Sunday, August 24, 2008

glisten: The Work of the Father

My Pops had been a Metro bus driver in Nashville for some time and it didn't suit him well. While visiting family in New York City, he passed by the now-venerable House of Oldies and spied a record in the window selling for a hundred dollars. Earlier that year he had picked up a copy of the same disc for two bits. He hadn't been aware that there was a market for such stuff, a coterie of vinyl and shellac obsessives willing to pay far beyond top dollar for rare and historically important recordings. A light went off. Pops, a Yankee expat living South of the Mason/Dixon, saw the potential for a potentially lucrative hustle that played well off a lifetime of fascination with music. In 1975, the year I was born, my father decided to buy and sell antique records for a living.

In those pre-bay times, Tennessee was a collector's paradise; over a half century of music and radio industry unique to the area produced literally hundreds of thousands of undervalued records left unused or forgotten in garages, parlors, basements. A curious crate digger could find warehouses filled with untrammelled pickings. Initially, Pops would cart bulk piles of 45's and 78's into the city to sell but he quickly adopted a business model that would require less hauling and a different sort of focus.

Once a year, he would print and mail a thick pamphlet of the thousands of meticulously graded records and musical memorabilia he had acquired (or, as eventually became more common, that he was selling on consignment) to an international community of several hundred select buyers. Those buyers would send their lists of requests along with a price they were willing to pay for each of their picks. A month or so later, Pops would pull all the high bids and write the winners to confirm purchase. They would send checks. He would clean and pack the records then drive vanloads, many vanloads, of boxes to the local post office. Everybody at the post office knew him by name. In the background, while he's working, he's always playing an eclectic mix of music; sometimes favorite albums but more often whatever it is that he's just found to sell. Seventy-five percent of my childhood had an ever-changing soundtrack.

Pops has run this mail-order auction for over thirty years in pretty much the same fashion I've detailed above. It fills six to eight months of his year, every year, with packing and cleaning and grading and acquiring and mailing. I've watched him do it; it's a numbing sort of grind that often left him frazzled and irritable; hands cracked from the rubbing alcohol he used to clean the records, shut up in a home office walled by cardboard and vinyl, burning early morning hours appraising disc after disc. He has always done all this work by himself and continues to do so. His main mechanical aide well into the late nineties was a typewriter. He has a computer now but he uses it solely as a word processor. To the best of my knowledge, he has never opened Excel; all his financial mathematics are done on paper or with a calculator. He does not have an internet connection.

Pops realized early enough that simply selling records wasn't going to fulfill his needs; he needed to add a creative or educational element to this work to make it worthwhile. When my father began his business, there were limited resources available to learn more about the artists and groups that populated his favorite songs. Constant exposure to the people who sold and bought these sort of records brought him into contact with a mostly unwritten history that caught his imagination. He began to form an identity as an independent musical scholar in the styles of music indigenous to the South: blues, rhythm and blues, bluegrass. He was particularly taken with the vast and rich tradition of Southern gospel recording, the race records of the twenties through the late forties. Many of the artists had 'Bessemer' or 'Birmingham' attached to the band name. Alabama, like Tennessee, presented plenty of opportunity for record scavenging and my ex-busdriving father liked to take road trips. On one such trip, he came upon an unlikely name in the local phone book that matched with a singer he was familiar with via old recordings. He made the call and found a surprised Reverend on the other end who wasn't entirely clear why this white boy wanted to talk with him but who would be willing to meet. Pops bought a tape recorder and some blanks and interviewed the man.

This felt worthwhile.

One singer referred him to another. He'd meet with these men and women and discuss lives and careers some forty years past and mostly forgotten; they appreciated his respect and inquisitiveness. Conversations would lead to questions that would lead to new singers and new conversations. My father filled hundreds of tapes, transcribed many of them. He began writing essays on these bands for specialty magazines and academic magazines. His interviews became an exclusive base of knowledge that he would refer to while researching the history of the bands.

Recently, my father has approached me about helping with a project relating to these tapes. About three years ago, Pops bought a machine that would transfer audio to CD. He's been copying over the now decaying tapes and it's brought some ideas to mind that he'd like to share. He asked if I'd be willing to help him "publish" some of these audio interviews on The Tofu Hut. I warned him that my inactivity on the site and resulting lack of attention here likely meant that it wouldn't exactly be the best place to expose new material but he seems to believe that these short pieces might provide historians some new information or perspective on the bands in question, that just getting the material out there onto Google is good enough. I gave the interviews he had compiled a listen and it is pretty fascinating stuff, accompanied by some fairly rare music that Pops dubbed directly from record. I decided to do it.

