The Upsetters at King Records

I am only just now discovering that Little Richard‘s musical influence had a direct impact on King Records, first when his live backing band, The Upsetters, became Little Willie John’s support group after Richard renounced rock ‘n’ roll in 1957, and then again soon after when the Upsetters backed James Brown for a time.

On December 2, 1958, Little Willie John did a session for King in New Orleans — at Cosimo Recording Studios, no doubt — in which The Upsetters served as his backing band.  Four songs were recorded that day:

> AUDIO LINK for “Do You Love Me

> AUDIO LINK for “The New Thing

> AUDIO LINK for “It Only Hurts a Little While

> AUDIO LINK for “Write Me a Letter

Musician credits according to Ruppli’s session notes —

Little Willie John:  Vocals
Emile Russell:  Drums
Olsie Robinson:  Bass
Milton Hopkins:  Guitar
Wilbert Lee Smith:  Piano & Guitar
Jimmy Booker:  Piano
Grady Gaines:  Tenor Sax
Clifford Burks:  Tenor Sax
Melvin Lastic:  Trumpet

2016 Spanish EP —
INCLUDES “DO YOU LOVE ME” & “LEAVE MY KITTEN ALONE”

Fun to point out that exactly one year later, on December 2, 1959, Emile Russell served as the drummer on a Hank Ballard and the Midnighters recording session at King Studios that netted four songs, including “The Coffee Grind” and “I Love You, I Love You So-o-o.”  Would you be surprised to know that Emile Russell was also the drummer at Little Willie John‘s June 3, 1959 session in New York City that produced “Leave Me Kitten Alone,” along with “Let Them Talk,” “Right There” & “Let Nobody Love You“?

Grady Gaines, by the way, is also connected to King through his brother, Roy Gaines, who released two 45s for King subsidiary label, DeLuxe in 1957 – “Annabelle” b/w “Night Beat” plus “Isabella” b/w “Gainesville” – the latter tune being one of his signature guitar statements.

Important to note that Little Richard battled mightily with Specialty Records owner Art Rupe to be allowed to record with The Upsetters, who Richard favored over the studio session players.  As Robert Palmer wrote for the New York Times in 1990:

“The early Upsetters sessions present a band that lacked studio polish, but made up for it with a remarkable ensemble cohesion and rhythmic creativity.  The Upsetters’ drummer, Charles Connor, has been credited by no less an authority than James Brown with sparking the rhythmic transition from fifties rock & roll to sixties funk.”

New Orleans’ Ponderosa Stomp — who pronounced The Upsetters to be “quite possibly the greatest touring rock and roll band on the planet during the mid-1950s” — wrote a lengthy tribute in 2017 to drummer Chuck Connor, who elaborated on the origins of the band:

“A guy by the name of Wilbert Smith—his professional name was Lee Diamond—we looked alike and everything.  I was a little taller than him.  We were struggling musicians around Nashville,” says Charles.  ‘I was starving, man.  I was kicked out of the hotel room, and I was behind in my rent.  Little Richard heard us and brought us back to Macon, Georgia because he wanted New Orleans musicians.  Richard had to get my drums out of the pawn shop.  He paid for all of that, and he brought us to Macon, Georgia, and that’s when we formed Little Richard and the Upsetters.”

Just a couple weeks after Little Willie John’s session with The Upsetters, James Brown and the Famous Flames recorded a session in Los Angeles on December 16, 1958 with “Lee Diamond” on tenor sax and Chuck Connor on drums that yielded four songs:

> AUDIO LINK for “Got to Cry

> AUDIO LINK for “It Was You

> AUDIO LINK for “I Want You So Bad

> AUDIO LINK for “It Hurts to Tell You

Musician credits according to Ruppli’s session notes —

James Brown:  Vocals
John Terry, Bill Hollings & [unidentified]:  Backing Vocals
Chuck Connor or Nat Kendrick:  Drums
Bernard Odum:  Bass
Bobby Roach:  Guitar
AlvinFatsGonder:  Piano & Organ
Lee Diamond:  Tenor Sax
J.C. Davis:  Tenor Sax

All four songs included on 1959 King LP,  Try Me

Most of these same musicians reconvened on January 20, 1959 at a recording facility in New York City to record two more songs with James and the Famous Flames:

> AUDIO LINK for “Don’t Let It Happen to Me

> AUDIO LINK for “Bewildered

Musician credits according to Ruppli’s session notes —

James Brown:  Vocals
John Terry, Bill Hollings & [unidentified]:  Backing Vocals
Chuck Connor:  Drums
Bernard Odum:  Bass
Bobby Roach:  Guitar
AlvinFatsGonder:  Piano & Organ
Lee Diamond:  Tenor Sax
J.C. Davis:  Tenor Sax
[Unidentified]:  Trumpet

Saxophonist J.C. Davis (“with prob. same band”) recorded two numbers as bandleader at that same NYC recording session:

> AUDIO LINK for “Doodle Bug

> AUDIO LINK for “Bucket Head

1959 single attributed to James Davis

Lee Diamond, as it turns out, had already crossed paths with King Records before — as Wilbert Smith, part of the horn section for James Brown and the Famous Flames’ 1956 breakout hit, “Please Please Please“!  Smith has two co-songwriting credits on “Hold My Baby’s Hand” and “Chonnie-On-Chon” — notice the vocal resemblance to Little Richard on the latter track — both from 1956.

