Monday, October 18, 2010

B.U.K.A. Entertainment: What No Pittsburgh Hip Hop Label Did Before or Since

There's always been hip hop in Pittsburgh, but the small handfull of local labels that specialized in it generally struggled to exist. B.U.K.A. Entertainment managed to produce a total of thirty vinyl releases between 1998 and 2006. Not only impressive for a local hip hop label, but their output at least doubles that of the average local label regardless of the genre. B.U.K.A. Entertainment is the home of the Lone Catalysts. Frontman for the group and B.U.K.A. chief executive, Jermaine Sanders aka emcee J. Sands, explains "The label was really out of necessity because we wanted to put out music. Prior to that I was just a rapper and I'd made stuff with J. Rawls since '92 or '93. So there was a vision, but as far as doing what I do now that wasn't the vision back then." 

For those reading, who aren't familiar with underground hip hop, we're going to be referencing Rawkus Records here and there. Rawkus was a New York-based indy label founded in 1996. By 1998 they dominated the indy hip hop market until they were acquired by MCA Records circa 2001. Rapper/actor Mos Def and Talib Kweli comprised what was arguably the label's strongest act, Black Star. Talib Kweli was also in Reflection Eternal along with Cincinnati native, DJ Hi-Tek. J. Sands relocated from Pittsburgh to Columbus, OH in the 80's where he met the other half of Lone Catalysts, producer J. Rawls, in addition to other Ohio-based hip hop groups, namely Reflection Eternal, M.O.O.D. and Universal Dialect. These artists along with Lone Catalysts comprised what was known as the Wanna Battle Crew. "We weren't signed to Rawkus, but people we knew were signed to Rawkus. I met M.O.O.D. when they were signed to Blunt Records. When I met Kweli he was getting on M.O.O.D.'s records. Same with Hi-Tek. M.O.O.D. were signed and rolling. Once the M.O.O.D. thing hit I was back in Pittsburgh. I wasn't even in Cincinnati when that hit really. Then I started seeing Kweli pop up in magazines and what not. I hit him up and he was like 'What's up. you rapping? Come to New York!'"

"From that period in my life, say '96 to 2000, J. Rawls and I used to hit that highway and go to New York. We did it quite a bit back then. It wasn't because we had a deal. We were doing shows at Nkiru Book Store and things like that. I'd drive out to the 'Nati and do shows. That was all prior to having a label or a deal. Eventually word got around that these guys are actually kind of nice at what they do. It's an exciting feeling to do something and have people feeling you."

Lone Catalysts "The Paper Chase" (1998, LC30001)

"The first thing we ever pressed up was the demo tape. It really wasn't a demo because I was slangin' 'em. It was like an EP for real. At that time J. Rawls had a digital 8 track, so I used to ride to Cincinnati. He eventually moved to Columbus. I used to ride from Pittsburgh to Columbus to record stuff because I didn't have equipment until '99. I wasn't capable of sending files. It wasn't as digital as it is now. He would come to Pittsburgh and we'd rent out Audiomation on the Northside. Sometimes we'd be in Steubenville, we had a dude up there that was working with us. Whatever studios were around where we could get the good rates."

The first Lone Catalysts record was a four song EP that featured the A-side "Paper Chase." It was released in 1998 on B.U.K.A. Records through a P&D deal with the New Jersey-based, Big Daddy Distribution. P&D deals essentially mean that the distributor, or parent label, has a contract with the subsidiary label and they press and distribute their records for them. "We were on the phone with Big Daddy and they were like 'We like your record, but what's the name of your label?' It was a spontaneous thing." B.U.K.A. Entertainment, which was initially B.U.K.A. Records was named after a mutual friend of the Lone Catalysts. "I met B.U.K.A. in '92 and he went to jail in '94 or '95, so the majority of the time I knew him is when he was locked up. He got out in 2008 or something like that. He was the dude who introduced me to J. Rawls. They were younger than me. There was a guy that I played football and baseball with and they hung out with his little brother. His brother gave me his number and I went over to B.U.K.A.'s basement and freestyled for like two hours. J. Rawls was a rapper at that time, but I shut it down. There was only one man holding the mic that day and that's when he (Rawls) started making beats. So B.U.K.A.'s the dude who introduced me to Rawls, so I said 'That's what we'll call the label.' The acronym Brothers United Keeping it A'ficial came later."

B.U.K.A. scored a certified underground hit with their first release. One of the four songs on the EP, which was eponymously titled "Lone Catalysts" was included on the Nervous Records compilation, Hip Hop Independents Day Vol. 2. The market for independent hip hop was so lucrative then that Nervous did two volumes of this compilation series ... released less than a year apart. It was also in 1998 that Rawkus released Black Star's highly-anticipated full length album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star. A majority of the Black Star album was produced by DJ Hi-Tek and it also included two tracks produced by J. Rawls. The Black Star association only helped to fuel the Lone Catalysts buzz.

Lone Catalysts "Due Process" (1999, BDS-823)
Five Deez "Blue Light Special" (1999, B.U.K.A. 001) 
Makeba Mooncycle "The Gibbous" (1999)

The name Lone Catalysts began to grow worldwide. J. Sands freestyles started appearing on a variety of underground mixtapes and UK-based Fat City Records released the compilation Heavy Lounging featuring a Lone Catalysts exclusive, "Jimmy Hats" as well as their collaboration with Chicago-based hip hop group All Natural. Lone Cats' sophmore release on B.U.K.A. was "Due Process." The A-side featured Talib Kweli, in addition to his cousin Rubix, as well as J. Sands' cousin Rashad who collaborated on the J. Rawls-production. The B-side "Let it Soak" featured fellow Wanna Battle members, Dante of M.O.O.D. and Holmskillet aka BJ Digby. In Sands' words "The first thing we did was put on our people. That was always embedded in me. When you get on you do something for the people around you, so that's what we did." B.U.K.A. released this record through a new P&D deal with a New York-based company, Buds Distribution. "We just wanted to test different doors. There were a lot of people out there trying to make money on the vinyl and CD tip and we messed with everybody. We were associated with a lot of groups and artists, so it was easy for us to get material. The first artists we did, besides Lone Catalysts or J. Sands, was the Five Deeez. That was the first time we expanded outside of that. That record did good actually back then." That record was actually released through a yet another distribution company by the name of Land Speed, which was based in Boston.

Next came a record by Makeba Mooncycle released through TRC Distribution, which was a company located on the west coast. "We never did anything exclusive. Projects yeah, but as a label never. We linked up with Landspeed and TRC, etc. You could work with anybody. (We'd) see how much money we could make with Buds. Well, how much can we make with Landspeed? The only one we didn't do anything with was Fat Beats. We just had a good rep back then. Makeba Mooncycle was on TRC. At that time Jason (J. Rawls) was working with her. Plus she was the one letting us stay with her all the time when we went to New York. At that time Kweli was going everywhere with the Rawkus stuff, so he wasn't there for us to stay at his place anymore. So we started staying at Makeba's and he was like 'She raps.' So we did something with her. Jason did some beats and she had us down in the studio in Brooklyn. It was off the chain. Her brother was Prodigal Son from Sunz of Man. Back in the day DJ Khaled ... you know 'We the Best' ... he was sleeping on the floor in Prodigal Sons room back in the day. That's the type of stuff we were around. I remember him from before, with Prodigal Son, when he'd come up from Florida to do his mixtapes. Now he's on TV talking about 'We the Best.'"

