White Boy Gets the Blues

06/16/2015 04:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

My 1959 Fender Stratocaster and 1972 Fender Twin Reverb Amp

Everybody knew "What'd I Say," an early crossover hit, a basic 12-bar riff that I practiced on my guitar since I was 13 years old, but this was a live album, "Ray Charles in Person," recorded in Atlanta in May 1959. On it are some fabulous live recordings: an extended version of "Night Time," with Miss Margie Hendricks helping out on vocals, that leads into "What'd I Say." These are seminal versions, with a shouting Ray Charles wrenching up soulful, guttural exhortations "to be with the one you love," and the Raylettes answering back, "... night and day. Night and day." The backup singers sound like another horn section, they are so together.

Ray does "Tell the Truth" on this album, and for me it's maybe the greatest live cut ever captured on tape--even more remarkable when you realize they got it all that rainy day in Georgia with a single microphone and portable tape recorder. Hendricks and the Raylettes actually take the lead on "Tell the Truth," an indication of Ray's confidence and swagger, and he answers back like maybe only some pimp could. And then coming out of David "Fathead" Newman's sax solo a sound erupts from way down inside Charles, a howling plea that comes up from somewhere between the Devil himself and Jesus. It's way too short. It leaves you begging for more every time. This is my final call; it is a sound from another world all together; when I hear it I am hooked on the drug that is and forever will be, the blues. The rhythm that is the blues.

I am a white boy that has got himself the blues. I'm 14 years old, and it's 1961.

"How 'bout that?! How 'bout that! Ray Charles! The great Ray Charles. The high priest! Ray Charles himself. What a show! What a show..." And the ecstatic stage announcer that day is dead right. From then on, I had to learn this stuff, and learn it good enough, and electric enough, to play it live my ownself, in a band!

I like it. A lot. And it sure beats the hell out of the "Ballad of Davey Crockett," the other popular tune from that year.

Then we move up to St. Louis and by now rock and roll is all over the place. Back then there was two or three rock stations in St. Louis--WIL, KXOK and, for a while, KWK. And then in one of the dumbest moves in the history of the world, KWK goes on the air one day in 1959 to claim "rock and roll has got to go," and proceeds to break every rock record they play so they can go back to an easy listening format. Before KWK disappeared into thin off-the-air, somebody filmed this event, and you'll see it today in rock history documentaries along with racist, southern rednecks protesting Elvis' "nigger bop" music--examples of gross ignorance and extreme prejudice--in the face of an unstoppable cultural phenomenon.

For me it was here to stay, especially that "bop" stuff.

Way down at the end of the St. Louis radio dial, "just to the left of your glove box," was KATZ, a "Negro" station. They played kick-ass roadhouse juke, blues. Electric Chicago rhythm and blues. And a lot of soul music. At the time I didn't even know what to call it; it was kind of like rock and roll, only more raw, even more dangerous. While Elvis Presley was scaring the hell out of our parents, with his sideburns and his sneer, he was pulling me into a whole new world with his versions of what we'd learn later was ethnic, Black, music, the kind of stuff KATZ and later, KXLW, were playing all the time around St. Louis.

For Elvis, this genuine edge would last about 18 months, then he went white, way white, and then got fat making bad movies. But the blues, they came from way back and for me, last to this day.

Both of the Black radio stations played a lot of Ike and Tina Turner, a local St. Louis act really coming on with recordings they were making at Technisonic Studios out on Brentwood Boulevard, in St. Louis county. And Albert King and Solomon Burke, all of it somehow related to rock and roll, but about like a wolf is related to a dog. Four-legged and furry, but meaner, with longer teeth, and nowhere near domesticated.

KXLW played Wilson Pickett's "Midnight Hour" a full year before any white station played it. Black music didn't really cross over to a white audience until years later.

So most people had to wait for it. But not me.

