Soul Serenade: Big Mama Thornton, “Hound Dog”

Big Mama ThorntonElvis Presley has been accused of cultural appropriation. Whether you believe that or not, there is no doubt that one of his breakthrough singles was a song called “Hound Dog” that he released in 1956. The thing is, the original version of the same song had been a hit, albeit a smaller one, for Big Mama Thornton three years earlier. But it’s not that simple because “Hound Dog” was written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, two white songwriters. It’s probably fair to say that many people who bought the Presley single, and those who have loved it over the years, were not even aware of the Thornton original. That’s a shame because it’s a brilliant record.

Willie Mae Thornton was born in Alabama and she grew up singing in the church where her father was the minister. She left home at 14 and joined Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue which billed her as the “new Bessie Smith.” It was an accolade that Thornton must have appreciated since Smith was one of her vocal inspirations, along with Memphis Minnie. Thornton moved to Houston in 1948. It was a key move in her career because the Texas city had become a hotbed for a new blues sound that included jump rhythms and horn section. Three years into her time in Houston, Thornton signed with Peacock Records and made her first appearance at New York’s fabled Apollo Theater.

Johnny Otis was on the Peacock roster at the time and Thornton’s collaboration with him led to the recording of “Hound Dog” in 1952. Lieber and Stoller produced the record and Otis played drums. The record was released in February 1953 and raced to the #1 spot on the R&B chart where it remained for seven weeks. “Big Mama” (a nickname given to her by Apollo Theater manager Frank Schiffman in recognition of her big voice, her outsized personality, and her large stature) Thornton became a star on the back of the “Hound Dog” recording but things being what they were in those days, she didn’t see much money from it.

Johnny Ace was another star in the Peacock galaxy. On Christmas day in 1954, Thornton was in his dressing room watching as Ace played with a pistol. Things turned tragic when Ace accidentally shot himself with the pistol and died.

Thornton stayed with Peacock until 1957. During that time, Presley released his version of “Hound Dog” and his version far surpassed Thornton’s in terms of sales. With her career fading in the late ’50s, Thornton decamped to San Francisco where she played the clubs and recorded for several labels. Her 1965 tour in Europe was a big deal because very few female blues singers had been successful there. It was in London that year that Thornton recorded her Arhoolie Records album Big Mama Thornton — In Europe. Her backing musicians for the sessions included Buddy Guy, Fred McDowell, and Walter Horton.

Big Mama ThorntonA year later, Arhoolie released a second Thornton album, Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band. This time she was backed by Waters himself along with James Cotton, Otis Spann, and other members of the Waters band. Thornton’s third Arhoolie album included Thornton’s recording of her own composition, “Ball ‘n’ Chain.” She had recorded the song a few years earlier for a small label called Bay-Tone. That label never released the recording but did retain the copyright to it. And so it was when Janis Joplin sang “Ball ‘n’ Chain” at the Monterey Pop Festival and recorded it with Big Brother and the Holding Company for the Cheap Thrills album, Thornton did not see any of the enormous publishing royalties that resulted.

The Joplin recording did revive interest in Thornton’s career largely because Joplin herself hired Thornton as her opening act as a means of repaying her. In 1969 she signed with Mercury Records where she released her biggest album, Stronger Than Dirt. But it wasn’t until she got to Pentagram Records that Thornton realized her long-held dream of recording a gospel album. The album Saved includes classics of the genre like “Oh, Happy Day,” “Down By The Riverside,” and “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.”

Eventually, the blues revival faded as musicians who were inspired by the original blues pioneers filled stadiums while the pioneers themselves scuffled to work. Thornton turned to Europe again and her tour there, which included T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Williams, and Eddie Boyd, once again proved gratifying.

The dawn of the 1970s saw Thornton’s health begin to falter as the years of drinking took their toll. There was a serious car accident but Thornton recovered in time to play the Newport Jazz Festival alongside B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.” A recording of their set was released on Buddah Records as The Blues — A Summit Meeting. Thornton continued to tour throughout the U.S. and Canada becoming a popular attraction at blues festivals.

