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My enthusiasm for CTI, and all things Creed Taylor was driven by two amazing websites put together by jazz historian and CTI enthusiast Douglas Payne. A few years ago, I was fortunate to make contact with Doug, and while I was compiling entry CT 508 in Taylors Dozen, I invited Doug to contribute a longer, more informed piece on Fats Theus.
Fats deserves recognition for his contributions, if you know where Arthur “Fats” Theus went, what happened to him, any details about him after 1972, please get in touch, leave a comment below, or get in touch via this contact form.
Here, Douglas Payne returns to this forgotten part of CTI’s legacy for a long overdue appreciation.
If, in this most ironic of years, a jazz listener heard this album in a blindfold test, they’d hardly know what to make of it. Astute crate diggers out there might peg this as one of those classic soul-jazz discs Prestige Records cranked out at the time by Sonny Stitt or Gene Ammons. That certainly would have been the case for jazz listeners fifty years ago, when the record was first waxed. Most would easily identify Grant Green’s presence but few would know this is a CTI record and even fewer would be able to name-check its leader, the obscure Fats Theus.
Arthur “Fats” Theus skirts the margins and the history of R&B and soul jazz, but he’s made interesting associations along the way. While he never shows up in any of the history books or jazz encyclopedias, Theus is a smart tenor saxophonist schooled in the honky-tonk tradition of Percy France, Clifford Scott and Fred Jackson (a mantle later carried out by Red Holloway, Monk Higgins and Houston Person), able to swing easily from R&B to jukebox jazz. Theus spent much of the fifties gigging in R&B bands around Los Angeles, from Preston Love (1953) and Oscar McLollie and His Honey Jumpers (1953), to Johnny Ace (1953-54) and Little Johnny Parker (1956). He issued a single as part of Fatso and the Flairs in 1956, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Drive In” – which Billboard said “has a shoulder-shakin’ beat just right for the jukesters” – b/w “Be Cool, My Heart,” in 1956, but if it had any airplay at all, it was likely local.
Theus may have appeared on other records after this, but he either went uncredited or unrecorded for a fallow period when R&B and jazz experienced some of their biggest changes. After what appears to be the first of his disappearing acts, he turns up a full decade later on a trio of Billy Larkin & the Delegates records made between 1966 and 1968. Seemingly, then, Theus relocated to New York, where he joined Jimmy McGriff for some of the organist’s finest records, including the Theus-penned hit “The Worm” (1968). Theus also goes uncredited for a spot on the Wildare Express’s lone album, Walk On By (1967), featuring up-and-comer organist Reuben Wilson.
The CTI Connection
How Fats Theus came to the attention of Creed Taylor is difficult to say. When asked, the producer said he had no recollection of the saxophonist or this album. Taylor, for his part, was an avid clubgoer and was actively looking for new talent and old friends to people up his new label. Theus was himself gigging around the city and playing dates with Grant Green, who had recently returned to the scene after several years of demon battling. Creed, who produced the guitarist’s His Majesty King Funk in 1965, probably wanted Grant on his new label and saw Fats as his way in. (Green, who was contracted with Blue Note at the time, eventually made his CTI album with 1976’s The Main Attraction.)
Black Out was recorded over two sessions on July 16 and 22, 1970, by Rudy Van Gelder, who was also recording those similar-sounding Prestige soul-jazz albums. The album’s title is no doubt inspired by such Black Power statements as Charles Earland’s then-popular Black Talk (also Prestige). The record shows that Creed Taylor was interested in making soul-jazz records like those that were selling well on Prestige and the Blue Note and Atlantic labels. Here, he dips his toe in the water, only to jump in to a more developed concept with the subsidiary Kudu label launched the following year. Black Out has plenty of soul but little of the personality – the “CTI Sound” – Taylor managed to bring to those early Kudus by Johnny Hammond, Lonnie Smith and Grover Washington, Jr. Lacking the sociopolitical edge of its title and hardly standing out in the glut of soul-jazz albums on the market then, Black Out was all but ignored. (The album was reissued on vinyl in 2003 and received its first – and thus far only – CD release in Japan in 2017, four years after Theus is thought to have passed away.)
