INTRODUCTION

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.”

The 1995 CD reissue of Howard Tate's Verve debut, long out of print. Sealed copies are listed on Amazon.com for up to $200.

“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.”

Howard Tate with Jerry Ragovoy (at the piano) during sessions for Tate's self-titled Atlantic LP (1972). Third man at left is unidentified.

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

Howard Tate during a session for his self-titled LP on Atlantic (1972).

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.”

HOWARD TATE, released 1972 on Atlantic. The 2001 Koch CD reissue is still in print.

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.”

—ANDY SCHWARTZ

LONESOME SUNDOWN: Front cover of the funeral program.

BOBBY ROBINSON, who died January 7, 2011, was one of the unsung pioneers of the 20th century American record industry. That sun you see setting in the illustration at left might well represent not only Robinson’s own passing at the age of 93 but that of the entire half-century-long, world-changing epoch of rhythm & blues and rock & roll in which he forged his career. “He outlived the record business,” remarked Tommy Boy Records founder Tom Silverman as we sat with Sire Records’ Seymour Stein in a front pew at the United House of Prayer for All People on West 125th Street, where Robinson’s funeral was held on this bitterly cold January evening.

The grandson of former slaves, Morgan Clyde Robinson (called “Bob” by his entire family including grandchildren) was born 4.16.1917 in Union, South Carolina and later became valedictorian of his (segregated) high school. Obituaries in the NY Daily News and NY Times don’t clearly state when Robinson arrived in New York, which event may have preceded his Army service during World War II. While stationed in Hawaii, Bobby honed his entrepreneurial skills as both the entertainment director of live shows mounted for servicemen on Oahu and as (in his own words) “the biggest loan shark out there.” Following his discharge, Robinson claims to have returned to Harlem with nearly $8,000 in cash. It was an enormous sum in 1945: According to U.S. Census figures, the median annual income for non-White families and individuals was $1,294.

Robinson in happier days at the Happy House. (Photo courtesy of NY Daily News)

In 1946, Robinson paid $2,500 to buy out a defunct hat store located at 301 West 125th Street, just west of the world-famous Apollo Theater at #253. There he opened Bobby’s Record Shop, later and better known as Bobby’s Happy House. It was the first Black-owned music store on  125th Street — the commercial and symbolic heart of Harlem — and possibly the street’s first Black-owned retail business of any kind (accounts vary on this point).

This modest establishment became Robinson’s base of operations for his freewheeling career as songwriter, record producer, label owner and distributor — one of the very few whose active career spanned the decades from Fifties r&b to Eighties hip-hop. His Wikipedia entry includes a detailed discography, but Gladys Knight & the PipsElmore James, Lee Dorsey, King Curtis, Spoonie Gee, and the Treacherous Three (with Kool Moe Dee) are just a few of the artists recorded by Bobby Robinson and released on one of his several imprints including Fire, Fury, Enjoy, Red Robin, and Whirlin’ Disc.

Label repro courtesy of ClassicUrbanHarmony.net

“Kansas City” by Wilbert Harrison, “Fannie Mae” by Buster Brown, “Ya-Ya” by Lee Dorsey, “Number Nine Train” by Tarheel Slim, “The Happy Organ” by Dave “Baby” Cortez, “Tossin’ and Turnin'” by Bobby Lewis, “Rockin’ It” by The Fearless Four, and “Super Rappin'” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five — if you’ve heard any of these songs, then you’ve heard Bobby Robinson at work.

By 1959, when Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” became the first major hit for Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., Robinson had already made the national r&b charts with multiple releases. One man became a crossover giant who built a recording and publishing empire, produced Hollywood movies and TV specials, and transformed his artists into icons. The other was a guy you could find, most days of the week, holding court in a Harlem storefront.

That guy didn’t move to Hollywood, or buy a chain of radio stations, or become some major label’s Executive V-P of Urban Music — he just kind of hung out. Yet by doing so, Bobby Robinson touched the lives of thousands of people, a couple hundred of whom showed up on this night to pay their respects. (One of the first I encountered was the ethically-challenged Congressman Charles B. Rangel, who was departing as I arrived.)

Label repro courtesy of ClassicUrbanHarmony.net

At some point (in the 1980s? the ’90s?), the Happy House was displaced  by a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet; Robinson moved his shop around the corner and slightly north on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The store remained open for more than 60 years, gradually functioning more as a clubhouse and community center than active music retailer. Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, lived a few blocks away; in a remembrance posted 1.9.2011, he wrote:

“Bobby’s Happy House…had a stream of visitors throughout the day, but nobody ever seemed to buy anything. The display cases were filled with rows of dusty, ancient CDs and cassette tapes. Folks were really coming to see Robinson: tourists from Europe on pilgrimage, neighbors and local characters stopping by between errands, old friends like Paul Winley checking on Bobby. Sometimes, like me, they’d wait for him. Bobby Robinson would usually saunter in mid-day — and what an entrance he would make. At 90, he was always clean, always sharp — usually in a bright-colored suit jacket that contrasted with his long, straight, shock-white hair. He walked slow, turned gradually, and sat tentatively. But when he looked at you, you almost felt zapped. A lot of life and light in those eyes…”

“As much as Bobby Robinson loved Harlem, Harlem loved Bobby Robinson. Even more atrocious than his eviction — just before the bottom fell out during the subprime mortgage crisis — is that the developer who sent him packing has done nothing with the building. [Emphasis added — A.S.] It still stands there, empty, boarded up, across from the Duane Reade and around the corner from the Apollo.”

Robinson’s funeral was a down-home neighborhood affair. Other than Tom Silverman and Seymour Stein, I spotted only a few music business veterans including Aaron Fuchs of Tuff City and DJ Chuck Chillout. I introduced myself to Vincent Davis, who claimed to remember me from 1985 (!) when I wrote the Elektra Records publicity bio for his artist Joeski Love. (Time to kill? Watch the story of “Pee Wee Dance,” Joeski’s hip-hop novelty hit. But I digress…)

If any of the many “name” artists recorded by Bobby Robinson were in attendance, they didn’t get up to speak or otherwise identify themselves. It wasn’t like Doc Pomus‘ funeral, in 1991, where I sat next to Kris Kristofferson and heard songs by Dr. John and Jimmy Scott. Instead, ordinary people — mostly but not exclusively Black, some looking hard-used by life — offered their tributes. Joe Jackson (not Michael’s dad) called the Happy House “a center of communication” and sang “Auld Lang Syne,” which I thought an odd choice. A woman declared “I stand here today with my right mind because of Bobby Robinson”; two others sang spontaneous, impassioned versions of the gospel standards “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Won’t Complain.”

White-uniformed attendants flank the casket. (Photo courtesy Tom Silverman)

Bobby Dunn hailed the deceased as “one of the greatest producers and songwriters.” (Gunn wrote or co-wrote “You Broke Your Promise,” the B-side of Gladys Knight & the Pips’ first Robinson-produced hit “Letter Full Of Tears.”) Another gentleman offered a litany of the many doo-wop groups on Robinson’s roster (the Velvets, the Kodaks, Earl Lewis & the Channels), prompting Seymour Stein to break into a sotto voce medley of said groups’ greatest hits.

Paul Winley, Robinson’s friend and competitor dating back to the Fifties, noted that “he was the first record shop owner to put a set of speakers outside the store. When James Brown first began to break out with ‘Please Please Please,’ I remember him sitting on one of those speakers outside the Happy House and telling people passing by ‘that’s me, that’s my song!'” We also heard from Robinson’s grandson and nephew, and from Bilal Muhammed (nee Jerome Robinson) whose father was Bobby’s cousin.

The Apostle H.M. Swaringer delivered the closing eulogy. He began with the hymn “My Living Shall Not Be In Vain” and launched into an evocative, free-flowing oration that touched on Robinson’s long relationship with the House of Prayer For All Peoples and the commercial history of 125th Street (the Braddock Hotel, Apollo Theater, etc.) along with a citation from the Book of Job. Bobby Robinson, the preacher noted, “came to the House of Prayer every day. He helped people.”

Amen, Brother Swaringer.

Rest in peace, Bobby Robinson.

INTRODUCTION

"Salut'!" (Photo: Barbara LoCastro)

Today (5/12/2010) marks the fifth anniversary of the untimely death, at age 51, of my good friend Frankie LaRocka.

