Lonnie Smith – Son of Ice Bag


By Bob “The Record Guy” Paxon

Jazz fans are album listeners and album buyers. When someone talks about a favorite jazz record, they are talking about an LP. Jazz started as PERFORMANCE music, not recording music – it was performed in New Orleans for many years before the Original Dixieland Jass Band cut two sides in 1917 (really, a second-generation group, and all White musicians!).

That record, and all jazz records to come for the next 30 years, were singles. 78 RPM, but singles. Eventually these were collected into groups and sold in book-like folders similar to photo albums and the term “album” started to be used, but they were still singles.

Blue Note Records was formed in 1939 and thus was a singles-only label for over 10 years. Blue Note Records is today THE jazz label.. there is Blue Note, and there’s everything else. At least to collectors, and crate diggers looking for rare grooves and samples, and entry-level fans. Blue Note is a brand and a style, to the point that those two words are virtually synonymous with “modern jazz.”

As I said, today’s fans are album fans but it wasn’t always so. After the early Louis Armstrong years, the Swing records of the war years enjoyed great popularity as dance music — which is inherently singles-oriented. The Bebop years continued like this; although some Bebop strikes our ears today as not conducive to dancing, Dizzy Gillespie and others had hits that were jukebox staples for party listening and dancing.

This continued right through the 1960s. Blue Note never stopped issuing tracks as singles and issued hundreds, on almost all their artists. And they did so for the same reason any “pop” label did — they were looking for a hit. They enjoyed enough sales to continue this approach for the life of the label.

The Soul Jazz trend of the 1960s was highly conducive to this use as it’s perfect dance music. Which brings us to today’s 45. “Son Of Ice Bag” (written and previously recorded by Hugh Masekela) paired with “Think” (written/recorded by Aretha Franklin). Both tracks were instrumentals taken from Lonnie’s 1968 LP “Think.”

The full album credit is ‘Lonnie Smith (With Lee Morgan and David Newman)’. And indeed those two distinguished gentlemen are prominent on the album, although equally prominent on THIS track is guitarist Melvin Sparks. Lonnie’s recording career was affiliated with guitarists since his 1966 start with George Benson; the George Benson Quartet Featuring Lonnie Smith had recorded two albums and the same group plus Sparks recorded Lonnie’s first album as a leader, 1967’s “Finger Lickin’ Good”.

“Think” was Lonnie’s first Blue Note album, with three more to follow. Jazz fans will remember that Lee Morgan’s career was cut short less than four years after this, when the 33-year old was shot to death at New York City’s jazz mecca Slug’s Saloon by his common-law wife. The story is that his injuries were not immediately fatal, but the ambulance service was reluctant to go into the club’s bad neighborhood, causing him to bleed to death.

David Newman is the “Fathead” Newman who had achieved fame with jazz/soul pioneer Ray Charles, so funky grooves were old hat to him!

Listening to this 45, you can imagine how great it would have sounded on the jukebox at the local bar on a hot summer night when people are out looking for fun – which is the essence of jazz.

Lonnie of course went on to a long and wonderful career which continues to this day, encompasing many labels, but always funky and fun. I wrote quite a bit about Lonnie’s earlier in an earlier article about his late 1950s R&B vocal group 45 with The Supremes. I’ll recap that briefly because there’s some info I’ve learned since.

Lonnie was born in Lackawanna in 1942. His first performances had been singing in the church with his relatives. At age 15 he and his brother formed a vocal group called the Smith Brothers “and made $14 on our first gig! I could hardly believe it – that was a lot of money in 1957.”

At 16 he joined forces with Grover Washington Jr. to form The Supremes. Grover may have been singing at first, but his sax quickly became a feature. Lonnie’s brother Daryl was the drummer, and Barbara St. Clair and Lonnie were strictly vocalists.

The story gets a little confused at this point. The group was also known as the Teen Kings and some sources state they recorded under that name. Although there are 45s by various “Teen Kings” around the country, none have obvious signs of being by this local group.

