Monday, 7 May 2012

Head Hunter / Cool And Easy – Johnny Otis Orchestra (Regent 1028)



“Head Hunter” was recorded in Los Angeles on the 23rd December, 1949. Probable personnel: Lee Graves, Don Johnson (trumpets); George Washington (trombone); Big Jay McNeely, Lorenzo Holden (tenor saxes); Walter Henry (baritone sax); Johnny Otis (vibes); Devonia Williams (piano); Pete Lewis (guitar); Mario Delagarde (bass); Leard Bell (drums)

“Cool And Easy” was recorded in Los Angeles on the 27th February, 1950. Personnel are as above except James Von Streeter replaces Big Jay McNeely on tenor sax and Redd Lyte is added on vocals.





Many thanks to El Enmascarado for this 78 rpm disc which was released in January 1951. Billboard reviewed “Head Hunter” favourably: “Walkin’ and honkin’ medium blues refers to ‘Pinetop’s BW’ for backdrop riffs. Striding tenor sax and heavy bottom, rocking beat set this lung buster up for at least moderate coin collection.”

The B side was reviewed thus: “Redd Lyte warbles a southern style blues chant with a strong ork backdrop. Fine beat helps throughout.”

Billboard, January 1951
Released initially on Herman Lubinsky’s secondary label Regent, rather than his Savoy label, “Head Hunter” failed to chart, possibly because the Otis band was still riding high in the charts with “Rockin’ Blues.” In 1950 the Johnny Otis Orchestra was the nation’s top selling R&B act mainly thanks to a series of hits featuring the vocal pairing of Little Esther and Mel Walker. “Cupid’s Boogie,” “Mistrustin’ Blues,” “Deceivin’ Blues,” and “Wedding Blues” were all big hits for the duo in 1950, along with “Dreamin’ Blues” and “Rockin’ Blues” (both featuring Mel Walker) and the biggest seller for the band, “Double Crossing Blues” (Little Esther and The Robins).

The band failed to maintain the same level of success in 1951, however, mainly due to disagreements with Herman Lubinsky, the notoriously tight-fisted honcho of Savoy and Regent. In late 1950, Ralph Bass, the Savoy A&R man on the West Coast was lured away by Syd Nathan of King Records who set him up with his own subsidiary label, Federal. One of the first signings made by Bass for the new label was Little Esther who began recording for Federal in late January 1951. Backing for her recordings through 1951 and 1952 was provided by a moonlighting Johnny Otis Orchestra which made their last recordings for Savoy in March 1951 and later signed for Mercury towards the end of the year.

Given such a background it was no surprise that the Johnny Otis Orchestra failed to reach the levels of success it had achieved in 1950. There were only three chart entries for the group in 1951: “Rockin’ Blues” (released in late 1950), “Gee Baby” / “Mambo Boogie” and “All Nite Long.”


“Head Hunter” (a tribute to deejay Hunter Hancock) may have failed to chart but as you can hear, it’s a tremendous instrumental featuring great guitar work from Pete Lewis followed by screeching sax by Big Jay McNeely and all underpinned by driving horns and brass. There is some doubt as to the personnel performing on the number. Both Bruyninckx and the jazzdisco.org website list the band as consisting of only one horn player, Big Jay McNeely, plus vibes, piano, guitar, bass and drums. As you can hear on this post, however, it’s pretty obvious that there is more than one sax plus brass present on the track.

Our benefactor, El Enmascarado, says: “There's certainly more than one saxophone playing on Head Hunter- in the opening seconds, the huge saxophone "power chord" couldn't be less than two, and could easily be three. The lower note of the "power chord" is below the range of the tenor, and is a baritone sax.”

For “probable personnel” on the track, I’ve stuck with the complete band which was present at this session according to jazzdisco.org and ignored their suggestion that only Big Jay plus rhythm played on “Head Hunter.” Of course there is always the possibility that it isn’t Big Jay but James Von Streeter or Lorenzo Holden on lead tenor sax here.

Big Jay McNeely
Big Jay had started his recording career with the Johnny Otis Orchestra on Excelsior in 1948 before going solo on Savoy in late 1948 and then Exclusive in the first half of 1949. However in late 1949 and early 1950 Big Jay is credited on sitting in with the Otis band on several sessions, perhaps because regular Otis honker Von Streeter was becoming unreliable due to “lifestyle issues.” Moreover at the time of this session Big Jay was “between” recording commitments as Exclusive was about to go out of business and he was about a month away from signing with Aladdin. So let’s stick with Big Jay. Judge for yourselves!

Redd Lyte
The B-side “Cool And Easy” is another excellent track with fine blues guitar from Pete Lewis and a fine vocal from shouter Redd Lyte. Both Lewis and Lyte had graduated to the Otis band via the talent show at The Barrelhouse Club where Otis had a long standing residency. All in all this is a first class record with two strong sides. Thanks again to El Enmascarado for his rips from shellac (in very good sound quality) and label scans.

We’re not quite finished yet! Here’s a little bonus streaming audio playlist of Big Jay McNeely’s other tribute to Hunter Hancock – “Hoppin’ With Hunter” recorded for Exclusive in April 1949. Also present is a track recorded by James Von Streeter & His Wig Poppers for the small Scoop label in August 1949. The similarity to Big Jay’s style is remarkable. Keep on honkin’ and bluesin’, Be Bop Winos!



2 comments:

Across the Charts said...

What a hot band! I'm just discovering how good Pete Lewis was - this is great!

Anonymous said...

Yeah!