Riding High On Bob Dylan’s Jukebox – Warren Smith!

Now, to be clear your Honour, I can’t say for certain that Bob Dylan has a Jukebox and if he has I can’t be 100% sure which artists it features. But, but, I have to say that there is enough compelling evidence from Bob’s recording and performing history to say with some force that Bob really digs Warren Smith and has spent many an hour listening to the fabulous sides he cut for Sun Records in the late 1950s.

Consider; Bob’s tender tribute recording of Warren’s, ‘Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache’, his (unissued) take on, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, his regular 1986 tour performances of, ‘Uranium Rock’ and the aforementioned ‘Moustache’, his thanks in the sleeve notes of, ‘Down In The Groove’ to a, ‘Gal shaped just like a Frog’ (surely referencing Warren’s explosive, ‘Miss Froggie’), and, his repeated featuring of Warren on his Theme Time Radio shows and it becomes obvious that Bob in his boyhood Hibbing days, ear pressed to a transistor radio listening to John R and Hoss Allen, was hit hard by Warren and never forgot him.

Taking all that into account I think we can say with some confidence that Bob’s Jukebox, real or imaginary, will definitely be stocked with some Warren Smith 45s! So let’s cue up Warren’s April 1956 debut single for Sun (No 239), ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, a prime slice of Rockabilly that turned many a head beyond Bob’s.

Ruby rock some more indeed! Warren here is backed by the excellently named Snearly Ranch Boys with whom he had been playing at the Cotton Club in West Memphis when spotted by Sun Records supremo Sam Phillips. The song is credited to Johnny Cash (though those in the know say it was actually written by George Jones – presumably in his ‘Thumper’ incarnation). All agree that it cost Warren $40. Money well spent as it went on to be a regional Number 1 record with some 70,000 sold, outselling the debuts of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

Warren’s vocal is propulsively assured and the record bounces along like a well sprung pickup truck with some fine piano from Smokey Joe Bauch and neat guitar fills from Buddy Holobauch on lead and Stan Kessler on the steel.

Warren, then 24, born in 1932, brought up in Louise Mississippi, and a USAF veteran was ecstatic at the success of his first recording (the B side of which has a lovely vocal on the fine pure country, ‘I’d Rather Be Safe Than Sorry’). As a man with plenty of ambition and a very strong ego Warren looked forward confidently to becoming a huge star in emulation of Elvis.

Yet, life has a habit of throwing roadblocks in the way of the broad highway to fame and fortune we so fondly imagine in the days of youth. So it was for Warren. Despite recording some brilliant records, showcased below, the glittering prizes eluded him due to a mixture of the vagaries of fate, his own deficiencies, the limited marketing budget available to Sam Phillips and the appearance of more irresistible forces onto the scene (step forward Jerry Lee Lewis!).

His story, awaiting the screenplay, included a life threatening car crash taking a year out of his career, addiction to pills and booze, a spell in prison and an unexpected late renaissance courtesy of British Rockabilly fanatics before sudden death at the shockingly young age of 47 in January 1980.

Warren’s second outing for Sun (No 250) issued in september 1956 had as its flip side a somewhat strange version of the Child ballad, ‘Black Jack David’ which must be the oldest tune ever recorded on the Sun label. Its inclusion probably signified Sam Phillips trying to court the country market as well the burgeoning Rockabilly/Rock ‘n’ Roll scene.

The A side, in all its 1 minute 58 seconds of glory was the wholly ludicrous, politically incorrect, yet wholly addictive, ‘Ubangi Stomp’ penned by Charles Underwood then a student at Memphis State. I think the cartoon lyric shows that Charles was not studying Anthropology!

Warren’s band now included the excellent Al Hopson on guitar and Marcus Van Story on bass. The record sold some 100,000 copies but alas for Warren not in a rush but in a leisurely fashion over some 18 months.

