...continued from PART TWO
Like Sam Phillips, Claunch and his 'hillbilly' band The Blue Seal Pals got their start at WLAY in Muscle Shoals. Extremely popular throughout their listening area, the group soon landed at the powerful WSM in Nashville (which broadcast the Grand Ole Opry) and became hosts of the bang-up Sun-Up Serenade on Saturday mornings. As the industry developed, demand for 'live' radio shows began to wane, and The Pals broke up, with Quinton and his fiddle player Bill Cantrell heading for Memphis to join forces with their other pal, Sam Phillips at his Memphis Recording Service.
Sam hooked them up with bad boy Charlie Feathers at this point and, according to Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins, "Cantrell and Claunch rehearsed Feathers at a small home studio, and the fruits of their work were released in February 1955... I've Been Deceived, with its haunting images of recrimination, ranks alongside almost anything that Hank Williams wrote or performed." Quite a statement, really, which speaks as much (if not more) about the quality of the songwriting as Charlie's tortured vocals. That would be our friend Stan Kesler on pedal steel, by the way... amazing.
Another artist that Claunch and Cantrell were working with around the same time as the Feathers release was named Bud Deckelman. After they brought a composition they had worked up with Bud to Phillips and he wasn't interested, they brought it to Lester Bihari at Meteor who was. They cut Daydreamin' at the Meteor studio up on Chelsea Avenue, then brought it to Sam at Sun to master. After showing some regional clout, the song was picked up by Dot who scored a top ten C&W hit on it in May of 1955 with a cover by Jimmy 'Cajun' Newman, who was knocking 'em dead out on the Louisiana Hayride alongside Sam's boy Elvis (who wouldn't see any chart action himself for another six months).
Phillips saw the error of his ways, and told Claunch and Cantrell he wanted 'right of first refusal' on their future compositions (which was something they thought they already had). After a few minor sides that went nowhere, Sam had Carl Perkins cut one of their Country ballads in December of 1955, and told them he planned on issuing it as the flip of Carl's next single. After having sold Elvis' contract to RCA the month before, Phillips had second thoughts about his future in the C&W market and released one of the most rockin' 'double-siders' of all time instead, Blue Suede Shoes b/w Honey Don't in January of 1956. By late April, Sun 234 had become the company's first million-seller, topping off at #2 on Billboard's Top 100 - kept from the top slot by Elvis' first RCA release, Heartbreak Hotel. "From that moment on," Cantrell told Colin Escott, "Quinton and I decided that we should put our songs on the back of every record we could. The only way to control that was to have our own record company."
In the fall of 1957, after wildman Ray Harris figured his sun had set as an artist at Sun, he joined forces with Cantrell and Claunch and they approached juke-box operator and record store owner Joe Cuoghi about starting up their own label. Much as Lucchesi had done with Kesler, Cuoghi agreed to provide the financial backing and give them artistic control. Taking a cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis (that Harris had met at his day job) to Nashville, they cut what Billboard called a 'bright rockabilly' version of You Are My Sunshine and, with Cantrell-Claunch composition Tootsie 'on the back', it became Hi Records first 45. As was often the case, as the single began to pick up steam in early 1958, the fledgling label had trouble keeping up with demand. Sam Phillips came to their rescue that June and picked up the masters for release on his new Phillips International label.
Hi used the money Sam paid them to build their own studio in the old Royal Theater in South Memphis. I'm not sure if it was already 'in the can', but their next release on McVoy featured Cantrell-Claunch songs on both sides, including a hokey version of their old standby Daydreamin'. After issuing a dozen or so other singles that went nowhere, Hi was floundering, and by mid-1959 Cuoghi was looking to cut his losses. As you may recall, back in part two we mentioned that Fernwood cut smash hit Tragedy at Hi's studio (which must have driven Cuoghi just a little further up the wall), with Scotty Moore and Bill Black providing the accompaniment. Black got together with Ray Harris shortly after that and hatched the idea of forming an instrumental group anchored by himself and a local guitarist named Reggie Young.
Christened Bill Black's Combo, their first release on the label, Smokie Part 2, took the country by storm in the Fall of 1959, and Hi's new distribution deal with London Records helped them move some serious wax. When original members Martin Willis and Joe Louis Hall (who, as we've seen, went on to work with Earl Forest) balked at Joe Cuoghi's idea of paying them with stock options instead of cash, they were let go and replaced with Ace Cannon and the aforementioned Carl McVoy. At this point something happened...