Chuck Connor explains the impact of his New Orleans musical upbringing on the development of James Brown’s music:

“We would work the clubs around Macon, Georgia, like the VFW clubs, the Elks clubs, and places like that.  And I’m playing behind James Brown.  The drummer always sits in the back.  We didn’t have no riser in these little small clubs in those days.  We only had drum risers in the big theaters.  So I’d be playing behind James and I’d do a little second-line thing, a syncopation on my bass drum.  But I was doing that to attract the girls’ attention.

“James Brown would say, ‘Hey, that’s funky! That’s funky!’

‘I’d say, ‘I’m doing the second-line!’

‘I like that! I like that!’

“And he discovered that I put the funk to the rhythm.  Because a lot of drummers weren’t using the bass drum that much.  But a lot of New Orleans drummers used their bass drum a lot.  I got that from the second line.  So that’s why he said, ‘Charles was the first to put the funk into the rhythm.’

Susan Whitall writes in her biography of Little Willie John — Fever:  A Fast Life, Mysterious Death, and the Birth of Soul:

“When Willie and the Upsetters became a team and hit the road, Richard insists there were no hard feelings.  He was proud that the Upsetters, at one time or another, backed up the heaviest hitters in rhythm and blues.  ‘Sam Cooke also had them for awhile and Sam Cooke’s brother L.C. as well,’ Richard recalled.  ‘Little Willie John and James Brown traveled with my band as me, once I was famous.’  The Godfather of Soul screaming ‘Wop bop a doo wop’ – it’s not such a stretch.  ‘We had some dates booked and my manager wanted to fulfill the dates, so they had James go out and be me,’ Richard explained.”

Chuck Connor confirms that James Brown really did do shows billed as Little Richard:

“Lee Diamond started playing with James Brown, but when Richard came out (to L.A.) to do the screen test for the movie [The Girl Can’t Help It], he left 15 dates behind.  So Clint Brantley, the booking agent, he didn’t want to lose the deposits on those dates.  So guess who played those dates for him?  James Brown!  And it was Little Richard’s picture on the placards.  But James Brown played Little Richard’s dates.  People would complain and say, ‘He don’t look like him!’  James is short.  ‘He don’t look like Little Richard to me, but he sounds good!’  But he fulfilled all those dates, and then when Richard came back from the West Coast, James wanted me to go on the road with him too.  I said, ‘Well, James, I’m going to tell you—I don’t mind, but I can’t disappoint Richard because Richard was the one that helped me when I didn’t have nothing, paying my hotel rent, and he bought me shoes, and he fed me and everything.’  So that would have been a guilt trip, so that’s why I didn’t go with James Brown.  He wanted to take me on the road too.  But I remained with Richard.”

James Brown himself recounted the experience of being billed as Little Richard in his autobiography, James Brown:  The Godfather of Soul:

“Not too long after I got to Macon, some people started hitting on Richard about recording for them instead of Peacock.  Eventually Bumps Blackwell got him for Art Rupe’s Specialty label out of Los Angeles.  After ‘Tutti Frutti’ broke, Richard left Macon for California, left everybody without saying a word—[Little Richard manager, Cliff] Brantley, the Dominions, the Upsetters, and a lot of bookings.  Mr. Brantley asked me to fulfill Richard’s dates.  He put me together with the Upsetters and the Dominions and sent me out as Little Richard.  Meantime, Byrd and the fellas were doing the Famous Flames bookings.  I was getting paid as Richard while Bobby was getting paid as me.  I guess I did about fifteen of Richard’s dates.  I’d come out and do ‘Tutti Frutti’ and all those things, and then I’d do some Midnighters’ stuff, some Roy Brown, and even ‘Please Please Please.’  I guess the audience thought I was really Richard.  then, near the end of the show, I’d say, ‘I’m not Little Richard.  My name is James.’  After a few shows like that, Fats [Gonder, organist/emcee], who also went on the tour, started announcing me as Little James.  I didn’t that stay too long, either.”