For several years prior to his passing, Frankie had been living with the debilitating heart condition called cardiomyopathy. On or about 5/5/2005, he underwent surgery at New York’s Columbia–Presbyterian Hospital to have a defibrillator implanted to regulate his heartbeat. He returned to his home at 55 Walbrooke Avenue on Staten Island but devel­oped a high fever a few days later. He was admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital on SI where the fever turned into pneumo­nia that Frankie, in his weakened post-operative condition, could not withstand.

Frankie LaRocka was the closest friend I made out of all the many people I met and worked with during my tenure at Epic Records/Sony Music (1989-2000). We came from very different backgrounds in terms of class, ethnicity, and education. But we shared a deep love of music and an enthusiasm for everything from Texas barbecue to Bela Lugosi’s performance in the 1931 version of Dracula. Like any of us, Frankie had his flaws. He could be insensitive, resentful, and sometimes his own worst enemy. But FLR was not selfish or greedy, pretentious or snobbish. He didn’t believe in stepping on other people in order to achieve one’s own goals.

And whether he was talking to Ahmet Ertegun or to a bartender on Hylan Boulevard, Frankie presented the same face to the world: a broad, handsome face, with a big smile and a high–pitched laugh to match his almost child–like enjoyment of life’s pleasures.

He embraced and was involved with a lot of music not at all to my personal taste. He had a populist aesthetic, meaning he couldn’t relate to the art-school/intellectual side of alternative rock (cf. Talking Heads, Pere Ubu) or any music that he considered just too “out,” from the Slits to Albert Ayler. But when it came to Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, the MC5 and the New York Dolls, we were in complete head-nodding agreement.

Frankie reveled in many aspects of what used to be derided as “corporate rock.” The Big Deal, the Big Hit, the Big Tour, the Big Schmooze after the Big Gig…from the vantage point of 2010, it all must seem very clichéd and even faintly ridiculous. But this was simply part of the environment in which FLR made his life and career, and his taste for it was tempered by his slightly self-mocking sense of remove.

(In case you’re wondering, to my knowledge Frankie was never addicted to alcohol or any other drug and never smoked cigarettes. Given his later heart condition and weight problems, his most dangerous vice may have been food, which he enjoyed with a gourmand’s gusto.)

FLR with Ozzy Osbourne, who looks different now. (1986)

FLR with Lemmy of Motorhead, who looks EXACTLY the same now. (1985)

When Frankie died, his longest and most detailed obituary ran in the Staten Island Advance daily newspaper (shorter notices also appeared in Billboard and Rolling Stone, among other outlets). This obit not only omitted many details but also contained a number of errors and misstatements: Frankie did not “join the band” of Jon Bon Jovi, Sony and Epic are not separate companies, etc.

I thought he deserved better, and several months later I began writing this biographical essay as a corrective to the SI Advance story. Eventually, it became a much longer piece that may have something to say, to some readers, about one man’s struggle to find and maintain his place in the late 20th century American music business as it went from post-Sgt. Pepper boom to Internet-ignited decline. The complete essay is published here for the first time.

BEGINNINGS

Frankie LaRocka was born Franco Christopher LaRocca on April 17, 1954 at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. He was the oldest of three children, later joined by brother Paul LaRocca (b. 2/17/57) and sister JoAnne LaRocca Scalici (b. 4/30/60). Mother Inez LaRocca (b. 11/16/28) died in 1991 of scleroderma (systemic sclerosis). Father Anthony (Tony) LaRocca (b. 5/25/27), a career engineer for Con Edison and a passionate opera fan, died of lymphoma in 2004.

Among the personal papers and effects given to me by Paul LaRocca after his brother’s death is a biographi­cal essay dated 2/21/2003. It was written for a school assignment by FLR’s young next–door neighbor Jeremy Hill and its subject is quoted directly throughout (“I interviewed Frankie while he was cooking chicken cutlets in his kitchen…”). Some of the following details are taken from Jeremy’s article.

Frankie grew up in the Little Italy section of Manhattan and lived near the intersection of Mott and Broome Streets until age 12, when the LaRocca family moved to Staten Island. He attended St. Joseph Hill Academy from sixth through eighth grades; St. Peter’s Boys High School for one year, and New Dorp High School through graduation.

In 1964, when he was 13 years old, Frankie’s grandmother Josie bought him his first drum set, an “official Beatles” model. On 7/16/1967 he saw the Jimi Hendrix Experience open for the Monkees at Forest Hills (NY) Tennis Stadium, and from that moment on the Experience would be tied with the Beatles as FLR’s two all–time favorite rock acts. Years later he would not only acquire the autographs of both groups but also befriend and per­form with Experience bassist Noel Redding.

On stage at the fabled Marquee in London. (1983)

Soon Frankie was playing semi-professionally with a series of popular Staten Island cover bands. The first one, Stem, formed in 1969 and included Tony Pompa, Frank Pagano, Steve Cannon, Frank Scribona, and brothers Bill and Dean Holtermann. The group broke up after two years, and in 1972 LaRocka and vocalist Pompa formed Fantasy with Peter Baron and Joe Vasta. In 1974, FLR earned an Associates Degree from Staten Island Community College, later renamed the College of Staten Island.

In light of Frankie’s turbulent sixteen–year marriage to and eventual divorce from his wife Nina (nee Timpone), and his loving but often fraught relationship with their daughter Adrianna, I was struck by this passage from Jeremy Hill’s essay:

“Frankie admires Paul McCartney ‘because he is an absolute genius.’ He likes how ‘[McCartney] stuck with his wife through everything and didn’t spoil his kids. He had passion, feeling and talent. I like how he balanced talent, music, and family.’

TURNING PRO

Cherry Vanilla performs at Club 82 in Manhattan with FLR on drums. (1976?)

In late 1975, Frankie LaRocka joined a band led by the glam-rock singer/songwriter/actress Cherry Vanilla. It was his first job with a Manhattan–based group playing original material.

The personnel included John “Buzz” Verno (bass), Kasim Sultan (keyboards), and Tom Morrongiello (guitar). Sultan later switched to bass and joined Todd Rundgren’s Utopia; Morrongiello has been Bob Dylan’s chief stage tech (guitars, keyboards) since the early Nineties. Cherry Vanilla released two RCA (UK) albums, Bad Girl and Venus D’Vinyl, but FLR did not play on either of these recordings.

In 1977, Frankie and Buzz Verno formed a new group with two other SI musicians, guitarists Johnny Rao and Thomas Trask. While riding on the Staten Island Ferry, Frankie ran into David Johansen whose pre­vious outfit, the New York Dolls, had broken up two years earlier. Frankie talked up his new band and eventually nagged the singer into checking out a rehearsal.

“It was a one-in-a-million stroke of luck. He was by himself and I went up to him and said, ‘Excuse me, but are you David Johansen?” And he said, ‘Yeah. What about it, kid?’ And we started talking…I called him for weeks and tried to get him to come down, to take the ferry and we’d pick him up on the other side. We’d rehearsed a bunch of Dolls [songs] and r&b and shuffles, and we blew him away.” [FLR, from the liner notes to The David Johansen Group Live]

This aggregation became the first David Johansen Group (a/k/a The Staten Island Boys) and recorded the eponymous solo debut David Johansen, released in April 1978 on Blue Sky/Epic Records. It was Frankie’s first appearance on a major label, and

FLR with Rick Derringer (left) and the Dead Boys' Stiv Bators. (1977)

he was mentioned in a New Yorker magazine profile of David Johansen written by Stanley Mieses and published 6/12/1978. Frankie made several U.S. tours and one European jaunt with the Johansen band and stayed on into 1980. On 7/21/1978, the group headlined The Bottom Line in New York with guest appearances by ex–Dolls Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders.

“When David spotted Johnny in the audience and brought him up, it just kicked everybody in the ass. It was like the Stones at Altamont — without anyone getting hurt!” [FLR, ibid.]

The show was taped and released as a Blue Sky/Epic promo-only LP that quickly became a sought–after collector’s item. In 1993, Sony Legacy issued an expanded CD version as The David Johansen Group Live; Frankie was pleased and proud to co-produce this edition with Peter Denenberg.

“It’s as clear as day, that whole era. We weren’t making shit but we were happy to be alive and fuckin’ rockin’. That period in time could never happen again.” [FLR, ibid.]

