Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hollywood Suicide #3: Al Mulock

Al Mulock, probably the ugliest so far of our “Hollywood Suicides.” As a fixture in Spaghetti Westerns, he might seem an unlikely fit for the series. But Mulock rates as a Hollywood ghost by virtue of his brief appearance in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, if nothing else. That ugly mug burned itself onto celluoid most famously, however, as the blabber-mouthed, one-armed bounty hunter in Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly).

The clip above comes from Italian Youtube (if you haven't already figured that out). Translated, Tuco's (Eli Wallach) last words to the stiff run something like "When you're gonna shoot, shoot. Don't talk." Without that scene, and Mulock's final contribution to backlot lore, the Canadian-born bit player would no doubt be lost to oblivion by now.

Mickey Knox, screenwriter for Once Upon a Time in the West, witnessed Mulock’s 1968 suicide in Gidaux, Spain, during production of that film. From Knox’s book The Good, The Bad, & the Dolce Vita (Nation Books):

“The film had a large crew and our base was in Gidaux, a small, hot, dusty village that had minimal accomodations. Most of us were staying in a three-story building that passed as an 'accomodation.' We had returned from a location shoot, some distance from the village, and I happened to glance out the window to see what looked like a body shooting by⎯it was a body, and it belonged to an actor who appeared only in the opening sequence of the movie.

He was still wearing his western costume and Leone, upon hearing of the suicide, told the production manager, 'get the man’s costume before they take him away.' The actor hadn’t completed his role and they needed someone to fill in, but that would be no problem if they had the dead man’s costume. Anyone about the same height and shape would do.

Actually, the man was not quite dead, but Leone didn’t ask if he was still alive. He was only concerned for the next day’s shooting. What actually killed the actor was the ride in a production car over a bumpy road to a distant hospital. He should never have been moved. A broken rib pierced his lung during the drive. We later learned that the actor was a drug addict and couldn’t get a fix in Gidaux. Desperate, he went up to the roof and took a dive.”

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Rufus Thomas: Ain't I'm Clean?

Rufus Thomas was born on this date in 1917. Gemini Spacecraft would like to to honor the man who scored early hits for Sun and Stax Records, and always got the drop on the freshest dance steps, by declaring his birthday “World’s Oldest Teenager Day.” Just how one might go about observing “World’s Oldest Teenager Day,” who knows? Maybe when you're waiting at the bus stop remember to break it to the left, then break it to the right, or several times today ask your boss “Ain’t I’m clean?!?”

A worthy holiday, don't you think? Speaking only for myself, having been born the year that “Walking the Dog” was released, I’m definitely no longer fresh chicken (would that then make me “Funky Chicken”?). And yet, this fixation on greasy kid stuff persists despite the hair loss, wrinkles, root canals, etc.

A little background on Rufus Thomas: Originally a tap-dancer, he started out in the 30s playing the tent show circuit with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Then through his association with Professor Nat D. Williams, his history teacher at Memphis’ Booker T. Washington High School, and also the first black DJ in the South, Thomas landed a spot as emcee for the Palace Theatre weekly amateur show. Here, in the late 40’s, both B.B. King and Bobby Bland would launch their careers. At the Palace, Thomas extended his old tent show training by developing an act that included comedy, singing and dance numbers, essentially the same act he would continue to do throughout his career as performer and WDIA broadcaster.

About Sam Phillips & Sun Records, for whom he cut “Bearcat” in 1953, the label's first single to chart, Rufus Thomas had this to say: “Me and Sam Phillips? We were tighter than the nuts on the Brooklyn Bridge⎯then. Of course he was like all the folk at that time. You know how if blacks had something and didn’t have no way to exploit it and white dudes would pick it up and do something about it, they’d just beat him out of all of it, that’s all. Well that was him, that was Sam Phillips.”*

Rufus Thomas died in 2001, age 84. Who knows who receives royalties on his record sales at this point? I do know that Sundazed reissued the “Walking the Dog” LP, without which no record collection is complete. So I won’t post it here.

*Rufus Thomas quote from Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway, Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, Back Bay Books, 1999.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Twine Time: The Deliverance Was Good

So maybe Alvin Cash was not the Hardest Workin’ Man in Show Business. In fact, maybe “Twine Time” could go down as one of the easiest paydays in soul music. Any way you slice it⎯vocal performance or novelty dance number⎯Alvin Cash & the Crawlers got a lot of help on this one. Kids invented the dance that inspired the song, and Andre Williams wrote the song and produced the record. But delivery, baby! That's what Alvin Cash & the Crawlers gave it.

You probably already know the part about how Alvin Cash attended the same St. Louis high school as Tina Turner. In St. Louis, Alvin and his younger brothers also garnered modest notoriety as the dance team the Step Brothers. Seeking greater fortune, and maybe a record deal, the brothers took their act up the road apiece, to Chicago, in the early 1960s.

