Featured Interview – Henry Oden

Henry Oden photo 1In the critically acclaimed tome on Jimi Hendrix, ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky, by New York author David Henderson, there is a unique reference to one of the traveling bands that Rock & Roll Daddy, Little Richard hired and fired. The line goes like this: “in fact, he (Hendrix) and others in the band like Black Arthur and Henry Oden would often rebel in the midst of the insipid changes and take the music out there…”

The problem with that quote, is that while Henry Oden did record with Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix, he never went on the road with them. Henry doesn’t remember much about the session other than the personnel who participated and is able to fill in some of the blanks. The tape is rolling as Henry and I are having lunch at the Blue Wing Cafe in Upper Lake, California.

In The Life And Times Of Little Richard by UK journalist Charles White, there is an entry which reads: Unk. date (Unk. location) PERSONNEL: Little Richard (voc -1, pno, organ -4) with Jimi Hendrix (gtr -2), Black Arthur (gtr), Henry Oden (bs), unk. dms, brass, electric bottleneck gtr -3….

“On the Little Richard recording session, the unknown electric bottleneck guitarist was Hi Tide Harris. We recorded it at Sierra Sound Studios in Berkeley, California in the late ’60s, as I recall. Hi Tide Harris’s mother and my mother were friends. Hi Tide and I played in a band together with George McCullough who changed his name to George Mustapha. Our signature cover tune was Quarter To Three by Gary “U.S”. Bonds. Mustapha was the unknown drummer on the Little Richard session. He was the brother of Soul singer Jesse James. Hi Tide went on to be the voice of Leadbelly in the movie.

As a youngster, I met many Blues people not necessarily knowing who they were. My mother ran a gambling house. Coming up in Richmond, California, seems like everyone had their little side hustle to keep the bills paid. You had a square job and you had a hustle. Some of the people who came by our house were Big Mama Thornton, Lowell Fulson, and Jimmy McCracklin. T-Bone Walker came through Richmond a lot because he had people there, but I never met him.”

At one point later on, Bill Withers used to play a club in Richmond called the Tiki room. He would sing there with Johnny Heartsman. Hi Tide Harris and I would go there and stand in the doorway listening and get chased away. We’d leave for about 20 minutes and turn around and come back. I wound up taking a picture with Bill in 1990. He did a seminar at Chico State. I had been doing some recording in Chico and the guy who was engineering my sessions said, ‘Bill Withers is gonna be over at Chico State. You need to go see him.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I do need to see him.’

So I go to the seminar and sat through it. It was interesting, hearing him talk. At the end, I go up to him and say, ‘Hey, my name is Henry Oden and I play bass. I used to come by the Tiki Room when you were there workin’ with Johnny Heartsman and get chased away.’ That tickled him. Then I said, ‘We also did a recording together.’ He stopped, looked at me and said, ‘What’s your name?’ I told him and he said, ‘I don’t remember working with you.’ I said, ‘Okay, let me tell you. At the session, John Turk was on keyboards, Fred Casey was on drums, Al King was on guitar’–and he stopped me and said, ‘I didn’t know who the bass player was.’ I said, ‘I was the bass player. It was recorded at Dick Vance’s studio in Oakland.’ And he hugged me! Because you see, that track turned out to be the demo that got him his first record deal. Bill Withers actually lived in the Bay Area for awhile.

Henry Oden photo 2I was born in Oakland on February 8, 1947. I would’ve been born in Richmond, but they didn’t do C sections in Richmond. My father was from Alabama, my mother from Arkansas.

I got into music when I was about 16. The guy that lived behind me had built a guitar in wood shop. I’d hear him play all the time from my room in the back of the house. One day he invited me to a talent show at Richmond High. I went to that and I was sprung. I still remember it. His group sang I Want To Know, a song made famous by Hank Ballard & The Royals before they changed their name to The Midnighters. That stuck in my head. That was the beginning of it. There was a lot of music that went on in Richmond back in the day. There was a group called the Golden Tones, an R&B group. They had a tune out called Dorthea. One of the members was Joe Simon.

In my opinion, Richmond was a mecca of the Blues because of the influx of people from Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. It was rough too! It was said that if you went to a jam session at Club Savoy in North Richmond and didn’t play well, you might be relieved of your instrument on your way out. Mind you, this was a rumor. Personally, I saw people booed or shouted off stage at jam sessions. They weren’t as polite as we are now.

