When bandleader Johnny Otis broke the news to me that veteran record producer Bumps Blackwell had died, my first reaction was a selfish one. I was scheduled to meet with Bumps the following weekend to talk about his early years with Sam Cooke for the liner notes I was writing for an upcoming British album. With Bumps gone, who'd be able to answer my questions?
A moment later I realized the larger implications of Blackwell's fatal heart attack at his home in Hacienda Heights on March 9. The world had lost a great music teacher and a storehouse of black music history, not to mention a man who was loved by a legion of friends.
Anyone who has read Charles White's recent book, "The Life and Times of Little Richard," knows that Blackwell discovered Little Richard and co-wrote most of his hits, including "Rip It Up" and "Good Golly, Miss Molly." But so many other artists also owe a debt to Blackwell. Among the ones who worked for or recorded with Blackwell: Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Jesse Belvin, Larry Williams, the Fifth Dimension, Lou Rawls, Herb Alpert and the Chambers Brothers.
A classically trained musician who settled in Los Angeles from his native Seattle in 1949, Bumps possessed that right mixture of intimate knowledge, arrogance and patience that made him a natural teacher.
Bumps had strong opinions about a lot of things. An incurable optimist, he nonetheless could not escape coloring his stories with the bitterness of a man who had seen all the abuses and neglect that black artists endured in the music industry. He should have been a wealthy man but wasn't. It hurt him that one of the early greats he had worked with, T-Bone Walker, had gone to his grave destitute and unsung as the father of the electric rock 'n' roll guitar.
Whites, he claimed, had grabbed all the glory. He once mused that it was cruel irony that Elvis was the King of Rock 'n' Roll, just as Paul Whiteman had been the King of Jazz and Benny Goodman the King of Swing. "Ain't it funny," he said, "that three great forms of black music were ruled by white artists?"
Bumps steadfastly maintained that black artists were ripped off "because that's how the system was set up. One (record) company president ran it down for me one time. He told me that (blacks) should consider themselves lucky to (have all) the flash--the Cadillacs and the clothes and jewelry--and leave the real money and the business to the whites."
While he was an A&R man at Specialty Records, Bumps managed to offend the system when he lured the charismatic lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, Sam Cooke, from gospel to secular music in 1957. He sneaked Cooke into a studio with white singers from the Pied Pipers and recorded the Gershwins' "Summertime" and a Cooke-written ballad called "You Send Me."
Both the members of the Soul Stirrers and the president of the company were reportedly outraged. When Bumps was asked to leave, he negotiated for Cooke's contract and the tapes he'd recorded. Keen Records, his next employer, released them soon afterward. "You Send Me" was the first solo record by a black artist to shoot to No. 1 in the rock era. Some critics also credit "You Send Me" as being one of the most influential early "soul" records, tempering a gospel singing style with a smooth "white" arrangement.
"It dawned on me when I was working with the Soul Stirrers that all you had to do was replace Jesus with baby or darling ," Blackwell has said more than once. In the '60s he used that formula to secularize Lou Rawls, the Chambers Brothers, Clydie King and others.
Despite the hereditary glaucoma that blinded him in later years, Blackwell taught and produced to the very end. His Blackwell Academy of the Performing Arts allowed him to nurture budding talent. "I also teach the business side of the music business because I don't want my pupils to be unprepared like I was, like Richard was, like we all were."
I last saw Bumps just a few days before his death, producing his last recording session, with George Gershwin's niece, singer Alexis Gershwin. Afterward, he spoke expansively of putting together a tribute to Little Richard at the Royal Albert Hall in London this summer.
In the end, the final tribute would come from Little Richard at Bumps' crowded funeral: "So many of us owe our careers to Daddy Bumps. He was like a father, a mother, a whole family to us."