Big Mama Thornton died in a Los Angeles boarding house in 1984. The years of alcohol abuse had terminally damaged her heart and liver and at the time of her death, she weighed only 95 pounds. That same year, Thornton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Although the Rock Roll Hall of Fame has included “Ball ‘n’ Chain” in their list of 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll, the Hall has not yet seen fit to induct Thornton herself. It’s an omission that should be rectified soon.

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Soul Serenade: The Exciters, “Tell Him”

The Exciters

 

I’ve written about the Exciters before in this column, back in 2013. But that story was more of a reminiscence about my first band and a song called “Do-Wah-Diddy” that we included in our set. It just so happened that the song was originally recorded by the Exciters in 1963. I can’t claim that we were aware of their recording and in truth, we were inspired by the hit version of the song by Manfred Mann that rocketed up the charts a few months after the Exciters version.

In 1961, Brenda Reid, Carolyn Johnson, Lillian Walker, and Sylvia Wilbur were high school classmates in the Jamaica section of Queens, New York. At the time, there was a male vocal group at school called the Masters so the four young women decided to become the Masterettes. Wilbur left the group early on and she was replaced by Penny Carter but Carter didn’t last long either and to replace her the Masterettes enlisted one of the Masters, Herb Rooney. The quartet managed to wrangle an audition with hit songwriter/producers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller in 1962.

One of the first orders of business for Lieber and Stoller was to change the group’s name to the Exciters. Signed to United Artists, the group entered the studio in 1962 to record “Tell Him.” The song was written by another legendary producer and songwriter, Bert Berns, under his Bert Russell pen name. In fact, it was Berns who produced the first recording of the song by Gil Hamilton, who was also known as Johnny Thunder, in 1962. Subsequently, “Tell Him” was also recorded by Ed Townsend. But it was the third version, the Lieber and Stoller-produced Exciters version, that proved to be the charm. Their record was released in October 1964 and quickly rose up the charts until it eventually reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1963.

The ExcitersThere is a story about Dusty Springfield and the first time she heard the Exciters version of “Tell Him.” Dusty was in New York and on her way to Nashville to record a country music album with her group, the Springfields. When she heard “Tell Him” blaring from the speaker outside of Colony Records while she was taking a walk, it changed everything for her.

“The Exciters sort of got you by the throat … out of the blue comes blasting at you “I know something about love,” and that’s it,” Springfield recalled in an interview. “That’s what I wanna do.”

From that point on, Springfield pursued a highly successful career as a pop/soul singing solo artist.

The Exciters continued to put records in the charts including “He’s Got the Power,” “Get Him,” the aforementioned “Do-Wah-Diddy,” “I Want You to Be My Boy,” and “A Little Bit of Soap” but none of them had anything like the kind of success that “Tell Him” enjoyed. In 1965, the group ended their partnership with Lieber and Stoller and left United Artists. They signed with Roulette Records, then moved on to Berns’ Bang! and Shout labels, and finally landed at RCA. It didn’t matter where they went or what they released. The Exciters would never match the massive success of “Tell Him.” The group broke up in 1974.

In the summer of 1964, the Beatles had embarked on their first full North American tour. On August 30 of that year, the tour arrived in Atlantic City. The show that was headlined by the Liverpool quartet also included the Bill Black Combo, the Righteous Brothers, Jackie DeShannon, and the Exciters. I was in the balcony at Convention Hall for that night and while the Beatles were obviously the main draw, I vividly recall the four Exciters performing their big hit “Tell Him.”

Soul Serenade: Lavern Baker, “Tweedlee Dee”

Lavern Baker

Publicity photo donated to the Rock Hall Archives

There is no doubt that Atlantic Records played a huge role in exposing a wider audience to the sound of Rhythm & Blues. The label, which was founded by jazz lovers Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson in 1947, boasted a roster of artists that at one time or another included Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave. But in the beginning, there were pioneers at the label. They included artists like Ray Charles, Sticks McGhee, Ruth Brown, Joe Morris, the Clovers, the Clyde McPhatter-led Drifters, and Lavern Baker.

