Finding the soul-y grail

In the early 1960s, the Merced Blue Notes knocked audiences out with their gritty, full-on R&B assault

The baddest band in the Central Valley: The Merced Blue Notes were, from left, George “Chief” Coolures, Kenny Craig, Gilbert Fraire, Carl Mays, Bobby Hunt and Bill “Tiger” Robertson.

The baddest band in the Central Valley: The Merced Blue Notes were, from left, George “Chief” Coolures, Kenny Craig, Gilbert Fraire, Carl Mays, Bobby Hunt and Bill “Tiger” Robertson.

There aren’t too many holy grails left.

Especially in music. By now, most record-company catalogs have been picked over with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. And the chances of an undiscovered body of work turning up that rivals Ray Charles’ Atlantic sides, or even the recordings made by local performer-producer David Houston’s 1960s band Public Nuisance, isn’t likely.

However, one grail just did turn up. Back in the early 1960s, a groove-oriented sextet called the Merced Blue Notes played up and down the San Joaquin Valley. If you were a kid growing up in Stockton back then, the Blue Notes were something your older brothers went to see at the Stockton Ballroom, a.k.a. the Portuguese Club, on Thornton Road, and some even lived to tell about it. Those gigs were legendary, with rumors of huge parking-lot rumbles afterward. I was too young to check them out live (“You’d get your ass kicked good if you did,” our elders would advise), but we did ride our bikes over to the Ballroom one afternoon, where we heard the Blue Notes during a sound check.

If memory serves, they kicked ass.

Musicologist Alec Palao, an Englishman who lives in El Cerrito but works for London-based Ace/Big Beat Records, had heard about the Blue Notes when he still lived in the United Kingdom. By the time the self-described “NorCal-ophile” arrived here, he knew what to look for, and he’d found caches of the band’s singles—on such labels as Tri-Phi, Mammoth and Galaxy—in Northern California thrift stores and record swaps. Galaxy happened to be Fantasy Records’ R&B label in the 1960s—remember Rodger Collins’ unforgettable 1966 hit “She’s Looking Good,” which Wilson Pickett covered?—and Ace was Fantasy’s U.K. licensee. “So, that got me on the trail of tracking the band down to do a compilation,” Palao said. “It’s taken five or six years to get it together, mainly because of some clearance issues.”

Get Your Kicks on Route 99, the Merced Blue Notes’ just-released CD compilation on Ace, is the result. Led by singer-guitarist Kenny Craig, the Blue Notes also featured Bobby Hunt on organ and piano, Gilbert Fraire on bass and Carl Mays Jr. on drums and “shouts,” with Bill “Tiger” Robertson on sax and George “Chief” Coolures—the Merced fire chief who also managed the band—on tambourine and harmonica. On several cuts, the band was joined by Tiger’s sister Marietta Robertson on vocals.

As evidenced by the 26 songs on Kicks, the Blue Notes were the closest thing California had to the Isley Brothers. The multiracial band (a novelty back then) had a full grasp of the R&B vernacular, whether it was jump blues (there are two instrumental covers of Amos Milburn’s signature tune “Bad, Bad Whiskey”), feverish Little Willie John-style soul (the duet “Sundown”), Ray Charles-style secular gospel (“Your Tender Lips”), travelogue shuffles (“Greyhound,” with big shout-outs to Sacramento and Stockton), Sam the Sham-like novelty R&B dance numbers (“Do the Pig”) lowdown blues (“I’ve Got a Right to Love My Baby” and “Midnite Session Parts 1 & 2”) or Booker T-style organ workouts (“Mama Rufus”). There are songs that sound like period James Brown, and others that sound like the Beatles reinventing the Isleys.

Although Craig may not have had a voice as distinguished as, say, that of Ray Charles or Sam Cooke, it worked fine within the band’s context. The Blue Notes played hard, road-tested R&B with a solid rhythm section, fluid organ and bluesy piano, and tumescent guitar—with Robertson’s butt-crack-o-phonic sax ripping through the mix on some songs. Always rooted in the blues, the music is a veritable stew of influences—blues, jazz, rock, country and Mexican—whose closest approximation is the kind of sophisticated blues that came out of Texas. But then, Merced, or the section of interior California from Stockton to Bakersfield, always seemed like a lost province of Texas or Oklahoma.

“The Merced Blue Notes are one of those bands who are talked about in revered tones by those who were able to witness them,” Palao explained. “And even though the records are great little things—icons of cool to a lot of R&B collectors—you want to hear more of that groove, that cooking sound.”