Archive for the ‘The History of My Left Ear’ Category

A History of My Left Ear – Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012 by Lorne


Discussions of the post-WW2 evolution of modern jazz usually center on its progressive tendencies and the birth of Bop. Little mention gets made of the enormous post-war craze for “traditional” Dixieland jazz, which reached its high-water mark in the late Forties, when artists like Pete Fountain, Bob Crosby (Bing’s brother),  Al Hirt, and Eddie Condon (to name a few) began to make a name for themselves with perky banjo and piano-inflected “old timey” jazz. There’s a reason most of that music doesn’t get discussed today: it’s mostly forgettable. Many of the musicians had great talent (especially Pete Fountain, who by any measure was a virtuoso clarinetist in his prime), but when I hear their recordings today they strike me as vapid – music by old white guys, played for other old white guys. When put beside recordings from the period by artists who actually came out of the New Orleans street jazz tradition – artists like George Lewis, Bunk Johnson, Kid Ory – one instantly hears the lack of primitive expression and authenticity in these revivalist jazz bands. It’s ersatz, cleaned-up jazz, made for country-clubbers and good ole boys, only marginally more interesting than the schmaltzy dance-band stylings of Guy Lombardo or Lawrence Welk.

An exception, at least to my ear, is the now almost forgotten San Francisco trumpeter Bob Scobey, who from the late Forties to about 1960 led one of the scorchingest six-piece ensembles of the post-war era. Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band was the house orchestra of the legendary Oakland jazz club Victor & Roxies, and to have seen them in their prime must have been quite a thrill. Like other Dixieland revivalists, Scobey stuck pretty closely to trad jazz standards, but what set him apart was his absolute swinging virtuosity on his instrument – his breaks and solos were always far more inventive and energized than they needed to be to meet the relatively low bar set by most other Dixieland revivalists. He also surrounded himself with some wonderful Bay area musicians, including the big-blowing Jack Buck on trombone and the inimitable (if occasionally grating) Clancy Hayes on banjo and vocals.

Like most else I know about traditional music, I owe my familiarity with Scobey to my dad, Jake Bair, who died in 2009. Scobey made an influential tour of college campuses in 1956, when Jake was still an undergraduate at Rutgers, but I never thought to ask him if he saw the band play live or not. What I do know is that by the end of the Fifties Scobey’s band was the height of bohemian cool on American college campuses. His tunes were a staple of college-town jukeboxes, and he was even featured in a hip Marlboro cigarette ad that aired during the Dobie Gillis show. Jake once described for me a wonderful scene in a pool hall where one night Scobey’s three-trombone arrangement of “I Wish I Was In Peoria” came on the jukebox, infusing my father with such a rush of euphoria that he promptly ran three straight racks of nine-ball and went home with fifty dollars in his pocket (whether he managed to run all three racks within the roughly two-and-a-half-minute duration of the song, I can’t tell you – ever the fabulist, he might have been making the whole thing up – but the man really could shoot some pool). When I went into the Coast Guard after high school, the line “Why did I ever roam with these sailor boys / I should have stayed back home in Illinois” often crossed my mind, but I never got to be the pool shark my father was.

Among the hundreds of old jazz, blues, string-band and bluegrass LPs I grew up with on the farm in West Virginia, there was always that stack of scratchy Scobey 10-inches in the music room (yes, we were hippies, but we had a music room – and the rules for using the equipment were very strict!). It took me until high school to begin to appreciate traditional jazz, but once I did Scobey became one of my favorites, and despite my general distrust of such “throwback” music I’ve never lost my taste for his records. Mind you, there’s nothing intellectual or even particularly original about this music – it is, as advertised on the album label, “good time jazz,” made for barrel houses and beer picnics. But for all that, there’s a clarity, vivacity and sweetness in Scobey’s line that sets him apart and keeps these records sounding fresh fifty years later.

Bob Scobey died young, of stomach cancer, in 1963 – perhaps contributing to his obscurity now – but before he left us he and his band recorded several hundred sides, mostly on Lester Koenig’s ‘Good Time Jazz’ label. Most of this oeuvre has, thankfully, been re-issued digitally, meaning I can keep those old 10-inches on the rack where they belong. Here’s a little three-song sampler of Scobey’s talents, starting out with that version of “Peoria” I was talking about (check out the kray-zee trombone trio – Jack Buck, Bob Mielke, and Marshall Nichols – on the second chorus); followed by Scobey’s treatment of the old New Orleans standard “Closer Walk With Thee,” where he really shows off his phrasing and tone; and concluding with the one Scobey tune some of you are likely to have heard – his great version of “Ace in the Hole,” a great ensemble piece and certainly one of Clancy Hayes’s finest vocal performances.  Click HERE, enjoy, and explore!


The History of My Left Ear :: First Installment – The Greatest Soul Record You’ve Never Heard

Sunday, August 21st, 2011 by Lorne


In the spring of 1986, heavily under the influence of the two Millers – Henry and Roger – I dropped out of the Biology program at Virginia Tech to chase after my sweetie, who had just moved to New Orleans to work in a psychiatric hospital (Lee Ann and I celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary yesterday, vindicating what at the time struck my family and many of my friends as, at best, a dubious decision).  In order to fund that trip, and to lighten my load sufficiently to be able to fit it all into my 1979 Dodge Colt,  I sold the only two things in my possession that had any monetary value at all: my stereo and my record collection. Now that was a dubious decision; but, desperate times call for desperate measures, and I was in desperate need of gas money and a security deposit. So off they went, fifteen hundred or so LPs, representing the fruits of every penny I’d earned since my senior year in high school.  I saved back about fifty records to keep, chosen on the basis of what I thought would be their lasting value. Those fifty records are still with me – along with about a thousand more accumulated in the twenty-five years since that original de-accession – and looking at them now gives me pause. What was I thinking? How could I have let go Double Nickels On The Dime but kept No Guru, No Method, No Teacher? My original 7″ of the Dead Boys’ Sonic Reducer — gone. But — oh Christ — I can’t say it — George Winston? George Winston?… yes: Autumn, Winter, Spring, here to render my seasons comatose forevermore.

