Happy Birthday Hubert Laws! – “You can always do better”.

Like other key members of the 1970’s CTI ensemble, Hubert Laws has been interviewed both during his peak performing years and since. In this post I’ll celebrate Hubert’s birthday by taking a look at his early career, trying to focus on less well known facts.

Hubert was one of Creed’s most loyal leaders and sidemen, perhaps only surpassed by Ron Carter. When asked about his time with Creed, Hubert has generally been very magnanimous about his opportunity to record and perform with CTI.

If you only learn one from this article that changes your mind about Laws, go back and listen to Gil Scott Heron’s first two albums for Flying Dutchman. It’s hard to categorize Gil’s work, soul, poetry, blues, protest, much of it is simply beautiful. That flute you hear on both “Pieces of a Man” and “Free Will”, yes that’s Hubert, he also plays sax on some tracks.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Without doubling up on Hubert’s early life and how he got started, growing up in Houston, TX playing with the Jazz Crusaders, moving to California etc. Perhaps most importantly for Hubert in term of contacts would have been his time at Julliard. While there had performed with Orchestra, USA which exposed him to many to jazz musicians of the day.

As far as I’ve been able to establish, Hubert’s first involvement with Creed Taylor was Kai Windings album “Penny Lane & Time” for Verve. See the timeline and talking points below for more information.

Crying Song

For those of us who are retrospective fans of this earliest period of CTI, it always comes as a disappointment to find that Hubert’s “Crying Song” album as originally issued as CT1002, with green labels, only came on what seemed like a cheap cardboard non-gatefold sleeve. Even before the more stylish gatefold sleeves of the 6000 series, which “Crying Song” was rereleased on, there were the Sam Antupit[1]Sam Antupit | Discography designed elegant, clean gatefold covers featuring Pete Turner photographs.

The same wasn’t true everywhere though, and I can only assume this was one of either financial or release expediency in the US. My Japanese copy of the album was gatefold, and shares the same more subtle tone with the reel-to-reel tape release.

Hubert Laws was called by Creed to stand-in for Stanley Turrentine for the recording sessions Creed had booked at the American Sound Studios; Memphis, Tennessee:, on July 23rd and 24th. Turrentine was still under contract to Alfred Lyons and Blue Note and was advised by his lawyers they couldn’t finish the paperwork to approve the recording for the newly independent CTI.

The sessions at American Sound Studios, where it was recorded with the core “Memphis Boys” musicians, who Creed had previously recorded with for Herbie Mann(see timeline below), and who were the studio musicians for recordings by Elvis Presley, Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack, Joe Simon, Aretha Franklin and many more[2]American Sound Studio – Wikipedia. There were subsequent sessions at Van Gelder studios on September 23rd, 24th which added other tracks, but perhaps key for the sessions was recording of a cover of the Beatles track “Let It Be”.

Creed told Marc Myers in 2009, about the session and how Hubert came to record “Let It Be” before the Beatles had released it.

Jazzwax: But while the song Let It Be was recorded in January 1969, it wasn’t released as a single until March 1970, followed by the album in May. How did you get a hold of the song in mid-1969?
Creed Taylor: CTI and George Martin shared the same U.S. attorney at the time. I had given the attorney a copy of Wes Montgomery’s A Day in the Life in 1967 and he took it back to Paul McCartney. The Beatles flipped out about it. They liked it so much that Paul in 1969 sent me a run through tape of what he had done on Let It Be.

Jazzwax: Just like that?
Creed Taylor: Yes, just like that—with the understanding that I could record the song with any jazz artist I wished.

Jazzwax: So you heard the original demo, and CTI was the first to record it commercially?
Creed Taylor: Yes, what Paul sent was a rough voice line with him playing piano. I‘d heard the song many times growing up in Virginia. It wasn’t called Let It Be, of course. It was a Presbyterian hymn that was very close. We came back to Rudy’s so I could use Hubert on the alto flute and get the sound I had in my head. The alto flute was the perfect register for that kind of soulful, Southern church sound.

Jazzwax: How was Hubert on the date?
Creed Taylor: Great. Hubert is unshakable. He’s creatively cooperative and has the highest level of musicianship. It didn’t matter what I threw at him. He made it all sound great.

Interview: Creed Taylor (Part 17) – April 29, 2009 – Marc Myers, Jazzwax[3]Interview: Creed Taylor (Part 17) – JazzWax

