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“My ‘scratchin’’ style came about because I sat down one day, I didn’t know what to play. It really came from ‘Kansas City’, that ‘chicka-chick-chick’. The guy who recorded me said ‘I don’t want that!’… I said ‘I’m gonna play what I want to play, if you don’t like it, forget about it. I got a name for scratchin!’”
That was how Wild Jimmy Spruill (June 9th, 1934 – February 15th, 1996) described his playing style to researcher John Broven, in 1986. He went on to explain it as “…up and down strokes, but I knew how to choke the strings… you had to choke all the way down the neck to get that scratchin’ sound. Then I bent the notes, eight notes above from where I started… you know, ‘Eeeeooowwww’ back down. It’s hard if you don’t know how to do it, but to me it come natural. It was my own sound. I don’t go behind nobody… if I can’t be my own person, I don’t bother with it!”
Virtually everything we know about Jimmy Spruill is based on two interviews he gave fairly late in life – in Juke Blues (Autumn 1986, John Broven with Paul Harris & Richard Tapp) and Living Blues (May/June 1994, Margey Peters) – plus his many and various entries/namechecks in Vols 1 & 2 of Blues Records (1987 and 1994, respectively). In the following liner notes, all quotes are taken from these interviews (NB: in a couple of instances, extracts from separate quotes have been dovetailed together to facilitate continuity).
In broad brush stroke terms, Spruill’s interviews serve to confirm that he arrived in New York in 1955, where – between the mid 50s and mid 70s – he carved out an unlikely career as a well-respected and consistently busy session guitarist (in all, he reckoned that he played in excess of three thousand sessions). Unlikely, only because he insisted that he’d had no real experience prior to playing his first session – and yet he clearly possessed a signature style which marked him out as rather different to his contemporaries. However, as was the case with so many session musicians of the era he paid scant attention to detail, and he never kept copies of any of the records on which he featured – even his own, solo releases. Consequently, although he was almost unfeasibly prolific – notably for Bobby and Danny Robinson’s group of labels, including Fire, Fury, Enjoy, Everlast and Vim (all of which were run from Bobby’s “House Of Hits” record store in Harlem) – there are massive gaps in Spruill’s known ‘Discography’.
In general, all he could remember with conviction were the hits, and whilst he readily recalled an impressive list of artists with whom he’d recorded, he was often unsure precisely which of their other releases he’d played on. Indeed, in some cases, he would be booked to overdub guitar onto a half-finished backing track and never actually met the artist – as he recalled: “Sometimes you go in, and they don’t even tell you the name of the artist. I have to hear the record, then I know… if I could hear the record, I could tell you exactly what I did. They (i.e. many of the other tracks) were done on the same sessions… I remember the ones that were selling, but if it wasn’t selling, I don’t remember…” Elsewhere, on a myriad other sessions, he was working with artists he’d never heard of. Moreover, he was active at a time when accurately written session personnel details simply didn’t exist, which sadly means that the full extent of Spruill’s legacy will almost certainly now never be known.
This compilation attempts to present as comprehensive an overview of Jimmy’s early career as is possible, within the confines of what we do know. No.1s are juxtaposed comfortably alongside relatively obscure collectors’ items, and his percussive, rhythmic, scratchy style runs rampant throughout. And whilst it may be incomplete, this remains a truly formidable body of work, and will hopefully go some way towards providing a renewed focus on an oft overlooked, and largely forgotten, early guitar hero.
Spruill came from traditionally humble beginnings, as he recalled: “I was born in the country, in North Carolina… June 9, 1934. My parents were James Spruill and Georgia Anna Spruill. He was a sharecropper, growing corn and stuff like that, watermelons, cotton. The land was so small, he shared… then we moved into town for a while, Washington. I had a happy childhood… we were poor but sometimes we ate cornbread, syrup and lard, all mixed together, fried – they called it home-cooked bread. It was hard times, man!”
Some sources suggest that his unusual surname (NB: John Broven confirms that Jimmy himself pronounced it “Spu-ril”) came via a German slavemaster, a century or so earlier, and may have been derived from ‘Spurill’. However, the name Spruill itself can be traced back to Scotland, in the Middle Ages, and was introduced into America in the 17th Century, when an eminent Scottish physician, Dr Godfrey Spruill, emigrated to Virginia before settling in Tyrrell County, North Carolina. In due course, his son, Joseph, would become Tyrrell County’s mayor, magistrate and chief of militia; this being the case, it seems a reasonable bet that Wild Jimmy’s own family tree may just have brushed shoulders with that of the pioneering Dr Godfrey.
