September 1st marks the start of “Creed Taylor Month” – an annual tradition started by A&M/CTI in Canada in 1968. It’s something interesting to observe each year, even though Taylor month was October in America. For background and details see the entry embedded at the bottom of this post.

This year, I thought it also worth remembering that on September 1st, 1950 – legendary African-American blues and folks singer Josh White read the entire lyrics to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” into the record of the House Committee on Un-American Activities or HUAC. What does this have to do with Creed Taylor? Read on.

Josh White has a long and storied history as a blues and folk singer. White was called to testify before HUAC as a “friendly witness”, which simply meant he attended voluntarily. This went against the advice of many, including noted activist and folk singer Pete Seeger. White in his testimony didn’t criticize Paul Robeson, but did clearly state why Robeson didn’t speak for him or “a whole race’. It took me a while to track down a full transcription of White’s testimony, It is included below.

“He [Mr Paul Robeson] has a right to his own opinions, but when he, or anybody, pretends to talk for a whole race, he’s kidding himself. His statement that the Negroes would not fight for their country, against Soviet Russia or any other enemy, is both wrong and an insult; because I stand ready to fight Russia or any enemy of America.” – Josh White

HEARINGS REGARDING COMMUNIST INFILTRATION
OF MINORITY GROUPS-PART 3
(Testimony of “Josh White”)

On June 22, 1950, White was named in the notorious report “Red Channels” as a Communist sympathizer [1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Scare. He wasn’t, but like many his work started to dry up. Ironically, this happened while White was on a goodwill tour of Europe with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. White was effectively also blacklisted by his own community.

Worn down by constant personal attacks after decades of speaking out and singing protest songs about civil rights and social issues. Ultimately White left America after his testimony and spent much of the rest of his life living and touring in Europe. White died on 5th September, 1969 in Manhasset, Long Island while undergoing for heart surgery to replace a defective valve. [2]http://greenvillejournal.com/black-history-month/josh-white-an-unassuming-legend/, age 55. Josh White’s home town organized a tribute and dedication in 2016 [4-page PDF].

Creed Taylor and the ABC Paramount Recordings

White returned from England in March 1956, signed a new manager Lee Kraft, and the contract with Taylor and ABC Paramount. White also signed a booking contract with Joe Glazer’s Advanced Booking Corporation [3]the importance of Joe Glazer in Creed’s career will become apparent in my next post about Mr Fixit – Clarence Avant. White’s regular TV appearances during the 1950’s and 60’s in the UK, and a BBC radio show he hosted, had made him a familiar figure to British audiences who previously knew but little about the blues.

Taylor signed White after having heard and enjoyed Josh’s London Records album. White’s ABC Paramount contract paid him union scale, plus three advance installments totaling $1,000. Adjusted for inflation, $1,000 in 1956 is worth approximately $10,754 in 2023. Taylor didn’t set out to record a folk album, but to capture the essence of White.

Taylor imitated the small combo sound of the London Records album, assembling a trio lineup consisting of Cafe Society pianist Sammy Benskin, bassist Leonard Gaskin, and jazz drummer Panama Francis.

“I became interested by virtue of that recording, and I just gave him a call. Josh came by my house, and so did the other players, for parties a couple of times, and we recorded some of the same stuff that they would sing at the parties, it was very quick, just like Stan Getz. He just sang the songs, and I would get the best sound possible. What more was there to do? Josh White was a work of art; I put a frame around it. But he used to sing at Cafe Society. Billie Holi­day sang there a lot, too, and I would put the two of them in the same pocket. That’s the regard I have for him.”

Other singers needed musical arrangers, but Josh, even if he used sidemen, would just sit down and work out with them what to play. There was no rehearsal, typically as White knew his songs so well, each track would often only require one take. According to Taylor, the sessions were quick, like those of Stan Getz. There were four more sessions in November ’56 and February 1957 which completed “The Josh White Stories, Volumes Two.” This time the musicians were Sammy Benskin on piano, Al Hall on bass, and J.C. Heard on drums.

