No blues shouter embodied the rollicking good times that he sang of quite like raucous shouter Wynonie Harris. "Mr. Blues," as he was not-so-humbly known, joyously related risque tales of sex, booze, and endless parties in his trademark raspy voice over some of the jumpingest horn-powered combos of the postwar era. Those wanton ways eventually caught up with Harris, but not before he scored a raft of R&B smashes from 1946 to 1952. Harris was already a seasoned dancer, drummer, and singer when he left Omaha for L.A. in 1940 (his main influences being Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing). He found plenty of work singing and appearing as an emcee on Central Avenue, the bustling nightlife strip of the Black Jazz community there.
Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson
An advanced stylist on alto saxophone who vacillated throughout his career between jump blues and jazz, bald-pated Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson (he lost his hair early on after a botched bout with a lye-based hair-straightener) also possessed a playfully distinctive vocal delivery that stood him in good stead with blues fans. Vinson first picked up a horn while attending high school in Houston. During the late '30s, he was a member of an incredible horn section in Milton Larkins's orchestra, sitting next to Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet. After exiting Larkins' employ in 1941, Vinson picked up a few vocal tricks while on tour with bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. Vinson joined the Cootie Williams Orchestra from 1942 to 1945. His vocals on trumpeter Williams' renditions of "Cherry Red" and "Somebody's Got to Go" were in large part responsible for their wartime hit status.
Big Joe Turner
The premier blues shouter of the postwar era, Big Joe Turner's roar could rattle the very foundation of any gin joint he sang within - and that's without a microphone. Turner was a resilient figure in the history of blues - he effortlessly spanned boogie-woogie, jump blues, even the first wave of rock & roll, enjoying great success in each genre. Turner, whose powerful physique certainly matched his vocal might, was a product of the swinging, wide-open Kansas City scene. Even in his teens, the big-boned Turner looked entirely mature enough to gain entry to various K.C. niteries. He ended up simultaneously tending bar and singing the blues before hooking up with boogie piano master Pete Johnson during the early '30s. Theirs was a partnership that would endure for 13 years.
When you draw up a short list of the R&B pioneers who exerted a primary influence on the development of rock & roll, respectfully place singer Roy Brown's name near its very top. His seminal 1947 DeLuxe Records waxing of "Good Rockin' Tonight" was immediately ridden to the peak of the R&B charts by shouter Wynonie Harris and subsequently covered by Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many more early rock icons (even Pat Boone). In addition, Brown's melismatical pleading, gospel-steeped delivery impacted the vocal styles of B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Little Richard (among a plethora of important singers). Clearly, Roy Brown was an innovator - and from 1948-1951, an R&B star whose wild output directly presaged rock's rise.
One of the great blues singers of the post-World War II period, Jimmy Witherspoon was also versatile enough to fit comfortably into the jazz world. Witherspoon was born on August 8, 1923, in Gurdon, AR. As a child, he sang in a church choir, and made his debut recordings with Jay McShann for Philo and Mercury in 1945 and 1946. His own first recordings, using McShann's band, resulted in a number one R&B hit in 1949 with "Ain't Nobody's Business, Pts. 1 & 2" on Supreme Records. Live performances of "No Rollin' Blues" and "Big Fine Girl" provided 'Spoon with two more hits in 1950.
Ray Charles was the musician most responsible for developing soul music. Singers like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson also did a great deal to pioneer the form, but Charles did even more to devise a new form of black pop by merging '50s R&B with gospel-powered vocals, adding plenty of flavor from contemporary jazz, blues, and (in the '60s) country. Then there is his singing; his style is among the most emotional and easily identifiable of any 20th-century performer, up there with the likes of Elvis and Billie Holiday. He's also a superb keyboard player, arranger, and bandleader. The brilliance of his 1950s and 1960s work, however, can't obscure the fact that he's made few classic tracks since the mid-'60s, though he's recorded often and tours to this day.
Ella Johnson made her mark as the vocalist with Buddy Johnson's big band during the '40s and '50s, and it is in that context she really shines. Her later solo sides for Mercury are pale imitations of her work with the band. Although many of Ella's hits are uptempo (e.g. "I Don't Want Nobody"), it is on ballads and torchy blues that she really brings it together. In fact, her earliest work for Decca during the mid '40s (much of which is not yet reissued) is uncannily good. At her best, Ella sounds like a pouty, vulnerable, and very sexy young girl. Like so much of her life, it was no affectation. The comparison to Billie Holiday is inevitable, but Ella is her own singer. Ella Johnson made her mark as the vocalist with Buddy Johnson's big band during the '40s and '50s, and it is in that context she really shines. Her later solo sides for Mercury are pale imitations of her work with the band
How many blues artists remained at the absolute top of their game after more than a half-century of performing? One immediately leaps to mind: Charles Brown. His incredible piano skills and laid-back vocal delivery remained every bit as mesmerizing at the end of his life as they were way back in 1945, when his groundbreaking waxing of "Drifting Blues" with guitarist Johnny Moore's Three Blazers invented an entirely new blues genre for sophisticated postwar revelers: an ultra-mellow, jazz-inflected sound perfect for sipping a late-night libation in some hip after-hours joint. Brown's smooth trio format was tremendously influential to a host of high-profile disciples ‹ Ray Charles, Amos Milburn, and Floyd Dixon, for starters.