Rook & Bishop "Da Ill" (2000, BDS-839)         
Lone Catalysts "Politix (2000, BDS-844)    
J. Sands "Won't Stop" (2000, BDS-848)
Caleesh "Snake In The Grass" (2001, B-C0001)
BJ Digby "Breakthrough" (2001, B-C0002)

B.U.K.A. became more involved with the local Pittsburgh scene in 2000. They'd found a temporary home for the label with Buds distribution. The second Buds-distributed release was a single by Pittsburgh hip hop group Rook & Bishop, a group consisting of emcee LG and producer Joe Lucas, titled "Da Ill." Then came the follow-up Lone Catalysts single "Politix" and then the debut J. Sands single, which featured production by local producer Geeman aka The Grand Ear. When asked about how he hooked up with Sands he says "I would see him here and there and he'd be like 'I gotta get some beats from you.' Then we kind of sealed the deal at that Roots show at Metropol. He was like 'Yo, we really need to do something.' So we exchanged numbers then and got the ball rolling. It was me and Geology had the joint on the flip side." Geology was a New York-based producer who'd already established a name for himself in the underground scene. Geeman goes on to describe what it was like to be contributing to a vinyl release at that point in time "It was crazy. To get pressed on wax and get something put out on an indy label back then. Nobody else had really done it locally, so when I landed that first 12" with him I was like 'Dag ...' Nobody else was really pressing wax like that except for Strict Flow, Lone Cats and I guess what you could call WAMO acts, like Misfits In The Attic. Concrete Elete was around at that time. They had some 12"s I recall, one or two. There wasn't a lot though. You couldn't run down a whole list of cats that were putting out stuff. I don't think a lot of people locally knew anything about the distribution game really. You know, how to network that. That was really a great time to do that when people were really putting money behind these acts and putting stuff out there. A few people had contacted me from the UK. They were telling me they really liked that joint a lot. Holmskillet heard the stuff I did with Sands and was like 'Wassup?' I sent him some stuff, but that didn't manifest. He ended up doing some stuff with Joe Money and they released that."

B.U.K.A. released two more singles through Buds in early 2001. They were Caleesh "Snakes in the Grass" produced by DJ Drastik (both Pittsburgh artists) and the aforementioned record by Ohio-based Wanna Battle Crew member Holmskillet, who'd changed his moniker to BJ Digby by the time the record came out. Pittsburgh-based producer Joe Money, who was already working under the name Usef Dinero, did production on the former. Joe's been an active member of the Pittsburgh hip hop scene since the 80's. He talks a little bit about his experience with B.U.K.A. and why a scenario like this hadn't existed in Pittsburgh earlier. "A lot of that really never even touched Pittsburgh, for real for real. Not in my state of mind I don't think. I guess because the market wasn't really strong, so there were just a few people trying to do their thing. Most of the mugs back then was like either DJ'ing or break dancing. People weren't really into beats back then. I mean I was, but I was just getting my feet wet. I started making beats, I wanna say maybe '93 or '94. I didn't really get real heavy into it until '96 or '97. I bumped into a lot of other cats from messing with J. Sands and Jason (J. Rawls). I met Sands through my man LG. He hooked us up and it's been good ever since. It exposed me to a lot of people pretty much. I did a bunch of joints for J. Live, Unspoken Heard, El Da Sensei (from the Artifacts) and a bunch of other cats." At this point B.U.K.A. moves on to their next phase, which takes them across the Atlantic.

Lone Catalysts Hip Hop LP (2001, LCHH01-1)
Lone Catalysts Hip Hop instrumentals
LP (2001, LCHH01-3)
V/A Bringing It Home Volume One LP (2001
, LCBH0001-1)
Camu Tao "Hear Me Talking To You" (2001
, LC3005-12)
Lone Catalysts "Place To Be" (2001
, LCP00002)
V/A B.U.K.A Promo 12" (2001,

"Buds was a funny distributor to work with. After that we started hooking up with Groove Attack." Groove Attack was a German label and distributor based in Cologne. Sands explains the company's history and how their relationship formed. "They started a deal out with Landspeed and that all fell through. Then I think they started going through Fat Beats to do their pressing in the states and what not. As far as the singles, I guess they were selling quite a few of them. They got in touch with us. Back then we were emailing everybody. Email had just come out. Eventually our paths crossed. They dug what we did and we dug the fact that they had bread to break. They had a good reputation of putting out music, so that's how that all formed. We were with Groove Attack for a minute, at least five or six years. That was a good time over in Europe. As far as what they were doing over there in that market."

In 2001 Groove Attack put out the Lone Catalysts debut LP, which was simply titled Hip Hop. "We made a nice amount of money on the Hip Hop record. Advance money and sales. It was a great thing." Along with their international release and distribution came international tours. "J. Rawls is a school teacher and he had a family, so he didn't really tour, but I toured. I was out there gone. It was an experience that I'll never be able to give back. I'll always have the humility that you experience when you meet people. The first time I went to Japan I'm sitting there waiting and these two Japanese dudes are arguing over who's gonna carry my bags. I'd never been to Japan before in my life. You know what I mean? Just for rhymes. I definitely understand what I do and there's a lot of humility in that. It's the respect that you get from the music that you make. From Japan to Europe, to all around the states." The first single from Hip Hop was "Place to Be."  The only other single released that year was by Columbus-based emcee, Camu Tao. "Camu Tao ... rest in peace. He's dead now. We put out his first single, he did a lot of stuff with Megahurtz and Weathermen." Camu Tao actually went on to record quite a bit before he passed prematurely several years later.

There was an instrumental version of the Hip Hop LP and then B.U.K.A. released another full length project, which was a compilation titled Bringing it Home Volume One. "We had distribution and we had the spotlight on us, so why not put it on the people around us? That's what we did. It started as a way for me personally to put out music, but who's just gonna use a facility for themself when they can use it to put others out there." Bringing it Home featured a variety of artists primarily from Pittsburgh and parts of Ohio. It also featured the track "On Course" by J. Sands featuring LG of Rook & Bishop. This track was also released as a single by Rawkus Records in association with their Sound Bombing 2 compilation. Bringing it Home featured more production by Usef Dinero and another Geeman produced track by J. Flint titled "Hump Day." "He (Sands) called me and he wanted me to rap on the track. I was going to, but I was working with J. Flint at the time. I was just trying to get him off the ground and put him out there. He was doing stuff locally at the Shadow Lounge or wherever, performing. When that opportunity came up I plugged Flint with that instead of me doing it." Sands' explains the process of putting the compilation together. "It was people that were close and people we'd just met. Like J. Flint. I didn't know much about J. Flint, but we got his record with Geeman and that was amazing, so I put it on. I got to know a lot of the cats during that period. Some of them were living next to me on the Northside when I was growing up. 151 was from Penn Hills. I don't even remember how I met them. But then there's guys like my man DL. He was my neighbor growing up on the Northside from when I was a little kid. So there were all types of relationships. Then in Ohio I got my cousin Rashad and his group The 3rd. That's family."

I'm guess-timating that the B.U.K.A. various artists promo sampler came out circa 2001. It was a four track EP that featured "Place to Be" as well as a track from the J. Sands' Top Emcees side project with Heimy-D and a track from J. Rawls' 3582 side project with Fat Jon from the Five Deeez.

