Levy, Mulligan, Café Society, Gaines and Price

Many years ago I was in contact with Albert Goldman, the celebrity biographer. During one conversation in the early 90s, he said he was between projects. I suggested that he do a biography of Morris Levy and he replied that he had considered it but “Nobody will talk”.
With GODFATHER OF THE MUSIC BUSINESS: Morris Levy by Richard Carlin (University Press of Mississippi, 2016) we have, at last, the book that couldn’t be written. The work is thorough and well researched. It is also even-handed in that Levy’s accomplishments are well delineated in addition to his associations and scams. Carlin makes it very clear that Levy’s reputation rested on the fact that his word was his bond.

Levy came up as a teen aged hat-check concessionaire in a number of New York nightclubs in the immediate post-WWII era. By 1949, at the age of twenty-two, he was the co-owner of Birdland, the famed “Jazz Corner of the World”, on Broadway just north of 52d Street. We learn some things we didn’t know: the club was NOT named for Charlie Parker and Levy’s brother, Irving, who was murdered at the club, was not the subject of a mob hit. While this is an example of solid investigative work by Carlin, the section is marred by the misidentification of Pee Wee Marquette in two separate photos.

By the mid-1950s, Birdland had its own radio show, began a touring show in the image of JATP and opened a second club in Miami. Within a short period of time, Levy opened two more nightclubs: The Roundtable and The Embers. He began a long career in music publishing with his first copyright, “Lullaby of Birdland”.

Levy also took over management of Alan Freed, the disc jockey who introduced rock ‘n’ roll to the world. He helped launch the series of Freed concerts at various New York theaters which became enormously successful. He got Freed a national radio show The Camel Rock ‘n’ Roll Dance Party, complete with a sponsor! After a couple of aborted attempts, he entered the record business with Roulette Records in 1957. For the first few years, Roulette was a powerhouse in jazz (Count Basie, Maynard Ferguson, Sarah Vaughan) and pop (Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen, Jimmy Rodgers). When Birdland closed in 1964, Levy lost interest in jazz and concentrated on his record business.

With Roulette, we see the more active involvement of the Mob, in this case the Genovese family. Carlin is very good at identifying who the characters were but he should have made the distinction that these guys were in no way involved with the operation of the label. Roulette continued to have success in the 60s with Joey Dee and Tommy James but Levy also developed a chain of retail record stores, Strawberries, and was involved in the cut-out business with PROMO records a firm that sold manufacturers deletions and overstock. One area that Carlin missed was the counterfeiting of LPs that was endemic in the late ‘70s.
Because of his associations and “tough guy” stance, Levy was pursued by law enforcement for most of his professional career. In the mid-1980s, they finally got him. There is a heavily detailed discussion of his legal difficulties which led to his 1988 conviction. In the wake of that, Levy began to divest himself of most of his businesses. He also developed colon cancer and passed away in 1990.

Carlin has done an exceptional job in telling the Levy story. Highly recommended.

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The fourth volume in the Hal Leonard Jazz Biography series is JERU’S JOURNEY by Sanford Josephson. There have been several previous books on Mulligan and this one has some strengths and weaknesses. Josephson is clearly more interested in Mulligan’s composing and arranging than his work as a blowing soloist. There is no mention of his playing on sessions for Roost and New Jazz in 1949, dates that took place during the same period that the Birth of the Cool sessions were being recorded. His playing on records by Kai Winding, Dave Lambert and Chubby Jackson were likely the first time people were aware of Mulligan as Mulligan.
Considering their celebrity, the Miles Davis and Concert Jazz Band albums rightfully have most of the space but it would have been nice to have a mention of his Prestige Quintet album and the album co-led with Ben Webster. There is a valuable discussion of the quartet with Art Farmer, one of Mulligan’s favorite groups, but I missed not having more about the sextet with Zoot.

There is plenty on Judy Holiday and a little on Sandy Dennis but the most important woman in Mulligan’s life was Contessa Franca Rota. They first met in 1974 and were married in 1982. She was the indispensable navigator of Mulligan’s last years. This late period is the best part of the book.

