Saturday, December 27, 2008

Billy Strayhorn - The Lush Life

Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn from All About Jazz

William Thomas Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio on November 29, 1915, the fourth of nine children. Sickly at birth and born into poverty, he wasn't expected to survive, but he did. Four of his siblings did not. The family shortly moved on and settled down in Homewood.

As a child, he was shielded from an abusive father by his mom, Lillian, who bought him books and sheet music from her earnings as a domestic. She would send him for extended visits to his grandma Elizabeth's place in Hillsborough, North Carolina, to protect him from his dad's drunken fits.

Strayhorn said that his grandmother was his primary influence during the first ten years of his life, and her house was where he first became hooked on music, playing church hymns on her piano and 78 RPM records on her Victrola.

He was largely self-educated and so brainy and inquisitive that one of his childhood nicknames was “Dictionary.” Strayhorn had a newspaper route and worked as a soda jerk and delivery boy for the local drugstore, and saved up enough money to buy his own piano.

When he was older and in Pittsburgh full-time, Strayhorn attended Westinghouse High School. Classical music was Strayhorn’s first love. He began his training by studying the longhaired art at the Pittsburgh Music Institute.

He was the featured soloist in Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor,” for a school production. Strayhorn was the only black musician in the 25-player orchestra, and his ambition to join the world of Beethoven never bore fruit; at that time only whites could join that high brow club. So hey, on to Plan B.

He switched to the school band, and studied under Carl McVickers, who had earlier instructed local greats like Erroll Garner, Mary Lou Williams, and so many other outstanding Bulldog artists.

Strayhorn found the music of pianists like Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson at age 19. Their keyboard work provided him with the roadmap to move from classical society to the hot world of jazz.

Strayhorn wrote a musical revue, "Fantastic Rhythm," that played for years in the City. He formed a trio that performed daily on radio and played the local clubs, the "Mad Hatters," and while still in his teens, composed the songs "Life Is Lonely" (later renamed "The Lush Life"), "My Little Brown Book", and "Something to Live For".

In 1938, at the age of 23, Billy Strayhorn met Duke Ellington, who was performing in Pittsburgh's Crawford Grill (Others say it was the Stanley Theater; maybe he was jamming at the Crawford afterwards, as was common back in the day).

An impromptu backstage audition, featuring "The Lush Life," wowed Ellington and the band, and Strayhorn was on his way to joining the Duke in what would prove to be one of the great pairings of jazz.

A few months later, Strayhorn was writing arrangements for Ellington's orchestra while living relatively openly as a gay man, a rare feat for black man - heck, for anyone - during that era.

Within the Ellington organization, Strayhorn's homosexuality was never an issue. Duke accepted him. And it showed in Strayhorn's devotion to Ellington. One friend of Strayhorn's said: "Duke Ellington afforded Billy Strayhorn that acceptance. That was something that cannot be undervalued or underappreciated. To Billy, that was gold."

Once he settled in New York, Strayhorn quickly became a stylish fixture of New York nightlife, sliding between high society parties and Harlem nightclubs like Minton's Playhouse, where he impressed early beboppers like Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach with his piano skills. He also became one of New York's best known tipplers, a habit that would grow as time went on.

Strayhorn worked for Ellington as an arranger, composer, pianist and collaborator, with a brief break in the 1950s, until his death from cancer - and without a contract. Duke never paid him a regular salary, but took care of all of his financial affairs, paying for his rent, food, clothes, and living expenses.

Heck, he never even had a regular gig for him. "I don't have any position for you," remarked Ellington when he hired Strayhorn. "You'll do whatever you feel like doing." What he was, according to Ellington, was "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine."

And even more. Strayhorn saved Ellington's bacon in the early '40s, when ASCAP went on strike over royalty payments (or lack thereof) and refused permission for any of its songs to be broadcast over the airwaves. Duke's livelihood depended on his radio revenues, but with no songs to play, what was he to do?

Strayhorn, who wasn't an ASCAP member, caught a cross-country train from NY to LA and hurriedly wrote new, unlicensed songs for Ellington to play. Not only did they survive the blackout, but Duke came up with a new theme. "Take The A Train" was one of the tunes Strayhorn crafted for him.

