Saturday, November 25, 2006

Tomorrow is Promised to the People... Lou Pride

Here is a Message To The People: "Hold On To Your Dream, because I'm Not Through Loving You", and if Your Love is Fading, then I've got to Work for Love. So I'm quitting my Lonely Room tomorrow evening, because if we think soul is over, We're Only Fooling Ourselves. Sure, there are Phony People; sure, This is a Man's World, but Tomorrow is Promised to the People! Look Out Love, There's Got to Be Someone for Me! His name is Lou Pride, so don't be Waiting In Vain! 'Coz whoever is Bringing Me Back Home, I'm Com'un Home in the Morn'un...

Lou Pride, by Kurt Swanson 2005

I'm getting a little excited, in anticipation of seeing and hearing the fantastic soulman George 'Lou' Pride with The WattSoul Horns tomorrow night at the Komedia in Brighton! Tickets are still available, so get one if you can. I will try to make dutiful notes to share with you soon. And if anyone reading this happens to be going too, look around, and if you find me, I'll happily buy you a pint or two! That's the Real Deal!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The House That Ruth Built: Ruth Brown 1928-2006

Ruth Brown
This post began a few days ago as a continuation of my series of Nashville linked songs. Already in this month, we have mourned the loss of Mr Buddy Killen. However, as I went back to researching yesterday, the sad news began to appear that Ms Ruth Brown has passed away also at the age of 78. Red Kelly at The B Side has produced a memorial post, to which a friend of Ms Brown, Mr Stanley Behrens, has contributed a personal message of condolence. Link to them here. Read an article in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper here.

Born Ruth Weston in Portsmouth, Virginia on January 30th 1928, she began to sing at Emanuel AME Zion Church in Olde Towne, Portsmouth. After tasting the limelight while singing (unbeknownst to her parents!) in local USO shows during the war, and even going up to New York City and winning the Harlem Apollo Amateur Night on another secret trip, she finally ran away for good to Washington D.C. aged 17, in 1945, to live the life she had dreamed about listening to the jazz singers and orchestras of the 1940s. When she began to lose her way in 1947, Blanche Calloway took her under her wing and began to manage her, getting her an audition with a small new label called Atlantic Records. After recovering from a broken leg brought about by a serious car accident in 1948, Ruth Brown finally began her first Atlantic recording session eleven months late in May 1949.

Ruth Brown at Memphis Hippodrome 1950
Ruth Brown at The Hippodrome Memphis 1950, photograph by Ernest Withers.

So Long reached No. 4 on the R&B chart, and began a string of hits, with her next song, Teardrops from My Eyes, becoming her first No.1 record in 1950, and staying at the top for 11 weeks. Next was I'll Wait For You in 1951, reaching No.3; in 1952 there were 5-10-15 Hours, reaching No.1 R&B, and Daddy, Daddy at No.3; Atlantic Records came to be dubbed "The House That Ruth Built".

I have linked to a performance by Ruth Brown singing Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean on television in 1953, which marked her appearance in the national Pop charts and wider recognition.

This track was in fact recorded twice by Ruth Brown, the first time in New York City in 1953. Ruth Brown wasn't impressed with the 1953 demo, feeling it was too crude, and suggested that it not be released. However, Ahmet Ertegun was adamant that it was a potential hit. He was proved correct when it reached No.1 on the R&B chart, and No.23 on the Pop chart. White entertainers such as Frankie Laine became vocal admirers, and it was Frankie who dubbed Ruth Miss Rhythm.

The hits continued with Wild Wild Young Men, and in 1954 with two more No. 1s, Oh What a Dream and Mambo Baby. In 1955 she dueted with Clyde McPhatter on Love Has Joined Us Together. She was the star of the television broadcast Showtime At The Apollo that same year. Ruth Brown recorded with Atlantic up to 1960, before parting ways in order to spend more time with her young family. In addition, she had fallen out of love with the company. While she was being paid advances of up to $350 for each song she recorded, and selling millions of records, the accounts of Atlantic Records always showed her owing the company for recording costs, touring and promotions!

Ruth Brown performing in 1960

However, she never lost the desire to sing and record, and continued to be involved in music even during this hiatus. In 1962, Ruth Brown was signed by Shelby Singleton to the Nashville-based Phillips label. He persuaded her to re-record Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean, featured on Night Train To Nashville, and this time Ruth herself was pleased with the results:

"Going down there and working with these great musicians ... there's a different feeling. Just a whole wonderful feeling... I think it's one of the best things that I have ever done."

