I was surprised and very saddened to learn that the great soul singer Howard Tate had died 12.2.2011 at age 72, reportedly from complications of multiple myeloma and leukemia. His Verve debut album (especially in its killer mono version) has been a personal favorite of mine ever since I first heard it, a few years after the original 1967 release.
After decades in complete obscurity, Howard made a stunning comeback in 2001 and thereafter enjoyed a career revival that brought him more attention — and, one hopes, financial reward — than he’d ever received during his first go-round. He toured the world and recorded four more albums, beginning with Howard Tate Rediscovered (Private Music/RCA, 2003). This disc reunited the singer with his original studio Svengali, songwriter/producer/arranger Jerry Ragovoy (who died 7.13.2011), and I wish I could say that the results were even close to their Sixties glory days. Nonetheless, I was honored to contribute liner notes for Rediscovered and have posted the full unedited version here. (A.S.)
• • • • •
On the night of July 21, 2001, in a subterranean Manhattan nightclub called The Village Underground, a packed house buzzed with anticipation. As the lights went down and the Uptown Horns band kicked off the first song of the set, a short, stout, nattily dressed man stepped to the microphone. And with the first notes of that first song, Howard Tate reclaimed his rightful place in American music.
We looked at Howard and Howard looked at us, and it was hard to say who was the more shocked and surprised to see the other. Just a few short years before, neither would have guessed that this moment would ever come to pass. But he who once was lost, now was found. And we, who once were blind, now could see: That before us stood one of the greatest living soul singers—indeed, one of the greatest of all time.
In the spring of 1967, a few months before his 28th birthday, Howard Tate released a self-titled debut album (later reissued as Get It While You Can) that became a revered classic of the Sixties soul era.
Born August 14, 1939 in the rural hamlet of Eberton, GA, Howard Tate had moved with his family to Macon and then Philadelphia, PA. His father preached in a Baptist church, and Howard sang with a youthful gospel group, the Bel-Aires, that later recorded a few unsuccessful r&b singles as the Gainors. When the group broke up, organist Bill Doggett recruited Howard as the vocalist for his popular combo.
Meanwhile, ex-Gainors Garnet Mimms and Sam Bell formed a new group called the Enchanters and in 1963 scored a breakthrough hit with “Cry Baby.” At No. 4, “Cry Baby” was the first “deep soul” record to crack the Top Ten (as well as a No. 1 R&B hit). It was, as author Robert Pruter later wrote, “a gospelized production so full of soul-saving, fire-and-brimstone ecstasies of the Black sanctified church that it singularly stood apart…Never before had the public heard anything so intense and so emotional on Top 40 radio.”
“Cry Baby” was co-written and produced by Jerry Ragovoy, a white Philadelphian (born September 4, 1930) who moved to New York in the spring of 1962. While Howard Tate was grinding out one-nighters with Bill Doggett, Ragovoy was expanding and refining his idiosyncratic style on records by such gifted, church-bred singers as Lorraine Ellison (the monumental “Stay With Me”) and Irma Thomas (“Time is On My Side,” a Ragovoy co-write later taken Top Ten by the Rolling Stones). Ragovoy’s carefully crafted arrangements and stately piano playing grafted elements of opera, Broadway, and Romantic classical music onto such proto-soul archetypes as the Impressions’ 1958 hit “For Your Precious Love.”
Tate and Ragovoy began working together within weeks of Howard’s departure from the Bill Doggett band. When his first Ragovoy-produced single “Ain’t Nobody Home” hit the R&B chart in August 1966, Howard was mixing mortar on a Philadelphia construction site. Still wearing his soiled work clothes, he was hustled onto a flight to Detroit to open for Marvin Gaye at the fabled 20 Grand. Upon landing, he climbed into a waiting limo just as a local DJ introduced “Ain’t Nobody Home” as “the Number One record in Detroit.”
“It was just unbelievable,” Howard told Jason Gross in a 2001 interview. “This is the only business [where] you can be poor as a Georgia turkey today, make a record, go to sleep, and wake up a multi-millionaire. That’s how quick it can happen.”
But it didn’t happen that way for Howard Tate.