Strayhorn seemed to flourish in Duke's shadow. Ellington was somewhat of a father figure and the band, by and large, was big-brother protective of the diminutive and mild-mannered Strayhorn, nicknaming him "Strays", "Weely", and "Swee' Pea".

Critics believe that his open gay orientation was a major factor in Strayhorn being dissed in the history of jazz. He hid his light under Ellington's hat, both because of his quiet nature and to keep prying eyes from looking too deeply into his personal life.

Ellington took advantage of him to a degree. Duke claimed the honors for much of Strayhorn’s work, and would tell the audience "Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!"

Strayhorn composed the band's best known theme, "Take the "A" Train", and a number of other pieces that became part of the band’s repertoire. In some cases Strayhorn received attribution for his work such as, "Lotus Blossom", "Chelsea Bridge", and "Rain Check."

Other songs such as "Day Dream" and "Something to Live For", were listed as collaborations with Ellington or in the case of "Satin Doll" and "Sugar Hill Penthouse," Duke took all the credit.

On the other hand, Ellington gave Strayhorn full due as his collaborator on opuses such as "Such Sweet Thunder", "A Drum Is a Woman", "The Perfume Suite" and "The Far East Suite", where Strayhorn and Ellington worked closely together. Go figure.

He was an unabashed and public civil rights advocate, too. Strayhorn was buds with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and arranged and conducted "King Fought the Battle of 'Bam'" for the Ellington Orchestra in 1963, for the historical revue "My People".

In the 1950s, Strayhorn left Ellington, finally finding the courage to strike out on his own. He recorded a few albums, composed revues for the Copasetics (a New York show-business society) and joined in theater productions with his friend Luther Henderson. But for better or worse, his star was hitched to Duke Ellington.

Oddly, Billy Strayhorn was a major influence on the career of Lena Horne. She wanted to marry Strayhorn and considered him to be the love of her life. He was her close friend and musical mentor. They eventually recorded songs together, and for all we could find, that's as far as it went.

Strayhorn was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1964, and the Big C claimed him in the early morning hours of May 31, 1967, in the company of his partner, Bill Grove. His alcoholism was also thought to have contributed to his death. His ashes were scattered in the Hudson River by a gathering of his closest friends.

Music legend has it that Strayhorn died in Horne's arms, but the truth is that she was touring in Europe when she received the news of Strayhorn's death.

While in the hospital on his deathbed, he finished a final composition for Ellington. "Blood Count" (originally "Blue Cloud") which was used as the first track to Ellington's eulogy album for Strayhorn, "And His Mother Called Him Bill," recorded several months after Strayhorn's death. All the cuts were Strayhorn compositions.

The last track of the album is an ad lib version of "Lotus Blossom" performed by Ellington, who just sat at the piano and played from the heart for his friend while the band packed up after the end of the session (they can even be heard banging around in the background). The small flaws in the recording make the piece one of the most poignant and human memorials ever cut.

Ellington playing Strayhorn, just the way it was meant to be.

(A pretty good bio of Billy Strayhorn's life can be found at Wikipedia.)

"Take The A Train" - Billy Strayhorn, piano, 1965. Watch for the saxman in the middle of the vid. It must have been a long show for him.

And here's a brief bio and eulogy of Strayhorn:

Thanks to aburinho.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Pittsburgh Christmas


Hey - ready to get your Christmas on? Pop in one of these CD's, recorded by Pittsburgh artists, pour an eggnog, and gather 'round the fire...visions of sugarplums will dance through your head, guaranteed.

The Spirit of Christmas - Pittsburgh Symphony Brass

Ultimate Christmas Album 5 - 3WS

BE Taylor Christmas

Guitars For Christmas - Joe Negri

Song of Christmas - Pittsburgh Symphony Brass

The Gift - Rosa Colucci

Steeltown Christmas - Slim Forsythe & The Parklane Drifters, available at Borders Books (Monroeville), Nied's Hotel, 5438 Butler Street (Lawrenceville), Paul's CDs, 4526 Liberty Avenue (Bloomfield) and the Cathy G. Charities Booth at Rossi's Pop Up Market, (North Versailles).


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Joe Rock

jaggerz-joe rock- james darren
Joe Rock with James Darren and the Jaggerz from

On May 16th, 1936, Joseph Vincent Rock made his first appearance in the world, the youngest of five kids. By the time he left this vale of tears, the South Sider's career as a songwriter and promoter were firmly established, hitched forever to the Skyliners, but extending further afield than you may think.