But to continue Spruill’s narrative: “I went up to about Grade 8 at school, but we kept moving all the time. We moved from North Carolina to Norfolk, Virginia, to Maryland. We were so poor we didn’t stay in one place for long. My father got hurt in a cotton gin… he couldn’t work no more… my mama had to take care of everything.”
“Where I got my music, was from the movies – Roy Rogers, Gene Autry. That’s where I got started… I play Country & Western, also a little bit of Jazz, Calypso – anything but Classics. I never liked The Blues too much… I liked Country & Western. I was about twelve years old when I started to take an interest in the guitar… I made my first guitar out of a cigar box and a rubber band. It was never in tune, but I made it! I made the guitar because I never had any money… I could get a kinda sound out of that, never could tune it, but I’d tighten it up as well as I could. The first proper guitar I had was a Harmony with a big hollow body… an old fellow gave it to me. Nobody taught me… like I said, I liked Gene Autry and Roy Rogers… I just liked the sound of string music. A little Stella was the first guitar I bought… Old Stella, they call it. I got that and I came to New York, and that’s where it all began…”
Had he played much before he came to New York?: “No, no… picking cotton. That’s right, picking cotton and tobacco – a farm boy. Then I started working on my mama’s clocks, and fixing everything around the house. One thing maybe caused me to do that was my nerves killing me… I had that, then I started makin’ things… I love to do things with my hands, and also with my mind, ’cause you can’t do nothing with your hands, less you have a good mind to do it.
“People started to say, ‘Oh, he’s different.’ And they were right, I was different… I could learn things other people couldn’t learn, quickly. So I always stayed by myself most of the time… I didn’t have time to play around. I would do a lot of them ‘odds’n’ends’ jobs… dig a ditch, if someone wanted me to dig a ditch, or plaster a ceiling, or anything like that. I never had a job… I make my own work… do all my own thing…”
However, he went on to add that he’d also: “…played house parties, night fish fries, outdoor things for people around their pools…a lot of things like that…”
As to how he’d learned to play the guitar: “I had a guitar about three weeks, right?… then I started dreaming about it at night… like I could see the front of it and something was showing me where to put my fingers and how to hit certain notes. Next day I got up and started playing. That’s funny, you know – so it’s a gift! I didn’t have nobody to teach me… I just started playing. So the teacher I had, I don’t know where it came from… but it showed me a picture, in my mind.”
He arrived in New York in June 1955: “…I was about twenty-one, I just wanted to play music. When I first came to New York I hauled garbage, cleaned up the hallways… then I started my things, like the sofa we’re sittin’ on, furniture for the house.” Piecing his story together, Jimmy was probably in New York the best part of a year before getting his musical career under way, during which period he further developed his carpentry and home improvement skills, in addition to doing casual manual work.
It seems he got the opportunity of playing sessions largely by luck: “I lived on 160th Street with my brother, Charlie, and a lady saw me playing guitar on the stoop. She knew they (i.e. the record company) needed a guitar player on recordings, and she knew I could play, so she introduced me to Danny Robinson. I didn’t have to audition for Danny, it was a word-of-mouth thing… he wanted a Blues player, and I was a Blues player at the time. He asked me to make two or three record sessions… I can’t remember the sessions… it wasn’t that exciting to me… I was thinking ahead. Then I met this guy Charles Walker…”
Indeed, on one of his earliest sessions Spruill recorded ‘Drivin’ Home’ for Danny Robinson’s Holiday label, a powerful instrumental which carried a label credit to Charles Walker’s Band, Guitar – James Spruill (NB: the topside, ‘Part 1’, was essentially a vehicle for Maurice Simon’s tenor sax, although Jimmy can be heard to good effect on ‘Part 2’). Walker, a Bluesy singer/guitarist from Macon, Georgia, was already in his mid-30s at this time and had been hanging around New Jersey since the 40s. He’d come to New York around ’55, ostensibly to pursue a musical career, and ‘Drivin’ Home’ was his first record. Released in late 1956, it became a huge hit locally and was picked up by WLIB deejay Jack Walker, who used it as anchor music for his morning show Wake Up New York. Walker subsequently assembled a band, whose personnel included Lee Roy Little on piano and Danny Q. Jones on drums, both of whom also featured on various Bobby Robinson productions around this time.
