THE PULSE OF NEW YORK CITY
“Watch me now, Feel the groove”
This edition of The Soundtrack Of A Photograph is all about the pulse of a New York City that I feel is disappearing gradually under the weight of overdevelopment and a societal desire to have no inconvenience whatsoever. The photographs I am including here remind me of a grittier, not always so nice, not always so safe time in our recent history. The soundtrack for these photographs comes from a legend of the New York music scene, a pioneer of funk and an influence on hip hop. He had the ability to switch gears between a Latin groove to a hard rocking sound within the same song. That music was not a part of my musical landscape growing up, or so I thought until years later when I began listening to it because of a personal connection to the man.
When my sisters and I were growing up, our Dad would regale us with stories of “this musician” he used to know at one of his jobs in the early 1960’s. His name was Jimmy Castor, and he was a saxophone player, as a black and white press photo Dad had of one of Jimmy’s early groups The Casals showed. On the New York scene Jimmy had already had a bit of a career already. Like so many others, Jimmy began as a doo wop singer, recording the song I Promise To Remember in 1956 with his group Jimmy & The Juniors which was later covered by Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers. In fact, Jimmy filled in for an increasingly troubled Frankie at one point. But probably a typical story of most budding musicians, Jimmy was working a day job, which is how he came to know my father and playing music by night. Though Dad had growing up (and still possesses) a wonderful collection of classic early rock and roll 45’s, I think by his own admission, he did not really care for the style of music Jimmy was playing at the time. In any case, Jimmy’s star was about to shine bright in just a few years time, while my dad moved on to marriage and fatherhood.
By 1966, long since having worked with my father, Jimmy had moved on and had his first solo hit, a song which is still heard all over New York City to this day-Hey Leroy, Your Mama’s Callin’ You. From its beginning, with its attention grabbing whistle to the words-Hey LEROY……..What?………Your Mama……she’s calling you man…..and then a playground worthy howl of laughter the song goes to a Latin and Calypso tinged beat and the refrain of “Go to your mama.” It is a song that is uniquely born from the rich melting pot of New York City. Like many other songs from Jimmy Castor throughout his career, this was not music that could ever have come out of Kansas City, Seattle, or even Detroit. This could only be New York inspired, make no mistake. Jimmy was no doubt picking up those sounds from around town, but especially from the growing explosion of Latin music starting to come out of Spanish Harlem. He began playing the timbales which in addition to his talent as a saxophone player along with his songwriting, arranging and producing skills helped give Jimmy the moniker of The E-Man (for Everything Man).
“Day or night, black or white, dance or sing, you gotta do your thing”
Jumping ahead to 1972 now, following a string of minor hits for smaller labels was a new band, The Jimmy Castor Bunch, and a new label-RCA. Musically speaking, this is where Jimmy’s vision came to full fruition. The album was It’s Just Begun, and the title track, along with the song Troglodyte (Cave Man) sealed the E-Man’s reputation as an innovator. Troglodyte remains a popular funk groove to this day, and one of the most sampled songs ever, both for the filthy groove laid down, and the often used call at clubs of “What we’re gonna do right here is go back….WAAAY BACK….BACK INTO TIME.” Jimmy obviously understood something about music that is often missing these days I feel; a sense of humor and Troglodyte has lots of that. The recurring cast of Leroy, the Troglodyte, and Bertha Butt and the Butt sisters would remain staples of his repertoire for years to come.
But it is the title track, It’s Just Begun that is the choice for this edition of The Soundtrack To A Photograph for its gritty, urban groove and combination of different sounds that come together as one. A song so vicious and so ground breaking that one can truly say it was ahead of its time. Here is the song, at the bottom will be a live clip of him from that time.
It starts off with a great sax riff before giving way to a killer funk groove led by a churning bass guitar part and kept in place by congas and drum kit, with electric guitar wah-wahing its way around the mix along with Jimmy’s sax. Purely in terms of a funk groove, it easily rivaled Sly & The Family Stone, or Parliament, but it is where it went from there that it surpassed them in my opinion. After the second verse and bridge comes one of my favorite saxophone solos of all time. Having briefly and painfully tortured my family in grammar school with my saxophone wailing (in the bad sense), I have always had an affection for the instrument, and Jimmy rates very highly for me as one of its greatest players. As the solo descends, the groove comes back in, now with the addition of Jimmy on timbales and cowbell (Christopher Walken as Bruce Dickerson would have been proud of the bell!), the guitar steps forward now, more in a hard rock vein, as the bass and percussion charge away full throttle and a space age “whoosh” sound sweeps through as Jimmy sings It’s Just Begun relentlessly until the end. It is so hard charging in fact that you are almost thankful it ends so you can catch your breath. Along with Hey Leroy and Troglodyte, It’s Just Begun would remain the best examples of Jimmy’s career for good reason. Other than it being sampled by countless artists (Jimmy remains one of the most sampled artists of all time in fact), it has been featured in films like Flashdance, and documentaries. To this day it can often still be heard accompanying old school break dance crews around town, some 40 years since it was first released, proof positive of its influence. I am certainly not alone in calling it a groundbreaking song.
