Monday, October 3, 2011

Spanky Wilson, She's Always Spankin' Brand New to Somebody

Spanky Wilson has fans all across the globe, but she’s still getting acquainted with audiences here at home in Pittsburgh. She was away for a long time, but  she’s back now and performing monthly at Andy’s Wine Bar at the Fairmont Hotel. One night she was taking a break between sets when she was stopped by a young musician in the audience. “He said ‘Maybe you can explain something to me. Where are you from?’ And I said ‘I’m from Pittsburgh.’ And he said ‘But where have you been? I’ve never heard of you before.’ And I said ‘Well, I’ve sang in about forty-four different countries. I’ve been around, what can I say?’ If I could of just taken a snap shot of his face, he was like ‘Where did you come from?’"

“Since I’m living here, I’d just like for people here to be aware. Sometimes I feel like I’m the new girl on the scene. I can’t really blame them because they don’t know what I’ve done or where I’ve been. I don’t know. I told somebody the other night ‘Just google me baby. I’m online, you’ll see.’ Then they can see what I’ve done and who I’ve worked with. I’ve worked with some of the best people in jazz music practically. I mean from the masters. I’ve been with my own group, or with other groups.” Spanky’s particularly proud of working with saxophonist, trumpeter and band leader Benny Carter. “We went to Brazil and we spent three weeks in Japan with the Benny Carter All Stars. Benny Carter is one of the father’s of jazz.”


Spanky returned to Pittsburgh via Los Angeles in 2010. She laid low for the better part of a year before easing back into performing. Since then she’s been befriended by jazz master Roger Humphries who plays drums for her on most gigs. Earlier this year Humphries brought her to North Carolina to perform with him. “I met a woman on the plane. You know how I talk to everybody. She was like ‘Have you been singing long?’ And I said ‘All my life. I’m from Pittsburgh. My first gig was with Stanley Turrentine.’ I could never remember the name of the place. All I could remember is you had to go down this flight of stairs and it was real dark. I described the place to her and she told me the name. I should have wrote that shit down! It was on Fulton Street downtown where the Civic Arena is. That was the black area in town. When they tore all that down to build the Civic Arena and they re-did downtown that’s when they tore it down. That’s when Stanley and Tommy (Turrentine) were playing together, that’s before they left town. Tommy went with Ray Charles and Stanley went to New York. That was my first gig. That had to be in 1957 because my daughter Angie was born in ‘58. I worked on Friday and Saturday. It was a weekend gig.”

Wilson was born in Philadelphia, but she was raised here in Pittsburgh on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District. “Wylie Avenue ended at Fulton Street. I lived just at the top of the hill where the church was. There was a Catholic church and a school, but that’s gone now. The church is still there. I actually sang all through grade school, but I was always afraid to sing in front of the public. I’d started hanging out with musicians even at a young age because I married very young. So all the musicians and my friends knew that I sang and the word got around. So guys started calling me and I’d go and sit in. I didn’t know but three songs, but I’d go and sing those three songs all the time. When the guys realized that I could sing I got my first gig with Stanley Turrentine. And that was from some musicians who knew me. I think I was 17. I got a job with him for two nights and after that I got jobs around town with different guys, Cecil Brooks. I don’t remember all of their names, but I remember working with these guys. Joe West hired me to play at his club. I worked with Jerry Betters on a regular basis. I auditioned for Jimmy McGiff at the Hurricane. He was looking for a singer and the cats around town told him that he should hear me. So I went down there and got the job and everything else is history. That was my first time on the road, six weeks.”

“The tour ended in California. We worked our way across the country. From New Jersey to Omaha and Oklahoma City. I don’t remember where else, but the last week of the gig was in California. We worked at Shelly’s Manne-Hole in Hollywood. And then we worked at a club in the black area, but I can’t remember the name of that. There was a trumpet player in there who came to hear Jimmy. And he heard me and he went and told H. B. (Barnum) that he had to hear me. We were there Thursday, Friday and Saturday I think. H.B. came and heard me and I went down and auditioned for him at his office. He said that he wanted to record me and then I came home for three or four months because I didn’t believe him. Because everybody warned me ‘Don’t believe nothing that they say in California.’ So I said ‘Sure. Oh yeah, okay.’ Sure enough three or four months later he called me to come out and record.”





