|Producer Jay Miller in his Crowley, Louisiana studio|
Jay Miller operated a small studio and record label (Feature) out in Crowley, Louisiana. In addition to Feature, he had other small labels such as Fais Do-Do and Feature, Rocko (originally Rocket) and Zynn. He had been recording some regional Cajun and Country music in the early fifties when he first heard Lightnin’ Slim at WXOK in Baton Rouge. Miller has said that Lightnin’s music “did something to me”, and, with the help of disc jockey Diggy-Doo, he recorded Lightnin’s “Bad Luck” in the Spring of 1954. There was no way Miller could keep up with the demand for the record, and he decided to travel to Nashville for a record convention in 1955. Miller met with Ernie Young and worked out a deal that would lease the material he was recording back in Crowley to Excello Records for release and distribution. Soon Miller’s studio became ground zero for the sound known as “swamp-blues” issuing records by Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Silas Hogan, Lonesome Sundown and many others. Of his unique sound, Miller said: “It wasn’t technical as far as audio but I had a sense of something. Maybe that was the best thing that could have happened. I didn’t know too much about it, I didn’t go by the book, because I went by these two things – my ears!!! I’ve had so many compliments about the sound I got.” He further explained: "I ran all my sessions myself. I gave them as much leeway from a 'feel' standpoint (as I could) but from a professional standpoint I took over there. In other words, I didn't want my artists to sing a song like I wanted it sung, as long as they had the feel, but if they didn't have the feel I was either gonna change songs or try to explain to them what we needed."
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It was Miller who gave most of his artists their nicknames as he recalled in a 1981 radio interview: "I always tried to pick one that suited the artist's personality, like Lazy Lester (laughs). And Lightnin' Slim; he was just so slow in anything he did …Lonesome Sundown, well Lonesome Sundown …didn't come in too early most of the time he was around. He'd come in late, or rather, he's come in early and take off and come back late, and there was something that struck me that Sundown was just the right pseudonym for him."
Miller recorded way more material then he could issue hence many recordings were never released. In the 70’s the Flyright label, with the assistance of Miller, began a series called the The Legendary Jay Miller Sessionsto issue these unissued sides. The series ran to over fifty volumes. All the tracks from today's show come from those LP’s. Much of this music has not been reissued on CD. Below is some background on today's featured artists, most of the information gleaned from the liner notes. Additional information comes from John Broven's classic book South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous which goes into great detail about Miller and the artists he recorded.
It's worth quoting Bruce Bastin from his introduction to the series: "Close to South Louisiana bayou country, Crowley is the home of J.D. Miller's studio, responsible as much as any other factor for the sound we now know as the moody, loping blues of the Louisiana swamps. Many completely unknown artists found fleeting fame through Miller's recordings and through the Excello issues of his recordings, he helped support one of the most consistent blues labels of the 1950's. Some of the finest of Miller's recordings were issued, often on his own labels – but not all! His present studio contains an awe-inspiring and perplexing array of masterpieces, many containing superb and unissued recordings. These are just a few of those…"
Miller scored his first big R&B hit on Excello with Guitar Gable’s infectious instrumental “Congo Mombo” in 1956, followed closely by the swamp-pop standard “Irene”, sung by Gable’s vocalist King Karl. For the next three years Guitar Gable and King Karl had regular singles on the Excello label, culminating in “This Should Go On Forever” which provided a top 20 hit for swamp-popper Rod Bernard. Not only this but Gable’s band was used as Miller’s session group, recording everything from swamp-blues to rock’n'roll. Gable’s and Karl's sides are collected on Cool Calm Collected – The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions Vol. 36. As Bastin notes: "Miller reckoned Gable's band to be the most reliable R & B band at that time and he used it for a number of sessions, most notably Slim Harpo's first . Half dozen releases emerged on Excello over two years but Gable recorded many more tracks and as is typical with unreleased titles found in Miller's vaults, they were the equal of – and often
superior as blues – to many which were released."
superior as blues – to many which were released."
