3311: Various Artists – “Detroit After Hours”
This album of piano blues from Detroit is truly “underground music”. Even by the time that demolition for the Chrysler freeway had inflicted wounds of a mortal nature in Detroit’s Black Bottom, the professional blues pianists were already being squeezed out of their natural habitat of small bars and clubs by the juke-box. Their other mainstay, the house-rent party, which naturally peaked in the Depression years, was a declining institution by the more prosperous ’40’s and the piano players found less and less demand for their services. Worse still for the pianists, the accent of the blues of the post-war years was on band music dominated by the harmonica and amplified guitar – thus solo piano blues is today very much a lost, or at best hidden, art.
Piano players had once thrived in Detroit. The house-rent parties or “chittlin struts” may have started out as a means of paying the rent (from the proceeds of food and liquor sales, and crap-games), but those that employed the major pianists were probably run more as an illegal business than an informal (if profitable) get together. Thus there were addresses known to pianists where parties ran every weekend, and they supported a vast army of local talent as well as the occasional visitor. Will Ezell and Montana Taylor lived in the city for a while; Pine Top Smith and Cow Cow Davenport were well known in Detroit though domiciled elsewhere. But few of Detroit’s own pianists found their way onto record even in their hey-day, so Charlie Spand and Will Ezell were probably the only exceptions before Big Maceo Merriweather in 1941 established the authority of the city’s pianists (even then, after seventeen years of playing the rounds of house-parties, Maceo had to go to Chicago to do it). It seems the pianists were a scuffling Fifth Column of the Blues destined to obscurity. “Detroit Red” (who may have been Rufus Perryman better known as Speckled Red) had lived in the city for nine years up to the 1927, but Pinetop Willie, Fishtail, James Hemingway, Paul Semlnole, Tupelo Slim, Abe Amos, and Big Maceo’s brother (Little Maceo) are all but legendary names from an era long gone. Those that lived long enough saw the bars torn down and even their jobs at the rent-parties taken over by the all-conquering juke-box. Disinherited, they vanished.
But against all the odds there are latter-day equivalents of the rent-parties where the music is now purveyed by amateur or retired pianists who play because they have always done so, and the atmosphere of one such “after-hours” joint in Detroit where the beer flows and the music plays from Friday night through Sunday is captured on this record. Here we are privileged a fascinating glimpse at another Black world forgotten or ignored, and whose survival seems an anachronism these days. Yet paradoxically this is probably the very reason it does survive, as its customers cling to the old-fashioned way of life as an antidote to the excesses of Modern American. The beer now is Schlitz or Budweiser, and the whiskey isn’t made in a bath-tub anymore, but here the patrons can relax and enjoy the company of friends of long standing safe from street life or bar hustling. There‘s a coziness to the familiar surroundings and even on this occasion the bravado of a “gangster” boasting of his association with Capone (or should it have been the Purple Gang?) was more pathetic than menacing. No one took any notice anyway and it was the old lady in her seventies selling home-made apple pies who attracted more attention.
Above all, there’s the music. And what music – the old time blues first heard in Georgia or Alabama, grown up with and heard all their lives. A home-spun music ignored by the media and embarrassing to their children, but nonetheless comforting by its very familiarity. Maybe a dozen pianists with nowhere else to play will drop in over the week-end to amuse themselves and their friends. Usually it’ll be the old blues but sometimes they’ll play a little jazz, too – even a gospel song or two (it was a Sunday after all!)
The house itself looks like any other two-story on Detroit’s rundown lower East Side neither more imposing nor more shabby than its neighbors. The district seems strangely empty and quietly residential now, though a few blocks away it used to be much livelier, for this was “The Valley”, a long, narrow strip one block westward from Hastings to St. Antoine (and perhaps to Beaubien) stretching all the way down to Gratiot Avenue. This was the jumping, bustling nightlife center of The Bottom but outside on the hot street it all seems so very long ago. Once up the stone steps into a small front room on the ground floor where the TV is incongruously showing a W.W. II British movie and above the officers’ accents can be heard the sound of the piano blues from the next room. The main drawing room is sparsely furnished with an armchair and a table surrounded by some wooden chairs, while against the far wall is an upright piano … the damaged ceiling and walls stained by a long-burst water seem in keeping with the music.
