Saturday, April 30, 2011
I first discovered this tune from an old aircheck of Mad Daddy on WJW Cleveland in 1958. If you're not familiar with the Mad Daddy story, he was an absolutely BRILLIANT disc jockey (yeah I know....that's a contradiction in terms) who basically took over the Cleveland/Akron area when Alan Freed left to go to New York. Mad Daddy's real name was Pete Myers, and he was a wild man on the air, talking a mile a minute and (at the same time, mind you) rhyming EVERYTHING he said. He also put his voice through an eerie echo, courtesy of tape delay. He broke many important artists in the Cleveland area, and was the first to champion Andre Williams and the Fortune label outside of Detroit (Andre's "The Greasy Chicken" was a fave of Mad Daddy's). After a year at WJW, Mad Daddy broke his contract and switched to Cleveland's most powerful station, WHK, where he had the station's highest-rated show, playing his special brand of rock and roll that he sometimes called "wavy gravy".
After a year at WHK, Mad Daddy was ready for the big time, and asked to be transferred to WHK's sister station in New York, WNEW-AM, following Alan Freed's example (Freed started in Akron, at WAKR, moved to WJW, where he became immensely popular, and then to WINS and WABC in New York). It was about this time that Freed started having trouble with the payola scandals, and so Mad Daddy felt the time was right to make the jump to New York. He arrived there in July, 1959, to do his first Mad Daddy show on WNEW.
Unfortunately, Myers/Mad Daddy gravely miscalculated NY radio audiences. In Cleveland, he could jump to any station he wanted to and the kids would follow him, no matter what the station played the other times of the day. But in New York, there was a more standard line of demarcation. People tuned to certain stations to hear certain types of music, and that was that. If you wanted to listen to rock and roll in New York, you tuned to WINS, WMCA, or WABC (and WNJR if you were on the Jersey side). WNEW was a "beautiful music" station, which played the "pop" hits of the day by folks like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, etc. The hoi polloi of New York society made WNEW their choice of stations. Imagine their surprise when they tuned in on July 4, 1959, and heard this maniac ranting and raving, playing crazy records that even Alan Freed wouldn't touch, and screaming lines into the microphone like, "my show is never dull, as long as the winky light burns in my SKULL!" The phones lit up at the station, but not in a good way - complaints came in by the hundreds, asking who this crazy person was and why was he allowed on the air? After that show, management had a talk with Mad Daddy. He was no longer allowed to broadcast under that persona, and would strictly adhere to WNEW's regular playlist, under his real name, Pete Myers.
Since WNEW had an iron-clad contract, Myers shut up and did what he was told. But when the chance came in 1962 to resurrect his Mad Daddy persona on WINS, he jumped. So, for 2 glorious years, Mad Daddy was on the air in New York. Unfortunately, by then the music had changed, and so did radio. Myers couldn't program the wild, weird records he found, because radio had tightened up in the wake of payola. He still did amazing radio, but without the craziness of the music, the Mad Daddy show wasn't quite the same as it had been in Cleveland. He was still an innovator, though - he was one of the first DJs to discover The Beatles (along with Murray The K and B. Mitchel Reed), and traveled to England to meet the group.
Unfortunately, Mad Daddy's days on radio were numbered. Westinghouse/Group W Broadcasting, who owned WINS, decided in late 1964 to switch the station to all-news (as it remains to this day), starting in April, 1965. It must have been the world's worst-kept secret, because both Murray The K and Mad Daddy resigned toward the end of 1964. Mad Daddy/Pete Myers got his old job back, at WNEW, but he was very unhappy with 'NEW's playlist, still stuck on the same Sinatra/Bennett/Mathis format. There were a few small stations that still craved the Mad Daddy, and he would tape Mad Daddy shows for them, but the magic was gone. Rock and roll had become less guttural and more ornate, and "wavy gravy" became a clown. Literally. Myers continued at WNEW for a couple more years, but when his ratings began to slide, and he was moved to an early evening shift, he knew the end was near. On October 4, 1968, on the first night of his new airshift, Myers got up and dressed for work. He never made it. As he strolled into the bathroom of his apartment to freshen up one final time before work, he took a shotgun with him. His wife heard a blast, and rushed into the bathroom to see Myers on the floor with a gigantic hole in his chest. By the time the ambulance arrived, Mad Daddy was dead.
Going back to that 1958 aircheck, the songs played by Mad Daddy were, to say the least, off the beaten track. He spun obscurities like "The Springer" by The Dells, "Juke Box" by The Coeds, and "Teen Age Machine Age" by The Travelers. Many of the songs were B-sides that Myers liked better than the more "normal" A-sides, and this Don Durant record was one of them.
