Friday, August 6, 2010

Blues Labels.....Duke-Peacock Records

From time to time, Friday Blues Fix will look at some of the record labels that got the blues out there for the people to hear way back when.  Over the coming months, we'll look at labels like Chess, Vee-Jay, Bluebird, Excello, King, and others.....moving through time to some of the familiar labels of the past twenty years. 

One of the smallest, yet most prolific record labels of the 50’s and 60’s was the Duke/Peacock label based in Houston, TX. It was originally two labels, Duke Records out of Memphis and the Peacock label out of Houston, but they consolidated and settled in Houston. The owner of the label during its heyday was Don Robey, who was responsible for helping develop scores of blues, soul, and gospel artists.  However, he is probably best known today for threatening his artists with a pistol when they came in demanding back royalties and for ripping off dozens of composers in the Houston area, most of whom didn’t know better, by paying them maybe $25 - $50 for the rights to a song, then claiming composer credits for himself (as Deadric Malone) and collecting the residuals while the actual composers were starving.

Duke, Peacock, and their subsidiary BackBeat were home to many of the best blues and soul artists around during that time. Little Richard recorded for Peacock in the early 50's.  O. V. Wright recorded for BackBeat in the 60's.  Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown recorded some of his best sides for the Peacock label and Junior Parker was one of the most successful of the soul blues artists during his brief life. Today, we’ll look at their biggest artist, plus a few more that could have been but had to wait until much later.

The most successful artist Duke ever had was Bobby “Blue” Bland. Bland started out as a driver and valet for Junior Parker, and also for B. B. King, while trying to break onto the charts. Though Bland is still pretty active today, his vocals today couldn’t hold a candle to the Bobby Bland of the 50’s and 60’s. He was simply a force of nature. Teaming with some of the best musicians in the Houston area, Bland went on to record dozens of great tracks for Peacock, including this one, an after-hours version of “Stormy Monday,” from 1962, featuring some sweet guitar from Wayne Bennett. It actually made the pop charts in those pre-Beatles days.

“I Pity The Fool” is a horse of a different color, pure raw unadulterated soul. This is what Bland sounded like at his best.  During this time, he also released the album, Two Steps From The Blues, considered by many to be the best soul/blues recording ever.  While he has lost some of his vocal abilities due to age, he still puts on a great show at age 80.

Another artist who went on to better things much later was Otis Rush. Rush had previously recorded eight sides for Chess but the label didn’t release them until a decade later. Frustrated and hoping for better things, he signed with Robey, who really just wanted to keep him from signing with anyone else and promptly sat on him for half a decade, only releasing one single, “Homework,” in 1962. It was later covered by The J. Geils Band. Rush finally got a break when he recorded for Atlantic Records in the late 60’s, with Duane Allman as part of the studio band, and today is recognized as one of the all time great blues guitarists. “Homework” is a song rarely heard in the Otis Rush catalog, which is a shame.

Why Larry Davis didn’t become a bigger name is a mystery. A great songwriter, guitarist, and singer, Davis never seemed to be able to catch a break. After breaking in with Duke, he bounced around a couple of labels and suffered serious injuries in a car accident. He recovered just in time for the recording drought of the late 70’s and early 80’s. He was able to record two great albums during this time (Funny Stuff on Rooster Blues and I Ain’t Beggin’ Nobody on the tiny Pulsar label, later reissued on Evidence) that few people heard. In the early 90’s, he got to release a new album, Sooner or Later, but was diagnosed with cancer and died soon after. He’s best known for writing “Texas Flood,” which also served as the album title for the first release by Stevie Ray Vaughan. “Texas Flood” featured fellow Duke recording artist Fenton Robinson on guitar. We talked about Davis a few months back and you heard the original "Texas Flood."  This time around, Davis gives B. B. King a run for his money as he tackles King's classic, "Three O'Clock Blues."