Only two of the pianists are or have been professional – Chuck Smith whose reputation as a car mechanic exceeds even his keyboard reputation, and Boogie Woogie Red, who still works at the piano. These are the “stars”, warmly applauded by the other pianists and generously complimentary to each other. There is a genuine regard and camaraderie among this dying breed, as well as a certain amount of good-humored banter. Each pianist is prompted to play his ‘special’ number. “James, play ‘Rock Me Baby’ one time”, asks Charlie Price looking up from an animated discussion in the corner. The pianist, James Barnes, a quiet, heavy-set man, turns on his stool. ”I just got through with that but I’ll play it again, though, Mr. Price”. “OK, OK, don’t pay no attention – I’m sorry. Just play your blues then, just play your blues”. Support for Charlie comes from one of the ladies who complains jokingly, “He done picked up on everything but my piece” and Mr. Barnes complies with “Big Leg Woman”. Later when it’s Charlie‘s turn at the piano and he plays a delicate rippling treble run, James nods appreciatively; “Play ’em, Charlie”. The piano styles haven’t changed since the 20’s or 30’s and even when it’s a Muddy Waters or Elmore James song, the piano accompaniment is from way back. Charlie Price finishes a Jimmy Reed uptempo number and says, “Now I’m going to stop all this ragtime. I’m going down in the alley” as he rolls out the slowest of slow blues.
Meanwhile the reminiscences pour out. “Detroit Count he died … what happened to Abe Amos?” “He went blind – I think he’s down in Mississippi now.” The story that is received most enthusiastically is about one night long ago in Black Bottom; “Well somewhere down there I went to jail three nights straight. The third night I told the police, I said, ‘Man, I ain’t going’ – the same cop bust the house – ‘I ain’t going,’ I said, ‘Man I’ve been twice already this week!’ I said, ‘That’s enough’. He said, ‘Well OK, hit the do’. And I left running!’”
That’s another thing that’s changed – the joint doesn’t get raided anymore.
JAMES BARNES – is a bit reticent about his age, though it may go as high as the seventies (he doesn’t look it). Never a professional pianist with any bands, this non-singer often played house-parties in the Detroit area – on many occasions with Boogie Woogie Red. He picked up the piano by “just listening to the blues” in Cincinnati, his home after leaving his birthplace Atlanta — in the Ohio city he ran a couple of clubs.
BOOGIE WOOGIE RED – was born Vernon Harrison in Rayville, Louisiana on October 18, 1925, but the family moved to Detroit in 1927 and settled on Hendrie Street just off Hastings. Red was seven years old when he started on the piano that his father had bought with a view to running house-parties and the first pianist he heard was Little Maceo, brother of Big Maceo, whom Red much admired. His first “professional” job came one cold New Year’s night when he drifted into the King Solomon Bar on Cameron & Clay and dusted off the piano that hadn’t been used for fourteen years. This was when he earned his name, and played there about 1945, when Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) came to the city and they teamed up for a while. When Sonny Boy left, Red went to Chicago and played the Tempo Tap, and Nat Ivory’s club on 47th Street. This would be about 1948, for on his return to Detroit, Red joined up with Baby Boy Warren for a long time, played with Washboard Willie at the Golden Bell on Hastings, and then with John Lee Hooker’s band at Henry’s Swing Club, the Harlem Inn, and Club Caribee. That was on and off for the next eleven years! Since that time, Red had been fairly inactive, but in the last few years he has landed a couple of European tours and found favor with college audiences, especially in nearby Ann Arbor.
EMMETT LEE BROOKS – was born in Pittsburgh in 1918, but his family moved to Detroit when he was three. It was only a couple of years later that he first started playing the piano. While never a professional pianist, he plays for his friends and at one time worked as a dancer in stage shows.
CARBEN GIVENS – better known as “Lamp” (presumably for his lamp-post-like tall physique) – was born in Camden, Arkansas on August 11, 1907. He had no schooling, as the family lived some seven miles in the country. There wasn’t much music, and the only local pianist he can remember was Willie Jeff. In 1941 Lamp moved to Detroit to work as a barber, the trade he’s followed since 1930 – this piano is a hobby.
CHARLIE PRICE – was born in 1905 in Reydell, Arkansas (near Pine Bluff) where he lived for a while before moving to Kansas City where he worked on the railroad. He came to Detroit in 1947 working by day at the docks and playing evenings at the Sunset Bar until it was torn down. A self-taught pianist, he doesn’t appear unduly handicapped from his 1943 accident with a saw that left him with only three fingers on his right hand. On one number he accompanies harp player JB “Poor Boy” Bolden from Chattanooga [not on this album].
“LITTLE DICKIE” ROGERS – was born Samuel Dacus Rogers in Mobile, Alabama on September 10, 1920. He arrived still in his garage overalls, but sat down to play some jazz and blues. The piano came into his life in his teens, and he studied a bit at the Detroit Conservatory of Music. While late working at the Fisher Body plant, he played clubs with small jazz combos (often on organ). “Dickie” is also the one responsible for keeping the piano in tune at the blind pig where the recordings took place!
