By Larry Benicewicz
As far as R&B went in the mid-Atlantic in the 50s and 60s and despite a plethora of indigenous talent - the Clovers, the Orioles, the Cardinals, Billy Stewart, Bobby Parker, the Van Dykes - there were no major independent labels that either Baltimore or Washington could lay claim to. There wasnt a Motown that put Detroit on the map; nor was there a Swan or Cameo-Parkway that defined the sounds of Philadelphia; a Duke or Peacock that corralled Houston area artists; a Stax/Volt stable chock full of Memphis soul greats; or the mighty Atlantic that attracted all the serious players to the Big Apple. Nor was there anything in this region resembling the venerable Chess/Checker records of Chicago, which had nearly a two-decade run and a formidable roster of mostly native blues demigods - Muddy Waters, Willie Mabon, Little Walter, Eddie Boyd, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon - and its rival Vee Jay, which could boast of Jimmy Reed, Eddie Taylor, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Snooky Pryor, and a whole host of doo-whop vocal groups. In fact, just about every metropolis throughout the nation had a significant recording company, as well as a famous studio, like Cosimos (Matassa) in New Orleans, ACA in Houston, or, of course, the recently late Sam Phillips Sun in Memphis. No, sad to say, there will never be any Japanese R&B fanatics coming to Baltimore or Washington to pay homage at any such R&B shrine.
With this paucity of both labels and recording outlets, it is all the more reason to appreciate the few local pioneers that we did have. For without them, there would not have been any clue or a trace left behind in testimony to the rich musical heritage of these sister cities. And, for the most part, they all went about their business, Mother Theresa-like, heartening scuffling musicians, promoting their venues out of their own pockets, putting them up in their own homes, and recording them for posterity on a shoestring budget, more often than not in makeshift facilities.
In Baltimore, there was the recently departed Rufus Mitchell, who oversaw the segregated Carrs Beach in Annapolis, a hot spot for visiting R&B acts, and who ran the tiny label, Ru-Jac, out of his domicile at 427 Laurens St. Mitchell could be credited with single handedly jump starting the careers of crooners Winfield Parker and Jimmy Dotson. And also there was Jack Gale, DJ, manager, and producer of the Kings and Ronnie Dove for his short-lived Jalo and Jay Wing labels situated uptown at 14 E. 21st St.
As far as Washington, D.C., was concerned, there was the noted humanitarian, Lillian Claiborne, who headed DC records at 1425 Van Buren St. NW, and recorded trumpeter Frank Motley (with noted drummer TNT Tribble), rockabilly ace Dudley Callicutt, vocal group, the LCaptans, and a slew of others over the course of two dozen or so years beginning in 1947. Lacking adequate distribution, she often leased these masters to more prominent indies such as Art Rupes Los Angeles-based Specialty and Herman Lubinskys Newark, NJ, Savoy.
And last but certainly not least of these parochial recording mavericks who, at great personal risk and in spite of the odds, sought to record whom he deemed latent genius residing in the vicinity was William Bill Boskent, who died August 4, of a heart attack after a brief illness at the University of Maryland Medical Systems Specialty Hospital in Baltimore, MD. Boskent, who lived in Hyattsville, MD, a near suburb of Washington, D.C., was 77.
But Bill Boskents story actually begins in the Deep South in Louisiana. Born in Bell Chasse, on September 18, 1925, he spent his formative years in New Orleans. While still in his teens, he joined the Navy, attaining the rank of seaman second class. Stationed in the Pacific, he took part in the battle of Guadalcanal. Upon his discharge, he returned to the Crescent City and it wasnt long before he became enthralled with all the genres of music which took root there, but especially R&B. According to the late Johnny Vincent (Imbragulio)of Ace records of Jackson, MS, who recorded practically all the giants of the Big Easy, including Earl King, Dr.John (Mac Rebbenack), Huey Smith, Red Tyler, Benny Spellman, Sugar Boy Crawford, Lee Dorsey, and Frankie Ford, Bill Boskent was quite the man about town and could be seen in the company of musicians such as Lloyd Price, Dave Bartholomew, and Fats Domino, schmoozing and making connections which, unbeknownst to him, would serve him in good stead further down the line. Like Johnny himself, hed often hang out at the legendary after hour jam sessions at Frank Panias Dew Drop Inn and also, like the record producer, became an astute judge of talent. Always the gentleman, he was well-liked by all and welcomed, even at recording sessions.
