Friday, April 24, 2009

When "It Ain't No Big Thing" Was A Big Thing

The Electrons of the late 1960's, from Richie Merritt's collection

One of the hot Pittsburgh songs of 1967-68 was "It Ain't No Big Thing," a midtempo soul tune done by the Electrons.

The song was originally done as a beach music tune by the Radiants. It would eventually be covered by 22 different artists, with better known versions done by the Tempests and Jimmie James & the Vagabonds.

The Electrons were seniors from Penn Hills High when they recorded the song in 1967 at Gateway Studios (above the National Record Mart store on Forbes Avenue near Market Square) on their own Shock Label (#289), b/w Wilson Pickett's soul shaker "In The Midnight Hour."

The Electron lineup consisted of former Fi-Dels lead singer Steve Sopko, drummer Cliff Abromats, rhythm guitarist Jimmy Widman, bass guitarist Jim Blinkhorn, Reed Donelli on brass, and lead guitarist and keyboardist Mike Colaizzi.

Abromats founded the band, and kept the business a family affair - his mom and dad (a former WAMO jock) were the de facto managers.

The song was a big thing in the Pittsburgh region - it was a Top Ten tune on WAMO, and made KDKA's Top Twenty - and created vibes in some other eastern and midwest markets. "It Ain't No Big Thing" moved enough wax locally that the Date Label (#2-1575), Columbia Record's soul subsidiary that included Peaches and Herb on its roster, picked it and the band up later in the year.

It was strong enough in the local market to keep the Electrons in business for awhile. They did the Tri-State club and hop circuit, and were regulars on Terry Lee's TV dance show "Come Alive."

And they had to work the circuit hard. The group found their contract with Date was more of a burden than blessing; the label made no effort to promote them or cut any more wax. As soon as the deal was done, they went back to the recording studio.

They put out another 45, "Turn On Your Love Light" b/w "I Who Have Nothing" (Shock #290) in the fall of 1968 with Richie Merritt on lead. He had replaced Sopko, who had left the band in the spring. (A Donora native, Merritt sang for the Mon Valley acts El Qunitones and The Dragons). But "Love Light" never took off the way "Big Thing" did.

"It Ain't No Big Thing" to this day is a popular slab of vinyl in Europe, where the Northern Soul collectors still argue over who turned out the best version.

The Electrons played the region until 1970, when the gang broke up and drifted off to college and the real world. But a couple of the members carried on in the business.

Sopko, now performing as Steve Tori, joined the Exceptions after he left the Electrons, which evolved into an eight-piece show band. He spent three years with them, and then switched gears and formed a trio that played the clubs.

After another three year stint, he went solo. Tori performs in the Pittsburgh and the near Tri-State, taking his act to clubs, restaurants, private functions, and parties. He also does gospel music, singing in area churches.

Richie Merritt opened a night club following the Electrons break-up, but carved out a sweet career on the stage instead of behind it. He sang with High Society, The Vibrators, The Laurels and The Memories.

Then, in 1993, Merritt became the lead tenor for The Clovers and was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in Sharon with them in 2002.

They dissolved shortly after, and he joined the Marcels in 2003, with whom he still performs nationally on occasion. Now he's based near Tampa, and does southland R&B gigs both as a solo artist and with his backup group, the Gems.

He also wrote and performed "Where Did I Go Wrong" (RAM Records), a song that made the Top 10 in the United Kingdom in 1990. It's on the self-released 1998 CD "Then And Now". Merritt released a CD collection of crossover hits in 2005, titled "Now."

(Old Mon is grateful to Sonny Derdock of the Penn Hills People website for his help in uncovering the Electrons info, Audrey Monaco Danovich, who provided us with the Electrons players, Mike Colaizzi, and Richie Merritt for his help. Without their kind assistance, there'd be no post. Thanks, guys, we appreciate it.)

Electrons - "Ain't No Big Thing"

And here's the B-Side, "In The Midnight Hour"

Jack Stanizzo at Cefalo's


Don't miss Jack and Paul.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Jill West and The Blues Attack

Jill West and the Blues Attack

Hey, the Pittsburgh blues genre has remained pretty strong, even as the local venues for it have dried up, making it hard for fans to follow the bands.

But one act that you'll have no trouble finding is Jill West and the Blues Attack. It's a safe bet that they'll be playing a gig at a club, festival, or jam somewhere near you soon.

Jill West, the Queen of the Pittsburgh Blues scene, was born in the City's West End neighborhood of Elliott. She was a little diva from the get-go, performing for her family and neighbors at the drop of a hat. But the blues didn't find the 55 year-old West until Bob Beach, a local bluesman, asked her to do gig with him in the mid-eighties.

She hadn't been exposed to the blues, musically or literally, while growing up, so she ran down to the local record store - remember them? - and snatched a copy of Koko Taylor's "Live From Chicago: An Audience With the Queen." She was wowed.

Why the late epiphany? As she told Rebecca Sodergren of the Post Gazette in 2001: "I am not a blues woman. I have been very comfortable my entire life. My man wasn't beating me and stealing my money. I didn't have any of those terrible things."

