Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Jerry O - There Was A Time

Mr. Jerry Murray aka Jerry O!
Here’s a little story ‘bout a man named Jerry-O, aka Jerrio, aka Jerry Murray. Through the years, as I dig deeper and deeper into the soul and funk vaults, I occasionally come across an artist that tickles my fancy, in such a way that I am thus compelled to seek out his or her story. Jerry-O was just such an artist. I figure the first time I came across Mr. Murray was probably a routine acquisition of ‘Karate Boogaloo’ on Shout, by far his most popular (and thus common, i.e. cheap) 45. As time wore on, I found some of his other 45s, and my interest suitably piqued, I started to do a little research. I had no idea. Jerry-O is a great example of a cat that discovered his niche early, dug in like a tick and refused to let go, even when it was probably clear that the old career train had long ago run out of steam and been relegated to an abandoned siding, south of Soulville. Between 1965 and the early 70’s, he wrote and recorded (for himself and others) a string of “dance craze” records that for all intents and purposes can be viewed as building blocks of funk (and later on, out and out funk). He started his career writing and producing 45s for other artists, most notable the Dukays. In 1965, he teamed up with Robert “Tommy Dark” Tharp in the duo Tom &Jerrio. They recorded a series of 45’s for the JerryO, Boogaloo and Paramount labels, that would lay the groundwork for the rest of Jerry-O’s career. After they split in 1966, Jerry-O recorded a string of 45s that would be nationally distributed on the Shout label (most were also released locally on the Boogaloo and Jerry O labels). Among these was his 1967 Top 40 hit ‘Karate Boogaloo’, which features Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson aka Dawn (as in Tony Orlando and...) as his backing vocalists. The funkiest of his Shout sides, 1968’s ‘Afro Twist Time (Um Gow Wow)’ is a proto-funk classic and should grabbed if located. Later in 1968 he ended his tenure with Shout and moved on to the White Whale label (home of the Turtles and the Clique among others). His White Whale 45s are by far his funkiest and wildest. Today’s selection, ‘There Was A Time’ was his last 45 for the label. Now, you can’t discuss a cover version of ‘There Was A Time’ without taking time to go back to the source, in this case the mightiest of the mighty, the man that wrote the book on funk, Soul Brother Numero Uno, the incomparable James Brown. When James Brown laid down the original version of ‘There Was A Time’, he created a record so powerful, that it stands to this day as a sort of three-minute manifesto on the importance of dance steps as a signifier of power, masculinity and all around coolness. It is a record that is powerful on it’s surface, and equally so as the listener peels away (with the guidance of the Godfather himself) the onion-like layers of the text. As the band pounds out the tune, in a rough, frenzied manner that suggests nothing if not urgency, James manages to lay it down so hard that the record itself seems to sweat. As I wrote a few years ago in the Funky16Corners web zine: “It was only a month later that the band laid down one of the most powerful sides in the JB canon, ‘There Was A Time’. It was as if James got together with the band and they decided that hitting Number One wasn’t enough. That the public wasn’t getting the point and something drastic had to be done. That something was ‘There Was a Time’. As the song starts, the Flames come in with their guns blazing. JB comes in early with what sounds like a false start, and then starts the verse. The lyrics sound like just another dance party, but the overall sound is much more serious. JB takes the words and sculpts (shouts/screams) them into a statement of purpose. A recognition that the release of the dance – at least driven by a band as godawmighty tight as the Famous Flames – is serious business. The band lays down a heavy groove, with extremely hot, over-modulated sound that betrays the fact that the tune was recorded not in a studio, but on the stage of the empty Apollo Theater in NYC. The intensity builds from verse to verse – rising at the end of each verse into horn blasts – and right there at the very end, when you hear: "There was a time. Sometimes I dance. Sometimes I clown. But you can bet, You haven’t seen nothin’ yet. Until you see me do The JAMES BROWN!" if there was anyone that wasn’t paying attention, they were certainly listening now. In a country who's