Side 1 – Opening Riff

Given all the depressing news anyone who regularly follows national and international events encounters, sometimes it is easy to think there’s nothing good or joyous happening. But then here’s a story about a 102-year-old saxophonist who is STILL active and working both in a group and doing his own events, and you realize that not everything is gloom and doom. My first inclination, given how many hoax and prank stories now infest the Internet, was to assume this might be a joke, despite the New York Times byline. I also must confess to not being overly familiar with Fred Staton, which is a shame because he has quite a track record.

Fred StatonA native of Pittsburgh who’s played with all that city’s greats including Art Blakey, Roy Eldridge, Erroll Garner and Earl “Fatha” Hines, Staton moved to New York the year I was born (1952). Amazingly, he worked in restaurants for decades, as well as serving for a time in the military. He never became a fulltime jazz musician until he retired, though he was always finding ways to squeeze in a session or two between restaurant jobs. Growing up in a poor household, he actually began as a singer in gospel groups at his church, then tried the drums before finally opting for the tenor sax. His preference is the swing era style perfected by the great Lester Young, though he’s also a devotee of Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins.

These days he plays in a swing unit called the Harlem Blues & Jazz Band, which was organized back in 1973 by Al Vollmer, another senior jazz stalwart still going at 88. Indeed this band also includes a 91-year-old in Zeke Mullins, plus 84-year-old Jackie Williams. When Staton did a recent date that was spotlighted in the Times his accompanist on piano was 80-year-old Bertha Hope, the widow of the celebrated pianist/composer Elmo Hope.

Fred Staton’s story is somewhat familiar, in that there are loads of great players in cities across America who never enjoyed stardom, had acclaimed recordings, or became famous. But their dedication to the music and its legacy is inspirational, and reaffirmation that when you are able in life to do what you love it’s a blessing, no matter how much or little money and glory you attain.

 

Side 2 – Interview with James Porter

James Porter is a DJ and music critic from Chicago who has become a good friend via the Internet. James has written about a wide range of music over the years, and while not a jazz writer, has done a lot of work in the areas of blues, R&B, soul, country and rock. He’s particularly interested in and is currently finishing a volume about neglected and overlooked contemporary black rock and rollers, as well as the black roots of rock and roll. James’ monthly show “The Hoodoo Party,” is heard at WLUW-FM on the Loyola University radio station (wluw.org online) from 10 a.mn. – 1 p.m. CDT every third Saturday. It is a treasure trove for all types of classic, overlooked or forgotten gems in blues, R&B, rock and roll and country. He recently found time from his busy schedule to answer some e-mail questions for our column.
(1) What got you interested in doing a project on Black Rock & Roll?
The genesis actually goes back to the early eighties, when I was in high school. There was a bit of a black-rock renaissance then. Around the time of Prince’s Dirty Mind, contemporary R&B was highly influenced by new wave (as opposed to punk). And on the rock side of the fence, the Bus Boys and Garland Jeffreys both had some measure of fame. I’d always had it in the back of my head to write a definitive history of African-American rock & roll, especially since I was a black man heavily into rock sounds myself. When I really started the project in the 2000s, I was advised by a few friends (including Jake Austen from Roctober magazine) that I might want to concentrate on the lesser-knowns, since everybody has a thumbnail, cereal-box idea of who Hendrix and Prince were.

(2) This is, of course, a complicated issue, but from your perspective, when did Rock and Roll become identified mostly or solely as white music?
1965, I would say. White rock became twangier and more guitar-oriented. Black music started retreating into the gospel roots. As much as the British Invasion acts like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Animals called attention to American rhythm & blues, ironically the gap only got wider after those bands arrived on the scene.

(3) As R&B evolved into soul and funk, did this also play a role?
I would say so.

(4) There are some obvious prominent figures in Rock & Roll history we don’t have to name. But who are some of the forgotten or overlooked black Rock & Roll pioneers?
The Chambers Brothers. As prominent as they were at the end of the sixties, they’re almost regarded as footnotes today, which is a disgrace. Also the Bus Boys. And then there’s the Duals, who had one hit in 1961 with an instrumental called “Stick Shift.” This was a two-guitar duo notable for being one of the few African-Americans involved with surf music. The only other black surf musician I can think of is Willy Glover from the Pyramids, who I interviewed for my book.

(5) Who would you consider black Rock & Rollers today?
Mick Collins, Deborah Cotton, Nikki Hill, and D’Angelo. He’s more properly considered soul, but like several funk musicians from the early seventies, it sounds like he’s reclaiming the rock influence.

