Posts Tagged ‘King Curtis’

‘Gonna Tell Aunt Mary . . .’

May 18, 2022

Originally posted September 1, 2009

The things you can learn rummaging around online!

Remember all the stories about a baseball player promising to hit a home run for a sick kid in the hospital and then actually going out and doing so? (The ballplayer in the story is frequently Babe Ruth, and there is some evidence that things happened that way at least once, which only proves that where Babe Ruth is concerned, fact and fable intersect.) As I dug around at Wikipedia this morning, I found a similar story of rock ’n’ roll lore:

In the mid-1950s, it seems, there was a young woman in or near New Orleans named Enotris Johnson. Her Aunt Mary was ill, and in hopes of gaining the money for her aunt’s treatment, Enotris began to write a rock ’n’ roll song for a popular performer to record. Actually, she only wrote a couple of lines, but somehow, she got in touch with Honey Chile, a popular disk jockey.

Honey Chile took the few lines that Enotris had written and got in touch with a fellow named Bumps Blackwell, who was an A&R man for Specialty Records. Blackwell took the few lines to the performer, who was – Wikipedia says – reluctant to use them. Still, one of the lines resonated with the artist, and he and Blackwell added to Enotris Johnson’s lines and crafted a song out of it. Recorded at a tempo so fast that the artist might have been singing in some language other than English, the song was released as a single. It went as high as No. 6 on the fragmented pop charts of the time and spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the R&B chart.

Those three lines Enotris wrote?

Saw Uncle John with Long Tall Sally
They saw Aunt Mary comin’
So they ducked back in the alley.

The artist, of course, was Little Richard and the song was “Long Tall Sally,” maybe the most famous song recorded by the flamboyant singer born as Richard Penniman in Macon, Georgia. (I’d guess that “Tutti Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” would be in the running for that “most famous” title.)

As to the truth of the tale I found at Wikipedia, some of the details of the story – minus Aunt Mary – also appear in The Heart of Rock & Soul, Dave Marsh’s 1989 tome about the 1,001 best singles. In addition, the song’s writing credits have seemingly always included an E. Johnson. On the other hand, “Long Tall Sally” wasn’t a one-shot for Enotris Johnson. She received at least two other writing credits on Little Richard songs: She’s also listed as a co-writer on “Miss Ann” and “Jenny Jenny.” (There may have been more credits for Enotris Johnson on songs that weren’t hits; those are the credits I noticed this morning on the CD The Georgia Peach.)

I did find some more information at Who’s Dated Who, a celebrity website. On an otherwise blank page for Enotris Johnson, a reader named Betty posted this note in May:

What happen to Enotris Johnson, the song writer that almost became a star? She loved the music industry very much and still does. She says that Little Richard was her brother back then. She married a preacher back in September 10, 1956; that ended all of her musical dreams because he was a man of God and he could not have his wife singing the blues. You can only think of what was expected of a housewife back in the 1950’s. Enotris now lives in Bogalusa, Louisiana. She is now 72 years old. She has one daughter, Wilma Dunn, [who] resides in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband. Enotris is a warm loving mother and friend and still supports her husband. Every once in a while you can hear her wailing on that piano and singing in the middle of the night. You would just love to sit around her and hear her tell all the stories from back in the day when all of the old singers were at their humble beginnings. Enotris Johnson has lived a full and happy life with her husband and being the idea preacher’s wife. [Edited slightly.]

The information would mean that Enotris Johnson would have been about nineteen years old when “Long Tall Sally” was recorded. And it still doesn’t address the truth about the ill Aunt Mary, but – like so many other rock ’n’ roll stories and fables (see Mr. Jimmy and the Rolling Stones, for example) – it really doesn’t matter. As I’ve said before, legend drives out fact.

And Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” remains one of the most vital songs in rock ’n roll history, and it must be one of the most covered, as well. Among those who covered it when Little Richard’s version was getting airplay were Pat Boone and Elvis Presley. I shared Boone’s limp version here about a year ago, and – oddly enough – I don’t have a copy of Presley’s.

