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 Westray 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

“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)

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

"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)


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

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)
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,

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


Quantic "Don't Mess With a Hungry Man" 12"
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,

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

 (2006 Tru Thoughts, Ltd., TRULP109)

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: or email for more information. Send inquiries about booking Spanky Wilson  to: 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,, and check out some classic recordings by Pittsburgh's own Spanky Wilson!

Monday, September 12, 2011

I DIG PGH is back announcing the 1st Pgh Vinyl Convention (PVC)

Peace Pgh Ppl,

It's been a hectic year and
sadly the I DIG PGH blog has been neglected for much of 2011. The year isn't over yet though! We've got three plus months to get it together and continue educating you about the awesome records made by Pittsburgh People like most of you reading this right now. In addition to more interviews and blog features, plus more videos on the I DIG PGH Youtube page, we're gearing up for the first ever I DIG PGH sponsored event, which is a collaboration with Pittsburgh's own Mind Cure Records and it's being presented in association with the VIA Music & New Media Festival 2011.

Join us on Saturday October 8th, 2011 for the Pittsburgh's newest record show, Pgh Vinyl Convention (PVC). The event is going to be held at 162 Sheridan Ave. in East Liberty. It's on the second floor above Domino's Pizza. Here goes the official press release and flier. Email if you'd like to be a vendor.

Thanks for reading & supporting, J. Malls

Monday, September 12th, 2011
Pittsburgh's newest record show, The Pittsburgh Vinyl Convention,
debuts on Saturday October 8th, 2011 in conjunction with VIA's second annual Music and New Media Festival in East Liberty.

VIA is # 5 on Resident Advisor's top ten festivals list – its debut last year boasted over 2,000 attendees – and this year promises to be ... even bigger.

More information about the VIA Music and New Media Festival 2011 is available at:

The Pittsburgh Vinyl Convention is at the same building as the VIA
festival – 6022 Broad Street in East Liberty – but is in its own space
with its own entrance at 162 Sheridan Street.


Saturday October 8th, 2011 9 am - 5 pm
162 Sheridan Ave. (East Liberty)
entrance directly to the right of Domino's Pizza

early admission 9 am - 10 am, $10
general admission 10 am - 5 pm, $3

This is an ALL AGES event appropriate for the entire family.

Dealers will load in around the corner at 6022 Broad St. There's an
elevator at this entrance. Parking for dealers is located around the
corner across from the main entrance on Sheridan Ave.
- Load in for dealers starts at 8 am
- Table fee is $40 per table (at this time there is no limit on number
of tables per dealer). A $20 down payment per table will be required
with the total balance due the day of the convention.

This is a new record show and we're aware that it's coming together
right under the wire, but there are perks:

In addition to the influx of people who will be traveling to
Pittsburgh for VIA, there is also another record show, the Pittsburgh
Record Fest, going on the same night (Saturday October 8th) at a
nearby venue, Belvedere's in Lawrenceville. There is no fee to be a
vendor at Pittsburgh Record Fest. These two shows falling on the same day offers unprecedented incentive for potential attendees and vendors to travel to Pittsburgh to buy/sell records. For more information about Pittsburgh Record Fest contact Jason
Baldinger ( or
Max Terasavro (

For more information about The Pittsburgh Vinyl Convention, or to
be a vendor contact us at:

Thank you for reading and supporting,
J. Malls (I DIG PGH) and Mike Seamans (Mind Cure Records)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Going Beyond "The Burg" with Larry "Butch" McGee

The only local legacy that's comparable to that of Pittsburgh's sports teams is that of it's rich musical heritage. And on this Super Bowl Sunday 2011 I'd like to share the story of a guitarist from Pittsburgh by the name of Larry "Butch" McGee. He was born on the Southside and raised in the Hill District by a single mother with a family of twelve children. His infatuation with the guitar began with Elvis Presley's 1957 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Larry was twelve when he got his first guitar. "My mother raised us herself and I knew that she wouldn't be able to send me to school for music, or pay for me. So I figured I had to learn from what they call the school of hard knocks, in other words from any source that I could. And this has been my philosophy or strategy since I was a kid. So anybody that was great or good, I drew upon them and studied them. It wouldn't just be people on guitars. I'm inspired by Herbie Hancock and George Duke. They didn't play the guitar. Jocko Pastorious was a bass player. I didn't limit myself as far as who I tried to learn from."

