Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Treat Her Right, "Just one of them songs that hangs around"

Roy Head and the Traits made some pretty square-headed moves in their day. They all attended High School. They hired an undertaker named Edra Pennington to pick out their suits. What’s more, before Edra agreed to manage them, she insisted on having the boys’ parents’ permission. To this demand the Traits consented. Then, once their second single “Live it Up” earned them an invitation to go on Bandstand, the Traits allowed Edra and their parents to nix the appearance on the grounds that they were too young.

Despite all of this, Roy Head & the Traits, unlike a lot of other American kids of the period, didn’t need the Rolling Stones to hep ‘em to Rhythm & Blues.

The Traits got their name when a San Marcos, TX, radio announcer mis-handled their handle, originally the Treys⎯“Trey,” of course, meaning three, and more specifically, in Texan, meaning the third generation of males with the same name, (eg., Senior, Junior, Trey). The re-naming turned out to be an auspicious accident, because while the Traits might have begun as a trio, with Roy Head singing, Tommy Bolton on guitar, and Gerry Gibson on drums, they soon filled out to become a six-piece, adding Dan Buie on piano, Bill Pennington on bass, and Clyde Causey on lead guitar.

Meanwhile Edra Pennington earned her keep, landing the Traits their first recording contract.“Live it Up,” and “One More Time,” a couple of rockabilly thumpers that each received regional airplay, were recorded for the Tanner ‘n’ Texas (TNT) label, of San Antonio, in 1959. By 1960, during that period when the Traits spent weekends criss-crossing Texas, playing dances⎯chaperoned no doubt by level-headed adults⎯the singer convinced the rest of the group to update their name yet again, this time to Roy Head and the Traits. The front-man had arrived. Around the same time, some of the original Traits quit the band, favoring their square futures with the Navy, or Sears Roebuck & Co. These members were replaced⎯one of the more influential of the new personnel being Gene Kurtz, bassist and co-writer of their 1965 chartbuster “Treat Her Right.”

The Traits had played “Treat Her Right” live for years before Kurtz joined the band. However, Kurtz had the bright idea of making the song about a woman, instead of a cow, and helped to arrange it into the bit of radio-ready trade it became.

From a 2007 interview by Austin Chronicle music writer Margaret Moser:

ROY HEAD: The song was a mistake. I wanted to do "Ooo Poo Pah Doo" by Jessie Hill, and the guitarist played the wrong riffs. So I made up a song about talking to a cow. "If you squeeze her real gentle, she'll give you some cream." It was risqué, but in a hillbilly way. The dance floor packed.

GENE KURTZ: I saw that little horn riff would fit at the end of the song. We didn't do it before that; it was my suggestion. Turned out it was a good lick. I was aware of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," and I liked their other songs, but it's much more likely I got it from the Ajax ["stronger than dirt"] commercial than the Kinks. Let's face it: Riffs on horns or anything are not copyrightable, and it got used again. There are only so many notes.

Eventually the Traits cut THR at Houston’s Gold Star Studios, at which point they were descended upon by DJ, promoter & producer Huey Meaux, aka the Crazy Cajun (who also produced records by the Sir Doug Quintet, Barbara Lynn, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, and the Hombres), and Don Robey, owner of Duke/Peacock/Backbeat Records, the “Black Ceasar” who had supposedly beaten Little Richard to within an inch of his life a decade earlier. Thanks to Robey’s connections, Roy Head sang “Treat Her Right” at a black DJ convention in Houston that year. Robey apparently didn't want Head to go onstage, didn't want the mostly black audience to discover that Head was white. But on he went, backed by Bobby Bland's band. "I felt like Charley Pride at Panther Hall," Head has said. Apparently he went over, and "Treat Her Right" first broke on a Houston R&B station. It would go on to hold the No. 2 spot Billboard’s Pop and R&B charts during the Fall of 1965, edged out of the top spot only by the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”

Again, from Margaret Moser’s interview:

ROY HEAD: The real key to that song was that it had that push and pull that every little garage band in the world could play. You didn't have to rehearse it for days. All you had to do was hit close to the tempo and melody, and people love it. It's been recorded by Otis Redding and Mae West! Just one of them songs that hangs around. "Treat Her Right." That'll be on my tombstone.

Roy Head & the Traits’ follow-up to “Treat Her Right” was “Apple of My Eye,” a sort of stepped-up, white-boy soul hybrid of Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry, a highlight of which is Kurtz’ crazy bass guitar on the break. Another great RH & the Traits number is their version of Jimmy McCracklin’s “Get Back,” on the Scepter label. And finally, a psychedelicized Roy Head, fronting Johnny Winters’ Great Believers (was Keith Ferguson in this band?) “Easy Lovin Girl” from the Voxx comp “Acid Visions.”

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Johnny Paycheck, The Real Mr. Heartache

About the actor Charles Bronson, someone once asked “was he a good-looking ugly man, or just an ugly good-looking man?” Similarly, about Johnny Paycheck, one might ask was he a bum who sang great country, or just a country star who sang about bums? Mere mortals may never know. One thing is known, his relationship with Aubrey Mayhew and the Little Darlin’ label, for whom Paycheck cut his finest sides, was built on desperation and risk.