It’s sometimes stated that Buffalo’s Supremes changed their name to the Teen Kings AFTER the Diana Ross Motown group issued their records and became popular.  “We had already made a record and I was gonna sue to prevent her from using the name” Smith says, “but I never did.” The Detroit group was The Primettes in 1959 and became The Supremes in January of 1961, though they didn’t actually have hits for a couple of years. By that time, Lonnie had already moved onto his jazz career.

My belief is that they were maybe the Teen Kings first, before they were The Supremes. Lonnie remembers the Teen Kings working for “six dollars a night,” which probably wouldn’t have happened for a group such as The Supremes, who were a recording group under the wing of a legendary local DJ (Lucky Pierre).

It was probably soon after cutting this 1958 single for Mark Records that Lonnie’s interest in playing an instrument resumed. He had previously played the trumpet, learning by ear, but advancing to soloist in the high school band – Bennett High School, I think. He had also worked in the street, shining shoes and playing the trumpet for tips. He’d taken a break from playing an instrument during his time in the Supremes, though he took note of a spinet organ when visiting Grover’s house. Lonnie had never played an organ, never even played piano, but somehow the subject of playing an organ came up during a conversation with a local club owner – he was offered a job if he could get an organ.

Which brings us to the often-told story of the kid who was hanging around Art Kubera’s music store, wishing he could afford to buy a Hammond B3, telling Art he was sure he could make enough money to pay for one ‘if only…’. And the big-hearted music store owner who took a chance on him and let him take one home with just a simple promise to pay for it when possible. Art Kubera recently passed away but Lonnie’s story is one example of his many acts of generosity to local musicians.

The Debonairs – Life Is Full of Hang-Ups


By Bob ‘The Record Guy’ Paxon

Here’s a mysterious local Soul record. The group is unknown, it’s true name debatable. But there’s nothing too mysterious about the writer/ arranger/ conductor credit – Benny Clark.

Benny was born in Buffalo in the mid-1940s. His biggest early gig was as writer/ arranger/ conductor for Lloyd Price’s band. He later did similar tasks for The Temptations, Eddie Floyd and Tommy Hunt and has worked with Wilson Pickett, Erma Franklin, The Coasters, Little Milton, The Isley Brothers, Little Richard and Grover Washington Jr., among others.

His longest association was with Brunswick Records as a general go-to guy, including A&R director and producer for Jackie Wilson, The Chi-Lites and Tyrone Davis, even up to producing and playing keyboards for late-70s funk band Strutt. He stayed active in later years, even working with rapper Dr. Dre!

On his own, he’s led groups large and small – the Benny Clark Trio and the Benny Clark Soul Band – and has played Las Vegas, the Apollo Theatre and Carnegie Hall. Think about that for awhile.

Benny often moonlighted with some independent shots at the charts on the side. Benny was the founder and producer at De-Vel Records, which was “the only record company federally funded by the Government.” And no, I don’t know exactly what that means … but the labels do indicate that. De-Vel was a 1970s label distributed by CBS Records and some Buffalo artists recorded for it, one being Jackie Milton. Madeline & The Monticellos and Keni (aka Kenni) Lewis are De-Vel artists who I THINK may be from Buffalo, though I’m not sure. If anyone knows, please let me know.

He was also active in the Detroit scene in the 1960s, starting some indie labels and producing records in the Northern Soul genre, attempting to compete with Motown on their home turf. Which brings us to this similar Buffalo record.

The Harmon label seems to be a one-shot. Other releases bearing a Harmon imprint are apparently not related. The Debonairs’ name is questionable too. Billy Nunn remembers this release, but as by “The Feeling Within,” and names Tyrone Williams as the vocalist and guitarist. The only name on the label is Benny Clark’s. The odd thing is that in the space for group name, “Debonairs” seems to have been rubber-stamped in, on all copies.

