Herb Ellis: A Blue, Smooth Road

I’ve been playing a steady gig at a hotel bar for a while now with a trio that consists of pianist Bernie Senensky, drummer/leader Dan Bodanis and me on bass. Bernie took most of March off to do a tour of the U.S. with another group and as this approached he was scrambling around trying to line up subs and confessed to me he wasn’t really looking forward to the road, that he’d miss our gig and was worried something would go wrong in his absence. The night before Bernie was to leave, Dan called a ballad he really likes, “Detour Ahead” and Bernie replied with an impish grin, peering over his glasses with perfect, ironic timing – “De tour ahead is what’s worrying me.” (Rim-shot.)

It’s a special, unique song, one that I’ve heard and played many, many times over the years, yet never tire of. Apart from its beauty, I think this is because it has no echoes of other songs or clich├ęs in it, so every time I play it feels like the first time. We played it again recently and it occurred to me that while I’ve heard it sung many times I didn’t really know the lyrics very well, just snippets of them have stayed in my head – “Smooth road”, “gullible clown”, “danger sign.” I remedied this by looking up the words on Google, here they are:

Smooth road, clear day.
But why am I the only one
Trav’lin this way?
How strange the road to love
Should be so easy.
Can there be a detour ahead?

Wake up, slow down.
Before you crash and break your heart,
Gullible clown.
You fool, you’re headed in the
Wrong direction.
Can’t you see the detour ahead?

The farther you travel,
The harder to unravel.
The web he (she) spins around you.
Turn back while there’s time,
Can’t you see the danger sign?
Soft shoulders surround you.

Smooth road, clear night.
Oh lucky me, that suddenly
I saw the light.
I’m turning back away
From all this trouble.
Smooth road…. smooth road.
No detour ahead.

Reading through the lyrics on their own, I’m struck by how direct and honest they are, a world away from the urbane, Broadway sophistication of giants like Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart. There are some moving rhythms and rhymes here, a fragile sense of warning, danger and foreboding underscored by the poetic use of driving allusions – crash, danger signs, light and so on. The “soft shoulders” line is a great pun combining the image of an embrace with highway construction. Love is a journey without a road map and there are turns, potholes and hazards – losing your heart being among the most dangerous of these. There is also ambivalence in that there’s a kind of innocence here (“Oh lucky me, that suddenly I saw the light”) but there’s also a world-weary anger reacting against this naivete (“Gullible clown. You fool…”) When you hear the lyrics sung with the melody though, they really come alive – they fit together perfectly and complete each other.

The melody is pastoral, delicate, spare, but also has emotional ambiguity because there’s a subtle blues feeling in it, certainly in the underlying harmonies but also in some of the melodic phrases, especially in bars two, five and six of the A sections. There are some deliciously gentle dissonances between the song’s chords and its melody which add to its blurred, ambivalent quality. The bridge is glowing, original and modern-sounding, something of a marvel when you consider the song was written in the late 1940s. From the song’s home key of C Major the bridge begins in E Minor and the second bar is an F-major-7 chord – this has a modal, spacious quality. It then resolves surprisingly to E Major before moving back to E Minor, then the whole thing repeats before resolving back to C Major for the final system. “Detour” has a four-bar tag at the end which is its climax (“Smooth road, smooth road.”) Many songs have such built-in tags, but none of them resemble this one harmonically or melodically, it’s unique and ties the whole song together beautifully.

Maybe because I’m impressionable and didn’t really know the words, I’ve developed a really strong set of visual images in my mind about this song that are at odds with the lyric. Though the words begin in the day and mention clear weather, I have a very sharp mental picture of it being a nighttime song, with wet conditions. I see rain-slicked roads, headlights illuminating yellow lines, windshield wipers on rain-dappled car windows with blurred faces behind them; it’s all a bit like a dream in my head. Also, I rarely play this song without thinking of the perils of driving and the musicians who have died on highways – among others, Clifford Brown and Richie Powell (together), Doug Watkins, Bob Gordon, Dave Lambert, Eddie Costa and of course Scott La Faro in 1961, just ten days after recording a famous version of this very song with the Bill Evans Trio at the Village Vanguard. Dead at 25, his car wrapped around a tree, no detour ahead for him.

“Detour Ahead” was first recorded by Billie Holiday and later by many other great singers (Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Diane Reeves et al), but it’s this live version by Evans that captured the imagination of many listeners and musicians – this is the main reason the song has continued to survive and flourish. The Evans trio (with La Faro on bass and the recently-departed Paul Motian on drums) captured lightning in a bottle while recording all of the Sunday of their engagement at the famous club – this yielded two celebrated albums, “Waltz For Debby” and “Sunday At the Village Vanguard”, plus other material released later. The special quality of the music and La Faro’s tragic death so soon after have combined to make these recordings legendary, iconic in the jazz canon. Evans, as he so often does, captures the mood and feeling of the song perfectly, despite the absence of the lyric. He gets the melody to really sing on the piano, uses beautiful, sensitive dynamics and lovely chord voicings to get at the tune’s fuzzy dissonance, and finds a couple of interesting variations on the original chord changes in bars two and three.

Most importantly, he finds a brilliant solution to the song’s tempo issues – its melody and wide-open spaces suggest a very slow tempo, which can easily bog down over time – “Darn That Dream” is similar in this regard. He takes the melody chorus very slowly, then seamlessly doubles the tempo for blowing and the last melody chorus, returning to the original tempo for the very last section. Although Evans begins slowly in tempo, there’s almost a feeling of rubato at first, and it’s largely drummer Motian who keeps a subtle sense of pulse going early on, largely through sustaining cymbal washes and brushwork. With La Faro often engaged (at Bill’s behest) in high-register melodic dialogue and interplay with the piano in this trio, time-keeping and pulsation were often left for Motian to provide and the artful way he does this makes him for me the real hero of this band – Motian = motion, sorry for the pun. This may surprise some as I’m a bassist and La Faro is championed as a great innovator on that instrument, but it’s just the way I feel about it.

Billie Holiday first heard “Detour Ahead” performed by the trio The Soft Winds, who wrote it in 1947, though they never recorded it. Her only studio recording of it was done on April 29, 1951 with the Tiny Grimes Sextet, during her short stay with the Aladdin label. It’s not easy to find (it appears on a CD called “Billie’s Blues”) but is really worth hearing. She loved the song and her sound, style and very personal diction are perfect for it, give it a melting, haunting quality. I don’t know if our local singer Bonnie Brett has heard this record or not, but she’s been touched by Holiday’s singing a lot and I’ve always loved the way Bonnie sings the song, I’ve been lucky to be often playing behind her when she’s done it. The song has also made a return for me because saxophonist Mike Murley has started playing it with his trio of guitarist Reg Schwager and me. Mike’s inspiration for taking up “Detour” is a 1957 recording of it by Stan Getz with Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. Like Getz, Mike plays the song in the unusual key (for jazz) of A Major – it’s probably difficult, but it sounds wonderful on the tenor in this key. After years of playing it in C, A Major took some getting used to, but this open-sounding key really suits the folksy character of the song for the guitar and bass too.

Although “Detour” is copyrighted to the three musicians from The Soft Winds – pianist Lou Carter, bassist Johnny Frigo and guitarist Herb Ellis, there’s long been a controversy and mystery about which of them actually wrote it. Because he became the best-known of the three in the jazz world and played it often, many people think Ellis wrote it alone, that it’s really his song. Ellis claimed this himself fairly adamantly, and his attorney tried unsuccessfully to get sole copyright for it in his name. Several writers have looked into this, and Frigo claimed to have written the song with minor input and suggestions from the other two while they were on the road as a trio. There are a couple of factors that support this. Frigo was the driving force behind the formation of the trio – they had been part of the rhythm section with Jimmy Dorsey’s big band and when that disbanded, he found work for the three friends as a trio. He has said he took out copyright for “Detour” in all their names to keep the group together and working, and was never bitter or insistent about his sole authorship.

