I was seventeen years old, as fed up with school as it was with me, impatiently awaiting my call-up to National Service in the RAF and increasingly curious about what went on in the city.
I had been sneaking into Birmingham’s jazz clubs since I was fourteen, invariably getting away with it, enjoying my brief encounters with city life, though missing the last bus to Blackheath and having to walk home from the Quinton bus terminus wasn’t fun, and happened increasingly often.
So I quit school, took a job in the men’s shirt department of Lewis’s, then the biggest department store in town, and started to frequent the city’s milk bars – to teenagers in 1950s these were the coolest place to hang out. Milk bars were wondrous places with a seemingly endless choice of milkshakes, those new and exciting hamburgers and most important of all, the focal point was always the Juke Box. God Bless Homer Capehart!
And that’s where I first heard Wynonie ‘Mr. Blues’ Harris and, unknowingly at the time, had my introduction to Jump Blues. At every opportunity, before and after work, and in lunchbreaks, I would drag my fellow workers across Old Square to the Casino Milk Bar, and regale them with repeated Juke Box plays of Wynonie’s “Bloodshot Eyes”.
Some twenty years later I toured with and recorded Gene ‘The Mighty Flea’ Connors, the former Johnny Otis show singer and trombonist who had been a pal of Wynonie and worked with him in Los Angeles. He told me that he and the guys received invitations to attend Wynonie’s Farewell Party at some L.A. club.
The evening was swinging along wonderfully, with the host refusing to answer questions about where he was going, telling folk to wait until he made his speech at the end of the night.
He then announced that this was his farewell, as he was dying of throat cancer. He was aged 53.
Gene ‘The Mighty Flea’ Connors, originally Conners, was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1930. His father was a musician and his mother a singer with The Original Gospel Harmonettes who were still active some 45 years later. At the age of 12 he was playing in the house band at The Frolic Theatre in Birmingham and two years later he was in New Orleans playing with men more than three times his age in funeral bands and at barbecues.
He joined the Lionel Hampton Band – it was Hamp who dubbed him ‘The Mighty Flea’ –, served 3 years in U.S. Navy bands, then moved to L.A. where he became a part of that city’s Jump Blues fraternity alongside the likes of Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner and Wynonie. He joined The Johnny Otis Show where he enjoyed a long association, broadcasting, recording, touring and notably featuring in the 1971 Clint Eastwood movie “Play Misty For Me”.
His feature with Otis in the Monterey Showground segment where he played his “Preacher’s Blues” was a stand-out in the film. The camera caught a back-announcement by a visibly impressed Johnny Otis saying “That’s triple – tonguing man! Let’s have a big hand for his tongue.”
Flea famously jumped ship mid-tour when the Otis band was touring the U.K. in 1972, making Birmingham, UK that is, his home for a while. When he walked out of the Otis band, I was with him and, as soon as we left the 100 Club on Oxford Street, he said. “OK man, let’s take a cab to Birmingham.” I recorded Flea for Big Bear Records, firstly his “Let The Good Times Roll” album which included his tribute to Wynonie Harris.
The arrangements were by the legendary Mickey Baker and the album featured a terrific band of Brummies, Mike Burney on tenor, Roger Hill on bass guitar and Pete York on drums, along with Mickey Baker on guitar and Bob Hall on piano.
Flea also recorded several singles with Birmingham Blue-Eyed Soul Band Muscles, and for many years toured for Big Bear and became an early star of the Birmingham Jazz Festival where his teamwork with Mike Burney was always a showstopper.
Flea memorably featured on the Big Bear album “Blues & Rhythm Revue Volume One” by Birmingham’s King Pleasure & The Biscuit Boys with guests Charles Brown, Val Wiseman, Howard McCrary and Flea. He always said that his favourite-ever recorded vocal was on this album, “So Tired”.
Flea died in Arizona in 2010 aged 79. We still miss him.
Jump Blues originally surfaced in Kansas City with those great jumping, blues-influenced bands of Big Joe Turner, Count Basie and Jay McShann signposting the direction later taken by Lionel Hampton, Illinois Jacquet, Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway, Lucky Millinder, Louis Prima and Roy Brown.
It’s difficult to define when and how Jump Blues grew into Rhythm & Blues, but undoubtedly the largely forgotten Roy Brown played a significant role in that transition.
Roy Brown was born in Kinder, Louisiana in 1925, enjoyed a brief career as a welterweight boxer before relocating to L.A. in the early 1940s and beginning a remarkable but tragically short life as a singer. While fronting his band in Galveston, Texas he wrote the song “Good Rockin’ Tonight” which initially he didn’t consider recording himself and offered to Wynonie Harris – who turned it down!
When Roy’s band reached New Orleans, pianist Cecil Gant heard the song and thought otherwise, calling Jules Braun, boss of Deluxe Records, in the middle of the night and having Roy Brown sing it over the phone to a half-asleep Braun. A recording contract was the immediate result and the subsequent release became an instant hit, reaching #13 on the R&B chart. This was the first of many for Roy Brown, with 14 hits on Deluxe between 1948 and 1951.
