Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Goree Carter and his Hepcats - Rock Awhile
Goree was one of T-Bone's most devoted disciples, and one of the first to be prolifically recorded, mostly in 1949-50. Unlike many of his contemporaries who made their records totally or chiefly in California, he did his recording in Houston, most notably for the local Freedom label. He's been off the fast lane for thirty years even though he's only 52 years old. It's ironic that when he was tracked down in July 1982 by Juke Jumpers Sumter Bruton, Jim Colegrove and Johnny Reno, with help from veteran Houston musicians Leonard Anderson and Pete Mays, Goree was living in a house on Bayou Street where he was born, as he has been for almost all his life. It would be hard to find a more classic example of neglect, though some of it has been voluntary. But he deserves a lot better.
A brief letter that Goree wrote to Blues Boy Records in January, 1983, is unpretentious and matter-of-fact: "I didn't stay in the business too long because I went into the army and when I got out things were pretty slow so I went back to my old job at a rice mill." It hints at a typical blues story. A talented young musician was thrown unprepared into a world of competitive hustlers, he has lingering memories of suspect dealings with managers and record companies; his career was thwarted when he got drafted and came home to find his main patrons and partners out of business or dead; and changing tastes also helped end his success - his own desire to get away from a successful formula and the public's move onto rock & roll. That's another irony. Goree was left behind although his first and biggest hit ROCK AWHILE could have been an anthem for the change.
The tone of Goree's letter contrasts with the spirit of his records. His guitar and voice were firmly in the T-Bone mould, but with plenty of ideas ranging from jazz to Spanish overtones. Just a quick listen to ROCK AWHILE shows many of the elements that made Goree's too-brief career as a recording artist worth remembering and celebrating. The lyrics were original and often witty. The adventurous arrangements by Goree or Conrad Johnson stretched the formula with unique commercial results. The booting boogie woogie piano of Lonnie Lyons, the wailing sax(es) from Conrad Johnson and the other horn players that he recruited from the college where he was teaching, and good quality sound and pressing, all added to the impact of Goree's blues.
Goree was born in his present home in Houston on the last day of 1930. He was named after Goree Ashman who ran a prison farm near Huntsville. (There is also a town of Goree, Texas). HIs father Robert who was on a government pension after being shot in France during military service played mostly solo blues piano and trumpet in roadhouses. Goree had two older sisters who lured him onto the T-Bone Walker path, and a brother Edward who recorded with him on one of the more unusual blues records of that or any other time. Goree recalls, "We didn't live too bad. Just makin' it, put it that way." The family backyard would host jams by his sister's schoolmates Arnett Cobb and Russell Jacquet, and their friend Cleanhead Vinson. "My mother used to cook pots of beans for 'em, and they'd play out in the yard all day long, practisin'. I was so small I didn't know too much. But I always did love music."
He started playing guitar around age 13; a man across the street tried to give him early lessons. He liked Johnny Moore and Barney Kessel, and Charles and Roy Brown. To the occasional discomfort of Freedom Records, his tastes for jazz and ballads stayed with him. But T-Bone Walker was easily the main inspiration and "the one I copied from." One of Goree's sisters came home from seeing Bone at Don Robey's Peacock Club: "I had a old, beat-up guitar my cousin had gave me, and she saw him play behind his head and stuff. They were sellin' some of his records out there, so she brought a couple of his records back. We had a old wind-up Victrola, and she wanted me to hear his music. And she started playin' it for me, and she was tryin' to demonstrate how he played to me. This record 'Gonna Find My Baby', that's the one she brought back, and 'Bobby Sox Baby'. And I listened. And so the next morning, I got up early 'cause it stayed on my mind 'cause I liked the sound, and I got on one string tryin' to find out how to play like him, 'cause she wanted me to play like him so bad. So I started out on one string and from then on just moved on along till I could get his chords, and that's how I picked up his style. So when I got old enough to go in a club, they took me to see him. After I started playin' like him doin' floor show work, then he heard about me. He came to Houston and he was at the Eldoado, he saw me. I got to know him real well." T-Bone never sat down and showed Goree much guitar: "He figured I already knew." Goree learned plenty from watching , though, including most of Bone's stage show. But "I wasn't too good on the splits. I tried it, but couldn't get up. But I could play behind my head and all that stuff. He had a unique style. It was so different. And the way he phrased his chords and things. And the way his blues were, it wasn't just the lowdown blues...When I was cuttin', I was playin' T-Bone style. I tried to get away from it, because I didn't want to sound like him on records. But when I was out in public, I would always play his style...I couldn't understand why he never did get too much recognition. He came a long way, Bone did. He was the boss here." As for other local influences, "It wasn't too many guitarists around here that I cared anything about, because they was mostly playin' down home blues, semi like Lightnin' Hopkins...so it wasn't too much to inspire me."