Historian (and James Brown manager), Alan Leeds, offers another perspective in There Was a Time:  James Brown, The Chitlin Circuit, and Me:

“In 1955, when Little Richard went to Hollywood to sign with Specialty Records, he left behind a band and some unfulfilled bookings.  A young James Brown, who shared managers with the Georgia peach, reluctantly agreed to pose as Richard for a couple weeks.  According to Johnny Terry, one of Brown’s original Famous Flames, it came to an end one night in Nashville when somebody—a fan, or maybe the local promoter—recognized that James was not Little Richard.  After a hasty retreat in which gunshots were reportedly fired, Brown decided it might be better for his well-being to concentrate on his own career.”

Life Imitates Art: 
The 1000-Mile Trek As “The Upsetters

Later in his autobiography when The Famous Flames got word that King Records was ready to record its new act, James Brown recalled a comic aspect to the grueling drive from Tampa to Cincinnati:

“We were working down in Tampa when Clint [Brantley] called to tell us that King wanted us in Cincinnati to record right away.  We hadn’t heard from anyone there since Ralph Bass signed us the morning after he’d seen us at Sawyer’s Lake.  Since then we’d been working clubs around Tampa and Jacksonville, and we were beginning to wonder if he’d really liked us

We drove the four hundred miles from Tampa to Macon, stopped and picked up some money there, and continued for another six hundred miles to Cincinnati in a station wagon that had The Upsetters painted on the side.  Clint had let Little Richard use the car before, and now we were jammed into it with all our clothes and instruments.  We rode all night, stopping only for gas.  It was the first time out of the South for any of us, and when we got to the outskirts of Cincinnati somebody came out from King and let us to the hotel, a place caled the Manse.  It was a fleabag, but it was better than anything we’d stayed in before.”

 

First Four-Bar Rock ‘n’ Roll Drum Intro?
Rock’s Roots Bear Fruit 

Until Little Richard’s passing, I was similarly clueless about the well-known “secret” that Chuck Connor‘s drum intro on “Keep a Knockin'” (recorded at a small radio station in Washington, DC close to the Howard Theater) served as the source of inspiration for John Bonham‘s famous intro on Led Zeppelin‘s “Rock and Roll” — listen for yourself:

Keep a Knockin’” by Little Richard

Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin

Chuck Connor claims in that same Ponderosa Stomp piece that “Keep a Knockin'” was the first four-bar drum intro on a rock and roll record:

“Richard was saying, ‘I want the guitar to play the four-bar intro.’  So the guitar player, he tried it.  Then Richard tried it.  He said, ‘I don’t like that.’  Then he let the saxophone play the four-bar intro.  I said, ‘Wait a minute, Richard.  Let me do something.  Let me do a four-bar intro because this has never been played on a rock and roll record!’  It had never been played on a rock and roll record.  So I came up with a ‘tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat…’  Richard gave me a thousand dollars for that idea, and that was a lot of money in those days.”

“Fever” & Strings: Little Willie John Gets the Last Word

1995’s King R&B Box Set yielded a couple other rarities in addition to Hank Ballard’s unreleased piece of mod soul – such as this rare strings version of Little Willie John’s biggest (and hugely influential) hit, “Fever”:

Somewhere in my archive of Mojo back issues there’s a small piece with Dr. John recounting his days under the tutelage of Cosimo Matassa at J&M Studios in New Orleans and mentioning that “Fever” – recorded March 1, 1956 at the King studios in Cincinnati – had a particularly great drum sound that was envied at the time.

Fever - Little Willie John LP

“Fever” – written by Eddie Cooley & Otis Blackwell and recorded first by Little Willie John – has been covered by a diverse array of artists from Peggy Lee, Elvis, and Ray Charles to The Jam, The Cramps, and Tom Verlaine.

“Big Blue Diamonds”: Early 70s Resurgence

I first encountered the song, “Big Blue Diamonds,” as covered by Little Willie John in 1962, from a Starday-King cassette entitled Country Tunes Done R&B.Country Tunes Done R&B.jpg

“Big Blue Diamonds” was penned by Earl “Kit” Carson and first issued on a 1950 King 78 sung by Red Perkins. Tex Ritter also put out a version that very same year.  Jimmy Dean covered it in the mid-50s, Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs in the mid-60s.

And then in the early 70s, a relative flurry of versions:  Arthur Prysock and Gene Summer both put out singles in 1971, while Mel Street and Ernest Tubb released honky tonk versions the following year.  1972 also saw the release of Jacky Ward‘s country top 40 hit version on the Target label – check out the naff piano, pedal steel & vibraslap opening:

“Big Blue Diamond”     Jacky Ward     1972

Jerry Lee Lewis would also record the song in 1973 on his Southern Roots album.

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