The Spikes Brothers
A Los Angeles Saga
by Floyd Levin
REAMS of copy have appeared extolling the activities of musicians in New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Kansas City and St. Louis; but, other than an occasional mention of “those rare Sunshine Records from California,” seldom is space devoted to Los Angeles’ golden era. Even our monthly jazz scene pieces have neglected the area we call home — truly a case of the forest obstructing a view of the trees!
If it were possible to backtrack through three decades of history, one could hear a wealth of jazz in these parts. Long before the banal commercial bands of the late twenties, localities could hop in a flivver and buzz out to hear Ory’s Creole Orchestra at “The Wayside Park Cafe” — where festivities began at midnight and romped “till Mutt Plays Farewell.”
That is exactly what this reporter did last week. Ignoring the time lapse, we viewed the local jazz scene through the mind’s eye of one of Los Angeles’ earliest citizens. We spent several interesting evenings listening to Benjamin J. [sic] (Reb) Spikes recall memories of a prolific career. Reb, with his talented brother Johnny, guided the multitudinous activities which played an important role in helping to establish the music we have come to call jazz.
Reb Spikes, a handsome, sixtyish, greying gentleman, sat in the comfortable parlour of his 40 year old home — surrounded with stacks of sheet music, clippings, phonograph records, photos, and memories gathered together for our benefit. At one point, our interesting conversation reached as far back as 1910 when the Spikes Brothers’ Comedy Stars toured several western states. Young Hattie McDaniel was featured in this early Spikes enterprise.
1911 found Johnny and Reb operating The Pastime Theatre, an open-air fun spot in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
“Jelly Roll Morton drifted into town” mused our host. With Jelly, the brothers joined McCabes’ Troubadors, a travelling minstrel show. Jelly Roll did a comedy act in black face . . . he didn’t hire on as a musician . . . the show’s band had a pianist. Before long, Jelly displayed his ability . . . soon took over the piano stool in that band!”
Several years later, in Los Angeles, the Brothers Spikes added lyrics to Morton’s Wolverine Blues and Froggy (Froggie) Moore and arranged these two jazz classics for publication. With his share of the Wolverine royalties, Mr. Jelly was able to finance his trip east to record the famous Gennett solos.
The infamous Barbary Coast, in old San Francisco, provided the backdrop for one of Reb Spikes’ earliest successes. Billed as the “World’s Greatest Saxophonist” in “The Original So-Different Orchestra” he performed nightly in the wide-open city’s liveliest nightspot, “The So-Different Club.” The Texas Tommy Dance was born on the floor of the S-D Club.
“The So Different Band was the finest of it’s (its) time — remember, this is back in 1915.” Reb proudly displayed a huge photo of the orchestra; and continued, “Art Hickman would come over from the St. Francis Hotel to hear us play. We had the best clarinettist in the country — fellow called “Slocum” . . . came from Martinique . . . could hardly speak English, but he did a lot of talking through his horn. Our drummer, “Pete” (can’t-think-of-his-last-name) had played with The Georgia Minstrels. The flutist, Gerald Wells, doubled on piccolo and clarinet . . . he’s now president of the musician’s union in Seattle, Washington. Yes, that certainly was a fine band.”
After gazing at the blown-up photo, he added, “Baron Long, who now owns the Biltmore Hotel here, was running a cabaret in Watts at the time. After hearing us, he cancelled an engagement with The Original Dixieland Band and hired the So Different Orchestra to play at his club.” During the band’s stint in Watts, a large Negro section in Southern Los Angeles, an unknown dancer — Rudolf Valentino worked in the floor show.
Successfully launched in the music profession, Reb and his brother Johnny, opened a music store on Central Avenue.
“Back in those days — this was about 1919 — there was no place in town where one could purchase recordings by Negro artists. As a result we did a huge record business. Wealthy Hollywood people would drive up in long limousines and send their chauffeurs in to ask for “dirty records.” When the local Columbia distributor received a shipment of Bessie Smith records, we’d take the entire lot . . . a few hours later they’d be gone![”]
The Spikes Brothers music store eventually became a hub for local musicians. “At the time,” continued our host, “we had no coloured union. Whenever someone wanted a band, they would call the store. We always could get a band together for them because most of the musicians in town spent a lot of time in the shop . . . we always knew who was available. We had as many as seven or eight bands working at a time. Johnny did most of the arranging for our bands — in addition to teaching piano, trumpet, and sax. For a while my brother led The Spikes-Hegamin Band. Hegamin was blues singer Lucille Hegamin’s husband . . . he went to the Orient a few years later . . . became a big toy manufacturer, I understand. Sonny Clay played drums in Johnny’s concert orchestra.”
Johnny Spikes, totally blind since 1935, lives in nearby Pasadena. He spends much of his time writing an opera.
During the roar of the twenties, the Spikes Brothers operated several cafes in the Los Angeles area, including “The Dreamland,” “Reb’s Club,” and the previously mentioned “Wayside Park Cafe.” When they decided to enter the record field, Kid Ory’s Wayside Band provided the music for the six historical sides that appeared on the Sunshine label.
