Forgive me for experiencing nostalgia for something my parents might remember. Ponderosa Stomp “exists to celebrate, pay tribute to, and teach the cultural significance of the unsung heroes and heroines of rock-n-roll, rhythm & blues and other forms of American roots music,” which means honoring careers that simmered in the sixties and seventies.
The blurry picture below is of William Bell, a man who wrote “You Don’t Miss Your Water” in 1961 (and performed it on Tuesday), who’s been sampled by dozens of prominent hip hop artists. Commercially peaking thirty years prior to his appearance at the Ponderosa Stomp with his single “Tryin’ to Love Two”, he and his backing band could have been playing for the 2.5 million who bought his single in 1977.
Bell was one of artists at the Stomp to come closest to tasting mainstream success. It was a night of past-potential icons, performers who’d lived and almost prospered in a time when big industry music made kings and each of them had a shot at the throne. These are legends in pantomime to the past, engulfed in an almost religious fervor for their standards: an earnest cover of “Stand By Me” is an ode at the House of Blues, not, as it might be in a less hospitable atmosphere, an ironic crowd pleaser. Their performances summon a tradition that only makes partial sense in the light of today’s hip hop pop stars. It’s a history unburdened by the collapse of the majors or the reduction of a pop idol to viral gestures and postures bereft of the substance of their sound.
Along with Bell, Roky Erickson (13th Floor Elevators), Mary Weiss (Shangri-Las) and Ronnie Spector (The Ronettes) were the biggest names to grace the stage, but we were there for a different set of old-timers.
Due to “having a presence” and “using a lot of bandwidth” at the last house we crashed at in New Orleans, a small Impose team (of two) are holed up at a hotel a few blocks from the House of Blues with record label Rabbit Factory (which Impose founder Derek Evers co-runs), a soul label that digs artists from southern record crates and restores them to the stage.
The Checkmates are a six-piece backing band led by JD Mark, a guitarist who’s also toured with James Murphy on his last LCD Soundsystem tour. While JD and crew did not grace the old singles that the Rabbit Factory’s artists graced in decades past, the band backed four separate performer’s sets Wednesday night. Herman Hitson, Ralph “Soul” Jackson, Roscoe Robinson and Wiley (and the Checkmates) – representing the full Rabbit Factory Revue. Herbert Wiley and the Checkmates are an Oxford Mississippi staple, while Hitson and Jackson both tasted nominal success in the 70s. Hermon even recorded with Jimi Hendrix for a proposed Hitson album on ATCO, which ironically was later released as a Hendrix instrumental album with Hermon’s vocals cut. Jackson meanwhile was touring on the Chitlin circuit when he recorded a cover of “Sunshine of Your Love” with Spooner Oldham. The single did not propel Jackson to fame, but it led to a series of recordings, including his very rare and very expensive Northern soul classic “Set Me Free”. Robinson however, did reach the billboard charts with his top 40 selling single “That’s Enough” which was released by Atlantic in 1969. He was even the first (and as far as we know) the only non-blind person to actually be a member of the Blind Boys of Alabama.