Who was/is Ben Hewitt & Dickey Lee ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more



Pop music history tends to revolve around chart placings, which means that Ben Hewitt doesn't exist. Not a footnote. Not even bubbling under. But that's selling Ben Hewitt short. His story is not only interesting in its own right, but it tells us a lot about the second generation of rock 'n' rollers. Ben wasn't one of the creators who helped put the music together; he was among the first kids who heard rock 'n' roll and decided that it was for them, and decided that it spoke to them in a way that no other music could.

These recordings were made for Mercury in the late Fifties. At that time, Mercury's New York office was run by Clyde Otis, a black songwriter who earned the Mercury post by cowriting and producing the Diamonds' recording of The Stroll. Otis's major acts at the time were Brook Benton and Dinah Washington, but you won't hear the lush productions that characterised his work with them. Instead, Otis kept the sound rooted in Fifties rock 'n' roll. He seems to have had faith that Ben could deliver a hit for him, and two or three of these songs could very easily have become major hits in the late Fifties. Then the story would have been very different. Like many Fifties hitmakers, Ben could have made a decent living trading off past glories; instead, he was working in country bars around Niagara Falls, Canada when Hank Davis and I went to interview him in 1986, and had fallen on very hard times when he died ten years later in December 1996.

What follows is a transcript of the interview that Hank Davis and I did with Ben in 1986. It was used verbatim as the liner notes for the LP version of this record. Usually, we prefer not to use verbatim interviews as liner note text, but Ben told his own story so compellingly that it was senseless to render it any other way. - COLIN ESCOTT


Q: Let's begin with some standard biographical questions like when and where you were born?

BH: I was born on September 11, 1935 in a one room dirt floor log cabin on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation in New York State.

Q: When did you get your first guitar?

BH: I wanted a guitar from the time I was nine or ten. I kept bugging my father and finally when I was about twelve he broke down and bought me a ukulele. About a year or so later, I got my first guitar, a $12 Stella. That thing would make your fingers bleed and would go out of tune while you were changing chords. An old guy named Clayton Green taught me the basics. He made his own guitar picks out of the ivory on piano keys. Tom T.Hall had his Clayton Delaney, I had my Clayton Green.

Q: What kind of music influenced you?

BH: I love Sun Records. I was a real nut for that stuff. The earliest Sun Record I have was Just Walkin' In The Rain by the Prisionaires. I used to love Ubangi Stomp. You ever heard Chicken Hearted by Roy Orbinson? Great stuff! Remember Dixie Fried by Carl Perkins?

Q: You were obviously influenced by Elvis Presley?

BH: People who saw me performing in a bar somewhere would call me Elvis. Years later some of them would swear up an down that they had seen Elvis perform in a bar. But when I was up there performing I wasn't doing Elvis; I was doing my hero, Little Richard Penniman. I saw him on a package show, Ruth Brown was the headliner. He was hot with Ready Teddy at that time. I was awestruck by the drive of this man. About six months later he came to the Zanzibar Club in Buffalo and I was there on Monday night and I caught every show that week. I even booked off work to go see him. I blew a fortune there. He had a band that wouldn't quit. They came out first and opened with all the old Red Prysock numbers. When I went back to do my act that's who I was doing. Little Richard. Shakin' my ass, carrying' on, doing flip flops.

Q: How did you get signed by Mercury?

BH: I was playing this little bar over in the States. A place called DeFazios in Niagara Falls. This guy kept coming in and buying the band the odd round. His name was Julian Langford. I swear he looked exactly like Col. Tom Parker. He was up from Florida working construction in the area. Langford asked us what we'd charge to do some demos for him. He thought of himself as a songwriter but he had the same tune to everything he wrote. He'd come to us week after week and sing us the newest song he'd written. They all sounded the same. The lyrics were nothing you'd jump up an down about either. For the hell of it I said, "We'll do it on one condition. You gotta supply the booze. We'd like a bottle rye and some ice... Plus you gotta pay $20 a piece and rental for the hall." That was a total rip off 'cause we got the hall for nothing. So we split that money also. Of all the songs he gave me, there was only one I didn't change a word or note of. That was Whirlwind Blues. All I did was arrange the version we did on record. Some of the other songs were Queen In The Kingdom Of My Heart which I wrote but Langford's name was on the lead sheet. I even went to BMI about ten years ago and explained it to them. I said, "They're not making any money, but it would be nice if I got the credit as a composer that was coming to me. Even put them as Langford-Hewitt. Let Somebody think they were written by a guy with a hyphenated name." Bundle Of Love was also credited to Langford even though I wrote it. So anyway, we made this tape for him. We got to the end of it and I asked if I could throw a song of my own on it. He said, "Sure, why not?" He was feeling generous by that time' cause he had gotten everything he wanted. We took what's left of the bottles over to my apartment and we got so drunk we could have laid on the floor and fell off it. About a week later there was banging on the door at six o'clock in the morning. It's Julian and he says "Hey, get packed. We're going to New York City." I said "We're going nowhere! Especially at six o'clock in the morning." But he keeps it up. He says, "Look, I got you a record contract!" A contract with Mercury Records!" I said, "Sure you do. You want me to go? I'll go on one condition. You hand me a round-trip ticket and it stays in my possession." He says,"Okay, it's a deal. I'll be back in a little while." So he comes back in a while and drags me off to a lawyer. In the meantime he's had this lawyer draw up this management contract. It's a shitkicker, man. I mean, I don't fart sideways without giving him 15% of it. I said, "I'll sign this if you put a rider on it that says I can play DeFazios whenever I want and I don't have to pay you nothing."  He says, "Yeah, Okay."  His thinking is "You're going to be a star, you won't ever play DeFazios again."

So we got to New York City and we're staying at one of the neater hotels. There was a lot of great record stores in the area at that time. So the next day we get up and he marches us off to Mercury Records. We kept thinking, "Yeah, sure, we'll play your little game." I kept thinking, "This man is shucking it through right to the end." Then we walk up to this really neat looking receptionist and she says, "Oh Mr. Langford. Mr. Otis is expecting you." This was on a Tuesday and we recorded on Thursday night. Years later I found out that Clyde Otis didn't want Langford's material. He wanted You Break Me Up.

Meanwhile, while we're there, angford goes out and gets a New York entertainment lawyer to make a new contract, even tighter than the last one. This new one is for five or six years and he didn't have to do a damn thing for me.

Ben Hewitt You Got Me Shook
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