Picture sleeve for the 1978 Blue Sky/Epic single "Funky But Chic" b/w "The Rope" with (L. to R.) Sylvain Sylvain, Thomas Trask, David Johansen, FLR, Buzz Verno, Johnny Rao.

THE EARLY EIGHTIES

The early Eighties were a busy time for Frankie LaRocka, who gigged and/or recorded with Scandal, John Waite, and Bryan Adams. In an interview with journalist Jonathan Grevatt sometime in the Nineties, Frankie recalled:

“I was doing what I really wanted to do – making records and touring. I was on a mission. I’m not a real techni­cal player. I play with a lot of feel, which I have adapted in my philosophy of music: Keep it simple, soul­ful, and sincere.”

Scandal was a new wave–ish hard–pop band led by lead singer Patty Smythe and guitarist Zack Smith. The group was signed to Columbia and FLR played drums on Scandal’s self-titled debut EP. On a résumé prepared for his later hiring by Atlantic Records, Frankie noted that he played “(NYC) metropolitan area performances during band’s introduction,” i.e. early showcase gigs. In the same document, FLR says he “developed band, songs and sound with Zack Smith and [producer] Vinnie Poncia for first release.”

FLR was never quite a full–fledged member of Scandal and his photo appears only on the back cover of the original vinyl edition of the EP. Propelled by the minor hit “Goodbye to You,” Scandal entered the Billboard chart in January 1983; the EP breached the Top 40 and was certified gold. The group later hit platinum with the Warrior album and its Top Ten title single. Frankie did not play on Warrior or on subsequent Patty Smythe solo releases.

L. to R. FLR, John McCurry, John Waite (1983)

By that time, Frankie had moved on to a new band formed around English rock singer–songwriter John Waite. After a moder­ately successful run as front man of the Babys, Waite released his first Chrysalis solo album Ignition; it entered the Billboard chart in July 1982, hung around for six months, and peaked at #68. FLR played drums throughout the album including the belated single “Change” (#54 in April 1985) and toured with the Waite band for six months in 1982 (also per his résumé).

In 1984, John Waite scored a massive international Number One hit with “Missing You” and the Top Ten album No Brakes; Curly Smith played drums on those sessions. But Frankie was back at the kit for several tracks on Waite’s next Chrysalis album, Mask of Smiles (1985). (Contrary to the SI Advance notice, Frankie did not sign John Waite or any other act to the Chrysalis label.)

Frankie takes a bow with Bryan Adams. On the back of this photo, FLR wrote: "We love you people!" (1983)

In February 1983, Frankie auditioned for Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and within days was rehearsing for a tour in support of Cuts Like A Knife, Adams’ just-released second album for A&M Records . Other personnel included Keith Scott (guitar, vocals), Dave Taylor (bass), and John Hannah (keyboards). The Adams group toured with Journey in the spring and summer of 1983, trekked through Europe in the fall, and fin­ished the year with a tour of Japan. The band performed live on German television and appeared Stateside on “American Bandstand” and “Solid Gold.”

Cuts Like A Knife generated two Top 20 singles, hung on the chart for 89 weeks (peaking at No. 8), and went platinum with U.S. sales of over one million. FLR did not play on any of Bryan Adams’ studio albums but he performed on a live radio broadcast (possibly issued as an A&M Records promo disc) and on a rare Adams EP.

“Frankie was the greatest fun to have on tour. His ‘Staten Island-isms’ kept us all smiling and his personal grooming techniques kept us all wondering if Oil of Olay was, in fact, a good thing to use for men’s skin care. Frankie was a very dear person and an inspired musician, and I send my deepest condolences to his family. Rock on, Frankie – you made a big difference to our lives!”Bryan Adams, May 2005

Celebrating Bryan Adams' gold album with (L. to R.) paternal grandmother Josie, mother Inez, and father Tony.

Frankie scored one other significant recording credit in this period: In 1981, as a hired session musician, he played drums on “Runaway” by Jon Bon Jovi, who had not yet formed his own band.

The song was first issued on a radio station compilation LP and unexpectedly began to garner airplay throughout the New York area. “Runaway” led to the formation of the band Bon Jovi and their signing to Mercury/Polygram Records. The original recording was included on Bon Jovi’s self-titled debut album, which was released 1/21/1984 and eventually certi­fied gold. But so far as I’m aware, FLR never played a live gig with Jon Bon Jovi and did not play on any Bon Jovi tracks other than “Runaway.”

When Bryan Adams came off the road and returned to the studio, Frankie rejoined John Waite’s touring band in 1985 for dates in the U.S. and Japan. The group now included Tom Mandel on keyboards, guitarist John McCurry, and FLR’s former Fantasy band mate Joe Vasta on bass, but the road was getting old.

“I was out with Bryan Adams and I was getting kind of bored playing the same fifteen songs every night,” Frankie told Jonathan Grevatt. “I felt there was no future in it for me.” When Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun extended the offer of a job in the label’s A&R (artists & repertoire) department, Frankie readily accepted.

A&R (1) – ATLANTIC RECORDS

Atlantic personnel records show that Frankie LaRocka was employed as an A&R representative from 2/13/1984 until 3/9/1990. Our man wasn’t quite ready to relinquish his drum seat, however. While ostensibly holding a full–time executive job at Atlantic, Frankie proceeded to join two more bands—both of which recorded for rival labels!

EASTERN BLOC with (L. to R.) Tony Shanahan, FLR, Ivan Kral, Mark Sidgwick. (1985)

The first of these was Eastern Bloc, which began in early 1986 as the songwriting partnership of Mark Sidgwick and ex–Patti Smith Group guitarist Ivan Kral joined by bassist Tony Shanahan with FLR on drums.

“At that moment, Frankie pretty much was drawn to the A&R scene but he kept drumming as a way to keep in touch with the scene and with his roots. He was a great bandmate—gregarious, with a cheeky sense of humor—and hit a solid backbeat that never wavered. He always gave 100% and never bitched or moaned about anything.”Mark Sidgwick [Eastern Bloc]

In the summer of 1986, Eastern Bloc self–released an EP, Wall to Wall, that led to their signing by Passport/Polygram and the 1987 album Eastern Bloc. Pat Benatar’s partner Neil Geraldo mixed the single “You Got Love” and the band filmed a video for the song but like most of the records ever released, Eastern Bloc didn’t sell and the group split amicably in 1988. Mark Sidgwick recalls playing with Frankie on Bye Bye Route 66 by pop–folk group Devonsquare (with guest guitarist Stephen Stills) and on the 1988 Warner Bros. album Lost To The Street by Alex Rozum.

Company of Wolves was a big–haired hard rock band (think Def Leppard from Staten Island) with Kyf Brewer (lead vocals), brothers Steve Conte (guitar) and John Conte (bass), and FLR on drums. Some demos they cut with engineer Peter Denenberg led to a contract with Mercury/Polygram. The band’s self–titled debut appeared in 1990 and spun off the middling radio and MTV hits “Call of the Wild” and “The Distance.”

COMPANY OF WOLVES - FLR is second from left. (1990)

Frankie appeared in both videos, but he split a few months later and Company of Wolve broke up circa 1995. (The Denenberg demos were compiled for a 1998 album entitled Shakers & Tambourines.) Steve Conte now plays with the reconstituted New York Dolls and Mike Monroe (ex-Hanoi Rocks) as well as his own band The Crazy Truth.

“As the band began to take off and tour, Frankie made the decision to quit, citing his wife Nina and young daughter Adrianna as the reason he needed to keep to his A&R job. After all, he had succeeded in getting his own band signed to a giant competing label! It backed him into a corner and I think it ate him up inside. He’d call us when we were on the road and say, ‘I was having dinner when you guys went on last night. When I looked at the clock, I dropped my fork.’”

“I first visited Frankie’s A&R office at Atlantic in 1985…It was insane. Tapes covered his desk, and collections of Japanese toys and tchotchkes lined the windowsills, in­cluding a giant Godzilla. There was a live alligator in an aquarium. On one wall was a color poster of the David Johansen Band on stage and over the faces of the band members who had died, Frankie had drawn big black Xs with a Magic Marker.” – Kyf Brewer [Company of Wolves]

[NOTE: In accordance with Kyf’s recollection, I distinctly remember Frankie telling me that at least two and perhaps three members of the Johansen band had died before the year 2000. But Frankie’s close friend and fellow Staten Islander, Deane Holtermann, emailed me today (5/10/2010) to report that “I was hanging out with Johnny Boy (Rao) and Buzzy (Verno) just recently, like a month ago, and Thomas (Trask) is living in Williamsburg.” As Mark Twain wrote to a friend in 1897: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” — A.S.]