I recorded an interview with Larry McGee five years ago and I explained that I was interested in creating a resource for people to learn about Pittsburgh musicians focusing on the records that they made. There are a ton of Pittsburgh musicians who relocated to New York and LA and became very famous. These people are relatively easy to learn about. What I'm more concerned about are the ones who didn't necessarily "make it." What was going on here locally in Pittsburgh is much more interesting to me than what people from Pittsburgh were doing elsewhere. "I'm glad you said that. A lot of the ones who didn't make it where so great to me. George Benson had just did a record with Quincy Jones called Back on the Block. He invited me to the session, and after that we went back to the hotel where he was staying in Hollywood. Out of the blue he asked me in front of all of the people 'who was the greatest group you've ever seen?' And I said it was the Altairs and he said to the people 'See, I told you.' So that gives you some idea of how some of the people who didn't make it were really great. George Benson's been around the world more times than I can count. He's seen talent."

McGee's musical career began in 1962 when he was approached by Benson and William Herdon of the Altairs. The Altairs were a Pittsburgh group who cut a record for Amy Records, which was a label based in New York. That was their first and last recording. McGee replaced Benson who moved on to start another group before leaving Pittsburgh to tour with Brother Jack McDuff.

Donnie Elbert "Your Red Wagon (You Can Push It or Pull It)"

b/w "Never Again" (196? Gateway, 45-761)
Van Harris & the Vanguards "Hey, Hey (Feel Alright)" Pt.'s I & II
(196? ABC, 45-11155)

One of McGee's earliest recording dates was with Donnie Elbert. Elbert was an artist from Buffalo, NY who scored a big Pittsburgh hit in the mid-sixties with "Have I Sinned" on Deluxe Records. The Pittsburgh-based Gateway Records label wound up releasing three singles by Elbert circa 1965. I never knew if the recordings were actually made in Pittsburgh, or perhaps they were just licensed by the label. That is until McGee told me that he played on "Your Little Red Wagon (You Can Push It or Pull It)." This may be my favorite of the six tunes and it's the only side that McGee plays on.

Pittsburgh-based band leader
Van Harris hired McGee to back the likes of The O'Jays, Peaches and Herb, The Dells, Chubby Checker, The Drifters, Fontella Bass and Jackie Ross to name a few. Harris assembled a band, Van Harris & the Vanguards, that featured himself on drums, McGee on guitar, David "Sugar" Cain on keys, Donald Jackson on bass, George Green on sax and Jimmy Rodgers on trumpet. McGee speaks very highly of bandmate David "Sugar" Cain. "He used to sing, write songs, play guitar, drums, organ, everything ... way back then. And in my opinion he was like the most talented person I ever met, or played with." The group's only record was "Hey, Hey (Feel Alright)" which was recorded for ABC Records in the late sixties. It's a somewhat obscure record, but not entirely hard to find. For as great as that record is it's kind of strange that it isn't in much more demand.

Lonnie Smith Move Your Hand LP (1969 Blue Note, BST-84326)
Lonnie Smith "Move Your Hand" Pt's I & II
(1969 Blue Note, BN-1955)
Lonnie Smith Drives LP (1970 Blue Note, BST-84351)

McGee's early touring experiences were with Bobby Watley and Winston Walls. In 1969 he went on tour with Blue Note recording artist Lonnie Smith. Lonnie Smith and George Benson had traded back and forth playing on each other's first few LP's. McGee is featured on the albums Move Your Hand and Drives. The title track from the former being an amazing hunk of jazz funk, which was issued as a single. If I'm not mistaken McGee also appears on Smith's Live at Club Mozambique LP, which was shelved for twenty-five years before it's 1995 release. In 1971 Larry replaced Benson once again in Brother Jack McDuff's quartet who he toured with extensively.

Larry McGee Revolution "The Burg (Pittsburgh, Pa)"
b/w "Happy Bicentennial USA" (1976 Boogie Band)
Larry Mcgee & Saxon Sisters
"We're Number One (Super Steeler Disco)"
(1980 Boogie Band)

McGee was still residing in Pittsburgh when he wasn't on the road. The Steelers back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1975 and 1976 inspired a number of records that were either specifically about the Steelers, or they were what you might call very "Pittsburgh-centric." McGee recorded one of the earliest of these records and in my opinion it's the best one. It's titled "The Burg (Pittsburgh, Pa)" and there's more demand for this record today than there was thirty-five years ago.

"We did a minimum order, so I think there were 500 (copies made). Ralph Cominio, the owner of Asterik Studios, made those provisions for me. He made the arrangements and I paid the bill. We recorded that in the spring after the Super Bowl. I was living in Wilkinsburg. The studio was in Wilkinsburg too. The Boogie Band got together in '74 and we made the record in '76." The Boogie Band was initially the name of the group, but the record is credited to the Larry McGee Revolution on the Boogie Band record label. Larry played lead guitar and sang lead vocals with Lamont "Monty" Ray on rhythm guitar, Joe "Chipper" Gray on bass, Willie "Spiegal" Gay on drums and Keith Stabbler on keys. "All the musicians except Keith played with me regularly for at least two years. I was trying to think of a name for the label and I wanted to name it after one of my groups. That was the current group. The idea of Revolution, I liked that name at the time. It's like we were going through a different phase. Those two things are what inspired me to change the name of the group and use that for the record label."

WAMO and WYEP gave the record significant airplay. "There was a guy named Del King. He was a DJ on WAMO, and the Program Director for a while. He helped me get that on the air and WAMO played it regularly. We were on a TV show in Pittsburgh called Vibrations. It was a local show and the host was Bev Smith. We did 'The Burg' on there. We were scheduled to do the one song and they liked it so much that they asked 'Do you have another song?' But we hadn't rehearsed anything else. I wish I could get that."

In 1977 McGee hit the road with Norman Connor's Starship Orchestra. "When I played with Norman Connors I would double on drums. The first couple of songs, before he comes out, I would play. Very seldom do I do gigs on other instruments. Usually I do that in my own groups." During the stint with Connors McGee was interviewed for a full page feature in the October '77 issue of down Beat Magazine. Bill Milkowski, who wrote the article, refers to the shoe box of photographs that McGee shared with him during the interview. A lot of these photos have survived over the decades and are currently displayed on Larry's Myspace page. In July of '78 McGee received another full page feature in Guitar Player Magazine.

In 1980 the Steelers won the Super Bowl for the fourth time and inspired the sophomore release on the Boogie Band label, which was "We're Number One (Super Steeler Disco)." This was at the height of the Steelers popularity and McGee recalls it selling 10,000 units. Joe "Chipper" Gray was the only Boogie Band/Revolution member who played on this release. The song was co-written by Elizabeth Davis and it featured vocals by Denise and Debbie Saxon. Elizabeth Davis was a permanent fixture in the Pittsburgh jazz scene as she lived above the Crawford Grill since the early fifties. Her songs were recorded by the likes of Dakota Staton, Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson to name a few. Denise and Debbie Saxon were part of the later Lovations line up along with Crystal and Penni Wilson. The collaboration of names involved with this release make it much more significant than your average Steelers record.

Gene Ludwig Now's The Time LP (1980 Muse, MR-5164)
Nathan Davis Faces of Love LP (1982 Tomorrow Int.)
Emmett Frisbee Sound Paintings LP (198? Street Level)

McGee recorded on three local jazz LP's in the early 80's. The juxtaposition of these three albums really show McGee's versatility, just within the jazz genre alone. The first of which is Gene Ludwig's Now's The Time, which was mentioned in the debut I DIG PGH feature in July 2010. "He (Gene) had scheduled Pat Martino and then I took Pat's place." Now's The Time features an all-Pittsburgh line up of musicians, but it was released nationally in 1980 on Joe Fields' Muse Records label. Ludwig is on organ and McGee's on guitar with fellow-Vanguard member George Green on saxophone, Tom Soisson on drums and Kwasi Jayourba on percussion.

