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Neil Sharpe

Neil Sharpe is a SOTW Contributing Editor has extensive experience with the emotional and psychological aspects of performance, health, and well being. He is the author and co-author of three professional texts and numerous peer reviewed papers. Neil and his sax have terrified the unsuspecting since the 1950's.

More articles by Neil Sharpe:

o Blues, R&B, Rock n' Roll Saxophone Teaching Resource
o Anxiety, Emotions and Performing Well 1, 2, 3
o John Barrow; How NOT To Make It In The Pop World
o Jazz and The Touch of Zen: Ken Fornetran
o Johnny Ferreira: Rock n' Roll Saxophonist

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Created: July 14, 2008

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"Amazing Grace"

Lionel Prevost

        PART TWO

by Paul Harris

Lionel Torrence

All photos featuring Lionel Prevost courtesy of Paul Harris

PART ONE  "Amazing Grace" Lionel Prevost - PART ONE

PART ONE  Lionel Prevost - Discography

BACKING MUSICIAN

Whilst recording behind artists such as Tabby Thomas, Charles 'Mad Dog' Sheffield, Clarence Garlow, Clifton Chenier, Leroy Washington, Katie Webster and Warren Storm, Lionel was also doing live shows. Rockin' Sidney remembers him backing Ervin Charles and Barbara Lynn, Lionel recalls, ‘I worked with different guys like T-Bone Walker, Fats Domino, Jimmy Wilson — we were on shows behind Etta James, Ruth Brown. I remember when Ray Charles came to Dallas once. His whole band had got busted in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Our band was behind the show, so Ray Charles worked with us for quite a while. When James Brown first started, he was working with us. We worked with some other great artists like The Clovers, The Cadillacs, The Dells, Cal Green & The Midnighters, Clarence Garlow. I did some shows with Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Little Junior Parker, Sam Cooke. I recorded a couple of songs with Rosco Gordon over in Memphis, Tennessee’ ['Shoobie Oobie'/'Cheese And Crackers', Sun 257, 25 October 1956]. Although not listed in Blues Records, Lionel claims to have recorded ‘with Etta James on Chess, Clifton Chenier's 'My Soul' and tunes like that’. [Lionel Prevost is credited on "My Soul"- Chess (originally Checker single 939) 1957- See "Chess New Orleans"- CD- 9355].

Prevost Chess

RACIAL PROBLEMS

'I was travelling on the road with Lowell Fulson, Clifton Chenier and Etta James, we had a package together, we were doin' some touring. We were on our way back from Chicago, back down to the South and we had some cooking utensils and things. We would stop on the side of the road, we found it cheaper to eat this way. We'd stop in a store somewhere and buy us a bunch of food, stop with this camping stove and we'd make sandwiches or fried chicken or pork chops or what have you. As we got into Mississippi, we spotted a roadside park after we left the grocery store and we pulled in. There was this couple sitting way on the other side of the park, a man and a lady, a white couple. So when we drove through we spoke to them and when I asked the lady, 'Mind if we share the roadside park with you?' she said, 'It's a public place, go right ahead'. About two or three minutes passed, and they got in their car and they left. About five minutes later, here we were cooking hot eggs and hot chicken on the fire and these two carloads of State Troopers pulled up and they asked Etta, 'What are you doin' ridin' around with these black guys?' — well they used some other language! She say, 'Well, I'm black too' — you know Etta James is a very fair-skinned young lady, blonde hair — and he asks us, 'Are you boys about ready to leave?'. So we mentioned the fact that we'd just gotten there, we'd been drivin' for a couple of days and we decided to stop and have a little rest and get somethin' to eat and we'd be on our way after a while. He say, 'Well, you can eat in the car or you can eat in jail, but you gonna have to get out of this roadside park!'.

