BABY FACE WILLETTE
by Cat Celebrezze
It's hard to imagine today with autotune overload and solo by sampling, that something so unwieldy and staid as the Hammond organ could ever be considered the "it" instrument. Introduced in 1935 and marketed to churches that didn't have the cash for a full-on pipe organ, this analog behemoth used physical components like drawbars, metal tone wheels, foot pedalboards, and electromagnetic pickups to generate its burbly signature sound.
But popular it was. By the 1950's, the instrument found its way to the music scene of the day - jazz - and expanded beyond its original making-music-to-pray-by reputation.
The Hammond Organ Company's push past the sermon circuit might have been motivated by the Federal Trade Commission's cease and desist order barring the company from advertising their organ as having the exact same capabilities as a pipe organ. With its big sound and foot pedal bass, organ trios became the fave of club owners, being a cheaper alternative to hiring entire bands.
Regardless of how it got there, the Hammond organ had its moment of being the solo vehicle of choice, in the same way other instruments anchor certain periods: the fire-cracker trumpet of New Orleans jazz; the towering tenor sax of Bebop; the peacocking guitar at the heart of Rock 'n Roll and Punk; the DJ turntable and microphonics raising Rap from Hip Hop contest to industry mainstay; the overdrive and distortion pedals that let Grunge crunch and Metal mosh; and now, the understated computer integrated circuit that makes possible so much of what we hear through our headphones. And though today, most associate the Hammond organ with ice skating rinks and baseball fields, you can't understand popular music without understanding its history.
Of course the Hammond organ as an object itself is only half the story. The other half is made up of those musicians that know how to play the thing, musicians with incredible versatility and intuition for both rhythm and soloing, for setting a groove and flying above it - often simultaneously. Some names are bigger than others, with no article about the Hammond failing to mention Jimmy Smith - a Blue Note and Verve virtuoso (and an insanely prolific musician) responsible for much of the bridge between Jazz and Soul. Another favorite in the pantheon is Shirley Scott whose extensive discography can be found on Prestige and Impulse! and whose work with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis has a full and satisfying tone that allows her soloing to swim into interesting and eclectic waters, providing the perfect counterpoint to Lockjaw's explosive, jumping sax work. Then there is the unstoppable funk found in "second generation" B-3er, Dr. Lonnie Smith, an enigmatic and unpredictable talent who just turned 75, is on tour right now and whose 1970 album Move Your Hand epitomizes what it means to catch a groove and keep it going. Most recognizable by far is Booker T, the 17-year-old Stax Records prodigy that, with the MGs, gave us "Green Onions," a quixotic crossover hit somehow equal parts traditional Memphis blues stomp and iconic London Mod riff.
Digging deeper than the biographies of Hammond organ well-knowns however is where you'll find the music of Baby Face Willette, a talent uniquely at home with the harmonics (and subharmonics) of that ox of an organ. There's not a lot of material available by Willette - a couple of stints as sideman for Lou Donaldson and Grant Green, then two releases as leader on Blue Note recorded in 1961 and two on Argo recorded in 1964. But what there is to hear is a revelation. In much the same way that Thelonious Monk made percussive work of piano playing, Willette's playing eschews the telltale organ glide and goes instead for a raw bounce that is haymaker hard before quickly moving away from the surface of the keys, creating nimble, syncopated rhythms, fast, scale-packed solos, and a sound that is ebullient and indefatigable. Called a "strumming" style in some of the liner notes, a better term for it is "pugilistic" - it hits and moves, bobs and weaves, and lands right where it needs to. Listening through Willette's time in the wax ring is worth it.
Being a sideman in jazz is the equivalent of being a cornerman in boxing. You have to pay attention to everything going on, sift through all the permutations of what is happening in order to give optimal support for the star to elicit their best performance. Willette's playing on Lou Donaldson's Here 'Tis and Grant Green's Grant's First Stand (both Blue Note, 1961) is just that - fluid, adaptable, skillful - equally at home highlighting Donaldson's swinging Bop saxophone and Green's athletic, clean picking, bluesy-jazz guitar, respectively. But even as a supporting member, you can hear the distinctiveness in Willette's playing style. Check out his soloing at four and a half minutes into Donaldson's "Watusi Jump" - the playing has a powerful succinctness and efficiency that layers jab-like soloing over strong, accenting holds. And on Green's "Blues for Willarene," Willette positively attacks at around the three minute mark with note runs and chord hits that pack the punch of someone ready for some lead sessions.
