MIXED BAG – #5
A.) The record company, Trix, was an exercise in masochism, par excellence, that began in 1971 as a side-line to the research with a couple of 45s. They were produced to show off to the world that which I was accumulating – good music, indeed! I attempted to interest the few then-current specialist record labels in issuing some of the material, but to no avail. The closest was an odd-ball proposal pairing Eddie Kirkland and Tarheel Slim from Arhoolie, so I figured if one wants something done “right”, one must do it one’s self. I felt that it HAD to be done while the folks were still among the living and might possibly benefit from their records. Aiee, oh what kind of masochistic fool am I! That was when the last blues “boomlet” was failing, of course!! Good timing has dogged my footsteps all through this whole mess.
To convince independent record distributors that I was serious, I put together four LPs at once, rather than the more common one-at-a-time that others had done in the past (e.g. – Alligator w. Hound Dog Taylor). It was an attempt at making a numerically more powerful statement that way… that this was for real and not a fly-by-night, now you see it/now you don’t operation! Kirkland (solo), Peg Leg Sam, Frank Edwards, Henry Johnson were the first quartet of artists to hit the stores; black and white cover art – “borrowed” cover photos; that was when I realized that I needed to step up in class camera-wise, usually being the only one “on site” at the sessions generally. Ergo, my Nikon F2 purchase, much more camera than I probably needed, but it “felt’ right in my hands with what I did use where it ought to be! This was about 1973 some time – I continued with the four-at-a-time with the next batch; Willie Trice, Guitar Shorty, Robert Lockwood (half w. band), Kirkland (studio w. band) probably a year later. By then, I figured that my point had been made. It was in twos that they came next: Pernell Charity, and “Detroit After Hours”, then Tarheel Slim, and Roy Dunn (I think). After that, it was one at a time over varied periods of time – Dan DelSanto, Homesick James, Big Chief Ellis, and Honeyboy Edwards, a second Lockwood (studio). Planned were a posthumous Baby Tate – less pressure, of course, since his death, John Cephas, and Maurice Reedus-el (jazz), but “spare” money ran out and there was really little interest out there in the big, wide world. Honeyboy Edwards’ was the last album I released and was his first solo LP. By 1980 I had stopped issuing new album releases, but kept my catalogue still functioning in the hope that I could continue again some time in the near future. Not to be, unfortunately. And by the mid-to-late 80s, things had dropped off almost completely for the company, though it was not because I was spending all that time in Philadelphia. Trix wasn’t getting paid by distributors in anything resembling a timely fashion (normal state-of-affairs), plus there were many who went out-of-business owing me for sold merchandise – some returned more than they had purchased, for which I had to give full credit! I even had a NYC outfit who donated their Trix promotional copies to a synagogue sale in Brooklyn, no doubt taking full value deduction. I suspect it was Sam Goody in their failed attempt to be a distributor… they were the only one in the NYC area who got that number of promos
By the late 1980s, things really had slowed down for me and for blues and I had done my time folklore at Penn. Joe Fields of Muse Records made me an offer I couldn’t refuse for my released LP master tapes (plus the Reedus). He had just sold the old Savoy Records catalogue to JVC (Japan) just before the copyrights ran out for a serious amount of money, was cashed up, and needed catalogue a.s.a.p. We were both satisfied ($3,500/LP master tape set – that was the ONLY year that Trix made a profit! It was a rare win/win situation: He got stuff ready to release on CD and I got my previously released stuff into the new digital format. Funny thing, since I mixed most of my LP masters myself, and used NO compression in that procedure, they were ideal CD master tapes with full head-room and bottom! Serendipity!! So he put them out over time, save the Homesick and the Reedus, continuing with my numbering system and label name (w. logo). Joe later got sessions from producer/drummer Chris Millar from the Bay Area that also came out on Trix… three albums. Then he later needed funds, for cash-flow was poor, and sold his vast catalogues to 32 Jazz/Blues (Joel Dorn) – I had planned on continuing putting together albums from my tapes for him, but life got in the way. Chris started Fedora Records which Joe picked up in the day, a blues line that still exists, along with High Note, and Savant – two jazz lines.
Not too long after that, the current blues boomlet began – I am nothing if not a master of good timing!! 32 Blues put out much (but not all) of my efforts, but including the Homesick (!), then they later went belly up. And were bought up (at fire sale prices) by Savoy Jazz/JVC (Japan)!! It’s a weird world. THEY, in turn, have released little of “my” stuff, save the Lockwoods, and Honeyboy – both still living at the time. Why not Kirkland, who is also among the living, I don’t know… he’s still trying, in his early-to-mid eighties, to conquer the world one pub/bar at a time. So there it stands: I have enough good stuff, in my opinion, for some 40 to 50 albums; but I’m here in Oz; the materials ain’t. We’ll have to see what transpires… and if I live long enough (almost 70)! Even us White guys are falling off the perch as time marches on!! Remember that Lomax died before his stuff was fully released properly.
