David McGee (davidmcgee) Tue 3 Jan 06 12:06
Okay, folks, I'm back. Seems I had been logged off the Well and I thought my time was up. So I took some time off. Thanks to David Gans for clearing up matters and restoring my access. To catch up: Carl, I deeply appreciate those kind words about "Go,Cat, Go!" That was a four-year spiritual journey for me and an extremely emotional one for Carl, who really had to steel himself to relive the painful moments in his life and to reflect on the damage he did to his career and to his family when he was an alcoholic. With respect to Carl, Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee and even Roy Orbison, why Carl ended up a one-hit artist (which was true from the pop chart standpoint; he had other hits on the country charts post-"Blue Suede Shoes," notably "Dixie Fried") whereas his other Sun mates carved out substantial, influential careers is not easily boiled down to lack of ego or too much self-respect, although both of those figure into the complex factors that determined the course of his life and career. First, as a songwriter Carl didn't easily write about things he hadn't experienced or witnessed firsthand; one thing about his body of work is that it reflects the lives and mores of poor white southerners of a certain generation--you can dress those tales up with a rockabilly or honky tonk beat, but in the end they're like folk tales. What he didn't do well was write tuneful ditties that were radio-ready, that spoke to the younger generation raised on "Blue Suede." He wasn't Chuck Berry, nor did he have a larger sense of the American experience that informed Cash's course. Plus, he made one bad business decision after another throughout his career, right up to the end of his days. When I met him, he was managed b Ken Stilts, who had taken the Judds to the pinnacle of the country market and crossed them over to pop and generally made all the right moves. Ken was trying to get Carl to toughen up his music to make it more in tune with the New Traditionalists, to whom he was an idol, but Carl's attempts at commercial country generally wound up as syrupy love songs, sincere by lyrically strained and overly sentimental (the irony is that while he was writing those kinds of songs he was also cutting some really tough stuff in his home studio, but he never let it out for release; at one point he cut some sessions at Muscle Shoals that RCA released on three cassettes in the early '90s, but no one paid attention and RCA didn't promote the albums at all). Also, with me practically living with him for four years, I got to hear Carl at his rawest and best, working out new songs on acoustic guitar in his den, or, before we'd start our interviews, playing new things for me. The weekend before I went to Columbia, Missouri, to interview Cash for two days, Carl played me a new song he had written called "One Mile Out of Memphis." I swear, he was popping that gut string guitar like nobody's business and the song as he performed it that night in his den was as good as anything he ever cut at Sun, easily. It finally came out on his last album, on the Dinosaur label (produced by Bob Johnston, who was long past his glory days with Dylan by then), in a version so cluttered and murky it had lost all its power--it barely resembled the song I had heard originally. Such a shame. At one point Carl told me Lee Roy Parnell was going to cut it, and I thought that was a great idea, because Lee Roy understood Carl and his music, and is one heck of a guitar picker himself, but to date Lee Roy's not done it. The postscript to that story is that I went to Columbia and hung out with Cash, saw two shows from the side of the stage, and witnessed his final resurgence--he had just cut the first American album and was doing "Delia's Gone" and a couple of other cuts from it in the middle of his set. I went back and told Carl what Cash had done, and suggested he ought to get some of his songs down in that style, especially "One Mile Out of Memphis," and he said, "I think that one-man-with-a-guitar thing is over." Hmmm. After Carl passed, I got a call from a film producer who was working with the family on a script for a biopic of Carl's life. We talked for a bit, mostly about Carl's wife Valda and how she should be portrayed, then the guy told me the script was going to focus on the latter years of Carl's life, the years after "Go, Cat, Go! " so it could deal in depth with his spiritual transformation and what his life was like in Heaven--see, the family had called in