Earshot 15

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the incomparable lou johnson

So finally Kent deliver Lou Johnsons’ superb and complete Big Top collection. This is an album that a few of us have been trying to get released on CD for 25 years or more (I wrote my first feature about him for ‘Blues & Soul’ in August 1968). Though Lou had a couple of hit singles with the original versions of ‘Reach Out For Me’ (’63) and ‘(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me’ (’64), his record label seemed hell bent on wrecking his chances of becoming a star. They ceased trading on a couple of occasions and changed their name three times in their short life. The ten singles he cut were of exceptional high quality and there were no throw away B-sides either. As his producer, Burt Bacharach turned in some of his finest work when he and Johnson blueprinted a unique and sophisticated soul style with ‘If I Never Get To Love You’, ‘The Last One To Be Loved’ and ‘Kentucky Bluebird’ (plus those already mentioned) before Burt left to launch Dionne Warwick at Scepter. Undaunted Lou went on to record a half dozen more superb records with producers Bill Giant, Bernie Baum & Florence Kaye including ‘Please Stop The Wedding’, ‘A Time To Love, A Time To Cry’, ‘What Am I Crying For’ and the earlier ‘It Ain’t No Use’. As if this were not enough the soul miners at Kent Records uncovered the previously unissued ‘Love Build A Fence’, ‘Who Is It Now’, ‘No Other Guy’ (originally on his scheduled but unissued album Anytime) and the fantastic original version of ‘The Panic Is On’, cut later by Roy Hamilton.

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Had the Anytime album been issued in 1966 Lou’s fortunes might have been very different
because the matchless quality of his Big Top recordings would have been heard by so many more music fans. As it transpired the two following albums Sweet Southern Soul (Cotillion ’68) and With You In Mind (Volt ’71) while critically acclaimed at the time, fell fallow on the album charts and Johnson dropped out of the spotlight. Since then he has made no new solo recordings. Lou was disillusioned by the corruption of his manager and did not seek any new recording or management deal. He performed his music at a small club/ diner called the Green Parrot in Dallas, Texas for five years or so before moving to Portland, Oregon. Then Lou moved again on to Orange County, California where he played with a trio called the Rhythm Masters before joining an Inkspots group. In 1983 he was part of a Drifters group for a couple of years before joining Little Caesar & the Romans, then eventually rejoining the Inkspots. Johnson freelanced as a musician and cut some records with Frankie Lee’s Blues Express who he also appeared with at the Monterey Blues Festival in 2000. Though Lou has been working steadily for more than forty years, his considerable vocal and musical talents have been buried in relative anonymity. Though his recordings have created a cult in both the UK and America, the high prices they demand in the collectors markets don’t put any dollars into his pockets. My sincerest wish is that Lou Johnson – Incomparable Soul Vocalist is finally the big success it deserves to be and brings Lou some satisfaction and long overdue recognition. Every one of the 25 tracks on this masterwork is a gem so don’t miss this opportunity to hear and obtain the incomparable Lou Johnson’s finest album. (peter burns)

Credits: Trevor Churchill, Lou and Linda Johnson, David Cole

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al green  -  tired of being alone

Way back in the early seventies I was fortunate enough to be in the audience at the Finsbury Park Rainbow on Al Green’s very first visit to London. As the show’s headliner Al had to follow Bloodstone, an excellent outfit who combined group harmony soul with the street wise sounds of Sly & the Family Stone. They gave a great performance and were very well received. After all the excitement the entry onstage of Al Green was something of an anticlimax, and he clearly had his work cut out to win the crowd over. But win them over he did, with a vocal display that was not just top drawer, but possibly the finest I have ever witnessed. Any lingering doubts were finally dispelled when Al launched into a gospel drenched version of his first hit “Back Up Train”, holding one impossibly high falsetto note for what seemed like an eternity, and bringing gasps of astonishment and spontaneous applause from the crowd. There was no doubt about it, this man was something special.

The late Willie Mitchell had recognised Al Green’s potential when he signed him to the Memphis based Hi label a year after “Back Up Train” had hit the charts, and at a time when Al’s career was in danger of stalling. Initially Willie had been unsure of what direction to take his protégé, and had tried him on a variety of musical styles, from tough funky blues workouts to conventional soul ballads, and even a Beatles cover. Al himself had suggested cutting a funky Southern style version of the Temptations “I Can’t Get Next To You”, and an apparently unconvinced Mitchell reluctantly agreed. The result turned out to be Al’s biggest hit since “Back Up Train”, but the follow up, a fine down home version of Junior Parker’s “Driving Wheel” failed to register. The singer clearly had a lot going for him; it was simply a matter of finding a musical framework in which he could truly be himself.

Al had been fooling around for some time with a song he’d written titled “Tired Of Being Alone”, and finally got the opportunity to record it for the “Al Green Gets Next To You” album. The deejays picked up on it and Willie, already sensing they had hit on a winning formula, issued it as a single in June 1971. It was to be the record which would finally put Al Green on the map, hitting the No.7 spot R & B and rising to No.11 on the pop charts. It remains to this day an extraordinary record which was to transform and define the singer’s career. From a musical standpoint it has some interesting features, notably the unusual key changes during the verses, which Al probably hit on while he was playing around with it on his guitar, and which make the song sound original and appealing. But it is Al’s vocal which really catches the attention, as all the influences which had shaped his style finally come together, filtered through his own distinctive; some might say quirky, musical persona. 

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To understand the origins of the Al Green style we need to travel back in time to his formative years singing gospel in his family group, the Greene Brothers (Al was to subsequently drop the final “e” from his name). It was around this time that he must have first heard the work of the Rev. Claude Jeter, who for many years sang lead with top gospel quartet the Swan Silvertones. The Swans were hugely influential and have already been featured in an earlier “Great Vocal Moments” piece which can be found in Earshot No.6. Although the tone of Green’s voice is very different to Jeter’s the similarity in their vocal mannerisms, particularly the falsetto moans and hums, the adlibs and the delayed timing are all too obvious. Away from gospel Al’s major influence was Jackie Wilson, and it was that particular singer’s 1963 hit “Baby Workout” which first aroused Al’s interest in secular music, much to the dismay of his family.