Mothers Records & The Snarf Company

Singles
“The Last Day of Summer” b/w “Love is Like an Old Man” (1969, 1300)
“Little Things Mean A Lot” b/w “If I Could” (1970, M-1308)
“You” b/w “Love Land” (1970, 1310)

Albums
Spankin’ Brand New (1969, MLPM-69)
Spanky, Doin’ It (1970, MLPM-71)
Let It Be (1971, MLPM-75)

Pittsburgh-based disc jockey, William “Bill” Powell of WAMO writes of Spanky Wilson’s television appearances on Johnny Carson, Red Skelton and Woody Woodberry in the liner notes for her sought after sophomore LP, Doin’ It. In addition, she also performed on an episode of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark, which aired in the summer of 1970. If you get a chance to see it there’s a black man with an afro wearing a tuxedo in the audience. Spanky showed me the video the first time I visited her home. She laughed to herself saying ”Oh, Paul Mooney was so crazy.” I moved a little closer to the television squinting and realized that it was in fact a young, pre-Chappelle Show (and probably pre-Richard Pryor) Paul Mooney. “We were all starting out at the same time. He picked me up from the airport. He worked for H.B. Barnum doing different things. I didn’t know anybody and he wanted to be a comedian at the time. We were good friends. This was in 1968. We were good friends at the beginning, but then we would just see each other here and there throughout our careers.”

H. B. Barnum did some recording of his own as an artist, but he’s largely known for his arrangements and the work that he did with producer David Axelrod for Capitol Records. At the same time he was running a label called Mother’s Records & the Snarf Company. The label was owned by Jay Ward Productions who were the creators of the hit cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle. Keith Scott is the author of The Moose That Roared, which is a book about Jay Ward, and he writes that Mama Cass Elliot’s sister, Leah Cohen, was supposed to be in charge of the label. Other than Scott’s mention in the book it appears that H.B. Barnum was in charge.

Spanky was only supposed to be in California for six weeks, but six weeks quickly turned into three or four months. “I would sing backgrounds on whoever H.B. produced. Whoever he recorded. I did backgrounds on Letta Mbulu, O.C. Smith, Lou Rawls … anybody he recorded I did background on.” The first Spanky Wilson single released was “The Last Day of Summer.” “I just started singing it on the gig (recently at the Fairmont). When I sang it the other night, when I got through, Roger (Humphries) said ‘Spanky, Is that your tune?’ Because he’d never heard it. And I said ‘Yeah Howlett Smith wrote that and I recorded it.’ He said ‘Oh my god, that’s beautiful.’ In California they tell me every time you play you should sing it. I’m known more in California than I am here. Just like Nancy Wilson’s song is ‘Guess Who I Saw Today.” Because that’s the one that made her really. They say every time you do a show you should sing ‘The Last Day of Summer.’ That’s what everybody, at least out in California, knows me from.” Howlette Smith wrote all of the eleven compositions on the first Spanky Wilson album, Spankin’ Brand New. The only composition that he’s credited for on her second album, Spanky, Doin’ It, is “You.” This was released as the lead single from the album and it's become one of Spanky’s most popular and sought after recordings. Spanky, Doin’It and her third album, Let It Be, both lean more toward covers of popular hits that were current at the time. “I only made one record a year and I was only with H.B. for three years. Then I split. I recorded the first one in the fall of ‘68 and it was released in the winter of ‘69. Then I recorded Spanky Doin’ It in ‘70 and Let It Be in late ‘70 or ‘71. When I went to Brazil to do the music festival the record that was out at the time was Let it Be. We were playing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and all that. That was done in ‘71. It was like that, but by ‘72 I was gone.”