Meanwhile, back at Atlantic Records, Frankie signed the MTV–ready hard rock band Mr. Big, led by former David Lee Roth bassist Billy Sheehan. (Their name came from the song “Mr. Big” by Free, another of FLR’s all-time favorite bands.) The self–titled debut Mr. Big entered the Billboard chart in July 1989 and made it to No. 46 but a second LP, Lean Into It (1991), reached No. 15, spun off a No. 1 single (“To Be With You”), and was certified platinum.

It was Frankie’s biggest hit for Atlantic, where he also worked with Blue Rodeo and Dirty Looks, and on the two-million selling Lost Boys soundtrack. After moving to Epic Records, his office decor included a framed note from Mr. Big manager Herbie Herbert stating that FLR was the person responsible for the band’s signing to Atlantic. This kind of recognition was important to Frankie, who deeply resented other higher–ranking executives’ occasional attempts to take credit for his discoveries.

A&R (2) – EPIC RECORDS/SONY MUSIC

THE HAIRY YEARS: Epic publicity photo taken for FLR's hiring announcement. (1990)

In an internal memo dated 6/26/1990, Don Grierson announced the appointment of Frankie LaRocka as Associate Director of A&R for Epic Records (a division of CBS Records, soon to be renamed Sony Music). It’s likely that Frankie had started his new gig a month or two earlier, since usually there was a time lag in the dissemination of hiring and promotion notices.

SPIN DOCTORS

“I saw this band at Nightingale’s on Second Avenue on the Lower East Side, and there were about 20 people there,” Frankie recalled to Jonathan Grevatt. “However, all of these people had this grin on their faces that was really contagious. They were all dancing and just having a great time.”

With the blessing of his new boss, Epic Senior V–P of A&R Richard Griffiths (who had replaced Don Grierson), Frankie signed the NYC jam band Spin Doctors. In January 1991, he launched them in low–key, low–budget fashion with the Up For Grabs EP, recorded live at the Tribeca rock club Wetlands. Spin Doctors’ first full–length album, Pocket Full Of Kryptonite, was issued in August 1991 – the same month, and on the same label, as Pearl Jam’s debut Ten. While MTV, radio, and the press were going gonzo for grunge (Nevermind by Nirvana was released 9/24/1991), the unpretentious and uncool but undeniably catchy Pocket Full Of Kryptonite just kept selling more copies – and then some more – week after week.

FLR and Spin Doctors drummer Aaron Comess display multi-platinum plaque for POCKET FULL OF KRYPTONITE. (1994)

By June 1993, Kryptonite had made the Billboard Top Five. It stayed on the chart for 115 weeks and ultimately sold over five million copies in the US and another five million internationally while spinning off the hit singles “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” (#17) and “Two Princes” (#7). When Richard Griffiths announced FLR’s promotion to Direc­tor of A&R in an internal memo dated 9/1/1993, he noted Frankie’s “pivotal role in the debut success of Spin Doctors.”

“After the Spin Doctors broke [in 1991], I saw Frankie at some event and went to congratulate him. We hadn’t spoken in quite some time, but I went over to shake his hand. ‘Frankie, congrats on the Spins,’ I said. ‘Good work.’ He replied: ‘Thanks, Steve — it’ll buy me a few more years before I have to open that pizzeria with my uncle on Staten Island!’” Steve Conte [Company of Wolves]

Pocket Full Of Kryptonite was the commercial pinnacle of Frankie’s A&R career, and as album co–producer (with Peter Denenberg) it might have made him a lot of money. But later FLR told me that under the terms of his employment contract, his earnings from any given Sony Music project were capped at $300,000 – not an inconsiderable sum, but nowhere near what he might have earned as an independent producer of a 10 million-selling album.

Unfortunately, Frankie’s standing within Epic Records seemed to decline in tandem with Spin Doctors’ sales. The half–live/half–studio Homebelly Groove (1992) was rushed out to capitalize on Kryptonite‘s success. A second studio album, Turn It Upside Down, was a poorly sequenced set of uneven songs; with a mere two million copies sold world­wide, it was deemed a commercial disappointment. In almost a textbook example of the hubris endemic to the major labels in this era, Epic rented the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to film a video for the song “Cleopatra’s Cat.”

(Spin Doctors covered Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” for a million-selling Epic soundtrack album that accompanied the Jonathan Demme film Philadelphia. LaRocka and Denenberg co–produced the Spins track, which later gave rise to the erroneous assertion that FLR “produced the Philadelphia soundtrack.” But he’s co-credited for just one song out of ten; Glen Brunman, Jonathan Demme, and Gary Goetzman shared executive producer credits for the full album.)

PRONG

PRONG (Photo by Chris Cuffaro)

A trio comprised of former C.B.G.B. employees Tommy Victor (vocals, guitar) and Mike Kirkland (bass) with ex–Swans drummer Ted Parsons, Prong was the most radical, raw, and aesthetically adventurous act on Frankie LaRocka’s Epic roster. Prong’s aggressive sound, sometimes dubbed “industrial metal,” was a clear influence on bands like Nine Inch Nails and (unfortunately) Korn.

Prong was signed to Epic in 1989 by Bob Feineigle and released Beg To Differ the following year. After Feineigle left the company, Frankie guided Prong through four further Epic albums including Cleansing (1994) which included some of the band’s best–remembered songs like “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck.” Since 1996, Tommy Victor has revived Prong periodically with various personnel: At this writing, the band is gearing up for its umpteenth US tour, co–billed with Fear Factory. After FLR’s death, Tommy offered this remembrance:

My band Prong was under Frankie’s direction for pretty much all our Epic Records releases. He was executive producer of Prove You Wrong (1991), Cleansing (1994), and Rude Awakening (1996). He was also very involved in designing and compiling the remix album Whose Fist Is This Anyway (1992). Frankie LaRocka was not only a major contributor to my art and career with Prong but also godfather to my only child, Victoria. If anyone could ever assume the role as “Godfather,” it was Frankie—he looked the part, as well!

Working with Prong at Epic Records, Frankie went beyond his job and got involved with our lives. He was paternal, truly caring, at times showing tough love. When I remember the times he bitched me out, I realize now how often he was correct and simply spreading his knowledge.

In the studio, behind his desk, at dinner, or on the phone, Frankie was the funniest motherfucker ever. I remember a discussion about the pre-production budget for our Rude Awakening record in which I kept pushing for A-DAT machines, digital eight-tracks and the like.

Frankie pulled out a $50 bill. “Here,” he said. “Go over to The Wiz [electronics store], buy one of those little Dicta­phone things, put in the rehearsal room, and leave it on.” Meaning: “Fuck all that tech shit, get busy with the songs!”Tommy Victor [Prong]

BLITZSPEER

Blitzspeer emerged from more or less the same East Village metal/hardcore scene as Prong. The personnel were Scott Lano (lead guitar, vocals), Phil Caivano (lead vocals, guitar), Curt Fleck (bass), and Louie Gasparro (drums). Blitzspeer were what the Brits would call a “second division” band, never destined for the big time but enjoyably gritty and high–spirited.

Frankie recorded Blitzspeer live on July 22, 1989 at NYC club Limelight (now an upscale mini-mall) and Epic released a seven–song EP of originals (“Road Machine,” “City Boy”) plus a prosaic cover of the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams.” A glossier full–length album, Blitzspeer Saves, fol­lowed in 1991 but went nowhere and the band split up. Phil Caivano began driving a cab and picked me up one night on Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center. (He later moved to Los Angeles, joined Monster Magnet in 1998, and also did production work with Electric Frankenstein and other bands.)

HENRY LEE SUMMER

An AllMusic.com review of his 1989 album I’ve Got Everything describes Henry Lee Summer as “a completely undistinguished heartland rocker most notable for sporting a mullet that could blanket a grain silo.” But after amassing respectable indie–label sales in his home state of Indiana, the singer was signed to Epic in 1987 by Richard Griffiths, who may have hoped to replicate Mercury/Polygram’s success with another Hoosier rocker, John Mellencamp.