These influences, plus Al’s own distinctive take on them are much in evidence on “Tired Of Being Alone”, which benefits from the late Willie Mitchell’s neat, punchy “less is more” production. While the first section of the song sticks pretty much to the plot, the real fun begins around the 90 second mark when Al soars into falsetto range on the words “hey baby”. He then embarks on a loose; almost free form jam that gives the impression of being adlibbed, even though it was probably meticulously rehearsed. There is a defining moment when he sings the line “sometime I wonder”, then leaves a long gap before continuing, as if he is weighing up what he should say next. Then on the line “you see baby, I been thinking about you” he stutters over the word “I”, thereby conveying uncertainty and vulnerability. The next key line comes straight from the church as he sings “you see sometimes I fold my arms, I say…..” and then goes into his take on the Claude Jeter falsetto hum. Clearly words alone are not enough to convey how he really feels. A final abrupt scream brings us back on track for the climax, with Al’s own gospel choir, the indispensable Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes singing the title while he adlibs across them, before letting go with one final falsetto burst.

Al had finally hit on a formula which allowed him to totally be himself, and the record buying public signalled their approval, sending his subsequent single, the classic “Let’s Stay Together” to the No.1 spot on both the R & B and the pop charts. But “Tired Of Being Alone” had been the catalyst, and without it Al Green’s career might have taken an entirely different direction, as indeed it did in 1976 when the church finally beckoned him back. (mike finbow)

Sources: Tony Rounce – booklet notes for Al Green, The Legendary Hi Albums Vol.1

Personal Heroes
Calvin Carter

Perhaps one of the least celebrated of the great Chicago Soul record producers is Calvin Carter. While his sister Vivian and her partner husband Jimmy Bracken have been recognized as the Vee-Jay labels founders and owners and Ewart Abner has been hailed as the marketing brain, little dues have been paid to the creative genius behind the records of Jerry Butler, Betty Everett, Dee Clark, Jimmy Reed, the Dells, Spaniels etc. and the wonderful music that he produced between 1953-66 at VJ and as a freelance up until 1975.

Calvin Carter was born in Indiana on 27 May 1925. After he had served his national service in the US Marine Corps. Carter got into the record business when his sister Vivian and her husband Jimmy Bracken set up VJ Records in the back of ‘Vivian’s Record Shop’ in Gary, Indiana, circa 1953. As A&R director, it was Calvin’s job to find new talent and sign them to the label. Once this began to happen he also took on the role of house producer and began to work with their initial signings - the Spaniels and bluesman Jimmy Reed. ‘Baby It’s You’ by the Spaniels was the first song actually recorded (4 May 1953) and it was released in Chicago on the Chance label (owned by Art Sheridan who was also the silent 5th VJ partner). At that time Chance had a better distribution system than VJ, who were still finding their feet. By September ‘53 ‘Baby It’s You’ had climbed to #10 on the R&B chart and their very first recording was a hit.

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Vivian Carter was a protégé of the legendary Al Benson and had become a locally famous radio DJ, and this provided VJ with the opportunity to get their music on the air. Jimmy Reed’s ‘High And Lonesome’ (53-100) didn’t cause much interest. Reed’s string of hits began with ‘You Don’t Have To Go’ (#5 R&B, in March ‘55) but the most popular were ‘Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby’, ‘You Got Me Dizzy’ and ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ which all registered at #3 R&B and spanned his eight year association with VJ. “Right from the start we recorded everything at Universal Studios on Ontario Street. They later moved the Studios to East Wall Street.” Calvin told me in an interview at Fountain Productions in Chicago with Jerry Butler in October 1972. Carter would tell the story that due to the number of sessions Jimmy Reed messed up or missed due to being drunk. “He would get drunk the night before the session or the next morning.” So after a while Carter came up with the idea of getting a police officer to ‘arrest’ Jimmy the night before and then he would go down to the jailhouse and pick Reed up the next morning and take him directly to the studios. It was the only way he could guarantee to get Jimmy down to Universal sober. On most of his early dates he was drunk, so while he played guitar, his wife Mama Reed would whisper the lyric in his ear. You can hear her on some of the early cuts. “I never told Jimmy about this, because I didn’t think he would not appreciate my arrangement - nor spending the night in the tank.” Between them they created 17 chart singles for VJ and the best era in Reeds body of recorded work. By the end of 1953 VJ had issued five singles, one by Reed, two by the Spaniels, ‘Boot Um/ Policy Blues’ by Pro McClam and ‘Sailor Joe’ by Wellington Blakey (brother of Jazz drummer Art Blakey).

Once their HQ was located on 47th Street in Chicago in early 1954, Calvin put together a VJ house band that featured William ‘Lefty’ Bates (guitar), Red Holloway (sax), Al Smith (bandleader) who had all been working at Chance, Smith organized the musicians for the sessions and later had a number of VJ releases as the Al Smith Combo and Orchestra. Later additions were Quinn B Wilson (bass), Paul Gusman, Al Duncan or Vernel Fournier (drums), Horace Palm (piano), Lucias Washington, McKinley ‘Mac’ Easton (saxes) and Harlen ‘Bobby’ Floyd (trombone). In the beginning Carter worked out the arrangements with the musicians and later on Riley Hampton and Von Freeman were hired for the sessions. Carter began full steam production, he signed the El Dorados who had two R&B hit singles ‘At My Front Door’ (#1 September ’55, VJ-147) and ‘I’ll Be Forever Loving You’ (#8 February ’56). They were formed at Englewood High in 1952 and originally featured Pirkle Lee Moses (lead), Jewel Jones, Richard Nickens, Arthur Basset and James Maddox. Other signings included the Maceo Woods Singers. The Lockhart Singers, (Gospel), Floyd Jones (Blues) and Julian Dash (Jazz). The following year Carter extended VJ’s roster with the addition of the Rhythm Aces, the 5 Echoes (who had once featured Tommy Hunt and Johnnie Taylor), the Rasberry Singers, the Highway QCs, the 5 Echoes, and the mighty Dells who eventually did good R&B business and began to build VJ’s reputation. The Dells came from Harvey, Illinois about 20 miles from Gary. They used to turn up at Carter’s house in Gary every Sunday night to rehearse. Eventually Calvin signed them and about 3 sessions later they cut their first big hit ‘Oh What A Nite’. VJ kept them together by using them as backup singers on the roster sessions. The Dells formed at Thornton Township High and their original members were Johnny Funches (lead), Marvin Junior, Verne Allison, Mickey McGill and Chuck Barksdale. They had previously been the El-Rays on Chess. Their only other hit with VJ was the original version of ‘Stay In My Corner’ (#23 R&B singles in June ’65). Funches was replaced by ex-Flamingo Johnny Carter, who remained with the Dells until his death in August 2009. America began to listen and ‘Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite’ by the Spaniels hit in May ‘55 (#5 R&B). It became the first record to cross over to the Pop chart for VJ where it reached #24 on the Hot 100. This side remains their most famous record and was selected by Carter from their second session (23 September ’53) and had been passed over for number of singles that didn’t chart. It really established the group and VJ Records. The Spaniels originally consisted of James "Pookie" Hudson (lead), Ernest Warren, Opal Courtney, Willis C Jackson and Gerald Gregory and were formed at Roosevelt High in Gary Indiana in 1952. They had three more Top 50 R&B single hits on VJ between 1955-60 and further success with ‘Fairy Tales’ on Calla in September 1970. “I sang with the Spaniels for a few months. One of the guys was too young to travel to the gigs. It gave me a first hand insight into the fans reaction to the songs - it was a very useful education”. Carter told me in 1972.

