King Biscuit Boy with Crowbar, Official Music (Daffodil Records, 1972, reissued Stony Plain Records, 1995)
King Biscuit Boy, Gooduns (Daffodil Records, 1972, reissued Stony Plain Records, 1995 )
King Biscuit Boy, King Biscuit Boy AKA "the Brown Derby Album" (Epic Records, 1974)
King Biscuit Boy, Badly Bent: the Best of King Biscuit Boy
(Daffodil Records, 1976, reissued Stony Plain Records, 1996)
King Biscuit Boy, Mouth of Steel (Red Lightnin'/Stony Plain Records, 1984)
King Biscuit Boy, Urban Blues Re: Newell (Blue Wave/Stony Plain Records, 1995)
Hamilton, Ontario is a steel town. I guess you could compare it to Pittsburgh, although I've never been to Pittsburgh -- but the skyline is marked by foundries, their chimneys belching black smoke and the odd flame. A rust colored haze hangs in the sky, stratifying the horizon -- earth, air (somewhat breathable), smog and heaven. The Hamilton mountain provides the backdrop. Really it is an escarpment, but we call it the mountain, because we need to. It provides a layer of oxygen-producing trees needed in the overall picture. This is the kind of place that a hardy breed calls home. It is the perfect place for the blues. Blue collar blues, we know what that means. The city is a little bluer today--our own King of the Blues died last week. Not BB, or Albert, or Freddie--but a local boy. Richard Newell's blues ran as deep as his soul--his body finally couldn't take any more abuse, and gave up the ghost. King Biscuit Boy is gone. But his music will never die!
I've been listening to a lot of Biscuit over the past few days. The first album I turned to was Badly Bent, his Best of collection which contains a perfect selection from his first three albums; but really you should listen to the original albums in their entirety to fully appreciate Newell's gifts. So when Stony Plain sent me the original albums on CD I quickly put on Official Music, the album he made with Crowbar in 1972. Crowbar had been the rag-tag bunch of musicians Ronnie Hawkins hired to replace his last band, the one that backed up Bob Dylan, and moved to the Big Pink house in Woodstock. These guys were raw, tough and raunchy, they could really play. Newell adopted the King Biscuit Boy name-tag because he could play the harp to sound like Sonny Boy Williamson. He could blow that harp like anything. He made those reeds quiver. He made 'em sound like a saxophone, an orchestra, it was amazing. The music this raw band -- and the young blues shouter made, was "official" all right!
The album begins with a screamer, "Highway 61." Twin guitars of Rheal Lanthier and John "the Ghetto" Gibbard and then Biscuit's high voice, a blend of Robert Johnson howl and Muddy Waters growl. This one rocks. There is no let up, though, as the second track; "Don't Go No Further," steams ahead, slower but still potent. Kelly Jay Fordham, Doug Riley and Rick Bell provide keyboards and the amazing Larry Atamanuik keeps the solid beat! Jazz musicians Moe Kauffman, Steve Riley and Greg Mudry form a powerful horn section. This is good stuff. "Key to the Highway," "Corinna," "Hoy Hoy Hoy," "Shout Bama Lama," the covers are brilliantly chosen and well done. Newell also writes a couple...the long and humorous "Biscuit's Boogie," "Badly Bent," and "Cookin' Little Baby" show his understanding of the blues form. If this was his only album it would be a classic, but he would soon leave Crowbar and produce one of the greatest blues albums ever made.
I was lucky enough to catch King Biscuit Boy and Crowbar in a bar one night. One of those places where the girls dance with the girls, and the guys order a pitcher of beer and sit there with their buddies listening to the band. They rocked the joint out. The walls were sweating! They had played together behind Hawkins, and they knew each other intimately, they played as one--Biscuit just came out to do a featured spot and then went back to the bar.
Crowbar wanted to move away from the strict blues--they were a good time rock'n'roll band. They lived in a big house on the escarpment, and prepared their first album which they named after the house, Bad Manors. It's another classic. Richard Newell went into the studio using the Crowbar musicians individually, hand-picked for their talents, hand-matched to the songs he'd selected and created the masterpiece that is Gooduns. Gooduns came packaged in a cloth bag, a flour sack, just like King Biscuit Flour from whence he derived his name. I still have that original release, I treasure it. I played that record to death, it rocked so hard I could hardly believe it was made by a Canadian. We were used to the folksongs of Gord Lightfoot, the MOR top 40 sound of the Poppy Family, but this blues this was something else. At the time, I worked in a local department store, and one Saturday I saw Richard Newell browsing in the store. I went on my break and followed him around in awe. Wow, that's KING BISCUIT BOY!
