Almost everything we know about the personnel on Blues from the Apple comes from the album’s liner notes. Researched as thoroughly as was possible (by Tom Pomposello; Dick Pennington gets the writing credit as a tip of the hat to our departing partner) about a group of almost entirely itinerant musicians, I suppose the scant biographies are an indication of the plight of a blues musician operating out of New York.
New York City blues has been one of the Big Apple’s best kept secrets for the past decade and a half. While many local bluesmen have remained “active” at house parties with an occasional gig at a small club, many others, veterans of a by-gone R&B era, have pawned their instruments and abandoned hopes of continuing a career that long ago abandoned them. In short the New York City blues scene has been so far underground that even to the avid aficionado it has remained invisible.
One of the principal reasons for the decline of much of New York’s music scene has no doubt been the gradual exodus of the industry from the East to the West coast. In the case of the blues, however, there are a few other less obvious but crucial factors. On one level, blues, which used to have massive appeal to black audiences, has been replaced in the popular genre by contemporary soul music. On another level, New York is indisputably the center of modern jazz, with much of a potential blues audience absorbed in listening to newer black music. And so while pop audiences stand on mile-long lines outside the Apollo, and the musical “intelligentsia” flock to the city’s jazz clubs, blues has become the forgotten fore bearer of the idiom. Combine all this with the fact that public taste is dictated to a large extent by music entrepreneurs, who see little merit in booking anything besides the big draw rock groups and you’ve got some idea of New York. (There are exceptions, of course.)
You might say Blues from The Apple has been fifteen years in the making. It is the first album featuring New York City’s own urban blues artists issued in that length of time. While the recording sessions were a year long study in frustration for all involved, this album more importantly settles for the artists more than a decade of the proverbial dead ends and rip-offs prevalent in the New York scene. It hopefully will bring Charles Walker and members of the band part of their deserved recognition.
CHARLES WALKER, 51 years of age, was born and raised in Macon, Georgia. He began his professional music career when he moved from Newark, New Jersey to New York. During the late fifties, Charles became one of the city’s best known blues musicians. Those were the days when you could walk into a club in Harlem and expect to hear a blues band fronted by Charles or Tarheel Slim or Hal Paige or Buster Brown or maybe even Wilbert Harrison if you went on the right night. You could go into Bobby Robinson’s Record Shack on 125th Street and expect to come out with the latest blues releases on labels like Fury, Fire, Vest, Holiday, Atlas or a score of others. Charles can tell you, he recorded for them all back then. For a city that was once bustling with blues, things sure seemed to change overnight. Charles weathered the “dry” period nicely however, and still kept trying to hold a band together through all those years.
One of the men who has played with Charles fairly regularly since 1959 is LEE ROY LITTLE, a 48 year old Virginia born and bred piano player and composer. Everybody knows him as “Bluebird” after his song of the same title. The name stuck when both Brownie McGhee and B.B. King picked up on the tune. Beside his records with Charles, Lee Roy has also recorded under his own name for the Cee Jay label. Together Charles and Lee Roy wrote and arranged much of the material on this album, with Charles providing the impetus for everything (including Bluebird’s solo numbers).
The credit for bringing Charles to our attention in the first place must go to LARRY JOHNSON, New York’s contribution to the country blues. Although Larry is best known for his fast, finger-picking guitar work (he currently has solo albums on Blue Goose and Biograph), here he backs Charles with some nice, understated acoustic harmonica on Decoration Day. The tune was recorded quite spontaneously one evening when Larry had come up to do an interview for Honest Tom Pomposello’s blues show on WKCR-FM and he brought Charles along. Charles in turn reverted to his roots with some down home acoustic guitar work on Larry’s Martin.
All the other harp work on the album is handled by BILL DICEY and GOODY HUNT. Dicey has been playing since 1950. He met Charles in the late sixties and has played with him in between gigs with Louisiana Red and john Hammond. He’s done local club dates with Johnny Winter and Muddy Waters and just about anybody else who comes to town in need of a strong harp man. He currently fronts his own group, and the fact that he is not a name familiar to many people really baffles all of us who know his musical abilities. Listen to his forceful solo lead work and beautiful phrasing on ‘Scratch My Back’ as just one example.
GOODY HUNT, the man with the big smile and the star-studded tooth, is a harp novice on the other hand. He’s been playing only a short while under the watchful eye of his crony, Charles Walker.
Charles always had an eye for the women and this has to be the first blues LP where female sidemen (how’s that for ambiguity: female sidemen) play a major role. FOXY ANN YANCEY is a guitarist who has gigged with many local bluesmen over the years. She co-authored one of the albums instrumentals, ‘It’s Changin’ Time’, and she contributed to the sessions in the early stages. OLA MAE DIXON runs a record store in the Bronx, and plays drums on the side. To say that her playing epitomizes the term “backbeat” would be an understatement.
Also appearing on drums is BOBBY KING. Originally from New Orleans, Bobby has spent a good deal of time n the road always looking for a gig. He has previously recorded with Charles and nowadays is associated with Larry Johnson. The fact that he works with a single instrument is as much a statement of the financial plight of a musician who makes his living from playing blues as it is a tribute to a percussionist who can create as much sound with a rigged snare and brushes as many drummers do with full paraphernalia.
Finally, there are the three men who shared the bass playing. SONNY HARDEN is a friend of Charles’ from the Bronx. His primary musical interest lies in helping to promote his son’s soul band. But he still finds time to fill in for Charles when the situation warrants. DAVID LEE REITMAN is a rock musician and former DJ, who has also written a number of articles on blues and rock for various music publications. Known as “Scarsdale Slim” to his friends and enemies alike, David just happened to be in the studio one night when we needed a bass player. HONEST TOM POMPOSELLO was on hand to produce the album and coordinate the whole project. Tom was drafted into service when a snafu arose at the final session and we were left bassless, but he is not inexperienced in these matters having played and recorded with the late Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Perhaps Charles voiced the best summation for this whole endeavor: “All I know is that I want the world to hear me now, ‘cause I’m deeper in the blues now than I’ve ever been before.”
– Richard H. Pennington, Jr.
Credits from the album’s back liner:
Produced by Honest Tom Pomposello with Fred Seibert
Recorded at WKCR.FM. Columbia University. NYC
Engineering: Fred Seibert
Rerecording: Kevin Behrman. Echo Sound Studio. Levittown.NY
Editing. Fred Seibert and Tom Pomposello
Cover Design. Frank Olinksky
Graphics. The Oblivionettes
Photography: Christine Pomposello, Tom Pomposello, Roy Langbord, John Dunn and Fred Seibert
Photo processing. Dave Cicale
The producers would like to acknowledge the special assistance of Rob Witter, Mike Bifulco and Ms. Josephine Walker who “made our burden so much lighter and our future so much brighter.”