One of the composers that was ripped on a regular basis by Robey was Joe Medwick. Medwick wrote some of Bland’s biggest hits, including “Further Up The Road,” “Cry, Cry, Cry,” “I Pity The Fool,” “Don’t Cry No More,” and “Yield Not To Temptation.” Medwick always insisted that Robey offered him a fair contract for his songs, but he always opted for the cash in hand, so he could pay the rent and keep the good times rolling. Sadly, Eric Clapton’s recording of “Further Up The Road” twenty years after Medwick sold it to Robey probably would have set Medwick for life (along with Johnny Copeland, who co-wrote it), but he sold the rights to the song (and others) to Robey for $10 to $15 apiece.

Medwick also demoed his songs for Bland, and his incredible vocals obviously influenced Bland’s style on those songs. Medwick and Bland eventually had a tremendous falling-out (so bad that Bland couldn't bear to even hear Medwick's voice) and Medwick moved over to Houston’s Crazy Cajun studios, wrote and recorded songs for obscure labels all over Texas for a few years and gradually faded into obscurity…..until he was picked by Grady Gaines to contribute to Gaines’ fabulous Black Top Records release, Full Gain, in 1988 as a singer and composer. Unfortunately, years of hard living caught up to Medwick before he could cash in, and he succumbed to liver cancer in 1992.  Here's one of Medwick's tunes from Full Gain, "If I Don't Get Involved," that ironically became a hit a few years later for Bobby "Blue" Bland.

Some of the standout session musicians that served Robey at Duke/Peacock went on to have noteworthy careers, too.  They included Roy Gaines, Clarence Hollimon, Teddy Reynolds, Texas Johnny Brown, Wayne Bennett, Grady Gaines, Roscoe Gordon, Henry Hayes, Fenton Robinson, James Booker, Lloyd Lambert, and John "Jabo" Starks.

In 1973, Robey sold all of his record labels to ABC Records, which eventually moved to MCA Records.  Today, all of the Duke/Peacock recordings are property of the Universal Music Group, and still can be heard on various CD anthologies from time to time. 

Below is a handful of the label's best recordings.  It is by no means a comprehensive list, but it's a great place to start.

Various Artists - The Best of Duke-Peacock Blues - this is out of print, but you can still pick it up online.  It's a collection of the label's best work, with tracks by Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Junior Parker, Little Richard, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Larry Davis, Otis Rush, Big Mama Thornton, and Johnny Ace. 

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown - The Original Peacock Recordings - Young Gatemouth Brown made some of his best recordings for Peacock in the 50's, combining the big horns, R&B rhythms, and Gate's amazing guitar work.  A great set by one of America's greatest musicians (don't you dare call him a bluesman).

Bobby "Blue" Bland - The "3B" Blues Boy and The Voice - There have been several collections of Bland's Duke recordings over the years.  They were even collected in a three-volume set in the early 90's.  However, these are my favorites of the collections and cover his entire Duke catalog very well.  A nice set for entry-level BBB fans, but you also need......

Bobby "Blue" Bland - Two Steps From The Blues - If you can only have ONE Bobby "Blue" Bland album (a terrible injustice), this is the one you need.  An incredible collection that belongs in every music fan's rack that completely defines the term "soul/blues."

Junior Parker - Collection - There is not a completely comprehensive collection of Parker's music, but many of his big songs for Duke are on this import, including "Next Time You See Me," "Driving Wheel," and "Strange Things Happening."  Parker is nearly forgotten these days, having died at a young age, but he was a major influence on many singers of the 60's like Bobby "Blue" Bland, Elvis Presley (who recorded Parker's hit for Sun Records, "Mystery Train"), and B. B. King.

O. V. Wright - The Soul of O. V. Wright - True, Wright didn't record for Duke or Peacock....he was on Robey's BackBeat label, but man, if you want to hear soul music at its finest, you must experience O.V. Wright.  This is just an incredible set of gut-wrenching soul music from start to finish.

Various Artists - Angels In Houston - This set has never even been released on CD.  I picked it up on cassette waaaay back in the late 80's.  It was compiled by author Peter Guralnick and includes a couple of songs each by Bland, Larry Davis, Fenton Robinson, James "Thunderbird" Davis, and others.  If you can find it anywhere, it's worth a listen.

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