Specialty Records Profiles Ride a Rocking Horse

Chris M. Slawecki By

Sign in to view read count
Theirs was, for better or worse, in many ways a simpler time. A time, for example, when you could begin a song with the line, "I got a girl named Bony Maronie/ She's as skinny as a stick of macaroni," and watch that song climb up the charts.

In 1946, Art Rupe founded a company whose name described its product: Rupe's Juke Box Records made exactly that, records to be played in juke boxes. Rupe soon realized that lots of companies were making records for juke boxes and to distinguish his output changed his company's name the very next year. Since he specialized in particular types of music—black gospel and rhythm and blues—he rechristened his company Specialty Records.

Specialty Records dominated its field for the next decade. Gospel groups such as the Pilgrim Travelers and the Soul Stirrers, from whose ranks emerged young Sam Cooke, became known throughout the country through their Specialty records, as did Guitar Slim, drummer Roy Milton and other artists in rhythm and blues.

In 1955, Rupe signed "Little Richard Penniman. Little Richard released an incendiary string of influential and popular hits—"Good Golly, Miss Molly, "Long Tall Sally and more - that kept Specialty on the top of the pops, at least until Richard abruptly retired to pursue his religious convictions in 1957. By then, the entire world seemed on flame with the "new sound of rock 'n' roll; in retrospect, it seems easy to see that Specialty was making rock 'n' roll records before the term "rock 'n' roll existed.

Some things, even in retrospect, seem more difficult to understand. Consider Milton's toe-tapping "Milton's Boogie, rippling with barrelhouse piano and energized by horn charts that punch back against Milton's vocal in spirited call and response. Even if one concedes the assumed difference between the instrumental dexterity of their respective soloists, is "Milton's Boogie really that much different from, say, Count Basie's enduring "One O'Clock Jump? Yet you'll most likely find people speak of Count Basie as a popular jazz musician and of Roy Milton as some obscure blues drummer, if they know to speak of Milton at all.

Ah, well. One more thing to straighten out when I'm king of the world some day...

Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers
Specialty Profiles

History has proven that musical entrepreneur Rupe was not wrong about many things, but he WAS wrong about Sam Cooke.

Rupe owned the recording contract for the popular gospel group The Pilgrim Travelers, and upon their recommendation signed The Soul Stirrers in 1950. Soon thereafter, Stirrers' lead singer Rebert Harris announced his retirement and that young Sam Cook (the "e was later appended) would assume lead vocals. The Stirrers recorded secular and religious titles for Specialty with Cooke upfront until 1956, nearly half of Cooke's meteoric thirteen-year recording career.

Cooke's Specialty output demonstrates his writing and arranging talents in addition to his incredibly dexterous voice. Instrumentally led by legendary blues drummer Earl Palmer, Cooke's early sessions include a triumphant "Peace in the Valley that nudges this familiar country hymn down backwoods roads and "Jesus Gave Me Water, burning with the thirst of Pentecostal fire. In a secular tone, the sheer sound of Cooke's voice in "I'll Come Running Back to You remains amazingly translucent and floats to light for only the briefest of moments upon skeletal harmony vocals and backup instrumentation.

Cooke's composition "Touch the Hem of His Garment has become established as a classic of the gospel genre. His arrangement of the traditional "The Last Mile of the Way should be a classic too, as the backing choir rocks the church to its foundation and Paul Foster's lead vocal leaps out of the mix like the spirit of conviction was trying to catapult clean out of his body. It is a true spiritual of the type that almost never leaves the listener unmoved.

In 1956, Cooke requested Rupe's permission to release secular music under another name for another label if he would continue to record gospel with the Stirrers using his own name for Specialty. Rupe sent him into the studio with one of southern soul's legendary producers, Robert "Bumps Blackwell, reviewed the results and was less than impressed. He released Cooke and Blackwell from their contractual obligations in exchange for unpaid bonus payments, and sent the pair and their master tapes packing. "You Send Me was the last song Cooke recorded on those masters.

John Lee Hooker
Specialty Profiles

John Lee Hooker migrated from the Mississippi delta north to Detroit, where he first recorded his unique, rough-hewn blues in the late 1940s. He recorded about 30 tracks for Specialty under a one-year contract he signed with Rupe in 1954. These tracks plus some previously recorded sessions that Rupe made part of their agreement form the basis of this new compilation.

This Profile includes solo tracks—where the hard sole of his shoe stomping out the beat on the recording studio floor forms the rhythm section—and the relatively unique sound of Hooker backed with a New Orleans tenor sax / boogie piano R&B combo. Hooker sounds more comfortable alone than in a group: Their juke-joint accompaniment to "I'm Mad, the only single Rupe released while Hooker was under contract, seems barely connected to Hooker's dark rumination about being romantically wronged (yet again). Eddie Burns' harmonica claws more effectively at Hooker's agony in "Burnin' Hell.