(6) Do you agree with those who feel R&B, soul, and Hip-Hop acts should NOT be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
No, I don’t. I realize there are people on both sides who believe that R&B, etc. is it’s own separate thing, but the definition of rock isn’t finite. I have said, time and time again, that once the 70s became eligible in the rock and roll hall of fame, no two people would agree on who gets in. There are so many subcategories that the sons don’t always recognize the fathers. And it’s not just with black music either. Echo & the Bunnymen and Jerry Lee Lewis are two separate kinds of acts, yet both artists are usually in the rock section of the store.

(7) What is your involvement in the current album project that also covers this territory?
I wrote the liner notes explaining one specific strain: that of funk bands who had an unmistakeable rock influence…something which seems to be totally forgotten today. I collaborated along with Eothen Alapatt, who tracked down the sounds and the artists.

(8) What is the origin of “The Hoodoo Party?”
The nucleus of the Hoodoo Party goes back to January of 1992, when I used to host a similar show on WHPK (the University of Chicago’s radio station) called Hoodoo Hoedown. That lasted until February 1996. Fast forward to 2013. I’m good friends with Tom Jackson, who hosts a roots-music showcase called Somebody Else’s Troubles on my current station, WLUW (which broadcasts from Loyola University). I hadn’t hosted a regular radio program in a long time, and felt like doing it again on a lark. I asked Tom if there were any slots open at the station; since he was not able to do his own show more than twice a month, he offered me the opportunity to show up on the third Saturday of every month, from 11AM to 1PM (CST), and just tear it up. Originally I operated under the Somebody Else’s Troubles moniker, but as the show grew an identity of it’s own over the years, I renamed it Hoodoo Party. Even though we’re both playing roots music, our approaches are different. I lovingly call my show the bratty kid brother to his program.

For those who have never heard the show, the focus is on early rock & roll, from roughly 1950-67, although I will play newer acts that are in the same vein, like Nikki Hill, Deke Dickerson, the Gories, and Bloodshot Bill. Also, besides the usual rock and soul from that era, I will play straight-ahead blues, gospel and country from the same time frame, since those genres influenced the music I’m playing. I don’t really get into the late sixties and early seventies much on the show, because that period doesn’t blend in well with the rest of the program. While there are tons of acts from that era I like, that time would be better served by its’ own show. Although I do break my own rule on the annual Christmas show, when I bend the format a little bit, playing the likes of Donny Hathaway, the Jackson Five and others who came in after the cutoff date.(By the way, I generally don’t call my show an “oldies” show…that would imply nostalgia for a time now gone. For my show, it’s just a showcase for good music that falls within a certain style.)

(9) What got you interested in being a DJ and a music critic?
That all stems from being a fan of music in general. Noting that I developed an interest in music early, my parents bought me a General Electric record player for my fifth birthday, and the ball started rolling from there. Since then, I have been involved in various aspects of music…I’ve led rock bands of my own, and being a record collector eventually led to DJing in clubs – a highlight was spinning at the Ponderosa Stomp as half of the East of Edens Soul Express in New Orleans, with fellow Chicagoan John Ciba. As far as writing, I learned to read and write around the same time I developed a love for music, so it was natural that these two things would come together for me.

(10) Who would consider influences on your radio style and presentation?
My radio style? I grew up listening to, and being influenced by, all kinds of radio DJs, but if I had to pare it down, it would be:

Richard Pegue – Chicago dusties deejay. Like myself, Pegue was involved in several different aspects of the Chicago music industry, as a musician, producer, record store employee, jingle writer, etc., but he was best known for his weekend dusties program, which I listened to quite regularly. The teenaged version of myself learned a lot from this show, and would buy several 45s that I first heard via Pegue. What I liked about Pegue is that he didn’t just choose the same common oldies from a chart book, he would throw in odd album cuts, B-sides and local hits from time to time. When the movie Hairspray came out, I seriously thought director John Waters must have hung around Chicago at some point, because the flick featured several semi-obscure records I knew from Pegue’s show. Plus, Pegue had an awesome sense of humor!

Bob Stroud – he was almost like a white version of Richard Pegue. He’s still on the air in Chicago today, but I grew up listening to his early-80s oldies show on a now-defunct FM rock station, WMET. The main focus of his show, at the time, was roughly 1964-71. While he played the artists you’d expect from that era, like Pegue, he too played plenty of local and forgotten rock oldies, like the Bubble Puppy’s “Hot Smoke & Sassafrass” or the Third Booth’s “I Need Love.” Plus, like Pegue, he had a smooth sense of humor, too.

Steve Cushing – host of the syndicated Blues Before Sunrise.