Summer was no Mellencamp, as it turned out, and in 1993 Griffiths handed Frankie LaRocka and Peter Denenberg the thankless task of producing Henry Lee’s fourth and final Epic album, Slamdunk. This stillborn effort only served to heighten Frankie’s disenchantment with Epic and the tensions between himself and Richard Griffiths.

In addition to Spin Doctors and Prong, a 1/11/1994 internal memo from Frankie to his boss lists the following Epic acts un­der FLR’s direction: Joe Satriani, Eve’s Plum (with singer Colleen Fitzpatrick, who later scored as pop/dance solo act Vitamin C), the ahead–of–its–time hip–hop band SSL a/k/a Smokin’ Suckas Wit’ Logic, and the scarcely remembered Watershed, who released an EP and an album entitled Twister. Also in the works was a Mick Ronson tribute disc — best known for his work with David Bowie‘s Spiders From Mars and Bob Dylan‘s Rolling Thunder Revue, the guitarist had died of liver cancer on 4/29/1993. (Mick and FLR had been friends since the time of David Johansen’s second album, In Style, which Ronson produced.) Not much happened with any of these acts, and today only Satriani still has an active career.

LEAVING EPIC

FLR offers Gloria Estefan a choice: Either she can autograph this poster or record a duet with Prong.

When Sony Music declined to renew his employment contract in the summer of 1995, Frankie could not easily forgive or forget. His standing within the company may have declined but nonetheless it was a prestigious and well-paid gig that he hadn’t wanted to lose. Having shown prescient enthusiasm for a host of new bands, he’d been dismayed and disappointed when not allowed to act on his instincts. In October 1995, FLR vented his feelings in a two–page, single–spaced letter to Richard Griffiths in protest of his perceived maltreatment, with copies to Epic President Dave Glew and Sony Music Executive VP Michelle Anthony:

“…I feel your actions toward me were unfair, misleading, and without just cause. I truly believe that my termination had nothing to do with my performance or my professional abilities…”

“I do not go after the flavor of the week. But I do have a long history in this business and my background as a musician has proven invaluable to me throughout the years. I share a special rapport with the Spin Doctors and Prong as these bands have great difficulty trusting big cor­porations and yet they have all yielded to me on creative decisions and permitted me to guide them. These musicians are aware that I’ve already been through exactly what they are enduring – I’ve performed, I’ve toured, I’ve lived on the road, and I’ve gone through the personal and professional upheavals that are unavoidable.”

Frankie cited a number of then-sought-after acts for which he’d raised his hand early – all of which, he claims, were rejected by his department head:

“I presented Spacehog to you before the band had a final line-up and a management company behind them. Within weeks, Seymour Stein had signed them [to Elektra]…I mentioned Our Lady Peace eight months before our International department circulated this record [OLP was picked up by the other Sony label, Columbia]…I tried to get you excited about Pavement ten months before they signed directly to Warner Brothers [actually Capitol]…”

But Richard Griffiths had moved on: He wasn’t about to reconsider his decision or ask the Sony higher–ups to offer Frankie an improved severance package. In a brief reply dated 10/16/1995, Griffiths wrote that although he’d “always been fond of you personally…there were numerous times when we agreed but there seemed to be more and more when we didn’t. I hope life is treating you well, and that there are some good opportunities for you out there.”

Among Frankie’s papers is a copy of an undated one-page letter in which he discusses his vision of what it means to be a creative A&R person. The letter isn’t signed, so we can’t be sure he sent it; and there’s no salutation, so we don’t know to whom it was addressed. But this paragraph seems to sum up FLR’s philosophy of A&R and his personal sense of mission within the music business:

“We need to be in every nook and cranny, basement, rehearsal and recording studio seeking out new talent. And we need to engage the tentacles of of local radio, retail, clubs, booking agents and local rags in our search. Focus and diversity are the keys to working and breaking new bands. I’m really disturbed by the trend in the music business [toward] more corporate influence and the emphasis on profits at the expense of creativity and building careers. It’s about the passion for the music, not the level of arrogance.” [My emphasis — A.S.]

A&R (3) MERCURY RECORDS / STRAIGHT LINE & SAVOY ENTERTAINMENT

Frankie & Nina hit the floor at my wedding, 8/26/1995. (Photo by Teri Bloom)

This is where things get murky, even to those of us who stayed in close communication with Frankie LaRocka after his departure from Epic/Sony. Between 1996-1998, label head Danny Goldberg employed FLR at Mercury Records on a consultant basis rather than as a full-time employee. But a later résumé lists only one act, Outhouse, for Frankie’s stint with Mercury and it appears that no recordings by this group were ever released. In a Billboard photo dated 7/5/1997, Frankie is identified as a “Mercury A&R exec” but an A&R colleague at the label, Steve Greenberg, couldn’t recall any acts he may have worked with in this period. (However, Steve vividly remembers FLR once describing his philosophy of A&R: “I’m ziggin’ while everyone else is zaggin’.”)

A Billboard written by Carrie Bell and dated 9/4/1999 announces the 9/31/99 release of the debut album Sun by Portland, Oregon–based band Lisa Hayes & the Violets on Straight Line Records, a new label described as “part of Denon Active Media’s Savoy Entertainment Group (SEG)” with North American distribution by Atlantic Records.

Straight Line/SEG pacts with Atlantic Records for distribution. L. to R. Dick Meixner (SEG), Atlantic chairman Ahmet Ertegun, unidentified Denon Japan exec, FLR.

Straight Line, Bell reports, “is run by a team of veteran producers/performers/A&R executives including President Ed Roynesdal, Senior VP of A&R Frankie LaRocka, and VP of A&R Stan Lynch, who was a founding member of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers…” Frankie was the key man in hooking up distribution for Straight Line through Atlantic Records, where Ahmet Ertegun was still an FLR fan.

(In addition to releasing contemporary rock/pop music through Straight Line, SEG controlled the vener­able Savoy jazz catalog and reissued classic recordings by Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Scott, and Errol Garner among others. In the 44th annual Grammy Awards, SEG’s Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings 1944-1948 was nominated for Best Historical Album and Best Boxed Recording Pack­age. But other than his position with an SEG–affiliated label, Frankie had no connection to this or any other Savoy jazz reissue and was not cited in the Grammy nominations.)

Straight Line/SEG was under-capitalized from the start. In terms of promotion, airplay, and marketing, the struggling company couldn’t achieve liftoff to a point where Atlantic would sit up, take notice, and begin to flex its corporate muscle. Lisa Hayes’ Sun quickly set, and the same fate befell another of Frankie’s releases, Silver Zone by the Stones/Faces–sounding band Glimmer. By 2002, Straight Line/SEG was in disarray. In early 2003, Frankie LaRocka made his last stand in the music business, alone.

A&R (4) STRAIGHT LINE PRODUCTIONS

Frankie founded Straight Line Productions with the goal of discovering new talent that he would either sign directly to a label or record himself and then license in various territories. He applied all of his abil­ity, experience, and dwindling physical energy to this effort, but with scant results.

FLR business card for WWI Productions: "Weasels With Integrity."

Straight Line projects included an album by ex-David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick entitled Zig Zag, with guest appearances by Bowie, the Cure’s Robert Smith, and Joe Elliot of Def Leppard; it was released through Sanctuary Music in 2003 with minimal impact. Frankie appears to have signed a Canadian band called Finger 11 to Wind-Up Records: A Straight Line press release from 2004 took credit for the deal and stated that one of Finger 11’s albums had gone gold. But I’ve been unable to substantiate these claims — that gold certification may have been for Canada only — or otherwise determine the extent of FLR’s in­volvement with the band.

Frankie had never given up the drums and had ample practice space in the Walbrooke Avenue house that he owned and occupied to the end of his life. In the early Nineties, he played some sporadic gigs (mostly in Europe) with bassist Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. A 1995 show in Prague, with Ivan Kral and Anthony Krizan on guitars, was released in 2002 as Live from Bunk R – Prague by Noel Redding & Friends. But any real friends (or fans) of the participants should steer clear of this set of Hendrix and classic rock cover versions. (Noel Redding died May 11, 2003 at age 58. Among Frankie’s papers, I found and saved  several handwritten postcards that Noel mailed to FLR from his home in County Cork, Ireland.)