On balance, this is an above average job. There are photos, an index and an album discography. Another twenty pages to cover those topics left out would have made this a better book. BTW, Josephson in two spots suggests that Mulligan is the first soloist on Billie Holliday’s “Fine And Mellow” from The Sound of Jazz. Has he ever seen it?

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CAFÉ SOCIETY: The Wrong Place for The Right People by Barney Josephson and Terry Trilling-Josephson (University of Illinois Press, 2009) is accurately titled. The story of the two fabled New York City nightspots is told in Barney’s words edited by his wife. Café Society Downtown was opened December 1938 and its Uptown sibling twenty-two months later. The entertainment policy was that of a revue: band, singer, comedian, etc. Among the major performers in the early years were Albert Ammons-Pete Johnson-Meade Lux Lewis, Big Joe Turner, Frankie Newton and Billie Holiday. It was at Café Society where Holiday first performed “Strange Fruit” and there is a considerable amount of discussion of this song and how it developed. Other stars that were developed through Café Society appearances included Jack Gilford, Hazel Scott, Zero Mostel, Josh White and the Golden Gate Quartet.

Josephson was not a music man and relied on the suggestions of John Hammond. He shared Hammond’s left-of-center political leanings. Audience integration was the policy at Café Society from day one at a time when this was not the case in most New York clubs. By most accounts Josephson was a good businessman, a respected boss and a successful entrepreneur.
Cafe Society Uptown, always a slightly more upscale place, folded in December 1947. Josephson was savaged by the gossip columnists. His business counted on mentions in the press for publicity but the very writers who loved his clubs turned on him when his brother Leon, an avowed Communist, was brought to trial for Contempt of Congress. Downtown held on for another eighteen months.

In 1951, he returned to the business with The Cookery. Initially three different locations none of which had entertainment, the location at University and Eighth Street proved to be the most popular and by 1955, Josephson had coordinated all his activities there. In 1970, Mary Lou Williams talked him into starting an entertainment policy and Josephson was back in the nightclub business again. Helen Humes, Susannah McCorkle and the incomparable Alberta Hunter are among the singers associated with The Cookery. The Cookery closed in 1984 and Josephson died in 1988. His was a life well-lived and this book is a story well told. Photos and an index. Recommended.
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I”VE BEEN OUT THERE by Grady Gaines with Rod Evans (Texas A&M University Press, 2015) is a slim volume devoted to the life of Gaines (1934-), a Texas tenor player in the R&B field. Gaines was best known as the leader of the Texas Upsetters, the band that played for Little Richard in his halcyon years and later backed Sam Cooke. Along the way we meet men such as Calvin Owens, Clarence Holiman, Joe Tex and many others with whom Gaines was associated. His brother Roy, a splendid guitarist, is still active. Tall and handsome, Gaines was constantly pursued by women of all shapes and sizes.

Houston was his base of activity and we note that players such as Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb were held in the highest esteem by Gaines and his cohorts. We also learn much about the R&B circuit and the travails of being a bandleader. Gaines made few recordings under his own name but those done for the Black Top label in the 1980s are excellent examples of his abilities.

Readers with an interest in the R&B business will enjoy this. Lots of photos and an index.

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We do not get serviced with review copies all that frequently so we often spend our own money on books that look as though they would appeal to the membership. Generally, we are pretty good at finding interesting items but sometimes we come across clunkers.
The most annoying purchase in quite a while was SUMDUMHONKY by Lloyd Price. Price had an interesting, hit-making, career from the early 1950s when he hit with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” through the mid-1960s. He led a great big band in the 1960s, one virtually forgotten today. He managed to hold on to his money.

Most of this is just rant against white people. His music, after the early years, is not discussed. His ignorance of music history is in full flower and he is the hero, the only one, of all his stories. NOT RECOMMENDED.

FINDING SON HOUSE: One Searcher’s Story by Richard Shade Gardner is a pamphlet-length work devoted to the great Mississippi born blues man. The title is misleading in the sense that the discovery of House by Dick Waterman and company had been accomplished in 1964. This is about the author’s discovery of House many years later. As such it tells us less about House and more about the author, not a good idea. There are a few photos but to demonstrate where the author is coming from consider that the selected discography, quite good, is joined by title listings from two Rolling Stones album and another two from The Beatles.

