Tuesday, 16 April 2024

CyberSoulMan: The evolutions of 'The King' and 'Mr. Excitement'

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T. Watts at the KPFZ microphone. Courtesy photo.
 



If I could just find me a white boy that can sang cullurd.” – Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records.


If I could find a white man who had the negro sound and the negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” – Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records.



Please join me for an excursion back through time to America, circa 1950, give or take a few.


You’ve of course noticed the two quotes that preface this piece, both attributed to Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records. I present them here for your perusal because the quote seems to have evolved over the years.


The case I make refers to the first version which I read (probably in Jet magazine) when I was a legal teenager, compared with, or contrasted to, the second version which is seemingly how it is remembered today.


I trust that the coarser, first version is probably how it was originally uttered by Phillips, a native of Florence, Alabama. His father owned a cotton farm and “employed” African-American workers.


Working on a cotton farm in the deep south in the 1940s and 50s is just a polite way of saying sharecropping, which might have been a cut above indentured servitude. Actually, though, indentured servants could work there way out of bondage. Sharecroppers stayed in debt to the owner of the plantation from the womb to the tomb.


In sum, Phillips probably used the term “cullurd,” might have used “negro” or denigrated down the scale to nigra or (gasp!) worse. The second quote sounds like it was written by Rod Serling.


Sam Phillips became attracted to blues music through listening to the “workers” on his father’s farm. When he opened Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records in 1950, he made a living recording exclusively African American musicians.


The list is impressive. Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, a band led by Ike Turner released what is considered by some to be the first Rock & Roll record, “Delta 88.” Between 1950 and 1954 Phillips recorded James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Roscoe Gordon, Little Milton and Bobby Blue Bland. Phillips also recorded B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf.


Phillips claimed Elvis Presley his second greatest discovery. Howlin’ Wolf, according to Phillips, was his greatest discovery. Of course, once he had Elvis he left rhythm and blues alone.


I have a book in my library entitled “The Memphis Blues Again” by a Memphis-based photojournalist by the name of Ernest Withers with text by Daniel Wolff.


The book chronicles six decades of music in Memphis. There are several shots of Elvis Presley hanging out backstage with B.B. King, Brook Benton, Little Junior Parker and Bobby Blue Bland. Mr. Withers wrote, “Elvis was young and not chaperoned by Colonel Parker and them around black people. That was his own hobbyistic style – of coming around African-American people.”


There are also in circulation several shots of King Elvis posing with Mr. Excitement Jackie Wilson. One in particular charms me. Standing side by side with megastar smiles, basking in each others' glow, the two seem on top of the world, yet both destined to meet sad ends. Most folks know of the rise and fall and rise of Elvis. Fewer remember Jackie Wilson.


Jackie Wilson first achieved fame as a member of Billy Ward and the Dominoes. Inserting Wilson into the lead singer slot in 1956, the group had a hit with “St. Therese of the Roses.”


In 1957 Wilson opted for a solo career. He signed with the Brunswick label and soon hooked up with future Motown Mogul Berry Gordy.


Gordy and his songwriting partner Roquel Davis wrote several hits for Jackie including the 1958 smash hit, “Lonely Teardrops,” which rose to No. 7 on the pop charts.


Gordy, Davis and Wilson parted ways. Gordy went on to start Motown. Davis became a successful staff writer at Chess Records and Jackie Wilson became Mr. Excitement, influencing generations of entertainers from Elvis Presley to Michael Jackson.


His stage show was amazing. I saw Jackie Wilson perform in Oakland at a concert billed “Soulville ’67.” After a frenetic excursion into the realm of multi-octave, glass-shattering vocal technique and hit-the-splits precision dance moves, Wilson expertly slowed the tempo down and after singing and pleading on his back for a while stood up to a line of overly excited female fans and passionately kissed every one of them. This 16-year-old CyberSoulTeen was completely flabbergasted.


Ironically, Wilson – an admirer of Presley – stated that he as well as other black entertainers copied Elvis as well. Sounds like everybody was rubbing off on everybody!


Apparently Elvis Presley was introduced to pharmaceutical drug use in the military. It would spiral into an addiction that would contribute greatly to his death. Though he publicly took a stance against illicit drug use the King became hooked just the same.


In a conversation I had with Queen of the West Coast Blues Sugar Pie DeSanto, who worked with Mr. Excitement, she said that she had never witnessed a man with the appetite for drugs that Wilson displayed.


Jackie Wilson collapsed on stage at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1975. He was in a coma until his death in 1984. Elvis Presley, who preceded Wilson in death, visited Jackie Wilson many times between 1975 and Presley’s own demise in 1977.


In the mid-1970s I heard one of the most unsettling radio broadcasts I’ve ever heard. A Bay Area disc jockey played a recording that he claimed was the bedside voice of Jackie Wilson, moaning unintelligible thank yous to the legions of fans that had sent him flowers, gifts and cards.


The point perhaps of this CyberSoul excursion is the legacy these similarly talented men left. Presley, the so-called King of Rock & Roll, amassed a fortune and garnered the hearts of generations of Americans. Presley’s Graceland is visited by a half a million souls yearly. There are Elvis cruises and all satellite radio Elvis stations.


Jackie Wilson is buried at Westlawn Cemetery in Wayne County, Michigan. The spot is marked by an elegant headstone. The inscription reads: “Jackie Wilson, The Complete Entertainer. No more Lonely Teardrops.”


Keep prayin’, keep thinkin’ those kind thoughts.


*****


Upcoming cool events:


Monday, November 16


Blues Monday at the Blue Wing featuring Blues Farm with Dave Broida. 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Blue Wing Saloon & Café, 9520 Main St., Upper Lake. Information: 707-275-2233 or www.bluewingsaloon.com .


Thursday, November 19


Twice As Good celebrates its new CD with a release party. The band will perform along with Jacques Wilkens and the SoulShine Blues Band. 8 p.m. The Last Day Saloon, 120 Fifth St. at Davis Street, Santa Rosa. Hotline: 707-545-2343; office: 707-545-5876.


Sunday, Nov. 22


A benefit concert for Norton Buffalo to be held on Sunday, Nov. 22, in Paradise at the Performing Arts Center. The concert will feature Roy Rogers and Delta Rhythm Kings, Tom Rigney and Flambeau,

and more. Tickets are $40. Doors open at 5 p.m., the show starts at 6:30 p.m. Call 877-397-3363, between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. Mail checks for tickets to Bill Anderson, 6848 U, Skyway, Paradise CA 95969. Tickets are selling well! If you are unable to make the concert, donations for medical bills may be made out to Lisa Flores or Norton Buffalo, 5905 D Clark Road, Paradise CA 95969.


Friday, Nov. 27, and Saturday, Nov. 28


Fifteenth annual Holiday Jazz Festival at Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa & Casino. The festival kicks off on Nov. 27 with the top-selling American jazz artist, trumpeter Chris Botti, who boasts four No. 1 jazz albums, as well as multiple gold and platinum albums and Grammy Awards. He has performed and recorded with artists such as Sting, Josh Groban, Paul Simon, John Mayer, Andrea Boccelli and Jill Scott. Nov. 28 features funky horn man Boney James. A saxophonist, producer and songwriter, James' success with contemporary jazz and R&B have made him one of the most respected and best-selling instrumental artists of our time. Doors open each evening at 7 p.m. with live entertainment beginning at 8 p.m. For tickets call Omega Events Box Office at 949-360-7800 or visit www.omegaevents.com.


T. Watts is a writer, radio host and music critic. Visit his Web site at www.teewatts.biz .

 

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