Warren next recorded at in Sun Studios at 706 Union Avenue in early 1957 and the results were issued in April. The A side, written by fellow Sun artist Roy Orbison, was the thoroughly engaging, ‘So Long I’m Gone’ but it’s the electrifying, nay crazed, B side, ‘Miss Froggie’ featuring stellar incendiary guitar playing by Al Hopson and brilliant, ‘Look out! we ain’t gonna stop for no one’ drumming by Jimmy Lott that will ensure a place in Rock ‘n’ Roll eternity for Warren Smith.

My diligent scientific research over many decades has conclusively proved that it is impossible (and potentially injurious) to try to resist a song that opens with the epochal couplet:

‘Yes, I got a gal, she’s shaped just like a frog
I found her drinking’ muddy water, sleepin’ in a hollow log’

Warren Smith’s singing on this record is utterly magnificent. He generates heart stopping, heart bursting, levels of excitement smoothly increasing the pressure on the accelerator so that you half expect to hear the boom of the sound barrier being broken before the song ends.

I have to confess that in my youth as I prepared for a Saturday night out in London sure to be filled with alcoholic and romantic excess (the former inevitably more often delivered than the latter!) I would always sing repeatedly, as I made my way to the tube station, at the maximum volume I could get away without without being arrested or beaten up:

‘Well it’s Saturday night, I sure am feelin’ blue
Meet me in the bottom, bring me my boots and shoes’

It never failed to lift me up, bringing me energy and untold innocent delight. Thanks Warren.

The record was a substantial regional hit and took Warren to No 72 on the Billboard Hot 100, his highest ever placing there. However, it was, for commercially and culturally compelling reasons, Jerry Lee Lewis’, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’ that monopolised Sam Phillips attention and promotional energies. Head shakingly Warren perhaps then realised that talent, good looks and brilliant recordings don’t always guarantee the brass ring will be yours.

Warren had four more sides issued by Sun including an intriguing cover of Slim Harpo’s swampy R&B classic, ‘Got Love If You Want It’ before he and Sam called it a day in January 1959. Indeed, one of the records Warren will always be remembered for, ‘Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache’ was never even issued by Sun when recorded only seeing the light of day in the early 1970s.

Well that got me croonin’ along and gliding elegantly round my kitchen! I love the unhurried tempo of the song and Warren’s mellifluous vocal which charms me every time. This is another one that’s always playing in my head somewhere. ‘Who you been lovin’ since I been gone’ has to be one of the eternal questions we repeat to ourselves as we replay earlier scenes in the autobiographical movie of our lives.

Warren never made the big time yet he made records that will always live every time they are played. No records sums up the primal attraction of Rockabilly more perfectly for me than, ‘Miss Froggie’. That’s why, whatever’s actually on Bob Dylan’s Jukebox, ‘Miss Froggie’ now proudly takes up its place on The Immortal Jukebox as A12.

I’ve promised myself that one day I’m going to hire a Red Cadillac Convertible and drive down Union Avenue in Memphis, having brushed my moustache (taking cars to dye the strands of grey), with the top down blasting out, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby’, ‘Ubangi Stomp’, and ‘Red Cadillac’ before stopping outside 706 where I’m going to get out and dance like I’ve danced before as, ‘Miss Froggie’ plays and I’m going to shout with all the force I can muster – that’s for you Warren!

Notes:

Warren Smith’s Sun Sides can be found on excellent compilations on either the Bear Family or Charly record labels.

Warren also recorded some attractive, quite commercially successful, country sides for Liberty Records in the mid 1960s before his addictions, car crash and prison experience largely sabotaged his career.

Warrens renaissance concerts in London in 1977 were issued on vinyl as, ‘Four R ‘n’ R Legends’. It is cheering to learn how appreciative the London audience was of Warren and how moved he was at their response to him.

Elvis listened closely yet the world barely knows him : Junior Parker!