Around this time I picked up a ukulele. Lot of guys I knew played ukes or acoustic guitars, so I taught myself some chords on a borrowed 4-stringed ukulele. We used to spend weekends out at a log cabin in Hawk Point, Missouri, drinking beers and gin and Pepsi or something, and somehow the tunes we'd crank out would get better and better the later at night it got. It was also out in Hawk Point that we could get the radio to pick up Wolf Man Jack from all the way down in Del Rio, Texas, eons before he was anybody anywhere else. XERF, a 50,000 watt clear channel station. We'd find him deep in the night when he would spin a lot of soul music and stompin' southern rock.

"Rock and roll baaaaaaaayaaaabay!," he'd howl.

Other times we'd get WLAC from Nashville, brought directly up to us by Randy's Record Shop, and White Rose Pomade and White Star Petroleum jelly. Damned straight.

My life finally changed for good the first time I heard "Great Balls of Fire." Jerry Lee Lewis. Nothing like it before or since. Or him. He wouldn't so much play the piano as punish it, pounding notes from it that responded in yelps of pain. Three seconds into a song he was on his feet, kneading the breath and life out of the keys, scorching the air with his countrified threat of a voice.

"Great Balls of Fire" left me no way back. Didn't want a way back. Even better, and unlike most of the other stuff I listened to, it became a big hit. Except for Little Richard - every bit as outrageous as Lewis, and also producing big sellers - it seemed like most everybody else who made it big was in another category - just rock and roll. Maybe Lewis wasn't Black, but his early music was every bit as visceral.

And the fact that he absolutely horrified our parents made it that much better. He even made Elvis seem OK for them. A genuine certified juvenile delinquent with flying blonde hair and a country leer that dared parents everywhere to trust their daughters with him, just one time, for Jerry Lee. None would, so he married his 14-year-old cousin and disappeared in scandal for the next 20 years.

If you go back and really immerse yourself in early "rock and roll"--not Danny and the Juniors or Frankie Avalon, but Gene Vincent, James Brown, Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Ronnie Hawkins, Link Wray, Jackie Brenston (the designated artist on Ike Turner's seminal recording, "Rocket 88"), and many, many more even lesser knowns and one-hit wonders - these guys were making music that was dangerous. Its roots are pure Black. Gospel. And hot rod six-pack country. This music was a threat to life as our parents viewed it, and their values, and the way they thought "youngsters" should look, and act.

It was scary.

It was great.

My first guitar was a Harmony acoustic, basic crap--but with six strings a lot better than a ukulele. I started off playing "Tom Dooley," stuff like that. But soon as I could play the opening riffs to "What'd I Say" I had to have an electric. My mother took me out to McMurray Music on Page Boulevard and we bought a used, cherry-red Les Paul Jr. Gibson guitar, single pick-up, for $90. It was beautiful and would have sounded fantastic except I had to play it through a cheap, Barney Kessel Kay amplifier with an 8-inch speaker that I blew out in about ten minutes--thereby having a very early "fuzz tone" sound. It was all we could afford.

But I had my electric guitar and I started practicing to records soon as I figured out the three basic rock and blues chords. Not too long ago I saw a vintage Les Paul Jr. just like the one I had, for sale: $3100.

In those days in St. Louis most real blues joints were over in East St. Louis, or way down Delmar Boulevard inside the St. Louis city limits, and nobody went to those places until a few years later when you could first make yourself a lot smarter and braver after getting some old dude to buy you a couple of six packs of Falstaff beer.

But Sunset, in South St. Louis, was an anomaly. Primarily a municipal swimming pool, they had an adjacent clubhouse, no booze, and kids from all over used to go there for the bands. I can remember pressing in on a chain link fence to hear Ike and Tina playing outside one night when I was about 13 years old.

Sunset imported fabulous bands from the east side, bands with horn sections that played rockin' bar blues to driving shuffle kicks. Benny Sharpe was one of the best. From the east side, hair pomaded, slick and cool. I'm sure half his band had done time. His sax player would always have a lit cigarette stuck in one of his horn's keys while he played, and Benny stuck his filter first on the sharp end of a string from the head of his Fender Strat, one just like Ike Turner's. He'd get a raw, piercing sound that drove the whole band, and when he played he just stood there, and the notes would come up from his soul and out through his amp and right down into my gonads. "Take it or leave it - but I know you can't just stand there," he seemed to say. And he was right. It was primal.

One time Benny Sharpe steered his boat-long, tail-finned red Cadillac into MidWest Laundry, just inside the St. Louis city limits, where I worked Saturdays during high school; we had curb service and he was picking up some dry cleaning. He didn't even park in a space, just pulls up long ways, defying anybody to suggest otherwise, and hands me his ticket. Cool. His processed hair shined like neon lights on a beer glass, and there's a gorgeous blonde white woman wedged up next to him in the front seat.

I went and got his cleaned-and-pressed sharkskin suit for him. Three-dollar tip for a $2.75 cleaning bill. He was probably on his way over to a gig at Sam Spaulding's Wonder Bar, on the east side.

This was the blues for sure.

But Ike Turner was the one for us back then; we bought Fender guitars like he played, and Fender P Bass guitars like his bass player. And we learned his music, not just the hits he had, but the songs he played even before Tina, tunes like St. Louisan Billy Gayle's "Tore Up," "Rocket 88," and "Prancin'," a cut on the B-side of Ike's first album, "Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm," an all-instrumental album that has Ike and Tina's photo on the cover even though Tina didn't sing on Ike's records until later. She was strictly doing club gigs with him then.

Lot of historians say "Rocket 88," written by Ike Turner, was the very first example of rock and roll. He plays piano on it, not guitar.

"Prancin'" was formative: the sound Turner gets on his Strat is unique for its day, more common today. Clear, prominent, assertive, with enough bottom on it to round it out, the pick-up switch jammed between the top and middle positions to give it a kind of a reverb bite. (Today Fender manufactures their Strats with five pick-up positions, to allow for this; back then you had to know how to rig it). When the horns take over in "Prancin'," Ike starts raking his strings with his pick, easing his left hand off the strings just a bit, for more of a pop scratch, so he drives the whole thing like a drummer. Meanwhile he's got his bass player playing the four and five notes on open strings on a Fender Precision electric bass when some guys are actually still playing old acoustic uprights.

Not bad for a guy whose main instrument was the piano. They were way out there, and they're from St. Louis. And so am I.

Something else was going on back then: The kids at my high school really loved Motown music, including me; I know it was popular a lot of places, but we absolutely loved it. Not just Marvin Gaye's "Pride and Joy," but "Can I get a Witness," too, a driving gospel roof raiser, and "Stubborn kind'a Fella;" not only Mary Wells' "My Guy," but "Bye Bye Baby," a screaming, throaty tent shaker.

If you listened to this stuff, you just had to dance to it, too; being a great dancer was a source of pride for guys and girls. American Bandstand was a great place to get ideas, and we did. In fact, the teenagers on Bandstand, kids from Philadelphia and fabulous dancers, even looked different than us. We were white bread white boys with Princeton haircuts. They were sharp fine dressers with slicked back ducktails. And the show was integrated.

When I was 15 I got my first big-time guitar (it wasn't until years later that I realized just how great my Les Paul Jr. was; it's just that back then having an electric guitar with only one pickup was like having a car with no radio) - a Gretsch, semi-hollow body, chrome flake Silver Jet, a 1957 beauty that I bought from a friend in 1962 for $200. Fabulous, with a Bigsby tremolo, and it went with me into my first band.

Early on in high school somebody introduces me to Lindell Hill, a rough, blue-collar type guy, a few years and many miles older than me, who had gained a bit of a reputation as St. Louis' "blue-eyed soul brother" for his ability to sing and play kick-ass R&B. Lindell was the real thing; he played a Strat and he played it without a pick, with his thumb and index finger and with a deep feeling for the music fueled by his countrified squint on life and not a little anger, usually aimed at his lusty wife, Choosy. There was a sense of danger in him; he'd been around, even though he was only in his mid-twenties, and he was between gigs.