Around the same time, Andre Williams had entered his post-Fortune Records phase, and was busy forging a career as writer/producer/A&R man. During those frequent periods when he was on the outs with Barry Gordy, Andre moonlighted at George Leaner’s Mar-V-Lus records. Andre caught Alvin Cash & the Registers’ club act one night in 1964 and invited them to lay down some vocals on a new song he’d written with Verilie Rice, “Twine Time,” a song aimed at milking some chart action from yet another Chicago teen dance craze.

Apparently the A&R man’s work takes him far afield, ‘coz up-and-coming talent wasn’t all that Andre scoped in those days. From Robert Pruter’s informative book Chicago Soul (University of Illinois Press, 1992): “The Twine was one of those dances that emerged from the black high school kids before it was put on record. Months before the record was released kids around Thirty-fifth to Thirty-ninth Streets were doing the dance to the Miracles’ ‘That’s What Love is Made Of.' Most of the kids in that area attended Dunbar High, and it was at one of the school’s dances that one of Leaner’s producers, Andre Williams, discovered the dance.”

Kinda makes you wonder how, on these scouting missions, Mr. Rhythm managed to slip past the school chaperones. Did he use a disguise?

Anyway, back to “Twine Time.” It’s generally considered to be a more up-tempo rewrite of Andre’s 1957 R&B hit “Bacon Fat.” In the early weeks of 1965, “Twine Time” b/w “The Bump” climbed as far up as the no. 14 position on the Billboard pop charts, and hung as high as the no. 4 position on the R&B charts. That chart action helped Alvin Cash & the Crawlers land appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand, despite the record being banned by NY stations for its suggestive, rhythmic "ooh" and "ah" background vocals.

During that period Chuck Berry was touring Britain. Melody Maker nabbed him for their “Blind Date” feature, February 13, 1965. “Twine Time” was among the stack of new singles selected for him to identify and rate. Chuck had this to say: “Wine time? Oh, Twine time⎯hmm. Top 40. It sounds very Americanish, yeah definitely American. As a matter of fact I could almost name the part of the country it comes from (laughs)…The deliverance was good but it was just one of those songs…You could dance to it but there was nothing significant there.”

**Chuck Berry caricature by Melody Maker illustrator Jimmy Thomsen.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Lookout Mars! You're Our Next Stop

Got a random twin-pack of B-sides today, far-out rockers with an outer space theme. Don’t confuse these with your more general paeans to teenie-weenie and little green men. These two got a more specific destination in their sights, namely Mars. First up is “Rocket” by Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones, the flip for the single “Penny Loafers and Bobby Socks.” Penny Loafers ain’t too shabby a side either, but my copy rates a lowly VG. Besides, it’s not a very hard record to find, so, fuggit, I’ll post only the B-side.

This was s’posed to be the ‘tones big follow-up to “Black Slacks,” alas, their one and only hit, released earlier that year, 1957. That earlier song featured backing vocals by label-mate and future sun-tanned midget Paul Anka. But don’t hold that against ‘em. As the title would suggest “Black Slacks” elaborated on sartorial themes, rather than outer space travel. Some say it finished the sentence that “Blue Suede Shoes” started about a year and a half earlier. Anyway, about “Penny Loafers” and “Rocket” the November 11, 1957 issue of Billboard had this to say: “’Black Slacks’ is still going strong and the similar styled version of ‘Penny Loafers’ could click in all fields. Fine guitar work helps sell the side. Flip ‘Rocket’ is a rockabilly novelty that can also go well.” Novelty? By now they all sound like novelty numbers, wouldn't you agree? That fine guitar work was provided by Joe Bennett and young Sparky Childress swapping licks. (See them at work in the clip below.) Too bad for them “Penny Loafers” failed to chart. In fact all their subsequent records failed to chart. These chart duds make up the Sparkletones’ best sides. They include “Rocket” and “Cotton Pickin’ Rocker.” ABC Paramount dropped the group by 1959.

Next up is Horace Heller’s “Ed’s Place” b/w “Hello World.” Info on Horace Heller is hard to come by. All I know is that he released these sides in January of 1959, on Dollie Records, of Nashville, TN, the label founded and owned by one-time Grand Ole Opry manager and music publisher Jim Denny. Dollie’s stable of odd-balls also included Johnny Wiggins (Ernest Tubb’s “Singing Bus Driver”) and rockabilly Curtis Gordan.

“Hello World” features a hep hillbilly rap, delivered by “the first cat on Mars.” Exactly how he got there or what’s his brand of rocket fuel remains unclear, tho he does confide this much: “I don’t know how I got here/ I had a hit and drag/ with a miss on a jag/and here I am.” While space travel can be a gas, this number reminds the listener that the come-down’s a bitch; looking back toward Earth, Heller finally admits “Like man, I want to get down!”

The A-side, “Ed’s Place,” another novelty narration set to a swanky lounge groove, is mainly a murder ballad, complete with foley effects, about the dangers of shooting your honey’s other man with a high caliber gun. Altho it departs from the outer space theme, I include it ‘coz it’s so weird. Both sides have been reissued. “Ed’s Place” pops up on Crypt’s “Godless America” comp, while “Hello World” is included on the comp “Rock’n’Roll the Untold Story, vol. 6.”