Meanwhile, Spruill’s sessions were coming thick and fast. The first hit record he played on seems to have been ‘Deserie’, by The Charts, which dented the Top 100 in July ’57. A quintet of teenage street corner Doo Woppers from Harlem, fronted by lead singer Joe Grier, this was their debut disc and the inaugural release on the Everlast label. Although it peaked at #88 nationally, it was a massive hit in New York and still regularly features in surveys of NY’s Top 10 favourite Doo Wop records. A few months later Jimmy played on an even bigger hit, Noble ‘Thin Man’ Watts & His Rhythm Sparks’saxy ‘Hard Times (The Slop)’ (a disc of which Spruill later said: “…I gummed up the solo!”), which entered the Top 100 in December ’57 and climbed to #44 a couple of months later. Tenor sax ace Watts – originally from Florida – was another New York-based muso, steeped in Blues, Jump Blues and R&B, very much in demand as a sideman and sessionman. A veteran of such luminaries as Cannonball Adderley, Nat Adderley, Paul Williams and Lionel Hampton, Watts adapted perfectly to R&B and R&R, and subsequently backed artists like Johnny Mathis, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers.
Another 1957 recording Jimmy played on which became a hit the following year was ‘Bad Motorcycle’, by a R&R duo from Philadelphia, sisters Ann and Lillian Storey, on which they’d originally been billed as The Twinkles. Recorded for Al Browne’s Peak label, the song was based on one of legendary R&B deejay Jocko Henderson’s catchphrases, “That’s one bad motorcycle!” It gradually built into a significant regional hit, whereupon Cameo picked it up for national distribution and reissued the disc, at which point The Twinkles were renamed The Storey Sisters. It eventually entered the Top 100 in March 1958, peaking at #45 Pop the following month.
A couple of other important discs Spruill played on during 1958 were Tarheel Slim & Little Ann’slachrymose ‘It’s Too Late’ (b/w ‘Don’t Ever Leave Me’) and Little Anthony & The Imperials’ throbbing ‘So Much’, the follow-up to their massive ‘Tears On My Pillow’. The former was the first release on Bobby Robinson’s Fire label, in June 1958, and duly became a massive hit in New York, selling steadily over the months before belatedly making the R&B charts in August ’59, where it peaked at #20. The latter was issued in November ’58, charted the following month, and peaked at #87 Pop/#24 R&B in January ’59.
Tarheel Slim was probably the most well-known of Blues/R&B/Gospel singer/guitarist Alden Bunn’s various pseudonyms. Originally from Bailey, North Carolina, Bunn had been around since the late 30s, when he’d begun singing in Gospel groups whilst still in his mid-teens. In the 40s he joined The Selah Jubilee Singers, with whom he recorded both Gospel and R&B material, before briefly joining The Larks in 1951. He embarked upon a solo career in 1952, recording as Allen Bunn and Allen Baum, before meeting (and later marrying) Anna Lee Sanford. They recorded together initially as The Lovers, registering on both the Pop and R&B charts with ‘Darling It’s Wonderful’ in 1957, before Bobby Robinson renamed them Tarheel Slim & Little Ann commensurate with the launch of Fire Records. However, although ‘It’s Too Late’ made the R&B charts, Bunn’s most significant and influential ‘Tarheel Slim’ release was ‘No.9 Train’/‘Wildcat Tamer’, a disc which paired up two devastating slices of Rockabilly (and also, memorably, featured Wild Jimmy). Issued in 1958, on Fury, it became a huge record in New York without quite breaking nationally.
In a truly extraordinary turn of events, on May 11th 1959 Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez topped the US Top 100 with ‘The Happy Organ’, which was succeeded the following week by Wilbert Harrison’s ‘Kansas City’. Spruill played on both discs, lifting the former with a trademark searing guitar solo, whilst his playing on the latter on remains a truly memorable performance, bestowing ‘classic’ status upon it. Although not quite as big as either Cortez or Harrison, another massive record which Jimmy played on in early 1959 was The Shirelles’ plaintive ‘Dedicated To The One I Love’. The first time around it peaked at #83 Pop, as its success was mainly restricted to New York; however, it would be reissued in 1961, following the success of ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’, when it would make #3 Pop/#2 R&B, selling a couple of million copies.