Noel Redding, FLR, and Anthony Krizan. (1993)

In 2004, with his health in decline and fighting to maintain a foothold in the music industry, Frankie found a Springfield, Missouri band called happyendings and got them signed to Clive Davis’ J Records. The back story behind this unexpected and heartening victory included perhaps the most gruel­ing airline trip of FLR’s life – a hair–raising tale of snowstorms, cancellations, and an eight–hour layover in the Cleveland airport – but he got the deal done. happyendings recorded in Los Angeles with überproducer Bob Rock (Mötley Crüe, Metallica) but I can’t ascertain if the album was released or shelved.

Up until a few weeks before his death, Frankie LaRocka was gigging and recording with Hot Monkey Love, a blues–rock quartet of veteran Staten Island players including Jack O’Neill (lead vocals), Jordan Lee (bass), and Bob Delross (guitar). His final recordings appear on HML’s self–released CD Primate Blues.

GOODBYE

Mass card with lyrics from "Angel" by Jimi Hendrix.

“I think when I was young, I would just go with the flow and say, ‘Wow, man, I’m playing drums behind this one and that one,’ but now I think of it as more of a business. But also, I feel lucky to be making a living out of something that I really appreciate and really love. How many people do you know that say, ‘I’m really happy at my gig?’ I feel honored and content that I stuck with it. I honestly love what I do.” – (FLR, quoted in the Staten Island Advance, 5/13/2005)

I last saw Frankie at Columbia–Presbyterian Hospital in Upper Manhattan on 5/4/2005. Only a day or two from heart surgery, he was anxious and upset, and I did whatever I could think of to put him at ease.

I had my iPod with me and slipped the headphones on him to play “Don’t Give Up On Me,” the title track from soul singer Solomon Burke’s superb 2002 comeback album. Frankie had never heard the tune before but he dug it immediately. As he listened intently, nodding his head with the tempo, he said: “This is great, man. We should do this song with Hot Monkey Love—Jack could sing the hell out of this!”

There he was: Lying in a hospital bed, IV stuck in his arm, preparing for a risky medical procedure–and yet still looking forward to the next rehearsal, the next gig, the next good thing that life had to offer.

For as long as I live, I’ll never forget that moment.

And I’ll never ever forget Frankie LaRocka.

Continue reading →

Jack Rose

Fare Forward, Voyager: RIP Jack Rose

Whatever it is we call “our culture” has suffered a notable loss with the sad and sudden departure  of Jack Rose, the “American primitive” guitarist and composer who died 12/5/2009 at at the much too early age of 38 in Philadelphia.

I was privileged to have seen Jack perform on two occasions, both times in the company of my good friend Josh Rosenthal: on 3/11/2004 at a concert at Washington Square Church in NYC (Matt Valentine also played) and at an artists’ loft show in Philly perhaps a year or two later (with Harris Newman on the bill].

I spoke briefly with Jack after these gigs, but Josh got to know him much better over time and offers his personal tribute to Jack on the Tompkins Square site. Friends and fans at ARTHUR Magazine have posted two MP3s and multiple video clips here.

Jack Rose will be interred at Merion Memorial Park in Philadelphia — also the final resting place of country-blues legend Nehemiah “Skip” James (1902-1969), who just had to be one of Jack’s musical heroes and inspirations.

From the New York Times (12.9.2009):

JACK ROSE, VERSATILE MASTER OF THE GUITAR, IS DEAD AT 38

By Peter Keepnews

Jack Rose, whose complex improvisations on 6-string, 12-string and lap steel guitar earned him a devoted cult following, died Saturday in Philadelphia. He was 38.

His death, apparently of a heart attack, was announced by Three Lobed Recordings, which released Mr. Rose’s album The Black Dirt Sessions this year.

Mr. Rose began his career in the early 1990s with Pelt, a rock band whose sound was loud and cacophonous and whose repertory consisted largely of long, dronelike improvisations. But he was best known for his solo acoustic work, which was quieter, more delicate and informed by the aesthetic of an earlier era.

In a 2007 interview that appeared on the Web site Foxy Digitalis (digitalisindustries.com/foxyd), Mr. Rose said much of his inspiration came from music of the pre-World War II era — “anything that’s pre-1942: Cajun, country, blues, jazz, all that stuff.” But, he added, he was also influenced by Minimalist composers like Terry Riley and La Monte Young.

In using the finger-picking techniques of an earlier time to create ethereal improvisations that belonged to no particular style or era, Mr. Rose also acknowledged his debt to John Fahey and other experimental guitarists who came to prominence in the 1960s.

Mr. Rose released close to a dozen albums on various labels, many of them in limited pressings. He had recently signed with the prominent independent rock label Thrill Jockey.

Survivors include his wife, Laurie.

Portrait of Albert C. Barnes by Giorgia de Chirico

Dr. Albert C. Barnes by Giorgio de Chirico (1926)

On Thursday 11/26/09, Leslie and I along with my parents, Howard & Phyllis Schwartz, drove down to Philadelphia for the Thanksgiving weekend. We’d made a reservation for 12 noon Saturday to tour The Barnes Foundation in the Main Line suburb of Merion, PA. My folks had visited this unique museum many years before but Leslie and I were seeing it for the first time.

I’m neither an artist nor an art critic, and my museum-going résumé doesn’t include visits to the Louvre in Paris, the Museo del Prado in Madrid, or the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, to name a few notable omissions. But in the span of my own experience, the Barnes was a unique and utterly distinctive way to experience art, specifically the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

And there’s a hell of a lot of it to look at: In the 40-plus years before his death in a 1951 car accident Dr. Albert C. Barnes (born 1/2/1872 in Philadelphia to a poor working-class family) amassed the greatest private art collection in North America. In the 2003 edition of his book Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over the Barnes Collection, investigative journalist John Anderson wrote that the collection “is valued at more than $6 billion [This is not a typo — A.S.] … including some 69 Cezannes (more than in all the museums in Paris), 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, 18 Rousseaus, 14 Modiglianis, and no fewer than 180 Renoirs…”

Barnes made a fortune circa 1900 with a silver nitrate-based antiseptic called Argyrol, which was widely administered to infants in eyedrop form; he began collecting art around 1910, and is alleged to have paid $100 for his first painting by Picasso. In 1925, construction of  the building that houses the Barnes Foundation galleries (as well as the founder’s private residence) was completed on a 12-acre estate in Merion, PA; four years later, Dr. Barnes sold his company and devoted the rest of his life to collecting and to the Foundation. In his will, the childless Barnes dedicated the bulk of his fortune to the perpetuation of the Foundation along with a long list of explicit, ironclad instructions. Foremost among these was that none of the works would ever be sold or incorporated in touring exhibitions; that admission to the grounds would be strictly limited (it was by invitation only during Barnes’ lifetime); and that the collection would be displayed, in perpetuity, exactly as the good doctor himself had placed the paintings, furniture, light fixtures, etc. within the galleries.

Barnes’ eccentric and very personal arrangements of his works have the effect of turning Great Art into something more intimate and human, less entombed and intimidating in their Overwhelming Greatness. Compared to, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his displays are very crowded (see photo at right); the paintings are not organized chronologically and there are no title plaques on the walls (viewers use laminated identification sheets instead). Barnes’ singular and stoutly-defended interpretation of what he considered the key elements in any

A Gallery at the Barnes Foundation

A Gallery at the Barnes Foundation

given work of art led him to add metal wall-hangings, inspired by/akin to certain lines and shapes within the paintings; and to place antique chairs, chests, and candelabra beneath certain canvases. These objects bear what I’d call a quasi-mystical relationship to the paintings, except that for Albert Barnes there was nothing “mystical” about it. Speaking to students, scholars, and artists, he would explain — in concise and almost clinical terms, very different from the language of art criticism then or now — the specific visual ways in which these objects, their lines and planes, related to and mirrored each other. (Excerpts from Barnes’ monologues are preserved on the present-day audio tour of the collection.)

THE FACTORY by Vincent Van Gogh (1887)

THE FACTORY by Vincent Van Gogh (1887)

Some of my own favorite works on display at the Barnes included Van Gogh‘s The Factory and one of his seven portraits of The Postman Joseph Roulin; Cezanne‘s epic Card Players (1890-92); Renoir‘s large-scale painting of his family including his infant son, the future film director Jean Renoir; and various works by Modigliani including Young Redhead In An Evening Dress (1918) and Portrait of Leopold Zborowski (1919). The Barnes collection also includes several cabinets filled with African sculptures and masks; and a set of Native American blankets from the Southwest, unusually large pieces that are gorgeously woven and in impeccable condition.

