Currently viewing the tag: "Syd Straw"
Lou. Enough said.

Lou. Enough said.

CUBA, Mo.—-Lou Whitney was proud to tell tourists and visiting musicians that the Carter Family lived in a two story Victorian brick house in 1949-50 when they appeared with Red Foley on the radio version of the Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Mo.

That was Lou; talking about Springfield history before he would talk about himself.

In July we took Lou to the empty lot off of old Route 66 where Mother Maybellle, Anita, Helen and June Carter once lived. Lou stood tall, like a mountain in a meadow. His eyes squinted into the Ozark evening sun. He had his hands tucked in the front pockets of his blue jeans and he looked around the calm landscape. His feet were firmly planted on the ground. As always.

There were no airs about Lou Whitney.

I talked my friend and award winning CBS-TV cameraman Tom Vlodek into driving from Chicago to the Ozarks for the July weekend. Lou’s rock n’ roll band the Morells were reuniting to play a high school reunion in Springfield. We wanted to film the concert and interview band members for a possible prose-documentary that uses the acclaimed Morells/Skeletons as a window into the lost history of Springfield music. I’m glad we made that trip.

Lou died Oct. 7 at his Springfield home from complications of cancer and a fall he took in his home in late September. He was 71 years old. Lou never stopped playing and recording other voices.

He never stopped honoring the power of music.

Dave Alvin, Eric Ambel, the Del Lords, Robbie Fulks, Jonathan Richman, Syd Straw, the Bottle Rockets and Wilco are among those who made the pilgrimage to record with Lou and emplloy the Morells/Skeletons at Lou’s studio in downtown Springfield.

I hear Lou just about every day.

The lineage of his own best known recordings dates back to 1979 when the pop-rock Skeletons were created as a back up band for singer-songwriter Steve Forbert. Lou had been bassist-vocalist for the Symptoms (think Ramones meets rockabilly cat Billy Lee Riley) who had been playing six nights a week in the Pub Mobile bar in Rolla, Mo., halfway between Springfield and St. Louis. Lou would remind you the bar was part of an automobile museum on a plot of land owned by a guy who dated “Elly Mae Clampett” of the Beverly Hillbillies.

Donna Douglas, upper left. The Beverly Hillbillies jalopy is on display at the Ralph Foster Museum, south of Springfield.

Donna Douglas (Ellie May Clampett) , upper left. The Beverly Hillbillies jalopy is on display at the Ralph Foster Museum, south of Springfield.

The Morells followed around 1981, the Skeletons returned in 1992 when the San Francisco Chronicle named “Waiting” one of the top 10 albums of the year. In May, 2004 the Morells were the band playing behind Bo Diddley at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn. Back and forth, restless hearts. The Skeletons 1991 track “Outta My Way” got major airplay on WXRT-FM in Chicago and porn star Seka used it as a dance number when she appeared at the Admiral Theater in Chicago.

Lou had vaudeville gumption.

He fought hard in his battle against cancer. He was given six months to live in February, 2013. Lou and his beloved wife Kay drove countless eight-hour round trips between Springfield and St. Louis for experimental therapies. He had a cancerous kidney removed on May 21, 2013. Lou bought extra time to be with his family and friends and  to continue to work with regional Springfield music in his studio.

In July we spent a Saturday afternoon with Lou. On Sunday we treated him at his favorite cashew chicken joint on the south side of town. Lou was sharing stories and they were good and some were spicy. Lou was an avatar of Springfield music history.

Country Music Hall of Famers Porter Wagoner and Brenda Lee got their starts on the Ozark Jubilee radio and television show. Chet Atkins was a studio guitarist for the Ozark Jubilee. Wayne Carson, who wrote the Box Top hits wrote the Box Top hits “The Letter” and “Soul Deep” in Springfield as well as the smash co-write “Always On My Mind,” recorded by Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson. His father Shorty Thompson appeared on the Jubilee radio and television shows. Actor Brad Pitt is from Springfield. Lou always had something new to drop on you. In July he told us the Birdman of Alcatraz, a.k.a. Robert Stroud,  died in (a federal prison) in Springfield.

They all left.