Given the machinations of the music business, the powerful currents of cultural and social history and the mysteries of public taste it is entirely possible to be a magnificent singer, to have written and recorded some classic songs covered by giants such as Elvis Presley and to have made wonderful records at every stage of a two decade career (‘Mystery Train’, ‘Next Time You See Me’, ‘Feelin’ Good’, ‘Driving Wheel’) and yet remain a shadowy figure usually referred to only with regard to figures of more popular note.

My Lords, ladies and gentlemen and music lovers everywhere I give you an artist you’ve been longing for – if only you had known he was there – Junior Parker!

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Born in 1927 and growing up in West Memphis, Arkansas in the 1930s and 1940s Junior Parker was exposed to a thriving Blues and Rhythm and Blues scene. He learned to play the harmonica at the feet of Rice Miller (the second Sonny Boy Williamson) and in his teenage years he befriended and played with Johnny Ace, Roscoe Gordon, B B King and the mighty Howling Wolf. He also hooked up with bandleader/talent spotter/musical fixer Ike Turner who got him his initial shot at recording with Modern Records in 1952.

However, as with so many artists, it was after he met one of the most significant figures in twentieth century cultural history, Sam Phillips, and recorded at his Memphis Sun Studios that Junior Parker’s extraordinary talent as a singer, writer and performer first blossomed. Sun 187, ‘Feelin’ Good’ issued in 1953 and a sizeable R&B hit is Junior’s calling card showcasing his brilliantly controlled vocal style which combines supple variety with graceful flow.

 

Backed by guitarists Floyd Murphy and Pat Hare, pianist Bill Johnson and John Bowers on drums Junior takes a John Lee Hooker template and fashions (no doubt with the aid of the sharp eared Sam Phillips behind the desk) a record that pulses with energy and life. The hard wood floor sprung rhythm and the heart lifting guitar lines seem to clear a path for Junior to demonstrate the virtuosity of his singing.

He seems to gloriously glide and pirouette through the song ; now almost whispering hoarsely, now soaring into full throated release, all the while driving the song forward. Every time I hear this record I’m impelled to echo Junior, ‘Well I feel so good – Woooooooh!

Junior brought a song of his own, ‘Mystery Train’ to his next Sun session – one that would go on to be an epochal classic when covered by Sam Phillips’ greatest discovery, Elvis Presley. Junior’s version evokes an almost eerie atmosphere of a train slowly pulling its way in sultry heat through hazy southern fields.

Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black (taking their cue from the urgent, ‘Love My Baby’ the flip side of Junior’s Mystery Train) up the tempo and energy level to evoke a streamlined locomotive blurring past astonished bystanders. Elvis sings with bravura élan and on the spot brings to life the sound of Rock ‘n’ Roll that Sam Phillips had so fervently been searching for. Junior’s version can’t match Elvis though it’s fair to say no one on earth has ever managed to either!

As Sam Phillips, for obvious reasons, concentrated on promoting the careers of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, Junior found a home from home at Don Robey’s Duke Records, Memphis’ premier black music label. During his time with Duke Junior made a string of excellent records while relentlessly touring on the, ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ for the black communities throughout the nation.

Junior benefitted in these live shows from a fine band that had attack and colour through a well drilled rhythm team and a punchy brass section. This combination is shown to advantage on the wonderful, ‘Next Time You See Me’ from 1957. This one made the Hot 100 at 74 as well as top 5 R&B.

Essentially a blues shuffle, ‘Next Time’ establishes itself as an irresistible standard from the first few notes. You are swept along by the exhilarating licks and riffs traded between the brass section, the guitar and the piano.

Junior’s vocal has regal command as he tells the old, old story’s folk wisdom – ‘If it hurts you my darling – you only have yourself to blame.’ Junior never seems to strain for effect: his thoroughbred vocals have power in reserve allowing him to cruise through the song while effortlessly stirring the audience.

