Savoy Jazz 1182 – Wilbert Harrison, “Listen to My Song” [featuring Mickey Baker]
Hmm… probably the best known and most successful (from the standpoint of the charts of the New York City area blues artists. I mean, “Kansas City” was a monster, even crossing over to the white radio stations – it makes all the Oldies collections even today! It was a record with a treat beat; you could really dance to it… give it a “95”!! This assignment should be no trouble at all.
As a Ph.D. candidate, the first thing to do is to look in the reference books, so off to the stacks. Hmmm … this is going to be tougher than I thought, because the books are almost no help at all. Get a place and date of birth, but not much else besides sketchy discographical stuff.
As a blues writer, et al, the first thing to do is get on the telephone … the buzzword these days is “networking”. So I hit the northeast… cheaper – DJs Jonny Meister and Doug Price, writers Sheldon Harris and Peter Guralnick. And I come up empty. So I widen the net and call Jim O’Neal of Living Blues magazine in Chicago and find that he’s moved to Mississippi. This is getting more complicated by the minute… not what I expected.
Serendipity? A friend was thumbing through the Manhattan phone book looking for known blues artists and chances on an address and phone number for a Wilbert Harrison in a logical location… this is a logical way to do field-work, by the way. It sounds too good to be true, but my friend has spoken with him. A few tries on the phone finally gets an answer, but the guy is reluctant to talk even he knew I’d be calling. After much insistent probing and getting nowhere, I figure another tack will be necessary. As I bring the call to a close, I pose one more direct question to him, “Do you play the mandolin?” After a long silence, the reply is, “Oh, you must be after Wilbert Harrison, the singer… that ain’t me.” Too good to be true.
Back on the phone. Jim O’Neal is finally raised down in Oxford, Mississippi. Dredging through his memory (a national/natural resource) he vaguely remembers that Harrison may be on the West Coast… says to call Tina Mayfield. This is the widow of Percy Mayfield, probably the finest blues song-writer of the post-war years; she has a club in the L.A. area and does some booking. Jim thinks that she is handling Harrison. Finally get her on the phone and, yes, Wilbert Harrison is out there, but her book with his number is temporarily submerged (a phenomenon well known in this house!) so that she can’t give it to me. She gives me a number of a friend of his, but I cannot get as answer there.
About a week later the phone rings… “Will you accept a collect call from a Wilber (sic) Harrison?” Of course I will… “I hear you’ve been trying to find me>’ says a voice. Bingo! At last!! The man is too busy to talk at that time, but we set up a date and time for me to call back to do an official interview… and it works! Field-work can be both fun and frustrating, even without leaving the comfort of home.
So… Wilbert Harrison indeed hails from Charlotte, N.C. where he was born on January b6, 1929. It was there that he took up the piano, after his family had been presented with a player model. His teacher was the piano rolls played slowly so that he could follow the keys as they went down (shades of Ellington and Waller!). The main type of music that he remembers hearing were “spirituals” and what he calls “hillbilly”… no surprises there. In 1946, Harrison joined the Navy – he was discharged about 1950 in Miami, where he took a professional interest in music for the first time.
The first style of music that he performed publically was what he referred to as “calypso”, a very popular genre in Miami at that time. Harrison returned to Charlotte and formed “The Calypso Four” in that Carolina city: don’t forget that Louis Jordan and others were having calypso-styled hits back then. While in Charlotte, he also worked as chauffeur – that’s when he got a guitar and taught himself to play from a book of lessons. Harrison moved back and forth between Charlotte and Miami, often working as a single. It was in the latter city that he’d often enter amateur shows – his killer number was a version of the Frankie Laine hit, “Mule Train”!! It was also in Miami that producer/label owner Henry Stone took and interest in Wilbert and hooked him up with guitarist W.C. Baker and his band. Harrison recorded for Stone’s Rockin’ label (later released on DeLuxe) in late 1951 with Baker’s band singing and playing the piano on two cuts. One side was a blues (“This Woman of Mine”) that used the same tune and rhythm that made “Kansas City” a hit, while the other was essentially C&W (“Letter Edged in Black”). Not that surprising, given his exposure to hillbilly music as a kid in North Carolina! A second session for Rockin’, plus another one for Stone’s Chart label were all that were done before a move to Newark, N.J.
According to Harrison, it was almost by chance that the sessions on this LP took place. Wilbert was walking along Ferry St. and he passed by the big grey building that was Savoy Records. He stopped in and was signed to the label by [producer] Fred Mendelsohn – in fact, it was Fred who chose “Don’t Drop It” for [his first single release from] the first session. Apparently, Mendelsohn was the A&R man for the subsequent five sessions, with either Leroy Kirkland or Billy Ver Planck as bandleader. Wilbert only remembers Mickey Baker as the guitarist on the sessions. Nothing in the way of serious hits came out of the linkage of Wilbert Harrison and Savoy. They suggested that he go speak with Bobby Robinson… he did and the rest, as they say, is history. “Kansas City” (formerly “K.C. Lovin’” for Little Willie Littlefield) was a smash hit in 1959 for r. Harrison on Robinson’s Fury label. [For better or worse!]
