Saturday, December 12, 2009

Houston the Hit Machine years, part one: Hound Dog and the Bronze Peacock

posted by Free Press Houston @ 11:17 AM

By Alex Wukman

Fifty and sixty years ago, when places like Old Spanish Trail and the Heights were considered suburban, Houston wasn’t known as a bad place to play, or a city musicians had to get away from to get recognized. In the 1940s and 1950s, Houston was known as a hit factory. Houston’s history as a top 40 machine starts in 1945 when Don D. Robey moved here from L.A. Robey was born in Houston in 1903 and he spent much of his life growing up on the streets of the Fifth Ward. While other kids were chasing girls at Tuffly Park, Robey was learning the entrepreneurial skills that would serve him later in life.
Robey also learned his way around a deck of cards, so much so that he was able to survive as a professional gambler after he dropped out of high school. After getting married and fathering a kid, Robey decided to pursue more legitimate business interests. He started a taxi company and then started helping a local promoter bring touring black acts to Houston. Robey found out that, not only did he enjoy promoting, he was good at it. So he gravitated over to the entertainment industry and, like many small scale operators of the time, started promoting local dances. However, he knew that the secret of any good business is diversity, so Robey also promoted everything from boxing matches to golf tournaments. In the 1930s, he moved to Los Angeles where he ran a venue called Harlem Grill for three years.
As WWII was winding down Robey decided to return to the Bayou City and bring his passion for music with him.
In 1944, Robey began working on a concrete building a couple of blocks from the intersection of Lockwood and Liberty in his native Fifth Ward. The building, located at 2809 Erastus St., was surrounded by factories when Robey started setting up shop. After a year of work Robey opened the Bronze Peacock Dinner Club. Named after his light skin and dapper attire, the Peacock attracted the likes of Lionel Hampton, Ruth Brown and Aaron “T-Bone” Walker. The club was known for its gambling room as much as it was known for its dance floor, but a business hours robbery forced Robey to “upgrade his security,” which in 1946 meant installing one way mirrors, gun slits and hiring a personal security force.
The city’s black music scene was supported by locally owned radio stations KCOH and KYOK who broadcast local shows and talent competitions. In 1947, a local producer named Bill Quinn happened into a bar on Dowling Street where he discovered Lightnin Hopkins playing guitar. Quinn’s discovery brought independent labels from New York to L.A. down to scout for more hidden talents. The stampede of labels led to the signing of acts like Peppermint Harris, Little Willie Littlefield, Lester Williams and Big Walter Pierce. Robey undoubtedly heard about the interest that was developing in Houston’s blues community, which is why he paid attention when a young guitarist showed up at his club unannounced. One night in 1947, in the middle of one of his sets, T-Bone Walker left the stage at the Bronze Peacock complaining that his ulcer was acting up. It was just the shot that Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown was looking for. Brown had spent his last six dollars on a taxi ride to the club in hopes of catching the attention of Robey. When Walker walked off to find some antacid and lie down, Brown saw his chance. He jumped onstage, grabbed T-Bone’s guitar and joined the band. The crowd loved it and, more importantly, so did Robey. Robey signed Brown to a management contract.
A little while later Robey was able to parlay his music industry contracts and get Eddie Mesner, one of the owners of California based Aladdin Records, to fly down and hear the Brown at the Peacock. Mesner was, as the saying goes, blown away. He signed Brown to a recording contract and they recorded four singles, none of which succeeded in making the label enough money to justify keeping him on. Robey, like any good manager, blamed a lack of publicity for Brown’s failure to break. However, unlike most managers, Robey decided to start his own record label for his performer. Robey founded Peacock records in 1948 and released Brown’s first single “Didn’t Reach My Goal” with a B-side of “Atomic Energy” in 1949. Brown also released “Mary is Fine” backed with “My Time is Expensive” in 1949. It would be his first single, the only one he recorded for Peacock, to crack the billboard charts.
However, in 1952 Robey signed three other artists to his fledgling label “Ollie” Marie Adams, a Houston homemaker, along with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and “Little” Richard Penniman. Penniman quickly dropped his last name and simply became Little Richard. However, Little Richard claimed that his signing with Robey was far from voluntary.
“He jumped on me, knocked me down, and kicked me in the stomach. It gave me a hernia that was painful for years…He was known for beating people up. He would beat everybody up but Big Momma Thornton. He was scared of her,” said Little Richard in later interviews. It may have been the fear that Big Mama instilled in the six foot tall, 250 pound, pistol packing Robey that forced him to give her what turned out to be her biggest break, and Peacock’s biggest success. In 1952, Thornton recorded a song that would became a classic, “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog.” Released in March of 1953, Thornton’s version of the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller song spent seven weeks as number one on the Billboard R&B charts. However, it wasn’t until three years later, when a white boy from Tupelo, Mississippi recorded the song, that it went on to become an international phenomenon. Robey’s true success as a businessman was in his ability to spot niche markets. In the 1940s and 1950s that niche wasn’t just in R&B but also in gospel. While R&B was viewed by many people as low class, degrading and not respectable, gospel, on the other hand, was seen as something that was acceptable to people who would never go into a club that served alcohol or had dice games in the backroom. However, like R&B, the major labels of the time completely ignored gospel. This gave Robey and other independent operators the room to sign acts that would later go on to make millions for much bigger companies. One of the first gospel acts that Robey signed was called the Jackson Harmoneers from the Jackson, Mississippi area. The group, originally called the Cotton Blossom Singers, later changed their name to the Five Blind Boys from Mississippi and then even later to the Original Five Blind Boys. When the Harmoneers walked into Peacock’s studio for the first time they laid down the track “Our Father,” which was “The Lord’s Prayer” recorded over a beat with, what has been described as, “some soulful reflections” added in. Prior to the release of “Our Father”, gospel records avoided instruments, instead preferring to rely on four, or more often, five part harmonies. The record broke into the top 10 of the Billboard Gospel chart, and went on to become a gospel standard. Adding a beat had changed gospel music forever.
In later years, Robey stated that the Harmoneers’ “Our Father” and a song called “Peace in the Valley” by Red Fox on the Decca label were the first gospel songs to ever receive play on a jukebox, and it was the addition of a beat that did it. Robey stated that he “found that the public wanted something new in gospel” so he put in various different instruments, a guitar, trombone and drums.
“They did not take to the trombone, but they did take to the guitar and drumbeat, and it got to a point where, if you did not have a beat in a religious record, you didn’t have a sale,” said Robey.
Robey’s reinvention of Gospel music attracted attention, not just from the public but also from other performers. Within a few years Robey had over 100 artists on his payroll and was able to brag in a 1952 advertisement that he could sell 26,000 copies of a record before it was even released. While Robey was starting an empire on Houston’s East side, a “Crazy Cajun” from Louisiana and a former railroad accountant from Yoakum, Texas were building Houston a reputation amongst white recording artists.

To be continued next month…


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