Ruth Brown decided to return to music in the 1970s, and even branched out into TV, film, the stage, and radio; in the sitcom Hello, Larry; the film Hairspray; the Broadway show Black And Blue; and as a host on NPR radio. As well as a desire to perform, urged on by her friend the comedian Redd Foxx, another motivation was spurring Ruth Brown to work and to promote black musical heritage.

I first heard about The Rhythm And Blues Foundation when I saw a TV interview with Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, and I discovered that simply because you made the music, it did not necessarily mean that you were getting paid for it. In the late 1970s, Ruth Brown discovered that the same situation was affecting her, with less and less royalties monies actually arriving, and having to take on other jobs to support her family. Ruth Brown's greatest endeavour perhaps was her battle with Warner, new owners of Atlantic Records, and former owners Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, to recover her royalties due since the start of her career, and to establish a fund to support other artists who had not profited by their work in music. After discussions with Ms Brown about the way deals were done in the early years, and paying her $20,000 in back royalties, former Atlantic owner Ahmet Ertegun, to his credit, agreed to personally donate $1.5 million to set up the Foundation to acheive this goal in 1987.

Ruth Brown had been on life support since Oct. 29 after suffering a heart attack and stroke. She died at a hospital in Henderson, Nevada, near Las Vegas, where she lived with family. Amongst the memories close friends and relatives shared was this one from cousin Mae Breckenridge-Haywood:

"We've lost another pearl...She was just a beautiful person with a very warm spirit, especially for her hometown, her school and also her family..."

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Ruth Brown in Portsmouth, VA, in May 2006. (Photo courtesy of Virginian-Pilot newspaper.)

Information for this post from, and Malcolm Venables and Steven Stone of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, who give a moving and in-depth account of Ruth Browns life and acheivements. Video performance provided by innercalm.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Buddy Killen: 1932 -2006

Buddy Killen 1932 - 2006

Buddy Killen, born Nov 13th 1932, Florence, Alabama; died Nov 1st 2006.

William Doyce Killen, born in Florence, not far from Muscle Shoals, moved to Nashville in 1950 aged 18 to start a career as a double bass player in the country music capital. It was here that he became involved in Tree Music, a song publishing company. In 1953, the manager of the radio station, Jack Stapp, asked him to work at his new publishing company. He would assess would-be songwriters and offer potential hits to performers. Buddy proved to be a great success.

In 1956 he was captivated when a schoolteacher, Mae Boren Axton showed him a song, Heartbreak Hotel, which he considered suitable for Elvis Presley. It established Tree Music as a major player and a grateful Stapp made Killen an executive vice-president. In the early 1960s, he discovered and recorded 15 year old Dolly Parton, before letting her leave her contract in 1964.

Killen was also a successful songwriter. In 1960, Killen wrote the US Top Ten hit Forever for the Little Dippers (an offshoot of the Anita Kerr Singers), and his compositions would include several country hits: Open Up Your Heart (for Buck Owens, 1966), I Can't Wait Any Longer (Bill Anderson, 1978), I May Never Get to Heaven (Conway Twitty, 1979), Watchin' the Girls Go By (Ronnie McDowell, 1981) and All Tied Up (Ronnie McDowell, 1986).

In 1960 he was introduced to Joe Tex. Buddy decided to move into rhythm and blues music. He admitted that he knew nothing about it when he made the decision, but it was his belief in the talent of Joe which confirmed his choice. Buddy Killen formed Dial Records in 1963, to promote Joe Tex as a recording artist. Four years of struggling to come up with a hit formula led Killen to look towards his Alabama home, and to book the Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, to work with Rick Hall and his band. The session produced Hold What You've Got, which after Buddy had taken the reels for splicing and post-production, started a trail of hits up until Joe's retirment in 1970. They remained close friends up until Joe's death. Buddy Killen wrote Joe's comeback disco hit Ain't Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman) in 1977.

Buddy and Tree Music continued to thrive, becoming the President and owner on Stapp's death in 1980. Eventually, in 1989, he sold the company, and set up his own agency called Killen Enterprises. He continued to work successfully with new artists such as OutKast up until his death.

Buddy Killen & Jerry Rivers backing Martha Carson at the Grand Ole Opry

Buddy Killen & Bill Anderson - I May Never Get To Heaven (Sample)

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Commanders of The Beat!!!

Many of the Nashville r&b clubs featured house acts who might play on a weekly basis for months or years on end, when not performing out of town. Indeed there's is a street-level story of fame and musical impact rarely reflected in the charts and record sales to which music history is often reduced. Earl Gaines held forth at Nashville's Sugar Hill; Johnny Jones and the Imperial 7, or a jobbing Jimmy Hendrix with the King Kasuals, would be playing at the very popular Club Del Morocco (once frequented by Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis when they were in town.); while at Club Stealaway, Frank Howard and the Commanders, vocal trio, sang Wednesday nights from 9 until 1 in the morning.