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The Doo Wop/ R&B and Blues recordings issued by VJ began to build solid foundations for the company but they issued many Gospel releases by the Swan Silvertones, the Staple Singers, the Highway QCs and the Original Five Blind Boys etc within the same series and some Jazz by Julian Dash, Turk Kincheloe and Tommy Dean. Their Blues roster also began to expand with the addition of Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson, Snooky Pryor, Billy Boy Arnold, Floyd Jones, Eddie Taylor, LC McKinley, Sunnyland Slim and John Lee Hooker. Carter was known by his contemporaries as ‘The Ear’ because of his advanced ability to hear hits and make them happen – he signed John Lee Hooker in ‘55. "Hooker came to us from Detroit and he was one of the most difficult people to record, nobody else could play with him, he was a one man band and I had to get everything in one take”. The closest Hooker came to a hit with VJ was ‘Boom Boom’ in 1962 (#16 R&B in June) this record was widely appreciated and received national radio play. Today it is acknowledged along with ‘I’m In The Mood’ and ‘Dimples’ as one of his classic tracks. “So I put a plywood floor down in the studio to record his foot tappin’ as the drumbeat". Even though the majority of VJ releases sold well in the Chicago area at this time, not many became national hits. One exception the Magnificents who featured Johnny Keys (lead), Thurman ‘Ray’ Ramsey, Fred Rakestraw and Willie Myles were initially called the Tams when they formed at Hyde Park High in 1953. They had a single hit ‘Up On The Mountain’ (VJ-183) that reached #9 R&B in July 1956 by which time Charles ‘LC’ Cooke (brother of Sam) had replaced Ramsey. Another signing in ’56 was the Kool Gents, a unit who created no hits but did contain Dee Clark and he later became one of VJ’s star performers. Also ‘40s hit makers the Orioles, featuring Sonny Til, joined VJ in 1956 but they only cut a couple of records, none of which made any commercial impact. Out on the road, Carter’s roster selection toured nationwide as ‘Vee-Jay Cavalcade Of Stars’ featuring the Magnificents, Dells, El Dorados, Spaniels, Kool Gents and Jimmy Reed in one package. While VJ issued 38 singles in 1957 it was the work of Jimmy Reed that had the most consistent impact on the charts. Hanging over from ’56 was ‘You Make Me Dizzy’ (#3 R&B VJ-226) then in March ’57 there was ‘Honey Where You Going’ (#13), April ‘Little Rain’ (#7), June ‘The Sun Is Shining’ (#12) and one of his best known songs ‘Honest I Do’ (VJ-253) went to #4 in October and became his first top 40 pop crossover– all these sides were produced by Calvin Carter. But Gene Allison provided their biggest hit at the end of that year with ‘You Can Make It If You Try’  #3 December ’57 (VJ-256). Two smaller hits followed in ’58 ‘Have Faith’ (#11) and ‘Everything Will Be All Right’ (#19). ‘You Can Make It If You Try’ grew to be a standard recorded by many other artists including the Rolling Stones, Sly Stone, Billy Guy, Freddie Waters and many others.

"We started Falcon in ... I think 1957 because we needed another label, but we changed it after ten records or so, to Abner, to avoid a law suit with a label from the south that already had the name. It wasn’t Ewart’s label though, as many people assume. We didn’t even know about the other Falcon until the Impressions ‘For Your Precious Love’ went Top Ten in ‘58. We often used our names for publishing or labels. Tollie, Gladstone and Conrad were all taken from our names.” The Falcon image remained on the Abner label when the Impressions singles were re-pressed. Events took a positive turn for the Impressions in June ’58 when fate played its part in persuading Carter, by then A&R Director and Principal Producer for Vee-Jay Records, to listen to their demo tape. Eddie Thomas, in his role as manager had arranged for the quintet to audition for the legendary Chess Records but he had only been able to get them an appointment on a Saturday morning. However when the Impressions arrived carrying their instruments and amplifiers they found to their surprise that the front door to Chess Records was firmly locked and they couldn’t raise anyone from within. Bassman Sam Gooden recalled, “There was a doorman sittin’ at the desk and we could see him but he just ignored us.” Overnight, unexpectedly, there had been a late snowstorm, which had piled up several feet deep in some places. This wasn’t about to deter the Impressions from what might be their lucky break but most people in Chicago had been unwilling to leave the house. As fate would have it VJ was situated opposite across the street and Carter (who was working despite the weather) ushered them in and took them upstairs to the studio where General Manager Ewart Abner was also present. Initially Calvin was unmoved by what he heard on their demo tape. ‘Pretty Betty (Baby)’, ‘My Baby Loves Me’ and the other four songs had been recorded in Mayfield’s kitchen and, as Curtis said later, “They sounded like it.” Once he heard the final track on their tape, ‘Your Precious Love’, which they had recently added, he really became interested and got the Impressions to perform this song again, after which he was convinced that with a few improvements he had a potential hit on his hands. He signed the Impressions and negotiated rights with Vi Muszynski, Bandera’s label boss who still had some plans for them herself and struck a deal with her to record the group at VJ. Carter felt this deal was hot and wanted a record right away. “We recorded ‘For Your Precious Love’ (Falcon 1013) on the Wednesday and it was in the shops the following Monday” Jerry Butler recalled in ‘72. In the next two weeks the record sold 150,000 copies and rapidly became the runaway summer R&B hit of ‘58. Listening to it now, this may be a little hard to believe because, brilliant as the piece is, it does not seem to possess any of the characteristics of a hit record. It begins with the slow, measured backbeat of a funeral lament accentuated by the plodding bass line. Butler’s suffering baritone juxtaposes perfectly with the sweet and sour backing vocals of the other four and delivers this plea with devastating sincerity. The two wailing high tenors of Curtis Mayfield and Arthur Brooks reinforce the eerie atmosphere that Carter’s superbly controlled production had created. The song was arranged by Riley Hampton and this further enhances the ballad’s powerful atmosphere. Everybody got it just right. It’s a masterpiece and it strikes a chord deep within anyone who listens to it, which probably, as much as anything, accounted for its huge success. Mayfield’s understated guitar works beautifully supporting this resigned but eternally hopeful prayer. It’s all here – despair, loneliness, sincerity and persistence. All these elements, and much more, make this record a milestone in the evolution of soul music. Steady sales pushed it to #11 on Billboard’s Hot 100 (#3 R&B) by 16 July ‘58. Today, all the original pressings of ‘For Your Precious Love’ fetch big money on the collectors’ market but the first few copies that Carter pressed up on Vee-Jay (78 rpm) to garner local music biz opinion are said to be worth upwards of £6000 each.