Howard Tate/Get It While You Can introduced a singer of uncommon power and eloquence, with songs and arrangements tailored to his special strengths. The album spun off two No. 12 R&B hits; garnered favorable reviews in the nascent rock press; and later inspired cover versions of its Jerry Ragovoy-penned songs by
artists ranging from B.B. King to Janis Joplin to Grand Funk Railroad. But although Verve Records released the LP twice—in different covers, with different liner notes—Howard Tate/Get It While You Can just didn’t sell.
Two more Howard Tate albums followed. Singer Lloyd Price produced Howard Tate’s Reaction for his own Turntable Records, dubbing Howard’s vocals over instrumental tracks cut in Jamaica. The results sank more or less in tandem with the label after Price’s business partner, Harold Logan, was murdered in 1969. Tate and Jerry Ragovoy reunited in 1972 for the eponymous Howard Tate on Atlantic. But a few compelling songs (“Where Did My Baby Go,” “8 Days On The Road”) and Rags’ typically sharp arrangements couldn’t overcome a lack of promotion, and soon the third Howard Tate LP had come and gone.
Howard himself had taken just about enough from a business that promised so much and paid so little. As he would later explain to Jason Gross: “I was with guys that called themselves my road manager, and they didn’t know their way out of a wet paper bag. The booking agency I had, they stuck me down South on that chitlin’ circuit where…[local promoters] put 20,000 people in there and told you to go for yourself, scream ‘til your head fell off. They’d give you $500 and say ‘See you next year.’”
A dozen years after the release of Howard Tate/Get It While You Can, Howard had receded so far into the shadows that even the most determined searchers—concert promoters, record collectors, Jerry Ragovoy himself—could find no trace of him. The prosaic truth was that Howard had become a securities salesman for Prudential and the dedicated father of six children. He had, in his oddly apt phrase, “alleviated myself from the music business altogether. I didn’t talk about it. Nobody knew who I was.”
In 1976, a house fire killed Tate’s 13-year old daughter; he divorced in 1981, then married his second wife the following year. Somewhere along the line, he “started hanging out with the wrong crowd,” fell prey to drug and alcohol abuse, and drifted further into obscurity — even as the cult of Howard Tate expanded across the US and Europe.
Nineteen ninety-four brought a spiritual reawakening. “I was on my knees praying, and I heard a voice,” Howard recalls. “It said ‘I want you to go preach my gospel.’ I said, ‘Lord, I can’t go. Not me—I don’t want to be no preacher.’ And the voice said ‘You’ll go or else.’ So I knew that was an ultimatum.” Tate became a pastor at his own Gift of the Cross Church in Mount Holly, New Jersey; he dedicated himself to helping the homeless, the addicted, and the mentally ill.
On New Year’s Day 2001, a former member of Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes named Ron Kennedy encountered Howard Tate in a Willingboro, NJ supermarket. Kennedy told Tate that a South Jersey DJ named Phil Casden had been playing the CD reissue of Howard Tate/Get It While You Can on his AM radio show and pleading with his listeners for any clues to the singer’s whereabouts. Two days later, Tate and Casden were having dinner together. Casden posted details of their meeting on the Internet, and within hours Howard’s home phone began to light up with recording and performance offers from England and France, Germany and Australia.
Fast-forward to that fateful, thrilling summer night at Village Underground. Two days later, Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times:
“When Howard Tate’s voice leaped into falsetto on his 1967 album…it was the sound of a man driven nearly beyond endurance by love and pain. He sounded just as powerful and just as blue at the Village Underground on Saturday night, in his first New York performance since he dropped out of music in the 1970s…Unlike some soul singers who have returned to the church, Mr. Tate didn’t proselytize. He just let his songs testify to the endless hopes and torments of love.”
Jerry Ragovoy was in the house that night, up from his home in the Atlanta suburbs. He too was amazed to hear how little Howard’s voice had changed. “It’s a slight bit huskier,” the producer noted. “But other than that, the tonality, the sonority, the falsetto—all that is still there.”
And it’s all there on Rediscovered: The voice of Howard Tate, the songs and arrangements of Jerry Ragovoy, the playing of the Uptown Horns. You don’t have to be religious to call it a miracle.