a psychic, had made contact with Carl in the afterlife and this is the film he told them he wanted made. Nothing about the Sun years at all, nothing about "Blue Suede Shoes," nothing about Elvis, Cash, Orbison, Jerry Lee... To which a friend of mine said, "Carl wasn't much of a businessman when he was alive, and he hasn't gotten any better now that he's dead." Has anyone seen this film yet? Of course not. And I'm figuring the family is seething over "Walk the Line," because once again Cash gets the glory and Carl is reduced to a bit player. One misstep after another. This is only a couple of examples; I could list many other points where Carl backed off from an option that could have changed his fortunes for the better, commercially that is. What's sad is that he really never stopped making good, stirring music, but hardly anyone heard it after he left Sun. This is already a lengthy response. I'll deal with Steve Earle when I get back on later. Let's all wish him well on his seventh marriage, though, this one to Allison Moorer.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Tue 3 Jan 06 15:49
Fascinating. The history of pop music -- music in general, I guess -- is dotted with people who had the talent but didn't have the personality or the business acumen or the self-discipline or the courage or the whatever to achieve lasting greatness or, just as important, lasting happineness, and in so many of those cases it's a goddam shame. Bix Beiderbecke couldn't say no to the next drink or the next jam session, Elvis began to doubt himself as soon as his mother died, Janis was hopelessly lonely, and Carl couldn't pick a business manager to save his soul. Damn. David, you say the reasons Carl didn't have the career Elvis, Johnny, and Roy had are "not easily boiled down to lack of ego or too much self-respect, although both of those figure into the complex factors..." Could Sam Phillips be included in those reasons? Did he not promote Carl at some crucial point or not record a crucial song or not push him to appear on some crucial show?
Carl LaFong (mcdee) Tue 3 Jan 06 15:59
Also, don't forget luck! And yes, thanks for those thoughts. It's funny, but "Blue Suede Shoes" sounds like exactly what it isn't -- a confection self-consciously written to appeal to suburban teenagers. As the book reveals, it's actually a slice of honky-tonk life, albeit a lighthearted one. But the night after Carl played that dance he would have played one where someone "pulled out a razor and he wasn't shaving." When you listen to stuff recorded just before and just after Elvis, one of the most startling things is how far it jumps down in the age of the audience. Which is one explanation of why Perkins' career went off the tracks so quickly. "Blue Suede" appealed to young teens, but perhaps more by accident than by design. You'd have to be a pretty weird teen to get into "Dixie Fried." I mean, I woulda liked it, but I was pretty weird.
Carl LaFong (mcdee) Thu 5 Jan 06 17:19
And David, your comments about how Carl produced all this great music that somehow ended up being tepid by the time it was produced (or never was released at all) reminds me of an experience that really stuck in my head from a long-ago job I had as a live sound recordist (I was basically a glorified gopher, but it was an interesting gig). Anyway, we were to record a live album in a small NYC club by a guy named Frank Micare, who never made it big, but hey, through the miracles of google I discover he's still alive and has continued a career in music: http://www.ddemusic.com/fmicare.htm Anyway, this was either late 70s or more likely very early 80s, and Micare was great in the club. I would love to have a tape of the performance: spirited, a great mix of originals, standards, and weird discoveries. Micare was full of energy, and the music was unusual and compelling. I didn't sense he'd be the next platinum-seller, probably a little highbrow, and he wasn't a superstar, but I thought he was very distinctive and talented, and the record would at least make a splash and get a B+ from Christagau. When it came out, someone had decided to re-do everything in the studio, with typical bloated c. 1980 production and it was dead, dead, dead. They put one live track from the club near the end, but I'd be surprised if anyone managed to get that far into the record without picking up the needle and throwing it across the room. Sank without a trace. I actually saved a copy, because I got an album credit (nice of them). But man, what were they thinking?