Hooker does his best work when he stands alone here, right from the opening "Boogie Chillun #2, his foot stomping out the beat as voice and acoustic guitar join together to throb and rampage through primal, hard as granite, blues. As he's "Goin' Down Highway 51, he accompanies his guitar solo with the one of the loneliest sounding, ghostly whistles you'll ever hear outside of an abandoned railway yard.

From the electrified side, Hooker rips open his cover of Percy Mayfield's "I Need Love So Bad with banshee electric guitar blues that scream from the deepest corners of a troubled, lonely soul (a brittle high voltage sound copped most famously by Jimmy Page for "Bring It On Home ).

Few artists were more perfectly named than "The Hook. Whether his guitar was acoustic or electric, John Lee Hooker's blues can truly hurt. Their sharply barbed knots dig so deep through your skin that you can't take them out, and as you twist and gasp to catch your breath, your struggle only drives the hook in more deeply. Colin Escott's Profile liner notes wonderfully describe this form as "one-chord stomps and modal, discursive blues ; its music gives you every reason to believe that if you've never experienced the blues of John Lee Hooker, you might not know the blues at all.

Percy Mayfield
Specialty Profiles

Scrambling as a young songwriter around late 1940s Los Angeles, Mayfield was befriended by Jimmy Witherspoon, who landed Mayfield a songwriter's gig at Supreme Records, the label for whom Witherspoon was then recording. Though Supreme went belly-up soon thereafter, the job gave Mayfield enough confidence to audition for Rupe, who signed him on the spot.

"I fell in love with sadness because there's more truth in it, Mayfield once said, and the biggest hit of his career proved him right. Precious few ballads, blues or otherwise, hit home with the unpretentious emotional honesty of his classic "Please Send Me Someone to Love, Mayfield's first Specialty release and his most enduring composition: A genuine blues prayer that Mayfield sings in a smooth deep baritone, filtered through the kind of thick yet soft Louisiana drawl that melts words like creamy country butter.

Studio bands for Mayfield were mostly led by bassist George "Red Callender, a Los Angeles blues veteran from previous work with Charlie Parker, Nat "King Cole, Erroll Garner and others. Blues such as "Lost Love (Baby Please) and "Strange Things Happening seem to reflect Callender's work with Cole, full of intricate piano and refined rhythmic accompaniment, very much like the sophisticated, urbane West Coast blues of pianist-vocalist Charles Brown—what might be called "cocktail blues.

Mayfield's music pulled down the shades to worry his troubles in darkness and solitude. "The River's Invitation leaves behind a hopelessly sad musical suicide note by recounting when the river spoke to him, "If you can't make it with your baby/ Come on home with me...

In 1952, Mayfield was nearly killed in an automobile accident. He spent nearly a year recovering from his injuries before some "comeback sessions yielded the darkly titled "Memory Pain, led not by New Orleans piano but by electric guitar blues and a groaned vocal that seems the chilling, distilled essence of tortured pain. He stopped recording for Specialty in 1954. Ray Charles signed him to his Tangerine Music Corporation and kept Mayfield's name in the spotlight by recording his song "Two Years of Torture on the breakout Genius of Ray Charles and of course Mayfield's "Hit the Road, Jack. Mayfield's Profile closes with the vocal-only demo of this huge Ray Charles hit.

Roy Milton
Specialty Profiles

Rupe originally signed drummer-vocalist Roy Milton and His Solid Senders to Juke Box Records then brought them along to Specialty, where they recorded from 1946 through '53.

Milton's sound embodied the pop nebula of its time: Milton buggy-whipped up- tempo dance rhythms and shouted simple verses, answered in call and response by blasts from the saxophone/trumpet horn section; his instrumentation and structure reached back to swing bands, yet his nimble ensembles rocked tempos and beats that were decidedly more modern than swing. "Roy had a compact six-piece band that was versatile and disciplined. It was an uncomplicated sound, yet had a full harmonic range, Rupe once recalled.

Milton's Specialty output swam through musical waters made murky by crossing currents of jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues, struggling toward protean rock 'n' roll, and this Profile seems to wriggle in all those directions at once. First recorded by Fats Waller, "Porter's Love Song (to a Chambermaid) suggests a period piece. "True Blues and "R.M. Blues are standard coin of the realm blues grounded in Camille Howard's piano with Hosea Sapp's momentously blowing hot trumpet up front, aligning their form with the small Louis Armstrong ensembles that featured his trumpet and piano from his eventual wife, Lil. Louis Prima's "Oh, Babe! and the popular dancestep "The Hucklebuck thump and squawk a bit more loudly. (Basie also recorded "The Hucklebuck, on Pop Goes the Basie.)