Joe had the music in him, and was a member of the Marquees (a session group that did backing vocals for Willett Studios) and a session singer early on. But his true calling was as a tunesmith and tub-thumper, and that's how he left his mark on Pittsburgh music.

He used to haunt the local hops, checking out the area talent. Rock listened to a group from St. George's in Allentown called the Crescents as a favor to their manager, and took them under his wing. Later, while at a hop hosted by KTV's Al "Nickels" Noble of "Jukebox" fame, he was wowed by a singer from the Monterey's, Brentwood's Jimmy Beaumont.

He added him to the mix, along with South Hill's High guitarist Jackie Taylor, and the Crescents were ready to rock. Rock wrote his first song, "Be Mine," for the group, and it took off locally. It was recorded (no, we couldn't find the label) and became a Pittsburgh hit. The Crescent's had a fan club of some 2,000 members after that song hit the 'Burg airwaves, and they were starring at clubs all over the region.

Striking while the iron was hot, Rock sent the demo to ABC Records. The story is they offered the group a contract, but the Crescents dallied over the terms and ABC threw up its hands and withdrew the offer. Somehow, another contract, this one with Atlantic, who had promised to have Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller pen songs for the group, also slipped through their fingers. Some guys would kill for a contract. Rock and the Crescents weren't apparently among them.

The likeliest explanation for the bumbled deals was that there was an internal debate over which offer was a better fit for the Crescents down the road, but eventually both labels tired of the wait and moved on. We'll never know for sure, though Rock's management cred was a little shaky at that point.

Rock would find the road to promotion becoming even, well, rockier. He brought in an advance man from Specialty Records to hear the Crescents audition in person. Only three of them - Beaumont, Taylor, and original member Wally Lester - bothered to show up. The others were allegedly out joyriding, demoralized over the blown deals.

Rock made sure they had all the cruising time they needed. He canned the AWOLs and brought in a pair of El Rios, Janet Vogel and Joe Verscharen, to replace them.

Then, according to Pittsburgh R&B legend, lightning struck. Rock had driven out to see his squeeze, and she told him it was over - she was headed to stew school in Tulsa. His broken heart kicked into songwriter mode on the way back home, and while he was stopped at a red light, the lyrics for "Since I Don't Have You" popped into his head.

He had jotted down some words at every stop - God knows there are enough traffic lights in Pittsburgh to give a guy time to write an opera - and showed them to Beaumont. He came up with the music, and one of the City's signature tunes was born.

This time, the contracts didn't flow. Rock sent a capella tapes out to thirteen labels (maybe on review, he could have picked a different number than 13), including Chess, RCA, Imperial, and the now gunshy ABC. They all said "no thanks," citing everything from negativity to too many you's at the end. Ouch.

But Rock had his local contacts on speed dial, or whatever its 1958 equivalent would have been, and got in touch with Lenny Martin of Calico Records. He arranged an audition that almost never came off - the group was so revved up that they crashed their car on the way to the try-out, but still managed to make it on time - and sang "Since I Don't Have You" and "One Night, One Night," selling Martin.

The gang went up to Capital Record's studio in New York City in December, cut the songs, and the rest is history. He even gave the group its new name, based on a 1945 Charlie Barnet hit, "Skyliner." Rock got the group on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" and eight dates at the Apollo Theater. They charted on both pop and R&B charts. Now he was managing in high gear.

Now some say Rock couldn't take the group to the next level, and he did have a fairly bitter split with Calico Records in 1960. But the truth of the matter was that not many groups broke out of Pittsburgh, much less white R&B performers. The Skyliners went further than most.

He managed the Skyliners until his death, and formed a strong writing team with Beaumont, who scored Rock's lyrics on "This I Swear," "I'd Die," "Lonely Way," and "It Happened Today," along with every original song the group did on Calico and many beyond that time.

But the Skyliners weren't Rock's only claim to fame. In 1963, he produced "Let's Be Lovers" on ATCO 6272, a local hit that reminded listeners of New York's Flamingos. And it should have; Rock brought in Nate Nelson and the group to record under the alias of "The Starglows," earning them both a few bucks under the table.

