Until Berry Gordy founded Motown in 1960, Don Robey’s Duke-Peacock, and its several subsidiary labels, was the largest black-owned record company inAmerica. Sonically, it was a diverse outfit. Robey never confined his roster to regional artists, and he released all styles of blues, soul, R&B and gospel, and even dabbled in jazz and white rock ‘n’ roll. As with other black-oriented indies, the emphasis was on singles, and the label produced its fair share of R&B hits (including blue-eyed soul singer Roy Head’s crossover “Treat Her Right”), as well as sides that have endured the last half-century despite never charting (Otis Rush’s “Homework,” Larry Davis’ “Texas Flood”).
Robey launched Peacock in 1947 to record Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, a blues guitarist-singer he’d been managing the last two years whose first few singles (for the Aladdin label) had bombed. Brown played a more hopped-up version of T-Bone Walker’s pioneering guitar style off against a sly vocal delivery, and his records usually boasted three or four funky horns as well. The 1949 “Mary Is Fine” b/w “My Time Is Expensive” was his only national hit, but regionally he was as popular (and as influential on future generations of Texasguitarists) as Walker. Many of his best sides are available on Essential Blues. Brown swung and stomped like nobody else, especially on rip-snorting instrumentals like “Okie Dokie Stomp.” And if he seemed most at home with carefree, horn-heavy rockers like “She Walks Right In,” he could also get lowdown with the lowdownest of ‘em on stuff like “Dirty Work at the Crossroads.”
In 1951 Robey signed an explosive Alabamasinger who’d been stranded in Houstonafter a tour fell apart. Her name was Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, and her rough, insistent voice was usually paired with Johnny Otis’s jumping L.A.band. This produced just one national hit but it was a big ‘un: “Hound Dog” topped the R&B charts for seven weeks in 1953 and was soon covered by Elvis Presley to become a rock ‘n’ roll standard. A humorous record without being a novelty song, it set the tone for efforts like “I Smell a Rat” and “Stop A-Hoppin’ on Me.” But Big Mama could deliver a melody as convincingly as she could a threat – even a good-natured one – and her versatility shines through on tracks like the rollicking “My Man Called Me,” the remorseless “Let Your Tears Fall Baby” and the scorching “Rocky a Bye Baby” (all from Hound Dog/The Peacock Recordings). These cast her less as a one-hit wonder than a bridge between classic blues singers like Bessie Smith and future rockers like Janis Joplin.
Robey signed Junior Parker, fresh off his hit “Feelin’ Good” and his non-hit “Mystery Train” (which was also covered by Elvis) away from Sun Records in 1953. Parker’s earliest Duke sides, such as “I Wanna Ramble,” weren’t all that different from the countrified boogie of his Sun sound. But Junior had joined Duke because with his sweet voice (invariably described as “honeyed”) he considered himself primarily a smooth singer. Soon, arranger Joe Scott was subordinating Junior’s melodic harmonica to punchy horn charts derived from modern big bands, and in 1957 Parker finally clicked with his deft treatment of “Next Time You See Me.” But he never fled his country-boy roots entirely. While with Duke, he fashioned a compromise that gave swankier treatments to earthy material like “Stand By Me,” “Strange Things Happening” and “The Things That I Used to Do.” He’s grown increasingly obscure, an acquired taste, over the years, but much of his Duke output appears on Next Time You See Me, Driving Wheel, Essential Blues Beat and scattered compilations.
Robey had entered into a partnership with Memphis-based David Mattis and Duke Records in 1952, but within a year had commandeered the label away from its founder. This brought him not only Bobby “Blue” Bland, but also Johnny Ace and others. Ace was a suave, but shy, balladeer whose foreboding voice seemed to have an echo built into it; his entire stance simply screamed “Vulnerable Male,” and women loved him from the instant they first heard hits like “My Song” and “The Clock,” which had a “tick…tick” sound throughout that made it haunting to the point of being morbid. When Ace killed himself playing with a gun backstage just before Christmas 1954 – the exact circumstances are mysterious to this day – Robey capitalized with a tear-jerking promo campaign that shot the posthumous “Pledging My Life” to No. 1 on the R&B charts for 10 weeks, as well as to No. 17 pop.
And it was another Memphis artist, sanctified soul singer O.V. Wright, who gave Robey his second-biggest seller after Bland. Wright had sung in the Robey-contracted gospel quartet the Sunset Travelers. So when he went secular with “That’s How Strong My Love Is” (promptly covered by Otis Redding and then the Rolling Stones) for another label in 1964, Robey quickly sued and won rights to the singer. With producer Willie Mitchell gracing him with a seminal version of what would become known as the ’70s Hi Sound, Wright polished such gems as the strikingly melodramatic “Eight Men, Four Women” (1967) and the anguished “A Nickel and a Nail” (1971). Along the way were pleading ballads like “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry” and “Motherless Child” as well as such soul struts as “I’d Rather Be Blind, Crippled and Crazy” and “Ace of Spades.” With his throbbing vibrato and piercing falsetto, Wright has since come to be regarded as one of the greatest deep soul singers. He made five albums for Robey’s Backbeat label; A Nickel and A Nail and Ace of Spades, surely the best of them, is on eMusic, while The Soul of O.V. Wright is a sampler that burns and smokes through 18 definitive sides. Don’t miss it.