On 29th May 1934 Robert Jay, born Robert Brown Jr. (real name changed from Robert Brown because “it sounded more swingin’”) was born in Lower Peach Tree, Alabama. At the age of 13, after saving up $60 from his paper round he got the bus and headed for Detroit.
Detroit 1969, Robert Jay woke up one morning mad as hell. Firstly with himself for being so vulnerable, then with the demon alcohol. From that moment, armed with a strong tune in his head, he decided to combine a serious love of the blues and funk with sheer determination to combat the damaging effects of drinking. The result? 'Alcohol' - A smart transposition of 'I'm gonna ditch ya, troublesome woman' blues style lyrics over a pounding funk rhythm.
During 1969, a blue label release was recorded in-house with plain upfront lyrics and a strong backing track. The message slowly sinks in with the same infiltrating flow as liquor taking over the body. Four years later a second studio recording was laid down, this time onto a pink label. With better equipment, spiralling sax melodies, a glistening rhythm and a little help from his friends, the Blues influence is even stronger than it was before, creating such painful intensity that it's impossible not to dance. Jay played horn and sang the lyrics which he admits he had no problem writing because he is an alcoholic.
After all, this is a track of celebration and with family members hollering their support it has the sound of an after-hours whiskey-soaked block party from the depths of an underground basement. It's nice to know Robert wasn't alone on his road to recovery. "The female vocals were done by relatives of mine through marriage. Beverly, Sydney and their friend, I see them all the time, they live in the neighbourhood. My sister married their brother." Perhaps this and the fact only 300 copies were pressed before being given to friends, was why the record and artist had a following that remained within the boundaries of the city.
*Article with help from Voxpop
When did music start to become an influence on you?
Well I was about 15 or 16 and I saw a movie, I think it was the “The man with the golden Horn” starring Kirk Douglas. Then I really got interested, I wanted to blow a trumpet. I wanted to blow like that. So that inspired me and I bought me a horn and had me a few private lessons, then when I got into high school I got into the high school band… Eastern High School Band.
After I left high school I thought the trumpet was a little rough on me, I didn’t really want to work that hard, it was beautiful and I really loved the music but then I heard that I could get almost the same sound out of the Sax. I first went to tenor but I still kept hearing that trumpet sound in my head and I couldn’t get it out of the tenor so I went from tenor to Alto and I’ve been there ever since. I get the pitch I want out of the Alto, it does sound something special… The smaller they are the harder they are to play but I can handle it and I love it, and it’s much easier to play than the Trumpet! (Laughs)
What type of things were you playing in the Eastern High School band?
Well we played all the marches, The Stars and Stripes and so on, but that didn’t really work for me and I wasn’t really a very good reader at all of that. But when they played something with rhythm to it I could read it very good and the teacher was surprised to hear me read it, like the song 'Wonderland', I think. I was mostly playing it automatically cos the rhythm would push me on to read it, you know what I mean and that’s when I knew I had that type of rhythm.
So from that band did you then go on to play with other people or form your own band?
How did things progress from there?
I got with a group in the service, I played that great big upright bass. I just picked it up by ear. And when I was in the service, we went into Germany for a contest one time. There was a keyboard player, saxophone player, drummer and me on the bass. We won first prize… we was just playing rhythms that we felt. We did “Birdland” and “Lady be good”, that’s the two numbers that we got first prize on. I was about 19 then, 1954 I went into the service and I stayed till 56, July 1956. I was mainly in Europe, France, Italy, Germany and Austria. 54th Engineers battalion.
So when you came out of the service were you writing a lot of songs yourself?
Well I always did write sort of poems you know, but I hadn’t put anything to no music until I did a song called “Hop, Stomp and Jump” and on the other side was a tune called “Lonesome Jungle”. That’s when I started making my own stuff. And that was before “Alcohol” so some time before 73.
And did you press that record?
Ah, yeah I did, but I want to redo it, it’s in a mess… i want to do it right, you gotta understand that was my first record. But it’s going to be beautiful when I finish it, I hear it and you know the people love it. It's a crazy song and they like that and that’s why I’m going to redo it and they have fun off it.
