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Four-J — The Hard Way

When it came to rhythm and blues and rock and roll recording activity during the late 1950s and early ’60s, Los Angeles truly was the wild West. The Rocky Mountains handily separated the City of Angels’ thriving self-contained industry from the stuffy major labels out East, allowing independent producers and shoestring labels to proliferate in Hollywood and across the vast expanses of the sun-baked hinterlands.

Young, good-looking talent came cheap. Songwriters eagerly pitched their latest three-chord creations to anyone offering a little encouragement, much less a session. Vocal groups switched names and members seemingly on a weekly basis, searching high and low for the magic combination that would at last thrust them into the spotlight. Singers, even those boasting sterling resumes, thought nothing of moonlighting for one indie label while under contract to another. Chaotic though it was, a slew of national hits resulted from all the rampant craziness.

Jesse “J.J.” Jones found himself smack dab in the middle of the action. The young man with the golden horn bid his native Atlanta adieu in the mid-’50s, quickly making the most of his West Coast odyssey. Jones distinguished himself on his wide-toned tenor saxophone as he had back home before moving behind the scenes as an A&R man and owner of three labels.

Unlike many of his local contemporaries, Jones produced a national hit in late 1962 with the inaugural release on his 4-J label, Lonnie Russ’ “My Wife Can’t Cook.” None of the firm’s encores achieved the same happy fate, a disillusioning outcome that J.J. chalks up to blacklisting because he didn’t play ball with the local scene’s shady powers-that-be.

“I had began to build a name for myself, and I had began to get the nickname that I was going to be the Berry Gordy of the West Coast because of the artists that I had,” he said. “I was really moving pretty fast. And to get it just kicked out from under you—it actually happened.”

Born in Atlanta in January of 1931, Jesse James Jones, Jr. grew up on a Fulton County farm with his Mama Minnie, many foster brothers and sisters, and a lot of dogs and livestock. “I loved my mother so much,” he said. “She was my inspiration. She played piano for the church, and all of my baby years and growing up, she played and sang to me on the piano. She bought me my first instrument, my saxophone, when I was 14. And that’s my beginning of music.”

Although doo-wop was mostly a phenomenon centered on the two coasts and in the Midwest, Atlanta had a handful of vocal groups to call its own. The Twilighters must have been something to see onstage; second tenor Julius High, Jr. tipped the scales at 300 pounds, while bass singer Milton Hillsman stood four-feet-eleven and weighed all of 110. They asked J.J.’s own combo to back them at an Atlanta audition in early 1955 for Specialty Records, Art Rupe’s powerful Los Angeles-based R&B label whose star-studded roster included Lloyd Price, Guitar Slim, Percy Mayfield, and Roy Milton as well as many top gospel quartets.

That February 15, the Twilighters waxed their Specialty single in their hometown. At the same date, Jones and his combo (pianist Rogers Rambo, bassist Layman Jackson, drummer Lafayette Lawson, and Marlon Booker rattling the bongos) made their own platter for the company, both sides Latinized updates of time-honored instrumental anthems: “Night Train Mambo” and “After Hours Mambo.” The singles sank without trace that April, but a crucial connection had been made. As it turned out, J.J.’s days in Atlanta were numbered.

“At that time, I was married, and there was a club where I would go gamble. Every night I’d get paid off from the club or whatever, I’d go lose all my money. And I could not break that habit,” he said. “That club, to me, was like a magnet. I could not refuse to go in that club. And every time I got some money, I would go there to gamble and I would lose everything, because I didn’t know how to gamble, really.” Something had to give. “I said to myself, ‘The only way to break it, one of the best ways, is to get out of the environment of it.’ So that’s what I decided.”

Next stop: Los Angeles.

“I made up my mind I wanted to go somewhere where I didn’t know nobody, that I could just start a new life. So that was my first long flight on a plane,” Jones said. He quickly found himself as Lee Rupe’s A&R man at her Ebb label, eventually five instrumental 45s of his own for the label. The first, released in late ’57, was a rocking treatment of Earle Hagen’s traditionally stately standard “Harlem Nocturne” that stripped the moody noir theme down to its bare essentials. “‘Harlem Nocturne’ was always a song that I just really cared a lot about,” he said. “I think that’s why I recorded it.” Next up in early ’58 was an atmospheric Jones original, “Darkness,” that showcased J.J.’s sax in a tangy Afro-Cuban mode. A one-time-only moniker switch to Little Jesse for “Huggin’” didn’t get Jones any closer to the charts.

