Larry Bright - Mojo Workout
(Julian Ferebee Bright – 8/17/34; Norfolk, VA – 12/17/03; Placer, CA)
“Nobody knows what a mojo is,” said Larry Bright in 1990. “It’s a monkey paw - like some people have a rabbit’s foot. I had a nanny who gave me one when I was very young. I had a mojo around my neck when I left Texas.” While the mojo was the source of Bright’s biggest claim to fame, it doesn’t seem to have brought much good luck.
Born Julian Ferebee Bright on August 17, 1934 in Norfolk, Virginia, Bright grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas. As a child he was called “Little Larry” after his stepfather. The stepfather was a Navy man and they had lived in Providence, Rhode Island and Louisville, Kentucky before Corpus Christi. Growing up in south Texas in the late 40’s, Bright heard a lot of country-western music along with a healthy helping of blues. He was attracted to the sounds of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Howlin’ Wolf. Soon to follow were the influences of Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Screaming Jay Hawkins. The youngster began to learn guitar and played his mixture of country and blues at teenage parties. He eventually got the opportunity to sit in with Bo Diddley at a club in New Orleans.
After serving in the Navy, Bright came to Southern California in 1955, an exciting time to arrive in the Los Angeles music scene. He briefly attended Chaffey Junior College in Ontario, about 40 miles east of Hollywood. On weekend evenings he would drive in to cruise Sunset Strip and he began to hang out at a small club called the Sea Witch at 8516 Sunset Bl. It was about 1958 that he began sitting in with the band and soon met others who were breaking into the recording industry. Bright claimed that he taught the standard “Hold Me” to P.J. Proby (It became Proby’s first chart single in 1964); that he was instrumental in getting Timi Yuro to change her style from Italian ballads to the soulful mode that made her a hit; and that he helped her get signed to Liberty Records. Other friends included Larry Taylor (later with Canned Heat), Marshall Lieb (Teddy Bears), Baker Knight (songwriter - Rick Nelson and others), and arranger-producer Ernie Freeman.
It was Freeman, along with Joe Saraceno (later producer of the Ventures, Marketts and many others), who produced Bright’s first session in October 1959, at Western Recorders. Bright had planned to cut “Hound Dog” in a style similar to Big Mama Thorton’s original, but said he came up with another idea on the spot. Drawing on his early Muddy Waters influences, he made up a dance called “Mojo Workout.” He told Saraceno that he had heard the original idea in New Orleans and did not really remember what was his and what wasn’t. Saraceno suggested making a few small changes and not worrying about it, since this was only intended as a demo. With a good blues-rock feel, the track reportedly includes top session men Earl Palmer on drums, Red Callender on bass, Billy Pitman on guitar, Ernie Fields on piano, and Marshall Lieb on background vocals. The flip side, “I’ll Change My Ways,” is a doo-wop style ballad that often gets more attention from collectors than the A-side.
John Blore was an independent promotion man who had been hired to do some work for a new label, Tide Records, headed by Ruth Stratchborneo (aka Ruth Christie). Blore heard Bright’s demo and brought it to Stratchborneo who purchased the master. KGFJ’s Jim Randolph, who assumed Bright was black, was the first to play it on the r&b airwaves. It was Blore’s brother, Chuck, who broke the record on KFWB, the major top 40 outlet.
“Mojo Workout” climbed the charts locally, peaking at #16 on May 7, 1960 and creeping onto the Billboard Hot 100 a week later. It lasted just three weeks nationally, making it to #90, the only Tide release ever to make national charts. It lasted five weeks in Cash Box, but only got to #96. The record seemed to drift around the country for a long time, appearing on a Chicago top 40 chart three months later. (Around the late 90’s Del-Fi issued a Larry Bright CD that included some of the Tide cuts. The liner notes incorrectly state that “It climbed to #1 on Billboard’s Black Music charts …”, but there was no such chart at that time. Billboard had a “Hot R&B Sides” chart but Bright never appeared on it. The incorrect info has been duplicated on at least one website).
