Soul Serenade: Rufus Thomas, “Walking the Dog”

Rufus Thomas“His music … brought a great deal of joy to the world, but his personality brought even more, conveying a message of grit, determination, indomitability, above all a bottomless appreciation for the human comedy that left little room for the drab or the dreary in his presence.” — Peter Guralnick

As Dr. King once famously said, longevity has its place. And when it comes to a career in music, longevity is something that’s widely sought after but all to seldom experienced. We often celebrate the singular achievement of the one-hit-wonders but there are some artists who have had the opposite experience. Rufus Thomas was one of those artists, with a career that spanned 75 years.

Thomas was Memphis, through and through. He was born there in 1917 and at the age of six, he was already performing in a school theatrical production. He played a frog. By the time he reached his teens, Thomas was touring around the South as part of a troupe called the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, performing as a comedian and tap dancer. When he came home to Memphis he would emcee vaudeville and talent shows at the Palace Theater on Beale Street. The talent show winners included the likes of B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Johnny Ace.

At the age of 23, Thomas married Cornelia Lorene Wilson in a ceremony officiated by the Reverend C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin. He didn’t rely on income from his show business pursuits and took a day job at a textile bleaching plant. It was a job that Thomas worked for 20 years. He never stopped performing, however, and by the time he was in his 20s, Thomas was writing and singing his own songs. After making his professional singing debut at the Beale Street Elks Club, Thomas became a regular at the Memphis clubs including Currie’s Club Tropicana.

Thomas was 33 years old when he signed his first record deal with the tiny Dallas-based Star Talent label. There he recorded his first 78 r.p.m. single, “I’ll Be a Good Boy” b/w “I’m So Worried.” Although Thomas claimed to not be looking to get rich with the single he had to have been disappointed by the decidedly lackluster sales. “The record sold five copies and I bought four of them,” he once told the Dallas Observer. The record did succeed in garnering a positive review from the influential Billboard Magazine though. Thomas also recorded with Bobby Plater’s Orchestra for Bullet Records in Nashville but he was billed as “Mr. Swing” on those records and it was only years later that they were credited to Thomas.

The next stop for Thomas as a singer was at Sam Phillip’s Sun Studios where he recorded several sides for Chess Records. When none of them managed to find success, Thomas took his ebullient personality to radio station WDIA where he became a DJ. His afternoon radio show was called Hoot and Holler and his presentation of blues and R&B appealed to both black and white listeners. The radio career brought Thomas the kind of fame that he had failed to achieve as a singer but the audience that he built at WDIA allowed him to take another crack at music. In 1953, at the urging of Phillips, Thomas recorded “Bear Cat” as an answer record to Big Mama Thornton’s hit “Hound Dog.” The record reached #3 on the R&B chart making it Sun Records’ first national hit. Don Robey, the publisher of “Hound Dog,” didn’t like the record a bit and launched a copyright infringement suit that almost put Sun out of business before Elvis even showed up there.

But Phillips was famously looking for a white singer who could sound like a black singer and after he signed Presley he began releasing his black artists, including Thomas. His next single was for Meteor Records in 1956 but “I’m Steady Holdin’ On” failed to chart despite the playing of Lewie Steinberg who went on to be a co-founder of Booker T & the MGs.

By 1960, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton had started the Satellite Records label and it was there that Thomas first recorded with daughter Carla. “Cause I Love You” was successful enough regionally to allow Stewart to sign a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, a deal that proved lucrative for both parties until it was a near-disaster for one. But that’s a story for another time. In 1963, Thomas had a hit for Stax (as it had been by then renamed) called “The Dog” but it was the follow-up that would prove to be Thomas’ greatest success. “Walking the Dog,” a song written by Thomas, was released the same year and rose to the Top 10 on both the R&B and pop charts. The song was covered by the Rolling Stones a few months later on their debut album and over the years it has seen covers by Aerosmith, John Cale, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, the Kingsmen, the Sonics, Jackie Shane, and Ratt.

