YET ANOTHER VIEW OF THE JESTERS - Bizarre. That's the epithet Knox Phillips
returns to again and again when attempting to categorize the head-scratching contents of this collection by his bother Jerry's short-lived mid-1960 combo, the almighty Jesters. It is ironic that the legend of The Jesters is based upon their lone single
''Cadillac Man'', which, fantastic as it is, was neither performed by the working version of the group, nor was a hundred per cent representative of them. The truth is that The Jesters were even more edgy and uncontained and, in the loco-motion of Teddy Paige's
crazed guitar runs and Tommy Minga's rebel yell, were the true analogue to the great Memphis wildmen of the 1950s, be they blues belter or hillbilly cat. The material constitutes some of the most vital and cathartic rock recorded for the Sun label.
Bizarre is also perhaps the most useful description of the tale about to unfold of how this music came to be, and the paths of at least some of those involved. Prepare
to have your mind boggled, but remember that in Memphis, that most quixotic of rock and roll locales, bizarre is just par for the course.
The Phillips brothers
spent their youth fully exposed, on a musical and social level, to the artists their father Sam had discovered, from Elvis Presley to Roy Orbison to Howlin' Wolf and Charlie Rich. A fierce champion of the independent spirit, Sam's growing disillusion with
the record industry meant he neither expected nor directly encouraged his sons to follow in his footsteps, but their interest and desire to work in music was as heartfelt as his had been. Fitting then, that the fruit of their labours, The Jesters, would approximate
the musical excitement that Sam had unleashed a decade before.
However, an aggregation called The Jesters had existed for some time prior to the involvement of
the Phillips, centred around one of the most colourful characters in Memphis music: Edward LaPaglia, aka Teddy Paige. A cherished devotee of the blues, Teddy formed his first band, the Church Keys, at Christian Brothers High in 1963, with a line-up that would
evolve into The Jesters by the following year. From the outset, Teddy marched to a different tune, but his ability on the fretboard commanded respect from all.
to Teddy Paige, ''We did a lot of rhythm and blues stuff, like the 5 Royales. You were more or less expected to plat what was on the radio. Most of the time I went along with the singers, as they were never into my Carl Perkins, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry format''!
Even as a pre-teen, Jerry Phillips himself had undergone of the more notable initiations into the entertainment business available. A Phillips family friend was legendary
wrestler Sputnik Monroe, whose showboating antics had made him massively popular in the late 1950s, and whom had taken an avuncular interest in the tough, if diminutive, Jerry. Another family friend, disc jockey Johnny Dark, had a wrestler associate, Tex Morgan,
who hit upon a novel, if voyeuristic, twist on the sport.
According to Jerry Phillips, ''Rex knew this midget, Fabulous Frankie Thumb, that wanted to get into the
wrestling business, and asked if I'd be interested in teaching him some wrestling moves, and then fighting, with him in public. So I became ''Delayne Phillips, The World's Most Perfectly Formed Midget Wrestler''! We wrestled around the south, southeast for
about a year and made some good money. Of course, they were telling everybody I was a grown man''!
Such was the nature of entertainment in the mid-south in the
early 1960s. And Jerry's parents were supportive of the venture, to a point.
Jerry said, ''One night in Marked Tree, Arkansas, me and this midget dude were fighting
outside the ring, and a guy came out from the audience and tried to stab me. So that made my parents think, 'Maybe we oughta bring an end to this, That was one of the most fun times in my life but it didn't last very long''.
After giving up this promising career, Jerry, a somewhat rebellious kid, took up guitar and within a couple of years was playing professionally behind vocal trio Jimmy Day and The Knights. A major mentor was
Teddy Paige, whom he got to know after Paige transferred to his school, White Station High.
Jerry says further, ''I was about 11 or 12 when my brother gave me my
first guitar. I took lessons and picked stuff up from Teddy or whomever else. Jimmy Day and The Knights was probably the first legitimate band I was in. They, Jimmy, John Robinette and Willie Cason, were basically singers and they were good. That was when
white kids were getting turned onto rhythm and blues, so we stayed booked all the time. Pretty much University Of Tennessee fraternities, though we did Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas State, as well as church and high school dances''.