While Spanky Wilson didn’t become a huge multi-million selling artist, she definitely did better than the rest of her label mates on the Mother's Records imprint. I showed her a handful of singles from other Mother’s artists who drifted deep into obscurity over the decades. The first of which was Gene Diamond. “I forgot about Gene Diamond. I didn’t know him very well. I would see him in H.B.’s office from time to time and he worked around Los Angeles. I knew him, but we were never really good friends. Not like Paul Mooney.” Another artist, who recorded a bit in addition to Mother’s was Terry Thornton. “Terry Thornton had been with H.B., but she was no longer with the label when I started. I think she did a 45 for him. I heard her once and I said ‘Wow, where is she?’ I loved her right away. She was a very strong singer. But I didn’t meet her until I’d been recording for about three years. She would go back and forth from New York to Los Angeles. I met her once and then I didn’t see her again until we were in Paris with the big band. And we really got to talk then." The fellow Mother’s artist who Spanky was closest to was Karen Hernandez “She was a very good friend. She used to write all my charts. She used to watch my children. Her children were younger than mine because my children were already older when we moved out there. We lived close to each other right outside of Los Angeles. We didn’t work together much, but she’d write all of my charts. That’s how she made money, writing charts. She’s a pianist. Honey, she’s bad! ‘I Heard it Thru the Grapevine.’ I think thats the only thing she recorded. Just the one single. She was very talented. She should’ve gotten more well known than she is because she was a very strong pianist. Like a Dorothy Donegan kind of a chick.” Some of the other artists who Barnum signed to Mother’s were Sharon Cash and child artist Little Gary Ferguson. Cash recorded an album for the label that featured a memorable interpretation of “Fever.” It was released as a single and incidentally wound up being sampled for Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale LP. “Sharon Cash I didn’t really know. She came after. I didn’t know Little Gary Ferguson either. He must have came after me. The label didn’t go long after I left.”














Kelly's Heroes OST
(1970 MGM, 1-SE-23-ST)

As Spanky mentioned, she split after the three LP's on Mother's. But before she left, a funny thing happened on the way to her next recording contract. “I had just finished Let It Be and H.B. called and said there was this guy and this film. The music had been done in French originally. The theme had been sung by a French person. I’d never heard it. But he wanted to do an English version of the theme song. It was a beautiful song called ‘Living For You.’ I sang it for years afterwards.” The guy that she’s speaking about was Lalo Schifrin and the film was Kelly’s Heroes, which has become a classic bit of Hollywood cinematography. The original French title of the song was “Si Tu Me Dis.” It’s featured in the film, but neither the English version nor the original French version, which is credited to Monique Aldebert, was included on the original version of the soundtrack. The French version did make it to a later CD repackage. But anyhow … “When we were in the studio recording for that they were doing some other work for the album. They had one scene were the guys were marching and all of these guys were supposed to be whistling. So they had a couple of guys in the studio and they were overdubbing them to make a whole battallion or something. So they asked me if I could whistle and I said yeah. So I ended up whistling a part with these other two guys and they overdubbed it and overdubbed it. So I’m whistling on the record. I see the film on TV all the time. I’m whistling on there, but that’s about it.”



Eastbound & Westbound Records


Singles
"Home" b/w "Shake Your Head" (1974 Eastbound, E-627)
"I Think I'm Gonna Cry" b/w "Non-stop Flight"
(1975 Westbound, WT-5012)

Albums

Houston Person The Real Thing

(1973 Eastbound, 2EB-9010)

Specialty of the House (1975 Westbound, W-207)

It was still 1971 and Spanky wound up in Detroit working at Cornelius Watts’ Club Mozambique. “Everybody used to work at that club.” It was there where she first met fellow Pittsburgher, Eddie Jefferson. She credits Jefferson with teaching her vocalese, in addition to befriending her and helping her to get work. Watts had a connection with Westbound Records, perhaps best known for releasing the bulk of Funkadelic’s catalog. In 1973 a live recording date at Club Mozambique led by Houston Person was released on Westbound’s Eastbound subsidiary and titled, The Real Thing. Spanky is featured on “Until It’s Time For You To Go” which features Person (tenor sax), Robert Lowe (guitar), Sonny Phillips (organ) and Hank Brown (drums). The following year Eastbound released a single by Spanky, which was “Home” written again by her regular collaborators, Lennoy Ruffin and Howlett Smith. The flip side was “Shake Your Head.” A year later, in 1975, Westbound Records released Spanky’s fourth studio album, Specialty of the House. “Home” was included on the album while “Shake Your Head” remained exclusive to the single. Another single, “I Think I’m Gonna Cry” was released to support the album.

Spanky’s relationship with Westbound/Eastbound was another ephemeral one. “It was just like with H.B. It was the same thing. It was never nationwide, it was never across the country. Before I went with Westbound, there was a guy from Atlantic Records who wanted to talk to me about being on Atlantic. The owner of the club, who happened to be in love with me, he wanted to keep me coming to Detroit all the time, so I never knew the guy was there to see me until after I signed with Westbound Records. I’d spoke to him that night, but I never knew until years later when I ran into him in another town. I tell people how I looked back then got in my way more than it helped. Everybody who was in a position to help me, who were primarily men at that time, they wanted to do something for me, but they were like ‘What are you going to do for me?’ You know what I’m talking about. I was like ‘I sing for a living.' But I mean it was more of a hindrance. After the last recording we fell out. It was because they were doing bullshit promotions. It was here and there and wherever they had a friend. That kind of shit. They had the nerve to send me a bill and say that I owed them however many thousands of dollars for the recording. I wrote ‘Hey, take this and shove it.’ I mailed it back to them and I said ‘Sue me’ and I haven’t heard back from them since. I wasn’t even getting on the radio everywhere. I never heard from them again and they never sued me either.”
Various reissues & compilations


Singles
Split single w/ Etta James "You" b/w "Out On The Streets Again" (2000 Fabulous Records, ?)
"You" b/w "Sunshine of Your Love" (2003 BGP/Ace Records)
Split
single w/ Alvin Cash "Kissing My Love" b/w "Stone Thing"
(2003 BGP/Ace)

Albums/Full-length CD's
Various artists - Living in the Streets (1999 BGP, CDBGPD 130)

Various artists - Living in the Streets 2 (2001 BGP, CDBGPD 140)
Various artists - Living in the Streets 3 - Busting Out of the Ghetto (2002 BGP, CDBGPD 151)
Spanky Wilson The Westbound Years
(2007 Ace Records,
CDSEWD 146)

Various artists - Super Cool California Soul 2
(2007 Luv N' Haight/Ubiquity, LHLP053)*
* the only one that is actually available on vinyl

Spanky spent the next ten years living and working mostly in Los Angeles. In 1985 she relocated to Paris, France where she would eventually re-marry. She spent the next fifteen years performing across France in addition to Germany and Spain, and other parts of the world. In the year 2000 she released a CD with The Philippe Milanta Trio titled Things Are Getting Better. It was also around this time that reissues of her older material started to surface in the UK. “H.B. sold all of the rights to whatever I recorded with him to Ace Records. And then when Westbound went out of business they sold their library to them (Ace) also. As far as I understand H.B.’s agreement is just for Europe. They have all of the rights. What Westbound’s deal was, I don’t know, but they have their library too. I didn’t even know that it had been done until Will (Holland also known as Quantic) told me. Ace Records released three volumes of compilations titled Living in the Streets. They’re compilations of sixties and seventies soul and funk tracks by various artists and each volume features a Spanky Wilson tune. In addition to the compilations there are also a series of 45 singles that they released featuring various selections from the compilations. A majority of the singles feature Spanky’s songs as well. She's never received any compensation for any of these releases.

A new generation of listeners was now familiar with Spanky through the compilations and an interest in her catalog began to spread through England and parts of Europe. Will Holland is a British DJ slash musician/producer. He performs as Quantic and sometimes with his group The Quantic Soul Orchestra. He’d learned of Spanky through the compilations and he was determined to locate her where abouts. “They had a wanted poster out that a friend of my husband’s saw. It was in England or somewhere. Like ‘Have You Seen Her.’ It was like a flier. I have a copy of it. It was black and white and I’m almost unrecognizable. So wherever they were at, he told Will ‘I know her. She lives in Paris.’ He called Philippe first and asked if he could give him my number, because by this time I’m back in LA. So Philippe called me and I said yeah. So the guy went back and gave Will the number and he called me. They only knew me by compilations. I was glad that they knew me at all. Will said ‘Spanky, are you kidding? We play that (“Sunshine of Your Love” or “You”) and the people can’t get enough. We have to play it over and over again.’ I said ‘Well, how did you get "Kissing My Love"? Where did y’all get that from?’ He said it was on a compilation and I said ‘A compilation from where? And who? Was it Westbound?’ He said ‘No, from Ace.'" Holland explained that Ace was a UK label that specialized in reissuing older material. When she contacted Ace Records they explained that they had a contract with H.B. Barnum. "I said what kind of contract. I thought to myself after all these years this he’s still making money off me … I said 'Well what about me? I’m the artist.' And he said 'You’d have to talk to H.B. about that.'" Spanky really has no legal rights to her recordings. They're still being licensed out even here in America where she's appeared on compilations as recently as 2007.
 