His relationship to Lloyd Price in particular proved to be fruitful. In the 50s, Lloyd of Kenner, LA, was influenced by the records of Louis Jordan, the Liggins brothers (Joe and Jimmy), Roy Milton, and Amos Milburn - jump blues - that he heard from the jukebox at his mothers fish-fry shack. Lloyd on trumpet and his brother Leo, a drummer, who wrote Little Richards Send Me Some Lovin, soon formed a band which was discovered by trumpeter/producer Dave Bartholomew, who informed Art Rupe of Specialty records of his find. On March 13, 1952 Lloyd recorded a demo of what was to be a monster, Lawdy Miss Clawdy (428), at Cosimos J&M studio at Rampart and Dumaine, featuring Fats Domino on piano. When Bartholomew proffered the recording to Art Rupe, he was more than delighted with the results. And why not? The rest was history, said Cosimo Matassa in a recent interview. And, after a contract was signed, a handful of follow-up hits on Specialty ensued, including Oooh, Oooh, Oooh (440), Tell Me Pretty Baby (452), and So Long (457). Unfortunately, at the height of his popularity, Lloyd was drafted into the Armed Forces and served a hitch in Korea. Coinciding with Lloyds stint in the Army, was friend and confidant Bill Boskents decision to move to Washington, D.C., which with its Howard Theatre, a mandatory stop on the Chitlin Circuit, was at the crossroads of R&B caravans moving up and down the East Coast. And as far as recording went, Washington, he knew, unlike New Orleans, was rather unexplored territory. So, about mid-decade Bill headed off to these greener pastures where soon he opened his own club, the Casbar.
My father could have stayed in New Orleans. He had a standing offer from Fats Domino. But he decided to stay loyal to Lloyd Price, whatever his plans were, said Amanda Boskent, his daughter, who now lives just outside of Baltimore. Prices plans also included an eventual move to the Nations Capital, where he settled at 14th St for what would be a stay of nearly two decades.
Although Lloyd was overseas, Specialty still released a batch of singles, each faring more poorly than the former, until their novelty finally wore off. So when Price returned from action, he was without a label. But he did have a new song, not in the standard 12-bar blues, but done in the new vogue - a plaintive ballad in the now-classic South Louisiana two-chord (E-flat, B-flat), Just Because. At this juncture, Price, old chum, Bill Boskent, and Harold Logan, an aspiring songwriter who hailed from West Virginia, agreed to form a partnership and a new logo-KRC (Kent Records Corporation), which bore the address of Boskents business office, 913 U St. NW, Washington, D.C. Recorded in New York City (as was all of Boskents KRC releases), Just Because was a huge smash, instantly reviving Lloyd Prices faltering career. In fact, it was too big a hit for Boskent to handle himself and he leased it to a major label, after which it sold all the more heavily. I remember the tune well. In fact, I broke the record all over the East Coast. At the time I was with WANN (1190 AM) of Annapolis, whose 50, 000 watts during the day could reach far and wide. I can tell you that those boys at ABC-Paramount paid a pretty penny to get it, said legendary DJ, C.W. Hoppy Adams, Jr. Indeed, former indie executive Art Rupe may have been stung by Prices new-found success (ABC-Paramount 9792) and directed Prices former valet/pianist Larry Williams (later of Short Fat Fannie, Bony Maronie, Slow Down, and Dizzy Miss Lizzy fame) to record the song, note for note, as Specialty #597 on February 25, 1957. Unheard of today, it was an all too common practice during that era, before anyone cared to sue over copyright infringements.
After the triumph of Just Because, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic records of New York, hoping for another such blockbuster, offered to pick up the distributorship of KRC. And under Atlantics aegis, Boskent issued three more singles, all of which he co-wrote, including Georgianna (303), a pleasant surprise on the R&B charts, a number which was later reprised by Johnny Winter. But none of these, as well as two subsequent releases, now distributed by Johnny Vincents Ace and demarcated by a new numbering system (5000) and a blue instead of black label, approached the phenomenal accomplishment of the first.
To the best of his abilities, Bill Boskent, during this time frame (1956-59), was also collecting other more diverse artists to his label in search of that elusive follow-up hit, including the doo-whop King Bees, blues chanteuse Stella Johnson, rockabilly exponent Eddie Seacrest, and C&W singer, Little Jimmy Merrit, but to no avail. But just when things seemed the bleakest at KRC, salvation was just around the corner.
