Discovering Otis – the ‘Colorado Connection’
Back a few years ago I explored a claim which was made in a Denver Post article – a feature related to Denver’s Morris “Morey” Bernstein. That article put forth a few startling claims: Namely that Bernstein “discovered” Jan and Arnie and more surprisingly Otis Redding!
Morey was an interesting character and locating information about his past and career is a little difficult. He was born in the southern Colorado town of Capulin and resided in east Denver for a good period of time.
Bernstein was the owner of a downtown Denver nightclub “Morey’s Baby Grand” which I believe became the “Piano Lounge”.
Regular performers at the “Piano Lounge” included Charlie Burrell and Leon”Rags” Ragsdale. Burrell was one of two pioneer black musicians in the Denver Symphony Orchestra. Leon Ragsdale performed with an incarnation of the Ink Spots while residing in Denver.
Morey also became the owner of the “Keyboard Lounge” out on West Colfax – probably a follow up project to the downtown venues.
During Morey’s lifetime he is cited as having composed more than 600 songs. His days in the music recording industry originate back to his brief partnership with Al Kavelin who was the founder of Lute Records in California (see my “Kavelins” page here).
Al was the founder of the Lute Records and also Trans-World. Lute would most famously be the label that enjoyed the monster 1960 hit “Alley Ooop” by the “Hollywood Argyles” namely Gary Paxton and Kim Fowley, two very interesting characters to say the least – both now deceased (Fowley below left – Paxton right – Visit my Kim Fowley Page Here & my Gary Paxton Page Here)
In the early days of these labels, Bernstein indeed was involved and it was probably during that period that Morey would have possibly come into some contact with both Jan and Arnie as well as Otis Redding – but as the son of Al Kavelin relates on my Kavelin page – not anything approaching a “discovery”.
Back to Otis Redding
Otis traveled from Georgia to Los Angeles in search of a musical beginning and found the going very rough when he arrived. There is a great book out now – considered the official biography of Otis Redding, published in 2017 “Otis Redding An Unfinished Life” by Jonathan Gould the author of the Beatles’ narrative “Can’t Buy Me Love”.
To sum up the Bernstein/Redding story: While in search of a recording opportunity in L.A. Redding was brought to the attention of Al Kavelin who was flush with money resulting from “Alley Ooop’s” tremendous success. And so Otis was brought on board – directed to the famous Gold Star recording studio – was reinforced with a formidable army of supporting musicians – and then laid down his first tracks ever.
Backed by Earl Palmer, Rene Hall, Ernie Freeman, Plas Johnson and the vocal group “The Blossoms” with Darlene Love. Otis would record three tracks and one by upstart R&B singer Jackie Alton Avery. After the session was done, Kavelin elected to release his first Otis Redding/Avery single with “She’s Alright” on one side by “The Shooters Featuring Otis” and with “Tuff Enuff” on the flip side by Avery and the Shooters.
The name “Shooters” was selected taking a lyric line out of “Tuff Enough” – being “just a shootin'”. The record would come out on Kavelin’s Trans-World label in October of 1960.
The composer was Jimmy “Mack” McEachlin who had taken Redding under his wing to locate a record label. McEachlin would go on to some acting roles – most notably Clint Eastwood’s “Play Misty For Me” in 1971 and continue to dabble in the recording industry.
The other two tracks featuring Redding from the Gold Star session were “Gamma Lama” and “Gettin’ Hip”. Those tracks would later surface in Spain and France in 1967 and 1968 but not on a U.S. label.
Al Kavelin was excited about his Redding/Avery session and rushed out to cut a $100 dollar check for both artists. Avery eagerly accepted his but Otis was nowhere to be found. After a little investigation Kavelin, and MeEachlin (and others) would learn that young Otis had promptly purchased a one way ticket with his $100 back to his home in Macon where his girlfriend Zelma was expecting a child.
To pay the bills Otis would join a local Macon group called the Pinetoppers and bide his time in the background. His day in the limelight would eventually arrive. He would sign on with the Stax-Volt record family in 1962 and would land his first charting single on his first try; “These Arms of Mine” going number 20 R&B and number 85 Hot 100.
A string of charting singles would follow 30 in all – 12 of those coming after his tragic death in an airplane crash on December 10th, 1967 – His highest charting recording ever was the first release after his death “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” which went number 1 – his only number 1 – both Hot 100 and R&B.
Morey Bernstein was very capable of pulling a shenanigan here and there and he would with Otis and Al Kavelin.
According to Al’s son Frank (who continues today to operate the Lute Record Label, “Morris Bernstein was my father’s partner in Lute Records and its affiliated label, Trans-World. My father was the founder and president of these and other labels. It is our home address that appears on these labels (8601 W. Olympic and 164 N. LeDoux Rd). I never knew what role Bernstein played, other than perhaps promotion. The partnership did not last long, nor did it end well.”
Not well at all. Morey headed back to Denver where he would re-form the Finer Arts record label. While packing up his belongings in Los Angeles, his travel bag would apparently include some material from the Kavelin vault including two of the Redding tracks as well as material from the early Finer Arts label in California including the “Hollywood Argyles”.
NOTE: Morey at one time also claimed to have composed the words to “Alley Ooop” as well as discovering Jan and Arnie and Otis Redding.
So in 1966, in Denver, Bernstein must have felt it was safe to re-issue the Otis Redding tracks since Otis was flying high on the nation’s charts. This was when he released Finer Arts FA-2016 – but with this single crediting Otis on both sides vs. Jackie Avery.
The Glencoe address listed on the Finer Arts recordings was apparently the east Denver home of Bernstein.
Feeling confident, Bernstein took out a couple of advertisements in Billboard and Cash Box magazines both in the respective November 12th, 1966 issues for the Redding single. To my knowledge, this single never charted on any local radio station survey. Otis would appear in Denver on April 19th, 1966 – not sure of the venue.
What About the Hollywood Argyles? And Jan and Arnie? (and Morey?)
A did the Hollywood Argyles come to Denver to record for Finer Arts? One band member recalls swinging through Denver after a performance in one of the southern states but I contacted group founder Gary Paxton before he passed away and he told me he had never been in Denver.
He did say that Bernstein had offered him some production jobs and so on but that he worked on those from afar. Notice that the “B” side of the Hollywood Argyles’ record shown below released in December of 1961 was composed by Paxton. Both sides were produced by Paxton.
These tracks were no doubt recorded in Los Angeles but probably pirated once again by Bernstein.
This from Al Kavelin:
“My father recorded Jan and Arnie who had a minor hit with “Jenny Lee.” This was before my father started Lute Records and before he ever met Bernstein. Jan replaced Arnie with Dean, got a major label deal and the rest is history. If Bernstein ever met them, it would have been through my family. My sisters ran with the same crowd as Jan and Dean.”
Colorado’s Terry Miller
And finally, interestingly, a Colorado singer, Terry Miller, had strong Bernstein ties. Most of the tracks on his six singles were composed by Bernstein. Further in February of 1960, Miller had a single “I’m Available” released by Kavelin’s Lute label.
Then, Miller’s final two singles, both on Reveille Records, had three of the four tracks produced by Gary Paxton. All in the family it seems!
Miller – I have been told by a pioneer Denver rock and roll musician, left Denver broke after living for a time in the musician’s family’s home – where he was not so kindly asked to depart after occupying the living room couch with his girl friend for several nights!