When the phone calls and offers began to come in, decades into a life outside of music, Howard Tate prayed for guidance. “When I prayed, God told me: ‘I gave you that voice. You never went to music school. You wonder now if you should sing secular or gospel? There is a beauty in all music. It’s the life you live more than what comes out of your mouth.’
“Just tell the people out there that I’m going to give the best I can give. They deserve the best.”
Many people who knew James Luther Dickinson far better than I did have created their own tributes to him in the weeks since Jim’s untimely death from heart failure, at age 67, on August 15, 2009 — one year to the day after the passing of his dear friend and patron Jerry Wexler. Nonetheless, I couldn’t let the occasion pass without adding a few thoughts and recollections of my own.
Jim Dickinson was important both for who he was and what he did. I only met him on a few occasions but these were memorable enough to make me wish I’d spent a lot more time in his company. He had a generous spirit, a supreme sense of life’s absurdities both tragic and hilarious (often simultaneously), and a thousand great stories — “some of which were true,” in the words of my old friend (and former Replacements manager) Peter Jesperson.
Dickinson also possessed a strong streak of home-grown radical politics: anti-racist, anti-war, pro-working class, pro-humanity. These convictions were made manifest when Jim helped to resurrect the careers of forgotten bluesmen like Gus Cannon and Furry Lewis; when he cut Bob Dylan’s “John Brown” for his first solo album Dixie Fried, and when he sang songs like “Red Neck, Blue Collar” and “One Big Family” (the latter a paean to organized labor).
Jim was a living link between successive eras in Memphis music history: His life spanned an incredibly rich and diverse period in one of America’s most culturally significant cities, from the last fading echoes of the Swing Era, through Sun rockabilly and Stax soul, to punk rock, jam band, and whatever was coming next. At least as important as any music he ever made is that his loving marriage to Mary Lindsay endured for over 40 years, and that he was a kind father and a matchless musical mentor to his sons Luther and Cody Dickinson.
The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Big Star’s Third a/k/a Sister Lovers are among Jim’s best-known recording credits; my own personal favorites include Boomer’s Story by Ry Cooder (Reprise, 1972); and Carmen McRae’s Just A Little Lovin’ and Aretha Franklin’s Spirit In The Dark (both Atlantic, 1970), with JLD as a member of the Dixie Flyers rhythm section assembled by Jerry Wexler. Jim Marshall a/k/a The Hound has posted the most comprehensive tribute to JLD that I’ve found thus far, with links to streams of many rare recordings. Pete Hoppula, president of the Finnish Blues Society, has created a seriously detailed JLD discography on his Web site Wang Dang Dula. [Click on “’50s/’60s R&R,” scroll down through the alphabet to Dickinson, Jim, click on…and I’ll see you when you get back, five or six weeks from now.]
I met both Jim and his dear friend, the writer Stanley Booth, for the first time on the same night in the same place: backstage at the venerable Orpheum Theater in Memphis in the spring of 1979. I’d flown in to report on the Cramps‘ progress in recording their first LP for I.R.S. Records with producer Alex Chilton and to witness their headlining show at the Orpheum, with support from Tav Falco’s Panther Burns and The Klitz. (This all-female punk band’s version of the Bell Notes’ “I’ve Had It” — with front woman Lesa Aldridge screaming “I’ve had it — I’ve had it with you butt-fuckers!” — remains a thing of sacred memory.) I remember nothing about my brief interaction with Dickinson and Booth, although decades later Stanley recalled that when I saw him wearing a sport coat and tie, inquired: “Are you an attorney?”I was fortunate to see Jim Dickinson perform on several occasions. The first time would have been with Mudboy & the Neutrons at the 1990 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, but JLD was MIA. ( Sid Selvidge, Jimmy Crosthwait, the late Lee Baker, et al rocked on regardless, showing the small but stunned crowd why Memphis author Robert Gordon once called their band “the missing link between the Rolling Stones and Furry Lewis.”) During a mid-Nineties South X Southwest, I saw Jim play a fine folk-blues set backed by Luther, Cody, and bassist Paul Taylor — this was in the days of DDT, the Stooges/Black Flag-influenced power trio that preceded the North Mississippi All Stars. Later came memorable appearances at the Lakeside Lounge and Joe’s Pub (both NYC).