He was not much to look at.
Gooduns starts with a slow buildup, Rick Bell's solo piano leading into one of the most stunning displays of boogie woogie I've ever heard, and then the band starts, Biscuit's harp, slide guitar from Ray Lanthier, and "Oohoooooooohooooooooo Little girl, little girl...." "You Done Tore Your Playhouse Down Again" is a song "about a hard drinkin' woman," the liner notes tell us. "You were last seen headin' up Highway 27 with a bottle of gin in your right hand..." Whew! And then the album really takes off, with a killer version of Little Walter's "Boom Boom Out Go the Lights!" Sonny Bernardi conducts a workshop on drums. Things settle down for "Georgia Rag" as Biscuit tries to cover all the blues bases, then Junior Pakrer's "Barefoot Rock," some boogie, some rock, and Willie Dixon's "29 Ways." The album closes with a heartfelt rendition of Dr.John's "Lord Pity Us All." It's a signpost which leads to his next recording.
One Saturday night I ventured to the dance at the YWCA, where King Biscuit Boy and his new band were playing. It was a much reduced band, just guitar, bass and drums, fronted by Richard Newell on harps and vocals. Word was he had picked the group up in Woodstock, but wherever they came from they made a lot of sound for a rhythm section. Our ears were ringing, as we danced the night away. Glorious. But this was not what the "Brown Derby Album" sounded like at all. King Biscuit Boy was recorded in New Orleans, and produced by Allen Toussaint. It featured the Meters, and Dr. John, and is a funky slice of Louisiana hoodoo blues. Not the Chicago stuff he'd been playing but Newell had followed the Mississippi to the sea, and found funk in the Delta. Songs like "I'm Gone" and "Mean Ole Lady" show a different side to Biscuit's blues, and he still sings and plays like crazy.
After this there was a long gap between projects. Newell returned to Hamilton, you'd see him hanging around the record stores rooting around the blues section. A friend of mine took a job as road manager on an east coast tour. Part of his job was to keep Richard away from the bar til AFTER he had played. He wasn't always successful. But on the nights he was, I'm told the shows were HOT. In 1984 I moved to a new house, and, taking a break from the work I stopped at the local record shop for a minute. There I found a NEW King Biscuit Boy album. I bought it and rushed home, and finished unpacking to the sounds of Mouth of Steel, played loud.
Mouth of Steel features a different bunch of musicians. Stan Szelest (who eventually stepped in for Richard Manuel in The Band) on piano, Jack DeKeyser (who had played with rockabilly legend Robert Gordon) on guitar, and from Ronnie Hawkin's band lead guitarist John Lewis. It's another hot band playing raw and primitive blues on an album that was recorded in Hamilton in 48 hours. That's the way blues should be recorded. "Terraplane Blues," "Georgia Slop," "Necromonica," and more showed there was lots more life in the Biscuit Boy. A year or two later I caught Biscuit playing this material at an outdoor festival. When Biscuit was on he was the best harp player around, he was the king. When his associates couldn't keep him away from the bar...he was not.
There are many stories about Newell's problems with drink. This is not the place to share them. From time to time he would get it under control, and he would be his old self, capable of fabulous music. Then he would be tempted again, and fall under booze's spell. It's a sad but old story. In 1995 he made a recording comeback, with a group of local musicians who shared a love of old records and the blues. Shuffles, and boogies, this is a tribute to the 45 rpm singles he used to hitch-hike to Buffalo, New York to buy in the 60s. It is also a tribute to his career. "I used to be a bad boy, but now I'm good," he sings on the first track, "I might start doin' all the things I should...then again I might not." Jessie O'Brien (piano), Johnny "V" Mills (guitar), Paul LaRonde (bass), Mark Tiffault (drums) provide solid support, but it's Newell's harp and vocals that make this a stand out album. His voice is deeper, huskier, after years of abuse, but still powerful, and his harp...well -- listen to these tributes.
"Biscuit's the finest damn harp player in the world." Ronnie Hawkins.
"That cat is good man. He can really play that harp!" Keith Richards.
The Hamilton Spectator arrives in the morning. There on the front page was a picture of Richard Newell, and the headline, "The King Is Dead!" Then there was a full page obit on the front of the Entertainment section. I saw him a few times in concert, I bought his records, I even stalked him one afternoon; I'm saddened by the loss, But as I sit here at the computer listening to his last album, I am encouraged by the fact that we still have this magnificent music to help us get over these blues. Boogie on Biscuit!