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In the large stable of blues talent that Jay Miller recorded for Excello, no one enjoyed more mainstream success than Slim Harpo. Bastin writes: "Slim Harpo was one of the finest bluesmen to achieve recognition from Jay Miller's recordings in Crowley, Louisiana and although he gained greater success after he had left Miller, he never made records of the same quality. James Moore first came to Miller's studio in 1955. He had been playing full-time as a musician since the late 1940's, calling himself Harmonica Slim and frequently playing around Baton Rouge with Otis Hicks – Lightning Slim. Miller had used a number of harmonica players to back Lightning and late in 1955 Lightning brought with him his own man, Harmonica Slim, for a session " Harpo’s first record, “I’m A King Bee”, became a double-sided R&B hit. Even bigger was “Rainin’ in My Heart,” which made the Billboard Top 40 pop charts in the summer of 1961. In the wake of the Rolling Stones covering “I’m a King Bee” on their first album, Slim had the biggest hit of his career in 1966 with “Baby, Scratch My Back” which made Billboard’s Top 20 pop charts. Follow-ups “Tip on In” and “Tee-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu,” were both R&B charters. By the end of the 60’s Harpo contacted Lightnin’ Slim, who was now residing outside of Detroit, MI. The two reunited and formed a band, touring together as a sort of blues mini-package to appreciative white rock audiences until the end of the decade. The New Year beckoned with a tour of Europe (his first ever) all firmed up, and a recording session scheduled when he arrived in London. Sadly he died suddenly of a heart attack on January 31, 1970. Volumes 4, 20 and 31 of The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions are all devoted to unissued or alternate takes of Harpo's recordings.
Clifton Chenier hired Lonesome Sundown, whose’ real name was Cornelius Green, as one of his two guitarists (Phillip Walker being the other) in 1955. As Sundown recalled "After hearing about Jay Miller I brought a demo tape to his studio; you shoulda seen that studio. It was like a repair shop and studio combined. So closely combined you couldn't hardly tell which was which. Jay Miller asked me to bring the band by. We recorded a couple songs for him, but we soon split up." By 1956 he was back in Miller's studio and began recording fairly regularly." Over the next eight years, Sundown’s lowdown Excello output included a host of memorable swamp classics. In 1965 he retired from the blues business to devote his life to the church. It was 1977 before Sundown could be coaxed back into a studio to cut the excellent blues LP Been Gone Too Long. Sundown passed in 1994. Volumes 8, 29 and 52 of The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions are all devoted to unissued or alternate takes of Sundown's recordings.
Regarding Lightnin' Slim, Bruce Bastin wrote: "One of the few bluesmen whose nicknames were acquired before coming to Miller, Lightning had only been playing 6 years when he came to Miller's notice and became the second black artist that he recorded (Richard King of Crowley was the first). Lightning changed the whole focus of Miller's recordings. Following the success of the first blues releases on Miller's own Feature label, the emphasis of his recordings became directed towards blues and r'n b, and the pattern of Black Louisiana music on record emerged for the first time." Slim recorded for 12 years as an Excello artist, from 1954 to 1965, starting out originally on Miller’s Feature label. Between Feature and Excello Slim released some sixty tracks. As the late ’60s found Lightnin’ Slim working and living in Detroit, a second career blossomed as European blues audiences brought him over to tour, and he also started working the American festival and hippie ballroom circuit with Slim Harpo as a double act. When Harpo died unexpectedly in 1970, Lightnin’ went on alone, recording sporadically, while performing as part of the American Blues Legends tour until his death in 1974. Volumes 5, 12, 27 and 47 of The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions are all devoted to unissued or alternate takes of Slim's recordings.
