Tuesday, May 31, 2011
She was born Esther Mae Jones in Galveston, Texas on December 23, 1935. Esther and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was five, and she spent a lot of her time singing in church choirs and talent shows. One such talent show was held at The Barrelhouse Club, which was owned by L.A. R&B pioneer Johnny Otis. Esther won first prize, and Johnny offered the then 13-year-old Esther a spot in his traveling R&B show. She was usually paired with Bobby Nunn of The Robins (later of the Coasters) in duet spots, though she would have the occasional solo spot, billed as "Little Esther". To avoid trouble with the truant officer, Otis would either lie about her age or use the excuse that she was the sister of one of the band members. Either way, this was not the greatest environment for a young teenage girl to grow up in.
In late 1949, Esther was teamed with The Robins (who, along with Johnny Otis, were recording for the Savoy label out of Newark, NJ) at a recording session which produced "Double Crossing Blues". The record became a sensation, and by February, 1950, Little Esther found herself with a #1 R&B hit - she had just turned 14. To this day, she still holds the record for the youngest female to have a #1 R&B hit single (the similarly ill-fated Aaliyah came close in 1994 with her #1 R&B hit "Back & Forth", but she was fifteen at the time). Little Esther was now officially an R&B superstar. "Double Crossing Blues" stayed at #1 for 9 weeks, and her next two singles, "Mistrustin' Blues" and "Cupid's Boogie" (both duets with Mel Walker of the Johnny Otis band) also hit #1 on the R&B charts, and by the end of 1950, Little Esther had seven Top Ten hits on the R&B charts.
Unfortunately, with great success comes great pressures. Little Esther and the Johnny Otis band were in demand EVERYWHERE, and from 1950 to 1953 she toured constantly. Life on the road was rough, to say the least. Traveling between dates was done by bus, not by plane, and the better hotels in any city were not exactly hospitable to black performers, so they had to make do with second-rate accommodations, or, worse yet, had to find their own housing with loyal fans or in rooming houses. Glamorous, eh? The rigors of the road caused performers to find solace anywhere possible; sex, booze and drugs were the name of the game, and Little Esther soon became familiar with all three - and she wasn't quite 16 yet. Esther Mae Jones was a long way from home, and was growing up fast - too fast. "Little Esther" would not do as a stage name, and one night, when the bus was fueling up at a Phillips 66 gas station, she looked at the sign and decided that "Phillips" would be her new last name. It was just as good as any other name she could have picked - at that point Esther Mae Jones, the little girl from L.A. who sang in the choir was long gone, replaced by a performer with no real home, no stability, and no one in her life to guide her down the right path; she might as well have been born in that lonely gas station on the road.
By 1952, 16-year-old Esther was a veteran of the road, had switched labels from Savoy to Syd Nathan's Federal label (mainly because Savoy's owner, the notoriously tight-fisted Herman Lubinsky, didn't believe in paying ANY royalties to performers OR writers), and had become a full-fledged heroin addict. She started a pattern of not showing up for concerts and recording sessions, and though she continued to record, her sides for Federal were just not selling like her earlier 1950 peak. So strung out she could barely stand most of the time, Esther decided to get well. She quit the tour in 1953, made a few singles for Decca, and announced her retirement the next year. She moved back to her home state of Texas, settling in Houston, and from 1954 to 1962 little was heard from Esther Phillips, though she did record a couple of singles for Savoy in 1956 and both the Federal and Savoy labels continued to release records by her up until 1959.