On April 6, 2007, Jim gave his last New York performance: a solo acoustic set during a benefit for Housing Works at the organization’s bookstore and cafe in Soho (with NMAS closing the show). Dickinson was terribly overweight, sometimes short of breath, in obvious physical discomfort, and he sang the hell out of “John Brown.”
Luther Dickinson: An Acoustic Tribute to Jim Dickinson [from www.NMAllStars.com]
Quotations from ‘East Memphis Slim’
In remarks to the audience at a 2009 gig in Austin, the Texas musician Jon Dee Graham remembered Dickinson once telling him: “Giving synthesizers to the British was like giving whiskey to the Indians – ruined their whole culture!”
Record producer and author Joe Boyd once found himself seated with Dickinson on a producers panel discussion at South X Southwest: ”I will always love him for saying that the only conditions under which he would produce a new band was ‘if I didn’t have to go see them play’ and ‘if the first time I met them was in the studio for the session.’”
Andy Schwartz saw JLD backed by DDT (Dickinson/Dickinson/Taylor) at SXSW. When Luther Dickinson began tuning his guitar between numbers, his father admonished him: “Now son, I’ve told you many times before that tuning is decadent, European, and homosexual.” (Naturally, this was on stage at Chances — at that time, the premier lesbian bar in Austin.)
Jean Caffeine was with A.S. at that SXSW gig and remembers that JLD introduced his beautiful ballad “Across the Borderline” (written with Ry Cooder and John Hiatt) as “the song that paved my driveway.”
From JLD’s “Production Manifesto,” posted at ZebraRanch.com: “From the first hand-print cave painting to the most modern computer art, it is the human condition to seek immortality. Life is fleeting. Art is long. A record is a ‘totem,’ a document of a unique, unrepeatable event worthy of preservation and able to sustain historic life. The essence of the event is its soul.”
“I refuse to celebrate death. My life has been a miracle of more than I ever expected or deserved. I have gone farther and done more than I had any right to expect. I leave behind a beautiful family and many beloved friends. Take reassurance in the glory of the moment and the forever promise of tomorrow. Surely there is light beyond the darkness as there is dawn after the night.
“I will not be gone as long as the music lingers. I have gladly given my life to Memphis music and it has given me back a hundredfold. It has been my fortune to know truly great men and hear the music of the spheres. May we all meet again at the end of the trail. May God bless and keep you.” — World boogie is coming, James Luther Dickinson
I never knew him. I never saw him play. Only within the past few years did I become aware of his existence. But James Black has cast a spell on me.
I am haunted by the unexpected shifts in his compositions and arrangements, the restless creativity of his unquiet spirit, the unfinished business of hit-and-run sessions long unissued. As I listen to these songs, my mind combs through the fragments of his story, through the rare interviews and stray anecdotes, as I try to piece together an image of the man and a picture of his volatile and truncated life.
James Black: Who, according to legend, once set up his kit on a New Orleans sidewalk and played “duets” with a utility worker’s jackhammer. Who walked off the bandstand and into the New Orleans night when pianist Harry Connick Jr. couldn’t cut it on Black’s own “Magnolia Triangle,” the very first tune of the set.
(“The bass player and I just couldn’t keep up with him,” Harry told his audience before playing the song during a 1999 concert in Richmond, Virginia.)
James Black: Who wrote four out of seven tunes for Ellis Marsalis’ classic 1963 album Monkey Puzzle—intricate, harmonically rich songs like “Whistle Stop,” “Dee Wee,” “Monkey Puzzle,” and “Magnolia Triangle.” The band is Black, Marsalis (piano), Nat Perrilliat (tenor), and Marshall Smith (bass). The CD reissue (AFO, 1991) closes with a ten-minute live version of “Night in Tunisia” that burns as hot as any mainstream jazz performance I’ve ever heard on record. Black drives the group so hard that the stage seems in danger of collapse; on the explosive solo that ends the track, he sounds like at least two drummers.
“James…is probably the most aggressive and dynamic personality of the group. His playing reflects his personality very accurately. He is constantly bored with the present because the future is unexplored, and in his mind is in the unexplored future…” – Harold Battiste (circa 1963)
James Black was born February 1, 1940. His musically inclined family lived at 1215 St. Peter Street in the French Quarter, later moving to 1218 Ursulines Avenue. He received his first musical training as a student in Joseph A. Craig Elementary School.
