Tuesday, October 23, 2018


There was a time in the 1970’s and 1980’s when it seemed as though Scatman Crothers was in every third film released, and he was always extremely entertaining and charming and stole whatever scenes he was in. And let’s not forget his cartoon-voicing career, such as the legendary HONG KONG PHOOEY. He was the kind of all-around entertainer we don’t see enough of today. However, though most know him for his film and TV appearances, most of his career prior to his late-period film stardom was spent primarily in the music world, making jazzy R&B and jump blues and cocktail blues records for many labels large and small. A decade or so ago I reviewed a European collection of his more rocking sides in UGLY THINGS magazine, and I hope many of you picked that album up--it’s a CD on the Hydra label called I WANT TO ROCK AND ROLL, and features 30 hot and amazing tracks.

Cut to 1972....Crothers has a role in the Motown-produced bio-pic of Billie Holiday (sort of), LADY SINGS THE BLUES, starring Diana Ross. He plays Big Ben, a customer in the brothel where Billie works. Billie shows up late to work that day, depressed and disgusted with such a job, and makes it up to the room where she plies her trade, and soon after, Scatman Crothers struts in as Big Ben, a jive-talking operator and customer, who does not let Billie get a word in edge-wise. In a brilliantly filmed scene, as Billie watches Big Ben strip down to his long johns, she gradually puts her own clothes back on, and he’s so busy talking and laughing at his own jokes that he’s oblivious to it. When he finishes, she bolts out the door and tells him, no hard feelings but she’s through with this field.

Other than that, there’s no conversation between them. I saw this film theatrically back in 1972, and as a 13 year old, I did not know a lot about Billie Holiday’s life, so I actually thought the film was quite well done. I vividly remember how the audience was totally entertained by Scatman Crothers in that scene--and this was before he was really a star and most of the audience might not have even known his name.

Evidently Motown thought a lot of Crothers’ appearance as Big Ben, at best a supporting role in the film, because not only did they put out an album by Crothers soon after the film’s release, they named it after the character he played AND pictured him in those long johns on the cover.

And what an album it is! Absolutely NO covers of hits of the day or soul compositions Motown had the publishing to, but instead, a small group (pno-gtr-bs-dr....and mellow sax on a few tracks) doing laid-back after hours R&B circa 1951 with our man jiving and scatting his way through both old chestnuts and new old-style compositions of his own.. Prior to his stardom, Scatman had probably done this kind of thing thousands of nights in third-rate lounges playing to the regulars and the serious drinkers. This is not the aggressive taunting vocalizing of a Wynonie Harris or the operatic blues-shouting of a Roy Brown----Scatman has a weed-fueled mellow jive to his delivery (hey, he probably had to perform 5 or 6 hours a night in these places and had to conserve his energy!), and the supple band, who fit like a glove, never rush things. In many ways this is the perfect album to listen to at 3 a.m. on a hot summer night, with the lights down, looking out onto the street below, nursing your third or fourth Scotch. I’ve actually owned this album for FORTY or more years and I never tire of it. Also, believe it or not, you can still get a copy used for FOUR dollars, according to Discogs.

I can’t imagine ANYONE not liking this album. As with Scatman’s acting, his singing is witty and laid-back and always in the groove, and the band is like the dream R&B lounge combo. You need this album in your life. Other than the sound quality, which is sparkling 1973 stereo, I would have pegged these recordings as having been made between 1950-53. That Scatman could get away with issuing an album of early 50’s lounge-R&B on a major soul label in 1973 is testimony to the man’s charm. Put this album on next time there are people over, and I’d bet all of them compliment it and ask who is that singing and where can they get a copy!

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