This is the continuation of a previous post. If you wish to (re)read Part I, here's a link.
As I mentioned in my previous recollections of this 1961 recording trip, photographer Steve Schapiro and I stayed at the Croydon Hotel, a place where a who's who of visiting sidemen and touring "canaries" stayed during the big band era. Even back then, the hotel had been nothing to write home about, but its clientele lent it a special atmosphere, and that hadn't changed. Sidemen were still checking into the Croydon, as were the chorus lines and secondary stars of touring musicals. In their clean and functional, faceless rooms, they applied that little dab of Brylcreem (its days were numbered), splashed on something just slightly more acceptable than Old Spice, and breezed across a dreary lobby to a room full of promise: the lively Croydon Bar. Here they would unwind while mingling with each other and likeminded locals. All this gave the Croydon a special—dare I say, gay—character that kept away the samples-toting traveling salesman.
The tuxedoed house pianist was quite good and he had a long repertoire that belied his age. Call out the title of an obscure song and he soon filled the room with it, verse and all, and since there was never a dearth of good voices in the crowd, the entertainment was non-stop. Not all the performers were hotel residents, many dropped in from the outside to have fun, gossip, and entertain when the spirit moved them. One such person was Julie London, who came by every night during my stay and always found a most receptive audience. She was a fairly big celebrity in 1961, but she did not let that get in her way, nor did I see her decline an invitation to perform.
One night, having herself delivered a couple of sultry songs, Ms. London had a request of her own. “Somebody please get Henry up here,” she said, “and let’s hear some blues.”
Henry was the men’s room attendant. A somewhat shy man with a winning smile, he worked two jobs and clearly had a fan in Julie London. Emerging from the restroom, he was given an enthusiastic welcome such as is accorded celebrities upon making a grand entrance, but Henry seemed almost embarrassed as patrons stepped aside to create a path for him. This was obviously a repeat event, but—like a Louis Armstrong solo—heart gave it the feel of spontaneity. Ms. London turned her outstretched arms into a warm hug and made a pro forma request for a song. Giving the pianist a courtesy nod, Henry whipped out his harmonica, placed it to his lips, and did a solo version of Lonnie Johnson's Jelly Roll Baker. In an instant, his self-effacing bearing was gone and augmented cheers drowned out his first notes. It seemed that everybody knew Henry Benson, even beyond the men’s restroom.
Chicago being a town that toddled to the blues and was home to some of its finest exponents, I planned to devote an album to that idiom. Besides Little Brother Montgomery, I had contacted Mama Yancey and—through legendary producer Mayo Williams, who fortuitously popped up—Walter Vinson. Hearing Henry Benson gave me the idea of including him to represent the city's many totally obscure blues performers. Had I taken the time, I could certainly have come up with a more articulate blues person, but as I listen to the album decades later, I am not so sure that Henry wasn't a good choice. His timing was off, but he had a good voice and the right spirit. I don't think he believed me at first when I told him why I was in town and that I would like to record him singing a couple of blues. He had a regular job at a hospital and worried about losing a day's pay, but that turned out to be less than I had to offer him, so he agreed. I'm getting ahead of my story—more on the blues session later.
We had started the project with Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin on September 1, at the woefully unsuitable Masonic Temple. Four days later, I had found a better location, The Birdhouse, and we resumed recording with bands led by trombonist Al Wynn and clarinetist Franz Jackson, each doing one album. By the end of September 6, we also had Little Brother Montgomery's session in the can—at least I hoped so, but one could never be sure. Earl Hines and Lil Armstrong were scheduled for the following day. I had hoped to finish the first half of the Hines set by noon and complete the day with two separate Armstrong sets, each with different personnel. That would have worked if only the equipment and our two recordists had shown up, but the morning was spent waiting. I don't recall what excuse I was given, but I do remember being unhappy and stressed, to say the least. I must say that the performers were understanding far beyond what one might have expected.
Waiting for the Riverside bus. L to r: Harlen Floyd, Pops Foster,
Lil Armstrong, Darnell Howard, Booker Washington (standing),
Preston Jackson, Franz Jackson. The Birdhouse reserved a part
of the room for patrons under the drinking age, hence the ropes behind Lil.
The Birdhouse opened the bar, and that helped, as did the fact that our assembled performers—many of whom hadn't seen each other in years—now found time to socialize and catch up with each other. When the equipment was finally in place, so was the Earl Hines band, and we wasted no time. Since this was a working band, I thought we might breeze right through the album, as we had in New Orleans, but of course not—nine alternate takes were needed before eight selections could be put to bed. Even then, I couldn't be sure that Barrett Clark had captured every note—it was like playing a lottery. We decided to continue the Hines session the following day, because both of Lil's bands were there, patiently waiting their turn. Then, too, we had to get our stuff together and vacate the club by six, giving the staff and a piano tuner time to prepare for the evening's attraction, Oscar Peterson.
