Graded on a Curve: R&B in DC 1940–1960: Rhythm & Blues, Doo Wop, Rockin’ Rhythm and more…

The Bear Family label is justly celebrated for their extensive and attractive box sets. With R&B in DC 1940-1960 they’ve hit a grand slam four times over. That means 16 loaded CDs and a 352-page LP-sized hardcover book authored by the set’s researcher-compiler Jay Bruder. This chronologically sequenced deep dive, peppered with a few well-known artists and acts but dominated by undeservedly undersung names, details the evolution of a genre from inside the boundary lines of a city that’s musical claims to fame (bluegrass, go-go, punk) were yet to come. It’s a meticulously assembled revelation and an absolute joy to the ear, an inexhaustible investment that’s available now, but limited to 1,500 copies.

There’s a fantastic story in Jay Bruder’s introduction for R&B in DC’s book that details a disc cut by the vocal group The Blue Jays. I mention it not to divulge the tale (it’s too good to spoil) but to simply relate how a love of recorded music, when combined with the sheer determination of discovery, a little good luck and the unpredictability of chance, can uncover mysteries that over time, as more is learned, clarify the trajectory of the past.

R&B in DC is positively overflowing with not just historical info but well-ordered portraiture and sharp perspective. To merely regurgitate parts of the book in this already sizeable review would do Bruder and Bear Family’s achievement a disservice. Instead, the focus will be on the sounds as they evolve, with the understanding that the contents are the byproduct of a city scene that wasn’t a major recording center on a national level. While record labels emerged, the more well-known names and songs here were predominantly released by or licensed to larger companies outside the city.

Understandably, disc one’s offerings are to differing degrees distinct from the set’s overall thrust, featuring material that’s considerably jazzier and with much of it leaning toward big bands, including two cuts by Billy Eckstine and His Orchestra. Those are welcome treats, but for me, the winners on the first disc are the International Sweethearts of Rhythm’s two versions of the lively call-and-response groover “Jump Children,” plus a pair of robust numbers from Ernie Fields and His Orchestra that remind me just a tad of Count Basie.

It’s The Lyles Brothers and the Rhythmeers, opening and closing disc one respectively, plus The Melodaires Male Quartet in between, who provide the connective tissue of close harmony with the discs that immediately follow. This includes the openers of the second CD The Progressive Four (with eight tracks overall), Three B’s and a Honey (who can raise the temperature instrumentally as evidenced by “Hit That Jive Jack”), and the Cap-Tans (with their “Put It Down” urging listeners to get checked for VD).

Prolific and enduring, the Cap-Tans open disc 16 with a pair of tracks, including the somewhat Santo & Johnny-ish “I’m Afraid.” On disc three, the Cap-Tans are joined by The Clovers, one of R&B in DC’s higher-profile and long-lasting entrants, as they figure in the collection’s scheme all the way up to disc 14, which offers their hit “Love Potion No. 9.” But the set’s champion survivor is singer Baby Dee; she’s heard on disc one with two numbers, disc eight with five, disc nine with four (using given name Dolores Spriggs), and discs 12, 14, and 16 with two tracks each including the set’s final two selections.

But discs two and three also deliver some primo sax honking and 88s banging, e.g. Joe Morris and His Orchestra’s “Lowe Groovin’,” Billy Williams and His Band’s “Shout ‘N’ Rock,” The Griffin Brothers’ “Riffin’ With Griffin,” Paul Williams and Sextette’s “Waxey Maxie,” and Frank “Floorshow” Culley and His Band’s “Waxie Maxie Boogie” (the latter two songs referencing the entrepreneur Max Silverman, whose record stores were a DC-area institution from the days of shellac 78s to the CD era).

Courtesy of Frank Motley (known for playing two trumpets simultaneously) and His Orchestra and the drummer-vocalist T.N.T. Tribble, things really start to cook, with the pair dominating disc four both in tandem (Tribble singing with Motley’s outfit) and on their own. Along the way, vocalist Jimmy McPhail lends some panache, the radio spots of DJ Jackson Lowe further illuminate the era, and The Heartbreaker’s incessantly rhythmic “Wanda” stands as one of the disc’s highlights as the Blue Jays sides closing disc four mark the emergence of pure doo-wop.

Cue The Clovers at the start of disc five, as “One Mint Julep” and “Hey Miss Fannie” combine lithe harmony with instrumental heat. As the disc unwinds, DC MVP Motley teams up with The Clefs, Jimmy Crawford and The Heartbreakers (who display some versatility with their own material across the disc). Late in disc five is where the burners are located, including cuts from Tribble’s own orchestra, the band-backed vocal group zest of Van Walls and His Rockets, and a rather eccentric closing instrumental from Motley and His Crew.

A stylistic detour of sorts is also included on the fifth disc, specifically a half-dozen selections by The Young Gospel Singers, their testifying strengthened by piano and organ. On the other side of the equation, DC during this period was far from a straight blues town (as elaborated upon in the accompanying book), but the cuts by Margie Day and Billy Mitchell on disc three do delve into the form with satisfying results. Jumping to disc seven, The 3 Of Us Trio’s “Lonely House Blues” is a stone killer.

A jazz influence is more prevalent across R&B in DC but it’s rarely as direct as during Motley and His Crew’s “Caravan,” found early on disc six. Also of note is Tribble and His Crew’s “Three Way Split” on disc four and the Van Perry Quintet’s “Waxin’ for Maxie” on disc six, both featuring saxophone from noted jazz multi-instrumentalist Frank Wess.

Tribble and Motley continue to flourish on disc six, with the latter’s “I Found Out,” a swell answer record to Eva Foster and the Van Perry Quintet’s “You’ll Never Know,” heard a few tracks prior. Overall, the sounds of the city’s bands at this point (1953) resist the smoothening inclination that was a frequent tactic by labels in NYC, Chicago, and LA, and yet are increasingly vivid. An exception is the intriguing echo-laced lo-fi distance of the Tribble Orchestra’s “Devil Swamp,” with a vocal by Leonard Swain.

And the vocal groups, while obviously oriented toward finesse, complement the edge of the instrumental acts by resisting the tendency for the soporific (a recurring problem with doo-wop). And when tough ensemble play and sharp harmony are mingled, the results can be magnificent, as during The Clovers’ “Good Lovin’,” the Blue Jays’ “Hey Pappa,” and a handful of sides by The Five Blue Notes and The Bachelors.

It’s a recipe that extends into disc seven, as The Clovers just keep on rolling, but also The Topps, The Four Bars (who get orchestra backing from Sid Bass and Billy Mure), The Earls, and The Chanaclairs (aka The Chantelairs, whose “Yuletide Love” is a solid Christmas song, though their “See See Rider” is even better).

But the pick of the disc isn’t vocal group inclined. It’s instead the unrestrained mayhem of Motley and His Crew’s “New Hound Dog,” with singer Curley Bridges channeling Big Mama Thornton rather than Elvis as the band and Motley’s dual trumpets go wonderfully insane. And Motley’s band, this time with singer Elsie “Angel Face” Kenley, even dishes an inspired (which is to say, totally ripping) version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” to wrap up disc seven.

With names like The Rainbows, The Eagles, The Clefs, The Ontarios (backed by Motley and Crew), and The Griffins, disc eight is dominated by vocal groups (but not always working in a strict doo-wop style), though the stretch of tracks from the sturdy voiced Baby Dee are a welcome change of pace. Right on time, disc nine swings the stylistic pendulum back to the side of horn wailing madness, and immediately, with the total bar walking mania of Little “Walkin” Willie and his Swinging Blues Men’s “Blow Little Willie.”

Who started the lie that the ’50s was a square decade? Whoever it was, they sure as hell weren’t hip to TNT Tribble, who comes roaring back with a half-dozen nuggets on disc nine, of which the driving thump of “Red Hot Boogie” is my pick as the standout. But the vocal group impulse hangs in there, represented by The Four Bars, The Dippers Quintet (dishing another holiday number, “It’s Almost Christmas”) and The Griffins, who wrap up the disc with a handful of tracks including two backing singer Marie Knight.

If the R&B of the nation’s capital retained its tougher edge throughout this era, refinements are detectable in disc nine and moving forward into the next, specifically in the series of tracks by The Rainbows, Scotty Mann and The Masters, The Carusos, The Bachelors, and The Octaves. There’s also a nice two-parter from Billy Stewart and a handful of cuts by the Angel Face Orchestra under the direction of Motley, who cuts loose on his own, with “Digging in the Ground” and “Three Blind Mice” especially tasty.

Also interesting is Earlston Ford’s “He Made Us All,” which unfurls an unusual gospel-romantic ballad hybrid, though the title of Motley and Crew’s “Rock and Roll ‘Gotta Beat” points us toward further developments in its titular form, as another of the big names corralled by R&B in DC, one Lloyd Price of “Stagger Lee” fame, enters the scene on disc 11, instantly recognizable and leading his orchestra for eight tracks.

But it’s The Crawford Brothers who open disc 11 with eight cuts of their own, and with aspects of R&R’s impact certainly detectable, particularly in the succession of “Loving Machine,” “My Baby’s Eyes,” and “Dancin’ Dan.” Traces of R&R can also be heard in the selections by Stella Johnson and the very adaptable Motley, though the thrust of his “All Clap Hands” hits my ear like an instrumental knock-off of Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia” (first cut in 1945, Jordan notably rerecorded the song in 1956). And that’s just fine.

That Don Covay figures on disc 11 puts another stylistic development into play, namely Soul, though it’s necessary to clarify that his initial two tracks, cut under the sobriquet Pretty Boy, land solidly in the zone of ’50s R&B, clearly impacted by Little Richard in “Bip Bop Bip” (later covered by Barrence Whitfield and the Savages), while his “Paper Dollar” is decidedly New Orleans in comportment. He reemerges as Pretty Boy (and again quite similar to Little Richard) at the start of disc 13 before switching to his given name for his other contributions to the set.

But first, Price, Stewart and Baby Dee figure in disc 12’s weave, along with strong work from Sammy Fitzhugh & His Moroccans and Pat Patterson, though it’s here that we hit peak vocal group, with more from those Clovers and entries from The Coolbreezers, The Gales, The Halliquins, The Truetones, The Capitols, The Four Bel-Aires, The Velps, The Links, The Kooltones, and The Marquees (featuring a young Marvin Gaye), who, along with Stewart, are backed by an orchestra directed by Elias McDaniel, aka Bo Diddley. The tracks are strong, even if they lack evidence of Bo’s (or Marvin’s) distinctive sound.

As we enter R&B in DC’s home stretch, the rudiments are secure, but with some cool twists, like Phil Flowers’ rockabilly flavored “No Kissin’ At the Hop,” the Mickey & Sylvia-tinged teen dance action that is Covay’s “Betty Jean,” The Jammers’ ripping sax-fueled “The Thunderbird,” the instrumental scrappiness and vigorous harmony of The Capitals’ “Three O’clock Rock,” and Little Marie Allen and the Chuck Booker Band’s slyly bluesy “Oh, I’m in Love,” all from disc 13.

Disc 14 opens with “Space Age” by Frank Motley’s Crew, a successful stab at tapping into the spirit of the time as it unfolded, though it’s flip, “Everybody Wants a Flattop” is a bit of an oddity, a song about haircuts sung from the perspective of a Muscatel-drinking barber. It’s followed by two cuts sung by Little Sonny Warner backed by the band of the classic sax honker Big Jay McNeely, with “There Is Something on Your Mind” becoming a sizable national hit in 1959. TNT Tribble’s two-part “Madison Beat” is also cool, though it’s the instrumental flip that really pulls my chain.

It becomes apparent that by the end of the 1950s, the musicians and labels in DC had become more adept at capturing the sounds that were impacting the pop and R&B charts on a national level. That means fewer oddball stabs at hopeful hitmaking, though there is L’Captans with the “Go” Boys’ “Homework” (with lyrics shouting out watching a R&R show on WTTG channel 5, a station that still exists) and Harvey and the Moonglows’ swank-assed “Unemployment” (featuring Marvin Gaye again and hitting like a cross between The Silhouettes and The Coasters) on disc 14.

Disc 15 delivers a batch of utterly non-sophisto R&R action from Chet “Poison” Ivey, including “’Tater Patch” (about farming), “The Slop” (suggesting a disheveled dance craze), and “Wash Your Feet” (a general health directive). And “I Sing Mother Goose Rhymes” and “Young School Girl” by Little Calvin (aka Calvin Ruffin Jr) establishes the “kids R&B” impulse roughly a decade prior to the Jackson 5.

The Afro-Cuban-flavored cuts on disc 15 and 16 by Roland Kave and his Fabulous Los Diablos do throw a pleasant curveball in the set’s late innings, making plain again that all this DC activity wasn’t created in a vacuum. Also, Sammy Fitzhugh’s clearly Sam Cooke-derived “I Feel Alright” places Soul directly into the equation. But because DC wasn’t a hit making town, there’s no sense of desperation for chart success as these disc’s unwind, not even at this far end of the timeframe. Not a single song in this collection registers as an ill-conceived blunder, which solidifies the specialness of the whole undertaking.

Indeed, after R&B in DC reaches its conclusion, the verdict is unequivocal. The tracks that never branched out beyond local notoriety, meaning the vast majority of set, hang right up there with the era’s long-ensconced hits. That is, in terms of pure quality, the Blue Jays’ “Could I Adore You” takes no back seat to The Clovers’ “Love Potion No. 9.”

To recycle a phrase from earlier in this review, so much of the music that lingers in the cultural memory from the middle of last century resides there through good luck and the unpredictability of chance. Yes, momentum generated from business savvy and having cash on hand for production purposes are also factors, but the statement stands.

In conclusion (whew!), this set painstakingly documents how the thriving and diverse rhythm and blues scene of the District of Columbia enhanced the lives of its residents, with the sounds standing up tall today. Absolute highest marks to Bruder and Bear Family for presenting it with so much care and with a clear and infectious passion for the collected recordings. R&B in DC is a music aficionado’s dream come true.


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