StLJN Saturday Video Showcase: Riding the "Night Train" with Jimmy Forrest


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What's the most performed song ever written by a St. Louis jazz musician? While it's probably impossible to ever know with absolute certainty, at first one might guess that it's something from Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.

After all, it is the best-selling jazz album of all time, and tunes from it such as  “All Blues" and “So What" frequently get played at jam sessions and on cover gigs, and have been recorded by various other musicians besides Davis.

However, the popularity of Davis and Kind of Blue notwithstanding, further investigation suggests that the most likely candidate for most-performed song probably is “Night Train," first recorded in 1951 by saxophonist and St. Louis native Jimmy Forrest. A #1 R&B hit for Forrest, “Night Train" over the years has spawned dozens of cover versions recorded by well-known artists, as well as countless live performances by assorted jazz, rock, R&B, country and variety bands.

Forrest was born on January 24, 1920 in St. Louis, making today the 95th anniversary of his birth. To celebrate, we're taking an in-depth look at “Night Train," a song that's interesting for a number of reasons beyond its sheer popularity.

Recognized by the Grammy Hall of Fame as one of the top jazz singles of all time, “Night Train" may be just a 12-bar blues in Ab, but it has taken a trip through American culture that also helps to illuminate certain aspects of the nature of musical composition; the malleability of the blues; and the flow of musical ideas between black and white musicians and audiences in the middle of the 20th century.  The whole story is after the jump...

The musician

Born into a musical family, Jimmy Forrest got his first performing experience as a child working with the band led by his mother Eva Dowd. In high school, he played with local St. Louis groups including the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra and bands led by Eddie Johnson, Fate Marable and Eddie Randle.

After graduation, Forrest hit the road, playing with Don Albert's big band in 1938-39. He later worked briefly with Kansas City pianist Jay McShann before making his first recordings in 1943 with bandleader Andy Kirk, with whom he performed until 1948. The following year, Forrest got the call to go with Duke Ellington, but for whatever reason, his time with the Ellington band was brief, lasting only about seven months.

Leaving Ellington in 1950, Forrest returned to St. Louis and played local gigs while also working part time in the record department at the Gamen Appliance Company. According to the history of the Chicago-based United label compiled by the Red Saunders Research Foundation, “United owners Leonard Allen and Lew Simpkins found Forrest honking the “Night Train" riff in a St. Louis club in 1951" and decided to record him.

Forrest's first session for United took place at Universal Recording in Chicago on November 27, 1951, backed by, according the Saunders Foundation history, “his regular St. Louis combo: Bunky Parker, piano; Johnny Mixon, bass; Oscar Oldham, drums; Percy James, congas and bongos."

(Forrest, Mixon, Oldham, James, and pianist Charles Fox also would record the following year in St. Louis with Miles Davis during the period when Davis had returned home to East St. Louis in an effort to kick his heroin habit. The results eventually were issued in 1983 under Davis' name as Live at the Barrel.)

After “Night Train" became a hit, Forrest did three more sessions with United in 1952 and 1953, though attempts to replicate the song's commercial success with derivative tunes including one called “Flight 3-D" were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, at the same time Miles Davis was trying to kick heroin, Forrest apparently was using, and in November 1953, he plead guilty to selling narcotics and was sentenced to two years in jail. By the time Forrest was released, United was failing and unable to re-sign him. Forrest didn't record much over the next five years, waxing just a couple of singles for the Dot and Triumph labels, the former once again attempting to recreate the success of “Night Train" with a mambo version of the tune.

His career recovered with a move to New York City in the late 1950s, as he found regular work with trumpeter Harry “Sweets" Edison's group from 1958 to 1963 and also went into the studio for recording dates led by Cat Anderson, Jo Jones, and others. In December 1959, Forrest recorded two LPs worth of material for Delmark, run by former St. Louisan Bob Koester, and from 1960 to 1962 he made five albums as a leader for Prestige.

Fate once again took an unkind turn, however, as Forrest then had two heart attacks that rendered him inactive for the latter half of the 1960s. He came back in 1972 as a member of the Count Basie band, replacing Eddie “Lockjaw" Davis, and stayed until 1977, when he left to work in a small group with trombonist Al Grey. Forrest recorded his last album as a leader in 1978 and died in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on August 26, 1980.