I consider myself very fortunate to have seen the Barnes collection as Albert Barnes intended it to be seen, because that opportunity soon will be lost to future generations. This 12/7/09 article on the Web site of the Los Angeles Times reports that on January 2, 2010, five second-floor galleries will be closed and turned into a conservation suite so that their contents may be dismantled and prepared for eventual transportation to the Foundation’s controversial new $150-million building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in central Philadelphia, now under construction and slated for completion in 2012.

The reasons why and how this turn of events has come to pass are far too complex to discuss here;  interested readers should turn, for starters, to John Watson’s Art Held Hostage. In his remarks at the 11/13/09 groundbreaking ceremony for the new museum, Barnes Foundation chairman Bernard Watson said:

“The final decade of the 20th century had seen the foundation incurring annual deficits and depleted financial resources, resulting, in large part, from an endless series of expensive and acrimonious lawsuits, going back as early as the 1950s. The foundation’s ability to prosper, or indeed survive, in its Merion location was exacerbated by local regulations limiting visitation to the galleries…Philanthropists and foundations were simply not giving money to an organization that had a legacy of expensive and distracting litigation, no credible business plan, or a governance structure that would make implementation of such a plan possible. None of the people who continue to raise their voices in angry objection to moving the collection to the Parkway reached into their pockets to support us in any meaningful way in Merion.”

Young Redhead In An Evening Dress by Amedeo Modigliani (1918)

YOUNG REDHEAD IN AN EVENING DRESS by Amedeo Modigliani (1918)

In his L.A. Times post, on the other hand, Christopher Knight noted:

“Most every art and cultural critic who has written on the subject has opposed the plan, which will shutter the astounding Post-Impressionist and early Modern art collection in suburban Merion, dismantle what ranks as the greatest American cultural monument of the first half of the 20th century and relocate the art five short miles to a hoped-for tourist venue downtown.”

Finally, my good friend Jay Schwartz, lifelong Philadelphia resident and dedicated preservationist of the city’s cultural and architectural treasures, wrote me in an 11/30/09 email:

“I do NOT think it makes more sense for the collection to be in Center City. The decision calls into question the validity of all wills. I do not think it was effectively demonstrated that there was no other good option. One…would have been to sell off some paintings to get [the Foundation] back on [its] feet. While this [sale] is also forbidden by the will, I think Dr. Barnes would have preferred this option.

“I also think the current location is perfect, beautiful, and NOT so difficult to find or get to. The collection is more accessible than ever before, and that if someone cannot make the small effort that you just made (‘small’ once you are in Philadelphia, that is), they probably don’t need to see it.

“Of course, another solution would be for the various parties that saw the opportunity to hijack the collection to have donated a tiny fraction of what the move will cost [in order] to keep things as they were — that would have fixed everything. They had no interest in that, though, only in doing things their way and to benefit what they wanted to benefit.

“While I have not read [John Anderson’s] book, I feel I am familiar enough with the events to make these judgement calls. It was a freakish chain of events that made all of this happen, and there were no good guys in the ugly story, except for the hapless Friends of the Barnes (former students), whom the last judge decided had no legal standing.”

Barnes2-B.Krist_U

Jerry Wexler died August 14, 2008 at his home in Sarasota, Florida, age 91. This was the site of my only in-person encounter with the fabled Atlantic Records executive and producer, in January 2001, when Leslie and I had dinner with Jerry and his wife Jean Arnold. But as he did with so many others, Wex and I sustained a long-distance relationship by phone and fax, UPS and USPS. (In 2005, I was surprised and honored to receive a gift of the Ray Charles box set, Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings 1952-1959, from the guy who produced nearly every track on its seven CDs.) In my case, these communications continued until about nine months before his death, after Jean suffered a stroke and Jerry went into terminal decline. It wasn’t dark yet, but it was getting there.

Godfather of Soul (the Jewish one)

Godfather of Soul (the Jewish one)

On Friday, October 30, 2009 at the Directors Guild Theater on West 57th Street in Manhattan, Jerry Wexler finally got the send-off he deserved. I’m not sure why it took over a year to happen, but the memorial was timed to coincide with two all-star Madison Square Garden concerts benefiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (JW was inducted in 1987 in the Non-Performer category). There may have been some overlap in attendance between the two events, but with the notable exception of Bonnie Raitt, none of the featured MSG performers showed up to honor Wex — including Aretha Franklin and Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, the two whose careers were most closely entwined with his own.

Sam’s wife Joyce Moore appeared and explained that Sam was exhausted from his on-stage exertions of the previous night but sent his love and respect nonetheless. Aretha didn’t even send a message to be read in her absence — pretty cold, if you ask me, since it was Jerry Wexler who transformed ‘Re into the Queen of Soul through his production, his song selection, his choice of studio musicians and arrangers, and his relentless promotional campaigning.

Jerry and Aretha in the studio, late Sixties

Jerry and Aretha in the studio, late Sixties

The proceedings began with welcoming remarks from Jerry’s surviving children, Paul Wexler and Lisa Wexler; Paul acknowledged that “most of what I am today, I owe to my father…I wouldn’t change a lick, not even a note.” (Their older sister Anita, Jerry’s third child with his first wife Shirley, died in 1989 of AIDS-related illness before the age of 40.) We watched a pair of stunning video clips, culled from a PBS-type live-in-studio telecast circa 1972, in which the original Meters backed up first Professor Longhair and then Mac Rebbenack a/k/a Dr. John, with Allen Toussaint sitting in on piano. (‘Fess recorded brilliantly for Atlantic in 1949 and again in ’53; and despite his contentious relationship with Wexler, Rebbenack reached a career commercial peak during his Atlantic years, 1971-1974.)

The next video segment was no less compelling: Aretha Franklin performing in an unidentified church (possibly New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in L.A., the site of her live recording Amazing Grace in January 1972), accompanied by a band and choir led, I think, by James Cleveland (also not identified). As the camera panned over the ecstatic congregation, we could see a slim long-haired white man rise from a rear seat, clapping in time: Mick Jagger.

“Peace in the Valley,” beautifully sung a capella by Vaneese Thomas, was the first live performance of the event. JW was a friend and admirer of her late father Rufus Thomas (1917-2001), and the 1960 Rufus & Carla Thomas duet “‘Cause I Love You” marked the start of the Stax/Atlantic partnership. Jerry then appeared in an undated interview to offer up a few well-polished anecdotes from his early years at Atlantic. At under five minutes, this segment was too brief: I would’ve liked to hear more from the man himself.

A succession of speakers offered their tributes. Jazz critic and Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins compared Wex to Bob Dylan in his “genius for absorbing everything in American music and giving back in a new way.” Giddins noted that at their first meeting, JW only wanted to talk about Adrian Rollini (a gifted if little-remembered white jazz player of the Twenties and Thirties) and that there was barely a song in Bing Crosby’s vast discography that Jerry could not sing from memory. In passing, Gary remarked that Nesuhi Ertegun, the younger brother of JW’s partner Ahmet Ertegun, “was referred to by jazz musicians as ‘the good Ertegun.'” Even if true, it was a cheap shot we could have done without, particularly since Ahmet’s widow Mica Ertegun was in the audience.

I’m a faithful listener to Bob Porter on “Saturday Morning Function” (WBGO-Newark NJ) while other readers may recognize his name from the production credits of numerous Prestige soul-jazz albums and assorted Atlantic reissues. Porter noted that it was Wexler who brought in some of the best R&B musicians of the period, people like [saxophonist] Sam “The Man” Taylor and [guitarist] Mickey Baker to form the first Atlantic studio band; who recruited the arranger Ray Ellis and who, in 1955, signed Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller to the industry’s first formal independent production deal. “Make no mistake about it,” declared Porter, “it was Jerry Wexler and no other who was most responsible for bringing soul music to America.” (Full text of Bob’s remarks is posted here.)

Paul Wexler read a message from guitarist Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MGs, and we watched a video tribute from West Coast music executive Jerry Greenberg, who began his 18-year Atlantic career in 1967 as Wexler’s gofer. Greenberg likened this formative period to boot camp in the Marine Corps, with JW as DI: “Either you made it through or they found your body in a swamp somewhere, six months later.” When Greenberg moved up the Atlantic ladder, another eager A&R aspirant, Mark Meyerson, arrived in 1969 to take his place. Meyerson remembered Wexler delineating the difference between the 12-bar and 16-bar blues for him on the piano, and summed up his ex-boss’s professional credo as “if you were awake, then you were working.”