In 1982 Nathan Davis released Faces of Love, which was the third project on his Tomorrow International label. It was recorded at Sound Heights Recording Studios in Brooklyn, NY and mixed at Jeree Recording Studios in New Brighton, PA. McGee is featured on guitar along with other familiar Pittsburgh names like James Johnson Jr. and Ron Fudoli. Some of the other names on the album are even more familiar including the likes of Idris Muhammed and Wilber Bascomb.

The last of these three jazz LP's is Emmett Frisbee's Sound Paintings. I can't imagine that this album sounded any less weird upon it's initial release than it does today. It's actually pretty amazing as it's part environmental soundscape and part eighties jazz fusion. It's also a really interesting document of the local jazz scene featuring McGee on guitar along with popular Pittsburgh saxophonist Kenny Blake and other artists who's names may be less familiar.

Bill "I Feel Good With You" b/w "Space Lady"
(198? Dollar Bill, RR-42480)
Lonnie Liston Smith "Star Flower" from the album
Love Goddess (1990 Startrak, STA-4021-LP)

The Bill 45 is another quality project that McGee was involved with in the eighties. You generally hear the B-side of this boogie era R&B masterpiece, but the A-side is pretty great as well. As a matter of fact if anyone got a copy of the limited edition mix that I did with DJ BusCrates a few months ago, The Top Shelf Collectors, then you've heard the B-side already. I've been scratching my head wondering who Bill was for years now and McGee informed me that it's actually William Herdon from The Altairs. The same William Herdon who gave him his very first gig in 1962 replacing George Benson.

McGee went back to school and studied business management at the Community College of Allegheny County. In 1987 he completed the program and relocated to Los Angeles. He created a publishing company and a production company along with partners Joe Caccamise and Alan Walker. In 1990 he co-wrote "Star Flower" which was included on Lonnie Liston Smith's Love Goddess LP. He's featured on the track playing keyboards, guitar, synthesizer bass and percussion. Other projects that Larry was involved with, which were never issued on vinyl, include The Jazz Syndicate featuring Phil Collins, Angela Bofill and Gerald Albright (1998), Norman Connors' Easy Living and Eternity (both released in 2000) and Tom Scott's' New Found Freedom (2002).

Larry McGee Revolution "The Burg" 12" Reissue
(2005 Licorice Soul, LSD-010T)

As I mentioned before, there's more demand for "The Burg" today than when it was initially released in 1976. This is largely because of UK disc jockey Keb Darge who is credited with (re)discovering the record. Darge is probably best known in the U.S. for the Funk Spectrum compilation series that he co-curated along with his stateside record-digging contemporaries DJ Shadow, Pete Rock and The RZA.

Back in September of 2005 I was speaking with jazz drummer extraordinaire Roger Humphries who informed me that Larry was living in LA and he suggested that I go online and look him up. When I went online I discovered that a UK-based label by the name of Licorice Soul was coincidentally reissuing "The Burg" that very week. I'd already seen that the original 45 had been selling for quite a bit of money, which explained all of "The Burg" related phone calls that we'd been getting at Jerry's Records that summer. McGee explains that he never met or spoke to Keb Darge and it was a DJ in the United States who initially contacted him about the record. "He's the one that contacted me first. He wanted to buy all 'The Burgs' that I had and the 'We're Number Ones.' Once we made that deal he connected me with Licorice Soul Records. I was excited. I really felt that the record never had the chance to get the proper exposure."

I was excited too, but kind of disappointed that the reissue and the new interest in Larry's record had gone under the local radar. When the Steelers were going to the Super Bowl in 2006 I thought it would be a prime opportunity to get Larry McGee's story published locally. Unfortunately I wasn't able to make that happen, but five years later the Steelers are going to the Super Bowl AGAIN and I'm in a much better position to publish this myself now. Regardless of whether we win or lose tonight I'm going to be alright. I like the Steelers as much as the next guy, but I've got people like Larry "Butch" McGee who make me proud to be where I'm from. The Burg (Pittsburgh, Pa).

Visit I DIG PGH on YouTube to check out selections from the Larry "Butch" McGee discography:

Friday, February 4, 2011

Title Town Sounds: A History of Pittsburgh Steelers Fight Songs

In 1969 Chuck Noll was hired as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Noll turned the team around from what is commonly referred to as "The Four Decade Famine." In 1972 the Steelers finally made it to the play offs for the first time in the team's history. They returned to the play offs the next two seasons and finally clenched the AFC Championship in 1974. They then went on to win back-to-back Super Bowls in 1975 and 1976. You probably know how the rest of the story goes, so I won't bore you.

