Billy Vera Documents a Legendary Label With 'Rip It Up: The Specialty Records Story'
Grammy-winner Billy Vera spent years working in the Speciality Records vaults and remains close to label founder Art Rupe. "Specialty is right up there with Atlantic, Chess, and Sun in terms of being important." Enjoy an interview with the author and an exclusive book excerpt.
Rip It Up: The Specialty Records Story
BMG Books has just published Rip It Up: The Specialty Records Story, authored by Billy Vera, author, music historian, actor, and producer. Vera received a 2013 Grammy award for his liner notes for the Ray Charles Box set, Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His other books include his memoir, Harlem to Hollywood, Vintage Neon: Los Angeles, 1979, and his forthcoming novel, A Dollop of Toothpaste.He also topped the Billboard charts with the single "What Did You Think?" in 1987.
Specialty Records was launched in the 1940s and became one of the most important labels for African-American music. In addition to its prodigious gospel output, the label had R&B hits from Roy Milton, Camille Howard, Jimmy and Joe Liggins, and Percy Mayfield. Label founder Art Rupe went on to sign Lloyd Price as well as Little Richard, ultimately boasting a roster that included some of the originators of rock 'n' roll.
Vera's book features a host of characters, including Guitar Slim, Jesse Blevin, Don and Dewey, and in an excerpt below, Larry Williams and Sonny Bono.
Vera recently spoke with PopMatters about writing the book and his own work at the Specialty label.
What was the impetus for Rip It Up?
BMG had read my memoir, Harlem to Hollywood, and they knew that I had worked for Specialty and wanted a book on the label. I was their man.
What did you do at Specialty?
I worked as a consultant starting in 1989. Art Rupe's daughter, Beverly, had reunited with him after many years. He put her in charge of the company. At that point, it was mainly to service oldies accounts. Somebody had suggested a Little Richard box and put it together. Beverly asked my opinion. I thought it was sloppy and had a weird running order.
She asked what I would do differently. I told her I'd do it chronologically and give it some good artwork. I had a friend who was an award-winning art director that I brought in. The box was well-received. I was asked to do more projects. That led to a series, Legends of Specialty. We did six of those. We added session information with dates and treated R&B in the same manner jazz is treated.
At some point, Art sold the company to Fantasy Records. Ralph Calfel flew me up to Berkley and asked if I wanted to stay on. He asked me to treat it as though I had inherited the company from Art Rupe. We did a Specialty five-disc box set. Jerry Wexler told me, "You're one of the best vault men in the business. The problem is when you reach the bottom of the vault." That's eventually what happened.
How much research was involved in the book?
When I was working for the label, I Xeroxed letters, union recording contracts. Plus, I've known Art for 30 years. He's 102 years old, but he has a memory like an elephant. He's sharper than you and I put together. He's the last of those independent label owners. I just did a 90-minute interview with him last week. He said he trusted me to do it right.
Did you have any revelatory moments in writing the book?
I'm a huge fan of Percy Mayfield, who wrote "Please Send Me Someone to Love". Later, he wrote Ray Charles' "Hit the Road, Jack", which, to date, is Ray's best-selling record. I had known Percy when I first moved out here in 1979. I was able to use some things that he told me. I like to double and triple-check anything an artist tells me because, ordinarily, their memories tend to be rather narcissistic. and their memories are not always that accurate. A businessman's memory tends to be more so.
I could check details. If somebody said, "Yeah, Earl Palmer played drums on that," I could say, "No, it was Roy Porter. I have the contract." I don't always confront them with their mistakes, but I'll write the correct thing.
I feel like the early era of rock 'n' roll and R&B gets overlooked. Sometimes it seems that everyone thinks rock 'n' roll started with the Beatles.
It's funny you mention that because I've noticed that people, in general, think in a narcissistic sense. They tend to think that all history started with their generation. The generation you're referring to is the Baby Boomers. To them, there was no music before the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. But everything they did came out of what came before, just like everything early rockers and rhythm and blues people did come out of what came before them. It's continually evolving.
I was born in 1944, so I grew up listening to Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis. But I've continued to go backward. Today, I'm listening to 1931 Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Tell me a little bit more about the importance of Art Rupe.
At some point, someone suggested that Art should be honored by the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, Ahmet Ertegun said, "Art Rupe didn't produce no records!" I can tell you, from listening to the master tapes, that he did. He was a great producer. After Ahmet died, they inducted Art. Plus, three of his artists: Lloyd Price, Little Richard, and Sam Cooke. Specialty is right up there with Atlantic, Chess, and Sun in terms of being important, and it's definitely the top gospel label of them all.
Excerpt from Rip It Up: The Specialty Records Story
THAT BAD BOY
Bumps Blackwell's last hit on Specialty was "Short Fat Fannie" by Larry Williams.
Lawrence Eugene Williams was born on May 10, 1935, in New Orleans. His parents chose to move to Oakland, California when little Larry was but two years old. On the way out there, his mother, Mabel, dropped him o with an aunt in Chicago, where he remained until he was ten.
Once reunited with his family in Oakland, he learned to play piano and joined a band down at the local YMCA called the Lemon Drops. They worked around town, made a demo, and sent it to Specialty, where his second cousin Lloyd Price was making hit records, but they got no positive reaction.
A visit home to New Orleans in 1954 resulted in a job chauffeuring Price, but that ended when Lloyd was drafted later that year. Wanting to be somehow involved in show business, Larry hustled up work as a valet for Roy Brown and Percy Mayfield and driving for Fats Domino. Lloyd got out of the Army in 1956 and did a few more dates for Specialty in the style that had made him famous, but potential customers found the records dated. Lloyd had some new ideas for a more pop-oriented style to appeal to the larger and more lucrative white market, but neither Rupe nor Blackwell was impressed, so he and the label parted company.
Moving to Washington, DC, Price put out one of these pop ideas on his own KRC label, and it started to make a little noise locally. So he made a deal with ABC-Paramount to release it. Recognizing the song "Just Because" as a potential winner, Art Rupe took Larry into Master Recorders on February 25, 1957, to cover the tune.
Thanks to ABC-Paramount's greater clout, Lloyd's version became the bigger hit, while Larry's made it to a respectable number 11 on the R&B charts. He was o to a good start.
With Little Richard making noises that he was unhappy and hinting that he might want to leave showbusiness, it was clear that Specialty needed a Plan B, and that plan would involve Larry Williams becoming the heir to Little Richard's throne.
A second date was booked for April 26 with Rene Hall on guitar, Earl Palmer on drums, and a tenor sax player from H-Bomb Ferguson's band named Jesse James Jones. Of the four tunes recorded that day, two were used as Larry's next release, his first in his new rock and roll persona which owed much to that of Little Richard. That was a little ditty called "Short Fat Fannie." In the song, written by Larry, he makes reference to a number of the hits of the day, a well- worn songwriting device, including, in the very first verse, mention of Little Richard's own "Slippin' and A-Slidin'," "Long Tall Sally," and "Rip It Up," a bitch slap in the star's face that says, "I can do that shit as good as you." The record reached number one R&B and number five pop, joining Richard's "Jenny Jenny" in the Top 10.
In the wake of Art Rupe's divorce from his wife, Leona, she would teamup with Jesse James Jones in a new label, Ebb Records, having one hit, "Buzz, Buzz, Buzz," with the Hollywood Flames and Jones overdubbing all the sax parts. They put out some good but poorly selling records by Professor Longhair and Floyd Dixon before selling the label to her former husband.
The flip side of "Short Fat Fannie," "High School Dance," was cowritten in a "Just Because" vein by a new songwriter Art Rupe signed named Salvatore Phillip "Sonny" Bono, born on February 16, 1935, in Detroit to Sicilian parents Santo and Zena "Jean" Bono. Sonny would soon replace Bumps Blackwell as A&R director and go on to produce many of the label's Hollywood recording sessions after being trained in Rupe's manner of doing things.
When Art Rupe later began to lose interest in the music business, spending the majority of his energy on the oil wells that would make him a millionaire and eventually shutting down day-to-day operations, Sonny moved on, writing Jackie DeShannon's "Needles And Pins" with his friend Jack Nitzsche, then went on to work for Phil Spector as a promotion man, percussionist, and go-fer. His subsequent career with his wife Cher is well known.
He was elected Mayor of Palm Springs, California, in 1988, serving until 1992, and he became a member of the US House of Representatives from 1995 until his death in 1998. While in office, he sponsored the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which extended the term of copyright by twenty years, to the everlasting gratitude of songwriters and music publishers everywhere.
After one hit song about a chubby girl, Larry cleverly came up with one about Fannie's opposite with an ode to "Bony Moronie." A new tenor sax player had arrived in LA from New Orleans named Plas Johnson. Born in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, on July 21, 1931, he first recorded with his piano- playing brother Ray as the Johnson Brothers in New Orleans.
Once in Los Angeles, he quickly impressed Maxwell Davis, who hired Plas to take his place on record dates so he could concentrate on his more lucrative gig-writing arrangements. Plas's work for Larry Williams and other rock and roll dates by Bobby Day, Richard Berry, and B. Bumble and the Stingers got him noticed, and it wasn't long before he became the top tenor soloist in town, soloing on records by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys to Henry Mancini, for whom he played the solos on "Peter Gunn" and "The Pink Panther Theme," ultimately becoming a member of the famous Wrecking Crew.
Larry and Sonny wrote "Bony Moronie"'s B-side, "You Bug Me, Baby," which reached number forty-five on the pop chart. These, unfortunately and surprisingly, were Larry's last chart records for Specialty. I say "surprisingly" because some of his nest work was yet to come.
Meanwhile, Rene Hall, who'd been playing on some Specialty dates, including Larry's, had a jukebox hit with "Twitchy" featuring Willie Joe Duncan. He also had one called "Thunderbird," named after a cheap wine of the screw-o cap variety popular among ghetto winos. Born Rene Joseph Hall on September 26, 1912, in Morgan City, Louisiana, his recording debut was in 1933 with New Orleans jazzman Joseph Robichaux. As did Roy Milton, Rene toured with Ernie Fields's territory band.
In the 1940s, he moved to New York, recording under his own name for RCA Victor, Decca, and Jubilee. In 1950, he discovered Billy Ward and the Dominoes, featuring Clyde McPhatter for Federal Records, where Rene played on their classics "Sixty Minute Man" and "Have Mercy Baby."
Relocating to Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, he was heard on hits like "La Bamba" by Ritchie Valens, Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" and "I'll Come Running Back To You," and others, including songs by Brook Benton, Ed Townsend, and the Platters. Keeping up with the times, he worked as an arranger, most notably for his beautiful, soul-stirring string chart on Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" and many Motown acts, like Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." He worked with Paul McCartney and even the hard rock group Ratt.
Hall is heard on Larry's greatest two-sider, "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" and "Slow Down," both later recorded by the Beatles' John Lennon, as were his "Bad Boy" and "Bony Moronie." The driving hook on the latter tune, played in three-part unison by Rene with Plas Johnson and baritone sax player Jewel Grant was written by Hall, borrowed from a similar riff on Clarence Garlow's Zydeco classic "Bon Ton Roulet."
"She Said Yeah," the flip side of "Bad Boy," was written by Sonny Bono with Specialty artist Roddy Jackson. The Rolling Stones wound up recording it early in their career, before Mick and Keith realized that writing their own material was the key to the big bucks.
Larry was a great in-person act, the very essence of the rebellious side of rock and roll. On one Alan Freed stage show at the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre, he pretended to faint, falling of the piano, causing mayhem among the audience, making him a hard act to follow.
Art Rupe recalls, "Onstage, he needed props. He had a chimp or orangutan in the role of Fannie. The monkey threw shit on him. Maybe he wasn't feeding him," he laughed. "Larry went over well in England because he enunciated. His career was like a comet," meaning it came and went fairly quickly. "He was a very dapper dresser." Unlike Rupe's earlier acts, who were well rehearsed, "With Larry, a lot of what we did [in the studio] was head arrangements."
By the time of his final sessions for Specialty, he had gotten caught up in the wild side and was arrested by the LAPD for selling drugs and dropped by his label. Probably not coincidently, his writing and the quality of his records had been suffering for a while before this, and his sales figures reflected the fact. Chess Records picked him up in 1959 and did a few singles with him. "Every Day I Wonder" was a nice one but sold little.
The following year, he was convicted for dealing narcotics and served a three-year term in prison. Upon his release, he got a job in Artists & Repertoire for OKeh Records, then attempting to revive their once-stellar black music division. With the major label's bigger budgets, he produced two albums and several singles for Little Richard, including the title song of the motion picture Hurry Sundown and the minor chart hit "Poor Dog."
He signed his running buddy Johnny "Guitar" Watson and produced an album on him. As a duo, the two cut the chart single "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," a vocal version of the Cannonball Adderley instrumental hit. Larry also produced an album on OKeh of modernized versions of his Specialty classics, which did little for either his reputation or his bank account.
At the same time, he appeared in the motion pictures Just For The Hell of It (1968), The Klansman (1974), and Drum (1976).
The drug life—using and selling—grew more severe. The illegal money was pouring in. There was the half-million-dollar house [$2,333,608 in 2019 dollars], the silver platform shoes with live gold inside the see-through high heels, plus he was pimping, too. The late 1970s was cocaine time in Los Angeles, and Larry was buying and selling in quantity. He once pulled a gun on Little Richard, threatening to kill him for skipping his payment.
On January 2, 1980, Larry Williams was found in the front seat of his Rolls Royce in his driveway up Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills with a bullet through his right temple. His death was ruled a suicide, but most of his acquaintances believe to this day it was murder. Some speculate it was his rival dealers or pimps, while others say it was the police.
Larry left us some of the most authentic rock and roll ever pressed into vinyl, and that's what he'll be remembered for.
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Excerpted from Rip It Up: The Specialty Records Story by Billy Vera. Used with the Permission of BMG Books. © Copyright 2019 BMG Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.