Key to the Highway2017-03-29
Big MaceoLionel Hampton
*************************March 31st was my mother’s birthday. She passed away in 2014 at the age of 93, so around this time of year the amount that she is on my mind increases and the past couple of years I have chosen to try to do a show which has at least a taste of the music that she enjoyed. Big Band Swing was what was popular in her teens and, since that is usually the age that nostalgia is formed, it was always the music that she most enjoyed. Her exposure was mostly to white artists but, since I know she loved Benny Goodman’s orchestra, I’m sure she also enjoyed his black vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. He is included here today as well as Big Maceo, who was also born on March 31st and, since I felt the show needed a Blues guitarist, I went for the best with a small selection from my favorite, Luther Allison.
*************************Big Maceo Merriweather was probably the most influential factor in the development of the postwar urban Blues piano. Even though he didn’t get into a recording studio until 1941when he was 36 years old and only had twenty-eight tracks listed under his own name. Born Major Meriweather (for some reason he added an extra R to his surname) on March 31st 1905 to parents Christopher “Kit” and Ora, the youngest son and maybe the youngest of all their eleven children. Both his parents and all the siblings were born in Newnan, Georgia, and Major was raised on a farm just outside Newnan, 39 miles west of Atlanta. While there were no instrumentalists in the family, his brother Roy remembers, “We were all singers, gifted to sing by my father. My daddy was always singing when he came home from work. When he came home from the fields he get his book out – his singing book – and he say, ’Come on boy, come and help me out.’”
His brother Roy again, who was a Reverend: “He couldn’t play a piano in the country but he began playing in College Park. Maceo didn’t start in church though he was a church member. … he started in a ‘restaurant’ or some kind of joint they called it, you know.” His wife Rossell “Hattie Bell” Spruel recalled it similarly. “He started playing just in somebody’s house, started playing for a lady named Roxy and he’d work for her so she’d let him . . . play y’know.”
Roy: “He played by ear. I know he trained himself ‘cause y’know by practicing with other people. … He went around these joints where piannas was sitting around and people liked to dance and like to say anybody start a little music they start to stomping and, ‘Sing that thing, boy – Go ahead.’ … he played while he sing, Maceo. … and they’d have him to come back every night and play some more. ‘Cause they didn’t have many famous around College Park.”
By 1923, two of the older siblings, Guy Lee and Odessa, were living in Detroit and convinced Roy to move his wife and family there also. Major would follow the next year. Roy: “He went around and played for houses y’know where people sell whiskey and stuff like that.” The Reverend Roy did not consider enjoying Maceo’s music a conflict with his religion and Maceo would often play the piano in Roy’s Detroit home and Roy would even go to hear him at the clubs. It was in Detroit that he acquired his moniker, Maceo being a mispronunciation of Major and Big … well, Roy tells us, “Major was six foot four, I believe – looked like a big bear! He weighed about 256.”
Hattie speaks about when she had a house where they sold alcohol in Detroit: “That’s where I met him. He used to come to my house all the time and I’d give him money and the rest used to give him whiskey. And I told him don’t take no whiskey, don’t play yourself cheap. Don’t bring no whiskey or no wine ‘cause you soon be a whiskey-head or a wine-head and you won’t get no place.” He was able to keep a job outside music in tough times. “He was the man that walked the track and when times was bad he was a handyman, when times was good he worked everywhere – he always kept a job. He worked at Fords and he worked all over.”
Kit was hit by a truck and died in 1926, so Roy brought their mother back to stay with his family in Detroit, but soon they all moved to Dayton, Ohio, where another sister lived and they lost touch with Maceo.
It was difficult to get recorded in Detroit so Maceo went off to Chicago, where he met guitarists Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy. It was Red who introduced him to Lester Melrose, by far the most influential producer of race music at the time. Maceo’s first day in the studio was a long one when, on Tuesday, June 24th 1941, he first backed Red on eight tracks and then the two of them laid down six more released under Maceo’s name. Melrose had a formula for many of his recordings, referred to as the Bluebird sound for the record label, usually including Jazz-based pianists, but Maceo went against that mould with his strong, straight-ahead Blues styling. Being left-handed, he also possessed an unusually strong bassline.
