Stomping at the Gibson 

A New Orleans roots-music festival takes refuge in Memphis.

My vision is to show the architecture of rock-and-roll," says New Orleans anesthesiologist Ira "Dr. Ike" Padnos, an obsessive record collector and founder of the Ponderosa Stomp, a three-day roots-music festival that was founded in the Crescent City but relocated to Memphis in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Prior to becoming a high-minded 501C-3 organization, Padnos' "vision" was simply to throw a kick-ass party. The all-star entertainment at Dr. Ike's wedding included Mississippi bluesmen Otha Turner and R.L. Burnside, the moaning steel-guitar songster Freddy Roulette, Magic Slim & the Teardrops, and Sun artists such as Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess, and fuzztone guitarist Paul Burleson.

"Everybody had such a good time, and a lot of people wanted me to put together shows with all of these musicians," Padnos says. "The only way I would do it was if I could be anonymous and do it as part of a secret organization. That's when we started the Mystic Knights of Mau-Mau, which was named after the Screamin' Jay Hawkins song ("Feast of the Mau Mau").

Padnos weathered Hurricane Katrina better than most in his wind-and-water-ravaged city, but he knew right away the Stomp would have to be relocated or delayed.

"Memphis has a rich musical heritage," Padnos says of his decision to move the Ponderosa Stomp to the Gibson Guitar Factory. "It also still has that grittiness and funkiness that's the essence of rock-and-roll."

Over the past five years, the Stomp has developed a sterling reputation, not only among fans of mid-20th-century rock and soul but among artists who view it as a family reunion of sorts.

According to Padnos, Travis Wammack, the idiosyncratic guitar player who recorded the instrumental "Scratchy" and became a huge part of Atlantic Record's Muscle Shoals sound, called and asked if he could play a set with West Tennessee honky-tonker Eddie Bond. Bond discovered Wammack nearly half a century ago when the preteen was busking on the sidewalk for spare change, and the two haven't played together in 40 years.

"These are the kinds of things that happen at the Stomp," Padnos says.

The 5th annual Ponderosa Stomp showcases more than 70 time-tested artists, and the diverse schedule of music ranges from Eddie Bo's junker-style piano to the hot licks of Elvis sidemen like Scotty Moore and James Burton, from the soulful sounds of the original Hi Rhythm section and Scott Bomar's Bo-Keys to the squawk and strut of the Rebirth Brass Band, with classic garage rave-ups by the Nightcaps and rocksploitation icon Arch Hall Jr. tossed in for good measure. Proceeds from the 2006 installment of the Ponderosa Stomp go to benefit New Orleans musicians victimized by Hurricane Katrina. -- Chris Davis

click to enlarge p._32_music_ponderosa_stomp.jpg

The Wild Guitar: Cult-film icon Arch Hall Jr. flies high again.

"I'm not worthy to play with these people," says Arch Hall Jr., name-checking the effortlessly soulful Freddy King, Elvis' original guitar-picker Scotty Moore, and James Burton of "Suzie Q" fame. Hall was an obscurity when he left show business 40-plus years ago. As a musician, he cut only one single, and it wasn't a hit. His B-movie career was equally brief and commercially fallow, and he thinks somebody at the Ponderosa Stomp made a huge mistake when they invited him to share a bill with the heavy hitters of early rock-and-roll.

Hall is the failed teen idol of rock's formative years -- a sassy punk with a Fender Jazz Master, a toothy smirk, and a sandy pompadour deserving of its own zip code.

"I never liked that Jazz Master," Hall gripes, explaining that it was gifted to him for use in the teensploitation flick Wild Guitar.

In 1961, Hall's band the Archers cut their first and only single, "Konga Joe," backed with "Monkey in my Hatband." Both were prominently featured in The Choppers, the first in a series of low-budget flicks starring Hall and produced by Fairway International, a company run by Hall's father. Fairway followed the hot-rodding, juvenile delinquency of The Choppers with EEGAH!, a laughable screamer about a reanimated caveman pitting Arch Jr. against 7'-1" Richard "Jaws" Kiel of James Bond fame.

"For me it wasn't any different than if my dad was a plumber," Hall says, explaining how easily he fit into the life of a chopper-riding, caveman-fighting rocker.

"We used the lady's room at Fairway for an echo chamber to record music and sound effects, which is just ridiculous," he says. "I remember hooking up a hearing-aid receiver to a 50-watt Marshall amp and putting it in my mouth to see what kind of sounds we could get. It caught fire."

In the absence of special effects, live ammo was fired in the general direction of some of the actors in The Sadist because, as Hall puts it, the director wanted "a more realistic effect."

"The concussion was incredible," he says. "You should have seen the look on the actor's face when the bullet hit the car by his head. All these things would get a set shut down today."

The Archers giggled across Southern California without achieving any great success. They played venues like the infamous Pandora's Box on Sunset, which Hall describes as a place where the rats run across your feet during sound check. His films limped along, making enough money to keep distributors happy but not enough to keep Fairway in business. First The Nasty Rabbit, a meandering rock-and-roll spoof of spy movies, failed. Then Deadwood '76, a badly timed Billy the Kid-themed western, went belly up, and Hall decided to hang up his wild guitar and move on. He studied aviation and became a commercial pilot hauling cargo for the Flying Tigers network, which was absorbed by FedEx in 1989. By that point Hall, the worst spy in film history, had earned a pair of Civilian Air medals from the U.S. Air Force for running arms into war zones.

