Larry Leblanc Time is On My Side!
Submitted by Bill King
Bill King: You wear a lot of hats and wear them so well.
Larry LeBlanc: I’m wearing a Muscle Shoals T-shirt. Rodney, Rick Hall’s son, is a good friend from over the years and I had the weird idea I wanted to go back to Roanoke, Virginia and see where my family would take me and just cross over the mountains to Memphis. I’m stupid about American geography in some parts – I’m used to North to South rather than East to West. We are going up and down through hills when suddenly I realize we are in Muscle Shoals. I said, the Fame studio is here – let’s go in. This was about fifteen years ago.
I walked in and explained who I was and Rodney took me around. Someone turned to me and said, “You’re the Canadian editor of Billboard – do you know Shirley Eikhard?” Some of the swampers were in the studio that day just hanging out and had played with Shirley in Nashville. You know the music community is international. You drop in anywhere and you know somebody who knows somebody who knows you. It’s a tribal thing.
To be in that studio Fame Studio where Wilson Pickett.
L.L.: Jimmy Hughes – all those people had recorded – you could feel the chill. You feel that chill in the Sun Studio in Memphis however the Sun studio was used as a radiator shop for years and years and there’s nothing original in that studio. I know they’ve dragged in some old equipment and said Elvis and jerry Lee recorded on this – maybe? You still feel the vibe in that studio and apparently you feel it in the Royal Studio in Memphis as well were all the Hi Records stuff was recorded.
B.K.: Willie Mitchell..
L.L.: Al Green and Ann Peeples. I haven’t been in that studio. Apparently, it hasn’t changed in thirty-five years. To walk into the Muscle Shoals studio you felt the vibe. Over the years Rodney and I have stayed in touch. The recent film that was done is beautiful and well shot. Every so often I get a bundle of T-shirts and hats.
B.K.: One of the epic moments in the film is when Aretha Franklin is introduced to the band and discovers they are all white guys. It was a strange moment.
L.L.: I did an album for Warner’s Kim Cooke pulled together – the Thirty Greatest Hits of Aretha – the one with the orange cover. It’s a double album still in the catalog. I talked to Jerry Wexler about that and he said, “You’ve got to understand, I took her and her husband Ted White down there and they didn’t want to be there. When they walked in and saw white musicians, there’s a funny quote from Wilson Pickett – “I’m seeing fields where my people are picking cotton.”
White guy Rick Hall picks them up – it’s the 60s’ and 70s’ when it was a dry city, no alcohol at all. You had to bring it in. Even today, I had an artist I was doing some work with Alana Levandoski and she called me and said, “I’m in Otis Redding’s office.” I said what do you mean Otis Redding’s office.” Well, he kept an office in Fame studios. She also said she was playing Otis’s acoustic guitar. I’m thinking – there’s a room I missed.
B.K.: Last note on this, keyboardist Spooner Oldham solves the dilemma trying to get the right vibe, groove on “I Never Loved a Man” and that change the whole temperature of the session.
L.L.: Don’t forget Aretha had been on Columbia and those sessions aren’t as bad as you would think.
B.K.: I like that recording.
L.L.: I’ve got a box set with eight or nine of her albums and you kind of pick through it and can see they were trying to make her into a kind of Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan at the period of time. She was used to working with guys like Marty Paich – guys who had charts all arranged out. You came into the session and it was a three hour call. Here’s she’s working in Muscle Shoals and the same for Stax Records in Memphis and you are working with guys who had hits who want to play a song for feel and that stuff. One of the artists I met and did some touring with is Duane Allman. His breaks on “Born to Be Wild” and “Sugar, Sugar” for Wilson Pickett are terrific.
Bill plays Larry a clip … and asks who is this? The person of interest is looking into the future and envisions one person with a lot of machines singing and speaking, all sorts of technological advances.
B.K.: Do you know who that was?
L.L.: It sounded like Daniel Lanois.
B.K.: That was Jim Morrison from the mid 60’s. He’s talking about the coming of tapes and loops.
L.L.: When Tommy Dowd strapped together two eight tracks that was big time back them. There wasn’t much of that going on. I met Morrison a couple times when I hitchhiked to Los Angeles. He was a very smart guy. I was working for Canadian High News which was neither high or news. It was a magazine that went into the high schools. I went down and met Bill Siddons who was the manager of the group. I saw the Doors record in the old Elektra studio – nothing electrifying, possibly playing on some parts that day. Morrison gave me a book of his poetry and I hate to say it, I was in love and lust gave it to a young lady and was told recently by a friend of mine who runs Jim Morrison estate what its worth and I’m ashamed to say.
B.K.: You must have been really in lust.
L.L.: I was about nineteen years old.
B.K.: Did you keep a journal?