The success of “Walking the Dog” finally gave Thomas the chance to give up the job at the textile plant and focus on his music career. He continued the canine theme on Stax singles like “Can Your Monkey Do the Dog,” and “Somebody Stole My Dog” but perhaps his greatest contribution was as a mentor to the young artists that Stax was signing. There was a dry spell during which Thomas didn’t have much in the way of hits but the spell was broken in 1970 with his recording of “Do the Funky Chicken” which hit the Top 10 on the R&B chart and reached #28 on the pop chart. Al Bell, President of Stax at the time, produced the record along with Tom Nixon, and the Bar-Kays served as the backing band. Thomas would keep working with Bell and Nixon and that same year the team collaborated for Thomas’ first and only trip to the top of the R&B chart with “Do the Push and Pull.” A year later, “The Breakdown” was another hit for Thomas, making it to the #2 spot on the R&B chart and #31 pop.

After a few more minor hits for Thomas, who appeared at the legendary Wattstax concert, Stax went under in 1976. Thomas kept on touring the world. He called himself “the world’s oldest teenager” and “the funkiest man alive” and was known for energetic dances moves that were unexpected from a man in his 50s and for his flamboyant stage clothes. Thomas continued to be a presence on radio and television he also appeared in several movies including Mystery Train, Cookie’s Fortune, and the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Only the Strong Survive. He also continued his recording career, releasing music on labels like Alligator and Ecko.

In 1992, Thomas received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, When he reached the age of 80 in 1997, the City of Memphis renamed a street near the old Palace Theater Rufus Thomas Boulevard. That same year, Thomas received a lifetime achievement award from ASCAP and four years later he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2000, Thomas’ wife Lorene passed away and he followed her a year later. They are buried next to each other in Memphis.

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Soul Serenade: Linda Creed, Songwriter

Linda Creed“Linda Creed was such a sweet young lady. She started out wanting to be a singer and she wasn’t a bad singer but she was a great, great writer. All you have to do is listen to her lyrics like on “Betcha By Golly, Wow.” Listen to those lyrics and see how she was able to make those lyrics like that. Look at her lyrics on “I’m Stone In Love With You.” These are great concepts. Her and Tommy Bell were meant for each other.”Kenny Gamble

You may not know her name and yet she was responsible, in part, for some of your favorite records. The more you learn about Linda Creed, the more you realize just how extraordinary her journey was from the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia to the top of the pop and soul charts. Her journey was as unlikely as it was spectacular.

Creed was born Linda Epstein in Philadelphia in 1948 and attended the city’s Germantown High School. Her ambition was to be a singer and she was still in high school when she realized that ambition by singing in a group called Raw Soul. Among the venues that the group played were the Philadelphia Athletic Club and Sid Booker’s Highline Lounge.

When she finished high school, Creed, like so many others before her, headed up the Turnpike to New York City to realize her dreams. She got a music business job working as a secretary for Mills music and in her spare time she worked on developing her lyric writing skills. But her dreams, like those of so many before her, died on the streets on the Big Apple and she returned home to Philadelphia, feeling defeated, eight months later.

All was not lost, however. Creed refused to give up and she was only 22 years old when her break came as Dusty Springfield recorded Creed’s song “Free Girl.” At around that time, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff had gotten Philadelphia International Records off the ground and had formed a subsidiary company called Mighty Three Music. The third member of the trio was songwriter/arranger Thom Bell. Creed was signed to Mighty Three Music and she began working on songs with Bell. In 1971, Bell was producing the Stylistics and one of the songs they chose to record was a Bell/Creed composition called “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart).” The single was a hit, reaching #6 on the Billboard R&B chart and crossing over to Top 40 success on the pop chart.

It was the beginning of an incredibly successful collaboration between Creed, Bell, and the Stylistics. Other collaborations included the hits “You Are Everything,” “Betcha by Golly, Wow,” “Break Up to Make Up,” “People Make the World Go Round,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” and “I’m Stone in Love with You,” the latter written with Anthony Bell. But the Stylistics were not the only group who had success with Bell/Creed songs. Bell also worked with the Spinners and they had hits with “Ghetto Child,” “I’m Coming Home” (with lyrics that were inspired by Creed’s time in New York), “Living a Little, Laughing a Little,” and “The Rubberband Man,” all written by Bell and Creed.