Having witnessed the day-to-day details of operating a record label, J.J. decided to start two of his own: Lita and Morocco, boy stalling out after just a few singles. Undeterred by the quick immolation of his first two labels, Jesse gave it another shot in 1962, naming his new 4-J label after himself. “My name is Jesse James Jones, Jr. So that’s four J’s,” he said. Locating flagship artist Lonnie Russ was a breeze. “Through an ad that I ran in the local paper here in Los Angeles, which was the Sentinel,” Jones recalled. “That was one of my methods of finding artists. And I had ran an ad in the paper looking for artists, and his sister, I think it was, lived here in Los Angeles. But he lived in San Francisco at that time. So she got in touch with him, he got in touch with me, and I brought him down here because I heard the song ‘My Wife Can’t Cook.’ I liked it, and that’s the way I found him.”

“My Wife Can’t Cook” was a clever, infectious R&B rocker from Lonnie’s own pen that must have sounded like a surefire hit the moment he opened his mouth and let fly. Jesse hired Ray Shanklin, fluent on piano and saxophone, to do the arranging. “Ray was very, very talented,” he noted. Russ also wrote the moving ballad flip “Something Old, Something New.”

“When I recorded ‘My Wife Can’t Cook,’ I had gone to quite a few companies to try to get them to distribute it for me. And actually, they turned me down. Because it was a novelty record, they were saying, ‘Jesse, this is not a hit. You’re crazy!’ So I went ahead with Al Levine that owned the pressing plant at that time. He told me to go ahead and put the record out, and he would back me on it, as far as my pressing and all that was concerned,” Jones said. “I put it out, and it became an immediate hit.”

Entering Billboard’s pop chart in December of ’62, “My Wife Can’t Cook” rose to #57 over an eight-week run. Its growing momentum brought new problems. “It became a big, big, big record,” Jones said. “Then those companies came back and tried to get me to turn it over to them. And I was kind of arrogant, and I wouldn’t turn it over to them. At that time, I had an attitude. And again, not knowing the record industry and being a little cocky, my attitude was, ‘I tried to get you to take it at first and you turned it down!’

“I wouldn’t give it to them. So there was another element that approached me about the record, that was, I think, a bad element. And they threatened me that if I didn’t give them the record to distribute, and part of running it, that they would kill the record. I had an arrogant attitude about that also. I’m saying, like, ‘Okay, kill it!’ And they did. And that was the beginning of my downfall, as far as the record industry was concerned.”

In time-honored fashion, 4-J’s encore was an answer to its initial success. Little Alice’s sassy “So What If I Can’t Cook” was brainstormed by Russ, gospel singer Vincente Love, and drummer Bobby Gross. Little Alice Wagoner hailed from San Diego and had previously sung with George Semper & His Kingsmen. The other side of Little Alice’s 4-J outing, the smooth Russ-penned ballad “Why Oh Why,” stirred up a little local dust without denting the national hit parade. Shanklin was back as arranger and conductor, a post he would retain for the entirety of 4-J’s catalog.

The compositional talent of Jimmy Lewis kept him in demand even if he wasn’t singing hits. Born November 19, 1939 in Itta Bena, Mississippi, Lewis made his debut on vinyl on Cliff Chambers’ local Cyclone label in 1961 with a song Cliff supplied, “Goodby Sorrow.” “I was raised up with the gospel,” Chambers said. “My dad taught us. We had a quartet called the Sunshine Four in Valliant, Oklahoma. We used to broadcast out of Paris, Texas. I was so little, I don’t remember when we started, because we left Oklahoma when I was around nine or 10.”

Born January 23, 1934, Chambers attended junior high and high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico before relocating to Denver, where he met Vernon Green, the lead singer of the Medallions, the L.A. vocal group whose ‘54 coupling of “Buick 59” and “The Letter” had been a West Coast sensation on Dootsie Williams’ Dootone Records. As Vernon & Cliff, they cut “You Came Along,” a 1959 duet single for Dooto (Williams had by then trimmed the name of his imprint). “He wouldn‘t pay us,” remembers Chambers, who exited Denver for obvious reasons. “We kept coming out here promoting,” he said. “My wife said, ‘If you keep going out to Los Angeles, why don’t we just move?’ And three days later, we were on the way.”

Cliff launched Cyclone in 1961. In addition to Lewis’ “Goodby Sorrow,” the logo issued 45s by Chambers (a rocking “Don’t Talk Back”), Cene Roye (“That’s the first person I was going to cut,” he says. “She kind of sang jazzy-like”), and Cookie Jackson, who kicked off her career torching Cliff’s “Try Love (Just One More Time).” “That was my wife’s cousin,” he says. “I wrote her a few songs and did a few things, but I had to work two jobs to try to get the label going.” Cyclone’s last release seems to have been Pretty Boy Lamar’s “You Are Gonna Be Sorry.” “He was tall, slim, good-looking. We was rehearsing him, and these two girls came over,” says Cliff. “They knocked on the door and asked me, ‘When are they gonna rehearse that guy?’ They didn’t know his name. ‘What guy?’ They said, ‘The pretty boy!’ So then I said, ‘Oh, that’s a good name for him!’ His last name was Lamar.”

Cliff’s co-producer on Cookie’s 45 was James Carmichael, the pianist in Chambers’ gigging combo (he would much later produce the Commodores). “He was learning arrangements when I met him,” says Cliff, who shared writing credit with Carmichael and Lewis on Jimmy’s 4-J debut, the two-part “Wait Until Spring.” “I really wrote that,” says Chambers. “I had to split my songs with people to get things done.” The two sides rode disparate tempos. As for Part 1, “It was slow,” says Chambers. But Part 2 picked up steam, Lewis ramping up the gospel intensity in his gritty vocal delivery. “He’d go, ‘Wait a minute!’ He’d start preaching,” says Chambers.

“Wait Until Spring” had to await its turn on 4-J’s schedule. “I had not released that, because Lonnie’s record was doing so well,” says Jesse. “There were different radio stations that had heard the copy of it, and had told me that the minute that I released that record, they were going to pick it as a pick on these stations.” Initial response to “Wait Until Spring” was promising. “People had to get like 15,000 records sold before they’d go on the black station. They picked that song before it sold, and it was playing every 15 minutes. It was the pick hit,” says Chambers. “I was so happy. I go, ‘Whoa, I’ve got a hit!’”

Unfortunately, prolonged R&B airplay cost money. “Payola was very prominent at that time,” says Jesse. “He didn’t make a deal with ‘em, and they cut that thing off so fast!” marvels Cliff. Era Records gave the two-parter a second shot in ’65, but the end result was the same.

At the beginning of March 1963, Billboard reviewed Lonnie Russ’ 4-J encore. Once again Russ brought a song of his own to the party, but “Tell Me How” turned out to be a duet with Pat Hunt. In 1961, the young L.A. chanteuse had cut “First Love” for Hal Davis and Marc Gordon at Exodus Records, picked up by the Bihari brothers’ Kent logo as “You Are My First Love.” Charles Wright, a long way from stepping out with his Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, produced Pat’s followup for Grand, “Good Things Come To Those Who Wait.”

Russ sounded more like Ray Charles on “Tell Me How” than he had on his hit, aided by Shanklin’s hip, eminently Twistable groove while Hunt emoted for all she was worth as Lonnie’s equivalent of Margie Hendrix. Jesse invented a new dance for Russ to demonstrate on the B-side. “Flip Flop” incorporated the same forward/backward countdown gimmick that distinguished “My Wife Can’t Cook,” but neither side made a commercial splash. 

Hunt was also a member of a girl group deemed special enough to carry the name of Jesse’s label. The rest of the Four J’s consisted of Brenda Holloway (born June 26, 1946 in Atascadero, California), her little sister Patrice (born in L.A. on March 23, 1951), and Priscilla Kennedy. Most of them sang in the Watesians, who worked closely with Hal Davis and made a late ‘62 single for Del-Fi, “I Told You Baby.”

“Hal discovered the Watesians,” says Brenda. “Hal had put the group together with me, Priscilla Kennedy, Pat Hunt, and a girl named Barbara.” The Holloways didn’t waste any time. Brenda had three 1962 singles on Del-Fi; Davis produced Patrice’s two-part “Do The Del Viking” on his Taste label the next year, billing her as “”Little 12-Year-Old Patrice Holloway.”

Priscilla wrote and probably fronted “The Nursery,” the perky A-side of the Four J’s’ only single on their namesake label, complete with requisite references to Little Miss Muffet, Little Jack Horner, and Hickory Dickory Dock. Vincente Love and Bobby Gross gave them the earthier “Will You Be My Love,” granted an equally danceable groove by Shanklin without the kiddie lyrical content. This time Hunt reportedly stepped up to sing lead.

