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BILLY WOOTEN INTERVIEW

Vibist Billy Wooten played in nearly every American city throughout the 1960s, but he maintained a hankering to visit Indianapolis - a city with a jazz history that enchanted him. His reluctant booking agent – arguing “Indianapolis is dead” - eventually granted his wish, and Wooten fell in love with the city. “The first time I was there was for one week, then two weeks,” Wooten remembers. “The next time was for a month-long engagement.”

While there, Wooten impressed Janie Robinson, owner of the 19th Whole, Indianapolis’s jazz hotspot. In 1971, after recording the landmark “Visions” and “Shades of Green” LPs with Blue Note guitarist Grant Green, Wooten and his crew returned to Indy from New York and found Robinson waiting with open arms. They remained at her club for six years, cutting their debut LP there before signing to the Eastbound label to release an album, “Smiling,” under the fitting name The 19th Whole.

Here Billy recalls that magical, spiritual times that informed his soulful jazz stylings.

E: Let’s start off simply – where were you born, and how’d you get your musical start?
B: I was born in New York and I’ve been involved with music my whole life. My first instrument was the piano, which I started playing in school. I also played trumpet, trombone and French horn.

E: And your professional start?
B: I graduated from High School, and went on to Rutgers University. A guy writing for Deon and The Belmonts heard me at a jam session. At that point, he’d never seen the vibes before. He said to me, “Hey, I think that would fit in good on our show.” So I went on the show. He had Buster Brown, Gene – actual name of the group was Dean and Jean. He offered him some money to travel. That was the end of college! I started as a vibes man, playing nothing but tbe blues. This was about 1960 or 1961.

E: Then what?
B From 1960 to 1963 I was doing a lot of traveling. In 1964, I was commissioned to put together a group for a tour – Soul Sisters, Two Tons of Fun. Here it shifted more to Billy Wooten and The Invaders. That was the group name. But not by my choice, I’m more into equal billing. Never looked at me as being a bandleader. To me we were all equal partners. At that time I was Doing r&b and jazz. Also I was doing a little Latin with Chico Mendoza.

E: Who else did you work with at the time?
B: Through that time period, we worked behind Gladys Night, Smokey Robinson – all the guys out of Motown stable. Things took off with my own group. We lasted together up to about 1968.

E: How did you end up in Indy?
B: I was always interested in history – especially musical history. And I’d heard all these wonderful stories about this town called Indianapols. I was always begging my agent, “Send us through Indianapolis.” I figured I’d do some research, meet some of the old guys. As young guys growing up we’d hear about all these fantastic musicians and all these places to play in Indy. And my agent said, “You don’t want to go, there’s nothing there anymore!” He was sending me everywhere but Indy! We had a job in Hopkinsville, KY and then we had two weeks off. Lo and behold, he said, “I’ll go ahead and send you through Indy.” The first time I was there was for one week. Next time was for two weeks. Next time was for a month long engagement. Through the blessings of God Almighty, we had built up such a following that when we came through the last time, for the four weeks, a lady from another club, the 19th Whole, came to negotiate with the guy that owned the Hubbub and unbeknownst to me, bought my contract. I’m serious!

E: What caused you to set root in Indianapolis?
B: Because I met an Indy girl in 1973! But before we get to that point, the longest we stayed at the lady’s club was for six months. That was the longest I’d stayed in one spot, other than my hometown. During that time I met Spider Harrison. I started doing jobs around there, recording projects. But I got disenchanted with being stuck in one town. A friend of mine, Rick Powell, had moved from Washington DC to Chicago. He came through town and played for two weeks. He said, “Why don’t you come up to Chicago, man, it’s time for you to move up to a different level.” I took him up on the offer. In that time, before 1973, I had the chance to work with Donny Hathaway – I did some recording through Donny Hathaway for Jerry Butler. I worked with Odell Brown and The Organizers. As I was moving up the ladder in Chicago, I got the opportunity to record as a featured artist with the Soulful Strings. On the last two albums - Plays Gamble and Huff and Richard Evans and the Soulful Strings on Atlantic. In between that time Grant Green sent an organ player named Emanuel Riggins and a drummer Harold Cardwell – who were working with Grant - to get me “by gunpoint.”