We practiced together, him on lead and vocals, me on my Gretsch playing rhythm guitar and an even younger guy from school on drums. Sometimes we had a bass player, sometimes a guy on an electric Farfisa keyboard, but mostly it was just the three of us, and we played out for the next four years as "Little Caesar and The Blue Notes." With Hill's influence and teaching we learned tunes from Howlin' Wolf, Billy Gayle, Solomon Burke, Elmore James, Albert King. Barrett Strong's "Money." James Brown. Instrumentals like "Last Night," "Hold It," "Comin' Home," Green Onions." And of course, "Prancin'." We even played some Motown - our own way - and things like "Shake a Tail Feather" - not Tina's version - the real one, by the Five Dutones, who did it first. And much better. I think they were from St. Louis, too.

For a long time we got away with just the three of us. All my practicing at home, with records, pushed me into playing some kind of fuller sound, like I was trying to mimic the whole band or something. Flat wound strings, lots of bottom end from my amp, extra stokes on the 5th and 6th strings all had a way of filling in big around Lindell's lead, and our drummer had Turner's shuffle kick down cold.

I was never great, but I could hold my own, and we got pretty good.

We got great gigs back then. Fraternity parties, and St. Louis club dates, even though only Hill was old enough to legally be there. I finally got a great amplifier, a Fender Concert with four ten-inch Jansen speakers, and more than once we had to put not only my guitar through it, but also Lindell's, plus his mike! Insane. I even played bass through it. I've still got the amp.

My early high mark came the first Friday night we played at Wig Wam, my own high school's teen town, where girls I lusted after, cheerleaders I had unattainable crushes on, showed up along with everybody else and actually danced to our music! This was a long, long way from "Tom Dooley" on my ukulele.

We played one whole summer, four nights a week, down on the DeBaliviere strip inside the St. Louis city limits, next door to the Stardust Club at a place called Apartment A. The Stardust was a famous strip joint where Evelyn West and her "$50,000 Treasure Chest (Insured by Lloyd's of London)," the ads said) still performed, and every break she'd bring her assets - now worth maybe $50 - next door to our gig and play the pinball machine.

Another summer we played weekends up in Pagedale at a dump appropriately named The Dungeon. The owner would show up late every night and insist we play something Jimmy Reed. I've still got a fuzzy old black and white picture from that gig. White shirt, Princeton haircut, vanilla white everything, white bread suburban boy. But there I am with my Gretsch, and we're playing the real stuff.

And great gigs at Mizzou, where we played for the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity, the Sammies, most of whom came from University City and Ladue in St. Louis, so I knew them all - which made these gigs even better. They were the best dancers, and they threw outrageous parties. One night we arrived late at the infamous I Club in Columbia to play a Sammy party - late because I literally had to go knocking door-to-door to borrow an amplifier and finally convince some guy's wife that her husband sent me over to their house to pick it up for him. A complete lie.

But this was a gig, and this was the club where Ike Turner had played, and we had to have the right gear.

By the time we get there the place is going nuts, and they actually give us a standing ovation just for walking in! There's a genuine high-rise stage and we set up quick as we can, no warm up - just a tune up. They're already on their feet ready to dance and Lindell and me are still tuning our E strings. The sound from the very first note is unbelievably full, powerful, and there's only the three of us, no bass. Every person in the house is out on the dance floor from the first song, which was always an instrumental. The acoustics are phenomenal. We sound like a seven-piece band.

This was going to be the best night we ever had - except somebody calls and says the cops are on the way! The owner, an enormous man who's been around the block many times, with the face mileage to show it, knows he's got at least 172 underage drinkers in there, and he closes the whole thing down.

We played for all of maybe twenty minutes, but I can remember the fantastic sound we got to this day.

Ain't nothin' like the blues.

©Tim Arnold
New York