This month's "SPOTLIGHT" column features the playing of an exceptionally fine jazz guitarist who passed away in June of 1992. H.R. Is A Dirty Guitar Player is a tremendous jazz guitar record and it has a particular significance in my development as a guitar player.
The year was 1968 - post "summer of love", the height of psychedelia and acid rock. Groups like Blue Cheer, The Doors, The Amboy Dukes, Iron Butterfly, The Lemon Pipers and Steppenwolf were getting a lot of airplay on the radio. I had just begun to play (actually - at this stage in my development it was noise, and very bad noise at that) the guitar - strumming songs like "Gloria", "Cherry Cherry" and "Hey Good Lookin'". A cousin of mine who is a fine musician (his main instrument is clarinet, but he's a fine guitarist, teacher and a versatile multi-instrumentalist), noticed my budding interest in guitar and gave me a few ideas/pointers. His first tip was to encourage me to use my little finger, in chords as well as in single note playing. He mentioned that this would help me develop "fluidity" in my playing - whatever that was. His second piece of advice was to develop "big ears". This seemed even stranger to me than his first tip. He explained that this meant broadening my musical exposure - listening to other types of music besides rock. He was partial to jazz. He sat me down and put on a record. He told me "You'll like this. Trust me." Out of those speakers came a guitar sound unlike any I had ever heard - bluesy, real cool and clean. Really melodic too. I asked him "What is this?" He said "It's jazz - and the guitar player is Howard Roberts." He handed me the album cover. H.R. Is A Dirty Guitar Player - strange title I thought, but what a cool cover. (The LP cover features a kid painting/defacing a fence with the words "H.R. Is A Dirty Guitar Player".)
That was my introduction to jazz guitar. I'd like to say that I immediately went out, bought every neat-o jazz guitar LP I could find, and dedicated my life to becoming a monster jazz player, but that wouldn't be true. I immediately began to develop those "big ears" my cousin mentioned but it took about five more years of playing for me to develop the kind of dexterity/skill to start to play jazz flavored music. Still - hearing H.R. Is A Dirty Guitar Player marks the beginning of my serious interest in listening to as much guitar music as possible - and in becoming a more jazz oriented guitar player. (And I'm still struggling today.)
Howard Roberts was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1929. He began playing guitar at age 8 and by age 15 was playing gigs in and around the Phoenix area. In 1950 (at age 20) Howard decided to move to Los Angeles and through hard work and the invaluable assistance of fellow guitarist Jack Marshall (who produced this month's "SPOTLIGHT" LP), Howard met and began playing with some of L.A.'s very best musicians including Bobby Troup, Chico Hamilton and Barney Kessel. This led to a job with Bobby Troup and circa 1956 Howard signed his own contract with Verve Records. It was around this time that Howard decided to concentrate on recording/studio work - work that he would do nearly non-stop until the early 1970's. Howard's studio career has to be one of the most prolific ever - right up there with studio giants like Grady Martin, Speedy West and Tommy Tedesco. He played rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass and even mandolin on some of his studio dates. He played on an incredible number of television and movie projects. (That's Howard playing the "eerie" lead line from the "Twilight Zone" T.V. show.) He backed jazz, pop, country and rock 'n roll artists like the Monkees, Roy Clark, Chet Atkins, Peggy Lee, The Electric Prunes and hundreds of others. But Howard wasn't just a "studio cat". He wore many hats (literally and figuratively). Beginning in the late 60's Howard's interest in studio work began to wane. He began to travel and hold guitar seminars all around the country. Howard had a genuine talent for teaching and curriculum development - a talent he shared with his wife Patty. This interest/talent led to the founding of a school for guitarists: GIT (the Guitar Institute of Technology). He also established Playback Publishing and wrote several books as part of a structured guitar music curriculum. And if that wasn't enough, for several years Howard wrote a monthly column ("Jazz Improvisation") for Guitar Player magazine. And as jazz guitar great Jimmy Bruno told me, "Howard's column was great. It had stuff you could actually use."