The song

While it would be quite revealing to see Forrest playing the original version of Night Train, as released as a 78 rpm record by United in March 1952, there doesn't seem to be any video online of him playing the song in that style.

So instead, the version of “Night Train" seen in the embedded video window at the top of this post features Forrest with the Count Basie Orchestra, as heard in the 1979 film Last of the Blue Devils. This arrangement is not the original, but was written in 1976 by Roy Phillipe, who also arranged Forrest's ballad “Bag of Dreams" for a recording by the Basie band on the album Count Basie Big Band: Montreux '77.

Those arrangements aside, though, “Night Train" actually is based on a couple of songs from the Ellington catalog. While the song's Wikipedia entry notes the song's “long and complicated history" and correctly identifies the earlier works that provide its component parts, it garbles the way they're combined.

However, author and critic Ted Gioia gets it right in his book The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire:

“The familiar opening riff from “Night Train" can be heard on Johnny Hodges' 1940 recording of “That's The Blues Old Man," credited to Hodges and Irving Mills. The ensuing Boogie-oriented theme can be found on Duke Ellington's “Happy Go Lucky Local," the fourth movement of his Deep South Suite from 1946, where composer credits are shared by Ellington and Billy Strayhorm. Ellington, himself no stranger to the benefits of borrowing musical ideas, pursued legal action in this instance, and his suit was settled out of court, the terms undisclosed."

It's important to note at this point that Forrest's musical appropriation had many, many historic precedents. For example, in a directly comparable contemporary example, R&B saxophonist Paul Williams' 1949 hit “The Hucklebuck" was basically Charlie Parker's “Now's The Time" with a more pronounced backbeat.

More generally, in the folk and blues traditions, “composition" always has been a somewhat malleable notion, as it has been common practice for performers to write their own new verses for existing songs, compose entirely new lyrics for old melodies, or even mix-and-match verses taken from entirely different songs.

In other genres of music, classical composers also famously have recycled melodies from the past; many film composers re-use their own material; and pop songwriters have adapted parts of classical compositions and continue to borrow from each other with some frequency.

(And while we're discussing the question of authorship, let's note that in addition to Forrest, the credits of “Night Train" also list Lewis P. Simpkins, the co-owner of United Records, and guitarist Oscar Washington as co-composers. They were responsible for the song's original lyrics, written in 1952 and rarely heard after that. Jazz singer Eddie Jefferson wrote different lyrics, reportedly around 1960, but didn't record “Night Train" until his putting a version of the tune, including a sax solo by Hamiet Bluiett, on his 1977 album The Main Man.)

The hit, covers and remakes

Though “Night Train" may have been “old wine in a new bottle," record buyers found it to be quite tasty, as Forrest's record of stayed on the R&B chart for 20 weeks in 1952 and held the top spot for nearly two months. Forrest may have re-used riffs from earlier recordings, but he also developed a distinctive and catchy rhythmic feel, including a stop-time section not employed by Ellington, and crafted a memorable tenor solo that often was imitated or even reproduced note- for-note in subsequent cover versions.

Given the music business practices of the day, it wasn't long before those covers started to appear, with the ever-enterprising R&B saxophonist Earl Bostic weighing in with one of the first.

The song also was recorded almost immediately in a slicker big band arrangement by trombonist Buddy Morrow, a veteran of the Tommy Dorsey band. Morrow's version reached #27 on the charts, also in 1952, and like Forrest's tenor solo, Morrow's trombone solo often wound up being incorporated into later cover performances.

The “bump and grind" feel of the Morrow arrangement also made it a staple for strip club performers, which in turn inspired more knock-offs, such as the version by David Rose (who later famously composed and recorded “The Stripper").