David McGee (davidmcgee) Mon 9 Jan 06 10:58
Steve--Carl always had ambivalent feelings about Sam. One the one hand he had a deep respect for and commitment to him for the opportunity he gave Carl to get out of the cotton fields and out of the tonks; on the other hand, he never forgave him for not paying the royalties he was due (Carl was the only Sun artist ever to sue Sam for this, and he won a partial victory in monetary terms, and a bigger victory in getting all his publishing back). Carl was also upset with Sam for his seeming favoritism towards Jerry Lee at the expense of all the other Sun artists. Carl even objected to Sam labeling Jerry Lee's records with the "Pumpin' Piano Man" nickname and in response Sam issued some Carl singles that identified him as the "Rockin' Guitar Man." Sam's defense was that Jerry Lee was hot--and boy, was he--and he was only doing what any good record man would do to promote his breakout artist. Nevertheless, what Carl saw as Sam's indifference towards him and his music was the final straw in him deciding to sign with Columbia, a disaster that Carl acknowledged for the first time in our interviews for the book. First, he found out Columbia wanted nothing more than for him to regurgitate "Blue Suede Shoes" (he complied with a pretty good song, "Pointed Toe Shoes," that was a minor hit), then brought in Grady Martin to play guitar on some sessions (instead of Carl!) and, as a final insult, flopped the negative of his first album cover photo so that Carl's pictured on the LP cover as a left-handed picker (adding insult to injury, Carl didn't see the album until it was alread out). So, yes, Sam Phillips didn't show enough love to Carl to keep him at Sun, and Carl, fed up with all the attention being paid to Jerry Lee at (he believed) his expense, made the first of many terrible business decisions in his career by bolting to Columbia. Carl, you're right about the post-"Blue Suede Shoes" music--some of it's pretty tough stuff lyrically (even some southern radio stations refused to play "Dixie Fried" because of its subject matter, but it became a regional hit anyway), but that was Carl writing about the world he knew. The Union College dance at which he witnessed the boy upbraiding his date for stepping on his suedes was on a Saturday night; the following Tuesday, as I recall, Carl and his brothers were back on the outskirts of town, playing the Sand Ditch honky tonk, where, yes, there was always an abundance of razors, though no one was ever shaving. The building that housed the Sand Ditch, by the way, is still out there on Highway 70 east of Jackson, heading towards Nashville. It's a dilapidated auto repair garage; looks like it hasn't been painted since Carl last played there. Someone ought to restore it and put a plaque up, honoring it as one of the places where rockabilly was born. Also, Carl, believe it or not, I remember Frank Micare, even saw him play a couple of times in New York. Either his manager or his publicist (neither of whose names I can remember) tipped me off to him. Seems like that was late '70s. I may have even written about him in my "New York, NY" column in Record World. No question there was a good buzz about him for a hot minute back in the day. I do not, however, remember his album; don't even recall if one was ever sent to me. From your description of what made it to vinyl I guess we know what happened to Frank, though. Wonder if he's still out there waiting for his ship to come in.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Tue 10 Jan 06 11:17
David, thank you for the informative and complete answer about Sam Phillips. I think that because he was such a pivotal figure at such a pivotal time in pop music history, we might want him to be a better, or at least different, kind of person than he actually was, which isn't really fair. While he certainly had a good ear and a strong sense of the value of what he was recording, he was even more a businessman, and sometimes his hard business decisions interfered with what we might regard as better artistic decisions. In any event, Phillips was a complicated character. Crucual, too, of course. But complicated as well.
David Gans (tnf) Thu 12 Jan 06 07:28
wWas it in "Go Cat Go!" that I read the story of Sam Phillips iving Litle Richard a pink Cadillac to celebrate a hit record and then taking it out of his royalties?
Berliner (captward) Thu 12 Jan 06 07:57
Couldn't have been, since Richard was signed to Specialty (Art Rupe) rather than Sun. However, I don't think Art would have done something like that; his scams were a little more businesslike. I *have* heard that story about Don Robey and Bobby Bland, however.