In Sweet Soul Music, Peter Guralnick says "By this time Claunch, to his eternal regret, had left Hi for a number of cogent reasons..." Huh? According to Colin Escott in Good Rockin' Tonight, "Claunch left Hi with considerable ill will on all sides in 1960 after he recorded a Bill Black sound-alike for another label." Which is echoed on a Black Cat Rockabilly page where it goes on to say that "Carl McVoy bought Claunch's share for $7000."
Hmmm... John Broven asked Escott if he might be able provide any further information on all of this and he replied "My understanding...and I can't remember if it came from Gene Simmons or Cantrell or Ray Harris or Ace Cannon or McVoy... but there were some Bill Black soundalike records on Chess or some other label, and Quinton did those, pissing off Cuoghi, Cantrell, and Harris... I think it was the Bobby Stewart Combo on Argo."
Cold, Cold Heart
A straight up co-opting of Black's 'untouchable' sound, I'd say the decision to call the group a 'Combo' (preceded by the name of the bass player) pretty much seals the deal. Also included in the group were brothers Carl and Jumpin' Gene Simmons. Like Ray Harris, the Simmons brothers were Sun also-rans who had recorded prolifically for Sam Phillips without any commercial success. Although Gene's lone Sun single (featuring Carl on the guitar) Drinkin' Wine is considered a stone classic today, it had fallen on deaf ears when it was released in April of 1958. After a couple of minor records on other small independents, the brothers showed up on Cuoghi's doorstep in early 1960. Both Checker 948 (released under the name of Gene Simmons) and Argo 5374 were cut at Hi soon after and leased to Leonard Chess, but there doesn't seem to be any indication of Quinton Claunch's involvement in that process... in fact there may be evidence to the contrary:
This way cool instrumental was released in March of 1960 (a month before Gene's Checker single), here's what Carl Simmons told 706 Union Avenue; "It was a minor hit. It sold about 100,000 copies. It sounded too much like all the Bill Black stuff coming out on Hi and there was some discomfort around that on Bill's part. That's why Joe Cuoghi leased it out to Dot Records. I was actually glad to see it on Dot. They were a very successful label at the time." The site lists Cuoghi as the engineer and producer of these sides, on which he also retained the publishing (Jec = Joe E. Cuoghi). It's hard to imagine Quinton muscling his way into the middle of this arrangement and suddenly cutting a deal with Chess... and, if Cuoghi showed no 'discomfort' in outsourcing these Simmons brothers 'Bill Black soundalike' records to another label, how could he object if one of his partners did the same thing?
Hmmm... let's back up a moment here and talk about a gentleman named Walter P. Maynard, Jr.
Walter first shows up as the composer of Joe Fuller's You Made A Hit, which was released on Hi 2005 in May of 1958 and cut soon after by Sam Phillips on Ray Smith and Charlie Rich. By Hi 2007, Maynard shares songwriting credits with both Claunch and Cantrell on He's The Most, which is published by Jec. Hi Records looks like one big happy family... but things were about to change.
According to Colin Escott, "Cantrell and Claunch had something to do with Walter Maynard. They produced Charlie Feathers for Wal-May in 1959-1960..." Hmmm... apparently Maynard had formed his own company by then, and super sleuth Jim Cole was able to unearth an actual 45, released under the name of Charlie Morgan (no doubt for contractual reasons). The publishing on these Cantrell, Claunch, Feathers compositions is shared by Jec and 'Walmay Music'. I'm not sure what went down, but it seems odd that Cuoghi wouldn't have wanted these sides released on Hi, and why two of his partners felt it necessary to go to work for another company. Although the label on this 45 reads 'WALMAY', printed in smaller type underneath it says 'Pink Record Co.'
Jack Clement had cut a kid from Missouri named Narvel Felts at Sun in early 1957, but he signed with Mercury shortly thereafter on the advice of a disgruntled Roy Orbison. After three singles that didn't do much, Mercury passed on a song Felts had cut at a radio station while on tour in Canada in February of 1959, Three Thousand Miles. "Hi Records had just been formed in Memphis," Felts said, "so I sent them a copy... I got a call back from Hi saying that they thought 'Three Thousand Miles' was a smash, and to get on down to the studio and record it." After several takes, everyone agreed that the original radio station demo was better. "...it came out on Pink Records and was my first national chart hit." Although the publishing was still shared by Walmay and Jec, Maynard had apparently gone with the infinitely sexier Pink as the name of the label.