Sweet Man

For much of the 1980s, I was a Governor of the New York NARAS chapter. One of the fringe benefits of such a position was the opportunity to hang out with and make friends with fellow Govs, in this case musicians such as Pepper Adams, Mel Lewis, Helen Merrill, Gerry Mulligan and Dick Katz. George Simon and Dan Morgenstern were also involved so there was a lot of jazz knowledge on our panel.

Together we schemed to get as much recognition as possible for jazz. One year we even managed to get Pepper, who was nominated for a Grammy, to appear on the TV show! On the other hand, we worked, to no avail, to get some relief for Woody Herman from his oppressive tax burden. I got a chance to do a record with Pepper and another with Katz, records that probably would not have been made were it not for the monthly NARAS Governors meetings. The Pepper Adams album was entitled”Urban Dreams” and featured Jimmy Rowles on piano. It was the only time I ever worked with Rowles but I managed to pick up two or three great stories from him and I’m still living off those stories after all these years. When Pepper discovered that the budget was all inclusive and that what was left, after all the other costs were covered, went to him, he knocked that album out in about two and a half hours! The Katz album was one of three I did for Jim Neumann and his Beehive label. Neumann was one of great LP collectors of the twentieth century (his collection was recently donated to Oberlin). A successful businessman, Jim always wanted to run things his way and the record business was a challenge. It wasn’t easy for him to run his business in Chicago and make records in New York. I suggested Junior Mance to him, knowing that Neumann was ready to record almost any good jazz player with Windy City roots. We did a mostly quartet date with Junior’s working trio and David Newman added. In another conversation with Jim, I suggested Dick Katz.

Through our monthly meetings and the conversations that ensued, I found Katz to be extremely well versed on pianists. He knew Teddy Wilson, his original inspiration, but he knew Monk’s music far better than most. He had a slim discography but one that had quality as its recurring theme. Every time I heard him play, I was impressed, thinking that lots of people were sleeping on his talent. And he wrote about jazz with authority. Add to all that was the fact that he was truly a caring human being, one sweet man. The Dick Katz album was part trio, part quintet. It was taped in May of 1984 with Jimmy Knepper and Frank Wess as our horns. Marc Johnson and Al Harewood provided the rhythm. Dick prepared well in advance of the session. “A Few Bars For Basie”, written to honor the recent passing of Count Basie, was the only tune featuring Wess on tenor, everything else featured his flute. I remember thinking at the end of the date that Katz was very well represented on the album. His choice of material was exemplary, his trio playing elegant and he seemed to get everything possible from the quintet. The album was titled, “In High Profile” (Bee Hive 7016). The album was issued on LP but when I asked about CD, Neumann showed no enthusiasm.

After the expiration of our NARAS Governor terms, I would encounter Dick Katz occasionally, playing with Roy Eldridge , in a meeting of some sort, once at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The conversations were always brief but always contained a reference to “In High Profile” and the question of when it might be issued on CD. To me, he referred to the album as his personal favorite.\r\nThe last time I saw him, perhaps five years ago, a different attitude showed up. Beehive had been gone for a long time and the only music from the label that had appeared on CD was the Johnny Hartman material used on ‘The Bridges of Madison County” soundtrack. Neumann still held his masters but wasn’t doing any deals to get the music to CD. Katz said to me, “I never should have made that album for Beehive.

“For many years, I held to the belief that because the record industry had supplied much of my living for a long time that I should abide by their rules. Thus, I had resisted burning vinyl to CD-thinking that in time, the labels would get around to what I wanted. Well some of them, namely Beehive, never got around to it. When Dick Katz died in November last year, there were obituaries that discussed his career in considerable detail. Not once was “In High Profile” mentioned. Because it wasn’t on CD, it didn’t exist.

Well it exists on CD in my collection now. I burned it and sent a check to The Jazz Foundation of America in his memory. Dick Katz, writer, teacher, pianist, friend of mine. One sweet man.

2010-06-14

Jerry

These remarks were given, in somewhat edited form, by Bob at a Memorial Service for Jerry Wexler in New York, October 30, 2009.