"T-Town Twist nudges this sound forward, an instrumental bop that gives guitarist Johnny Rogers the solo space that in previous musical generations would have gone to the pianist, where he rips it up sharp and hot.

Throughout his Specialty contract, Milton and His Solid Senders played pop standards for white Los Angeles audiences in the early evenings and spent most hours thereafter "boogieing the woogie at black after-hours nightspots. His Specialty Profile snaps a colorful picture of that singular moment in American history when blues, jazz, rhythm 'n' blues, and rock 'n' roll all seemed to be one and the same thing: Popular music.

Lloyd Price
Specialty Profiles

There seems to be no shortage of legends surrounding Rupe and Specialty Records, and the story of Lloyd Price seems to be one of the best. Legend holds that in 1952 Price wrote and recorded "Lawdy Miss Clawdy just so his parents could play one of their own son's records in the jukebox of their New Orleans fish-fry joint.

"The first record I put out that really seemed to catch the white market, as Rupe once said, shot a lightning bolt across the pop landscape: One of the first national records that featured the rollicking New Orleans piano thunder of Antoine "Fats Domino joining Dave Bartholomew's crack session band with New Orleans rhythm kings Palmer on drums and Frank Fields on bass; one of the first tunes to which the stylistic term "rock 'n' roll was legitimately applied, even as early as 1952; and an early favorite of a young, swivel-hipped Tennessee firebrand who recorded his own rockin' version and paired it as the B-side with his single "Shake Rattle & Roll, thus helping to launch the career of Elvis Presley.

A pianist and singer, Price either wrote or co-wrote every song here, most of which were released as singles. He moved quickly into circles of New Orleans musical royalty: Palmer is replaced on Price's plaintive "Ain't It A Shame? by drummer Charles "Honeyman Otis, a rock-solid pillar of the Crescent City community whose time-keeping credits tellingly range from Lionel Hampton to Chuck Berry.

On "Where You At?, this set's next best thing to "Clawdy, Price was most likely joined by Palmer and the legendary Huey "Piano Smith plus other unnoted musicians. The result is a genuine rave-up fueled by hot rhythm guitar chords and Palmer's slamming beat busting up the joint as Price shouts out the title over and over (fifteen times!), a jamboree resoundingly close in sound and spirit to "Rock Around the Clock. It's real gone.

Price served a two-year stint in the Army that essentially consumed the last two years of his Specialty contract—"Mailman Blues, from these same "Clawdy sessions, is about getting drafted—and he left the label in 1956. ("Stagger Lee and "Personality came later, when Price recorded for ABC-Paramount.)

Larry Williams
Specialty Profiles

Vocalist, pianist, and songwriter (and Lloyd Price's second cousin) Williams came to the label relatively late, signing with Specialty in 1957. His recordings may be separated by only five calendar years from the music that Roy Milton, for example, recorded for Specialty, but Williams definitely comes from the next musical generation.

Instrumental accompaniment comes from Little Richard's band, led by "Bumps Blackwell, anchored by drummer Palmer, whose fat snare sound served as rock's prototype, and featuring electric guitar as the primary solo instrument instead of previous generations' piano, saxophone or trumpet. And even though, like Mayfield, Williams may be better remembered as a songwriter than for his own versions of these songs, this Profile is full of vibrant performances.

"Slow Down is a rock primer: Palmer pulverizes the hard downbeat to nail the rhythm down thick and tight as Williams' piano and vocal tear up the chart like a scalded cat. "Little School Girl updates Sonny Boy Williamson's 1930s blues "Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl with rock's more hard-driving, modern tempo. "Dizzy Miss Lizzy writhes from the dual electric guitar attack of Howard Roberts and Rene Hall; the rhythmic force churned by drummer Palmer and Williams' pugilistic piano has definitely progressed from New Orleans' pulsating, funky throb to a four-on-the-floor steady rockin' beat. (By every account, John Lennon was a huge Williams fan; three Williams songs were recorded on Beatles albums and Lennon recorded a fourth on his solo collection of classics, Rock and Roll.)

Williams bares his New Orleans roots with a joyous duet romp with Art Neville, founding member of the Meters and subsequently The Neville Brothers, through Huey "Piano Smith's irrepressible "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu.

This music crackles with the palpable force through which rock 'n' roll energized popular music. Williams is famously quoted as saying that rock 'n' roll "has no beginning and no end for it is the very pulse of life itself. Even so, you can relive its formative first few steps through this series of Specialty Profiles.

Related Articles
Stax Profiles: Hearts Full Of Soul, Part 1
Stax Profiles: Hearts Full Of Soul, Part 2


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles