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Posts from the ‘Doo-wop’ Category

Art Laboe 1925-2022

I’m sure we all have a list of times and places to which we yearn to be transported in order to bear witness to particular musical events. My own would include the Miles Davis Nonet at the Royal Roost in 1948, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro and Bud Powell at Birdland in 1950, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane at the Five Spot in 1957, James Brown at the Apollo in 1963 and Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Dom in 1966. That’s a lot of time-machine trips to New York. But also very high on the list would have been one of the weekly dances hosted by the disc jockey Art Laboe at El Monte Legion Stadium, east of Los Angeles, where between 1955 and 1961 he presented star singers and vocal groups, mostly doo-wop and R&B, to a young and mixed audience of Hispanics, blacks and whites. Mr Laboe died in Palm Springs last Friday, aged 97, the day after taping his final radio show, and I’ve just finished writing his obituary for the Guardian. In 1963, two years after the last of the dances, Frank Zappa and Ray Collins wrote a song in tribute, which they recorded with Cleve Duncan of the Penguins. “Memories of El Monte” always makes me feel as though I know exactly how it must have felt to be there.

Doo-wop in the SoCal sun

What skiffle was to British kids in the 1950s, doo-wop music was to their US equivalents, from New York to Los Angeles: the entry point to a new world, for teenagers only. Unlike skiffle, however, to these ears doo-wop still sounds fabulous more than 60 years later, its vibrant innocence undimmed. And there are unheard gems to be discovered by the idiom’s devoted archaeologists, as we find in This Love Was Real, a new collection of two dozen tracks by LA vocal groups from 1959 to 1964.

Unlike their counterparts in Brooklyn and the Bronx, the kids of Watts, South Central and El Monte didn’t have subway tunnels in which to practise their harmonies. But they had long warm evenings and street corners and sock hops in school gyms, and budding music-business operatives like Dootsie Williams, Johnny Otis, John Dolphin, Gary Paxton and George Motola to herd them into a studio and capture their naive hopes and dreams on tape. Among the greatest hits of Southern California doo-wop were the Penguins’ genre-defining “Earth Angel”, Marvin and Johnny’s “Cherry Pie”, the Cuff Links’ “Guided Missiles” and the Paradons’ “Diamonds and Pearls”, but you won’t find any of those here. This Love Was Real is devoted to the ones who didn’t make it, often for no good reason.

For example, I can’t tell you how happy I am to make the acquaintance of the Cezannes, who — “featuring Cerressa” — recorded “Pardon Me” at Motola’s studio in 1963. Composed by Kent Harris, who wrote the original “Shoppin’ for Clothes” (later adapted for the Coasters by Jerry Leiber) and released on the obscure Markay label, the record has the perfect proportions: a gentle 12/8 rhythm, a four-bar chord sequence that falls perfectly into place every time, a high lead vocal cruising above rudimentary harmonies, and even a goofy spoken section.

Nobody remembers much about the Cezannes, beyond the fact that they were a sister (Cerressa) and her brother and cousin, all students at Jefferson High School in South Central LA. The record wasn’t a hit, and as far as anyone knows they went back to resuming normal lives. But thanks to Ady Croasdell, the compiler of this collection, and the set’s expert annotators, Steve Propes and Alec Palao, they live again.

As do all the other tracks, some of which are seeing the light of day for the first time — such as “The Letter”, apparently a product of a session recorded in Philadelphia in 1959 by Adolph Jacobs, the 20-year-old guitarist with LA-based Coasters, with whom he was on tour at the time, having left another popular local group, the Medallions, to join them. Like the previously unreleased “This Wilted Rosebud” by Bobby Sheen (soon to become Phil Spector’s Bob B. Soxx) and the Pharoahs’ “Here Comes the Rain”, it’s a beauty.

Among complete unknowns like the Valaquans, the Cordials, the Precisions and the Five Superiors, we find a sprinkling of familiar figures: the 18-year-old Danny (Sly) Stewart, for example, later known as Sly Stone, then a member of the Viscaynes, singing his heart out on “A Long Time Alone”, released in 1961 on the Luke label after being recorded during what the singer apparently believed was nothing more than a demo session. And Dorothy Berry, wife of Richard Berry, the composer of “Louie Louie”, who leads the Swans through “Hold Me” and would later become one of Ray Charles’ Raelettes.

And then there’s Arthur Lee Maye, a star baseball player at Jefferson High when he recorded for a couple of labels. He hung out with the likes of Jesse Belvin and Richard Berry, and is said to have sung the bass part on Berry’s original version of “Louie Louie” in 1957. Cutting his name down to Lee Maye, he went on to spend 13 years with major-league clubs, six of them with the Milwaukee Braves and the rest with the Houston Astros, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators and the Chicago White Sox. Baseball, he felt, got in the way of his singing career, which he resumed briefly in the 1980s before dying of cancer in Riverside, California in 2002, aged 67.