Harrison continued to record for Robinson for three years, but nothing came up to the success of “Kansas City”. He cites “The Horse” and “My Heart Is Yours” as having some regional success, but nothing on a national level. After that, there were sessions for Neptune (owned by Lloyd Price), Doc )owned by a physician in West Virginia), Constellation, Port (a Jubilee subsidiary?), [Sea-Horn], and Vest (owned by Danny Robinson, Bobby’s brother). Nothing more happened in the way of recording until 1969 when Juggy Murray recorded Wilbert as a one-man band doing “Let’s Work Together” as a two-sided single for Sue Records. This was a minor national hit and a song that was covered by many rock bands, including Canned Heat. Harrison even opened shows for them, as well for others like Jerry Garcia. A few albums of him in a similar format came out after that, but nothing clicked… the last was issued in 1967, and Harrison didn’t even know about it. All the time, he was working clubs in Newark as a single, singing and playing either piano or guitar, plus a bass drum. In 1983 he went to the Los Angeles area to see if work was more plentiful there – he is still performing and wants another album.
As for the music on this album, a real spectrum is to be heard here. There are a couple of “up” numbers (“Don’t Drop It”, “Baby Don’t You Know”) as well as a couple of slow 12-bar blues (”The ways Of A Woman”, “The Way I Feel”). There is also a sort of calypso (Florida Special”), a New Orleans-like shuffle (“I Know My Baby Loves Me”), a vocal group piece (“Da Dee Ya Da”) a near C&W song (“My Love For You Lingers On”), early Rock & Roll (“Women and Whiskey”), a slow ballad (“My Love Is True”), and a medium-tempoed one (“Darling, Listen To This Song”). How’s that for variety… and doesn’t that shake up what lots of people think of as “black music”!?!
Noteworthy, too, are the sidemen, mainly and unfortunately, anonymous, for the session files apparently no longer exist. There are great sax breaks (“Women and Whiskey”, “Don’t Drop It”, “Florida Special”), piano solos (“Baby Don’t You Know”, “I Know My Baby Loves Me”), even some interesting Italianate mandolin on the last session. In the case of the guitarists, Harrison plays the tremolo-tinged chordal stuff, while Mickey Baker takes the single-string lead-work. Baker was the main NYC session ace at that time, and was on too many sessions to document here. He sounds like Guitar Slim on the Charles Brown-ish “The Ways of a Woman”, while he plays some totally original stinging lead through Harrison’s chording on both takes of “Confessin’ My Dreams”. Please note that this stop-time gem was recorded two years before Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”!
This is really [surprisingly] great stuff here. Mush the best of Harrison’s pre-“Kansas City” recordings, and better than a lot released after that big hit. What is presented here in toto to the record-buying public is a varied selection of musical genres done by a good singer with excellent session-men, a representative slice of some of what constituted black music in the middle fifties in the NYC region. All sorts of things were tried on these Savoy sessions, but no hits ensued – not that there were any qualitative deficiencies in the side, but because the luck factor didn’t take hold. That didn’t come into play until 1959 for Wilbert Harrison. Give this record a listen… anyone who likes blues, or Rhythm ‘n’ Blues will not be disappointed. This is really great stuff, here!
Peter B. Lowry (1987) Folklore Department University of Pennsylvania
Songs and personnel:
Don’t Drop It – 1 The Ways of a Woman – 1 Women and Whiskey – 2 Da Dee Ya Da – 2 The Way I Feel – 3 Confessin’ My Dreams – 3 Darling Listen To This Song (alt) – 4 Florida Special (alt) – 4
Baby Don’t You Know – 5 My Love is True – 5 Confessin’ My Dreams (alt) – 3 I Know My Baby Loves Me – 5 My Love For You Lingers On – 5 Da Dee Ya Da (alt) – 2 Darling Listen To This Song – 4 Florida Special – 4
WILBERT HARRISON – vo/gtr on all (save 1), poss. pno.
1- Mickey Baker (gtr), poss Bobby Donaldson (dms), unknown ts, bari, piano, bs: 20 August, 1954. 2- Mickey Baker (gtr), unknown ts, bari, pno, ba, dms. The Roamers/Ramblers (vo gp): 20 November, 1954. 3- Buddy Lucas (ts), Budd Johnson (bari), Kelly Owens (pno), Mickey Baker (gtr), Ed Sneed (bs), Sol Hall (dms): 9 July, 1954. 4- Unknown ts, pno, bs, dms, maracas: 8 June, 1955. 5- Nat Pierce (pno), Barry Galbraith (man), Kenny Burrell (gtr), Bobby Donaldson (dms): 4 June, 1956. 6- Willie Morgan (pno), David Dixon (dms), unknown ts, bass; poss Malachi Buckman (maracas):June 20, 1955.