Lone Catalysts "If Hip Hop Was A Crime (Remix)" (2002 LCHHC02-1)  not shown 
3rd "Super Soul" (2002, LCSS 001-1)
Lone Catalysts The Catalysts Files LP (2002,
BUK 3)
Ant Lew and Maximum "Wild Out" (2002, BUK 4)
J. Sands "Manifest" (2002, BUK 5)
S.P.I.R.I.T. "Four U" (2002, BUK 6)
Lone Catalysts "Due Process (Reissue)" (2002, BUK 7)
Lone Catalysts "Destiny" (2002, BUK 8)  
Lone Catalysts "Paper Chase (Reissue)" (2002, LC30001)

2002 was B.U.K.A. Entertainment's most prolific year. They released yet another full length project titled The Catalysts Files, which was primarily remixes and B-sides exclusive to prior singles. A single for "If Hip Hop Was a Crime (Remix)" was released in association with this project. The first two Lone Catalysts records, "Paper Chase" and "Due Process" were completely out of print already, so they were reissued and reintroduced to the European market. New projects included a single by Icelandic hip hop artists Ant Lew & Maximum featuring El Da Sensei, a single from the Bringing It Home compilation featuring Sands' cousin Rashad's group, The 3rd, another Ohio group by the name of S.P.I.R.I.T. and finally new material from the Lone Catalysts forthcoming  sophomore LP, as well as the "Manifest" single from J. Sands debut solo LP, The Breaks Vol. 1. "Manifest" featured cuts by Usef Dinero and the B-side "Times We Chill" featured Pittsburgh emcees Caleesh and LG, plus production from Geeman with cuts by DJ Big Phill. Big Phill describes how he first met J. Sands and how he got involved with B.U.K.A. "The first time I met Sands is when we did a show at Time Bomb with us (his group Hi-Low) and Rook & Bishop. He was there with LG. After that I did a show at that spot that used to be in Wilkinsburg in the basement, the Turmoil Room. I brought this group in from Dayton, Universal Dialect and Sands knew them. Back then it was just us, Rook & Bishop, Strict Flow, Concrete Elite, Smoked Fish, RXC, The Math Team, W. Ellington whose now in DC doing things with everybody. That was pretty much it. I didn't even know who Sands was. Out of nowhere he had that 12" and the relationship kind of grew from there."

J. Sands The Breaks Vol. 1 LP (2003, BUK 9)
DJ Big Phill Wide Screen Music Volume One EP (2003, BUK 10)
By Any Meanz "Saturday" (2003, BUK 11)

According to Sands "I always say the industry started changing, to me where I started really noticing it, around 2003 or 2004. Between '03 and '06 is when we started to see a decline in the sales. At least on my end." B.U.K.A. grew and was averaging a half dozen or so releases per year. In 2003 they only released three records. The first of which was J. Sands' solo album, The Breaks Vol.1. The concept album utilized and reinterpreted popular samples from hip hop classics. It primarily featured guest artists from Pittsburgh and Ohio with production from J. Sands, J. Rawls, DJ Hi-Tek, Geeman, DJ Big Phill and Usef Dinero who was busy creating a name for himself in the underground hip hop scene. There were only two singles released in addition that year. They were a split single by By Any Meanz, Liberation and New York-based rapper Wordsworth, these tracks wound up being released on Bringing it Home Volume 2 (which eventually came out in 2006), and the debut single by DJ Big Phill, who was respectively the producer/DJ for Hi-Low Productions in addition to becoming the DJ for J. Sands depending on where he was performing live. Coincidentally Chentis Pettigrew of Liberation was previously in Hi-Low. Big Phill explains "In the early years it was me, Sef (U-Turn) and Tone (T-Note). Then I met Chentis at some girl's crib at a birthday party. Somebody was rhyming and I was like 'I got some beats in the whip.' And then Chentis started rhyming and I was like 'This cat is nice.' He came over the crib the very next day and by that weekend he was recording with us. There were so many side projects. I helped Chentis out with the Liberation project. He wasn't with us no more. T-Note kind of took a break and later came back in. He wasn't on the records that came out. That was just Sef on that single."

The single, DJ Big Phill Presents Wide Screen Music Volume One, was more of an EP that included two tracks featuring Shabaam Sahdeeq, a Brooklyn-based rapper who was one of the first artists signed to Rawkus Records, and a bonus track by Hi-Low. The Shabaam Sahdeeq songs were recorded early in 2000 while Sahdeeq, who was incidentally incarcerated by the time the record was released, was performing live in Pittsburgh. While Sahdeeq was the main selling point for the project, the real gem was Hi-Low's "412 Memory Lane." It's an homage to nearly twenty years of Pittsburgh hip hop that referenced local clubs, groups and anthems that had mostly been released via cassette tapes, if at all. Some of the references to the groups and their songs obviously went over people's heads unless they were listening to local college radio in the mid to late eighties. "I thought of it as a blessing when I got to do that 12". It got good reviews and whatever else. I was very concerned about making sure the image was correct and making sure the audio was dope. Making sure that I had enough where people bought it and thought 'This was worth it.' I put out a 12" that I thought I would buy regardless of whether or not I was on it. I was like 'Okay. We have the Shabaam Saadeeq song, the two jawns on there.' And I wanted to put some Pittsburgh shit on there as well. There'd be so many 12"s coming out and half of them was trash. It was an over-saturated market."

Lone Catalysts "En La Ciudad" (2004, BUK 12) 

The Lone B.U.K.A. release in 2004 was Lone Catalysts' "En La Ciudad" single. This was another single from the sophomore album that had been anticipated the previous year. Back in 2002 they'd released "The Hustle" featuring Ohio-based soulstress, Venus Malone. The "En La Ciudad" record included the B-side "The Ultimate" as well as the remix which was produced by DC-based producer/rapper, Kev Brown, who was generating a huge underground buzz at the time. The decline in the B.U.K.A.'s output was really just indicative of what was going on in the larger market. Like Big Phill stated, the market already became completely over-saturated to the point where a lot of people had simply become disinterested in underground hip hop. There were too many releases coming out and a lot of things were getting lost in the shuffle. Many of the labels that had sprung up over the course of six years were disappearing. Even Rawkus, who'd been setting the standard for underground hip hop had closed it's doors and sold itself off to MCA Records already. Talib Kweli released his debut solo LP on MCA in 2002. In 2004 his sophomore full length came out, also on MCA, while Mos Def was releasing his latest project on Geffen Records. To make a long story short, the cream of the late 90's underground crop was getting picked up by major labels, who were also very concerned about their declining sales, while everyone else was struggling to maintain what they'd spent the past several years building.

It's also worth mentioning that digital downloading hit it's peak of popularity in the early 2000's. It became obvious that hip hop consumers, and music consumers in general, really weren't buying nearly as much physical product as they had been in years past. In addition to the downloading issue, Serato Live Scratch and other similar DJ'ing programs have been introduced as of 2004. They allow the user to manipulate digital audio files via time coded control records, which completely eliminates the necessity for actual vinyl. Six years later this method of DJ'ing is now the industry standard unless you're a vinyl-purist nut like myself.

Lone Catalysts "La La La La" 2005, BUK13)
Lone Catalysts Good Music LP (2005, BUK 14-2)

In 2005 the Lone Catalysts long-overdue follow up LP, Good Music, finally arrived. J. Sands did quite a bit of globe trotting off the strength of the first album during the group's hiatus. It was a well-received record that differed from the first project in the respect that there were tons of cameos. It featured a lot of the same names that we'd seen over the years including Rashad and PA Flex from the 3rd, Donte from M.O.O.D., as well as artists that the label was helping to develop over the years such as Venus Malone in addition to other notable underground rappers including Mr. Complex, El Da Sensei and Asheru from Unspoken Heard. Even legendary hip hop icons including Masta Ace and Mixmaster Ice from U.T.F.O, as well as Grap Luva from I-N-I contributed. There was a single released from the album as well that year, but that was it for the oh-five.

V/A "Place To Be (Saturday Night)" (2006,BUK 14-1) not shown
J. Sands The Breaks 2 - The Interlude Violator LP (2006, BUK 15-1)
V/A Bringing It Home Vol. 2: From The Old To The New LP (2006, BUK16-1)

In 2006 we saw B.U.K.A.'s final vinyl releases. "We were still getting nice advances for Good Music, but then when we did Bringing it Home Vol. 2 and The Breaks 2, we were seeing that the money just wasn't there like it used to be when the vinyl was prevalent and CD's." A final 12" single was issued from The Breaks 2 full length. Aside from these three 2006 releases, which are still available from Groove Attack, the entire B.U.K.A. vinyl catalog is completely out of print. Sands says there are releases that he doesn't even own copies of.

