“New York City” does not exist except as a true geographical concept (or conceit!) for the world at large. In fact, New York, NY is an urban entity made up of five “boroughs”: Manhattan (an island), The Bronx, Brooklyn (once a separate city), Queens, and Staten Island. “New York City” as an area concept takes in all those five demarcated geographical entities, plus western Long Island and Connecticut, then northeastern New Jersey, plus it has been slowly moving up the Hudson River Valley as this is written… cities like Yonkers and Newberg are mentioned, plus even the Catskill Mountains and the resorts there (near where I once lived). Not to mention Woodstock, man!
Manhattan, the big island that keeps the Hudson River and the East River apart, has never been known for its blues music qua blues music. At least, not the sort of blues that grabbed the attention of the blues-obsessed White persons of the sixties! Jazz was, and still is, king in Manhattan and most of what blues there was in the Big Apple’s past was affiliated with the jazz scene: big bands, bebop, and jump all partook of the blues cup. Think Fletcher Henderson and all those ‘20s vaudeville singers, for one. Granted, blues is, was, and will probably continue to be, a major building block for all jazz expressions, from King Oliver to Ornette Coleman. In NYC the obvious focus on blues was the “uptown” side of the coin rather than the “down-home”, jazz being the prime music for many urban Blacks for their Saturday Night Function*. Radio, films, stage shows, and night clubs in Manhattan celebrated the sophisticated sides of Black music – music that can be heard in Bob Porter’s NYC compilation for the Rhino blues collection. For the “down home”, one headed elsewhere… but it was there, partially hidden.
The former city of Brooklyn was one location for such music, but all the other boroughs were equally involved (with the possible exception of Staten Island). Northern New Jersey was a part of the whole “circum-Manhattan” blues scene as well. Richard Trice (a/k/a Little Boy Fuller) played in saloons in Plainfield, NJ; Louis Hayes (a/k/a Jelly Belly) was last heard of as a preacher in Paterson, NJ, while Newark, NJ was the home to Savoy Records and Linden, NJ for Regal Records. Later waves of Blacks from the rural South, the potential audience for this sort of music, went to these places and not to the relatively posh nightclubs in Manhattan. Wilbert Harrison played in the Black-owned Coleman Hotel (owned by the family that gave rise to The Coleman Brothers gospel group, and singer Ann Cole, and was the site of Coleman Records) in the ground floor lounge playing piano… he told me that his greatest competition for that audience was fellow pianist Hal Paige. I was able to meet a number of NYC area blues performers – Bob Gaddy, Joe Richardson, Brownie McGhee, Leroy Little, Bobby Harris (Herman Seay), Larry Johnson, Jimmy Spruill, Alec Seward, Les Cooper, Tarheel Slim (O&S # 4), Johnny Acey, Big Chief Ellis (O&S # 19), Sonny Terry, a.o. One of the most musically active at that time (early 70s) was one Ennis Lowery, better know to us as Larry Dale.
Larry belongs to the group that I have dubbed “New York Fender-men”, electric guitarists who played (generally) a Fender Stratocaster (although Spruill carried a Telecaster, Larry Dale a Jaguar) and played in a style that may have had its roots in the playing of Clifton “Skeeter” Best, or Mickey Baker. Strong string bends, with effects from manipulation of the controls of the guitar… Spruill played with the typical SE thumb and forefinger and no picks, getting all those “wild” sounds from his bare fingers! Larry’s guitar of choice when I knew him was a Fender Jaguar, but still within the frame I’ve created. Coming first to notice with the combo of trumpeter Cootie Williams (Larry even went to Europe with that former Ellingtonian, making some recordings with the group overseas), he gained more notice in the blues realm (to us outsiders at least!) via his work with Champion Jack Dupree’s band – sessions for Vik, and Atlantic come to mind.
When I met him around 1972, Larry Dale was really the only one still very active musically – Joe Richardson was a long-distance truck driver, and Jimmy Spruill was an interior decorator! Larry hustled up lots of work for himself and other musicians by booking up to three gigs each night on a Friday and Saturday. Then he’s put together three different bands, one for each gig. He would then usually play one set at each gig (it involved a lot of driving at times), collecting leader money for each one. Now, before someone squawks too loudly about unfairness, LARRY generated the jobs, jobs that the others would probably not have gotten without him. The side-men got paid, the crowds got him as a headliner for a set, and Mr. Dale had worked his tail off! I’ve heard of other musicians doing this sort of triple-dipping thing before, so it came as no big surprise to me then. It kept people working… and most of them were week-end warriors, happy for the extra bread, though I’m not sure what the Musicians Union thought of it… if involved at all.
I went along with Larry one Friday night, one with only two gigs laid on. At this point in time, I cannot remember the location of the first one (not in Manhattan), but the second one was at The Renaissance Ballroom, a venue with a long history of music and dance in the Black NYC community. A social group had hired the hall for the night for a fancy dance (but not a formal) – they sold admission tickets, food, and drinks “set-ups” (i.e. – B.Y.O. liquor, they had on hand ice and mixers). Larry had put a four-piece band onto the stage: piano, guitar, bass-guitar, drums… Joe Richardson was the guitarist that night. During the two sets, they played many of the recent soul and funk hits, but they laced their “covers” repertoire with blues at all tempos, plus “calypsos” to satisfy the large West Indian members of the audience. (Does that help explain Sonny Rollins’ love of “calypsos”?) Larry and Joe played off of each other and they kept the dancers moving for the rest of the night. Certainly the proof of that pudding! For me, this was an inkling of what it was like on a blues gig in the New York area: one other glimpse was when I took a date to The Celebrity Club on 125th Street to listen and dance to Buddy Tate’s band (O&S # 27), another boundary-blurring musical evening. Blues is not the sole purview of the so-called Delta/Chicago axis, no more than jazz being born in New Orleans in the whore houses, traveling up-river to that same Midwestern city and further glory! Each region had had its own way of dealing with the potentials of Black music and urbanized Black people had unique musical needs in each city… it wasn’t monolithic. New York City was but one way.
* Thanks to Albert Murray for that term.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM # 133 – Oct 1998, p. 13.
I had great plans to record many of the above-mentioned folks, but they either died, or I ran out of spare monies for the projects. Damn! Joe Richardson I never got together with after the Dale gig – he was usually on the road. I should have planned to meet him at a rest area on the NY Thruway near where I lived… that’d probably have worked! Most of the others I only met with once… Tarheel Slim, and Big Chief Ellis being the exceptions. Many of them DID go to Europe, though, mainly for the late-lamented Blues Estafette in the Netherlands. Larry Dale died in mid-2010 in the NY area, having pretty much given up playing after his good friend, pianist Bob Gaddy, had passed some years before.