BATTLE OF THE BLUES
His first musical job was the result of a lucky coincidence. A lady who ran the Whispering Pines in Trinity Gardens pased his house when he was "sittin' on my porch playin'. She was gettin' her hair fixed next door, a beautician lived next door. So she asked the beautician who I was, and she came over and asked would I come out to her club and play? I didn't have a electric guitar then, but they got one for me and I done a floor show work out there. That was my first engagement." He also did floor show work at the Eldorado in the 3rd Ward where I.H. Smalley played sax and had his own band. There he was heard by Anne Cullum (Cullen). She was the talent scout who'd sent Lightnin' and Amos Milburn to Los Angeles to record for Aladdin. When not scouting talent, she ran a booking agency and, briefly, ARC Records. She stepped in to guide Goree's career. While his memories of her aren't warm, she did send him to what he regards as his first break. "She and another Anne, I can't 'call her name but she had a hat shop downtown, they discovered me, heard me play at the Eldorado one night, and they got me booked in Nashville, Tennessee, with Lightnin' Hopkins, and we had a battle of the blues up there...She was so grouchy after money, she grypped me a whole lot. Like she done in Nashville, she took me there and dropped me like a hot potato and come on back, just left me on my own, and I was young and didn't know my way around or nothin'." But that stay at the Club Arrow turned out to be worth the aggravation. "I won the engagement . Me and Lightnin' used to sit down and practise together in Nashville. And I was tryin' to play like him, he wanted to play like me! It was a style you could just sit down and play, you didn't need a band. But I don't know - the dances I'd play, I didn't take with this. They wanted something jump, they wanted to dance. So it wouldn't work." Lightnin' returned to Houston while Goree got his six week contract extended for another six weeks. "That's where I got my break, really. A bunch of recording companies was after me, and Hollywood called me. I was so young then, my mother wouldn't let me go. She wouldn't sign the contract. They called for me to come to Hollywood, it was after midnight one night. My mother hung up. It hurt me, it really did. I cried about it because it was an opportunity for me, you know." He also did radio shows in Nashville. But he came home without making any deals because he had been warned that his youth and ignorance of the business would get him into bad contracts. So he returned to the Eldorado where he had another lucky break - his meeting with Samuel Kahl.
IT WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE BEEN A TEST RECORD
By that time, Goree had actually made his first record - but not on purpose, something that Goree says happened more than once. "It was supposed to have been a test record. they wanted to see how I played and how I sound. They'd say 'that sounds good, we're gonna get a record session up soon', and all this stuff, but I didn't know they was cuttin' me all the time." He sang and played an uncanny , well-written T-Bone imitation called "Sweet Ole Woman's Blues," assisted by Little Willie Littlefield's basic timekeeping on piano. It does indeed sound like a demo, with no real band and with Littlefield's simplistic approach. But it appeared on Eddie's, backed by a Littlefield song. "That's a little embarrassing to me because I didn't want that that sound. But they held back on me and stuck that stuff out on me. And when I heard it on the jukebox, you know I like to had a chill. Man, I'm talkin' about feelin' like a stepchild."
The culprit, Eddie Henry, helped a recent arrival from New York, Samuel Kahl (sometimes known as Saul), get into the race recording business. Goree recalls their meeting: "Somebody told him about me. I was playin' at the Eldorado doin' floor shows, and he came up to me and asked would I be interested in cuttin' records? He came from New York here. He didn't even have a business then. He got himself set up here after he talked to me. His wife, she's the one that put him in business. It took about a month or so." Kahl recorded Goree regularly at Bill Holford's ACA studio, beginning in 1949, seven 78's appeared on Freedom. Goree and the label did a lot to establish each other over the next couple of years. Goree would record with Conrad Johnson (and the horn players he had rounded up), and with his sidekick, pianist Lonnie Lyons. At the first session he came up with a houserocker called ROCK AWHILE. "That was wrote in the studio. I just picked it up because we were short of a record. And they gave me time off, about a hour or so, and I got it together and gave the boys intermission, they could go out and get sandwiches, and I stayed in the studio and wrote that." It was a big enough hit be remembered by young distributor and future owner of Ace Records, Johnny Vincent. Atlas Radio and Records in Houston also pushed Kahl's records heavily. Kahl's recording concepts were pretty simple. He liked the good equipment at Holford's studio and he wanted Goree to play T-Bone style blues. "He just wanted me to mostly sound like T-Bone. Because during that period of time, T-Bone was hot and he was tryin' to make me sound like him much as he could. But I was tryin' to dodge it because I wanted my own style. So it was kinda hard for me. I could play his style out in public but I didn't wanna do it on records. Every time I wanted to get away from it they wanted to push me right back...I said 'why don;t you just change up a little?' 'No, no, you'll kill yourself.' I said okay, just went along. 'Cause they was carryin' me. We'd cut them records. I'd do what they say."
Goree was allowed some creativity in the studio. It showed up on arrangements; T-Bone would have been proud of the introductions to ROCK AWHILE and COME ON LET'S BOOGIE, and the lyrics were fresh. "I wrote all my hits. I'd wake up through the night. I couldn't sleep. Words would come to me, some of 'em be funny. I'd jump up, start writin' 'em down. I used to sit up all night long. Make me a pot of coffee and go sit on the front porch. And meditate. Different songs would come to me and I'd write 'em, throw 'em aside. Then after I'd get several I'd go back inside and check 'em out." Young Johnny Copeland, who would watch Goree rehearse, helped write WORKING WITH MY BABY. "We wrote that together, but I gave him the credit. He had a bunch of numbers he wanted me to try to record for him. But my manager, Kahl, he picked 'em out but he didn't like 'em. So that caused me to have to do a lot of writin'." Although Goree didn't get to record the Roy Brown-styled song he wrote, other influences crept in, like the Cleanhead Vinson vocal effects on WHAT A FRIEND WILL DO: "That squeakin'...I was tryin' to get away from T-Bone. I didn't want to be an imitator." When he brought brother Edward into the picture the results were unique but still Texas. "He wanted to play trumpet , but his pitch wasn't right. He wanted to get on records. So I said 'you can whistle good. I'll play a Spanish song. I'll sit here and write some words.' I didn't know what to call it, so Kahl said 'why don't you call it SERENADE?' I said 'yeah, that's good.' So I started playin', he started whistlin'. It sounded good. they took one take of it but he made a mistake. I can always hear it. So they named it SERENADE, I never thought the thing would sell but it did. A lot of people liked it."
Only one of Goree's Freedom issued songs is missing from this compilation: the driving "She's My Best Bet." So we get thirteen examples of the best of the post-war Houston blues band sound, dominated by the stamp of T-Bone but performed by a talented songwriter and artist with plenty of his own to say and play. (Krazy Kat Records plans to include some previously unissued tracks in an anthology, including "Going Down To Nashville.")
Goree also played on Freedom songs with Lonnie Lyons who saw four 78's issued by Kahl. Generally the two would record at the same sessions. "Lonnie, he was a good pianist and just a heavy wine drinker. I think he was about a couple of years older than myself." They met at Shady's Playhouse. "I would keep him sober when he'd be ready to record." He contributed energetic barrelhouse solos to Goree's ROCK AWHILE and HOY-HOY. Goree recalls, "He liked Amos Milburn and Charles Brown's style more or less, but he had his own kind of boogie beat. He tried to sing like Charles Brown but his voice was kinda gone because he'd drink so heavy." Lyons was found dead, tragically young, in the early 1950's.
Goree's memories of his other Freedom sidemen are less strong, partly because Kahl or Conrad Johnson would round up most of them. "Nunn" Pitts usually played bass, with Allison Tucker on drums. Except for changes in horn players, things were fairly constant from session to session. Other musicians Goree remembers from the studio and bandstand include Joe Calloway on tenor and baritone, Thornton Turner on tenor, Leonard Anderson, drummer Charles King, Johnny Shepard on bass, Eric Sample on piano and a trumpeter known as Bridgewater.
Goree brought Big Joe Turner to Kahl and Freedom. "When Joe came here, he was down and he didn't have no place to really go. And the place we was rehearsin' at, somebody must have told him I was over there because he had never seen me before, and he'd heard of me. So he came in there one day, he and his wife. This is where he wrote that number at, 'Adam Bit the Apple.' He saw a picture on the wall of Adam and Eve in the forest, and he wrote that song right at the table. And he asked me about recordin'. I told him I could get him in touch with my manager, which was Kahl during that period of time. He was happy to hear Joe Turner's name. He came right on out and talked to Joe. So we started recordin' and got him on the Freedom label, and then he started gettin' his break over again." They did a couple of sessions together. In the clubs "he was always having a single. He played a few dates with my group, but he would go to different clubs and book himself and they would have their own bands, and that's how he would work."
HE WOULD PICK SOME SAD PLACES TO PLAY IN
After Kahl had put out enough records by Goree so that both had tasted a little success, Kahl signed Goree to a three year recording and personal management contract. But Kahl doesn't sound like much of a bargainer or businessman - a fact which may have contributed to the short life of Freedom in the face of hard competition from the likes of Don Robey. "He would pick some sad places to play in, I tell you. He acted like he was afraid to talk to the promoter. They would get him down to a price they wanted. We'd go out and we'd book dances, he act like he was scared to collect the money. And he'd come get me, and I had to go talk to the guys about the money and stuff...I don't know what happened to him." Goree never saw much money from his records. "I didn't see any of it. They always talkin' about the money they'd spent for advertisin'...in those days, they could get you easily. I didn't really realise about music and stuff because I never had any intention of gettin' into it. We wouldn't see anything. He cheated me out of a lot of money. I got mostly promises. He'd pay the band off and he'd give me maybe $35, 40 to put in my pocket and say he'd give me the money later. Later he'd give me $35, 40, 50 once in awhile. But I mean - I enjoyed it, you know. I enjoyed it. We had some fun in those days."
Goree almost always worked as a leader. He'd play at the Eldorado, Shady's Playhouse, or the Club Matinee when he was in town. (Johnny Copeland also reminisced about Shady's Playhouse in the June, 1983 issue of Guitar Player.) He remained popular around Nashville, and in San Antonio. He toured Texas, Louisiana, and went to California and New York. The records helped get work, especially ROCK AWHILE and COME ON LET'S BOOGIE. But in person, his love and knack for T-Bone's music did more. "Mostly me playin' out boosted me, because I played more like T-Bone out than I did on record. That was what the public wanted. Mostly when I would go out, people were so used to hearin' me play like T-Bone till they would always holler for me to play like him. We'd play a variety of songs, but when I'd come out, they wanted me to play T-Bone...they would call me Little T-Bone during this time." His theme song was his own ROCK AWHILE, but "Stormy Monday" and "Bobby Sox Baby" were popular, regularly performed numbers. Goree used to fill in for T-Bone at dances. "Robey had T-Bone booked at these places, and I was the only one close to T-Bone. If T-Bone couldn't get it, come and get me. I didn't even ask no questions, just get in my car, Austin, anywhere, I'm gone. Just tell me my price." T-Bone returned the favour, substituting occasionally for Goree. Goree also had battles of the blues with Gatemouth Brown at City Auditorium and he struck up a friendship with B.B. King. "I met B.B. in the 3rd Ward, Shady's Playhouse, when he first started good. I played behind him, I was playin' over there. He came in and played a few numbers, which he would stand in the back. He was just gettin' started here." Besides Johnny Copeland, other young Houston guitarists recall Goree. Roy Gaines says "He played great guitar and sang some great blues when I was in Houston." Roy remembers him playing at the Club Matinee with Pluma Davis. Cal Green adds, "Roy and I, we used to idolize Goree. He was a little older than us, we were just 16 or 17. He was recording then, playing a cross between T-Bone and Gatemouth." Goree preferred to play Gibson hollow-bodied guitars. During the day and between layoffs, he worked at Comet Rice Mill, where they'd let him take time off to go and play on the road.
Goree also had records on Jade (as Rocky Thompson, and singing and playing on a "Bill" (Henry) Hayes 78), Sittin' In With, Imperial, Bayou, Coral, Modern, and he did a session for Don Robey. Goree says Anne Cullum also tried to record him in a house but the sound wasn't right. His chronology is confused. Probably some of these, most likely the Jade, were done before Goree went to Freedom; he says others were cut with Kahl's permission because they weren't the straight T-Bone blues Kahl wanted. "Kahl kept me so tied up, he wouldn't let me cut with nobody. Most of the records that was cut, was cut before Kahl got me, they was cut in houses and things, they wasn't cut in no studios. They would set us up and give us a few dollars. I didn't know what it was all about, because during that time I didn't know anything about recording, until Kahl got me." The Jade was probably first and sums up the typical scenario for Goree: "I couldn't understand why they changed my name...They had talent scouts, we would go over and they would tricks us a lot on these numbers. They would come get me, like they wanna hear us, and they would be tapin' us all the time. I didn't know this. Like we wanna give a audition,' that's what they would say. Well, by bein' in the house, I wasn't payin' it no attention. And they would be cuttin' us on this stuff, they would play it back to see how it would sound, but I didn't know they were going to put this stuff on record. When the record came out, I was surprised." One side of the Jade is a good example of the forgettable ballads Goree would record, usually in a lower key than his blues. But "My Wish" is an atmospheric after hours blues instrumental.
The SIW records are a similar story: "That was cut in a house, in one night. I think Henry Hayes was mixed up in that stuff, 'cause they're the ones who came and got me. I was 'sposed to just play behind them, and they got me over there and made me cut some numbers." As for Bob Shad, "He would take you and say, 'let's come on and rehearse. I wanna see how y'all sound.' And then he'd cut me, man. And he would say 'play that number all the way through'." The Modern record, remembered as a blues ballad, was also done in a house. Anne Cullum took Goree to the Coral session. TELL ME IS THERE STILL A CHANCE was clearly influenced by T-Bone's "Alibi Blues." "They had another group of boys over there, I didn't know 'em." Co-authorship credits on Coral went to Bently Harris, a scout who apparently took them as his piece of the action. The Imperial session was a little different. "I always wanted to do those ballads, but Kahl wouldn't allow me to do it, that's why I went to other record companies and cut it. He let me do it, because he wouldn't cut it for me...They made me a little offer. We cut at Holford's studio. They had their own group." He also can't recall the Coral sidemen.
DEALING WITH THE DON
Some dealings with Don Robey were inevitable, especially since Robey's Buffalo Booking Agency handled T-Bone. Goree did his last session for Robey. Nothing was issued till one song appeared on a late 1970's Japanese anthology. "They were after me for a long time. Kahl took me over there. We disagreed because he wanted to buy me from Kahl. He tried to trick me into signing a 15 year contract. I said 'not with you, man'. I wouldn't sign for 15 minutes. I'll sign for the release of the record, but not no union contract.' I just walked away. He and I never could make it. I saw what he had done to other artists. He stuck his hand too far into your pocket. Johnny Ace, Willie Mae Thornton should've been rich. I wouldn't play for Robey. I'd done some things for T-Bone, and he'd messed me out of money so I wouldn't fool with him...I busted my fist on him. He gypped me out of $100 for T-Bone's dance...and I took my stuff off the stage and came home. Next day I saw him at a liquor store next to the Club Matinee, him and his secretary, Evelyn, and another woman...he was in there, I went in to get some Scotch for the friend who bought me my guitar. And he said I wasn't no good, and he swung at me and I ducked, and I busted my hand and knocked him right through that windowpane." Goree thinks their personal difficulties explain why Robey never issued his session.