A quick look at All-Music Guide results in a list of more than eight hundred CDs that contain a version of “Long Tall Sally.” The Little Richard, Pat Boone and Elvis Presley versions account for many of those, of course, but some of the other names that show up are Atlanta Rhythm Section, Cactus, Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys, the Chambers Brothers, Eddie Cochrane, Joey Dee & the Starliters, Wanda Jackson, the Isley Brothers, the Kinks, Sleepy LaBeef, Jerry Lee Lewis, Paul McCartney, Molly Hatchet, Don Nix, Carl Perkins, Johnny Rivers, the Rivingtons, Marty Robbins, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, Sha Na Na, the Tornadoes, the Trashmen, Walter Trout, Gene Vincent and Roger Whittaker. (That last one baffles me a little.)

[Note from 2022: The website Second Hand Songs lists a total of 161 separate covers of “Long Tall Sally,” including versions in Danish, Finnish, French, German, Japanese, Spanish and Swedish. Note added May 18, 2022.]

I have, strangely, only three covers of “Long Tall Sally” (on mp3 at any rate; vinyl may be another story): The Pat Boone I mentioned earlier and versions by the Beatles and by King Curtis.

The Beatles’ version was issued in 1964; in Britain, it was one of four songs on an EP (“I Call Your Name,” “Slow Down” and “Matchbox” were the others), and here in the U.S., the song was included on the imaginatively titled The Beatles’ Second Album. (It later showed up on several vinyl and CD anthologies, including Past Masters, Vol. 1.)

King Curtis’ version was recorded in New York City on October 28, 1965, and was evidently released as the flip side of “The Boss” [Atlantic 9469] and was included on a 1986 R&B saxophone anthology, Atlantic Honkers. (The sketchy notes on Atlantic Honkers indicate that “Long Tall Sally” was the title track of a King Curtis album, presumably on the Atco label, but I can’t find any other mention of such an album. Anyone out there know anything?)

“Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard, Specialty 572 [1956]

“Long Tall Sally” by the Beatles from The Beatles’ Second Album [1964]

“Long Tall Sally” by King Curtis, evidently Atlantic 9469 B-Side [1965]

King Curtis Finds His Instant Groove

June 22, 2011

Originally posted April 16, 2008

I recall Rick and I passing some idle time one afternoon or evening in early 1972, pondering music, as we were wont to do. Our topic that day was trying to guess who would be the next entrants into Playboy magazine’s music hall of fame.

When I’d turned eighteen the fall before, my parents had reluctantly agreed that I was old enough to purchase and read the magazine. A family friend about that time had offered to loan me his collection of the magazines, which dated back to the mid-1960s. Being eighteen, I found diversion in every edition of the magazine (it’s useful to keep in mind that those diversions were much more sedate than many things one can encounter on the ’Net these days by simple accident), but I soon learned that two of the magazine’s monthly editions were especially intriguing: August for its pro football preview, an intelligent and comprehensive piece generally written by Anson Mount; and February, for its extensive look at pop, rock and jazz. Among the highlights of the February edition was the revelation of the new entrants into the magazine’s music hall of fame.

Just as I had recently discovered that the articles in Playboy served a purpose beyond filling the space between pictures, so had the editors of the magazine recently discovered that rock music was worthy of their attentions. When one looked at the list of those inducted into the magazine’s music hall of fame, one found the early members to be folks like Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats. It was about 1969 or 1970 when the focus shifted, and those being honored were rock icons, with the first rock members of the hall being – if my memory serves me – Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

(Two asides here: First, I have been unable so far to find online a list of the members of the magazine’s hall of fame. I imagine I could find one if I subscribed to the magazine’s website, but I’ll save my shekels. Second, I believe my memory of Dylan, McCartney and Lennon as the first rock honorees is correct. If so, the magazine did a dis-service to those giants who ushered rock through the Fifties: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, maybe Jerry Lee Lewis and a few others.)

Anyway, on that quiet evening or afternoon, as some kind of music played from a stereo, Rick turned to me and asked me, “Who do you think will go into the Playboy hall of fame?’

I thought for a moment and remembered headlines from the summer before, news accounts of a murder on the streets of New York. “Maybe King Curtis,” I said, thinking that he was famous enough, he was good enough and he died tragically. Even at eighteen, I knew that a tragic death (and an early one: Curtis Ousley was only thirty-seven) enhanced a person’s image, whether that image was good or ill.

Rick nodded. “That’d be okay,” he said, and the conversation wandered to other topics.

