Los Angeles has always been a volcanic music town, with a steady series of eruptions that have launched a horde of rhythm-and-blues-informed talents to well-deserved prominence. Characteristically of their hometown, their styles span a wild spectrum, from pop to soul to rock & roll, but each uses the blues as their elemental foundation, and every one of them has made this sick, square world a far better place to live.
10. Blind Boy Paxton
Twenty-seven-year-old Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton is a glorious anachronism, a musician who exclusively trades in the purest of traditional blues, rags and hot jazz with unmatched mastery and authenticity. “I got into old music as a kid growing up in South Central Los Angeles,” Paxton said. “They had the new music and the old music, and I just did not like the new music.” His performances are chronically brilliant; his skill, choice of material and vocal delivery are nothing less than mesmerizing. And he’s no simple nostalgia buff. In Paxton’s hands, these old tunes come roaring back into full-blooded, arresting life, providing indisputable evidence that L.A. still produces the tops in blues.
9. Eddie Daniels
Better known by his high school “Ghetto Baby” handle, Eddie Daniels began his career in 1954 a pianist for South Central doo-wop outfit Vernon Green & the Medallions, signed his own deal with Ebb Records in ’57, hit Gold Star studios with drummer Earl Palmer and guitarist Jerry Cole and began turning out some strikingly incendiary rock & roll 45s (“I Wanna Know,” “Playin’ Hide Go Seek”). He soon fell in with Eddie Cochran, who cut Ghetto Baby’s “Little Lou,” and Cochran also contributed guitar to the Daniels-led vocal duo Jewel & Eddie. Although Ghetto Baby seldom saw any royalty money and never got any traction as recording artist, he remains a badass, blues-informed powerhouse with indisputable bragging rights as this town’s first black rock & roll star
8. Mel Walker
As lead singer for the Johnny Otis Orchestra, Los Angeles’ most significant, trend-setting musical troupe, Mel Walker, born Melvin Lightsey, found himself at the center of the R&B universe. With Otis, the soulful blues crooner recorded a series of Top 5 R&B hits circa '51-'52 and a memorable series of duets with Little Esther Phillips. Walker’s confident, relaxed vocal style was loaded with an appeal that exemplified mid-century California’s icy hot blues methodology. But roped in tight by Otis and working up a fierce heroin habit, he was unable to parlay success into a sustained commercial presence. Following an apparent April 1964 overdose, his corpse was found dumped in an alley near Jefferson and Vermont.
7. Brenda Holloway
Soul singer Brenda Holloway was born 200 miles north in Atascadero, but her family moved to Watts when she was 2, where grew up singing in church with her parents and siblings. By 16, Holloway was a formidable stylist with preternaturally exquisite vocal abilities, as her first record, “Hey Fool,” a hard-edged R&B rocker issued by Bob Keane’s Donna label, emphatically demonstrates. A subsequent chance meeting with Berry Gordy, when he was out here hustling at a DJ convention, resulted in the teenager becoming Motown’s first non-Detroit-bred voice. Holloway declined Gordy’s invitation to relocate to Motor City and remained in L.A. to record a string of stone soul classics; she went on to score numerous hits, toured with The Beatles in 1965, proved herself to be an accomplished writer (the inescapable “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” is hers), but eventually extricated herself from the Motown factory to concentrate on spiritual songs.
6. Darlene Love
Possessing perhaps the most sublimely dynamic, gorgeously expressive set of pipes this city ever produced, Darlene Love built an early lifetime’s worth of gospel singing into a intoxicatingly declarative style that codified the '60s rock & roll “girl group” sound. After she joined local teenage female vocal group The Blossoms in the late '50s, studio work quickly followed. When Phil Spector heard Love’s irresistible voice in 1962, he added The Blossoms to his hit factory and quickly gave Love her first No. 1 record, “He’s a Rebel,” which made her a highly prized, in-demand session singer even though it was falsely credited to another Spector group, The Crystals. Her rich tone and range has graced records by everyone from Elvis to Aretha, and the Spector-produced “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” cemented Love’s status as one of American pop music’s essential voices.
5. Gil Bernal
Chicano tenor saxist Gil Bernal was one of this town’s key R&B players — his solos on early Coasters records like “Young Blood,” “Searchin',” “Riot in Cell Block #9,” “Down in Mexico” and “Smokey Joe's Café” were masterly displays of economic funk that mixed underplayed cool and soul-shattering intensity into just a few bars of music. He recorded with Big Mama Thornton, The Dominos, Ray Charles and, at the height of the R&B honking sax craze, released a clutch of killer R&B instrumentals including “Easyville,” “The Whip” and “King Solomon’s Blues.” Bernal’s brand of honk was loose, genuinely swinging, typified by flawless execution, lowdown joie de vivre and a jolly, fat tone quite unlike the raw, rampaging ferocity of Joe Houston and Jay McNeely. Bernal, who grew up in Watts alongside McNeely, Buddy Collette and Charles Mingus, was also a serious player with a long and distinguished jazz career, from his 1950 launch with Lionel Hampton, a wild stint with Spike Jones’ Orchestra and innumerable straight ahead sessions and hard bop club dates from the 1960s right up until his 2011 death.