Despite a dismaying number of similarly egregious miscalculations, I did manage to hold on to a few winners, and even to accumulate some others over the years. This summer I’ve finally gotten around to digitizing some of those winners – at least the ones that have never been released on CD.  It’s a process that seems destined to take forever and to lead me down many twisting paths of nostalgia and rumination. As this blog seems to be my only outlet for rumination these days, I find myself for better or worse wanting to share. Lucky you.

Today I re-discovered one of the very first albums I bought after moving to New Orleans, and listening to it I was instantly and vividly returned to the afternoon in 1986 when I first heard it, sitting on the futon, sweating, in my one-room apartment in the Lower Garden District. If I wasn’t sucking on a bottle of Dixie Beer at that moment, it wasn’t for lack of desire but lack of funds. When this song came on the radio I knew without a doubt that I was listening to one of the greatest soul recordings ever made. The minute it ended I got in my car, drove up Magazine Street to that great record store whose name I just can’t seem to bring up (now of course long gone) and bought the album. I listened to it again and again. Each time I heard it I was more convinced of its greatness. Since no one – and I mean no one – I know has ever heard it, it seems only fair to finally share it here. But first I’m going to make you sit through some of the back-story:

That spring and summer of 1986 I divided my time between working, writing poetry, following my beloved New York Mets, and listening to the Best Radio Station In The World, WWOZ. I have little to say about the first three – I did learn to cook a mean pizza at that restaurant, but I can’t say I learned much else, other than how not to run a business; those poems are still stuffed in a shoebox somewhere – are they as awful as I remember them?; the Mets have never again matched the combination of charisma, kismet, and achievement that marked their magnificent 1986 season.

But WWOZ: that was an education.  A lot of what I know and love about American music – particularly southern soul and R&B – I learned that summer, listening to the likes of Ernie K-Doe, Earl King and Bobby Mitchell – all R&B legends in their own right – spinning their favorite records and telling stories about the heyday of the New Orleans commercial music scene. Now, I had grown up in what was to say the least a musically eclectic environment.  My father was an amateur scholar of American folk music, particularly of early Jazz, and his record collection – to which I had full access as a kid – exposed me to everything from the earliest Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong recordings to deep Delta blues to Appalachian string band music. By the time I got to New Orleans I thought I knew a lot about what is now called “American roots music” – a phrase I’ve come to dislike – but the DJs of WWOZ would expose me for the rank amateur that I was. Statistically speaking, at least, I hadn’t heard nothing yet.

My favorite OZ dj was a guy who called himself The Duke of Paducah – he was the prototypical New Orleans insider, with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of every musician who’d come and gone in the past thirty years. One Saturday afternoon before work (my shift started at 5:00), after the Mets had completed a particularly satisfying three-game sweep of the despised Phillies, I turned on the Duke’s show just in time to hear him say, “…so here’s Mighty Sam, with A Change is Gonna Come.” Cool, I thought. Sam Cooke. I love this record. I’d never thought of him as mighty, exactly, but whatever…

What happened next blew a permanent hole in my mind.

The artist, of course, was not Sam Cooke: it was Mighty Sam McClain, a veteran – by then almost forgotten – New Orleans soul crooner who’d cut a few good sides for Amy Records back in the Sixties, including a cover of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” that had managed to climb a little ways up the R&B charts in 1966. But Sam had never followed up on that early success; he’d more or less dropped out of sight by the late sixties – turns out he was homeless for much of the next fifteen years, drifting in and out of janitorial jobs, a victim of alcoholism. He’d never been forgotten by the New Orleans music community, though, and it was reputedly at the behest of one of the Neville Brothers that he reutrned to the studio in 1984. The result was Your Perfect Companion, Sam’s first LP and first commercial recording in over fifteen years. It included five songs, four of which were more or less forgettable in the way that a lot of late New Orleans R&B is forgettable. But the second track on Side Two, Sam’s version of A Change Is Gonna Come, is unquestionably one of the flat-out greatest soul recordings of all time. Sam’s huge, gut-wrenching delivery sails over a growling Hammond B-3 (I’d kill to know who the session men were on this record!), and he turns Cooke’s civil rights anthem into a personal exorcism of fifteen years of deferred dreams and pent-up rage. Sam has re-recorded the song on a number of occasions, including a live version in 1999, but none have come close to the raw power of that first take.

Your Perfect Companion was released on Carlo Ditta’s tiny Orleans Records label, and as far as I know it’s long out of print. I don’t know if it was ever re-released on CD; in any case the vinyl version has become something of a rarity, at least outside of New Orleans. Mighty Sam has recorded about half a dozen albums since then, and they all have at least a couple of gems that make the albums worth owning – I suggest you go find and buy them in about six minutes from now. But for the moment stick with me and give this track a listen. If you like it, share it with as many friends as you have – they’ll thank you for it.

For twenty-five years I’ve preached the beauty of this record everywhere I go. Now, thanks to the internet, I can happily just shut up and let Mighty Sam preach it to you directly: A Change Is Gonna Come