Gene ‘The Mighty Flea’ Conners
“Listen -Ode to Billy Joe Pt1 – MP3″
I hope the middle of the week finds you well. I’m home on a personal day since the tiniest Corner is down with yet another ear infection (seemingly the universe’s way of keeping babies from taking over the world). Fortunately the meds seem to be working since his attitude (and appetite) have already improved, so it’s me and the boys just sitting around and watching the snow fall.
Ironic, that, since I was complaining to my wife that Miles is four years old and has yet to see a snowfall significant enough to play in; and it’s not like we live in Ecuador either. Of course, this being Central Jersey there’s no guarantee that this storm will amount to anything (though it’s been well below freezing all day). Weird.
Anyway, today’s selection is one of those 45s that was kind of floating around in that deep storage locker of my mind where I accumulate records for future reference. These being those records that are intriguing enough to fasten themselves in my memory, but maybe not so much that I have to mount an expedition immediately (and there are lots, and lots of records like that).
I don’t recall where I first heard of the Mighty Flea’s version of ‘Ode To Billy Joe’, but I’m pretty sure it was in relation to the drum break therein. I had no idea what the record sounded like. The name of the performer brought to mind (for obvious reasons) the world of calypso, but since I heard that it was in some way Johnny Otis related, I figured that wasn’t the case (as it turns out, I was right).
So, while out digging – as is often the case – I happened upon a copy at a bargain price, bought it, and then happily pulled the file from my brain and disposed of it accordingly.
When I got the record home, and gave it a spin I was surprised – not that it was a cool, funky 45, which it is – but that the lead instrument was the trombone, since outside of the world of Fred Wesley, you don’t really find many records like that.
I promptly digi-ma-tized the side, and placed in the “to-be-blogged” folder, where it sat for a few months. I have to admit that I didn’t think I’d ever find any information about the Mighty Flea, so I didn’t start looking.
When I did finally start looking (my Google hand is strong Grasshopper!) I discovered that – contrary to my assumptions – the Mighty Flea was a real person, that being a journeyman trombonist named Gene Conners (Connors in some references).
Born in Alabama in 1930, Conners eventually found his way to the West Coast where he joined the Johnny Otis Show, playing with the band on their historic 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival appearance.
It was during his time with Otis that he recorded his funky cover of ‘Ode to BillyJoe’ for the Eldo label in 1968. Eldo went back as far as 1960, with releases by a number of West Coast artists, including Johnny Otis (and the Johnny Otis Show), H.B. Barnum and Ron Holden, though the discography I found seems to indicate that the lion’s share of releases on the label occurred between 1960 and 1962, with a reactivation of sorts in 1968 with sides by the Johnny Otis Show and the Mighty Flea.
‘Ode to Billie Joe’ runs at a medium-funky pace, with Conners’ trombone, some groovy organ and lots of background shouting (I definitely hear Johnny Otis in there). Things gets a little groovier in the last 30 seconds or so which is filled with an extended drum break.
Following his years with the Otis band, Conners relocated to Europe. He recorded an LP as the Mighty Flea (‘Let the Good Times Roll’) in 1972, and continued to record in a variety of settings (R&B, Trad jazz, modern jazz) through the next two decades in France, the Netherlands and Denmark, and as far as I can tell is still playing today.
I hope you dig the sounds.