In 2007 B.U.K.A. released their first digital-only release, which was a third Lone Catalyst full length titled, Square Binizz. Sands already  relocated to Maryland before it was released and the label has essentially been on hiatus for two years since the birth of his daughter. "I started it in Wilkinsburg and then moved on up to Peters Township and then moved to Baltimore, but the label has always remained. You hear this little girl in the background making all this noise? She's probably been the main reason for the pause. The whole process when you hear that she's on the way to her getting here, experiencing all of that ... I wasn't thinking about music. But now she's older. Daddy makes music and he owns a record label. I want to put some new stuff out."

"The business now compared to how it was in '97 is like Buck Rogers. But it's been done before and it can be done again. It doesn't matter how it's perceived because I just got off tour and I know what's out there." He's referring to the tour of Europe he did with Memphis-based rapper Count Bass D over the summer. "There's people out there that'll run through a brick wall for a new J. Rawls and J. Sands CD. I shake their hands and meet them. Now they can Facebook me and Twitter me, so it's about handling the business that's on the table. After my record's been out ten years it's still generating some money, but what about a new record? Maybe that could generate three or four times as much. I can't wait to find out."

B.U.K.A. doesn't have any plans to release more vinyl, but there are a few projects that will be released on CD in addition to digital formats available online at The current trend in hip hop is the artist mixtape, which differs from DJ mixtapes. The mixtapes are generally made to create a buzz for the artists' forthcoming projects. "I'm getting into the mixtape game. When I was coming up DJ's did mixtapes. Rappers didn't do mixtapes. A lot of these young dudes just rap, but they don't rhyme a lot. My first mix tape, LL Cool J Sands, is named after LL Cool J. He probably had the most longevity in this game and, after being in this game, I respect longevity the most over everything. Therefor LL Cool J's my favorite rapper. He might not have had every favorite album that I wanted, but as far as somebody I can look at like 'When I was a teenager, LL Cool J was hot.' And now if he wanted to do a song with T-Pain or Trey Songz, or whoever the hot dude is, it would be a hit. So I give it up to longevity always. It's hard to stay committed to this hip hop. We'll see. There's a lot of new rappers coming up and I'm seeing all of these videos and it's beautiful, but we'll see. Because I'm a fan and I'm gonna be watching like I watch the games. My next one is going to be named after KRS-One. The mixtapes are going to be themed after my favorite rappers."

"It's different, it's not just records anymore. It's about making quality hip hop music. That hasn't changed, but it's time to expand. As a matter of fact people don't buy records anymore. They buy mp3's, so it has to be something more than just records. The last four years I've been making tons of music but I haven't been putting it out. Count Bass D was like 'Sands, you got all these hot joints. Start putting them out.' is going to be the haven for the music and the t-shirts to Sands on Sports. It's time to expand." The latest Lone Catalysts full length titled Back to School is available now on iTunes with CD's anticipated soon. Other B.U.K.A. projects in the works include J. Sands' long-delayed solo project titled The Poetree of Life, his production project titled Beats & Dimes. Plus projects by other artists including LF Daze, Ze Man, and Neela K.

As for the other artists who contributed interviews ...

Geeman aka The Grand Ear
is working on a synth-heavy project titled the Electronic Pieces EP as well as an 80's boogie-flavored collaboration with DJ Nice Rec and another project that may potentially be released on the local Infinite State Machine label. Check out Geeman on Soundcloud and Myspace. DJ Big Phill is focusing on video production and films while working on an album. You can keep up with him online via his 33 and a Third Media blog and at Myspace as well. Usef Dinero informs me that he's busy grinding and staying focused. "I work during the day and I grind during the night. I just try to keep the beats coming. I wanna have a ton of shit on deck when some shit goes to explode."
Check out Usef Dinero on Myspace.

Visit to check out a small selection of B.U.K.A.
material that I curated.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Blacklove & Pittsburgh Funk

Photos courtesy of the Alan Leeds Archives

The sound of popular black music was changing in the mid-seventies, and during this time Blacklove was one of the prominent black groups in Pittsburgh. According to their manager and producer, Walt Maddox “That group was very successful. They were probably one of the most successful local bands, black bands, to come out of this area.” In 1975 James Brown released an album titled Sex Machine Today. The cover reads “Disco Soul – Dance, Dance, Dance.” Even the Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk was high-stepping into the disco era. It just so happens that Alan Leeds, who worked with both Blacklove and James Brown, moved to Pittsburgh prior to becoming Brown’s road manager. “In ’69 I quit school to go on the road with Brown. And then I ended up coming back. I married a girl from Pittsburgh. I wanted to go to New York, but she wanted to go back home with her family. I moved back in ’73 or ’74. Walt was kind of managing and producing Blacklove. They were actually pretty hot for a couple of years. We’re kind of getting into the disco era here. It was around ’75. They became the hottest band in that region. You know … West Virginia, Eastern Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, the whole tri-state area.”

The core of the Blacklove originated west of the city in Beaver County. They were a spin off of the Notation Rock Band. According to drummer, Bobby Short “Those guys were older. They fell by the wayside and we picked things up. Rusty Carter, Francis Barnes (Jet) and me …we picked up a couple of other guys and kept going.” The first Blacklove recordings feature Short (drums), Barnes (keys) and Carter (bass) along with Lain and Lina Lee (vocals), John "Doc" Eberhardt (guitar) and Robert “Mousey” Thomas (conga). Barnes, originally from New Jersey, attended Slippery Rock University. Short explains that things came together after Barnes graduated and moved to Homewood to teach at Westinghouse High School. “Laine and Lina Lee were picked up when Jet moved to Pittsburgh. John Eberhardt was from McKees Rocks. We were at the Crazy Quilt and that’s where Jet met Walt Maddox.”

Walt Maddox's own recording career dates back to the late 50’s. He's perhaps best known for his involvement with vocal groups, The Blenders and The Marcels. In 1973 the American Tobacco Company launched a new brand of generic menthol cigarettes called Super M. Maddox was involved with promoting Super M sponsored events, namely the Super M Fresh Talent Hunt. “I was asked to participate with the Super M cigarettes. After I got to do this promotion for the cigarettes I thought “Super M”, so I kept it for my little production and record company. The cigarettes didn’t really last that long. I thought maybe there was a good luck omen in there someplace.”  

In 1975 Super M was set up as a subsidiary of Bill Lawrence’s Western World Records. Blacklove, who'd been playing for a year or so, were the first artists to record for the label. Barnes says “He (Maddox) was the entrepreneur that thought that he was going to turn Pittsburgh into another Detroit … Motown. That’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to have a house band and some really hot singers.” Leeds recalls “Bill was starting something. They had a recording studio and offices out in Carnegie. Walt Maddox had hooked up with Bill Lawrence and he wanted some help. So he asked me if I was interested and I came over to work with Walt under Bill Lawrence for about a year.”

"Get Down (When the Feelin' Hits Ya)" Pt.'s 1 & 2
(1975 Super M, SM-001)
issued twice with same catalog number.

"People Keep Changing" Pt.'s 1 & 2 (1975 Super M, SM-5000)

also issued as "disco copy (DJ-5000)" with different edit on the flip.
Blacklove’s first record on Super M was “Get Down (When The Feelin’ Hits You).” It was released shortly before Leeds got involved and then re-edited and re-released with a slight title alteration. "It might have been done before Western World was up and running and that’s where they remixed it. It stayed on Super-M, but it was repressed with the new mix and it was distributed through Western World.” Barnes recalls the group's earliest recording session being at Audio Innovators. “I think we did one session there. Then we took the master and we went to Walt’s studio.”