Phillips' friendship with Teddy led to the formation of a new band in the summer of 1965, with a self-assured front man by the name of Tommy Minga. Recently graduated from White Station
High, Minga was an East Memphian who had previously lad a band named the Escapades in 1964, comprising Jim Tarbutton (lead), Joe Tilman (rhythm), Richard Brown (bass) and Eddie Robertson (drums). It was the same kind of format as the Knights or Jesters, with
backing vocalists and an rhythm and blues favoured set. Robertson came along, bass player Billy Wulfers was hired, and the combo inherited the name of Tommy's last outfit, the Escapades: pictorial evidence confirms this, and it is quite likely that the recordings
made with Minga logged as being by The Jesters were in fact taped when they were performing live as the Escapades. In the interests of clarity, we shall however refer to the band as The Jesters from this point.
''Teddy was the leather for sure, and the driving force because he was the best player'', recalled Jerry. ''Teddy wasn't acting for anybody. To show you the kind of guy he was, he borrowed my amp to play a
gig, and about two weeks later called up to tell me, ''Boy , you gonna have the red ass at me. I sold your amp''! Teddy was semi-anti-social. He would aggravate the crowd at the fraternity gigs, telling them, 'Here's another song you probably don't know'!
There were some instances where we'd have to defend ourselves. But people respected Teddy's playing, and our ability to play with him''.
It's likely this had much
to do with The Jesters' repertoire which was distinctly at odds with the soul or British-flavoured content of bands sets in that period. The Jesters' take on rhythm and blues was amped-up and righteously ragged, more juke joint than teen club. That made concessions
to accessibility by including some Stones or Kinks material, but largely the band's sound was that heard on this disc, although there is no doubt that their insouciant attitude was 100 percent 1965.
''I was a big blues fan like Teddy, but I liked the Beatles and the Stones'', said Jerry. ''I can't imagine Teddy not being aware of some of those British bands that had not players, like the Yardbirds. Our repertoire was
the stuff that Minga was written, and the blues that Teddy threw at us. If we ever did a British song, it would have been something like ''You Really Got Me'', but I'd say we were in a minority in what we played''.
According to Teddy, ''Some of the British groups were good. I was onto it, because I was collecting the same records at the same time. I knew where they got their ideas from. I was into Chicago blues, and some
of the Memphis style. I loved Freddie King and tried to get that sort of a sound. We used to plat ''San-Ho-Zay'' and others on gigs, and I knew about ten of those tunes note for note''.
The Jesters did everything expected of an up-and-coming outfit in the Memphis of the mid-1960s, including the rigeur appearance on George Klein's ''Talent Party TV Show''. Jerry had access to his fathers' studio, but it was his older
brother Knox that would be the enabling factor in harnessing the raw energy of Teddy, Tommy and company to tape.
''I went to White Station High, graduated in 1963,
and attended Southwestern from 1964 to 1967'', recalled Knox. ''During the time I was in college, I was social commissioner, so I booked all the bands. I'd been working at the studio since I'd been in high school, and recording a lot of acts from later 1964
on. However, Sam was trying to discourage Jerry and I, from going seriously into music. He felt the possibility of prevailing in the independent record business would be a shallow and disappointing experience for us. So in the mid-1960s, we were kinda on our
''Our dad would encourage us in everything we'd do, but he never wanted us to be like him. He was really supportive, but he wanted us to work for it. He
never said, 'I'm gonna show you how to do this''', said Jerry. ''Sam would always let us go in the studio and do whatever, and of course when he listened, he'd give an opinion. He could have shut us down but he wasn't that kind of guy. If he didn't hear something
in who Knox was working with, the Radiants or whomever, then he would have made that clear' Knox Phillips spent many hours producing Randy and The Radiants, the best of which can be heard on their Sun anthology ''Memphis Beat'' (Big
Beat CDWIKD 267). Understandably, Knox also booked his younger brother's bands at Southwestern, and took a keen interest in The Jesters.
''I'd always try to use
them because they were Jerry's band'', said Knox. ''Fraternities do stupid stuff, but by the end of the gig, they probably hated them. At times I had to change the name of the band to book them again! They were the Escapades, and different configurations,
but they always sounded good, and for me, Jerry was always the star. He was a fabulous rhythm guitar player. And Teddy was one of the weirdest people I'd ever met''!
long after The Jesters' formation, Knox began to record them at the Phillips' Madison Avenue studio. They turned ''Heartbreak Hotel'' into a Jimmy Reed-like blues, and spiced the Carl Perkins; classic ''Boppin' The Blues'' with a sinuous lead from Paige. But
such cover material was blown away by the sheer punk-blues ferocity of Tommy Minga's tremendous originals. Some of these have obvious Memphis antecedents, ''Get Gone Baby'' recycles the classic riff of Willie Cobb's ''You Don't Love Me'', the pounding ''Stompity
Stomp'' is a sideways cop of ''The Slummer The Slum'' by the 5 Royales. But the energy is fully The Jesters' own. The rhythm section pumps madly, Minga alternates between hushed admonition and outraged bawling, and Teddy's guitar throughout is the proverbial
headless chicken of rockabilly yore, hot-rodded with a corrosive blues edge. Unwittingly or not, the band had zeroed in on the primal Sun sound.