Maceo cut another six sides of his own on December 19th and in February 1942 supported Red again for another eight tunes. He was in the studio again on July 28th for four more of his songs, but the Petrillo ban closed down all commercial recording beginning around August 1942. While taking these many excursions to Chicago, Merriweather was still living in Detroit so never lost his popularity on the local house-rent party circuit and having been put to platter did nothing to hurt that. Maceo’s popularity kept him working in clubs and he also made tours as far away as Tennessee and Atlanta. Still, without new recordings, things got rough towards the end of 1944, but in December the union ban was lifted.
Maceo had been playing more with Big Bill Broonzy while in Chicago. Broonzy: “The first night we played, Big Maceo rocked the house and I didn’t have to sing but one or two songs.” They became a trio with the addition of drummer Tyrell “Little T” Dixon, then expanding further with bassist Little Joe and saxophone player Buster Bennett. In February, Big Bill brought them all but Little Joe into the studio for a twelve track session.
A few days later, on February 26th, Maceo was back in session backed by Tampa Red and Little T on at least four numbers. Merriweather had two more sessions of his own on July 5th and October 19th, but by this time the Broonzy group had disbanded so Maceo took on another tour. Upon returning to Chicago he gigged again with Red and they also went into the studio. A session backing John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson followed that and in February 1946 another taping with Red.
In mid-1946 while in Milwaukee, Maceo suffered a stroke which would leave him paralyzed on his right side. Hattie sent their daughter Majorette to live with an aunt while she headed to Chicago to tend to her husband, returning to Detroit often enough to take care of the house. As Maceo recovered somewhat he was able to go into the studio again in February of 1947, but it was the piano of Eddie Boyd that would back his four vocals. Melrose was not impressed and let Merriweather go.
Maceo got another session from Art Rupe who was referred to him when he came to Chicago looking for new artists for his Specialty Records. This time, it was one of Maceo’s protégées who played the piano in April of 1948. The big man had showed the ropes beginning back in January 1946 to Johnnie Jones, who would make himself a solid career highlighted by his time with Elmore James, made an excellent showing in his mentor’s style.
But Maceo was still miserable as shown by this note sent off to Hattie during one of her trips back to Detroit. “I got a little job trying to get my hand and legs like they was I am praying for them to get well so I can be Big Maceo again.”
Still, Maceo was able to get road bookings and, beginning in January 18th 1950, he played in Bowling Green, Kentucky leading to Knoxville, Tennessee, and winding up in New Orleans on February 10th. But back in Chicago in August there wasn’t really enough money coming in to keep up with the bills. By 1952 he had joined forces with guitarist John Brim and his harmonica playing wife Grace, and they went with him to Detroit. It was back home that Maceo cut his last session as another pianist played the right hand while Merriweather provided the left. On the morning of February 26th 1953, Maceo succumbed to his last heart attack and was interred in Detroit on March 3rd. His grave remained unmarked until the White Lake Blues Festival in Whitehall, Michigan, on May 3rd 2008 raised the money to provide a tombstone that June. Big Maceo was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2002.
*************************The vibraphone is not a common instrument, in fact I can only think of three immediately off hand, and one of those wouldn’t have been known outside the Bay Area, that being Bill Hazzard whose show on KKUP followed mine for twenty-some years and played in the Jazz band Octobop. Another Bay Area DJ, although considerably better known through his own recordings, would be Johnny Otis, who I believe took up the instrument after the drums became a little too rigorous to handle, although I should double check that assumption sometime when I have the time. That brings us to our featured artist today, Lionel Hampton, easily the best-known practitioner of the instrument. Similar to Otis, Hampton first played the drums professionally, but Lionel wound up making his reputation on the vibes as well as playing piano, singing, and arranging and composing.