Jerry Wexler joined Atlantic Records in June 1953. He didn’t come in with a job, he came in as a partner. He had been a successful song-plugger in the music publishing business and had also worked as a Billboard reporter where he coined the term, “Rhythm and Blues” He had never produced a record.

He always credited his partner, Ahmet Ertegun, with showing him the way yet Jerry had an impact almost immediately: the accompaniment got better. It was Jerry who brought in Sam “The Man” Taylor, Mickey Baker and Lloyd Trotman, not on an occasional basis but to be part of a house band-years before The Funk Brothers at Motown. These three men joined Harry Van Walls and Connie Kay in the evening musicales that took place at 236 W. 56th Street. Throughout the entire period of the Ertegun-Wexler producing partnership, they always chose the musicians.

The music they produced was the greatest Rhythm and Blues of its time. Think of the storied names: Ruth Brown, Lavern Baker, Clyde McPhatter-with and without The Drifters, The Clovers, Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles. Jerry’s partner, Ahmet, was very much a night creature. He could usually be found late at night in a Village jazz club, listening to blues in Harlem or chatting up his high society friends at El Morocco. He rarely showed up at the office before noon. It was left to Jerry to mind the store: to deal with suppliers, pound on the distributors and sweet-talk the disc jockeys. When Ahmet’s older brother, Nesuhi, joined the firm in January 1955, Jerry’s duties remained the same. It would be Nesuhi who was charged with creating an LP catalogue and developing a jazz roster. When tastes began to change, it was Jerry who brought in arranger Ray Ellis and did the first independent production deal with Leiber and Stoller. Yet when things began to slow down, as they inevitably would, Jerry was known to lament that, “The Coasters were drifting and The Drifters were coasting” The situation couldn’t last-and didn’t last. The company had grown so successful that Ertegun and Wexler could no longer work together. The division of responsibilities was broken out so that Nesuhi would be involved with International A&R while Ahmet took the lead on the California pop and English rock. Jerry stayed with what he loved best: Rhythm and Blues. When Jerry signed Solomon Burke in 1960, he began anew. In time he would nurture the next generation of Atlantic producers: Bert Berns, Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin and King Curtis. He made a distribution deal with Stax.The music he produced, co-produced, executive-produced or did deals for generated another list of storied names: Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, Ben E King-with and without The Drifters, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin. In later years, Jerry would reflect on his term “Rhythm and Blues” suggesting that he should have called it “Blues and Rhythm” or, on another occasion, “Rhythm and Gospel”.

Now it had a new name, “Soul Music”. The name Jerry Wexler may have been linked with others in shared credits but there was never any question as to the identity of the lead dog. Make no mistake about it, it was Jerry Wexler and no other who was most responsible for bringing Soul Music to America.

2010-03-31

Cruising

Linda and I spent the best vacation of our lives on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruisefrom January 24-31. We sailed from Fort Lauderdale aboard Holland America”s MS Eurodam with stops at Samana, Dominican Republic; Tortola and Dominica.”” I went ashore at Tortola (more about that later) but spent the rest of the time digging music, hanging out with musicians and fans and reading (Rick Coleman”s very fine biography of Fats Domino: Blue Monday).

The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise has been operating since 2002 -this was cruise number 13.They started with a January Cruise to the Caribbean but have since expanded with an October voyage from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. We were aboard for the first West Coast Cruise which was four days. It has since has grown to a full seven days. Things tend to wind up late on the LR&BC but you can still view the proceedings from your cabin via two different closed circuit television channels. Another channel was showing Bob Mugge films, including Deep Blues.

There are several unique features of the LR&BC. First and foremost is the loyalty of their clientele: there is an 80% return rate among its customers! This is unheard of in any business. Roger Naber was once a club owner in Kansas City (The Grand Emporium) and he has an instinctive feel for what his Cruisers want. Attention to detail is important and Naber”s staff is fully attuned to the needs of everyone.

