PEE WEE CRAYTON
Born Connie Curtis Crayton, 18 December 1914, Liberty Hill, Texas
Pee Wee Crayton was a late bloomer. Though he played musical instruments from an early age (ukulele, trumpet, guitar), it wasn't in the context of a professional aspiration. He was thirty by the time he started playing the guitar seriously. Along with his mentor T-Bone Walker, he was a pioneer of the electric blues guitar. But he is much more than a T-Bone clone, with his own imaginative, aggressive style. Many of Crayton's licks can be found on Chuck Berry's recordings, although Berry has never cited Crayton as an influence.
Connie Curtis Crayton was born in the rural town of Liberty Hill, near Rockdale, Texas, and spent most of his childhood in Austin. Coming of age during the Great Depression, he was busy simply surviving. He shined shoes and pressed clothes at a cleaners for $1,50 a week. Rumour had it that life was easier on the West Coast and in 1935 Crayton went to see for himself. In Los Angeles, Pee Wee found a wife and employment at a Chevrolet dealership. In 1941, Crayton's interest in the guitar was excited by the record "Solo Flight" by Benny Goodman and his orchestra, with Charlie Christian on electric guitar. He bought a second-hand guitar and picked up some pointers from an Oakland guitarist named Eddie Young. In 1944 he befriended T-Bone Walker, another transplanted Texan, who provided him with guidance and encouragement.
Crayton got his first musical gig with Count Otis Matthews, a blues pianist who had a four-piece band. In 1946 Pee Wee joined the band of Ivory Joe Hunter and appeared on at least six of his Pacific records. It was also for Pacific that he first recorded on his own, in 1947, but these four tracks stayed in the can. After his success on Modern Records these recordings were purchased by 4-Star and Gru-V-Tone and belatedly issued on two singles.
By this time Crayton had his own trio, with the great blues pianist David Lee Johnson and Candy Johnson on bass. While playing at a club in San Francisco, they were spotted by a record distributor named Tony Vallero, who recommended Crayton to Jules Bihari in Los Angeles. Bihari signed Pee Wee to his Modern label and though the recording ban was still on in the summer of 1948, Crayton cut his first sessions in an improvised studio at Modern's new headquarters. The slow instrumental "Blues After Hours" became his first Modern single and topped the R&B charts for three weeks in November 1948. No doubt, the atmospheric piano work of David Lee Johnson was a major factor in its success. The follow-up was another (much more bouncy) instrumental, "Texas Hop", with Buddy Floyd on tenor sax. This was a # 5 R&B hit in 1949, soon followed by Pee Wee's first vocal A-side, "I Love You So", which peaked at # 6. Little did Crayton know then that he would never see the charts again. Through no fault of his own, though.
Pee Wee stayed with Modern until 1951 and had many fine releases on the label in a variety of styles : slow vocal blues, up-tempo boogies, instrumentals and ballads. Among them "Louella Brown", "Pee Wee's Wild", "Boogie Woogie Upstairs" (credited to drummer Al Wichard) and "Poppa Stoppa". After his break with Modern, Pee Wee undertook a single session for Aladdin in November 1951, with Maxwell Davis and his band, followed by an obscure EP on John Dolphin's Recorded In Hollywood label. For two years he was without a recording contract. A car accident outside Galveston, Texas, in 1953 was followed by months of recuperation. Then came a two-year stint with Imperial Records (1954-55) and, along with the Modern period, this produced the best recordings of Crayton's long career. Though based in Los Angeles, Imperial was then enjoying great success with the music that trumpeter-bandleader Dave Bartholomew recorded in New Orleans ; Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis being the most conspicuous examples of this. Crayton fit comfortably into a horn-heavy Crescent City groove and despite the lack of commercial success, his Imperial sides are an artistically successful West-meets-South hybrid. Some titles : "You Know Yeah", "Do Unto Others" (with an explosive guitar intro copied in 1968 on the Beatles' "Revolution"), "Runnin' Wild" (an update of Bartholomew's "Country Boy") and the instrumental "Blues Before Dawn". Pee Wee now played a custom Stratocaster, given to him by Leo Fender, which added edge and higher notes to his sound.
The second half of the 1950s was spent trying to rebuild his flagging career without much luck in Detroit and Des Moines. He made some good sides for Vee-Jay in 1956-57, returned to Los Angeles in 1960, recorded one-off singles for Guyden, Jamie and Smash (1961-62) and drove a truck for the L.A. Union Freight Lines to support his family. The 1960s were his least glorious period, but by the decade's end, his fortunes took a turn for the better. Johnny Otis showcased Crayton in a memorable program at the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival (issued on Epic) and this led to a surprisingly good comeback LP on Vanguard ("The Things I Used To Do", 1971). In 1973 Otis recorded an LP by Pee Wee for his Blues Spectrum label, with an excellent remake of "Texas Hop". "If I Ever Get Lucky" was another highlight of this album (available on Spotify).
The five years or so before his death coincided with another resurgence of interest in blues and R&B and this saw Crayton reaching an even wider audience with several new albums and reissues of his Modern recordings. He was still actively performing and recording when a heart attack took his life in June 1985. Crayton struggled with understandable frustration about being overlooked by fame and history. But he is certainly not forgotten today and lives on as one of the great electric blues guitarists.
More info :
Acknowledgements : The liner notes for the three CD's mentioned above.
Dik, December 2011
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