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Jamming With Jagger: A Blue Monday With L.A.’s Red Devils
Once upon a time there was a fine little blues band that played a corner bar in Los Angeles on Monday nights. And then they made an album with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones that never saw the light of day.
There are probably joints like the King King all over the United States – cozy places for neighborhood elbow-benders that host “Blue Mondays” where local players congregate to play the classic 12-bar repertoire every week. But the King King was a better hangout than most, and the Blue Shadows were a better blues band than most.
In late 1988, the King King – or, per its oriental signage, simply “King King,” minus the article — opened its doors in L.A. at the corner of 6th Street and La Brea Avenue, near the eastern end of what’s known as the Miracle Mile. Its owner Mario Melendez had preserved the gaudy black, red, and gold décor the room featured in its days as a Chinese restaurant. A small stage, bedecked with rampant gilt dragons, was tucked in a corner of the dark club; patrons could check out the music from the rectangular bar in the center of the intimate room or from old Naugahyde booths that lined the opposite wall.
From the first, the club boasted a live music policy most nights of the week, but Mondays proved to be busiest, for they drew some of the best musicians in town. The unit’s original core members were Greg “Smokey” Hormel, the guitarist who had taken over the reins in American music band the Blasters after the sudden death of Hollywood Fats in 1986 (and later became a mainstay of Beck’s group); Blasters drummer Bill “Buster” Bateman; and brothers David Lee and Johnny Ray Bartel, formerly guitarist and bassist, respectively, for the early ‘80s rockabilly unit the Red Devils.
photo by Vince Jordan
Most Mondays, the place was filled with roots-friendly patrons – many of them O.G. habitués of the Hollywood punk scene — who would swing by to check out the frequently rotating cast of guest players. Regular drop-ins included Dave Alvin, Mighty Flyers and Canned Heat guitarist Junior Watson, and former James Harman Band axe man (and future Fabulous Thunderbird) Kid Ramos.
The band’s sound solidified permanently with the addition of harmonica player and vocalist Lester Butler in mid-1989. Pockmarked, cocky, and packing plenty of swaggering attitude, Butler was a pugnacious combination of surfer dude, punk rocker, and blues aficionado who could play the “Mississippi saxophone” with a facility and a fat tone that recalled Chicago icon Little Walter Jacobs. He was also a formidable, soulful vocalist who wailed the blues songbook with scarcely a trace of black affectation.
The group’s last key lineup change occurred in the fall of 1990, when Paul Size, then 20 years old, flew in from Denton, Texas, and auditioned successfully for the Blue Shadows guitar chair. Swiftly nicknamed “the Kid,” the baby-faced Size flashed a gigantic, smeared tone that could only have been produced in the Lone Star State, where powerful guitar players seem to grow on trees.
photo by Vince Jordan
The King King became the place to drink, schmooze, and boogie at the top of the work week, and over time the club began to draw some elite types among the spectators. One early enthusiast was actor and aspiring musician Bruce “Bruno” Willis, the star of TV’s “Moonlighting” and the action hit Die Hard, who would bring his own harps down to the club and sit in with the Shadows. In later years, Willis would often employ the group as entertainment and personal back-up unit at private gigs around the country.
More crucially, producer and label owner Rick Rubin began stopping by. The long-haired, bearded superstar studio maven and head of Def American Records (later American Recordings) had enjoyed considerable success in 1990 with the release of Shake Your Money Maker, the quintuple-platinum debut album by the Black Crowes, an Atlanta quintet that formulated a stormy, defiantly retro mix of the early Rolling Stones and the Small Faces. Rubin may have scented that a more straightforward but aggressively contemporary blues act could pay similar dividends for his label, and he signed the Blue Shadows to Def American.
photo by Vince Jordan
Rubin rightly sensed that the music the band made was best heard in a live context. Thus, in the late summer and fall of 1991, you could walk from the neighboring Pikme Up coffee house up 6th Street, past Le Mobile’s remote truck, and into the King King for a night of public live recording sessions, on which the group was augmented by Blasters pianist Gene Taylor, a frequent King King sit-in.
The fruits of those dates were issued by Def American on July 28, 1992, as King King. By then, Rubin had mandated a change of the band’s name, and they had taken on the handle the Red Devils, after the Bartel brothers’ long-ago rockabilly outfit. No matter what the moniker, it was an impressive set, as hot as the King King was on a tightly packed midsummer night. Comprising no-nonsense, gale-force covers of numbers associated with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Junior Wells, Billy Boy Arnold, and Sonny Boy Williamson plus a handful of originals, it was loud, rugged, and completely authentic stuff.
