I haven’t. Is this ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ you’re talking about?
No, but I’ve heard a lot about it. Oh man.
I heard some good things. It’s a great one. It’s number three on the chart. It’s up for the comeback cd of the year and the comeback artist of the year.
That the W.C. Handy Awards? Yeah, you know about that?
Oh, yeah. I’m up for that in May.
I was speaking to Lazy Lester in New Orleans earlier this year and he was up for it. He just missed out unfortunately but I hope you have better luck. Yeah, man. I’m crazy about it you know? It’s been a long time since I did a CD, did a recording that I appreciated.
Well, look you had a good band behind you. Did you use Duke Robillard I think. Yeah man. That was a great band and there’s an interview on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) on the back end of the cd. I’ve never heard of anything like that before.
Yeah. Well I think people are getting interested in the history aren’t they. Of the music. I mean that’s why I’m ringing you too.
Yeah. So you are able to introduce yourself and also to give some background to your career.
So I think that was an excellent idea that Hoagy Petersen you know he’s the owner of Stony Plains Records.
Well look, I bet you’ve been interviewed a hundred times though. You right.
I hope we can ask you some questions which are a bit original hopefully. I’ll be glad if I get three question today that maybe you haven’t been asked for a while and maybe will make you thing about stuff. I know a lot of artists when they are interviewed go into automatic mode you know and say the same thing. Hopefully, we can get you to remember some things that you’ve forgotten too. Well I hope you come up with some new questions.
Alright. Well the pressure’s on so let’s see how we know. There’ll be a little bit there that you will have heard before that’s just because people want to hear it isn’t it. It’s the important stuff. Yeah.
I’m gonna start you off, this might seem rude, by not even asking you about yourself, but, asking you about someone else. Another big favourite of mine on the Memphis blues scene is, of course, Isiah Ike Turner. You were involved with him in the very early days when you were recording for modern is that right? In the beginning you know he was the front-man for modern records so he would go around and find the artist. You know to record. So he came to Memphis and I did ‘No More Doggin’ for him you know? Ike turner wanted to do it himself. Now this particular weekend my band I we were working in Arkansas. So anyway, it’s time to go to work. I go look for the musicians. I go by the tenor-players house Willie Wilks. By his house. And his wife say “Ike Turner say you all had not finished the recording”. But, we had finished the session. So I took off and got to Tuff Green’s house and when I get there I hear ‘No More Doggin’ being played, but, it’s a strange voice. Ike Turner, he’s in there doing my song with my band (laughs).
What was his version like? Yeah, he was doing my song with my band. So I break in and break it up. So I said man “what are you doing?” He said I wanted to see how it sounds with me doing it (laughs). I reckon he was lining up to steal it, but, you must have just caught him in time.
I did. I caught him right in the nick of time. See ‘No More Doggin’’ it’s selling today like it was recorded yesterday. I’m sure you’re aware that it’s in a soap opera in Hungary, ‘Romeo and Juliet’. In Hungary it’s in a soap opera. I didn’t know that. How do they use it? Well, I’ve been hearing it. But, you know I got it from B.M.I. You know they administer my publishing and most of my mechanics. They use it in a soap opera in Hungary? Yeah, every day it’s in ‘Romeo And Juliet’ and it’s also in a cinema in France. So, ‘No More Doggin’ it’s a standard. See what happened, I got my own label and I put out twelve records on my label and I found out that the big record companies would go to the disc-jockeys and pay them not to play my records. Three or four disc jockeys told me that you know said “the little money you gave me said the big companies” they didn’t give no name “the big companies would come and pay us not to play your records.
Like a reverse payola. Yeah. And the distributors alike. They would go to the distributors. So they killed me in the United States.
Now tell me was payola a big thing back in the fifties? Do you remember seeing money changing hands or were you not involved in any of that? No. The record company they took care of that. You know they paId the jockies and gave them presents you know, you know to play the material. But anyway, they killed me in the United States as an artist. But, I think I’m back.
I think so too. I hope so. I was going to ask you. Ike Turner’s a bit of a character as it’s turned out. Was he young and rash and wild back then when he was a teenager like you?