Frigo had a long, successful career in Chicago as a studio bassist (and later a fine jazz violinist) and was a well-known jokester, addicted to word-play, carrying puns and metaphors past the point of reason. One writer who knew him has opined that of the three, only Frigo could have written this lyric, especially the “soft shoulders” line. Carter has said that it was pretty much all Frigo’s idea and doing and that he merely suggested a couple of chord changes and the “gullible clown” line – he had no reason to lie, but then again, neither did Ellis. The pastoral melody, chord changes and blues quality sound an awful lot like Herb Ellis to me, so maybe Frigo supplied the words and Ellis most of the music. All three are gone now, so we’ll never really know and it probably doesn’t matter much at this point.

I was fortunate enough to play with Herb Ellis on several occasions and to get to know him, especially during one week where the two of us played just as a duo. He was a very nice, warm man with a down-home sense of humour and I’ve always been a fan of his playing. He came from Texas, which has produced reams and reams of fine musicians – I don’t know what it is exactly or I’d get me some, but musicians from Texas have an awful lot of soul and blues in them and generally have big, roaring sounds, a really strong beat and delivery, aren’t given to pussyfooting around much. The saxophonists of course are well known, the “Texas tenors” – ranging from Herschel Evans and Illinois Jacquet to Fathead Newman and Dewey Redman among many others. There are dozens and dozens of great Blues artists from there, far too many to mention. Texas has also produced more experimental players who are still steeped in the blues, such as Jimmy Guiffre and Ornette Coleman. Ellis fit right into this whole lineage, he had a serious country twang in his sound and as much real blues feeling in him as anyone I’ve ever played with, black or white.

Every once in a while Herb would play an out-of-tempo solo intro to set up a tune with a bluesy character, like say “Georgia”, a favourite of his. He would tilt his sweating head back, close his eyes and get right down deep into it with fabulous tremolos, bends, smears and ringing chords, often singing along, testifying with what he was playing. It was thrilling, the real deal and always gave me chills – some might have thought this was for show, but you can’t fake these sounds or this kind of feeling. I always felt like I was in Texas or in the front row at a revival show when he did this. Whooeee, baby. Gimme the blues boys and free my soul, I wanna get lost in some jelly roll.

The first time I played with Herb came out of the blue (so to speak) when I was quite young. He was playing for two weeks at a now-defunct Toronto club called Bourbon St. during the summer of (I’m guessing) 1977, and the bassist Michel Donato needed to take the second week off. Michel had heard me a few times and took me under his wing, occasionally calling me to sub for him the odd night with various people, but this was a little different, a whole week and with a big name to boot. I wasn’t working much and had planned to take two weeks off and go to my family’s cottage with my fiancee for a holiday (from what, I couldn’t tell you.) She was ticked off that I agreed to come back a week early to sub for Michel, cutting short the vacation, but I couldn’t say no – it wasn’t the money, it was the opportunity, the chance to learn and play with a hero. I wasn’t quite ready for it yet, but Herb and the other musicians – Carol Britto on piano and drummer Marty Morrell (who had also spent many years playing with Bill Evans), were pretty welcoming and encouraging, which really helped. When I hesitated accepting the gig, Michel said to me in his inimitable Quebecois double-speak, “You won’t be ready at the beginning of the week, but you will be when it’s over.” I had my hands full and a lot to listen for and learn, so a lot of it is a blur in my memory, but I clearly remember a few things. One night felt really good in particular, and Marty Morrell explained to me this was because I was beginning to relax a bit, something I needed to do.

Because I’d taken the week before off and done a lot of swimming, my hands had softened up and I developed a bad blood blister on my plucking finger, it was the colour and consistency of a soft, red wine gum by the second night. It made my attack mushy, burned painfully and I was afraid it would burst in the middle of a tune. Herb caught sight of it one night on a break and thanked me for what I was going through and told me a story about playing with the bassist Gary Peacock one week somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Peacock hadn’t been playing much then either and also developed a nasty blister. Herb told me that Gary was into all kinds of macro-biotic diet and Zen stuff and that he rubbed the finger with some special herbal goo and meditated so that he wouldn’t feel the pain, willing the blister not to break. “It was pretty far out, but it seemed to work for him”, Herb commented. I knew of Gary Peacock and associated him at the time with the avant-garde – he’d played with Albert Ayler and Paul Bley, so I was a bit stunned that he would have played with such a traditional player as Herb. I’ve since learned that Peacock started off as a very young guy playing straight-ahead bebop in Los Angeles with people like Bud Shank, Carmell Jones and Dennis Budimir.