“[The school band director] ask me what I wanted to play and I told him I wanted to play the drums. And this motherfucker told me he had 50,000 drummers already, so what else did I want? He ask me did I want to play the flute, and I told him no ‘cause the flute was for bitches. And I ain’t no bitch…”
(Above and all other James Black quotes are excerpted from the liner notes for the out-of-print box set New Orleans Heritage/Jazz: 1956-66.)
Instead, Black took up the trumpet and later studied piano. Said to have excelled on both instruments, he never recorded on either one. He began playing drums in junior high school.
“I was about two or three years behind [John] Boudreaux and Smokey [Johnson] and them cats…I had to play the trumpet to be in the school band, so I went on and played the shit they wanted me to play. But shit, I knew I was a drummer so I went on and played the drums anyhow.”
Upon graduation from Joseph S. Clark HS, James received a band scholarship (on trumpet) to Southern University in Baton Rouge where he majored in composition and music education. He also played r&b in a band with Nat Perilliat and guitarist Roy Montrell and was influenced by the playing of the great Ed Blackwell, best known for his work with Ornette Coleman.
“That was some interesting shit, the way [Blackwell] was playing…I asked him to let me sit in, ‘cos I’m a cheeky, bold black motherfucker!”
Just six months before graduation, James dropped out to take a gig with Ellis Marsalis and Marshall Smith at the New Orleans Playboy Club. (He later expressed regret over the loss of his diploma: “I’d rather have it and don’t need it than to need it and don’t have it.”) Six months later, the group moved to Ellis’ own club, The Music Haven—at that time, the only modern jazz venue in New Orleans.
In 1962, Black, Marsalis, and Nat Perilliat joined brothers Nat and Cannonball Adderley on the New Orleans recording sessions for Nat Adderley’s Jazzland LP In The Bag. James contributed his original compositions “Sister Wilson” and “New Arrival” to the repertoire, but poor sound quality renders his drumming nearly inaudible for much of the date.
On the last two tracks of the Fantasy CD reissue, “The Popeye” and “The Gospel Truth,” Black is suddenly and startlingly present. He plays pure second-line rhythms with joyful abandon, never consecutively repeating a single phrase or accent for the duration of the performances. His percussion is easily the most striking element of these pleasant r&b instrumentals, which were paired on a Riverside single and issued under the pseudonym of Spider Johnson & His Popeye Band. But Black’s playing is so free, so far beyond the rhythmic requirements of the dance floor, that—as one contemporary listener put it—“he effectively destroyed any chance of the record ever becoming a hit.”
In 1964, under the aegis of singer/pianist Joe Jones (“You Talk Too Much”), Black moved to New York as part of a group of Crescent City journeymen that also included guitarist/vocalist Alvin “Shine” Robinson. After falling out with Jones, the drummer played a few nights at Birdland with Horace Silver before successfully auditioning for Lionel Hampton.
“I worked for this motherfucker for a year and a half. I had a run-in with Gladys, his old lady [and also Hampton’s business manager] …I was on my two weeks’ notice because I wouldn’t play 4/4 on the bass drums, when I got a call from Yusef [Lateef]. So when my two weeks was up, I met Yusef in Washington, D.C. at the Bohemian Caverns. I stayed with him for a couple of years.”
Black recorded several excellent albums with Lateef for Impulse, although only the first volume of Live At Pep’s (originally released in June 1964) is in print at this writing. Lateef and trumpeter Richard Williams are in excellent form on these dates, as Black’s impeccable support allows both men to give their best. James Black also performs on Yusef Lateef’s Psychicemotus (Impulse, 1965), a studio date reissued by Verve in 2005.
“Yusef was another one of them cats who wanted you to be good. You know, like he was always trying to save you…Shit, I don’t need to be saved—I’m already saved.”
In 1967, James Black came home to New Orleans to live for the rest of his life. In the preface to a 1974 CODA interview, writer Val Wilmer noted that since his return, James had played “with saxophonist James Rivers, and with Fats Domino and Professor Longhair for a while although he never recorded with either performer. He did, however, record with Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, and the Meters, and for some time made all of Allen Toussaint’s sessions.”