Pops sent two entries worth of material along with a "let's see how this goes" note, so you'll see at least one more post of this nature. Before beginning, he wanted me to share the following caveats:
"The sound quality on many of these interviews I'm sending you - recorded on a cheap machine with budget tape nearly thirty years - may make listening to these conversations difficult, but the testimony itself and the singing are mighty fine and should hopefully make this project worth your (and your reader's) time.

I will admit to being a bit embarrassed by my over-exuberance in the making of these recordings; my tendency to interrupt and interject my two cents is an annoying element of many of the interviews that I taped during this period. Nevertheless, work got done that nobody else was going to do. I learned quite a bit, had a good time and made some great friends. 'It is,' as they say, 'what it is.'"
Without further ado, here's Pops.

The Golden Gate Quartet, circa 1943 - At Piano: Conrad Frederick (bearing more than a slight resemblance to Andre 3K)
Left to Right: Orlandus Wilson, Bill Johnson, Henry Owens and Clyde Riddick

The first post in this series is an excerpt from an interview I taped with Bill Johnson in his home in Los Angeles on January 23, 1980. Johnson was the lead singer, music arranger and general mastermind of the original Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet which was formed in Norfolk, Virginia early in the 1930s. Johnson was born in Washington, North Carolina, May 2, 1913. He died May 3rd, 1980.

When I asked Bill Johnson about his earliest musical inspirations, he told me the following story about attending St. Stephen's Baptist Church in Jarvisburg, North Carolina. A rough transcription follows; you can listen to the original recording of our conversation by clicking on the link.

"Now let me try to explain this. As a kid and going to the churches when I was still in North Carolina, there was an old man called Obadiah. And Uncle Obie, that's what everybody used to call him, he must have come directly from Africa or either he was the second generation out. Because, in the mornings he would get up and he would come out, call himself 'waking up the neighborhood' and he could practically do it too. Had a voice that carried just like a bullhorn. And he would get up in the mornings and he'd go 'Whoo Whoo, Wheet Whoo, Haah!' One of those things. And he would do that several times, and people [inaudible phrase], 'Obie's up, time for us to turn too.' And he used to go to the church where I was going at the time as a kid. And he would be, how would you put it… You know how the chiefs of the African tribes would narrate happenings and that sort of thing, but all of his things was things from the Bible. He would sing them with some type of rhythm behind then. I think that's what got me on the rhythm kick. Because he had such a natural rhythm you know. And he'd have, just before the services, before the preacher got - I never shall forget it, old Reverend Arnold that was his name - just before the preacher would start to preach old Uncle Obadiah would get up, and he'd start to walking the aisles. And he would start [sings]: 'A hey-hey-hey,' and he'd say 'and a ha-ha-ha.' And then the sisters would take it: 'A hey-hey-hey,' and he'd say 'and a ha-ha-ha.' Then he would say 'come along children, do come along. Shuffle up, shuffle up a hey-hey-hey.' That was the answer. And this beat sort of got into you after a while. And all of the things that he used to sing really started like that. They would start down here and they would keep moving up, until they really got into a frenzy of a beat. And I guess that's about what attracted me to it."

Not long ago, I obtained a dub of a 16" radio transcription by the Golden Gate Quartet (NBC Thesaurus No. 1122) which they recorded in New York in 1943. It includes a song which the Gates never released commercially called 'Jubilee'. Johnson is singing the lead. It reminds me of the bit of adlib vocalizing he had done for me that day in 1980.

The Golden Gate Quartet - 'Jubilee'

Our conversation continued:

"With this quartet, what we tried to create was what I used to call 'vocal percussion.' It was vocal percussion, it was just like a drum. But it had notes to it, it had lyrics to it. And you had different beats, you had different accents. You would accent it here, accent it here, but whatever was done was done together. So what I used to call it 'percussion.' It was really a vocal percussion…

"Like a bunch of guys beating a tom-tom somewhere. And that is what it had to sound like, and it all had to be done sharply and together. And I think that is what made, along with the harmony, and we sang simple chords, the simple triad. The furthest away we got from the simple triad perhaps would be a diminished chord… we sang minor sevenths. And that's about as far as we got. We were trying to sing chords that sounded good to the ear. And in some places in some of the songs there would be only two parts; but it went so fast you couldn't hear it. And the obligatos were, like [Henry] Owens would take an obligato, he'd sing in the cracks. But it fitted in because he slid from the key from the note to the crack, to the note, to the crack, and home. Most of his moans, if you're listening to a lot of things he does when he's moaning behind there, he's dead in the crack in most instances."