The blister burst during the last set of the week, and I felt like I’d endured some kind of trial-by-fire, was no longer a jazz virgin. It stung like hell for about twenty seconds while I continued to play on the fresh skin, things were a bit wet on the strings for a while, but I discovered much to my relief that the skin underneath the blister was calloused and tougher than before. I had a hard surface to play on again and the sound was bigger, I wished I’d bitten the bullet earlier and burst the damn thing with a pin.

The other thing I remember from that week was that several young musicians I knew came to listen, guys who were interested in more intellectual, modern or refined approaches to jazz, like say, those of Lennie Tristano or Gary Burton. They were less than impressed with Herb’s gutsy and fundamental playing, sniffing that he “wasn’t very melodically inventive”, that he was “just a blues player.” These guys were just as green as I was and, knowing inside what I was going through on stage just to keep up with the musical level and not drown while playing, their casual dismissals ticked me off. First of all, there’s nothing wrong with being a “blues player” – it seemed to work just fine for Charlie Parker. I’d heard the same condescension applied to Wynton Kelly, but saying that Herb or Wynton are “just blues players” is like saying Christopher Wren was a decent draftsman. I’ve been often guilty of it myself, especially when I was younger, but it’s always bugged me when musicians put other musicians down for what they’re not, instead of simply listening and appreciating them for what they are. I felt like saying, “What, are you guys embarrassed by the blues, allergic to swing or something? Do you want to just gaze at your navels forever?” It was one of my lessons of that week – everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but criticizing music from afar is a lot easier than playing it. What happens on the bandstand is a separate world, so don’t give too much weight to what people say or think of the music from the sidelines, good or bad.

A few years later I played with Herb again at Bourbon St. for a few nights, subbing for another bassist – Dave Young, I think. By this point, I was a much better and experienced player, though I still had a lot to to learn. This time around, Herb didn’t look so well, seemed much older, his skin pasty, his manner guarded and nervous. His playing on these nights was a bit coarse, less sure and sensitive and I noticed he did some odd things, like occasionally calling one tune, then playing another. He also did some strange stuff when comping for my bass solos, like playing back to me a line I’d just played, about three times as loud, shouting, “Yeahhh” – not quite what I needed or had in mind. A couple of times he would just begin soloing again in the middle of a chorus during a bass solo – it was a bit of a circus and I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong. Later I found out that Herb was a serious alcoholic, the kind that can’t have even one drink. He had beaten the problem many years before, but every once in a while slipped off the wagon with disastrous results – severe illness and personality change. During this time he had been on the road alone for a long spell, and what I’d witnessed was either a binge or likely its aftermath – I don’t remember smelling any alcohol on him at the time, I just knew that he wasn’t the same person at all, was out of control. As I was leaving after my last night on that gig, Herb grabbed me by the arm with a grip of iron. He was sweating, just soaked and there were tears in his eyes. “Steve, you’ve become one of the real good bass players; I’m sorry for the way I’ve played and acted….I had a bad slip with booze a while back and it takes some time for me to recover, I’m worn out, just not myself yet…” I hugged him, told him there was no need for an apology, I just hoped he would be OK. He said he’d seen a doctor and mostly just needed to get home, see his wife Patty and get some rest, which he could finally do the next week. I was glad to hear he would be going home, and I’ll never forget the experience or that moment.

The week of playing in a duo with Herb must have come in 1984 or ’85, at a club called “East 85th Street” (or the “Fabulous Club 85” as Harry “Sweets” Edison once called it.) It was a basement room, formerly a coach-house, with good sound and an intimate, casual atmosphere. The gig was one of the more enjoyable ones of my career and helped to wash away the earlier unsettling experience with him. It’s not that any musical history was made or anything, we just really had a great time playing together, and it was a two-way street because he was a powerful, sensitive accompanist and the duo setting really highlighted this. I also learned a great deal, mostly detail, both from playing and talking music with Herb in this bare-bones setting. He was in great shape both musically and personally, seemed really happy and was playing better than ever. At this point we knew each other a bit and the chemistry between us was very good, simple really. His favourite bassist was Ray Brown, who was also mine, so I just tried to play like Ray. It wasn’t a burden or a straight-jacket, it’s pretty much what I often tried to do anyway, but this was the right setting for it. Herb brought along a neatly bound book of about two hundred tunes he liked to play, written out in beautiful calligraphy. He was often working with just bass or bass and drums then and this solved any repertoire issues. I knew a lot of these tunes already, but I used the music anyway because it had the chord changes Herb liked, and these were often subtly different than some of the usual ones.