Left to right: Franz Jackson, Al Wynn, Leroi Nabors, Booker Washington,
Bill Martin, Pops Foster. Lil, Preston Jackson, Eddie Smith, Darnell Howard.
That's me seated in the upper left corner.
Given the situation and time limit, I decided to combine the two bands rather than proceed as planned. That's how Lil ended up with three trumpets (Eddie Smith, from Earl's band, Leroi Nabors, and Bill Martin), two clarinets (Darnell Howard and Franz Jackson), and two trombones (Al Wynn and Preston Jackson). I placed Martin in the center, flanked by the two original front lines, and—unable to use the arrangements Lil had thrown together—decided to have the horns do a back and forth ping-pong sort of thing. It was an unorthodox approach, but it kinda worked and brought to my mind an old Danish saying: "The naked lady soon learns how to spin." We spun.
We had a full schedule for Friday, September 8, our last day of recording. The day began with a band put together by Junie C. Cobb, a multi-instrumentalist who appeared on many collector's items and made some of his own.
The day continued with the second Earl Hines session, and ended with the blues set. Poor Henry, perhaps it was unfair of me to bring him into the mix. Not only had he never before recorded, this would also be the first time he had accompaniment. So, there he was, all dressed up for the occasion and surrounded by professionals, four of whom would back him up. Little Brother Montgomery and Pops Foster went out of their way to make Henry feel relaxed, but it must have been an overwhelming experience for him.
I have only my own very amateurish photos of that day's sessions, because Steve Schapiro had taken his camera into the streets of the South Side on the day before to get more cover shots. In doing so, he apparently aimed his lens at the wrong person, a man who obviously wasn't ready for his closeup. He ran over to Steve and snatched his camera, but little Steve was not going to let him get away with it, so he grappled with the man and managed to wrest it back. Someone yelled for the cops and send the culprit running. As I recall, the damage to Steve's camera was minimal, but he suffered a broken nose and caught the next flight back to New York. Considering what a disaster this trip had been, with great musicians recorded as were they whistling kettles, Steve's misadventure could have been in the script.
The second Hines session went fairly well, except that Earl wanted to sing a couple of numbers and, as I mentioned in the previous post, Barrett left his voice microphone open to catch a whole lot of grunting that I could not remove in edit.
Not having a photo of Estella Yancey from our session, here is one taken a year later and autographed for Elmer Snowden. The bassist is Wellman Braud. Mama Yancey was widow of the wonderful blues pianist, Jimmy Yancey, who had died ten years earlier. She was having a beer while we waited for the setup to be changed, and when I told her that Barrett wanted her to step up to the microphone so that he could get the balance (this was something new for us), Mrs. Yancey lifted her bottle and winked. "Honey," she said, "let Mama get her own balance first."
With Little Brother, Pops, Earl Watkins and guitarist Sam Hill accompanying her, a perfectly balanced Mama Yancey rendered four songs from a repertoire she and her late husband had honed well. Henry Benson was next, with only one change in personnel, guitarist Walter Vinson replacing Sam Hill. He stepped on Little Brother's solo, but did rather well, all things considered. After I returned to New York, I learned that Henry had been diagnosed with cancer and that he was not given much of a chance to survive it. The album's release was still several months away, so I asked Ray Fowler to cut the two Benson numbers onto a 45rpm acetate that could be played on a juke box. I made arrangements with the Croydon bartender to have the disc placed on the box, as a surprise for Henry. Not long thereafter, I received a letter notifying me of his death—the letter pointed out that he had heard himself sing on the bar's juke box and that it had cheered him up.
It had been a nightmare experience, but some good music came out of it and—for me, personally—so did lasting friendships. Unlike the harvest reaped in New Orleans earlier in the year, this crop was seriously damaged by poor engineering and the stress it engendered. I felt bad for the wonderful artists who should have been able to add to their legacies another memorable recording, but if they knew that the Riverside series had shortchanged them, they never let on. It wasn't their fault, it was ours, and I think they themselves took it more in stride than I did.
Remember Bill Nichols? He is the NBC television producer who came along to look over my shoulder. Well, he liked what he saw and heard, so a few of the artists were invited to New York the following year to perform in the Dupont Show of the Week, Chicago and All That Jazz. That was another experience, a good one for me, as well. That show has barely survived, and only in the form of a very poor black and white copy, which may be a Kinescope. I was present at some of the many rehearsals and the taping itself. This was early color tape and the technology was rather crude, but more about that and the show in a future post. Bill Nichols had impressive theater and TV credits and things seemed to be going very well for him, but he shocked many of us by committing suicide before the end of the decade.
The entire show can be found on YouTube—here are the first ten minutes: