The L.A. Big Daddy’s Bring Home The Blues
Picture Los Angeles. It’s 1963 and the stately homes in Lafayette Square have birthed a generation of musicians that history is bound to forget. It’s the normal course of things when there’s no stand out star in the bunch, yet when the world owes a debt to their crew, the L.A. Big Daddy’s have returned to make sure it gets paid in full.
L.A. Big Daddy’s are David E. Jackson (Drums),and Matt Bragg (Bass). It’s not enough that Matt and David are passionate about The Blues today, but the musical memories of their beloved Wellington Road in the mid-city section of the City of Angels have fueled their commitment to music for decades and now the perfection which is “Rock Your Blues Away” is proof that timing is indeed everything. Joining them in their musical crusade is another childhood chum, Norman Williams who years ago journeyed to Texas to build upon his musical lessons learned in L.A. . He’s held down the keys for a host of legends from Johnny Taylor and Bobby Blue Bland to Nancy Wilson, now he’s now joining his friends in the Blues brigade.
It’s been thirty four years since Norman Williams fled the nest of Wellington Road making a bee line for the Deep South to tour with Soul Blues legend ZZ Hill in 1984. Now residing in Mesquite, TX for the last two decades, Williams, who co-wrote “Small Talking” first recorded by their neighborhood band and then popularized by The Whispers, had always been somewhat of a leader in their crew. In fact, rehearsals in his family garage was one place the neighborhood musicians earned their wings and ultimately took flight.
On the “Rock Your Blues Away” project, the wonders of modern technology have resulted in a top notch recording which intends to reclaim The Blues for a generation of listeners and African Americans who have all but abandoned the genre for the auto-tuned temptations of Trap&B. “As performers and session players through the years, we have had the opportunity to play all kinds of music” says David E. Jackson who counts gigs with Loose Ends and Ronnie Laws on his resume. “We had the opportunity to tour with ‘Sista Monica’ Parker back in 2007 which ignited our love for The Blues. All across Europe it was a such a surprise to witness the love for this music that was for the most part no longer being played or enjoyed by the black folks who birthed it.” That got us to thinking,” adds Matt, “Wait a minute…we can do this!” and the proverbial wheels were in motion.
As the saying goes, sometimes you have to go backwards to go forward. In an ironic twist, it is in fact modern technology along with with the superb arranging and production chops of Norman Williams which make this very traditional sounding album even possible. Williams shares ” When I got the project it was still in rough form. Matt and David had finished their demos. There were a few things that needed to be smoothed out to make it record ready. At that point, we had to finish vocals and get the production on it. L.A. has its thing, but it needed that Southern flavor. I hear the guys from around here, so I called them up and ask them to come on the project…so that’s what we did. Dwayne first, then Ernie took turns recording vocals, then we made the arrangements fatter. To this day, none of the key personnel have been in the same room.”
Along with Mississippi born and California raised Kee Eso Pitchford, welcomed to the project were Southern legends Ernie Johnson and Dwayne “Holyghost Guitar” Watson who with their smoked ribs n’ chicken vocals one would swear they never ventured west of Memphis. On the set’s opener Kee Eso growls “I got The Funky Blues and it seems like it’s here to stay” while in his lone appearance Adrian Meyers proclaims on “Proud Man Blues” “I got my cake and, I eat it too…if you know what I mean”. On the slow and easy “Just For You” Ernie Johnson purrs “when I’m with you it feels like I’m in paradise” in counterpoint to the last-straw frustration displayed on his “Stoop On The Roof”. Track after track, the work of these vocal masters can’t be denied. “Chain Gang” a fan favorite, features Dwayne Watson’s soaring vocals and searing guitar work, a cautionary tale invoking the roadside toil of the long incarcerated . In a testament to the quality displayed across the entire project, it feels perfect for a film score, while “A Man’s Gotta Do” is pure 70s Soul, rounding out a project that Louisiana Music Hall of Fame guitarist Gregg Wright proclaims as “a bonafide monster” with the electrifying Blues guitarist Guitar Shorty chiming in “This is one CD you gotta BUY.”
Speaking from an overnight train from Louisiana to Indianapolis,IN Dwayne “Holyghost Guitar” Watson, member of the Grammy winning Canton Spirituals, recalled the story of how “Chain Gang” came to life. “They sent me the musical arrangement along with the song title “Sunshine” and the way the music was going, I didn’t hear nothing but darkness. I listened to the minor ninth and I heard darkness,suffering and pain. So, I just started writing…I just adlibbed – and the lyrics flowed off the top of my head.” He continued “I’m a history buff. I love World History…American History… all types of history. Chain Gangs are most certainly a part of American History and especially Black History. From the building of the South, the building of the North, the White House, the Church House and the whore house, too…those types of lyrics are part of my appreciation for history. At first, I was really wondering if this was a Gospel song or not – is it a Blues song? – I give all glory to God for everything that I do. I just listen to the music and it tells me what to do.”
Ernie Johnson is itching to perform. Johnson released his first single in 1968, yet he didn’t get around to his first album until 1986, cementing his status as a Soul Blues singer and as a peer of his friend Bobby “Blue” Bland. While he’s charted a path on the Blues Festival circuit, he’s really built to sing…everyday. On “Rock Your Blues Away” Johnson is given room to really stretch out and display his versatility, delivering a soulful honesty no matter the lyric. Like Dwayne Watson, Johnson shared in the writing of his songs which appear on the album. About the smooth and soulful “Just For You” he exclaims “I don’t know how I wrote it, I just wrote it! When I start off, I try to follow a pattern and keep the sentiment the same. I can get lost, but I try to make it feel like I’m in love! This time it just happened.” The song’s counterpoint “Stoop On The Roof” was inspired by producer Norman Williams who challenged his old friend with the song title. Letting loose with a hearty laugh Johnson shares, “I’m 6’5” what do I know about a stoop on the roof? Millie Jackson says to me “what are you doin’ going on the roof?” laughing he continues, “Down south sometimes we hide on the roof!” The pure joy of making music which comes from an real place shines through despite his sobering claim that he remains one of only ones left after the recent passing of Dennis Edwards. “Besides Millie,” he says, “Nearly all my friends have died.”
In an era fueled by claims of cultural appropriation, David, Matt, and Norman and all involved in breathing life into these songs are choosing to be living history. Matt Bragg’s journey to The Blues is a cautionary tale for the genre. “I never considered myself a real Blues player because I became familiar with it through Rock n’ Roll – mostly through the music of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and the British bands which played homage to the Black originators of The Blues…it took me a while to appreciate it.” He continues, “Black audiences had gravitated to other forms of musical expression, but I recognized that if WE don’t perpetuate it, one day we may have to see it at the Smithsonian. When we toured, I was glad to see at least somebody’s listening to it, but we have enough instances where something we created was adopted and profited from. This is our attempt to make sure we keep something for the people.” David E. Jackson sums it up succinctly “Blues is more than a guitar solo!”
While a new found mission in the reinvigoration of The Blues motivated these L.A. natives, don’t discount the power of nostalgia. David E. Jackson claims “We really know each other – we’ve been playing together since we were youngsters. As you grow up, go off and do your own thing there’s still something calling you back to the familiar. Making music together is something we’ve always done and it feels good to be doing it once again.”
So there you have it. The L.A. Big Daddy’s – the boys of Wellington Road – are back to making music. “Rock Your Blues Away” is an album drenched in soul in a way that transcends an era yet singularly captures the essence of The Blues for the familiar and uninitiated alike. It wouldn’t have been possible if not for the enduring passion for music of two childhood friends who refused to let the music fade. Keep the street lights on, y’all. The fellas aren’t through jamming, yet.