Jimmy Castor was a smart aleck; a wise guy; a clean shit-talker with so much joie de vivre you had to laugh even when his truth-telling smacked you upside the head. So when he died this past Martin Luther King Jr. Day at 71 near his home outside of Las Vegas, far away from the streets of Harlem he once called home, the world lost a dependable source of laughter.
Known as the Everything Man—the E-Man (yup, he copyrighted it)—for his multitude of musical talents, Castor was one of the few cats on the planet who could legitimately be flossin’ “from doo wop to hip hop” on any bling he desired and not get clowned. A quadruple threat—composer, singer, saxophonist, timbalero—the longtime bandleader wrote his first hit while in junior high, then got on the bus with the likes of Frankie Lymon, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, made girls scream and never looked back. He played and shared the stage with many, from Hendrix to Hathaway, and traveled the globe, performing in Small’s Paradise and at Madison Square Garden, on Soul Train and Johnny Carson. And by all oral, written and visual accounts, the E-Man and his sharp-dressed band tore up the stage. Eric Clapton, P-Funk, Bad Company, Kool & the Gang, Tito Puente, the Commodores: the Jimmy Castor Bunch was a difficult act to follow.
Throughout his life he put out over a dozen albums and many more 45s; millions of folks bought them, eager to take Castor’s beloved Leroy, Bertha Butt and Troglodyte personas home for a spin on the turntable or 8-track. DJs and hip-hop producers also found them worthy enough to recycle; the E-Man said he was sampled more than 3,000 times, more than enough to cement his (and songwriting partner John Pruitt’s) six-decade legacy.
Castor was right when he told you he played “Pop, R&B, Latin, Funk,” but the truth is he shied away from no genre. Growing up in the Dominican, Puerto Rican, Jewish and African-American neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Harlem, he soaked up the sounds of the street—rock n’ roll, mambo, boogaloo, jazz, show tunes. Sometimes his music was serious; mostly it was seriously funny. He wanted you to dance and laugh. This could provide fodder for his critics, who, pointing to the many cartoonish characters that Castor committed to tape, claimed he was a mere novelty act. But he was no Disco Duck wannabe: Castor often stated the goofiness was simply his way of proving to the record labels he could get your attention. “I had to hook ’em right away,” he told me some years ago. “I’d say, ‘What we’re gonna do right here is go back,’ or ‘Hey Leroy! Your Mama!’ Then the record executives, when they’d hear these things, said, ‘Oh, I want that!'”
Perhaps Jimmy Castor is not more of a household name because of his dynamic oeuvre. He walked away from many record companies who preferred to pigeonhole their artists—Wing, Atomic, Jet Set, Decca, Compass, Clown, Kinetic, Capitol, Smash/Mercury, RCA, Atlantic, Dream, Cotillion, T.K. “They’d say, ‘Why don’t you do one thing? How are we going to promote that?’ But people expect[ed] that from me: total entertainment.”
How to describe this “total entertainment?” I don’t know. Perhaps if you threw together a dash of Little Richard, a twist of Frankie Lymon, a whiff of James Brown, the fat of Larry Graham’s bass slapped onto the sensibility of Sly, then mixed in a cup of King Curtis’s horn, a pint of Puente pachanga, a hearty helping of Hendrix’s wail, then splashed in some of Sun Ra’s sci-fi, Screaming Jay Hawkins’s scream, Sammy Davis’s swagger before mashing in a smidgen of the Mighty Sparrow, you’d have an idea of how his Harlem Stew tastes. And long before Kenny G, he wasn’t afraid to let his sax get smoov.
To try and understand the man, and get a glimpse into his fruitful-yet-tumultuous career in the music biz, I think we need to take a step or two back. Back into time…
“WHAT WE’RE GOING TO DO RIGHT HERE IS GO BACK!”
Since he was fond of telling stories by going back in time, what follows is a timeline rewind—by no means complete—of Jimmy Castor’s musical career, aided by a few quotes from his peers, as well as the wonders of YouTube. Quotes are from Jimmy Castor, unless otherwise noted.
January 16, 2012
Jimmy Castor dies in Henderson, Nevada, where he had lived the last 15 years. The cause of death is determined to be heart failure, not the cancer that he had been discreetly fighting for 14 of those Nevada years. News outlets have his age between 64 and 71, proving that the E-Man’s longtime campaign of fudging his birth date (done, according to his logic, in order to obtain gigs) has been quite successful. A 2012 European tour had just been booked.
A video petition is posted on YouTube calling for Jimmy Castor to finally be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (or at least put on the ballot), to no avail. The Beastie Boys—who famously sampled Castor’s iconic shout “Hey Leroy!” on their debut album Licensed to Ill—are inducted.
The Jimmy Castor Bunch convene at the Long Beach Funk Festival. People go home happy and sweaty.
Jimmy Castor Jr., an LA-based filmmaker, begins making a documentary, Criminally Underappreciated, about the life and times of his father.
Jimmy threatens this writer many times that he’s going to write a book, called Still Lookin’ For a Gig, about his life.
“I’ve had a lot of R & R in the music business. Not Rest and Relaxation; I mean Racism and Rejection. When you’re a person of color, you’re only as good as your last record. I’ve heard Bon Jovi say, ‘I’ll be off for four years.’ That’s death for me.”
He spends significant time answering letters and emails, and is known to mail cassettes and records of his work to anyone that expresses interest.
It’s nearing midnight. The blue lights from Yankee Stadium reflect off the East River and filter through the front door of the Flash Inn, a stone’s throw away from the ballpark. Old-school waiters, bedecked in red serving jackets, serve drinks and mediocre Italian food. Everything about the place is a throwback to an era of Cuban cigars and backroom deals. This is a private party thrown by the organizers of Harlem Week, who have brought one of their own home. Two longtime fans who themselves owe a part of their careers to Jimmy Castor and his Bunch—Kool Herc and Kurtis Blow—sit patiently to hear the E-Man boogie.
The Flash Inn, narrow and angular, was obviously not designed for much boogieing. Spread against a mirrored wall and squeezed into the space of two pool tables, the Bunch are feeling bunched. “I’m gonna do some stuff for Kurtis and Kool tonight,” Jimmy tells the scrunched crowd. The setting couldn’t be more different than that of two days previous, when thousands of Berthas and Leroys packed Marcus Garvey Park for their fellow Harlemite’s homecoming—his first in 30 years—breaking an attendance record previously held by Roy Ayers. “I’m glad to meet Kurtis Blow, finally.” The band throws the groove right away, ripping through a medley of “Hey, Leroy,” and “Space Age.” Jimmy stops only to kibbutz with Kurtis. “You know, I invented some things like ‘Right On!’ But Kurtis came out and said, ‘That’s the Breaks!’ Paul’s gonna hit nine notes for Kurtis.” The thick bass notes of “Potential” bounce off the mirrored walls, and soon people, like so many before them, are dancing in whatever space between tables and chairs they can find, right on through abridged versions of “Bertha Butt Boogie,” “Troglodyte,” “King Kong” and Joe Cuba’s “Bang, Bang”—as if it were a Kool Herc DJ set.
And then the Jimmy Castor Bunch bring the short, packed trip to a close with a thunderous version of “It’s Just Begun.” Pushing the meaty breakbeat that has driven b-boys’ legs crazy for over 25 years (including those of ageing Rock Steady Crewers like Frosty Freeze and Fabel who busted a move only days before) the band grinds and pushes until the mirrors are rattling and the people cheering wildly. Jimmy shouts, “The Flash Inn will never be the same. I have labeled it. The ceiling is weak! Let’s do that again, I want the ceiling to come off. One, two, three!” The band picks up the break at the same speed-metal tempo. The E-Man seems possessed banging on his timbales, yelling and looking up at the ceiling as if casting a spell, “It’s just begun… it’s just begun… ” A dancing Kool Herc is literally salaaming the creator of the B-Boy National Anthem. Suddenly, Jimmy breaks away, whipping around the room, pointing at the spellbound people chanting with him, before returning and banging away some more, telling us another last time how it has indeed just begun, yet again.
Releases two singles on own label, “I Got Somethin’ For Ya!” and “You Gotta Be Strong Today.”
Creates his own recording company, E-Man Recordings.
One of the biggest snowstorms in recent history shuts down New York City. The E-Man, depressed and wanting a better place to ride his motorcycles, moves to Las Vegas. First time he has lived far from his native New York City. When the Spice Girls sample his music on their debut album, he doesn’t complain.
Reunites with the Teenagers for a concert at the Apollo Theater, sharing a bill with Little Anthony and the Imperials. Sell-out crowd. Wants to take it on tour. Doesn’t happen.
The Jimmy Castor Bunch reunite at S.O.B.’s in NYC, their first U.S. appearance in ten years. Castor appears at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the induction of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
Appears in Jackson family television biopic.
Chuck Eddy’s Stairway to Hell names Phase Two as the #10 heavy metal album of all time.
The Sample Wars. “Hip hop has been fairly good to me. In the beginning it wasn’t, when people like the Beastie Boys just raped my music.” After so many unauthorized samples, Jimmy samples himself on “It Ain’t Like That.” Everyone rejects it, afraid of possible lawsuits. “I was the only artist that could sample myself I had so many samples. All I was saying was I want the credit and the money too… I’ve got pages of who’d done what. C+C [Music Factory], Jungle Brothers, N.W.A., Eric B and Rakim, Rob Base did a big one, Marky Mark, Luke Skywalker: he took ‘Its Just Begun’ and thought he could just thug it away. But he ran into another thug, cause I don’t play that. Like James Brown said, ‘I’d rather die on my feet than live on knees.’ Those were big boys, million-sellers. They started falling into line.”
“First time I went to court was the Beastie Boys over ‘Hey, Leroy.’ That’s when I had to go on Entertainment Tonight. Russell Simmons is on there, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s public domain’ or some crap like that… then LL Cool J says, ‘It does matter! That’s like walking into someone’s garage and taking their vintage Cadillac and driving it away!’ That’s when I really dug LL.”
“So everyone’s now getting on MTV, everyone’s killin’ it but me. It was hard to look at that.”
Hollywood begins to realize the marketability of hip-hop culture. Flashdance is a smash success—the soundtrack sells over 14 million copies—and uses “It’s Just Begun” during a b-boy battle.
“‘It’s Just Begun’ became an underground cult thing. Paramount says, ‘We got a movie called Flashdance and we want to use your song.’ I said OK. ‘But you have to record it over.’ I said no problem. I owned the publishing and writing, but RCA owned the master. But we didn’t have enough time to re-record it. It’s the second-best song in that movie, if you ask me. pSings] ‘Whaat a feeeeling!’—you can’t beat that song. Better than ‘Maniac.’ That’s garbage. Anyway, five million records the first week! So I’m thinking I’m going to be well-off. I go to the music store: it’s not on the soundtrack! I walk up the street to RCA. I go in there and kick the door down. I say, ‘How come you didn’t put ‘It’s Just Begun’ on the soundtrack?’ You wanna know his answer? ‘I don’t know.’ That’s his answer! So when you ask me how come it wasn’t a single, I’m lucky it got out! That was such a lily-white label, they never had anyone cross over.”
