Music » Rhythm Section: by Alison Fensterstock

Headliner Notes


The Ponderosa Stomp has its own type of marquee names: onetime hit makers and underground legends. This year's headliners include the Ronettes' Ronnie Spector, the Shangri-Las' Mary Weiss and cult heroes Roky Erickson and ? and the Mysterians. Dr. John will perform as his lesser-known self, Mac Rebennack, playing a set of material he recorded before the 1968 album Gris Gris put his Night Tripper voodoo groove on the map.

The real vision behind the 7-year-old concert's booking policy is a sort of secret history of rock 'n' roll: chart-quality rockers who slipped off the radar between a first local smash and the never-made top 10 hit, or sidemen whose work in the shadows was the driving force behind household names. Who played the beat that made hearts thrum to Al Green's romancing? Hi Records studio drummer Skip Pitts. Whose electric twang underscored every nasal waver of Slim Harpo's weirdly wonderful voice? It was his longtime guitarist Rudy Richard. And who supplied the signature Motown guitar sound on nearly every record to come out of Hitsville, USA? That was Dennis Coffey, who along with Pitts and Richard will step into the spotlight at the Ponderosa Stomp. Below is a guide to half a dozen Ponderosa Stomp 2008 artists that hardly anyone knows enough about.

Joe Clay

New Orleans native Joe Clay had a whirlwind musical career as a rockabilly guitarist in the '50s that ended almost before it began and had an almost creepy series of brushes and near-brushes with the King of Rock 'n' Roll. Born C.J. Cheramie, Clay began his career drumming in a Western swing band in once-popular West Bank country music bars. He formed a band to play regularly on station WWEZ, and soon RCA — Elvis' future home — signed Clay to a subsidiary label. He cut a series of frantic rockabilly guitar singles in Houston and New York City, sat in with Elvis on drums for a New Orleans gig when D.J. Fontana couldn't make it, and even recorded a spot for the Ed Sullivan show. (When Sullivan saw Clay's manic hip shake, he asked Clay to sing a more sedate ballad.) After being dropped by RCA Victor, Clay stopped playing rockabilly and spent time in the famous house band at Papa Joe's on Bourbon Street, playing alongside Dr. John, Frankie Ford and others before quitting music altogether. Joe returned to the stage in the '80s, when diligent English fans tracked him down driving a school bus in Gretna.

Ralph "Soul" Jackson

Jackson's status as a legend is partly due to a record collector's formula that equates rarity with quality. The half-dozen singles Jackson cut in Muscle Shoals in the '60s and early '70s have sold for more than $1,000 each on the U.K. collectors' market, where obscure American soul translates to gold. Although the wheels of fate kept Jackson from ever hitting the big time, he's not just another oddity from the crypt. His upbeat Southern-soul style is as much of a floor-filler as any chart-topper from Stax.

Tami Lynn

As a teenager, vocalist Tami Lynn was one of the first artists signed to Harold Battiste's legendary label and the AFO Executives band, along with Alvin "Red" Tyler, John Boudreaux, Melvin Lastie and Chuck Badie. The wide-eyed singer went on to a Zelig like career as a backing vocalist, performing on Dr. John's iconic Gris Gris and recording Exile on Main St. with the Rolling Stones on the French Riviera. Solo, her best-known song is the scorching blues tune "Mojo Hannah."

Herman Hitson

The most-repeated story about Atlanta guitarist Herman Hitson is the Jimi Hendrix question: Did Hendrix rip-off Hitson for credit on a mid-'60s New York recording, later released as Hendrix's Free Spirit? Did Hitson actually provide lead guitar and vocals? Honestly, nobody knows. What is true is that in the '60s and '70s, Hitson sang and supplied searing, funky guitar licks for artists including Garnet Mimms, Joe Tex, Bobby Womack and Wilson Pickett. What's most relevant is that, as Hitson proved at a SXSW gig last month, he can still sizzle.

Louisiana Red

Orphaned at the age of 3 when his grandfather was lynched in Alabama by the Ku Klux Klan, bluesman Louisiana Red's mysterious, peripatetic lifestyle began early as he grew up in small towns across the South, shuttled between relatives. His raw, spare Jimmy Reed-style playing should have earned him a spot in the blues pantheon — he appeared on some early Chess sides cut by Muddy Waters — but instead, he remains a murky figure in music history. Red scattered his creepy, troubled songs across a series of singles cut for different small labels under more than a half-dozen names, which makes finding his work the kind of treasure hunt record collectors adore. More to the point, though, Red's unique sound is a haunting blues flutter through a weird landscape of nightmare and fantasy.

The Green Fuz

For decades, the mystical Green Fuz was the Loch Ness Monster of the crate-digger set. The only evidence of its existence was a lone 45 of severely lo-fi, primitive garage rock that was all but impossible to find. Apparently, the band was unhappy with the muffled quality of the recording that fans prized. The Texans allegedly used many of the pressed discs for target practice, which partly explains its scarcity. A band of teenagers when they recorded the single (circa 1967), the group mostly played rough, dirty covers of popular songs like "Mustang Sally" at dances and battle-of-the-bands before it broke up. It was assured underground-legend status later — first by the inclusion of the eponymous track on the '70s garage-rock compilation Pebbles Vol. 2, and then in 1981 by a version the Cramps included on its album Psychedelic Jungle.

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