Huey Long: Singer and guitarist who found fame with the Ink Spots
Wednesday 17 June 2009
The singer and songwriter, Huey Long, who has died at the age of 105, had a long and impressive musical history, but he will best be remembered for his time as a singer and guitarist with the most influential of all black vocal groups, the Ink Spots.
He was born in Sealy, Texas, on 25 April 1904. His brother Sam played the new ragtime music on the piano and the young Huey figured out how to accompany him on ukulele. He played in clubs around Houston whenever possible, but mostly he shined shoes at the Rice Hotel.
In 1925, Frank Davis and his Louisiana Jazz Band arrived at the hotel without a banjo player. Long realised that this could be his opportunity, except he didn't have a banjo. He obtained one on credit and joined the band for that date and several others. In 1933, Long played guitar with Texas Guinan's Cuban Orchestra for the show A Century Of Progress at the World's Fair in Chicago.
He worked as a session musician, playing with Lil Armstrong, the divorced wife of Louis Armstrong, on her signature tune, "Just For A Thrill", and Richard M. Jones's Jazz Wizards. Over the next 10 years, he worked with the bands of Fletcher Henderson and Earl "Fatha" Hines and the singers, Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan.
In early 1945, while performing with his beloved D'Angelico guitar and a trio at the Three Deuces Café in Manhattan, he was approached by Bill Kenny, the leader of the Ink Spots. Unlike the Mills Brothers who specialised in vocal harmonies, the Ink Spots featured Kenny's high tenor with a deep-voiced narration and the other members wordlessly vocalising in the background. Their signature record, "If I Didn't Care", is a fine example, but in 1945, they had just recorded "I'm Beginning To See The Light" with a guest vocalist, Ella Fitzgerald.
The Ink Spots always had one member who also added chords on an acoustic guitar. In 1943, the original guitarist, Charlie Fuqua, had been drafted into the army and replaced by his childhood friend, Bernie Mackey. When Mackey left in 1945, Kenny needed to find a replacement quickly and recruited Long. To complicate matters, an original member, Deek Gordon had set up a rival band, the Brown Dots.
Long recorded several titles with the Ink Spots including "I'm Gonna Turn Off The Teardrops", "I'll Lose A Friend Tomorrow", "Just For Me", and best of all, the beautiful romantic ballad, "The Sweetest Dream". After just nine months, however, Fuqua, now discharged, turned up at a show and wanted his job back.
Long played bebop with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and formed his own trio for entertaining troops in Korea and Japan. The doo-wop groups of the 1950s owed a debt to the Ink Spots and they were deservedly, but surprisingly, inducted in the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame in 1989.
Rather than disappearing in the 1960s, the reverse happened and it seemed that everybody who had been in the Ink Spots was fronting his own group, usually called a variant of the New Ink Spots or, if they thought they could get away with it, the Ink Spots. Long fronted one of these tribute acts and then taught music in New York. He returned to Houston in 1996 and helped his daughter, Anita, establish an Ink Spots Museum, which opened across the road from his home. It magnified Long's tenure with the group, but never mind, right up to his death, customers had the opportunity to meet a real Ink Spot. He would tell them, "God's been good to me."
Huey Long, singer and guitarist: born Sealy, Texas, 25 April 1904; married (two sons, and one son deceased, one daughter); died Houston 10 June 2009.
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