Releases Return of Leroy on Dream, a subsidiary of Salsoul. “Salsoul was awful, but I was desperate. Redid ‘It’s Just Begun’ with a different beat on a 12-inch. It did well in Canada.”
“You’re at the mercy of A&R people. I went to Elektra with my man, Ron St. Germaine. So this A&R guy, he’s about 26 or so, he says, ‘Oh Jimmy Castor it’s such an honor’; I played him some stuff and he says, ‘Umm, I think we’re gonna pass,’ and I say, ‘What key is it in?’ ‘What do you mean what key?’ he says. I say, ‘Who are you? Who is this guy, Ron?’ These A&R guys really kill me.”
Ronald Reagan wins the U.S. presidency; Jimmy Castor celebrates twenty-five years in the music business. Releases C on his own label, Long Distance. Features T.M. Stevens going slap-happy on bass, as well as the extremely new wave “Con Man,” and covers of “Stairway to Heaven” and a very saxy “Star-Spangled Banner. “I got so tired with the majors messing with me I said let me put out Caaaash; let me get on the Chaaarts; I’m talking about Jimmy Caaaastor.”
Disco dominates the charts, with several No. 1 hits from Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor and Chic. The Jimmy Castor Bunch put on a ferocious performance on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert (whose emblem is a spinning disco ball) with Uriah Heep, Bad Company, Burton Cummings and Kate Bush. The Bunch wear matching emerald green outfits. No contest.
Releases The Jimmy Castor Bunch on Cotillion, a subsidiary of Atlantic. “Got into disco. But, no promotion.”
Plays several cities in Saudia Arabia. “I couldn’t find work here so I found myself traveling a lot. When I came back they didn’t want to book me since my records weren’t selling. You come back to the States and someone’s taken your place. People can’t get your product they move on.”
Releases Let It Out on Drive, a subsidiary of T.K. records. Has a disco/funk groove, charts with “Let It Out” and “Bertha Encounters Vadar.” “They gave me a lot of money, but I knew it was over when I went down there and Henry Stone wouldn’t take K.C.’s call. I said to myself, ‘Oh that’s the end of this label.’ Because K.C. was the label.”
Plays Panama. “My cover of Procol Harem’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ [was] No. 1 there for almost a year. When I got off the plane the people were yelling, ‘La Blanca Palidez!'”
Releases Maximum Stimulation, a mix of dance funk and ballads, on Atlantic; the title track charts.
Atlantic hates it and tells him to sound like Chic, the mega-discofunk band Jimmy brought to the label a year earlier when Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards were part of the house band at the Apollo. “They did some great music, near genius. Great melodies, great clarity. So later on when Atlantic wanted them to produce me I approached Nile. I thought this would be easy. I went to his New York co-op apartment on 66th Street and asked him, and he’s just showing me these Charlie Chan movies, says ‘Sure, yeah.’ Then I bump into Bernard at my Mercedes dealer. He’s buying his babysitter a Mercedes station wagon ’cause she’s always late, so I ask him. ‘Yeah, Jimmy. Sure.’ Nothing. And that hurt. After what I did for them. Chic made millions. Never even gave me a bottle of wine.”
Jimmy butts heads with Atlantic’s head honcho and one of the most powerful men in the music game. “Ahmet Ertegun. That’s why I’ll never be in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame or the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame, because he owns a part of that. We got into an argument once when he busted in on a business meeting I was having. So the next day they sat me down at a great lunch “to apologize” with Ahmet and the co-producer of Saturday Night Live—I was slated to be on the show in two weeks’ time. I tell them the next single will be ‘Everything is Beautiful to Me’ and they say, ‘Well we don’t agree with that, so we’re going to postpone your SNL appearance until we have the right single.’ E-Man Groovin’ was beginning to take off. ‘Supersound,’ ‘King Kong’ were big. But they stopped me by not putting product in the stores. They’d come get me in a limo to make an in-store appearance, and I’d look for the product. Where’s the product? They’d say it’s because you’re not selling. Well how can I sell if there is no product. Catch-22 you know. They got me. That’s when things really started to go downhill.”
First artificial gene capable of working in a living cell is created entirely in a test tube; Castor gets kicked off the southern leg of the P-Funk Mothership tour by the promoters for refusing to headline after several nights of tearing the roof off the sucka. “We were the opening act and the people were going crazy. So they told me to headline the next gig. C’mon man, that was the Mothership tour, George’s thing. Everything was ego. It was sick.”
Releases E-Man Groovin’ on Atlantic; “Space Age” becomes a hit.
Plays Trinidad. “When I got to Trinidad, the Minister of Labor was there with 3000 people. They wanted ‘Loves Theme’; it was number one there for a year. Sax replaces the strings. I had on a satin silver suit, silver shoes, they had the dogs out, they didn’t want people around me but I wanted to touch them. They were climbing the trees.”
Records a Christmas single for Atlantic.
Releases the funk-calypso-pop album Supersound on Atlantic; hits include “King Kong,” “Supersound,” “Bom Bom.” The idea for “Kong” hit Jimmy while walking down 5th Avenue one day and looking up at the Empire State Building.
