photo by Jenny Kane, The Oregonian
The show goes on for Sweet Baby James
Updated Mar 27, 2019; Posted Sep 11, 2008
The mellow tenor they call Sweet Baby James has just finished his first song, "It Had to Be You," before a packed audience at Jimmy Mak's when disaster hits.
Louis Pain detects something amiss with his Hammond organ and shuts down the five-piece band. He pulls out a blue plastic tool kit and plunges into the organ's mechanical innards. Then Pain snaps the tool kit shut. He's ready. The band glides effortlessly into "Mood Indigo."
Was the delay minutes or seconds? Whatever, it was too long to suit James. But James won't second-guess Pain's decision to fix a problem that not everyone could hear. "Louis is the best organist I've ever heard," the singer says later. "He's incredible. This is the best band I've been in.”
The show goes on. Just as it has for nearly six decades for Sweet Baby James Benton.
People say Portland is a good music town. Rock bands blast your ears in clubs in nearly any neighborhood. Names such as Seafood Mama, Mel Brown, and Paul Revere and the Raiders bring knowing smiles. The story of "Louie Louie" almost ranks with the Boston-Portland coin flip in local lore.
But Portland's roots as a music town go deeper than most of today's fans realize. Urban changes and human mortality have slowly erased the memory of Portland as a great jazz city for a decade or more after World War II.
Sweet Baby James is one of the last reminders.
"He definitely was and still is one of the premier singers," says Robert Dietsche, a jazz devotee and historian who published "Jumptown, the Golden Years of Portland Jazz" in 2005. "He knew everyone. A lot of young musicians got their start with him.”
The postwar musical boom was spawned by Portland's first large infusion of African Americans, lured to the region by Bonneville Dam construction and the Kaiser shipbuilding yards. Railroads were the primary means of transportation, and entire blocks of businesses sat on a street grid later erased by Interstate 5 and the Memorial Coliseum.
"Williams Avenue used to be like Northwest 23rd Avenue is today," Benton says. "Traffic ran in both directions. There were dozens of businesses. The sidewalks were full of people. Everybody dressed flashy. There was lots of food and lots of clubs.”
Clubs such as The Frat Club, Savoy, Acme, McClendon's Rhythm Room, Paul's Paradise and the Olympic Room. The building that held the largest club, the Dude Ranch at 240 N. Weidler St., is the only one left after the freeway, Coliseum and an Emanuel Hospital urban renewal project obliterated Albina's business district starting in the late 1950s. The building is being remodeled for multiple uses, including a craft brewery.
Dietsche says the railroad was a key ingredient in Portland's musical prominence. National stars such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong frequently played downtown ballrooms. Railroad porters could deliver the latest records from Chicago to jukeboxes at Ed Slaughter's popular pool hall on Williams Avenue faster than the records could reach stores.
"If you were touring on the West Coast, of course you stopped in Portland," Dietsche says. "There were a lot more clubs than there are now. Portland got a lot of action. Now they can fly right over."
Portland was racially segregated during the Williams Avenue glory years. Black patrons were not welcome at downtown venues, with the exception of McElroy's Ballroom — on the block now occupied by the Portland Building — where Cole McElroy promoted mixed dances complete with chaperones.
Elsewhere, "you didn't chance it," Benton says. After numerous attempts dating to 1937, the Oregon Legislature finally passed a public-accommodations bill in 1953. But even during segregation, black clubs were open to whites who came to dance, listen and party. There were occasional fights, Benton says, but they were prompted by squabbles over women, not race. "People were allowed to be people," he says.
While not violent, the club milieu included figures who made their money from gambling, prostitution, drugs and hustling pool. "I could deal with the other side, too," Benton says.
Benton's father brought his family to Portland from Crossett, Ark., in 1940 after a brief stop to work on Hoover Dam near Las Vegas. James was 10. The family settled in Vanport's wartime housing but moved months before the devastating 1948 flood. James Benton graduated from Jefferson High School in 1949.
His first venture as an entertainer was as a basketball player. A Chicago promoter took Benton's Police Athletic League team on tour, hoping to catch the attention of Abe Saperstein, founder of the Harlem Globetrotters. Saperstein never called, but Benton found his tenor voice while singing and traveling with his teammates.
Back in Portland, Benton transformed his two-car garage on North Shaver Street into a veritable venue, with 39 theater chairs, a stage and two pianos. For the next few years, it became the scene of "hair-cuttin'" contests, in which musicians would try out new songs and compete for instrumental superiority.
"It really caught on," Benton says. "The musicians' grapevine was something else. Cats came from New York and L.A. We had a lot of heavyweight guys. There was always a big pot cooking in back with black-eyed peas and greens. And there was the barbecue."
Benton took a lesson from the garage, now long demolished. He'd stick with standards rather than write his own tunes. "Not everybody is a Gershwin," he says. "Lots of people think what they write will blow somebody's mind. They're not going to make a living doing that. They're probably living with their mothers or with ladies who collect musicians. Those ladies are out there, you know.”