Although he had a reputation for being a backwoods twanger, Herb had a keen, big-city sense of harmony – you don’t spend years on the road with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown without developing this. There were some interesting, ear-opening chords for some of the songs – he had a knack for finding just one or two different grips that could completely refresh or change the character of a tune, make it easier and more fun to play on, open it up. A good example of this was one beautiful chord he used on “Here Comes That Rainy Day”, which he played in medium 4/4 in the key of G. He went from a G major chord on the first two beats to a D7/A chord on the next two, which led to the Bb7 chord of the second bar. Most people used some kind of descending root motion of G to F# to Fm7 to Bb7 in the first two bars. The bass note A under his D7 voicing sounded just wonderful to me against the melody and resolved beautifully to the Bb7 – it was really simple, yet nobody else I’d played with had ever thought of it. He also had some really different, beautiful chords for “It Might As Well Be Spring” as a ballad in Eb, which brought out a pentatonic, Japanese quality in the song that I’d never heard before – he was quite mindful of musical mood and colour. These changes could have been dreamed up by somebody like Bill Evans, not bad for “just a blues player.”

I told Herb how much I liked some of these chords and he was pleased, holding forth on his thinking about chords and harmony a bit. He said that because the “II-minor-7, V-7” progression had become so entrenched in jazz theory, musicians forget that in some cases a simple V-7 chord is actually right and sounds better, as in the case of “Rainy Day.” He also felt that many musicians, especially pianists, had become chord crazy, writing songs with as many chords as possible, or adding too many of them to standards, which just cluttered them up in the mistaken belief that more chords gave you more options. To his way of thinking, the opposite was true – more chords gave you fewer melodic options, less freedom and more obligation to play certain, specific notes and a greater chance of playing wrong notes. He liked one or two chord changes per bar, this left you free to roam a bit and maybe find some “wrong notes” that could be interesting or turned into right notes.

I mentioned that the pianist Dave McKenna had told me something similar about playing with trumpeter Bobby Hackett. Bobby liked his pianist to play the simplest chords possible, just four notes with no extensions, so that when he played the more interesting notes up top as part of an improvised melody, they stood out. Big chords just made him feel smothered. Herb said he liked to figure out chords for a song by finding roots that sounded good to him against the melody, then filling in the chord, which was often just a sound. He told me Ray Brown and he used to spend hours together on the road doing just this, figuring out harmonic possibilities this way, learning a lot from each other in the process. To Herb, too many chords just congested a tune and tied the bass player down too much – he felt the bass should be free to walk and play moving lines in various directions to build some momentum without getting choked by too much harmony. Too many chords were like stop signs or red lights to him and created traffic jams, made a song dense like an overgrown city, whereas what he wanted was an open stretch of straight, smooth road so that he “could go, man, build up some steam.”

His repertoire was very wide-ranging, some blues for sure, bebop and “rhythm-changes” tunes. He liked songs with a rural flavour, like “Easter Parade”, “Old Folks”, “Skylark”, “When Your Lover Has Gone.” Nat King Cole tunes like “Lost April” or “Sweet Lorraine.” Good jazz originals like “Django” “Whisper Not”, “Jordu.” Songs with a strong blues feeling like “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You”, “Ill Wind”, or “Come Rain or Come Shine.” He liked old chestnuts such as “After You’ve Gone”, “Lover Come Back To Me” and pretty ballads like “Embraceable You” or “I’m Glad There’s You.” The tunes he liked had to have a special mood, be either bluesy-tough or pretty or both, but above all, they had to have some air, some wide-open spaces. After all, he was from Texas, and I began to see what he was about and how he felt about things. It made sense, people usually play the way they are and vice versa.