There is a Debonaires (note the extra E) that’s not related — from Texas. But interestingly, there’s a Debonairs from Detroit on Solid Hit Records, which seems to be a Benny Clark-connected label. It’s also connected to Revilot, which has obvious Buffalo connections (Darrell Banks recorded for it).

Anyway…. THIS Debonairs is an interesting little record. The horns are a little too busy in my opinion – almost slightly chaotic – unless they were going for a loose Sly & The Family Stone feel. There’s a few other parts which suggest this wasn’t a completely finished product. Still, it has a breezy, crossover pop-soul appeal that could have hit in that time of the Friends Of Distinction/ Fifth Dimension.

It’s a nice fun record that- although mostly unknown even here on its home turf – is a document of a time and place, and a belief that the world of pop success was accessible to anyone if you found the right combination of sounds.

Jerry Engler – Sputnik (Satellite Girl)


By Bob “The Record Guy” Paxon

In 1957 an event happened which caused great changes in the United States. It ushered in a new emphasis on technology leading to many of the technological gadgets we use on a daily basis. It caused the advent of the Space Race and a further chill in the Cold War. It boosted the esteem of the USSR immeasurably.

“Oh we’re gonna get our kicks, on a little ole thing called-a, a Spootnik..”

The Soviet Union had just launched the first Sputnik into orbit.

This caused paranoia, awe and a wave of near-hysteria in the American public. And for Irondequoit’s Jerry Englerth, it seemed like a great idea for a song!

Jerry was born in Rochester but moved out West to Arizona when he was 10 and spent four years there, learning about country music (and probably absorbing that Southwest vibe). He returned to Rochester and bought himself a Martin D-28 guitar and began playing talent shows.

Reading about the launch of Sputnik, he wrote some nonsensical lyrics while on a lunch break from his Eastman-Kodak job. He recruited The Four Ekkos as backup and cut “Sputnik” at Fine Recording Studio in 1957. For once, Fine produced a great sounding record (this wasn’t always the case!).

The Four Ekkos also recorded a 45 for Rochester’s RIP Records and had a minor hit in 1959 with “Hand In Hand” on Buffalo’s Label Records (what a confusing name for a record label!).

His manager was Nick Nickson, a DJ at Rochester’s WBBF, who was able to get a deal with Brunswick records after playing the demo over the phone. Brunswick rush-released it to capitalize on the Sputnik publicity, promoting the record as “out of this world.” Englerth became Engler in the process.

Jerry took a leave of absence from Kodak and started promoting the record in bigger venues. He appeared at the infamous Rochester War Memorial show with Buddy Holly & The Crickets, the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino and others – the same show where a young Ersel Hickey would talk to the Everlys and get the excellent advice to write a song as the ticket to R&R success.

Engler built a friendship with the Texan Holly – maybe due to his years in the Southwest and shared love of Marty Robbins and Hank Williams – and was invited to travel to Clovis, N.M., for a session at Norman Petty’s studio, where Holly recorded. And on Buddy Holly’s 22nd birthday (Sept. 7, 1958) Buddy played guitar and produced on some tracks Jerry laid down. These were almost the last recordings Buddy ever did, but they weren’t issued until they were included on the 2005 CD compilation “A Whole Lotta Years, A Whole Lotta Music.” This also includes a re-recorded version of Sputnik and more recent recordings in both Rockabilly and Country styles recorded at Jerry’s Irondequoit home-studio. It is available at Amazon and CDBaby.

Five months later, Buddy died in a plane crash at the age of 22. Only 22 himself, Jerry backed off from the music business and returned to Kodak and later worked at Xerox. He didn’t release a record again until 1988’s “Win Some-Lose Some,” a strict country effort.

“Sputnik” has retained its fame among Rockabilly collectors and people who look for novelties from the Atomic Age/ Space Age/ Cold War. It’s been “comped” multiples times, most notably by Germany’s Bear Family.

While it made a moderate splash in the USA in its time, it also was issued overseas and became a minor hit in Australia and was covered in Mexico in 1960 by The Loud Jets – in Spanish!