L.L.: No. I kept a scrapbook of my columns. I started booking bands in Dunbarton High School, in Pickering. David Clayton-Thomas and the Shays, Bobby Kris and the Imperials, Ritchie Knight and the Midnights – those type of bands. I started writing. In high school you are looking for an identity for yourself. To book bands you had to be part of student council or running a club. I was neither and certainly wasn’t one of the goody goody’s on student council. I started the chess club then became president. We soon had three members and now we could run dances under those rules and regulations. I had a great principle, Mr. Monroe who let me play music before school started through the P.A. system. I’m playing Stax, Motown – I’m playing Bobby Bland. He said to me at one point, “You only come here to run dances at school.” I said, “Yes, that’s about it.” At the same time in grade ten I started writing for the Ajax Advertiser.
B.K.: Were you a bit of a book worm?
L.L.: No. I wasn’t a full geek, only half.
B.K.: But where did the writing come from?
L.L.: My father had a huge record collection then sold it off – we always had music in the house; Sinatra, Ray Coniff records and things like that – Artie Shaw who I really, really love – “Blues in the Night” is still a favourite record with Sy Oliver arranging. One of the big things going in the seventies – there was a magazine called Hit Parade that Jim Delehant was the editor of. You may remember it had all the lyrics of all of the songs. I started writing for them. Before that – you’d read about Mike Bloomfield, you’d read about Al Kooper - Lothar and the Hand People. Yet at the same time you’d be talking about Coltrane, all the different things going on in jazz. From there I started getting Downbeat Magazine. Downbeat was starting to include some rock elements. It wasn’t quite Mahavishnu time. At the same time there was a writer called Paul Williams who was editing a magazine called Crawdaddy. He also did a book in 65’ called Outlaw Blues. Suddenly, we weren’t talking about Sixteen Magazine – what’s your favourite color or who did you go to bed with last night? We began talking about what are your musical influences. The music scene was getting serious.
B.K.: There was also a mix of politics.
L.L.: More so down in the states. I worked on the draft movement a bit helping quite a few who came to Canada – a block over near this campus. I had a draft card that got me back in forth into the United States.
Toronto was a straight rhythm & blues town for a bunch of reasons. A lot of performers played here. Ronnie Hawkins, you had bands like the Last Words and Stitch & Time who played pop – the Ugly Ducking’s who were a Chicago style blues band modeled on the Rolling Stones. Jon and Lee & the Checkmates and Mandela who were the biggest band; Luke and the Apostles and Kensington Market in a more original style. What changed this city was when Bill Graham brought up the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane – one week at O’Keefe Centre in 68’. He then did a free “be-in” at City Hall. It was like “Oh, My God.” I remember the day of the City Hall concert there wasn’t one person in any club that night – the clubs were empty, we’re talking about the Go-Gin – the Hawk’s Nest. The Broom & Stone in Scarborough – they were all empty.
A couple months later Bobby Kris and the Imperials got rid of the horns and started wearing paisley shirts. The Mandela was no longer here. They were trying to break into New York and L.A.
In high school we went on a field trip and four of us went to Greenwich Village and I interviewed the Big Town Boys and the Sparrow who became Steppenwolf. I saw clubs like the Fifth Wonder – Trudy Heller’s the Phone Booth. These were toilets and I thought, this is really New York.
B.K.: I worked Trudy Heller’s one of the hardest gigs I ever did. The set list was predetermined. Had to play a set of cleared soul tunes – and hour on and an hour off until 4 in the morning – continuous dance music.
L.L.: You played the clubs?
B.K.: I played them all.
L.L.: I remember the Paupers opening for the Airplane.
B.K.: The Paupers did their showcase at the Café Au Go Go.
L.L.: That’s right. It was a weeklong thing sharing the stage with the Jefferson Airplane and apparently they blew the Airplane off the stage.
Yorkville then was incredible. You’d walk along there; thirty-five, forty clubs. The only person to capture that very well in a book is Bernie Finklestein in his autobiography. You’d see Feliciano, Lightfoot was here, Judy Collins playing over there. The Beach Boys, if in town playing a show would come down there – the Byrds too.
B.K.: Bands you cared about.
Bill and Larry pause and listen to Bessie Smith sing St. Louis Blues.
L.L.: Louie Armstrong twenty-four on cornet, recorded up in New York. I first heard Bessie Smith at the Highland Creek library. In the 1950s’ Columbia put out this series of horrendous looking album covers – about eight of them and I wondered who this woman, Empress of the Blues was. Listened to “Gin House Blues, Take Me for a Buggy Ride – Pigfoot” – Wow! She never used a microphone live.
