This is a picture of Don Robey, the man Willie Mitchell referred to as the "Houston Mafia," and Roosevelt Jamison depicted as a "cold-blooded man." His place in the history of this music we all love is secure, but he certainly leaves you wondering if his ends justified his means. In the superb The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'N' Roll, Preston Lauterbach paints the most complete (and chilling) picture yet of this gun-toting Texas misanthrope who knew how to get things done.
Although he most certainly was not alone in the practice, Robey made sure he got a piece of the songwriting and publishing on virtually every R&B record he released, often sharing it with the actual composer on the top side, but taking it all for himself on the flip.
After he took over the Duke label (literally at gunpoint) in 1952, he had no qualms about listing 'D.Robey' as the sole composer on most of Bobby Bland's and Junior Parker's early B sides. I'm not sure why (maybe he just thought it was too obvious or something), but by the early sixties, he had developed a songwriting alias, 'Deadric Malone'. The source of much speculation over the years as to whether or not this was an actual person (some said it was his wife), I've come to believe he just made it up.
It was the ever vigilant Lauterbach who pointed out to me that there are two Memphis sreets which follow each other in quick succession as you cross over Lamar Avenue on Airways Boulevard on the way out of town - Deadrick and Malone! One can only imagine the wily Robey on his way to the airport, seizing on this random sequence as his new nom de plume. Wild!
All of this has been on a kind of hypothetical back burner over here for a while, but something happened just recently that really sort of drove it home. Ace's indefatigable Tony Rounce told me that they had recently acquired a tape of demos from Goldwax co-owner Doc Russell's son, and that this was on there:
Melvin Carter - original Goldwax demo
Ace Of Spades
It just gives me chills.
I was finally able to get a hold of our friend Roosevelt Jamison the other day who, you'll be happy to hear, has responded amazingly well to the radiation treatment he received for eight brain tumors, which as of now no longer exist... how great is that?! Although he doesn't recall anything about the actual tape that Tony has, he knew Melvin Carter well. "Melvin and O.V. were very tight," he told me, "He was the guitar player for The Sunset Travelers when O.V. was with them, and when he crossed over, Melvin came along with him and started playing in O.V.'s band."
"Yes, Melvin wrote Ace of Spades - Eight Men, Four Women too! All Robey ever gave him was twenty five dollars for each of them, then when the records came out he took full credit for himself, and never paid Melvin another dime!"
Imagine? The discovery of these demos, which were apparently recorded before O.V. ever signed with Back Beat, points out what a ruthless son of a bitch Robey really was. Like O.V., Melvin had a day job as a sanitation man in Memphis, and he came in off his shift one day and laid down for a nap, asking his wife to wake him up around seven for a rehearsal that evening. When she tried to rouse him, however, he was dead - the victim of an apparent massive heart attack in his sleep.
Something Reminds Me
Melvin Carter had a couple of releases of his own on Robey's Peacock label in the mid-sixties (with Malone taking the composer's credit, of course), which go for big bucks if you can find them. This beautiful ballad comes to us courtesy of Sir Shambling, and illustrates how great Carter was.
I'd like to fill in some of the blanks on him (like - do any photographs of him exist?), so please, detectives, get in touch if you have any further information on Melvin to share with us.
Thanks to super detective Marc Demuynck, here is the first known photograph of Melvin Carter:
Originally a publicity photo from Don Robey's Buffalo Booking, it was included in the ultra-rare book, Duke/Peacock Records-An Illustrated History with Discography by Galen Gart & Roy C. Ames. Interestingly, if you look closely, you'll notice that it says The Three Keys in parentheses after his name. Initially, I thought that this might be a reference to the mysterious credit to 'The Keys' that is listed on O.V. Wright's sole Goldwax single, the immortal That's How Strong My Love Is. I asked Quinton Claunch about that on our recent Fact Finding Mission, and he said no, The Keys was the name of the vocal group that sang behind O.V. on the session, a group which included Wright's wife at the time, Norma Rudd. So, does anybody have any clue who The Three Keys were, then?
I asked Howard Grimes, who was on the session, about Ace of Spades. He said Willie Mitchell cut it on Melvin first, and that they were all under the impression that Robey was going to release it as a 45. When O.V.'s version (over that same initial backing track, no doubt) was released instead, it led to some bad blood between Carter and Wright, as Melvin watched the song he had written (and got no credit for) climb the charts in the Fall of 1970. As we said before, if nothing else, Robey was one cold-blooded son-of-a-bitch.
I have recently learned that there is some unreleased Melvin Carter material in the Universal vaults from back in those days... man, I'd love to hear that!
Thanks Marc for the photo... you're the greatest!