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While riding on a bus sometime in the mid-’50s, Lazy Lester met guitarist Lightnin’ Slim, who was searching for his AWOL harpist. The two’s styles meshed seamlessly, and Lester became Slim’s harpist of choice. As Miller recalled, "One day Lightnin' Slim walked into my studio to cut a record session, accompanied by a tall, slender young stranger, introduced to me as Leslie Johnson …I learned that Lightnin' had met Leslie on a bus to Crowley, but had not heard him sing or play. Having a few minutes before the session, I put Leslie in the studio and the rest of us went into the control room to listen. When I turned on the equipment and signaled him to begin, I was surprised by what I heard. It was so much more than what I expected. I was immediately convinced that this was an artist of great potential." Lester recorded first in 1957 and 15 Excello releases ensued over the next 9 years until Jay found Lester too unreliable to use. Miller found that Lester was equally talented on guitar and drums, and he became a stalwart of Miller's session bands. Lester appeared on Miller-produced songs by Lightnin' Slim, Slim Harpo, Katie Webster, Lonesome Sundown and artists as varied as Nathan Abshire and Johnny Lano. Volumes 7 and 16 of The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions are all devoted to unissued or alternate takes of Lester's recordings.
In 1962, at the ripe old age of 51, Silas Hogan was introduced by Slim Harpo to producer Jay Miller and his recording career finally began in earnest. Hogan recorded for Excello from 1962 to early 1965, seeing the last of his single releases issued late that year. As Ray Templeton wrote: "Outside of the big four – Lightning Slim, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown and Slim Harpo – Silas Hogan is the most important of the downhome blues artists Jay Miller recorded, whether you measure importance in numbers of singles issued (Hogan had eight releases on Excello) or in terms of quality and consistency." Volume 32 of The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions is devoted to Hogan's recordings and one of the tracks gives today's show its title.
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Jimmy Dotson was a small part of an active Baton Rogue blues scene of the 1950’s. Miller documented many of these artists including Lazy Lester, Slim Harpo and Jimmy Anderson Dotson cut sessions for Miller circa 1957 through 1960. Dotson said: "The Baton Rouge blues scene in the '50s was nice, we had a following, we played from club to club. I played drums for Lightnin' Slim for a while and with Slim it fluctuated, I was a kind of utility musician. If they needed a drummer I'd go play drums, if they needed a bass player, a guitar … I couldn't play any too good on any of them but I could fit in. But they had a tremendous following, Lightnin' Slim and Slim Harpo. They would go from club to club, sometimes we would play Sunday afternoon somewhere back over North Baton Rouge in the park area from two o'clock to six and the place would be full of people. OK then we would go across the river (to Port Allen) and they'd just line up in cars and follow us across the river! It was fantastic, it really was."
Local guitarist Ashton Savoy took Katie Webster under his wing, sharing her 1958 debut 45 for the Kry logo with her. Webster rapidly became an invaluable studio musician for Miller in Crowley and Eddie Shuler in Lake Charles. She played on sides by Guitar Junior (Lonnie Brooks), Clarence Garlow, Jimmy Wilson, Lazy Lester, and many others. She also waxed some terrific sides of her own for Miller from 1959 to 1961 for his Rocko, Action, and Spot labels. As Bruce Bastin writes: "Katie Webster is best known as Jay Miller's most frequently used session pianist, backing a diversity of artists from blues to rockabilly and pop. …As an accompanying pianist, she has few peers in postwar blues but the musical legacy that she left with Miller is broader than might at first be expected." Volumes 48, and 49 of The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions are devoted to unissued or alternate takes of Webster's recordings.
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Tabby Thomas probably spans a longer recording history with Miller than anyone else. He cut in 1954 for Miller's Feature label and cut a final session for Miller in 1980. His Feature disc didn't sell too well but he returned to make a number of discs there in the 1960's including his best-known number, "Hoodoo Party." As Ray Templeton writes: "Tabby Thomas holds a unique record in relation to the Jay Miller operation at Crowley, Louisiana. He is the only artist to have had his work issued on Miller's own labels Feature, Rocko and Zynn, as well as on Excello…" Volume 56 of The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions is devoted to unissued or alternate takes of Tabby's recordings.
