Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Peabody Hotel

The Blues Challenge is over. We made the finals, and Matt Kelley, our young wunderkind guitar player won the top guitarist award (see Memphis blog Memphis Blues Again for the whole story), and now we can get on with making music and growing as a band.

We stayed across the street from the venerable landmark Peabody Hotel, the one with the ducks, and I took a short break and popped over and made these pics.

A quick observation: Memphis is a far- from- happening town. It's numerous glory days are very much in the past, and the recent death of music genius Willie Mitchell seemed to confirm this in a definitive way. Buildings are boarded up and Beale Street is a sanitized semi- reminder of the beauty of the music once made there.

Oddly enough, the Peabody Hotel, which should seem more museum- like than ever, is strikingly vital, grand and stately. It was a pleasure to stroll through the lobby and make these pictures.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Our Memphis Trip

I've started another blog with ongoing information and observations about the Big Boy Little trip to Memphis and International Blues Competition.

You can get there by clicking the link built into the title to this entry.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

I Re-edit Old Posts

That's right. Just so you know, I do go back to old posts and re-write sentences, or add stuff or cut stuff. Just so you know.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Toussaint on the Corner and See You Later, Bobby Charles

Here's the News from the Big Easy, also known as America's Greatest City:

Firstly, today is Allen Toussaint's birthday.  He was born on this date in 1938 and in case you don't know who he is, he produced and composed some of the best songs to come out of AGC, and therefore the world as we know it.

From Ernie K-Do's Mother- in- Law, to Lee Dorsey's Working in a Coalmine, not to mention Irma Thomas' It's Raining, Toussaint has guided the careers of many a great New Orleans' talent.

Outside of the Crescent City he's known for his brass arrangements on the Band's Rock of Ages, his production and arrangement of LaBelle's Lady Marmalade (left more or less intact for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack version by Christine Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink), and his recent collaboration with Elvis Costello.

I've met him numerous times, usually as he's strolled through the fairgrounds during JazzFest. He is always gracious and elegant to a fault. "How are YOU?," he says, in a way that makes me think he might even remember me each time.

Right after Hurricane Katrina I went to New Orleans around Xmas at the request of blog regulars Mr. and Mrs. Freeland- Archer. It was very emotional for me. The city was devastated. The traffic lights were off and there were refrigerators on the street everywhere, wrapped in gray duct tape- literally hundreds of them. The areas where the levees were breached were a uniform dirty white color from the mud. Cars rested on top of other cars in the Irish Channel. The term "nuclear winter" came to mind.

One day I decided to head to the Louisiana Music Factory, one of the few places open in the city. I got to the corner of Decatur and Bienville and looked across the street. There was Allen. I rubbed my eyes, as it was truly hallucinatory. He wasn't supposed to be there, he was living in New York, he had been wiped out, etc, etc.

But there he was on the corner of Decatur and Bienville, looking as elegant as ever.
I waved at him, tentatively and he saw me (I was with the Freeland- Archers, who were as stunned as I was) and waved us over.

I swear I have never been happier to see anyone in my life. "Mr. Toussaint," I said. "How are you?' Then I added, hastily, "Bret Littlehales?"

And he said, "Of course. How are YOU?"

We made small talk, I met his daughter, he was dressed for a photoshoot at House of Blues down the street, he was working with Elvis Costello. Gracious, gracious, gracious.

Then we wished him the best and walked on.

It was at that moment that I realized New Orleans was going to be okay. Because there was Toussaint on the corner, just at the right time, to let me know.

Here is a video of Allen Toussaint doing his composition Southern Nights with his original, hauntingly beautiful piano arrangement (as opposed to Glen Campbell's hit).

Pt. II

Bobby Charles died today. One of the original rock and roll hipsters. Composer of See You Later, Alligator and Walking to New Orleans.

Born Robert Charles Guidry, February 21, 1938, in Abbeville Louisiana, at age fifteen Charles fell under the spell of Fats Domino and never looked back.

His first song, See You Later, Alligator, was a hit for Bill Haley and the Comets at the beginning of the Rock and Roll era.

He later worked with the Band and Paul Butterfield's Better Days, and recorded albums under his own name. Like Toussaint, he never regarded himself as a singer, but like Toussaint, sang his own songs beautifully.

My friend Larry Benicewicz interviewed Bobby Charles here, and chronicles his amazing history.