Maye and his group, the Crowns, are represented on this anthology by “Last Night”, a cheerful, up-beat song of unknown original recorded for John Dolphin’s Cash label in 1959. Arranged by the guitarist Arthur Wright to a busy Latin beat, it was left unreleased and unheard until an acetate in Wright’s possession came to light. “I am the best singing athlete that ever lived,” Arthur Lee Maye once said, and I’m still trying to think of an example with which to contradict him.

* This Love Was Real: L.A. Vocal Groups 1959-1964 is on the Ace label. For those wanting a helping of what happened next in the street music of Los Angeles, I can recommend another new 24-track compilation, Lowrider Soul Vol 2, just out on Ace’s Kent subsidiary, featuring the Larks, the Hesitations, the Manhattans, Darrow Fletcher, Barbara Mason and others.

Stepping out with Bobby Parker

Bobby Parker

The blues singer and guitarist Bobby Parker’s fame rests on a single record: the 1961 classic “Watch Your Step”, whose driving riff inspired the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” and Bob Dylan’s “Tell Me, Momma”. I wrote about it here when he died seven years ago. Now there’s a 2-CD anthology of his recordings from 1954 to 1995, called Soul of the Blues and reflecting not only his own career but changes in black music styles during those decades.

It begins with both sides of a 78rpm single by the Emeralds, recorded in Los Angeles in 1954 and released on the Kicks label. Parker’s family had moved to California from Louisiana when he was a small boy; he picked up the guitar in his early teens, formed the Emeralds with friends, and played school dances. In hallowed doo-wop fashion, the A-side is an up-tempo dance tune with a Latin beat, written by the 16-year-old Parker, while the flip is a wonderfully gloopy ballad. It’s a fine start to a lovingly compiled set.

A year later Parker was playing guitar with Bo Diddley: there are three studio tracks here and a version of “Bo Diddley” itself from the Ed Sullivan Show. He moved on to be a featured singer and guitarist with the band of the saxophonist Paul Williams, famous for “The Hucklebuck”: studio recordings from New York in 1956, including “Blues Get Off My Shoulder”, show his proficiency in a variety of styles. Four instrumental tracks, two under Williams’s name and two under that of the tenorist Noble “Thin Man” Watts (including “South Shore Drive”), are perfect examples of the idiom.

“Watch Your Step” is there, of course, is all its incendiary glory, along with an alternate take, and the discography included in the booklet gives me some information I’ve always wanted: it was recorded at the Edgewood Recording Studio in Washington DC in 1961, and the drummer holding down that fantastic Latin rhythm for a very good studio band was one “TNT” Tribble Jr. I’m afraid I’d never heard of him, but I’m glad to know his name now.

Within these 52 tracks you’ll find jump blues, novelty blues, rock ‘n’ roll blues, Chicago-style blues, gospel blues and funky blues. There are some wonderful obscurities, including the philosophical “Talkin’ About Love”, recorded in Columbus, South Carolina for the True Spot label in 1966 or ’67. In 1968 he was in England, recording for Mike Vernon’s Blue Horizon label: two tracks, “It’s Hard But Fair” and “I Couldn’t Quit My Baby”, were cut with a British band including the saxophonists Steve Gregory, Johnny Almond and Bud Beadle, but the mix is messy and the playing lacks the punch of the best of the American recordings. There are also six tracks recorded in front of a New York audience in 1995 for the House of Blues radio show with a very good five-piece horns-and-rhythm band, in which Parker gets all the space he needs to show that he was a guitarist in the class of Albert and Freddie King and Albert Collins.

The CD case also reproduces the poster for an all-day dance in June 1957 at the Bluefield Auditorium in Bluefield, West Virginia, a coal town in the Appalachians. The bill included the Coasters, Ruth Brown, Bo Diddley, the Drifters, the 5 Satins, Smiley Lewis, the Schoolboys, Paul Williams & the Hucklebuck Orchestra, and “Mr Bobby Parker — Blues Guitar”. The compere was the singer Johnny Hartman. Admission $2.50. “Entire balcony reserved for white spectators,” it says.

* Bobby Parker’s Soul of the Blues is released on the Rhythm and Blues label. The photograph is from the booklet, which states that 50 per cent of the profits from the set will go to the Bobby Parker Foundation.

** In the first version of this piece, I got “TNT” Tribble Jr mixed up with his father, Thomas “TNT” Tribble Sr, also a drummer. Now corrected.