Lionel moved around quite a bit in his youth, being born in Louisville, Kentucky on April 20th 1908. Even before his father, who was a singer and pianist, was killed in World War I, his mother had taken Lionel to live with her parents in Birmingham, Alabama until 1916 when his grandfather, a railroad fireman, was transferred to Chicago. Deeming that the gangs made the city unsafe for the youth, his family decided to send him to the Holy Rosary Academy in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he learned the rudiments of the snare drum.
In 1919, the lad returned to Chicago and was entered in the Saint Monica School where he joined the Chicago Defender’s Newsboys’ Band and learned to play timpani and marimba, ultimately taking over the snare drum duties in the marching band when Sid Catlett, who would go on to become one of the better-known Jazz drummers of his time, departed the band which was sponsored by the most-read Black newspaper across the nation. In 1923 his uncle Richard Morgan, who would later be one of Bessie Smith’s lovers, bought Lionel his first drum set. Hamp was enamored of the flashy drummer Jimmy Bertrand, who also played xylophone, and Lionel would later be occasionally tutored by his first idol. He continued his education at Chicago’s St. Elizabeth High School and moved with his family to California in 1927.
Saxophonist Les Hite, veteran of several Midwest territory bands, had moved to Los Angeles and wanted Hamp to sit behind the drums in his new band but, in the interim as Hite \was filling out the personnel, Lionel performed with the bands of Curtis Mosby, Vernon Elkins, Reb Spikes and, most notably, Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders. It was with the nine-piece Serenaders that Hampton first recorded in 1929, playing drums and piano in his two fingered style which he perfected as time went on.
Hite’s group was finally assembled and Lionel joined them to open their residency at Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club in Culver City, where they sometimes backed visiting artists including the Mills Brothers. Their material was strongly based on the music of Duke Ellington, and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. When Ellington’s band was at the MGM studio across the street from the club filming Check and Double Check, they made a guest appearance at Sebastian’s club and the owner told them, “Man, your band better rehearse some new repertoire. All your band plays is my boys’ stuff.”
When Louis Armstrong played at Sebastian’s, he heard Hamp playing Satchmo’s trumpet line to Song of the Islands on orchestra bells and requested that he join his band on the instrument for their performance. Armstrong was impressed with the entire Hite ensemble and took them into the studio as the New Sebastian’s Cotton Club Orchestra on October 16, 1930. There, Armstrong pointed out a set of vibraphones and asked Lionel if he could play them. “Well, you know, I’ve been playing the bells behind you, and it’s got the same keyboard, only bigger.” And so Hampton’s first day on the vibes was heard on the recording Memories of You.
It was during Armstrong’s nine month stay at Sebastian’s that Hampton’s life took on a new sense of direction with the introduction to dancer Gladys Riddle. Not only would she become his wife, but Gladys would also take over handling his business matters. It was she who bought him his first set of vibes and suggested he attend the University of Southern California to strengthen his understanding of music theory. Now wanting to play more vibes than drumming and feeling ready to put together his own band, two months after Armstrong’s gig at Sebastian’s Lionel left the Hite band.
Hampton’s new group spent the early thirties touring the West Coast until 1936 when he took on a residency at the Paradise Club in Los Angeles. Throughout that time, the Hampton band at varying times contained such artist as Don Byas, Tyree Glenn, and Buck Clayton. It was at the Paradise that clarinetist / bandleader Benny Goodman went to check out the group and sat in with them on stage, returning the next evening with the other two members of his trio, pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa, who were equally impressed and on August 21st 1936 the inclusion of Lionel and his vibes made it a quartet, later to be expanded again with guitarist Charlie Christian. In the four years he spent with Goodman’s small groups, he would also sit on the drum stool occasionally with the full orchestra. It should be noted that this was the first racially integrated Jazz group of any importance, with only Goodman and Krupa of these five being white.