B.) The label was not an attempt at making large sums; far from it: I merely hoped to break even, but even that wasn’t to be the case. I think I pressed initially something like 2000 of each album, with the Kirklands and the Lockwoods more, probably 5000 of those latter ones. With the second of the Robert’s albums, I’d hoped for sales of, say, 10,000… beautiful dreamer! They all got great press, by and large. Except for a nameless British reviewer who reviewed both Lockwoods at different times negatively for the same magazine (BLUES UNLIMITED!) because he couldn’t hear what he associated with Robert from those Sonny Boy, or Little Walter singles in the LP. Tin ears, mate… it’s all there, and more, the latter probably being the problem for him: Robert was NOT one for standing still or being retrospective (until latter days) – it was simpler. And he had a band in Cleveland for local gigs and occasional trips. Mike Rowe correctly reviewed the second Kirkland, saying that it was too “soul” for the blues nuts, and too “blues” for the soul freaks! But a friend (Jim Pettigrew – O&S # 44) reviewed it for down beat giving it at least ****! The second Lockwood was reviewed twice in the San Francisco Examiner; once by jazz reviewer Ralph Gleason, once by their pop reviewer… both liked it for different reasons. Can’t ask for more than that, can one!
Must make note at this point of my business cards: Under my name they said “President”, “Chief Engineer”, “Staff Photographer”, and “Shipping Clerk”. Note that there was nothing about the business side of things, sales, or promotion – not my forte at all, I’m afraid (he said, stating the bloody obvious). And I didn’t have enough spare change to hire anyone to handle that, even if I could find somebody. One thing I DID do was to give every artist at least 10% of each pressing – more to Kirkland and Lockwood, who sold them at gigs – to do with them whatever they wanted… same with the 45s. Many sold or gave them away in their community.
Peg Leg Sam and Henry Johnson ended up doing radio commercials for a mobile home dealer in Union, SC! Guitar Shorty probably traded them for some wine. A few of them were invited to various festivals besides Chapel Hill – Peg Leg Sam burned up the Philadelphia Folk Festival, The National Folk Festival, and went to Canada for the Mariposa Festival, even when not invited! I drove him up to Philly and he was puzzled by the toll roads on the way (different from riding the rails), where Tarheel Slim and Big Chief Ellis also appeared. The three were to be part of a blues workshop, but time constraints (and a selfish earlier act – Leon Redbone) resulted in them being joined into an impromptu trio… sounded great, too. [Sam, by the way, collected his pay and travel money, then rode with Chief (in his car) to DC where he hopped a freight back to SC! Old habits never die – and he ended up with more money that way.] Willie Trice was booked to go to DC for The National Folk Festival, but got cold feet (hard for a double amputee – poor taste joke) at the last minute. He’d have been great there! But nobody went to Europe, although three from NYC I had interviewed did go, off of my freely spreading the word (Jimmy Spruill, Larry Dale, Bob Gaddy) around, as was my wont.
John Cephas was, in a sense, the biggest success I had in spite of my not getting his album out! He was picked up by some of the movers and shakers in DC after being in Big Chief Ellis’ band there – Chief moved back to Birmingham, AL, leaving John and Phil on their own – the rest is history. Two Germans (Axel Kustner and Siggi Christmann) did some sessions of the duo around 1980 that resulted in LPs, which helped get the word around Europe in a positive fashion… some of that material is on a fine box set “Living Country Blues” from Evidence Records still. Cephas was later able to take up music full-time after retiring from his job at the National Guard Armory as a carpenter, much to his delight. That resulted in State Department sponsored tours and other good things. He even came down here, where is where I saw him last – we took him on a Sydney harbor cruise, w. lots of food, which allowed him to see much of the city while sitting down. Phil had indicated that John’s diabetes had slowed him greatly; Phil walked the city of Sydney, though and liked it very much. [Parenthetically, so did B.B. He was stranded here when Bono temporarily took sick in the “Rattle & Hum” tour. He was (unusually) here with nothing to do for a week and quite liked what he saw! At least that’s what he said to us when last we saw him on his final trip hereabouts.] So, I claim partial acclaim for Cephas’ success; he was a true gentleman, as were most I dealt with – a pleasure to know and work with! Not too great a stretch of the imagination to make that claim.
Frustrating, though, that nobody paid much attention back in the day – now it is too bloody late for anyone to benefit… even me! My approach was altruistic, or naïve, or both – I love music and hate the business… isn’t “The Music Business” something of an oxymoron?! The annoying popular focus on MS, then Chicago, with TX and CA a slow third by the Europeans, et al in their hiring of musicians to tour over there – Sam and Rufe would have been fantastic, as would have Tarheel Slim, Baby Tate, or even Shorty. Kirkland eventually did make it there, as did Homesick, and Honeyboy, but they were the anomalies in my catalogue and I had no direct involvement by then. By the time there might have been interest, they’d all died – Big Chief Ellis had been booked by Norbert Hess for a German trip, but carked it before it could happen. “Disappointed!”* These were some of the factors that kept me from actively pursuing the release of albums after 1980… there were other things to do that took precedence, too. A kid being one! Later for that, maybe.
* Kevin Kline in “A Fish Called Wanda”.
Peter B. Lowry
Published in edited fashion to dotted line: BLUES & RHYTHM # 258 (April, 2011), p. 15.
Published in edited fashion below dotted line: BLUES & RHYTHM # 259 (May, 2011), p.19.