The music was glorious! We began on Saturday by renewing acquaintances with Dion. He and his wife Susan are veteran cruisers on the Holland America line however this was their first time aboard the LR&BC. We met them in Memphis at the Blues Music Awards a few years ago. Dion has recorded a couple of blues CDs that are well worth your attention. They are Bronx In Blue and Son of Skip James. When Roger found out that he would be aboard, he invited him to do a solo set which was scheduled for the following afternoon. We sat together, and were joined by Guy Davis, to hear John Hammond, (whom Dion had known since the 1960s). John keeps getting better and now that he is writing songs, his sets are more varied and interesting. On a Jimmy Reed tune, he got as close to the Reed harmonica sound as anyone I”ve ever heard.

Linda and I went to hear Terrance Simien and his band (complete with guest flute player). Terrance has more fun performing than anyone I know and he insists that his audience get into the act. He flung Mardi Gras beads into the crowd (but not, as he did at The Poconos Blues Festival, with his feet) and answered requests for traditional zydeco tunes. When he sang a Bob Dylan song he set himself apart from everyone. What a voice! I was set to emcee three shows on Sunday but prior to that we stopped in to hear the Gospel Brunch hosted by The Holmes Brothers. Wendell Holmes did not make the trip due to health reasons and was replaced by Ray Schinery on guitar. In addition, Catherine Russell was added to the trio playing keyboards and adding a fourth voice. In this first of five shows the band would perform over the week, things were not quite in synch with the blend of the voices, and not exactly what I would have preferred. After lunch, I headed to the Queen”s Lounge where Dion would do his solo set. Although I was about fifteen minutes early, I couldn”t get near the stage! The room had begun to fill up when he started his sound check and quickly was packed to overflowing. Roger Naber handled the introductions in my absence and Dion proceeded to completely enthrall the crowd. He is a natural storyteller and mixed up country blues with versions of his own hits and even hits by other writers (he had the audience singing along with Neil Sedaka”s “Calendar Girl”!). His set was one of the many big hits of the cruise.

I had the pleasure of introducing The Georgia Songbird, E.G. Kight for a solo set in the late afternoon slot. I have followed this lady for more than ten years since she moved into the blues field. She is a gifted songwriter-her tunes are being performed by a growing number of singers these days. The house was about one-third full when she began however people began drifting in and they stayed. E.G. has an easy manner with her songs and was, to me, a surprisingly good guitarist. By the time she finished the room was full. She is a class act. We joined Terrance Simien for dinner and had some wonderful conversation. He is someone who has benefited considerably since becoming the first recipient of the Cajun/Zydeco Grammy. Many of the players in his band have been with him ten years or more so the sound of the group is tight and the repertoire wide.

I have been introducing Guy Davis for many years and have always appreciated his versatility on banjo, guitar and harmonica. He is one who is completely at ease in front of an audience and his own songs blend in perfectly with the songs by other writers (he had the audience singing along with Mississippi John Hurt”s “Candy Man”). We heard a taste of Irma Thomas before turning in. We have heard her on any number of occasions and we know her basic set well. Yet she is so thoroughly consistent in her performances, she is always worth a listen. The audience, many of whom have heard her as often as we have, simply adores her.

While in port, there was no music until late afternoon and while some checked out Samana, I chilled with my book and dug some of the films. By this time, Linda & I would head in different directions but we rendezvoused at the Queen”s Lounge for a mostly acoustic jam which featured Bob Margolin and E.G. There were lots of guests including Ana Popovic and Guy Davis. Margolin is a perfect host for this sort of thing since he tells funny stories (the one about Big Joe Williams and Muddy was a favorite) and is able to bend his own playing to suit anyone else. We were especially impressed with Ms. Popovic, whose playing, in this loose relaxed context, was quite good and very different from what one hears in her own shows. She has an eight month old son Luke, and is thus far managing to balance the demands of motherhood, with those of a professional entertainer. Linda turned in but we hung out with Steve Simon, who runs a Blues Festival on St. John”s in March, ace photographer Joe Rosen and some other kindred spirits until way past late. The piano bar was still jumping and Mitch Woods made the most of his many appearances there. Tomorrow, Tortola.