E: Interesting, very interesting.
B: When I was in Indy, and he came through we did a series of concerts together. He said then, “Man, I’d sure like to have some vibes added to the group.” I never thought he was serious. So I look up this night, Riggins had come to the place I was staying. He said, “I didn’t know what time you got off but we were going to wait ‘til you got here.” He pulled out his pistol and said, “Go upstairs, get your clothes and whatever you want. We paid the landlady so you don’t owe her more money.” He said “We’re outta here, we’re supposed to meet Grant in Buffalo, NY.” I said, “Put that gun away!” He said “No, Grant said to come get you!” (Laughs) I knew them, ‘cause we’d traveled the same circuits. They told me what I’d be making, and there were several recording projects coming up. So I jumped in the car and said “Well, let’s go.” We traveled with Grant from 1969 to the latter part of 1971.

E: Did you record any albums with him?
B: With Grant, we did Visions and Shades of Green. As of circumstance, the record company took over Grant’s business affairs. We didn’t want to go with what they were talking about – provide all the music for Grant’s sound. We gave Grant a brand new sound – in fact we gave him his first hundred thousand seller. And I’m not just saying that. But they wanted us to be the touring band, and not the recording band. The movie score (for The Final Comedown) was coming up. They wanted us to rehearse the music and teach these other guys our style and our sound. So we all talked about it, even with Grant, and said “We’re in this for the immortality. To take this away is to take our lives away.”

E: Right, you wanted to have your musicianship documented on record.
B: Grant sorta agreed, but his hands were tied because the record company were paying the bills.

E: What happened?
B: The guys looked at me, and I said, “The only thing I know is the lady I left in Indy.” So I called her at the 19th Whole, and she said, “PLEASE come back!” She welcomed us back, she never quibbled about money or anything. She had a house and they treated us – you know, how they used to bring the musicians in the 11th, 12th century - we were paid, they furnished a good house. Coming out of the East coast, I didn’t know what a house was about! I was always an apartment man. She initially furnished us with automobiles, too. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but the club was packed six nights a week. And two matinees!

E: Man, I wish I could have seen those shows.
B: They were something to behold. Musicians would come from all over – Wilbert Longmire would come from Cinti. From all over! It just so happened at that time, it was a black area. You must picture where Indy was sitting in that time. It was almost unheard of to have black and white musicians mixing together. Well on the Friday or Saturday matinee, it didn’t matter what color you were. “Can you play?” “Yeah!” or “Can you play?” “No.” “Well you’re gonna play anyhow!” It was a utopian environment.

E: And you yourself were a musician on the move.
B: The first year, 1973, Roy Ayers and myself were tied in Downbeat’s Upcoming Vibe Players. We were tied for four. In 1974, we both moved to number three. I started seeing certain thing happening from the business end. Spider was giving me a lot of knowledge too.

E: By that time you had settled in Indy.
B: I got to looking at things from the socio-political standpoint - Indy represented the most longevity for playing music and for developing myself into other businesses. You know, getting prepared for age transition. Spider would keep me on the radio - people thought I was part of TLC. When I first broke The Wooden Glass LP, he wrote the liner notes.

E: The Wooden Glass – that was the name of your group with Emanuel and Harold, was it not? How did that name come about?
B: The actual Wooden Glass came from Kalamazoo, Michigan. We all liked Antique shops. Manny found this wooden goblet – he said, “That’s it, we’re gonna call the group the Wooden Glass.” I said, “That’s too close to my name, I don’t want people thinking, ‘Here’s another guy who wants his name up front.’ ” He said, “Damn your name, that’s the name of the group! It’ll never break – the Wooden Glass.” We looked at it, and said, “Fine.” They said, “You brought us here, so it’s gonna be the band featuring Billy Wooten.” They said, “You have no say in it, it’s our say so.”