The first release of "Get Down" includes a minute-long introduction featuring a solo by guitarist John Eberhardt. There's just one short verse prior to the hook and then another solo by Francis Barnes on keys. The second release of the record is a noticeably different mix that places an equal amount of emphasis on musicianship over lyrical content. Instrumental versions are included on the flip side of both records. Maddox and Leeds co-produced Blacklove’s second single,
“People Keep Changing” later the same year. The two sides total just under six minutes and feature more by the way of socially conscious song writing and attention to the vocal arrangements. It's just as much danceable as the aforementioned recording.

There was a lot changing, even quicker than Blacklove was releasing records. Walt Maddox’s good luck omen with Super-M proved to be just the opposite. In his own words “Well, I bought the recording studio off of Western World. They went bankrupt. Six weeks later I was burglarized and three days later I was burnt out. So I got out of the studio business. The guys put out the next record. They kind of went on their own."

Photo courtesy of the Alan Leeds Archives. (f): Laine Lee, (b): Francis "Jet" Barnes
"Music is Designed (To Make You Move)" b/w
"Revolution Solution" (1975 Pgh. Funk, PF-5001)

Leeds’ involvement with the group continued after Super M. “Jet Barnes and Laine Lee asked me if I’d be interested in managing them. The Blacklove guys and I were really close. That was a project and a band that I really, really, really believed in.” Together they formed Pgh. Funk Records. Before the end of 1975 they went to Jeree Studios in New Brighton to do more recording. The debut release on Pgh. Funk was “Music is Designed (To Make You Move)” backed with “Revolution Solution.” “My brother, Eric Leeds, is a saxophonist who ended up playing with Prince and the Revolution for five years. He’s actually the sax player on 'Music Is Designed.' It’s just a little part at the end. The guys in the band wanted some horns so we brought him in." "Music is Designed (To Make You Move)" successfully does what the title implies, while "Revolution Solution" stands out stylistically from the material that the group had released prior. Perhaps brother and sister vocalists, Laine and Lina Lee, had been listening to the likes of husband and wife team, Doug and Jean Carne, while they were writing this tune.

Alan Leeds reminisces about his experiences with Blacklove and Pgh. Funk Records, "It was a very aggressively marketed band, as best as you could on a local level in that area with limited resources. WAMO gave us a lot of airplay on the singles. We managed to get the record into all of the stores. Of course National Record Mart was still huge then, dominating the market. We got it into all of the indy stores. I don’t know what you call a hit, but I considered it a hit. I think it was in the top five, or top ten of WAMO’s call ins and in local singles sales for the better part of three to four weeks … if not longer. It didn’t just sit on the shelf. We did some local TV. There were local community shows. It seemed like every station had a public service show on the weekends in the wee hours of the night that was aimed at the black community. We managed to do all of those.

Blacklove opened locally for national acts including Earth Wind & Fire, Bobby Womack and Leeds’ former employer, James Brown. Unfortunately the experience that Leeds gained on the road with Brown didn’t prepare him for getting a disco/funk band booked regularly in the city of Pittsburgh. Outside of the Crazy Quilt, which was a pre-dominantly black club located downtown off of Market Square, there weren’t many gigs to be found within the city limits. “We’d play Tuesday through Saturday and we’d play there every three or four weeks. That was a gig that was considered a better gig. Not so much because the money was better, but because the visibility was better. You were in downtown Pittsburgh in Market Square. Some of the Pirates, Dave Parker, used to hang out in there. Willie Stargell came in. Some of the Steelers back in the day, Joe Gilliam, came through there. It was a hang in black Pittsburgh, so there was a cachet to playing there.”

As for the other popular venues that existed at the time … “An all black band just wasn’t going to get into any of the major music rooms that booked bands seven nights a week. Most of the gigs had to be out of town in these little Elks Lodges, school auditoriums and dance halls out in the boondocks. There were several clubs in Pittsburgh that had black music, but most of them were into that kind of organ jazz. If you had an organ trio you could work for days, but if you had a funk band you couldn’t get arrested. Maybe it was a case where the clubs wanted a more mature audience. I’m not enough of a sociologist to figure out why, but it just seemed like a very kind of conservative music community. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me because if you went to National Record Mart you realized that Parliament Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire were definitely outselling Jimmy McGriff. So obviously there was an audience for this music, but the clubs weren’t really interested in having it. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It didn’t make any sense then and it was very frustrating. At any rate to make a long story short there were still enough gigs. Particularly out in the boonies. We would play Elks Clubs, and all these different VFW lounges that you find out in Aliquippa and Beaver Falls and all of these kinds of places … Wheeling, Weirton and Youngstown. You name it and we played it.”

"Is it Love" b/w "Crazy Changes" (1976 Pgh. Funk, PF-5002)
"Crazy Changes" b/w "Is it Love" (1977 RCA, PB-10968)

Blacklove’s career moved at an accelerated pace. In 1975 they’d released two singles on Super M (four including alternate versions), a third on their own label, Pgh. Funk and then in 1976 … according to Leeds “What happened is we were shopping for a deal based on 'Music Is Designed.' There was a time when RCA had quite a few Pittsburgh guys there. A few guys became mid-level record executives in New York. We had a deal with RCA for Blacklove and then the group broke up. Everyone was a little disappointed because the flip side ('Revolution Solution') was mastered so poorly  … and there was just some discontent in the band. It was one of those things where some of the guys valued their day jobs and their obligations to family more than other guys. Some guys were more dedicated to the band and they wanted to hit the road and take a chance. Other guys were like ‘Hey man, if the money’s there I’ll quit my day job, but if there’s no money I can’t hit the road just to see what happens.’ They were all legitimate situations"

"They split and went in different directions and I kind of lost interest in the thing. I threw in the towel and got involved with some other projects. The irony is that they did make another record with what was left of the group. The band really broke up and then reformed as Luv’. They made one more record locally and that’s what finally got them the deal with RCA. When it came out I was totally surprised. I didn’t think anything was going to come from it. “ Walt Maddox re-enters the story as Leeds steps out. “I got them (RCA) to pick up the deal on it.” As for the name change “They changed it to Luv’ because they had a couple of white guys in the group.” Classic. Bobby Short elaborates on the line up change ”Luv’ was Francis Barnes, me, Rusty Carter, Dave Crisci and Joe Garrucio. Those were the two newest people we picked up. That was me (on vocals).” The song writing on the Luv’ single is attributed to Barnes, Carter and Jamilla Parris. Short says “Jamilla Parris was somebody Jet hooked up with. He was trying to publish her songs … get her recognition and so forth. We never got to that point”

In the earlier part of the seventies RCA released some huge hits that did very well on the black music and pop charts. They also had some particularly interesting soul and funk releases that included Jimmy Castor Bunch’s It’s Just Begun, albums by Nina Simone (as well as her band leader Weldon Irvine), various Harvey Fuqua-produced projects such as The Nite-liters, Boobie Knight & the Soul Society and of course New Birth. New Birth, The Main Ingredient, Friends of Distinction and perhaps The Hues Corporation would score the bigger hits for the label. What was left of RCA’s roster of black artists weren’t charting so high in record sales by 1976. Obviously they were searching for fresh talent. It wasn’t until a year or so later that they’d cash in with the likes of Evelyn Champagne King and Odyssey at the height of the disco era.

Maddox explains “That was probably one of the biggest mistakes I ever made going with a national label. They buried the group. I was selling product in England at the time with a guy in Philadelphia. He was buying them with no return, 500 at a time. I should have stayed with him, but instead when RCA came we were like ‘This is it. We finally got a major contract.’ It was a mistake because it did nothing for them.” In 1977 RCA re-released Blacklove (now known as Luv')'s fourth single (sixth for those of you who are counting). They were pushing what was initially intended to be the B-side, “Crazy Changes.” The original A-side of the Pgh. Funk release was “Is It Love.” It's a nice ballad that adds diversity to Blacklove's small and mostly dance-oriented catalog. The group also sacrificed the rights to their publishing as part of the deal. Bobby Short gives a brief explanation of how things came to an end. “It started happening for us when we were selling records … as Blacklove. Then RCA stepped in and wanted a piece of the action. They were a name. They had other groups going on at the time. They didn’t do a damn thing. We didn’t get royalties. It ended with egos. There were too many questions that couldn’t be answered and we split. Just like the questions that you’re asking me … the band was asking. ‘Why aren’t we getting paid? Why aren’t we going on tour?’ I said ‘The hell with this. Goodbye.'"

That's how the story ends. While that may not be the happiest of endings, Blacklove worked hard for approximately three years and definitely made progress in that short period of time. They aspired to get signed to a major label, they managed to avoid a potential break up and they eventually accomplished that. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if things would have worked out differently and Walt Maddox's aspirations of creating what Barnes referred to as "another Motown" would have come closer to fruition. At the end of the day what's important is that the group managed to document their career by releasing a handful of records that we can still enjoy thirty-plus years later. Visit where you can listen to seven compositions by Blacklove.

Bobby Short is a groupleader in the corporate world by day, but he's also been performing consistently since the days of Blacklove. He's currently at Scoglio’s Restaurant in Robinson Township and Shakespeare’s Restaurant & Pub in Sewickley. He also makes regular appearances at the River's Casino and aboard the Gateway Clipper. Francis Barnes is still working in the public school system. He served as Secretary of Education for the State of Pennsylvania in 2004 and 2005. Walt Maddox still performs with The Marcels. He works with young people through his organization, Kids Against Drugs, where he once mentored a 10 year old Christina Aguilera. Alan Leeds went on to manage Prince's tour at the peak of his career. More recently he’s worked with the likes of D’Angelo, Raphael Saadiq and Chris Rock. He’s largely regarded as one of the foremost authorities on James Brown. He co-edited The James Brown Reader along with Nelson George, which was published by Plume Books in 2008. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Complete Vinyl Discography of Gene Ludwig

A few years back, circa 2005 I suppose, a fellow station member at WRCT booked Gene Ludwig to play at CMU. I'd never met Gene before, but I owned several of his records and I knew that he'd also grown up in Swissvale (actually more like Regent Square, but we had the same zip code anyhow). Later that week I met him and heard him play live for the first time. I soon became acquainted with Gene's wife Pattye who maintains his website and emails. Pattye was excellent at promoting Gene's gigs, so I would try to see him when he was bringing out his Hammond B3. I loved watching him play it and when someone's hauling out a dresser-sized organ with the accompanied leslie amp, at the age of 70 no less, you feel a certain obligation to stop by for a drink and support them. I've always had an interest in local records and in February 2004 I started interviewing some of the artists who made them. I suppose it was in 2006 that I inquired about doing an interview with Gene and discussing his discography. He was into it. Sadly, Gene passed away earlier this month before anything came of our conversations. I found Gene to be truly inspirational. He  managed to spend his entire life doing what he loved, something that's a lot easier said than done. And he did most of it right here in Pittsburgh.

The liner notes of his 1980 album, Now’s The Time, quote Gene Ludwig “I play organ because I love it, and the people I play for love it. And I play it in Pittsburgh because my family and my roots are there.” Ludwig is just one of the army of musicians who have contributed to this city’s rich musical heritage, but without his contributions we’d be short on a very interesting chapter in the history book.

Gene Ludwig began playing the piano in the first grade. He was already playing in clubs before he graduated from Swissvale High School in 1955. Like many Pittsburghers of his day he was highly influenced by the R&B and, what was then referred to as, Rock 'n' Roll sounds that dominated the local airwaves. “I started my club playing ... gee, I think I was maybe a sophomore or a junior. I was playing at a little bar in Swissvale, on Woodstock. Toto’s Hotel ... It’s a big lot now.” One fateful night in 1957 brought a young, impressionable Gene Ludwig to the culturally rich, inner-city neighborhood of Pittsburgh known as the Hill District. “I was working with a singing group called the Hi-fi’s. It was an integrated group and one of the fellas said ‘Come on, we’re going to the Hurricane.’ There was an organist down there who I had heard of on the radio. So we went down and there it was, The Hurricane. And that was my introduction to the Hill. I was so at awe, so to speak, and it was Jimmy Smith and I had heard him play for the first time. I was like ‘This is where I hang from now on.’ And that was the start of it.”

Ludwig was converted from pianist to aspiring-organist that evening. It's important to note that the organ wasn't typically considered a jazz instrument at this point. Jimmy Smith was doing something brand new and unprecedented. Over the course of the next five years Ludwig traveled a road that led him to become one of Smith's contemporaries. And it was then in the early sixties that Gene Ludwig began his recording career as a jazz organist.

“Gospel Goodness” Pt. 1 b/w Pt. 2 (1962 LaVere, JP-194)
“Mr. Fink” Pt. I b/w Part II (1962 LaVere, JP-210)

“I think I did the first one around ’62. It was at Duquesne who had a jazz band under the direction of Paul Hubinon. Joe Kennedy did the arranging. (It was) a company here, LaVere Records that we recorded for. They were down on Fort Pitt Boulevard. So they recorded me with the big band and we came out with a record called ‘Gospel Goodness.’ It was really nice. It sold a few, but unfortunately I got a call from Bill Powell who was with WAMO at the time when they were still in Homestead. He said ‘We have a little problem and we won’t be able to play it.’ I think there was a problem with the title, but we did get some play and we sold a few.”

LaVere released Ludwig's sophomore recording later that year. This time he was joined by his band mates, Jerry Byrd (guitar) and Randy Gelispie (drums). It was the debut recording of the Gene Ludwig Trio, titled “Mr. Fink.” Unlike the previous record with the big band, this was more indicative of what he had been doing in the clubs.

Gene formed a rapport with Billy Driscoll at LaVere Records. Driscoll was instrumental in accelerating his career. “He sort of took me under his wing. They (LaVere) had a couple of guys there that had the money, but they weren’t interested in putting the time into promotions so of course the label suffered. I wasn’t signed with them. I had like a two record deal. Billy said ‘C’mon, let’s go knock on some doors in New York. So we started fooling around in New York and I started working around that area. Doing things in Newark, New Jersey. We went into see Nesuhi and Ahmet (Erteg√ľn), who were brothers, and Jerry Wexler. They owned Atlantic. He (Driscoll) made arrangements for Nesuhi to come over to Newark to hear us play. They liked what we did, and we went into the studio and the first record I did for Atlantic was ‘Sticks and Stones.’”

“Sticks and Stones” Part I b/w Part II (1963 Atlantic, 5034) 

So at this point Ludwig’s been recording for approximately one year and he’s already aligned with one of the most powerful labels of its day, or any other day for that matter. The home of Ray Charles and future home of Aretha Franklin, who's jazz roster boasted the likes of popular sellers including Herbie Mann and The Modern Jazz Quartet to name a few. Unfortunately Gene's relationship with the label was in jeopardy before his six month contract was up. Atlantic had reneged on their agreement and Ludwig insisted that they fullfil their obligations. He referred to this as “one of the biggest blunders of my career.”

“They released ‘Sticks and Stones’ and that did very well. I did ‘Sticks and Stones’ and then ‘High Heeled Sneakers’ was the follow up on it and they never released it. We did that and there was a B side on it. They just laid on it and it came time to sign again. We went up to negotiate and Nesuhi said to me ‘Well, you sign another contract and we’ll release this record.’ And I said ‘No man.’ I signed for six months and they were supposed to release the second 45 at the tail end of the six months. That was our deal. I said ‘You release this record as promised and I’ll sign.’ So that’s where we left it. It was kind of a catch twenty-two. So maybe if I would’ve signed ... who knows? That was forty years ago.”