2010-03-21

Newly discovered Jimmy Blanton photos

In September 2007 Fred Reif sent me these photos. He had obtained them from the original photographer (now deceased) with the note that they were taken at the Michigan State Fair, probably in 1941.

I threw this out to some jazz scholars who wrestled with the problem: Cootie Williams left the band in November 1940.The Ellington band was in California in 1941 with Jump For Joy. Using the tracking skills of several Ellington experts, we came up with the possibility of MSF in late August of1940. Would anyone like to opine on this?

Janiva Magness in Worcester

Janiva Magness wowed her fans on Friday July 11 at the EcoTarium in a concert co-produced by the EcoTarium and WICN public radio. She performed two sets, eleven songs, going back as far as her 1999 album, MY BAD LUCK SOUL and coming all the way forward to her most recent outing, THAT”S WHAT LOVE WILL MAKE YOU DO (Alligator 4924). All this despite an injury which resulted from a fall while loading her tour van ten days ago. For this show a foot cast and cane replaced her signature hand fan!

Her first set included three songs from the new album, finishing up with “Get It, Get It”, which was the closer. The dance floor was full and the enthusiastic fans moved over to the CD table where there was a long line waiting to buy autographed CDs.

The dancers returned for set two which began with “I”m Lost Without You” from her USE WHAT YOU GOT album. Guitarist Zach Zunis was on the record and he was featured here. A pair of songs from the 2006 album DO I MOVE YOU (“Workin” On Me Baby” and “You Were Never Mine”) were met with enthusiastic approval. “Ain”t Lost Nothin”” followed an autobiographical recitation of some of the many tragedies she has endured. “You Sound Pretty Good” from the latest album, written with her husband Jeff Turnes, presented a more upbeat look at her current situation in the music business.

She concluded the evening by singing, rather than talking, to her fans. She introduced the band and expressed her gratitude to the audience for its support.
The Band: Benny Yee, keyboards; Zach Zunis, guitar; Gary Davenport, bass; Perry Senn, drums.

2008-08-13

Ike Turner Remembered

When I heard of Ike’s Turners death in December 2007, I had several immediate thoughts: his accomplishments, his concerns, his reputation but more than anything else, his music.

It is different for each person as to how and when they come upon this music. I had first known about him through the success of the Ike & Tina Sue recordings that got plenty of play over WEZE/WILD in Boston. In my teens and twenties when I discovered someone I liked, it became an obsession: I had to hear everything. I soon discovered the instrumentals that he had recorded, notably for Pompeii, but also as one part of what he routinely did through the years. I also loved the live material Ike & Tina had done for Kent/Modern.

I didn’t start going back to hear his recordings from the 1950s until later. I can’t remember when I first heard “Rocket 88” but its greatness made me realize there was much I didn’t know or understand about Ike Turner. For one thing, he played piano. The intro on “Rocket 88″ is one of those perfect moments that stay with the listener forever.

While I was rummaging through cutout bins or chasing down reviewer copies of Ike & Tina”s LPs, Ike hit the big time with his Liberty deal. At that point, the records began selling in huge quantities and the group became nationally known. And then came the breakup, the burnout, the fire which destroyed his studio and the jail time, all fueled by cocaine.

Along the way Kurt Loder had written a best-sellingbiography of Tina, (“I, TINA”) which was made into a movie, “What”s Love Got To Do With It”. The film was a big hit and the portrayal of Ike by Lawrence Fishburne made him out to be a despicable human being. The performance was splendid drama but the difference in physical stature created an enduring problem: Fishburne is well over six feet tall, Ike Turner wasn”t more than five-seven. He may have been shorter than Tina. Film has a way of forming lasting impressions in the mind and the vision of Fishburne looming over Angela Bassett is probably the way most people think of Ike Turner.

Cut to the summer of 1996 when I was doing afternoon drivetime at WBGO. Word came down that the Blue Note, a major night club in New York, had booked a blues show featuring the groups of Joe Louis Walker and Ike Turner. Would I like to interview Ike Turner? I jumped at the opportunity.