4. Don & Dewey
Pasadena blues rockers Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Dewey Terry excelled at hopped-up, frantic R&B ravers so fraught with voltage, jive and heat that Specialty Records billed them as “the Two Little Richards.” They screamed, wailed, chanted in mystical tongues (“langa-langa-oli-oki-chang-a-lang”) and also veered off into shadowy, throbbing blues (“Kill Me”), straight ballads (“I’m Leaving It All Up to You,”) and thanks, to Harris’ ectoplasmic-toned electric fiddle, wild, wild remakes of classic R&B tunes like “Pink Champagne.” Don & Dewey were, as Terry put it, “knock down, tore up” rockers of the highest order, but after the British Invasion, they were Nowheresville. Terry toiled in the blues jungle; Harris dropped a lot of acid, worked with Frank Zappa and later, Joey Altruda’s Tupelo Chain Sex. Though they occasionally reunited as Don & Dewey, they never reaped any financial reward from their recordings, which was particularly galling as several of their songs became hits for others (East L.A.'s The Premiers took “Farmer John” to the Top 20, while “I’m Leaving It All Up to You” was a hit for Dale & Grace in ‘63 and Donny & Marie Osmond in ’74). In the mid-80’s, both Terry and Little Richard could frequently be seen picketing outside Specialty’s offices on Sunset Boulevard. Despite all the craziness, the childhood friends remained close until Harris’ 1999 death (Terry passed in 2003).
3. Hadda Brooks
Boyle Heights native Hadda Brooks was something else. Elegant, refined, classically trained, she was ballyhooed as Modern Records’ Queen of the Boogie during World War II, but excelled at smoldering torch ballads, put over with an implicit eroticism and blues twist that became her signature sound. Brooks had spent years as a rehearsal pianist in Hollywood movie studios before signing with Modern, and this background allowed her to reign as the city’s premier R&B diva. After Sammy Davis Jr. “broke the color barrier” at Ciro’s in 1951, Brooks and her trio became staples at Hollywood’s toniest night spots, and her celeb chums included Duke Ellington and Humphrey Bogart, alongside whom she briefly appeared in 1950’s In a Lonely Place. Her recordings are uniformly stunning, full of grace, color, subtle dynamism and palpable emotion; Brooks’ signature songs “That’s My Desire” and “Trust in Me” had such enduring resonance they sparked a mid-1990s rediscovery, resulting in a contract with Virgin Records, prestige gigs and a new crop of Tinseltown pals like Jack Nicholson and Sean Penn. She died, happy, in 2002.
2. Etta James
Etta James epitomized the modern R&B Empress. She romped, she stomped, she got crazy, she got ripped off, she got busted and, best of all, she stuck around long enough to threaten to whup Beyonce’s ass. But when she sang, time stopped. James’ combination of category 5 lung power, innate ability to telegraph nuanced emotion, and interpretive prowess made her a triple threat musical force. While her contemporaries LaVern Baker and Ruth Brown possessed equal measures of the same elements, James aggressively pushed the form, and her inevitable metamorphosis into the first female soul singer (prior to her 1962 revelation “Something's Got a Hold on Me,” it really was a man’s, man’s, man’s world) demonstrated the singer’s natural primacy and unslakable creative drive. Incredibly, she recorded for almost 60 years, and there’s not a misfire anywhere along the way (let’s just say her version of the Eagles' “Take It to the Limit” is the exception that proves the rule).
1. Big Jay McNeely
The sax player who changed everything. After his catastrophically untamed instrumental “Deacon’s Hop” rocketed to the top of the R&B chart in 1949, everything else sounded tame, lifeless, dull. Honking was a feverish blast of mutant blues where a single note would be blown for 40 bars, instilling a madness in listeners, infuriating jazz men and drawing huge, mixed-race crowds which riled up the LAPD and Sheriff’s office so much that within a few years, McNeely was banned from performing anywhere in L.A. County. His vivid, slashing style, which infiltrated the consciousness on discs like “3-D,” “The Goof,” and “Nervous Man Nervous,” ignited a national outbreak of sound-alike honkers, and the craze held strong until Elvis’ big 1956 breakout. And McNeely is still with us, still sound of wind and limb, and quite capable of conjuring the riotous razzle-dazzle which made him one of Los Angeles most infamous R&B practitioners.