Big Joe and the Dynaflos with Anson Funderburgh
Big Joe Maher on November 8, 2015
In the beginning, there was the beat. Some possessed, it, some were possessed by it. The sound was unmistakable. The rhythm was alive -- a throbbing pulse that got under your skin, spreading through your body like a wave.
Around these parts, they call it beach music. In its original form, it was jump blues and R&B performed by primarily African-American artists. The guitar was amplified, and a pumping piano and honkin’ saxes backed a singer with a big voice and an attitude to match. A dance grew up with the sound, called by various names depending on where you live. In the North, it was the Lindy or simply the bop. Hall of Fame shagger Eddie Monsour, who grew up in Fayetteville, says the dance evolved from what dancers were doing in the New York area, with the Big Apple and the Fast dance and the Lindy Hop. “As it came down South, all we did was just smooth it out,” Monsour says. “Take our basic count and slowed the whole beat down and it became a shag dance here in the Carolinas.”
Since 1988, Gary Gibson has run a beach club in Raleigh, North Carolina, for shaggers. The club has moved around a bit, but its always been called Loafers. Most of the time, Gary and wife Deborah open the doors and play records for the dance aficionados. But every so often, Gibson -- a rabid R&B fab with an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and a record collection that includes virtually every worthwhile r&b/jump/beach record ever pressed -- brings in a live act to remind folks that even though many of the originators have passed, the music is still alive and well.
Washington, D.C.'s Big Joe Maher is one of the predominant jump blues/old school R&B curators and performers in the business. As Big Joe & the Dynaflos, Maher spreads the gospel of '40s- and '50s-era jumpin' jive from behind his drum kit, aided by Anson Funderburgh on guitar and Tom “Mookie Brill” on bass. On this Sunday night in Raleigh, the place is packed, and Maher and his cohorts are whomping up a batch of goodies that keeps the dance floor full.
Maher has a big voice, like Joe Turner, whose songs and presence loom large in a Big Joe set. But Maher is also in touch with other big-voiced denizens of that era, cranking out a great version of Amos Milburn's “Bad Bad Whiskey.”
Joe is the frontman and singer for the Dynaflos, but Funderburgh is the transmission, shifting smoothly through the gears, bobbing and weaving through the melody. The band plays a lot of shuffles because shaggers favor that tempo. Funderburgh is at home with that, growing up in Plano, Texas, playing for Push dancers, who performed a dance similar to the shag in the late '60s and early '70s. He remembers that a band had to play Ray Sharpe's “Linda Lu,” Freddy King's instrumental “Hideaway,” and Bill Doggetts' “Honky Tonk.”
Those songs aren't in evidence tonight, but there's plenty of other good stuff to go 'round. Maher has adopted Big Joe Turner's “Oke-She-Moke-She-Pop,”written by Turner's wife, Lou Willie in '54, as one of his signature tunes, and he's large and in charge of it. It fits right into Maher's Dynaflo model when he encourages his soon to be beloved to:
Jump into my Roadmaster baby
this time we're riding in class
We'll talk all about the future and forget about the past.
Delbert McClinton keyboardist Kevin McKendree usually accompanies Big Joe, but tonight local pianist Clark Stern has those duties well in hand, rattling vigorously in the corners of this one. Funderburgh puts the spurs to it when he steps up, making this critter run like it had barbed wire wrapped round it's balls.
Maher trots out Percy Mayfield's “I Don't Wanna Be President,” almost rap with Maher talk-singing the lyrics till Anson steps in and slaps the urban plumb out of it, taking it out into the corral and branding it with his sizzling hot strings that popped off during the melee.
Maher is as good a raconteur as singer. His first shag record, 1994's “Layin' in the Alley,” was conceived when a sharp-dressed gent in a lime green suit came up to Maher during a gig and wanted to sing the blues. He looked good, Maher recalls, so he gave him a shot. The band started vamping and the guy stood there ... and stood there. Finally he started to sing, but all he had was the phrase “I was layin' in the alley when the dump truck ran over me.” After he'd done that for awhile, Maher shut the tune down and got the guy off stage. “How did I do?” the gent asked. “Oh, you were bad ass,” Maher told him. But Maher couldn't get the phrase out of his head, telling the would-be singer that he felt the sentiment in his heart and was going to write a song about it. Later, Maher found out the guy was a metro bus driver in D.C., so the phrase may have been literal. Either way, it worked for Maher.
A Floyd Dixon tune has a story to go with it as well. When Maher met and played with Dixon at Loafers some years back, Dixon told him that he had written “Let the Good Times Roll,” but had played it for Louis Jordan and he had stolen the tune from him. Dixon couldn't prove it, so he wrote a follow up song, “Wake Up and Live,” with a similar melody.
Why should I work hard
savin' my money from day to day
If I live to be 65
The guvmint gonna take care of me anyway
Maher sings as the song shuffles along smoothly, until Funderburgh steps in and knocks it into another realm. He's a true blues traveler, adept at sleight of hand. His creations always fit the song, transforming and transcending it without you seeing how he does it.
Maher says he was skeptical when Delbert McClinton, whom Maher often sits in with, and producer Tom Hambridge said they wanted to give him him a song. “How good could it be if two Grammy winners want to give it away?” Maher thought. But “What the Hell Were You Thinkin'” worked out well for Maher and is a crowd pleaser here tonight, Stern rippling the ivories with a double handful of rollicking boogie–woogie.
Introducing an Amos Overton Lemons song doesn't get much of response until Maher reveals that was Smiley Lewis' real name. Lemons/Lewis wrote a big hit for Elvis, but the King couldn't sing it on the radio as it was, so “One Night Of Sin” became “One Night With You.” Maher gets some big E tremolo in his voice for the occasion as Stern rolls some Jimmy Swaggart-style gospel licks underneath him. Maher's version has a country feel, with Funderburgh providing some loping, clip-clop licks to embellish the ride.
Brill takes over vocals for a handful of recent NC Music Hall of Fame inductee Nappy Brown tunes, including his '56 classic “Bye Bye Baby.” It wants to be swamp pop, but stomps a bit too hard till Funderburgh lassos the thing and wraps a few strands of twangy barbed wire licks 'round it. Brown's tongue twister “Don't Be Angry” also gets the Brill treatment, the bassist contorting his tonsils like an acrobat to get hold of Brown's slippery syllables.
When its over the shaggers shuffle out, steam rising from their clothes as the fall air cools 'em down. But it's only a temporary respite. Whenever Big Joe's Dynafo machine cruises back into town, every dancer's gauge is going into the red.