The Four J’s wouldn’t last long, but their solo exploits would more than atone. Brenda’s smoldering 1964 Tamla debut “Every Little Bit Hurts” propelled her to stardom (she also cut the original “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”). Patrice didn’t have the same luck at Motown, but she did a ton of L.A. studio background work, had several of her own Capitol singles, and even was a cartoon character as one-third of Josie and the Pussycats (she passed away October 1, 2006). Hunt’s 1968 single for Fantasy’s Early Bird logo was produced by Shanklin. Kennedy masqueraded as Eleanore Rigby (honest!) for a Bob Thiele-helmed ’69 platter on the Amsterdam logo, “Father McKenzie.” Together and apart, the Four J’s earned straight A’s.

Lonnie Russ got in on the two-part fun with his 4-J two-sider “We Belong Together,” no relation to Robert & Johnny’s devotional ’58 hit ballad of the same name. Lonnie seemed to be morphing into Brother Ray, testifying in front of an easy horn-fueled swing devised by Shanklin. 4-J’s answer to the Raeletts harmonized sweetly behind Russ.

Jesse was clearly excited about both sides of Jimmy Lewis’ second 4-J release. The intense minor-key pleader “Feelin In Mah Bones,” penned by its singer, was the official A-side, but the label of its Chambers-penned platter mate, out on 4-J under two titles—“Don’t Leave Me Darling” and “Koppin A Plea”—was optimistically designated as “A—ALSO.” Lewis proved adept at begging for another chance on this upbeat side as well, wailing his pleas for forgiveness with the unbridled passion of James Brown.

Chambers invited Ekundayo Paris into 4-J’s orbit. “He had a nice voice,” says Cliff. “He was the one that brought Pretty Boy Lamar to me. He was always at my house because he lived down the street from me, and my wife and his mom were in the PTA together.” Shanklin scribed a sumptuous violin-enriched backdrop for Paris’ self-penned testifier “Excuse Me Baby,” his gripping vocal at times conjuring up visions of Little Willie John. The Chambers-authored “Don’t Lead Me On” sat on the flip, again marked as “A—ALSO.” The strings and choir meld together compellingly, Paris lowering his range a bit.

Instead of using the singer’s full name (admittedly a mouthful) on the label, 4-J billed him as Mr. Tears (Paris). “I think Jesse named him that, if I’m not mistaken,” says Cliff. Although Paris revived Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” for UNI in 1970 (the Mr. Tears alias had been shelved, as was his projected UNI LP at the last minute), he concentrated largely on songwriting after that, collaborating with his brother Adeniyi on the Grass Roots’ R&B-influenced ’71 pop hit “Sooner Or Later.” Ekundayo and Nelson Pigford later co-penned Barry White’s ’77 R&B chart-topper “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next To Me.”

Lonnie Russ had one more shot at landing a followup hit for 4-J. Cliff had conceived the right vehicle: another succulent food ditty, “Them Greens,” that was served up seasoned with humor. “It was supposed to be called ‘Greasy Greens,’ I thought. That’s what I wrote it to be,” says Chambers. “Jesse was over at my house, and we was talking about food. And he said, ‘Man, I don’t like them greasy greens!’ And I was going up to the corner for my work, to get some doughnuts for the shop, and I started walking. And I was thinking about what he said.

“When he said, ‘I don’t like no greasy greens,’ then I thought about the different things you could eat with the cornbread and the black-eyed peas and stuff, and I put that together.” Russ sounds like a man who knows precisely what he wants to see on his plate, belting his culinary preferences over an uplifting rhythm as a Ray Charles-style electric piano winds through. “Lil’ Evette,” co-written by Russ, struck much the same propulsive drive on the other side (the song clocks in at under two minutes). Jesse would produce Russ again in Atlanta, but Lonnie was fated to remain a one-hit wonder. While living in Sacramento, he died on July 23, 2002.

