Thursday, July 9, 2009

Night Ridin'

Ok, so you are cruisin' the bricks in a Hudson Hornet; your suspension is heavy w/ the weight of fast friends as you pass around a stale roach and a half-pissed bottle of Old-Crow. The Pigs are out and about writtin walkin' tickets for all the white folk millin around, tryin' desperately as they are to hold up some ends before gettin' rolled, or worse...

This is Newark in the small hours of dawn and you are undoubtedly Night Ridin'.

From the tender age of fifteen Doc Starks, A.K.A Melvin Smith, knew how to hold his own both musically and physically against the rowdy rounders of his native Atlanta. Once RCA got a hold of him, he managed to cut some noteworthy discs before cool sales forced the big-dog to drop him like cold tatters. Luck for us that smaller, less reputable labels let the then 18 year old stretch out with the likes of 'Night Ridin', a cool cut with some cock-sure guitar, and what appears to be either a crazy ass sax bleat, or the screams of a chick being murdered. Either way, it adds just the right air of grit to a cut which fully intends to put you firmly in the passenger seat of an urban scouting party / Beaver Shoot. Needless to say, such endeavours rarely end well, but always end memorably.

"Smith was born in Atlanta in 1936, the son of Samuel and Minnie Smith, fourth in a family of nine children. Samuel Smith, a truck driver, abandoned the family in the mid-'40s, and all nine children were raised by their mother, a hotel chambermaid. Melvin began listening to music at an early age, and among his favorite singers growing up were Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, and Jimmy Witherspoon. By the time he was in his early teens, Smith was winning talent contests in the Atlanta area and singing regularly with a group called the Arstell Allen Sextet.

In early 1951, a group of RCA-Victor executives came to Atlanta in search of talent to expand their R&B roster. They were referred to Smith, then 15 years old, and were suitably impressed. On January 11, 1951, Smith had his first recording date, fronting saxophonist/bandleader Clyde W. "Blow Top" Lynn and his House Rockers on four songs. Their first single, "Reliefin' Blues" backed with "School Boy Blues," was released to little notice in March of that year. Smith's career was now in high gear, with regular shows outside of Atlanta spaced in between odd jobs and school whenever he could fit it in -- he was finally expelled from school sometime in 1951. By the end of that year, he was known as "Little Melvin" and was singing with Tommy Brown's Maroon Notes. In the meantime, he recorded a further four songs with Lynn and his band in the spring of 1951.

The first resulting single, "Rampaging Mama" backed with "Real True Gal" (the latter co-written by Smith), also failed to chart. By January of 1952, Smith was back in the studio with a new band, in a session that generated the critically well-received but poor-selling Smith-authored "California Baby"/"Everybody's Got the Blues." RCA was still convinced that Smith had what it took to succeed, however, and in late March of 1952, they brought him to New York for a recording session with some of the top players of the period, including jazz legend Tyree Glenn on trombone, Taft Jordan on trumpet, Eddie Barefield on sax, and leader Howard Biggs at the piano. The result was Smith's most critically acclaimed single, "Looped," which managed to become a regional hit and elicited a rival cover version.

Somehow, "Looped" never broke out, and Smith and RCA were left to look back on another promising failure. The session did bring Smith to New York, however, and some very enjoyable and lucrative club dates. These were good times for Smith, despite his stagnant recording career, singing before bigger and more appreciative audiences than ever before.

Unfortunately, RCA saw the need to make some changes in Smith's sound, and his next sessions featured the presence of a trio of backup pop singers whose voices were too prominent for the song's own good. The single "Sarah Kelly (From Plumnelly)" flopped. Smith's recording career continued with RCA for another two years without any success, and he was finally dropped by the label in early 1954.

Smith was only 18 years old, however, and hardly done singing. He had moved to Philadelphia the previous year, and for the next decade, he fronted a quintet called the Nite Riders, whose membership included pianist/composer Van Walls ("Chains of Love"). He was signed to Apollo Records and later recorded for Sound/Teen, Swan, Cameo, and Sue Records. Smith and the group reached the pinnacle of their success in the late '50s, playing an extended engagement at the Wagon Wheel club in midtown Manhattan, and also enjoyed considerable popularity in Canada and Boston."

~ Bruce Eder

Night Ridin' - Doc Starks (& the Nightriders)

Vacation Train - Doc Starks (& the Nightriders)

Apple Cider - Doc Starks (& the Nightriders)

Six Button Benny - Doc Starks (& the Nightriders)


KL from NYC said...

Nice Post. Good History. Neat Label ("Sound"). Thanks.

The Hound said...

I think his best were Pretty Plaid Skirt on Sue, and Women & Cadillacs on Apollo.

flamingo said...

I agree with the Hound. BTW, James "Doc" Starkes and Melvin Smith are two separate guys, band leader/sax player and vocalist, of the Nite Riders.
And "Love Me Like Crazy" on Linda/Modern Sound is a great rocker, too. Smith is the featured vocalist on John Greer's "Im The Fat Man", which also is great.

Pnoray said...

Doc and Melvin were 2 seperate people as I played with and knew them both.....I met them when The Nightriders were based in Hartford, Ct. .Doc was the leader of the Nightriders and Melvin played Baritone. I worked with Melvin for years after that as a Hammond organist, and Melvin had switched to playing drums as well as singing. The last gig I played with Melvin was in 1993 when he left the business to persue gospel and the church.......Melvin died June 12,2004 of cancer. They don't come any better than Melvin Smith.