Yeah he was really wild, but, you know I’ve never been wild. Let see. I’m using the wrong term here. I’ve been aggressive. You know in my younger days I was really aggressive, but, I’ve calmed down. I’m an old man now. I’m not a beat-up old man, but, anyway I’m an old man. I take care of me. I’m a diabetic and I’ve got this herniated disc. Boy, that thing is very very painful. Pray that you never get it. I’ve got to get myself back in shape man you know. I’m getting call everywhere to go to work, but, I can’t work no place you know. You can’t sit on the bench? You know I play standing up.
Do you? Yeah. I play the keyboards standing up. I never sit down.
Did you never sit down and play? No. But see now I’ve got my keyboard right here in front of me. I keep it in the bedroom always hooked up. If I want to play all I do is hit a button. You know if an idea hit me.
You’ve just come up with something have you? It’s brand new. I didn’t recorded it yet.
Have you got the piano there. Yeah?
Can you give us a couple of licks? See how it’s going? You want to hear my ‘Honky Tonk Woman’?
I’d love to hear it. Ok. Let me turn it on here. See I’m learning how to play sitting down. You know I never sit down to play.
That must be unusual. You must feel strange doing that. It’s a whole new idiom for me (laughs). Looking out at the keyboards instead of looking down. But, anyway this ‘honky tonk woman’ it’s going to be a thing man. I’ll play a little of it for you.
(Plays new song)
That’s great. That’s fantastic.
Man, I’m so crazy about that thing. You know I’m having so much fun writing it. You know all my kids are gone. I’m hear alone. They’re all married. Anyway, that’s another new one I’m working on.
That’s like a soul tune there. Yeah man. I think I’m having so much fun here you know. No disturbance.
Your own little world.
Yeah. I got my keyboard. I bought myself a new keyboard. I got the Roland 300 and I got so many different sounds, so many different, you know, tunes on it.
One thing about that, your voice is , I hope this doesn’t sound rude, stronger than it was in the 50s. Oh yes. No, I don’t think it’s much stronger. What it is, I know how to handle it now. See, back then I played, but, I played for fun. I don’t play for fun no more now. It’s a business.
Back then it was about fun because Memphis had a pretty good scene didn’t it for rhythm and blues and what not? Tell us about some of the interesting characters you met around Memphis in those early days of the late 40s and early 50s. I worked with all of them you know. Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Jerry Butler, Brook Benton, The Clovers you name it I worked with them. But, the worst gig I ever had in my life (laughs). I played in gig, I won’t go into no specifics, I played a gig with three accordions (laughs). Can you imagine ‘No More Doggin’ being played with three accordions (laughs). No drums, no guitar, no bass, not nothing, just the three accordions (laughs). That was the worst gig I ever had in my life.
Now if it’s three accordions it would have to be in Louisiana. But, I don’t want you to incriminate yourself. Oh, you know where it was? (laughs).
Oh well, I was down there last year and yeah they like the accordion sound down there in the swamplands don’t they? Yeah man. Well that’s where it was. It was in Louisiana. But, I won’t give no specific town or nothing like that.
I’m sworn to secrecy. (Laughs) can you imagine the sound? I remember it like it was yesterday. That was one of the early gigs. Another terrible gig I worked in B.B. Beaman’s Auditorium in Atlanta Georgia. I worked there with Mel Walker and Little Esther and (sic) Clyde Otis, he had the band.
That the Johnny Otis Band yeah? Johnny Otis. Yeah it was Johnny Otis. You right. So anyway, I did three shows. I did ‘Booted’ twice on the first show, twice on the second show and twice on the third show and I haven’t played booted since (laughs). I hate it.
You haven’t played ‘Booted’ since? Nooo. I hate it man. Can you imagine doing that thing six times back to back?
And that was the last time you played it? That was the last time.
It wasn’t just because you got involved in a free-for-all between chess and modern over that record. It started a big fight didn’t it? Yeah. They had a thing going there. See they kept it hidden from me. But, after that chess, he didn’t record me no more. They wouldn’t have anything to do with me. Chess wouldn’t. But, I didn’t know any better. You know I’m like 16 years old. What do I know about doing the same tune for different companies. I didn’t know.
They didn’t pay you anyway did they? No. The only thing they gave me a little bit. Now ‘Booted’ stayed number one for thirteen weeks. Sam Phillips gave me one hundred dollars. One hundred. No royalties. No nothin. But, I did it for the Biharis [Modern/RPM Records], now they gave me six hundred dollars. No royalties. No nothin. But, like I say, I didn’t know any better.
But, you wrote that record? No, I didn’t write it. Courtney Harris wrote ‘Booted’. I was in the studio, in Sam Phillips studio, it was on the piano there. I like weird things anyway. If you listen to any of my recordings I have some weird things like 'Saddle The Cow and Milk The Horse'. Do you remember that?
Yeah ‘Decorate The Counter’ and my favourite which is ‘Cheese and Crackers’.
‘Cheese And Crackers’. Well, I didn’t write that either. But, like I tell you I like weird things. I wrote ‘Saddle The Cow And Milked The Horse’ you know ‘coz I was on my way to the studio and I had a magazine and I saw some lyrics. I was reading a story in there. Everything in the story was written backwards. So when I got to the studio I wrote ‘Saddle The Cow And Milk The Horse’ backwards just the same way. You know I say “I saddled the cow and milked the horse, tied knots in my spaghetti, poured ketchup all over my shoes". You know, I’m still messed up with something different.
You like a novelty. Or something new thrown in anyway. Yeah.
Well, you did a couple of mambo sort of rhumba type tracks too which was pretty unusual for those days. Yeah, ‘Rosco’s Mambo’.
And is there one called ‘Maria’ or something? ‘Maria’ yeah. That’s on the flip-side of ‘No More Doggin’.
Were you into that sort of sound? I think you’d call it a latin sound. South of the border thing. Were you into that sort of music at all? Whatever came to me. That’s what I did. That was one of those songs that came to me and I was able to put it together with the band. See, I had my own band at that time. So I was able to put it together with the band so. But, we thought that was going to be the record, but, ‘No More Doggin’’ was the record.
You mentioned Little Esther. What was Little Esther Phillips like? I don’t know. I only worked with them that one time. Only the one time. Little Esther and Mel Walker. I only worked with them the one time. After that show I went back to Memphis and I put my own band together man. The bandleader told me, “if you don’t like it, those are the only tunes you got out there. If you want to do somebody else’s tune”. I don’t know anyone else’s tune. He said “well ok, this is what you got to do, if you don’t like it, get your own band”. When I got back to Memphis I got my own band.
There’s someone back in Memphis I’m sure you know better than Little Esther and that’s a guitarist whose name was Pat Hare.
Oh yeah. Pat hare was on this thing ‘Shoobie Oobie”. I recorded, did a lot of things with Pat Hare.
He was a great guitarist. He played behind Bobby Bland too and did some of his own things like ‘I’m Gonna Murder My Baby’ and stuff. Yeah, well he did it. He said, "I’m Gonna Murder My Baby". He was true to his word wasn’t he? Right. Well I find other characters in my songs (laughs). I’m not the character in any of my songs. I find other characters.
What kind of a man was Pat Hare? The only thing I can tell you is he drinked a lot. God bless the dead. He drinked a lot and he was a terrific guitarist. His vocal, I don’t think his vocal was too, I guess I’m using the right word, but he was a great guitarist well he was a great personality. Above all he was a great personality.
Like you say, he was a great guitarist, but, he was a wild guitarist. A really raucous sound. A bit like your piano too. Why do you think this Memphis sound was so raw and unrestrained? Because of Sam Phillips. You know Sam Phillips, he would take you in the studio, he would keep you in there all night doing one song. But, the one thing I appreciate about him. I saw him last month. You know there doing a thing on him. So he autographed one of the pictures, you know the picture with the rooster on my shoulder? I don’t know if you saw it or not.
From the movie. Yeah, from the movie ‘Rock Baby Rock It’. But anyway, he autographed my picture and I talked to him about it and not paying me. He said, “it was like that”. You know I did thirty-something songs for him and I wrote ninety per cent of them. I’ll re-phrase that, I wrote ninety-nine per cent of the songs that I recorded for him and he paid me no royalties. He would give me twenty-five dollars, fifty dollars, seventy-five dollars. A hundred dollars was the biggest amount, that was the most he ever gave me. That was for the first recording.
Have you tried to get those royalties back? No. He’s not going to pay ‘em. You know I talked to him in this film about him not paying me, he said “well, it was like that”. But, you know he’s kind of an old guy now. He’s like in his seventies.
