Years ago, a blues researcher told me, with an expression of mingled horror and bafflement, that vocalist Little Brother Montgomery lost a bag of letters by Louis Armstrong that he’d been carrying around. This was in Chicago in the 1960s. He lost that bag on a city bus. I never learned why he was toting the letters in the first place. Pearls from Satchmo, swallowed in the maw of the Second City. Picture some janitor sweeping out the bus and tossing the bag into a dumpster. Armstrong’s letters were famously chatty and fabular – stories re-spun in a mode of personal entertainment for the recipient, in this case another homegrown talent who left the cradle of jazz in the ’20s.
Eurreal Montgomery, a barrelhouse boogie piano player with a sweet lilt in his voice, came back to me on a thunder-pounding afternoon as I navigated across the Causeway, listening to Classic African American Gospel from Smithsonian Folkways. The sheets of rain were so thick they nearly swallow the taillights ahead, the CBD high rises were a dim silhouette far off to the left and here comes Little Brother in a spiritual mode, the fifth cut, “Just Got Over At Last.”
I’m so glad, I just got over
So glad, I just got over
So glad, I just got over,
Just got over at last.
It is comforting to hear a voice celebrating his own salvation when the climate-change sledgehammer taunts us. But Montgomery – born in Kentwood in1906, a fixture in the early New Orleans jazz scene before packing off to Chicago – was swimming in morality lyrics to comfort the fearful sinner. As he sang of “a drunk man lying on the barroom floor,” he pulled the choral line “I just got over at last” with a single-voice backup from a man unnamed in the liner notes.
The drunk man fell out with
a troubled brain
(I just got over at last!)
He dreamed he was riding
a hellbound train
(I just got over at last!)
Well, anyone who lived through Hurricane Katrina knows the dream of a hellbound train. With all that rain throwing down hail chunks, the image of roof dents hung with me. In such a passage the happiness in Little Brother’s voice produced a comfort zone, all of a piece with the rocking slow-tempo of his keyboard work, all but inviting a sing-a-long. This was quite a departure from the Little Brother whose blues and jazz recordings I knew. I came to find out he did an entire LP: Church Songs: Sung and Played on the Piano by Little Brother Montgomery (Folkways 31042, 1975), recorded circa ’62 in Chicago.
“You know that cliché about tickling the ivories?” Francis Davis asks rhetorically in The History of the Blues. He then lists Little Brother Montgomery along with Champion Jack Dupree and Roosevelt Sykes, and others as “veterans of the work camps and barrelhouses … [who] didn’t tickle the keys – they crushed them. The trick was to make yourself heard and the best way to do that was to play and sing loud; to hammer out the beat with your left hand and not try anything with your right; to put the beat in front where it belonged and keep it there all night.”
Montgomery’s left hand was rock solid as we barreled through that fearsome rain. He did his early blues recording on the Paramount label in Chicago in the 1930s, and later teamed up with Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. But the pull of the tight, early jazz ensemble work never left him. In ’49 he played Carnegie Hall with Kid Ory, the influential Creole trombonist who had one of the most successful bands in New Orleans during World War I.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that he recorded gospel songs. The flow of singing between sacred and profane is one of the oldest patterns in music. From Georgia Tom Dorsey, turning his back on the blues to compose the timeless compositions for Mahalia Jackson, unto Little Richard’s salvation-quest as a reborn gospel singer (in Marvin Gorman’s church, no less!) after all the flamboyant gender-bending of rock ‘n’ roll, the pews and choirs form a mighty rock.
I played “Just Got Over At Last” all the way over the bridge and kept Little Brother on that song until the sun broke through clouds on Jefferson Highway, and I got home at last.