The author David Ritz met Wexler while co-writing Ray Charles’ autobiography Brother Ray in the mid-Eighties. He later co-authored Jerry’s own memoir, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life In American Music (published 1993), and the two men remained fast friends until the end. Ritz conveyed deep feelings of both love and loss as he hailed “a ferocious wit, a a super-funky storyteller.” (David’s speech is posted on YouTube — click here.) Engineer/producer Jimmy Douglass talked rather more about his own career than the occasion warranted: Forty years on, it seemed he still held a grudge towards Jerry for initially offering eager young Jimmy a job in the Atlantic warehouse instead of in the Atlantic studio (“I hated that job”). Eventually, Douglass made it to the control room and worked with acts ranging from Slave and Stanley Turrentine to Foreigner and the Gang of Four.

The last word, on a more appreciative note, came from Zelma Redding, Otis’ widow, who fondly remembered the man who delivered the eulogy at her husband’s funeral in December 1967. Of this heartbreaking moment in Macon, GA, JW later wrote: “I could barely compose myself. My voice cracked, my eyes filled with tears.” Four years later, he would return to Macon to deliver another eulogy, this time for guitarist Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band.

And now it was showtime.

Guitarist Jon Tiven led the backing band onstage, including bassist Jerry Jemmott (a veteran of countless JW-produced sessions), drummer Anton Fig, organist Mike Finnigan, and the members of  The Uptown Horns. First up was New Orleans’ own Allen Toussaint — Wexler produced his 1978 album Motion — who played piano and sang on the winsome ballad “With You In Mind.”

Big Sister: "Are You Lonely For Me Baby?" (w/Lenny Kaye)

Big Sister: "Are You Lonely For Me Baby?" (w/Lenny Kaye)

For nearly 20 years, Lisa Wexler has played drums for (and booked, and managed) the Woodstock-based all-female band Big Sister. This group was an unknown quantity to me but their two songs were excellent. Lisa and bassist Desiree Williams locked into a push-and-pull rhythmic groove behind singer/guitarist Lara Parks on the Big Sister original “Talk Down to Me” and a stirring cover of Freddie Scott‘s 1967 soul classic “Are You Lonely For Me Baby,” with Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group adding a third guitar to the churn. William Bell, a class act still in warmly expressive voice after 50 years on stage, sang “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (his Stax debut single, from ’61) joined by original Muscle Shoals sessioneers Spooner Oldham (piano) and Jimmy Johnson (guitar) along with master drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie.

More surprising was the appearance of actress Ronee Blakeley (Nashville, A Nightmare On Elm Street) — Wexler produced her 1975 album Welcome in Muscle Shoals — in a heartfelt if vocally uncertain duet with Lenny Kaye on “I Can’t Make It Alone.”  This Gerry Goffin/Carole King song is the closing track on the original LP version of Dusty in Memphis by Dusty Springfield (1969), which stands as JW’s greatest production for any white artist.

If I was surprised to see Ronee Blakeley, I was frankly amazed to see Joe South make his unsteady way to center stage — all the way from Atlanta GA with his big Gretsch hollow-body guitar in hand, maybe the same one he played on Aretha Arrives and Blonde On Blonde. To the best of my recollection, the creator of “Games People Play,” “Hush,” and “Down In the Boondocks” had not appeared in NYC since 1994, when

Joe South: "Walk A Mile In My Shoes" with B. Purdie (drums), J. Jemmott (bass), J. Tiven (guitar). Photo by Phillip Rauls

Joe South: "Walk A Mile In My Shoes" with Anton Fig (drums), Jerry. Jemmott (bass), Jon Tiven (guitar). Photo by Phillip Rauls

he’d joined Pete Seeger, Roger McGuinn, and the late great Ted Hawkins for one of those singer/songwriter in-the-round shows at The Bottom Line. Overweight, unkempt, and moving slow (possibly due to diabetes, which can cause loss of feeling in the extremities), Joe nonetheless hit all his marks on “Walk A Mile In My Shoes.” He sounded just like Joe South (i.e. great) and Jerry Jemmott played his butt off on the tune.

Another old Muscle Shoals hand, Donnie Fritts, sang and played piano on “We Had It All” — a favorite of Wexler’s from Donnie’s 1974 Atlantic album Prone To Lean. Lou Ann Barton ably represented the Austin music community with her rendition of Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining,” a song from her JW-produced album Old Enough (1982); she looked and sounded terrific.

In 1963, at age seventeen, Bettye LaVette scored her only Top Ten R&B hit with the Atlantic single “My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man.” Bettye told us that a year later, when she announced to a nonplussed Jerry Wexler that she was leaving the label, “he took out his personal checkbook and wrote me a check for $500. ‘Bettye,’ he said, ‘if you’re really leaving, you’re gonna need this’ — and he was right!” The Detroit soul survivor then offered a deep-blue “Drown In My Own Tears” — a #1 R&B hit for Ray Charles in 1956 and one of Wex’s all-time classics. Bettye LaVette can really bring the pain like few other singers working today.

Bettye was a tough act to follow but the blue-eyed soul brother Steve Bassett proved up to the task with his rousing closer (closing rouser?) of “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Signed by Wex’s dear friend John Hammond (1910-1987) in 1980, Steve made his lone Columbia album in Muscle Shoals with co-producers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett. It didn’t sell beans, but gradually Bassett built up a solid career as an in-demand jingle and session singer, later self-releasing a slew of his own CDs from home base in Richmond, VA. Steve’s unpretentious, joyful delivery of the Big Joe Turner flag-waver sent us out onto West 57th Street on an uplifting cloud of good feeling, grateful to have been part of the occasion.

Inscribed title page from my copy of JW's autobiography

Title page inscribed "To Andy, truly one of us" from my copy of JW's autobiography

In attendance: Danny Fields, Aaron Fuchs (Tuff City Records, wearing a vintage Cash Box Magazine satin baseball jacket), A&R man/producer Mitch Miller (99 years young on July 4, 2010), music producer/filmmaker Leo Sacks, Paul Shaffer, Seymour Stein (Sire Records), Jeremy Tepper (Sirius/XM), attorney Judy Tint (Rhythm & Blues Foundation), photographer Dick Waterman, Harry Weinger (Motown/Universal); Atlantic veterans Jim Delehant, Barbara Harris, and Phillip Rauls; scribes Jim Bessman, Stanley Booth, Kandia Crazy Horse, Deborah Frost, and Holly George-Warren; and musicians Ben E. King, Bonnie RaittG.E. Smith, and Peter Wolf (J. Geils Band).

JW postcard with thanks for a Ravens CD: "Clearly, you know."

JW postcard with thanks for a Ravens CD: "Clearly, you know."

Dickinson, Down Home On The Zebra Ranch (2008)

Down Home On The Zebra Ranch - Hernando, Mississippi (2008)

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?”

JLD at leisure in '65 [The Hound asks: "Is this a Wm. Eggleston photo?']

JLD at leisure in '65.

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.”

Last Words

"Gonna need headphones, folks get LOUD up there!"

Never To Be Forgotten!

“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

”]”Les Paul and Namesake [Photo: Jim Cooper]In 2002, I interviewed the great American musician, inventor, and raconteur Les Paul on the subject of his good friend and fellow guitar wizard Charlie Christian. By that time, Christian had been dead for 60 years but Les seemed to recall their every significant encounter, beginning with a Bob Wills gig at a Tulsa, Oklahoma ballroom. This interview was included in the booklet that accompanied the Sony Legacy box set Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar.

-> Les Paul on “My Friend Charlie Christian” as told to Andy Schwartz here.

-> New York Times obit by Jon Pareles here.

-> Les Paul Trio plays “Dark Eyes” on YouTube.

-> Les stars in a Coors beer commercial on YouTube [thanks to Al Masocco for this one]Arthur Levy writes: “I watched the CBS Evening News to see how they would handle LP’s passing…They name-checked and photo-checked a slew of guitarists who, they said, played the great Les Paul guitar — Paul McCartney, B.B. King, Keith Richards, Joe Walsh, Steve Miller, several others — and not one photo showed any of them playing a Gibson Les Paul, not one! There were Stratocasters, Telecasters, a Gibson 335 or two, even a Gretsch in there — but not a single Les Paul.”