Key to the Highway2017-09-13 2-5pm
Roy Milton and his Solid SendersCannon’s Jug Stompers
Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson
*************************It was a time of transition. Europe was becoming entangled in a way no one had wanted after the Great War, and the American government was not about to commit to the fighting, but the more it went on the more its citizen businesses were turning a profit from providing their old allies with whatever they required, particularly if it gave them a military advantage. The northern migration from the Deep South had already begun as an urban black culture was developing in the cities along the Mississippi, more than just stopping points on the way to Chicago or the Northeast. Now that the production for military navies was escalated, port cities on both coasts were bustling with new workers for the increased load put upon the shipyards and the dockworkers. West Coast ports like Los Angeles depended primarily on immigration from points west of the Mississippi, particularly Texas and largely black. And wherever there was a black populace with spending money there would be entertainment.
Once the war got going, particularly after the U.S. entered, rationing took effect on all parts of society, and the sacrifices made by the black music artists had domino effects. Highly important was the limiting of gasoline and rubber for tires, which impacted the “travelability” of the Big Bands. No longer could they carry a twenty-piece orchestra to many of the destinations. As Johnny Otis discussed with Charley Lange, the Santa Cruz DJ who wrote the liner notes for the first issue of Roy Milton’s Specialty re-releases beginning in 1989, “By 1950, we had established what was a hybrid form that had come into its own. Roy Milton, Joe Liggins and I have often discussed this. Now, all of us came out of a big band environment and we all aspired to the big band sound. I had a big band, Roy played with Ernie Fields’ band and so on. When the big bands died and we found we couldn’t function in that context anymore, in the mid to late forties …when we had to break our bands down … when we played a Blues type thing with three horns, it had a different character … See, Roy Milton is a Blues singer and when he got his band together to play a little gig, he didn’t use two guitars, bass and drums; he used three horns, piano, bass and drums.. The horns were important to him because he had come out of the big band Swing era … he was used to that sound … See, that was one thing that made rhythm and blues different from the old fashioned Blues. That is the main element. The singer is singing and instead of just guitars twanging, the horns played whole notes, rolling those riffs near the end of the choruses, you know, whole notes with melodies attached to them.”
Roy was born in 1907 in Wynnewood, Oklahoma and, since his maternal grandmother was a full-blooded Chickasaw Indian, he spent the first few years of his life on the reservation before moving to Tulsa.
In the late twenties, Roy joined on with Fields’ orchestra as a featured singer, but in the early thirties when drummer Eddie Nicholson was arrested Milton wound up completing that evening and the rest of the tour behind the drums. As he stated in the 70s, “I’ve been singing while playing the drums ever since.”
Shortly after leaving the Fields band in 1933, Roy settled in L.A. and began playing in local groups before forming his own Solid Senders. The original group included bassist Dave Robinson, trumpeter Hosea Sapp and tenor sax man Buddy Floyd, but the dominant lead instrument was most often provided by pianist Camille Howard. As the band progressed, Camille achieved a recording career of her own but always utilized members of the Solid Senders for her accompaniment. They were one of the most popular acts around L.A. and even supported singer June Richmond in three soundies in 1945.
On December 22nd 1945, after one unsuccessful release for Lionel Hampton’s Hamp-Tone label, they got into the studio for the independent Juke Box label, soon to change its name to Specialty Records. Art Rupe was in charge of the effort: “I was looking for the same sound (as Lucky Millinder’s big band) with a smaller group. I couldn’t afford eighteen pieces so I wound up with two small acts … one was the Sepia-Tones and the other was Roy Milton’s combo. He succeeded in getting a sound which was as good, and even better than Lucky Millinder’s. It was an uncomplicated sound, and yet it had the full harmonic range. Roy had two sounds, like other black bands. During regular hours when he gigged in a white club, he played white music, Tin Pan Alley songs. Then, after hours he went down to Watts and played for black people. That’s the Roy Milton that I recorded, black, urban music rooted in blues, gospel and boogie.”