Rather than get new sound, Taylor really worked on what would become his trademark over the next 40 years: getting quality recordings. At the time of the recordings, Taylor would have been just 27 and newly married. Taylor and his wife, Marion Wendes, both went to the Whites’ for dinner a few times.

“Josh White performed a program of folk songs last night at Town Hall. He was assisted by his daughter Beverly; his son Josh Jr; Sam Gary and Al Hall, double bass player. Mr. White’s songs included “Midnight Special,” “When I lay Down,” “Evil-Hearted Man” and “Hard-Time Blues.” There were solos for everybody concerned, and Josh junior and senior and Beverly all joined in “Old Ark’s A Movin’.” There were six encores at the end.”

May 5th, 1956 – New York Times

The 2x volume “Josh White Stories” were some of the earliest produced by Creed Taylor for ABC Paramount. Because of White’s popularity outside the USA, they were also some of the more widely released and better selling albums of the pre-specialty recording period.

The recordings for volume 1. were made in May of 1956 released in August. This was, as Taylor would do many times in his career, an attempt to give an established artist a new lease on life. The first volume featured White alone.

Clipping from Billboard August 10th, 1956.

The second volume marked Josh’s daughter Beverly’s first appearance on record. She is heard on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’” and in a duet with Josh on “I Know Moonlight.” Volume 2 tracks were recorded in early 1957, and the record released in May 1957. Josh White, vocal and guitar; Beverly White, vocals; Sammy Benskin, piano; Al Hall, bass; J. C. Heard, drums.

Clipping from Billboard, May 13th, 1957 – page 46.

Volume 1. didn’t include the now widely recognized Taylor signature printed on the sleeve, while volume 2. did. See bottom right of both back covers.

Described on the liner notes as “each song is a very personal message from Josh. Ask Josh where he dug up a particular song and he will probably reply, “It happened to me.” This extreme sincerity probably accounts for the fact that Josh is still referred to as The Daddy of the folk singers.”

“Strange Fruit” was the last track on Vol. 2 of the Josh White Stories. White recorded many versions of “Strange Fruit”, the Taylor produced version was the first and I believe, the only version to include the spoken introduction “This strange fruit was not created by God,—but, rather—by man.” It was also printed on the rear cover of volume 2 along with the lyric and can be heard below, included here under “fair use” clause of the copyright law.

Taylor is on record in a number of interviews, when asked about his first memories of music and jazz, would often say it was tuning in a radio to a distant broadcast of Symphony Sid [4]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_Sid who was often featured or paired with Josh White.

While the Taylor produced track wasn’t the one heard by the late David Crosby, of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, White’s performance of “Strange Fruit” had a profound impact on the late David Crosby. He said “[Josh White’s]Strange Fruit” set me up for my entire life. I no longer have that record, but it changed me forever as an artist and as a human being.” having described how his mother had cried when being asked by David what the lyrics meant [5]https://www.wsj.com/articles/david-crosby-on-a-powerful-song-of-injustice-1519141207[6]I assume the version Cosby heard was the 1942 title track of White’s Keynote album[7]Strange Fruit : Lewis Allen : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive.

[references]

Updates:
September 2nd, 2023 11:00 am Minor edits, corrections, post posting
September 2nd, 2023 8:15pm Details of death; corrected age; added NY Times 1956 event; PDF for Greensborough Journal supplement; added picture of White.
September 12th, 2023 12:00pm Added HUAC Testimony PDF, rewrote section on Robeson etc.
October 3rd, 2023 9:30pm Detail on Creed Taylor and Josh White.

References

References
1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Scare
2 http://greenvillejournal.com/black-history-month/josh-white-an-unassuming-legend/
3 the importance of Joe Glazer in Creed’s career will become apparent in my next post about Mr Fixit – Clarence Avant
4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_Sid
5 https://www.wsj.com/articles/david-crosby-on-a-powerful-song-of-injustice-1519141207
6 I assume the version Cosby heard was the 1942 title track of White’s Keynote album
7 Strange Fruit : Lewis Allen : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

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