I moved to LA in 1949 with my parents, I was 16.
And I went to high school for one semester here at Belmont High School,
which was largely Mexican-American. And uh, I joined a band, the Vascos
Brothers Band, and we played different gigs, um, a lot of jazz, but also
some Latino music. And um, then I graduated high school and went to Los
Angeles City College. And I was playing some gigs on occasion, you know, not
too many. I wasn't really that good. I loved jazz, but I wasn't, you know, I
wasn't good enough for my own taste. And um, about that time I decided,
since I loved music, I would get involved and study, and I began to study
privately with a composer orchestrator to study composition. And that's
about the same time that, uh, I met Jerry.
So you're writing these blues lyrics and when you got
together with the idea of writing and not performing, correct?
Oh, there wasn't any question about performing. I,
uh, I never, uh, never dreamed of performing. I was writing essentially
primarily for blues singers, black blues singers. And I wasn't really
interested in anything else. I wasn't interested in pop music, I wasn't
interested in country music, I wasn't interested in any, jazz, even in jazz,
vocal jazz. I enjoyed it. I liked to listen to it, you know, for my own
pleasure. But I was not interested in writing it. I was only interested in
the language and the humor and the, the, uh, the pain, whatever, of the
We felt that, uh, for us to perform would be
totally inauthentic because we weren't black. However, for some reason we
forgave ourselves that when it came to writing.
So there was never any real question of performing.
It was also a tradition. I mean, pretty much.
Except, there were a few exceptions like Johnny Mercer sang, a few people
sang once in a while, but by and large the tradition of songwriting was the
songwriter wrote the songs and he was a behind the scenes kind of character.
Now, George L -- George M. Cohan for instance was a great performer. I know
about this. But mainly, the songwriter was mainly a behind the scenes
Except, oddly enough, in the blues. Because most of
the blues performers wrote their own material, and uh, or at least many of
them did. And I guess to some extent, our material was accepted because a
lot of these performers who did write were not as good as some of the other
ones. And they wrote the same song pretty much over and over.
When you first started placing these songs, getting
these songs recorded, what kind of experience was that? Did you find it
satisfying or frustrating or what?
Deeply frustrating. Because um, the first, the
first sessions, the first meetings were set up by Lester Sill with Modern
Records, who, at the, who, uh, which was owned by the Harry Brothers. And
the Harry Brothers were completely amusical. I mean they just… they had a
business. They could've been in the junk business, it didn't matter, you
know. And uh, they had this record company. And they were affable guys, they
were easy to get along with, but they really didn't know much about music
and didn't care much about it either. And uh, we had some meetings with
some, uh, artists -- we met with the Robins, you know. And uh, it was, it
was, in the very beginning it was hard to get things straight. You know, it
was hard to get things down. And um, it was hard to get things right. And we
struggled with that for a long time. And in a funny way, we started to, to
produce, really, in self-defense. Because a lot of the songs that we had
written -- well, firstly, the first songs we wrote were lousy anyhow, so it
didn't matter how well they were produced, they just came out badly. Uh,
later on, when we started writing some good songs, they were not produced
adequately or properly, or they were misinterpreted. You know, you'd get a
swing band arrangement on a blues, right? By a Hollywood arranger instead of
the right kind of stuff that you'd get out of someone like Bumps Blackwell
or Maxwell Davis, right? So as we went along we learned the different ways,
the different styles and so forth and we started producing.
Also, the key to what success we had was in
rehearsal. Because we used to rehearse our groups that we worked with, the
Robins, the Coasters and so on, for weeks on end before a session. And the
traditionally, these people came together in the studio and learned a song
on, on the date and, uh, and performed it. And there were some wonderful
bands that could, like Johnny Otis's, that could do head arrangements right,
uh, you know, from the git, and they'd come off sounding very professional.
But there hadn't been any time for real exploration in rehearsal.
Did "Kansas City" or "Hound Dog" come first?
"Kansas City" came first.
Do you want to --
Well, wait a minute, they were about the same time
The release dates were different, but they were
both cut in '51.
Both cut in '52 actually. And I'm trying to
remember when, "Kansas City" came out the end of '52. Uh, Big Mama's record
was recorded in August of '52 but didn't come out until '53, February or
Let's address each of those. The one thing about "Kansas
City" did you feel at the time that that was sort of a breakthrough in terms
of the craft of songwriting, because I know, when we talked about this
before, the idea that this was a blues with a melody hook, almost like a pop
song, can you say that?
