Born Robert Alexander Blackwell, 23 May 1918, Seattle, Washington
Producer, arranger, bandleader, songwriter.
Bumps Blackwell was instrumental in launching the careers of Little Richard and Sam Cooke in the mid-1950s. The Specialty recordings of Little Richard that he produced are among the most exciting and memorable in the history of rock n roll music.
Robert Blackwell was born in Seattle on the West Coast, of mixed French, Negro and Indian descent. In the late 1940s he led a jazz group that included future celebrities Ray Charles (piano) and Quincy Jones (trumpet). He was also a successful entrepreneur (some would say hustler), operating a nightclub, butcher shop, jewellery store and a fleet of taxi cabs. Blackwell had a big ego and always tended to exaggerate his achievements. Art Rupe told Rob Finnis : "Bumps wasn't as schooled a musician as he pretended. He told me that he had graduated from a music conservatory in Seattle, so I wrote to them and they confirmed that he'd only taken piano lessons!" Blackwell is extensively quoted in Charles White's Little Richard biography from 1984, but quite a few of his allegations are unreliable or downright false.
It seems that Bumps migrated to Los Angeles in 1953, not in 1949 as he liked to tell. In late 1954 he was hired by Art Rupe, the boss of Specialty Records, as an arranger and general assistant. Rupe had already scored several big R&B hits (for instance "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" by Lloyd Price and "The Things That I Used To Do" by Guitar Slim), but what he was really looking for was someone like Ray Charles, a gospel singer who could sing the blues. On February 17, 1955 Specialty received a tape, "wrapped in a piece of paper looking as though someone had eaten off it" (in Blackwell's words). Sender of the tape was one Richard Penniman, who had previously recorded for RCA and Peacock under the name Little Richard. It contained two songs, "Baby" and "All Night Long" (not "He's My Star" and "Wonderin'", as Blackwell says). In spite of the poor quality of the tape, Bumps heard something special in the voice and urged Rupe to sign the singer. At first Rupe was hesitant, but Richard kept calling him every four or five days, asking "When are you going to record me?". When Art Rupe had finally made up his mind, he found out that Penniman was still contracted to Peacock. He offered to loan Richard $ 600 to buy off his contract. In September 1955 Rupe sent Blackwell to New Orleans (with very extensive instructions) to record Little Richard at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studio, with the cream of the New Orleans session men (Lee Allen, Red Tyler, Frank Fields, Earl Palmer, etc.). Eight mainly bluesy songs were recorded over two days, not resulting in anything that Blackwell considered worth releasing. Then, during a break at a local bar (not the Dew Drop Inn, as has often been written), Richard sat down at a piano and performed a risqué song from his stage act, "Tutti Frutti, Good Booty". Bumps immediately took notice and insisted that Richard record the song (after the racy lyrics had been cleaned up by Dorothy LaBostrie). With some fifteen minutes of studio time left, two versions were quickly recorded and the second take proved to be a winner. "Tutti Frutti" became Little Richard's first Specialty single and a big hit (# 2 R&B, # 17 pop), though it was outsold by a white cover by Pat Boone. Richard was on his way to stardom.
Blackwell would go on to produce most of Richard's Specialty recordings (sometimes with Art Rupe as co-producer) and received co-author credits on "Long Tall Sally", "Ready Teddy", "Rip It Up", "Good Golly Miss Molly" (all rock n roll classics) and "All Around the World". Other Specialty acts that he produced include Wynona Carr, Larry Williams and Clifton Chenier. Bumps also acted as Little Richard's manager, until Penniman gave up rock n roll for religion in October 1957. By then he had left Specialty after a falling out with Art Rupe during the recording of "You Send Me" by Sam Cooke. Blackwell had launched the secular career of Cooke - previously a successful gospel singer - in 1956. He found new employment at Keen Records, taking Cooke with him. "You Send Me", produced by Blackwell, became a # 1 pop hit in December 1957.
Bumps produced several other successful sides by Sam Cooke and became the mentor of Herb Alpert and Lou Adler at Keen. In April 1958, he had an instrumental released under his own name, "Sumpin' Jumpin'"/"MS and DB", both his own compositions (Keen 4010).
From 1959 until 1963 Blackwell was West Coast A&R director for Mercury Records, where he was reunited with Little Richard, whose gospel album he produced in 1961.
In later years Bumps worked with Lou Rawls, Sly and the Family Stone, the Fifth Dimension, Ike and Tina Turner, the Five Blind Boys Of Alabama, the Chambers Brothers, Art Neville, Bobby Nunn's Coasters and Bob Dylan ("Shot of Love" album), among others. Suffering from glaucoma, he was nearly blind in the last years of his life. Bumps Blackwell died of pneumonia at his home in Hacienda Heights, Los Angeles, on March 9, 1985, aged 66.
More info : http://allmusic.com/artist/bumps-blackwell-mn0000634319
Acknowledgements : Rob Finnis, Ray Topping, Charles White, Ed Hogan.
Dik, December 2014
|These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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