Red Top – Two Versions To Double Your Pleasure

 

Red Top Ammons Pleasure Combined

Three great artists, two records and one song – we have it all for you today.  Including one of the most unusual pseudonyms in the annals of jazz.  When I let on that we are going to hear from a singer who went by the name of King Pleasure, well I’ll bet you won’t be able to resist turning the page.

We have by now covered a lot of ground in classic jazz recordings, and it is getting hard to find something really new – at least new in terms of the era typically covered here.  Remember our unofficial motto that if it was never recorded on a brittle shellac 78 rpm disc, it is suspect.  But today we come through for you with a new style of singing with a name that sounded like a new language: Vocalese.

There have been jazz singers almost as long as there has been jazz.  Early on they stuck to the melody.  Some began to take liberties with that melody and as the swing era turned to the bebop era “scat” singing entered the lexicon.  But vocalese was none of these things.

Scat singing is the vocal version of a horn solo wherein the singer uses nonsense syllables to create an on-the-fly riff.  Sort of a horn solo done vocally.  Well, vocalese is almost its opposite – it starts with a familiar instrumental recording and faithfully converts it to a vocal, using words composed purely to go with the instrumentalists’ earlier improvisations.

To appreciate vocalese, there are always two recordings involved – there is the vocal performance, of course, but there is also the inspiration or source material to which the vocalese version pays homage.   Which is cool because we get to showcase two records instead of one. And for once, I don’t care which you choose to listen to first – there is no right answer.  They are the same, only very different.

Red Top King Pleasure

King Pleasure is a name that sounds like a villain from an English translation of a  foreign language comic book (or worse) but was actually the stage name of Clarence Beeks.  Pleasure was among the earliest vocalese performers (probably preceded only by Eddie Jefferson) and certainly the first who saw a bit of commercial success with it in the very early 1950’s.

Red Top betty-carter-albums

Partnered with a young Betty Carter, Pleasure made a record in New York on December 12, 1952.  This record was a vocalese version of Red Top.

Red Top gene-ammons-albums

It was based on a record made in Chicago on June 19, 1947 by saxophonist Gene Ammons and his small group – which included the trumpet of the quite obscure Gail Brockman.  Ammons (nicknamed “Jug” for his large head) got his start in his native Chicago and got his break when hired by the Billy Eckstine bebop band of the mid 40’s.  From there and over the next several years he met Brockman, and plenty of players who would become household names, like Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis and John Coltrain.  But in 1947 he was leading a small group with his driving but expressive tenor saxophone.

 

Red Top Gene Ammons label

Red Top is said to have been the nickname of Ammons’ wife at the time, and this recording of that name shows an early version of his “Chicago style” of play that hewed more towards an emerging rhythm and blues than towards the more progressive directions some of his friends were heading. Once you get to the last chorus of the Ammons record, you will notice his “big rhythm” that was leading the way into a new era of R&B.

Red Top King Pleasure Prestige Reduced

Fast forward about five years and we see how Pleasure wrote lyrics to the Ammons record, which he follows almost exactly – right down to the unusual intro.  Pleasure sang Ammons’ saxophone while Betty Carter did Brockman’s trumpet – and it’s a shame that Brockman did not give her more to work with.  One change is that the R&B style rhythm which Ammons unleashed late in his record was present pretty much all the way through the later Pleasure version.

Vocalese singing does not reward a singer’s traditional tools of tone and style, but  sacrifices those things for out and out maneuverability and the ability to spit out lyrics with sometimes lightning speed – the human voice is just not as nimble as a wind instrument that makes its notes via multiple fingers on keys or valves.

Red Top Lambert Hendricks Ross

King Pleasure and Eddie Jefferson are the two best-known early vocalese performers, but the genre really took off in the late 1950’s with the trio of Lambert Hendricks & Ross, who had several popular albums – including their first that mimicked the Count Basie big band with three people (albeit with a little dubbing in the studio).  In more modern times The Manhattan Transfer did a lot of this kind of singing in the 1980’s, pulling from source material much like we have right here.

Red Top King Pleasure later

King Pleasure continued performing and recording into the 1970’s and died just shy of his 60th birthday in 1982.  Though obscure, he was acknowledged as an influence by Van Morrison, of all people.

Red Top Gene_Ammons later

Gene Ammons remained based in Chicago for most of his career, and continued to record actively until his death from bone cancer in 1974 at age 49.  He suffered some setbacks in his later years, going out of commission during most of the 1960’s while doing two separate prison sentences for narcotics convictions.  But he got back on his feet after his final release in 1969 and remained in demand for his music until his death.

Red Top betty carter

The biggest star on these performances would have to be Betty Carter, who was vastly underused on this record – and who was not even credited on the original 78 rpm release.  Betty was a native of Flint Michigan and was among the last of the “big band singers” when she quit or was fired for the last of several times by Lionel Hampton in 1951 – the final of multiple battles between their strong wills.  Just 23 when she made this record (it was among her first solo projects), Carter would go on to become perhaps the most respected jazz singer of her generation.

Carter may have been the “purest” jazz singer of them all, as she steadfastly refused to perform anything that resembled pop or rock as time changed.  After touring with major names like Ray Charles in the 60’s, her fortunes ebbed as musical styles changed.  Fortunately, styles started coming back in her direction in the mid 1970’s, and she continued to perform until shortly before her death in 1998.

I have listened to both of these records multiple times, and have concluded that I have no favorite – there are things I like from each.  I love Ammons’ tone and style on the tenor sax and I think the recording quality is higher.  OK, and the piano is in tune.  But the vocalese treatment by Pleasure and Carter has a lot going for it too and is a great early example of the genre.  Think of it as a choice of the same delicious double cheeseburger served either plain or with all the fixin’s – whichever you prefer, there is a version of Red Top for you.

 

Music Credit

December 12, 1952 (1953 release) 45 rpm recording by King Pleasure and June 19, 1947 78 rpm recording by Gene Ammons both from the YouTube pages of the78prof.

Photo Credits

Gene Ammons Red Top on the Mercury label from Discogs.org

King Pleasure Red Top on the Prestige label from an eBay listing offering a copy for sale

Period promotional photos of Betty Carter and Gene Ammons from Fresh Sounds Records

Depictions of album covers found at various websites offering copies for sale or at Discogs.org

Later photo of Gene Ammons from Wikipedia

 

14 thoughts on “Red Top – Two Versions To Double Your Pleasure

  1. Well, I must say I find vocalese mighty strange, once again you’ve come up with something I’ve never heard.

    Very different, but I find my ear straining to pick out the words. Since my hearing is compromised to begin with it’s not a pleasant feeling for me. So I’ll just stick with the tenor sax version.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My hearing is pretty good and I still can’t understand all the words. Part of it is that this was obviously not recorded in one of the major high-dollar studios of the time, and part of it is just that the enunciation isn’t always that good and it’s almost impossible to deduce the missing words from context. Then again, I am more of a music guy than a words guy, so I am fine with vocals where I can’t really make out all the words. Aren’t those of us from the rock era used to this? 🙂

      As for the obscurity factor, almost every bit of this was new to me too as of a couple of weeks ago. The King Pleasure version cropped up on a YouTube page I follow in the middle of a batch of early 50’s 45 rpm records – an era which makes me reflexively groan because there is so much that falls somewhere between dull and awful. Really, there was no choice but for rock and roll to take off given the alternatives. Anyway, this one popped up and set me to digging up the background and the rest. All of my vocalese listening came from the Manhattan Transfer in the 80s and a little bit of Lambert Hendricks & Ross. I think the only thing older than this might be something by Eddie Jefferson, which I need to check out.

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  2. I enjoy the lo-fi recording qualities exhibited here. All of t he early material of the seminal New Jersey punk band the Misfits sounds this way, as does the early Kiss album “Hotter than Hell”. Somehow, to me, it makes the emotions that much more raw and forthcoming. I found the same in the vocalese.

    I’m pretty sure I ran into King Pleasure, contained in a wall-mounted machine, at a Sunoco bathroom somewhere on US-41.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You being a drummer probably also noticed the rhythm in the 1952 record that was atypical for traditional jazz or bebop of the time. And yes, a very raw, unpolished performance like much early rock/r&b. The later bands were probably trying for the sound, but I suspect these old ones were just crappy studios and equipment.

      And yes, King Pleasure suggests all kinds of unfortunate things.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nothing aside from the half-time drums struck me as bebop aside from maybe the swing, though that’s honestly not a genre I’m all that friendly with. I did appreciate the slushy hi-hat! In comparison with the 1947 version, though, the beat really stands out. Maybe the add of the snare drum makes the difference, though there are a few snare fills in the earlier recording and it picks up around mile marker 2:38 . I’d hate to be one of those 1940s drummers. That’s be a sore right leg after a gig unless you were some pioneer like Gene Krupa with a table full of traps to play with.

        I did note how well the drums fell into the pocket of the groove, especially on the later version. These days software can create great, indistinguishable drums through MIDI or a computer program. Falling into a groove like that, without being tied to a metronome or click track, is becoming a lost art.

        Most of the studio drumming requests I complete these days are tied to a click track and rendered the same way through drum mics or an electronic kit I play on. A little demoralizing, though it means I can play in time! I miss the days prior to that becoming a thing. I love these old jazz tunes. Certainly they are nothing like I would seek out on my own.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m behind in Reader as we had a stormy Sunday when I try to catch up … I wish I had a better understanding of jazz JP because I would appreciate these posts more because I know they are a labor of love for you. I will learn a little as I go along – who says you cannot teach an old dog new tricks?

    Liked by 1 person

    • That has been my idea, trying to write these for people who are maybekindasorta interested but who have never had any real exposure or know where to start. Thanks for giving it a try.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You are welcome – I will try any type of music. I don’t even listen that much to oldies music anymore. Sometimes the constant noise gets on my nerves if I have it on the radio while doing things in the house and that might be a sign of old age. 🙂
        I had a friend who liked jazz and he took me to Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. He was happy as Dave Brubeck was going to be there. The place was packed. We also went to a small coffee house, Raven’s Gallery was the name I think – it was decades ago. They had a small jazz ensemble that played. They were not well established like Dave Brubeck – I actually had heard of Dave Brubeck before that night.

        Here in Detroit we have the annual free Detroit Jazz Fest. People come from all over the country, even the world, to attend it or play in it. It is held over Labor Day weekend (Friday through Monday). I have never attended it, though I worked in downtown Detroit, just a stone’s throw away from Hart Plaza for many years. I just looked to see if it is still scheduled or virtual – it is virtual as I suspected due to crowds. https://www.detroitjazzfest.org/

        Liked by 1 person

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