Almost Famous Amos
“Jack That Cat Was Clean”
- Dr. Horse from his song of the same title.
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about.
Wynonie was assaulting someone outside a gig in Florida; Big Jay McNeely, Pied Piper of the Screamin’ Tenor, was being arrested for “inciting Mexicans” at a drive-in in L.A., and meanwhile:
The Crown Jewel of the R&B Kingdom, The House That Jordan built at 125th &Lenox in Harlem, The Apollo Theatre, was busier than a brothel with bunk beds, adding an extra Saturday matinee to accommodate the Bobbysoxers flocking to see Amos Milburn, a.k.a. “The Chicken Shack Boogie Man,” a twenty-three year-old piano player with a thundering left hand, from South of the Slot*, in Houston, Texas.
Although Wynonie’s antics may have garnered him more coverage in Jet and Sepia magazines, Billboard voted Amos Milburn R&B Artist of the Year in 19’48 and ’49.
Google “Amos Milburn+images” - Zero in on those buffed and polished nails, the gleaming process, and the absolutely, sharp-as-Stagger-Lee’s-straight-razor beige suit and perfectly knotted tie.
The nails alone might cause permanent retinal damage.
Amos Milburn had just finished a four-year hitch in the Pacific, coming home with thirteen Battle Stars for Meritorious Service.
He came back to a country ready to party, and party hard.
The war was over, but bars and clubs still overflowed nightly with returning vets and working folks. The working folks, most of them from the South, lured by war-time industries to far away places like California, had left home by the thousands, and now had more money in their pockets, thanks to overtime hours, combat pay, and survivors’ benefits, than they’d ever had before or would have since.
“In The Mood”?
Sure, as long as that mood included continuous drinking, screwing, and an occasional chair-busting brawl or two. These twenty-somethings, born in the Depression, coming of age during a war, and shaving for the first time on a beach in Guadalcanal, were cutting loose for the first time in their short and harsh lives, and required music that reflected their mood.
“You Can Even Get the Last Part That Jumped Over the Fence”
Amos Milburn was born on April Fool’s Day in 1927. His early years have a familiar ring.
Artist is born into poor family, family gets a parlor piano or pump organ, child shows a fascination with the instrument at an early age, and picks out a tune that surprises everyone (In Millburn’s case, it was “Jingle Bells” at age five)…young man hears Boogie Woogie (Meade Lux Lewis) and R&B (Louis Jordan) from local juke joints and learns to play boogie at home….figures out early on that playing music beats the shit out of picking cotton, working in a mill, or wildcatting oil…Kid runs off with a road band much to the horror of God-fearing mother worried about “Devil‘s Music“…son comes home the next Christmas wearing alligator shoes and driving a Packard, God-fearing mom reconsiders her moral absolutes.
Well, the last part was a little artistic license but you’re still reading, so anyway:
Amos went into the studio in November of 1947 and recorded a collection of twelve-bar homage’s to hedonism that reverberate off the walls of blues bars sixty-five years later.
Some of his favorite subjects:
Rough Sex: “After Midnight” (No, not the one by Clapton)
Kinky Sex: “Pool Playin’ Blues”
Risky Sex: “It’s A Married Woman”
Automotive Sex: “Drivin’ Blues
The Latest Dance Craze: “Jitterbug Fashion Parade”
Juke Joints: “Down The Road Apiece”
(Possibly) Lifestyle-Friendly Juke Joints Specializing in Home Cookin’: “Chicken Shack Boogie”
Drinking: “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer”
Lots Of Drinking: “Let Have A Party”
Way Too Much Drinking: “Bad, Bad Whisky”
Intervention Level Drinking: “Vicious, Vicious Vodka”
White Chip Time: “Milk And Water”
Plus a couple of great Christmas songs: “Let’s Make Christmas Merry, Baby” and “Christmas Time Come But Once a Year.”
“Let Me Go Home Whisky”
Fortunately, Amos’ tunes are still available at most good shops and online sites. If you really want to go berserk, there’s an out-of-print box set on Mosaic (THE most exclusive reissue label in the world) for just under five big ones, otherwise, find a “Best Of” with some of the above tunes on it.
Sartorial splendor aside, Amos played one hell of a piano, and hugely influenced such legendary elephant’s toothbrushers as Fats Domino, Jerry lee Lewis, and Little Richard.
In modern times, he dominates the style of almost every living blues piano player. Marcia Ball, Gene Taylor, Mitch Woods, Your Truly, Victor Wainwright, Eden Brent, Honey Piazza, the legendary Jane Vasey, David Maxwell, everyone, everyone, everyone, owes and acknowledges a debt to the Chicken Shack Man.
Don’t take my word for it, request one of his tunes, and notice the immediate, gleeful response you get. Amos ranks up there with Otis Spann, Albert Ammons, and Professor Longhair; he was all that, and a Krystal Burger Combo Meal.
Unfortunately, Brother Milburn took the words of his drinking songs to heart and shortly after recording a last album with lifelong fan and friend Johnny Otis, left for that eternal Chicken Shack at the age of fifty-two.
When Amos Milburn joined the navy, he knew his mission, and performed it with bravery and honor. When he arrived on the music scene, he realized that young Americans were ready to cut loose and shake something, and it was his mission to show them where the tail feather was located.
* Note: South of the Slot: An old hipster expression for wrong side of the tracks.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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