By the mid-1950s, as R&B was morphing into rock & roll, many white musicians began covering songs originally recorded by black artists, stylizing and often sanitizing the material to make it more palatable to the popular, i.e. white, audience. Some of these records, like Pat Boone's covers of Little Richard songs, were simply artistic abominations. But some white artists managed to bring something of their own to the material, like Louis Prima, whose version of “Night Train" pushed up the tempo and energy level of the song in characteristic fashion to create a showcase for tenor saxophonist Sam Butera:

As a result of these and other versions, “Night Train" was already widely performed by jazz musicians, cover bands and variety groups when James Brown made it a hit again in 1962, with his version reaching #5 on the R&B charts and #35 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Brown's arrangement added some important elements to the song that would help spawn many additional cover versions. The pronounced backbeat and repetitive bass line, doubled by guitar, recast “Night Train" into a rock number suitable for then-current dance styles, and Brown's lyric turned the song into a shout-out, invoking the names of cities where, one presumes, he hoped the tune would be well-received.

Brown was not content to let “Night Train" simply lie in that groove, though, as demonstrated by his performance a couple of years later in the prototypical concert movie The T.A.M.I. Show, filmed on October 29, 1964 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

As you can see and hear in the clip below, Brown and the Famous Flames attack the song with manic intensity, accelerating the tempo of “Night Train" to the point that the signature riffs are near-unrecognizable and it almost seems like an entirely different piece of music:

Brown's hit record gave “Night Train" new life among musicians who had come up after the rise of rock & roll, inspiring cover versions including one by white R&B singer Roy Head (whose big hit was “Treat Her Right") and one from British keyboardist and singer Georgie Fame (whose version of the tune seems to interpolate the organ lick from the Mar-Keys “Last Night").

A guitar instrumental version by the Ventures brought out the country twang in the melody, but interestingly and somewhat incongruously, also includes a stop chorus that seems styled after those found in early New Orleans jazz.

As further evidence of its ubiquity, at some point around this time “Night Train" also seems to have crossed over to the country music audience, with covers recorded by, among others, pianist Floyd Cramer, former Elvis Presley bassist Bill Black's Combo and “Yakety Sax" man Boots Randolph (heard here in a later version recorded with bop alto saxophonist Richie Cole).

These many crossovers eventually seem have tainted “Night Train" for many jazz musicians, as Gioia noted:

“Few jazz standards have come from rhythm and blues bands, and I suspect many improvisers still scorn “Night Train" the way a wine connoisseur would scoff at a jug of muscatel. For a time, “Night Train" had a reputation as a song more suited to strip clubs than jazz clubs. Yet the song lives on in the jazz repertoire because it works like a charm in performance - even or especially when the musicianship on the bandstand is less than virtuosic - energizing the audience a manner that compositions with finer pedigrees often fail to match."

And indeed, not all jazz musicians got off “Night Train" after Brown's remake. A version by Oscar Peterson, also cut in 1962, served as the title song of an album that proved to be one of his biggest sellers, and that recording in turn inspired many more covers.

For example, Diana Krall, seen below playing “Night Train" on Elvis Costello's TV program Spectacle (with Elton John apparently guest-hosting), has cited Peterson as an important influence, and her version of the tune clearly is derivative of his. Peterson's recording also seems to have provided the template for pianist Gene Harris, who's seen below that with Ray Brown on bass and Grady Tate on drums performing the song in 1985 at Jazzfestival Bern.

Even after the mid-1980s, when it was used in the film Back to the Future as an example of the music that would be overtaken by rock & roll, musicians were still offering up new takes on “Night Train," including more contemporary jazz arrangements by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and World Saxophone Quartet and even a ska version recorded by The Toasters on their 1992 album New York Fever.

And the wheels keep turning, as you can hear in the penultimate video clip, a 1990s version of the tune by Archie Shepp that recalls aspects of Forrest's original recording, and in the last video, a performance from just last year by the Glenn Miller Orchestra of a Joe Cribari arrangement that incorporates bits from several different versions.

In fact, it's probably a safe bet that as you read this, some musician somewhere in the world is playing “Night Train," a simple song that nevertheless has proven over more than 60 years to be as unstoppable as the proverbial locomotive. Long may it run!

(In addition to the linked and quoted sources, this post also uses information from Dennis Owsley's book City of Gabriels: The History of Jazz in St. Louis 1895 -1973. Thanks also to Pauline Stark, whose question about the original session for “Night Train" got me started on the idea.)

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This story appears courtesy of St. Louis Jazz Notes by Dean Minderman.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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