David McGee (davidmcgee) Fri 13 Jan 06 14:47
DG: Right story, right book, wrong artist. Sam made a big show of presenting Carl a new Cadillac for being the first Sun artist to sell a million records. Had a reporter and photog from the local paper come down to the car dealer's and put on a performance for the ages in presenting the car to Carl. When the next royalty statement came through, Carl's wife noticed that a deduction had been made for the Caddy. Ed, John Broven, the Ace Records A&R consultant who assembled the B.B. King "Vintage Years" box set, has a finished manuscript for a book titled "Record Men" that profiles the Bihari brothers, Art Rupe, and many of the early label owners, in many cases through first-hand interviews, including a revealing one with Rupe, who never did interviews. Rupe and the Biharis were far more principled than some of the others; Robey, as you probably know, was a legendary tough guy. Stories about him, like those about Morris Levy, are not exactly legion, because so many people were scared of those guys, with good reason. Unfortunately for Broven, his publisher, Schirmer Books, announced it was going out of business this past Monday, so John's book is going to have to find a new home. Also, Backbeat Books, which published my B.B. King and Steve Earle books, is going to be put up for sale, as its owner, CMP Entertainment Media, has no expertise in book publishing and wants out of the business. Sad times for a lot of authors who had books in the pipeline for spring publication.
Berliner (captward) Sat 14 Jan 06 03:03
I got my story from a guy who'd interviewed Robey's chauffeur, who felt he could talk about stuff now that the big man was dead. At one point he was looking at the cover of Bobby Bland's Two Steps from the Blues album and said "Nice house. Mr. Robey owns it. Nice suit. Robey owns that, too. And he probably just got out of his Cadillac. He owns that. Mr. Robey took it out of his royalties."
David Gans (tnf) Sun 15 Jan 06 15:30
Shit. I have a friend with a book in contract at Backbeat. I hope the buyer has a brain anda heart.
David Gans (tnf) Sun 15 Jan 06 15:31
Byt he way, we have David McGee booked for a return engagement March 8-22, talking about his book on Steve Earle.
Vote or whine (divinea) Sun 15 Jan 06 16:13
David McGee (davidmcgee) Mon 16 Jan 06 11:04
Telling story about Mr. Robey, Ed. Doc Pomus once told me about being summoned to Morris (Moishe) Levy's office at Roulette, when Levy was needing news songs for one of his artists (and I do mean HIS artists). Doc arrived early and was waiting in the lobby, in a chair that was directly facing Levy's office, the door to which was open. Inside the office Doc saw two burly boys beating the living hell out of some poor soul, one holding him while the other pounded away, then they would switch positions (I guess to save the wear and tear on their hands). When they had ground him to a bloody pulp they dragged him out of Levy's office, past Doc, and tossed him on an elevator and sent it down. At which point Doc heard Levy call out, "Come on in, Doc!" Ah, the good ol' days. Suge Knight's got nothing on the masters of the form.
Gary Lambert (almanac) Mon 16 Jan 06 11:20
When my brother was producing the B.B. King Blues Hour, there was a guy who worked for the company that produced and syndicated the show who had also worked for Don Robey. One day they were talking, and my brother asked him if he went back far enough to have known Johnny Ace, and if he was around when Johnny died in that famous game of Russian Roulette. The guy laughed and said "Russian Roulette my ass... everyone who was there knows that Mr. Robey killed Johnny!"
Berliner (captward) Mon 16 Jan 06 12:38
That's Big Mama Thornton's opinion, too, and she was on the bill with him. "Guy came through the window of the dressing room's bathroom, walked in, shot Johnny in the head, kept on walking." The usual rumor: that Ace had signed with Robey's arch-rivals Atlantic. Bobby Bland also signed with Atlantic, and lord only knows what great music would have come from that, but Robey disappeared him to his hunting lodge/cabin in the Great Piney Woods in East Texas until Ahmet and Jerry gave up looking for him. His every need was catered for except he couldn't leave. When he did, he said he'd had a change of heart and couldn't do bad by the man who'd been so good to him. But that Morris Levy story is priceless. I wonder whether Doc was still on crutches or in his wheelchair when that story happened. For fans of the Goniff Period of New York Music Biz, I would urge you to find a film, never released, but extensively copied, called "Sliced Steak," which is a documentary (directed by Richard Perry) of a roast for Levy. Roastmaster is Joe Smith, who later headed up Elektra Records, but at the time was a DJ in Boston.
