Larry Simon – New York City Blues: Postwar Portraits from Harlem to the Village And Beyond
360 Pages Softcover edition
When conversations roll around to discussing the metropolitan areas that figure prominently in the arc of the history of blues music, it would be no surprise to hear names like Chicago, Memphis, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Detroit rapidly offered up for consideration. It is doubtful that many people would add New York City into the mix. That very oversight is addressed by author Larry Simon in a book that delves deep into the city’s blues scene, bringing to light the stellar accomplishments of a number of blues artists who have flown under the radar for most blues listeners.
As a guitarist who has been working in New York for decades, Simon has worked with a number of the artists under consideration in the book in addition to forays into the experimental music and “punk/funk” scenes. He also has composed music for productions ranging from dance to theater. As the Editor of the book, John Broven brings a wealth of knowledge about blues. He was involved in the start-up for two outstanding British magazines, Blues Unlimited and Juke Blues. Broven has also authored several books, including Walking To New Orleans: The Story of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues, which was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame, and Record Makers And Breakers: The Voices Of Independent Pock ‘N’ Roll Pioneers, a study of the impact of independent record labels.
In his introduction, Broven paints a picture of the confluence of forces that impacted the local scene. Many of the key players had migrated to the city, rather than being home-grown talent, not unlike the what occurred in other cities. New York was a recording capital, full of record companies yearning for hit records. That meant that top-notch players could usually find plenty of work playing recording sessions, which paid better in many cases than live performances in clubs. And over the course of five decades that started in the 1940s era, the city has had many fine clubs and concert halls, with the Apollo Theater at the top of the list.
Simon takes the lead in the next section of the book with ten interviews with key players, including familiar names like John Hammond Jr. and the late Paul Oscher, who provides details of his journey from growing up in East Flatbush to playing in black clubs in various boroughs, ultimately leading him to blow harmonica as a member of Muddy Waters’s band. For a decade, Simon was the bandleader for singer Rosco Gordon, who had several hit records with an offbeat feel that were also very popular in Jamaica. Those records are often cited as a main component in the formation of ska music.
Another remarkable interview features Bobby Robinson, a legendary figure for his Bobby’s Happy House record store, and a variety of labels that generated hits from Wilbert Harrison’s smash “Kansas City” to Elmore James to one of the original rap groups, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. His story is unlike any other, and Simon works hard to get as much detail as possible from the enthusiastic entrepreneur. “Wild” Jimmy Spruill’s was a mercurial guitarist who was admired for his personal approach that elevated many records and influenced more than a few guitar players.
Larry Dale was another artist that Simon worked with, helping Dale expand the reach of his club bookings. The author refers to little recognized musician as ”one of the finest blues guitarists and vocalists of his time,” as witnessed by his fretwork on Champion Jack Dupree’s classic album Blues From The Gutter. Simon also conducted an enlightening interview with piano man Bob Gaddy, who played with Dale, Spruill, and recorded for Robinson, and provided accompaniment for Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
Other interviews include Hyman “Hy” Weiss discussing his career releasing blues and doo-wop records on his Old Town label, the husband and wife team of saxophonist Noble “Thin Man” Watts and singer June Bateman, and vocalist “Al” Pittman, also known as Doc Pittman or Dr. Horse, who listed Louis Prima and Louis Armstrong as big influences.
The following section offers a short interview by Richard Tapp with guitarist Bob Malenky, who shares his recollections of the early 1970s era when he worked with Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Terry, singer Victoria Spivey and her partner, Len Kunstadt, at Spivey Records, and Bill Dicey, a harmonica player who aided Malenky’s entrance into the NYC blues world.
Val Wilmer has been documenting blues music for decades as a writer and photographer. Three examples of her work comprise the next section. One piece, originally published in Melody Maker, delves into the relationship between Victoria Spivey and Bob Dylan. A second short article looks at the influence Rev. Gary Davis had on the music of acoustic guitarist and singer Larry Johnson, who recorded several fine albums during his career, but is another artist that has been slowly disappearing into the mists of time. The last piece is a quick summary of the career of Tarheel Slim and his wife, Little Ann, who had a major hit with the song “It’s Too Late,” while Slim cut the rocking side like “Number 9 Train” and “Wildcat Tamer,” featuring his savory guitar picking.
The B&W photographs of Robert Schaffer are liberally featured throughout the book, with additional photographic contributions from Wilmer and Paul Harris.
The interviews that Broven contribute finish the book off in grand style. His portrait of Billy Bland highlights the singer’s engaging nature that helped make “Let the Little Girl Dance” a career-defining hit. Even better is his conversation with Billy Butler, a master guitarist with many records to his credit, none more famous than Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk (Parts 1 & 2)”. Butler’s part continues to inspire guitar players around the world.
Most readers will draw a blank on Rose Marie McCoy. Originally attempting to make it as a singer, she discovered she had a knack for songwriting, penning hit material for a wide range of artists that extended from Big Maybelle and Ruth Brown to Nat King Cole and Elvis Presley. Reading her comments on being a woman in what was then a male industry make this another highlight of book. The last artist in Broven’s series is another songwriter, Doc Pomus, who wrote hits for Presley, the Drifters, and Joe Turner in addition to being a blues shouter with several fine records to his name.
There is much to enjoy here. Many of the artists made surprisingly important musical contributions that often went unrecognized by the general public, just as the collection of talent and hit records seemingly failed to give New York City it’s just due as a major component in the legacy of blues music. Simon, Broven, and their friends have put together an absorbing assessment that entertains, educates, and ultimately ignites a desire to learn more about this talented community. Don’t miss this volume that may well be a classic in the making!