“Peace will come; this world will rest, once we have togetherness”
The Jimmy Castor Bunch proceeded to crank out other great material for the rest of the 1970’s, further exploring funky grooves with hits like Bertha Butt Boogie, Supersound, and King Kong, all of them staples in clubs for years to come. Most of this went unnoticed by my father, but I remember us picking up a copy of Jimmy’s album ‘Maximum Stimulation’ somewhere, so we knew he was still kicking around and making music, but in mostly white, suburban New Jersey, Jimmy Castor’s music was not on my musical radar, or so I thought. It seems strange to think of now, but without the benefit of a quick internet search or social media, it was not always easy to find out information about someone in those days, so his career was still a mystery to me. At some point in the early 2000’s, I picked up a copy of a Best Of The Jimmy Castor Bunch released on Rhino, and was astonished to find out how much of Jimmy’s music I actually had heard over the years, but had no idea was him. What’s more is I really liked his music, and suddenly those stories Dad would tell us about “this musician” he once knew became-you were friends with this guy? The cool factor went up immediately.
Now I wanted to find out more about the man himself, so I looked him up online one day hoping to find an official website. Well what came up was more of a web page than a website, but when I clicked I read something along the lines of ‘The official Jimmy Castor website.’ No more than one or two lines after that was an astonishing sight to me. It read-‘Bob Doyle, please contact me again!’ I sat there bewildered, thinking….wait, does that mean for my father? I read it again and still scratched my head. I left a message on the email address on the site, figuring it would be awhile before I heard a response. I said hi, this is Bob Doyle’s son and I am guessing he tried to get in touch with Jimmy.” I then called my dad, who verified that he had sent a message via the site, but had neglected to leave his contact information. Dad had said something along the lines of “you probably don’t remember me, but I knew you when….” It was only a day or two after I believe when I got a message from Jimmy himself saying, he did remember my dad, and would love to get back in touch. I provided Dad’s email, and just like that, these two were back in touch reliving the past with each other. That Jimmy remembered my Dad after so many years speaks to both my Dad and Jimmy of course, but on his end impressed me more. He hung out with Jimi Hendrix, Sammy Davis Jr, and every mover and shaker on the music scene seemingly, yet 40 years later he remembered a guy he briefly worked with who was not even a fellow musician, it just seemed unreal to me. I remember answering Jimmy back saying thanks, and complimenting his music, for which he was appreciative. When he joined Facebook and I sent a friend request, he answered back with, how’s your Dad? From that point on he became a regular friend, congratulating my wife and I on birthdays and anniversaries, liking photos, and all the usual Facebook interaction. It was then that I decided I would do whatever I could in my own small way to spread the word of this musician to as many people as possible, and play his music for anyone that would listen.
Jimmy passed away in Las Vegas in January of 2012. I had been out to Vegas a few times for work, and hoped I could somehow get together with him, or better yet, see him perform, but it was never meant to be, and I never got the chance to see The E-Man in action. But Leroy, Troglodyte, and Bertha, continue to live on, along with many other great songs too numerous to mention here. It remains the fierceness of It’s Just Begun; however that is the soundtrack to these photographs for a pulse and energy that is at the heart of this city. In some ways though I feel it is getting harder to find that pulse in the city these days. That is why I try carrying my camera with me, because one never knows when they will find that relic, unchanged by development and a reminder of a New York that once was. I love getting out exploring other neighborhoods, precisely for the mere chance of discovering a New York from the past. If dusty old vinyl record shops, bookstores without cafes, diners and pubs almost unchanged from over 50 years ago were all swept away like it feels now then not only do I lose the chance to photograph; I also lose the soundtrack for those photographs. The photographs I have chosen here are all from the last 10 years, taken in various places around town. Whenever I look at them there is a timeless quality to them, they could have been taken in 1972, or 2012. No matter what happens in the city, whatever patch of ground gets developed to put yet another chain store in to compete with the same chain store or bank a mere 2 blocks away there will always be the memories frozen by the click of a camera. Along with those memories there will always be a saxophone lick along swirling in my head which will never go away. For me, memories always should include a soundtrack to them. It brings them more to life for me, and after all, isn’t that what we want from the good memories? To be able to go back to them?
Finally, I urge you to watch this clip of the Jimmy Castor Bunch in their prime-Troglodyte, Leroy, It’s Just Begun, even a little bit of Jimi Hendrix towards the end. A wonderful snapshot of his talent.
Lyrics by Jimmy Castor/John Pruitt/Gerry Thomas, Arranged by Castor/Thomas
All photographs by Robert Doyle
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