Hampton’s recognition grew quickly and was rewarded in 1937 by a contract of his own with Victor. He would cut 91 tracks between February 8th 1937 and April 8th 1941, with the freedom to choose whomever he wished on the sessions, most often employing members of the tightest ensembles around such as those of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Earl “Fatha” Hines, not to mention the Goodman guys. While with Victor, he almost exclusively referred to his band as an orchestra (judging from the 25 tracks on disk one of the Proper 4CD set which all our music today and most of the information for these notes), it was comprised of Hamp and between four and seven others.
Hamp tells us how, in 1940, “Doctors told Benny he had to retire, so Benny told me he would back me if I went out and started my own band. I just followed Benny’s example of how to build a dance book and conduct a dance band. I got my basic training from Benny Goodman.” By September 1940, the Hampton ensemble was ready for its performing debut. Even though most of the Big Bands were on the wane, Lionel acquired a recording contract with Decca Records in time to hold their first session on December 24th 1941 and stayed with them for ten years.
Following a couple of Decca sessions, Hamp hit the mark in his May 26th recording of Flying Home. He had written the song in 1939 along with Goodman for their sextet and recorded it the next year with Benny’s tentet for Victor, but it was this Big Band version that really made it. Tenor saxman Illinois Jacquet’s solo is the standout portion of the tune, but the entire seventeen piece orchestra made it swing. We open our final Hampton set with this and its B-side, In the Bag, from the same session which most notably included Jack McVea on bari sax and pianist Milt Buckner. There was a later live recording of Flying Home which, if memory serves me, included Hampton and Jacquet joined by pianist Nat “King” Cole and guitarist Les Paul (I cannot recall the rest of the small group) which has possibly become the version history recalls most and is written up in a book which asks the question what was the first Rock recording and proposes fifty tunes. A very interesting book but, again, the exact title escapes me.
The Petrillo ban of 1942 and 1943 put a dent in everyone’s recording careers and it wasn’t until March 2nd of 1944 that Hampton would see the inside of a sound studio again. His orchestra saw significant personnel changes during the almost two year period and only two men from the 1942 session, Buckner and trombonist Fred Beckett, were on hand for this date, but significant newcomers to the seventeen man group were Arnett Cobb on tenor sax and Earl Bostic on alto. Dexter Gordon had been part of the orchestra during the interim but was now well on his way to becoming arguably the best tenor man on the Bebop scene. We have three takes from the session represented here, Hamp’s Boogie Woogie and its flip side Chop-Chop and Flying Home No. 2.
Next up is an Armed Forces Radio Service’s Jubilee Show recording from the summer of 1944, which were not commercially available but broadcast for our G.I.s, of an oft-requested tune that Hamp only released in 1958 on a German label, The Mess is Here.
A pair of tunes from the October 16th taping are next, Overtime and Tempo’s Boogie. The show is wound down with a lengthier tune which appeared on V-disc (over five minutes while commercial singles were only about three) recorded January 22nd 1945, Screamin’ Boogie.
In recognition of the orchestra’s winning Esquire magazine’s annual critic’s poll in the category of New Star, the band went to Carnegie Hall to take part in The All American Award Concert on April 15th 1945 where they were joined by Dinah Washington on Evil Gal Blues and another Esquire winner, Dizzy Gillespie, when they played Red Cross. We’ll likely hear them and the third selection, Hamp’s Blues, in future, too. Washington was back with a smaller septet session on May (perhaps April) 21st. The ensemble wound up a very good year with a December 1st 1945 session which created what would become Hampton’s biggest hit, Hey! Ba-ba-re-bop.
The first recordings of 1946 brought singer Bing Crosby into the studio for his rendition of the Blues classic, Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie, on January 21st, followed quickly the last three days of the month beginning with a full orchestra session, then two days of quartet recording.