Little is known about Leroy Washington, who recorded several sessions between 1957 and 1961 for Miller. He was recalled by Miller as perhaps his favorite blues guitarist. He only released a handful of sides, however, he had recorded a considerable legacy of material for Miller, which had lain unissued until this series. As Bruce Bastin writes: "Like another fine Miller guitarist, Guitar Gable, Leroy Washington was from Opelousas. …Washington's polite, easy-going nature and keenness to record made him a highly suitable artist for Miller, who carefully built up his artist's sessions, in order to create a satisfactory potential "hit' record. Three couplings submitted by Miller to Ernie Young of the Nashboro Record Co. saw release on his Excello label in 1958-59 but Miller clearly submitted material which did not find favor." Volume 25 of The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions is devoted to unissued or alternate takes of Washington's recordings.
Clarence Garlow waxed his first sides for the Macy’s label in 1949, scoring a minor hit with “Bon Ton Roula.” Garlow next session was for Miller’s Feature label in 1951, cutting further sessions for Miller in 1954 and 1958. Garlow's sides for Miller are collected on The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions Vol. 28.
Harmonica player Jimmy Anderson modeled his sound on Jimmy Reed and cut all his sessions for Miller circa 1962 and 1964. As John Broven wrote: "Jimmy Anderson, a younger artist fro Baton Rogue, was too much in jimmy Ree's shadow to succeed." Anderson quit recording In 1964, feeling that he was being gypped out of royalties. He continued to play for a few years , taking up the guitar, but when he appeared at the 1991 Utrecht Blues Estafette, Jimmy had been out of music for 20 years. Ten tracks by Anderson appear across several volumes of The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions.
Henry Gray was born in Kenner, Louisiana, in January, 1925, but raised near Baton Rouge at Alsen. He headed to Chicago where he appeared on many definitive Chicago blues sessions of the 1950's backing artists like Jimmy Rogers, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and others. In 1956, he joined Howlin' Wolf"s band and was Wolf's main piano player for twelve years in performance and on recordings. He returned to Louisiana in 1968 and within a few years cut some sides for Miller in 1970.
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Miller was involved in recording several Zydeco sessions which are collected on Zydeco Blues – The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions Vol. 14 and Zydeco Blues Vol. 2 – The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions Vol. 37 and Rockin' With Dupsee – The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions Vol. 30. In addition to Rockin’ Dupsee, who recorded sessions for Miller between 1970 and 1974, Miller also recorded Clifton Chenier (1958-1959), Fernest Arceneaux, Marcel Dugas and Joseph Bo. Miller was one of the earliest producer to record Chenier and issued three couplings on his own Zynn label having found no interest shown by Nashville's Excello label.
Miller recorded several fine bluesman who remain little known but cut some superb music. Featured today are cuts by singer/harmonica player Sylvester Buckley who played on some sides by Lazy Lester and Silas Hogan. He recorded four sides circa 1962/63 that were unissued. There was Monroe Vincent who recorded as Mr. Calhoun for Miller and as Vince Monroe. He moved to New Orleans where he recorded as Polka Dot Slim for Instant. Charles Sheffield was a fine big voiced singer from Lake Charles who cut sessions released on Rocko in 1959 and Excello in 1961. Also from Lake Charles was Blue Charlie(Charlie Morris) who cut sessions for Miller in 1957 and 1958 with many titles unreleased. There were the tough guitar blues of the mysterious Ramblin' Hi Harris who waxed just three sides for Miller and Joe Johnson who cut a handful of strong sides for Miller in 1966 and 1967. There was fine down-home players like harmonica blower Wild Bill Phillips who backed Lightnin' Slim on some sessions and on his brilliant cover of Boozoo Chavis' "Pebble In My Shoe" and guitarist Clarence Locksley who's backed on percussion by Lazy Lester with Miller himself playing guitar on one cut. Miller recalled of Locksley: "He thought a meter was something you put a nickel in." Also worth mentioning is a track supposedly by Buddy Guy, "I Hope You Come Back Home." The track was found in 1978 on a tape box marked Lonesome Sundown. It is known that on at least one occasion Guy traveled to Crowley to back Lightnin' Slim and Miller could have auditioned and recorded Guy.