Blues for Bob Porter
The name of Bob Porter started appearing on jazz albums at the end of the 1960s and then, with gathering frequency, through the succeeding decades. It soon became obvious that, whether as a record producer, a compiler of historical anthologies or a writer of liner notes, Porter — who died last week at the age of 80 — was most interested in the kinds of jazz that stayed close to old verities: a powerful swing, the feeling of the blues, a warmth of expression, a direct engagement with the audience’s emotions.
Porter did a lot of his work for Bob Weinstock’s Prestige label, but when the Savoy label was bought by Arista he supervised a reissue programme that included a series of double albums called The Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll, two of which you can see two of them above. What Porter located was a sweet spot where jazz and R&B fed each other in hits like Paul Willliams’ “The Hucklebuck” and Big Maybelle’s “Candy”. He supervised anthologies of Miles Davis for Prestige and John Coltrane for Atlantic (for whom he also put together the seven volumes of Atlantic Rhythm and Blues 1947-1974), won a Grammy for a 1979 anthology of Charlie Parker’s Savoy sessions, and produced new albums by Jimmy McGriff, Gene Ammons, Red Rodney, Hank Crawford, Charles Earland and many others. For the last 20 years he was a regular on WBGO, the public-service radio station broadcasting from Newark, New Jersey
His particular take on jazz was summed up in his only book: Soul Jazz: Jazz in the Black Community 1945-75, the story of musicians who earned their living mostly in dance halls and clubs of black America and whose recordings were primarily aimed at the listeners they found there. The book starts with the last of the commercially viable popular-oriented black big bands, such as those led by Buddy Johnson and Erskine Hawkins, and advances chronologically via Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton, Arnett Cobb, Jack McDuff and Lou Donaldson all the way through to Grant Green and Grover Washington Jr. Producers like Teddy Reig and Bob Shad take their place in the narrative, along with record-company bosses as different as Roulette’s Morris Levy, Savoy’s Herman Lubinsky and Verve’s Norman Granz, and radio disc jockeys from Alan Freed (a jazz fan before he helped invent rock and roll) to Frankie Crocker, a hero of disco whose closing theme — at the end of shows full of Kool & the Gang, the Commodores and Earth, Wind & Fire — was King Pleasure’s “Moody’s Mood for Love”.
Porter only wrote his book, he said, because no one else had, and it was a story that needed to be told. If Soul Jazz were a night out, it would be an organ-tenor-guitar-drums quartet playing to an audience of working people in a lounge on the South Side of Chicago: the kind of meat-and-potatoes jazz you could find on the albums Porter supervised. Swing, blues, warmth, engagement, informality, a complete lack of pretension: the recipe for a kind of basic nourishment that might be harder to find today.
* Bob Porter’s Soul Jazz was published in 2016 by Xlibris.
There is a very fine interview with Bob Porter on the Jazz United podcast from jazz station WBGO. https://www.wbgo.org/podcast/jazz-united-a-podcast-from-wbgo/2021-04-01/getting-house-wbgos-own-bob-porter-on-soul-jazz
Bill, thanks so much for that link. ZS
An insightful man who gave the best lecture I’ve experienced on r n b when he talked about Big Joe Turner on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.
Thank you, Richard, for this remembrance of Bob Porter. Bob was always in and out of Atlantic Studios, at 1841 Broadway, when I worked for Arif in the early 80s. The older I got, the more I appreciated him. Not an easy guy to chat with, but the encyclopedic knowledge and deep love of music made it worth the extra effort. I will miss spending Saturday mornings with him, on the radio, in my kitchen. R.I.P., dear Bob.
Thanks to you, Richard, for this remembrance. I am currently reading Soul Jazz — bought it from Bob not long ago, but, drat, now can’t tell him how much I am enjoying his deep knowledge. Cheers.
‘Swing, blues, warmth, engagement, informality, a complete lack of pretension: the recipe for a kind of basic nourishment that might be harder to find today’ – you’re talking about the backing tracks for every Van Morrison album from the last 20 years… up until the point that Van puts his voice and lyrics on them.
Bit of trivia – Big Maybelle recorded the equal first ‘Peel session’, broadcast on Top Gear 1/10/67 (five other session guests on the same show: Traffic, Pink Floyd, the Move, Tomorrow, Tim Rose). Only one of those six guests never recorded another BBC session…
Kindof apropos – on the very same day Quinton Claunch died too.