I can say part of it and Mike can say the rest of
it. Originally, uh, I was singing the words to "Kansas City" to a
conventional blues shout pattern, you know? I mean, just [sings] I'm going
to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come. Something like that, right? And I
gave it to Mike and I said, I think this is the way it ought to go. And he
said, yeah, and he started playing it on the piano and he put it to this,
and he put it to that. And then he put it to a shuffle. And I said, well,
and he started to play a little of, you know, I'm going to Kansas City, he
started playing a tune, and I said, no, I don't want that. I want, and I
went back to the straight blues. And he said, yeah, yeah, I know. Because
Mike is very polite you know. And he kept playing around with the idea and I
finally said, you know, I really don't want that melody, I don't want a
melody, I want it to sound like a traditional blues. I don't want it to
sound like some, you know, smartass songwriter is tampering with the melody.
And he said, who's writing the music, you or me? And there was like a
standoff for a minute and I looked at him and he looked at me. And I
thought, hmm, I don't know how to write lead sheets.
And the boy is crazy anyway, you better humor
I said you're writing the music. He said, good,
it's going to go like this. [hums melody] And that's sort of the way it
Only the song came out and the A and R man from
Federal Records, Ralph Bass, said, you know what, I love the song, it's
great, but you know what?
It's not sexy enough.
No, he said, KC is hip. KC is really hip. So when
they released the record, he just changed the title on the label to "KC
Loving." It took seven years before somebody else remembered the song and
recorded it under its obviously title of "Kansas City."
Now "Hound Dog" has the -- Let's, can we get the story
on "Hound Dog" and since this is like sort of being in the show, we're going
to be building up to hearing it, so on and so forth, maybe in this case,
instead of saying well we wrote "Hound Dog", just this once, these guys
suggested holding off on the name of the song you're talking about until the
All right. It went like this. Lester Sill gave us a
call, and said he set up an appointment for us to go down to listen to a
rehearsal one afternoon at Johnny Otis's garage where he rehearsed his band.
And listened to his singers. He had a number of different singers down
there. He had Mel Williams and Little Esther and Big Mama Thornton and a
group, were the Three Tons of Joy down there --
I don't think, yeah, a little later.
A little later, I think, yeah. And we went down and
uh, you know, Lester told Johnny that we were young guys that were comers
and we wrote the blues.
Well, Johnny knew us at that time.
Sure. Because we'd worked with Little
Oh, I forgot that.
Um, so we went down, we went down to listen to his
people, and uh, Big Mama got up and sang a song. And she just knocked us
out. We thought she was great. And um, I turned to Mike, I said, let's get
out of here, this is it, let's go and write it. And we left, and on the way
to Mike's house, I'd got maybe 50 or 60 percent already of a lyric. Because
I was looking --
On the way to Mike's house we ran into Bre'r
Rabbit, and Bre'r Rabbit said where you going, and I said we're going to
Mike's house to write "Hound Dog".
One thing you didn't get with Big Mama was why did she
impress you. You said, she impressed us.
I was trying to cut it short.
Well, I mean, I think, Little Lester sang a number,
and uh, Ray, Ray Williams, they were both really good. Big Mama got up and
she just blew everybody away. She was just such a great blues singer. She
was so nasty. She was, she was really evil. I loved her. I thought she was
great. She had all these razor scars all over her face. Because somebody
down there, was, uh, somebody listening said that she was a lady bear, and I
didn't know what that was. And I found out maybe five or six or seven years
later that, that was a very big female who was a lot of trouble. Um, and she
acted that way, but actually she wasn't that way, it was a big front. Like
most bears, you know. Um, she just sang her ass off, you know, and impressed
us very much. And uh, we looked at each other and decided to take off
immediately, and uh, we jumped in Mike's car and headed for his house. And
I'd say about, maybe half way to his house I'd already gotten about 50
percent of the lyrics to the song. And uh, we landed, and Mike went to the
piano, and I started yelling, you ain't nothing but a hound dog, and it all
came together in about eight or ten minutes. And we got back in the car,
went back to the garage, and we laid the song on Johnny Otis. And uh, he
told us to perform it for Big Mama. Which we did. And I started, I think
maybe I got through about four bars, and she said, give me that, give me
that piece of paper, give me that. And she sort of grabbed the paper out of
my hand. It was not written on a brown paper bag, mind you, it was written
on a piece of spiral notebook paper. And uh, she started to sing it. And um,
actually she started to croon it. And I said, um, it don't go that way. And
all of a sudden there was a hush in this garage. The entire band, I think
there were 11 or 12 guys on the stand, and they're usually jerking around,
you know, high jinks and locker room stuff -- it became quiet as a mouse.