James Conwell had been doo-wopping since 1953, when he and four buddies formed the Minor Tones at Carver Junior High School in L.A. (Jesse Belvin was an early mentor). The group debuted on the Cholly label with the street corner ballad “Burning Desire,” then recut it in 1959 as the Classics for producer H.B. Barnum and Ro-Ann Records. Another name switch to the Viceroys preceded their waxing a Coasters-influenced “Uncle Sam Needs You” for Barnum in ‘61. First out on the Little Star logo, it was picked up by Mercury’s Smash imprint for national consumption. The group also waxed “Dreamy Eyes” for local deejay Art Laboe’s Original Sound logo the same year and subbed as the Penguins just long enough to back Cleve Duncan on “Memories Of El Monte” in ’63 for Laboe’s logo.

With all that experience under his belt, Conwell was ready to undertake a solo career at 4-J in 1964. He confidently detailed “The Trouble With Girls (Of Today)” in front of crisp uptown soul backing spiced by a Latin-tinged beat. Conwell himself conceived the lovely “I Know I’m Sure (I’m In Love)” in a doo-wop-oriented mode, Shanklin surrounding his hearty tenor with an organ-led combo and a vocal chorus that included the Blossoms’ Darlene Love as well as Dorothy Berry, the wife of Richard “Louie Louie” Berry. Uncle Sam did need James right after that. As Jimmy Conwell, he resurfaced after his military hitch with producers Leonard Jewell Smith and Henry Graham, making fine 45s for Mirwood (“Second Hand Happiness”) and Gemini (“Let It All Out,” and with the Exits, “Under The Street Lamp”).

Chambers supplied both sides of Jimmy Lewis’ last 4-J offering. “Don’t Let‘Em” drives like crazy over a hard backbeat and chanting chorines, while Shanklin added stirring horns and an organ cushion to the roaring “I Have Love (For You).” “People would tell me different things about their lives,” says Cliff. “Somebody would mention something, and a song would pop up for it. I just had that gift from God for that.”

While touring in behalf of his 4-J output, Lewis shared a bill with Bill Pinkney’s Original Drifters. He joined the group in 1964, fronting their James Brown-produced “Don’t Call Me” on Fontana (Chambers was its co-writer). Jimmy and Cliff stuck together after Lewis reverted to a solo career, Chambers penning his “One Love” on Era with Carmichael arranging. When Jimmy moved to the Minit label, he, Chambers, and Jimmy Holiday were listed as writers on Lewis’ “The Girls From Texas.” The trio also composed Ray Charles’ ‘67 ABC release “Somebody Ought To Write A Book About It” (Cliff’s name was left off first pressings, but that was quickly corrected). Lewis scored an R&B chart hit in 1969, duetting with Brother Ray on a bluesy “If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck” (Chambers had some bad luck this time regarding authorship; Lewis and Charles ended up with the credit). Jimmy recorded for Charles’ Tangerine label and many more, ran his own Miss Butch imprint, and wrote prolifically until his September 10, 2004 death.

4-J’s swan song came from a new source: the Extremes. The vocal group had been kicking around L.A. for a while; founder Bobby Sanders had come out from New York in the late ‘50s, making a 1960 single for the tiny Kaybo label and another for Kent the next year. The Extremes consisted of Sanders, Charles Ingersoll, Melvin Isley, and lone female member Clotell King when they waxed “The Bells” for Paro in 1962, but whether that precise lineup laid down Ingersoll’s “Sad Sam” and “How I Need Your Love” (Ingersoll co-wrote it as well) is unclear. All but King reportedly provided uncredited vocal backing on Dobie Gray’s ’65 smash “The ‘In’ Crowd.” Ingersoll was a member of the Young Hearts on their Sanders-produced 1968 hits for Minit, “Oh, I’ll Never Be The Same” and “I’ve Got Love For My Baby.”

After that, Jesse threw in the towel. “I ran out of money. At that time, I was living pretty well. A big nice home, money, wife, children. And I actually went way, way, way, way down,” he says. “I went into foreclosure, and just all kind of things. I was actually just cut off.

“I was really bitter about that,” says Jones, hinting that a certain still-powerful label head with a bitter divorce in his past might have had a little something to do with his downfall. In need of a fresh start, Jesse returned to where it all began for him. Back in Atlanta in 1967, he got into the studio with his latest batch of discoveries, inaugurating fresh labels of his own to record them for. That period of J.J.’s career is splendidly anthologized on our Eccentric Soul: The Tragar & Note Labels, essential listening for Southern soul aficionados.

Jesse “J.J.” Jones bears the scars of Los Angeles’ unsavory record industry past. “It’s not a good feeling, you know, when I think back on a lot of it,” Jones says. “I’ve tried to forget more than remember.”