Helen Humes was a versatile singer equally skilled on blues, swing standards, and ballads. Her cheerful style was always a joy to hear. As a child, she played piano and organ in church, and made her first recordings (ten blues songs in 1927) when she was only 13 and 14. In the 1930s, she worked with Stuff Smith and Al Sears, recording with Harry James in 1937-1938. In 1938, Humes joined Count Basie's Orchestra for three years. Since Jimmy Rushing specialized in blues, Helen Humes mostly got stuck singing pop ballads, but she did a fine job. After freelancing in New York (1941-1943) and touring with Clarence Love (1943-1944), Humes moved to Los Angeles. She began to record as a leader and had a hit in "Be-Baba-Leba"; her 1950 original "Million Dollar Secret" is a classic. Humes sometimes performed with Jazz at the Philharmonic, but was mostly a single in the 1950s. She recorded three superb albums for Contemporary during 1959-1961, and had tours with Red Norvo. She moved to Australia in 1964, returning to the U.S. in 1967 to take care of her ailing mother. Humes was out of the music business for several years, but made a full comeback in 1973, and stayed busy up until her death. Throughout her career, Helen Humes recorded for such labels as Savoy, Aladdin, Mercury, Decca, Dootone, Contemporary, Classic Jazz, Black & Blue, Black Lion, Jazzology, Columbia, and Muse.
We celebrate the groundbreaking career of sax player and bandleader Louis Jordan, a founding father of rhythm and blues. In the late '30s and early '40s, Jordan made a conscious decision to turn away from the big band sound, a dominant trend in popular music of the day. He took a more streamlined approach to the music, putting together smaller, tighter bands. His groups, The Tympany Four and The Tympany Five, developed a looser, hard-driving sound that came to be known as "jump music." Jordan's departure not only fueled his successful string of novelty swing hits through the '40s and early '50s, but it created a bridge to another emerging music form: rock and roll. Chuck Berry, James Brown, and Ray Charles all cite the importance of Jordan on their work.
Blue Lu Barker
She was born Louisa Dupont Barker and her father ran a grocery store and pool hall, cashing in big time during prohibition with a stock of bootleg liquor. At 13 she left school and married Barker. , In 1930 the couple moved to New York, hooking up a variety of performing situations including the contact with Morton. At the 1938 Vocalion session at which she cut her first vocals, the producer checked her out and came up with the Blue Lu Barker stage name. The couple were contracted to Decca in the 30's and the Apollo label the following decade, joining a roster at the latter label that included rhythm and blues and jazz greats such as Wynonie Harris, Dinah Washington and Luis Russell. One of the couple's Apollo sessions even featured a jam with the mighty Charlie Parker. Blue Lu Barker was inducted into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame in 1997, one year before she died.
A prime influence on Little Richard during his formative years "Prince of the Blues" Billy Wright's hearty shouting delivery was an Atlanta staple during the postwar years. Wright was a regular at Atlanta's 81 Theatre as a youth, soaking up the vaudevillians before graduating to singing and dancing status there himself. Saxist Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams caught Wright's act when they shared a bill with Charles Brown and Wynonie Harris at Atlanta's Auditorium, recommending the teenaged singer to Savoy Records boss Herman Lubinsky. Wright's 1949 Savoy debut, "Blues for My Baby," shot up to number three on Billboard's R&B charts, and its flip, "You Satisfy," did almost as well. Two more of Wright's Savoy 78s, "Stacked Deck" and "Hey Little Girl," were also Top Ten R&B entries in 1951. The flamboyant Wright set his pal Little Richard up with powerful WGST DJ Zenas Sears, who scored the newcomer his first contract with RCA in 1951. It's no knock on Richard to note that his early sides sound very much like Wright. Wright recorded steadily for Savoy through 1954, the great majority of his sessions held in his hometown with hot local players (saxist Fred Jackson and guitarist Wesley Jackson were often recruited). After he left Savoy, Wright's recording fortunes plummeted - a 1955 date for Don Robey's Peacock discery in Houston and sessions for Fire (unissued) and Carrollton in 1959 ended his discography. Wright later MCed shows in Atlanta, remaining active until a stroke in the mid-'70s slowed him down.
Biographical Information on this web page is a product of AMG (All Music Guide) and may not be used for commercial purposes. Inquiries may be directed to Ron O'Neal
Little Willie John
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