Then came the confusion. Bright claimed he was unable to get any money. “I needed a suit to do the Dick Clark Show,” he said. “I didn’t have any money so I asked for an advance. They said, ‘We don’t give advances.’ So I walked into another company. I was half swacked and I said, ‘My name’s Larry Bright, I’ve got a hit record and no money.’ So Rod Pearce of Rendezvous Records gave me $1000 and I signed a contract.” Bright made it sound easy; one report said that John Blore was a factor in the connection. At any rate a new release, “Twinkie Lee,” came out on Rendezvous.
“Twinkie Lee was the name of the cat of Cluck Blore’s daughter,” explained Bright. “I figured - how do you get close to a guy? - make his daughter smile - so I wrote ‘Twinkie Lee.” Bright claimed that Dorsey Burnette played a Danelectro six string bass on the session. In 1958 Burnette had recorded a very similar song, “Bertha Lou,” written by John Marascalco. Marascalco (writer of “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy,” among others) recognized that “Twinkie Lee” was an infringement. He sued and got half the song. (Bright also said that he taught the song to the Walker Brothers, who had some later success with it in England). While some sources have said that “Twinkie Lee” was climbing the local charts just as “Mojo Workout” was dropping off, I have been unable to document that.
The record got enough action to attract the attention of Tide. They served Rendezvous with an injunction and obtained the master. Through a deal with Sid Talmadge, it was released on Highland (though delta numbers suggest it was nearly four years later). Rendezvous’ strange response was to keep the record on the market under the name Pete Roberts (Bright himself was not aware of this until 1988). One wonders what additional problems would have developed if the song had become a real hit. Tide took the further action of changing the label of the still current “Mojo Workout” to credit it as by the Mojo Dancers, with Bright’s name in small print.
All this legal action put an immediate damper on Bright’s recording career. He said he went on to cut four intentionally bad sides to fulfill his contract and get a release from Tide, but they refused to release him. Stratchborneo, however, claimed that Bright refused to record for a year, then returned to the label. The February 16, 1961 edition of the black-owned Los Angeles Eagle reported an early morning incident when Bright, accompanied by two of his buddies threw a large rock through Stratchborneo’s 12’x10’ picture window because she wouldn’t release him. One way or another, there were several more releases for the company. It was sometime during this period that Tide leased his contract to Del-Fi, which had already been doing Tide’s national distribution. The only memory offered by Bob Keane of Del-Fi: “Bright was a talented but weird guy.”
During the midst of his five Del-Fi releases, Bright recorded some instrumental sides for another company. One was “Cornball,” as the Humdingers, which he said was financed by actress Tippi Hedrin (star of Hitchcock’s The Birds). Achieving a banjo effect by muffling the guitar strings, the record included drummer Mike Rubini who later worked with Sonny & Cher. The two sides, shown as Parts One and Two, are actually the same cut. It got some airplay as a news lead-in and it has no connection to any other Humdingers group.
Bright did club work around Hollywood - The Millionaire’s Club, Ciro’s, Gazzari’s - as well as Lake Tahoe’s Sahara. He was the only white artist on a tour headlined by Chuck Berry, and he did a Texas tour with Gary Bonds, Dick & DeeDee, the Marketts, and Chubby Checker. He recalled one show where his rhythm guitar player was a young guy named Glen Campbell. There were record hops with Wink Martindale, Gene Weed and Sam Riddle. Reports seem to agree that Bright was a hot performer.
A friend, Dave Otto, took Bright into the studio to record a version of Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm” and Barrett Strong’s “Money.” Future Three Dog Night producer Richie Podolor engineered and future actor Teddy Neely played drums. These versions remain unreleased but they were re-recorded for Dot. The “Parchman Farm” side began to get some action but Tide Records stepped in once again. Though it had been over six years since the original signing, the company still had options on him. They served an injunction and took over the master. A Tide version of “Money” by Ruth & Larry is probably the same cut with Stratchborneo’s voice added. Though I saw a copy of the record at Tide in 1980, the label was penciled in, indicating that it might have remained unreleased.
