Specialty Records founder Art Rupe came of age in the big band era, and the big bands shaped his notion of right from wrong when it came to music. Roy Milton was right. A would-be big band leader in the era of post-War austerity, Milton was sufficiently skilled to create a very full sound from a small ensemble. His music staked out new ground between the pre-war orchestras and rock ‘n’ roll. That new ground became known as Rhythm & Blues. Coincidentally, Roy Milton was also the artist that got Specialty Records off the ground.
Born in Wynnewood, Oklahoma on July 31, 1907, Roy Milton was of part African-American and part Native-American ancestry. At age four, his family moved to Tulsa, and Roy grew up there. He remembered seeing the great vaudeville blue singers like Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, and saw every big band that came through Tulsa. In 1956, Color magazine published a profile of him (as part of its “Is Los Angeles a Utopia for Negroes?” issue), and Roy spoke of those formative years. “In 1931, I enrolled at Sam Houston College in Austin,” he said. “I had the intention of studying physical education. My favorite entertainers were Louis Armstrong, who’s still my favorite, and Ivie Anderson, who sang with Duke Ellington. My first professional job with Ernie Fields’ Orchestra happened in 1931 in Tulsa.” Unheralded and little recorded, the Fields orchestra was one of the territory bands that tore up the mid-West during the Depression. So many musicians from jazz giants like Charlie Parker to honking R&B sidemen got their start in the territory bands. Roy began with Fields as a singer, but moved to drums when the drummer didn’t make it one night.
In 1933, Roy Milton parted company from Ernie Fields; in 1935, Roy moved to utopia and formed a band that became known as the Solid Senders. Utopia wasn’t so great. “Our first job was in San Pedro at Slim’s Place, down in the cellar. It was called the bucket of blood, and man was it rough. The place was hot and stuffy and loaded with roughnecks and whiskeyheads who would fight at the slightest provocation. Each member got $2.00 each and tips. I got $2.50.” Moving uptown, Roy got a gig at Louis’ Café on Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles. “I was there about four years or more,” he said. “They called me Pico Roy. Finally, we got down on First Street during the war. At the Cobra Room—that’s where I really got going.” Soon, he had an early evening gig playing pop standards for a white crowd on Sunset, and an after-hours gig on First Street boogie’ing the woogie. “I had a little spot of my own, too,” he said. “Roy’s Night Spot. I was right in the middle of it.” And then Art Rupe came calling.
Four years after Roy Milton arrived in California, Art Rupe drove out from Pennsylvania with the idea of becoming a movie scriptwriter. Instead, he took on some partners and launched a record label, Juke Box. “I’d never been to a recording session before I started Juke Box Records, which was the grandfather of Specialty,” he told Kevin Howlett, “but I just knew I could do it, and I was young enough not to be inhibited. I went and bought some 78s and played them on a little machine ‘til they turned gray, and I talked to the people who sold me the records and found out what was selling. I had a stopwatch and I studied how many bars of music were in an average record. I studied the tempo. I had a metronome. I analyzed it very clinically.” Rupe had given himself a budget of $600 to start Juke Box, and he’d spent $200 on records, metronomes, etc. before he recorded the first note.
Art Rupe went to see Roy Milton in the winter of 1945. “I’d put out a couple of records on Juke Box, and I was searching for talent in the nightspots,” he said. “Roy had a compact six-piece band that was versatile and disciplined. It was an uncomplicated sound, yet had a full harmonic range.” Six pieces meant that sessions wouldn’t be too expensive, and versatile and disciplined meant that they’d have no problems recording four songs in the standard three-hour session. Even so, Rupe left nothing to chance. “Most black musicians were good at improvising and very seldom played the same thing twice,” he told Arnold Shaw. “If they felt good, you got a superb performance, but if they felt bad, it would turn out bad. I couldn’t afford to gamble, so we rehearsed and rehearsed. Many of Roy’s men did not read music, so they had to memorize every note and every nuance.”
Rupe had seen Roy Milton’s show for white patrons and his show for black patrons, and made it clear that he wanted the latter. “My band was real popular,” said Milton, “and Art came down and talked to us. My manager, Ben Waller, didn’t want me recording for him, but I said ‘yes,’ because I’d never recorded before. I went down to Radio Recorders on Santa Monica, and we recorded three numbers. Art wanted a fourth. I said, ‘Wait a minute, let me write a few lyrics, and we’ll put a riff behind it. I wrote ‘R. M. Blues,’ put a riff behind it, and that was it.” So Rupe wasn’t quite correct in saying that they rehearsed every nuance, but Roy wasn’t quite correct in saying he’d never recorded before. Just a few weeks earlier, he’d recorded for Lionel Hampton’s Hamptone label, but “R. M. Blues” was released first, and became a monumental hit. “In the black community,” Rupe said later, “records were sold in little mom and pop stores, dry cleaning shops, grocery stores, drug stores…whatever. There’d be a little rack of records. My first sale was to Gold’s Furniture on Central Avenue. I called my label Juke Box because I thought it would give me an advantage by association. The major labels concentrated on pop, so we went after the specialty stuff, if you’ll forgive the pun.”