You’ve mentioned Sam Phillips, I was going to ask you for some quick words on a couple of label-owners who you probably ran into over the years, the first one being the Biharis brothers who owned Modern and RPM. They’re the same way. They didn’t pay me. No, I recorded for them. But, they gave me more money than same. Because the would give me two or three hundred dollars, you know, to do a session. But, Sam, he was a fifty dollar, twenty-five dollar man. He didn’t give you no more. But, I tell you what they, the Biharis [Lester, Jules, Saul and Joe Bihari of Modern/RPM Records], they didn’t take all the writer’s rights. But, they did take the publishing. They gave me twenty-five and fifty per cent of the songs I wrote for them. And they put ‘Taub Ling’, I never heard of, I never you knew anything about ‘Taub Ling’, but, anyway, that’s who they hung on me. They put ‘Taub Ling’ was partial writer on all the songs I did for them.
Who was ‘Taub Ling’? I don’t know. I never knew. I never found out. But see, back during that time, I didn’t care who was what, because, I knew the only money I was going to get was the recording money. You know I found that out early. They weren’t going to pay me any royalties.
Do you think it’s fair to say that really at that time no one would have known how much the royalties were worth. Who knew that in fifty years’ time these recordings would still be so popular? Who thought that? I didn’t. You know, I figure after this it’s over. I wrote over three hundred songs. And they were all released. Even the practice songs, like you go to the studio and practice, even they were released. Everything. And these people are making money off me today. You know like, Shelby Singleton, he’s making money off me. The Bear Brothers in Germany, they’re making money. Charly Records you know in England there making money off me. And Vee Jay’s making money off me. You name it, everybody’s making money off me but me.
But, you have managed to get back some of the royalties and some of the rights to some of your tunes and that helps you live from day to day.
Yeah, well I was able to get back ‘Just A Little Bit’. I got all of the rights to ‘Just A Little Bit’. The writer’s rights, the publishing, everything.
Well that’s an important song isn’t it? You know fifty-some act did ‘Just A Little Bit’. And they’re still doing it, every day I get a letter from fox saying someone’s requesting my licence. You see fox is the administrator of my publishing company. So anyway. Every other week I get where somebody want to do ‘Just A Little Bit’. I’m so glad to hear that. I didn’t realise you’d got the rights to that back because there are usually four other names next to that song and it’s not Gordon. Washington. I don’t know anything about any Washington. And Tiny Brown, I don’t know anything about him. Now Ralph Bass, I knew Ralph Bass. He was the one I auditioned for. See I took my band to Cincinatti you know to record the song for King Records. So anyway. But, we did the thing. He said he didn’t want it. But, he got it on tape. So I go to Vee-Jay in Chicago, vee-jay, you know, James Bracken, I go to James in Chicago and record the thing. So when it come out it’s not my song no more. It belong to ralph bass because he got the copyright on it.
And you didn’t give any permission for that to be released? No. But, now Vee-Jay, they gave me $250. The song sold over four million for me. And it’s still selling for me and for everybody else. You know Elvis Presley did it. The Beatles did it. Roy Head, Little Milton, Etta James and Jerry Butler. Just go on down the line. Everybody you can think of. Even, Jerry Lewis, he did it, Jerry Lee Lewis? He recorded it.
Yes. It’s a very important song. Especially in England as well, the bands there in the ’60’s, a lot of them did it. Look you can go anywhere in the world man, if the band are bigger than three pieces they will play “just a little bit”.
Getting back to Sun Records, it always sounds like you’re having fun on your recordings. Was there a party atmosphere in the studio? Yeah, man, back then I had so much fun I tell you. It was unbelievable. You know you don’t have to worry about the audience. You don’t have to worry about being correct. Well, that time you didn’t have to be correct well now you had to be correct. So, it was just a fun thing. You know I used to sing in the cotton fields. When I go in the cotton fields i’d to sing all day long, in the cotton field, when I was young. And when I get off the bus or the truck or whatever we went to the cotton field on people would gather around me because they knew I was going to entertain them all day long. I would sing (laughs). So, I had no problem with the audience. Thank god, I have never been booed in my life.
Never? Never. Now isn’t that strange?
I reckon that’s pretty rare over a career of 50 years or something.
Never been booed. Man, but I know what it feel like. Tell you why I know what it feel like. See my son was on the amateur show at the Apollo. They use to have it on channel four. I don’t know if they still have it or not. But anyway, they booed him.
That’s what Apollo audiences are like though aren’t they?
Yeah man. They have killed many great acts. You know by booing them. Because, now my son, he has a great voice, but now he won’t even sing in his choir. He won’t even sing in the bathroom. You know because when they booed him, man, it tore me apart. It hurt me. I know what it feel like to be booed now. But, god blessed me. I’ve never been booed.
Some people have suggested that you and your band got drunk before you did a session. That wouldn’t be right though would it? No, I never drink.
Back in the Sun days. In the Sun days I drank a little wine. I drink wine. But, I got drunk three times in my life. And man the feeling, after being drunk I thought “this is crazy, I’m going to buy something that’s going to make me sick?” You know I would be sick, man, three or four days. The drunkness was an accident. A guy came up with some white whiskey, white lightnin’, they call it white lightnin’ it was like water but it was sweet. And I drinked that stuff. Man, I’m telling you. Twice I did that. I was in (sic) Tulane [Tulare] California and a guy came up with some, let’s see what is this thing?, a screwdriver. It’s sweet like orange juice. I drink that stuff. I got drunk. My chicken got drunk and my chicken vomited all over me.
Tell us about Butch the chicken.
Well, see Butch he’d drink scotch. He didn’t drink that much scotch. Because every night when we work I would open up a bottle of scotch on stage and pour a top-full. But, now he don’t get no liquids after two o’clock. Like if we workin’ tonight, he don’t get no liquids after two o’clock this afternoon until show time. So we would go on stage. I would open up a bottle of scotch, brand new bottle of scotch, and pour a top-full and he would drink it. He ate whatever I ate. If I ate steak well he had a steak. I eat bacon and eggs, he’d eat bacon and eggs. (laughs) you know, we were like buddies.
How long were you and Butch a double act?
Butch lived for a year and a half. Well, see he was a pet already. He belonged to my nephew. My nephew said “Uncle Rosco you got (the hit song) ‘The Chicken’”, he said “I’ll sell you my chicken for thirty dollars”. So I said “OK”. So I got his chicken. I got on the plane I’m going to Dallas, Texas. I got 41 one-nighters in Dallas Texas. Anyway not Texas it’self but Louisiana and Oklahoma - you know, all around that area. Anyway. I get on the plane. I got him in a cage when I get on the plane. But, once we get on the plane, I take him out of the cage, he walkin’, he struttin’ down the aisle and people passin’ him. He had a big old red comb on top of his head oh man. He was a great buddy. When I had a suit made for me I him one made just like mine.
For the chicken? Yeah man.
How much do you know about your influence on Jamaican music?
Well, about several years ago I found out about that they used my music as a guideline you know? They would play my music, but, they would buy them but nobody would know who it was on, the buyer wouldn’t know who the artist was and they would practice my style and they came up with this bluebeat and ska and reggae. I found this out. I was on a radio station here in new york, they compared a lot of my stuff and played a lot of my stuff that they had recorded where they got their ideas from.
It’s true isn’t it, at least in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that they Jamaicans were big into that shuffle-boogie sound, I mean that’s all they wanted to hear. And isn’t it true that you toured there a number of times? Yeah I went over there a lot of times. I played for a beauty contest in Kingston.
That would have been a pleasure. Oooh man. The lights went out. So I had my band with me so when the lights went out my band and I we played during the whole black out. And the next day my picture was on the front page of the newspaper all over down there and the platters were on the show. But anyway, when the lights went out, man, you know I saw some of the most beautiful women I ever saw in my life. Beautiful, beautiful, lovely women down there. But, anyway my picture was on the front page and everywhere we worked after that the platters would be on the set you know and the whole crowd would yell, “we want Rosco!”, you know, start applauding. You know that was embarrassing because the platters were my idols also you know.
Did they hold it against you? No, they showed no remorse whatsoever. But, anyway when they went on stage, man I would, you know, sit out in the audience, you know, if I could sit out I would get somewhere where I could hear them. You know, they were the greatest act I think I ever heard in my life. You know, Zola. You know, Tony Williams, he was the leader man you know and herb, herb sang bass. And David he sang. But anyway it was so embarrassing. I went down there (Jamaica) several times, but, they never forgot me you know.
What would you say made Jamaican audiences different from the audiences you were used to in America? Well they seemed to have more energy. You know they would learn the songs and when I would sing the songs they would sign right along with me you know. But, they’re still doing that. I don’t mean in Jamaica, you know I went to England three times last year and they would actually play a song and everybody would start making music (sounds it out “doo doo doo”) you know the whole audience (laughs). It was great.
Can you tell me, when did you first play in Jamaica? It was in the late ‘50s. You know ’56, ’57.
Did it surprise you when you first got the call. Did you realise that people in the Caribbean were listening to your tunes?
But, hey I had the number two, three and four slot over there! You know ‘The Chicken’ and ‘Surely’ and what’s this other thing, ‘Booted’ and these tunes were in the charts and they knew those songs.
Did you meet any local musicians when you were there? No because the agent he kind of rushed us off. You know we were doing one-nighters more or less. You know we play here tonight, and then we go to another town San Paulo just all over you know. San Juan and Georgetown, British West Indies all over down there. It was just great.
What sort of a place was it at the time? It’s a very dangerous place today, Kingston, was it a dangerous place then? No, the danger was in Rio. You know because they had struck oil down there and the government was taking over man. You know just, those people, I felt sorry for those people man. Because they would be on the front page of the newspapers where there fighting they’re sons don’t even have pants on. You know got a shirt on, they got a hat and no, you know and got sticks, they’re fighting with sticks. You know it was ridiculous but, the government is the government anywhere you know so.
Were there any other strange places outside of America, or even inside America, that you played in those days of the ‘50s and ‘60s? Yeah. I played a lot of weird places man in the United States (laughs). You know like I worked in a Lufkin I stopped in a place called Corrigan? You know to get something to eat. I always travel alone. Yeah, I stopped to get something to eat in one of the dairy queens, you know, get a milkshake and a couple of hamburgers you know those people chase me out of there man!
What did they chase you for?
(Laughs) segregation. Yeah man, they chased me out of their town if I didn’t have a good car. See I was on my way from Houston going to Lufkin. But, anyway, I stopped in this town and all those people. They let me get my order but when I got in my car all the people that were in the place came out after me.
What town was that? Corrigan. Corrigan, Texas.
Did you have many bad experiences like that? No, but see I learned from that first experience I learned, but anyway my drummer he experienced something terrible down there. You know I told him, I said “look don’t go to the fountain and drink water man” I said “get you a cup and go to the bathroom but hide it somewhere, don’t go to the fountain”. So he gonna go to the fountain, you know, to get a drink of water. Well jack comes out and puts a foot in his butt. I mean put a foot in his butt man. So anyway, I had the same thing happen to me. My car broke down in Arkansas and I’m walking home. You know my car broke down so I can’t drive the car. So they caught me on the corner of Crump Boulevard and Florida Street. I lived on Florida Street. They pulled up man and asked my where was I coming from. So I told them “look my car broke down I’m trying to go home”. They said “where do you live?”. I said “right down the street there and so one of them, man, he put a foot in me you know. I had to have an operation. I think that’s what that operation came from. My vertebrae’s being busted like that. I mean he kicked me a lift up off the sidewalk. So I said “hey man, now aren’t you ashamed?”. I said “you got a gun, a stick and a licence to kill me and you’re twice as big as I am and you gonna kick me?”. And so he says “get home or i’ll kick you again”. So anyway, I had a lot of those incidents. Yeah, I had another one in Memphis there. I made a turn in front of a bus and the bus-driver want to get off the bus man. He was gonna park his bus and come and get me. So anyway, when he came after me, I kept a jackhammer under my front seat so when he came after me I let him get close enough where he couldn’t get away so anyway by the time he got close enough for me to open the door I opened the door and jumped out with that jackhammer in my hand and he took off like a jet. But, I caught him and I hit him one time. I didn’t hit him on the head. I hit him on the shoulder with that jackhammer. It was just like somebody had cut him you know. Blood just shot out through his shirt. But, I had to get out of that place man because if somebody weren’t going to kill me I was going to kill somebody.
When you say “that place” do you mean Memphis? Yeah. I had to get out of there man. But anyway, that’s still home and I like to call it home.
I’m interested that you say that. I mean there would be no more important town in the history of black music than Memphis Tennessee and you say you had to get out. Yeah, I had to get out man because the segregation. You don’t know what segregation is. You know being black in the south. You don’t know what segregation is. It’s really murder.
Worst in the Delta I suppose?
All over down there man. It didn’t die. It’s still alive (laughs) it’s alive and well all down there. But you know it’s not as open as it was back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. They kind of close the doors a little bit.
Was it much better up north because you did travel around and record with Vee-Jay and these sort of labels. Did you find that you were better treated from day to day in the big cities of the north? Well the big cities primarily they were the same. You know they would give you a spot. You couldn’t go in the hotel you know. But, down south you couldn’t check into hotels. You could go into hotels, you know, and live like people. But, they had certain places they would put you in the hotels know the top floor, the back room (laughs). But anyway, it’s much better now. Even Vegas was messed up like that man. This was in the late ‘50s, I couldn’t go in the front door in Vegas. Now can you imagine, they wouldn’t let, you could go in the back door. If they had room back there for you, you know? You could sit down and they had speakers, but, you couldn’t see the acts. It’s a little better. You know they still beat you. They only one that really beat me was Sam Phillips. He beat me. And the Bihari brothers, they beat me. Vee-Jay, they beat me. It just go on and on down the line.
What do you mean, they assaulted you? No, they took my music. You know I wrote over three hundred songs. So anyway I did 37 for Sun Records.
You talk about the record company owners “beating you”. There was one man who was actually known for physically beating his artists and that’s Don Robey. What are you prepared to say about your meetings with Don Robey from Duke-Peacock? Well Robey he beat me also. But, Robey would record me and give me x amount of dollars. See I got no royalties anyway, back then you know there were no royalties, so I would take money from any record company that wanted to pay my price and record me so I would record the money but not Robey didn’t want me to play the piano. He wanted me to do things his way you know. And he would talk about what he would do to me. God bless the dead. But anyway, he kicked Little Richard you know. Put him in the hospital. I heard a lot of stories but I don’t have any proof. Hearsay is no good anyway. You know, what somebody tell you.
Did you meet many bad people in that industry? Did it attract criminals and bad people? No because I’m pretty much a private person. I would go to my gig and work my gig. I’d go to the craps table and after that I would go to the hotel and get out of town. I was caught one time in one of those incidents. In Los Angeles the guy tried to put a woman on me you know. And he said I had impregnated her and he wanted money. He wanted me to give her x amount of dollars so.
Blackmail attempt? Yeah. But anyway I got out of that one and I got caught up in another one in Dallas. A girl, she and some guy, you know they tried to get me. She tried to get in my car and I took over and drove her about a block and they tried to sue me. But anyway I got out of that one. These people were after people they thought had money. If anybody thought you had money they tried to get you. You know I almost got caught up in, you know like Sam, Sam Cooke, he got caught up in the three-way switch. You know what the three-way switch is?
Why don’t you explain it?
No, no the three-way switch. You know he get the girl. The people that own the hotel or motel they’re in on it. So what you do, you go up to the hotel with the girl. The girl insists that you take a bath. You know take a shower, take a bath, whichever the case may be. So while you’re taking a bath, she hand your clothing out the door, she don’t go into your pockets, she hand your clothing out the door to the third party and he take all the money all the valuables in your pocket and put the clothes back. See now they took my clothes and everything else, all the little money I had, but, I didn’t retaliate. I saw the girl and the guy the next day.
So you were caught in the same situation. Whereas Sam burst into the hotel manager’s room and got shot you just left it that did you? Yeah, but anyway. All this is hearsay, but, I know what the switch is. See, he probably caught the people and he chased them because, you know, he probably had more money than I did, anyway, he chased them and they shot him.
Is this your theory or have you spoken to people which makes you think this is exactly what happened? There’s no other way. That’s the only way it could have happened. They robbed him and he caught them and he tried to retaliate. And they shot him. See I didn’t retaliate. When they took my clothes, my money and whatever. I had more clothes in my car. I go to my car and get some more clothes. And the next day I see the people and I ignore them. See I’m sure he tried to retaliate.
It’s amazing anyone from that era survived to this day isn’t it really?
I’m telling you man. It’s awful. They will do you in man you know. You know that three-way switch thing. You can’t win. The only way you gonna can win is if you die or get hurt.
You talk about Sam Cooke. Did you ever meet Sam Cooke? Yeah. His girlfriend, the girl he was supposed to marry, I live with her often. Yeah, we stayed together, we were supposed to have got married, we stayed together for about four and half years. But, anyway I knew him.
So you went out with Sam Cooke’s girlfriend before him? He was first. After him.