Mel Lewis was a talker. “How you doing ,Mel?” could lead to a reply lasting thirty minutes or more. He was well read on a wide variety of topics. He was also opinionated, argumentative and funny. And he could really play drums.
I first became aware of him on the Terry Gibbs band Mercury albums. He had been around for many years prior to that and while I had been aware of him, I think I “heard” him for the first time on those sides. My impression was that he played the job exceptionally well without calling much attention to himself.
I got to know him when we were both Governors of the New York NARAS chapter. Dick Katz, Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, Helen Merrill and Margaret Whiting were others involved around that time. He was proud of his ability to swing in any context. He reminded me on more than one occasion that it was he who played on Jimmy McGriff’s hit THE WORM.
THE VIEW FROM THE BACK OF THE BAND by Chris Smith (University of North Texas Press, 2014) is a thorough biography of Melvin Sokoloff and covers his entire professional career in depth, with great insight.
His relationships with Ray Anthony, Stan Kenton, Bob Brookmeyer and Thad Jones are explored in exemplary fashion. A complete history of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, and the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra is detailed. (The band continues, with several original members, as The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.)
There are photos from family and professional sources and twenty-four pages of sessions-leader and sideman-in chronological order. This book is recommended to anyone who loves jazz.
One closing thought: Back in the late 1980s, Buck Clayton, who could no longer play, was writing and leading a genuine swing band. He made several CDs and I remember coming across one, A SWINGIN’ DREAM on Stash. I listened and thoroughly enjoyed it. Buck’s writing was Old Testament Basie and the band was loaded with New York guys who could play that style. A drummer who could do so was more of a problem but this drummer was great and really swung the band. I looked it up and the drummer was Mel. I thought to myself: of course, who else?
My many ways, Bernard Purdie is the flip side of Mel Lewis. A relentless self-promoter, Purdie has made his reputation as the quintessential drummer of Soul Music. Not that he can’t and doesn’t play other material, but for Soul Drums not only is there no one better there is no DISCUSSION of anyone better. LET THE DRUMS SPEAK (Pretty Media, 2014) is an auto-biography, told in the third person, covering his rise from the beginning until today. There is considerable family background including the fact that Purdie was the first black student enrolled at Elkton (Maryland) High School, graduating in 1960.
After a year and a half at Morgan State, Purdie-everybody calls him Purdie-left for New York. Here the story gets very interesting. There are few better discussions of the inner workings of the music industry from a musician’s perspective than what you get here. Moving up the ladder was the goal. Which groups to join, what clubs to play, what progress could be gained and how to take advantage of a break are a part of this story. Along the way he had mentors such as Joe Robinson, Herbie Lovelle and King Curtis and worked days in a laundry to keep things together. He began cutting “demos” for certain producers. Not the leader, he was merely the dummer.
Demos are sent to record labels more for an opportunity to hear the lyric and suggested grove of a song. When he made “Wiggle Wobble” with Les Cooper, he helped create a hit but when he cut a demo on Doris Troy for arranger Horace Ott, Atlantic issued the demo as is and had a huge smash with “Just One Look”. Purdie was moving up that ladder.
Panama Francis and Les Paul lent further assistance. Francis, the busiest New York drummer of the period, passed work on to Purdie while Paul taught him how to get the best sound from his instrument. King Curtis by this time, was a producer and hit-making recording artist and hired Purdie for most of his Atlantic dates.
This led to the rhythm section of Richard Tee, Cornell Dupree, Chuck Rainy and Purdie-the greatest R&B rhythm team of the time and the backbone of so many Atlantic Records hits. When they toured with Curtis, the were known as The King Pins. They began to tour with Aretha Franklin. Upon Curtis’ 1971 death, Purdie took over leadership of The King Pins. Later associations with Steely Dan and Galt McDermott are discussed thoroughly. He played for McDermott’s revival of the Broadway show, HAIR.
Along the way Purdie has made albums of his own and been a part of such groups as the Godfathers of Groove (with Reuben Wilson and Grant Green, Jr.) and the Hudson River Rats (with Rob Paparozzi). Still active, his infectious enthusiasm is a joy to behold.
In 1997, Rob Bowman wrote a history of Stax Records, SOULSVILLE USA, which was quite well done. I thought when Robert Gordon’s RESPECT YOURSELF: STAX RECORDS and the SOUL EXPLOSION appeared, why would it be necessary? Bowman was Canadian and Gordon is from Memphis, the home of Stax Records. If anything this is an even more diligent job and I learned much not available in Bowman’s work.
For those unaware of the history, Stax was the brainchild of a banker and sometime country fiddle player, Jim STewart and his sister Estelle AXton. From 1960 to 1975 they managed to create Southern Soul Music largely by themselves. Along the way, they had the good fortune of a brilliant self-contained house band, the MGs of Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Lewie Steinberg-later Duck Dunn and Al Jackson, Jr. Other bands such as the Mar-Keys and Bar-Kays were developed along with such talent as Rufus Thomas; his daughter Carla Thomas; Eddie Floyd, Albert King, William Bell, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers. And while all this was going on the Civil Rights explosion was under way. White owners, integrated bands and black singers was not the sort of thing the Southern establishment looked kindly upon.
The Stax owners were unsophisticated in almost every way. They had help from their distributor, Atlantic, in the person of Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd. But when Atlantic lawyers drew up a revised distribution deal, they signed without even reading it, something they would come to deeply regret. Gordon records the mistakes made in great detail and it is a wonder that the music succeeded given the frequently amateurish approach to business.
That changed in 1965 when Al Bell was brought in to do radio promotion. Bell’s influence grew and when the Atlantic distribution deal blew up in 1968, Bell began to exert greater influence. The label did become
more professional but there is a litany of classic blunders made by Bell as well. He hired gangsters to do
promotion for him and each time the label made a new distribution change, they made a worse deal. The Columbia deal, signed in 1973, led to their 1975 bankruptcy. Several attempts have been made to revive the label to no great result.
Yet the music made by Stax in its earliest years lingers in the ear. Songs by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and
others have a feeling that has never been replicated. All the money in the world will not change that.