Both Cortez and Harrison had been plugging away for years, and these were very much their breakthrough hits. David Cortez Clowney – from Detroit, Michigan – was an accomplished pianist/organist and occasional vocalist, who’d arrived in New York in 1955 as a member of a Doo Wop group, The Five Pearls. After a brief spell singing with another vocal group, The Valentines, he cut his first solo disc in 1956, following which he became involved in the world of sessions. His second release, ‘Hoot Owl’/‘Shakin’’ – credited to The David Clowney Band – appeared on the Paris label in 1958, and featured King Curtis on sax in addition to Wild Jimmy on guitar. He subsequently signed with Clock Records, a new label, who gave him a his new ID and for whom, ironically, his recording of ‘The Happy Organ’ was a complete fluke. Cortez was due to record a vocal for his next release, but had lost his voice that morning; instead they recorded an off-the-cuff instrumental, based on ‘Shortnin’ Bread’, which he made up as he went along, vamping on an old Hammond B-3 organ which happened to be lying around the studio. Apart from Spruill, the session also featured Buddy Lucas on sax and Panama Francis on drums. The disc subsequently went to #1 Pop/#5 R&B, on its way to selling a couple of million copies.
R&B singer/pianist/guitarist/harp-player Wilbert Huntington Harrison – originally from Charlotte, North Carolina – had been around even longer, having formed his own Calypso band around 1950. He began his recording career in 1953, cutting one-shot deals for a couple of small labels, before signing with Savoy in 1954, at which point he relocated to NJ. After three hitless years, during which he cut a half-dozen or so singles without any great success, he moved to New York. By now he was often performing as a ‘one man band’, playing guitar, harp and hi-hat, and he got plenty of work in the clubs. At that time his most popular live number was his adaptation of the old Little Willie Littlefield number, ‘K.C. Loving’, which he’d recycled as ‘Kansas City’. Response to it was such that he would often be called upon to repeat the number several times during the course of an evening, and he eventually approached Bobby Robinson, who agreed to record him. With Harrison on rolling piano, Wild Jimmy scratching rhythmically on guitar, Jimmy Lewis on bass and Fat Duck on drums, they nailed it in just a couple of takes; Robinson duly dropped acetate copies of the disc off to his favoured radio jocks, radio airplay went into overdrive – and then the trouble started.
The first problems were the cover versions; it was such a powerful disc that virtually every other R&B label cut a cover. Then, once it had sold its first couple of hundred thousand copies and seen off all the rivals (from the likes of Little Richard, Hank Ballard, Ronnie Hawkins and Rocky Olson, not to mention an overdubbed/souped-up reissue of Littlefield’s original recording), Robinson was hit with a writ from Savoy, who argued that Harrison was still contracted to them. Whilst he was in the process of sorting that one out, another writ turned up from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s music publishers, pointing out that they’d written the song (i.e. as opposed to Wilbert Harrison). Although the disc ended up selling upwards of three million copies, topping both the Pop and R&B charts in the process, its very success nearly put Bobby Robinson out of business. Moreover, Wilbert Harrison would find follow-ups tough going, despite recording material as strong as the impassioned ‘Don’t Wreck My Life’ and the cheeky ‘Goodbye Kansas City’ (on which Harrison was somehow permitted to append his own name) both of which featured stellar performances from our man Spruill.
At the opposite end of the Richter scale, a handful of other excellent releases on which Jimmy played around this time included the aforementioned Lee Roy Little (aka the pianist in Charles Walker Band) with his solo debut, ‘Your Evil Thoughts’; June Bateman’s joyous, rollicking ‘Possum Belly Overalls’/‘Go Away Mr Blues’, on which she was backed by Noble ‘Thin Man’ Watts & His Band (she later married Watts); The Commandos’ invitation to do the ‘Chicken Scratch’ (in reality, King Curtis and his band, incognito, as Curtis had just signed with Atlantic); Hal Paige & The Whalers’ raucous ‘Going Back To My Home Town’ (b/w the rather less frenetic ‘After Hours Blues’); and best of the lot, Jimmy’s own debut 45, the utterly magnificent ‘Hard Grind’/‘Kansas City March’, which was arguably as good a double-sider as anyone has ever made.
These were all hugely popular records in New York, without breaking nationally, although in an unlikely turn of events Paiges’s ‘Going Back To My Home Town’ went on to become a massive record in Jamaica some months later. On the back of this it was released in the UK, on the Melodisc label, where it made a significant impact among West Indian immigrants – sufficiently so, that it would ultimately even put in a brief appearance in the UK Top 50, in August 1960.
Meanwhile, once he’d established himself as a session player, Spruill had begun earning the real money by playing local gigs: “I had my own group for a while, but I was also freelance… King Curtis, I left my band to go with him. My band were The Hellraisers – Wild Jimmy Spruill & The Hellraisers! Charlie Lucas played second guitar, Horace Cooper played piano, the drummer was John Robertson, and the sax player was Bam Walter… sometimes, we had Charlie Jackson or Emmet Bly on sax. We played a little Rock, Calypso, very little Jazz, no Country & Western – the people didn’t like that!!”