BACK TO THE RICE MILL
The bottom fell out of Goree's career when Uncle Sam called in 1950. "I went to New York by myself to do some recordin'. That's when the Army got me then. I didn't get a chance to record. I had a deal set up. I can't call this guy's name because I wasn't there too long before I got a letter tellin' me I had 30 days to get back home to Houston..." To say the least, Goree was fustrated. "Peoples that was around was holdin' me back. Like Kahl - he wouldn't let me get too far, and my mother wouldn't let me go nowhere. But what hurt me so bad, Uncle Sam could get me. They couldn't hold me back from there. They shoulda let me went on while I had the break, but they didn't." He was only in the Army for a little more than a year because he was his mother's sole support, but it was too long. What happened to his photographs and records was just an example of what happened to his career. "I had 'em on all these walls. When I come back, I didn't have no pictures. Records either." And Kahl was out of business. "When I came back out of the service, Kahl had closed his record shop down because he couldn't find no artists to support him in his business. He started goin' back - he tried hillbilly and all that stuff, but it didn't work. He and his wife had broke up, and closed up. I came back on furlough lookin' for 'em. Next thing I found out, he was in the donut business. He had married another woman, he was in Shipley Donuts. So I came back to Houston and I just cleared out a little bit. B.B. King would come to town, I'd go up there and sit in with him, and several of the little bands around. But I wasn't gonna do lots of playing." Too much had disappeared and changed. Goree went back to the rice mill and cooked in cafes. He played his last gig around 1970, although "I would sit around the house and pluck." He faded into obscurity. Today not much is left but memories. His musical career seems surprisingly remote, considering that he's only 52. He gave away his guitar to a son in Flint, Michigan. His sister took a lot of photographs to California; she died and the pictures were burned along with her daughter's house. Today he looks at Blues clubs as " nothin' but honky tonks. I don't go to those places." Instead, he takes care of his elderly mother since his brother and sisters have died. He hustles a few dollars here and there when his car is running. When the Juke Jumpers and Peter May visited him in July, 1982, he had no guitar and no means of listening to music. But he did hit some nice licks on Sumter Bruton's guitar, giving hope that his arthritis could be overcome if any interest is shown in him. Now he has a guitar and cassette player, so he can hit a few notes and listen to tapes of his own and T-Bone's old records. He talks wistfully about Europe: "Joe Fritz, Papoose (veteran Houston tenor player and vocalist who died in the spring of 1983), was tellin' me about goin' to Europe. Tell me they go wild over there. They want the original, all original stuff." His songs have been ocassionally reissued; in England on a Solid Sender EP, while a French Riverboat album included some of Big Joe Turner's Freedom collaboration with Goree.
In Japan, a Robey compilation includes "Let's Make Love Tonight", and another compilation, "Gonna Squeeze My Guitar", includes the Bayou and Imperial issues. The Juke Jumpers recorded a rousing COME ON LET'S BOOGIE on their LP "The Joint Is Jumping". Finally, we have this album that gives us most of the best of Goree Carter. And that means plenty of hot Texas blues, showing off both T-Bone's legacy and the individuality and excellence of Goree Carter.
Liner notes and images from:
Rock Awhile - Goree Carter and his Hepcats
Label: Blues Boy Record (A Division Of Mr R&B Records)
Images: Goree Carter Estate
Top: Goree Carter with fans early 1950s
Middle: Goree Carter with friends early 1950s