Jumping ahead to August 6th 1947, we get to the first two numbers that opened our second Hampton set, 3 Minutes on 52nd Street and Hamp’s Got a Duke, the latter referring to trumpeter Duke Garette. For a while now, the orchestra had employed two bass players and, beginning with the November 3rd 1947 session from which we take Goldwyn Stomp, Charles Mingus is one of that pair. The same players are there one week later and we have culled Hawk’s Nest, Mingus Fingers, and Midnight Sun from its releases.
Hamp is back in the studio four days later, making it a busy November as the record companies tried to catch as many sessions as they could in anticipation of the second Petrillo ban, for a small combo rendition of Cherokee. Mingus is the sole bass player but Lionel employs two drummers on the tune, but the notable names on Chicken Shack Boogie and Benson’s Boogie, recorded January 24th 1949, are guitarist Wes Montgomery and one of the great Boogie Woogie pianists, Albert Ammons, as these three numbers close our opening set.
But we opened the show with a couple more boogies as anything with that in the title had a good chance of success in the late forties. Beulah’s Sister’s Boogie, Hamp’s Boogie Woogie No. 2 and Wee Albert all came from the January 28th 1948 date which still had Ammons and Montgomery but this time in a full orchestra setting. Hampton brought in the full crew again for his April 26th 1949 session but trimmed his backing down to Montgomery’s guitar, Earl Walker’s drums and Roy Johnson’s electric bass, an instrument which would remain backing Hampton from then on, as they laid down Moonglow.
Another instrument variation came in a May 10th 1949 session when Doug Duke played electric organ in an orchestral setting (I don’t quite understand the meaning of this because it is only an eight piece ensemble, but Proper felt it significant) as the band provides a rollicking end to today’s middle Hampton set on the number Lavender Coffin with Sonny Parker sounding like an old-time preacher complete with the congregation clapping. As close to the end of the 40’s as you could get, the orchestra recorded another big hit, Rag Mop, on December 29th of 1949.
In 1951, Hamp took one of his largest orchestras to Europe and was on his way to becoming one of Jazz’s best goodwill ambassadors to the world through consistent international touring. His popularity never waned through the sixties and he expanded his talents as he started his own publishing company and record label in the seventies. He also established the Lionel Hampton Development Corporation which built a couple of multi-million dollar apartments among their efforts. In the mid-eighties he received a doctorate from Pepperdine University and became involved in political issues he found worthwhile. His Big Band toured into the nineties.
*************************As I mentioned in this post’s preamble (doesn’t that make this document sound important? More truthfully, perhaps I should have said pre-ramble), Luther Allison is my favorite Bluesman, not just guitarist, because the timbre of his voice is just as strong a part of the decision having surpassed Magic Sam. It took a long time to come to that conclusion, but had Sam’s career not been cut so ridiculously short and Luther’s go on an extra three decades, Sam might still be number one but that is all moot. It is hard for me to grasp because by the time I became familiar with Luther Sam had already died, but indeed they were contemporaries as Luther was only two and a half years younger than Sam. I first came across Luther with his two tracks on the Delmark LP Sweet Home Chicago (plus two behind his bass player, Big Mojo Elem, all recorded on March 8th 1967) which I bought because Sam had four tracks on it. I knew right away this was someone I wanted to hear more of. I am not going to try to put together a full biography of the man I admire so much, especially since I had two other bios to write in the one week since my last show, but I will give it a beginning as it pertains to today’s entries.
I mentioned the Delmark various artists LP, but an earlier recording was unearthed by his son Bernard and released a decade ago on Ruf Records (the label Bernard was recording on) with the title Underground. As Bernard says, “I look at this as discovering something like Robert Johnson’s lost songs. I think a lot of Luther’s fans are going to be so amazed at what he was playing at 18.”
The session took place in the Wonderland Records studio in 1958 At the time, Luther was playing in the band of Bobby Rush, who had access to the studio and gave Allison the opportunity to lay down some tracks on his own. In addition to Luther’s vocals and guitar and Bobby’s bass were drummer Robert Plunkett and second guitarist Bobby King. From the session, about a half hour was chosen to put on a demo disc, but the pressing would languish on Bernard’s mother’s shelf for five decades.
