Who was/is Ben Hewitt ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
YOU GOT ME SHOOK
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
Question: Let's begin with some standard biographical questions like when and where you were born?
Ben Hewitt: I was born on September 11, 1935 in a one room dirt floor log cabin on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation in New York State.
Question: When did you get your first guitar?
Ben Hewitt: 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.
Question: What kind of music influenced you?
Ben Hewitt: 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?
Question: You were obviously influenced by Elvis Presley?
Ben Hewitt: 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.
Question: How did you get signed by Mercury?
Ben Hewitt: 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.
Question: Did any members of your band come down to New York for the first session?
Ben Hewitt: That's a story all on its own. I called Ray Ethier, my guitarist, on Wednesday night and he said "I can't make it. I can't go to New York City. I don't get paid 'til Friday night." So I went to New York. They put me in this hotel and I'm up in the room and the phone rings. It's Ethier and he says, "I'm catching the first damn bus out." He had bought a lottery ticket and he'd just won $1,000. He showed up the day before the session. I could see his smiling face through the bus window. He gets off with his guitar under one arm, and he doesn't say "Hi, Man" or "How are You?"; he just says, "When do the bars open?" This was the first thing in the morning. So we found a bar that opened at 7:00am and had breakfast. We had breakfast until about three o'clock and went back to the room and fell down. The next day we were still on our backs and we had to sober up for the session at 8:00pm. So I'm pouring coffee down Ray and walking him around. But he got there and he played. About halfway through the session we took a break for coffee or whatever and Ray sees this little bar across the street. Clyde Otis saw where we were going and he says, "One, Ray. One. At 11 o'clock you can fall over." And he did. Ray was a great guitar player. He couldn't read a note but he could play any style you asked him. He could play chords he didn't even know the name of.
Question: Where is Ray now?
Ben Hewitt: Ray was from St.Catharines, Ontario. Still lives there, I think. He got out of business when he got married to Patricia June. Pat told Ray that it was either her or the guitar. Ray chose her. At that time Clyde wanted him to become a staff guitarist for Mercury and move to New York City and work sessions. At a minimum he could have made seven or eight hundred dollars a week. He said “No,“ and I said “Why?“ He said "I don't know anybody here." I said "For seven or eight hundred a week, I could become a recluse!" This was back in '59! That's a decent money in this day and age! I told him, "You're crazy, man. Get some little place down in the Village where it ain't gonna cost you a lot. Stay here. In two years you can go back to Canada, buy yourself a house in St. Catharines and marry the girl of your dreams." Anyway out of that session came a 45 disc of Ray doing President's Walk and Slave Girl. I tried to get Ray to do my last Mercury sessions as a favor to me but he said no. I see him every couple of years or so and ask him if he wants to sit in with the group but he still says no. Says he feels that it's been too long since he played on a regular basis but I think that he really wants to. It was a hell of a waste when he quit.
Question: Who produced your sessions?
Ben Hewitt: All of my stuff for Mercury was produced by Clyde Otis in New York. I remember the first time I went there. Scared??? I mean, what do you do when you have someone like Brook Benton who you really admire standing on the sidelines watching you? And Freddie Parris and the Satins are the backup vocal group on the first session. And at that moment In The Still Of The Night by the Satins was a smash. And half of the band was from Roy Hamilton's road group, and part of it was from Brook's outfit. God, you got to be kidding. What's this little hick doing in this studio, Bell Tone I think it was on 32nd Street? I also did demos for Clyde that were sent to Elvis. Of course, I don't think Mercury would still have those.
Question: Was Clyde Otis producing your records or was he a musical director?
Ben Hewitt: He was not a producer in a modern sense. He never gave me any direct advice like "Try to sound like Elvis," but he did a good job. I've got a lot of love for the man. I haven't seen him since those days. I've often wondered if he's still alive. If he is, I'd like to drop him a line, see if he remembers me.
Question: Who arranged your bookings when you were with Mercury?
Ben Hewitt: Shaw Agency. I was the only non-black artist booked out of Shaw. They had me working some places I shouldn't have been. Like the Flame Club in Detroit. You could see the guys in the audience saying "What's this honky doing here?" I was doing my usual material, some originals, some Presley, some Sun ... and it ain't going over very well. Now I was an R&B fan from way back and that's what saved me. I started doing Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker songs. Stuff by Lowell Fulson, B.B. King ... guys like that. It went over so well I got picked up for a second week. I used to be a friend and a very big fan of George Lorenz, 'Hound Dog', the DJ out of Buffalo. He used to play my records on his R&B show. Lorenz wanted to be my manager. He offered me this deal where he got 80%. I'd get 20%. But he said, "I guarantee you'll be a millionaire after two years." I said, "George, I can't live on twenty bucks a weekl."
Question: What was it like touring in those days?