I tried to see him at the 2008 Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, but he was a no-show, purportedly because he'd had a dream the night before that he would be shot at JazzFest. He was that kind of guy: dreams, portents, symbols. A Cajun through and through.

Here's a link to my favorite Bobby Charles song, Tennessee Blues:

That sweet, soulful voice. See you later, Bobby.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Image Pie

Just a quick mention:
My friends, the Parks- Bowmans, have launched their multi- media company Image Pie.
Lloyd Fonvielle of Mar De Cortes Baja talks about them far more eloquently than I could, so read all about it!
The Parks- Bowmans are no strangers to this site, but they are usually refered to under a nom de blog.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Memphis Blues Again

Memphis Jug Band

Regular readers of L by L will recall that my band, the Big Boy Little Blues Band, won a competition back in October sponsored by the DC Blues Society. One of the prizes is the right to go to Memphis TN and compete in an international competition against 110 other blues- type bands.

Now the competition that seemed so remote in October is right around the corner. We'll leave next Tuesday, arrive in Memphis Wednesday and begin our first of two shows Thursday night at an as- yet- unspecified location on Beale Street.

Here's how it works. Thursday, January 21st is registration day. You register in the AM, find out where your venue is, then set up that night and play a twenty-five minute set for an audience that includes four judges. You're judged on Blues Content, Vocals, Talent, Originality, and Stage Presence. There are penalties for excessive load- in time (stage set-up, I think that means) and if you go over your allotted time.

Then, on Friday, same thing all over again, this time with different judges. While you're doing your set, a bunch of other bands that have won their regional contests and are therefore theoretically as good as you are doing their sets all up and down Beale Street.

The only bands missing from Beale Street are the ones I personally would have wanted to hear, like the Memphis Jug Band with Will Shade, or the young Bobby Bland or BB King, busking on his way to his radio gig at WDIA. Needless to say, those days are long, long gone.

Junior Parker, Elvis Presley and Bobby "Blue" Bland

If you win your two nights, you go to the finals on Saturday night and compete against the top ten other bands. From 110 to 10 to 1 in three short nights!

The winning band gets a host of prizes and perks including bookings in festivals around the country and bragging rights for a year.

So that's what your old pal is heading toward next week. As my mother always says, we have a 50/ 50 chance. We'll either win or lose. Personally I think we've already won, given the support we've received from the DC music community and beyond. That's something real that is happening now and doesn't depend on how we do in Memphis.

Don't get me wrong, I'd really really like to win. That would be pretty interesting. But I've gone farther with music in the last year than in any other time of my life. So, I can't lose.

On to Memphis!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Another Glimpse of the Future, from the National Gallery

More from the National Gallery, Washington, DC:

This display is in the tunnel connecting the old building to the new.
I'd put it in the same class as that elevator in the Hyatt or the terminal trains in the Atlanta Airport, which is to say (once again), "Welcome to the future!"

[By the way, I don't know about you, but personally I'd rather be able to stroll through the underwater marvels of the Atlantis Underwater- and- Airport than the Atlanta one, but such is life.]

Here, Australian futurist Neil Greentree enjoys his ride into 2010:

Monday, January 4, 2010


No, it's not his birthday and it's not the anniversary of his death. The birthday is later this month on the 27th, 1918 and he died on May 24th, 1963.

Some people... well, I don't need a reason to be thinking about Elmore James. "The man who never made a bad record," as he was called, the man with the king- size voice and a unique guitar style that has been oft imitated and never ever duplicated.

What is it about that riff? If you're a blues guitarist and have ever attempted to play it, then you know that it's easy, technically: a slide up to the octave on an open D tuning (DADF#AD) then back down to the open strings. So, if it's that easy, how come no one but Elmore ever got that sound? Not even Homesick James, his cousin, got it and he was right there on the early versions.

The earliest version of Dust My Broom, as opposed to this more famous recording, has Rice Miller, the ubiquitous Sonny Boy Williamson II, on harmonica and was recorded by Trumpet Records owner Lillian McMurray in Jackson, Mississippi on August 5th, 1951.

According to blues legend, Ms. McMurray surreptitiously recorded Elmore and Rice Miller during what Elmore thought was a practice session and released it on her Trumpet label. Ms. MacMurray always maintained, however, that all the participants knew they were being recorded.

