Monday, January 12, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 70: Forgotten Rhythm and Blues

Bob Weinstock may not have been all that deeply invested in rhythm and blues, but to the extent that he was, he didn't have the track record of betting winners the way he did in jazz. Maybe he didn't have the song plugger necessary to get a record out to black radio. But I suspect that he had pretty damn good taste. And to some extent this is speculation, because a lot of these R&B recordings deserved better than they got.

On November 6, he had Teacho Wiltshire (with unidentified musicians) in the studio with two singers -- one male, one female -- and a vocal group. The woman was Paula Grimes. She recorded four songs, and I can find none of them anywhere, but there is one 45 RPM record by her on YouTube -- You Move Me So / It's Happenin' Baby on Turf Records. It is great stuff -- Paula Grimes deserves to be much better known than she is. In the comments section for one of the YouTube cuts, someone pleads to have the Prestige sides posted, but the comment is four years old, so I guess that's not happening any time soon. I tried to find out more about the label, but when I Google "Turf Records" I get links to Secretariat and Seabiscuit.

Rudy Ferguson cut four songs, and only two of them were released -- Cool Goofin' / Baby, I Need You So. The titles of the other two may give some hint as to why they weren't released: Goofin' and Jivin' and Goofin' in a Goofball Way. Followups to Cool Goofin' if it became a hit, but it didn't.

It had some competition. In the week of its release, February 14, 1953, Billboard has it listed as number 5 in their pick rhythm and blues selections, behind records by Roy Brown, Amos Milburn, Fats Domino and Nat "King" Cole.

And it is on YouTube. And it's a really nice song...I like it a lot. It's in the jump blues/swing tradition that Lionel Hampton and Louis Jordan developed, and that Count Basie and Joe Williams were to bring to perfection. It has some of the King Pleasure/Eddie Jefferson feel to it, except that it's not following a jazz soloist -- except for one place in the middle, where he interpolates "There I go there I go there I go..."

The third act to be stuck in front of Teacho that day was a group of young teenagers singing the sort of music that had begun to be popularized by groups like Sonny Til and the Orioles, and would much, much later come to be known as doo-wop. I'm going to spend a little time on the Mello-Moods, because I love this kind of music, and because their story has an unexpected jazz connection.

A few years after the Mello-Moods, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers would take the pop music world by storm, and they would dress in high school letter sweaters and sing about teenage love and not being a juvenile delinquent, but the Mello-Moods, led by Ray "Buddy" Wooten, were competing with the Orioles, the Cardinals, the Clovers -- the early harmony groups that were taking African-American harmony away from the smooth pop sound of the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers, and more in the direction of rhythm and blues. The Mello-Moods had had a regional hit for Robin Records, one of the very few black-owned record labels, started by Harlem record store owner Bobby Robinson.

Doowop chronicler Marv Goldberg has a nice story about their early days:
They entered the Apollo amateur show. They were in the basement practicing, and a little guy came over to listen to them. After hearing them, he said that they were so good he wouldn't even bother to appear on the same show with them. However, he somehow got over his nervousness and went on to "tear the stage up" and win first prize that night. His name? Otis Blackwell. The Mello-Moods had to settle for second place.
They had a hit record for Bobby Robinson, one of their songs, How Could You, reaching the Rhythm and Blues top ten.

But, they were young. And they lived in a world that didn't worship youth. Marv Goldberg again:

With a hit record to their credit, you'd think that the Mello-Moods would have been swamped with personal appearances. However, remember that they were young and their parents watched them like hawks. School was the most important thing, and anything that stood in its way was to be squashed. Also, they couldn't appear at any place that sold alcohol. As James says, "Our parents wouldn't let us out of their sight. They fought tooth and nail with [manager] Joel Turnero and Bobby Robinson."
Good for the parents. Education matters. And very few of the doowoppers were able to make lifelong careers in music.

In the fall of 1952, they left Robinson and signed with Prestige, making this first recording with Teacho Wiltshire's band. There's a YouTube underground of doowop fanatics, so you can hear all of these songs there -- and also the one song that they did in a second session on December 12, which was never released -- a version of Mel Torme's The Christmas Song, can be found on YouTube.

Again, this shows a certain measure of disappointment. You don't have a group record a Christmas song unless you're expecting them to have a certain measure of popularity, and you don't not release it unless that popularity hasn't happened.

Or it could be that the recording was too late for Christmas 1952, and by Christmas 1953, the group had pretty much broken up. Marv Goldberg again:

 Says James [Bethea], "We had the feeling that Joel [Turnero] was trying to hold us back...None of us were happy with the music we were singing; we wanted real R&B. We enjoyed our singing, but there was a personality conflict. We were doing his tunes and we wanted to do other stuff. He was trying to make a Mills Brothers act out of us. Joel wouldn't release us. We realized that the group was going to break up; we had to stop singing in order to break the contract with Joel."

Also, the Christmas Song cut is not exactly a Mello-Moods song. They're on it, but basically they're just singing background vocals for an extended solo by sax player and session leader Charlie Ferguson (Rudy's brother? No information here).

We'll get to the December 12 Prestige session shortly, but one last mention of the Mello-Moods' role in it. Sadly, not even the doo-wop freaks of YouTube have been able to find these. They sang backup on early takes -- not the ones that were ultimately used -- of King Pleasure's "Red Top" and "Jumpin' With Symphony Sid."

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