Bright had opportunities to do session work for major producers but he lacked confidence in his ability to play the music of other artists. Ed Brown, manager of Don Ho, offered him a gig as Ho’s guitarist but Bright turned it down, saying it was not his style. However, he did act on Brown’s suggestion to record “La Bamba,” releasing it on his own label.
The next recordings were done for Art Laboe’s Original Sound label, including a great, Jimmy Reed style version of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing Her There.” Around 1976 Bright recorded four sides for Jay Colonna’s Jojo label, which released two of them. The arranger was Rene Hall, who had worked on many of the artist’s earlier efforts. These are the last known Larry Bright releases.
In 1964 the Kingsmen (“Louie, Louie”) had put “Mojo Workout” on their In Person LP but bright said he never received any royalties. “Three and half million copies - I didn’t get a nickel,” he stated. “That chick (Stratchborneo) has never sent me a check in my life! I signed everything; I drank a lot so I signed everything; I trusted everybody. I went to BMI and they showed me a contract that I supposedly signed - I gave away all the rights and royalties.” Stratchborneo had added hers and her partner’s names as co-writers of the song; the Kingsmen LP reached Billboard’s top 20 and remained on the chart for two and half years. Bill Cosby’s 1967 top 20 LP, Silver Throat Sings, also credits the Tide copyright.
Bright had a brief involvement with Bob Marcucci, the manager behind Frankie Avalon and Fabian. “I signed a contract with Bob and I went in the studio and I cut four tracks,” he said. “ I cut ‘Lonely Avenue,’ the one that Ray Charles had a few years before (1956, Atlantic 1108), but I did it with a Jimmy Reed beat and it really came out nice.” These were never released.
Ex-wife K. Terry Bright had many home tapes of Larry, including duets with Timi Yuro and Roy Clark (Bright surprised Clark by putting a Bo Diddley beat to “Malaguena”). Bright once had the opportunity to fill in for Clark on a Swingin’ Country TV show but he blew it by acting obnoxious at the audition. K. Terry said that Lou Rawls and many others loved Larry’s blues playing but Larry just didn’t have the maturity to deal with his career. “He was 25 going on 12,” she said. (Formerly in record promotion, K. Terry Bright was killed in an auto accident around 1991. According to a 2009 Spectropop post, Larry had a wife named Diane Mutz prior to his marriage to K. Terry).
Bright enjoyed relating his encounters with Elvis. “He used to fire Sonny West all the time and Sonny would come and live with me,” he said. One time I was at a party at Elvis’ house and I brought a fifth of Jack Daniels. Everybody said, ‘Well, E.P. don’t want you to drink a whole lot.’ I said, ‘I’m not gonna drink a whole lot, just enough to have fun.’ Little did I know what he was doing. “My son was born in 1970 and I was showing Sonny some pictures of him and Elvis said, ‘How would he like a new Mercedes?’ I said, ‘No, man, I’ll get him one,’ you know (laughs). Then I found out Elvis was buying everybody around town a Mercedes that day.”
There are various memories of Bright appearing on the TV talk show of Joe Pyne. One source said Bright was “ripped apart” by Pine (as the host loved to do) after admitting that he was a gigolo. But others recall Bright winning Pine’s sympathy after his story of the Tide Records situation. A former girlfriend said, “He took whatever he could from every girl, but he did it in a nice way. He was trying to survive. I think he was genuinely trapped in his prime and cut down that way through litigation. It’s really unfortunate because he had tremendous talent. To watch him perform was incredible.”
Later living in Carson City, Nevada, Bright recorded a demo in 1985, a Halloween novelty tune called “Count Dracula’s Blues”, but nothing came of it. Reflecting on the past, he said, “I had all the openings I wanted. I didn’t take advantage of situations - but I’ve had a lot of fun.”
1990 & 2010 by Gary E. Myers/MusicGem, PO Box 4777, Downey, CA