And where were you living then?
Detroit, I went back to Detroit, I was working for Chrysler Motor Car Company. I worked for them and I was going to high school too. And I froze my job when I went into the service so when I came out I got my job back. But after a while Chrysler laid off a lot and I went to different companies. I went with Continental Motor Company for three years and then after that I got with Ford and I stayed there for 30 Years. I retired about 7 years ago.
So what was the music scene like around the time you were making your first record?
Who were the people that you where looking up to?
Well I wasn’t in lots of bands. Now I love music, nobody loves it more than me but you know, I was brought up in the church, and we had rhythm ever since I’ve known myself. It’s a fact that a lot of your rhythm and blues is copied. The backbone of rhythm and blues is gospel or working in the cotton fields singing with the African down beat, that’s the backbone, it's a long story. But, well Louis Jordon, he was before, in my book Ray Charles, James Brown, Little Richard.
Now back in the time that I was really getting inspired and into bands, I wanted to play Rhythm and Blues and stuff like that. I was listening to Little Richard and his band. He had about 5 saxophones, guitars and stuff and he played the keyboard. I liked that rhythm see and then James Brown came out with a beautiful band too. So those two really inspired me especially with the saxophone. I still try to get a little of the saxophone on the Alto if I can. And of course Elvis back in them days. They were all good. There were lots more, I would buy the 45’s and they would have concerts…
See deep down inside, I play many types of music but really inside it’s mostly blues and empathising, modernising it with my own style and mixture of blues and Jazz.
So going back to the first song that you recorded. You put that out on your own label Jo Ann records. What made you decide to press it yourself? Were there other people around you doing the same thing?
Well when I came out of the service people wanted me to go to Motown. My brother and my sister wanted me to go, but I didn’t want to go to Motown, I wanted to be independent, you see if you go with Motown you gotta go with Motown rules and regulations and I went on my own. There are many reasons why people would want to go on their own because, see, they might not want to go with what Motown and other companies were putting down and you had to sign everything over to them. I had that feeling from the start and I’ve seen lots of people try to go on their own since.
My friend Huey (Hubert Johnson, cousin to Jackie Wilson) tried to get me to play the bass for a group called The Contours. He wanted me to change over, he knew that I played the upright bass and he was like, ‘that’s OK you can switch over to the electric bass’. But I wasn’t really interested in just being an entertainer and playing in nightclubs and stuff like that. See I was brought up in the church and my parents didn’t really want me playing in bars. That’s one reason I didn’t sign up and I knew I would have to travel with the show, I didn’t want to put all that in, I wanted to go to school and stuff so that’s what I did.
Did you have lots of friends involved with music?
Oh I know lots of people around here in music. Quite a few of them. In those days I had a friend called Henry Powell and Roosevelt Fountain, he’s the one that helped me with the saxophone.
So how did you know what to do when you were thinking about cutting and releasing your own record?
Well I talked to a few people around and they introduced me to this man, he had a small, you might say portable studio tape recorder and stuff. He recorded me and I gave the literature for the label and he made up some records. It wasn’t really good enough; it needed a lot of work. I don’t remember his name. Where we recorded it at was in a club called Phelps Lounge (named after its owner Eddie Phelps and still there today) with an Organ, just an Organ, a drummer and a Guitar.
Did you know those musicians that played on that track?
Well no I didn’t know them before the session, The Phelps Lounge was one of the known nightclubs in Detroit. You might call it the class “A” nightclub in Detroit at that time. And we recorded it by the Organ in the club. We took the drums over there and the guitar player and did it there. I think the guitar player’s first name was Von but I can’t remember anything else.
So the next record you did was “Alcohol” but there was two recordings of that track the first being on a blue label and the second one on a pink label. They sound very different, how many years apart did you record them?
