BLUES FROM THE SHORT STOP by Larry
I had always believed that Baltimore's best kept secret, as far as blues was concerned, was the New Haven Lounge in the Northwood Shopping Center, where the Covingtons, Morris "Pops" and son Keith, have for several years been serving up blues and barbecues on Wednesday nights. The centerpiece of what now is almost an institution in Charm City is that gentle giant of a blues belter, Jesse Yawn and his veteran band, and occasionally he is spelled by an authentic Zydeco band imported by yours truly. Part of the tradition of this venue has been its ability to continually amaze the clientele with its seemingly endless array of guest artists who show up and sit in with this soulful shouter. And the club has seen its fair share of magical moments in music with the likes of Philadelphia's harp player nonpareil, Steve Guyger, Chicago's Carey Bell, and also the Windy City's Big Guitar Red, just to name a few luminaries who have dropped by. With no cover charge and a free supper(at least to the early birds), it's quite a deal; so much so, that it's been an unqualified success. Yet, only the locals, area college students, and a few blues aficionados seem to know of its existence, but that's more than enough of a support group to have kept it afloat for so long.
But if Wednesday night belongs to the New Haven, the Short Stop bar in southwest Baltimore reigns supreme on Tuesdays. At 1415 Washington Blvd., opposite Carroll Park, the unassuming formstoned watering hole is actually comprised of two adjacent row houses with one former dwelling serving as a package goods store. The neighborhood can be described as on the shaky side and the liquor outlet is protected by the ubiquitous one-inch thick Plexiglas shields. To the right as one enters the saloon, the customer has to wait to be first "inspected" by the manager and then buzzed in(hardly anyone is denied access). Yet, what waits within is well worth risking life and limb. For when that threshold is finally crossed, all jazz and blues lovers are made welcome by the other kindred spirits assembled here. Over the past six months when I have become a frequent visitor, many changes have been made and it is obvious that someone is sinking a lot of money into these new alterations. Originally, it was quite cramped, as if everyone were literally in the lap of the orchestra. Although the club had two rooms, one could not observe the band from the rear chamber due to the wall which ran nearly the whole left side behind the long bar. Since then, much of that retaining partition has been removed, affording customers good sight lines of the band to the right, which straddles a black, sticky "tarmac" of a linoleum-tiled floor. A ceiling-to-floor mirror, which creates the illusion of spaciousness, serves as a backdrop to this makeshift bandstand. Overhead a spinning disco globe casts spangles of light to the far reaches of this narrow, elongated compartment. Seating, though, still presents a problem as there is competition for both the stools at the bar and the few tables and booths near the "main stage." But most of the people don't mind these little inconveniences, because part of the charm of the place is its coziness and intimate atmosphere in which the performers can be seen up close and personal.
The master of ceremonies of these proceedings, which kick off at 9:30, is the intensely camera shy Biddy Wood. This engaging jazz and blues promoter and journalist(he was managing editor of Washington's Afro-American newspaper during the Civil Rights era) is a lean and lanky, tall drink of water. Normally attired in a windbreaker and signature yachtsman's cap, he looks and acts much younger than his 64 years. And although he probably receives a small cut or commission from the proprietor for putting together that night's show, he regards his efforts as a labor of love. No one is going to get rich here, not without a cover and Budweiser at two dollars a can.
Married to Damita Jo, a famous jazz stylist(who, unfortunately is in very poor health, suffering from emphysema), Biddy Wood has been in this game a long time and has had a lot of experience putting together productions such as this. And although as his wife's manager he's overseen huge spectacles in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, he doesn't regard any of his undertakings, as "small potatoes." As a consummate professional, he, too, has high expectations of all his performers, no matter the size of the venue. In fact, he also presides over an equally obscure Friday evening gig at the Lafayette Market on the city's west side.
But he'd be the first to admit that founding this blues and jazz jam was not an easy matter. "Five years ago when I first started things up here, I encountered a lot of resistance from the neighborhood," he said. At that time, the community was mostly white and decidedly redneck, much like Hampden to the north. Biddy takes pride in the fact that, although he may not have exactly won over the hearts and minds of those in close proximity to the club, he, at least, endured and survived, all the while nurturing his brainchild.
He chose as his first house band Bobby Ward on drums, Chico Johnson on organ, and Mickey Fields on sax. The thin and wiry Bobby, the much in demand percussionist, who is as flashy a dresser as performer, now often backs Jesse Yawn at the Cat's Eye Pub on Sundays and will shortly accompany him on an extended tour of Italy. And playing at the Summit Lounge at 1231 East Preston St. every Friday night, the incomparable Chico still has them up and dancing in the aisles with his big, Hammond B-3 sound.
