, Fox paints a tight picture of everything the subject did before, during and after King. In that regard, the book functions almost as well as an encyclopedia of mid-century, Midwestern performers.

That approach, however, can also suffer from losing sight of the forest from all the trees. Nathan’s persona could have provided an easy and useful narrative thread, but he disappears for pages at a time. We don’t learn about his failing health until Fox casually mentions Nathan had a heart attack during a treatise on Brown. We also don’t learn much about Nathan’s personality – when he showed up at the office, his lifestyle, where he lived or his personal life.

The book’s timing also puts Fox at a disadvantage. Nathan died in 1968 and Brown in 2006. Most of the other performers are also deceased, giving Fox few primary sources to work with. Despite these difficulties, Fox proves himself a good researcher who draws on previously published material and interviews to tell his story.

The concise book covers a lot of territory in just over 200 pages. “King of the Queen City” is a brief but compelling work that should be devoured by music historians, both professional and amateur.

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(Above: Honorable mention R.L. Burnside, who was convicted of murder 1959 and sentenced to Parchman Farm. Burnside later said, “I didn’t mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord.”)

By Joel Francis

Phil Spector is hardly the first musician to be convicted of murder. He’s not even the most famous or influential one. But he is the latest. In honor of Spector’s recent sentencing, The Daily Record recognizes five other musicians convicted of murder.

Cool C and Steady B

Cool C and Steady B both came of age in the 1980s Philadelphia rap scene. Steady, nee Warren McGlone, was one of the first Philly rappers to taste the mainstream, while Cool, born Christopher Roney, was a member of the Hilltop Hustlers. The two teamed up in the early ’90s to form C.E.B., which was short for Countin’ Endless Bank. Taking their moniker a little two seriously, the duo decided to rob an actual bank.

On Jan. 2, 1996 – perhaps fulfilling a New Year’s resolution – C, B and Mark Canty, another Philadelphia rapper, attempted to rob a PNC bank in the City of Brotherly Love. Needless to say, the heist didn’t go as planned. When officer Lauretha Vaird responded to the silent alarm, she was shot and killed by Cool C. Steady B exchanged shots with another officer as the trio hopped into a stolen minivan and made their escape.

Steady was arrested at his apartment shortly after the crime. When two handguns left at the bank were traced back to him, he confessed to the crime.

In October, 1996, Cool was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Steady got off with a second degree murder conviction and life in prison. Cool was granted a stay of execution in 2006, by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (probably a closet C.E.B. fan), but remains on death row. Steady also remains incarcerated.

Little Willie John

In the late 1950s, Little Willie John traveled in the same soul circles as his contemporaries Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Hank Ballard. His parade of hits started in 1955 with “All Around the World” and included “Need Your Love So Bad” (later covered by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac) and “Fever,” which Peggy Lee made famous and took to the U.S. Top 10.

John had a golden voice, but he also had a bad temper and a taste of alcohol. Those three traits collided backstage at a concert in 1964 when John stabbed a man to death. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to Washington State Prison. John was appealing his conviction and aiming for a comeback when he died of pneumonia in 1968.

Don Drummond

In the fall of 1964, trombone player Don Drummond was living the good life. The band he helped form, the Skatalites, were finally breaking through, thanks to a song he wrote. “Man in the Street” was a Top 10 U.K. hit and for many their first taste of reggae. One year later, Drummond’s arrangement of the Guns of Navarone also hit the U.K. Top 10. But 1965 was not as kind to Drummond.

Drummond earned the nickname “Don Cosmic” for the erratic behavior brought on by his manic depression. When the body of Drummond’s girlfriend exotic dancer Marguerita Mahfood was found in Drummond’s home with several knife wounds, the police quickly arrested Drummond and charged him with murder. Drummond was judged legally insane at his trial and committed to Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Drummond died in Bellevue in 1967 at the age of 39. His death was ruled suicide, but because no autopsy was performed conspiracy theories persist to this day.

Drummond left behind a catalog of more than 300 songs and pivotal role backing Lee “Scratch” Perry, the Wailers, Delroy Wilson at their earliest sessions.

Jim Gordon

Drummer Jim Gordon started his career backing the Everly Brothers in 1963. By the end of the decade he’d performed on “Pet Sounds,” “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” and numerous other albums. When Jim Keltner pulled out of a tour with Delaney and Bonnie, Gordon was brought in as the replacement. Gordon got on so well with the rest of the band, which included Eric Clapton, bass player Carl Radle and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, that the quartet played on Clapton’s first solo album, the first post-Beatles album by Clapton’s friend George Harrison (“All Things Must Pass”) and even a session with Ringo.

The group is most memorable, however, for the album it produced with Duane Allman. As Derek and the Dominoes, Clapton was able to pour out his unrequited love for Harrison’s wife Patti Boyd and Allman was able to lay down some of his best licks. Gordon gained notoriety for writing the piano coda to “Layla.” He composed the piece independently and had to be persuaded to let Clapton incorporate into what became one of the biggest rock singles of all time.

After Derek and the Dominoes broke up in 1971, Gordon played in Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. He also toured with Traffic and Frank Zappa. Gordon’s session work also flourished. He played drums on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” and the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Bongo Rock” album. Gordon’s drum solo on “Apache” is one of the most sampled licks in hip hop.

In the late ’70s Gordon complained of hearing voices. Treated for alcohol abuse instead of schizophrenia, the voices had pushed Gordon out of music entirely by 1981. They pushed him even further in 1983 when Gordon killed his mother with a hammer. Gordon was properly diagnosed in his 1984 trial and sentenced to sixteen years to life with the possibility of parole. Gordon remains in prison.

Lead Belly

Most musicians wait until after they’re famous to start killing people. Not the man born Huddie Ledbetter. Before he recorded a note for Alan Lomax, the towering legend of folk and blues had escaped from a chain gang in Texas, served seven years for killing a relative in a fight over a woman. Lead Belly learned new songs and honed his craft while in prison, eventually earning a pardon from Texas Governor Pat Neff, who enjoyed the religious songs Lead Belly had played for him. Five years later, Lead Belly was back in prison, this time for attempted homicide. After serving three years for knifing a white man in a fight, he was discovered by John and Alan Lomax, who fell under his spell and petitioned to have him released.

After taking Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen a recording of “Goodnight Irene,” Lead Belly was released (the official reason was time off for good behavior). He recorded several albums for the Library of Congress based on his book “Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly.” Unfortunately, Lead Belly could not shake his criminal past, and was back in jail again in 1939 for stabbing a man in a fight in New York City. Again, Alan Lomax jumped to Lead Belly’s defense, dropping out of graduate school and helping Lead Belly record an album of songs to pay for his legal expense.

Lead Belly became a fixture of the New York City folk scene in the 1940s. He appeared on the radio, performed with Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Woody Guthrie, and others and recorded a wide range of music. Acolyte Bob Dylan once said Lead Belly was “One of the few ex-cons who recorded a popular children’s album.”

“Goodnight Irene” became Lead Belly’s most popular song. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to see Pete Seeger’s group the Weavers make it a No. 1 hit.

Lead Belly died in 1949, leaving behind a treasure of songs that includes “Midnight Special,” “Cotton Fields” and “Rock Island Line.”

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