A Real Beale Streeter: Earl Forest by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

Posted on 7/30/2009 by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

(Memphis, Tennessee) I was fortunate enough to run into one of my blues heroes while walking on a downtown Memphis Street one day. Around 1980, my college roommate, Greg “Fuzzy” Hughes, and I were alternately visiting the old blues haunts and attempting to eat in each of the 250 bar-b-que joints that operated in the city at that time.

I noticed that the lobby of the old Palace(a/k/a Loew's Palace) Theater was open while we were walking down Union Avenue headed toward the Mississippi River. Notice in this photo taken in the early 80's, Albert King's name on the marquee(photo credit by Crackdog, Flickr).

The Palace Theater, opened in 1920, demolished and turned into a parking lot in 1985, is not to be confused with the Palace Theater on Beale Street where a young B.B. King won the weekly $5 prize at the Wednesday night talent contests in 1948.

On this day, the beautiful old dilapidated theater was filled with children who I later learned were dance students. The Palace, in its final incarnation, was being used as the venerable Dr. Martin Luther King Center for the Performing Arts. Among the students was an extremely well-dressed black man with whom my friend Greg was engaged in conversation. As I walked up, he stuck out his hand and introduced himself as Earl Forest. Being an avid student of the blues, I was gobsmacked.

I stammered, “THE Earl Forest? B.B. King's drummer on Three O'clock Blues in 1949? You wrote Next Time You See Me!”

Equally stunned, Earl replied, “How did you know that?”

“Because you guys are my heroes, the Beale Streeters!”

The Beale Streeters was a loose collaboration of blues men, many of whom lived in the Mitchell Hotel in the late 1940's. The group was comprised by Roscoe Gordon, Johnny "Ace" Alexander, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Earl Forest, and that dynamic gentleman of the Blues, B.B. King.

Fourth from the left, Earl Forest stands next to
Evelyn Young, who is wearing a white dress

The first time I met Earl we ventured through the theater to "get his grip" so he could give me his card and some other information from the Dr. M.L.King Center to arrange to play some benefits. After an amazing tour through the catacombs of dressing rooms and corridors in this huge building, we finally got to Earl's briefcase, and as he opened it I noticed he had a nickel-silver Smith and Wesson revolver in it. It was, not coincidentally, a 32-20, the gun made legendary by Robert Johnson's blues of the same name.

Thus began a lifelong friendship with one of the finest, most clever men I have ever been blessed to know. I told Earl of several mentions of his name and accomplishments in blues books and articles I had read while studying at Rhodes College. He had no idea that they existed, thinking his career had passed without fanfare, unknown except to the few blues cognoscenti and elder members of B.B. King's entourage.

Earl and I became fast friends, with me asking him stories about the glory days of Memphis blues and his exploits on the road. I learned that he was the first black audio engineer in our area and that he had worked for Duke and Peacock Records even before Don Robey purchased the label. Earl would say, “Son, I was recording with 3 tracks at Main and Winchester when [Sam] Phillips [of Sun Records] didn't have but two!” Earl signed many famous blues artists while acting as Engineer and A&R man for Duke and Peacock Records.

Earl told me that a young Elvis Presley had asked to sit in with his band during a break on Beale and that he had threatened to fire any of them who would not do so. He said they didn't have any problems with Elvis, but they just wanted "to go take their break and get drunk." Blues trumpeter Gene "Bowlegs" Miller was in Earl's band at this time and Elvis attributed many of his stage moves to copying the stylings of Bowlegs. Earl had huge respect for all musicians and artists of any age and Earl really liked Elvis. Earl also said that Bowlegs' trumpet was so loud that he always made him go out into the hall when they were recording so that his trumpet would not overshadow the other instruments.

I learned that the New York Times had termed Earl the “best-dressed man to grace the stage of the Apollo Theater since Billy Eckstine” and from Earl I heard thousands of stories about the old blues men and women that I so admired.

I learned that Earl had signed Johnny "Ace" Alexander as B.B. King's piano player while he was drinking beer at the Green Beetle on Main Street. Earl always called it the “Green Castle”. Earl told me that he, Johnny Ace and B.B. King wore the same size and would borrow each others clothes. They were all living at the musician's refuge, the famous Mitchell hotel on South Main Street. It later became Ernestine & Hazel's restaurant, named after Sunbeam Michell's wife.

left: Mitchell Hotel, now known as Ernestine & Hazel's

Photo by Teresa R. Simpson

Billboard's Most Promising R & B Artist of 1954:
Johnny "Ace" Alexander

I played several benefit gigs for the M.L. King Center and still have a certificate of appreciation bestowed upon me and my band the Wampus Cats. It and these memories mean a great deal to me. We played most of these gigs at the old Palace Theater which was not air conditioned but had two huge exhaust fans on the roof. The fans were at least ten feet in diameter and powered by a single 100 horsepower motor.