The four tracks from that first session were released on two records that held spots on the Billboard Most Played Juke Box Race Charts for almost six months in 1946, and are the first four tracks on today’s show. R.M. Blues climbed to #2 on Billboard’s R&B chart and #20 on their pop listing. On the basis of these releases, the Solid Senders were chosen the #3 race band in the country for 1946. They had a total of 19 Top Ten hits in their ten years with Specialty, including Hop, Skip and Jump at #3 in 1948, Information Blues at #2 in 1950 and Best Wishes also reaching #2 in 1951. In addition to being an integral part of the Solid Senders success, Camille had two R&B Top Ten hits herself – 1948’s X-Temporaneous Boogie reached #7 (its flipside You Don’t Love Me hit #12) and Money Blues made the list in 1951. Camille moved to Federal in 1953, where she had three releases that failed to meet her norm with Specialty of 20,000 to 50,000 sales, and she had one more attempt in 1956 for Vee Jay. She would later give up her music in devotion to her church.
Roy’s band remained successful throughout Camille’s tenure, but they too left Specialty in 1955 for Dootone Records, then on to establish the Roy Milton Record Company, but it didn’t take long for Milton to discover the difficulties of collecting monies due, etc. By now, Rock ‘n’ Roll was going strong and the old pros who had laid its foundation were struggling to stay relevant.
Roy’s career took an uptick in 1970 when he appeared as a member of the Johnny Otis Revue at the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival, which produced one of my favorite live albums. Glimpses of the performance can be seen in the Clint Eastwood movie Play Misty for Me. A couple of albums followed, one on the Kent label and one for the French Black and Blue label. Roy fell ill in 1982 and was restricted to home, where he died September 18th 1983 at the age of 76.
After opening up the show with the tunes from their first Specialty date, the rest of the set comes from 1947. I jumped to 1951 and 1952 for their second set because guitarist Johnny “Junior” Rogers was fully ensconsed in the band by then and I wanted to hear why Charley Lange compared him to Howlin’ Wolf’s early guitarist, Willie Johnson; I did not hear that, but there will always be another show. By 1994 Specialty had put out three volumes of the Solid Senders plus a fourth of Camille’s releases and those are the source of today’s show.
*************************A lot of times, I tend to think of this show as a little bit of an education, not only for my listeners but often for myself, so kindly allow me to climb up on my soapbox for a while. The history of the Blues goes farther back than can be determined, but as far as its presentation to any kind of mass audience it was likely W.C. Handy’s 1912 publication of his Memphis Blues manuscript. The first commercially recorded Blues tune was in 1921, Crazy Blues by Mamie Smith, and it had much in common with the type of Blues that was put out over the next five years in that it was a lady singer backed by Jazz musicians (they were coming into fashion around the same time), oftentimes with only a pianist behind them. These are usually referred to as the Classic Blues. Around 1927, the record companies opened up to what I like to call the front porch Blues singers, folks like Blind Lemon Jefferson. Today, we’ll hear from another early entrant on the Black Americana scene, but just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s not good, fun music.
“My daddy was in slavery time, John Cannon . . . got his name from the man who owned him. He used to tell us that back in them days they put the big ole colored man with the good looking women to raise children.” Gus Cannon was born September 12th 1883 in Red Banks, Mississippi, the tenth son of John and Ellie Cannon. The liner notes for Yazoo’s CD, Cannon’s Jug Stompers: The Complete Works 1927-1930, have lots of interesting quotes so I think I’ll just let it tell most of the story to begin with. The disc contains 24 of the 26 numbers recorded by the Stompers.
“When I was twelve years old, one of my brothers (Tom, I think) came and got me and took me down to Clarksdale – that’s where he lived, south of Clarksdale by Sunflower River . . . Used to chop cotton there. Yassuh! So that’s where I made my first banjo, from a guitar neck and a bread pan mama used to bake biscuits in – had to hold it over fire to tighten up the head before I could play it. Ha ha haaa! That thing sounded good to me then, though.” Gus had to stretch a raccoon skin over the pan to make the resonator. He didn’t acquire his first real banjo until he was fifteen when it was a part of his brother’s craps winnings.
“Alec Lee was the first guy I heard playing on a Hawaiian guitar . . . used a knife. Uh, that must’ve been around 1900, maybe a little before.” After learning the technique, the mostly self-taught Cannon adapted it over to his 5-string banjo playing. He became proficient on guitar, fiddle and piano and also devised a harness to go around his neck facilitating jug playing to accompany his banjo.