Lou stayed.

Lou was rugged Americana before Americana got gussied up. Next fall’s Americana awards in Nashville needs to find a way to honor Lou. Like thousands of others who encountered Lou, I never grew tired of hearing his stories. Even the same story several times. Lou was the only guy I know who liked to borrow from Lil’ Abner when he talked about his adopted home town: “Springfield is more like it was the last time you were here than it is now.”

Scott Kempner of the Dictators and the Del-Lords wrote on Facebook, “Lou was a constant guide, friend, inspiration, hero and musical companion. Truly one of a kind, high-end, top shelf human being. I don’t think I could have worked with anyone else than Lou and the Skeletons, the best band in America you might not know…Taking a minute to remember them all at this time and a special salute to Lou, the greatest man I have ever known.”

The Skeletons sign a fancy pants record contract (L to R), Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Joe Terry, Lou, D. Clinton Thompson, Kelly Brown

The Skeletons sign and fax a fancy pants record contract (L to R), Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Joe Terry, Lou Whitney, D. Clinton Thompson, Kelly Brown

In 2001 Springfield attorney and former music writer Dale Wiley started the Slewfoot Records label with Lou. They even went full tilt Alan Lomax and ventured into the field to record congregations singing hymns at rural churches around the Ozarks. In late September Wiley created “The Best Facebook Thread Ever” for favorite Lou quotes. Here’s some:

I’ve been around the world twice and talked to everyone once”—Trent Wilson

Did I ever tell you how to butcher a hog?”–Cecelia Ellis Havens

Americana radio’s like Spanish fly and a nymphomaniac: everybody says they exist, but you or I sure as hell ain’t seen one”–Dale Wiley

“Lou Whitney loudly at the restaurant at the Silver Saddle: ‘I’d like some ice cream. They got no ice cream in prison.”–Eric Ambel.

Cars are the art form of the working class”–Dave Hoekstra

My bad. One more time,” on about my 10th take he always acts like it is him who messed up, not me…even when we all knew it was really me. And theres the time he said of my southern gospel singing mama, ‘Man, she sang the hell out of that song!”–Robin Bilyeu Rees

I once had a felafel–I feltawful”–Rick Wood

Give me a little George of the Jungle on the rack tom”—Trent Wilson.

Lou was reticent about playing bass with his band at the July reunion show. He was weak and he didn’t want the attention. “If I felt better I’d play with them again,” he told me. “It’s an emotional thing. I didn’t want to be ‘That Guy,’ you know the guy you see on the television special, and you go, ‘Oh my God, he hasn’t retired yet.’ I was playing when I was 70 (see my January, 2013 birthday post).

My friend Lou Whitney (Dave Hoekstra photo)

My friend Lou Whitney (Dave Hoekstra photo)

Lou did not want a funeral. “And NO band jam memorial,” his long time friend and drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks wrote in an Oct. 2 e-mail. Lou did request that his body be donated to science. Transportation costs for a Springfield funeral home to take Lou’s remains to Washington University in St. Louis were $1,200. A “Send Lou to Camp” GoFundMe campaign raised $2,525 in one day. The extra money goes to Lou’s wife and family.

Doing some quick math, Lou figured he had been playing with some core of the Morells-Skeletons (Hicks, keyboardist Joe Terry, guitarist Donnie Thompson) for 46 years.

What did he learn about himself after all that time?

“A lot of it is confidence,” he answered in satisfied tones. “When you set yourself in the middle of those guys you look good. I don’t care who you are. You know that you’re knocking it out of the park. People dance. If you’re good enough to have that day in and out you can put up with a crappy day easy. A band is like a family. Even if we didn’t see each other for two or three years, we could just pick  up and go.

“That’s comforting to me.”

*                                                                *

Lou Whitney III was born in 1943 and raised in Phoenix, Az. Singing cowboy Gene Autry was in the Army Air Corps at Luke Field in Phoenix and visited the hospital where Lou was born. “Gene Autry got my attention,” he quipped in July.

Lou was the grandson of Louis B. Whitney, the former mayor of Phoenix and unsuccessful candidate for Congress on the Democratic ticket. His son Harold Lou Whitney was a successful Phoenix attorney.

In a tender Oct. 2 Facebook tribute, New York singer-songwriter Mary McBride wrote, “Lou was a tried and true Democrat, one of the best, who infused common sense and utter hilarity into every argument and who could actually separate the good Republicans from the bad. A skill many of us sitting out in the political left field have still not developed. I know Lou will always somehow be watching the polls and trying to steer the vote to the right side of the aisle. I know he will always editing gratuitious lines from songs that think too much of themselves. And I hope he feels great satisfaction in knowing he made an enormous impact on so many people. I am just one of them. How lucky we all are.”

Singer-songwriter-producer Ben Vaughn made it big scoring music for film and television in projects like “That ’70s Show,” “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “Psycho Beach Party.” On his Facebook page Vaughn said it it wasn’t for Lou, he wouldn’t have a career in the music business. “He was the first guy to deem my songs worthy of public consumption,” Vaughn wrote. “In 1982 the Morells recorded a tune of mine for their album ‘Shake & Push’. Without knowing it, I had touched the hem of the garment. Everything changed for me after that. I had no idea how much respect he commanded in the music world.”  The Morells amped up Vaughn’s “The Man Who Has Everything” and the Skeletons later did double keyboard justice to Vaughn’s “I Did Your Wig.”

The Morells had a hit with "Red's," a pre-Guy Fieri hamburger stand on Route 66 in Springfield.

The Morells had a hit with “Red’s,” a pre-Guy Fieri hamburger stand on Route 66 in Springfield.

Lou III left Phoenix by the time he was 16 to live with relatives in the mountains near Bristol, Tn. He was already following the path of the Carter Family. Lou obtained a degree in real estate at Eastern Tennessee University. “It’s a language, actually,” he said in our 2013 conversation. He started playing in tuxedo drenched show bands that were popular in the soul-driven Beach Music scene of the Carolinas, Georgia and Eastern Tennessee. Lou was also a sideman with Arthur Conley of “Sweet Soul Music” fame.

“The World War II and Korea party guys came home with G.I. benefits,”  Lou explained in July. “They went to school at the University of South Carolina. Partying every night. And going out to see these bands. Shag dancing got real big. If you wanted to play a fraternity party at the University of Alabama, you better know some Bill Deal and The Rhondells. Music trends didn’t happen all over the United States. You could go to Denver and never hear of Chairmen of the Board or the Tams. It didn’t get played. But down south it did.”

One of the Skeletons most endearing covers was the Swinging Medallions 1966 Beach Music classic “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love).”

 In 1970 Lou moved to Springfield to sell mail order real estate to  folks in Illinois and Wisconsin who were dreaming of the wide open spaces of the Ozarks. “It was a dying art,” he said in July. “In fact I saw my first fax machine in a real estate office in Springfield. But I really came here to play in bands.”

More than once Lou told me that he and his “Wrecking Crew” Morells-Skeletons musicians were defenders of the song. That’s why songwriters loved working with Lou and it is why his bands did such pure justice with the hundreds of cover songs they did over the years. With Lou on my mind I read Ken Sharp’s Sept. 27 Q & A with former Rolling Stones manager and XM-Sirius host Andrew Loog Oldham in the Sept. 27 issue of Goldmine magazine. “The world is so noisy,” Oldham said. “Music has been wounded by Steve Jobs’ technology; greed and ego is fighting for survival. The main role of the artist is to serve the song, as opposed to him or herself. That is difficult to understand in a world where all technology supports the dangerous charade. Give me John Prine any day over what Simon Cowell barfs up. What’s the result? You’ve got Adele, who is great at receiving awards, but could no more put a set together than a politician could tell the truth.”

Lou was like a good editor. He was an advocate for his talent. He never got in the way. He maintained a dignified work ethic. Here’s Lou setting the table in 1991 on L.A. hipster’s “Art Fein’s Poker Party.”