CHARLES “CHUCK” SMITH JR. – says “I was just a farm boy, come up the hard way. 1 was born July 9, 1920 in a little town they call Humnoke, Arkansas.” He was about nine or ten years old when he started to play the piano that they had at home, but when asked how he learned he laughs, “Not one dam lesson in my life.” He did hear Roosevelt Sykes, Leroy Carr and Peetie Wheatstraw in person when they played at nearby Stuttgart at the Sunset Palace and at the Hay Loft in Pine Bluff, or on their records. After service in the Army in the Chemical Warfare branch in Alabama and St. Louis, he came to Detroit to visit his sister in 1946 and stayed on. He recorded with Eddie Burns and played with Baby Boy Warren and especially Little Sonny Willis. They played the Banks Bar (Clay & Russell) and the Congo Lounge (Chene & Gratiot) before Chuck split to go solo. Widening his horizons he says, “I stuck with the blues, a little rock and a little swing“ and with this formula he played the Thunder Bar and the Twenty Grand in the ’60’s.
Mike Rowe (1975) author Chicago Breakdown
n.b. these tapes were recorded on location with no attempt on our part at “production” . . . the piano is a veteran, as are the practitioners. This recording preserves a last example of a once- prevalent form of black entertainment in its rough form – try to accept the less-than-studio sound and the revellers in the background. Rather, pop open a beer, put on this CD, and join the party!
Pete Lowry – producer
If you read many books or articles about the lives of Afro-Americans in the first third of this century, mention is made of various forms of “in home” entertainment for the Saturday Night Function. Down South there was the house party or frolic. Most of the musical entertainment for such affairs was by locals who played as semi-professionals on weekends. As black folks moved North into the cities, and began to congregate in specific areas (i.e. New York’s HarIem, or Chicago’s South Side) there were clubs, after hours joints, and house parties. As the Depression took hold, the house rent party, a semi-commercial spin on the house party became de rigeur in the Black ghettos. Money was hard to come by in the cities for Blacks, so people would hold a party where there would be food, drink, and entertainment, all for an admission fee. That money paid for the food and drink, and the remainder (hopefully) covered the next months rent on the apartment where the party took place. The entertainment was simple, but if there was a piano around, then a local jazz or blues pianist would be hired. He or she would play for food, drink, and tips and these parties would go into the early hours of Sunday morning… “after hours”.
One night in London back-stage at a blues concert, Barbara Rowe was talking with Boogie Woogie Red – he mentioned in passing a place in Detroit where the older blues (generally) pianists congregated on the weekends. The owner of the place sold drinks (illegally) to whoever came by, an establishment known to some as a “blind pig”. In 1972 I took my recording equipment on the Greyhound and went with Mike Rowe and Peter Bullock to Chicago and Detroit. These recordings were done then and the following year and are the only example of such a context ever being put on tape. In 1974, l wrote all the people who had been recorded and told them that I would be there on a particular weekend to take pictures for this release. They all showed up, but Red!
This CD, the first in a series, is not just some academic or scholarly exercise (what the Brits refer to as a curate’s egg), but is a slice of older urban Black experience that is unique. Not a controlled studio recording, by any means, but, as Mike Rowe was wont to say, “The real deal”, and all the more valuable and enjoyable for that.
Peter B. Lowry (1995) CD release Cottekill, NY
The twelve pieces on this album were taken from two long afternoon recording sessions done at the home of Carben Givens (a/k/a “Lamp”) in Detroit, MI on two Sundays, one in July of 1972 and the other in June of 1973 using two microphones. Little Dickie Rogers usefully kept the piano in tune! There is enough unreleased material for at least two more albums (that’s why his is labeled Vol. 1!) from them.
For more on the recording of Detroit’s pianists, see “Oddenda & Such” #23.
Peter B. Lowry (2012) Sydney
Just for the hell of it I went on Google’s “STREET VIEW” to see if Lamp’s place still existed in some form or another. Putting in 537 Edsel Ford Highway, Detroit 48202 shows nada that can be definitively identified. Empty lots galore, of course, and a wrecked house further down the side road. Interestingly, ONE house remains in what is next to what I assume Lamp’s former location (on the left, facing the place). This house/home is surrounded by fencing, the are grounds well-kept as is the house. SOMEone lives there and takes pride in their home – or at least still did when the picture was taken. Urban America, gotta love it.
Peter B. Lowry – 2015 Sydney