And lead he did, with a fierce step into the ring. Willette's Face to Face, a Rudy Van Gelder Blue Note special, released in 1961, can be described as something of a showcase, with each track illustrating a particular style of playing that Willette has mastered. It brings into sharp relief all that Willette's moniker and age at the time (28) belies: the chops he'd honed as sideman, the lessons learned from his decade-and-a-half of hard touring through the segregated towns and cities of the United States, and the musical enthusiasm encouraged and cultivated while growing up as a minister's son in Little Rock, Arkansas. With the help of a stellar lead-cum-sidemen Fred Jackson on tenor sax, the aforementioned Grant Green on guitar and Ben Dixon on drums, Face to Face keeps on delivering.
The first track, Swinging at Sugar Ray's, is a gyroscopic swing number that conjures up just how jumping a Friday night in Harlem could be at the club owned by that once-famed boxing champ, Sugar Ray (Robinson - not Leonard you neophyte!). Willette starts off the track with a flurry of a solo that seems intent on using all 61 notes available on the Hammond, what Thom Jurek at Allmusic calls "a nasty, knotty blues sprint."1 "Goin' Down" is pure Chicago-steeped blues, slower and more thoughtful in tempo, but not skimping on the howling-soul solos either. "Whatever Lola Wants" brings not just a little soul to the Adler and Ross Bolero a standard. The title track has Willette trading improvisations and seamless turn arounds with a call-and-response feel. "Something Strange" is a vamping, rollicking composition, minor and mysterious, that starts and ends in all-play unison measures that bookend an extended Willette solo, a humming, register-jumping fugue grounded by Willettte's unwavering foot-pedaling walking bass line. The last track, "High 'n Low" is as straight-ahead jazz as it gets. In short, as a debut, it's pretty smoking.
Willette's second release as leader, Stop and Listen (Blue Note, 1961), is worth consideration as an extension of Face to Face, offering up further explorations of these styles, but in a trio line-up consisting of Willette, Green, and Dixon. The recording's feel is both more relaxed and more controlled than his debut (the reverby Rudy Van Gelder Special recording sound a contributing factor). "Jumping Jupiter" is the standout here - a track that lets loose with a rush of blues licks, triplets and jumps that must have been spectacular to hear and see live. But Willette's most interesting releases, the ones that show him heading into funkier terrain had he found opportunities to record more, are the two Argo releases, both recorded in 1964 and both with Willette utilizing the talents of Ben White on guitar. Whereas the Blue Note releases have the feel of deftly curated club sets, aware of the Jazz Cognoscenti's gaze, the Argo releases are rawer, rowdier, and overtly intend to please those most at home with the sounds found at the the populist intersections of Gospel, Blues, and Jazz, and out of which Soul would arise.
The first of these release, Mo' Roc (Argo, 1964) is an interesting, if not entirely cohesive session, with its stand-out title track a rhythm and blues romp giving Willette ample room to get into some intricate soul-drenched soloing. "Bantu Penda" also shows Willette at his bluesy and expressive best, especially in his note and scale choices. Where this release falters is the inclusion of the arcane waltz "Misty" and the trio's somewhat "organ room" treatment of it (though Willette's move toward the end to get a little gospel feel in there is worth noting). Then there is the experimental track "Unseen and Unknown" that starts off with some unexpected howling only to move into some very somber, if soulful, organ work. On the technical side, the levels on this album are at times lacking - sometimes the guitar is lost and Eugene Bass' drums are way too far out front. Despite these detractions, the album's overall jam-like atmosphere makes up for it and provides a logical lead up to Behind the 8 Ball, the second album Willette recorded in 1964, and which, to this writer's ear, is the highlight of his discography.