Around 1901, Gus got a railroad job near Greenville, where he put together his first jug band. “’Bout two years after I started out down there by Sunflower River, I was playing for Saturday night balls –that’s when us colored folks had ourselves a time. Man, I played the hell out of that banjo for $2.50 a night . . . had another boy with me on fiddle, Lawd, we was raising sand down there . . . sure was! Plenty liquor . . . dope too. A gal in Clarksdale gave me a little snort of coke (cocaine). … It didn’t do much to me, though. I reckon I just didn’t have enough. I don’t use no dope. . . . no Sir! I drink beer and whisky . . . oh, I used to be wild about it! … Noah, my harp player, used to be full of coke all the time.” He moved near Ripley, Tennessee, to do plantation work in 1907, and here is where he first met Noah Lewis.
Lewis, born in Tennessee around 1890, was a harmonica player who would become known not only for his talent but also for the unique ability of playing two harps simultaneously. “Lawd, he used to play the hell out of that harp. He could play two harps at the same time . . . through his mouth and his nose . . . same key and same melody. Y’know he could curl his lips ‘round the harp & his nose was just like a fist. Noah, he was full of cocaine all the time – I reckon that’s why he could play so loud and aw, he was good!”
It was also Noah who introduced Gus to the 13-year-old guitarist Ashley Thompson, who recalled, “Gus was real famous ‘round here . . . oh, he could clown. . . Him and Noah used to run together all the time. I didn’t care as much about drinking and chasing women as they did . . . just looking for trouble.”
Going by the name Banjo Joe, Cannon hit the medicine show circuit in 1914, which he continued into the 40s. He was found at one of these shows by Paramount in 1927 and they recorded him solo on six sides as well as on duets with Blind Blake. One tune with Blake was Poor Boy, Long Way From Home, which Gus had learned from Alec Lee and showed off likely the earliest recording of the slide (or bottleneck) banjo technique.
“Dr. Streaks . . . that’s the last medicine show I was on . . . Aw, we went all over Alabama and Mississippi: Birmingham, Mobile, Bay St. Louis . . . I been to St. Louis, Missouri too . . . yeh, , I been to all of ‘em. Well, I left that show down in Gulfport, Mississippi and went back to Memphis, married Olysa and settled down.” That was 1929 and Gus was 47 years old. He had wed once before around Christmas 1910 but his minstrel life was not conducive to settling down.
More often than not during the twenties, Memphis became Gus' home base amid his minstrel touring. It was an untamed town in those times, rife with bootleg liquor, gambling, hookers and drugs, but such party towns also create an atmosphere full of opportunities for musicians. Towards the end of the decade, Gus lived with Hosea Woods, a songster considerably his elder, whom he had met on the medicine show circuit.
The first organized jug bands developed in Louisville, Kentucky, around 1905, and five years on there were several more. Jug band music was a Bluesy throwback to the minstrel days and in addition to the clay jugs usually consisted of banjo, guitar, fiddle and mandolin along with the occasional rub board, harmonica or kazoo. They played a combination of Country, Blues, Ragtime, Gospel, Jazz, novelty numbers… Even the sophisticated horn bands in Louisville added the jug to their arsenal, but the rage didn’t spread further until the early twenties recorded releases of some of the area’s bands, most notably Earl McDonald’s Dixieland Jug Blowers. Will Shade, a guitarist who also played harmonica and washtub bass, took up the trend and put together the Memphis Jug Band along with Furry Lewis, although in a much Bluesier style than McDonald. The lineup was a fluid setup with so many members that it was not unusual for two separate ensembles at different locations playing at the same time. In addition to playing anywhere from Handy’s Park to the back of a moving pickup truck advertising whatever, Shade’s group entertained at the highest social events, including regularly for Mayor Crump, which had its benefits.
