Bow your heads, please, and dress yourself in the ebony hues befitting a funeral -- the Miami punk-pop collective known as Fay Wray has belly-upped, bitten the dust, gone the way of eight-tracks and Edsels. The crushing news arrived a couple weeks back from the band's drummer George Graquitena, who says Fay Wray vocalist/lyricist Jeff London is responsible for busting up the group after only a year together. Why London bailed out, Graquitena claims, remains a mystery.
"The real reason has yet to be determined," says the drummer. "Jeff basically gave Rob [Coe, the band's guitarist] the excuse that school was too hectic for him and that he just didn't have the time for the band. None of us believes that, though. We aren't falling for that." Graquitena speculates that tension between him and London may have been behind the singer's decision. "Jeff was under the assumption that I hated him, which isn't true. He never confronted me with this, but I was told by several people that he had told them this. I've asked him about it a few times and tried calling him and leaving messages but he won't call back. Rob talked to him about a week ago, though, and basically [London's] mind is made up. He doesn't want to play with us any more."
London, who lives in Gainesville and goes to school at the University of Florida, was unavailable for comment.
Based solely on their chaotic, impassioned, and intense live shows, Fay Wray's dissolution is sad enough. It's even harder to deal with, though, because that dissolution comes just as the band's debut album was set to be released any day now on Blindspot, an indie label based in Gainesville. The twelve original songs span the gamut of punk-rock frustration and release, from the ablutionary anthem "Father to Son" to the rambunctious drive that propels "High & Outside," "Pot Pie," and "Baywatch."
Although Graquitena says Blindspot is still going to release the disc, its commercial faring will be severely hampered by there being no Fay Wray to go out and tour in support of it. The album will most likely make it on to the local radio playlists and therefore generate enough posthumous interest to guarantee at least a smidgen of sales. Still, it deserves a better fate.
Whatever happens with the album, the remaining Miami-based members of Fay Wray -- Graquitena, Coe, and bassist Tony Rocha -- have enlisted ex-Quit guitarist Bobby Henion and reactivated their old band Cell 63 for a few as-yet-unscheduled shows. Cell 63 were around for about four years and issued a pair of discs on their Cellout imprint (Cell 63 and Once Upon a Drunk) and drew some critical notice in South Florida before breaking up in early '95. Expect their live sets to include songs pulled from the Fay Wray archive, at least until Cell 63 work up some new stuff.
"We're hoping to wipe the slate clean," Graquitena reflects. "I really liked what we were doing with Fay Wray but ... I don't know. Jeff just left a bad taste in our mouth."
If you don't mind, a digression of sorts: In my final years of teendom, as a goofy high-schooler paying more attention to records than to the selection of a higher learning facility, I was burrowed deeply in the history of rhythm-and-blues. Not so much the raw, pre-war acoustic blues from the Mississippi Delta (that obsession would come later), but the raucous, hard-swinging stuff from the Forties and Fifties -- the salacious, entendre-packed shouters by Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, and Big Joe Turner; the honking instrumental classics by sax greats Big Jay McNeely, Paul Williams, and Maxwell Davis; the piano-boogie workouts by Amos Milburn, Pete Johnson, and Ivory Joe Hunter; and the urbane swing of Roy Milton's and Jimmy Liggins's outstanding jump-blues combos. It was the greatest stuff my young ears had ever heard, music that conjured images of swank cocktail dens and rough moonshine roadhouses, of two pairs of hips grinding closely to the swinging rhythms, lost in a boozy kind of sexual bliss.
Shimmying right through the middle of this adenoidal musical history lesson came "Honky Tonk," a two-part instrumental by a pianist named Bill Doggett. The song -- a huge hit in 1956 for the famed King label -- had been mentioned in a lot of the books I was reading at the time, and when I found a copy of the single in an oldies bin at a downtown Memphis record store, I was elated. When I got home and played the record, though, my elation turned to wild jubilation: "Honky Tonk" was the supreme distillation of every weird, exotic R&B sound I had been poring over. From the subtle opening vamp of Billy Butler's guitar (working a twelve-bar riff worthy of the finest Las Vegas strip bars) to the hard-blowing sax of Clifford Scott that brings the song to its side-two close, "Honky Tonk" was a masterpiece of tension and release held together by the low rumble of Doggett's slinky organ work and some of the greatest handclaps ever recorded.
Naturally, I sought out more of Doggett's records, and read up on his background (born in Philadelphia in 1916; worked with the big bands of Jimmy Mundy, Lucky Millinder, and Louis Jordan; did some piano and arranging work for the Ink Spots and Cootie Williams; recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, and Louis Armstrong). He released numerous singles in the wake of "Honky Tonk" -- including "Slow Walk," "Hold It," "Ram-Bunk-Shush" -- but none came close to topping it, commercially or artistically. Nor did subsequent versions by Lonnie Mack and James Brown (nor, for that matter, Doggett's ill-fated version issued a few months after the original, featuring lyrics the song never really needed). Still, it didn't matter. Likewise, it didn't matter that oldies-radio formats steered way clear of "Honky Tonk," despite its status as one of the Fifties' biggest R&B hits. Doggett had cut one of the greatest instrumentals in pop-music history; anything else was just gravy.
Bill Doggett died November 13 in New York City at age 80, his achievements practically overlooked by historians in both the jazz and rhythm-and-blues fields. His stuff never got played on oldies radio, and even noncommercial R&B DJs seem to favor Doggett's more touted contemporaries (e.g., Earl Bostic, with whom Doggett recorded on occasion). Still, I can't help but wonder if any radio stations -- here or anywhere -- bothered to dust off a copy of "Honky Tonk" to honor its creator with a spin.
-- By John Floyd
Get the Music Newsletter