Gary Lambert (almanac) Mon 16 Jan 06 12:40
Oh, I would love to see that.
David Gans (tnf) Mon 16 Jan 06 13:27
Wow, me too.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Mon 16 Jan 06 13:39
Gary Lambert (almanac) Mon 16 Jan 06 13:58
That company that made and distributed B.B.'s radio show, BTW, had other connections to the music biz's gangsta heyday: one of the owners was featured in Frederic Dannen's invaluable "Hit Men." I forget whether one of the notorious Scotti Brothers broke his legs or if he broke the legs of a Scotti Brother, but somebody's legs done got broke (I think it was the former).
Berliner (captward) Tue 17 Jan 06 02:23
Hmmm, a friend of mine has "Sliced Steak." Wonder if he'd burn a DVD for us...
Carl LaFong (mcdee) Tue 17 Jan 06 05:23
David McGee (davidmcgee) Tue 17 Jan 06 07:48
Ed, put me down for one of those DVDs of "Sliced" too. That's a must-have for the archives. Also, chalk up another vote for the Robey-as-Johnny Ace-assassin theory. Rufus Thomas once told me, "Robey was always courtin' me, but I wouldn't sign with him." He said he told Robey to stay away from him after the Johnny Ace incident; he had heard "from people who would know--you just ask Big Mama Thornton--she was there!"--that Johnny Ace didn't pull the trigger himself and that Robey was lurking around backstage then suddenly disappeared. Who really knows what happened? But things do add up after awhile. FYI: Doc's meeting with Moishe Levy took place in the late '50s, when Doc was still on crutches. He didn't go to a wheelchair until the late '60s, when he suffered a bad fall and feared he couldn't maneuver the crutches anymore. He had gained a lot of weight by that time. He had some limited use of his legs all those years he was on crutches, but when his weight started climbing there was not enough strength in the muscles to support him anymore. The Scotti Brothers were vicious, no-class punks. Ben Scotti used to go around bragging that he'd been kicked out of the NFL for being "too mean." Please. I bet Fred Williamson and Jack Tatum weren't scared of him. Not to excuse the record men of old their criminal ways, but at least a lot of good and sometimes great music came out on Duke/Peacock, Roulette, Brunswick, Specialty, Imperial, et al. If anyone here remembers the Scotti Brothers' own label, I bet no one remembers a single record that was released on it, because they all stunk, across the board. A few years ago they tried another label venture, which tapped out almost immediately. The one album I remember--because I reviewed it--was a reissue of Patsy Cline's classic recordings with--get this--all of Owen Bradley's arrangements and Bill McIleheny's string arrangements wiped and replaced by "contemporary" arrangements done by some hack rocker. The Scottis have left nothing good in their wake, but of course they can continue to do business in the business of music, at least until their leg breaking days are past.
Carl LaFong (mcdee) Tue 17 Jan 06 07:56
I remember the Scotti brothers because I used to do a little record reviewing and radio programming for a college station, and learned very quickly that if the Scotti brothers' names appeared anywhere on a record, it was almost certainly a piece of shit. It is strange to contemplate how much good music was produced in the years when much of the music (and entertainment) industry was basically run by idiosyncratic cheap crooks and hoods. Somehow I don't think even Don Robey would have tried to foist Lindsey Lohan on us.
Berliner (captward) Tue 17 Jan 06 08:59
I dunno. The guys in Philly would have; the Cameo-Parkway crowd. After all, what was Bobby Rydell except Lindsey Lohan as boy with lower-tech recording equipment? Off to e-mail TV Tom.
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