Alas WBGO was not archiving interviews in those days so I have nothing other my memory of the event to consult. Most interview subjects, in my experience, want to discuss the gig, the record, the book or whatever else they are selling. If you can get a clean focus on those things, you”ll usually have a decent interview. In Ike”s case, he hadn”t had a record in many years and surely hadn’t played New York or its environs since the 1970s.

I started by playing “Rocket 88”. Off mike, he asked why I chose it. I told him that the audience would expect him to play it and he seemed genuinely surprised. His show, the Ike Turner Revue, was largely built along the lines of what he had been doing with Tina. His wife Jeanette would be the singer. He had a couple of piano features in the show and said he would think about adding “Rocket 88”. He began to open up.

He talked about his upbringing in the Mississippi delta. He spoke freely of the Bihari family and Sam Phillips, whom he had worked with before Sun was founded. He talked of knowing BB King when he was still called Riley. He talked about the move to St. Louis and the founding of The Kings of Rhythm. I suggested he revive the The Kings of Rhythm name.

We continued to play music from his past rather than just the hits. He stopped the thread of the conversation at one point and began to speak of his own mortality. He would be sixty-five years old later that year and he knew that sixty-five was the average life span of black men. He wondered whether his accomplishments in the development of modern blues would ever be acknowledged. He was concerned whether he would have enough time to complete the things he was working on. This was not your run-of-the-mill interview subject matter. I asked him, since he had been a bandleader, a songwriter, a pianist and guitarist, how he thought of himself. While not exactly answering the question, he responded without hesitation, “I can make a monkey out of a piano but I only do tricks on guitar”. As we were concluding the conversation he gave me a CD containing rough mixes of songs he was working on. He autographed a photo with a tag that said”stay strong”.

I saw the show at the Blue Note and it was pretty lame except for the piano things, including “Rocket 88″, which got a very good response from the crowd. I kept thinking about the conversation and the thoughts stayed with me. I didn”t think all that much about Ike”s music until the release of “Here and Now” (Ikon 8850) in 2001. The band was listed as Ike Turner & the Kings of Rhythm. Fifty years from the release of “Rocket 88”, Ike Turner was back where he belonged. The album got raves and Ike was given an award for Comeback Album of The Year by the Blues Foundation.

He took the Kings of Rhythm on the road playing festivals all over the world. He had a triumphant couple of sets at the Chicago Blues Festival in 2001. The first, on the main stage, was with his own band while the second was a reunion with Pinetop Perkins, his first piano teacher. This latterset got some of the most tumultuous applause in the history of the CBF. Then came the Zoho release, “Risin” With The Blues” (Zoho 200611) from 2006. While not quite up to the level of the Ikon album, there was plenty of solid stuff on this and it also won a Grammy award for Best Traditional Blues Album. Ike Turner had come all the way back.

The last time I heard him was in October 2006 on a cruise ship, in the Pacific Ocean, off the Mexican coast. He came on about midnight before an appreciative, well-oiled crowd that was expecting great things. That night they got them. The augmented Kings of Rhythm now contained three horns, three keyboards including his old friend from Mississippi Ernest Lane, full rhythm section and Audrey Madison, an energetic young lady doing the obligatory “Nutbush CityLimits” and “Proud Mary”. Ike played piano and guitar as well as he ever played them. It was a show that took no prisoners and simply blasted the blues from bar one. I thought to myself that this had to be the best blues band I had overheard. Thinking back to that interview in 1996, I”d say that Ike made the most of his time. He was able in the course of those last two albums to reestablish his blues credentials to everyone”s satisfaction. A thorough reexamination of his early years had provided more than enough evidence of his ability to bring a modern take on the blues out of the Mississippi delta. His own book, TAKIN” BACK MY NAME, sadly lacking an editor, was flawed but still contained fascinating bits and pieces relating to his whole career.

The general public, who read Tina”s book and saw the movie, would never get it but then I don”t think Ike cared about that. His people were blues people and music people who, now more than ever, knew what he had done and how well he did it.

BP

There is an especially well-done farewell to Ike by Cilla Huggins in issue #65 of JUKE BLUES, the English magazine that had been very much in Ike”s corner for a long time. Here”s Ike”s original “Rocket 88” for your listening pleasure, thanks to HuckToohey from YouTube.

2008-07-28