“That King Kong costume was so frightening. The head moves, the mouth moves. It would almost cause fights. When we did Disneyland with the Pointer Sisters, it was crazy. We’re doing ‘King Kong’ and Goofy comes up onstage, and Donald Duck, and my man Anthony (who was in the Kong suit) would growl and hit them so hard they’d fall down; he had real chains on. We put on a show for the people and they loved it. We were the only ones outside of Parliament and EWF.”
“So I hear Jerry Greenberg, president of Atlantic records say, ‘If ‘Potential’ is a hit I’ll slit my wrists.’ It made #25. In the end he backed down. What a shame.”
Releases Butt, Of Course… on Atlantic. Smash hits with “E-Man Boogie,” “Bertha Butt Boogie,” “Potential”. Does a calypso version of Elton John’s “Daniel” who, when the Bunch visit England later, gives his warm drunken thanks one night backstage.
“Thank god for that album. I was scolded by Atlantic for the first album. ‘Maggie’ was on the charts. Redbone was hot, but they didn’t push it. Then the ‘Everything Man’ had that groove. But nope. The album didn’t happen. So I gave them something with a hit on every cut almost. I gave them Bertha. People had been asking for a Bertha song ever since ‘Troglodyte.'”
Signs with Atlantic and puts out Jimmy Castor (The Everything Man) and the Jimmy Castor Bunch. Picks up the moniker E-Man at the suggestion of his writing partner, John Pruitt. The name sticks.
Martin Luther King Jr. memorial concert at the Omni in Atlanta, Georgia. Only known legit recorded live tracks of the Jimmy Castor Bunch on wax: “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “Say Leroy,” “Troglodyte,” “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
Releases Dimension III, a radical departure from his earlier RCA releases. This and Everything Man shy away from the grunge funk of first two; instead, Vegas is on Jimmy’s mind. Ballads are rampant, and there’s a lot of sax work. This leads one executive at RCA to say “Who does he think he is, Lawrence Welk?” After overhearing this, Jimmy asks for his release from the label.
Jimmy injures himself while jumping off a speaker while on tour with Bad Company in Bangor, Maine. Takes several months off.
“A Souled Out Saturday at the Stadium” is the headline of the Washington Post article recounting the Dimensions Unlimited Freedom Festival, which played out in front of 80,000 people at the 53,000-capacity RFK stadium. “At 8:30 p.m., just as the sun was disappearing, the Jimmy Castor Bunch slowly made its way around the motorcycle track in three brand new Eldorados—one red, one black and one green.” Other acts include Rare Earth, Funkadelic, Mandrill and Buddy Miles. A mob rushes the field during “It’s Just Begun,” leaving $22,000 in damage.
“It was always competition: ‘I’m gonna kill them,’ we would say. People like Bohannon would come in, ‘I’m gonna kill you.’ It was dog eat dog. I could tell you about the run-ins I had with War, Donald Byrd… And I was out to smoke you too. I knew I should be more than I was and that made me mad. Billboard saying, ‘Any day now he’ll make it.'”
The Jimmy Castor Bunch produce and back up popular NYC radio disc jockey Gary Byrd on “Soul Travelin, Pt. 1 & 2” a rapping, sonic history and geography lesson of soul music.
Releases It’s Just Begun and, later, Phase Two, two of the hardest-hitting and most unique albums ever put to wax, on RCA. Iconoclastic. Funny. Political. They receive the full Bunch Crunch. Each begin and end with classical compositions. “Those were courtesy of Gerry Thomas. I wanted something symphonic and scary, it’s almost like Frankenstein coming to the door.” “Troglodyte,” a song which is basically an edited Bunch jam session with Jimmy improvising a caveman tale over it, is released as a single after initially designated as “filler.” It reaches #6 on the Hot 100.
The slicker title track—”It’s Just Begun,” with ferocious drumming by ubiquitous session-man Bernard Purdie—is not released as a single, but it gets bootlegged and pressed as a 12″ by club DJs throughout NYC. Other tunes like the political “When,” “Luther the Anthropoid” and “Psyche,” as well as a tribute to his friend Jimi Hendrix, further announce that Grunge Funk is born.
The World Trade Center opens for business; Janis Joplin overdoses on heroin. Jimi and Jimmy sit in the dark confines of the Flash Inn. Jimi’s talking.
“I can’t handle society.”
Jimmy is thinking about how he was almost killed by his wasted friend, speeding in his silver-speckled Stingray, each and every red light ignored during the long drive up from 10th Street and 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village, through Central Park and up 7th Avenue, through the heart of Harlem until reaching 155th Street.
“I’m gonna go back to London.”
Buddy Miles had been with his fellow Gypsy but couldn’t make his way out of the apartment, his veins coursing with smack.
“Nobody loves me here anymore.”
Jimi and Jimmy have been friends for several years. They hold a mutual admiration for the other’s music, and record wild covers of each other’s hits.
“I make $100,000 a night; I come home with $20,000. Where’s the rest?”
“Everybody loves you, man, but you gotta straighten up!” Jimmy replies. He looks at his exhausted friend, thin as a guitar neck.
“I’m going back to London where everybody loves me.”
“C’mon, everyone loves you. Now let’s eat.”
Three weeks later, while in London, Jimi Hendrix chokes on his own vomit, dies.
Jimmy Castor meets Sly and the Family Stone in their dressing room at the Nassau Coliseum.
“See, I thought I was Sly. But he was truly genius. Bringing together the races, the sound. They were the best band, ever!”
