Jimmy Witherspoon: Blowin' In From Kansas City (LP)
(Ace) 16 tracks - Original 1948 to 1952 'King' recordings
shouting is a dying art form in the field of rhythm & blues and is
only a memory from its hey-day in the forties and early fifties. Most of
its main practitioners. such as Jimmy Rushing, Joe Turner, Wynonie
Harris, Walter Brown. Big Duke Henderson, are dead and gone. A few, such
as Jimmy Nelson, have been rediscovered and are currently enjoying a
One artist who has successfully straddled
the last forty years in the music business is Jimmy Wither-spoon. in the
forties a jukebox favourite of the rhythm & blues scene; in the
late fifties and sixties a successful jazz and blues vocalist and maker
of countless albums in the company of many big names in the jazz field.
Spoon's long and interesting career got off the ground in Los Angeles in
the mid 40s when he made dozens of important recordings for companies
such as Phillo/Aladdin, Mercury, Supreme, Swingtime and Modern. Belonging
to the blues shouting tradition, which differs from its cousin country
blues, Witherspoon performed in the company of jumpin' big bands which
evolved out of the territory bands of the mid and south west. This is
ably described by John Tyman, in his notes on another Witherspoon album.
'For the most part these singers got their start in the Negro sections
of cities such as Kansas City, Okla-homa City and other centres below or
bordering the Smith and Wesson line.'
Born in Gurdon, Arkansas
on 18 August 1923, Jimmy Witherspoon sang as a child in his local
Baptist church choir, where his mother played piano. During his teens
Witherspoon moved to California in search of work in L.A. He washed
dishes until he was called up to the Merchant Marines in World War II.
While serving in the Marines he travelled to the Far East. and was
invited to sing with pianist and band-leader Teddy Weatherford, who had a
residency at the Grand Hotel Winter Gardens in Calcutta, India. On
his discharge at Vallejo California. the naval shipyard town south of
San Francisco. he met up with Jay McShann whose band was on a tour of
the west coast. McShann had just lost his vocalist Walter Brown.
Witherspoon was auditioned and got the job. When the unit arrived in Los
Angeles in 1945 they cut sides for the Mesner Brothers' Phillo label
(later known as Aladdin). Ironically they chose the old McShann and
Bronco hit 'Confessin' The Blues'.
Witherspoon's rich vocal
style rapidly became a favourite with audiences of both radio and
juke-boxes, his 78 rpm discs selling by the truckload. Witherspoon's
long association with the Biharis at Modern was a happy one, even in the
early eighties. I met him while he was visiting Jules Bihari at his
office on Normandie Ave. Jules was in no doubt about his affection for
'Spoon and said that he was his favourite blues singer. It was Jules
Bihari who conducted Witherspoon's first Modem recording sessions in
L.A. in 1946. These were fronted by an all-star band led by drummer Al
'Cake' Wichard including Jay McShann on piano. Most sessions were held
at either Universal or Radio Recorders in Hollywood. Towards the end
of 1947 Modern held a mass of recording sessions in an attempt to beat
Petrillo's recording ban of 1948. It was during this period that
Witherspoon cut a fairly large amount of masters.
of Witherspoon's Modern classics were cut direct to 16' acetate
lacquers. and later re-leased on 78 rpm discs, a wealth of good material
remained on the shelf, with the exception of his big hits. Few of these
lacquers were ever remastered or transcribed onto tape. The remainder
of these masters were later reissued on budget-line Crown albums. The
Witherspoon sessions were made with a variety of accompanists including
Jay McShann. Al 'Cake' VVichard, Maxwell Davis, Buddy Floyd and Gene
Gilbeaux/Don Hill. In particular the fine guitar work of Mitchell Tiny
Webb and Chuck Norris shine on various numbers on this set. The gem of a
1950 date features the beautiful tenor sax of Ben Webster on 'I'm Going
Round In Circles'. I have included an alternative take to that issued
on Modern 806. on which Webster's horn is even more lyrical. Other
fine recordings released for the first time in-clude 'T.B. Blues' which
dates from an early session with Al Wichard's Sextet, which also
includes Jay McShann on piano. Other lacquers revealed mag-nificent
sides from a 1951 date: 'Blowing The Blues' and 'It's Raining Outside'.
