Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Coasters (top) Leiber & Stoller
My favorite Coasters song starts out:  “One little piggy ate a pizza/One piggy ate potato chips/This little piggy’s comin’ over your house/Gonna nibble on your sweet lips/Cause I’m a hog for you, Baby…”  Well, admittedly not every Leiber and Stoller song turned out to be “Hound Dog.”  But even this underdog ditty sports the offbeat lyrics that caught the attention of black performers back in the 50s.  Get this...nine R&B stars had recorded L&S songs before these two white boys were out of their teens.  Their comedy classics for the Coasters (“Charlie Brown,” “Yakety Yak,” “Poison Ivy”) kept them constantly on the charts beginning in the mid-fifties.  Elvis helped.  He recorded more than twenty of their songs.  When the dust had settled, Leiber and Stoller had been overwhelmingly influencial in bringing R&B from the ghetto into the mainstream, whether with flippant jive pieces like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Love Potion #9” or smoother stuff like the Drifters “Save the Last Dance for Me."  As for "I'm a Hog For You Baby," I'm not its only fan.  there are 40 or 50 covers out there. Coasters video with studio chatter and false starts .

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


As a genre, 50's New Orleans R&B was highly over-saxed.  And saxiest of all was Huey "Piano" Smith's band which might be described as the low-life equivalent of Fats Domino’s hit machine.   Huey’s band featured careening shuffle rhythms, greasy saxophones in full honk, lots of nonsense lyrics, and oh yes…a female impersonator on vocals.  Huey's best song, for my money, was "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu," and if that tickles your ear, it's probably the Johnny Rivers cover from '73 that you remember.  But when Huey Smith and the Clowns cut “Sea Cruise” for Ace Records in 1959, it was a near-perfect example of late 50s rock and roll, and destined for the charts from first listen.  The problem:  like many 50s recordings, it was a black record that sounded too black for the white market.  (As Little Richard said “Us greasy black mens was too dangerous for white girls fantasies.”)   Very often a whiteboy cover version would hit the street the minute a black hit broke…and stomp the original back into obscurity.  Ace Records was having none of that, so they scrapped Huey’s vocal track and recut it with white teenager Frankie Ford whose photo they prominately displayed on the sleeve.  Result:  Ace Records’ first top ten pop chart hit, Frankie Ford with Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns "Sea Cruise."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


He was King of the Jukebox.  More than anyone else, Louis Jordan created the classic early 40's R&B sound by spinning jivey humor, hot sax and shuffling beats into an astonishing 57 chart hits during that one decade alone.  To dig Jordan's music, let's start with "Saturday Night Fish Fry."  The rowdy tale of a wild, all-night party with all revelers ending up in the slammer was number one on the R&B charts for 12 weeks.  While other black performers of that era, like Nat King Cole and the Mills Brothers were crooning smooth songs with race-neutral content, Jordan sang black, and his story lines were often very obviously about black life.  It’s clear that “Ain’t Nobody Here but us Chickens”  was not a Beverly Hills experience, and also that “Caldonia” was probably not a cousin of Pat Boone’s.  Still, Louis Jordan sold well to white audiences as well as blacks.  It’s also a fact  that he had a direct influence on many rock and roll icons.  Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Fats Domino and Ray Charles have all said so .  They've also said it in their music.  Here's a video of "Saturday Night Fish Fry ."

Thursday, February 3, 2011


America's noisy, violent past has spawned many protest songs...but "Strange Fruit" stands alone.

This extraordinary song, admirable for the quality of its poetry as well as the brutal impact of it’s anti-lynching message was written during the 30’s as congress was refusing for the umpteenth time to pass anti-lynching legislation.  Unsuspecting club goers at New York’s Café Society were ambushed by the song’s first performance in 1939 by Billie Holiday.  Even Café Society’s ultra-liberal crowd of artists, activists, students and assorted leftist types reacted with stunned silence.  Gradually the applause started and the song became a regular feature.  But the backlash was immediate.  Holiday was often verbally and physically abused when she performed it, her record company (Columbia) refused to touch it, and when she finally got it recorded by Commodore, most radio stations refused to play it.  And if you don't think that racism was an American institution, consider the fact that in 1940, Time Magazine called the song “A prime piece of musical propaganda for the NAACP"!  So...who wrote this little bomb?  His name was Abel Meeropol and he used the pseudonym of Lewis Allan.  He was a Jewish New York City high school teacher (and member of the American Communist Party) who, like many 30’s liberals, was lured by the Party’s promise of social justice.  As it turned out, his song -- the first significant racial protest in words and music -- did more for the cause than any political movement of the time.

Billie Holiday video - "Strange Fruit" 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


During my misspent youth, I played in a raggedy little jazz band -- me and five guys!  We were quite loud, and were primarily known for more passion than precision.  But what we did best was to listen at the feet of the great Kid Ory and his Creole Jazz Band at the Beverly Cavern night after night.  One thing we learned was that when the world's greatest tailgate trombonist empties his spit valve, you don't really want to be that close. 

Kid Ory had already been tagged with jazz immortality before jazz was out of its infancy -- he was a key sideman on most of the important jazz recordings of the 1920s. King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and clarinetist Johnny Dodds all considered Ory essential to the ensemble sound of classic New Orleans jazz. And though other Crescent City musicians courted Chicago or New York when they left home, Ory flirted periodically with Los Angeles, and it was here that he recorded "Ory's Creole Trombone" with his own band in 1921 on the Sunshine/Nordskog label, a recording which deserves to be universally accepted as the first REAL jazzband record. (Boosters of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band can send snarky emails now if you're so inclined) During the depression, Ory spent many years sorting mail and wrangling chickens, so he was quick to respond when Orson Welles needed a New Orleans jazz band for a radio show. That break put Ory back in business, as part of a world-wide New Orleans jazz revival, and the band he led then, Ory's Creole Jazz Band, with the rejuvenated Ory roaring away in ensembles and on solos was probably his finest band ever. The records he made in those years especially those on Jazz Man are now considered to be some of the most important and influential in the genre. Ory moved to Hawaii in 1961, and died there in 1973.  As you can see, I got an autographed photo, even though the guys in our band thought that was not cool.