My next two selections illustrate Junior’s versatility and ability to inhabit the heart of a song to illuminate its overt and hidden dramas. For, ‘I Need Love So Bad’ he draws on the song writing pen of Percy Mayfield, the peerless poet and professor of the blues, and produces a performance that glows with passion.

I’m awestruck by Junior’s vocal here. Listen to the way he wraps his voice round Percy’s melody and lyric in a tender loving embrace. The song is one of those 3am in the locked bar blues expertly anatomising the never plumbed depths of male despair and angst (not to mention self-pity!). Junior manages to sing in a manner that suggests a man who is exhausted and world weary though not, yet, wholly defeated. It’s a wondrous performance that slays me no matter how often I hear it.

Contrast that performance with the almost Sam Cooke like elegance (there is no higher praise for a singer) that he brings to, ‘Someone Somewhere’.

Junior, here, shows what a great soul singer he would have been if he’d followed that path. While the horns mistily wreathe around him and the guitar glistens Junior’s vocal traces beautifully delicate emotional patterns that linger in the mind long after the record has ended.

Perhaps one of the hallmarks of a great singer is the way their voices enter and find a home in our hearts; imprinting themselves on our consciousness ever more deeply as we replay their songs on our turntables or in our waking and dreaming imaginations. Junior Parker belongs in that hallowed company as a singer.

I’ll close with Junior showing how he could take a hoary blues standard and reveal new depths. Eddie Boyd’s, ‘Five Long Years’ has had hundreds of covers but I doubt any have had the deeply affecting power of Junior’s version below recorded soon before his death.

I would call that chamber music blues – relaxed, intimate, exquisitely paced, deeply felt. Though Junior’s vocal seems wholly natural and spontaneous it conceals the craft of an absolute master.

Junior Parker was a great singer who, without grandstanding, artfully achieved total control of his instrument – his glorious voice. Though his life was cut short his legacy will be long lasting. Do yourself a favour and investigate his catalogue. Trust me you will not regret it.

Further Listening:

Junior Parker’s recorded legacy is desperately in need of an expertly curated box set. In the meantime look out for compilations of his Sun material and 2 MCA compilation of his Duke sides. Hard to find but wonderful to listen to are the, ‘Lion in winter’ recordings he made in 1970/1971 for Groove Merchant and United Artists.

Sun and Stax Records Pioneers: Rufus and Carla Thomas!

All families contains the history of multitudes through the cultures they are heir to and which they live within. At the same time each family can be an agent for cultural change and development through their actions and works. We stand on the shoulders of giants but we can see a destination ahead they could never reach.

This is particularly the case in families whose work lies within the popular arts. If you grow up with music and talk about music is all around; if you watch shows from the side of the stage and know the drudgery as well as the glamour of, ‘show business’ you will either run a mile and seek, sensibly, to become a lawyer or farmer or you will think there is no other life worth living than that of writing, singing and performing songs and bathing in the approval of an audience.

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The careers of Rufus and Carla Thomas, father and daughter, take us on a fascinating journey through twentieth century American popular culture. We will encounter: travelling minstrel shows, the development of Afro-American radio and the birth and growth of two of the nations fountainhead records companies (Sun and Stax) which produced many of the greatest rock n roll, soul and rhythm and blues records ever made.

We will also meet music icons of the stature of Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, B B King and Otis Redding and realise why the city of Memphis can justifiably lay claim to have been the capital city of American music.

Rufus Thomas was a magnetic figure with personality and character to burn. He had that most attractive and winning of human qualities – vitality. There were no downcast faces when Rufus was around! He was a one man party who lit up every room he ever entered with his ebullience and appetite for creating and sharing enjoyment.

He was born in rural Mississippi in1917 moving to Memphis as a toddler. It was in that bustling metropolis that he grew up and learned to become an entertainer who combined the talents of a dancer/hoofer, comedian, singer, talent show host and radio disc jockey. I think that’s what you call an all rounder!