"Walt Maynard, who was running Pink Records, wanted us to come back to Memphis and record again," Narvel went on to say, "We went to Memphis to the Royal Studio with Jack Clement engineering. Honey Love was one of the songs we did... and then Walt decided that should be the one for the next record" Felts' whitebread version of the Drifters' classic spent two weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 in February of 1960, stalling at #90. With Jec no longer having a share of the publishing, I'm sure Cuoghi was not amused at the idea of Maynard cutting hits at his studio.
After issuing a few more Pink 45s that died on the vine, Maynard released this one in October of 1960, while Bill Black's Don't Be Cruel was still riding the R&B top ten. Talk about a soundalike! Wow! I'm not sure where Bill Robbin (or his Bluejays) came from, but I'd say it's a safe bet they were trying to cash in on the Combo's success. The A Side was a cover of old chestnut Near You "done in a Bill Black Combo styling," according to Billboard, but I think the flip we have here is more interesting. Long in the public domain, the arrangers are listed as 'Maynard-Landon-Gold'. Hmmm...
In the BMI Repertoire Database, however, the 'arrangers' are credited as songwriters and, lo and behold, our man Quinton Claunch is first on the list! Notably absent, however, is the name 'Cantrell'. I'm not sure whose idea the 'Gold' nom-de-plume may have been, but I don't think it fooled anybody on South Lauderdale. I'm thinking that this just may be the record that precipitated the 'considerable ill will'...
Within a few weeks, Maynard had released a Christmas 45 on Robbin, featuring the same kind of 'untouchable' arrangement, this time called Rockin' Bells... By then, Claunch's name was printed plainly there on the label for all to see, so I imagine the final break with Hi (and the sale of his share in the label to Carl McVoy) must have come somewhere right around in here. It is also interesting to note that Pink (which had been originally distributed by Ember) was now a part of the Johnny Vincent Ace empire. There may have been a reason for that...
Released in August of 1961, the film Teenage Millionaire starred Vincent's main attraction Jimmy Clanton in the leading role. With cameo lip-sync appearances by other performers like Jackie Wilson, Chubby Checker, Marv Johnson, Dion and (yes) Bill Black's Combo, it was targeted at the same acne-plagued, sock-hopped, record buying segment of the population that Vincent drooled over. He couldn't resist the idea of a Soundtrack LP on Ace, but he wasn't about to fork over the cash to license any material from the movie that was performed by another label's artists. Maynard, apparently, was only too happy to help out and (according to Dik de Heer) "the two Bill Black Combo recordings on the soundtrack album issued by (US) Ace Records are not by Bill but by a soundalike band led by Bill Robbin." I'm not sure if Quinton was still involved at this point, but the damage had already been done, and this must have been viewed by Cuoghi as adding insult to injury...
All of this was happening while Last Night had begun its ascendancy of the charts, on its way to becoming an even bigger hit than Smokie Part 2 had been. As Floyd Newman told us a couple of years ago, he and tenor sax man Gilbert Caple were the ones who came up with that memorable intro and punchy horn line. In Soulsville, U.S.A., Floyd told Rob Bowman that he resented not being sent out on the road in support of the record. "When they started traveling and making money, Gilbert Caple and I knew nothing about it. They didn't even tell us that they were going to do none of this. That's the way it went down." Newman elected to stay on with the company anyway as Satellite evolved into Stax (lucky for all of us), but Caple had apparently had enough and decided to move on. As it turned out, Walt Maynard was right there waiting for him.
Starting up another label named Safire (probably to sidestep whatever arrangement he had with Johnny Vincent on Pink), this time Walt made sure that even the name of the group was a sound-alike. Although he gave Caple and Fred Ford (who had been recruited to take Newman's place) writing credit on the flip, Maynard took both the songwriting and publishing here on the top side. I'm not sure who the rest of the band was, but I'd say it's a safe bet that these tracks were cut at Fernwood with Earl Forest (although it doesn't sound like Clarence on the guitar).