He also penned the Joey Dee and the Starliters song "Lorraine," their first release in 1958.

He was the manager for the Jaggerz when their song "The Rapper" hit #2 nationally in 1970 on the Kama Sutra label. He also represented soul man Johnny Daye, and landed him a gig with Stax Records. In fact, he co-wrote "I've Got Dreams To Remember," the Otis Redding classic. He was out with Redding the night before his fatal plane crash.

Eventually, Rock moved away from R&B in Memphis to country in Nashville during the early 1990s. Plagued by failing health, he died in Baptist Hospital after quadruple bypass surgery on April 4, 2000.

It's been said that as long as the Skyliners are remembered, so will the memory of Joe Rock. But his passing marks a countdown to the end of the R&B era in Pittsburgh music, one of the town's craziest and most creative periods.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

El Capris

El Capris from Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebook

The El Capris first got together in the city's Hill District in 1954. It seemed like half the Hill's junior high population was singing for them - there were seven members, all either 13 or 14 years old.

They were Eddie Jackson (lead tenor), James Scott (first tenor), Theodore McCrary (second tenor), Leon Gray (baritone), William Germany (baritone and conga drums), Larry Hill (bass), and James Ward (bass and bongos). They modeled their style after the Five Royales, Ravens, Clovers, and Ink Spots, more R&B than doo-wop.

They called themselves the El Capris because they thought it was the sexy Spanish version of "The Bluebirds," their original choice. Actually, "Capri" isn't even a Spanish word. We checked the dictionary; the Bluebirds translate as "Los Azulejo", a terribly tongue-twisting title for a Pittsburgh act.

But hey, El Capris it was, and it worked fine for them, even if it drove their Spanish teacher into fits of apoplexy.

The group broke out when they won a school talent contest on July 4th, 1955, earning a singing session with Bullseye Records owner Woody Henderling in New York City.

Henderling signed the El Capris on the spot, and they returned to Pittsburgh to cut their first single, "Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Wop," b/w "Oh, But She Did" (Bullseye 102) at Porky's WHOD Studio. They wrote the A side, and the B side was a cover of an Opals tune.

Released in March of 1956, the record flopped nationally, though it did score locally on both sides of the vinyl. Pittsburgh jocks did love B sides, and were never shy about turning a record over.

The group skipped to Joe Averbach's local label Fee Bee for their follow-up, 1957's "Your Star" b/w "Dance All Night" and "To Live Again" (there were alternate pressings with different flip sides, with both versions issued as Fee Bee 216).

Averbach pushed the disc hard, and had the El Capris appear at the Apollo Theatre, the Uptown, and the Trianon, along with all the local spots, but the record went belly-up.

After a third single, "Safari" b/w "Quit Pulling My Woman" - which wasn't even performed by the group, although it was credited to them on the label - (Ring-O 308, a Fee Bee affiliate), they left Averbach.

The El Capris began to spin apart. The problem wasn't local fame. They were a hot draw at the area clubs, and popular on the eastern tours. But between no hit recordings and coming of age, the wheels began to fall off the El Capris.

By 1958 only McCrary, Gray, and Germany remained from the original seven, but they soldiered on, adding first tenor Percy Wharton and bass Sam Askue to cut "Ivy League Clean" b/w "They're Always Laughing At Me" (Paris 525). Like the other records, it went nowhere fast, though the B side did get some Tri-State love.

The El Capris never recorded after that (not from lack of effort; apparently they couldn't sweet talk any labels into giving them studio time), but the group continued playing the East Coast nightclub circuit until they finally broke up in 1970.

Eddie Jackson went on to Philly, where he sang with Brenda and the Tabulations ("Dry Your Eyes"). Larry Hill became a craftsman and sculptor, and passed away in 2004. The rest scattered with the wind so far as Old Mon can tell.

A quarter century later, co-founders Germany and Jackson played a series of revival showcases launched by a come-back concert at Donna's Carousel Lounge on May 14, 1994. They were back.

The El Capris revamped the roster with second tenor Shane Plummer (who is active in the SOUL - Save Our Unique Legacy - club, whose members are trying to preserve the history of black music) and bass Doc Battle. They're still making music, performing the occasional local gig on the Pittsburgh oldies circuit.

The history of the El Capris is well told in Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebook.

"Oh, But She Did - El Capris