'[Then there was] that time with Jimmy McCracklin's group over in East Texas. We was travelling in a bus and we stopped about 1.30 that mornin' to gas up, and after we'd filled the bus up with gasoline, one of the guys went over to the water faucet to get a drink of water and the guy told him, 'We don't have any water here for niggers'. So the guy said, 'Hey man, we just bought over thirty gallons of gas, the least we can do is get a drink of water'. And he says, 'What are you fellas doin' here anyway?'. We told him we were musicians just drivin' through on our way to Houston. By this time, a couple of other cars had drove up and one of these guys came out of the station with a shotgun — double-barrelled — and he says,' If you guys are musicians, you ought to be able to play some music'. And they commenced to making us set up right then and there on the service station lot and we had to play seven or eight songs — either that or create a whole lot of problems.

'I usually find myself in a situation where I'm the only black guy with a bunch of white musicians in these predominantly white night clubs and I never really have any problems with the customers, but it seems the club owners themselves always assume that I'm gonna cause a problem, or that I am a problem because I stand out like a sore thumb among the rest of the crowd. Sometimes this gets a little tedious — not wantin' you to mix with the crowd. They hire you to play good music and entertain their customers, but some of them feel you shouldn't mix with the people which is pretty hard to do and at the same time satisfy them out there on the dance floor. The more intimate you are with your people, the more you are able to get 'em in some type of groove because it's easy to get on the same wavelength . . . Then there's some clubs you go in and there's no problem whatsoever.' [Also see , this interview with pioneering recording engineer Eddie Shuler who founded Goldband Records, a history of how musicians were affected by the "Jim Crow" laws, and this review of Jay D. Miller’s recordings].

HUMOUR ON THE ROAD

'A bunch of musicians travelling on the road together usually keep each other's morale up — there's always a prankster within the group. One particular guy, we called him Candy — he used to play upright bass with Clifton Chenier — I think this guy would stay up at night trying to figure out things to do. One night we pulled over on the side of the road to sleep and Candy got out of the car to go and meet the call of nature behind some bushes or trees and he found this little small snake. The trombone player was always stealing somebody's sandwiches in the car, and when you go to sleep, he'd eat up everything he could put his hands on. So Candy picked this snake up and he put it in this paper bag on top of a couple of sandwiches he had wrapped up. And lo and behold, we all went to sleep that night, all but the driver, and this guy woke up and he reached over and he grabbed Candy's bag and when he put his hand in there and picked up this little snake, man, there was pandemonium in this car. I thought this guy was gonna die of fright.

‘There was a guy called Jimmy Wilson [who] I'm sure most people have heard of, he was the originator of the song 'Tin Pan Alley'. Well, Jimmy had come back to Port Arthur for a while and he was living here, he had an old station wagon and he would never buy any tyres so anytime we went anywhere, we ended up with two or three flats. One night we had to travel from Port Arthur to Lake Charles which is about fifty miles away. I mentioned to Jimmy, 'We gonna have to have some better tyres than what we got, man, because we probably having flats'. So he said, 'Well, I'll think of something'. The next morning I got up and I looked across the street where he was living and I see this fire out in the yard and I see Jimmy with a bucket. So I walk across the street to see what he was doin' and he had about five old tyres and two of them he had cut up into small strips and he was actually melting this rubber over this fire and pouring it over the holes in the other tyres. He repaired them like this and put 'em in the car in case we'd have a flat we'd have something to put back on. Believe it or not, it wasn't a very smooth ride, but it worked, the tyres that he vulcanised himself, they stayed up for a pretty good while!

‘There was a place out in the suburbs called Port Acres, Texas, about seven or eight miles from here, and on Sundays the band would start at 1 o'clock and we'd play until midnight. We didn't make any money, but we had a hell of a lot of fun — on Sundays, $15-$20 for playing eight or nine hours, that was top pay in some of the black clubs; all the beer you could drink. We had a guitar player, his name was Tony Keyes and he was one of the best guitar men in this area. He's another musician that came up from the garage and the wood-sheds, he never had any formal music training, it was just within him — it was just a gift. Tony Keyes as I recall only left this area once, and that was only for a week or so, and that was with The Ink Spots. He died here in Port Arthur, Texas nearly twenty years ago. I went out this Sunday afternoon — we'd go in these clubs and we'd find a band that had only two or three musicians and we'd walk in and we'd just start playin' so when the night was over, we got paid just like the other guys. So, Tony having the best group around in this area, quite naturally this was why I went for it, 'cause we were very good friends anyway.