Earl coached my singing, took me in as a fellow musician and I drove him and his many girlfriends around for some all night frivolities at places like the Hawaiian Isle and Sunbeam Mitchell's Club Paradise. We literally stayed out all night long, laughing, telling stories, singing, playing and truly enjoying the company of kindred spirits. After several all night debauches, Earl started calling me “Nighthawk.”

Club Paradise, 1960's
(photo by my friend, the late Earnest Withers)

Earl Forest was a remarkable performer in his own right. He traveled around the world on blues package shows in the 1950's. These shows, booked by Don Robey's Buffalo Booking Agency(run by Evelyn Johnson) out of Texas, featured the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Johnny Ace, B.B. King and all the popular blues stars of the day. Earl also played drums on many of B.B. King's early recordings.

The list of artists that recorded Earl Forest's songs is immense: The Grateful Dead, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Johnny Ace, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Joe Sample, Denise LaSalle, Shirley Brown, Arthur Prysock, Johnnie Taylor, Freddie Fender, James Cotton, Tab Benoit, Debbie Davies, Kenny Neal, The Blasters, Nancy Wilson, Nat Wilson, Jimmy Johnson and many more.

The list of songs Earl wrote that were stolen by unscrupulous individuals is also a long one. When I asked Earl if he were not still angry with Don Robey, he replied, "Nighthawk, Robey planted." He laughed and said that he had outlived Robey by over 20 years and that he also valued the many opportunities that he received more than any detriment he may have encountered as a result of others' dishonesty. In the late 1940's there was a great deal of restriction on what jobs a young black man could aspire to and Earl always told me to value"the opportunity" which he deemed was your only real chance at making a difference in this world.

above: Duke and Peacock label owner Don Robey

Earl called me one day. “Night! Get up. I need to talk to you about a gig, son.” Earl had booked a great gig for me at the First National Bank Building on a nice outdoor stage on Madison Avenue. Gigs in those days were scarce and Beale Street had not been developed into the entertainment district we know today. I showed up that day with my band and met Earl, who I never saw wear the same suit twice. He had a lot of cool old threads, and he was sporting some of them on this sunny day.

He had all the preparations ready, had already been visiting with all the nice folks at the bank and was asking all the guys in the band if they needed anything before we went on. I never could get Earl to take any money for booking the band so that day I insisted that he do so. He assured me that he had. As I looked over at the stage, I noticed a man with a van hauling out a Hammond B-3 on organ dollies.

Then the guy loaded two huge 900 series Leslie cabinets onto our stage. I walked over to Earl, a bit hurt, and said, “Earl, why didn't you tell me there was going to be somebody else playing at this show?”

He replied, “This is your show, son...your band, the Wampus Cats. Ain't nobody else.”

I said, “who's this guy that's gonna play organ?”

Earl chuckled a sly old chuckle and said, “You are.”

I said, “But Earl, I don't know how to play a B-3! I never played one in my life!”

Glancing at his watch, Earl said, “Well you got about 35 damn minutes to learn. Get to it!”

Earl laughed and walked off. He had used his gig commission to rent the organ for me to play because he knew how much I loved the sound. Today I have an endorsement from the Hammond-Suzuki organ company. Thanks, Earl.

Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms on the Hammond B-3

Osceola, AR Blues Festival

Thanks again to Earl, Sunbeam Mitchell let a conglomeration of us play the Club Paradise on Tuesday nights. It was the first club I ever saw with a full size walk-through metal detector at the door. The group was comprised of several of the members of the old Blues Alley band, including Fat Sonny, guitarist Willie Pettis and Evelyn "Mama Nute"Young, saxophonist with B.B. King's band in the 1950's.

Our deal with Sunbeam was that if we could get a crowd during the first set, he would hire us for the night and pay us. If not, we would quit and go home with no pay. Many nights we would all combine our pocket change after the first set and Evelyn would send Pettis down to the liquor store for a pint of cheap vodka which we all passed around before leaving for the night.

Evelyn Young would trundle in with her ancient sax case to my late night solo gig at Lou's Place, a now defunct club located downtown in a basement down a dark alley illuminated by a lone red light bulb. Lou was the brother of Paul Savarin, owner of Blues Alley. Lou's other brother, Joe, started the fledgling organization that became the Blues Foundation. Lou runs Lou's Pizza Pies in the Cooper-Young area of Midtown now(that's Lou Savarin pictured on the right). A salient feature of Lou's was its seating- used Braniff airline seats bolted to the concrete floor. The gig didn't start until 1 am and all the Blues Alley musicians would amble in after playing their gig that night. Evelyn would show me big jazz chords on the piano and smack the hell out of my hands if I didn't play them correctly. There was much drinking and a pleasant mix of river rats, musicians and prostitutes who just wanted to get out of the rain. Albert King's bassist, Big Joe Turner, and Fred"Good Guitar-Playin' Sanders" often came in to jam. Fred subsequently played in my band for a while.