“My baby and me, and that spoot-a-nik makes three, flyin’ all around the world, with that crazy satellite girl.”

Ramblin’ Lou Shriver – Ode to Hank Williams


By Bob ‘The Record Guy’ Paxon

Today is going to be a 78 Friday! It’s still a ‘single’, but this one came out in 1953, before the 45 rpm single came into vogue, and so is only found on the fast-spinning shellac slabs!

Ramblin’ Lou’s name and legacy should be familiar to any Western New Yorker with a passing interest in Country music or local radio (or just the popular culture of the regular folk, as found at the Country Fairs and local events of Upstate New York).

Lou’s career began as a DJ at Buffalo-area radio stations, starting in 1948 at WJJL where he worked alongside George ‘Hound’ Lorenz – at that time known as Ol’ Man Lorenz. It goes without saying that Lou was a Hank Williams Sr. fan but it may be surprising to some that George was also! They worked together promoting Country & Western shows in Tonawanda. These Jamborees were the C&W equivalent of the sock hops of R&R, but Country fans liked live music so bands and singers were needed. And I think that’s how Ramblin’ Lou became a singer – I think he was DJ first and put together a band out of sheer necessity!

A local rumor states that, similarly, non-musician George Lorenz played string bass behind Lou at that time. It’s probably JUST a rumor, but in the Country field at that time, bass players were usually not ‘musicians’ either; they were the clown act of the band, the bass couldn’t really be heard and as long as they could thump a single note close to the proper key it was good enough!

Lou later worked at WWOL whose Jamborees took him further afield. He was billed as Ramblin’ Lou and His Twin Pine Mountaineers. Eventually he would meet hot-shot picker Joanie Marshall and form a musical partnership as well as a family. His band came to include his childen, his wife and his friends. One of them was Accordion Zeke Cory, who I think is the one heard on this recording. Zeke was a beloved character in his hometown as well as in the band; he was maybe not a ‘clown’ but certainly a comic foil for Lou.

The local Country music scene owes a lot to Lou, it’s impossible to see him in any other light than the Father Of Country Music in WNY. Between his many appearances, his bus trips to the Opry-type destination of Wheeling, W.V., and last his long-running WXRL radio station, he’s been a constant promoter of true country music – tastefully and with an eye toward the tradition.

Today we visit Lou as he was – 60 years ago! And what was happening in 1953 was an event that shook the C&W world- the death of its beloved Hank Williams. His audience went far wider than Country music – his records were found in homes belonging to a wide spectrum of people, across all lines – but his Country audience had followed him closely and knew of his struggles with booze (they maybe didn’t know about the drugs though), his firing from the Grand Ol’ Opry, his painful divorce, and his subsequent wedding to the young Billie Jean Jones in front of a paying audience at New Orleans Municipal Auditorium.

Hanks’ death (on the road, in a Cadillac) added to his myth. His funeral was held at the Montgomery Auditorium in Alabama, with 2,750 mourners attending, but an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 people passed by the silver coffin in the public viewing.

[ Sidebar- Johnny Horton was something of a mentor of Hank’s in his early career. Running into Horton after Hank’s wedding to Billie Jean, Hank predicted Horton would one day marry Billie Jean. Within a year of Hank’s death they were indeed married. Seven years later Horton also died in a car; in an accident traveling from a show at the Skyline Club in Austin, Texas – the same venue as Williams’ last show! ]

Dozens -if not hundreds – of artists recorded mostly mawkish tributes after Hank’s death. Lou’s in not unique but it’s more touching than many, as it references the ups & downs of Hank’s painful life. It seems to be based on a folk song (“Jesse James” – another outsider hero!) and it’s obvious this is from a time when Country music was still Country & Western music.

There are things hear you’ll probably never hear again in the field of Country music- the accordion, the Western elements, the twang in the heartfelt vocal. If you played this to a fan of Modern Country music I doubt they’d even recognize it as being from the same genre.