"I flew stinger missiles into Pakistan back when Osama bin Laden was on [the USA's] payroll," Hall says. "I carried 500-pound bombs to Baghdad, when [our ally] Iraq was fighting Iran."

"I'm not worthy," Hall repeats endlessly. Maybe he's right. Then again, his washed-out black-and-whites about tough-mouthed, hot-rodders keep kicking around late-night TV and cluttering the cheap public domain bins at discount stores. They're a crude, dime-novel answer to the watered-down Elvis of Clambake and Harum Scarum. His music didn't change the world suddenly, but Hall's energetic blend of rockabilly, surf, and R&B with psycho lyrics worthy of the late Hasil Adkins is pure garage. He's cinema's original punk, and finally, after decades of semi-deserved disrespect, Arch Hall Jr. -- a man adored by trash-cinema fans worldwide -- is a real teen idol.

Arch Hall Jr. plays the Ponderosa Stomp on Tuesday, May 9th, backed by Deke Dickerson and the Eccofonics. -- CDOld, Not in the Way: Scotty Moore, Billy Swan, and Boots Randolph are a mighty handful.

"I've always been lucky," says Billy Swan, who describes himself as a honky-tonk Forrest Gump. He produced "Poke Salad Annie" for Tony Joe White and swept the floors of Columbia studio in Nashville while Dylan recorded Blonde on Blonde. He worked the gates of Graceland and Elvis recorded his songs. Swan coached Nicolas Cage in Elvisness for David Lynch's Wild at Heart and scored a number-one hit in 1974 with "I Can Help," a dose of rockabilly braggadocio all wrapped up in giddy, organ-washed soul.

"I was out playing [bass] with Kris [Kristofferson] when ["I Can Help"] took off," he says. Before Swan quit his menial job at Columbia, he introduced Kristofferson to his bosses and told them the young songwriter needed the work and wasn't above emptying a few ashtrays. He's been a featured performer in Kristofferson's band since.

"It all goes back to the time I rode into Memphis with friends who were recording for Bill Black at Satellite in 1961," Swan says. "Chips Moman was the engineer."

At the end of the session, Swan played his original song "Lover Please" for Black, who recorded it with the Bill Black Combo. Clyde McPhatter turned it into a hit record.

In 1966, Swan went to work as the road manager for a tour featuring harmony greats the Jordanaires, Scotty Moore, and Boots Randolph, the sax man who backed Roy Orbison on "Oh Pretty Woman," helped define Nashville's countrypolitan sound, and recorded the smash instrumental "Yakety Sax." Forty years after Moore, Randolph, and Swan's first tour together, the group has reunited to record a collection of classic blues.

"None of us ever really played blues, but we all wanted to do this together," Swan says, laughing because the all-star band doesn't even have an official name. I guess you can call us the Mighty Handful," he says. "After we play the Ponderosa Stomp, Boots is ready to tour Europe. He's just as energetic as when I first met him." -- CD

Scotty Moore, Boots Randolph, and Billy Swan rock the Stomp on Wednesday, May 10th.

Thank you, Wu-Tang: At Hi, Syl Johnson was a poor man's Al Green, but hip-hop made him whole.

When Syl Johnson came to Memphis, he was one of Chicago's top soul singers, founder and premier artist at his own label Twinight, and a man very much on top of his game. He had cut several records with legendary Memphis producer Willie Mitchell in the late '60s, but it was only in 1971 that he left Chicago to commit full-time to the Hi label. It is this work that is bringing him to the Ponderosa Stomp, where he will perform with the Hi Rhythm Section. As Johnson will tell you, however, sometimes success isn't as sweet as it seems.

Flyer: You started out playing with blues guys Magic Sam and Junior Parker. Did that influence your later sound?

Johnson: No, man. I was young, so my roots were blues, but a young kid doesn't want to play just like his father. My first gig was playing guitar behind Junior Parker, when I was 14. Later, I started doing Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett tunes. In the late '60s, that is when I really started to do my thing and cut my best records.

At Twinight?

Yeah. Willie Mitchell was okay, but he didn't cut big hits on me like I did. Chicago was a bad city for music, man. [Editor's note: bad = good.] Memphis had five clubs for every one hundred in Chicago. You know who I had singing backup? Minnie Ripperton, Fontella Bass, Jackie Ross. I had the big ones singing with me, man. Shit, they were all stars!

So how was it different being a label mate with Al Green? Were you two friends?

There was a little jealousy on both sides between Al Green and me. I can play you the first record I made with the Hi Rhythm band, "Your Love Is Good to Me." That was before Al Green had ever seen Memphis. Listen to that, and you are [imitating Green] going to hear that Al Green sound. I'm proud of my Hi stuff, but I got pegged as being a poor man's Al Green.

What about contemporary music? Do you like hip-hop?

I have to say I'm into hip-hop music, because maybe I didn't get paid for all the hits that I made the first time, but boy, the hip-hop music made up for that. Listen, I'm sitting right now in my $450,000 house. Well, I built it with the Wu-Tang Clan's money. Course they paid me for about nine songs, but near as I can count, my voice is on about 19. -- Ben Popper

Syl Johnson plays the Ponderosa Stomp Monday, May 8th, with the Hi Rhythm Section.

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