Sun 30 Mar 2008
West Coast blues (California blues specifically) has never gotten anywhere near the attention of Chicago blues or say Delta blues, but has been home to many leading blues performers. While the West Coast still has a thriving blues scene the scene was in it's heyday in the 1940's and 50's with most of the activity centering around the Los Angeles, Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco Bay areas. There's not much of a prewar Californian blues tradition, which is likely due to the fact that the African-American communities weren't very large in the beginning of the 20th century. The Black population swelled in the 1940s, due to large manpower needs to work in the U.S. defense industry during World War II. These new arrivals needed entertainment, of course, and the local jazz and blues club scene heated up quickly. There was a host of labels recording blues and R&B in Los Angeles in the 1940s including Specialty, Imperial, Aladdin, and the umbrella of labels run by the Bihari brothers RPM/Modern/Kent/Flair/Crown were the most notable. Bob Geddins was a key player who operated numerous small labels like Down Town, Big Town, Irma, and others. May of these sides were leased to larger outfits like Chess, Specialty, Modern and others.
The towering figure of West Coast blues was Texas born guitarist T-Bone Walker. Walker was a key figure in the electrification and urbanization of the blues, probably doing more to popularize the use of electric guitar in the form than anyone else. Much of his material had a distinct jazzy jump blues feel, an influence that would characterize much of the blues to emerge from California in the 1940s and 1950s. Among those who were influenced by Walker were B.B. King, Gatemouth Brown, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and West Coast guitar hero Lafayette Thomas who we profiled last year. Add that list Louisiana born Pete "Guitar" Lewis, Oklahoma born Jimmy Nolen, Chuck Norris, Pee Wee Crayton, Ulysses James and Goree Carter.
Among T-Bone's legion of disciples was Houston's Goree Carter, whose big break came when he signed to Houston's Freedom Records circa 1949. For his gis first couple of side he was billed as "Little T-Bone." Freedom issued plenty of Carter records over the next few years, and he later recorded for Imperial/Bayou, Sittin' in With, Coral, Jade, and Modern without denting the national charts. Eventually, he left music behind altogether. Technically Carter isn't a West Coast artist but I decided to lump him in as he's certainly a T-Bone disciple and I was looking for an excuse to feature his music.
Although he was certainly influenced by T-Bone Walker , Pee Wee Crayton brought enough innovation to his playing to avoid being labeled as a mere T-Bone imitator. Crayton's recorded output for Modern, Imperial, and Vee-Jay contains plenty of dazzling guitar work, especially on stunning instrumentals such as "Texas Hop," "Pee Wee's Boogie," and "Poppa Stoppa," all far more aggressive performances than Walker usually indulged in. Crayton was from Texas but relocated to Los Angeles in 1935. He signed with the L.A.-based Modern label in 1948, quickly hitting with "Blues After Hours" which topped the R&B charts in late 1948. He also hit with "Texas Hop" shortly thereafter, followed the next year by "I Love You So." After recording prolifically at Modern to no further commercial avail, Crayton moved on to Aladdin and, in 1954, Imperial. After Imperial Crayton tried to regain his momentum at Vee-Jay in Chicago. After one-off 45s for Jamie, Guyden, and Smash during the early '60s, Crayton largely faded from view until Vanguard unleashed his LP, “Things I Used to Do”, in 1971. After that, Pee Wee Crayton's profile was raised somewhat; he toured and made a few more albums prior to his passing in 1985.