In addition to the unreleased single there’s also an album worth of material featuring a young Pittsburgh saxophonist by the name of Eric Kloss. This predates Kloss' releases on Prestige. “At that period I was at Count Basie’s club up in Harlem. I was working there and Alton Kloss brought his son up from Pittsburgh, Eric Kloss. Eric was like 16 years old and he had been coming up to the Hurricane and different places and sitting in with various groups around Pittsburgh. I get this phone call at the hotel and it was Dr. Kloss and he says ‘Eric and I are in town. We understand that you’re at Basie’s. Is it okay if I brought Eric up and he played?’ So he brought Eric up and Billy Driscoll got this idea, so he called up the Erteg√ľns right away and he says ‘We got this kid in town. Can we come up and do a session?’ So we went in and we did. I don’t know how much we recorded or what tunes we recorded. At that time you could get like maybe thirty to forty-five minutes on an LP. It took us about forty minutes. And that got shelved. I would love to hear those sessions. I’ve never heard them since the playback.’

Organ Out Loud (1963 Mainstream, S/6032)
later repackaged as The Hot Organ (1967 Time, S/2199)
”House of the Rising Sun” b/w “Blues For Mister Fink” (1964 Mainstream, 601)

After Atlantic, Ludwig quickly signed another deal with Mainstream Records. “Bobby Shad came to Atlantic City. I had a chance to sign with Scepter/Wand. That was Chuck Jackson and Dionne Warwick on that label, the big pop label. Me and Billy went up to sign a contract and everybody was out to lunch, so Billy says ‘Come on, let’s go over and talk to Bob Shad.’ It was all in Manhattan, so we hopped in a cab and we went across town and he was in. So we signed a contract and that’s who we went with. I had two options that day.”

The first release on Mainstream was the Gene Ludwig Trio’s debut LP, Organ Out Loud, which was later repackaged as The Hot Organ on sister label, Time Records. “Back in those days, especially with Bobby Shad, he would get the last oink out of a release. He would repackage it on a value label. Maybe you get it for a buck and a half or something like that. But that’s what he’s famous for ... repackaging. I think I had maybe a year’s contract with them and the contract ran its course.”

Before the contract was up the trio released a single featuring two non-album tracks. The A side being “House Of The Rising Sun,” backed with a revisited version of their debut recording titled “Blues For Mister Fink.” "I think we went in the studio and we did the album first. He (Bob Shad) was originally with Mercury Records in the R&B part of Mercury. He did the marketing thing for them and he had a big love for R&B. So he knew all of the jocks from around the country that were playing that sort of music. So one guy out in San Francisco said ‘If you can get Gene to record "The House Of The Rising Sun" by the Animals maybe we can get it on the charts out here.’ So anyway we went in the studio and I don’t know, it just didn’t take off."

“Walk on the Wild Side” b/w “Birdie’s Blues” (1964 D.D. Productions, 77-011)   

By the end of ’64 Ludwig returned home from New York. He was tired of the business practices of the big labels and he was back on the scene in Pittsburgh. His next release was a live recording cut at Birdie Dunlap’s now-legendary Hurricane club in the Hill District. The same club where it all began, where he first heard Jimmy Smith and became inspired to play to the Hammond organ.

All of the records in Gene Ludwig's discography have more or less become obscure, but this particular release tops them all.
“That was released in ’64. I completely forgot about that.” Ludwig recalled only a few details. The bold type face on the label reads “Cut Live at the Hurricane – Pittsburg.” If Pittsburgh wasn't misspelled one may assume that they were pressing these discs in a back room at the venue. The A side is the theme from the Columbia Pictures film Walk On The Wild Side and the B side is a bluesy ballad dedicated to Mrs. Dunlap titled “Birdie’s Blues.” Two minutes and forty seconds in it’s entirety, it fades out slowly before it really has a chance to develop. Sadly there's very little documentation of the Hurricane, but these live recordings are soundscapes that allow the listener to imagine what that room may have been like nearly fifty years ago.

“The Vamp” b/w  “Deep Purple” (1965 Travis, TR-033)        
The Educated Sound of Gene Ludwig LP (1965 Travis, LP-707)  
“Soul Mountain” b/w “My Blue Heaven” (1966 Travis, TR-038)  

One night during a gig at the Hurricane Ludwig was approached by Travis Klein. Klein was a young entrepreneur who ran a local one-stop with his father. Their distributor branched out into a label, Travis Records. They recorded musicians who traveled through Pittsburgh and released singles by Johnny Lytle and Eddie Chamblee. Ludwig recalls the likes of Grant Green, and Larry Young recording for them as well. “Travis came to see us play and he said ‘Me and my dad have a one-stop right up the street.’ He said ‘If you aren’t signed with anybody we might be able to record and release some stuff.’ So we went up there and struck a deal.”

The deal resulted in the release of two singles and the Gene Ludwig Trio’s second full-length, The Educated Sound of Gene Ludwig. “I did two (singles). ‘The Vamp’ and then we followed it up with ‘Soul Mountain.’” The former, “The Vamp” included the B side “Deep Purple” both of which appear on the LP. “Soul Mountain” which is another original composition by Joe Kennedy III (who also wrote "Gospell Goodness") was backed with a rendition of “My Blue Heaven.” “That was a different session. They wanted another 45, but they didn’t want to spring for a whole album. We did 45’s. They were in with all the jukebox vendors. Itsy Klein and Travis, they sold a lot of product. They were handling the Prestige line I think and maybe the Blue Note line.”

This Is Gene Ludwig LP (1965 GeLu, GL 1415)
“Chittlin' Juice” Pt. I b/w Pt. II (1965 GeLu, GL001)

Pittsburgh and the surrounding tri-state areas are what Ludwig referred to as his “meat and potatoes.” Eager to continue recording, but reluctant to take the routes he already traveled, he started GeLu Records. “I was sort of tired of major labels. Of course I would be paid for the sessions, but I was supposed to be getting royalties from these companies. Even Atlantic ... my statements ... you'd laugh at them.”

GeLu Records was formed with the help of Gene’s manager Billy Driscoll. It was a two-man operation with no distribution outside of a local record store chain by the name of National Record Mart (commonly thought to be the nation's first record store chain). ”We didn’t really have the money to get into it with the promotions and this and that. So I said ‘If we can sell enough product here in the tri-state area to at least get my investment back ...’ I did that with the help of Jason Shapiro, who was the president of the National Record Mart chain. He didn't invest but he bought product off of me directly. It wasn't on consignment. He paid me right on the barrel for all of my product. As a rule in the record business, ever since day one, everything's been sold on consignment. If it sells then they'll re-order it and then they'll pay, 90 days same as cash. So he paid me right then and there, so I thank him for that. They had like forty outlets and the records got out. I think they had a few stores in West Virginia, maybe Wheeling, Stubenville. They were strong man, very strong. I did get some airplay here in Pittsburgh, but there weren't too many jazz stations at that time. I think WAMO was about the only one.”

This Is Gene Ludwig is a six-cut LP featuring what Ludwig describes as ”the stuff that works in the clubs.” After the LP came “Chittlin’ Juice” parts I & II, which is a greasy soul jazz original that swings along with the best of them. 


“Mother Blues” b/w “Blue Flame” (1967 Jocida, C-303)   

Another contender for the most obscure piece in the Gene Ludwig discography came circa 1967 courtesy of Johnny "I Can See Clearly Now" Nash. “We did one record, ‘Mother Blues’ on Joda (Jocida). Joda was New York. That was Johnny Nash and Danny Simms. Danny was more or less Johnny's manager and they formed this label. You know Johnny and Dan ... Joda. They were recruiting talent, so we went in and talked and recorded this one piece for them.” Nash and Simms actually formed three sister labels, which were Joda, Jocida (the label that Gene’s 45 was released on), and Jomada who coincidentally released a 45 by another Pittsburgh artist, Johnny Daye. The trio of label's roster also included a young, pre-"I Will Survive" Gloria Gaynor.