THE SUNSHINE RECORDS.
“Nordskog had some old recording equipment and we arranged for him to cut the masters. There were no processing or pressing plants on the coast in 1921, so we had the records manufactured in the east. Going through the hot desert, we lost several masters. The heat melted the wax and they had to be discarded. For some reason, Nordskog put his own label on the records . . . he had no business doing this as they were our property — we had contracted for 5,000 pressings. We had to paste our label OVER his. They were oversize, too . . . almost covered the last grooves.”
Kid Ory, never having taken part in a recording session before, inquired about the type of clothing one wore at such an affair. As a gag, he was informed that tuxedos were the customary attire when performing before the big horns. Thus, the king of tailgate trombonists made the first New Orleans style recordings donned in full dress regalia.
“All of the records sold were sold in the store,” recalled Reb Spikes, “A few copies were shipped to Chicago . . . we ran a small ad in a Chicago paper and received a few mail orders as a result . . . but EVERY Sunshine record passed over the counter of our shop. When the 5,000 were gone, we didn’t order any more . . . they weren’t too well recorded, anyway. Incidentally, Wade Waley (Whaley) was playing clarinet in Ory’s band at the time not Dink Johnson as most people believe.
Wade was out of town when the records were cut, so we used Dink on the date.”
(A previous conversation with Dink Johnson revealed that Dink, a drummer at the time, was so taken by Larry Shield’s playing on the then-new O.D.J.B. sides that he decided to learn the instrument. He borrowed a horn from the Spikes Brothers music shop and practised daily, using the records as a guide. “You know, I don’t recall ever
paying Reb for that beat-up old horn!” Dink grinned).
“Dink could play well enough to handle the clarinet parts. Ed Garland played bass — he’s still with Ory, you know. Papa Mutt was certainly popular around here. It was his band as much as Ory’s. We billed the
group as “Ory’s Creole Band” at The Wayside because people kept asking to hear the tailgate man play Ory’s Creole Trombone. I understand those old records of ours are worth a fortune now.”
Thus, the Sunshine Record Company, first to record a real New Orleans band several thousand miles away from the Crescent City — ceased operations after the initial release. A few years ago, Reb
attempted to revive the label with several new sides, but this venture proved unsuccessful.
On the heels of their recording enterprize,
The Spikes Brothers entered the music publishing business. They joined forces with Dink Johnson and the pianist’s Krooked Blues
was published in 1922, together with the other tunes that appeared on the Sunshine label — Maybe Someday, When You’re Alone, etc.
Their musical comedy, “Steppin’ High” starred comedian “Strawberry” Russell. Buried in his stack of old records, Reb produced a thick Edison recording of the show’s hit tune, Smile With A Broken Heart — by the Georgia Melodians, on Edison 51438 . . . “A Paul Whiteman group,” Spikes explained.
Now, riding the crest of the local music wave, Reb took his “Majors and Minors Orchestra” into the Follies Theatre (a Main Street burlesque house) where they were featured for several years. Ivy Anderson danced and sang with the group for a period. This marked the first time in local theatre history that a coloured band was used in a white show. A Columbia contract and a Warner Brothers’ talkie added to the “Majors and Minors’” popularity.
A great deal of publicity resulted from their big hit, Someday Sweetheart. Alberta Hunter’s Black Swan recording of the tune was the first
of scores of sides by practically every recording artist of the period. Reb’s favourite, however, is by Louis Panico, on Decca. Royalties from Someday Sweetheart continue to this day.
Forced to give up music for several years as a result of a severe illness, Reb, now fully
recovered, is anxious to resume his career.
“I feel like I did 25 years ago,” he said.
As this is written, negotiations are underway with one of the major record firms. Reb’s future plans include a nation-wide talent tour — auditioning and recording fresh
talent for future exploitation.
As we strolled to the door, he volunteered a few opinions about bop:
“Can’t understand it! In our music you could always hear a melody. No matter how much JAZZ we played, SOMEONE was blowing that melody . . . and everyone was
feeling the beat! In bop you cannot hear a melody OR a beat. No one can understand a music like that!”
We offered no argument.
And so, with a keen eye poised on the future; and a half century of activity behind him, Reb Spikes is ready to start still another stage of his already glittering career.
§ § §
The above article was published in the Jazz Journal magazine, dated December 1951, Vol. 4, No. 12, pages 12—14.
Note: See also the article titled: Kid Ory’s Legendary Nordskog/Sunshine Recordings by Floyd Levin, which was published in the Jazz Journal International magazine, dated July 1993, Vol. 46, No. 7, pages 6—10.
Note: See also Brian Goggin’s essay of Benjamin F. Spikes accompanied by his WWI Draft Registration Card.
Note: See also Brian Goggin’s essay of John Curry Spikes accompanied by his WWI Draft Registration Card.