“We played around Harlem, Connecticut, New Jersey… We were playing for Teddy Power – he was a promoter… I was, like, the Intermission band… James Brown would be on the show… Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Jackie Wilson, Brook Benton, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry… I’d be the guy that would give the relief… my band would play the Intermission for about two hours, then the names would come on. That was The Rockin’ Palace… I also played at The Central Bar Room… I played The Baby Grand, Small’s Paradise… I played with King Curtis, there. I played The Apollo with Wilbert Harrison, Ben E. King… I recorded a lot of things with him, too. I played behind Noble Watts at The Howard Theater, Washington, for a week… I never got to travel too much, I got a lot of offers, but I was making enough money in the city…”
By all accounts his live performances were exuberant affairs, his stage presence finding him deep in T-Bone Walker/Gatemouth Brown territory, hamming it up like crazy: “I was Wild… because I would take the guitar and play with my butt, play with my teeth, my tongue… do crazy things – I was Wild! You know, I’d do the flip on the floor with the guitar – Whoop! I was wild! I’d stand on the tables, go into the bathroom and throw toilet rolls, lay down under a table looking at the girls… you know, there’s a lot of things I could tell you! I was WILD!”
He also backed Freddie King, Champion Jack Dupree (“I did stage work with him – never recorded with him”) and various Jazz musos, e.g. Gator Tail Jackson, George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Mickey Baker. When asked which labels he’d recorded for, with the various Jazz men: “I don’t know! They just call you in, like they call me on the phone and say, ‘Jimmy… What you doin’?’ ‘Nothin.’’ ‘Come on in!’ You didn’t rehearse it, you just run it down one time and then you know it, and you play it. Ain’t no rehearsal!… you just listen to it one time. You don’t play it, you’re outta there!… that’s all, somebody else play it in your place… And you played it good, too, or somebody’d get your job. And as you go, you make up your own idea of what… They’d say ‘Play what you think fit in there.’”
“I don’t read music, but I know it when I hear it. When I’m playing in the studio, I don’t say to myself whether it’s gonna be a hit record or not, I just enjoy what I’m doing… If it be a hit record, it be a hit record, and if it don’t, it don’t… I enjoyed all of them – the sessions – everything I did. If I couldn’t get along with the person I was playing with, I wouldn’t play with them… All my work I do, I must enjoy… I don’t enjoy it, I quit. I change… if I get tired of it, I do something else…”
Ironically, Spruill had learned to read music, whilst playing trumpet in the school band, although he chose not to bring that particular skill to his session playing: “You read a few bars ahead of time, and you have to relate a few bars ahead of time… But when I take my solo, I don’t want to play it ’til I get there. I don’t care to… it comes as I play… I create as I play. But if you’re thinking of a solo and try and play it, it’ll be wrong every time. It’s gonna be wrong, always… one note is gonna be wrong. You can’t be worrying about it… you create as you go… and you can’t be worrying if one note is gonna go wrong – Who cares?
“I thought that the New York scene in the late 50s was very exciting… all those hit records… But it didn’t run me crazy… I was aware that I wasn’t getting any money out of the hit records except session fees, but I didn’t care… I was making money out of my gigs. I thank God I have the talent! I’m a millionaire, I just don’t have the money! (laughs) I love money but if I don’t get it, I’m not gonna worry about it.”
“I don’t know where I got my musical style… it comes to you at the time… the first thing you know, you got it. I heard artists like B.B. King, so I do something on my own, otherwise people would compare. I like good rhythm… I don’t want nobody to aggravate me. I like to play good. When some people on the guitar hit two or three notes at a time they get all gummed up… but every time you hear my playing you notice that it’s so clear… clear, crisp and chop it – ‘chicka, chicka’ – I like that sound! People say ‘That’s Jimmy’, you know…”
On that “chicka-chicka” style: “People like that sound… it’s a good rhythm. I make double rhythms, sometimes… thirty seconds… ‘Da-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah… (makes a machine gun sound) you know what I mean? And that’s fast… not many people can do that…” and on how his style evolved, and changed, over the years: “Oh, I play different… every two or three years I play different, ’cause I get tired of the same sound. It bores me, so I do something different… I don’t like nothing the same thing over and over. My mind goes… I’m not programmed to do the same thing over…”
“The rhythm I have, I add to. I may play ‘tick, tick, tick, tick’ one day, the next day it’ll be ‘tickka-tickka, tickka-tickka, tickka-tickka, tickka-tickka, Brrrrrrrrrrrrrmm.’ Or I might say ‘tick, tick-a-tick, tickka-tickka-tickka, tickka-tickka-tom-tom-tom chickka, chickka, chickka, chickka.’ I don’t play the same thing every day… I don’t think that way. I happen to be blessed… I like to put things in…”
When Bobby Robinson was asked, many years later, if Jimmy’s playing had contributed to the unique sound of his productions, he confirmed: “Yes he had an odd style. He did more or less what he felt, which was kind of an odd-beat thing… he didn’t follow any trends. He’d come up with something that he felt for the moment, and that’s the way he recorded… that’s what he did.”