'And when I walked in this afternoon, he was sitting in the window, playing his guitar because it was pretty hot and there was no air-conditioning, just a couple of fans. And he was sitting in this open window on the bandstand and he hollered, 'Hey, come on in and join the party!'. So I went and got my saxophone and I come into the bandstand. When I hooked everything up I got around to getting tuned up and joining the group and this young lady walked in the door with a bikini on, she had just come from the beach. And I say, 'Hey Tony, check what's coming in the front door over there man!'. And when he raised up and he saw this young lady, he lost his balance and the next thing I know, he had fell out the window backwards, him and his guitar. We laughed about that for quite some time.

'There was a particular night club, right across the Texas/Louisiana state line [which] stayed open twenty-four hours a day. We'd go to work at 8 o'clock at night and work until 4 o'clock in the morning for maybe $100 a week, something like that, seven days a week. They had cleared a wooded area out and that's where this place was built — surrounded by trees and heavy brush. At night you could hear panthers howling — or you'd drive up one morning and there was an alligator at the back door. One night we hadn't been playing about three or four hours and the drummer noticed something moving over in the corner by his foot. So he called me over and say, 'Why don't you check it out?'. I was kind of leery about going over there, so I sent the guitar player, we called him King Bee, and this guy was faster than a spotted ape, man. And he say, 'Oh, you guys are all a bunch of chickens, sure there ain't nothin' under [the sack]'. And when he raised it up there was just this water moccasin curled up, about eight inches high. We had to catch this guy somewhere down the street!

'I was single when I was travelling most, and we was in Los Angeles, California, playing out of a night club they call the 5-4 Ballroom down on Broadway, and the stage was quite high, at least five feet off the floor in front of the dance floor. This particular night I had struck a pretty nice groove, man, and we had a thing going because the band would come up and do about forty-five minutes to an hour before any one of the artists would come up. Bill Doggett had just recorded 'Honky Tonk' [Clifford Scott on tenor sax] and it was sweeping the country and we were one of the first bands in the country to learn it, and I learned this song note for note, man. This night we had a crowd of people in front of this bandstand that was screamin' and hollerin' and, you know, your crowd can really charge you up when they're into it, man. But I had on a pair of shoes that had holes in the bottom so we'd take some cardboard and stuff [it] in the bottom of these shoes to keep our feet from draggin' the ground. I had a deal I used to do when I played saxophone when I was young and we'd get into it, I'd get on my knees or I'd fall on my back and me and this other saxophone player would kick our heels up in the air, man. This particular young lady that I was tryin' to impress, when I fell on my back and kicked my heels up in the air, she hollered, 'Look, he's got holes in his shoes' and everybody cracked up because they thought this was part of the show, but they just don't know, these holes were for real. Musicians travelling on the road, making $17.50 or $22 a night — it doesn't last very long in a place like Los Angeles or Nevada.

'When I travelled with Clifton Chenier, we had about three or four different outfits or uniforms that we'd wear and one of our suits was a blue suit. James the piano player, we called him 'Cooney', now he had an extra suit and the guitar player would join in when we'd put on our act. This particular night his suit wasn't ready. We decided to use the blue suit and Cooney told him, 'Well, you can use my extra suit since we are about the same size'. We were playing in one of these real dives, man, I mean the floor looked like it had mud on it all the time, but it was a packed house. We started puttin' on our act and the saxophone player and I walked out through the crowd and we fell down on the floor, so the guitar player decided to join us. He fell down on his knees, and then he fell down on his back, man, and he was playin' his guitar with his teeth and the piano player looked around and saw him on the floor and he stopped right in the middle of the song and he got on the microphone and he told him, 'Hey, get up offa that floor with my suit on!'. That cracked the house up.'