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The success of the Impressions first hit was confined to America but the record meant little to the rest of the world at the time of its issue. Butler was featured as lead singer without consultation with the other four members of the group – it was Carter’s decision to press the record with credits going to ‘Jerry Butler and the Impressions’. Curtis later said, “It somewhat created hard feelings among the fellas, that we were all striving equally and trying to make it.” Though early press reports pronounced this a clerical error, Calvin knew exactly what he was doing. He considered that the mistake he’d made earlier in not billing the Spaniels as ‘Pookie Hudson & the Spaniels’ would not be repeated. That way he could create two acts for the label. He took Dee Clark out of the Kool Gents, Gene Chandler out of the Dukays, Wade Flemons from the Newcomers and Jerry from the Impressions - the remaining group members had to find a new lead singer or disperse. Butlers individual billing caused a ripple of tension within the group but before things came to a head they were out on the road touring America, playing all the famous venues that up until then they had only dreamed about. According to Jerry Butler in his biography (Only The Strong Survive –University Press 2000) - Despite the ongoing differences between the members of the group and their lack of professional performance time, when the Impressions played the Apollo in June ’58 it created a massive audience response. They broke the box office attendance records and it has been estimated that there were 5000 fans on the street outside the theatre that came each night to see them perform. The story goes that it was DJ Doug ‘Jocko’ Henderson, who booked them into the Apollo after he'd caught their act at the Uptown Philadelphia. The Impressions original line up featured Chicagoans Jerry (lead) and Curtis plus three Chattanoogans Sam Gooden and two brothers, Richard and Arthur Brooks. ‘For Your Precious Love’ was a very special record and, hard as they tried at VJ, the Impressions and Carter could not duplicate its success over the following 18 months. ‘Come Back My Love’ (#29 R&B October ’58) was the only other Impressions hit on VJ after which Butler left and was replaced by another Chattanoogan Fred Cash.

Though his solo move was not a popular with the other Impressions, Butlers friendship with Mayfield endured and when Curtis went on tour with Butler as his guitarist and MD, the group temporarily disbanded. At first Butler struggled to get a big hit and it wasn’t until Carter (who wrote the hook and most of the lyrics), Mayfield and Butler came up with ‘He Will Break Your Heart’ (VJ-354) that they really broke through and it went to #1 R&B / #7 Pop in October 1960. Then a number of Mayfield/ Butler songs all produced by Carter – ‘Find Another Girl’, ‘I’m A Telling You’, ‘Need To Belong’ etc established Jerry as Chicago’s premier soul man. In addition to the homegrown songs of Mayfield, Butler and brother Billy, who all individually grew into excellent songwriters, great songs were still hard to find, so Carter often shopped at the Brill Building and in New York for the right songs. "That’s how I found ‘Moon River’, ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’ and ‘Giving Up On Love’ for Jerry. Later it worked again for Betty Everett when I got ‘Shoop, Shoop’ (‘It’s In His Kiss'), 'I Can't Hear You No More', 'Getting Mighty Crowded' and 'You're No Good' although Betty didn't do the original on that one. But we had the first hit with the song." (Dee Dee Warwick cut the original record that also became a #1 for Linda Ronstadt in '75). Carter also found ‘You Can Run (But You Can’t Hide)’, ‘Where’s The Girl’, ‘I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore’ and ‘Message To Martha’ from writers Henry Mancini, Clint Ballard Jr, Bacharach & David, Rudy Clark, Goffin & King, Don Covay, Randy Newman, Leiber & Stoller, Van McCoy etc. Butler who was born in Sunflower Mississippi on 8 December 1939 first sang in the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers with lifetime friend Curtis Mayfield and together they formed the Roosters who evolved into the Impressions. Between 1959-66 Jerry became VJs biggest star. He hit the R&B singles chart 17 times beginning with ‘Lost’ (#17 in March ’59) and after ‘He Will Break Your Heart’ all his singles crossed over to significant Pop success. His original version of ‘Moon River’ hit #14 in January ’62 and went to #11 on the Hot 100 selling over a million records and beating all other versions hands down except in the UK where South African singer Danny Williams, took it to #1on the UK Top 20. In America ‘Moon River’ was voted song of the year in ’62 and who best to receive the award for popularizing the song than Jerry? So he spent all his money getting his teeth fixed, on deportment lessons, a swank tailor and a voice coach. He was ready to make his entry into the world of the white man. Jerry knew it before, but this time his nose was rubbed deep in it – the best man doesn’t always win. It just so happened that CBS wanted more prestige for Andy Williams so he could host his own TV show, and after all Andy did cut ‘Moon River’ as an album track. Andy picked up the award. Jerry still has good teeth and dresses well and looks good. Andy Williams still uses ‘Moon River’ as his theme tune and nowadays people wonder why Jerry Butler sings it.