That version became a hit, but since Elmore disappeared from Jackson after recording it, the "B" side was a version of Catfish Blues by Bobo Thomas that Ms. McMurray had sitting around.

JT Brown and Elmore

Based on a tune recorded by Robert Johnson in 1936, James changed Dust My Broom from an open "G" tuning to a open "D" and emphasized a variation on Johnson's riff that was far more powerful than Johnson's original interpretation. Elmore played and recorded that lick over and over again until his premature death from a heart attack in 1963.

Early 78's by Elmore's full band, the Broomdusters, featuring his upfront electric slide playing, some on an acoustic with a pickup in the soundhole, piano, bass, drum, tenor sax and occasionally harmonica (an uncredited Sam Myers) pretty much jump off the turntable and provide an alternative to Muddy Waters' Chicago Blues Band sound, the prototype of the fledgling Rock and Roll band instrumentation.

Elmore, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Tommy McClennan and Little Walter in Chicago

After his Trumpet debut, Elmore went on to record for Modern, Flair, Meteor, Chess and finally Bobby Robinson's Harlem- based Fire and Fury labels. Each label has it's share of Elmore masterpieces, and prove that the DMB lick was not the only one he had mastered. Elmore's cover of Tampa Red's It Hurts Me Too and his own Stranger Blues with it's irresistible second- line- like groove attest to his versatility. Shake Your Money Maker, The Sky Is Crying, Madison Blues, Baby Please Set a Date, No Love in My Heart, One Way Out, Twelve Year Old Boy-- the list goes on and on. These are all just amazing recordings. I don't think there's a bad song in the entire output. Even B.B. King has recorded bad songs- ever hear Tickle Britches?

I'm not positive, but I believe that everything Elmore recorded recorded is now available, so try this and I'm sure you'll find what you're looking for. A big change from my early days of blues exploration when there were maybe one or two discs, and one of those was a British import. There's also an authoritative biography by Steve Franz, sadly out- of- print, but still available used.

Elmore James, World War II veteran, gold- record recording artist and virtuoso blues guitarist, had a bad heart. His third heart attack killed him in the spring of 1963, shortly before the great blues revival of the '60's. Very few white blues fans ever saw him live, but the ones that did never forgot it. Here's Nick Gravenites from his "Bad Talkin' Bluesman" column in Blues Review magazine: "...deep down we knew that no matter how funky we felt in our burned out blues ennui, we had a comforting ace in the hole because there was always Elmore James. Elmore could reach you no matter where you were, he could raise the dead."

It doesn't get much better than that, does it?

Elmore playing his Kay solid body electric

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Joe Turner's Arena's Come and Gone

I found this photo on Ebay a couple of months ago:

It's a picture of Joe Turner's Arena at 14th and W Streets, NW. Mostly a wrestling venue, it also functioned as a boxing arena and training gym, and a concert hall for a wide variety of music acts.

Founded in 1935 by promoter Joe Turner, not to be confused with blues great Big Joe Turner, the place plays an small but interesting part in the mythology of the Littlehales family.

While most of his fellow students at his high school were playing baseball or working on cars in their spare time, my father Bates Littlehales decided at the age of sixteen to hire out as a sparring partner and began to train at Turner's, an interesting choice of after- school activity for a upper- middle class private schoolboy. This must have been in 1941 or '42.

Here he talks about his time at the arena:

He still takes obvious pride in having learned to box. Although he never fought professionally, he used to think of himself as having been semi- pro.

The people he speaks of are long gone, I assume. There is no mention of Piccolo Smith in any reference to Turner's online. Sammy Thompson never became a famous fighter and there are no references to him either.

I did find a picture or two of Man Mountain Dean. Here he is with Primo Carnera and the Angel, two other prominent wrestlers of the time. Dean is on the bottom. I have no idea who the two women are.

The Angel and Man Mountain appear to be wearing some type of jungle garment. Perhaps they killed the leopards themselves, a la Tarzan who used the illegal full- nelson hold on feline predators. Probably not, however.

Eventually Turner's Arena changed hands and was ultimately acquired by Vincent McMahon, Sr., the father of the current owner of the World Wrestling Entertainment franchise. Sr. changed the name of the venue to the Capital Arena and kept it until 1965, when the property was sold, and eventually torn down.

Today 14th and W Street is part of the great 14th Street revival, and where Turner's once stood is, of course, a CVS (like almost every corner in Washington DC.)