Leaving Booker T Washington High School in 1936 with the depression suffocating the nation he took his talents on the road throughout the South with the legendary F S Walcott Rabbit Foot Minstrels (commemorated in a lovely rowdy song by The Band). ‘The Foots’ were a glorious travelling tent show troupe which operated between 1900 and the late 1950s bringing comedy sketches and salty song and dance routines to any town, large or small, where the tent could be pitched and an audience drummed up.

Arriving in town the brass band would parade with comedians like Rufus announcing the wonders of the show to come. The stage, boards on a folding frame, would be set up with gasoline lamps acting as footlights. While the liquored up audience waited for Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey or Louis Jordan to come on Rufus would whip up the crowd with comic dancing and jive jokes tailored to the local audience and introduce the dancing girls who invariably managed to increase the show’s temperature by several degrees centigrade.

After the War Rufus was back in Memphis working for a textile company and married with three children; Carla, Marvell and Vaneese. He hooked up again with his high school mentor, Nat D Williams, who was a key figure in Memphis Afro-American culture as teacher, journalist, talent spotter and pioneering radio host. Nat D recognised that Rufus’ energy, affability and show business smarts gave him all the necessary qualities to be a successful talent show host. So, Rufus began to regularly host the shows at the Palace Theatre on Beale Street once announcing the youthful Riley (B. B.) King as the winner in the late 40s. Rufus was still hoping to make it as a singer though singles on labels like Star, Chess and Meteor shifted few units.

The next stage in Rufus career was again given impetus in 1951 through the good offices of Nat D who brought him on to be a disc jockey for WDIA – a Memphis radio station which, uniquely at the time, used black DJs to broadcast to the considerable black audience in Memphis and anywhere else 50,000 watts of power could reach!

Radio was king in the first post war decade reaching into almost every home in the country and providing the soundtrack to millions of lives through immensely popular shows that gathered whole families round the set.

Rufus, with his easy charm was a radio natural and his, ‘Hoot and Holler’ show became essential listening not just for his own community but also for young white hipsters like Elvis Presley or Steve Cropper who just knew that they could play those rhythm and blues too if they were only given the chance.

As it happened in Memphis there was a man, one of the true heroes of American music, Sam Phillips who was able to make those dreams come true. Rufus, in the early 1950s was often at Sun studios at 706 Union Avenue working with Phillips as he recorded brilliant blues sides by artists like Howling Wolf. It was Rufus who provided Sun with its first breakout single in 1953 with, ‘Bear Cat’ an answer record to Mama Thornton’s,’Hound Dog’ which reached No 3 in the R&B chart (this launched a series of legal actions but that’s another story).

Rufus let rip with the full force of his personality matching Big Mama all the way while adding a sly spin of his own to the story of mismatched lovers. The featured stinging guitar is by Joe Hill Louis.

Turn this one up as loud as you can!

Rufus, like all the other black artists at Sun then faded into the background as Sam Phillips realised that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow could only be found by recording white artists, preferably young handsome guys, who could combine blues, rhythm and blues and country influences to create a new sound on the face of the earth – rock ‘n’ roll. Enter Elvis Presley! Elvis was aware of Rufus through listening to WDIA and he always retained a fondness for ‘Tiger Man’ which Rufus had recorded at Sun.

Rufus continued to combine full time work at the textile plant with his entertainment career throughout the 1950s. Meanwhile, Carla who had been born in 1942 was soon displaying the family relish for singing and performing. At the tender age of 10 she joined the WDIA sponsored Teen Town Singers and was combining her school duties with twice weekly rehearsals and a radio show every Saturday. Rufus could hear that his daughter had an attractive voice and unusual poise for such a young artist.