Well Hop Skip and Jump was made in about 63. Then I think the first version of Alcohol was made around 69 or 70. Then I redid it in 73.The blue label was recorded in a studio just in someone’s house. Now the pink label was made in a pro studio, with much better equipment. I also had one of the best drummers in Detroit. I would say so myself, ‘cos I had had other drummers, but see, when you listen to it you’ll find out he does lots of stuff that other drummers can’t do. I don’t remember his name though.
How many records were you pressing of each?
Of “Hop, Stomp and Jump” at that time I think it was about 200.
And the Blue labelled Alcohol?
About 300, Archer did that one; they were a pressing company in Detroit. I think they were the only one in Detroit. The only one in Michigan, at that time anyway.
And the pink label?
Probably about the same amount. 300 I think.
How did you distribute them?
I distributed them myself, to the people, to friends and so on. They wouldn’t sell them out of the shops, just a few maybe. I didn’t have a major company; they all sing that in my ear all the time. “You have to get with a major company”.
You suffered from not having the resources to promote the records?
Yeah, especially that pink label. They liked that and the radio station played it a little bit but they say “You gotta get with a major company” because they cant continue to do that, “you gotta get with a major company” and since I’ve got older I’ve understood why. Everything is done in order, you know. They play from the major companies; they’re not going to play an individual more than a few times.
So the record was very much a local thing?
Oh no it was very much a local thing it never really moved out from Detroit.
Why did you call your label Jo Ann Records?
That’s my daughters name; I have one daughter and two sons. That’s my daughter. She’s 44 now. She was really young then.
Now can you tell me much about the personnel on Alcohol? You sing and play Alto Sax right?
There were some studio musicians. Dave Hamilton did it. He had a studio on the west side, Detroit. He owned the studio. He had an 8 track I think. He had good equipment in there, some of the best equipment. He didn’t have one of those big pros like United or Motown, he didn’t have that kind of studio. See they had some pro stuff at Motown, but Dave had his small studio and a good sound there. He knew what he was doing. The drummer worked at the studio. I brought the song into the studio and there we made up the music, how we would do it. I had a man who got the musicians together, I don’t remember his name but he got them together and took me over to the studio. Dave was a friend of his. The guitar player, the bass player and the drummer were all associated with the studio. The female vocals, they were done by relatives of mine through marriage. Beverly, Sydney and their friend, I see them all the time, they live in the neighbourhood. My sister married their brother.
After you made these records did you have a bit of a reputation, at least locally?
Oh yes. They talked about it. Especially “Hop, Stomp and Jump,” they see me and laugh, and they make fun of it and I said “Oh Good”. You know when you’ve got something that people are interested in. My wife teases me now!
What was the reason behind writing “Alcohol” because obviously there is a message in that song?
Well see I’m an Alcoholic. To tell you the truth I went through all the service and everything, I probably had about two beers in Germany. And in Munich they would drink it out the barrel, but I wouldn’t touch the stuff. I wasn’t interested in it, but after I came back out of the service and started hanging around friends and stuff and I got the habit. See some people can drink and some can’t. And some people once they had it they find it hard to get off it. So after I picked up the habit and got my first drunk on, it took years to get off it. Most of the precincts around me in Detroit I’ve been arrested in, back in them days - Jail and stuff like that. So I got on it and couldn’t get off it, it was hard. So finally they arrested me for drinking and driving. I went before the judge and the judge checked me out, sent me to three different psychologists to see if I had a mental problem. They said well no, he’s normal, he’s just an alcoholic. The judge told me I had to go to AA but I didn’t hear him so when I went back to get my license after two or three months he asked me “how you getting on with your treatment?” I didn’t know what he meant. “I got here you have to go to AA” He asked me how I was and I told him I didn’t have a habit no more. He asked what happened and I said I go to church now. And the judge was happy and told me I could go. And I just keep going to church and I finally got myself straightened out. Now I’m a Sunday school teacher.
So that’s how I got into that song. I woke up one day with a bad hangover and I thought I am sure gonna write a song about you….Alcohol, Alcohol I got to put you down.
* Interview by Martin Lawrie for soulgeneration.co.uk