What's interesting is with this new success came notoriety and popularity, and with popularity came an expanded fan base and of course merchandising opportunities. Now-l
egendary players like Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Rocky Bleier, Lynn Swann, L.C. Greenwood, Joe Green and Dwight White not only had their names immortalized in the NFL Hall of Fame, but also in a wide array of official, and not so official, Pittsburgh Steelers merchandise that included ... you guessed it ... vinyl records. A lot of these records are just your run of the mill sports novelty items, but some of them became very popular. Novelty or no novelty these were the sounds that defined the more successful seasons of Steelers football.

The Steelers Sing Holiday Halftime LP
(1969 Manilus Records, MAN 2010)

Mike Kalina & Friends "Steelers '72" (1972 Fox Records)
Jimmy Pol "Steelers Fight Song" (1973 NRM)
In 1969 Mike Tatich released what I believe is the first Steelers record, The Steelers Sing Holiday Halftime, on his New York based Manilus Records label. The album was arranged, conducted and produced by Jacques Urbont. Urbont had done some composing for popular 60's TV shows including Mannix and Mission Impossible. What's even cooler is that he's the one responsible for the theme songs to the 1960's Marvel Superheroes cartoons!

The earliest Steelers record I know of, that was produced locally,  was made in 1972. Mike Kalina, who would later become known as The Traveling Gourmet, released what was called a cut-in record titled "Steelers '72." A cut-in record was a type of novelty comedy record that was popular in the sixties and seventies. Most of the records were done in an interview fashion where the interviewee's dialog, or responses to questions, were comprised of soundbites from popular songs.
Perhaps think of it as a precursor to sampling. On this particular cut-in record Kalina is portraying the late Myron Cope who is interviewing the late Steelers' owner Art Rooney about the team's 1972 play off debut. The voice of Art Rooney is substituted by soundclips from early seventies hits including Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" and T-Rex's "Bang a Gong."

Then of course we have the first of many Jimmy Pol Steelers Fight Songs, which was released in 1973. Pol, whose real name was James Psihoulis, would undoubtedly  become the most well-remembered artist of what you might refer to as the Steelers Fight Song genre. My understanding is that Pol was not only a radio disc jockey/celebrity, in addition to being a polka band leader, but he actually owned multiple radio stations in the region and had a large involvement with the Pittsburgh-based National Record Mart chain.  It was National Record Mart who initially released Pol's Steelers Fight Songs on their NRM label.

Whatever It Takes LP (1975 Olympic Records, OLP-1001)
Super Steelers '76 LP (1976 Fleetwood, FCLP-3095)
Coward Hosell "Super Steelers '76" (1976 ?)
Larry McGee Revolution "The Burg (Pittsburgh, PA)"
(1976 Boogie Band)

As I said, the Steelers won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1975 and 1976. 1250 AM WTAE was the official radio station to broadcast the games and they were announced by Jack Flemming and the aforementioned Myron Cope, creator of the Terrible Towel. Highlights from the WTAE broadcasts were released on LP by the Massachusetts-based Fleetwood Recording Co., Inc. (the first album was in association with the Olympic Recording Co., Inc).

In 1976 there was another cut-in record made attributed to Coward Hosell. This was a bit of a mystery piece with a similar theme to the Mike Kalina record. In the spring of 1976 Larry "Butch" McGee released "The Burg (Pittsburgh, PA)" on his own Boogie Band Records imprint. He recalls placing a minimum order with the pressing plant and estimates that there were probably 500 copies made. This record has become very sought after, not because of its Steelers references, but because DJ's are actually playing it now 35 years after it's initial release. A lot of people nowadays know McGee primarily because of the interest in this record, but he actually has a some what extensive recording career. I'm going to go into more detail about Larry McGee separately.

