A part of my sheltered routine is to repair to my workshop in the garage in the late afternoon, usually with a Lagunitas Little Sumpin’. i sit down at the desk my father made Sarah about 25 years ago, and turn on the record player to convert my LP’s (the 45 RPMs have been addressed years ago) to digital and put them in my music library. It’s tough to decide what to record next.
But this afternoon, i simply selected the next album i had put in a pile from a random pull out of the enclosed cabinet i made for them out of scrap lumber almost 50 years ago. The reveries went further back.
The album was Hank Crawford’s “Midnight Ramble.” Usually i have about twenty small tasks to take care of and attend to them while recording. But not this afternoon. No, i stopped and just listened. i wandered around in places i had not been in some time.
There are some jazz snobs who don’t like this album because it’s not “cutting edge.” They are clueless (jazz snobs, audiophiles, and wine snobs drive me to distraction with their posturing). Those who don’t like this album are folks who don’t like jazz roots, the blues, or are really jazz snobs.
Regardless, i was in my world far away. The album notes describe a place i’ve never been and is not the same anymore. Beale Street in Memphis before it became a celebrity and tourist attraction was mean and low and blues, then rhythm and blues, and the roots of jazz. It produced the knock your socks off, feel it down in the gut, stuff before it went to fandom. B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Walker. Hell, the guy who hosted the after midnight shows at the Palace Theater was Rufus Thomas, the deejay for the Memphis black station on your dial and singer who did the “funky chicken” and was “walking the dog.” He also, “Gee Whiz” brought us his daughter Carla. And those jazz guys, Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Billy Eckstine, Percy Mayfield, and Johnny Ace. It was jazz but it was soul.
And he kept on growing, playing with Ray Charles five years straddling the 50’s and 60’s. Then he took some stuff from Charlie Parker, Louis Jordan, Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges. Lord, i could listen to them forever and forever. Soul. Jazz.
And this album includes others: Dr. John, Calvin Newborne, David Fathead Newman, Howard Johnson. Whoa!
Listening, i was initially sad. i never went to the Palace Theater. i have never been to Beale Street. Heck, i spent one weekend of American Legion Baseball there in ’61 and have passed through more times than i count. But never really stopped.
Then, as i listened to “Midnight Ramble” saluting Rufus Thomas’ show by that name that began after midnight at the Palace, i had experienced something similar, very similar.
i don’t know how it started. i’m guessing Cy Fraser had learned of it, and being then and now one of the greatest sources for information on music, any kind of music, he got us going there. i know that almost every time i went, which was somewhere around thirty or forty times, Cy and i, with a variety of others, somewhere between two and six in number, were together.
It wasn’t Memphis. It was Nashville. It wasn’t Beale Street. It was Jefferson Street. And it wasn’t the Palace Theater. It was the New Club Baron. i suspect it was a significantly smaller venue that the Palace. There weren’t as many big names regularly performing. Occasionally, a more famous performer would stop by after a show downtown. One of my all time favorite experiences was when Otis Redding dropped in after a big Rock ‘n Roll Review in the Nashville Municipal Auditorium. Otis put on a full show, and it was incredible, perhaps the best i saw out of the four times i saw him perform.
A regular performer at the New Club Baron was a character who went by “Gorgeous George,” definitely not the same as the professional wrestler. This Gorgeous George was even featured on a late night television show on one of the three channels in Nashville — late night back those days was eleven to midnight and then your television screen was filled with the logo featuring the Native American chief until sometime in the morning.
George the gorgeous was a good rhythm and blues singer. He was ahead of his time. His instrument was a homemade electronic keyboard before they became de riguer for almost every kind of band. He had created it on an ironing board. It was a sight to behold George playing his keyboard.
He also was an athlete. As his show wound down at the New Club Baron, the crowd would clear the center aisle and line up on each side. Someone would put a couple of folding chairs in the aisle. With the music still playing and George still singing and dancing, he would leave his keyboard, nee ironing board on the stage, dance to the chairs and jump over them, landing in a split. He would bounce up, dance back to the front and someone would add a chair to the line. George would jump the three chairs. This would continue with the fans getting louder and chanting “Gorgeous George” with each added chair and following jump.
In two shows, i saw him jump 24 chairs, end to end. The crowd went wild both times. The second time, i saw this feat it was over Christmas Vacation. A friend, to be unnamed here who was going to college out of state, had joined us. When George began the chair routine with everybody clapping and yelling his name, we, as inebriated as everyone else at three in the morning in a nightclub, joined the line and were in front on one side of the aisle. i was next to my friend, and he was next to a very large woman who had jumped up on another folding chair. Everyone had their arms around each other’s shoulders. We were singing, laughing, clapping and yelling George’s name.
i looked around as George began one of his jumps. The woman on the chair pulled her arms together in front of her, pulling my friend’s head along with her arms. When i looked his face was scrunched up against her breast. When Gorgeous completed his leap, the lady would let go, but when George jumped again, my friend’s face would once again be scrunched into those ample breasts. This lasted for about a half dozen chair leaps.
It was certainly a big addition to the show.
What i discovered during those midnight to four a.m. shows (and a couple of additions that are stories unto themselves) was these people were great. They were a lot like us. There were a few who thought these white (yes, i still hate that incorrect term) boys were intruders, but not many. A significant number of the crowd would wave at us, say hello, even clap, and several would join our table every time we went. Whoa. They were just like us.
i found myself angry at, not the difference. No, the difference was magic. Their life experience and those of their heritage, so awful in many forms of mistreatment, had created something beautiful, soulful, different, and the blues would not only foster rhythm and blues, but many forms of jazz. No, i was angry there was separation. That i couldn’t experience that kind of soul, that honesty, that politically incorrect way of looking at life on a regular basis. i was angry i couldn’t share my life experience with them.
And we keep trying to bridge the gap. We have “white” bands playing blues. We have jazz. We have mixed racial groups in every genre of music. We now play sports together. Maybe, maybe, we are learning a little bit about equality, about equality not being sameness but something greater. Maybe. But i’m not too optimistic.
i do know this. The New Club Baron is gone. From my limited checking, apparently the Palace is also gone. And the blues as i knew it is gone. There’s a lot of good blues out there, really good, even more polished, more intricate, more “edgy” as a jazz snob might describe.
Those blues folks from Bessie Smith, Willie Dixon, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and on and on and on sang with the intensity of their soul, their experience. That’s missing…almost gone.
But Hank Crawford captured it. It’s on display here in this album. You can hear it. You can feel it:
Or as Albert King, “Born Under a Bad Sign” once said, “Can You Dig it?”