In early 1962, Esther Phillips became acquainted with up-and-coming record producer Lelan Rogers, aka "The Silver Fox". Lelan not only was the brother of future country superstar Kenny Rogers, but would later go on to produce The 13th Floor Elevators, The Emperors (whose "I Want My Woman" is one of the most primitive garage 45s ever released), and would later form the Silver Fox label, under whose imprint he produced Betty LaVette, George Perkins, Eddy "G" Giles and a number of other great soul artists. Lelan had just formed a brand new label with his partner Bob Gans, Lenox Records, and Esther was the first artist signed to the label. Taking a cue from Ray Charles and his very succesful "R&B meets C&W" fusion, Lelan paired Esther with a tune that was originally a C&W hit for Jimmy Heap and Perk Williams in 1954 called "Release Me". Release it they did, as the first-ever 45 on the Lenox label, and not only did it become her fourth #1 R&B hit, but it hit Top Ten on the pop charts, something Esther had never done before. She continued to record for Lenox until the label went belly-up in 1964, then signed with Atlantic, where she had a few more soul hits. She also traveled to England, and appeared on an episode of "Ready, Steady, Go!" with the Beatles, who told Esther that her remake of "And I Love Her" (done, of course, as "And I Love Him") was, in their opinion, the only tolerable outside version of a Beatles' song they ever heard (they were probably just being nice - her version isn't anything special, though it did hit #11 on the R&B charts in 1965).
Unfortunately, the new round of whirlwind success brought back old habits, and by late 1966 Esther again sought help for her heroin addiction, this time at Syanon Treatment Center in Santa Monica, CA. Upon her release in 1969, she made records for Roulette (where she had another hit with a country remake - "Too Late To Worry, Too Blue To Cry") and Epic, and appeared at several jazz festivals.
She was signed by Creed Taylor's Kudu label in 1971, and her first LP for the label, "From A Whisper To A Scream", contained the selection above, which was released as a single in early 1972. It wasn't her biggest hit, but was definitely her most transcendent performance. Gil Scott-Heron's song about a lonely, anguished junkie who is not welcome at his own home (and thus, feels homeless) because of his addiction took on a new poignancy when Esther Phillips sang it. Plus, let's face it, all of the "junkie" songs up to that point were sung by men (including Gil's original version of "Home Is Where The Hatred Is"), so a WOMAN singing about walking the streets, addicted, unwelcome anywhere was even more chilling to listen to.
Esther Phillips had a few more hits (including a disco remake of "What A Difference A Day Makes") and continued to make good records for Kudu, Mercury and Winning Records (no Charlie Sheen jokes, please) into the 1980s. Unfortunately, she also battled her heroin addiction all through the 1970s, and on August 7, 1984, her kidneys and liver finally gave out. Esther Phillips was only 48 years old. I can only hope that she and Gil Scott-Heron are sitting back, wherever they are, sharing their experiences on Earth. Perhaps they're collaborating on a song.......
Esther Phillips - Home Is Where The Hatred Is (Kudu 904) - 1972
Saturday, May 21, 2011
The group started out in 1965, out of Sullivan High School in Chicago. They were a typical cover band of the day, playing everybody's hits in small clubs all over Chicago. One of the things that made the Flock stand out from other groups was that they would cover all kinds of material - they were just as comfortable doing Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett tunes as they were playing "Louie Louie". Plus, they were one of the first white groups in Chicago to incorporate a horn section in their live appearances! For a great interview with Fred Glickstein of The Flock, talking about the early days, click here.
One of the many great things about Chicago in the mid-60s was radio station WLS. Started in 1923 by the Sears-Roebuck Co., the call letters stood for "World's Largest Store". Chicago's Sears Tower is also the world's tallest building (I think; I haven't thumbed through the Guinness Book of World Records lately). WLS (890 AM on your dial) was the station that most of Chicago listened to. But unlike most large stations with tight playlists (WABC New York, anyone?), WLS gave a lot of airplay to local Chicago acts like The New Colony Six, The Buckinghams, The Cryan' Shames, and the Young Chicagoans.
Soon The Flock was signed to the local Destination label, and they debuted with the above 45 in November, 1966. It soon hit the WLS charts, peaking at #23. Unfortunately, outside of Chicago, the record was a stiff. But this is a moody garage masterpiece (and the flip, "Hold On To My Mind", is a good rocker) that should have been a bigger hit than it was.
