Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Over the years, I have listened to hundreds of thousands of records (if not a million). But there have only been TWO times when I literally backed away from my speakers, fearing that they were going to explode and kill me with shrapnel. First time was when I brought home my first 78 by Howlin' Wolf - "No Place To Go". Same riff over and over again. ONE chord. Recorded VERY hot on the VU meter (and on 78 it's even LOUDER). Then Wolf's voice hit me like a sledgehammer to the cranium. I literally had to get away from the speakers in awe of what was coming out of them.
Second time? This record. This time, however, it wasn't the frightening sound of the voice that made me step back. I'd heard lots of gospel singers before. Powerful vocals are their stock-in-trade. No, the thing that made me back away from the speakers this time was the sheer VOLUME coming from this group of singers.
Of course, this wasn't just any group of singers, and Archie Brownlee wasn't just any gospel lead. These guys had been at it since 1936, when they were formed at the Piney Woods school for the blind near Jackson, Mississippi. The school needed money, and the principal decided to gather four of the students to form a group to do appearances to raise money for the school. They called themselves the Cotton Blossom Singers, singing folk and spiritual tunes. The group soon toured around the area, and caught the ear of folklorist Alan Lomax, who recorded the group for the Library of Congress in March 1937. Strangely, they recorded their folk material under the name Abraham, Woodard & Patterson. Even more strangely, they recorded their gospel sides for Lomax under the name "Blind Boys" instead of the Cotton Blossom Singers.
When the Lomax recordings failed to set the world on fire, the group continued to sing around the school, and after graduation decided to try and make it on their own. They had a dual strategy - they would sing pop tunes for white audiences as the Cotton Blossom Singers, and gospel for black audiences as the Jackson Harmoneers. They turned professional in 1944, and became travelers on the gospel highway. It was around this time that the group recruited a second lead singer, Melvin Henderson, and the quartet became a quintet.
The Jackson Harmoneers worked steadily, but were just another gospel harmony group, singing in the "jubilee" style of the 1940s. Then they met Rebert H. Harris and The Soul Stirrers.
Harris and the Stirrers were pioneers of the hard, shouting gospel style that took hold in the late 1940s. It is said that Harris could out-sing anybody, and that greats such as Sam Cooke were afraid to have a sing-off with Harris. Archie Brownlee and the Harmoneers listened and learned.
Soon, the Jackson Harmoneers were one of the top draws on the gospel circuit, with Brownlee's sweet high tenor and piercing screams driving the crowds insane. If that weren't enough, Brownlee and the group became adept at dynamic theatrics, with Brownlee sometimes leaping from the stage into the audience! Unfortunately, this wasn't Melvin Henderson's style, and he left the group in 1946. He was replaced by Percell Perkins, who not only doubled as their manager, but he wasn't blind!!!
Perkins soon introduced the group to Leon Rene, owner of Excelsior Records. He signed the group, and the subsequent records were released as "The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi (Jackson Harmoneers)". They moved to Coleman Records in 1948, recording several singles, and then in 1950 signed with one of the top gospel labels of the day, Peacock Records. At their first session for Peacock, they recorded "Our Father (Which Art In Heaven)", which sold in such large numbers that it became one of the very, very few gospel singles to hit Top Ten on the R&B charts. The Five Blind Boys were now gospel superstars.
A couple of years later, The Blind Boys of Alabama became popular in the gospel field, and so, to avoid confusion, Brownlee and his group began billing themselves as the ORIGINAL Five Blind Boys (and still appending the group's original name "Jackson Harmoneers" on their record labels). They had many big sellers for Peacock over the years (though none as big as "Our Father"), with Brownlee's piercing screams a wonder to behold. But those screams took a toll on Brownlee. He was prone to respiratory problems, and died from pneumonia on February 8, 1960, at the age of 35.
Take a listen to this record, one of the last that Brownlee recorded, and prepare to be awed. Not only is this one of the loudest, scariest records you'll ever hear, but you'll soon realize that there's only ONE instrument on this record - a piano.
Oh, and try not to blow out your computer speakers.
The Original Five Blind Boys - Someone Watches (Peacock 1797) - 1959
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Betty was born in 1945 in Durham, North Carolina, and as a youth shuffled her time between Durham and Pittsburgh, PA. Her grandmother had a rather large blues record collection, and Betty listened to folks like B. B. King, and Jimmy Reed constantly.
At the age of sixteen, Betty decided on a modeling career and moved in with her aunt in New York City, enrolling in the Fashion Institute of Technology. She made many trips into Greenwich Village, hanging out with folkies (who undoubtedly appreciated Betty's knowledge of the blues), getting modeling gigs (she was one of the very, very few black models in the 1960s to sign with the prestigious Wilhemina agency) and also hanging in a club uptown known as The Cellar. Another denizen of the club was soul singer Lou Courtney, who reportedly produced an independent single with Betty - "The Cellar" (though I've never seen a copy, or even seen this 45 listed anywhere except in a Wikipedia article - and we all know how inaccurate they are). Apparently, Courtney also introduced Betty to some of his friends on the New York recording scene, and shortly thereafter cut this 45 for Don Costa and his DCP International label, which was then riding high with Little Anthony and The Imperials. This was her first officially released single.
The record basically announces Betty to the world, and she guarantees that you ain't never seen nothin' like her before, because she's in total control - with lyrics like "All of you girls, you'd better hide your guys/'cause I'm-a gonna get the first one that catches my eye" and "I'm a woman who can get a man/and I'm gonna steal him if I can". She not only knows that she can get any man she wants, but if that man just happens to have a girlfriend (or wife), well, she'd just better get out of Betty's way.