                               /

In July Lou reflected, “We played together in this tight realistic, no nonsense combo. Playing a bass part all the way through a song, the guitar rhythm and the drum pattern and singing the song. Playing the solos as they existed and getting the breaks rights. We drifted into that. We became popular. Roscoe (Eric Ambel) used to say, ‘When you play a Ramones song it sounds so perfect.’ Well, we couldn’t help it. We’re the best band in the world and we opened for this and we opened for that? I don’t know.

“We’re the band next door. Four guys you would never believe were in a band. We set up and play and if we’re having a good day you go, ‘Yow!’  Even we’re going ‘Yow!’ That’s a good thing. Being in a band is a job like anything else. We practice our songs, learn them and we get better on the job.”

Lou never stopped learning, teaching and sharing. During the rest of my visits to Springfield, I will tell tourists and visiting musicians about the benevolent magic of Lou Whitney. His humble glory roars across America.

Reply, Reply All or Forward | More

Click to reply all

Send

image

Happy Birthday Lou Whitney

January 10, 2013—

SPRINGFIELD, Mo.—-Lou Whitney props his feet up on the soundboard of his recording studio in downtown Springfield. The bass player-vocalist-producer has just finished his first show of 2013 with yet another version of the Skeletons, the most giving rock n’ roll band in America.

The Skeletons play regular two-hour Thursday sets which start at 7 p.m. at the Outland, a small rock club adjacent to Whitney’s studio. They start early because they have things to do. 

Long time Skeletons keyboardist Joe Terry has to get up at 4:30 a.m. to open a coffee shop he manages in the soon-to-be-gentrified North Springfield. On this first Friday  of 2013 Whitney is substitute teaching first grade at Portland Elementary in Springfield.

Skeleton  music is a glorious blend of fire bells, gumdrops and life’s eternal recess.

They play Morells and Skeletons “hits,” along with an infectious new Terry original “Wishing Well” that is part Garth Hudson and part Elvis Costello. Covers range from drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks’ “Tennessee Waltz,” a tribute to the recently departed Patti Page, a Band-like version of Bobby Charles’ “Small Town Talk,” a reggaeized cover of the 1969 hit “Ma Bella Mie” by the Dutch group Tee Set and a wild version of George Harrison’s “Wah-Wah” led by new guitarist Mark Bilyeu, the former lead songwriter of Big Smith.

The audience numbers 16 people.

We have paid $5 each to witness this unfiltered joy. If you like the early Beatles/Dave Clark Five, She and Him and  NRBQ (another relentless band which most often gets compared to the Skeletons) you are here.

If you like to be happy, you are here.

One older fan has done work on the awnings of Whitney’s studio that were damaged in a recent storm. Another gentleman brings the band $50 certificates to a local art cinema house as a late Christmas present. These fans light up a night club that has seen better days.

The Outland’s walls consist of exposed brick and jagged crate. A deflated life size Jim Beam bottle sits on a shelf high above stage left. Somebody should really do something about that. A dead mirror ball hangs from the center of the room, all reflections covered in the dust of time.

Whitney turns 70 years old tomorrow.                                                                                                      *                                            *                                    *

Lou Whitney has led a unique American journey.

Sweet Lou cut his chops on the Carolina Beach Music scene where he backed Arthur “Sweet Soul Music” Conley and Chicago’s late Major Lance. In 1977 his band the Symptoms hit New York radio with their cover of the Swinging Medallions Beach music hit “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love).” The band heard it on WNEW-AM on the way to a gig at the Peppermint Lounge.

image

Major Lance

Whitney has produced and the Skeletons played on projects by the Del Lords, Robbie Fulks, Dave Alvin, Jonathan Richman, Steve Forbert, Syd Straw, late Branson hobo Boxcar Willie and most recently Exene Cervenka of X. Wilco’s “Why Would You Want To Live” from their 1996 “Being There” double album was recorded at The Studio.

One of the Skeletons biggest hits was the 1991 Bo Diddley influenced “Outta My Way,” which received airplay on Chicago’s WXRT-FM. Chicago’s most famous stripper Seka used “Outta My Way” in her routine. In 2003 Whitney and the Skeletons were Diddley’s band for his 2 and a half-hour set on his 75th birthday at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, Ill.

“Maybe someday 50 years from now these Belgian guys and Japanese music fans will come by, ‘We’re looking for where ‘The Studio’ was, where all this happened,” Whitney says of the 1,700-square foot studio he opened in 1994 in a former cosmetic store. “And they’ll be told he died a long time ago.”

image

Springfield (pop. 160,000) is one of the most down-to-earth places in America.

* Springfield is the birthplace of Route 66.

In April, 1926 Tulsa oilman Cyrus Avery met with members of the Missouri State Highway Commission and others at the Colonial Hotel in Springfield about a newfangled 2,448-mile highway that would connect Chicago with the dreams of Los Angeles. The idea was to link the main streets of many small towns to create an interstate highway—thus the Route 66 tagline: “Main Street of America.” This small town ethic has defined Whitney’s music.

* During the mid-1950s’s the Springfield-based Ozark Jubilee was bigger than the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.

image

In line for the Ozark Jubilee, mid-1950s,

Courtesy of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau

Country Music Hall of Famers Porter Wagoner and Brenda Lee got their starts on the Ozark Jubilee radio and television show broadcast live across America in the 1940s and 50s from downtown Springfield., a block east of Whitney’s studio. Chet Atkins was a studio guitarist for the Ozark Jubilee.

image

Springfield is no longer for squares

* Springfield is “The Cashew Chicken Capital of America,” with more than 100 restaurants that serve cashew chicken. Whitney moved to Springfield in 1970. He once explained how Pensacola, Fla. chef David Leong migrated to “The Queen City of the Ozarks” after World War II.

In the late 1960s a semi-truck plowed off of Route 66 into the kitchen of the now-defunct Grove Supper Club where Leong was working. Whitney told me this story in the summer of 2001. To demonstrate what happened, the 6’4” raconteur stood up from behind a desk in his studio and threw himself against a wall. Like Dick Butkus laying into Fran Tarkenton.

Still standing Whitney said, “David was pinned against the wall and suffered minor injuries. He ultimately got a settlement.” Leong opened his own restaurant with the settlement and became the Ray Kroc of Cashew Chicken. His unique style consisted of Chinese oyster sauce, chives and/or chopped scallions.

image

* Springfield is the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

For more than 15 years small groups of fundamentalist Christians march up and down on South Street, the major nightlife corridor in front of Whitney’s studio. They carry placards like “MUSIC STARS ARE IDOLS. GOD IS A JEALOUS GOD.” And “THIS PARTY ENDS IN HELL.” I’ve seen the Skeletons sing the haunting Ronnie Self (a Springfield native) blues anthem “Waitin’ For My Gin To Hit Me” with this religious backdrop. And Brad Pitt was raised in a Southern Baptist household in Springfield—before heading to the University of Missouri to study journalism!

This all stirs up a mighty stew of Americana.

“Springfield seemed like a lot of places to me,” Grammy winner Dave Alvin told me in a 2002 piece on Springfield I wrote for the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Journal of Country Music. “Part of it seemed like my hometown of Downey (California). I felt at home. Then there was a vibe that felt a little like Austin and Nashville. Everybody can play a lot of different styles. They’re pretty open-minded. In many ways it’s a western city, a southern city and a midwestern city.

“It’s kind of centrally located to be nowhere.” 

image

    *                                    *                                    *

Lou Whitney, III  was bassist-vocalist for the Symptoms (think Ramones meets Billy Lee Riley) between 1975-80. They began playing six nights a week in the “Pub Mobile” bar in Rolla, nowhere along Route 66 half way between St. Louis and Springfield. The subterranean bar was part of an automobile museum on a plot of land owned by guy who dated Donna Douglas.

She was “Elly Mae Clampett” on the Beverly Hillbillies.

You can’t make this stuff up.

The Symptoms morphed into the Morells in 1980 which later became the Skeletons, where pop and rock met Beach music. Drummer Hicks has been around for most of this. He counts the three bands among the 42 he has played in.

Whitney figures the Skeletons know “thousands” of songs.

“I graduated from high school in 1962,” Whitney says with a big smile. “My first two years I was a juvenile delinquent. That’s why I’m a good with kids. I can recognize one.”