The title track was likely recorded on one date – probably the first – with one group, while the remaining tracks were captured on the other date with another group. “Black Out” passes on making hay of its provocative title but the song is a catchy, apolitical boogaloo that features Fats swinging on the electrified Varitone sax – which was widely used at the time by Eddie Harris, Tom Scott, Sonny Stitt and many others. Fats is joined here by four of the musicians who participated on Green’s Blue Note album Carryin’ On, which was issued one month before the CTI album was recorded: guitarist Grant Green (who is in his element here and delivers a typically funky and stirring solo), organist Clarence Palmer (who smokes on his solo and would go on to add heat to George Benson’s independent CTI debut Beyond the Blue Horizon), Fender bassist Jimmy Lewis (a Prestige house musician and former bassist with King Curtis) and drummer Idris Muhammed (who began his CTI career with George Benson’s Shape of Things to Come and later recorded several albums for the Kudu label under his own name).
The five-minute-20-second title track was edited down to two parts for the album’s only single release, as was typical for jazz songs at the time, particularly CTI singles. The single’s first side is the song’s first two minutes and 50 seconds (fading out on Green’s solo) and the flip side – interestingly, the side Cash Box sampled in 1970 as a “[b]lazing instrumental” – is its final two minutes and 20 seconds (fading in on Palmer’s solo). What’s striking here, though, is the 45-rpm single surprisingly identifies all of the track’s players, offering credit denied to the many singles Fats Theus himself probably played on.
It is worth noting that the bassist and drummer on “Black Out” were an integral part of the original Broadway production of Hair (1967), which may go some way to explaining the choice of Pete Turner’s striking cover photo. The electrifying silhouette comes from a series of shots Turner photographed in 1968 for a Look magazine photo essay called “Black Beauty.” Creed Taylor used several other shots from this series for albums by Stanley Turrentine (Sugar, Cherry) and Hank Crawford (I Hear a Symphony). The elegant photo’s impact is somewhat minimalized, however, by the incongruent psychedelic colors and Milton Glaser’s uncredited Baby Teeth typeface – first used in 1967 for famed concert posters for Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson and Hugh Masekela and seen on album covers by Miles Davis, Duke Pearson and Herbie Hancock.
The modish presentation dates the record a little too much and makes it look as out of step with other CTI albums as it sounds. It’s also one of the few single-sleeve CTI covers, another choice that would mark the Kudu records that followed. Black Out’s unusual design is oddly credited to “[Richard] Hess and/or [Sam] Antupit,” the team credited in just that way on a series of distinctive Nonesuch classical albums produced between 1969 and 1974. Antupit designed the iconic A&M/CTI albums and several of the early independent CTI albums, yet nothing in that lineage can prepare you for this cover or the amateurish design of the album’s back cover, featuring one of the only photos of Theus known to exist. (The Japanese CD shows a different back cover, which may replicate the Japanese version of the original LP.)
The remainder of the record swaps Palmer and Lewis for Hilton Felton on organ and Chuck Rainey on electric bass. Multi-keyboardist Felton, in his earliest known appearance on record, was (oddly) in from Washington, DC, where he later recorded a string of records for his own Hilton’s Concept label, including the 1975 break-beat classic “Spreading Fever.” Studio stalwart Rainey had already appeared on CTI albums by Richard Barbary, Tamiko Jones, J & K and Quincy Jones and waxed his own under-appreciated soul jazz album, the classic The Chuck Rainey Coalition, the year before. Both bring the requisite funk to the front, particularly on Theus’s originals.
“Bed of Nails” is another good boogaloo that adds a trippy saw to the mix. The saw – yes, it really is a saw – is helmed, if that’s the right word, by drummer Eddie Moore, who would go on to deliver the equally unlikely goods on George Freeman’s classic “The Bump” (Freeman briefly joined Jimmy McGriff’s band right after Theus departed). Fats and Grant feed the fire that launches Hilton into his most Leon Spencer of solos. “Check it Out” is a blues that sounds as if it’s straight out of the Jack McDuff playbook, with Fats in Harold Vick mode and Grant doing his best Kenny Burrell – until the players come roaring out of the gate in their own utterly distinctive solos.
Perhaps the album’s most exceptional moment is the especially strong cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Stone Flower,” one of the composer’s finest and most sophisticated of many tremendous compositions. Given a seductively lovely Latin undercurrent here by Idris Muhammad and Chuck Rainey, this song transcends its Brazilian provenance in this group’s reading. While Santana would memorably cover the song in 1972 (and guitarist Lee Ritenour nailed it in a great 1997 cover), Jobim’s original was produced by Creed Taylor only a few months earlier. The Jobim single of “Stone Flower” was issued a few months after Fats’s “Black Out” single and while neither single made any dent on the charts, there is reason to believe that Fats could have made a hit out of Jobim’s incredible composition.