By the time King King hit the streets, another well-known musician had shown up at the corner saloon in the Miracle Mile for a short jam: On May 18, 1992, Mick Jagger joined the Red Devils onstage for Little Walter’s “Blues With a Feeling” and Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” The brief appearance turned out to be something like an audition.
On June 17, Rubin summoned the members of the Blue Shadows for a session the following day at the Hollywood studio Ocean Way with Jagger, with whom the producer was working on a new album for Atlantic Records.
It was an interesting period for Jagger. In 1989, after years of squabbling carried out in print, the Rolling Stones’ lead singer had reunited with his fractious guitarist and songwriting partner Keith Richards for the band’s monumentally successful Steel Wheels album and world tour. But Jagger still harbored solo ambitions, and he may have been envious of the praise accorded Richards’ gutsy 1988 solo debut Talk is Cheap, issued in the wake of the vocalist’s two artistically and commercially lackluster sets She’s the Boss (1985) and Primitive Cool (1987)
Though the cosmopolitan Jagger had moved well beyond the cover-band origins of the Stones in their early, blues-soaked Brian Jones epoch, and hadn’t recorded a lick of straight blues since essaying Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breakin’ Down” and Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” on the Stones’ Exile On Main St 20 years previous, he and his producer apparently believed a back-to-the-roots approach might be the way to enliven the singer’s solo profile and restate his original, bluesy legitimacy.
The Red Devils arrived at Ocean Way on June 18 to discover that Jagger and Rubin had already worked up a set list of blues tunes, some of them obscure enough that some of the band members didn’t know them. But, guided by the savvy drummer Bateman, a man with a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of antique blues material, and bolstered by the presence of local boogie-woogie pianist Rob Rio and a guest shot by original member Hormel, Jagger and the band cut 12 tracks – drawn from the repertoires of Slim Harpo, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bukka White, and Elmore James – in one totally live 14-hour siege. It was the most vital and spontaneous music Jagger had made since the late ‘70s.
Rubin and Jagger decamped with the master tapes that day. It proved to be the last time, save for a lone 1993 date in England at which Jagger sat in with the group, that the Red Devils would see their erstwhile front man, and none of the music they made with him that day would be heard legally until a single track, “Checking On My Baby,” was issued 15 years later by Rhino Records on The Very Best of Mick Jagger. Jagger’s project with Rubin, issued as Wandering Spirit in 1993, completely eschewed the blues in favor of lifeless contemporary “rock,” with the singer backed by high-priced session players. The Devils session lived on in the form of bootlegs of mysterious provenance.
Rubin didn’t forget the Red Devils: In 1993, the producer drafted the band to back another new client, Johnny Cash. Returning to Ocean Way, the band – with Hormel replacing the now-departed Paul Size on guitar – supported the Man in Black on three numbers. After Cash left the studio, the producer spontaneously cut nine songs with the band – the first date for a prospective debut studio album.
And, again, nothing came of the date. The Cash tracks would sit unissued until two were compiled on the posthumous 2003 boxed set Unearthed, while none of the band material was ever issued at all. If there ever was a more snakebit band than the Red Devils, it’s difficult to conjure one up.
Though the group managed to tour successfully in Europe in ’93, the bad habits of several of its members fragmented the original lineup by the fall of the following year. Lester Butler formed a new group, 13, that recorded a pungent 1997 album for HighTone Records. But the singer and harp player wasn’t long for this world. On May 9, 1998, Butler died of a heroin overdose in Los Angeles; his companions that night, who were later charged with manslaughter, dumped his body on a former band mate’s lawn.
The King King closed its doors at 6th and La Brea in 1993. However, in 2002 Mario Melendez belatedly reopened the club at a new location at Hollywood and Whitley in the heart of Tinseltown. On Monday nights, the reborn club presented a new edition of the Blue Shadows, featuring Bateman, Blasters bassist John Bazz, harp player Jack Rudy, and singer-guitarist Javier Matos (aka Jake Matson), an ex-paratrooper the drummer had met in Anchorage, Alaska, while he was living there with his sister.
Briefly, those new Blue Mondays, which also featured guest shots by Dave Alvin, Jeff Ross, and other hot-hand L.A. guitarists, conjured up memories of storied nights a decade before — and also a million might-have-beens for the world’s best unsung blues band.