Somewhat ironically, Wynonie Harris did record it a year later and his version made it to Number One on the chart. Remarkably, Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” has subsequently been recorded by other singers dozens of times, including versions by Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, The Doors and Ricky Nelson.
Seemingly inexplicably, Brown’s career took a dip in 1952, with those who know about these things convinced that he had been blacklisted, citing his successful lawsuit of that year against King Records over unpaid royalties, the first black performer to have had the temerity to take this action at that time. A confrontation with The Internal Revenue Service further depleted his assets, despite efforts to intervene on his behalf by Elvis Presley.
Roy Brown made a comeback in 1957 with another hit, this time on Imperial Records, a Dave Bartholomew production recorded in New Orleans with a song written by Brown and Fats Domino, “Let The Four Winds Blow”. Fats subsequently had a hit with the same song.
Another tough period followed, with Brown forced to sell his rights to “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and having to work as a door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman. Roy Brown died in 1981 after suffering a heart attack in The Pacoima Lutheran Hospital in San Fernando. He was 55 years old.
Myron Carlton Bradshaw, better known as Tiny Bradshaw, pianist and singer, was born in Youngstown, Ohio in 1907. In an unlikely move for someone who was destined to become legendary as a rocking and rolling Jump Blues performer, he got himself a Degree in Psychology at Wilberforce University.
I’m sure that he put it to good use on his way to becoming one of the most prominent Rhythm & Blues bandleaders of the 30s and 40s. En route, he spent time in New York City singing with The Mills Blue Rhythm Band and later with The Luis Russell Band. By 1934 he had formed his own band which he kept going into the early 1950s, enjoying 5 Billboard Chart Hits.
His band featured sidemen Red Prysock, Wild Bill Davis, Sonny Stitt and Noble Thin Man Watts, who was later to perform with Birmingham’s Rhythm and Blues stars, King Pleasure & The Biscuit Boys. Bradshaw recorded the original version of “Train Kept A-Rollin’”, a song which had a remarkable life thereafter, being recorded by, amongst many others, The Yardbirds, Aerosmith and Motorhead and being the very first song rehearsed by the then newly-formed Led Zeppelin.
Tiny Bradshaw’s career was dogged by ill-health: he suffered two strokes, the second of which left him partially paralyzed, and then he died from yet another stroke in 1958 in his adopted home of Cincinnati. He was 51.
By the second half of the 1940s, Jump Blues had become the dominant force in black popular music with Louis Jordan and his band, The Tympany Five, right at the forefront. Jordan pioneered the jumping shuffle rhythm patterns which were copied by many of the 1940s small bands. He sang and played alto saxophone and was one of the first black artists to figure in popular music, recording duets with Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald for instance. His catalogue of recordings is huge, and he was a regular on radio and on the silver screen.
Louis Thomas Jordan was born in Brinkley, Arkansas in 1908. His father was bandleader of The Rabbits Foot Minstrels which Louis joined as a teenager. By the late 1920s he was playing professionally with Stuff Smith’s Orchestra and later with the Chick Webb Orchestra.
In 1938 Louis Jordan formed his own band and soon the hits began to roll: “Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie”, “Knock Me A Kiss”, “Is You Is Or Is You ‘Ain’t My Baby”, “Five Guys Named Moe”, “Saturday Night Fish Fry” – all of them still familiar today. His success did have one detrimental effect on the music business. Blues singer Gatemouth Moore said, “He was playing with five pieces. That ruined the big bands. He could play just as good and just as loud with five as with seventeen. And it was cheaper!”
As far as the Billboard Rhythm & Blues charts, known as Race Charts, were concerned, Jordan had 18 number one singles, and 54 on the Top Ten.
His five marriages were generally less successful than his music career. Soon after his wedding to Julia, his first wife, she gave birth to a daughter, Patty, who turned out not to be Jordan’s child. He then married, bigamously as it turned out, Texas-born singer and dancer Ida Fields, a member of the dance troupe The Florida Orange Blossoms.
After 11 years, Ida sued Louis for bigamy which he defended by saying that she was aware at the time that he was still married. She was awarded $70,000 judgement, later reduced to $30,000, and proceeded to bill herself as “Mrs. Louis Jordan, Queen of The Blues, with Her Orchestra”.
Jordan soon married his childhood sweetheart Fleecie Moore, who after five years, found out that he was having an affair with dancer Florence “Vicky” Hayes and divorced him, but not before she had attacked him twice with a knife, on the second occasion almost killing him.
Fleecie was arrested and charged with assault. Jordan then married Vicky in 1951, separated in 1960 and six years later married Martha Weaver, a singer and dancer from St Louis.
I guess that’s Rock and Roll.
Louis Jordan died of a heart attack in 1975 in Los Angeles aged 66. Billboard ranked him 5th in their list of The Most Successful African American Recording Artists of All Time and he is described by The Rock and Roll Hall of fame as “The Father of Rhythm & Blues” and “The Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll”.