While she may not have had any personal demons to exorcise, she said her "...blues music has become more of a treatment for the blues" rather than a symptom. Doctor, doctor, find me a cure...

As Phil Harris once wrote in Pittsburgh Magazine: "You won't find her singing about throwing herself off a bridge because her man left her. She says I'm gonna sing 'My man left me and I'm gonna throw him off a bridge.'" She's sure tough enough to be a blueswoman.

In 1991, West joined a group called the Hell Hounds (West, Don Hollowood, Hank Raffetto, Bird Foster, Jack Sanso and George Kasalaswhich) that evolved into the Blues Attack, and they've been mainstays of the local blues circuit ever since. West is a big, brassy blues belter, and she's surrounded by some veteran players with enough confidence in their chops to take local up-and-comers under their wing, like Jimmy Adler and Zach Wiesinger, until they can fly on their own.

Mark Cholewski (rhythm guitar), Gregg Krupa (lead guitar), "Hammerin' Hank" Raffetto (bass guitar), " Sudden Steve" Binsberger (keyboards) and Nicky "No Shoes" Crano (drums) can lay down a slow blues ballad or pump up an ax-driven rocker. And West's pipes can handle any tempo they can deliver.

The Blues Attack plays all over the tri-state area as well as opening for national acts like Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley, and B. B. King when they're in town. In fact, they celebrated their tenth anniversary by opening for Taylor, West's first role model, at the 2001 Pittsburgh Blues Festival.

They've had their moment in the national sun, too. In 2006, they placed third out of one hundred and sixty two international bands in the International Blues Competiton held in Memphis. The Blues Attack has captured the Western Pennsylvania crown twice, and they're finalists for the 2009 title, too.

Besides laying down tracks for a few Pittsburgh compilation albums, they have a trio of pretty good CDs of their own out, too. In 1997, the band released "Code Blue," (no longer in print) featuring "He's No Good" and "The Mirror."

Their second album, 2002's "Faceful of Blues," was recorded at Mr. Small's and has four covers and ten original tunes on the playlist. "Four Letter Word," "The Other Woman," "Begging Song," Screamin' Jay Hawkin's "I Put A Spell On You," and Tyrone Davis' "Change My Mind," are all strong tracks.

Their latest is 2009's "Headline Blues." It features originals like "Don't Burn the Barbeque," "Needful Things" and "Love Song in C" plus covers of the Lazy Lester tune "Sugar Coated Love," "How You Carry On" by Dr. John, "Boomerang" by Roomful of Blues' Chris Vachon, and Ray Charles' "Unchain My Heart."

But for all that, Jill West knows enough about the blues to keep her day job. She's an operating room nurse at Children's Hospital, to go along with her almost full time gig as a singer. And hey, a schedule like that is plenty to give anyone the blues.

"He's The One" - Jill West & the Blues Attack Live at Kendrews in Aliquippa on April 5th, 2009

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Chuck Jackson...Any Day Now

Chuck Jackson

Chuck Jackson was born July 22, 1937 in Latta, South Carolina, one of seven Jackson kids. And if ever a guy had the right to sing the blues, it was Chuck Jackson.

As a child, he never knew his father. When Jackson was eighteen months old, his mom gave him to her parents to raise in South Carolina and then moved to Pittsburgh to get a job in the mills. She never called home for her boy, and was pretty much a non-entity in his life after that.

Jackson had a home with his grandparents, but had to earn his keep. Almost from the time he could walk, his job was to pick cotton, and his only respite from the grueling, back-breaking labor was music.

Grandma made sure he attended church regularly, and he began to sing in the choir at age six. By the time he was eight, Jackson had his own fifteen-minute radio show on Sunday mornings, playing the piano and singing between the obituaries and church news. When he was twelve, his church choir represented Dillon County in a statewide competition.

Their finale was the old hymn “The Holy City,” and he wowed the crowd and judges as the featured soloist, winning a scholarship to South Carolina State College in the process.

It was his way out of the cotton fields, much like football was a way out of Western Pennsylvania's mills and mines. But there was the small matter of him being only twelve years old. The scholarship would wait for him, but college was a long way down the road.

But when he was fourteen, his black school failed to open. Instead of being behind a desk learning the three Rs, he was back in the fields when a school bus full of white kids sped by on the way to class at their school. He had enough, and like his mom before him, ran away from Latta to Pittsburgh.

He stayed with his aunt until he was sixteen, when he went back to South Carolina to finish high school, a prerequisite to collecting that scholarship at SCSC.

Now Pittsburgh was never the textbook example for race relations, but it sure seemed like it compared to the Jim Crow south of the mid-fifties. Jackson lasted in his home state until 1957, when he returned to the Steel City.

Jackson hooked up with the Ray Raspberry Gospel Singers, a group with a national reputation on the gospel circuit.

When two members of the Del Vikings, one of the hottest doo-wop/R&B acts to come out of Pittsburgh, were shipped overseas by the Air Force just as their biggest record, “Come Go With Me” was climbing up the charts, Jackson auditioned for the group and landed a replacement gig.