She was born in Chicago in 1929. Her given name was Delores Baker and she was the niece of not one but two singers — jazz vocalist Merline Johnson, who was primarily responsible for raising Baker, and the legendary blues singer Memphis Minnie. By the age of 12, Baker was not only singing in her church choir but she was leading soloist. It was just five years later, having attained legal status, that Baker began performing in the South Side clubs under the stage name “The Little Sharecropper.” Her rustic schtick proved popular with the record number of black people who were migrating to Chicago from the south as well as the hip city people.

At the time, Detroit had a growing reputation as a center for R&B so Baker headed there. She landed a gig at The Flame Show Bar. The club’s owner, a guy named Al Green, became her manager. Baker’s first recordings were released by RCQ in 1949 with Baker fronting Sugarman Penigar’s band. “I Wonder Baby” and “Easy Baby” proved very popular in the clubs where Baker was performing. But the winds of change were blowing and by the early 1950s big band music was on its way out and R&B was rising. 1952 was a big year for Baker. She dumped the “Little Sharecropper” thing, joined the Todd Rhodes Orchestra, changed her stage name to Lavern Baker, released an R&B ballad called “Trying,” and toured nearly non-stop.

The momentum continued in 1953. Baker quit the band and successfully toured Europe as a solo act. That was also the year that she signed with Atlantic Records and released her first single for the label, the classic “Soul On Fire.” Her true breakthrough was still ahead and it took place with a single that Baker recorded in October 1954. “Tweedlee Dee” was a huge hit all through 1955. The Winfield Scott song, written specifically for Baker, rose to #4 on the R&B chart and #14 on the pop chart. The problem was that there was a despicable practice known as “whitewashing” going on at the time. Many radio stations and record stores would only push records by white artists. So white artists like Georgia Gibbs made whole careers out of covering black hits and getting substantial airplay and sales. The Gibbs cover or “Tweedlee Dee” sold over a million copies and she subsequently cover the Baker hits “Jim Dandy” and “Tra La La.”

Lavern BakerBut Baker didn’t let racism stop her. She continued releasing hits like “Play It Fair” and “Bop-Ting-A-Ling” and made an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1955. As rock and roll began to eclipse R&B, Baker adapted again, releasing rock and roll-styled hits like “Jim Dandy,” “Jim Dandy Got Married,” and “Humpty Dumpty Heart.” Her greatest success, however, came in 1958 with an epic single “I Cried a Tear.” Baker’s string of hits continued into the 1960s with songs like “So High, So Low,” “Saved,” and “See See Rider.” But the river of time kept flowing and the rise of Motown and the appearance of the Beatles on these shores relegated artists like Baker to “oldies” status. By 1965, Baker had decamped from Atlantic and landed at Brunswick records. She had a couple of small hits for the label, “Think Twice,” and “Wrapped, Tied, and Tangled.”

While entertaining troops in Vietnam on a USO tour in 1966, Baker fell ill with pneumonia. She was airlifted to Thailand for treatment and by the time she recovered, the tour had ended and she was left alone in southeast Asia.

“I didn’t know what to do, who to go to,” Baker told biography.com. “The tour was gone and I was in a strange country where telephone service was practically nonexistent. I hitched with farmers on wagons to Bangkok. I’d had to slog through rice paddies in water up to my shoulders in some places to get to Bangkok, so by the time the Marines got me to the base I’d had a relapse.”

Baker was then airlifted to the Philippines where she spent four more months recovering. Her then-husband, comedian Slappy White, used the lack of communication (Baker insisted that she made numerous attempts to contact him) from Baker to have her declared dead and assumed ownership of her catalog.

“For all I know he heard my voice and hung up. Probably did, the no-good &%@S#!!,” Baker said.