Stagger Lee began as sort of an experiment, a reworking of New Orleans barrelhouse pianist Archibalds (Leon Gross) Stack-A-Lee (Imperial 5068) of 1950. And with Boskents up tempo, highly-charged arrangement, it was foregone conclusion that some major like ABC-Paramount would step in and pick it up, but not before adding, in order to better improve mass acceptance, pop trappings like a female chorus chanting an annoying do dah do dah over and over again and Don Costas slick sounding orchestra in the background. Nonetheless, Boskent was given credit as producer for this sensational chartmaker. But this would prove to be his last hurrah at ABC, as all of Lloyd Prices subsequent hits, including Where Were You (On Our Wedding Day) (9997), Personality (10018), Im Gonna Get Married (10032), Lady Luck (10075), and Come Into My Heart (10062), all penned by Price and Logan, were supervised by either Don Costa or Sid Feller, the latter soon to be the architect of erstwhile shouter Ray Charles foray into C&W music on the same label - -I Cant Stop Loving You.
Although Boskent, as far as creative control was concerned, was out of the picture at ABC-Paramount, he still remained occupied as Prices road manager, not an easy task during those hectic days. In the late 50s and early 60s, Price became one of the bona fide superstars of R&B and had a huge following when touring, especially in the aforementioned Chitlin Circuit, which also included the Uptown in Philadelphia, the Royal in Baltimore, the Regal in Chicago, and the vaunted Apollo in Harlem in New York City. It was one temporary shelter after another and Boskent often saw fit to bring his family along. He used to take me on the road when I was a baby and my crib often was a drawer in a hotel dresser, added his daughter, Amanda. In fact, Bill Boskent earned such a reputation for taking care of routing, accommodations, meals, and advance publicity for Price that he was later asked to serve in the same capacity for Ike and Tina Turner during their Sue label years.
Back home, Bill, having abandoned KRC, was interested in forming a new label, Bee Bee, for recording homegrown talent and soon found a deserving candidate in the person of Little Sonny Warner. Unassuming and soft-spoken, Sonny Warner was born (and still lives) in Falls Church, VA in 1930. Always interested in singing, he was part of a vocal group, the Rockets, which backed Atlantic records session pianist, Van Walls, on both of his single releases - After Midnight (980, 1952) and Open The Door (988, 1953). Like the aforementioned Larry Williams, he too, became a valet in Lloyd Prices touring band of the mid-50s and also assumed part-time vocal duties, also like Williams, in Prices warm-up group, the Lemon Drops. When Art Rupe enticed Williams to join Specialty and attempt a career of his own (he later was arrested on a drug charge in 1960 which derailed his course and eventually committed suicide in 1980 after several failed attempts at disco), Warner wasnt exactly unhappy to see him go. You see, Larry was also a hairdresser, which gave him an advantage, because Lloyd would always want to look good for his public. I could never compete with that, said Sonny, who undoubtedly met the seemingly omnipresent Bill Boskent during his tenure in Prices outfit of that period.
About late 1957, Sonny grew weary of Prices grueling road itinerary and returned to the Washington area. Still ever popular as a local hero, he began hanging out at all the entertainment venues of the region, hoping just to sit in on the vocals. I met Jay McNeely at a place called Evans Grill in Forrestville, MD, and his singer wasnt doin nothin. The crowd egged me to go on, so I got Jay to agree. I never saw that vocalist again, said Sonny. In short, the flamboyant honker of Deacons Hop pleaded with him over many weeks to go back on the road and eventually made him the proverbial offer he couldnt refuse. Leaving the small gigs, day job, and family behind, Sonny undertook what would evolve into a five-year relationship with the illustrious and still very active tenor.
Of all places Seattle, WA, became their home base. We especially played the Birdland at 23rd and Madison and the Bamboo Room, which was close by, said Sonny. Also during this sojourn, Big Jays brother, Dilliard, came aboard, now anchoring the rhythm section with his thunderous bass. It was there that they cut a demo of There Is Something On Your Mind, which worked its way into the hands of renegade Los Angeles DJ, Hunter Hancock, who, with Roger Davenport, owned the fledgling Swingin label. Suffice it to say that the single (#614) became one of the R&B wonders of 1959, even crossing over to the national top 100 at #44. In fact, it was even covered by Bobby Marchan of New Orleans (of Huey Smith and the Clowns) on Bobby Robinsons Fire label (1022). Over the next two years, five more singles (some just instrumentals ) were cut in different locales without creating another such phenomenon and the two subsequently parted ways over an ego issue - just who was to be the headliner. And in this regard, Sonny always felt that he was given the short shrift.