45 Friday: Bobby DeSoto – The Cheater


By Bob “The Record Guy” Paxon
Originally published Nov. 1, 2013

Bobby was a typical kid who was bit by the Rock’N’Roll bug, and his story has the elements common to so many similar stories. It could almost be a movie – one filled with cliches.

As a kid from the Buffalo’s East Side (the Central Train Terminal area), Bobby and his friends followed the typical tradition of teens emulating the sounds of the Black vocal groups (“doo-wop”) they heard from The Hound’s radio show – singing under bridges, at the playground, on street corners. Bobby seems to have had something extra from the start – an exciting way with a vocal – and he was a good dancer.

Like most such kids, he was knocked out when he heard Elvis. And inspired – enough to hop a bus to New York City at the young age of 16 and start knocking on record company doors, cold calling, in the hope of being the next teen discovery. He found some interest among the Brill Building record sharks but they all wanted a demo recording. Lacking one he returned home.

Hanging out in bars (too young to drink!) he was encouraged by his friends to show off his singing and dancing, karaoke-style, to the jukebox. Word spread and he sound found himself in front of a true R&R band, The Rock-Its. Finally making some money in music – and still only 16! – he cut a demo locally, then returned to knock on the music business doors of NYC.

Music biz veteran Joe Rene liked what he heard enough to want to put Bobby on his new label, Claro Records. Unfortunately there seems to have been trouble right from the start with Joe pushing his own teen idol-sounding “Don’t Talk, Just Kiss” and Bobby pushing his self-written rocker “The Cheater.” By record label custom “The Cheater” seems to be the denoted as the A-side, but by logic one would guess it to be “Don’t Talk.” The label credited ‘Bobby De Soto With Bobby De Soto’ as he overdubbed his own harmonies. This confusion over which side to push dogged the record’s run on the local charts.

The musicians on the record were Rene’s NYC studio cats. The Rock-Its – apparently a good and LOUD band – weren’t invited and were in the process of breaking up anyway.

Returning to Buffalo… the now 17-year old singer now had a record to push locally but he without much help from the NYC-based Rene. He was hooked up some local people anxious to get into the record game but there were problems coordinating his promotional efforts, Rene’s efforts, and those of the local guys. The run of a few thousand records finally got distributed in the Buffalo area and apparently sold out but other cities were mostly ignored. His relationship with Rene soured.

And Bobby, while attracting lots of attention from local DJs willing to help his career, was not attuned to the politics and rivalries between the local DJs and radio stations, all of whom would have wanted an exclusive on him. Whether this played a part or not, local play was split between the two sides, which hindered chart placement – at that time, chart placement was by song (side), not by record (both sides).

Bobby played lots of local gigs and sock hops. He was taken to New York City for appearances; he hit some other cities; but there was no momentum building. Buyers couldn’t find the record. As the distribution problems with Claro became apparent Bobby tried contacting some of the majors but just couldn’t make the connection. Eventually he had to accept that it just wasn’t going to happen.

So he went on, sometimes performing, sometimes trying a bit of recording for fun; finding a career outside music,  and eventually returning to the clubs on a low-level way.

The record took on a second-life, as good records are wont to do, and found a home on several compilation albums of Rockin’ music, the most famous being Desperate Rock ‘N’ Roll, Vol. 18.

Picked by the clubs in Europe (mostly the UK) where people still dance to this kind of stuff, it’s currently an in-demand record again! People who weren’t even born when Bobby singing in the bars of Buffalo are now mouthing to the words to a song that.. well, here’s Bobby’s own comment, from a YouTube posting of “The Cheater”:

‘I’m Bobby DeSoto & I wrote this song humming the melody as I was I walking down the street. I was 16 yrs. old. & the words came to me. The words had no specific meaning in my young life. Rock ‘n Roll music was simply all about winning or losing in love. Went to NYC where the song was recorded on Claro Records in 1959. Had fun with the music.’

Lots more on the Bobby DeSoto story can be found in the recent book No Stoppin’ This Boppin’ by Bob & Terri Skurzewski. Look for it!