The Bunch spend much of their time gigging in Canada, working on the heavy sound that would become their trademark.
The JCB records and releases “It’s Just Begun,” (a very funky version of) “BAD,” “Be Young,” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”; they also record much of the material for what would become It’s Just Begun.
“Sly was my inspiration for ‘It’s Just Begun.’ The lyrics: ‘Peace will come/this world will rest/once we have togetherness’. We wrote it at Gerry Thomas’s house in the Bronx, Gerry to my right at the piano, John Pruitt my lyricist to the left with a notebook and me the nucleus in the middle. Gerry had a little melody, I said speed it up. ‘I want some great lyrics John.’ I said, ‘Watch me now!’ then ‘I want some great lyrics John.’ John is writing them down and embellishing. Gerry’s picking up music and I’m in the middle sucking it all up. We did that in like a half hour then taught it to the band. The rhythm was a feel, a jam session. African, Native American, the root; the pyramids! Percussion in the jungle. Did it in two takes. Very raw compared to the RCA version. That became our pandemonium number.”
The Bunch is born. “Everyone started coming out with group names, like Sly and the Family Stone, Earth, Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang… But I’d worked too hard to give up my name, so first we said, Jimmy Castor and his Bunch, then the Jimmy Castor Bunch.”
Frankie Lymon is found dead at 26, overdosed on heroin, in his grandmother’s apartment. “At Frankie’s funeral, he was orange. It was terrible. Frankie used to come to Small’s Paradise and they wouldn’t let him in, that’s how bad he’d gotten. He would try to help park cabs out front for a quarter. Here’s a guy who sang for the Queen of England, for Ed Sullivan, who was a natural tap dancer, drummer, actor, a singer’s singer.”
Fishing for a “Leroy” follow-up, records the funk monster singles “Hey Shorty Pts. 1& 2” for Capitol as well as “The Real McCoy,” “Helpless,” “Psycho Man”. Features Eric Gale and Bernard Purdie.
Meets Gerry Thomas of the Fatback Band. “Gerry would be very instrumental in my career. He could write, play trumpet, piano, keys, arrange. Great musician. Made most his money with me.”
Records “Rattlesnake/Soul Sister” for Compass.
“So we’re back into Small’s after ‘Hey Leroy’ and back into the Winter Gardens in Atlantic City. I couldn’t get Mercury to promote the next one, ‘Magic Saxophone,’ so I had one hit. I’d play ‘Hey Leroy,’ ‘Hamhocks Espanol,’ and then Top 40 tunes. The minute I cut a record my life changed. You are different now. People have you in their homes. You have a name. People call you to do their shows. But it’s lean between records.”
Race riots break out in Spanish Harlem; Castor records “Mini Sonata” and “Jamaica Farewell” for Smash Records.
“Jimmy was no slouch when it came to knowing music,” recalls Castor’s pianist at the time. “With Jimmy we played a diverse repertoire, everything that was popular in the five boroughs, not just Harlem. Wherever people liked to put one leg in front of the other. Jimmy’s personality on stage was electric. He got a lot of screams and shouts from the ladies, ’cause Jimmy was a good-looking guy. He knew how to get the ladies up outta their chairs. We also played the theater circuit, the Apollo, the Regal, the Uptown all those.”
“When I think of the Apollo Theater,” Castor said, “I think of the rank dressing rooms. Five shows a day.”
On tour with Joe Tex (“I knew Joe well, I learned how to throw the mic and kick it from him”) Jimmy holds auditions for a pianist at the Howard Theater, since Kenny Mills, his regular player, can’t get the green light from his wife. “Donny Hathaway showed up. He brought a Fender Rhodes. I said, ‘What’s that?’ he said, ‘It’s an electric piano, called a Fender Rhodes.’ Donny asks if he can play the new instrument with his left hand and play regular piano with his right. “So he plays the beginning of ‘Ham Hocks Espanol,’ tearing it up. Then ‘Hey Leroy.’ I says, ‘You got it, man.’ We did the theater circuit. The Howard, the Regal in Chicago, the Uptown in Philly, the Regal in Baltimore, the Apollo in New York. Joe Tex headlined in D.C. and Stevie Wonder headlined at the Apollo. That’s where I met Stevie.”
17-year old wunderkind Stevie Wonder—who would also be criticized for resisting record-label categorization—is beginning to carve his own sound. “Between shows the three of us would take turns at the piano showing each other newly created material. Of course they’re pianists, they’re killing it, I’d pick up the sax… it was a week there. It was amazing. We would say, ‘Listen to this;’ ‘Check this out.’ Each time one of us sat down out came a hit song. Nowadays Stevie calls me ‘the original rapper.’ I always tell him that I’m not a rapper I’m a storyteller. Whenever he hears my voice, he says ‘Castor’ (in a deep growl)…Write On!'”
Releases Hey Leroy, Your Mama’s Callin’—which ncludes “Southern Fried Frijoles,” “Ham Hocks Espanol,” “Bang Bang” and standards “Our Day Will Come,” “Winchester Cathedral” and a blazing version of “Old Man River,” on which Castor’s timbales son en fuego—for Smash.
Dick Clark calls. “So we got in my red Cadillac Coupe de Ville, which held five people, and got a U-haul trailer. Took Route 66 which is two lane: one comin and one going, got out there in 2 and half days. American Bandstand. Then the Whiskey A Go Go for like eleven days. The Young-Holt Trio opened for us.”