In 1960 Spruill played on a couple more R&B #1’s – which, musically, couldn’t have been much further apart – Buster Brown’s gloriously ebullient ‘Fannie Mae’ (#38 Pop/#1 R&B) and Bobby Marchan’s morbidly engaging ‘There’s Something On Your Mind (part 2)’ (#31 Pop/#1 R&B).
Buster was an old-time, pre-WW2 styled whooper, shouter and harp-player, from Cordele, Georgia, straight out of the Sonny Terry school of whoopin’, suckin’, blowin’ and field hollerin’. Possessing a sound and style which had been honed in the pre-amplified era, he’d first recorded for the Library Of Congress back in the early 40s – indeed, he was very nearly fifty years of age when he came to New York, started playing in the clubs, and eventually approached Bobby Robinson. Apart from the backing, ‘Fanny Mae’ was a classic museum piece, sounding pretty much as though it might have been recorded some twenty years earlier. But it was the backing that made all the difference, bestowing instant ‘danceability’ upon it, hence its rise up the charts. Brown recorded prolifically for Robinson (and Jimmy Spruill played on most of his sessions), although he was never able to register another hit of that magnitude. His revival of Louis Jordan’s ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby’ sold well, making #81 Pop later in the year, and in early 1962 ‘Sugar Babe’ gave him a final taste of chart action (#99 Pop/#19 R&B).
Bobby Marchan (real name, Oscar James Gibson) was something else again. One of New Orleans’ most colourful and remarkable characters, he was almost certainly the first female impersonator to top the R&B charts and he enjoyed further, parallel successes with Huey Piano Smith & The Clowns. He’d arrived in New Orleans in 1952, from Youngstown, Ohio, where he’d been working as a female impersonator since the mid 40s, and he cut his first records as Bobby Marchon and Bobby Fields. He was still operating as a female impersonator when he was signed to Ace Records in 1956 – indeed, Ace chief Johnny Vincent initially believed he was signing a woman! At Ace, Marchan recorded both solo and as a member of Huey Piano Smith & The Clowns – he was lead singer on hits like ‘High Blood Pressure’ and ‘Don’t You Just Know It’. In 1959 he signed with Bobby Robinson, and his cover of Big Jay McNeely’s ‘Something On Your Mind’ was his second release on the Fire label.
In 1960, Jimmy Spruill also recorded with Elmore James (he played rhythm guitar on ‘The Sky Is Crying’, which made the R&B charts, although his contributions to tracks like ‘I’m Worried’ and ‘Strange Angels’ are rather more readily evident). Less commercially successful that year, but no less enjoyable, were the sides he cut with artists like June Bateman (“I introduced Noble Watts’ wife, June Bateman, to him – she was my girlfriend. I wrote ‘Believe Me Darling’ for her… I played a hawaiian guitar sound on that.”), Bobby Robinson regulars Charles Walker & His Band (their ‘Charles Walker Slop’ was a killer), Horace Cooper & His Band (on whose ‘The Squeeze’, Jimmy was given a label credit), Bobby Long (his ‘Jersey City’ features a stinging Spruill solo, as would ‘The Pleasure Is All Mine’, a couple of years hence) and Buster Brown soundalike B.Brown & His Rockin’ McVouts’bluesy ‘Hardworking Man’ (even better was the following year’s ‘Rockin’ With “B”’), whilst elsewhere, releases like Bob Gaddy’s ‘Till The Day I Die’/‘I’ll Go My Way’, Larry Dale’s ‘Big Muddy’, Lynn Taylor & The Peachettes’ ‘Sweet Little Girl’, Jim & Bob Harrison’s ‘Please Don’t Hurt Me’ and ‘Little School Girl’, and Little Danny’s ‘Mind On Loving You’ certainly all hit the spot. Best of all, perhaps, around this time, was Jimmy’s own ‘Raisin’ Hell’/‘Lonely Island’, which appeared on the Clock label.