Back now in the Washington area in the early 60s, Sonny welcomed the opportunity to record in his own back yard and although early on Bill Boskent had availed himself of a nearby studio, he was now doing the taping out of his own residence, which became a meeting place for local musicians. The pop flavored ballad Wallflower bw the bouncy Thats For Me (both Boskent compositions) became the first Bee Bee (for Bill Boskent) release (130) in 1961 and two more (duets with Marie Allen) followed close on its heels in 1962. And although all three made an impact on the Mid-Atlantic market, none proved to be the winner that all had hoped for.
Despite this lack of success for his own label, Boskent tried his luck with Sonny Warner on a brand new Lloyd Price enterprise, Concertone records based in New York City, but again, his efforts were in vain. Interestingly enough, Boskent also invited erstwhile KRC artist, Stella Johnson, to cut four sides for this short-lived affair including Trial of Stagger Lee, perhaps in the hope of rekindling the publics interest in the former Lloyd Price marvel of 1959 on ABC-Paramount. But it, too, fell far short of expectations.
But by this time, even Lloyd Price was having difficulties making the Top 100, as ABC now directed its attention to a more promising artist, the prodigious and prolific Ray Charles. In Lloyds case, the hit factory that was once ABC Paramount was grinding to a halt and his contract, after it expired in 1962, was not renewed. Undaunted, Price with longtime tunesmith, Harold Logan (who was tragically murdered, execution-style in New York City in 1969), founded in 1963 the Double-L label in Los Angeles and, in quite a coup, secured the distributorship of a major, Liberty records. And Bill Boskent was intimately involved in this mix as well. It was an interesting venture on many accounts. Firstly, it introduced Wilson Pickett as a solo soul artist before he finally found fame and fortune with Atlantic a couple of years down the road. Secondly, it also presented Pookie Hudson, former bassist of the doo-whop Spaniels, who, since he was now living in the D.C. vicinity, undoubtedly was recommended by Bill Boskent. The third innovation of note with regard to Double L records is how Price, himself, transformed his approach from an R&B stance into more of a polished,Vegas lounge act, and gave new suave and sophisticated readings (especially with the aid of Slide Hamptons orchestra) to classics like Errol Garners Misty (722) and Try A Little Tenderness bw Billie Baby[Bill Bailey], both big sellers which would mark the last of Prices many hit parade entries. The former tune was recorded live at Smalls Paradise club, then a favorite watering hole of New York Citys ever-fickle elite and one could bet that Bill Boskent was also there, tending to all the details.
Toward the end of the 60s, Bill Boskent parted ways with Price and Logan. And DJ Hoppy Adams suggested that a rift had developed between him and the two. By that time, Price and Logan had parlayed their songwriting royalties into enterprises, like buying the fabled jazz sanctuary Birdland at 52nd and Broadway in New York (renamed the Roundtable), which was formerly owned by mobster and Roulette record boss, Morris Levy. After his confederates brutal demise, perhaps Lloyd Price received a message, because soon thereafter he moved to Africa and later surfaced in the company of electric-haired Don King, promoting and bankrolling the Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa, Zaire (October, 30, 1974) and Ali-Frazier, as part of the Thrilla in Manila (October 1, 1975). But wherever Price was in the 70s, Bill Boskent by then was definitely an outsider.
Although his days as record producer were long finished, Bill Boskent still remained active in the music community up until his death, mainly as a mentor for hopefuls and a composer. In fact, as recently as 2000, he collaborated with Fats Domino on several pieces, most notably Sleeping On the Job. According to daughter Amanda, they both enjoyed a warm, mutually respectful, association which began in the fifties. He was a nice guy to have around. In the studio, we did a few things together. A lot of people are going to miss him. Everyone who knew him seemed to like him. Im crazy about him, said Fats in the Sunpapers obituary.
With the death of such figures as Bill Boskent, a kinder, gentler era passes. There will always be artists with secret dreams for stardom. And, granted, there are a few alternative labels catering to the ambitions of local musicians, who constantly must struggle against the grain, hoping for the best, although they know all too well that nowadays huge impersonal, conglomerates dominate the whole industry. Who will be there to encourage their efforts, to offer his hospitality, or, with his wealth of experience, show them the way, despite the statistics, to beat the system. In other words, who will step up to be their guardian angel? Regrettably, it can no longer be Bill Boskent. Larry Benicewicz