After two more 45s for Destination (and one for Destination's parent company, USA Records), The Flock were snapped up by Columbia Records in late 1968. By this time the group had added violinist Jerry Goodman to the line-up. They released two LPs on Columbia - The Flock, produced by Brit bluesman John Mayall (yawn), and Dinosaur Swamps. They even had a semi-hit single on Columbia, a remake of the Kinks' "Tired Of Waiting For You", though, interestingly enough, the group credited THEMSELVES for writing the song instead of Ray Davies!! But in 1970, Columbia's Clive Davis decided that The Flock didn't need their lead violinist and convinced Jerry Goodman to leave the group to join with John McLaughlin in the Mahavishnu Orchestra (double yawn). After this trenchant move by Clive Davis (one of the biggest schlock-meisters the music world has ever known), the group, having already recorded tracks for their third LP (which never got released), lost focus and broke up.
The way most folks tell the story, The Flock were a "serious" jazz-rock group who made two brilliant LPs for Columbia in 1969-1970, and oh yes, they had a few early singles in the Chicago area. But in MY little corner of the world, The Flock were a brilliant garage band who later morphed into something weird and freaky, and not in a good way. THIS is the best record they ever made, and I don't give a hoot about what any rock critics say (not that I do, anyway).....
The Flock - Can't You See (That I Really Love Her) - Destination 628 - 1966
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Gary (U. S.) Bonds (b. Gary Anderson, June 6, 1939) is best known for a handful of great 45s on Frank Guida's Legrand label in the early 60s, like "New Orleans", "School Is Out", "Dear Lady Twist", "Twist Twist Senora" and the bona fide #1 hit "Quarter To Three". But after 1962, he seemed to "go away" until 1981, when he had a bit of a comeback under the tutelage of one Bruce Springsteen. Of course, the story's not quite that simple.....
When Gary Anderson hooked up with Frank Guida in Norfolk, VA in 1959, he was already a veteran of a couple of gospel groups and sang with an amateur group called The Turks. Guida had just started a new label called Legrand (pronounced "le grand") that already had one hit under its belt - the original VA version of "High School U. S. A." by Tommy Facenda (when the record got picked up by Atlantic, poor Tommy had to record twenty-seven more versions of the song to be sold in various areas of the US, since the lyrics name-checked high schools in said areas). Guida also had some brand-new recording equipment, which he wasn't exactly proficient in the use of (at least that's what Gary U. S. Bonds told me when I interviewed him a few years ago), thereby coming up with the ultimate in lo-fi sound! Today he'd be laughed out of the industry by snobby head-up-their-ass recording engineers. Gary Anderson recorded "New Orleans" and "Please Forgive Me" for Legrand in the early summer of 1960, and the record was released in late August. But to Gary's surprise, instead of saying "Gary Anderson" on the label, the song was credited to "By - U. S. Bonds". When Gary went back to Guida to ask, "what the hell?", Guida said that the name was a marketing ploy so that folks would remember to "buy U. S. Bonds" records. Despite this hair-brained scheme, the record became a huge Top Ten national hit, so big that Legrand had to hook up with Laurie Records in NY to take advantage of their distribution system.
But another problem arose; after three hit records ("New Orleans", "Not Me", "Quarter To Three"), the public and the DJs all thought that "U. S. Bonds" was a GROUP, since the records all had a group sound (courtesy of the incredible backing band of Gene "Daddy G" Barge, whose "A Night With Daddy G" 45 - also on Legrand - was the basis for "Quarter To Three"). This didn't sit too well with Gary, so on subsequent releases, the labels read "Gary (U. S.) Bonds".
We all know what happened next - hit after hit followed (many written by Gary), but by 1963 Bonds' records were no longer selling, and he faded from view. However, he did continue to have local hits in the Norfolk, VA area, and worked steadily, doing one-nighters all over the place. He also continued to record for Legrand and write for many of their artists until the label ceased day-to-day operations in 1967 (though Frank Guida continued to release records on his Norfolk International and S.P.Q.R. labels through the 70s and 80s, and even brought back Legrand for a reissue series in the early 80s). It was about this time that Gary (U. S.) Bonds hooked up with the Swamp Dogg.
Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams (b. July 12, 1942), also from Virginia, had been making records since 1954 for labels like Mechanic, Loma and Calla as "Little Jerry Williams". He and Gary had been on the same tour circuit several times, and began a writing partnership. Eventually they would write the Grammy-winning song "She's All I Got" for Freddie North (and, one year later, Johnny Paycheck would have one of his biggest country hits with the same song), and soul hits for Dee Dee Warwick ("She Kept On Talking"), Doris Duke ("To The Other Woman, I'm The Other Woman"), The Precisions ("You're The Best That Ever Did It") and Swamp Dogg himself ("Mama's Baby - Daddy's Maybe"). They also did a couple of one-off productions for Gary on labels like Botanic ("I'm Glad You're Back" b/w "Funky Lies") and this Joe Tex-styled stormer, released in 1969. It's a surprise to me that this 45 doesn't go with the "Northern Soul" crowd (probably because it's not "rare" enough for those dummies) - it's one of the best uptempo soul records I've ever heard. But what do I know?
Gary continued to play one-night stands all through the 1970s, until the night in Asbury Park when some scruffy weirdo named Bruce stormed the stage when Gary was on and asked if he could play with him. The best part was that Gary HAD NO IDEA who Bruce Springsteen was! Bruce and his buddy Little Steven produced a pair of hit singles for Gary ("This Little Girl", "Out Of Work"), which allowed Gary to raise his performance fees for a few years. Lately, when Gary's not touring, he does a lot of charity work, bringing food and supplies to people in need all over the world. When I spoke with him several years ago, he could not have been a nicer person, laughing at all the crazy things that has happened to him during his career. So let's all raise a glass to one of rock's true good guys, who keeps on rockin' to this day - check out his website here.
Gary U. S. Bonds - The Star (Atco 6689) - 1969
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
However, I am a SUCKER for foreign rock and roll records released on American labels. You wanna sell me records? Pull out some obscure Brit beat group that got a US release on some weird label like Coral or Smash or Lawn or Interphon and the money will fly out of my hand.
Today's featured 45 is one of my all-time favorites - "Joe, The Guitar Man" by The Crazy Girls and The Javelins, recorded and originally released in Germany. But on September 30, 1963, Capitol Records in the US decided to release the record here.
Like a lot of foreign records released in the US, this one doesn't have the correct title. Capitol was a particularly frequent offender; earlier in 1963, a Japanese singer named Kyu Sakamoto started to get airplay on some US radio stations with his song "Ue O Muite Aruko" (roughly translated: "I Look Up When I Walk") from an imported copy on Toshiba Records. Capitol picked up the track (which was sung entirely in Japanese) but felt that "Ue O Muite Aruko" wasn't exactly a "hit" title. Meanwhile, before Capitol released the song in the US, British trad jazz group Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen covered the song in an instrumental version for the British market, and called it "Sukiyaki", because it was probably the most popular food to come out of Japan at the time, and perhaps the public could relate to "Sukiyaki" a lot better than "Ue O Muite Aruko". Capitol in the US decided to append the British title to the original Japanese recording for the American release. Well, they did it again with the Crazy Girls record! The song is actually a remake of Duane Eddy's hit, "Dance With The Guitar Man", but the girls on the record sang it as "Joe die guitarren mann", literally translating to "Joe The Guitar Man". No matter. This track absolutely COOKS, and whoever the guitarist is in the Javelins, he out-Duane Eddys Duane Eddy himself, with enough reverb to shake concrete walls loose and make Dick Dale run for cover! Unfortunately, by late 1963, hot guitar instrumentals had gone the way of the dinosaur (at least on the US singles charts) and the record - of course - flopped (have I ever featured a record that was a big chart hit? No? There's a lesson in there somewhere).
Listen to the record and enjoy. You may like it enough that you might want to track down an original German 45 (unfortunately, it would be tough to track down, because I suspect that the German name of the group had nothing to do with "Crazy Girls" or "Javelins"). Me? I'll stick with my US copy, thank you very much, and thank my lucky stars that it came out here at all.
The Crazy Girls and The Javelins - Joe, The Guitar Man (Capitol 5050) - 1963