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Bacharach & David’s ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’ went to #18 R&B /20 Pop in September ’62, the biggest hit of that much-recorded song until the Walker Bros. cover in ‘65. ‘Let It Be Me’ a duet with Betty Everett reached #5 with big pop sales and follow up Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’ provided VJ with a Christmas ’64 hit. Both tracks were taken from their best selling album Delicious Together (VJ-1099). In addition to his successful singles Jerry also enjoyed big album sales with He Will Break Your Heart (VJ-1029), Moon River (VJ-1046), Need To Belong (VJ-1076) and Giving Up On Love (VJ-1076). Other great Butler outstanding singles included ‘I Stand Accused’, ‘Giving Up On Love’, ‘Need To Belong’, ‘Good Times’ and ‘Just For You’ plus a solo version of ‘For Your Precious Love’ that closed the circle on VJ in February ’65. Jerry was snapped up by Mercury and went on to have huge success on both the singles and album charts scoring 30 hit R&B and Pop singles between August ’66 - October ’76 plus a dozen or more albums including Soul Artistry (#23 Feb ’67), The Iceman Cometh (#2 /29 January ’69), Ice On Ice (#4 September ’69), and You & Me (#10 May ’70). After which he moved onto Motown, Philadelphia International, Fountain and Ichiban before retiring from recording in the mid ‘90s. In the 1980s he was elected Cook County Board Commissioner in Chicago and also became Chairman of the R&B Foundation. After VJs demise Jerry stayed in Chicago and formed Fountain Productions and the Butler Workshop (sponsored by Chappell Music) with Calvin Carter.

Vee-Jay moved into their own building on Michigan Avenue in 1959; Elmore James and Memphis Slim had joined the VJ Blues roster and there recorded some of their most famous sides. The label created a separate genre album series for Gospel (800 series) in 1957. They also released their first LPs. VJ launched their first Gospel LPs (5000 series) in 1959 and their Jazz (series 1000) under the control of A&R man Sid McCoy one of Chicago’s best known Jazz DJs. They released memorable early albums from Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Paul Chambers and Eddie Harris. Vee-Jay also owned the South Side Sutherland Lounge where Miles Davis and a number of other prominent jazz stars played when they came to Chicago. In 1960 the 3000 jazz line began to issue albums. The VJ Jazz roster bloomed with the talents of Wynton Kelly and Bill Henderson. Gospel also held its own too, with stronger sales from the Swan Silvertones, Highway QCs (originally led by Sam Cooke then Johnnie Taylor) and the Staple Singers. They also launched a comedy series (4000) in ’62. While it was still a singles market, albums increasingly contributed to VJs sales.

Dee Clark who came to VJ label as a member of the Kool Gents/ Delegates crossed over to the subsidiary Abner in ‘58 as a solo act and began his hit career with ‘Nobody But You’ (Abner 1019) that made both charts in November ‘58. Though he was considered MOR soul by many and tagged as ‘flute soul’ in America, Dee scored several big hits including ‘Just Keep It Up’ (Abner 1026) #9 June ’59, ‘Hey Little Girl’ (Abner 1029) #2 September ’59, ‘How About That’ (Abner 1032) #10 January ’60 all singles that crossed over to the Top 40. Dee switched to VJ in ’61 and charted with ‘Your Friends’ and another memorable hit ‘Raindrops’ (VJ-372) #3 R&B that did even better on the Hot 100 hitting #2 in May ’61 and ‘I’m Going Back To School’. He stayed with VJ until the bitter end and only scored one minor hit on Constellation. Abner became president of VJ in 1961 and steered the company to further success as a major independent moving from the R&B/ Soul genre to Pop. He signed the Four Seasons in an independent production deal.

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In the meantime Jimmy Reed was still having chart success with ‘Baby What You Want Me to Do’ (1960), ‘Big Boss Man’ (1961), and ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ (1961). His last VJ chart record was ‘Knockin’ At The Door’ on their ersatz Exodus label in 1966. But by the early sixties VJ was becoming even more famous for its Soul and R&B records. The influential ‘Just A Little Bit’ (VJ-332) by Rosco Gordon made #2 R&B in February 1960 and Gene Chandler’s ‘Duke Of Earl’ (VJ-416) was a huge hit when it topped both charts in January ‘62 and it became the label’s first million seller. Gene had joined VJ in ‘61 as part of the Dukays with his producer William ‘Bunky’ Sheppard (and the Sheppards) as part of the package. He went solo with a name change and his first record went gold. He arrived late in the VJ story and only managed two further chart slots with  ‘You Threw A Lucky Punch’ #25 R&B/49 Pop in November ‘62 (with backgrounds by Calvin & friends) a version of Mary Wells’ ‘You Beat Me To The Punch’. Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Rainbow’ (VJ-468) made #11 R&B and #47 Pop becoming his second theme song. Gene defected with Abner to Constellation where he scored 8 more hits before the labels demise. He went on to rack up many big hits with Checker, Brunswick, Mercury, Chi-Sound, 20th Century, Salsoul and Fastfire and created his own labels Bamboo and Mr. Chand. But will forever be remembered as the Duke of Earl though he was much better than that.

Carter signed Betty Everett to VJ in 1963. She had already tried to make it on record since 1957 on Cobra, CJ Records, Renee, One-Der-Ful and Dottie with no success. Her first single with VJ ‘Prince Of Players/ By My Side’ reflected past endeavors but when Carter found and produced ‘You’re No Good’ everything changed. Betty was born in Greenwood, Mississippi on 23 November 1939 she came from a strict gospel background that she returned to after her secular excursion. Calvin also created another great drum sound that was in fact achieved by the Dells stomping on telephone directories. This great single only went to #51 on the R&B chart but deserved much higher recognition – it’s a classic. Sure it was a cover of Dee Dee Warwick’s ’63 Jubilee original that had failed to register. But was infinitely better and should have been a much bigger hit. ‘The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss)’ hit the spot at #6 R&B in February ’64. This time Carter got the commercial balance right and the record became another classic that inspired many other versions including one on the soundtrack of the movie ‘Mermaids’, starring Cher and Winona Ryder. Betty’s next single was the outstanding Goffin/ King  ‘I Can’t Hear You No More’ that surprisingly only reached #66 R&B in June ’64 and was covered by Lulu (and cut by Dusty Springfield) in the UK. ‘It Hurts To Be In Love’ flopped but her first duet with Jerry Butler ‘Let It Be Me’ hit #5 R&B in September ’64 and ‘Smile’ was another success three months later. Her last solo VJ hit was the superb ‘Getting Mighty Crowded’ (#65 in November ’64) another unexplained shortfall but all her singles achieved healthy pop success. The remaining five VJ singles found no commercial success according to Billboard but ‘The Real Thing’ reached #41 on the Cashbox chart and ‘Too Hot To Hold’ and ‘The Shoe Won’t Fit’ were popular with specialist collectors. Everett signed to ABC in ’65 but found no success with her 4 singles there. Her time with Uni was much more successful. ‘There’ll Come A Time’ hit #2 R&B and 26 Pop and the album was her biggest seller in May ’69. Her other most successful Uni single ‘It’s Been A Long Time’ (#17 November ‘’69) was produced by Carter and she scored four medium hit singles on Fantasy, the biggest ‘I Got To Tell Somebody’ was again produced by Calvin and hit #22 R&B/ 96 Pop in December 1970. Betty sang on the obscure but critically acclaimed ‘Black Girl’ (’72) Blaxploitation movie soundtrack. ‘True Love’ provided a minor hit in September ’78 and Calvin returned once again to produce her final single on Vinilo ‘Hungry For You/ Think It Over’ in 1980. Her last public appearance was on the PBS DVD Doo Wop 51 in 2000 where she performed ‘Let It Be Me’ with Jerry Butler. Betty returned to gospel in Beloit, Wisconsin and died at her home on 19 August ‘01 aged just 61.

vjstars

Early in '62 Vee-Jay signed the Four Seasons. Their first record 'Sherry' went to #1 on both charts and the follow up 'Big Girls Don't Cry' followed suit. Ten years later Carter said "We got stung on the Four Seasons deal, the more records they sold the less money VJ got. We got behind with their royalties and that caused an internal shake up. You see, Ewart was still running that side of the label, like a store, ... we needed a better business approach. He had to go." On the surface it looked like things were really looking up but internal differences at VJ were brewing and Abner was fired in 1963 and he set up a new label in Chicago called Constellation with Bill ‘Bunky’ Sheppard and Art Sheridan. They took Gene Chandler and the Sheppards with them and Dee Clark and Noland Chance joined them later. As well documented the Beatles took the American charts by storm at the beginning of 1964, just prior to their incredibly successful US tour that began that February. It seemed at first that Capitol had exclusive rights to release Beatles records but in fact a five-year deal had previously been struck between EMI and Vee-Jay. Carter who was VJ’s Vice-President at the time had this to say on the subject, “We had some deals with England, and we got the Beatles as a throw in with Frank Ifield!  They said ‘We got a group here, will you take it?’ So we took the Beatles, put out a record ‘Please Please Me’ - nothing. We put out another record ‘From Me To You’ - nothing. Then Beatlemania hit and zap, everything happened. That was the cause of our demise. We had a five year contract with the Beatles but EMI had bought Capitol and so litigation started. Hey!  We would have won but we were like up to here in taxes. And we grossed 20 million the year we went out of business!!” During that period of litigation, VJ held on to two Beatles hits, ‘Please Please Me’ (#3 Pop) and ‘Thank You Girl’ (#35 Pop) but the others went to Capitol, Swan, MGM, and Atco. Vee-Jay was squeezed out by the majors and never really recovered. Capitol exclusively released and distributed Beatles records in America from August 1964 onwards. The Four Seasons sued their producer Bob Crewe, who had them under contract and in turn he sued VJ Records, and they left for Phillips. EMI pulled out of the Ifield/ Beatles deal and all of a sudden it was raining lawsuits. "We had more than fifty lawsuits against VJ in something like a two year period, and at the time we were selling more records than we ever had. We had gold records on six of our artists and several big R&B hits as well". Carter kept on doing what he was best at in the studio with Jerry, Betty and the remaining artists still on the VJ roster. But quite a few of their artists had already begun to leave the label including the Highway QCs, the Swan Silvertones, the Staple Singers etc.

James and Vivian Bracken hired a new West Coast management team headed by Randy Wood who was appointed as the new president and moved the headquarters out to LA splitting VJ in two and leaving Calvin in Chicago. "As fast as we were making money in Chicago they were blowing it in LA. The suits were living beyond VJs means.” In May '65 the company ran into financial trouble. “Vivian and Jimmy had had enough and they bought out the West Coast management." The Brackens rehired Abner and set up once more in Chicago. Desperate to get back on an even financial keel Abner sold some of VJs most valuable assets to Arc Music – their three publishing companies Conrad Publishing, Gladstone Music and Tollie Music but VJ was too badly damaged and never regained its momentum. A year later it was all over and they filed for bankruptcy. Jerry Butler was the last artist to leave, his contract expiring at the end of May 1966, and he signed with Mercury. "VJ could have been as big as Motown, if the suits had taken care of business like the artists did", Carter said as a postnote in 1972.  Vivian and James continued for a few months issuing product on the Exodus label after the VJ demise in 1966. After this failure they divorced and Bracken created a blues label but none of his further music enterprises came to anything and he died 20 February 1972. Vivian continued to work as a DJ in Gary until her death from a stroke on 12 June 1989. After VJ’s collapse, and Constellation’s demise, Abner joined Motown in an A&R capacity and also worked in artist management. Between 1973-75 he was the labels president. He joined Philadelphia International in 1977 as a top executive. Then Ewart handled Stevie Wonders affairs and after Motown was sold in 1988 he joined Berry Gordy in the Gordy Company. Abner died in Los Angeles on 27 December 1997 aged 74.