An aura of mystery surrounds the music of (I NEED) ALTITUDE. The specific recording dates and exact personnel are unknown. But we know that in 1969, Black drummed on (one might say detonated) a session for Al Scramuzza’s Scram Records that brought forth one of the all-time New Orleans funk classics, Eddie Bo’s “Hook and Sling (Parts 1 & 2).” Towards the end of the allotted hours, the label owner was called away from the session and the musicians hastily recorded two of Black’s own songs, “Mist” and “Tune #6”—both included here. When interviewed decades later, Al Scramuzza stated that the ensemble included Eddie Bo (piano), Walter Payton (bass), Walter “Wolfman” Washington (guitar), and saxophonists Fred Kemp and “Shemp.”
(I NEED) ALTITUDE culls music from two other James Black sessions. Around 1976, four tracks from an aborted album project for the Sound of New Orleans label featured bassist Jim Singleton, pianist David Torkanowsky, and Earl Turbinton on saxophone. Approximately six years later, Allen Toussaint gave Black two days of “spec” recording time at the former’s Sea-Saint Studios. (As the Crescent City’s premier producer/arranger, Toussaint has said that he frequently called on James to play parts that other drummers couldn’t handle.)
At Sea-Saint, Black shared lead vocals with his long-time companion and stage singer “Sister” Mary Bonette. Today, she recalls the supporting presence of Torkanowsky, Singleton, saxophonist Tony Dagradi, and trumpeter Clyde Kerr—all of who gigged with “The James Black Ensemble featuring Sister Mary” at various times in the Seventies and Eighties.
“James wanted musicians that could read. He had everything written out for those sessions.” — Mary Bonette.
James Black died of an overdose in 1988, without ever seeing a record released under his own name. His last recording session, with singer Germaine Bazzle, was released the following year on The New New Orleans Music: Vocal Jazz (Rounder).
On February 1, 2002, a quartet led by pianist Eric Reed performed James Black’s compositions as part of a “Jazz Composer Portraits” series at Columbia University. “This concert,” wrote Ben Ratliff in the New York Times, “should be a fascinating attempt to highlight a musician whom we should have known better.”
“Everybody knew James was great. He just never got a break.” – Mary Bonette.
Readers of these notes will draw their own conclusions about the music herein. Suffice to say that “(I Need) Altitude” and “Storm In The Gulf,” to cite two examples, are unlike any funk, jazz, or jazz-funk you’ve ever heard before—from New Orleans or anywhere else. Yet this music could have come only from New Orleans…and only from the mind and soul of James Black.
From the liner notes to CHARLIE CHRISTIAN – GENIUS OF THE ELECTRIC GUITAR (Sony Legacy box set, 2002)
The year was 1938. I was living in New York and playing on the NBC radio network, five nights a week. It was the coast-to-coast broadcast of “The Chesterfield Hour” with Fred Waring & His Pennsylvanians, featuring the Les Paul Trio. So three times a week, I’d get to play the guitar on the show and I became enormously well known in radio in those days.
One day, my bass player Ernie Newton says to me: “We’ve been working hard, knocking our brains out. Let’s go to Chicago. Let’s go out to Wisconsin, see your mom, take a couple weeks off.”
So we went up there to Waukesha. And to my surprise, my mother was not too enthused that I’m featured on the biggest radio program in the United States. I thought she’d be beaming with pride! But she says, “You know, Lester, that show is too classy.” She was always a lover of country and bluegrass. That’s why I started out in my career as Rhubarb Red, influenced by my mother’s love of that type of music.
“You stick around,” she says. “I’ll make you some chili, and I’ll dial this radio station. I want you to hear this music.”
So she tunes in KVOO in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I hear Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys. “They got drums and everything in there,” my mother says to me. “Lester, that’s where you should go!”
Here I am in New York, on network radio with Fred Waring and jamming with the greatest players in the world: Art Tatum, Benny Goodman, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins. But all my mother can say is: “Lester, think about it.”
Then Ernie Newton says to me: “We’re not doing anything. Why the hell don’t we go out to Oklahoma and see what it’s all about?” So we drove from Waukesha to Tulsa. And when we get there, we hunt up these guys, Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys.