Don Durant wasn't just some obscure singer, though. He was actually quite the Renaissance man. Born in Long Beach, California in 1932, Durant learned to shoot and ride horses at an early age, and soon heard the call of Hollywood. He worked as a singer and bit part actor, but also worked at RCA as a technician. He was also on the team at Warner Brothers that developed their first kinescope recorder and stereophonic sound recorder. In his spare time he taught actors how to ride horses and shoot pistols. Shortly after he recorded "Love Me Baby"/"Seal Rock" for Fabor Records (then picked up nationally by Challenge Records, the Gene Autry-owned label), he was cast in the title role of the CBS western "Johnny Ringo", which was one of the most popular shows of the 1959-1960 TV season, but, strangely, was cancelled after only one season because there were too many western TV shows on the air at that time (like, 30). Durant never had another high-profile role again, but took the money he did make and invested wisely, becoming a real estate magnate and a multi-millionaire. He passed away in 2005.
The above record is obscure, to say the least. It took me years to track down the record (because, unfortunately, Mad Daddy was ahead of his time in the sense that, like today's DJs, he rarely announced the title or artists of the records he played), and once I found out it was Don Durant, I was surprised that NONE of the online pages about him even mentioned the record (though IMDB.com has updated their Don Durant bio to include it). It's so goofy, I'm surprised it DIDN'T become a hit.
If you ever want to hear Mad Daddy in full rotatin' motatin' zoomeratin' roar, go to the great aircheck site www.reelradio.com. You'll have to pay a nominal member fee, but it's SO worth it if you're a classic radio junkie like me.
Don Durant - Seal Rock (Challenge 59003) - 1958
Monday, April 11, 2011
Pretty much everyone knows that couplet as the opening line to "The Battle Of New Orleans", a #1 pop and country hit for Johnny Horton in 1959. My fifth grade teacher used to play it when teaching us about early American history. It still gets airplay on certain radio stations. Basically, it's a country/folk classic.
However, while everyone knows at least part of the tune, and a number of people know that Johnny Horton had the big hit with it, only a few folks know that Johnny didn't have the original version; even fewer folks have actually heard the original version (though, hopefully, many will come to my blog to finally experience it).
"The Battle Of New Orleans" was written and first recorded by a folksinger known as Jimmie Driftwood. Jimmie Driftwood was born James Corbett Morris on June 20, 1907, in West Richwoods, Arkansas. The name "Driftwood" came from a joke that Jimmie's grandfather played on his grandmother: when they went to see their newborn grandson, Jimmie's grandpa got there a few minutes before his wife, and wrapped a bunch of old sticks in a blanket. When Jimmie's grandmother got there a few minutes later, grandpa handed her the bundle and said, "why, it ain't nothing but driftwood!" (guess you had to be there). Thus the name Jimmie Driftwood. Not only did Jimmie's grandfather give him his professional name, but also gave him the instrument he played throughout his life - a guitar made from a piece of a rail fence. Google almost any picture of Jimmie Driftwood and he'll be seen with this guitar.
Jimmie came from a musical family, and was soon exposed to the music of the Ozark Mountains through his father and other local musicians. Jimmie also started a second career in education, obtaining a teaching license at the age of 16 (though, strangely enough, at that point he had never attended high school), and spent the next few years teaching in one-room schools in Arkansas, while going to school at night to receive his high school diploma. He also attended John Brown College and Arkansas State Teachers' College (finally receiving his degree in 1949), traveled across America, and settled down for a couple of years in Phoenix, Arizona.
It was while teaching school in Arizona that Jimmie began using the novel method of writing songs about historical events to teach his students. In 1936, Jimmie wrote "The Battle Of New Orleans" because his students were having difficulty differentiating between the Revolutionary War and The War of 1812. Basically, Jimmie was the original version of "Schoolhouse Rock".
In the early 1950s, after moving back to Arkansas, Jimmie decided to go for it - he submitted some of his songs to a few record compaines, with no success. But then fate - and Porter Wagoner - stepped in.
Porter Wagoner liked to make money, and was a pretty shrewd businessman. He decided he wasn't making enough money on performances and his records, so Porter looked into the world of music publishing. He formed his publishing company with the steel player in his band, Don Warden. Warden and Driftwood had a mutual friend, Hugh Ashley, who told Warden about this teacher who wrote fantastic songs and was an undiscovered treasure. Driftwood went up to Nashville in 1957 and auditioned for Don Warden, who signed him to a publishing contract and got him a recording contract with Porter Wagoner's label, RCA Victor.
Driftwood's first recording session for RCA was held on October 27, 1957. The first song recorded that day? "The Battle Of New Orleans". The record had only three musicians on it - Jimmie Driftwood, guitar, Chet Atkins, guitar, and Bob Moore, bass. There were 10 other tunes recorded that day - in a three hour session!! Nowadays, producers spend three DAYS just MIXING a record. Those 11 songs made up Jimmie's first LP - "Jimmie Driftwood Sings Newly Discovered American Folk Songs", released early in 1958.
The LP sold in respectable numbers, despite the fact that it received very little airplay. Part of the problem was the fact that "The Battle Of New Orleans", the most "commercial" song on the LP, contained the words "hell" and "damn". No one was going to run afoul of the FCC in 1958 by playing the record, although WSM in Nashville (home of the Grand Ole Opry) decided to give it limited play, but only at very late night hours.