Hubert Laws Talking Points And Timeline

  1. In his National Endowment for the Arts award interview with Anthony Brown, archived at the Smithsonian and used for the source of some of these “talking points”, Hubert told Anthony “I didn’t want to be a soloist, because I like to make a living quietly. I didn’t want to be in the spotlight. I just wanted to play in an orchestra, because I loved the music. I loved the flute’s role in the orchestra. It’s like silver lining.”[4]Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program | National Museum of American History (si.edu) – Interesting how life works out.
  2. Hubert’s first musical influence came from across the street. “Right across the street from where we lived, there was a honky tonk, like a beer tavern, and I grew up hearing people like B. B. King, Joe Turner, T. Bone Walker, some of the old blues singers, blaring out.”[5]Black Stars magazine, June 1976.
  3. Growing up, Hubert learned to play piano by sight, and then in elementary school was given a mellophone to play in band, the same instrument that Freddie Hubbard started out with.
  4. Laws mother got him into Phillis Wheatley High School in Houston TX, where he met and later played with the key members of what would become the (Jazz) Crusaders. It was at Wheatley high Laws started playing flute. Their influential music director was Sammy Harris. Laws was a straight-A student academically as well.
  5. Laws is also an accomplished saxophonist, his inspiration was Tab Smith playing “Because of You“. Laws went on to win a local Houston talent show for 3-years in a row. Smith’s 1959 album, “Keeping Tab” is a masterpiece of understated sax playing, it deserves a digital release.
  6. Laws flute experience started almost by accident, at the end of his high school time when we had the opportunity to solo in the William Tell Overture. He got his first flute from a peer called Sonny King who went on to be a preacher. Laws was unable to get help or graduate from Texas Southern University playing flute as they had no flute players on faculty.
  7. He got lessons from a Houston symphony player, Clement Barone; Barone who charged Laws $3 per lesson, later selling Laws his Dad’s professional grade flute on the understanding Laws wouldn’t sell it to anyone. Laws still has the flute. Barone also got Hubert a position with the Houston Youth Symphony.
  8. According to Joe (Ain’t Gonna Bump No More) Tex, Joe won a talent contest in Houston by beating out not only Hubert Laws, but also Johnny Guitar Watson and Johnny Nash[6]Black Stars 1977-09: Vol 6 Iss 11 – P64
  9. Laws won a one year scholarship to Julliard, and completed four years and graduated. After graduation, Laws stayed in New York and continued to study with eminent flautist Julius baker.
  10. Down to his last $50 in New York City, Laws got a regular set at Sugar Ray’s Lounge with an organ trio, playing saxophone and flute. Sugar Ray’s pink and black lounge/cafe was owned by legendary boxing world champion, Sugar Ray Robison opened in 1956. It was a must be seen “nite spot” at 2704 7th Ave, between 123rd/124th St in Harlem. It was just a few blocks from Count Basie’s Musical Lounge at 2245 7th Ave.
  11. While at Julliard, he worked with the Berkshire Festival Orchestra and a “Third Stream” ensemble known as Orchestra, USA[7]Orchestra U.S.A. | Discography. “Third Stream” was a movement that blended jazz and classic music, it was directed by pianist and composer, John Lewis. Other notable alumni of Orchestra, USA were Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy, Gary McFarland, Jim Hall, and Phil Woods as well as many others.
  12. 1964: Atlantic Records released a number of albums with titles that played on Laws surname. Hubert would only say “They were not exactly representative of the direction in which I wanted to go”[8]Black Stars magazine, June 1976..
  13. Chick Corea, who Laws met at Julliard, played on his Atlantic album “The Laws Of Jazz”[9]Hubert Laws – The Laws Of Jazz | Releases.
  14. 1965: Laws played flute and tenor saxophone of Mongo Santamaria’s El Bravo[10]Mongo Santamaria – El Bravo! (1965, Vinyl).
  15. As well as television commercials, Broadway shows, recordings with other artists, Laws also substituted at the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
  16. 1967: Hubert was really gaining traction now as a sideman and orchestra musician, among albums he was sideman on this year was Kai Windings album “Penny Lane & Time” for Verve, recorded in March 1967[11]Kai Winding – Penny Lane & Time | Releases. This was in the last year of Creed’s time with Verve, in July, Hubert would also record for fellow flautist Herbie Mann’s 1967 album “The Glory Of Love”[12]Herbie Mann – Glory Of Love | Releases which was one of the early A&M/CTI albums.
  17. 1969: Laws landed a prime gig with Billy Taylor working on the David Frost show. Laws can be seen on the cover of the show’s Christmas album, but was replaced by Frank Wess on the album[13]David Frost, Billy Taylor – From David Frost And Billy Taylor – Merry Christmas (1970, Vinyl).
  18. 1969: Hubert Laws is a last minute stand-in to record in Memphis as a leader for the newly independent CTI Records. In many interviews, when asked about his start with Creed Taylor, Hubert is confused if he was asked to fly to Memphis to stand in for Hank Crawford or Stanley Turrentine. It was categorically Turrentine[14]Black Stars magazine, June 1976.[15]Interview: Creed Taylor (Part 17) – JazzWax[16]https://www.dougpayne.com/ctid3k.htm#cryingsong. It’s easy to see how this confusion would arise some 50+ years later, Grover Washington, Jr. got his start as a leader with Creed standing in for Hank Crawford shortly afterwards.
  19. 1970: Crying song was released in May; the same year, Laws was to record, under direction of Oliver Nelson,, the remarkable tribute album to the first black mayor of a major American city, Michigan’s Mayor, Carl B. Stokes – “The Mayor And The People – A Black Suite For String Quartet And Jazz Orchestra”[17]https://www.discogs.com/master/1644278-Carl-B-Stokes-Oliver-Nelson-The-Mayor-And-The-People-A-Black-Suite-For-String-Quartet-And-Jazz-Orche. It’s an amazingly progressive album, produced by Bob Thiele, featuring a speech by Stokes, and on side-2 an outstanding composition by Nelson that features Hubert Laws, with words by the then most contemporary black writers, Gil Scott-Heron and Langston Hughes. Hopefully you can find time to listen to either the Spotify version of side-2, or Stokes remarks from side-1, or both.
  20. 1972: In November, Laws recorded a tribute to and for his Dad on his CTI Album “Morning Star[18]Hubert Laws – Morning Star | Releases. He asked Creed Taylor to agree to, and Don Sebesky arrange, “Amazing Grace“. At his 2011 NEA Jazz master induction, Laws silver plate had amazing grace engraved on his silver award plate.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable line-ups of musicians for a TV Show. 1969 especially singer Gerri Granger.

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