Releases “Hey, Leroy, Your Mama’s Callin’ You” (which artists like Jimi Hendrix and Les McCann will cover) on Smash/Mercury; it begins selling 250,000 copies a week. “One day I’m hearing Joe Panama play piano, so I got an idea. I tell my guitar player play C, E-minor, F, G, (imitates calypso rhythm) just keep playing that. And we started playing it in the clubs and people were loving it. Latin Calypso. See, I’m part Bermudian.” The title originally is “Freedom Rider,” inspired by the civil rights bus rides coursing through the South, but in the studio the producer asks Jimmy to “ghetto it up.” “So I start saying, ‘Hey, Leroy! Your Mama! She callin’ you man!’ Well, everyone, Neil Bogart, Clive Davis, rejected it.” Sammy Davis Jr. saves the day. “I met Sammy through his manager Finis Henderson Sr. who was also a client of this madam that Joe Tex was a client of. And she played it for him, who then played it for Sammy. Sammy called Luchi DeJesus at Smash, who loved it and put it out. Since we’d already laid the groundwork gigging so much, people couldn’t buy that record quick enough.”
The New York Times credits Castor for bringing together the “Latin people and the Black people.” Latin Soul—fomented by the likes of Joe Cuba, Willie Bobo, Pucho and his Latin Soul Brothers and Joe Bataan—is hot all across the city.
Joe Bataan: “At that time there was an influx of promoters that had an idea of having a soul act paired with a Latin act. They were trying to guarantee having the Blacks and the Latinos together. Often on the same bill it would be me, Kool & the Gang and Jimmy Castor. We’d play the Audubon Ballroom every month. Like Jimmy however my first love was R&B, ’cause Frankie Lymon was my idol. So the first time I come across Jimmy’s band, I hear this act playing ‘Manteca,’ and I said, ‘Wait, who is this guy? He’s Black, how could he play Latin? He was playing sax. And then he jumped to the timbales and I said, ‘Whoa wait a minute! I thought I was the only one, or Pucho who did that! Jimmy just blew my mind. I couldn’t understand how his band, with only five pieces was tigher and louder than my nine-piece band! And he had this diversified music, you couldn’t put your finger on it. Here he was playing Caribbean music, then going Latin, then funky soul… he was exciting. And here he comes out with this whimsical recording, and soon ‘Hey, Leroy’ was on everybody’s lips.”
Henry “Pucho” Brown: “Jimmy was a very disciplined bandleader, a showman, had a very sharp band. We used to play a lot of dances together, and we used to pack Small’s Paradise—it was the kingpin club in Harlem. He could do Latin but he was more into the soul music. King Curtis was Jimmy’s mentor. Jimmy was on the money, and he always rocked the house. And when ‘Hey, Leroy’ hit, he was a Harlem man.”
“Those dance accounts got me those Cadillacs,” says Jimmy. “’65, ’66, ’67, ’68, ’69 Coup de Ville. 8-track, AM radio, leather.”
Records on Bill Doggett’s Honky Tonk A La Mode with Cornell Dupree and Chuck Rainey.
“BACK INTO TIME!”
“I was king of the dances. I could play the Latin thing, the twist, the pop, a little jazz.”
A bill promoted as “Battle Of The Saxes” takes place at a packed Manhattan Center, featuring Lonnie Youngblood, Jimmy Castor and his idol, King Curtis. “We had to take promo photos and I wore Leighton’s alligator boots and I said, ‘My horn speaks for itself.’ First Lonnie and his band, flashbulbs are popping. I mean he really couldn’t play but he was dramatic, when he’d play colleges he’d jump on his ’61 Cadillac and just blow. So King—he must’ve had another gig afterwards—comes on next and just kills the crowd. He’s a monster. So I come out. Come on! I can’t follow King! I don’t pick up my horn once. Stayed on the stand and we just did Latin. I was on the timbales all night! The people are screamin,’ ‘Ohhh, Jimmmy!’ Ol’ King was angry. I got him! I wasn’t going to play sax behind him because you can’t!”
“Trudy Heller’s was on the corner of 9th Street and 6th. That’s where I took another step in my career, though I didn’t know it—upwards. Trudy Heller was mean. It was constant playing, almost no breaks. I was young and playing everything that was a hit. Playing a lot of Junior Walker. Lots of people came down from Broadway—Sammy and Lola, Danny Kaye, William Holden, Eartha Kitt, Patti Duke, the Burtons. Trudy would get mad if I played too many ballads. Then she’d put me round the corner in the 8th Wonder; her son ran that one. Tom Jones came in there one night with the pony tail and the face and he’d just worked in the mines. I did his record. (Sings) ‘Not unusual to be loved by anyone.’ He loved that! He introduced me to Elvis. To be in the room with Elvis Presley? That was some feeling. Elvis loved Tom, man. Elvis used to put bathroom tissue paper, you know the roll, in his pants to be like Tom, ’cause Tom had the real deal you know.”
With the assistance of the disc jockey Dr. Jive (Tommy Smalls) releases “In a Boogaloo Bag” for Decca. Very Wilson Pickett, with Latin percussion.
Jimmy regularly plays the Blue Morocco in the Bronx, owned by Mickey and Sylvia Robinson of “Love is Strange” and, later, Sugarhill Records. He has a family and is hungry. He takes all the money from his shoebox and replaces his Oldsmobile with a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, red with a black leather top, 8-track. He then drives down 7th Avenue—”we called it ‘coming down on deck'”—and pulls up to Small’s Paradise, where many heavyweights, such as King Curtis and Willis Jackson, regularly perform.
