Sunday, November 15, 2009
Roy Hall & Amos Milburn
The paths of Roy Hall & Amos Milburn may never have crossed in any notable way, except in the annals of Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Nick Tosches, which features excellent profiles on them both. Still, here at Gemini Spacecraft, the Cohutta Mountain Boy and the slick Chicken-Shacker have come to resemble two hands on the same boogie piano.
Both Hall and Milburn cut their earliest sides in the late 40s, back in the days of the 78 single. Both knew the blurry, bleary wonders of the after-hours joint. While Milburn had a string of hits, most notably 1948’s “Chicken Shack Boogie” (Aladdin 3014), none of Hall’s own great records would ever hit, although his most famous song “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On” (Decca 29697) obviously blew the world wide open for Jerry Lee Lewis in 1957.
Like the booze he loved and sang so well about, Milburn’s genius was concentrated, in this case, in the decade spanning 1946 to roughly 1956. During this period, while recording for Aladdin, he cut the aforementioned “Chicken Shack Boogie,” plus the dirty dittie “Walking Blues,” also “Let’s Rock Awhile,” “Good Good Whiskey,” its remorseful inverse “Bad Bad Whiskey,” also “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer,” “My Happiness Depends on You,” and my personal favorite, his version of Don Raye’s “Down the Road Apiece.” Both Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones did their own great versions of "Down the Road a Piece." But where those acts each rocked it as a full combo, Milburn, accompanied only by a snare drum, pumps that piano boogie until it sounds like an entire, crazy band. Not long after, Aladdin Records folded. Milburn migrated over to the King label, and, in the early 60s cut a couple of duets with Charles Brown. Eventually the hard drinkin’ caught up with him, and after several strokes, Amos Milburn died in Houston in 1980.
Put a lascivious, drunk hillbilly behind what is essentially the same twelve-bar boogie, then hit the drums a little harder and crank up the gee-tar, and you get Roy Hall. His first band, Roy Hall and the Cohutta Moutain Boys, were among the earliest on the legendary Fortune label, who in 1949 released “Dirty Boogie” (Fortune 126) and five other sides. After that, Hall returned to Nashville where he ran an after-hours joint called the Music Box, cut a few sides for the Bullet label, “Mule Boogie,” (Bullet 704) from 1950, among them, and played piano for Webb Pierce. Webb helped Roy get a deal with Decca Records, where Hall’s music moved a few steps away its earlier hillbilly blues stylings toward something much closer to rockabilly in songs like “Diggin’ the Boogie,” “Three Alley Cats,” “See You Later Alligator,” and “Don’t Stop Now.” Despite a lack of hits, and music biz rip-offs, Hall kept rockin’, seeming to get raunchier with each new record. By the late 50s he’d returned to Fortune, recording for their subsidiary, the Hi-Q label. Here he re-worked a couple of earlier gems like “Dig, Everybody, Dig That Boogie” and “Three Alley Cats,” while also releasing the great “Bedspring Motel.” Then, in 1960, for his former boss Webb Pierce’s short-lived Pierce label, under the name “The Hound,” Hall made one of the dirtiest records you’ll ever hear, “Flood of Love,” b-side to the great “One Monkey Can’t Stop the Show.”
Both men quit drinking in the last years of their lives, and while those strokes left Milburn an invalid, unable to stomp out that piano boogie thanks to the loss of a leg, Hall kept rockin’ into geezer-hood, until his card got punched in 1984.