The set opens up with Freddie King’s instrumental Hideaway which he didn’t record until 1960, so this shows Freddie was playing it around the Chicago clubs for more than a year before its release and this is likely the song’s first recording. Another tune in the set is You Can Take My Love which obviously stayed with Luther as it can be found on the CD/DVD Songs from the Road, listed as You Can, You Can, from a July 4th 1997 concert in Montreal just before he died in August.
When next we visit Luther it opens with one of the tunes from the Sweet Home Chicago album, Gotta Move On Up. Here is another Magic Sam connection; it was Sam’s uncle, harmonica player Shakey Jake Harris, and producer Bill Lindemann that had recorded all the material on this album and eventually brought it to Delmark for publication and distribution. Delmark was interested in Luther, but by the time they heard these tunes he had moved on to Los Angeles and Delmark, being a pretty new company, could not afford to record him in L.A. Luther did a lot of gigging and provided backup for some of the artists on the short-lived World Pacific Blues series, but soon Luther returned to Chicago and signed on with Delmark. He only put out one album for them, Love Me Mama, and it is six tracks from that which conclude the set.
I don’t think I had that album until some time after its release so, after The Sweet Home Chicago teaser, it was from his albums on the Gordy label that my love of his Blues was entrenched. Gordy was a subsidiary of Motown (Luther was the first if not only Blues artist the Detroit-based label recorded) but it was a mixed blessing because not many Blues fans would look to Motown. I had two of the three albums on vinyl and later added them and part of the third on CD, but not many others made the purchase. Disappointed, Luther moved to Europe as so many black musicians have done and continued to record, but little made it to American record bins.
I am proud to say that when I came to KKUP I kept asking what happened to this man and was ultimately rewarded when he signed with Alligator Records in the nineties and, while still living in Paris, put out albums that won him some Handy Awards including, as I recall, two for Blues Musician of the Year, but that is all for another day. Enjoy
*************************Since it is still relatively new, I thought I’d mention that KKUP is now streaming on the internet and, while it is still in a developing stage, we have been putting out the word. I’m not all of that good with high-tech stuff, but it seems pretty easy to access. If you go to our website at KKUP.org you will see on the home page a strip of options immediately above the pictures of the musicians the next to the last option being LISTEN ONLINE. By clicking this, it brings up a choice of desktop or mobile. I can only speak for the desktop but after maybe a minute I was receiving a crystal clear feed. As already mentioned, this is still a work in progress and we are currently limited to a finite number of listeners at any one time. I mention this so you will be aware to turn off the application when you are not actually listening. (I put the player in my favorites bar for the easiest of access.) Now we can reach our listeners in Los Gatos and Palo Alto, even my family in Canada. Let your friends elsewhere know they can now listen to your favorite station, and while they have the home page open they can check out our schedule.
*************************Beulah’s Sister’s Boogie
Hamp’s Boogie Woogie No. 2
Chicken Shack Boogie
Lionel Hampton 22mins
HideawayDon’t Start Me Talking
You’re Gonna Miss Me
Take My Love
Rock Me Baby
Luther Allison 18mins
Chicago BreakdownWorried Life Blues
County Jail Blues
Ramblin’ Mind Blues
Can’t You Read
Some Sweet Day
So Long Baby
My Own Troubles
Big Road Blues
Big Maceo 40mins
3 Minutes on 52nd StreetHamp’s Got a Duke
Lionel Hampton 21mins
Gotta Move On UpWhy I Love the Blues
Dust My Broom
Every Night about this Time
Love Me Mama
4:00 O’clock in the Morning
(Waiting on You)
Luther Allison 24mins
Flying HomeIn the Bag
Hamp’s Boogie Woogie
Flying Home No. 2
The Mess is Here
Lionel Hampton 31mins