“Pete, the owner, he was mean, in construction, connected. I told Pete I had eight pieces, including a conga. I came that Monday night to audition, not enough room on stage, played ‘Ol’ Man River,’ the people were diggin’ that. My sound was new, it wasn’t just sax, it was Latin too. He was forced to put me in there because the people loved it.” Jimmy gets the gig for $900 a week, 40 on 20 off , 9 p.m. til 4 a.m, two weeks straight, Mondays off. “We’d show up with white suits, white shoes, had my timbales and my horn, just like King Curtis, had my Echoplex. The dead acts couldn’t play anymore after us. We just built up a following.”
Race riots last six days in section of Los Angeles: 34 dead, over 1,000 injured, nearly 4,000 arrested. “Malcolm X told me before he was assassinated, ‘I’m a dead man.’ After they shot him in the Audubon Ballroom, the next week I had to play there and I looked at the bullet holes behind me. Very sad, spooky. My grandmother died that day because she loved him. Her heart just went.”
Meets Jimi Hendrix at the Lighthouse, as part of Curtis Knight’s band; releases “It’s OK,” “Dream Affair” for Jet Set Records.
Becomes Dave “Baby” Cortez’s bandleader. “He caught me at the Blue Morocco in ’61. With him we did ‘Happy Organ’ then ‘Rinky Dink.’ George Benson’s on that. Dave had a gold organ, sharp clothes. I learned a lot from him.”
Jimmy makes his living playing all the “bloody razors,” sometimes simultaneously with multiple bands. Downtown: the Copa, Cheetah, Trick. Uptown: Club Baron, the Hideout. The dancehalls: Audubon Ballroom, Embassy Ballroom in the Bronx, Carlton Terrace, Carlton Place. Boat rides. “Sometimes I had three dances a night, so I had to have three bands; I would leave one midset, and meet the other one.” Jimmy gets a taste for the Vegas crowd at The Patio beach club in Long Island “where they had cabanas. I didn’t even know what a cabaña was. Just like the Hamptons. We’d play the lounge where Sammy Davis would play, Tito Puente, Don Rickles. They’d all stop to hear me. Then they put me in the main room for the younger set.”
On Jet Set Records: “It Isn’t What You Got (It’s What You Give),” “Block Party,” “Why?,” “Fabulous New York.” Very rock and roll with Latin percussion.
The Twist runs rampant throughout clubs and jukeboxes across the country. Jimmy releases “American Twist Pt. I & II” on Clown Records. “A guy named Sam Pruitt owned it in Brooklyn. I was singing that Russia may have Sputnik, but we have the Twist. Bobby Darin was influencing me then.”
Jimmy enters the prestigious (and very Caucasian) City College of New York in Harlem. Majors are music and accounting. Works momentarily for Union Carbide as a junior accountant, “the only person of color.”
“I paid a lot of dues. When I started I was playing for seven dollars a night. Weddings. Bar Mitzvahs. We split that. Rent the equipment. I was in the Casals. Then we had a record out called ‘8 O’Clock Scene’ on Seville Records.”
“Right after high school I was playing in bands. Tito had Dance Mania and I loved it. I picked up the bongos because of Ricky Powell. And Johnny Pacheco was making cowbells at the time—the greatest bells, I still have one. In fact, it’s on ‘Hey, Leroy.’ But then playing the bongos was damaging my jewelry, so I picked up those sticks. But I thought, ‘I’ll never play timbales, that’s just a bunch of noise.’ But then I began to hear the beauty of the timbales by really listening to Puente, the rolls and how it fit into the music, the spaces, the gaps, when you play the sides, the cowbell and how it pushes the band.”
Performs with Frankie Lymon’s brother Louis Lymon, as well as with the Teen Chords “for a minute.”
Jimmy meets John Pruitt, who will eventually become a lifelong songwriting collaborator and set up their own music publishing company. “I met John Pruitt in kindergarten. 1958 started collaboration, did stuff for the Imperials, the Clintonian Cubs, the Juniors. We formed our company in ’64. He didn’t play anything really, but was just a brilliant lyricist.”
Releases “This Girl of Mine” and “Somebody Mentioned Your Name” on Atomic Records.
“When you say Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, don’t forget, that’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The groups before them were great too, the Orioles, Larks, Royales, Rudy West and the Five Keys, but they didn’t take it to the masses. It was ‘race music’ when they were doing it. Parents didn’t want those album covers in their homes with their lily-white children. You had to put a monkey or anything on the cover but their faces. But when Frankie’s voice cut through with those four guys sent from heaven, it was a voice of an angel. Nobody could sing like that.”
On the Rock n’ Roll bus with the Platters, Little Richard, Cornelius Gunter and the Flairs, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, touring the South. The bus is routinely stopped and harassed by police. After one altercation in Alabama, Sam Cooke, who’s following the bus in his limousine, punches out a state trooper. “Johnny Maestro (white doo-wop singer who would later form Brooklyn Bridge) was on the bus, and that was a no-no down there. He had Max Factor #16 on his skin to be dark. This trooper got on the bus, saying, ‘What you niggers doing on this bus!’ Sam got out and started yelling at the trooper, ‘What kind of shit is this!’ The trooper reached down and Sam knocked him out and took his gun, and we split!”
“The first time I substituted for Frankie, they came into school to get me, man.”