"I never saw any of the money we made off of our records, but I made a lot of money from personal appearances. Pee Wee Johnson ran a club called the House On the Hill. We would play at the Seal-A-Way or the New Era or with Hendrix at the Del Morocco, then we would leave during the intermission and go to Pee Wee's and play there..."

Frank Howard, Charlie Fite and Herschel Carter at Club Stealaway, 1964

Charlie Fite, Frank Howard, Herschel Carter at Club Stealaway, in 1964, celebrating their release of their first single, Just Like Him.

Originally known as The Marquees, and originally including Frank's older brother Bruce, they had been singing around Nashville since 1957, but Frank, Charlie and Hershel grouped up in 1961. It was DJ and manager 'Hoss' Allen who renamed them The Commanders in early 1964, ready to promote their first 45, recorded at Fame Studios.

Bill 'Hoss' Allen, WLAC DJ
Bill "Hoss" Allen, WLAC DJ

Frank Howard had a great friendship with legendary WLAC DJ and promoter Bill ''Hoss'' Allen, who was to hire The Commanders to be regulars alongside the band of Clarence Gatemouth Brown and Johnny Jones on his r&b TV show The!!!!Beat, made in Texas but featuring Nashville musicians. However he was less happy when Allen decided to change The Commanders into Frank Howard & The Commanders...

'''Horse [Hoss] was like my brother....[but] I was very upset with my name out front. . . . But Horse said 'I want you to be out there by yourself.' Horse wanted me to be a Johnny Mathis-type singer. . . . I guess it all worked out.''

Hoss had connections and the means to promote acts like The Commanders onto a bigger stage. R&B star Earl Gaines had formed a partnership with 'Hoss' Allen in 1965. They recorded an LP, Best Of Luck To You in late 1965 to early 1966. The album featured Johnny Jones & The Imperial Seven and Frank Howard & The Commanders, and was released by HBR Records in 1966. While Earl Gaines gained the most publicity from the album, with his name prominent and scoring a No.28 r&b hit, it convinced Hoss and his backers to hire the Commanders and the Imperial Seven for the musical backbone of Allen’s syndicated television show The !!! Beat.

The cream of the Nashville r&b scene continued to flourish for a few years thanks to Night Train and The!!!!Beat, but the death of a blues club scene made it harder in the city itself. In 1967, Frank recorded a solo record, Judy, which was later covered by Al Green. After that, Frank Howard left music to pursue careers as a banker (eventually rising to senior vice president), repo man and car dealership owner.

Frank Howard helped the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum researchers with their work on the Night Train To Nashville exhibit, providing videotapes, records and reminiscences of the period. Such eyewitnesses and their oral history are all the more valuable in a rapidly changing society and urban environment, where Interstate 40 altered the landscape of north Nashville forever in the mid 1960s. Frank used to go to see Joe Tex at the Legion Club, which once stood next to the current NES headquarters:

''We would always go hear Joe when he was in town because he was a top-notch entertainer. . . . We were there when he did his first split. His pants split. We had to lend him a pair of pants so he could get back on the stage.''

Michael Gray, curator at the Country Music Hall Of Fame:

''Museums count on people like Frank. We couldn't tell the story without someone like him stepping forward and loaning us photos and artifacts.''

''I never throw anything out,'' Howard admits!

Frank Howard is now a minister at Patterson Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville's Flat Rock, and he puts his soul into the gospel music. But he still looks back with fondness on his younger self, and was persuaded to participate in a number of r&b reunion concerts for the Night Train exhibition, which, while the participants are a little older and the audience younger, have given Nashvillians a reprise of how things used to be. Watching The Commanders slip and slide and perform flying splits while singing (You Make Me Wanna) Shout on a video, Frank says:

''Man, I was about 300 pounds lighter back then! Look at that guy!''

The Commanders on The!!!!Beat, 1966

Watch The Commanders on The!!!!Beat singing I'm So Glad:

Listen to Frank Howard & The Commanders sing their first record Just Like Him:

Frank Howard & The Commanders - Just Like Him (Hermitage 870) 1964

Just Like Him

Information and quotes taken from a fascinating interview with Frank Howard in March 2004 by Tim Ghianni at The Tennessean website. The interview is far, far longer than these excerpts, and includes lots more personal details and insights...

Other information from the Night Train To Nashville exhibit booklet. Photographs from the personal collection of Frank Howard. Archive of The!!!!Beat provided by innercalm. Mp3 link hosted by Commotion PR, Night Train To Nashville public relations. You can buy the CD Night Train To Nashville at this link...

Buy Night Train To Nashville: Vol 1