And she said, it don't go like that, it don't go like that. She says, I tell
you how it go, it go like this -- ahhhhhhhhh. White boy, don't you tell me
how to sing the blues. So I looked at Mike, he looked at me. And Johnny Otis
came down and said, hey, wait a minute, wait a minute, cool it, just wait a
minute. He said, Willie Mae, she looked up at him and said, yes sir? She was
very polite when she's doing business. [LAUGHS] She wasn't doing business
with me. Yes sir. He said, now, we got to stop that stuff, you know? We're
here to take care of business, right? She said that's right. Now, give me
that song. And hand it to me. Now, sing the song the way it's supposed to be
for Big Mama, all right? I looked at Mike, Mike was ready to split. He
didn't want to have anything to do with this. He's looking at the back door.
I said, Mike, play the piano. He did one of these, who me? [LAUGHS] Finally
he went over to the piano, and uh, I sang the song, Mike played the song.
And uh, the band went nuts. They loved it. They thought it was funny. These
two white kids are in here singing the blues, they both must be crazy, what
are they doing, you know? And Big Mama finally broke into a smile. I came
down, she made up with me, I made up with her, she took the song, and she
started singing it. Johnny got on the drums during the rehearsal, and it
sounded great. It was just dynamite.
And Pete Lewis on guitar, the late Pete Lewis,
just a genius. It was great.
How'd you sing it?
How'd I sing it? You ain't nothing but a hound dog.
That's how he sings.
That's how I usually talk. I'm being especially
quiet today because Mike said don't do that. Don't do that on the camera and
don't do that on the microphone, you're going to scare the people out of the
studio. Can you just like imitate somebody who has manners.
Au contraire. You been living in New
I think that we're ready to talk about "Riot in Cell
Block #9" and the Robins -- all right, a technological --
Getting to "Riot in Cell Block #9" and obviously this is
a departure that introduces us to this whole idea about the playlet song. So
I wonder if you might give us a little background on this idea of the
playlet. What's the background to what we here, which is a very fully formed
Well, the background is radio. And how I was,
lyrically anyway, how I was sort of influenced by programs like I Love a
Mystery, and The Shadow, and Nick and Nora.
Could you just say "Riot in Cell Block #9".
Well, "Riot in Cell Block #9" was, um, influenced,
uh, primarily in Jerry's work but also in mine, in terms of, uh, the radio
programs that we listened to as kids. And the characters speaking, because
radio, let's face it, was much more interesting than television is because
you could imagine all these things. And so using the kind of, uh, radio
technique, non-visual but dialogue is the way in which these songs evolved.
And this was probably the first one in which, uh, the narration was done in
that style. And also, of course, we enjoyed putting in sound effects, which
were like things from, uh, what was that program?
Gangbusters and stuff like that with the sirens
and the machine guns and so on and so forth.
You could sort of sum it up in a way, I think, sort
of, like this. I think it's maybe a little bit more complicated, but I think
this hits it enough. The form musically were the blues. Because Willie
Mabon, you know, Little Walter, those blues breaks, that was the form and
that was the sound. The content was something that we made up and was very
much influenced by early radio, but filtered through a blues idiom in terms
of language, in terms of vocabulary, in terms of dialect.
What kinds of different problems in terms of preparing
these songs to be recorded did working with this kind of material present?
It seems like it would almost be a whole different ballgame almost
rehearsing like for a play.
To some degree maybe, but you know, there were
precursors, there were other groups doing things before we did.
The Clovers used to do things where the bass would
have the end line of the bridge or something like that, and we loved their
And the Dominoes. And Jimmy Rix and the Ravens. We
were influenced by all these groups. And uh, really, and we tried, I guess
we sort of synthesized a lot of these influences with the Coasters.
Now, by this time, you're working with this label,
Spark. One of your, if you could tell us, what led you to get into having
your own record label, and what was unattractive enough about it to make
Atlantic look very attractive.
Well Spark Records was a label that we started
with Lester Sill, who was really our mentor and advisor. And the reason that
we started it was so that we would be unencumbered when it came to the
creative production of the records. We could take it from beginning to end
including the mastering and all the editing and so on and so forth, which is
really what we wanted to do, to protect the notion or the integrity of the
idea of each song. And the reason that ultimately Atlantic seemed so
attractive was two fold. Number one, we loved the Atlantic Records. We
admired many of their artists, the Clovers, Ruth Brown and so on and so
forth, LaVerne Baker.
But also because we were under-financed and we
couldn't, uh, we couldn't as Jerry says often, we couldn't cross the
Rockies. So we'd have a big smash in LA, selling even a hundred thousand
records, singles, and nothing on the other side of the country, zero. So
that seemed to be a good idea, which they suggested to us. They said,
listen, make the records. We'll pay you a royalty, because we know how to
sell them and you don't.