As it turned out, the editors of Playboy ignored King Curtis in 1972. I’d wager – based on my memory of the distinctively sculptured clay busts used to illustrate the piece about the honorees – that the recently deceased Jim Morrison was inducted. My memory tells me as well that in 1971, two of the three honorees had been Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, both of whom died in 1970. So the death card worked for those three but not for King Curtis.

I have no idea if the magazine ever honored King Curtis, but it should have. Curtis probably had as much to do with the sound of early rock and roll as any of those early pioneers I mentioned above. In the Fifties, saxophone was one of the key instruments in rock and roll – the guitar was prominent but not yet primary, sharing shelf space with sax and piano – and when you talk about Fifties rock and roll saxophone, you’re talking a lot of the time about King Curtis. In The Heart of Rock and Soul, writer Dave Marsh notes, “Though his own heart may well have belonged to jazz, Curtis played his lungs and heart out on records by everybody from the Coasters to Aretha Franklin. From the first New York Coasters session in about 1956 until his murder in a 1971 street fight, King Curtis backed just about every significant horn session in New York.”

Add to that his significant career as a lead performer, and King Curtis quite likely sits on top, or at least very near the top, of the list of rock/R&B/soul saxophonists.

Another way of assessing Curtis’ value is to look at the oft-maligned Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. (I do my share of maligning; I mean, the Dave Clark Five?) Sometimes the Hall of Fame gets it right: When the Hall created the new category of sidemen in 2000, the first five inducted were drummers Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine, bassist James Jamerson, guitarist Scotty Moore and King Curtis. That’s a stellar first five, and if I had to rank them, I’d put Curtis second on the list behind Hal Blaine.

When I brought up his name in that conversation in 1972, I was only aware intellectually of Curtis’ musical talents. It was a little more than a year later that I began to truly appreciate him. As I’ve mentioned before, during my time in Denmark, one of the tapes that played constantly in the hostel’s lounge was the first Duane Allman anthology, which included King Curtis’ version of Joe South’s “Games People Play,” taken from Curtis’ 1969 album, Instant Groove.

In the next few years, I heard more King Curtis but never looked for the album, though I would likely have bought it had I come across it through serendipity. In the late 1980s and early 1990s when I became a collector, I began to look for specific albums, and King Curtis’ Instant Groove was one of them. As I dug through crates at record stores and record fairs, I kept my eyes open, but it never showed up. I found other Curtis albums, but not that one.

It’s never been released on CD, as far as I can tell. It’s not even listed in Curtis’ discography at All-Music Guide. (There is an album listed with that title, but it’s dated 1958 and has an entirely different track list. I suspect an error.) And beyond some occasional cyber-digging in the years since I came online, I’ve never looked very hard for the album. But for some reason, while I was looking last month for the Patti Dahlstrom albums and the Blue Rose album, I thought of Instant Groove. And now it’s in my stacks.

As I expected, it’s a very good album. There are no overall credits, just a note that says that Duane Allman provides guitar solos on four tracks: “Hey Jude,” “Foot Pattin’,” “Games People Play” and “The Weight.” The notes on the Duane Allman anthologies list the Muscle Shoals rhythm section as playing on the latter two tracks. Beyond that, it’s guesswork. Chips Moman, who generally worked in Memphis, is credited with production on six of the record’s twelve tracks. Others listed as producers were Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd of Atlantic, Curtis himself, and Curtis with Mardin on two tracks and with Jerry Greenberg on one track.

Highlights? “The Weight” always falls into that category for me, and the version here is pretty good. I also like Curtis’ take on “Hey Joe” and the sweet versions of “Wichita Lineman” and the rather obscure song, “La Jeanne.” There are a few too many strings on “Hey Jude” for my taste, and two tracks – Sly Stewart’s “Sing A Simple Song” and “Hold Me Tight” from the pen of Johnny Nash – don’t work quite as well as the rest of the record.

There are a few clicks and a few whispers of noise; the most notable whispers come at the start of “The Weight,” which leads off the second side of the record. I don’t think they’re bad enough to interfere. If they are, one can always substitute from the first Duane Allman anthology, which is easy to find.

Instant Groove
Hey Joe
Foot Pattin’
Wichita Lineman
Games People Play
Sing A Simple Song
The Weight
La Jeanne
Little Green Apples
Hold Me Tight
Hey Jude

King Curtis – Instant Groove [1969]