Ludwig’s recollections of this date were less than vivid. He recalls that Jerry Byrd, and perhaps Randy Gelispie, had some involvement. He did remember details about the producer of the record, Arthur Jenkins, bringing in some session musicians. “Well actually the producer put me with Bernard Purdie. Him and I, and they put a vibe player in there. Maybe Jerry was on there. I can’t remember really. He’s on one of the sides. He may be on both sides. I remember Purdie carried a sign. “The Hit Maker.” He’d put it in front of the bass drum. He had a nickname back then, Pretty Boy Purdie.” The Jocida single is a definite departure from Ludwig's previous recordings. "Mother Blues" has a strong late sixties pop sensibility and the upbeat groove drumming is very much indicative of Bernard Purdie's signature style. Meanwhile the B side, "Blue Flame"
melds the Hammond together with vibraphone and percussion. Its exotic mid-tempo melody is just short of hypnotic.

Sonny Stitt Night Letter LP (1969 Prestige, 7759)
Gene only recorded once more before the sixties ended. He was touring with Sonny Stitt, who used him and Randy Gelispi on his Night Letter album. This session was recorded by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder and released on Prestige Records in 1970. We didn't speak extensively about this session, but
up until a few years ago Gene was still using the same organ, which is scarred with marks where Stitt would leave his burning cigarettes. This is hysterical seeing as Stitt held a lit cigarette on virtually every one of his album covers, including Night Letter. “We did that in 1969. Me and Randy Gelispie were traveling with him and Bob Porter. He caught us in Newark and he liked the band so we went into the studio. Sonny was signed with Prestige at the time. He could have used anybody he wanted, but he chose me and Randy. So we went in and he brought Pat (Martino) up from Philadelphia. I think it was a good date.“

“My Way” Part I b/w Part II (1971 Steel City Records, SC-0002)

Ludwig’s next recording came in 1971. It was a funky, upbeat version of Paul Anka’s “My Way." “I’d become friends with Steve Walker who was the engineer for Steel City. He knew my work and he said ‘Come on in the studio. It won’t cost you a thing and we’ll do some tracking.’ So I went in and I recorded, and we played it for Lloyd (Anderson) and he said ‘Yeah man.’ So initially I think they had like 500 pressed.”

“My Way” stands out stylistically from a lot of Ludwig’s recordings. For starters he's strictly playing the lead on this record, rather than supplying the rhythm with his left hand. The original Gene Ludwig Trio had disbanded by this point. Jerry Byrd and Randy Gelispie were no longer in Pittsburgh. "My Way" features Sonny Gigliotti on bass along with Sylvester Goshay, perhaps best known for his drumming with Lonnie Smith, adding a furious back beat. “I was working with Walt Maddox and I was playing in that vain and it seemed to get over. Sylvester Goshay, myself, and Walt. I took it to WAMO and they were just starting to hit on it and they liked it.” Then Gene received another ominous phone call from WAMO disc jockey Bill Powell. “He said ‘Did you pick up the news paper today?'" Shortly after the record was released one of the label owners was involved in a shoot out with the FBI. "That made the headlines and the news, so Bill said ‘We have to pull your record off the air.'”

Another record from this era that Ludwig may have been involved with is "Dancing on a Daydream" by the Soulvation Army Band. He didn't recall doing the session, but multiple people who were interviewed rememberred that he recorded on it. It was released in 1974 on the Soulvation Army label and it featured a young Pittsburgh-bred Phyllis Hyman contributing background vocals.

Now’s The Time LP (1980 Muse, 5164)

Ludwig played quite frequently through out the seventies, but any other recordings that he may have done failed to be pressed on record. “One big thing that I did was I traveled with the Arthur Prysock band. That was like '73 (and) ’78. Although I didn’t record with them I did play all over the country. That got me into cities were I’d just dreamt of going like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. He’d always feature me so the name kind of sunk in here and there.”

By the start of the new decade Ludwig was eager to get a release back into the larger national market. One night in Newark, NJ he bumped into Houston Person. “He said maybe talk to Joe Fields, who had the Muse label, and maybe he might be able to do something. So I left the Prysock band and I came back to Pittsburgh, and I got some musicians together and I did Now’s the Time. I called Houston and I said ‘Talk to Joe and see if he likes it and he’ll put it out.’ And he did and Joe liked it, so the following year it came out on vinyl.”

Now’s The Time was released in 1980. It was Gene’s first release in almost a decade. His first full-length album in fifteen years and the first done without Jerry Byrd and Randy Gelispie. John Struthers engineered it at Pittsburgh’s Audio Innovators Studios. He led a quintet consisting of some of Pittsburgh’s most seasoned veterans. “It’s all Pittsburgh guys. George Green’s on saxophone, Tommy Soisson on drums, Kwasi Jayourba on percussion and (Larry) “Butch” McGee on guitar. They’re still practicing musicians.”


Blues And More (1982 Gelu)
Ron Bartol Nassau LP (1984 Leeway Sound, NR15803)
“The Street Preacher” Part I b/w Part II (1987 GeLu, Ge-Lu 141)

After the release of Now’s The Time Ludwig revamped the GeLu label, which had been on hiatus since it’s initial two releases in the sixties.  As always, he had a group together and he was playing for his never-neglected local fan base. In 1982 he put out what is perhaps the most peculiar of all of his releases. It was a cassette-only full length titled Blues And More. Three of the tracks were recorded in New York in 1962 and the majority of the content was new material recorded locally. “When I was with LaVere Billy got me a date with some heavies in New York. Kenny Burrell, Grassella Oliphant ... he was traveling with Gloria Lynn at the time, Clark Terry, Harold Ousley, Sonny Red. We did this for LaVere Records and they shelved it. I got ownership of the masters. That was done at Tom Knowles studio in New York. There was only three good tunes off of there that I liked, so what I did is we had a group together with George Heid and myself, Lou Stellute, Tony Janflone, and George Jones. We went into Aircraft. That was up in Dormont. We did some tracking and I took the best out of that and I added it to the Tom Knowles date and I released it on cassette on Gelu, Blues and More. The bulk of the cassette was the group with George Heid. So I sold a few on the gigs, but unfortunately getting cassettes played on the air ... forget it. I didn’t release that on vinyl, I just didn’t have the money to do anything with it. CD’s weren’t out yet y’know. Cassettes were very popular, but the radio stations were still playing vinyl. If I can dig out a virgin copy of it I might re-release it on CD. Even the names on it, my god, these guys are champions!”

In 1984 Ludwig did a studio session with local guitarist, Ron Bartol. They recorded a cover of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood,” which was included on Bartol’s Nassau LP. Aside from that there’s just one more piece in Gene’s vinyl discography, which is a single that he self-released in 1987. “In the late 80’s I released another 45 on my label called “The Street Preacher.“ I’d written it and I used Tony Janflone, and John Smith and It was done at Mark Strickland studios. There I utilized the piano with all of the voices and the backup behind it. Unfortunately that’s when the market for 45’s became null and void. That’s when CD’s were the up-and-coming thing.”

And that’s the complete Gene Ludwig vinyl discography. Gene continued to do more session work through the nineties. In 1998 he signed with the Blues Leaf label and released five full length CD's. In the summer of 2007 he led a quartet at the Detroit International Jazz Festival featuring
saxophonist Eric Defade along with original Gene Ludwig Trio members, Randy Gelispie and Jerry Byrd. This was only the second time they played together in forty years. His last release, The Gene Ludwig Trio with the Bill Warfield Big Band was released in 2008 on 18th & Vine. More information about Gene Ludwig is available at

In addition to this blog there is a sister-youtube site where all eleven of Gene's 45 singles have been uploaded. There are sixteen compositions total. They can be viewed at