cities were racked by riots, James Brown had harnessed the power of his band, and his own immense power as an entertainer and brought it’s full weight to bear on the idea of the dance as freedom (no bullshit…it’s there…just listen). “ If you ever get a chance, seek out the video of Brown’s performance at the Boston Garden in 1968. In a concert that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, which was broadcast on local television in an effort to keep the kids off the street to try to stem the tide of unrest, JB and the Famous Flames perform an absolutely searing version of ‘There Was A Time’ in which Brown uses the instrumental breaks between verses to bring the dances in the song to life. So, needless to say (though I’ll say it anyway), with ‘There Was A Time’, James Brown set the bar mighty high. This of course didn’t stop anyone from covering the tune, initially by Gene Chandler and Jerry-O, and later by Jimmy Lynch and The Soul Searchers. Jerry-O’s cover of the tune manages to remove some of the urgency of the Brown original, while maintaining a high level of energy. Jerry-O’s mastery of the dance craze/party record made him the perfect vehicle for the song’s basic message, and he takes that and runs with it. He picks up the tempo a couple of notches, and customizes things with a funky rap. The tune opens with a screaming horn section and the rhythm section starts to vamp right away. Jerry-O starts things right by tipping his hat to James Brown right away, and then namechecking his homeboy Gene Chandler “The Woman Handler” and his version of the tune (also worth seeking out by the way). He continues his preamble with a couple of screams, and his patented ‘My My My!’s, before segueing into the verse. Things are, of course, more spoken than sung, as was his custom, and strangely enough it works. He wisely omits Brown’s final verse and replaces it with an offhand mention of his own ‘Jerry-O Jerk’, and later the ‘Karate Boogaloo’, ‘Jerry-O Four Corners’, and last but not least, the ‘Jerry-O Get Down’. The band never slows down, and the end result is a very tight, funky record. Now there are folks out there that’ll tell you I’m nuts (for a wide variety of reasons), because they believe that Jerry-O basically remade the same record over and over again*. I look at it this way: Jerry-O, like many foods, is what they call an “acquired taste”. This is not to say that he is the musical equivalent of liverwurst, but rather that he had a very specific style, which once he discovered a working formula, he clung to for dear life. If you dig that style, you are likely to dig his records. If you do not, you may direct your attentions elsewhere, leaving more Jerry-O records for freaks like me and my ilk. I think you ought to check him out. After his tenure with White Whale, Jerry-O went on to record for Wand, and with E. Rodney Jones for Double Soul and Westbound. After that the trail goes cold. Jerry-O died sometime in the mid-70’s (he would have been in his mid-30’s by then). If you dig his sounds, most of his 45s for nationally distributed labels like Paramount, Shout and White Whale aren’t too hard to track down, though the later stuff is a little more pricey. His work on local Chicago labels is harder to find, and in many instances duplicates material that was released nationally. There was a comp that included most of his best stuff (including work with other groups like the Ideals) that is no longer in print, however following the link below will lead you to Amazon where copies can be procured from after-market sellers. *NOTE: Jerry-O had a habit (not at all unusual at the time) of recycling backing tracks over and over again under changing titles. For the Jerry-O story in much more detail, check out the story I did on him a while back in the Funky16Corners web zine. The discography includes annotation as to what tracks were recycled and where.


Blogger Scott Soriano said...

Um-Gow-Wow for Jerry O. My first by him was Afro-Twist Time. I've tracked down most of his records since. I recently found There was a Time and it is a scorcher!

3/10/2006 12:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great tunes, great blog - hope your recovery is goin ok.
keep on keepin on

3/10/2006 06:24:00 AM  
Blogger erik hogstrom said...

Good golly... this Jerry-O track is AMAZING!
His spoken-word approach reminds me of the Jamaican Deejays, but the music is positively STORMING!
More Jerry-O, please!
Great blog!

3/21/2006 09:36:00 PM  

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