I met my mentor, Robert Kelton through Jimmy McCracklin. He was a guitar player for “Crack” who was replaced by Lafayette “Thing” Thomas. What happened was, Kelton would come to the card games at my mother’s. He found out that I was interested in guitar. My mother urged my dad to let Kelton teach me and that’s how he became my teacher and mentor. He started me on guitar and as he listened to me develop and play he said, ‘You accompany really well. You might be better suited for electric bass, so I picked it up and practiced listening to Bobby Bland’s Here’s The Man album. I wore that album out. I played it so much the needle finally started skating across the record without finding the grooves. I learned every tune on it.

I am left handed and would’ve got a left handed bass but when my old man decided to buy my first bass he said, ‘I’ll get you an instrument but I’m not payin’ that extra 10% for a left handed one. So I learned to play right handed and I’m glad I did because as most players are right handed, I can always go to somebody’s set and play their instrument.

My father’s only music was singing at church. One of my first times playing publicly was with the King Brothers at Pilgrim’s Rest Baptist Church in Richmond. (The King Brothers are still going strong and pretty hot in LA right now.) Eventually we became the same band that Norton Buffalo, who was also from Richmond, wanted to be his band.

At Pilgrim’s Rest, we were teenagers and all we knew was the Blues. The King’s mother was looking holes through us because she knew what we were doing, but nobody said anything. As a matter of fact, when we were done, the preacher said, ‘That was very nice of those boys to play some music in church!’

Here the conversation shifts when I ask if Henry feels that Gospel music uses the same chords that Blues does.

He responds, “In contemporary Blues, the stuff you hear nowadays, no. But if you’re talking about the stuff from back in the day, yes. What you have there is the build up of the chord, the tension that it builds and the release of it. You don’t necessarily get that in a lot of the stuff that’s being played today.

Henry Oden photo 3Again, going back to that first jam session I attended at Club Savoy, school was in session. I was 17 and as it turned out, practicing with that Bobby Bland record really helped. Since I wasn’t 21 they made me sit on the Minnie Lou’s Cafe side of the establishment until they called me up to play on the Savoy side, where they served alcohol. ‘Okay,’ someone said. ‘We’re gonna let this young man up here to play.’ They’re lookin’ at me laughin’. The Moore Brothers, Dan on keyboard, Rand on drums, Dr. Wild Willie Moore on saxophone and Charles McKinney on guitar. ‘Okay, you wanna play a Blues? Okay, it’s in two flats.’ Well I don’t know what two flats is. I’d never heard it called like that. They counted it off. I thought it would be slow. They took off like nobody’s business. All the OG’s were looking at me laughin’. I got through the tune, but boy, my hand was crampin’!

They couldn’t make me stop. They played a slow one and afterwards they were like, ‘Who are you, where you live at and can we get your number?’ They also advised me to find a bass player I liked on record and study him. So I studied the bass pedal work of Jimmy Smith the B3 king, on his 20 minute opus, The Sermon. I found out that any instruction a bass player would ever need on how to play a 1-4-5 Blues is in that tune.

One of my bass students, who is at UCLA now, actually went out and got The Sermon and tried to learn every note. That’s not what I meant. I meant study the nuances, every passing chord, riff and run. How to go up and down the scale as well as circumvent it. Just stop and listen to it. Check it out fully.”

Henry’s narration is a series of flashbacks, interspersed with present day commentary. He spoke of how he left the intense Richmond Blues scene for the bright lights of San Francisco’s Broadway back in the mid ’60s.

“One day Lee King of the King Brothers and I decided to go to San Francisco to see what was going on. It just so happened we went down on Broadway and discovered Freddie & The Stone Souls rehearsing. Freddie of course, is the guitar playing brother of Sly Stone. Lee sold Freddie on me and next thing I know I’m at the house rehearsing with the band.

It’s complicated, but Sly who was a radio DJ at the time was also building another band. Johnny Heartsman disappeared for a while and the nucleus of his band went with Sly. That was Gino Landry, Fred Casey and John Turk. Meanwhile Freddie & The Stone Souls were playing at Little Bo Beep’s out in the Mission District. One night while playing there, Cynthia Robinson the trumpet player, pulled me to the side and said, ‘Don’t tell anybody but Sly is gonna make a move and you’re not gonna be part of it. This gig is only gonna last about 2 more weeks. So I had a heads up that Sly and Freddie were merging their bands and bringing Larry Graham in on bass. So I was out.