Jackson sang with the Kripp Johnson, Dot Records version of the Dell Vikings, later becoming Chuck Jackson and the Versatiles after Johnson left to rejoin the original act. (Don't ask - at one time there were three versions of the Del Vikings; they kept industry lawyers rolling in royalties for years). He also recorded for Calico as Chuck Johnson and The Jaycees, releasing "Mister Sandman" b/w "Oh Baby Mine" in 1960.

Opening one night for Jackie Wilson and impressing him with his work, Jackson became part of Mr. Entertainment's Revue.

Wilson taught Jackson how to go out and slay an audience, as only Wilson could do. He also got a taste of the road, performing at The Regal in Chicago, the Uptown in Philadelphia, the Howard in Washington DC and the king of soul houses, The Apollo in New York, which would eventually become Jackson's home stage.

It was at the famous Harlem venue that Chuck got his big break when Scepter A&R man Luther Dixon saw him perform. Other labels such as Brunswick (Wilson's longtime recording home), RCA and Columbia got into a bidding war for his services, but Jackson decided to go with Scepter/Wand.

Along with Scepter acts like Dionne Warwick and the Shirelles, Jackson's early 1960s arrangements blended pop, "uptown" R&B, and New York-session professionalism. The songs featured brass, strings, and female backup vocalists. He scored three hits as a duet act with Maxine Waters: “Something You Got” (Wand 181), “Hold On I’m Comin’” (Wand 1148), and “Daddy’s Home” (Wand 1155).

His raspy vocals stirred in some soul, but he never captured the growl of Wilson Pickett or James Brown, the Stax and King benchmarks. He offered up cool soul, not country clay; after all, his idol was the Count Basie Orchestra’s Joe Williams. His smooth sound made him a tough man top pigeon hole musically.

His stuff is so universal that several later became successful hits for other artists. C&W's Ronnie Milsap covered "Any Day Now" in 1982, and it reached #1 on the Country and Adult Contemporary charts. R&B/pop artist Michael McDonald had a huge hit with his cover of Jackson's "I Keep Forgettin'".

In fact, Tom Jones made his mark in America with a song that was originally written for Jackson, "It's Not Unusual."

His first Scepter/Wand single, 1961's "I Don't Want to Cry", which he co-wrote, charted on both the R&B (#5) and the top-forty pop charts. He followed it with “I Wake Up Crying,” #13 on R&B charts, and #59 on the pop listings. With that song, Jackson became the first black artist to chart a Hal David and Burt Bacharach song.

1962's "Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)" was next, the Burt Bacharach-Bob Hilliard classic, which would go on to become one of the great crossover records of the era. It topped out at #2 on the R&B lists and #23 on the pop charts.

One of his better known singles, "I Keep Forgettin'" (1962), was written and produced by Leiber-Stoller, and 1964's "Beg Me." In all, Jackson would go on to release twenty-one singles that charted for Scepter/Wand, most of them minor r&b hits.

The highlight of the mid-sixties were his duets with Maxine Brown, titles like “Beg Me,” "Something You Got," Shep and the Limelites' "Daddy's Home," or “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” a cover of the Sam and Dave hit. But he would never have another Top 40 song.

In 1967, Jackson finally took up Smokey Robinson on a long-standing offer to join Motown, which seemed a natural for his pop/soul sound, and bought out his final years at Scepter.

His debut single, the Smokey song “(You Can’t Let the Boy Overpower) The Man in You,” only charted at #94. The flip side, “Girls, Girls, Girls,” was a hit in the U.K., which would eventually lead him to joining the Brit Northern Soul circuit, but didn't do much to embellish his Motor City cred.

Jackson’s three LPs for Motown were considered by critics to be the best of his career, but none sold. His cold streak buried at least two more albums’ worth of music that was left for dead in the Motown vaults. (The three released albums and their 48 tracks were combined as "Chuck Jackson - The Motown Anthology, Motown #983 293-1).

In 1970, Jackson left Motown for ABC and cut "I Only Get This Feeling” that had the sound of a hit, but wasn’t. ABC didn’t promote him, and probably with good reason; they went under shortly afterwards. Jackson then signed on with EMI, where he got even less love.

Jackson teamed with old friend Dionne Warwick (they consider each other to be brother and sister) for the 1997 "If I Let Myself Go," nominated for a Grammy as the Best Duet. It was the 23rd charted song of his long career.

But hey, he's still rollin' on. Jackson has continued to record on small labels like All Platinum and Carolina, and still performs, often abroad. In 1990, he headlined the Northern Soul Festival in Great Yarmouth, England, and he has been a huge favorite on the Northern Soul circuit ever since.

He’s headlined at the Apollo Theater more than any other artist in history, and he produces shows there, too. Not too surprisingly, he's a winner of the Apollo Theatre's Hall of Fame Award. Jackson's been on The Tonight Show, Soul Train and American Bandstand.

Now he works mainly weekend gigs, and spends a lot of time on inner-city projects. Jackson's even a member of New York's Friars Club.

From the gospel of South Carolina to the doo-wop of Pittsburgh, Chuck Jackson has evolved into the king of cool soul.

Chuck Jackson "I Don't Want To Cry"