Wandering amid the ruins of HMV’s Oxford Street store this week, browsing the half-empty CD racks in a jazz and blues section now relegated to the rear of the basement, I came across genuine treasure: a three-disc set on the Fantastic Voyage label titled Wailin’ Daddy: The Best of Maxwell Davis 1945-59. It had one of those big blue Xs on the cover to alert customers that here was an item marked down in what amounts to the chain’s fire sale: so for a tenner, I got myself 89 tracks of music from that era when jazz and R&B were almost indistinguishable from each other, and when Los Angeles’ Central Avenue must have seemed like heaven.
Maxwell Davis isn’t one of the better known musicians of his era, but he was a key figure. Born in Kansas in 1916, he arrived in LA as a 20-year-old saxophonist with eyes to make a name for himself on the local scene. Having switched from alto to tenor, he secured a job playing with and arranging for the Fletcher Henderson orchestra — until Henderson relocated to New York, where he became Benny Goodman’s arranger, and the band was no more.
It was after World War Two that Davis established his key credentials as a talent scout and organiser of recording sessions. His ability as an A&R man became highly valued by the heads of such local R&B-slanted labels as Aladdin, Modern, RPM and Specialty, not least because he was capable of hiring session musicians, providing them with head arrangements, and taking the tenor solos that were then almost obligatory, whether in raucous, bar-walking mode on an up-tempo number or in more subdued fashion on a ballad or a slow blues.
Dave Penny, the compiler and annotator of this exemplary collection (which was released a couple of years ago, and from which the photograph above is taken), points out that no less an authority than the lyricist and R&B fan Jerry Leiber once estimated that, between Davis’s arrival in LA and his death from a heart attack in 1970, he must have been responsible for a hundred hit records. Those we know about include such classics as Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love”, Joe Liggins’ “Pink Champagne” and Amos Milburn’s “Chicken Shack Boogie”, none of which appears on this anthology, presumably being too familiar to qualify for inclusion. Instead, much of the pleasure of Wailin’ Daddy resides in the chance to discover such comparative obscurities as La Melle Prince’s “Get High”, Crown Prince Waterford’s “Love Awhile” and Cordella De Milo’s “I Ain’t Gonna Hush”, although there are also tracks by Big Joe Turner, Louis Jordan, Jimmy Witherspoon, Helen Humes, B.B. King and T-Bone Walker.
Davis made his career as a high-class back-room boy, but he certainly possessed the instrumental chops to have survived in straight-ahead jazz, had he so wished: tracks here with the young Charles Mingus, the boogie pianist Pete Johnson and others leave no doubt about that. On the first disc, which is devoted to singles released under his own name, there are two tracks on which he trades choruses with Marshall Royal, later to become famous as Count Basie’s stalwart lead altoist, and he suffers not at all by comparison.
But my favourites are four instrumental tracks recorded for Modern in 1949 with a hot little eight-piece band featuring Jake Porter (trumpet), Jack McVea (alto), Davis (tenor), Maurice Simon (baritone), one “A McCoy” (piano), Chuck Norris (guitar), Red Callender (bass) and Lee Young (drums): the highlights are the rolling “Boogie Cocktails”, a forerunner of James Brown’s “Night Train”, and “Belmont Special” and “Bristol Drive”, the greasiest of shuffles. There aren’t many places I’d rather be transported back to than a Central Avenue club on a hot night in the summer of ’49, listening to that lot holding forth for the assembled hipsters, flipsters and finger-poppin’ daddies.