The attitude that Betty projected was completely at odds with the mores of the early 60s - Betty was a woman who was fiercely independent, sexually open, and there wasn't a man on the face of the earth that she would submit to.
I don't really need to go into the rest of Betty's career and life - there are many, many good articles on the web about this legendary woman, and I suggest you read as many as you can, as well as tracking down her funkier-than-hell LPs from the 1970s (which have been reissued by Light In The Attic Records - along with her unreleased 1979 LP). Betty's still around, living quietly in Pennsylvania, despite rumors that she died of a drug overdose (which must have been started by one of her enemies - Betty was very anti-drug).
If you're already familiar with Betty Mabry Davis, I don't have to tell you that this record is a fascinating blueprint for what came later. So, for those of you who have never heard the genesis of a truly one-of-a-kind funkateer's career, here it is.
Betty Mabry - Get Ready For Betty (DCP International 1109) - 1964
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
One of the many things that annoy me about people concerns the fame to talent equation. I can't tell you how many times I've heard folks talk about modestly talented celebrities (I'm being kind here) like Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves or Chris Martin of Coldplay or pretty much anyone who appears on "Dancing With The Stars" like they are giants who walk the earth; "Oh, he's so talented, no wonder he makes so much money, no wonder he's so famous!" REALLY??? There are waaaay better actors than Cruise/Reeves/Travolta, etc., and Coldplay, at least to me, isn't even music, it's just something to put on the CD player to have something you can ignore while doing something else and avoiding silence. Do not get me started on "Dancing With The Stars"....
The amount of fame gained by a person has NOTHING to do with how much talent he or she has. If it did, there wouldn't be a Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton or post-"Mean Girls" Lindsay Lohan.
On the other hand, there are LOTS of multi-talented people walking this earth whose names you've probably never heard. What do you think of a guy whose band Elvis Presley used to clear his schedule to go and see? Or who appeared in several major motion pictures and at least one hit TV series? Or who is still the first to get a call when a company needs a deep, resonant voice for their TV and radio commercials? Or who owned one of the hottest nightclubs in California in the mid-60s? Well, one guy did (and does) all that. His name? Lance LeGault.
Lance (b. William Lance LeGault - pronounced "luh-GOH" - on May 2, 1935 in Chicago) had a rough childhood. His father died when he was 4 and Lance spent the next few years in orphanages because his mother could not afford to raise him. When his mother remarried and took Lance back in, things were still not well. A big kid, he lied about his age and got a job with the railroad at age 11, but was fired two years later when his real age was discovered. He went back to high school, and graduated at age 20. He then went to college in Wichita, Kansas, graduating with a degree in business management. After moving to California in 1960, LeGault bought a nightclub in the LA area called The Cross Bow, in which he and his band would play down-home blues and R&B. Clint Eastwood was a regular customer, and then one night Elvis Presley walked in (with Tuesday Weld on his arm - they were in the midst of shooting "Wild In The Country"). Elvis loved the band, and he and Lance became fast friends.
Soon afterward, Lance's buddy Elvis got him a new job. Since Lance and Elvis were built about the same (both were big six-footers), Elvis got Lance hired as his stunt double on his new film "Girls, Girls, Girls!". LeGault would end up doing 4 films with The King, making himself a career (if not a name) in Hollywood. He would later go on to appear in films like Coma, Catch My Soul (the film version of Jack Good's rock opera based on Shakespeare's Othello, in which Lance played Iago to Richie Havens' Othello) and, most famously, Stripes (in which he played Col. Glass - he was the guy who yelled "STILLMAN" at John Larroquette, causing him to throw his telescope through a window). He's probably best-known, however, for his role as Colonel Roderick Decker on The A-Team, and I'd bet my boots that if Lance and Mr. T ever got into it, he'd give Mr. T a run for his money. He's still very much in demand for voice-over work - if you've ever been to Graceland, it's Lance's voice you're hearing on the tour audio tape. Glen Larson (creator of shows like Magnum, P. I., Knight Rider, The Fall Guy, etc.) once said that Lance's voice was "four octaves lower than God's".
While he did all of the above, Lance also had a side career as a singer. His group was called Lance and The Spirits, and while they didn't set the world on fire, they did get some airplay in the LA area. The group hooked up with legendary DJ Wolfman Jack, who was then riding high on XERB radio. Wolfman got the group a deal with George Garrett (proprietor of the legendary Uncle George's Record Shop in Minneapolis, and owner of the Garrett/Bangar/Twin Town family of labels) who had recently moved his operation to California to more effectively do business with the Wolf, on whose show he was a sponsor. They released "The Perfect Combination"/"Cooking Up Some Love" by Lance and The Spirits in late 1966. Lance and the boys did promotional appearances all up and down the West Coast with Wolfman Jack, and in return he played their single on his radio show (which is how I discovered this 45 - from an old XERB aircheck a friend gave me). Unfortunately, the record didn't do well - it was the last record EVER released on Garrett (former home of The Trashmen and "Surfin' Bird"), and few people could find it in stores.
This was a shame, since this record could have at least been a regional hit. This is great uptempo blue-eyed soul, and Lance is in fine voice. On the rare occasions where I deejay at soul clubs, I always make sure this one's in my DJ box - and more often than not, people ask "what record is THAT?" When I tell them (and patiently explain who Lance LeGault is), they're always shocked.
Lance and The Spirits cut another 45, "Circle Point", released on Shock in April, 1967, and LeGault did record an LP in 1971 for Polydor ("LeGault"), but they went the way of all his other records.
Fortunately, Lance LeGault has done very well for himself over the years in Hollywood. Unfortunately, the career of Lance LeGault, blue-eyed soul brother, continues to languish in obscurity. Except here. On The Record.
Lance and The Spirits - The Perfect Combination (Garrett 1005) - 1966