Sunday, November 21, 2010

Roy Hawkins May Be Gone But The Thrill Lingers On

Roy Hawkins’ name is not one that may be familiar to many who call themselves blues enthusiasts, but this Texas born, West Coast blues singer and piano man had some records on the R&B charts and one of his recordings has become a blues standard when redone by B.B. King. Like Charles Brown, Little Willie Littlefield, Pee Wee Crayton, and others he was among those who traveled to California from Texas and the Southwest and played music and made records. Despite waxing the original recording of The Thrill Is Gone, as Tony Rounce observes in the liner notes to the English Ace CD reissue, Bad Luck Is Falling, an obscure figure and even when B.B. King had a major hit with Hawkins’ song, nothing was found out about him. Still as Rounce says, he “was one of the last unsung heroes of the post-world War II West Coast blues.”

We know that in 1948 he was in Richmond, California in the San Francisco Bay area where he led a combo that played in clubs that included a fine guitarist named Ulysses James. They came to the attention of Bob Geddins who recorded them for his Cava-town and Down Town labels. At some point the Bihari Brothers acquired his contract and four of the sides Geddins issued on Down Town. Rounce speculates that they have seen him as a replacement for Charles Brown who had jumped to Aladdin Records.

In any event, Modern issued the four Down Town sides which were pressed from acetates made from 78s and not from the actual the acetate masters. While the sound is not optimal, the music was excellent. Strange Land, was a doomy Bay Area blues that Johnny Fuller also recorded for Geddins. Hawkins displays his ability as a singer on Strange Land, while the instrumentals issued at this session showcase guitarist James. There was a session in 1949 that produced a terrific blues Sleepless Nights, and a tough instrumental Royal Hawk.

But after this session, Hawkins was in a car crash that resulted in a paralysis that affected his ability to play piano. While he was convalescing, Geddins wrote Why Do Things Happen To Me 
for him, which Hawkins poignantly sang. It was his biggest hit, reaching #3 on the charts and staying there for almost 5 full months. It is not included on this reissue, but is on the earlier Ace Roy Hawkins reissue, The Thrill is Gone. There are takes from this session that was led by tenor saxophonist Buddy Floyd and included guitarist Chuck Norris with Williard McDaniel on piano. Included on Bad Luck Is Falling is a charming (to quote Rounce) rendition of a non-blues, the standard many know from Jimmy Durante and Frank Sinatra, September Song. An alternate take of the previously reissued Wine Drinkin’ Woman, is also included.

In April 1951, the tenor saxophonist Maxwell Davis replaced Floyd as senior A&R for Modern, a position he would hold for many years. I remember Joe Bihari being interviewed at the Ponderosa Stomp conference referring to Davis as a genius and Clifford Solomon recalled working on sessions that Maxwell Davis ran over decade later. At this first session, The Thrill is Gone was recorded. The issued take (take 4) was reissued on the earlier CD. Reissued here is take 2 which initially was the preferred take, and to these ears is as good as the issued version. This is a classic West Coast piano blues with Hawkins’ strong, moody vocal that has a terrific sax solo from Maxwell Davis.

The Thrill is Gone charted and while not on the charts as long as Why Do Things Happen To Me, it continued to sell for a long time which led to a sequel, The Thrill Hunt, that was one of four sides recoded at his next session which included the instantly recognizable guitar of T-Bone Walker. These sides were recorded right after a Walker session and include the jumping Highway 59 and the moody Doin’ All Right, that wonderfully feature superb backing and strong singing. Then there is a strong Maxwell Davis solo with Walker’s single note runs and chords under the searing sax playing. One problem here was that the original tapes were lost, so they mastered from 45s to which some echo was applied. Still the performance is superb and thee cho is a minor issue. Sound issues also mar the coupling of Bad Luck is Falling, and The Condition I’m In, which is unfortunate as they are real good performances.

One other session at the time produced an attempt to crack the emerging rock and roll market. He would do one session for Don Barkdale’s Rhythm label in 1958 and then a swan song for the Biharis again on their Kent label. This 1960-1961 session produced four sides, the most notable was a terrific new version of Strange Land with some blistering playing from an uncredited guitarist.

I definitely agree with the characterization of Hawkins as an unsung master of post-World War II, West Coast blues. Anyone who loves the rocking work of Little Willie Littlefield, Amos Milburn and Floyd Dixon, will enjoy Hawkins. The earlier reissue, The Thrill is Gone, is the essential Roy Hawkins reissue. While some of the music may be (relatively) substandard, most of what is on 
Bad Luck Is Falling is exceptional. I believe this is still in print, and shows this is available and it may be available from amazon or from third-party sellers at amazon.

This blog entry is about CDs I purchased.

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