Jimmy Nolen took up guitar after hearing T-Bone Walker on the radio at the age of 14 in 1948. He was soon proficient enough on his instrument to get his first electric guitar and join J.D. Nicholson & His Jivin' Five, receiving his first exposure to a recording studio in 1952. In 1955, Jimmy Wilson heard Jimmy playing at a club in Tulsa and hired him to go on the road with him and his band. When Wilson's band broke up in Los Angeles and Nolen decided to stay. He played a short time with trumpeter Monte Easter's band recording with him for Aladdin and singing on "Blues In The Evening." Possibly on recommendation from Easter or Wilson, Nolen began recording for J.R. Fullbright's Elko label in 1954 providing support for Ray Agee, J.D. Nicholson and Jimmy Wilson. In 1954 he joined Chuck Higgins band and was featured prominently on several recordings for the Dootone label. It was during this time that he contracted with Federal Records, a subsidiary of the King label and recorded his first sides under his own name. using a number of Higgins band members and other LA session men. In addition to his fine guitar work he proved himself an able singer on terrific sides such as "Wipe Your Tears", "How Fine Can You Be" an intense version of Tampa Red's "It Hurts Me Too" and instrumentals like "After Hours" and "Strollin' With Nolen." Jimmy replaced the ailing Pete "Guitar" Lewis in the Johnny Otis Band around 1957 and became very busy as a recording session guitarist, resulting in Otis's big hit, "Willie And The Hand Jive" and other Capitol successes such as "Ma, He's Making Eyes At Me" and "In The Dark." Striking out on his own in 1960, he formed his own band and was sought after by many of the major blues stars that came into L.A. for backing when they were without their own bands. B.B. King and T-Bone Walker would always use Jimmy and his band when they were in town without their sidemen. Jimmy played throughout California and Arizona working steadily until he decided to accept James Brown's offer to join his band in 1965. His patented funky chicken scratch style can be heard on hits like "Papa' Got A Brand New Bag" and many more hits between 1965 to 1983, except for the two years he left the band to go with Brown sidemen, Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley as "All the Kings Men". He was with the band in Atlanta, GA when he suffered a fatal heart attack on December 16, 1983 at the age of 48.
One of the hottest guitarists working on the coast during the 40s and 50s was Carl Pete Lewis. He was discovered by Johnny Otis in 1948 who signed him on the spot after he won a talent contest at his Barrelhouse Club at the Thursday Night Talent Hour. Otis quickly spotlighted his new discovery on the guitar workout "Midnight In The Barrelhouse" issued on Excelsior in 1948 selling well enough to be picked up by Savoy and cut a similarly themed "Thursday Night Blues" for Modern. Lewis went on to be a permanent member of Otis' band and is featured on most of Otis' sides for Modern, Savoy, Mercury, Peacock and Aladdin. Lewis also cut a batch of fine solo sides for Federal and Peacock which also showcased his considerable singing and harmonica abilities. Among the notable numbers from this period include "Louisiana Hop", "Raggedy Blues", "Goofy Dust Blues" and "Chocolate Pork Chop Man." For Peacock he backed Johnny Ace (most notably "Pledging My Love"), Big Mama Thornton (most notably "Hound Dog") plus others. Lewis stuck with Otis throughout the 50's cutting some sides for Otis' Dig label during this period. He was eventually replaced by Jimmy Nolen in 1957. Lewis went on to play with George "Harmonica" Smith with whom he recorded for Sotoplay. He died of alcohol related problems in the early 60's.
Chuck Norris worked in Chicago until the mid-'40s, when he moved out to the West Coast. He soon became one of the most-called musicians in Hollywood. He did sessions on his own between 1947-1953, including singles for Coast, Imperial, Mercury, Aladdin, Selective and Atlantic. Some of the guitarist's best playing was on records by artists such as Percy Mayfield, Roy Hawkins and Floyd Dixon. Norris had a live record released in 1980 on the European Route 66 label.
Not only was Roy Hawkins dogged by bad luck during his career (at the height of his popularity, the pianist lost the use of an arm in a car wreck), he couldn't even cash in after the fact. When B.B. King hit the charts in 1970 with Roy Hawkins's classic "The Thrill Is Gone," the tune was mistakenly credited to the wrong composers on early pressings. Little is known of Hawkins's early days. Producer Bob Geddins discovered Hawkins playing in an Oakland, CA nightspot and supervised his first 78s for Cavatone and Downtown in 1948. Modern Records picked up the rights to several Downtown masters before signing Hawkins to a contract in 1949. Two major R&B hits resulted: 1950's "Why Do Things Happen to Me" and "The Thrill Is Gone" the following year. Hawkins recorded for the Modern and RPM imprints into 1954. After that, a handful of 45s for Rhythm and Kent were all that was heard of the Bay Area pianist. He employed some of the best West Coast guitarist of the period; Oscar Moore, Ulysses James, Chuck Norris, Lafayette Thomas all appeared on his records. He's rumored to have died in 1973.
|Pete "Guitar" Lewis|