Linda CreedCreed got married in 1972 and her string of hits continued with tracks by Johnny Mathis (“Life is a Song Worth Singing,” later covered by Teddy Pendergrass), Phyllis Hyman (“Old Friend”), and others. In 1976, Creed and her husband, along with their baby daughter, left Philadelphia to live in Los Angeles. The future must have seemed bright but there were dark clouds on the horizon. That same year, Creed underwent a radical mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Not long after the surgery, Creed was asked to write the lyrics for a song (Michael Masser wrote the music) that would appear in a film that was being made about the life of Muhammed Ali. The song, first a hit for George Benson and then turned into an even bigger hit by Whitney Houston ten years later, was “The Greatest Love of All.”

By 1980, Creed and her family, which now included a second daughter, were back in Philadelphia. There, she had more success with Pendergrass (“Hold Me,” a duet with Houston), Johnny Gill (“Half Crazy”), and others. Over the years Creed’s songs have been covered by artists including Roberta Flack, Rod Stewart, Smokey Robinson, and Michael Jackson.

Whitney Houston’s version of “The Greatest Love of All” was released on March 18, 1986. Linda Creed lost her long battle with cancer less than one month later. I would like to think she knew that her lyrics, which were written while she was struggling with cancer and dealt with trying to cope with the challenges that life brings, helped to take the single to the top of the charts. It was one last beautiful message that Creed left us as her all-too-short life came to an end at the age of 38. A short life surely, but just as surely one of incredible achievement.

In 1992, Linda Creed was posthumously elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Soul Serenade: Teddy Pendergrass, “Love T.K.O.”

Teddy PendergrassHave you seen the new Showtime documentary Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me? I recommend it with a bit of reservation related to some rather dubious accusations that are thrown around by people who may, or may not, be reliable. The documentary tells the tragic story of a star who rose from humble beginnings to the verge of superstardom only to be disabled in a terrible automobile accident. But the film’s most important message and the one that makes it worthwhile viewing is that Pendergrass, in a wheelchair, his career seemingly over and intent on suicide, chose life.

Pendergrass grew up on the mean streets of North Philadelphia. He and his mother had moved there from South Carolina when Pendergrass was an infant. His father Jesse left the family early on and was later stabbed to death. The young Pendergrass began singing in church and had dreams of becoming a pastor, a dream he realized when he became an ordained minister at the age of ten. Around the same time, Pendergrass began to play the drums.

Pendergrass attended high school in North Philadelphia but dropped out in his junior year to pursue a career in music. He released one single, “Angel With Muddy Feet,” but it didn’t gain any traction. Pendergrass played drums for a number of local bands eventually landing in one called the Cadillacs (not the same group as the popular Cadillacs of New York City). At that time, Harold Melvin had founded a group called the Blue Notes and in 1970, when he heard Pendergrass play, Melvin asked him to become the group’s drummer. The Blue Notes hadn’t been able to find much success at that point. Then, one night Pendergrass sang along with the group from his drum chair. Melvin knew a good voice when he heard it and he moved Pendergrass from the drum set behind the group to the lead singer position center stage.

Things changed quickly for the Blue Notes after that and in 1971 they signed with Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. The first Blue Notes single for P.I.R. was a ballad called “I Miss You.” The song had been intended for the Dells but when they rejected it, Kenny Gamble, with the similarity of Pendergrass’ voice with that of Dells lead Marvin Junior in mind, chose Pendergrass to sing lead on the track with fellow Blue Note Lloyd Parks handling the falsetto parts and Harold Melvin himself handling an early rap part at the end of the song. “I Miss You” was a major hit on the R&B chart, reaching #4 while almost making it into the Top 50 on the pop chart. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were on their way but much bigger things were still ahead.

The second Blue Notes single was once again a song originally intended for another artist, in this case, Labelle. A scheduling conflict prevented the Philadelphia trio from recording the song and it fell into the lap of the Blue Notes. It was a huge break for the group because “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” was one of Gamble and Huff’s most magnificent creations. The resulting single rose to the top of the R&B chart hit the Top 10 on the pop chart and made Teddy Pendergrass a star. There was just one problem — most people thought that the guy out front with the big voice was Harold Melvin.

Pendergrass kept leading the way on subsequent Blue Notes hits like “The Love I Lost,” “Bad Luck,” “Wake Up Everybody,” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” At some point, Pendergrass became unhappy with the way Melvin was handling the group’s finances, i.e. paying himself much more than the other group members, including Pendergrass. At the same time, Pendergrass was upset that he wasn’t getting the recognition that he had earned as the lead voice on all of those hits. He asked that the group be renamed Teddy Pendergrass & the Blue Notes but Melvin wasn’t having it and in 1975, Pendergrass left the group to pursue a solo career.

