los angeles's thriving r&b scene -- 11/18/22

Today's selection -- from Waiting for the Sun: A Rock 'N' Roll History of Los Angeles by Barney Hoskyns. The emergence of R&B in the 1940s may owe more to Los Angeles than to cities such as Memphis, Chicago, and New Orleans that have received more credit for that genre:
"It is a curious fact that for years the importance of Los Angeles as a hotbed of rhythm and blues was overlooked in favour of cities like Memphis, Chicago and New Orleans. Two principal reasons accounted for this: first, the comparative cultural isolation of Los Angeles until the 1950s, and second, the fact that LA's thriving R&B scene failed to produce any major stars in the rock'n'roll era. But it has also been difficult for rock historians to conceive of LA as a black environment, even with the knowledge that thousands of blacks migrated to the West Coast from Texas and Oklahoma. The whole idea of California as a funky rhythm and blues town seems like a contradiction in terms, particularly when the great days of Central Avenue are so long gone.

"Despite this, there is a case for arguing that LA can boast a more important R&B heritage than almost any other American city. 'The first big surge of R&B was on the West Coast in LA, not in New York,' said Ralph Bass, while Mike Stoller asserts that 'LA really was the hub of R&B labels, far more so than anywhere else.' It is certainly true that there were more independent R&B-oriented labels in the city than in, say, New York or Chicago, and this at least partly reflected the greater number of R&B acts there. With Central Avenue flooded by affluent nightlifers and demobbed GIs searching for good times, there was an ever-increasing demand for the post-swing marriage of blues and rhythm, whether it manifested itself in the raucous after-hours music of Roy Milton's Solid Senders or in the melancholy piano blues of Johnny Moore's Three Blazers.

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"'Roy Milton and I are accused of starting the whole R & B thing,' said Joe Liggins, whose massive 1945 hit 'The Honeydripper' really established the new sound. 'It was the rhythm that kicked off R&B here in the '40s -- it's still blues, but it's dance blues with an earthy feel in the melody, phrasing and stories.' For Johnny Otis, the style was 'jazz and bebop, small group and good-time swing, country blues and basic boogie-woogie ... amplified and squashed down for public dancing'. 'Squashed down' gets it nicely, as one listen to the sassy small-combo sound of 'The Honeydripper' or Roy Milton's 'RM Blues' makes clear. This was Texas/Oklahoma cornbread blues relocated in smoggy, sunburned Watts.

"By the time Milton's record was nudging No. 1 on the 'race' chart in April of 1946, there were already a handful of important independent labels in Los Angeles, all of them rushing to capitalize on the majors' slowness to pick up on the new trend. It's true that Capitol Records, founded in Hollywood in 1942, had signed Nat 'King' Cole and T-Bone Walker, but the more established, New York-based majors (Columbia and RCA-Victor) wouldn't touch Milton or Liggins with a bargepole. 'They weren't interested in us small-fry,' said Johnny Otis. 'It was like, "Who are they and what is this bastard product with two saxes and a trumpet?" We couldn't even get auditions.'

"Ultimately, it was down to the likes of Leon and Otis Rene, Creole brothers who'd come out to LA from Louisiana in the thirties, to take a risk with this 'jump-blues' sound. Having written Louis Armstrong's 'When It's Sleepytime Down South' and the Ink Spots' 'When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano', Leon Rene was dismayed to find that he couldn't get more of his material recorded by major labels. As a result he founded the Exclusive label in 1942, his brother Otis following close behind with Excelsior.

"Early in 1945, Leon Rene got wind of a song -- a fifteen-minute brag-a-thon known as 'The Honeydripper' -- which Joe Liggins and his band were performing nightly at the Samba Club on 5th Street. Evolving out of a dance called the Texas Hop, and based around Liggins' insistent boogie piano riff, 'The Honeydripper' was tearing the house down every night, epitomizing the 'squashed-down' combo style described by Johnny Otis. By the late summer, on Exclusive, it was blaring out of every black record store in America. Liggins stayed at No. 1 on the black chart for eighteen straight weeks.

"But if there was one record which could really be said to have galvanized the independent record business in LA, it would have to be Private Cecil Gant's 'I Wonder', cut in late 1944 in a garage belonging to former pressing-plant worker Cliff McDonald. 'I Wonder' was the obverse of the jump-combo style of Liggins, a mournful pop-blues ballad that came all the way down the line from Leroy Carr via Nat Cole and Charles Brown, striking a deep nerve in sweethearts separated by the war and establishing the so-called 'sepia Sinatra' style of piano-accompanied blues balladeering. Released on the Gilt Edge label, 'I Wonder' took off after Gant persuaded the US Treasury to let him sing at a downtown Los Angeles war-bond rally on Broadway and 9th Street. Within weeks he was the 'GI Sing-sation' of the country and the record was at No. 1, the first major black hit on an independent label."

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Barney Hoskyns


Waiting for the Sun: A Rock 'N' Roll History of Los Angeles


Backbeat Books


Copyright 1996, 2003 by Barney Hoskyns


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