Whitney is the grandson of Louis B. Whitney, the former mayor of Phoenix, Ariz. and an unsuccessful candidate for Congress on the Democratic ticket. Lou Whitney, Jr. was a successful Phoenix attorney who had trouble with the law and ordering of Lou Whitney III.

“I went to live with relatives up in the mountains near Bristol, Tennessee after I got in trouble,” Whitney says. “I straightened out and went to college.” Whitney obtained a degree in real estate at Eastern Tennessee University. “It’s a language, actually,” he says.

While in college Whitney joined bands that played soul music at frat parties from Tennesse through the University of Mississippi. He reflects, “Sure, I liked the Beatles, but soul music had horn sections, better melodies, there were poppy chord changes but with a big gospel voice.

“So I  drag the Beach music stuff into this.”

Terry’s cresting keyboards amplify Whitney’s joyous Beach music rhythm. Hicks has a profound beat that is shaped in the ethic of bandleader Johnny Otis. Long time guitarist Symptoms-Morells-Skeletons guitarist  D. Clinton Thompson currently is not performing live with the band, but he still plays sessions at Whitney’s studio when work is available.

Whitney admits that is rare these days.

“I’ll be 70!,” he says. “Even roots rock weirdos won’t come near me. It’s a young person’s business. But if you know anything about music, you know Donnie Thompson is one of the six best guitarists in America. It’s the quality here. You got guys like Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Joe Terry and Mark Biyleu. Those are my go to guys. They are down to earth, hard working  and people you can count on. I stayed in Springfield because it would be hard to find any place where you could do better with more money. Guys in L.A. play good, of course, but the quality doesn’t get much better than this.”

image

The Skeletons faxing their signed contract to Alias Records

*                                           *                                    *

The ‘Springfield Sound’ blends Beach music with rockabilly, surf and pop.

Is it a sound where musicians play with curiosity and generosity that could only come from the birthplace of Route 66?

“I’d say there is a Springfield attitude,” Whitney says with a whisper. “We are defenders of the song. It’s hard to put yourself outside of this, but if I put myself outside, I realize it is organic. It is musical. When we cut tracks everybody is playing. We do our share of overdubs, but it is live. Some people call it ‘unpolished,’ I would say it is a little more quaint. The people I associate with don’t go to a recording session to enhance their reputation. My guys get paid $250 a day. $250 a day! They come in and work their asses off and go beyond that, 12, 14 hours. If I have anything going on in the studio I want people to know all you have to do is work hard and you can make good music.”

Not long ago a trio of 14-year-old Springfield girls walked into The Studio asking for Whitney to record their tweener pop.

The girls call their group The Poverty All-Stars.

“My goal is to send them down the road knowing, ‘This can be done’,” Whitney explains. “I want their first recording to be the one they hold up as a benchmark for everything else they do. The punk rock bands come in and start talking about the Sex Pistols and I tell them I’m in the documentary DOA (A Rite of Passage, released in 1980). The Sex Pistols played Oral Roberts University in Tulsa and we were out there arguing (with the authorities). I can tell you about punk rock. I can tell you about the Ramones, we played with those guys.”

Whitney has been married for 22 years. He and his wife Kay Tolliver have seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Take that, Keith Richards.

It is not beneath Whitney to teach his grandkids some glossy Bruno Mars guitar chords. “And I keep playing live because it keeps your skill set up,” he says.

Whitney leans back in a chair and look around the dimly lit studio. It is nearing 11 o’ clock at night. He continues, “I am noticing some age things. I can’t jump around as much. But I still run three miles a day. I don’t feel any different. I don’t feel any different from a personality standpoint. You get down on your hands and knees to work on some painting, you get up and it’s ‘Oh fuck’. I’m not that excited about turning 70. I’m not doing anything for my birthday. Kay and I will do something. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad to be here.”

Mainstream listeners may not know it, but American roots music is a happier place because of Lou Whitney. After the first time you hear the sound of his generous spirit, it becomes a benchmark of everything else that follows. Especially the warm moments that bring you joy, like bright candles on a birthday cake.

 imageM

 Me and Lou, January 2013