It was about 1960 when the "Sweet Baby James" nickname was bestowed on Benton, a decade before East Coast singer-songwriter James Taylor wrote a popular song of the same name. The Portland version came from a Williams Avenue denizen known as Sweet-Smelling Eddie. Eddie's pomade and cologne left an aroma wafting behind him for several feet.
Eddie nominated Benton to carry on the tradition. The name stuck. "Nobody knew what his real name was or where he lived," Benton says of Sweet Smelling Eddie. "You only saw him in the clubs. What happened to him? Nobody knows. You don't see characters like that anymore.”
Benton spent much of the 1960s touring on a Pacific Northwest circuit, but earth-shaking changes were occurring both in music and on Williams Avenue. The meteoric success of Elvis Presley whittled interest in jazz and show tunes. The rapid spread of television changed entertainment habits.
Portland voters preferred an eastside location for the Coliseum, and the new I-5 wiped out the spine of the Williams Avenue club scene. The last of the old Albina business district, once "a city within a city," in Dietsche's words, was eliminated by plans for an Emanuel Hospital expansion that lost its funding after the land was cleared.
Wearying of the road ‐ "I couldn't stand the smell of a club for about seven years" — Benton spent nine years working in a Portland foundry and another 14 as a Teamster driving trucks.
In the late 1980s, he teamed up with two contemporaries from the Williams Avenue era, Cleve Williams and Bobby Bradford, and played often at Billy Reed's as the Original Cats. After the Cats broke up, Benton joined Pain and gradually added sax player Renato Caranto, drummer Micah Kassell and guitarist Peter Dammann.
"I'm playing with guys in their 30s, 40s and 50s," Benton says. "I'm old as dirt. It's fun being with them. When everyone's hitting, you get chills.”
Sweet Baby James Benton; Born: Crossett, Ark., 1930; Education: Jefferson High School, class of 1949; Current residence: Lives with his wife in Scappoose; Last CD: "King Louie & Baby James, Live at the Waterfront Blues Festival," 2005; Next CD: Due for release late 2008; Next appearance at Jimmy Mak's: 8 p.m. Nov. 7; Hear samples: www.myspace.com/kinglouiebabyjames
While Benton's career is re-energized, so is Williams Avenue. The long run-down street is starting to pop with new eateries and shops. Blocks north of the old Albina district, Williams is beginning to take its place with Alberta Street and Mississippi Avenue in Portland's urban revival.
And when City Hall started thinking about trying to add new life around the Rose Garden arena a few years ago, planning consultants suggested tearing down Memorial Coliseum and replacing it with the old street grid that would allow a new neighborhood to grow.
Removing the Coliseum gained no traction, but Ethan Seltzer, director of urban studies at Portland State University, thinks it's still a long-range option as deferred maintenance continues to mount at the 1960 arena.
"There is a real desire to find a better way to connect the east side with the neighborhoods around it and to the west side," he says. "There is a realization that the Coliseum is a barrier at this point."
While there's no guarantee a new neighborhood would recapture the feel of the old one, "my sense is that there is great interest in figuring out how to make that work," Seltzer says.
Back at Jimmy Mak's, in Northwest Portland, the second set by King Louie and Sweet Baby James goes down perfectly smooth. People eat and drink. A few dance. Some women strut in seductive summer party dresses.
Louis Pain and Renato Caranto trade rousing solos on the organ and saxophone. Sweet Baby does his signature version of "Georgia on My Mind." Listeners can close their eyes and hear Ray Charles.
"I've made my living singing 'Georgia' and other Ray Charles tunes," Benton says later. "I never met him. But every tune he ever recorded, I felt I knew where he was coming from.”
The ovation is loud. Some people stand to cheer. Dressed in black with turquoise jewelry, Sweet Baby James makes his way through the audience, smiling and hugging and shaking hands.
Six decades later and on the wrong side of the river, maybe this is Williams Avenue.
-- Fred Leeson; firstname.lastname@example.org
Live Music Preview: King Louie and Sweet Baby James
Updated Mar 27, 2019; Posted Jun 26, 2008
By Douglas Perry | The Oregonian/OregonLive
"I guess I've had my 15 minutes of fame," Sweet Baby James says, "but with these guys, I'm starting to look for it again."
He's talking about the band that's given him renewed enthusiasm: King Louie and Sweet Baby James. They're recording Friday night at Jimmy Mak's for the group's second CD, and James will bring more than his jump rhythms and talking blues to the stand. He'll bring history with him.
James Benton was christened "Sweet Baby" by a sharp-dressing hustler called Sweet-Smellin' Eddie during the heyday of jazz along Portland's North Williams Avenue. That's where Benton was inspired by a singer known as Little Sonny. "I saw all those girls pulling on him up and down Williams, and I said, 'That's what I want to be!'" And that's what he did.