Howard had already recorded under his own name on at least one other label (Verve Records in the late 50's) before he signed with Capitol Records. Prior to that (circa 1955) Howard recorded at least two records as part of pianist/song stylist Bobby Troup's band (on the Bethlehem label). H.R. Is A Dirty Guitar Player was recorded in 1963 (in Capitol Records legendary Studio A) and is loaded with outstanding guitar playing. From the opening track, Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man", to the cool groove of "Smolderin'", to my all-time favorite version of "Li'l Darlin'" (played in a much more swinging tempo than any other version I've heard), to the fine version of the "One Note Samba", to the super smooth treatment of "Satin Doll", to the stellar version of "If Ever I Would Leave You", Howard's guitar is out front all the way. (Yeah!!) Many of the tunes on this LP have a decidedly bluesy feel to them (an H.R. trademark) - especially the solos. About the only thing that instantly dates this LP is the sound/style of the organ - definitely 1960's. Another interesting point about this LP is the length of the songs. "Li'l Darlin'" is the longest running song at just over 3 minutes. (Most of the rest run in the 2 - 2 1/2 minute range.) This isn't your standard, somewhat extended type of material that is characteristic of many jazz tunes. It was an attempt to attract some mainstream radio airplay and new fans. Of course, length of a song has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the performance - and every one of the songs on this LP are definitely big-time quality material.
H.R. Is A Dirty Guitar Player features a solid quartet line-up with Burkley Kendrix on organ, Chuck Berghoffer on bass, Earl Palmer on drums and of course, H.R. on ultra-dirty/ultra-cool guitar. Watermelon Man" opens this great LP and it definitely got the attention of many listeners/players. This is a classic H.R. low down/funky-bluesy groove. And like all of the songs on this album, "Watermelon Man" features Howard's TOTALLY HAPPENIN' hollow body jazz box sound - big and clean, with just the right amount of reverb. Beyond cool! (I believe that this LP and most of the H.R. Capitol albums were recorded with Howard's "black guitar" which he got from Herb Ellis.) "Smolderin'" (written by Howard) features a cool organ intro with some great sounding chord backing from Howard - a nice "mover". Howard's second solo is wonderfully melodic, bluesy - and oh-so-cool. And great tone! "Li'l Darlin'" (a Neal Hefti tune) is terrific! This arrangement is without question, the coolest/swingin'est one I've ever heard. And Howard picks an exceptionally fine melodic/bluesy solo with more killer tone! "If Ever I Would Leave You" gets another trademark H.R. arrangement - much more up-tempo than most other arrangements. Just before returning to the main melody for the last time Howard strikes a very big "reverb-enhanced" chord that sounds very cool.
"One O'Clock Jump" (a classic - written by the late, great Count Basie) gets a very nice swinging arrangement. The organ leads off on this one and gives way to a very cool solo from Howard. Tasty! "Rough Ridin'" is another solid "mover" with Howard and the organ in unison on the main melody. H.R.'s solo features some ultra cool licks/segments. "Satin Doll" gets a very smooth treatment but as always, Howard gets his funky/bluesy licks in. And it works perfectly! "Smokin'" (another H.R. original) has a definite Roy Clark feel - like something Roy should have put on his 1965 album Stringin' Along With the Blues. There's some terrific tone on this one. The "One Note Samba" features a very cool H.R. intro - great single notes and chords. And once again this one features a decidedly atypical (very lively) arrangement. There's a tasty/bluesy ending too.
In addition to being my introduction to jazz guitar music, hearing H.R. Is A Dirty Guitar Player indirectly led to my introduction to the venerable ES 175 - which I think is one of Gibson's best instruments (in terms of price and quality) ever. I decided to learn a bit more about Howard Roberts and while doing a little "research" I found that prior to signing with Capitol (during his stint on Verve Records) Howard's preferred axe was Gibson's ES 175. (Jazz guitar greats Herb Ellis, Jim Hall and Joe Pass have all used the 175 as their main instrument at one time or another. My cousin had one as well - a circa 1952 model with a single P-90 pickup.) Within a year or two after our "SPOTLIGHT" LP was recorded Howard became an Epiphone endorser with a Howard Roberts model as part of their line. The Howard Roberts was structurally similar to Gibson's ES 175 with one notable exception being its cool looking oval shaped soundhole. Later still, Howard became a Gibson artist/endorser and Gibson eventually produced three Howard Roberts instruments in their line: the Custom (with chrome plated hardware), the Artist (with gold plated hardware), and the thinner body Fusion.
Here are some other titles that feature Howard's tremendous playing:
Mr. Roberts Plays Guitar (Verve LP MGV-8192/released in 1957)
Color Him Funky (in stereo on Capitol LP ST1887/released in 1963)
The Real Howard Roberts (Concord Jazz CD CCD-4053/LP version released in 1978, CD in 1994)
"Serenata Burlesca" (1 track from the CD Legends of Guitar - Jazz, Vol. 1 Rhino CD R2 70717/released in 1990)
I can only hope that some of his Capitol catalog will eventually be released on CD. How about it Capitol? How about at least giving us Color Him Funky and H.R. Is A Dirty Guitar Player?