Of course, we also did “Detour Ahead” a lot and it was great to play it with someone so closely connected with the song from its inception, whatever his role in its genesis. Herb was quite crotchety and proprietary about it, saying at one point, “These are my changes, not the ones Bill Evans played – he didn’t write the damn song, I did.” (It’s strange how Bill Evans keeps popping up in this piece essentially about Ellis and this song – Bill and Herb could be seen as diametric opposites musically speaking, but there are a lot of unexpected connections between people and things in jazz. Later Herb confessed to me that he actually really liked Bill’s piano playing, but didn’t think much of his various bass players. “I don’t go for all that fancy, cello stuff on the bass, I want to hear it downstairs, man.”) He took “Detour” a little bit faster than most, as a walking ballad with the bass playing a gentle four – he said, “the song’s supposed to move, like a car on the highway.” I’ve never heard anyone play the bridge better, it was just beautiful. In his hands the song became like a stately, gentle blues ballad. Herb died a couple of years ago, and now I also see his rustic, Strother Martin face in my mind when I’m playing the tune.

Herb loved humour and telling funny stories about musicians and the road. He told me his favourite musician was Lester Young and this surprised me a little, I thought it would have been Charlie Christian. Herb said of course he loved him too, but that without Lester there would have been no Charlie Christian, maybe no Charlie Parker either for that matter. It was from him that I first heard the great story about Young and the drummer who was not quite as good as he thought he was. After the first set, the drummer swaggered over to Lester and said,”Yeah Prez. Beautiful, baby – say, when was the last time we played together?” “Tonight” was Lester’s droll, one-word answer.

Herb was very tight with Harry Edison and revealed to me that Lester had given him the nickname “Sweets”, not for his gentle nature or sartorial splendor, but rather for his notorious bandstand flatulence. I’d played with Sweets and Herb was delighted to hear this, filling me in on some of Edison’s famous colourful similes. Sweets once described working with a drummer who played so busy “he was like a cat trying to bury his shit in a marble floor.” Sweets loved Ray Brown too, but delighted in making fun of him, saying Ray was “so cheap he could squeeze the buffalo off a nickel.” Of his golf game, Edison said “Ray Brown ain’t no golfer – he can’t hit a donkey in the ass with a bag of rice.” We did a lot of laughing on that gig.

The most enjoyable part though was experiencing him as a rhythm guitarist, one-on-one. Fellow guitarist Jim Hall always praised Herb as a rhythm player, his prowess at this can be heard on many records with Oscar Peterson’s trio and countless others, it’s his greatest strength. Feeling it up close and in person was really something though. In the duo I played solos on pretty much every tune and for once, the Golden Rule applied in jazz – all the time I laid down behind Herb was in return laid down behind me as he supplied a lush carpet of rhythm for me to dance on. His time was perfect – propulsive but never heavy, the dynamics varied and the sound just right. I don’t know if I played better than usual with this accompaniment, but it sure felt that way to me. I could really relax, not worry about supplying a pulse while soloing and I found myself playing things I’d never played before, stretching out with more choruses, which Herb encouraged – “Yeah, man, take another one.” Sometimes, just before or after a bass solo, he would lean in and say, “Walk a couple.” We would just play a chorus or two of rhythm as an interlude, walking bass and Freddie Greene chords in perfect sync. The room always went really quiet when this happened, the minimalism of it drew people’s attention, created an expectancy and tension – “When is somebody going to play something?” I was in heaven, it was delicious, nothing was happening, yet everything was happening. I almost sympathized with a comment I’d once heard a drooling idiot make, “Geez, I like the beat in jazz, eh? But why do the drums and horns have to make all that other racket?”

Like all good things, this gig too came to an end, but it lingers as a nice memory of Herb Ellis, of good time and good times. The road of a musician’s life is often a bumpy one, but the perspective of many years and the tricks that looking back over time can play on the mind help to pave it over, make it seem like a smooth road after all.

© 2012 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Herb Ellis: A Blue, Smooth Road

  1. A great tribute to a fantastic player. I’ve been listening to Herb ever since his 1956 Verve recording with Oscar Peterson at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, and was fortunate enough to see him play live several times in the early eighties. He always played with great feeling, and could out-swing anybody.

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