I continued playing on Broadway though, workin’ with Bobby “Spider” Webb at the Condor where Carol Doda was makin’ topless dancing famous. I went on the road for awhile, didn’t like it, came back and took the next 10 years off to work with Lady Bianca.

When I did come back in 1982, I went to Mark Naftalin’s Blue Monday Party and met John Lee Hooker for the first time. He liked the way I played and asked me where I was from. When I said Richmond he said, ‘It’s some tough emm effs in Richmond. I’ll never play out there no more.’

Same thing when I met Lowell Fulson. When he asked whom I’d played with in Richmond and I told him, he said, ‘Well, I’m not worried about you, you can play!’

I next started playing with Little Joe Blue in Richmond. I first saw him at the Silver Shelter, next to the National Guard Armory. He was doing his hit Dirty Work Is Going On. He had a show-stopping way of shaking his wavy, processed hair forward and flipping it back, making the waves go back in place.

When I met Clifton Chenier, he said, ‘Oh, you play with Little Joe Blue? You’re from Richmond? Don’t have to worry about you. You can play. So these are just Richmond music scene stories.

Henry Oden photo 4I joined Mark Naftalin’s band in 1982 but Tom Mazzolini was putting together a European tour which he called The San Francisco Blues Festival Tour. He offered me a spot on it. Other players were Sonny Rhodes, Harvey Guitar Mac Macknally, Little Joe Blue and Roy Rogers. I liked working with Mark but couldn’t turn down the opportunity to go to Europe. I ran toward it like a turkey through corn. I have pictures that we took in the Netherlands. Mark didn’t speak to me for 2 years.”

When I ask Henry how often he is working these days, the answer is surprising. “Not often enough. Maybe 2 or 3 times a month. I’m still getting over a bout with cancer. Some of my best times recently were with guitarist Preston Shannon, who passed from cancer in January of this year.

When I found out he was ill, I gave him a call. I said, ‘Man, I hear you have cancer.’ He said, ‘Yeah man.’ I said , ‘Well, welcome to the club. I had mine before you had yours,’ and we laughed about it. He passed in January of this year. He was a great person, guitar player and singer. Those who didn’t get a chance to hear him play, you missed it. You really missed it.”

Speaking on his on cancer experience, Henry says, “Eating is sort of a slow thing for me now. ” (He points to his jawline to indicate where it was.) “I still have a dimple here. It took almost a year and a half to learn how to swallow again. I could drink water but not solid food. You know the expression, ‘I’ll slap the taste out of your mouth?’ I know that one. I lost 90 pounds. You should’ve see the clothes I gave away. When I introduce myself I say, ‘I’m Henry Oden–At least what’s left of him.’

We close discussing Henry Odom’s opinion of the current state of the Blues. “The Blues is in trouble. I look around and what people are considering the Blues now is not it. Like I say, I go back to those jam sessions I started in. Some of those players that are out there now wouldn’t have made it through back then. These days Blues Rock is in but Southern Soul, not necessarily so. Personally, the Blues that I dig is post WWII Blues up to the beginning of the Motown Era. My thing is West Coast Blues. Chicago Blues? Okay, but I’m really West Coat. If you look at it, you have to talk about the migrations of African Americans from the Jim Crow South. One migration went to Chicago, one to the West Coast and one to the East Coast. There were variations in the education levels of the migrants. Those that came out west, generally had a 6th or 7th grade education. Most of the migrants during WWII did so to get the jobs that were created by the war.

If you analyze the song Sweet Home Chicago, it is saying that if you could read and write, you could get a job. I’m trying to find out what was the first reference to going to Chicago, because if you listen to the Robert Johnson version, it says ‘Come on, don’tcha wanna go to the land of California, Sweet Home Chicago. And if you read, you discover that Robert Johnson may have had relatives in Port Chicago, California. If you really do the anthropology on the song, he’s talkin’ abut takin’ the Lincoln Highway which goes from Chicago to California. I received much of this information from a Blues enthusiast in the Netherlands. Europe knows more about our Blues than we do.

As Blues Blast goes to press Henry was notified that he is Mr. October in the Living Blues Greats 2019 Blues Calendar. It can be found at this link: https://pixelbolide-galerie.de/index.php/galerie/bluesart

Visit Henry Oden’s website at: www.henryodenmusic.info

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