1964-1988

Around 1964, after a further spell on the road with Clifton Chenier, Lionel decided to stay off the road a while, ‘and just never went back to record for Miller any more. In fact, after working locally for a while, I quit playing music in the late Sixties. I got some seaman's papers and I decided I wanted to see the world ... and I began shipping out ... for about nine years. In 1969 I caught my first ship going to Bombay, India and most of my ships were foreign ships. I had never stopped when I was on the ships, because I took my horn with me all the time. He took his sax with him and practiced every day on the deck of ships. Once in port, he would walk around the club scene and see where he could play. After a few tours, he had regular gigs waiting for him in nearly every port as word about him spread, especially with the local musicians. 

Torr1-1

[By then] I was married and I had some kids, and in 1977 when my wife's father died she, my wife Bessie, asked me to stay on with her for a little while before going back on the ships. He later worked some construction to help make ends meet. When he came home, he started back playing music in the local church and some of the clubs. The church was his favorite. He had a good singing voice, joined the church choir and later supervised choir and band.

'I started back playing around this area with different guys, Ray Solice, and I worked construction work during the daytime. Then there was a keyboard player that I worked with called Clint Faulk. He plays tremendous keyboard, electric drums, a two-piece group and we worked in a club in Beaumont for a long period of time, about fourteen months. This is where I began to run across the old musicians again like Jesse Domingue, Jivin' Gene, Johnny Preston, most of the musicians that used to be the old swamp-pop musicians back in the Fifties. They had started having these swamp-pop [festivals] again and I made about three or four of these. I sort of got back on the music scene again and now I am playing music again full-time. I'm now 53 years old, my health is pretty fair but I don't think I'm in the shape where I can do the type of construction labor that I did years ago, so fortunately I had something to fall back on.'

In 1988 Lionel was working with a group called Jesse Domingue and the Bayou Adventure. 'We play all types of music and I've been with him now for a couple of years. He's one of the musicians used to work back with J.D. Miller when we were early 20s . Jesse played keyboard and he played guitar back in those days. Now he plays strictly keyboard. We have a pretty good five-piece group going.' They played 3-4 days a week and were really popular including doing some recordings.

Prevost Live

However, by the time I had met Lionel in April 1989, this partnership had broken up five months earlier and he was now part of a duo, 'Steve (Young) & Lionel'. They played at Mickey's Pub in Port Arthur (Mickey being an Irish-American of great character who had run tanks, arms and ammunition to Vietnam!). With Steve on keyboards and Lionel revealing the full range of his abilities they were a pairing not to be missed if in the vicinity — they covered virtually any request, as Lionel said: 'I love doing blues, Fifties and Sixties music, I love listening to jazz. Country & western music, to my way of thinking, has some of the most beautiful lyrics there is. I like ballads — my favourite singers were Perry Como and Nat 'King' Cole.

'I haven't seen Katie [Webster] for quite a while but I see Warren [Storm] every now and then, we hold a number of swamp-pop [festivals] in this area and on two or three occasions in the last two or three years I've had the pleasure of working with him a couple of times and meeting him again and I must say he's just as good now or even better than he was back in the Fifties — a lot more seasoned.' Lionel was invited to the Blues Estafette in Utrecht, Holland in 1991 and had a great success. They kept inviting him to come back, and jazz festivals in Europe wanted him too, but he decided to stay at home- said he'd traveled enough.


ANONYMITY

'I've never really cared too much about having star status — somebody's got to be in the background. No matter how good you are, somebody has to be behind you. A lot of people fail to realize that the musicians in the background, it's like a coach or a teacher. Somebody has to coach the football team or the basketball team and teach 'em what's going on, give the advice when it's needed. In a good band you've got to have the musicians in the background that have a relationship with this guy that's in front, and they've got to have a type of togetherness where each one know what the other gonna do at all times. You can feel sometimes when this guy's not really up to par, but the band members can set the mood, they can set the tempo, they can really bring the guy out of this [predicament]. A band can make you or break you. That's why the unpopular musician is in my opinion some of the greatest people in the world, because they never really get the accolade, or the acclaim, or the praise that's really due them, because they do a wonderful job and they stay in anonymity most of the time. Most of the time nobody ever know their names — they just see this saxophone player or this drummer or this guitar player, they just say, 'Oh man, that is a wonderful band, that guy is something else'. They don't realize that these people that's in the background ... are the ones that's really doing it.'