The band on these sides sounds suspiciously like Johnny Otis', with Otis
on vibes. It is a total mystery why they remained in the can. Another
fabulous cut. the two-part 'I'm Just Wandering' is included here — the
first time it's been heard since its original issue on 78. Mistakes
sometimes happened at Modern during the assembly of their budget Crown
albums in the 60s. Often the label copy didn't match up with the
run-ning order of the LP. This screw-up happened on Crown LP 5418. which
featured both Ray Charles and Jimmy Witherspoon. A Ray Charles title,
'I Found My Baby There' was listed on the running order as 'Evil Woman'.
This track was in fact Wither-spoon, which was strangely titled on the
original Modern 78 as 'Geneva Blues'. More investigations will be made
into the Witherspoon sessions in which 'Geneva Blues' was allotted
master number MM 805. Perhaps there was a mix-up when the Biharis cut
the lacquer back in the forties, as the titles for the next two
matrices, MM 806 and MM 807, are unknown. For this collection I have
chosen an alternative take of 'Geneva'/'Evil Woman' on which the tenor
saxo-phone bridge has been replaced with a fine alto solo by Frank
Sleet. I wonder who is hiding under the 'Gal Friday' pseudonym on 'There
Ain't Nothing Better' released in 1950 on Modern 20-782. It could be
significant that the previous release. Modern 20-781, by Little Willie
Littlefield had a duet with Little Laura Wiggins. Witherspoon has been a
prolific recording artist throughout his career. In the late 50s and
60s he re-corded numerous albums for World Pacific, Prestige, Reprise,
RCA, Verve and Bluesway, often in the company of top flight are
musicians. This collection of prime Spoon reinforces my view that he was
one of the greatest city blues vocalists of the 40s and 50s. When he
was pulling them in at concerts and topping the charts he had few
rivals. Ray Topping 1991
Article properties: Jimmy Witherspoon: Blowin' In From Kansas City (LP)
Although he hailed from the Kansas City blues shouting tradition led by Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Witherspoon made the great majority of his early solo sides out in Los Angeles, where there were more than enough R&B indie labels to keep him busy in the studio virtually non-stop. Chief among them was Modern Records, which cut him extensively during the postwar years. But they were by no means the only label to welcome 'Spoon to their rosters.
"Boy, I think I ran out of companies, I was on so many," the late singer said. "They didn't give you that much money anyway. If you didn't have a hit record, they didn't need you no more." Witherspoon was born August 8, 1923 in Gurdon, Arkansas. "I've been singing all my life, in church, since I was about five years old," he said. "I always did want to sing." He got his big chance in 1943 in Calcutta, India, of all places. "I was in the Merchant Marines in World War II, and I was singing there with Teddy Weatherford's band," he said. "In '44, I came back to Vallejo, California, where my mother was living, and I joined Jay McShann then. That was my first job, really. I stayed with Jay for about four years."
Spoon replaced Walter Brown in pianist McShann's mighty orchestra (its alumni included Charlie Parker). He fronted the band on sides for Philo/Aladdin, Premier, and Mercury before making his own debut 78s for the L.A.-based Supreme logo in late 1947. That's the label he waxed his eternal calling card for: the two-part Ain't Nobody's Business, recast dramatically from Billie Holiday's downtrodden version, copyrighted as T'aint Nobody's Bizness If I Do in 1922, and first recorded by Anna Meyers and the Original Memphis Five. "Somebody came up with it—Al Patrick, who owned Supreme Records," he said. "Then I changed the lyrics. It's not the same as 'T'ain't Nobody's Business.' It's a takeoff steal from it, but it's not the same lyric." McShann was there to roll the 88s. "That was in Los Angeles, and he came out there to play, and I asked him to do it with me, which he did. The changes and everything, that was his." The two-sider sat on theR&B charts an unbelievable 34 weeks in 1949, including one at number one.
Witherspoon jumped to Modern in 1948 and made a motherlode of swinging R&B and mellow blues, displaying his way-behind-the-beat phrasing on the latter. Who's Been Jivin' You falls into the former camp, driving like mad over guitarist Chuck Norris' relentless chord work (Maxwell Davis and Vido Musso were the saxists, with Henry McDade on piano, Ralph Hamilton on bass, and Jesse Sailes on drums). Spoon shared writer's credit with Modern co-owner Joe Bihari (as Joe Josea).
From Modern, Jimmy migrated to Federal, Checker, Atlantic, RCA Victor, World Pacific, and Vee-Jay before an acclaimed appearance at the 1959 Monterey Jazz festival introduced him to a new demographic. He remained highly active, even triumphantly coming back from a 1981 bout with throat cancer, until the disease came back to permanently silence him on September 18, 1997.