Here’s a song to help sustain that festive mood:
Jimmy Witherspoon from Gurdon, Arkansas, who first came to attention when he replaced Walter Brown in the Jay McShann Big Band in Kansas City, was originally thought of as a blues shouter, associated in style with Big Joe Turner, but as he developed his own voice, he became, along with Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams, one of the singers who blurred the dividing line between blues and jazz.
Spoon was brought up on Gospel, singing in a church choir when he was five. In his middle teens he ran away to California in search of better work. Enlisting in the Merchant Marine in 1941, he found himself on leave in Calcutta, India, broadcasting on US Armed Forces Radio with that inveterate globe-trotter Teddy Weatherford’s Big Band.
Spoon said that this gave him the confidence to consider singing as a career. On leaving the service in 1944, Spoon returned to California, and that’s where Hootie McShann found him singing in a small club, hiring him on the spot to fill the singer’s chair recently vacated by Walter Brown.
Spoon stayed with Hootie until 1947, two years later cutting “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”, backed by a band led by McShann and released on the Supreme label. The single hit Number One on the R&B chart, staying there for an incredible 34 weeks, longer than any other release.
His follow up was Leroy Carr’s “Evenin’” which charted at Number 5 the same year. On a totally irrelevant note, when I managed Black Sabbath, and first took them into Birmingham’s Zella Recording Studios, we recorded “Evenin’” on our first session, Ozzy sings Spoon, so to speak. That band really might have become quite well known if we had stuck with the Blues.
Spoon went on to enjoy an impressive recording career, featuring regularly on important jazz and blues festivals and concerts across the world. When Rhythm & Blues was overtaken in the popularity stakes by Rock and Roll, Spoon found a new audience with swing and jazz fans. He once sang with the Count Basie Orchestra and was ever in demand.
In the last two years of his life he suffered ill-health, eventually succumbing to throat cancer and dying in Los Angeles in 1997, aged 77.
Spoon seemingly had a special affection for England, spending considerable time here from the mid 1960s. He recorded in England several times, making two albums with that terrific tenor saxophone player Dick Morrissey and his band.
He also recorded jazz albums at Big Bear’s favourite studio, Chipping Norton, which was owned and operated by Richard and Mike Vernon. For nine months, he made his home in the unlikely setting of Clarendon Road in Birmingham.
This was all a long time ago, but I do remember that it started with Spoon’s friendship with one of Birmingham’s larger-than-life characters, Don Carless, pronounced by one and all as Carlos. Don owned by far the coolest niterie in town, The Elbow Room, sited by the old Aston Hippodrome of Charlie Chaplin fame.
As I recall, Spoon and Don shared an active interest in fine herbs. The upshot was that Spoon became a long term lodger in the Edgbaston house belonging to the mother of Don Carless. He would perform at The Elbow every now and then, and I often wondered whether the patrons of that uber-hip venue actually realised just who they were listening to and drinking with at the bar.
I became accustomed to encountering him in the bar of the Strathallan Hotel, the Ivy Bush pub and sometimes The Plough & Harrow bar – all within a 5 minute stroll from his Clarendon Road house and my office.