The late horn player, Mickey Fields, was legendary (as was his sister Shirley) for having recorded for Atlantic records in the early 50s as a member of the Tilters and for anchoring many a jazz and blues show at now defunct Baltimore shrines as Tishomingo's(immortalized by pianist Sammy Price on Savoy 1505), the Bird Cage(both off North Ave.), and the Famous Ballroom on N. Charles St. In the twilight of his career, the affable Mickey was stricken with severe arthritis to the extent that his fingers became gnarled. Yet, he gamely played on to the end seemingly oblivious to this crippling affliction. This soft-spoken gentleman was one of the most courageous individuals I have ever met and also, in his prime, one of the finest talents alive. Had he moved on to Los Angeles, New York, or Europe(like fellow native Gary Bartz), he probably would have become a household word in music circles. But he was always content to be just a large fish in the small pond of Baltimore.
Over the years, the lineup of the house band may have changed, but never its standards of excellence. Another homegrown hero who entertained nearly from the outset and considers himself a charter member is the imposing figure of David Smith, 50, arguably Baltimore's most popular tenor saxophone artist. A product of the west side's Fredrick Douglass High School, where the same Mickey Fields serenaded at his senior prom, David began playing horn at ten and professionally in R&B bands at 15. Ultimately, he learned theory and composition at the Community College of Baltimore. After a hitch in the U.S. Army in the 60s, he was converted to music of a more improvisational bent. By the 70s, he had recorded with jazz great(guitarist) O'Donel Levy and later had stints in the orchestras of organists Jimmy McGriff(of Juggy Murray's Sue records fame) and Doug Carn, and local diva, Ethel Ennis, who recorded prolifically for Atco and RCA in the 50s and 60s. His studio credits also include much gospel work with the likes of Julius Brockington and the Magic Force group. Currently, he handles most of the vocal chores for the well respected Swing Central, with whom he's been associated for 14 years, whose repertoire ranges from blues to doo-wop to pop fare. So high is he held the esteem of his peers that they recommended him to supply key passages in the soundtrack of a feature film, He Said, She Said, filmed in Baltimore in 1991.
David Smith is temporarily on a leave of absence from the Short Stop, possibly suffering a bit of burnout from his long tenure, but doesn't rule out a return in the near future. But he speaks most deferentially of his replacement, the young turk, Ron Pinder, who can really blow out all the tabletop candles with his aggressive, full frontal assault, saxophone style. The most recent configuration also includes longtime Baltimore keyboard player, Nevitta Ruddy, who also doubles on the bass and, frankly, can put a Ray Manzarek to shame. Although white, she claims to have played in nearly every "black joint in this city," and she often ventures in precincts where angels fear to tread. "Yeah, I get out of my car and this yo-boy comes over. He can't believe that this honky chick isn't looking to buy crack," she said with a hearty laugh. But there is a serious side to this most gifted musician. "I know the pay isn't good, but somebody has to keep gigs like this alive in this city. I'd like to think of myself as the glue that holds it all together," she added. And, indeed, she is.
Often there are two percussionists on duty, including seasoned veteran, Danny Brown, with the standard drum kit and the Panamanian, Luis, who plays an assortment of congas, bongos, chimes, maracas, and the such. As far as guest vocalists go, this writer has seen several outstanding examples in his many trips to the lounge. First there was Tim Harris, a man possessed of a both a fine and strong tenor voice, regardless of his diminutive frame. Tim Harris, too, has had a long history in the music business and recorded R&B for Syd Nathan's Cincinnati-based Deluxe label, a subsidiary of King, and also for the notorious Morris Levy's Roulette records, as the doo-wop outfit, Tiny Tim and the Hits, in the late 50s and early 60s. Tim is a man out and about town and doesn't let any grass grow under his feet. He can be seen regularly at the Paradise at Laurens and Carey Sts. in west Baltimore on Thursdays(often backed by Nevitta) and Sundays and sporadically appears at the Tranquility Inn at the intersection of Caton and Frederick Aves, also on the west side, where bluesman(guitarist) Bobby Parker often toiled in obscurity before hitting the big time with Black Top records. An astounding repository of anecdotes about the early days of the black recording experience, Tim undoubtedly warrants an exclusive biography in a future magazine article.
On another occasion, Vernon Wolst was holding down the fort. Not well known outside of Baltimore, but he should be. This quiet, classy, and sophisticated act is a combination of Jimmy Witherspoon, Arthur Prysock, and Billy Eckstine, all rolled into one. Possessed of an awesome bass-baritone of an instrument, he can bring the audience to tears with his rendition of 40s chestnut, "At Last," and, in another instant, bring down the house with a completely straight-faced, deadpanned version of Clarence Carter's(Ichiban 86-108) off-color "[You've got to] Love Me With A Feeling." Vernon, who also wields a mean sax, can be seen every weekend at Buddy's a jazz club on north Charles St. in the Mount Vernon district of the city. The past few weeks, Lady Rebecca has done the vocal honors. A local celebrity who probably knows every blues ballad that's ever been written and, as proof thereof, carries a loose-leaf binder of her extensive playlist. She has just returned from the Far East where she spent several years in such exotic locales as the Philippines and Singapore, often in the same clubs as the late Lavern Baker, who also became an expatriate of sorts near the end of her illustrious career.
Although Lady Rebecca's presentation includes items such as Cole Porter and George Gershwin, as well as Broadway tunes and pop standards, she always leaves room for such blues classics as "Down Home Blues," "Kansas City," "The Thrill Is Gone," and "Rock You Baby." "I'd like to think of myself as a jazz stylist who sings the blues, rather than the other way around. But if straight ahead blues is what they want, I can tailor my show that way, too," she says. With the paucity of great female blues/jazz singers today, it's truly incredible how a talent of this magnitude has been left undiscovered.
But the real fun at the Short Stop begins when friends of the music drop by and put in a cameo at the mike. One night it was Arnold Sterling, another alto sax stalwart and local legend; on another night, Ray Gaskins, a formidable horn player who now makes his home in England, wowed the audience with his sax gyrations. Yet on another evening, the delicately fragile Earlene Reed, who has appeared in some of the great rooms in the country, sang to a rapt audience. Finally, there's the mysterious Carlos Manning, an accomplished tenor, whom no one has ever seen in his own gig. Always a paragon of sartorial splendor, Carlos will pop in unannounced, play a few numbers, and just as quickly disappear into the night.
And still among these are local favorites like Eleanor Janey. The outspoken, extroverted Eleanor is quite a character and though middle-aged, she'll posture and strut her stuff on the bandstand and, much to their delight, dare the young fellows in the audience to try to attempt to fulfill the needs of this sexual dynamo of a woman in songs like "My Easy Chair," a salacious little blues ditty, chocked with double entendres. This feisty firebrand of a woman also hosts quite a blues and jazz jam of her own, which follows the Short Stop's format, but on that night dreaded by all saloon keepers-Monday-at the Sportsmen's Lounge at 4723 Gwynn Oak Ave. Yet, it too, has continued uninterrupted nearly twenty-two years. For both music and sports fans with long memories, this is the same club once owned by Hall of Fame running back, Lenny Moore, of the long-departed Baltimore Colts football team.
Often, the very elusive Alfonso "Al" Brown appears suddenly and, evidently having much prestige here, he is always accorded a reserved seat, a place of honor, right in front of the bandstand. And if he doesn't arrive with an entourage, one quickly develops, as he holds court at the far end of the bar. For as long as anyone can remember, Al has owned clubs in Baltimore and also has regularly presented both national and local acts for public consumption.
"Al in the 70s had a dynamite club called the Beef and Beer on Monument and Chester Sts. in east Baltimore. He had a lounge upstairs and downstairs. Sometimes they were both going at the same time. And Al wasn't afraid to book some big names, like Walter Jackson," said Lady Rebecca. Most recently, Al was the proprietor of the aforementioned Summit Lounge(then the Summit Social Club), until leasing the business to a newcomer(he still owns the building, which he refurbished). But, everyone expects him to surface again in some grand new arena.
Although Al Brown is well known as a local impresario, very few are cognizant of his major brush with fame. Back in the very late 50s during the advent of the dance craze phenomenon, Al with his group, the Tunetoppers, recorded a national smash, "The Madison[Amy 804)." This was not the same record featured by local film producer, John Waters, in Hairspray, a parody of the local Buddy Deane teen hit parade program, although the steps and line choreography were basically the same. Hurriedly recorded, almost as a "cover," to cash in on Al's runaway hit, this other version(Columbia 4-41628) showcased such stellar jazzmen as Ray Bryant on piano, Harry "Sweets" Edison on trumpet, Buddy Tate on Sax, and Urbie Green on Trombone. Ironically, it, too, had a Baltimore connection-Eddie Morrison, a one-time area DJ, who did the calls and vocals. By the spring of 1960, when the fad reached its zenith, Al Brown's "Madison" had emerged victorious, climbing to #5 on the Cashbox R&B charts.
Born in Fairmont, West Virginia, on May 22, 1929, Al came from a large family which had one thing in common-all the siblings were highly influenced by their father, a sax player of note in the region; so much so, that, after their collective discharge from the Army in the early 50s(and having settled in Baltimore), they decided to form a band, the Tunetoppers, with Al on tenor, Donald on Trumpet, and Charles doubling on both the alto and trumpet. Having distinguished themselves on the club circuit, they soon became entrenched at one of the premier lounges on the city's west side, the Tijuana, run by Ray Torain, at Clifton and Pennsylvania Aves. At the time, the Tijuana was also featuring big-time jazz artists, as well, like Shirley Scott and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. In fact, Pennsylvania Avenue, during that period, could be compared to 125th St. in Harlem, with clubs proliferating, such as the magnificent Royal Theatre, one of the major stops(as was the Apollo) on the so-called "chitlin' circuit" of R&B caravans of yore.
"We were all playing one night, and this guy from Zamoiski's[a Washington-based R&B one-stop and distributor] relates how he saw this new dance, but that he needed some music to go along with it. So, he asked me to write something," said Al. Al recorded the song with Cookie Brown(not related) on vocals at a studio on Cold Spring Lane in north Baltimore and it was subsequently picked up by Amy, which required Al to go to New York to complete the album, now a treasured collectors' item.
After the record broke, Al, now a member of General Artists booking agency, embarked on the obligatory promotion tour, a relentless schedule of perhaps 30 one-nighters, with drives up to three hundred miles between gigs. "Yeah, there were a bunch of stars on board that bus-the Isley Bros., Clyde McPhatter, Chubby Checker, and Screaming Jay Hawkins. But The Tunetoppers(of ten pieces) were chosen to be the house band. We had to play behind everyone at every show, because no one else had a backup group," said Al. The only problem was keeping the outfit together, since the bass player and drummer were alcoholics. "The rhythm section was giving me fits. Believe me, I like playing as much as sex and probably was better at the former. But I wasn't going to put up with this shit every night. So, I had to call it quits pretty much after we got back. Looking back on this decision, I'd have to say that it's biggest regret in life and my brothers and I always think of what could have been," he added wistfully.
Subsequent releases on Amy went nowhere, and, after finally retiring from performing, Al began managing, then owning clubs. One of the first was the Casino, also on Pennsylvania Ave., which was operated by colorful local, Little Willie. But, after the death of Martin Luther King in 1968, the riots put an end to any aspirations on that once grand boulevard. And Al had to look elsewhere to establish himself.
Into the 70s, well before the Beef and Beer venture, both Biddy and Al became involved with booking acts for Golden Nugget casino in Atlantic City. "We wanted to appeal to and keep the older audience. After all, they were the ones most likely to have money. So, we brought in Lionel Hampton, Johnnie Ray, the Coasters, and the Platters," said Al. Biddy, of course, often presented his wife, Damita Jo. Thereafter, Al began his string of successful enterprises in Charm City.
Whenever Al is in the house, Biddy can always prevail upon him to get up and sing. And Al knows the routine all too well. Invariably, he selects Percy Mayfield's enduring ballad "Please Send Me Someone To Love [Specialty 375, 1950]." Although his pipes are still in fine shape, Al always, politely and firmly, refuses to do an encore.
Sometime during the night, Biddy, himself, becomes a guest singer and normally closes a set with one long blues number. He may begin with Chuck Willis's plaintive "C.C. Rider [Atlantic 1130, 1957]" or Mr. 5X5, Jimmy Rushing's world-weary "Going To Chicago," but Biddy always wraps up this extended vocal medley with the sure-fire, crowd pleasing "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On," a big R&B hit (RPM 385) for Jimmy Nelson in 1953. Biddy relishes his one big moment in the spotlight and is positively beaming as he soaks up the applause.
On one particular Tuesday, after witnessing one particularly show-stopping performance, I remarked to Biddy that an analogy could be made comparing the Short Stop's modus operandi to the aphorism in Forrest Gump, the famous 1994 movie with Tom Hanks in the title role-"Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to find."
Biddy took a while to fully digest this simile, before he reached his own conclusion. "Yes, you could look at it like that, except you forgot one thing. Down here, we're all Shraft's chocolates," he said emphatically with a wink.