Baker decided to make the best of a bad situation. She stayed in the Philippines, running a nightclub for 21 years, before returning to the U.S. in 1988. She got back in time to win acclaim with her performances at the Atlantic Records 40th-anniversary show at Madison Square Garden and in the Broadway production of Black and Blue. In 1991, Baker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She continued to tour until her death from heart failure in 1997.

Pioneer. Trailblazer. These are terms that we tend to toss around but they fit Lavern Baker like a glove. She’s not called the Empress of Rock and Roll for nothing and if her life had a tragic tinge to it as a result of losing millions of dollars because of the covers of her hits by white artists and being an exile from the country of her birth for more than 20 years, she lived with dignity and unshaken optimism.

“I just did what I had to do,” she said. “Don’t we all?”

Soul Serenade: The Capitols, “Cool Jerk”

The CapitolsThe summer of 1966. I spent it on the beach and Boardwalk in Atlantic City. Incredible music poured out of tinny sounding transistor radio speakers everywhere I went. The songs of that summer included “Paint It, Black” by the Rolling Stones, “Hanky Panky” by Tommy James and the Shondells, “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb, “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” by the Chiffons, “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge, and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by the Temptations.” But the Tempts and their Motown colleagues were not the only ones pushing great music out of the Motor City. Because 1966 was also the summer of the Capitols.

They got together in 1962 as an actual band, as opposed to a vocal group, called the Caps. The original lineup included drummer Samuel George who was also the lead singer. Don Storball played guitar and sang backup vocals, and Richard Mitchell was the keyboard player who also sang backup. At the time, an Ann Arbor DJ named Ollie McLaughlin owned a label called Karen Records. When the Caps opened for Barbara Lewis, McLaughlin caught their act and signed them to his label. In 1963, they released their first single “Dog and Cat” b/w “The Kick.” The record had plenty of energy, just like their later singles would, but the lyrics were pretty childish and the Caps failed to find an audience for it. As a result, the group fell apart and the members went their own ways.

The 1960s were known for a number of dance crazes. There was the twist, the watusi, the frug, and many others. One of the biggest was a dance called the jerk. The jerk was more sexually suggestive than some of the others, so much so that in some Detroit clubs it was known as the “pimp jerk.” Storball could sense which way the wind was blowing and he wrote a song hoping to capitalize on the jerk craze. He was smart enough to worry that such a song might end up being banned on the radio so instead of calling it “Pimp Jerk” he called it “Cool Jerk.”

The other Capitols saw the potential in Storball’s song and decided to get back together. They got in touch with McLaughlin to give him the good news and to book some studio time. On March 14, 1966, they went into the studio and although “Cool Jerk” was not technically a Motown record, the backing group that day was none other than Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers. McLaughlin served as producer. There were supposed to be horn players on the record but perhaps fearful of the wrath of Berry Gordy, Jr. they failed to show up for the sessions. The session went on without them, the horn parts simply left out of the mix.

The Capitols
The “Cool Jerk” single was released two weeks later on Karen Records (it was eventually picked up by Atlantic for distribution) and it rose to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 while reaching the #2 spot on the R&B chart. Not content to rest on their laurels, the Capitols released two albums in 1966 hoping to capitalize on the success of the “Cool Jerk” single. Both albums, Dance the Cool Jerk and We Got a Thing, were primarily made up of Motown and other soul covers. Neither album did very well although Dance the Cool Jerk managed to scrape into the Top 100 for a week.

The Capitols released eight more singles in the wake of their “Cool Jerk” smash. Only two of them charted and none higher than #65. As a result, the Capitols will always wear the one-hit wonder tag. In 1969, they broke up for good. Don Storball became a cop and still lives in Detroit. Samuel George died in 1982, and Richard Mitchell died two years later.

