Friday, January 28, 2011

Conrad Johnson on Gold Star 621

Conrad Johnson and his Orchestra - Howling On Dowling / Fisherman's Blues (Gold Star 621)

"Howling On Dowling" (vocal by Conrad Johnson)

Conrad Johnson (1915-2008) is usually mentioned today only in the context of his years as the band instructor for Kashmere High School, particularly during the sixties and seventies. It was in that time frame that the Kashmere Stage Band made several albums and singles that are now highly regarded by the soul/funk cognoscenti. A documentary film about the band was recently made.

Call me old-fashioned, but I've always preferred 1940s jazz/swing/blues over soul/funk, and it profoundly irritates me to see this decade continually undervalued, or (more often) just plain forgotten. It was a jumping time, and Johnson, who was leading his own band in Houston as early as 1939, made quite a few memorable singles during the last few years in that decade. I suspect that part of the reason why he isn't recognized as much as he should be for these records is that they were usually only credited to his vocalists -- people like Goree Carter, Lonnie Lyons, L.C. Williams, and that frequent visitor to Houston, Big Joe Turner. The other part of the problem is that these records weren't hits. Like many others on the scene, he was then ignored by Don Robey's Duke/Peacock labels, and so Conrad's recording career sadly was put into deep freeze after 1950. A lot had changed by the time he returned to a studio 20 years later.

This is Conrad's debut record, inspired by the Third Ward's most famous thoroughfare, and made for the newly launched Gold Star "race" series. I've estimated that it was recorded and/or released around September, 1947, based on the fact that a contract exists for Curtis Amy (Gold Star 618) that is dated July 18 of that year. This is the only record in which Conrad sets down his alto sax and sings. The other musicians are believed to include Sam Williams (tenor sax), Ed Harris (baritone sax), Jimmy Vincent (trumpet), and unknown piano, bass, drums. The record must not have sold much as it is one of the rarest issues on Gold Star, and once again the above label is a Photoshop "historic recreation," not the real thing. Thankfully Bruce Bastin saved this from oblivion and reissued it on a Krazy Kat LP in 1989.

These were the days when Dowling Street must have been really buzzing. As Conrad sings in the bridge,

On Dowling Street is where you meet
The greatness (?) of a nation
Chicks, shows, records, and barbeque
Ice cream parlor, and El Dorado, too

The final verse is a call-and-response with the band:

Dowling Street's got a solid beat
When you're there everything's allreet
Rettig's fine
Ice Cream's fine
Market (?) Dowling
Movies are howling

...I can't make out the last two places mentioned.

"Shows" probably refers to the Dowling Theater (2110), which had stage shows and talent contests in addition to movies. "Records" refers to Eddie's Record Shop (2818), makers of the Eddie's label (Eddie Henry was probably Bill Quinn's point man for Gold Star's 600 series). "Barbeque" could mean any of the food joints on the street, or specifically the Avalon Barbeque (2715). "Ice Cream Parlor" is Rettig's Ice Cream (2901). The El Dorado Ballroom was three blocks south at the corner of Dowling and Elgin.

The Eldorado Ballroom, the only structure on the street (besides churches) still recognizable from 1947, laid dormant for the last few decades, but has made an improbable comeback in the 21st Century. Conrad himself reappeared to play and talk about the old days at a concert/interview session hosted by Roger Wood on February 19, 2003. I was pleased to participate in this event by supplying the above songs, which were played to the delight of the crowd, and Conrad told me he got a big kick out of hearing these again for the first time in 55 years. "Howling On Dowling" was then used as the theme for the Eldorado fundraiser on May 17, 2003,which generated $75,000 in funds for the building's ongoing renovation and restoration. The Aurora Picture Show people have been making good use of the venue recently, a trend which I hope will continue.

Below: The heart of Dowling Street, from the 1949 Houston City Directory. Click to see full sized view.


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