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By Little Walter
Three cheers for Arista records! ! !
A few years back, Arista bought the rights to the Savoy Records archives. "Savoy" began as a small hillbilly/polka record company headed by Herman Lubinsky in about 1939, but by 1942 they had transformed into a rhythm & blues and jazz dicery, and by 1944 began dabbling in gospel and spiritual music.
All of these various types of music (including foreign language records) came out of one small building on 58 Market Street in Newark, New Jersey. When Arista bought the label, it was thought by most that they would reissue only gospel and jazz performances since Savoy had literally thousands of these masters. But if you check the old Billboard and Record World charts you would find that they had many Top Ten R&B chart items that have been almost totally unobtainable since their original releases.
For example, according to Billboard magazine, the Number One R&B instrumentalist of 1950 was the Johnny Otis Quintette, the Number One R&B vocal group in 1950 was The Robins (later known as The Coasters), the Number One R&B female vocalist was Little Esther & The Robins on the Savoy record label.
You would think a record as popular as this would be kept available to this day, but as early as 1954 it was almost impossible to find and has remained that way for 23 years, until this month when "good old" Arista reissued it along with 31 other sides from the Savoy vaults on a two-record lp package called The Roots Of Rock 'n' Roll. the way I see it, Arista put this set out knowing full well that it will never become a big seller, but that it well be greatly appreciated by a smaller number of people who will be indebted to Arista for releasing it.
It is in this way that the younger record listeners will become acquainted with some of the incredible music that exists in the files of some of these record companies and become buyers thereby supporting their reissues.
The most important thing to say is that Roots Of Rock 'n' Roll is a damn hood album! My favorites always have and always will be the material featuring Little Esther, Mel Walker, Bobby Nunn and The Robins, Lady Dee Williams, James Von Streeter and Peter Lewis among others.
Johnny once told me of the historic December 1, 1949, session with The Robins (who had just changed their name from The Bluebirds). At the time Johnny had a chicken fame and among the little children who "hung around" was a 13 -year-old girl named "Esther".
She had jumped in the wagon when Johnny and the troup went off to the recording session and The Robins sides were finished 20 minutes early. Ralph Bass (A&R-ing the session) asked Johnny if he had something he could get down in 20 minutes and Esther jumped all over Johnny to record her.
In the late 40's the big R&B thing was Dinah Washington and The Ravens, and Johnny knew how Esther idolized Dinah ("and had her flavor") and Nunn with The Robins sounding somewhat like Jimmy Ricks and The Ravens, so he had them rehearse a tune he had scratched out called "What's the Matter, Daddy?". By the time they had the first take down, the studio time was up, and Bass told them to leave. Johnny never gave the recording a second thought because he knew it was flawed in that Esther laughed during the take (this can be heard on the record when she says "I'm a lady").
Less than a month later Disc Jockey Bill Cook of WAAT in Newark put it on the air and the response was incredible. Less than two weeks after that the song was released (with an instrumental flip side) and hit the charts where it remained for five and a half months claiming almost every year-end R&B award from Billboard.
Another note about "Double Crossin' Blues": When Tina Turner did the Tonight show a few years back, Johnny Carson asked her what she used to sing as a child. She responded that there was a song but that she couldn't remember the name of it. Carson then asked her how it went and Tina began singing "Double Crossin' Blues", a capella, and the audience laughed at the risque lyrics.
While "Double Crossin' Blues" us undoubtedly my favorite, there are many more on the package that come close. The other "Esther things" rank as nothing short of classics, and hearing The Robins back in 1949 should be an education to those who were Coasters fans six of seven years later.
Of the collector's-type group things, there's Luther Bond and The Emeralds, The Ravens, and The Jive Bombers. Nappy Brown is represented by three, including his chart "Don't Be Angry" (another that hasn't been available in about 20 years); Varetta Dillard's "Mercy Mister Percy" from '53 and even a couple of Huey "Piano" Smith from 1953, predating "Rockin' Pneumonia" and "Don't You Just Know It" by four years. there's lots to be discovered in this set including a lot of Rockin' Instrumentals, the kind that Alan Freed used to play in the early days on WJW in Cleveland.
One last thing:
In the New England area, LITTLE WALTER'S TIME MACHINE can be heard Saturday nights all night long starting at Midnight on WBCN 104 FM, Boston.
Keep those cards and letters comin'.
Little Walter gets his mail c/o WBCN-FM, 5005 Prudential Towers, Boston, MA 02199 - ed.