Calvin Carter carried on producing as an independent and cut two hit singles with the Players, 'He'll Be Back' (#24 R&B August ’66) and 'I'm Glad I Waited' (#32 R&B December ’66) on Minit in 1966 and followed through with an album that featured excellent Riley Hampton arrangements on a mixture of original songs and standards and went to #10 on the R&B album charts in November ‘66. The first singles had been recorded with the help of the Dells led by Herbert Butler but later sides featured John Thomas and Otha Givens. They moved to Columbia in ’67 and dropped off the radar. Minit flew Calvin out to Los Angeles in an attempt to mirror ‘He’ll Be Back’s success with another roster artist, the very talented Jimmy Holiday. Together Carter and Holiday came up with some of Jimmy’s finest sides ‘Baby I Love You’ a wonderful loser ballad, ‘I’m Gonna Move To The City’ a midtempo mover and the superb ‘The Turning Point’ perhaps Jimmy’s finest track with a great Rene Hall arrangement. They recorded 10 tracks at three or four sessions that included ‘In The Eyes Of My Girl’, ‘I Don’t Wanna Hear It’ and the under rated ‘Everybody Needs Help’. Sadly Holiday had little success as a singer despite writing and recording a creditable catalogue. His songs were recorded and became hits for the likes of Ben E King, Ray Charles,
Al Green, Jimmy Lewis, Little Milton and many others.

vjLp3

Carter produced a number of albums for Liberty in 1966-67 two for Julie London – For The Night People (’66) an intimate mellow mood created by Carter and arranger Don Bagley gave London the perfect opportunity to perform one of her better later albums that includes ‘I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)’, ‘Saturday Night (Is The Loneliest Night Of The Week)’ and Johnny Mercers’ ‘Dream’. This team also came up trumps again with Nice Girls Don’t Stay For Breakfast in 1967. Arnold Shaw’s liner notes mention “…producer Calvin Carter has skilfully added contemporary market sounds. And so we have the provocative counterpoint, or as Carter put it, "the side comments," of organ, trumpet and bedroom sax.” This smooth jazz set contains ‘You Go To My Head’, ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ and ‘You Made Me Love You’. And that same year he produced another Liberty album for PJ Proby entitled Phenomenon that included Randy Newman’s’ ‘Mama Told Me Not To Come’ and ‘Straight Up’ plus ‘Work With Me Annie’ and ‘She’s Looking Good’. Calvin produced ‘Tell Mama’ for Etta James that became a #10 R&B hit for Cadet in late ’67. Chess subsidiary Checker got Carter to produce what turned out to be Little Milton’s finest album If Walls Could Talk in 1969. Title track hit #10 on the R&B singles chart in December ’69 but the follow up ‘Baby I Love You’ that Carter had produced for writer Jimmy Holiday 3 years earlier even better reaching #6 the following April and ‘I Play Dirty’ also had some mid-table success. Other highlights include ‘Blues Get Off My Shoulder’, Aretha Franklin‘s ‘Good To Me As I Am To You’ and Brook Benton’s ‘I Don’t Know’. This gutsy album cut at Ter Mat Studios was nothing less than sensational. The album presented Milton at his best, featured a strong selection of songs, excellent musicians (Donny Hathaway on piano) and first-rate production gave him his last great farewell album from Checker. It clocked in at #23 R&B Albums (in March 1970) second only to his best selling We’re Gonna Make It. Calvin recorded the Steelers on Date in '69, and Bobby Rush on Galaxy in '71. He was one of the co-founders of the Butler Workshop and Fountain Productions with Jerry Butler in 1969 and he started his own label 'On Top' in ‘71. Sadly it lasted no longer than a year, gaining only local interest for the Bobby Rush and Shades of Brown records. He produced Jerry Butler again in '73, this time for the Mercury album Sweet Sixteen (which was a celebration of Butler's first sixteen years in the music business). Although Marshall Chess had resigned from Chess Records by 1970 (who were now owned by GRT Corp.) the new Chess boss was Executive vice- president Richard Salvador. Carter was working out of the Chess records building as an independent producer alongside Richard Evans, Ralph Bass (Executive Producer), Gene Barge, Bobby Miller, Charles Stepney and Cash McCall. In Billboard August 1970 Salvador was talking about an expansion program that included new offices in New York and Los Angeles and further recordings with Baby Washington, the Dells, Ramsey Lewis, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Odell Brown, Maurice & Mac, Rotary Connection - all still around and hoping for a renaissance. But none of this was to be and Willie Dixon eventually rescued the Chess building buying it outright and his family continue run it as a music museum today.

After Jerry Butler formed Fountain Productions and the Butler Music Workshop both of which were housed in a warehouse on Chicago’s South Side, close to Lake Michigan and near China Town, the first person he brought in was Calvin Carter. “Calvin was vice-president of VJ” explained Jerry. “He discovered Curtis and myself, Dee Clark, Gene Chandler, and the Staple Singers. So when I was looking around for a professional guy who knows a good song and knows how to deal with young writers and that sort of thing – he was the one. He’s been producing and right now we’re negotiating a thing to produce Pickett’s new single which Calvin will be in charge of.” When I visited there in October ’72 the place was buzzing with creative activity, there were so many artists of interest to interview I went back for a second day and taped this highly talented group of songwriters, arrangers and producers that included Billy Butler, Terry Callier, Larry Wade, Charles Jackson, Marvin Yancy, Mikki Farrow etc.  Carter moved to California in ‘75 but couldn't make much headway out there on the West Coast and he retired to Indiana where he died in obscurity on 9 July 1986. Jerry Butler was the only celebrity to attend the funeral.

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During his most creative period at VJ Records and just after, Calvin Carter produced some of the best R&B/ Soul/ Jazz and Pop records of all time, but it seems in recent years he has become a forgotten man, and little recognition has been given to this great artist. Sadly the only album VJ issued under his name was Twist Along With Cal Carter (VJ-1041) was a rather uninspiring collection of instrumentals issued in ’61. But perhaps the most significant body of work that Carter achieved was with Jerry Butler, Betty Everett, Jimmy Reed and the Impressions, his work with the Dells, Dee Clark, the Players, Jimmy Holiday and Little Milton was also noteworthy and the many more artists that he worked with, mostly at VJ between 1953-66. Carter had the closest working relationship and the most consistent sales with Jerry Butler though. Butler who perhaps knew him best, described him thus - "Calvin was a strange mixture of talents - he was a politician, an actor - he was the non musicians musician, he couldn't play anything but he could hear everything, we all called him the Ear because of his reputation in Chicago for hearing a hit before anyone else. Cal was the creative force at Vee-Jay Records, produced hits on everyone there in the field of Blues, Gospel, R&B, Soul - there is no end to his achievements. He was responsible for bringing me into the business as a solo act - we cut a lot of records together. You won't see his like again." Calvin Carter played the biggest part in creating the music that made VJ the largest and most successful pre Motown black owned record company. Had it not been for litigation problems with the Beatles and the Four Seasons it might have remained that way. The company remained in it’s building on Michigan Avenue until its liquidation in 1966. (peter burns)

Credits: All quotes are taken from an interview with Calvin Carter and Jerry Butler at Fountain Productions by Peter Burns and Norman Jopling in Chicago that was first published as the Iceman Talking in ‘Let It Rock’ June 1973 - unless otherwise stated.

