Misses 102 – NYC
We all tout our “hits”, and rightly so, for from them our knowledge and appreciation of the music grows. What we seldom mention is our many “misses” out of embarrassment or some such similar feeling. This is a series of pieces on mine – I make no apology for them, save being only one person in a world of the 70s where nobody seemed to give a damn! Money and time have to be rationed, and there came a time when I did not have much of either to spare; therefore not EVERYthing could be done, no matter how hard I wished it could have been.
Living a reasonable drive from the New York City area, I was able to see and hear a number of blues musicians there, often at The Apollo Theater, even though NYC is thought more as being a jazz town. I had a spurt of digging there in the seventies beginning with Bruce Bastin and I meeting with Alec Seward one afternoon for an interview and photos. Unfortunately, I did not follow up with Seward in any way. I did learn that his former sidekick Louis Hayes was then a preacher in Paterson, NJ, but went no further with that information, either.
Some years later I was able to get in touch with Larry Dale, Bob Gaddy, Bobby Harris, Johnny Acey, and Jimmy Spruill. All of these I interviewed and photographed for possible articles on NYC area blues artists, but I could not find a “taker” back then. Everyone from JUKE BLUES to GUITAR PLAYER turned me down! (For the latter, I imagined a piece entitled “New York Fender Men” as they all played the Stratocaster, save Dale who had a Jaguar. I intended to incorporate what was known about Mickey Baker there, too.) I do not remember off the top of my head who put me onto these guys, but I think that Brownie McGhee had much to do with that; also probably producer Bobby Robinson, who loved blues.
All the above-mentioned folks I met at their homes in Harlem, Brooklyn, or Queens – lengthy interviews and photo sessions took place with each. Bobby Harris’ birth name was Herman Seay – he suffered from kidney disease, had had a recent transplant and died a few years later. This I found out when I called his number on the phone one day later on. Johnny Acey was born in SC as John A. Goudelock and he played harmonica, piano, guitar, and bass guitar. It was his LP for Joe & Sylvia Robinson’s Turbo label that got me really interested, as well as some sides for Bobby Robinson’s Fire label and Danny Robinson’s Fling label. A personable and lovely man, I met him at his home, the same house as was on the LP cover! He was working occasionally as a one-man band at the time I met him! His brother, Sharron, was also a harp player – I met him in Gaffney, SC on one of my trips into the SE and talked with briefly him; he had “gone church” by then and I left it at that after taking a few photographs. Gaddy and Harris lived in Harlem, Spruill in The Bronx, and Acey lived in Queens. Later he gave up secular music and was part of a popular local gospel quartet*. Spruill was working as a self-employed interior decorator, playing gigs as they came up – mainly on week-ends.
Larry Dale was the one who was really active in music then, often fronting up to three bands a night in three different locations. He’d drive around, do a set with each group, collecting leader-money – the sidemen didn’t mind as they’d probably have had no work at all otherwise. This is not an unusual occurrence – many a dance band or jazz band-leader did the same thing in NY, even James Reese Europe! I hooked up with him one Saturday night, traveling with him in his car from gig to gig! The last one was a big affair at The Renaissance Ballroom in Manhattan, the earlier one was, I think, in Brooklyn. Joe Richardson was the guitarist with the band at the “Ren” that night. All save Harris did get picked up to some extent by others as a result of my initial (and usually unacknowledged), fossicking, and some even made it to Europe for gigs as an all star group. Local gigs for White folks in the NY area were in short supply at that point in time, though. This was after the Electric Circus extravaganza (see O&S #67) had taken place and by then blues was back underground after its brief peak in the early 70s.
There were others with whom I had passing contact without more than that occurring: singer/saxophone player Mr. Bear, guitarist/singer Joe Richardson, Leroy Little, and jazz guitarist Skeeter Best. Richardson I met on one of the Larry Dale gigs, the one at the Renaissance Ballroom mentioned above – he and Larry traded lead on guitar in a very good performance. It should be noted that Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” was not an aberrancy – there was and is a large population of West Indians in NYC. Larry had to play a certain number of “calypsos” in each set: “All Day, All Night, Mary Ann” and “”Yellow Bird” being among that repertoire. Joe was a long-distance trucker who lived in a rooming house in Brooklyn and we never could get our schedules to coincide sufficiently to meet. I should have tried to hook up with him at one of the New York Thruway rest areas for a cup of coffee at the restaurant and a chat!
Mr. Bear (Teddy McRae) worked behind the counter at Rainbow Records on 125th Street in the mid-60s – I was one of their few regular White customers mainly buying blues LPs and 45s. Clifton “Skeeter” Best was the teacher of a guitarist (whose name I cannot remember, but is on the session sheets with the tapes in NJ storage) on Eddie Kirkland’s third (and unreleased) album, a studio one done in White Plains, NY. A very fine jazz player who lived in the Bronx, Best would have been a great interview, but I unfortunately never got around to it. I know that he had played with Milt Jackson and Ray Charles, and I think, Charlie Parker. He could also play some blues!
Pianist Leroy Little made a couple of 45s with Charles Walker on guitar back in the day that were quite palatable to folks like us. I met him at Bobby Robinson’s shop on 125th Street – a great place to hang out, and Bobby accepted me and my curiosity. I bought enough 45s from him, though, as well as at his brother’s store down past the Apollo in the other direction on East 125th. Actually, Danny is another who I didn’t talk with… my mistake. The denizens of the street generally seemed to ignore me. Little and I talked, I got his address and phone number, but once again, was unable to follow up. He had been seen by, I think, Tom Pomposello who had worked with Walker on an LP and tried to book him around. He mentioned to me telling Walker that he was trying to get him into My Father’s Place, a reasonable venue on Long Island back then. Walker couldn’t understand why Tom couldn’t persuade his dad to have him play in his own club! Literalism, über alles!!
One final figure I looked for from the NYC area was non-singing guitarist Bobby Foster, a protégé of Brownie McGhee – I believe he appeared on some Prestige/Bluesville sides with McGhee. Probably it was when Brownie & Sonny opened for Rahsaan Roland Kirk (talk about hiring the handicapped!) at The Bottom Line in NYC that we became involved. Brownie volunteered to go out with me the following day in search of Bobby: we began at Bobby Robinson’s shop (which is where I met Leroy Little), and then cruised around Brooklyn looking for Foster. All to no avail – I later found out that he was working as part of the kitchen staff at a hotel in the Catskills. Probably not too far from where I lived at that time – such is the life of a field worker. The fact of the matter is that serendipity is one of the strongest factors in doing such research.
PETER B. LOWRY
* see Ray Allen’s fine book – SINGING IN THE SPIRIT: African-
American Sacred Quartets in New York City: University of Pennsylvania Press  Philadelphia, PA.