The place they were playing was like an airplane hanger, a big cavernous ballroom. A real cowboy saloon, but huge. And pretty soon we’re jamming with them, having a helluva good time, when I notice this young black fellow standing down below and looking up at me.
We take a break, and this fellow says to me: “Mr. Paul, could I get your autograph?” So I give him my autograph. “I play the guitar,” he tells me.
I say, “Well, are ya any good?” He says, “Yes, sir.”
I ask him his name. “Charlie,” he says. “Charlie Christian.”
I handed him the guitar and he played a little. I says, “Jesus, you are good. You want to come up and sit in with us?”
So he got up and played my guitar with the Texas Playboys. I don’t know whether he even had an instrument at that time.
And that was the first night that I met Charlie Christian.
Back in New York, not too long after that, I get a call from Charlie. He’s gotten an offer to come to New York–that was the offer from Benny Goodman–but he doesn’t have a guitar.
I’m about to order a new guitar from Gibson. Would he like one like mine? “I’ll order it for you,” I say, “and we’ll have ‘em both alike”
The next thing I know, Charlie’s in New York. We met at the New York Band & Instrument Company, owned by Eddie Bell, on Sixth Avenue around 46th Street. We’ve got the guitars that Gibson sent to Eddie Bell. I’d had the amplifier casings made of one-inch-thick maple so it wouldn’t vibrate on stage. This son-of-a-bitch had like sixteen tubes in it.
Now Charlie’s got his guitar and I’ve got mine, and we’re excited as hell over these two beautiful blond Gibson guitars. I had to go to work at 53rd and Broadway, in the same building where the David Letterman Theater is now. So we left Eddie Bell’s, carrying our guitars and amps, and walked to 53rd and Broadway. I’m gonna rehearse with Fred Waring, and Charlie’s gonna take the subway to Harlem.
We’re standing there at the subway entrance, and we kinda look at each other. “Charlie,” I say, “my balls are about ready to fall off.”
“Les,” he says, “this thing is so heavy, I can’t even lift it anymore!”
That inch-thick maple casing on the amp was killing both of us. The guitar itself, the top, was another half-inch of solid maple. We turned around and dragged it all back to Eddie Bell. Told him, send it all back to Gibson. And I went back to the old guitar, the same one that Charlie played that night in Tulsa.
Charlie hits with Benny Goodman. He’s all excited, and I’m very excited about how good he’s doing. We’d go up to Minton’s and jam together, swap licks, the whole nine yards. He was living uptown and I was in Queens, at 81st and Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights.
Charlie always was impressed with the fact that I was a technical player, a white technical player. But he was a stomper. “You only play one goddamn note,” I’d tell him, “and you kill me!”
What I’m doing was so much harder than what he’s doing–that’s what I thought back then. But over time, through being with Charlie, I realized how tough it is to come down on that one note in the right place, and how much more of a drive he had. He had that ability, like Lionel Hampton, to take a note, to take one “A,” and just pound it into your head until it was the greatest note you’d ever heard.
He didn’t play beyond himself. He didn’t think, “What the hell, no one’s listening–why don’t I try this?” Charlie wasn’t one to go out over his head. The beat came first. He locked himself into that driving sound.
In 1941, I stuck my hand in the transmitter of an illegal radio station I had made in my basement in Jackson Heights. I was nearly electrocuted. That accident ended my career for a year.
While I’m in the hospital, they tell me that Charlie’s in a hospital on Staten Island. I call him up, and we talk about the good times we had playing together, all the fun we had, how wonderful it was.
“Les,” he says, “I’ve got tuberculosis.”
I knew what that meant. Because in those days, if you had TB, there was really nothing they could do for you.
That phone call was the last I heard from Charlie Christian. I don’t know if he came out of that hospital, don’t know if he survived two or three or five months. I guess that he’d only played professionally for about five years.
I heard Charlie’s influence spread during his lifetime. You could hear him in Barney Kessel, in Herb Ellis, in all the guys who tried to get that big round sound. It ran through Wes Montgomery, and it runs through George Benson today. I was talking with George about Charlie not even six months ago.
With all the technique they have out there, with all these guitar players–-the one that wins is still the fellow that plays that one note I heard that night in Tulsa.
He never lived to fulfill what he could have done, should have done. But I loved that man.
Charlie Christian was my friend.