The lost promise of Jesse Belvin


Sixty years ago last month, the singer Jesse Belvin was travelling with his wife Jo Ann from a show in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he had performed at the city’s first integrated show, to his next engagement in Dallas, Texas, a journey of 300 miles. In the early hours of the morning they were outside Hope, Arkansas on I-30 when their driver, a friend named Charles Ford, veered into the wrong lane and ran head-on into an oncoming car. All three occupants of Belvin’s Cadillac were killed, as were those in the other car, a couple from Milwaukee.

Belvin was 27, already established as a key figure on the Los Angeles R&B scene, with a new RCA Records contract and realistic ambitions of crossing over a much wider audience. His smooth voice and musicianship allowed him to deliver a grown-up Broadway song as convincingly as a greasy teenage ballad. Had he survived, we might never have heard of Sam Cooke — who signed with RCA immediately after Belvin’s death — or Marvin Gaye, whose background and aspirations were very similar.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, Belvin had moved to South Los Angeles with his mother at the age of five. He sang in church, becoming a choir leader during his teens, before gravitating to the local doo-wop scene. At 20, he had a hand in writing “Earth Angel”, a massive hit for the Penguins and a doo-wop template. The song’s authorship was long disputed, but it seems to have had its origins in Belvin’s habit of sketching a snatch of a song and passing it on for other hands to complete. He may even have written the whole thing. The Fiestas’ “So Fine” was his, even though it’s usually credited to Johnny Otis, as was “Dream Girl”, a hit for Belvin in 1952 when recorded for one of the small labels run by the Hollywood record store owner John Dolphin.

He had also joined the band of the popular tenor saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, who had put together a vocal group — three men and one woman — called Three Dots and a Dash . Leaving McNeely in 1953, he re-recorded “Dream Girl” as a duo with Marvin Phillips, a fellow Dot, for Art Rupe’s Specialty label; released under the names of Jesse and Marvin, the song enjoyed even better sales. That success, however, was temporarily derailed by a draft notice.

Two years later, on returning home from army service, he resumed his activities within the LA scene, working with a variety of vocal groups, including the Feathers, the Chargers, the Cliques and the Sheiks, and alongside such ambitious young men as Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Charles Wright and his cousin Tony “Nite Owl” Allen. A set of demos recorded the ’50s show a mastery of a variety of R&B styles to match that of his LA contemporary Richard Berry, the versatile composer of “Louie Louie”.

Late in 1956 he recorded another doo-wop ballad, the gorgeous “Goodnight My Love (Pleasant Dreams)”, for the Bihari brothers’ Modern Records. George Motola had written the outline of the song, but invited Belvin to add a middle eight and polish it up. Declining a credit, Jesse asked instead for $400 — which was provided, in exchange for half the song’s copyright, by another songwriter, John Marascalo. Featured every night as the closing music to Alan Freed’s radio show, it became a long-lasting favourite.

In 1958 he was signed to RCA by the jazz trumpeter and bandleader Shorty Rogers, then in charge of the label’s West Coast A&R department. This was his break, giving access to big budgets and big promotion, with the eye on the audience captured by Nat King Cole. His first album, Just Jesse Belvin, featured rather anonymous MOR arrangements by Ray Martin and Dennis Farnon on songs like “My Funny Valentine” and “Secret Love”. His version of “Volare” was released as a single; not his finest hour, it fared poorly in competition with Domenico Modugno and Dean Martin.

Shorty Rogers put the great Marty Paich in charge of the arrangements for his second album, giving the singer more stimulating settings and a band including such jazz greats as the trumpeters Conte Candoli and Jack Sheldon, the alto saxophonist Art Pepper, the pianist Russ Freeman and the drummer Mel Lewis. The album was titled Mr Easy, and its versions of “What’s New” and “Angel Eyes” stand comparison with the best ballad singers of the era. In this environment Belvin showed immaculate control of his suave tenor voice and a beautifully understated gift for phrasing a line.

I was exaggerating, of course, when I suggested that we’d never have heard of Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye. But were you to spend a day with Belvin’s legacy, recorded between 1952 and 1959, you might agree that this was an artist of prodigious quality who, until fate struck, was on course for a great career. And there’s no telling where it might have led.

* Jesse Belvin’s recordings are collected on The Blues Balladeer (Specialty); Goodnight My Love (Ace); a fascinating album of unreleased 1958 demos titled So Fine (Night Train); and Guess Who: The RCA Victor Recordings (Ace), which includes Just Jesse Belvin and Mr Easy. The latter is also available coupled on a single CD with Ethel Azama’s Cool Heat on the Fresh Sound label. Much of the information in the above post is gleaned from sleeve notes by Steve Propes, Ray Topping, Jim Dawson and Tony Rounce, whose ischolarship is gratefully acknowledged.