Many of these releases made waves in New York, without breaking out nationally, although another late ’60 release Spruill played on which charted was Maxine Brown’s burning ‘All In My Mind’ (b/w the rather more ebullient ‘Harry Let’s Marry’), which made #19 Pop/#2 R&B in early 1961, setting her up for a long, run of success. Likewise, Solomon Burke’s soulful arrangement of ‘Down In The Valley’ was one of his earliest hits, reaching #71 Pop/#20 R&B, at the outset of a long, distinguished career.
Jimmy also played on a further couple of R&B chart toppers in 1961, one of which turned out to be the biggest hit record that year, viz: Bobby Lewis’ raucously bootin’ ‘Tossin’ And Turnin’’, which topped the Pop charts for 7-weeks and the R&B listings for a mighty 10-weeks, right across the summer, selling nearly four million copies in the process. Lewis, originally from Indianapolis but raised in Detroit, was already around thirty-six years of age (his actual year-of-birth has long been the subject of debate/conjecture) and had been recording unsuccessfully since the mid-50s, before this release. A few months later, towards the end of the year, Lee Dorsey registered with his breakthrough hit, ‘Ya Ya’ , which reached #7 Pop/#1 R&B, selling in excess of a million copies. Dorsey – a panel beater and former boxer, from New Orleans – was around the same age as Lewis and had also been cutting records since the mid-50s, with only regional success thus far.
Spruill also continued to record with a number of Bobby Robinson’s stalwarts, including Chuck Bradford (‘You’re Going To Miss Me (When I’m Gone)’), Walkin’ Willie & His Orch (‘If You Just Woulda Said Goodbye’), Noble ‘Thin Man’ Watts & His Rhythm Sparks (‘Jookin’’), The Charlie Lucas Combo (‘Jump For Joy’), Rose Marie with Bill Ivey & The Sabers (‘Most Of All’)and The Dan-Dees (‘Memphis’, on which Jimmy was given a label billing), whilst during 1962 he also had two more solo releases, ‘Scratch’n’Twist’/‘Slow Draggin’’ (on Everlast) and ‘Country Boy’/‘Scratchin’’ (on Vim).
Of his own solo records, Spruill was largely dismissive: “‘Hard Grind’?… I don’t have a copy of that anymore. The piano player was Horace Cooper, John Robertson played drums, the other guys were studio musicians… it was a long time ago, man! The flip, ‘Kansas City March’, sounds like ‘Kansas City’. We made ‘Kansas City’ in ten minutes – we just went to the bone! Then there was ‘Country Boy’ – I tried to sing on that (laughs)… it was a different angle. All the records (i.e. Spruill’s solo records) were Bobby’s… He’d send ’em to another country and sell them, keep the artists from getting any money! I can laugh at it because I knew what he was doing… But he did me a great favour by putting me out there, so I could make money off the gigs. I like the guy… I learned a lot from him…”
“None of my recordings sold well… you know why?… I was in the studio, because the people liked my playing, so they make sure your record doesn’t sell, so you stay in the studio! You understand? They don’t want you to go out of the studio, they want you to be a studio musician… So I didn’t get to play on my own, because they wanted me to stay in the studio to back other people. I had a contract with Bobby Robinson, once, for two years… The contract today wouldn’t amount to much… I didn’t know then what I know now… I thought a little contract wasn’t anything, just a piece of paper…”
In 1962 Jimmy played on another Pop #1, Steve Lawrence’s million-selling ‘Go Away Little Girl’, although we’ve not included it on this compilation as it would have clashed, stylistically, with just about everything else. It seems likely that he would have played on other white R&R hits: “There was a white group, can’t think of their name… they came from New Jersey… older guys… I also played on sessions with white Rock & Roll guys… didn’t know their names, I just happened to be the guitar player…”
Indeed, as I observed at the start of these notes, five thousand-odd words ago, it is indeed unfortunate that we’ll never know the full extent of Wild Jimmy’s sessions. For instance, he talked about having recorded with Ben E. King – I’d love to know which tracks he appears on – ditto King Curtis, Les Cooper and (doubtless) many more. He also offered another thought-provoking comment: “My best solo? I did something for Bert Berns… it was a Blues, with strings behind it… ‘Chucka Tucka’ or something… I don’t know what it was…” Discographer Rob Hughes wonders if it might have been a track titled ‘Give ’Em Soul’, penned by Jimmy, which appeared on a 1962 Capitol LP which was issued eight times, each with a different sleeve, presented by a different deejay – e.g. George Hudson Presents…, Sir Walter Raleigh Presents…, John R. Richbourg Presents…, etc. And a few years later he famously played on one of the overdub sessions in the creative process of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ – in which case, it’s a fair bet he would also have played on other sundry mid/late 60s Atlantic recordings.
