Blues Brief - June 3rd
Here’s my tribute to Yogi Berra for today - without musicians we would have no music. However, without distributors, salesmen, scouts, producers, and entrepreneurs, we would have no records. I know, you have to think about music before the internet and modern digital recording technology and that might not work for some of us. When great music was made by Modern Records (Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker) it had to be distributed to record stores to influence charts and airplay. When the easiest access to music was 45’s in jukeboxes all over the country, regional or local salesman were responsible for filling those heavenly devices based on demand, or creating demand depending on what they had in the car at the time. Before legends like Charles Brown made one recording or were recognized outside of their local markets, scouts introduced them to record company executives. Even those legends sometimes needed the right sound or backing instruments for a song to catch on. And yes, no surprise that we owe the capitalist spirit for some discoveries and hits. When a struggling blind piano player wanders around Florida looking for work after his military audience is demobilized, it takes a gutsy businessman to try to capture his sound and sell it. When an artist like John Lee Hooker or James Brown wanted to make a few more dollars (ironically because of restrictive contracts with other record company owners) they would record under different names. Real creative pseudonyms like John Lee Booker or in Brown’s case covering distinctive vocals with overdubs or making up a band name like Nate Kendrick and the Swans.
One man filled all of these roles at different times and places in his life. After leaving the Army, where he played trumpet in an integrated band during World War II when the military services were officially integrated, he lived in California, where he sold and distributed records and found talent like Charles Brown. As a scout for Ben Pollack, he took Brown to the Jewel Records owner and was told not to bring any Blacks to him. He left the company and brought Brown to Aladdin, where he made classics like "Drifting Blues" and "Merry Christmas Baby" with The Three Blazers in 1947. The talented salesman and promoter eventually settled in Miami, where he continued to distribute records and started multiple labels - another maneuver to sell more records, but one also taken to organize the business. One label (Rockin’) would sell blues, another (Glory) sell gospel. A third brought us R&B in many forms. And there were others. It was here that James Brown recorded "(Do the) Mashed Potatoes" (Dade Records) using his drummer’s name. Here too Otis Williams and the Charms covered “Hearts of Stone” a gospel song by California’s Jewels turning it into an R&B hit which held the top spot for nine weeks in 1954. John Lee Hooker normally recorded under his own name but occasionally used the name Booker to avoid contractual restrictions. He recorded for the Chess brothers and Chance Records in Chicago using that name, and early songs such as “Stuttering Blues” (1953) for Rockin’ Records. These and another session in 1961 by the owner/producer were released by Atlantic’s ATCO as the collection “Don’t Turn Me From Your Door – John Lee Hooker Sings His Blues”.
While his list of discoveries and influence in blues and R&B blues goes on and on, the creative and driven Florida man’s biggest hits were by one of his recording engineers and “odd job” warehouse worker at another of his labels, TK Records. Richard Finch and Harry Wayne Casey collaborated and built a band named for Casey and their home in “The Sunshine State.” But that story is for a disco fan…
I want to celebrate the producer, promoter, pioneer of blues and rhythm and blues music. Remembering Henry Stone, born Henry David Epstein on this day in 1921 in the Bronx New York, a Jewish orphan that didn’t stop bringing us music until his death in 2014 and thanks to his many recordings and discoveries left us so much great music forever.
Oh yeah, you know that piano player by his string of classic hits in gospel, country, blues, and soul. Here’s one of those first recordings by Stone.