Fifteen minutes of fame was pretty good for a guy who grew up in Vanport during World War II and learned to sing in a car between games with the Chicago Hottentots, a semi-pro basketball team. He scored a regional hit with "The Body," which radio banned for suggestive lyrics, and he worked with the Del-Tones for 17 years, an attraction for a Hollywood crowd who flew him to Vegas to perform for them. He even had a stint playing fairs and rodeos with country star Bobby Bare: "Four Colored Cowboys West of the Pecos," he recalls with a laugh. As a member of the Original Cats in the '90s, Benton worked with other veterans of the Williams Avenue scene, a group that was "like family," he says.
But his major contribution to local culture came literally in his own backyard at his house off Williams Avenue in the 1950s. "The Backyard" became music central, with its barbecue pit, three golf holes, a garage converted to a theater and even stars such as Sammy Davis Jr. hanging out.
"All the musicians would congregate over there around noon, barbecue like crazy, and if you felt like playing, you went inside and played," recalls bandleader Mel Brown, who got his start in Benton's garage. "When the gigs were over, everybody came back and we'd jam until five in the morning.”
Benton isn't the only band member bringing history. Eddie Martinez a former New York studio guitar legend, recorded with such stars as Tina Turner and Celine Dion. Versatile saxophonist Renato Caranto, who works with Brown, has won a pile of blues awards. Drummer Micah Kassell, though younger, is a master of the shuffle beat. And co-leader Louis Pain, Portland's boss of the B-3, reminds us of the reason James was able to make history.
"James just oozes soul; it's impossible to be in his presence without feeling good," says Pain, who worked with Paul deLay. "He's one of the most charismatic people I've met.”
Lynn Darroch is a Portland freelance writer; email@example.com
LINER NOTES: "AROUND THE WORLD/LIVE AT JIMMY MAK'S"
Jimmy Mak's ain't no chicken shack, but it's always cookin'.
Actually, it's a nicely appointed place in Portland's vibrant Pearl District, and the food's mostly Greek. Call it a calamari palace if you prefer -- though that just doesn't have the same shang-a-lang. Because what makes the club a special place is a funky, down-home feeling that makes your muscles a little looser, your cares a little lighter, your eyes a little brighter.
You want a heavy-duty dose of that feeling? Drop by when King Louis & Baby James are in the house. The joint's full of your friends, whether you've met them yet or not, and the stew of jazz, blues and soul bubbles appetizingly from the very first notes.
Who's doin' the cookin'? The man with the recipe, Louis Pain on the Hammond B-3, locking in on the groove with drummer Micah Kassell. For that flavor to savor, it's Renato Caranto on tenor serving up the depth of the human condition in every solo. Bringing the heat on guitar, that's Eddie Martinez, who, if he weren't so humble, would need an 18-wheeler to carry around his résumé (Mick Jagger, Robert Palmer, and so on). And serving it up with style is the keeper of the flame himself, venerable veteran vocalist Sweet Baby James.
Travel around the world and you won't find many musical experiences that can make you feel like this.
--Marty Hughley, The Oregonian
Performance by King Louie, Sweet Baby James ends series on North Portland jazz history
Updated Jan 10, 2019; Posted Feb 22, 2012
By Cornelius Swart, The Oregonian
A three-part series sponsored by the nonprofit Project Grow about the jazz and African American history of North Williams Avenue ends tonight, Feb. 22, with performances by local blues and jazz duo King Louie & Sweet Baby James.
Throughout the 1950s and '60s, Portland's African American community was centered on North Williams Avenue. The area become known as Jumptown, a lively West Coast hub for jazz. In a 2008 interview with The Oregonian, James Benton said that back then he was given the name “Sweet Baby” by a man in the neighborhood called Sweet-Smellin’ Eddie. That was in the 1950s, when Benton hosted backyard barbecues that attracted local musicians and occasionally even the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. Benton's music, like all the events in the series, will try to evoke some of the spirit of those glory days.
Late-20th-century urban renewal projects leveled much of the area now largely characterized by light industrial buildings and vacant lots. Project Grow began in 2009. Housed in a small commercial building at Williams and Thompson Street, the an art- and agriculture-based community center provides jobs and creative outlets to people with mental disabilities.
Emese Ilyes, works for Project Grow and helped organize the events as part of the group's mission to help marginalized groups find community. “I’ve learned so much about the neighborhood,” said Ilyes, who came to Portland seven years ago. She said she was "devastated" to learn the history of the area from people who experienced it. “I’ll never look at the street the same way again.”
She hoped the events brought old and new residents together in communion, but also to have a good time. “It’s important to acknowledge the pain and maybe bring the neighborhood together,” Ilyes said. “Then we'll bring the music back.”
"Jumptown: Remembering Portland’s Artery of Jazz and Culture" runs from 8 to 10 p.m. at 2156 N. Williams Ave.; 503-523-8838.