Maynard worked out some kind of deal and leased the record to ABC-Paramount, which helped propel it to #89 on the Hot 100 in October of 1961 (one notch higher than the Narvel Felts chart entry six months before). Although ABC would release one more single by the Parkays in January of 1962, it didn't even 'bubble under', and it appears that their deal with Maynard had run its course by then. As you may recall from Part Two, Gilbert Caple then went on to be the driving force behind Earl Forest's own 1962 Mar-Keys sound-alike records on Duke before he moved to Texas to become an integral part of Don Robey's studio machine. According to fellow Duke songwriter Vernon Morrison, it was Caple who was the uncredited composer of O.V. Wright's Ace of Spades. Imagine?
After one more release on Safire, Maynard's trail appears to turn cold...
There doesn't seem to be much information available about Claunch and Maynard's other Pink collaborator, Don Landon, except that he also co-wrote a song with Quinton named 'Bingo' that was released on a Pittsburgh label (go figure) in 1962 - a song that Quinton apparently liked so much that he decided to use it as the name of his own label that same year.
Every once in a while here on Soul D we get to do something awesome, like introduce to the world a 45 that nobody knew existed. Unearthed recently by our partner Frank Bruno (the Memphis Wax man), we believe that the record below represents the previously unknown inaugural release on Bingo. How cool is that?
St. Louis Blues
Sounding more like Ace Cannon than Bill Black, I'm guessing that the Skip Williams featured on the label must be the sax player... (ya think maybe these Tee-Birds started out as Robbin's Blue-Jays?) The fact that this release was 'Distributed by Sheraton Records' allows us to date it rather accurately (I think). In the March 17, 1962 edition of Billboard there was an ad placed by Sheraton offering small labels an 'excellent deal' on National Distribution. In the May 19th issue (see above), Bingo is listed as one of the new labels added to the New Jersey company's roster 'over the past three months'. As far as I can tell, it was the only Bingo 45 to be distributed by them and, judging from the Spring 1962 release date, I'd say most probably the label's first.
Let's just pause here a moment and consider how important a figure Quinton Claunch really is. Perhaps the most independent of the 'independent record men', when he didn't like the way things were going at Sun, he had no problem leaving Sam Phillips behind and starting up his own label with his friends. Then, as far as Hi Records is concerned, in the liner notes of The Complete Goldwax Singles Volume 1, Claunch says "I did not think things were moving along fast enough, so I moved on to some independent projects..." I'm sure Quinton felt that what was good for the goose should have been good for the gander, and if it was OK for Cuoghi to lease copycat records to other labels, then his projects should have been given the green light as well. When they weren't, he cashed in his chips and walked away. This idea that he was somehow 'muscled out' appears to be a misconception... one which Claunch has done little to dispel over the years. After all, why should he?
In the Summer of 1963 Claunch hooked up with another Memphis businessman who was itching to get into the record business, Rudolph 'Doc' Russell. As a pharmacist, he had no problem leaving the musical end of things up to Quinton, which was just the way he liked it. Initially called 'Russell's Goldwax', the label's first release, the great Darling by R&B vocal group The Lyrics, was on its way to becoming a local hit when Claunch used his connections to secure national distribution with London Records. This effrontery was apparently too much for Cuoghi at Hi (which, if you recall, was also distributed by London), and, in Quinton's words, he "had our record stopped..." Considerable ill will indeed!
I think it was Claunch's courageous decision to step out on his own (becoming Persona non Grata at two major studios in the process) that opened his eyes to the thriving Memphis R&B scene, and brought him to Fernwood to record with Earl Forest. He then would become one of the first customers through the door at Chips Moman's American Sound, where he would be introduced to our man Clarence Nelson. We determined back in Part One that Clarence is definitely the guitarist on both Goldwax 106 and Goldwax 113.
Let's take a look at a few others:
GOLDWAX 105 / ABC-PARAMOUNT 10560
So Hard To Get Along
In the 'comments' a while back, detective Mike Finbow said "The Lyrics 'So Hard To Get Along' with Percy Milem on lead vocal (Goldwax 105) employs the same fluid guitar sound as O.V. Wright's 'That's How Strong My Love Is'. Ace Records 'Complete Goldwax Singles Vol.1' shows Reggie Young as the guitarist, but it has to be Clarence Nelson.' Agreed, yes it certainly does! Good lookin' out, Mike! Like his erstwhile partner Walt Maynard, Claunch managed to get this one picked up by ABC, but as far as we can tell (there being no Billboard R&B chart at the time), without much action. Interesting that this song is written by Roosevelt Jamison, as that it was the release before 'That's How Strong My Love Is'...