Photo Credits: Jacques Demêtre at VJ October 1959,
Fountain Productions October 1972
Label and photo scans from the Echo Archive

lucas – uk soulman

Lucas originally came from Cleveland where he was born in May 1942 his real name is Bruce
McPherson Lucas. The McPherson’s were a religious family and Bruce got his earliest influences singing in church and learning clarinet at school. A background in gospel led to an interest in late ‘50s soul music, the secular genre inspired by the black church. He joined the US Airforce at a tender age and was stationed in the UK at Skullthorpe in 1961, sent to France the following year, then served out the remainder of his national service at Mildenhall Airbase in Suffolk. Living out in the sticks in 1963, it seems from what I’ve read that Bruce laboured under the misapprehension that there was little to no soul music appreciation in the UK. But there were pockets of appreciation right across the UK from 1960. True it was a specialist genre that didn’t really go mainstream until 1964 when the pirates broke Motown and fanzines like Shout and Home Of The Blues (Blues & Soul) began to appear, very few national publications with the exception of Record Mirror kept us in touch with US releases. Nevertheless we were out there. One of his friends and fellow conscripts was Gino Washington who started his own soul group the Ram Jam Band in the mid sixties. There was some friendly rivalry between these two about who would get their group together first.

While still serving as an airman Lucas linked up with the Norwich based Emperors and began gigging with them - his ambition was to spread the word. Three years later he met Mike Cotton out on the road and joined his band. Lucas cut his first record was a good version of Bob & Earls’ dancefloor classic ‘Harlem Shuffle.’ On the B side the Mar-Keys ‘Last Night’ inspired an original song ‘Like That’ written by Cotton. This record did not require much vocalizing and left Lucas unaccredited on the single though he was present. The Mike Cotton Sound evolved from Dixieland Jazz in 1960 through Rock ‘n’ Roll to the southern soul of Stax and as a result
became one of the most sought after bands in the UK. Cotton often backed US soul stars on their UK tours so Lucas rubbed shoulders with some of the great soul stars James Brown, Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops etc.

lucas

Lucas settled with his wife and family in Norwich and his next single ‘I Saw Pity In The Face Of A Friend’ (initially recorded by Ronnie Milsap on Scepter) with Cotton in 1966. Both sides were produced by Claire Frances and ‘Dance Children Dance’ (probably the ‘A’ side - originally by Mary Love) was an uptempo item, both songs coming from the pens of the Ashford-Simpson songwriting team. Good as it was, this single did not move the UK record buying public in the way they’d hoped. Lucas states that he didn’t hear the finished record until 2000 and does not recognize the vocal track as his. The following year in 1967 ‘Step Out Of Line’ perhaps Lucas strongest outing so far was issued on Pye and backed with the well produced ‘Ain’t Love Good, Ain’t Love Proud’ though this one didn’t storm the charts either it became a Northern favourite reissued on CD by Sequel (Dance Like The Devil - Northern Chapter 1) in 1998. Popular DJ of the time Mike Raven took over the producer’s chair in ’68 when Lucas & Cotton moved to MGM and created a slower churchier sound on the Jeff Barry song ‘We Got A Thing Going Baby’. This became Lucas best selling Top 30 single but his cult fanbase still didn’t expand enough to make him a star. The flipside was a brass version of the King Curtis classic ‘Soul Serenade’ by the Mike Cotton Sound. With increased attention from the positive sales of their previous two singles Lucas and the Sound got plenty of gigs and might have expected the pop orientated ‘Jack & the Beanstalk’, that strayed into the realms of novelty, to take them higher into the charts - it didn’t take here but allegedly was a big hit in Yugoslavia. In retrospect they might have done better flipping B-side ‘Mother In Law’ a cover of Ernie K-Does biggest hit written by Crescent City’s finest Allen Toussaint and a strong vinyl word from Lucas on what was became his last record. With no recording contract the band persevered playing to good club audiences. When the Cotton Sound broke up in the mid ‘70s, most members became session musicians and Lucas struck out on his own. He didn’t make much money from his recordings, it was a familiar story, after the agents and taxman there was very little left for the musicians.

Lucas worked on many London studio sessions laying down backing tracks that would later be mixed by the engineers on who knows what. After a period of solo touring he joined forces with a group on the point of disbanding called the Stanleys - together they became a sixties vintage soul band and began to attract a lot of interest in and around Norfolk. He and his band often appeared on a bill with other groups like the Drifters (Bradford late ’90s) and among his regular bookings was a monthly gig at the Orford Arms Cellar Club in Norwich.  Lucas had constantly toured the UK for a 15-year period and in a 2007 interview with Kev Featherstone & Mike Finbow he confessed some regret that he wasn’t around to see his kids grow up. He had travelled to South Africa where he performed in the mid ‘80s but made a conscious decision to come off the road to spend more time at home and moving into the less pressurized area of solo cabaret. This way he had more flexibility to work where and when he wanted.

Sadly as with many artists who get their reputation performing songs made popular by other singers, Lucas never got to take full advantage of his training at the John Adams School in Cleveland where played clarinet and studied classical music. He didn’t get a chance to perform the songs he’s written about his own experience because his audience expected to hear ‘Harlem Shuffle’, ‘Walking The Dog’, ‘Mother-In-Law’ etc. After the regular appearances on UK radio in ‘Saturday Club’ and the like with the Cotton Sound, Lucas didn’t receive much media attention either with the exception of one or two appearances on UK TV one being Pete Murray’s show. But fame can be a tough mistress and many a great performer has spent a lifetime in music without a sniff of 15 minutes, let alone a recording contract and national success no matter how fleeting. While Lucas never made it into the bigtime, and had to compromise his dream, he did make some good records and sustained a performing career for more than forty years - he still performs today and remains a popular celebrity in Norwich and long may this continue to be so. (holden grey)

Credits & Research: Kev Featherstone & Mike Finbow who interviewed Lucas in May 2007

lucasdog

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