Tru Thoughts, Ltd. w/ Quantic

Singles

Quantic "Don't Mess With a Hungry Man" 12"
(2004
Tru Thoughts, Ltd., TRU064)
Spanky Wilson & The Quantic Soul Orchestra "I'm Thankful (Pt. 1)"
b/w "Don't Joke With a Hungry Man (Pt. 3)"
(2006 Tru Thoughts, Ltd., TRU7108)
Quantic feat. Spanky Wilson split w/ DJ Aeon "When You're Through"
b/w "Funky Furious" (2008 Freestyle,
FSR-704)


Albums
Quantic Mishaps Happening (2004 Tru Thoughts, Ltd., TRULP062)
Spanky Wilson & The Quantic Soul Orchestra I'm Thankful

 (2006 Tru Thoughts, Ltd., TRULP109)

Plus
Quantic Soul Orchestra and Spanky Wilson Live In Paris DVD
(
2008 Tru Thoughts, Ltd.,TRUDVD147)



In 2004 Spanky appeared on Quantic’s Mishaps Happening LP and by the end of 2006 they released I’m Thankful by Spanky Wilson & the Quantic Soul Orchestra. “I did a big tour with them. We did like four weeks of one-nighters. I did the guest spot with them, singing ‘Don’t Joke With a Hungry Man.’ That was the first recording. I did two sides with Will on his album and everybody liked that so much, that’s when we decided to do one of my own with songs that he’d written. So when we did the one that he wrote for me and with the excitement of the first two singles, that’s when we ended up doing the tour in Europe. Shit, I damn near killed myself. We did one-nighters for close to … It was two nights short of four weeks. Every night we were somewhere. I’d never did one-nighters in my life. I was excited. I had no idea. Especially when you’re my age. You do this when you’re thirty years old. I survived it. I enjoyed it so much."

After the European tour Spanky returned to LA where she continued to perform. I suppose it was circa 2008 when The Pittsburgh Jazz Society booked her at the Omni William Penn Hotel. It was her first Pittsburgh gig since she initially left in 1967 and this is when our paths first crossed. She’s survived a show business career full of the usual ups and downs and a rough ride in a recording industry that was less than kind to her. She’s achieved a cult-like status amongst the record collectors of the world with a few of her key recordings becoming quite valuable. She says that the attention makes her feel good although ten, or even just five, percent of the money that her records trade for would make her feel even better. 

“I wouldn’t give up a day of it, because I just love to sing. And I’m just happy that I’m still singing and I still have what it takes. People say they’re so excited because I sing songs nobody else sings. That’s jazz standards. People tend to forget about those, but you never can forget the masters. Bravo if you write your own music. That’s very good, but at the same time don’t ever forget about who inspired you to do this music. Work it in, both your music and their music. Don’t forget about them.” Singing is what Spanky’s been doing all along. She's still inspired and now that she’s back in Pittsburgh this is where she’s going to be Doin’ It at. Don't miss her monthly appearances at Andy’s Wine Bar at the Fairmont Hotel. This month she'll be there Friday, October 7th. 

Visit Andy’s Wine Bar online at: www.andyswinebar.com or email info@andyswinebar.com for more information. Send inquiries about booking Spanky Wilson  to: spankywilsonjazz@yahoo.com. And make sure you stop by the debut Pgh Vinyl Convention this Saturday, October 8th where Spanky will be making a special appearance from 12-1 PM. 

Visit I DIG PGH on YouTube, www.youtube.com/idigpgh, and check out some classic recordings by Pittsburgh's own Spanky Wilson!



4 comments:

Amos said...

WTF Spanky Wilson is performing monthly downtown and I had no idea. Didn't have time to read the whole post (yet) but thanks for putting that info up front.

Anonymous said...

Great article! It's astounding how "under the radar" Spanky is.

idigpgh said...

Hey, thanks for the comments. Sorry for the delay on the reply. Been a little over-extended here at I DIG PGH ;) YES, Spanky is performing regularly at the Fairmont and she'd be thrilled if you came down and said hi. I'll post upcoming dates.

I Dig Pgh said...

The schedule for Jazz at Andy's is here. They don't post updates very far in advance though. Keep checking back for Spanky!

http://www.andyswinebar.com/