Dewey Corley, a band member, recalled a court date, “We’d have whisky in one of our coal-oil cans . . . y’know, a jug . . . and we’d put some coal-oil around the top, so no one could smell that hooch. Once we was playing down on Main & Beale, a policeman walks up to us, says, ‘Whatcha got in that jug, boys?’ We say “coal-oil” – he say, “You sure don’t look like you been drinking no coal-oil,’ and he carried us all to jail. When we was called to court we brought our instruments with us. Judge say, ‘You the jug band?’ We say, ‘Yassuh!’ ‘Well, I heard about you. Play a song and go home and don’t come back.’”
The Memphis Jug Band had recording success and it was not lost on Gus who, way back in the mid-1900s had played in a similar format. “. . . we had ourselves a three-piece outfit: banjo / jug / fiddle. Jim Guffan had a coal-oil can, sounded like a bass fiddle.” So in January 1928, Victor returned to Memphis hoping to find another jug band and were led to Cannon, whether through his earlier sessions as Banjo Joe or perhaps on a referral from Shade, but they wanted him to get ready quickly. The medicine show season was over so Gus was pleased with the opportunity. Ever since leaving the Ashville / Ripley area fifteen years prior, Cannon had often returned to play with Noah Lewis and Ashley Thompson while visiting friends and it was this pair he contacted for the session. “We rehearsed that night and the next day we recorded at the auditorium.” Gus and Ashley each took two of the four vocals. The records sold well enough to bring about a second session on September 5th, this time with Elijah Avery on banjo and guitar in place of Thompson.
It was barely two weeks later, September 20th, that the trio was once again recording, this time with kazoo player Hosea Woods added to the mix. Cannon and Woods also did a duet session as the Beale Street Boys for Brunswick, then were back again for Victor on October 1st, 1929 along with Lewis for the final Jug Stompers’ session
Lewis recorded four sides on his own in 1929-30 and four more in November 1930 as the Noah Lewis Jug Band, which included Sleepy John Estes on guitar and Yank Rachel on mandolin. It was this jug band's remaking of a tune from the original Stompers’ session, New Minglewood Blues, that most closely influenced the Grateful Dead's version. The answer to where exactly “Minglewood” was is a bit uncertain. I have read that it was a lumber camp or saw mill near the Mississippi River where musicians gathered on weekends to have a good time, and judging from the lyrics of the song (“If you’re ever in Memphis, better stop by Minglewood”), it was a place in the city or close to it. Both this and the Stompers’ Viola Lee Blues appeared on the Grateful Dead’s 1966 debut album. I liked that album and Jerry Garcia said he wished they had never made it, so you should be able to safely deduce my opinion of the Dead from that.
Gus put in some sessions for Folkways in 1956 and made appearances in the 60s with Furry Lewis and Bukka White, but was forced to pawn his banjo to pay for the winter’s heating bill just before the Rooftop Singers made a hit version of Walk Right In in 1963. That led to an album for Stax Records with Will Shade, his former jug band rival. Cannon played banjo, Shade played jug and Milton Roby was on the washboard. Gus performed into the 70s and died in 1979 at the age of 96.
If you can find a copy of King Vidor’s 1929 movie production Hallelujah!, you might spot Gus in the late night wedding scene.
*************************After listening to the first two artists for today, it was clear to me what was missing in the presentation. Also, after last show I was speaking to a fellow DJ who mentioned she enjoyed the guitar-centric bent my shows so often take, and there is no compliment as relevant as one from a peer. So, no doubt about it: what this show needed was a jolt of Chicago Blues guitar a bit more recent than today’s other artists. I didn’t want to go to an old favorite because I’ve played a lot of them recently, just your typical Blues guitar player like you might be able to find every night in the clubs since the mid-60s.
Early on in my time at KKUP we had one or both of these discs in the library. At that time I was transitioning from vinyl to CDs and actually thought I could buy anything that fit my fancy, and these definitely did that. Anyway, I hadn’t pulled these out for a listen in decades so who better to represent your normal Bluesman?
Babbling on a little more before I get to the meat of this essay, I was interviewing the great Bay Area sax player Terry Hanck years back and, in the midst of our discussion, he looked at me almost dumbfounded when I didn’t seem aware of who “Sax” Gordon (last name Beadle) was, so ever since I have taken note when I come across his name. His presence makes both these sessions extremely better. There. A couple of things I just wanted to say before I sat down to seriously write.