Jimmy Pol "Steelers Fight Song 1978" (1978 NRM, 2250)
Jimmy Pol "Steelers Fight Song 1979" (1979 JP Prod./NRM, 2470)
Wakefield "Make Plans for the Super Bowl" (1979 ?)
Freddie Waters "Steel it Steelers" (1979 Kari, KA-105)

Jimmy Pol returned with more Steelers Fight Song polkas in 1978 and 1979. This essentially set the paradigm for the Steelers Fight Song that would be redone each year with updated lyrics. This also cemented Pol and his polkas in the memories of everyone who was around in the seventies to witness the Steelers' Super Bowl wins. Until this day I have many early recollections of Eastern European fathers and grandfathers with their accordions performing what was the "Black and Yellow" anthem of its day.

The "Make Plans for the Super Bowl" record isn't really exceptional, nor is "Steel it Steelers" by Freddie Waters. The latter although must have been tremendously popular because the city is littered with copies. The funny thing is that it was released by a label based in Nashville and there's really no indication that anyone local had anything to do with the record.

Jimmy Drake Orchestra "Steelers Victory Theme" (197? Alanna)
Pittsburgh Steeler Fans "Steeler's Victory Theme"
(197? Alanna, AL-579)

Acappella Gold "Title Town, U.S.A." (19?? Iron City, A-301)
Lou Antonucci "Titletown, U.S.A." (1980 Titletown Prod., 0001)

The Jimmy Drake Orchestra records on Bill Lawrence's Alanna label aren't amazing, but they're really interesting. The instrumentals on the B-sides are actually really well composed and a bit more compelling than the actual Steelers songs. The second record is a re-cut of the first with different vocals. I'm assuming that this is the same Jim Drake from the Tempos, who were a Pittsburgh group that sang "See You in September." That song was a fairly successful hit in 1959 and it was included on the soundtrack of George Lucas' 1973 film American Graffiti. The group Pure Gold, who are local purveyors of this late fifties/early sixties group harmony sound, recorded a Steelers song titled "Title Town, U.S.A." They recorded it as Acappella Gold on Iron City Records. There's no year listed on this release either, but another artist by the name of Lou Antonucci also recorded a "Titletown, U.S.A." song as well in 1980. It's more of a folk record though.

I've been receiving a lot of questions along the lines of "Why is the Title Town Soul & Funk Party called Title Town?" and "Isn't Green Bay the original Title Town?" Yes, Green Bay is the original Title Town, or Titletown (whichever you prefer), because they won the first two Super Bowls back-to-back in 1967 and 1968. Then the Steelers won FOUR Super Bowls between the years of 1975 and 1980, so obviously Green Bay got it's "Title" taken. And when the Steelers won the Super Bowl AGAIN in 2009, in addition to the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup, my partner Gordy and I thought that it was appropriate to name our party Title Town, which was definitely inspired via the "Title Town, U.S.A." records from the late 70's/early 80's. We wanted to use a local record reference and we thought that it sounded good.
So there you have it.

Pittsburgh Steelers Super Team XIII LP
(1980 Fleetwood, FCLP-3111)
Jimmy Pol "Steelers Fight Song 1980" (1980 JP Prod., PP-1222)
Jimmy Pol Cheers the Steelers LP (1980 JP Prod., PP-1233)
Champion City Singers "Italian Salute to the Steelers"
b/w "Irish ..." (1980 NRM, NRM-1012)
Champion City Singers "Polish Salute to the Steelers"
b/w "Jewish ..." (1980 NRM, NRM-1013)
V.I.P. Steeler Salutes (198? 2001 Record Co., 3352)
Freddie Waters "Super Steelers" (1980 Kari, KA-113)
Elliott, Walter & Bennett "The Twelve Days of Pittsburgh Steeler Christmas" (1980 Paid, PAD-PIT-4)
Larry McGee & Saxon Sisters "We're Number One
(Super Steeler Disco)" (1980 Boogie Band)

1980 would no doubt be the most prolific year for Steelers inspired music. Even Terry Bradshaw himself had a record deal and released a few albums of religious inspired country music. Fleetwood released another album of highlights from the 1979 season and the 1980 Super Bowl. Jimmy Pol not only released another Steelers Fight Song that year, but an entire LP titled Jimmy Pol Cheers the Black & Gold. Apparently there's another single from the album titled "1980 Steeler Fever" but I never came across that one yet. This is kind of interesting because Jimmy Pol began releasing this material on his own JP Productions imprint without National Record Mart's involvement.