[ed. note: Just let me say as we move forward here, our goal has never been to prove anybody wrong, but to make sure we get things right. I think this demonstrates just how 'under the radar' Clarence's work has remained, and why we're doing this in the first place.]
I'm Living Good
No doubt due to the fact that this one was written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, it has long been thought to have been cut at Fame in Muscle Shoals. At this point, I don't know about that. It sure sounds like Clarence Nelson on guitar, doesn't it? I thought for a while that it might be Chips Moman, but in any event, I think it's a stretch to place either of them in Muscle Shoals the year before Wexler brought Moman down there to record with Pickett in 1966. The guitar could have been overdubbed at American, maybe? I don't know. I'd definitely say it's Clarence, though... what do you guys think?
When I first wrote about this phenomenal record on The A Side I said "Check out Reggie Young on here, man... is he great or what?" While Reggie remains just as great as ever, I'm thinking this is Clarence on here for sure. It was released in October of 1966, while Nelson was still in The Mustangs backing Spencer up in the clubs, according to David Evans. That would also be around six months before Reggie left Royal for American...
By then Claunch and Russell were back cutting at Sam Phillips with Stan Kesler, as evidenced by this well-known photo from Sweet Soul Music and, as we've seen, Kesler had Clarence virtually on the payroll. I'm sure there are other Goldwax sides that feature Clarence on guitar (at least the flips of those we've mentioned so far), and I'd like to try and re-evaluate them in light of what we now know and compile some kind of list, leading to an eventual Nelson discography. Any other likely candidates you can think of? Any with James Carr?
To be continued...
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(...back to Part Two)
Back in 2008, when we were working on the O.V. Wright Memorial Weekend, Quinton Claunch (then 87 years old) agreed to join us for lunch at what we billed as the Goldwax Rendezvous, where he would be reunited with Roosevelt Jamison, the man who introduced him to O.V. (as well as to Goldwax mainstays James Carr and The Ovations). A last minute illness forced Claunch to cancel, but we never gave up.
In 2012 (thanks to Quinton's wife Nell, his son Steve and Roosevelt's wife Linda), John Broven and I were finally able to bring them together. Over the course of a lazy August afternoon spent at Leonard's Pit Barbecue, we were enthralled by these two men as they shared their stories about the very dawn of Memphis Soul.
We didn't know it then, but this would be the last time they would see each other. Roosevelt would pass away the following Spring, falling victim to the cancer that had ravaged his brain. Just a week after Jamison's funeral, Quinton and Nell were involved in a serious automobile accident - an accident from which she would never recover. She passed away from injuries sustained in the crash in June of 2013. After being married for sixty nine years, Quinton was suddenly alone.
He would find solace in his music and began writing songs again. Incredibly, at 92 years of age, Quinton returned to Muscle Shoals (where it had all started for him some seventy years before!) to produce an album on an artist he had discovered that just 'knocked him out', a young guitar player and singer from Kentucky named Alonzo Pennington.
Released on his own revitalized Soul Trax imprint, Claunch had dedicated the entire project "to the Memory of my Beloved Wife Nell," and invited John and I back to his house this past August to listen to the song he had written about her for the album, Taste Of Heaven.
To sit there in that place, in the same room where Quinton had sat on the floor with Roosevelt, O.V. and James Carr and listened to that mythic demo tape they had cut with Earl Forest fifty years before, was an experience we will not soon forget. Incredibly, even though Claunch was recently listed in Who's Who, even though his place in American Music History is secure as one of the greatest songwriters, label owners and producers of all time, he has been unable to find a record company willing to distribute the album.
Last I heard, he was still waiting for some of the friends he thought he had in the industry to return his phone calls... he deserves better.
- red kelly, June 2015_______________________________________
174-1455 - BONATEMP 804 - 1965
205-1898 - SAN 1516 - 1966
281-5048 - GO SO 742 - 1974
1-161 - TULANE 103 - 1961
251-2578 - Soulin' 148 - 1968