So, in 1959 Rufus decided to approach a new Memphis recording outfit, Satellite Records, headed up by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton and persuaded them that they needed to move beyond the country and pop markets R&B to thrive in their home town and the rest of the nation. Rufus and Carla recorded the duet, ‘Cause I Love You’ at Satellite’s studio and operational headquarters which was located in a former cinema/theatre on McLemore Avenue. And, voila! Satellite had its first hit (helped by the distribution deal agreed with sharp eared Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records). Soon after Jim and Estelle would use the first two letters of their surnames and create Stax Records.

The next time Carla’s name appeared on a record it was on the Atlantic label with a song she had written as a 16 year old, ‘Gee Whizz (Look At His Eyes). Gee Whizz is a heart and soul on the sleeve love ballad that could only have been written by a teenager in the delirious throes of adolescent love/infatuation. Do you remember that oh so sweet feeling as you gazed at your love object? While no one could or should maintain that obsessive attachment to the dream of love its a poor soul that does not cherish a small remembrance of those heady days. And, nothing can swoosh you back to those days with more efficiency than Carla’s utterly beguiling vocal here. Lean back, close your eyes and swoon!

The song became an immediate radio favourite and once Atlantic was behind it and Carla appeared on the nations premier pop TV show, ‘American Bandstand’ there was no stopping, ‘Gee’ from ascending to the top 10 of the national charts and a permanent place in the memories of a generation.

Carla then issued a string of singles on Atlantic and then Stax demonstrating that the attractively naive young girl was growing into a smart and sassy young woman who could convincingly embody a full range of adult emotions with engaging vocal style. Listen to her here in 1963 with a song especially beloved by her European fans, ‘I’ll Never Stop Loving You’. You’d have to have a stony heart and leaden feet not to be up and practicing your finest twists and twirls to this one!

In that same year of 1963 Rufus showed that there was still life in the old trouper as he released a series of driving singles calling us with unflagging energy and wit to get up off our butts and out onto the dance floor. The most potent and memorable of these, ‘ Walking The Dog’ has become something of a Soul/R&B standard (even receiving the accolade of a cover by The Rolling Stones). The video clip shows Rufus in full flow.

The mid 60s saw Carla and Stax records really hit their stride utilising teams of brilliant in house writers and the incomparable Booker T and The MGs as the house band. A perfect example of the power of such collaborations is a Carla classic from 1966: B -A – B – Y. This pearl was authored by the great partnership of Isaac Hayes (a Teen Town alumni like Carla) and David Porter. There’s gospel testifying here as well as soul enticement in Carla’s seductive vocal backed by a steam heat rhythm section topped off with a straight into your skull chorus – a big hit guaranteed!

The canny bosses at Stax observing the success of Motown duet partnerships like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell had the inspired idea of teaming Carla with the top man at Stax and in fact the top man in soul of his era – Otis Redding. Dubbed the King and Queen of Soul they recorded some excellent sides together including the big international hit, ‘Tramp’. However, the track I’ve chosen to spotlight the duo is a wonderful reverie, ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby ..’. Carla wisely never tries to match the inferno intensity of Otis, rather her caressing coolness offsets him perfectly making for a seriously sexy record. I like to listen to this one with a large Gin and Tonic at hand.

Rufus and Carla were stars of the triumphant Stax/Volt tour of Europe in 1967 which has become legendary for the intensity of the artists performances and the fervour of the audience responses.

Back in Memphis Rufus continued to produce some excellent sides including, ‘Memphis Train’ and, ‘Sophisticated Sissy’ before striking gold again with a novelty dance song, ”The Funky Chicken’ which proved he had learned a lesson or two about pleasing an audience back in the Rabbit Foot days! When it comes to selling a song Rufus has few competitors. I have never managed to play this song only once so be prepared.

The end of the 60s closed out the glory days for both Rufus and Carla though both would record some valuable material later. But, given the history above it is clear that singly and together they were a significant element of the magnificence of Memphis music in that golden era. In an age of fluff and flummery it’s good to be reminded that some things and some people lived lives and made music that will always endure because it was grounded in everyday experience turned through talent and heightened expression into true art. Now, Baby that is real!

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