E: Now here’s a good question – which came first, your Wooden Glass album or the 19th Whole album on Eastbound, both with the same players, and one of the same songs (“Monkey Hips N’ Rice”)
B: The 19th Whole album was recorded just about the same time we were getting ready to record the Wooden Glass Live. In that time, we didn’t know we were going to get a chance to record for Eastbound. Instead of sitting back and waiting, we said, “OK, let’s record this album.” As we were in the process of mixing it down, Eastbound came up with a contract.

E: The two albums are very different though. The live album is a very relaxed workout between you four… magic to behold.
B: The Wooden Glass album was a night at the club. We were recorded there by Bob Todrink, he Mic’ed the club

E: You guys are very together.
B: We met through travel first. For instance, if you were traveling the Midwest, when you got to Cleveland, you might be playing at the House of Blues, and Riggins would be at the Majestic Hotel. Many times we would hit the same cities at the same time. We’d all get together and eat - and on our days off we’d get together and jam.

E: How about William Roach? He’s on the album, and he’s played with a bunch of Indy notables.
B: Roach is from Indy. Roach has been with all of them! He’s played with lot of people, The Presidents even. Even with The Highlighters! He did some stuff with Marvin Gaye, too. He was a good accompaniest.

E: What about the label? Did you run it?
B: Interim was my label. It was expensive to put out those records! But that was par for the course.

E: Whatever happened to your Eastbound career? It didn’t seem like it took off.
B: In between all of this, the marriage with Eastbound never really materialized. It wasn’t a negative, but as touring musicians, we wanted more than just to record. They wanted us to hire our own road manager, booking agent etc. We recorded only one album. In there we made the decision – it’s one thing to record a record but if you’re not touring you’ve only won half the battle. They wanted another album, but they didn’t want to give us any more money. We were going to take money and go hire tour people ourselves! We weren’t really businessmen, we were musicians - still honing our craft. We wanted to tour, travel and meet people - learn other forms of music. We started touring but Emanuel got married and moved back home to Warren, Ohio. In between, he joined the Nation of Islam. He then moved to Detroit. Harold and I played together. We followed the Jimmy Smith circuit, the early George Benson circuit. Then, he got married became more localized. So I focused on less travel and more business. I started doing radio and television commercials – again Spider was very helpful. This was between 1975 and 1980.

E: So all in all you were at the 19th Whole…
B: We played at the 19th Whole for at least six years. The Wooden Glass was together ‘til about 1974. In the 80s, I kept with music. By staying in Indy, I extended my musical career for 15 years. In the 80s, I started doing television and radio. And international events. Up to last year, I’ve performed for Oscar De La Renta, Audrey Hepburn… I’ve played for presidents, ambassadors! And once for Bill Clinton.

E: And you’ve now returned to music full time.
B: In 1994, I sold the business and have been doing nothing but music. I have no complaints. I think I’ve been more blessed than anyone could ask for.

E: Nearly 30 years later, what do you think of the Funk experience?
B: Funk – I would have to say it was the accumulation of all the musical, educational experiences I took. We were playing all types of music. But by the end of the night, we were more on a spiritual plane as opposed to thinking “What song are we gonna play next.” Please don’t think I’m being abstract, but we were into the metaphysical aspect of the music. In essence, “What is it coming out of your body and mind and what is the music going to communicate?” Do you want to show how much musical knowledge you have? Or are these people in a social environment, related to the church experience, or everyday experience? People coming into the club wanted to hear that, feel that. At the same time we enjoyed that too. That’s the same sound we gave to Grant. You’ll hear some of that same style behind his records. A vision that will always stay in my mind - I was told Grant never had as good a time as when he was with us. Grant would get on that stool and be rocking back and forth. Riggins would be over there, with his head all up in the air, left foot and right foot on the pedals. Harold would be there, playing. When you see that, it’s as if you’re in the middle of Santana’s band. I can always hear Grant say, “Oh come on babies, come on!” ‘Cause we was young guys! And when you set that groove to ‘em, that funk groove - well, you guys call it funk, I just call it the groove - when you set that groove in there, it’s like making love. Grant would say, “Come on babies, come on. Let’s make love tonight!” I know that’s a little off center. I’m human too, there’s many time when I get depressed. You know what I’m saying? You reminisce, think about times like that and it puts a big smile on your face.