At The Ends Of The Mississippi

Originally posted April 16, 2007

In the midst of a pine forest in northern Minnesota, a trickle of water flows out of a lake and heads northeast. Most days in the summertime, folks cluster around the stream, which is less than a yard wide as it leaves the lake. Kids and some adults ford the small stream on a trail of rocks that looks too neatly spaced to be natural, the kids usually stepping gracefully from rock to rock while the adults generally look a little more awkward.

Carved into a signpost nearby is the legend: “Here, 1475 feet above the ocean, the Mississippi River begins to flow on its winding way 2,552 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.”

I would guess I was seven or so when I first saw that trickle of water heading out of Lake Itasca. I don’t recall if I tried to ford the river on the rocks. I just recall that we went to Itasca State Park as part of a summer vacation, seeing there not only the headwaters, but the small herd of bison the park kept and some artifacts from the times when the only visitors to the park’s forests and lakes were the Ojibwe. After a few days of touring in the area, we headed back to St. Cloud, where we lived no more than three blocks from the Mississippi River, and I headed to second grade at Lincoln School.

If I’m correct, and it was the summer of 1960, then that was forty-seven years ago, which sounds pretty distant as it is. But it was also long ago enough to be on the other side of a massive cultural divide, that clashing era we call the Sixties. I’ve long thought that the Sixties, as we think of them today, began with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and ended with the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam in 1975. Thus, even though the calendar said 1960 during that year I turned seven, I think we were still, culturally, in the Fifties.

Let’s look at the pop culture of the time, of those months that made up second grade for me:

Television shows that premiered in 1960 (likely in the fall, as almost all shows did then) were: Route 66, Sing Along With Mitch, My Three Sons, The Flintstones, The Andy Griffith Show and the first Bob Newhart Show. (I have no idea what the premise of this Newhart show was, but this was neither the psychiatrist show nor the innkeeper show; those came later.)

Also in television that year, Howdy Doody ended its thirteen-year run, and Clarabell the silent clown finally spoke, saying “Goodbye, kids!”

Popular films in 1960 included The Apartment, The Alamo, Spartacus, Exodus, The Magnificent Seven, Elmer Gantry and Where The Boys Are.

As for music, well, here’s a list of the songs that reached No. 1 during the months when I would have been occupied by the rigors of second grade:

“It’s Now Or Never” by Elvis Presley
“The Twist” by Chubby Checker
“My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own” by Connie Francis
“Mr. Custer” by Larry Verne
“Save The Last Dance For Me” by the Drifters
“I Want To Be Wanted” by Brenda Lee
“Georgia On My Mind” by Ray Charles
“Stay” by Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs
“Are You Lonesome Tonight” by Elvis Presley
“Wonderland By Night” by Bert Kaempfert
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles
“Calcutta” by Lawrence Welk
“Pony Time” by Chubby Checker
“Surrender” by Elvis Presley
“Blue Moon” by the Marcels
“Runaway” by Del Shannon
“Mother-in-Law” by Ernie K-Doe
“Travelin’ Man” by Ricky Nelson

It’s not as grim a list as it easily could have been for the early 1960s. No Fabian, no Bobby Vinton, no Annette. And songs by Roy Orbison, the Ventures, Sam Cooke and the Miracles bubbled near the top of the Top Ten list through that winter. But so, on the other hand, did records by Floyd Cramer, Ferrante & Teicher and Kathy Young & the Innocents!

I was pretty much unaware of all of it, though “The Twist” was unavoidable. I suppose I might have heard the Bert Kaempfert single on KFAM, the more conservative of St. Cloud’s two radio stations at the time; my dad had a transistor radio at his bedside, and he turned it on for about twenty minutes each evening before retiring. And I probably heard some of the other tunes around the neighborhood as older kids listened to their radios.

One of the sounds I know I did not hear was that of Huey Smith and the Clowns, who were recording during those years of 1960 and 1961 for New Orleans’ Imperial Records, down at the other end of the river that I might have walked across and that flowed not that far from our house. Smith was only a couple of years removed from his only Top 40 hit – 1958’s “Don’t You Just Know It,” which hit No. 9 – but the four singles released during his work at Imperial didn’t touch the charts. As John Broven observes in the liner notes to The Imperial Sides, 1960-61, at the time Smith moved from his earlier label, Ace, to Imperial, “the New Orleans rhythms were changing to a funkier soul sound; somehow Huey and his group needed a rocking backbeat and a fat horn sound to bring out their very best. With Huey caught in a musical no-man’s land and with promotion lacking, the Imperial singles were commercial failures.”

Commercial failures, perhaps. Artistic failures? Not a chance.

Even as times and styles changed and Smith held to his old forms, he and the Clowns – aided by production from New Orleans’ own genius, Dave Bartholomew – recorded some nicely done bits of R&B during their Imperial sessions. The sound is very clearly that of 1950s New Orleans – not all that far from the work Bartholomew did with Fats Domino and others – and as such, the songs are echoes of a time that was passing even as they were recorded. But they still provide a mighty nice listen, because there were very few that did New Orleans R&B better.

The recordings as I present them here were released under the Imperial label on an LP pressed by Pathé Marconi in France in 1983. “Snag A Tooth Jeanie,” the two parts of “Behind The Wheel” “More Girls,” “Sassy Sara” and the incredibly titled “The Little Moron” were released on Imperial singles. The remaining cuts were recorded during the same period of 1960-61 at Cosimo’s Studio in New Orleans.

Track listing:
Sassy Sara
Why Did I Do (Wa-Do-Do)
Somebody Told It
More Girls
The Little Moron
I Didn’t Do It
Behind The Wheel (Part 1)
Behind The Wheel (Part 2)
Heart Trouble (Part 1)
Snag A Tooth Jeanie
The Hill Ain’t Far
Able Mabel
I Don’t Play Like That

Huey “Piano” Smith & His Clowns – The Imperial Sides, 1960-61 [1983]


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