ESQUERITA (aka Eskew Reeder)

Born Steven Quincy Reeder, Jr., Greenville, South Carolina, 20 November 1935
Died 23 October 1986, Harlem, New York City, New York

No one has characterized Esquerita's music better than Charlie Gillett: "Capitol was the only company to find any kind of answer to the wildness of Little Richard, in an equally bizarre performer who called himself Esquerita. For Capitol Esquerita cut a series of the most frantic rock 'n' roll records ever made. If a producer or arranger was deputed to the sessions, he must have been bound and gagged and put in a corner, for there was little sign that anyone responsible for the records had been concerned for their commercial potential. Few of the records sounded as if the band had ever played the songs before, and frequently most of the musicians took off on searing solos whose key and tempo were only vaguely connected to those of others in the band. Esquerita played piano with a speed and staccato attack that echoed Little Richard's style, but the overall sound here in some way conjured a chaotic symphony, as a succession of chords chased each other desperately up the keyboard. The violence that was normally only a promise (or threat) in rock 'n' roll was realized in Esquerita's sound." (Charlie Gillett, The sound of the city, page 59.)

The name Eskew Reeder is derived from his initials, S.Q. As a child he received the obligatory gospel schooling, courtesy of his mother who sang at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Greenville. Rather less predictable was his acquaintance with Cleo & Virginia Wills, two neighbour sisters who were studying operatic singing. From them he picked up the squeals and falsettos which were to become such a feature of his Capitol recordings. On piano, Reeder was self-taught. According to Little Richard (in his autobiography), it was Esquerita who really taught him to play piano, though I take this story with a grain of salt.

Around 1953, Eskew joined an NYC-based gospel group, the Heavenly Echoes, with whom he appeared on their Baton Records single "Didn't It Rain" (1955). Returning to Greenville after the breakup of the Heavenly Echoes, Reeder established himself as the house rock and roller at the Owl Club on Washington Street under the moniker "Professor Eskew Reeder". He developed a manic style, wore heavy make-up and two wigs, piling his pompadour even higher than Little Richard's. It was at the Owl Club that he was 'discovered' by Blue Cap Paul Peek in 1958. On the strength of demos recorded at Greenville radio station WESC, Gene Vincent convinced Capitol to sign Reeder, who at this point changed his name to "Esquerita", in order to add to his mystique.

A backing band was put together (Vincent Mosley on guitar, Tony White on bass, Ricardo Young on drums, and a backing vocal group from Atlanta called the Gardenias) and then it was up to Nashville where a two day session on May 15/16 1958, produced the first Capitol recordings: "Oh Baby", "Rockin' the Joint" and five other sides. In August of the same year, another 21 songs were recorded in Nashville (over four days), a couple of which ("I Live the Life I Love" and "This Thing Called Love") feature the backing vocals of the Jordanaires who were in town at that time to attend Elvis' mother's funeral. Twelve of the 21 were issued as an LP titled "Esquerita!" (Capitol T 1186), in May 1959. By that time, frantic rock 'n' roll was yesterday's news and the album went largely unnoticed, except in France, where no less than eight of the twelve tracks were issued on four singles. And yes, there was a producer deputed to the sessions, none other than Ken Nelson, who must have been baffled, working with this wild character. Some songs took more than twenty takes and still the finished result sounds chaotic. Long revered by rock n roll fans the world over, these Capitol tracks make Little Richard's Specialty sides look highly disciplined by comparison. The sax player on all Capitol sessions was 'Dutch' McMillin, then (before the arrival of Boots Randolph) the most in-demand session saxophonist in Nashville.

As a gesture of gratitude to Paul Peek for helping to get his career on track, Esquerita wrote "The Rock Around", which became Peek's first solo single for the NRC label (1958). Esquerita played piano behind Peek, also on the other side, "Sweet Skinny Jenny". Esquerita continued to record in a tamer style through the sixties, on labels like Minit, Instant, Okeh (where he called himself S.Q. Reeder), Brunswick (as "The Magnificent Malochi") and Cross-Tone (the original version of "Dew Drop Inn", which was covered by Little Richard on Reprise). There were a couple of reissues of the Capitol material in the 70's: an Ember LP called "Wildcat Shakeout" released in the UK, and a French two-record package featuring all twenty-eight songs recorded at the 1958 Nashville sessions. Beyond that point, little is known about Esquerita's activities other than that he spent some time in jail at Rikers' Island under the name 'Mark Malochi'.

Around 1983, Billy Miller tracked down Esquerita in NYC for an interview in issue # 3 of Kicks Magazine. He was down on his luck and working as a parking lot attendant, but was still as flamboyant as ever and occasionally performing in third-rate New York clubs. Esquerita died of complications arising from AIDS in 1986 in Harlem Hospital, New York City.

My own introduction to Esquerita was in May 1966, when Cees Klop played "Rockin' the Joint" for me. I was sold right away. That piano intro! Never heard anything quite like it. A few months later, while on vacation in London, I found a second-hand copy of "Rockin' the Joint" in the Petticoat Lane market. Price was three shillings. The name of the previous owner was written on the centre of the label : P. Quin.

The Social Security Death Index gives his date of birth as November 20, 1938, which seems very unlikely to me. Even 1935 is unconfirmed.

The Capitol Collector's CD from 1990, with the complete Capitol recordings, is now deleted, but the same 28 tracks have been reissued by Collectables on a CD called "Rockin' the Joint" (COL-2713), in 1998. Other available (?) CD's, "Vintage Voola" (Norton), "Sock It To Me Baby" (Bear Family) and "I Never Danced Nowhere" (Charly) are less interesting.

Discography : (By Pete Hoppula)

More info :

YouTube: Rockin' the Joint :
Gettin' Plenty Loving :
Oh Baby :
Sarah Lee :
And more.

Acknowledgements : Steve Kolanjian, Clive Anderson.


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