James “the Hound” Marshall – East Coast DJ, formerly heard on WFMU in the 80s and 90s, now heard online on Little Water Radio. In his own words: “crude blues and R&B, moronic, obscure rock’n’roll, brain dead hillbillies on amphetamine and the like.”

(11) Who are your favorite artists?
My fave artists? Ever? Here’s a partial list: the Gories, Doug Sahm, Billy Lee Riley, Arthur Lee/Love, Sam the Sham, Joe Tex, Brinsley Schwarz, Esther Phillips, Latimore, George Clinton, Swamp Dogg, Equals, Blasters, Little Walter. And there’s room for more – far more.

(12) How did you develop and interest in country and rockabilly?
I’d always had an interest in rockabilly because I’d always had an interest in early rock & roll, period. Rockabilly just came with the package. My love for this music really started to rev up towards the end of the eighties, to the point where I decided I was ready for straight country, which was partially where it came from. My dad always listened to it while I was growing up, but unlike the blues, it wasn’t really my thing at first. I eased my way into it via a compilation of Johnny Cash’s Sun recordings, then I jumped all the way in the pool with The Best Of Merle Haggard, which I found for a dollar. That was in January 1990, and I’ve been a country fan ever since.

(13) Aside from Big Al Downing, are there other notable black rockabilly performers?
Other black rockabillies? Not all of these artists may have been rockabillies, per se, but they were certainly rock & roll: Ray Sharpe, Kid Thomas, Jerry McCain, Eddy Clearwater (who still does the occasional rockabilly-slanted number), Grover Pruitt, and Guitar Junior (who later became famous as Lonnie Brooks). Also, every now and then the odd straight blues performer would stray into rockabilly territory: Magic Sam recorded “21 Days In Jail,” Lowell Fulson released “Rock This Morning,” G.L. Crockett had “Look Out Mabel,” Hop Wilson was “Rockin In The Coconut Top.” Even a few of the Louisiana-based artists on the Excello label had a boppin’ feel to their blues, like Lazy Lester. And of course, there are the obvious: Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard. Chuck was the most country-influenced of the three.

(14) How much interest do you have in contemporary black music?
I wish I could say there was current black music (meaning R&B) that I liked, but that electronic dance music sound really doesn’t appeal to me. I sort of liked the neo-soul trend of the 90s and 2000s – it was good to see the likes of D’Angelo and Lucy Pearl get back to genuine soul music with real instruments, but that didn’t really spread the way it should have.

(15) How much of a role did blues play in your musical development, and how much influence or impact does blues have on rock and roll in your view?
Blues was more or less the first music I’d heard coming up. This wasn’t unusual for black kids, but the difference was the blues stuck with me; I never really got away from it. When I was a teenager, one of my best friends was related to Mama Yancey, and I was likely more impressed by that fact than he was! The blues influence on rock & roll is like a given to me; without one, there wouldn’t be the other. Even though I’m not hearing much of a blues influence on the current crop of commercial rock bands, the importance can’t be forgotten.

(16) You don’t seem to be that big a fan of jazz and gospel. Is that an accurate assessment?
I love gospel music. Although my mother used to listen to it all the time when I was young, I didn’t really “get the message “until I was nineteen. I was on a huge bender for vintage R&B at the time, and as soon as I flashed on how much classic soul took from gospel (and in some cases, vice versa) I decided the genre was worth investigating. Huge gospel fan now. I’ve even played it on my show, even though my program comes on right after Bob Marovich’s excellent Gospel Memories! As for jazz, my taste in that music is sporadic. I don’t claim to be a huge jazz maniac, but I have my favorites: Horace Silver, Mose Allison, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, Jimmy McGriff, and quite a few others. They don’t follow a stylistic line either; as they saying goes, with jazz I just sorta “like what I like.”

(17) How about Doo-wop? Do you view that as a side element or tangent to rock and roll?
Doo-wop? I consider that part of the rock and roll story as a whole, if we’re counting rhythm & blues, but for the purpose of this book…not really.

(18) Besides the black rock and roll book, do you have some other projects in the works?
There are projects in the works, but I can’t really say right now. I’m just taking this a step at a time!

(19) Do you still do a lot of club/DJ gigs, and are those quite different from any other things that you do?
I still DJ the occasional club date here in Chicago. I don’t consider them different from what I do; they’re more like extensions.

(20) If forced to chose just one artist most illustrative of your musical preferences, who would that be?
This is the hardest question I’ve had to answer! Maybe Doug Sahm, because he covered so much ground, sometimes in the course of a single song. Ask me another day, and I might tell you something different.

Coming next -> Interview with Dr. Ryan Middagh, + CD reviews