The album’s lone pop cover, “Light Sings,” is from a little-known musical about ghetto children called The Me Nobody Knows (1970). At the time of this recording, the musical had been running off-Broadway. It opened on Broadway in December 1970 (featuring a young Irene Cara) and ran for 378 performances. The Sweet Inspirations (on Atlantic) were among the first to cover the song but The 5th Dimension (on Bell) made it a hit in 1971. “Light Sings” reveals Fats’s soulful side, aligning him with such closet romantics as Gene Ammons and Houston Person. Fats turns this upbeat slice of Northern Soul into a near-gospel groover.
“Moonlight in Vermont,” originally performed by Margaret Whiting in 1944 and popularized in jazz by guitarist Johnny Smith (with Stan Getz) in 1956, seems a bit out of place here. Likely part of Jimmy McGriff’s repertoire when Fats was with the band, “Moonlight in Vermont” was probably Fats’s choice. (Creed Taylor had produced surprisingly few versions of the tune in his career: Candido in 1957, Don Elliott in 1958 and Getz’s solo version of the tune in 1963.) Fats returns to the electric sax in what sounds like a McGriff-style update (driven by Felton and Rainey) – for 45 seconds. That’s when the band unaccountably winds it down and turns the clock back to the dreamy style of the older version, with Fats channeling Stan Getz and Grant sounding more like Johnny Smith than Grant Green.
Black Out was issued in October 1970 to relatively little fanfare, airplay and press and hardly any sales. It’s possible that very few records of it were even pressed – maybe 500 or 1000 in the U.S. and the same amount in Japan – since original copies of the album were so difficult to find in the four decades it took to reissue the record in 2003 (a flawed reissue, but the first chance for those looking for the record to find it). It’s also the last of CTI’s five albums in their 1000 series, indicating that Creed Taylor decided at this point to take the label in a different direction altogether. The album has so little regard that its songs are rarely included on any of the many CTI compilations issued over the years, although three Black Out songs are featured on two Japanese CD compilations issued in 1994. More surprisingly, to this writer’s knowledge, none of Black Out’s numbers have ever been sampled.
After the album’s release
Fats Theus likely didn’t do much to promote the album, probably because he wasn’t able to support a band. He rang in 1971 with two more records by Jimmy McGriff and Black Velvet, guitarist O’Donel Levy’s solo debut and the first of McGriff-producer Sonny Lester’s Groove Merchant albums. Then, Fats Theus disappeared. He just vanished and was never heard on another record that we know about. It isn’t clear why and it’s not wise to speculate. For all the work Fats did with Jimmy McGriff, it’s surprising Lester didn’t offer him a record of his own. And given the chemistry Fats has with Grant Green here – at this stage the guitarist was hit and miss and on Black Out he’s more hit than miss – it’s disappointing that the two weren’t heard together elsewhere again.
Black Out offers a good deal to enjoy and appreciate but ultimately it lacks the grit of Grant Green’s funk outings and the grease of Jimmy McGriff’s records of the time. Creed Taylor reasonably sought to launch Fats Theus in one of the small-group units that made early CTI records by Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson and Joe Farrell so engaging, distinctive and, ultimately, iconic. For a brief moment, Taylor was less director and more collaborator; he probably couldn’t afford much more. It worked well for Red Clay and Sugar. Black Out, not so much. Theus, the leader, probably required a bit more of Taylor, the director. Here, Taylor provides “supervision,” the credit Prestige records gave their producers, and explains why Black Out sounds so much like a Prestige record. Taylor must have realized his miscalculation as it guided him with later “new leaders” such as Grover Washington, Jr. If Washington had recorded as a leader for Prestige, he would likely have made albums that sound very much like Black Out (sample the 2001 Prestige compilation Discovery – The First Recordings for proof).
Still, Creed Taylor let Fats Theus make his one and only stand. Black Out moves and grooves the way one would expect the writer of “The Worm” to do, even if it doesn’t exactly jolt and bolt the way a CTI record usually does.
Please leave a comment with any detail or background information on Fats.