Teddy Pendergrass on his own was an immediate star. Continuing to work with Gamble and Huff, the self-titled Teddy Pendergrass debut album, which included the hit singles “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” and “The Whole Town’s Laughing at Me,” went platinum in 1977. The following year the album Life is a Song Worth Singing, did even better with the singles “Only You” and especially the smash hit “Close the Door” spurring sales. The latter song was the one that turned Pendergrass into an undeniable sex symbol.

The next album, Teddy, topped the R&B chart for eight weeks helped by the songs “Come Go With Me,” “Turn Off the Lights,” and “Do Me.” After the Live Coast to Coast album, Pendergrass released the perhaps his greatest album, TP. The album included massively popular tracks like “Feel the Fire,” a duet with Stephanie Mills, the Ashford and Simpson song “Is It Still Good To Ya,” and the classic “Love T.K.O,” a song written by Cecil Womack and Gip Noble, Jr. and first recorded by David Oliver. The Pendergrass cover reached #2 on the Billboard R&B chart and skirted the Top 40 on the pop chart. By 1982, Pendergrass, with his four consecutive platinum albums, was perhaps the biggest star in R&B rivaling even giants like Marvin Gaye. In light of his crossover success, some in the media were even referring to him as the “black Elvis.”

Teddy PendergrassWith Pendergrass at the peak of his success, on the verge of becoming an international superstar, fate intervened. On the night of March 18, 1982, Pendergrass was driving his Rolls Royce in Philadelphia. In the passenger seat was a performer named Tenika Watson who Pendergrass met earlier that evening. Pendergrass lost control of the car and hit a tree. He and his passenger were trapped in the wreckage for 45 minutes. Watson, who was later revealed to be transgender, walked away with scratches. Pendergrass had been struck in the chest by a dome in the center of the steering wheel, a decorative feature. The blow severed his spinal cord and he was left a quadriplegic.

Unsurprisingly, Pendergrass became depressed in the wake of the accident. He spoke about committing suicide. Desperately looking for a way to prevent Pendergrass from taking his own life his psychiatrist, a quadriplegic himself, hit on the idea of holding a mock funeral so that Pendergrass could see how much he meant to his family and friends. The radical approach worked and Pendergrass emerged from the ceremony determined to live.

Still, it wasn’t going to be easy. Pendergrass was determined to continue his career and with the help of his doctor, an apparatus was created that when worn would help Pendergrass find enough air to sing. But his contract with P.I.R. had expired and other record labels had no interest in signing him given his physical condition. In 1984, Pendergrass finally got a new record deal and released the album Love Language. The album got as far as #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified as a Gold album.

One of the most emotional moments in popular music history came on July 13, 1985, at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia. Pendergrass had chosen a daunting venue for his return to live performance and he was so nervous that he almost didn’t go through with it. But when he rolled out on stage in his wheelchair during Ashford and Simpson’s set the ovation from his hometown crowd that greeted him seemed to go on forever. Together with his old friends he performed a tearful version of “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” a song that had been a huge hit for Diana Ross and couldn’t have been more appropriate for the moment.

By 1988, Pendergrass was back on top of the charts with the single “Joy” and in 1994 he had another hit, albeit one of his last, with “Believe in Love.” Four years later, Pendergrass published his autobiography Truly Blessed. In 2002, he turned his Power of Love concert which had taken place at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles into the live album From Teddy, With Love. In 2006, Pendergrass announced that he would retire from the music business although he did return to perform at the Teddy 25: A Celebration of Life, Hope & Possibilities concert the following year. The concert marked the 25th anniversary of the accident while also raising money for the charity that Pendergrass had established.

Pendergrass faced colon cancer surgery in 2009. The surgery was successful but several weeks later he was back in the hospital with respiratory problems. On January 13, 2010, Teddy Pendergrass died at a hospital in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, not far from where he had grown up. On that day we lost one of the greatest voices of our time. Pendergrass was only 59 years old at the time of his death but by choosing life all of those years earlier he was able to enjoy the love of his family, friends, and fans for many years after his accident.

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.

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.