The Golden Gate Quartet, circa 1940 - Left to Right: Orlandus Wilson, Willie "Bill" Johnson, Henry Owens, Bill Langford

In February of 1995, I had the opportunity to spend several days in the company of the great Golden Gate Quartet bass singer Orlandus "Dad" Wilson, who joined the quartet in 1934 and remained a member until his death in 1999. I recited to Dad Wilson what Bill Johnson had told me about "vocal percussion" in order to get his reaction and comments. Here's the audio of his response, following my brief introduction of the topic:

"That's why, with the Golden Gates' style, when you took the bass out you had nothing there. The bass was the percussion that kept it going. Like in things that he's talking about there… the bass started off with the percussion beat. In the case of 'My Walking Stick,' the bass started up [sings:] 'Whump, whump, whump, whump, whump. Without my walking stick…' This is what he is talking about in the percussion. When you had that percussion beat there, the other three voices could do anything around that. They could make any cutoff, they could make any chop, they could make any hole. What the other people don't realize is it's not actually a hole there, because the percussion is still going on, the beat is going on. But the other three voices are not there at that particular time. It is after that, 'whump, Daah, whump, daah de doo dah, whump, daah da de dah… You see? They are filling in everything that has to be filled in."

"Uh huh. They're filling in, instead of the bass singer trying to fill in."

So you see, the bass is the percussion that is carrying that beat. They are free to do anything around that. This is what a lot of people don't realize with the style of the Golden Gate Quartet. This was the Golden Gate Quartet style."

Here is the wonderful song that Wilson refers to in that conversation, 1939's 'My Walking Stick'.

The Golden Gate Quartet - 'My Walking Stick'

Dad Wilson made no bones about the fact that it was Bill Johnson who was the creative genius behind the Golden Gate Quartet. But he also gave credit to their great falsetto tenor Bill Langford, known as "Highpockets," or "Pocket" for short:

"Langford had an important part in this. I will say this: Langford was such a rhythmic cat that he would amaze all of us in some of the things that he could do. He would do some kick-ins some time, that Bill Johnson would stop and laugh, say 'Pocket, you really got it!' He would be amazed that Langford would kick-in like that, you know. Sometimes he would say, excuse the expression that I use, 'Highpocket there is really kicking us in the ass.' And that's the way it was. You know."

"That's what it is with the Gates. It's movement. The thing has to be propelled forward."

"Yeah. But Langford has such a sense of rhythm, of filling in a spot. And he had the imagination that he saw the spot before we could get to it; that it would be vacant and he is there."

Here is an excellent example of Langford's kinetic vocalization and a prime cut from The Gates songbook, 'Found A Wonderful Savior,' from 1937.

The Golden Gate Quartet - 'Found a Wonderful Savior'

Pops and Dad Wilson at The Fisk University Chapel; Feb. 1995 - Photo credited to Robie Cogswell

tell me more

Buy compilations of the vast majority of The Golden Gate Quartet's discography from UK label Document records. With shipping and handling included, these come out to about nineteen bucks US a pop.

For those looking for a better deal, I'd recommend EMusic, which carries a considerable amount of the Document catalog. That route puts them at roughly ten dollars an album.
Visit the official website for the current iteration of The Gates.
Explore a brief history of the band and a selected discography at the Vocal Group Hall of Fame website.
Read a short essay by gospel musician and scholar (and family friend) Tony Backhouse detailing some good starting point purchases for the curious Golden Gate neophyte.
Listen to The Gates perfom 'Hush' and 'The Sun Didn't Shine'.
As was common for popular vocal groups of their era, The Gates appeared in numerous cameo roles for major Hollywood movies (including this somewhat demeaning but utterly outstanding turn in 1942's 'Star Spangled Rhythm') and starred in many theatrically released musical shorts.

Watch 'The General Jumped at Dawn' and this much later Eisenhower-era, Vietnamese travelogue and performance.


A big, BIG Tofu Hut thank you to my good buddy over at the slumbering Tuwa's Shanty for providing file hosting for this and future posts. You're a prince, sir!
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