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Friday, April 5, 2013

If You're A Viper - Rosetta Howard & The Harlem Hamfats with Horace Malcolm

The Harlem Hamfats was a Chicago jazz band formed in 1936. Initially, they mainly provided backup music for jazz and blues singers, such as Johnny Temple, Rosetta Howard, and Frankie Jaxon for Decca Records, but when their first record "Oh Red" became a hit, it secured them a Decca contract for fifty titles. They launched a successful recording career performing danceable music. The group was not from Harlem nor were they "hamfats". The name 'hamfat' derives from early 20th century slang in which the word was used to designate something as second-rate or a poor substitute. There is some disagreement about the roots of the word. Some believe it refers to a 'hamfat' cut of meat, which was cheaper and of poorer quality than the lean part of the ham. It has also been suggested that hamfat was used by poor country boys to grease the cork on their instruments, as opposed to the city slickers, who could easily find and afford cork grease. Others hold that it refers to a method black face comedians had of adhering burnt cork makeup with hamfat. Regardless, the name was most likely adopted in a spirit of facetiousness, since by all measurable standards the band members were talented musicians. Despite their name, the Hamfats were based in Chicago, and were put together by record producer and entrepreneur J. Mayo Williams simply for the purpose of making records - perhaps the first group to be so created. None of the members of the band were actually from New York. "Kansas" Joe McCoy (guitar, vocals) and his brother "Papa" Charlie McCoy (guitar, mandolin) were from Mississippi; Herb Morand (trumpet, vocals), John Lindsay (bass), and Odell Rand (1905 - 22 June 1960) (clarinet) were from New Orleans; Horace Malcolm (piano), Freddie Flynn (drums) and Pearlis Williams (drums) were from Chicago. The diverse geographical backgrounds of the musicians played a strong role in the band's sound, which blended blues, dixieland and swing jazz. Led by Morand and Joe McCoy, the main songwriters, the group initially provided instrumental backing to Williams' stable of artists, including Frankie Jaxon, Rosetta Howard, and Johnny Temple. They were perhaps the first example of a studio recording band becoming an act in their own right and recorded extensively. Their first major hits were "Oh! Red", recorded in April 1936, and "Let's Get Drunk And Truck" (originally recorded by Tampa Red), recorded in August of the same year. "Oh! Red" was popular enough to be covered by Count Basie, The Ink Spots, Blind Willie McTell, various Western swing bands, and, later, Howlin' Wolf. Some of their other recordings, such as "We Gonna Pitch A Boogie Woogie", more clearly presage the later rhythms of rock and roll. Their most recognizable work may be the modern jazz tune "Why Don't You Do Right?", which was written by Joe McCoy and included on their 1936 record under the title "The Weed Smoker's Dream". The song had numerous drug references. The lyrics were later changed and the tune refined. Lil Green recorded it as "Why Don't You Do Right", a tune about a conniving mistress and her broke lover, in 1941, and it was later recorded by Peggy Lee with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. By 1939, singer Morand had returned to New Orleans, and changing fashions had made their sound less commercially attractive. The Harlem Hamfats were not thought to be the most innovative group of the time, and many of the band's original works dealt heavily with sex, drugs and alcohol, which may have hindered their music from being more widely available. However, as a small group playing entertaining music primarily for dancing they are considered an important contributor to 1930s jazz, and their early riff-based style would help pave the way for Louis Jordan's small group sound a few years later, rhythm and blues, and later rock and roll

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