First of all, there are two Luther Johnsons from the same era (actually, even a third) and, more confusing, both spent some time in the Muddy Waters band. I profiled Luther “Snake” Johnson a while back, but today you are presented Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson. Born in 1939, Luther’s family moved to Chicago in 1955from Itta Bena, Mississippi, where at one point he led the church choir. His earliest influences were Gospel and Blues, but once he got to the windy city it was all Blues.
Luther’s first gig was with drummer Ray Scott’s band, then joined Tall Milton Shelton’s group before taking over the combo in 1962 when the leader retired to take up preaching. Luther was clearly a disciple of Magic Sam’s West Side guitar style and he played in Sam’s band a couple of years in the mid-60s. He also applied the name Magic Rockers to his band in Boston, which we hear from today. “I really dug the way Sam played. He liked the way I played too. I had to play Sam Cooke’s song, Somebody Have Mercy, every night for him two or three times.”
Other West Siders Luther played with included Otis Rush, Bobby Rush, Willy Kent and Jimmy Dawkins before he cut his first 45 for Big Beat in 1972. His time with Muddy spanned from 1972 to 1980, including utilizing the Waters band as backing for his 1977 album Luther’s Blues, recorded for the French Evidence label while during a European tour. When Alligator Records put together a four album set of Living Chicago Blues in 1980, Johnson was one of the eighteen artists chosen to represent the city’s music.
By 1980, Luther had moved to the east coast and put together his Magic Rockers as well as recording on three albums with the Nighthawks. His band was backed up by the Roomful of Blues horn section for his 1984 release on Rooster Records, Doin’ the Sugar Too. He can also be seen backing John Lee Hooker in the original Blues Brothers movie. His version of Walkin’ the Dog from the 1982 Montreux Festival was included in the Grammy Award (Best Traditional Blues) winning album Blues Explosion.
All of which pretty much brings us up to today’s show. In 1990, Luther signed on with Bullseye Blues and released I Want to Groove with You, followed up two years later by It’s Good to Me. It was such an unsuspected treat to hear these albums again and, considering that this was intended to fill a void in the show, I cannot imagine why I let them lay fallow for so long. I am going to look into getting his further releases, the 1996 Bullseye third album Country Sugar Papa and his first for Telarc, 1996’s Slammin’ on the West Side. My All Music Guide rates all four of these as four star releases, so if the other two live up to these standards …
My Guide is an old version so it didn’t list his next two Telarc releases, Got to Find a Way from 1998 and 2001’s Talkin’ about Soul, but I can’t imagine his talent depleting. Luther is still alive and now residing in Florida, although I don’t know how active at age 78 or so.
One last quick note: besides Johnson’s guitar work and Beadle’s growling sax, Joe Krown plays piano and organ on both albums; the rhythm section on the first has the drumming shared by Glenn Rogers and Spider Webb while Buster Paterson supplies the bass, and for our closing set Tuffy Kimble is behind the drum kit and Buster Wylie furnishes the bottom. Richard Rosenblatt adds harmonica to one number, I’m Leaving You. The Magic Rockers. 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.
Milton’s BoogieR.M. Blues
What’s the Use
Little Boy Blue
Pack Your Sack, Jack
Big Fat Mama
Old Man River
Roy Rides (aka Nip Time)
Roy Milton and his Solid Senders 32mins
Minglewood BluesMadison Street Rag
Big Railroad Blues
Bugle Call Rag
Viola Lee Blues
Cannon’s Jug Stompers 31mins
Red BeansCan’t Get Along with You
I’m from Mississippi
I’m Leavin’ Chicago
Who’s That Come Walkin’
Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson 28mins
That’s the One for MeI Have News for You
Schubert’s Serenade Boogie
You Lied to Me Baby
Old Baldy Boogie
Night and Day (I Miss You So)
Song of India Boogie
Roy Milton and his Solid Senders 28mins
Walk Right In
Bring It with You When You Come
Prison Wall Blues
Wolf River Blues
Mule Get Up in the Alley
My Money Never Runs Out
Cannon’s Jug Stompers 19mins
Come Back to MeThat’s All I Need
Deep Down in Florida
I’m Leaving You
If You Love Me Like You Say
It’s Good to Me
Next Door Neighbor
Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson 27mins