Perhaps if Spruill had been interviewed in the 60s, or even the early 70s, we might have more information. But, as I observed earlier, he wasn’t interviewed at any length until 1986, at which point he’d been musically inactive for several years, and then again in 1994, shortly after he’d resumed playing again. Moreover, he seemed somewhat nonplussed to find himself the subject of interest from specialist Blues magazines, and went to some lengths to explain that he wasn’t actually a Blues artist: “I do it ’cause people like it, and I made money at it in the 50s and 60s, and I make money at it today. I’m not a Bluesman, I’m a man who plays The Blues… Bluesmen are people that have the bottle of wine in the back pocket and they’re real simple-minded people…. The Blues and Blues music are two different things… and people don’t realise that. Blues is a sorry, sad thing…The Blues is not what people think it is, you know… Blues is a painful thing that they played. Why I wanna hear something that’s gonna make me sad?”
“I don’t particularly like The Blues, but I played it… ’cause it was a living at that time. See, I was The Blues… I’m fifty-nine years old… I came to work in the cotton fields and stuff like that, and I know what The Blues is. Blues is not just a music you listen to and have fun by… Blues is a painful thing, whether people know or not. One of the reasons I stopped playing Blues, ’cause my mother used to work in the cotton fields with a rag on top her head, hollering The Blues, you understand?
He appears to have stopped playing the guitar sometime in the late 70s (possibly a little later), a few years after he quit playing sessions, and for a dozen years or more had little to do with music. He worked largely as a carpenter, decorator, home improvements specialist and repair man during this period, but in the early 90s he suddenly re-emerged with long-time cohorts Bob Gaddy (kbds) and Larry Dale (gtr), plus Willie Bridges (sax) and an ever-changing rhythm section, which often comprised Al ‘Capone’ Ferrer (bass) and A.J. Johnson (drums), and began playing New York clubs again to hugely receptive audiences. He resurrected his “wild” card for all its worth, usually clad in a white suit, with a matching white stetson, clowning around onstage, playing his customised Gibson (which he’d sawn down to resemble an amplified cricket bat) with his teeth, his elbows, his knees, a chair leg, the wall, the mic stand – anything he could think of. He went the ‘entertainer’ route, big time. By all accounts he’d wander out into the audience, climbing over (and under) chairs and tables, mugging furiously at the crowds, rolling his eyes and clicking his tongue to emphasise the sounds his guitar was making. He even came to Europe in 1993, where he and his band, billed as The Wild Jimmy Spruill Revue, played the Utrecht Blues Festival, in Holland. Their line-up on this occasion featured Al ‘Dr Horse’ Pittman (vocals), Noble Watts (sax), Larry Dale (gtr), Bob Gaddy (kbds), Al ‘Capone’ Ferrer (bass) and A.J. Johnson (drums).
Sadly, he died in tragic circumstances. In February 1996 he took a Greyhound bus to Florida to visit his old pal and cohort Noble Watts, who was cutting a new album. En route he called into North Carolina to look up old friends and family, during the course of which he lost his wallet. On his journey home he suffered a heart attack on the bus, was transferred to an ambulance and subsequently died in a hospital in the Carolinas, where he’d been taken. Because he was carrying no ID he was interned in the morgue for two weeks, whilst in the Bronx, his family were going frantic with worry. It wasn’t until local TV stations began running stories about a missing guitarist that his body was eventually identified.
Just sixty-one years of age when he died, it all seemed such a sad, sad irony; he’d only been playing again for a few years, and was clearly enjoying himself. Had he lived and made further trips to Europe, he would doubtless have been rediscovered by fans and collectors, and become something of a cult hero – I’d love to have seen him at The 100 Club, or one of the Festivals.
Big Thanks to John Broven, Sandy Macdiarmid, Neil Slaven, Dave Penny, Margey Peters, Rob Hughes, Bruce Bastin and Sam Szczepanski.
Juke Blues Autumn 1986 (interviewed by John Broven, with Paul Harris & Richard Tapp)
Living Blues May/June 1994 (interviewed by Margey Peters)
Blues Records Vols 1&2 (Mike Leadbitter & Neil Slaven)