NRM wasn't out of the fight song game yet though. They released a set of singles that year that featured Irish, Italian, Jewish and Polish salutes to the Steelers. The records are obviously not quite politically correct, but they were immensely popular. The sides of the singles were later rerecorded and rereleased on the 2001 label, which I always assumed had some affiliation to the 2001 disco club that was located on the Northside. Proceeds from the rereleases on the 2001 label benefited the Easter Seals organization.

Freddie Waters followed Jimmy Pol's example and redid the lyrics for "Steel it Steelers" and rereleased it as "Super Steelers." Another Nashville label called Paid released a record by Elliott, Walter & Bennett titled "The Twelve Days of Steeler Christmas." Once again there's no indication that anyone from Pittsburgh had anything to do with this recording either. I get the impression that the city of Nashville is filled with Steelers bars. There's also supposed to be a "One for the Thumb in '81" single that I've never come across yet.

Larry McGee released a follow up to "The Burg" in 1980 titled "We're Number One (Super Steeler Disco)." McGee recalls selling 10,000 copies of this single. This release isn't nearly as good as its predecessor, but it's significant because he co-wrote it with Elizabeth Davis. Davis was a song writer who lived above the Crawford Grill, which was a venue located in the Hill District. She's considered to be an important figure in the Pittsburgh jazz scene, but there's very little documentation of her work. Denise and Debbie Saxon were also featured on the record. They did very little recording that I know of aside from one single that was released while they were a part of a later Lovations line up. I consider the record to be very significant for these reasons, but it's definitely more of a novelty record where as "The Burg" is just a very well made disco record.

The History of the Super Bowl LP (1980 Fleetwood, FLCP-3110)
John Crispino & C.A.T. "Mad Man Jack" (1981 Erika Records)

The Steelers didn't receive their one for the thumb in '81 and the proliferation of Steelers fight songs quickly subsided. The franchise and the fans who supported it would have to wait 25 years for that fifth Super Bowl victory. Fleetwood released an album titled The History  of the Super Bowl in 1980, which included 24 years worth of Super Bowl highlights. This obviously included many shining moments in Steelers history. Erika Records, which was California-based label released a football-shaped tribute to Jack Lambert in 1981 titled "Mad Man Jack" by John Crispino & C.A.T. To my knowledge this is the only Steelers-related record that came out in '81 and there are none that I know of from 1982.

Jimmy Pol "Steeler's Fight Song 1983" (1983 JP Prod., PP1297)
"Doc" Stewart "Super Steelers Fan" (1983 C.E.S., 5630)
Tony Germaine "Cower Power" (1992 Power, 7227)
Kardaz "The Mighty Guins" (1993 Kardaz Inc., FS-759)

In 1983 Jimmy Pol released the last of his Steelers Fight Songs, once again on his JP Productions imprint. This record marked his tenth year in the Steelers fight song business. Charles "Doc" Stewart proved that he was a "Super Steeler Fan" that year with his release on his own C.E.S. Records imprint. The only other Steelers record that I know of is "Cowher Power" which was released in 1992 by Tony Germaine. That's very late in the game to be releasing a 45 unless you were a punk band. I have to give honorable mention to Kardaz who released "The Mighty Guins" single in 1993, which is the only Penguins record that I know of. Kardaz also recorded the Steelers fight song/Ghostbusters parody, "Go Steelers." It's not on vinyl, but it's currently featured on the WDVE website where you can check out a bunch of other relatively new Steelers fight songs as well. Obviously none of these songs made nowadays are going to be released on vinyl, but the saga continues none the less.

As hokey as all of this must seem, this tradition of making music pertaining to Pittsburgh sports teams has been going on for almost forty years and I don't anticipate it ending at any point in the near future. Especially with technology making it increasingly easier for people to record and distribute their own music. The question is: Will today's mp3's and YouTube videos survive forty years from now like the records that you just read about? I guess we'll see in forty years. In the meantime all that's left to say is ...


Visit I DIG PGH on YouTube to hear select Steelers fight songs: