Fellow musician and songwriter Kris Bancroft wrote something to me in 1999 that has stuck in my mind.
Here is part of his note:
“I remember a time when Ed Leamon, Paul Lohorn, Paul McGee and Rome Benedict were at O.J. Bailey’s wake. Ed cried like a baby. I think we all did. Someone decided that it would be fitting that we have a jam session, and Ed did a solo on ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee’ that was unlike any rendition I have ever heard.
“If you’d ever heard that song you would probably have thought to yourself, as I did, that a sax couldn’t possibly make those sounds. Well, Ed could make a sax sound any way he wanted it to sound. You know, a lot of great musicians were born in Chattanooga. It must be something in the water.”
That last sentence was probably spoken in jest, but it served to make me wonder why so many great musicians such as Ed Leamon were born here. Just the mention of Ed will always make chills run up and down my spine.
I never heard him play a song the same way twice, and I never heard him play a solo any way except sensationally. He lived across the street from me, and when he died I felt I had almost lost a piece of my soul. It was the loss of the music that devastated me.
Think of what an enormous talent emerged here out of the dire poverty on Charles Street in the person of Bessie Smith, empress of the blues. On Jammer Scott’s talk show this week I said, “The overwhelming majority of people here, including black people, have no idea of the dimensions of her talent.”
Oh, it is easy to impress people by telling them she was at one time the highest-paid female singer in America, that she had her own railroad car outfitted in red velvet and all the stuff we call success. But just read almost any anthology of the blues, and it will likely say she was the greatest blues singer of all time. Our blues hall is such a pitifully impotent testimonial to her greatness.
Not all the Chattanooga greats experienced the trappings of success like Bessie. But I started playing the bars and clubs when I was 15 and had to hide behind the beer cases when the police made their rounds. I got to hear, live and up close, all the great musicians and bands of the 1950s through the 1980s. There were great soul singers such as Monty Swan and Beau Monday. Buck Turner was a country music giant who had one of the smoothest baritone voices I have ever heard. He wrote several hit songs and kept singing into his late 70s.
Al Harvey was frontman for country legend Mel Street. He played the world’s biggest country music club (the Longhorn Ballroom) in Dallas and was voted the Entertainer of the Year in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. There are so many country venues there, it would be like being Entertainer of the Year in Tennessee.
I cannot mention even a fraction of them all in one little column, but I hope to live long enough to put together CDs of some of their great music. Most of it was never released commercially.
Kris was right. It must be something in the water.
E-mail Dalton Roberts at DownhomeP@aol.com.