Behind The 8 Ball, also recorded at Ter Mar Recording Studios in Chicago again has Willette supported by Ben White's lightening edge guitar playing, but adds to the mix Jerold Donavon - a drummer of awesome rhythmic dynamism. Between the three of the them, the pace doesn't slow down and the soloing has them reaching for everything they got. The energetic and twisting title track has Willette in hard attack mode, smoking through solo runs that sound like electronic transmissions from the planet B-3. At a little over two minutes, this track is a perfect opening salvo for the rest of the album that unfolds with equal energy and intensity. There are a few points at which to catch your breath, like in the folksy blues lines of "Amen" and the strolly gospel rhythms of "Just a Closer Walk," but the solo and rhythmic changes found throughout the session don't let you rest for too long. Take "Tacos Joe," an odd little tune that moves between sultry turn arounds and outros to passages where Willette's vibraphone-toned, staccato, slightly-behind-the-beat playing trades licks with White's fast fretwork. Willette's interpretation of "St. James Infirmary," with its rolling rhythmic gait contrasted by quick, ghost-noted solos, lends that minor keyed blues standard a redemptive sound and evokes a man walking away from, rather than a one beat by, gambling.
But the unmistakable high point of the album is "Song of the Universe," a seven minute exploration of fast, syncopated soul that plays out in various key changes and shows Willette operating on all frequencies with perfection. Here, Willette moves with panache between hitting rhythm keyboard constants, note-packed jumps between the Hammond's registers and wailing holds. White's arcing scale runs and Donovan's 16th notes keep pace, with the whole menagerie grounded firmly by the thump of Willette's bass pedalwork. On all Behind the 8 Ball tracks (even "Sinnin' Sam" which is a waltz at heart), Willette's solos are hard-edged and exuberant, fast and shifting expressions that move easily between the sounds of the blues, gospel, and jazz. Behind the 8 Ball is hard to find - there is an import CD release by that combines it with Mo' Roc and on Spotify, the album is available with a drastically mixed up track order and retitled "St. James Infirmary" put out by Swanley2. And though many critics put his best work on the Blue Note releases, the Argo releases show Willette in top soulful form, sporting more of a live sound and never on the ropes.
It's tough to say what happened to Willette or why he never recorded after 1964. His Blue Note artist page reports that he had a regular gig in Chicago from 1966 - 1971. Further research offers up nascent comments on jazz internet forums, circulating the legend of unreleased sessions recorded in 1965 for the Cadet Label3 and reporting his death in prison in 19714. If true that Willette died in such a way, it gestures to the fact that talent won't keep you from the vices of society and it sure as hell won't be a bulwark against the biases of that society that put specific populations at risk of those vice's most dire consequences. Even if such a tragic end was Roosevelt "Baby Face" Willette's lot, the man's life in music makes him an undisputed title holder and truly one of music's Hammond Heavyweights. As such, give Baby Face Willette an ear for listening - he's certain to knock you out.
See this Spotify Playlist of Mr. Willett
1) Thom Jurek's review of Face to Face on Allmusic. http://www.allmusic.com/album/face-to-face-mw0000595874
2) You can listen to a full version of Behind the 8 Ball, in correct track order, ripped from vinyl here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DN1lLhtdck
3) Michel Ruppli & Bob Porter's four-part MarterryArgo/Cadel Label Listing article in Hot Buttered Soul magazine (No. 37, Jan/Feb 1975; No. 39, Jul 1975, No. 40, 1975, No. 41 1975) - Late 1965 Recording Sessions related to 14267 "When Lights are Low" (unissued) Cadet; 14268 "After Hours"; 14269 "Soul Elevation"; 14270 "Get to Steppin'"; 14271 "I Got a Woman" (incomplete). The going story is the fire at Universal in 2008 may have destroyed these tapes, if they ever existed. http://www.organissimo.org/forum/index.php?/topic/59041-2008-universal-fire-how-many-argo-masters-burned-up/
4) http://www.organissimo.org/forum/index.php?/topic/16546-baby-face-willette/&page=4. Bob Blumenthal's 2008 liner notes for the Stop and Listen re-release also cite the existence of a Cook County, Illinois death certificate dated April 1, 1971.