Joe Turner from the Blues Alley All-Stars

Fred Sanders on Mempho Records

After a few years Earl had bypass surgery but still continued smoking Pall Malls. One night my band played at a renovated movie theater called the Madison House and Earl, fresh from surgery, got up to jam on drums. He did so with style, and at the end of the number, when I jumped dramatically off the 10 foot stage, Earl jumped right after me. What a showman!

After Earl's bypass surgery, his lady, Miss Alvia, nursed him back to health and he never forgot her loyalty and loving kindness. Years later, after she was stricken with Alzheimer's, he would not leave her side, sometimes (re)introducing me eight or ten times to her during one of my many visits to his apartment on Sharp Street. It was a high rise for older folks and I would occasionally play piano for a group of them in the afternoon.

Left: Earl Forest on the keyboard

Earl loved to write songs and was a fine keyboard player, so one day I brought him a digital piano and my old 100 watt Gibson tube combo that had two 12" speakers and one 15". It was a monster. It came from the factory covered in blue denim instead of Tolex. I rolled it up on the elevator to his apartment and he nearly fell out. He loved it. He wrote several songs for Malaco on that piano.

Earl got my band booked at the Club Paradise on a Saturday night on a bill with Bobby Rush. We played alternating sets to a big audience all night long. Bobby and his band were laying it down and the big club, actually a converted bowling alley, was packed with hundreds of people. Although Earl said he had spoken to Little Milton Campbell earlier in the day about coming over to jam, about 4 am I told Earl that I didn't think Little Milton was going to make it.

Earl said, "He'll be here, Night."

Sure enough, about 4:30 Little Milton walked in after playing two shows with his band . He was hoarse, but he jumped on stage and we played until 6:30 in the morning. About 7, as we were packing up to leave, he asked me to play keyboards for him. Since I had to finish college, I declined but was truly humbled and honored that he would ask.

A few weeks later, Earl learned that my band was going to be playing on the riverboat during the blues awards in 1982. He arranged for B.B. King to jam with my band, the Wampus Cats, for over an hour. I actually swapped licks with B.B. for about five minutes. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Like Earl, B.B. was a consummate gentleman. I bet he stood up fifty times on the boat every time someone came up to his table to be introduced.

above: Little Milton Campbell

Thanks to my engineering/guitarist friend Brad Webb(now Engineer and guru at I-55 Productions) , for whom I have recorded with Willie Foster and Blind Mississippi Morris, we cut some tracks featuring Earl on the 2 inch tape machine. Richard Hite, formerly of Canned Heat, joined us on bass. It was to be the last thing either Richard or Earl would record.

Richard Hite, bluesologist, record collector,
bassist for Canned Heat and my band, the Wampus Cats

Tony Adams, super-drummer and longtime drum tech for Matchbox 20, played drums. My guitarist for over 25 years, Memphis Mike Forrest, played on all the tracks. Bassist Bill Bailey and my cousin, the late drummer, John Burgess, also played on some of the tunes that I sang. Earl sang 4 songs, 2 of which are on the rare Spectator Shoes album. The 2 other tracks of Earl are still in the can and it looks like Brad may release them at a later time.

After a 50 year hiatus from singing in the studio, Earl Forest sounds like he never missed a day singing. He is truly great. He is not only inspirational, but he could pull impromptu lyrics and parts out of the air effortlessly. Earl sings his own tunes, Next Time You See Me and Whooping and Hollering with aplomb. The musicians were inspired to do their best for the much beloved and revered old blues man.

Richard Hite, who's monolithic 7000 record collection spanned from floor to ceiling in his home, gave Earl a copy of one of his old 78s from the old Duke and Peacock days. Earl did not even have a copy and was very moved to receive it.

After the recording sessions, I did not see Earl for some time and one day I got a call from soul singer L.H. White (from the Icebreakers), who informed me that Earl had cancer. Before I could make it by to see him, my mentor was gone.

I was the only white man at his funeral at the Antioch Baptist Church, and I was pretty torn up that day. L. H . White came up to me at the rear of the church and said, "Come on with me, Nighthawk, you sit up front with me and the other church musicians." That was a great honor and a very kind, touching gesture.

Ruby Wilson, who sang for years at B.B. King's Club on Beale, sang the best I have ever heard her sing in that Baptist church that day. Ruby suffered a stroke last year and is rehabilitating well. She received an award from the Memphis Music Commission this year for being an Emissary of Memphis Music.

Ruby Wilson's award

March 26, 2009

photos by the author

B.B. King spoke at Earl's funeral. He said, "All of you have talked about what a kind and thoughtful, loving person Earl was, but none of you mentioned the most important thing about him. Earl Forest was a hell of a blues drummer!" I couldn't have said it better.

photo by Andrea Zucker from VIP Memphis Magazine

I miss you every day, Earl. I will never forget your kindness and wisdom. I will always try to be clean and well-dressed when I hit the stage, and to represent our fellow musicians properly, just as you instructed me so many years ago.

Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms


©Robert Tooms, July 30, 2009

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