''The Minga stuff
sounds more like true Sun rockabilly than anything else does in the 1960s, and it's a testament to our influences from Sun'' Jerry Phillips continued. ''That was ingrained in my system, and it certainly influenced all of us in that band. Tommy didn't have
wacko DNA like Teddy, he just liked to have fun. He was also a good songwriter, and did write most of the originals. He'd jump, dance around, he was a showman''.
said, ''It really was like that, us going crazy in the studio. We were really enthused on those first sessions. I'm playing a Les Paul custom, and we used a blown Fender Bassman amp, with three speakers and a tube pulled halfway out, to get a distorted sound''.
According to Knox Phillips, ''I'd never cut anything with this kind of energy ever, and I never cut anybody who consistently played such cool guitar. Minga was fabulous
on some songs, ''no mo, no mo'', I loved that! Minga's voice and Teddy's guitar blend pretty well. It was over the top. There was nothing else like that in Memphis being recorded by white people''.
One of the last items Tommy taped with the band was a tune of Teddy's entitled ''Cadillac Man'', which wed classic Chuck Berry car-chase lyrics to a raucous blues-on-speed rhythm. Minga delivers the tune in a cool, understated
fashion, but Paige didn't agree with the way his song had turned out, and this apparently exacerbated tensions between him and the singer. Whether Teddy engineered it or not, Tommy's sudden departure from the band would seem to have occurred right at that
Jerry said, ''I think, the early ''Cadillac Man'' is a good version, but Teddy just wasn't happy with it. And I don't think he would have that much influence
over that song unless he wrote it, to be able to kick Minga off the session and have Jim Dickinson come in. Minga was pretty bitter about that''.
''Now that I hear
him, Tommy was a cool singer, and he really could have been produced into something. How we replaced him, in those days there was no mercy, just the act and that was it'', says Teddy.
the band, by now definitely operating as The Jesters, were to re-cut the tune, they would need a singer. As veteran of the local music scene for years, and at once both traditionalist and non-conformist, Jim Dickinson embodied the vibe Paige was no doubt looking
for. He showed up at Phillips Recording in November or December 1965, not knowing what to expects, but Jim's piano-pumping contribution to the re-tooled ''Cadillac Man'' was perfectly in sync with the tenor of the track.
According to Jim Dickinson, ''Teddy called me. I thought it was to play piano on a demo. I probably wouldn't have gone if I knew I was gonna sing, because I was under contract to Bill Justis at the time. It
was Teddy's plot! As well as ''Cadillac Man'', we did ''Jim Dandy And Sweet Sixteen'' and ''Night Train From Chicago'', which were both in Teddy's notebook of songs. ''Night Train'' kinda jumps around, but that solo, damn, it doesn't sound like any white man
I ever heard''.
''Jim seemed to have professional experience'', said Teddy. ''He sang straight old blues things well, but he was always trying to do something unnatural
and kooky. We started ''Cadillac Man'' with the arrangement that Minga had sung, but Jim couldn't play the left hand on the piano, so we literally had to adapt to him. There's a guitar break at the end, otherwise it's pretty much a piano record, but we were
enthusiastic about piano. In fact, we had often tried to find a piano player, and nothing but wimp would show up''.
According Knox, ''Jim was just an experiment.
Minga was the voice of the band, but I don't think he got ''Cadillac Man'', so it was right to have Dickinson. The one thing that I never liked at the time was, when I brought up the piano solo, the drums came up too. Now it sounds really good, it kinda swells
into something special. Sam wasn't anywhere around ''Cadillac Man'', but we played it for him and he loved it''. anachronistic as it might have seemed to any other label, this new ''Cadillac Man'' fit the Sun template exactly. Thus a
release was authorized, necessitating a second date with Dickinson for a B-side, which was cut several weeks later, the session is logged with the Musicians Union as January 22, 1966.
Alec Palao, El Cerrito, California, 2008