There’s an interesting story – you know, she was a big feisty lady and got into an altercation out on the street and someone took a knife and shoved in her back. They patched her up and she played that night. Of course she died in 1937 at the age of 46 coming from Clarksville to Memphis - there was a traffic accident and there’s always been a lot of mythology around here death – she was refused at the white hospital. What had happened was, she was in a traffic accident and another car came along they tried to wave in and hit their car again. The medical officer at the time said there was no way they’d take her to a white hospital. They took her immediately to the black hospital. They amputated her leg and she died.
She’s not buried there – I always thought she was. She was buried in Pennsylvania and you know who paid for her gravestone? Janis Joplin! She’s in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania and Janis found out there was no marker for her. You think of the whole era of black music to that point and I was ten or eleven at tops and from there it was easy to get into more music.
B.K.: Why this music?
L.L.: I don’t know. It’s like asking why did the Brits go for the really obscure rhythm & blues and Chicago blues. I think it’s because I grew up in a white suburban of west rouge - right outside of Toronto in Pickering. There was my father making fun of Muddy Waters name, “Who calls their kid Muddy Waters?”
Another album that had a huge impact on me around fourteen or fifteen – I discovered there was a double album collection of the best of Jimmy Reed on Vee-Jay and as you know he had a huge influence on the Rolling Stones. A lot of white kids were really influence heavily by the very first Rolling Stones record. Remember the Stones had Howlin’ Wolf on the show Shindig with them. That was really a dropping off point for me. If you listen to the Stones they were really a blues/R&B band in the early days. The same thing with the Animals. Eric Burdon covered “Gin House Blues,” by Bessie Smith.
Some of the British stuff left me cold but I was into John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Clapton.
Al Kooper and I talked about that last year, there was an Elektra compilation called What’s Shakin’ where Clapton teamed up with Stevie Winwood for a group called Powerhouse. That was 1965 and a pivotal time when you were hearing that.
Stevie Winwood had a huge impact. He came to Canada and played the Scarborough Arena of all things. I remember the Toronto Star writer at the time, another moment in your life you think you can do this. The Toronto Star writer didn’t have a clue who Stevie Winwood was – he asked which one was Spencer Davis. I’m thinking who cares about Spencer Davis? Look at that kid, he’s eighteen years old!
B.K.: At fourteen Winwood was playing with all of the blues legends and touring. That’s mind blowing!
L.L.: My wife Anya Wilson who is a publicist came to Canada with Long John Baldry and opened up for of all people, Slade. I had all of John’s recordings and don’t forget he got to see that great tour in 1964 when Muddy Waters and Rosetta Tharpe went over to England. That was a game changer in British society.
The blues was dying in America in the 60’s. What brought it back were the Brits and the folk movement. Muddy had almost stopped playing. People forget that. He was selling huge numbers of records – those sides for Aristocrat then Chess. By the early sixties people were saying they didn’t want to hear that old “Uncle Tom” stuff. They wanted James Brown – what was happening.
Donnie Walsh of Downchild and I talked about it, “Why did Toronto become such a blues town?” Typical Donnie, “Because we paid them!’ They got paid over there and respect but here they could drive over the border and play the clubs.
B.K.: Who said this, “I live so much in the present except the music I listen to.”
L.L.: Probably me.
B.K.: You did! Explain yourself.
L.L.: The older you get in this business you do go through at times a form of ageism and people look at you and presume you are home listening to 1950s’ and 60s’ rock and that’s all you do and have no interest. You can lose jobs like that. One of the things I did at Billboard and I was there seventeen years, I started doing one article after another on technology – this would be the early 90s’. I saw the writing on the wall and one of the writings on the wall by the way which a lot of people did miss was selling at that point, was catalog. New music sells had actually peaked and come down around 88’ – 89.’ Early nineties, even though sells were still good catalog was about forty per cent of the business. Some of the big box stores Coasco, even Eaton’s and Simpson’s – obviously before Wal Mart opened up here, they were taking a big chunk of sales and a lot of it was catalog.
The big bang is when we told kids if you have five dollars we don’t want you in the record stores. They eliminated singles even though in truth they never made money with them. You put out 100,000 45’s you were lucky to sell 75,000. This was during that cassette period, that transformation to CD and they briefly came out with this cassette single. A couple companies like A&M tried to do it but Warner’s and Sony were the hold outs. Kids didn’t want to buy the album because it only had the two tracks they wanted and the rest is filler. So the kid who was twelve or thirteen went on the Internet and discovered something that was called Napster and that was the big bang of our industry. All the sudden they realized they didn’t need them. Napster, let’s make no bones about it was set up to be illegal from day one. They just thought they could out run the industry.
If the industry would have been smart it would have went in and bought out Napster and set up their own store. Instead they got snookered by iTunes. In essence the record industry bent over and gave away their whole industry.