Ben Hewitt: Some of it was unreal. I went down on a promotion tour to Dayton, Ohio once. I got off the plane and there was a couple of hundred kids behind this fence except at that time it looked like 10,000. All of a sudden they run through the gates onto the tarmac. I turned around to see who got off the plane and the stewardess says, "They must be for you. You're the only one getting off here." It turned out that I had the big record in Dayton at that time. I did some other touring. But you know that us little guys didn't get to sit on the same bus as the big stars. Like Brenda Lee had her own little bus, even her band didn't ride with her. There was no glory in those tours. The bus would pull into the gas station and we'd have five minutes to go to the john and hopefully they had hot water. As soon as you got to the auditoriums everyone would run for the showers. You say, "God, my right nut for a bed." I worked with Bobby Vinton. He didn't even sing in those days; he was just a bandleader. Jape Richardson (the Big Bopper) was a very good friend of mine until he died. I worked a show with Jape and Ritchie Valens.
Question: Why did you do all your sessions in New York? Why didn't anybody think of taking you down to Nashville?
Ben Hewitt: That's what they were thinking of doing at the end. That's when I got involved with Shelby Singleton who was working for All South Distributors out of Shreveport when I first met him. He was a promo man. After Shelby joined Mercury in Nashville he wanted to bring me down to record but this was at the time when Mercury were letting me go. The fourth session would have been in Nashville. That would have been around 1961.
Question: What were the circumstances under which you left Mercury?
Ben Hewitt: In 1961 or thereabouts I was in with Clyde and we were looking over material for a session. A phone call came from Irving Green, the president of Mercury, and I didn't need a phone to hear him. He was livid, screaming, mad, hot, hostile..."What the hell kind of people are you signing to my label? You know what the son of a bitch Hewitt did last night? He raped a 14 year old girl. I just sent the money to get him out of jail in Florida. He played a record hop down there last night and he offered some little teeny bopper a ride home. When she wouldn't come across, he forcibly raped her. She called the cops, the cops hauled him in, and he called me up first thing this morning asking me to send the money down." Clyde says, "Irving, you're going to tell me that Ben Hewitt was in Florida last night? I don't want to break your heart, but I think you've been had. Ben Hewitt has been here in New York since Monday. We've been together every day and most every evening and he sure as hell wasn't in jail in Florida this morning. He's been with me since 8:30." It turned out that Langford in a need to grab some fast money had some guy to pantomime my records in Florida. The guy started thinking he was me and he had the nerve to phone Mercury and they gave him the money! Mercury started to get cool on me after this. They got involved with suing Langford. I looked at the contract and there was no way I could get out. The only thing I could do on my own was play DeFazios. I told Langford I wanted out. He said, "Fine. Give me $10,000." I told him I wasn't worth it. He said, "Well, Mercury's got it. Ask them for $10,000." I said, "Mercury ain't gonna give me that kind of money." I think Langford was really pissed off at Mercury because he wanted to see a product out with his name on it. After the first record, they were mostly using other people's material. He just wanted something where he could go up to someone and say, "Hey, look at this record. You know me, I'm Julian. I wrote that!" So he got pissed at Mercury and me both. Maybe that's what that whole thing in Florida was all about. Later on, Langford wrote a really nasty letter to Mercury. You couldn't print all the things he called them. The last time I heard from Langford was right about the time my contract with him expired. It was in the 60s sometime. He wanted to know what I was doing. Was I still at DeFazios? Had I signed with another label? Actually, after Art Talmadge left Mercury to set up Musicor or United Artists, he wrote to me and said "When you get free of Langford, you can come and record for me." Belford Hendricks went on to Capitol from Mercury and he told me the same thing. Clyde went over to Liberty and he said the same thing too. He said "Get rid of that mad southern person and when you do, get in touch." But by the time, I'd lost interest in making records.
Question: What labels did you record for after Mercury?
Ben Hewitt: There were none, really. My buddy Bob (Cammidge) and I put a live album out from our far east tour on B-A-B Records. After that I went with Broadland Records in Toronto. They put out one single, Border City Call Girl, that they leased to Shelby Singelton's Plantation label. Shelby remembered me from the old days and the day it was issued, Singleton lost a major lawsuit to Johnny Cash for all the Sun material and my record went down the tubes. That record was fated to do nothing. When it came out in Canada and was starting to move we had a postal strike that killed all the promotional work behind it.
Question: You're known by quite a few names professionally?
Ben Hewitt: I'm probably best known to most people as 'Smokey', I played over 13 years at DeFazios. A guy from CBC Radio called me and wanted to do a show for him. I said "Why? I'm just a honky tonk player. I hang around bar rooms." The guy said "You are Smokey? You'd be surprised how many people know who Smokey is." He said "You're probably the best known unknown in the area." I was playing on a stage in Okinawa and a note comes up on stage and it says "Hey Smokey, you're a hell of a long ways from DeFazios!" When I toured, at least once in every country somebody walked up and made some reference to DeFazios. When I got back I went to see DeFazio and said, "Frank, you got one of the best known places in the world."
Question: What kind of music are you listening to now?
Ben Hewitt: I listen to everything. I love country music best. I'm working as part of a duo or four piece group now. We do country and '50s rock. We mostly stay in this area. Last year we worked 47 weeks. We ain't rich but we're busy. Sometimes people say, "Hey, Ben, where you been? I saw you 30 years ago in DeFazios. I heard you died in '64."
Interview by Colin Escott & Hank Davis.
Ben Hewitt You Got Me Shook
Read more at: https://www.bear-family.com/hewitt-ben-you-got-me-shook.html
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