The Minstrel Man From Georgia
Hampton Grease Band
Music to Eat
By Peter Margasak
Emmett Miller began singing in minstrel troupes in the 20s, the decade of the style's last commercial hurrah, and continued through the 40s before fading into obscurity. His face heavily daubed with burnt cork, he took part in patently offensive routines with such devotion that he earned nicknames like "Nigger, Nigger Miller." One bit called "The Lion Tamers" had straight (and white) man Dan Fitch offering a drunken-sounding, no-account Miller a job entering a lion cage for a film segment, entertaining audiences with exchanges like:
"That lion don't eat dark meat."
"Yeah, but 'bout the time he started at me he's liable to go color-blind."
Though these routines may account for Miller's original appeal, what's endured is his otherworldly singing. Despite almost complete obscurity, he was the best and most important white blues singer ever. Dubbed "clarinet voiced," Miller had a remarkable ability to bend notes, creating a spine-tingling yodel that soared from a liquor-sodden croon into an eerie falsetto, all within a single syllable. While superficially mimicking the vocal mannerisms of rural blacks, Miller in essence tapped into a wellspring of emotionalism that eclipsed the folk forms of the south and offered an alternative to the slick urbanity of early jazz singers. With the CD reissue of The Minstrel Man From Georgia, Miller's huge impact on popular music can finally be assessed.
Hank Williams's hit rendition of "Lovesick Blues," recorded in December 1948, was modeled after Miller's 1928 version; western-swing pioneer Bob Wills called Miller's sublime treatment of "I Ain't Got Nobody" his favorite song; the Singing Breakman Jimmie Rodgers's blue yodel reveals Miller's influence; and Merle Haggard dedicated his raucous live album I Love Dixie Blues to Miller.
Until the release of The Minstrel Man From Georgia, the only readily available Miller recording was "Lovesick Blues," found on the essential OKeh Western Swing collection. A hard-to-find 14-song bootleg on T.O.M. (the Old Masters label) offered more substantial evidence of his bizarre genius, but there was virtually no background information other than the identity of the musicians who backed him in his studio band, the Georgia Crackers--early jazzers like Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, Eddie Lang, and Gene Krupa.
As Nick Tosches's 1977 book Country indicated, little was known about the singer--no exact birth date, no definitive geographical origin, and no word of what became of him. But since that book was published, the research of people like Tosches and Charles Wolfe, who wrote the CD's extensive liner notes, has fleshed out Miller's story. He was born in either 1896 or 1897 in Barnesville, Georgia--halfway between Macon, previously believed to be his birthplace, and Atlanta. Following several years of recording work for OKeh he continued minstrelsy, cutting a number of sides for Bluebird in 1936. When the changing social mores deemed the tradition improper, he more or less faded with it. All traces of him are lost after 1952.
Miller's jazz-country-blues-pop fusion on his OKeh recordings, anticipating most American pop, might not seem as bizarre today as they must have nearly 70 years ago. Amid a hopped-up preswing jazz backing, his treatment of then-contemporary pop and jazz tunes like "Dusky Stevedore," "She's Funny That Way," and "Lovin' Sam (The Sheik of Alabam')" was without precedent.
Apart from a striking oddball purity, there isn't much in common between the music of Emmett Miller and that of the Hampton Grease Band, a twisted boogie art-rock group from the late 60s and early 70s. But recent CD reissues have allowed us to hear their music again and to see how they've fared over time. Forty years after Miller cut his landmark 1928-'29 OKeh sides, guitarist Harold Kelling wanted his young Atlanta-based band to play the blues. The group's sound certainly had more than its fair share of blues feel, but the band's sole album, the recently reissued double LP Music to Eat, sounds like that clarinet-voiced minstrel--positively not of this world. Distinguished as the second-worst-selling album (behind a yoga record) in the history of Columbia Records, it's since become a collector's item, and the passage of time has only made its forward-looking ideas seem downright brilliant, if still blatantly and triumphantly weird. Singer Bruce Hampton has achieved some popularity in recent years fronting first the Aquarium Rescue Unit and now the Fiji Mariners (who play the upcoming H.O.R.D.E. festival at the New World Music Theatre), while guitarist Glenn Phillips appears on the new Hootie & the Blowfish album in addition to releasing solo recordings over the years. Yet all that pales miserably next to the brilliant extremes heard on Music to Eat.
Mixing the gonzo humor of the Mothers of Invention with the damaged structures of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, the Hampton Grease Band played a boogie-drenched art rock that ultimately owed little to either of these inspirations. The 20-minute "Halifax," for example, finds Hampton ranting--with a gruff-voiced insanity, much like Don Van Vliet--about the less-than-obvious assets of the city the song celebrates: "Six thousand six hundred and thirty-eight miles of graded road / And a lot of gravel, too." While the singer's rambling sales pitch jumps from one attraction to another, the band covers even more turf with its wildly shifting tempos. This epic tune has enough riffs and sections to fill an album. The chooglin' interplay between Kelling and Phillips is nothing less than jaw dropping; the double-pronged instrumental invention always stays on the rough side of the tracks; the daring, woolly rhythm section--bassist Mike Holbrook and drummer Jerry Fields--prevents any descent into nasty proto-fusioneering; and the guitar is much closer to the rough-hewn urgency of Beefheart than the antiseptic note-cramming of Zappa. In "Evans" the band's freewheeling but fat-free extrapolations are even more mind-boggling.
A good-ol'-boy precursor to the antics of postpunk yobbos, the band would litter the stage with car parts, Hampton would sing while standing on a pizza, and friends would watch TV or eat cereal onstage. Predating Anthony Mason of the Knicks, among others, Hampton wore a crew cut with an "H" shaved in the back of his head. Yet these stage tricks were nothing compared to the crazed motions of the music. "Lawton," an improvised jam between Phillips and Fields, swerves from an unnerving drone into mayhem--Phillips scraping his strings like Monkey-Pockie-Boo-era Sonny Sharrock while Fields destroys his kit like a country bumpkin imitating Rashied Ali. "Six," another of the album's seven songs to clock in at around 20 minutes, leaps all over the map--from swing patterns to an improvised segment between Kelling, Holbrook, and Fields to excited gibberish pouring from Hampton's mouth. Never mind Columbia's doing little to support the record when it was released--and the fact that 20-minute songs don't get much airplay--the music itself seemed to guarantee the record's dismal sales. Even today it's probably too strange for most listeners--yet it's just as fresh, inventive, and vibrant as it was 25 years ago.
It's doubtful that the Emmett Miller and Hampton Grease Band reissues will appeal on a mass scale, but they are proof that good art endures. Saxophonist Eric Dolphy is famous, apart from his music, for saying, "When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air." Lucky for us, records aren't so ephemeral.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Album covers and stills.