The Capitols may have only had the one hit but it’s a hit that has been covered many times over the years and one that has influenced generations of musicians. Among the artists doing their own versions of “Cool Jerk” were Todd Rundgren, the Tremeloes, the Coasters, the Outsiders, and the Go-Gos. The song has also been featured in numerous films including a memorable version that had Bootsy Collins performing the song backed by the Funk Brothers in Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

Soul Serenade: Jimmy Soul, “If You Wanna Be Happy”

Jimmy SoulI chose this week’s song with some trepidation. It has been on my list of prospective features for a long time. The obvious reason is that on its surface, this song is a long way from politically correct and in the current climate that can generate more controversy than I’m interested in dealing with. But wait a minute. Let’s look a little below the surface. What is Jimmy Soul really saying in “If You Wanna Be Happy”?

First a little about the singer himself. Jimmy Soul was born in North Carolina and as you may have guessed, Soul was not his family name. James Louis McCleese was preaching by the time he was seven and singing gospel in his teenage years. It was his church congregation that gave him the “Soul” moniker.

Soul toured the south a variety of gospel groups and acquired some popularity in the Norfolk, Virginia area. It was there that he encountered Frank Guida who was a songwriter and producer ass well as being the manager of Gary U.S. Bonds among other artists. Guida thought that Soul would be a good substitute for Bonds on songs that Bonds had declined to record and when you listen to “If You Wanna Be Happy” you will notice a decided similarity to the sound of the Bonds hits. It’s a sound that has had a noticeable impact on producers and artists who came later.

Jimmy Soul“If You Wanna Be Happy” was written by Guida along with his wife Carmella and Joseph Royster. It was based on a song called “Ugly Woman” that had been recorded by the Trinidadian calypso singer Roaring Lion in 1934. The record was released on Guida’s own S.P.Q.R. label and distributed by London Records in the United States. Despite the fact that the “ugly woman” lyrics got the song banned by many radio stations “If You Wanna Be Happy” shot to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1963. The single sold over a million copies and earned a gold record. It was the second hit for Soul who had scored with “Twistin’ Matilda” the previous year.

Jimmy Soul kept trying but he could never match the success of the two singles. He finally gave up his career as a musician and joined the Army. Sadly, drugs became a problem for Soul and landed him in prison in the 1980s. He died of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 45.

Now about those lyrics. Yes, they’re hard to defend and yet the point of the lyrics is clearly that looks aren’t everything. It’s a positive message which is unfortunately delivered in a rather offensive way. And yet, in 1963, “If You Wanna Be Happy” captured hearts around the world with the unrestrained joy that leaped from the grooves of the record.

Soul Serenade: Nancy Wilson, “Face It Girl, It’s Over”

Nancy WilsonHappy New Year!

During the holidays I decided to determine once and for all how long I’ve been writing this column. I searched the Popdose archives for that first column which I knew featured the King Curtis song that gave the column its name. And there it was, published on April 15, 2010. Soul Serenade is approaching its ninth birthday. In that whole time I’ve only taken a few weeks off (alright, one of them was last week) so simple math tells me that there have been well over 400 entries in this series. Phew! I must admit that occasionally it’s challenging to come up with something I haven’t covered previously but I’m going to press on into the New Year.

Aretha Franklin’s death was one of biggest, and saddest stories of 2019. And rightly so. She was the one and only Queen of Soul after all and her life and career were the stuff of legend. But in December we lost another great singer who was iconic in her own right, Nancy Wilson.

Wilson was born in Ohio in 1937. Her father was a foundry worker who loved music and Wilson grew up listening to his records by artists like Billy Eckstein, Dinah Washington, and Ruth Brown. From the time she began singing in church choirs as a child, it was clear that Wilson would become a professional singer. Her first break came when she was 15. Wilson won a talent show sponsored by a local television station and the prize was two appearances on Skyline Melodies, a local television show. Around this time Wilson was also working in the clubs around town.

Given the vagaries on show business, Wilson decided to go to college to pursue a teaching degree. But after a year she knew that she had to return to her true calling. Soon after that, she landed a gig singing with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band. Wilson stayed with the band for two years, touring throughout the Midwest and Canada during that time. It was also with Bryant’s band that she did her first recording.