The airplay at odd hours may have been the reason that Johnny Horton heard the song. As the legend goes, at about 2am sometime in late 1958, Johnny was driving home from a show he had just done in the Nashville area, and decided to tune in WSM on his car radio. They were playing Jimmie's "The Battle Of New Orleans". Horton heard the tune and decided right then that he was going to record it. He called his record company, Columbia, and told them his plans. Horton edited out some of the more "offensive" verses, took the final verse and made that the chorus, and generally changed the song around. Columbia scheduled a session on January 27, 1959, Johnny recorded his version, and the rest is history.
The other story, which seems a little more plausible, is that Don Warden, noting the lack of airplay for the Jimmie Driftwood record, decided to up the ante and push "Battle" to more popular artists who could make the song a hit. Warden contacted Tillman Franks, Johnny Horton's manager, and played the record for him. Tillman took it to Johnny, who loved it immediately, and recorded it.
Either way, Horton's record screamed up the lists, hitting #1 on the country charts for 10 weeks, and, to everyone's surprise, hit #1 on the pop charts. Meanwhile, RCA Victor had just released Jimmie Driftwood's second LP, titled "The Wilderness Road", which included the original version of another country hit - "Tennessee Stud", which Eddy Arnold would take into the country Top Ten a couple of months later. "The Wilderness Road" began selling very well, and RCA decided to pick up a few extra sales by issuing a 45 of "The Battle Of New Orleans" backed with a cut from the new LP, "Damyankee Lad", despite the "hells" and "damns" on both sides of the record (isn't it amazing how morality flies out the window when there's a few bucks to be made?) and despite the fact that "Battle" was an almost two-year-old record. Unfortunately for Jimmie, nothing was going to stop Johnny Horton's rise to #1, so the 45 failed to sell. However, the money Driftwood made from "Battle" and "Tennessee Stud" (not to mention Homer and Jethro's parody "The Battle Of Kookamonga") allowed him to live comfortably on his 150-acre ranch in Arkansas for the rest of his days.
Driftwood recorded a few more LPs for RCA until 1961 (among the other tunes he cut was an answer record to "Battle Of New Orleans", titled "The Answer To The Battle Of New Orleans", imaginatively enough), and then became heavily involved in the local Arkansas folk scene and became one of the organizers of the Arkansas Folk Festival, which attracted hundreds of thousands of people to see local musicians play. He also became very involved in environmental issues. Jimmie and his wife Cleda could often be found serenading visitors at their home, where Jimmie lived until his death in 1998.
The music industry will never see his like again.
Jimmie Driftwood - The Battle Of New Orleans (RCA Victor 47-7534) - 1959
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
This record makes me think of that quote every time I give it a spin. I'm not gonna tell you anything about Slim Harpo (born James Moore on January 11, 1924, passed away from a sudden heart attack on January 31, 1970), there's a lot of info out there on the internet, plus you can read everything you need to know on The Hound's excellent blog. Here's his post about Slim Harpo.
I AM gonna tell you that Slim Harpo should have been pretty P.O.'d at ole big lips Jagger for basically ripping off his whole vocal style, though, to their credit, the Stones made no bones about where their sound came from - Jagger's muse was Slim, Keith Richards' was Chuck Berry and/or whoever the guy was that played guitar for Nolan Strong and The Diablos, and Brian Jones was infatuated with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller, not to be confused with the original Sonny Boy Williamson, who died in 1948). As for Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, who knows? The Stones recorded several Harpo tunes, ("I'm A King Bee", "Shake Your Hips") and even named their first "live" LP in homage to the B-side of Harpo's first single.
The 45 I've posted here, released in 1967, almost never gets mentioned as one of Harpo's great records. I don't know why. All of Slim Harpo's great records have things a million other blues records have - harmonica, guitar, drums that sound like they're in another building - but what made Slim's records different was his dedication to groove. Listen to Slim's records like "Shake Your Hips" or "Baby Scratch My Back" or any of the others (which can be heard on the sadly out-of-print but still available "Hip Shakin'" 2-CD set on Excello/AVI) and you'll hear what I mean - these records go nowhere musically but the groove is so irresistable that you don't care. This one has a groove SO deep you'll never get out of it, provided mainly by whoever played bass on this record, though that "slap-whacka-slap" guitar part can't be denied. It's a very Stonesy groove, but MUCH better. I have a feeling Slim finally got sick of everyone saying, "hey man, you know what those limeys been doin' to you?" and decided to show Mick and Keith how it was REALLY supposed to be done. You don't mess with Slim Harpo.
My favorite story about him can be found in the liner notes by Tim Warren on one of his "Back From The Grave" garage comp LPs - a teenage garage group called The Mustangs decided to cut Harpo's "I'm A King Bee" (they probably only knew the Stones' version), but the owner of their label got uptight about the lyrics, so said owner wrote to Slim asking him to "clean up" the lyrics so the group could record a new version and put it out. Slim responded by sending back new lyrics that were INCREDIBLY filthy! Needless to say, the Mustangs' version of "King Bee" never saw the light of day.....
Slim Harpo - I'm Gonna Keep What I've Got (Excello 2289) - 1967