Vibraphonist Lem Winchester emerged at the tail end of the 1950s, recording his first leadership album in 1958. He would record only six albums under his name and about eight as a sideman. Music was a second career for Winchester. For 10 years prior to becoming a professional musician, he was a police officer in Wilmington, Del., and carried a Colt service revolver.
Winchester's best album is Lem's Beat. Recorded for Prestige's New Jazz label in April 1960, the album paired Winchester with Oliver Nelson on tenor saxophone and Curtis Peagler on alto. Bill Brown (p) appears on Your Last Chance and Eddy's Dilemma while Roy Johnson (p) played on Friendly Persuasion, Lady Day, Just Friends and Lem and Aide. Wendell Marshall (b) and Art Taylor (d) were on all tracks.
On Lem's Beat, Nelson and Peagler's horns wail and Winchester's playing on vibes is taut and crisp. Except for the album's two standards, the rest of the songs were Nelson originals. Nelson also wrote all of the arrangements. I'm not sure why Roy Johnson took over on the piano from Bill Brown, since the album was done in a single session. Even stranger is that the two songs Brown played on were the first and last on the date.
Speaking of strange, Winchester died at age 32 in the early hours of Friday, January 13, 1961. He was leading his quintet at the Topper club in Indianapolis. According to the Indianapolis News, he asked the bartender, Robert Cook, for an aspirin. Cook opened a drawer beneath the cash register and placed a .38 on the register while he fished around for the aspirin box.
According to Cook, Winchester said, That looks like my old service revolver. Can I see it?" Cook gave the revolver to Winchester, who said he wanted to show Cook how he used it to scare friends. After emptying the gun's five shells, he reportedly said, Now watch," as he replaced four, spun the cylinder, pointed the gun at his head and fired. He died instantly.
According to the Pittsburgh Courier, Winchester likely assumed the Smith & Wesson and Colt had the same chamber action. The Colt's chamber rotated counter-clockwise and would come up on an empty chamber. The Smith & Wesson rotated clockwise and didn't. Winchester left behind three young sons.
Though Nelson dominates this album, Winchester meshed perfectly with him, cooling off the saxophonist's heat. Which is probably why he was on two of Nelson's albums in 1960—Takin' Care of Business and Nocturne. Perhaps the finest track on Lem's Beat that provides insight into Winchester's soul was Friendly Persuasion, the ballad theme to the film of the same name. What a shame the bartender had to remove the gun to provide Winchester with an aspirin.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Lem Winchester's Lem's Beat on a Fresh Sound release pairing it with Oliver Nelson's Takin' Care of Business here.
JazzWax tracks: Here's Friendly Persuasion...
This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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