Nashville: Across The Tracks and In The Shadows
Originally written for MOG 1.29.10, link to Funk Or Die blogpost..
During the first half of the 20th century nearly every town had 2 or 3 recording studios, a handful of clubs, and a few larger venues where music was made. In the most places you could usually find all these outlets in pairs..for every whites only venue, there was a similar spot for black folks only. In the Northern States it was somewhat less overt, but it was still the general rule as deep segregation was the written and unwritten law of the land. Things relaxed a bit in the music world though, even in the south. Rhythm and Blues was at the forefront of this boundary blurring, most famously at places like Atlantic Records, Fame Studios, and Stax, but also in Nashville.
Though it was the (business)home of country music, Nashville also had a separate (and perhaps even equal) black music scene, featuring clubs (the New Era, the Del Morocco and Maceo’s), a major chitlin circuit theater (The Bijou), a 50,000 watt radio station (WLAC), and more than one label focusing on R&B records (Bullet, Sound Stage 7,Dot, Silver Fox, SSS International).
Nashville Jumps – Cecil Gant (1949-Bullet 250)
“In 1962, a struggling musician was living above a Nashville nightclub in an apartment furnished with little more than a mattress and a light bulb. Perfecting his guitar playing at home during the day and performing in local clubs at night, he eventually attained worldwide fame. It’s a stereotypical Nashville success story, to be sure, but there’s a twist. The tale isn’t about a country musician. The guitar player’s name was Jimi Hendrix.” (CMT news)
A few years back The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (which, although I can’t vouch from personal experience, sounds like it slays the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame) put on an exhibit called Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970, that opened up Nashville’s R & B closet. In conjunction there were also 2 double discs released that showcased local acts and the output of local labels.
Joe Simon – Moon Walk Part 1 (1969-Sound Stage 7)
The exhibit told the story of Nashville’s black music scene going all the way back to the Fisk Jubilee singers in the 1870’s, through the dawn of Rhythm & Blues (see Nashville native Cecil Gant’s Nashville Jumps), up to the demise of the soul club scene in the late 70’s (percipitated by the construction of I-40 and the record industry’s love affair with disco).
One of the main proponents of Nashville R & B was a DJ at WLAC, John Richbourg, a white man, who went by John R on the air, and laid on the jive pretty thick. He also went on the produce records (well over 100 sides) for Sound Stage Seven and his own labels, Seventy Seven and Sound Plus, as well as manage the career of Joe Simon.
There weren’t a ton of major hits that came out of Sound Stage 7, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the output from the small indie label. Richbourg was a dedicated soulman producing records in black southern styles until his death from cancer in 1986. The performers at a 1984 benefit put together to cover his medical expenses give you an idea of how important he was to the soul community…
“By 1984, Richbourg was dying from lung cancer. His wife, Margaret, and singer Jackey Beavers, a longtime associate, organized a benefit concert to help pay the announcer’s steep medical bills. The March 26, 1985 show, held at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House, included numerous artists who were featured in John R.’s broadcasts: James Brown, B. B. King, the Neville Brothers, Rufus Thomas, The Tams, The Coasters, gospel singer Bobby Jones (who then hosted a local TV program), and Beavers (now the pastor of a Cartersville, Georgia church) himself. In his book, Wes Smith commented that James Brown gave one of the best performances of his career at the event.” (wiki)
John R (Richbourg) Aircheck from WLAC
She’s A Wiggler – Fenton Robinson (1971-Sound Stage 7)
Hey, Lucinda – Betty Everett (1976-Sound Stage 7)
We’re Not too young -The Continental Showstoppers (197?-Seventy seven Records)– A Northern Soul Fave
Goo Bah-the Continental Showstoppers (197?-Seventy Seven Records)
Another big name in Nashville was iconoclast record man Shelby Singleton. He started as a regional promo guy in Shreveport, LA for Mercury/Smash, scouring the South for sales and finding new records and labels that he would try to break nationally. After being elevated to producer, he went indie. He wasn’t based in Nashville but he spent a lot of time there, starting the Plantation, SSS International , and (with Lelan Rogers -Texas cat who recorded the 13th Floor Elevators) the Silver Fox label. He hit big with novelty country hits from Ray Stevens (Ahab The Arab) and Jeannie C. Riley (Harper Valley PTA), but he had his hands in a lot of Soul records, from his labels and as a producer for Brook Benton. His final claim to fame (and reason for his inclusion in the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame) is that he bought Sun Records in 1969, and oversaw the reissues of that seminal labels’ output. The vibe you get from Mr. Singleton’s story is that he was all about the music (that would sell), whether it was soul, garage, rockabilly,or country.
Betty Harris-There’s A Break in The Road (1969-SSS International)
There were no barriers for Mr. Singleton:
(His) roster included artists of varying styles, and it was not uncommon for Mr. Singleton to preside over sessions that featured African-American artists and white musicians.
“He brought (African-American) artists to town and put them up at his house,” said Kennedy, who often engineered sessions that Mr. Singleton produced, and who also produced hundreds of records for Kennedy-owned labels. “He brought people like Clyde McPhatter, Brook Benton and Ruth Brown here, and the only hotel where they were allowed to stay was the old Eldorado, in North Nashville. So most of the time, the artists stayed with Shelby.”
Mickey Murray-Stickey Sue (SSS International)
Bettye LaVette-Do Your Duty (1970-Silver Fox Records)
Big Al Downing-Cornbread Row (1969-Silver Fox Records) (You can hear why Big Al also had a few country hits)
Shelby Singleton died in 2009 at 77, another great loss from a year that saw a lot of great folks from the music biz pass away. Another loss in 2009 was the Blues guitarist Johnny Jones. He arrived in Nashville from Chicago in the early 60’s after holding down gigs with Junior Wells and Earl King. It is said that upon his return he battled Hendrix in a guitar duel at the Club Baron. Hendrix and Billy Cox played in a band called the King Casuals. Johnny Jones replaced Hendrix in the lineup when Jimi headed for New York. He played in and around Nashville for years, releasing his own music and touring with “Gatemouth” Brown and Bobby Bland. Later in his career Johnny Jones backed another Nashville R&B legend, the vocalist, Earl Gaines. Mr Gaines, sadly, also passed away in 2009. Like we’ve all noted it was a tough year.
Louis Brooks & His Hi-Toppers w/Earl Gaines-It’s Love Baby (24 Hours A Day) (1955-Excello)
Johnny Jones And The King Casuals-Soul Poppin (1968-Peachtree)
The Nashville Soul Story keeps giving though, because Music City was also home to Bobby Hebb(“Sunny”) and southern soul master Arthur Alexander, whose tunes (Anna,You Better Move on) were covered by the Beatles and The Stones, not to mention a tune he did that Elvis had a comeback with (Burning Love).