Sources

  • Correspondence between Lionel Prevost and Paul Harris 1988, plus conversation 25 April 1989.
  • Interview with Katie Webster by Paul Harris at Brighton 18 May 1988.
  • Interview with Rockin' Sidney by Paul Harris at Brighton 7 July 1988.
  • Interview with Harry Simoneaux by Paul Harris at Lafayette, Louisiana 27 April 1989.
  • Leadbitter, Mike and Slaven, Neil: Blues Records, 1943-1970: A Selective Discography. Record Information Services, Chessington, Surrey, UK, 1987.

Epilogue - A Personal Memory by Paul Harris

Having written the liner notes to the 1988 Flyright LP 513 'Sax Man Supreme' which featured Lionel Torrence, I was asked by label owner Bruce Bastin to deliver some copies of the album to Lionel who was living in Port Arthur, Texas. Although I live in England I was on my way to the New Orleans Jazzfest so made the detour by flying to Houston and driving with my wife to meet Lionel in Port Arthur. It was April 25 1989 and, having made contact, Lionel took us to his home where we met his delightfully friendly wife Bessie who, on reading the liner notes, was surprised and amused to find that Katie Webster, the late wonderful pianist and vocalist, had at one time been in love with Lionel. For lunch Lionel took us to Mickey's Pub, the location of his current musical residency, where a local newspaper reporter showed interest in Lionel's renown in Europe. Before the visit I had mentioned to Lionel that I hoped I would have the opportunity to see him perform live for the first time and whilst at the Pub he informed me that he would be performing there that night. It was only later that I discovered he had specially arranged the unadvertised performance!

Prevost, Paul Harris

After lunch Lionel stated that we were now going to meet the Mayor of Port Arthur, Malcolm Clark (in the picture). I was surprised and did not quite understand why, but it appeared that word of our visit had got around and the Mayor would like to meet me - amazing! So off we went to the municipal tower, soared upwards in the lift (elevator) to the penthouse suite of offices and were taken in to meet Mr Clark. I was asked to sit next to him at his vast desk and to explain how Lionel and his music were known in Europe. He seemed very pleased that I was involved in the publicity of a local resident and presented myself and my wife with mementoes including a miniature 'key of the city'.


On arrival at the venue that evening, who should appear as we were approaching the entrance but one of my swamp pop heroes Jivin' Gene. It transpired that Lionel had arranged for him to drive over from nearby Groves, Texas especially for the gig. I was overwhelmed that Lionel and Gene would go to so much trouble just for my benefit. We had a great evening with Gene singing those legendary songs such as the wonderful 'Breaking Up Is Hard To Do' and Lionel showing off his prowess on saxophone and matching John Broven's description of him in the book 'South To Louisiana' as "a saxophonist of cherishable individuality with the tone, emotion and creativity of a top jazzman".

The final accolade of this eventful get together came when Bessie, despite my protestations, insisted that I accept a small ornamental saxophone that Lionel had given her many years before. It remains a prized possession to this day.

I was to see Lionel over one more weekend when he played with a bunch of Louisiana musicians at the Blues Estafette in Utrecht, Holland on November 22 and 23 1991. It came as a blow when he died at the age of 66 on April 25 2002 and I had to write an obituary for Juke Blues magazine in which I described him as "a friendly man of quiet modesty and distinction".

When he died, Mrs. Bessie Prevost said that: " Although I don’t have him here, I still have his music on his tapes and CD's, so I still have his voice. Even though he was a musician, we always got along."

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