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were the first teen-idol group of color and the prototypes for all boy-bands to follow; they put the fresh harmonizing of doo wop on the world’s map. Born with “a voice from God,” Lymon sent throngs of teenage girls into conniptions, the way the Beatles and Michael Jackson would do years later. Jimmy was no stranger, growing up a block away in the same Harlem neighborhood, attending the same grade school. Inspired by the Teenagers’ sudden success with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” Jimmy writes a song called “I Promise.” It’s intended for his group, the Juniors, but the Teenagers’ management, sensing a threat, snatches it up and the Teenagers turn it into their third smash. Success brings Jimmy his first royalty check ($2500), a significant upgrade in living quarters, and a slot as understudy for the unpredictable Frankie Lymon.
“The principal sent for me from the office; I thought I’d done something wrong. They came through the lunchroom. Girls were going crazy. Sherman’s saying (deep voice), ‘Where’s Castor?! Where’s Crash?’ (That was my nickname.) So, the principal calls my mother, ‘They want him to leave early Mrs. Castor, and we don’t approve’… She said, ‘I don’t blame you,’ and I’m saying, (moping) ‘C’mon mom, the Teenagers are here!’ I didn’t care about social studies, English, anything.”
In the park behind the school a helicopter awaits, then takes the group to Hershey, Pennsylvania to perform with the Platters, Chuck Berry, Clyde McPhatter, Bill Haley, Little Richard. “I’d never sang professionally. And now I’m in the room, Sherman doing my hair, there’s Tony Williams practicing, singing, ‘I am the great pretender… ‘ So it’s time for us to go on, I put on that white sweater with the big “T” on it and I thought I was gonna throw up. Thousands of people out there, no people of color. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, that teenage sensation, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers!’ Wow, we did three songs: ‘Why Don’t You Be My Girl,’ ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love,’ and the ballad ‘Please Be Mine.’ So the big bus is out back with 2000 girls waiting, then they started rocking the bus. I took my comb, broke it, then threw it out the window. They tried to kill each other for a tooth of the comb! A tooth! So here it is Saturday and I know I’m going to school Monday and I said, ‘This is what I want to do, shoot.'”
The bus takes the revue to Montreal, where a pissed-off and armed Frankie Lymon is waiting for Jimmy. “So I came in the room, Bing, a pie in my face. He’s cursing at me, ‘You motherfucker, taking my-‘ Bing, Bat, Bing, suddenly we’re tearing the Queens Hotel up with a bunch of pies laughing like brats. The next night I’m standing in the wings, ready, ’cause Frankie’s crazy he could do anything. He sees a broad he wants, he’s gone; he wants to get high, he’s gone. He was 14, but was really 25. Me, I didn’t even have hair under my arms.”
“Why Do Fools Fall In Love” is released and a smash hit. “Just to see them change when that record came out. Suits. Hats. Buses. But they were getting ripped off. They made about $1300 their whole 18-month career. Got an allowance, but the money just disappeared. Morris Levy took it all. Owed me sixty-six grand when he died. He would take Frankie and me to FAO Schwartz and Frankie would buy all these toy cars, but I wanted money. My mom made sure I got money.”
Enters the prestigious High School of Music and Art in Harlem. “You had to play an instrument and keyboards. Then they taught me clarinet, you had to play another reed if you played sax. Had to know theory, solfeggio, along with your regular subjects. The music comprehensive test was unreal, four hours, you don’t pass, you don’t graduate, go finish at another school. It was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. It separated me from the rest.”
A teacher recommends Jimmy for Music and Art High School, “but you had to know piano so I took a crash course and practiced on my sister’s little toy piano! I passed. So here I go. My mother puts this beret on me, Vaseline on my face ’cause it’s cold, and I’m walking up the hill to this school that was all white, limousines dropping kids off and I’m coming from roaches and rats.”
He releases “Promise” and “I Know the Meaning of Love” on Wing/Mercury. “First record I ever made, I made acetates before that but nothing happened. This was the first record that came out. Alan Freed loved it. ‘This is little Jimmy Castor,’ he would say. ‘I Knew the Meaning of Love’ which was written by Dicky Goodman. Buchanan and Goodman were my managers at the time. They had the Lunaverse label.”
Learns violin. Hates it. Picks up the saxophone in seventh grade after taking a music test. “I said I wanna play sax, ’cause I used to see those horns wailing at the Apollo Theater, Red Prysock, those guys… My first song was do-do-do-re-mi-re-do-mi-re-re-do in G, I’ll never forget. Then I learned ‘Home On the Range;’ then you couldn’t tell me anything, I was gone!”
Jimmy’s father leaves his wife and two kids. Despite working two jobs, Jimmy’s mother can’t afford the $40/month rent, and they move in with his grandmother. Jimmy shines shoes and sells papers before and after school and on weekends. “Shine ’em up right over here!” Just enough to go to the pool or the movies, ten cents, fourteen cents, twenty cents, you’d see three movies, four chapters and twenty-five cartoons and I’d come home with a headache. Now, if I saw a horror flick, I’d have to walk home past that huge cemetery. So I’d walk in the middle of the street on the median. Cause when Dracula’s son and the mummy were coming to get you, and the organ would be playing those diminished chords, man, that was scary.”
Has his first performance in public at the Apollo Theater, while watching Sugar Child Robinson. “He was like a man that could play piano. He was eight years old. My uncle had taken me to see him, I was in my little sailor suit and people in the audience were telling them to put me up there, so I got up there and sang. I must’ve been five or six. I wasn’t booked or anything.”
June 23rd, 1940
The troglodyte, anthropoid and Neanderthal eras have passed, and Jimmy Castor is born in Washington Heights.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 19, 2012