African-American History Month - "a million miles away"
Prelude to a “Dear John” letter? This song was written at the height of World War II and thousands of GI’s - in all sorts of uniforms - were wondering if the girls they left behind would still welcome them back and what they were up to tonight. So it’s no surprise a slow ballad with that theme quickly became a hit.
Cecil Gant was born in Tennessee, raised in Cleveland, but came back. He worked the clubs in and around Nashville before becoming a piano playing private. The African-American soldier was tasked to entertain at War Bond rallies and while he was in California, recorded a song that was a little out of character for him. He was a “boogie-woogie” piano player who added to his repertoire while interacting with other musicians during the war. Arnold Shaw, in ‘Honkers and Shouters’ ranks him with Louis Jordan as the man who “ignited the post-war blues explosion” with his style and influence. He never matched his debut record in sales, though, but recorded over 150 songs and some were hits. The wartime smash was recorded by Roosevelt Sykes and Louis Armstrong in the ‘40’s; Brenda Lee and Aretha Franklin in the ‘60’s; Humble Pie and Esther Phillips in the 1970’s - and AJ Croce in 1993.
Gant first recorded his big hit for Bronze Recording. Bronze was owned by an African-American entrepreneur, singer, and classically trained musician. Leroy Hurte was influential in business and music throughout his life. He had owned a record store, taught music, sang with The Four Blackbirds, and bought Bronze. He produced, recorded, and distributed the song, which became an overnight sensation. He had previously recorded Gospel groups and was not prepared for what happened next. His small label could not keep up with demand for the hit, however, and Cecil Gant was scooped up by a bigger studio, Gilt Edge, and Dick Nelson (who later founded country label 4 Star). They re-recorded the song, and though Hurte took them to court, the case was thrown out.
Dick Nelson was bought out of Gilt Edge by his partner, who turned the label into a country song maker. One of the studios they used was Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service. Leroy Hurte ran successful businesses, including records and radio, founded and conducted two symphonies, and passed in 2011 at 95 years old. Though Cecil Gant’s place in music was established, his life was short. He moved around and was drinking heavily. He was about to embark on another tour while living in Nashville when he had a heart attack and died in 1951. He was 37.
But on this day in 1945, the Army’s bond-selling boogie-woogie piano man was on top. The second version of a wartime smash and legacy song reached the top of the R&B charts (Billboard’s Race Records Jukebox Sales). It had a short stay and was replaced by a Roosevelt Sykes record - his version of Gant’s “I Wonder”