** A SPECIAL NOTE FOR ALL YOU SERIOUS H.R. FANS: Howard recorded an album's worth of really fine instrumental songs with pianist/vocalist Merrill Moore circa 1958. (Merrill could really pound those keys!) This was not released until 1990 when it appeared as part of a Bear Family Records 2 CD retrospective of Merrill Moore titled Boogie My Blues Away (on Bear Family records CD BCD 15505). Howard plays some fine rhythm/fills and killer lead parts on many of these songs. My favorites are the hot "Jumpin' At the Woodside" (this just cooks - the second part of Howard's fine solo reminds me a bit of Allan Reuss's style on "Pickin' For Patsy"), the gritty "Moore Blues" (a tremendous, gutty blues solo in this one) and the surprisingly punchy version of "Sentimental Journey". It's definitely worth a listen!
For a much more detailed look at Howard, his music, his career and his philosophy, see Don Menn's very fine profile and extended interview, "A Renaissance Man Of Electric Guitar", in the June '79 issue of Guitar Player magazine.
Special thanks to my buddy and fellow guitar music aficionado Chuck Kaiser for putting me on to the Merrill Moore/Howard Roberts material.
* H.R. Is A Dirty Guitar Player is available (in stereo) on Capitol LP ST1961.
ATTENTION JAZZ GUITAR/VERVE RECORDS FANS: PolyGram/Verve records has been doing a lot of reissuing during the last couple of years. Two recent items (one from last year and one that's very recent) are especially noteworthy. Herb Ellis's great 1957 LP Nothing But The Blues (originally on Verve LP MGV-8252) has been reissued in its entirety on Verve CD 314 521 674-2. Herb's playing on this one is great as is the playing of Ray Brown (bass), Stan Getz (tenor sax), Roy Eldridge (trumpet) and Stan Levey (drums). This CD also includes 4 tracks from the Jazz At The Philharmonic All-Stars (from 1958), which included Herb on guitar, Oscar Peterson on piano, Ray Brown on bass and several other now legendary jazz artists playing together. And if you're a fan of Tal Farlow there's some good news. Finally you can easily buy some Tal Farlow material here in the U.S. As part of its Jazz Masters series Verve has recently released Verve Jazz Masters 41 (on Verve CD 314 527 365-2) which includes 16 tracks from Tal's prime Norgran/Verve period (all 16 tracks were recorded between 1954-1958) including the awesome "Isn't It Romantic" and "Cherokee". (Up until this reissue the only 1950's vintage Tal material, complete LP's that is, on CD that I'm aware of has been Japanese reissues, which have been difficult to procure - and expensive.) If you're familiar with Hank Garland but not Tal you'll want to give this CD a listen to hear where Hank got some of his ideas/inspiration from. While I would prefer that Verve reissue the LP's that these tracks are culled from in their entirety, this compilation isn't a bad place to start.
ATTENTION GEORGE BARNES FANS: Dick Hetrick (who puts out the very useful jazz guitar discography Jazz Guitar On Record 1955 To 1990) saw my "SPOTLIGHT" on George Barnes' very cool LP Country Jazz and called to talk about it. I mentioned in my "write-up" (in the May '95 "SPOTLIGHT" column) that Dick had only listed 12 of the songs on the Country Jazz LP in his discography. And evidently with very good reason: Dick's Colortone LP only has 12 songs! (And his front cover is slightly different than my version too - the song titles are listed in the lower left hand corner, mine are listed in the middle. The back cover is different as well.) Apparently there are multiple pressings of the Colortone album. You die-hard Barnes collectors be sure and keep an eye out for this one.
AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST, A REQUEST FOR INFORMATION: My buddy Darwin Evans (a fellow country and jazz enthusiast - and a pretty fair guitar player too) wants to know what amp(s) Hank Garland used during his unfortunately all-too-brief Columbia Records jazz period. And I'm curious about Hank's country and other studio recordings on Decca too. Both Darwin and I have heard Gibson amps mentioned and I've heard Standel mentioned a time or two. (Grady Martin and Harold Bradley must know something about this.) Can anyone out there shed any light on this?
The author listens to a wide range of musical styles but his special interests are in the instrumental jazz, "cowboy jazz", and country vein. Steel guitar too. Some of Jim's favorite artists include Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant, Hank Garland, The Collins Kids, Jerry Byrd, Duane Eddy, George Benson, Marty Stuart, Leon Rhodes and Buddy Charleton, Joe Maphis, Jimmy Bruno, Roy Lanham, Buddie Emmons, Gary Potter and others in the jazz and country styles. If any of these artists interest you, or if you're interested in guitar music in general, feel free to write to Jim Hilmar at: 7903 18th Avenue SW Seattle WA 98106.