Recorded in December 1945, “R. M. Blues” became a hit the following spring. The chart books say that it reached No.2, but the little outlets where Rupe sold his records didn’t report to the trade papers, so it probably did much better than the stats suggest. “It was probably up to that time the biggest record of urban black music that had ever been made,” Rupe said later. True or not, it sold a lot of copies, and gave him the courage to jettison his partners and go it alone with Specialty Records in late 1946. When Rupe folded Juke Box, Roy and his manager, Ben Waller, began recording for their own Miltone label, but Milton rejoined Rupe at Specialty in March 1947.
“R. M. Blues” was as good for Milton as it was Rupe. He left the joints of Los Angeles and hit the road. His earnings jumped to $5000 a week. One night at the City Auditorium in Atlanta in 1946 netted him $1500. He and his wife bought a house for $25,000, a $20,000 touring bus, a beauty shop, and a 23-unit apartment building in the West Adams neighborhood that he renamed Milton Arms.
Roy Milton’s music straddled two eras. “R. M. Blues” and the follow-up, “Milton’s Boogie,” were a composite of Count Basie, Joe Turner/Pete Johnson, and Louis Jordan records from the 1930s and ‘40s, but the stripped-down arrangements were topped off with an urgency that was altogether new. The key player was pianist Camille Howard, who was always up in the mix (a note from Rupe in the Specialty files said, “Get Roy to do boogies with lots of piano in front”). Roy’s vocals didn’t have the booming assertiveness of, say, Joe Turner, but he was an engaging vocalist who could sell a lyric. “Recording was real simple in those days,” said Rupe. “You didn’t have a microphone on each nostril like you do now. We weren’t encumbered with technology. I had three, maybe four microphones. Roy was the drummer and the singer, so I fortuitously picked up the beat of his drum. Roy would look into the control room, and if he didn’t see me weaving and dancing, he got depressed. He’d say, ‘What’s the matter?’ I always insisted on keeping the beat and rhythm front-and-center.”
Milton’s Ellington-on-a-budget arrangements shone on the slower numbers, like “So Tired,” “Thrill Me” (with Camille Howard singing), and “Everything I Do Is Wrong,” featuring an alto saxophonist sounding very much like Ellington’s Johnny Hodges. Running out of songs before the 1948 recording ban, Milton showed his roots when he turned to an Andy Razaf song “A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid.” A charming glimpse into the lives of those who served, it was clearly based on Milton’s remembrance of Fats Waller’s 1934 recording. Art Rupe also employed Roy Milton to turn out speedy cover versions of breaking hits, hence the inclusion of Joe Liggins’ “Hucklebuck” and Louis Prima’s “Oh, Babe.”
Roy Milton’s achievement in helping to develop what became known as R&B was best synopsized by Johnny Otis. “By 1950,” Otis wrote, “we had established a hybrid form that had come into its own. Roy Milton, Joe Liggins, and I have often discussed this. All of us came out of a big band environment and we all aspired to the big band sound. When the big bands died we found that we couldn’t function in that context any more. When we played a blues type thing with three horns, it had a different character. That was the one thing that made Rhythm & Blues different from old fashioned blues. The singer is singing, and instead of just guitars twanging, the horns played the whole notes, rolling those riffs near the end of the choruses.”
Almost all of Roy Milton’s hits were on Juke Box or Specialty between 1946 and 1953. In 1952, he was profiled in Downbeat magazine, and was billed as Roy (Mr. “R. M. Blues”) Milton, suggesting that his glories already lay in the past. His sound was already a little too musicianly and mellow, if not musicianly enough for Downbeat: “Mostly, it’s frantic riffing, fair drums from Milton,” said the reviewer, “and repetitive ensemble behind screaming soloists. The excitement is engendered by nothing more than a beat.” Even so, Downbeat couldn’t fail to be impressed with the band’s irrepressible spirit. “As long as we’re on the stand, we give out,” Milton told the interviewer. “The people don’t know and don’t care how you feel. All they know is they paid their chips to get in and hear you, and brother you’d better give out.” Jazzmen in the years ahead could have learned from that credo.
In May 1955, Roy Milton left Specialty to sign with another west coast indie, Dootone Records. From there, he moved on to many other labels, but there was just one more fleeting hit. Camille Howard left around 1970 and entered the church, never to talk about her days barnstorming across the country with the Solid Senders. In early September 1983, there was a benefit for Milton, who was in poor health, and he died of a stroke just days later, on September 18. Camille Howard died ten years later. They’d done their work, and done it well.
The enduring influence of Roy Milton can be seen in often oblique ways. His song “Hop, Skip, and Jump” became an R&B hit for Little Johnny Jones as “Hoy, Hoy.” A few years later, rockabilly singer Clyde Stacy covered it, then the Collins Kids covered Stacy’s record, and Milton’s tune entered the rockabilly vernacular. That’s how the music is handed down. Milton himself had borrowed copiously. No one, though, can deny that in the mid-1940s, Roy Milton added more than he borrowed to create what became known as Rhythm & Blues. He also got Specialty Records off the ground. Many record labels fell by the wayside, and Specialty might have joined them if not for these sweetly swinging recordings.