Somewhere along the way, Wilson encountered Cannonball Adderley who was taken with her talent and suggested to Wilson that she move to New York to jumpstart her career. Wilson made the move in 1969. She sang four nights a week at a club called Blue Morocco and by day she worked as a secretary at the New York Institute of Technology. With the help of Adderly’s manager, John Levy, she got a deal with Capitol Records in 1960.

Nancy Wilson“Guess Who I Saw Today” was Wilson’s first single for the label and it was so successful that Capitol released five Nancy Wilson albums over the next two years. Adderley advised Wilson to move from her pop music stylings to more of a jazz and R&B thing and the two collaborated on Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley in 1962. The album included the R&B smash “Save Your Love For Me.” Between 1964 and 1965, Wilson put four albums into the Top 10 on the Billboard albums chart. She also had her biggest single with “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am,” which reached #11 in 1964. Wilson charted ten other singles from 1963-1971, but “Face It Girl, It’s Over” was her only other non-Christmas single to crack the Top 40. “Face It Girl” reached the #29 spot in 1968.

Wilson was a fixture on a variety of television shows in the ’60s and ’70s. In 1967, she finally got her own shown on NBC. The Nancy Wilson Show only lasted for two years but it won an Emmy during that time. Aside from her own show, Wilson appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Tonight Show, and numerous other variety shows along with dramas series like Room 222, Hawaii Five-0, and The F.B.I.

The 1980s brought more recording and touring for Wilson. She recorded with jazz greats like Hank Jones, Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Ramsey Lewis, and Stanley Clarke. Appearances included prestigious venues like the Newport Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Tokyo Songs Festival. By the ’90s, Wilson had 60 albums under her belt. From 1995-2006, Wilson hosted NPR’s Jazz Profiles and won a Peabody Award for her efforts in 2001. She continued to perform until 2011 when she made her final public appearance on a stage in, appropriately, Ohio.

“I’m not going to be doing it anymore, and what better place to end it than where I started – in Ohio,” Wilson told jazzcolumbus.com at the time.

Nancy Wilson won many awards and over the year. She was the recipient of three Grammy Awards, the Whitney Young Jr. Award from the Urban League, and the NAACP Image Award – Hall of Fame Award among many other honors. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and honorary degrees from Berklee College of Music and Central State University. Wilson was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in 2005. The list of honors goes on and on, but you get the idea. Wilson was not only a great singer but a great citizen as well.

Nancy Wilson died in California on December 13, 2018, after a long battle with kidney cancer.

Soul Serenade: Aretha Franklin, “Silent Night” (Solo Piano Version)

Aretha Franklin - "Silent Night"Let’s face it, 2018 was not a very good year. The nation seemed to become even more divided and at times it felt like the whole world was about to come apart at the seams. In the midst of this darkness came the devastating news that we had lost the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. On August 13, the great lady died from pancreatic cancer. Her life was celebrated in a majestic memorial service that was held at Greater Grace Temple in her hometown of Detroit on August 31. Aretha’s prominence was such that the service was streamed by several major news networks.

One of the last albums that Aretha ever recorded was a Christmas album. This Christmas was released as a Borders Bookstore (remember them?) exclusive on October 14, 2008, and reissued by DMI the following year. Sadly, the album, which was a blend of holiday classics like “Ave Maria,” and more modern fare like the Gamble and Huff-penned “Christmas Ain’t Christmas (Without the One You Love),” failed to crack the Top 100.

In November of this year, Rhino Records released This Christmas on vinyl for the first time ever. The company also released for digital consumption an extraordinary, newly-mixed solo piano version of Aretha singing “Silent Night.” It’s as if the great diva has left us one last holiday gift.

We’re all caught up in the rush of the season so I’ll keep it short this week. I wanted to give you something beautiful to listen to this Christmas. If hearing Aretha sing this classic accompanied only by herself on the piano doesn’t give you goosebumps, you’re stronger than I am. Most of all, I want to wish all of the readers of this column a very Merry Christmas wrapped in the warm embrace of family and friends.