Born Donald Eugene Lytle, in Greenfield, OH, in 1938, the son of a laborer, Paycheck came up hard. By age six he got his first guitar. By 16 he dropped out of school. Then he drifted. He played his guitar. He joined the Navy, then he landed in the brig for punching out his commanding officer. Once released from the pokey, in 1958, the young hot-head landed in Nashville at a time when C&W was splitting in two directions: one being the countrypolitan schmaltz of Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, a sound de-twanged and de-balled for crossover appeal, the other being the revised honky-tonk of the Ray Price beat. Donny Young, as Paycheck called himself then, got swept away by the latter current. He bounced around town, wrote songs, cut a couple of go-nowhere singles for Decca, and hired out as sideman for Price, Porter Waggoner, and George Jones, the Possum bringing considerable influence to bear on Paycheck’s subsequent career.

During that period in the early 60s when Paycheck played bass and sang harmony for him, George Jones began a gradual shift away from his earlier Hank Williams/Roy Acuff vocal stylings, developing a more mature voice, a voice likened by Nick Tosches, in his great profile on Jones, to a steel guitar for its nuances and subtle slurs. Just who came up with the style, Paycheck or the Possum, depends on who you ask, but a few examples of their work together are “Love Bug,” “I’d Rather Switch than Fight,” and “Feeling Single, Seeing Double,” all written by Wayne “Beer Thirty” Kemp, who also apparently didn’t smoke Tareyton cigarettes.

Whenever Paycheck wasn’t on the road, he’d often land in Las Vegas, gigging at Wynn Stewart’s club the Nashville Nevada. Here he soaked up the Bakersfield sound and struck up a friendship with brother hobo honky-tonker Merle Haggard, who, in the early 60s played bass in Stewart’s band.

You get the idea that Donny Young could almost grab all the necessary elements⎯the voice, the songs, the production, the catchy name⎯on his own. But somehow they remained out of his reach until Aubrey Mayhew entered the scene. Mayhew, a former Nashville producer with plenty of experience dealing with “egotistical, illiterate" hillbillies "who should have been picking cotton instead of earning more money a week than he ever thought existed.” By 1962 Mayhew held a comfortable exec position at Pickwick Records in NY. That is, until he heard Johnny Paycheck.

The story goes that former manager for Marty Robbins turned down-and-outer Eddie Crandall cornered Mayhew at the 1962 Nashville DJ convention (an annual, much wilder, sort of hillbilly predecessor to SXSW?). Desperate for money, Crandall insisted that Mayhew hear, and purchase, a 10-song demo by a mysterious unknown talent, the “best you ever heard.” Mayhew was used to dodging such requests, but the “dirty, half-drunk, overbearing and desperate” Crandall persisted. Luckily for him, the long-shot came in that night. After one listen, Mayhew didn’t simply buy the tape, but instead paid Crandall to take him to the unknown singer. Crandall reluctantly consented. They caught a cab to the Main Street Bridge, beneath which Crandall led Mayhew, in the dark, to find his new star sleeping there, passed out drunk, beneath a pile of newspapers. Or, like I say, so the story goes.

It was Aubrey Mayhew who re-named Donny Young Johnny Paycheck, stealing the handle from a failed prizefighter. Together they fused that Ray Price shuffle with elements of Bakersfield and their own sheer weirdness to come up with just about the hardest of hard honky-tonk sounds of the 60s. Their loose formula consisted of Lloyd Green’s blazing steel guitar, loud production, and lyrical content that skirted the outer limits of acceptability (“He’s in a hurry to get home to my wife”… “Pardon me, I’ve got someone to kill”… ). Regarding the production, Mayhew explained, “What gets that sound is a combination of three things: highs, natural echo, and distortion.”

Paycheck’s first single to break was his take on the Hank Cochran song “A-11.” Here Paycheck is backed by the Jones Boys, on loan from a reluctant Possum, who agreed to the favor only after Mayhew met his request for a party, thrown in Jones’ honor, complete with hired female companions. Apparently Mayhew arranged to hire one call girl, then persuaded his secretary to likewise attend the party with several of her girlfriends, to, you know, complete the team. Apparently just which one of them was the sportin’ gal, the Possum had to surmise on his own.

Eventually Mayhew broke his own rule against managing and producing anymore egotistical, illiterate hillbillies. In 1966 he threw his comfortable exec position to the wind, and dropped all his savings into the creation of Little Darlin’ Records, with Johnny Paycheck as its featured artist. He put all his chips on that bum under the Main Street Bridge. From 1966 until 1969, Paycheck released a slew of singles, and three LPs, The Lovin’ Machine, Jukebox Charlie, and Johnny Paycheck at Carnegie Hall. Here’s the title track from “Jukebox Charlie,” plus another single from that record, Bobby Bare’s “Motel Time Again.” And to demonstrate the weirdness factor, here’s the post-apocalyptic nightmare “The Cave.”

Mayhew might have held some control over Paycheck in the studio, but he had little say about what the restless singer did on his own time. Together with “ole buddy” Eddie Crandall (who, by the way, penned a couple of Paycheck’s steppinest numbers: “Don’t You Get Lonesome” and “Don’t Start Countin’ On Me”), Paycheck continued to wander out west, continued to fight and gamble and ponder the bubbles in his beer. Such research eventually led Paycheck to the gutters of skid row LA, and culminated in his last single for Little Darlin’, “If I’m Gonna Sink (Might as Well Go to the Bottom)”. Yes sir, sometimes they go out looking about like they did comin’ in. By decade’s end, Mayhew and Paycheck had their final falling out, and Mayhew folded Little Darlin'.

Most this stuff is still available on CD. Pick up a copy of the Country Music Foundation collection The Real Mr. Heartache and Koch Records’ The Little Darlin’ Sound of Johnny Paycheck. Mayhew wrote liner notes for that last one, from which I plucked his quotes. Koch also released a collection by “Groovy” Joe Poovey, who wrote several of those songs Paycheck gave the royal treatment.