Born: April 27, 1933 Primary Instrument: Guitar, electric
Calvin Newborn - electric guitar, vocals
In Memphis Tennessee, the lines between blues and jazz have always been blurred. From the great bandleader Jimmie Lunceford (who taught at Manassas High School in the 1920s), on through phenomenal musicians like Fred Ford, Frank Strozier, Hank Crawford, Herman Green, George Coleman, James Williams, and Charles Lloyd, the local blues scene provided an entry into a full-time musical career; the hard-earned admission to the jazz world came later.
For good reason, one family the Newborns became known as Memphis’ “First Family of Jazz.” Drummer Finas Newborn, the family’s patriarch, played drums with Lunceford’s Chickasaw Syncopators at the height of the Depression; later, he backed Lionel Hampton and led his own group, which featured his sons, pianist Phineas and guitarist Calvin Newborn, and opened his own musical instrument store on Beale Street.
Finas’ sons literally grew up with musical instruments in their hands. While they were still attending elementary school, the two took first prize at the Palace Theater’s “Amateur Night” show, where Calvin brought down the house singing “Your Mama’s On the Bottom, Papa’s On Top, Sister’s In the Kitchen Hollerin’ ‘When They Gon’ Stop.’” They learned their chops on gritty Beale Street, playing gutbucket blues alongside such greats as B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner, but fantasized constantly about working with Count Basie’s Orchestra and relocating to the nation’s bop capital, New York City.
For four years, the Newborn Orchestra performed at the Plantation Inn in West Memphis, Arkansas, before moving back across the river to Clifford Miller’s Flamingo Room in downtown Memphis. Incendiary photographs by Ernest Withers and George Hardin capture Calvin’s onstage energy: He danced, leapt, and slid across the floor with his guitar in his hands, never missing a note. “My hang time was like Michael Jordan’s, but I was dunkin’ the guitar!” Calvin boasts today. “I was known as Flying Calvin, the king of after-hours blues on Beale Street.” A young Elvis Presley, a frequent haunt of Beale Street clubs, would later borrow moves like these after becoming a close friend of Calvin and the Newborn family. Then, in the mid-1950s, Phineas relocated to New York, and Calvin soon followed. Establishing a regular gig opening for Count Basie, the duo fulfilled a longtime dream. Next, Calvin accompanied Phineas on his first solo recordings for Atlantic and RCA Victor, then joined groups led by Wild Bill Davis, Jimmy Forrest, and Earl Hines. He also played on dozens of sessions led by such greats as Charles Mingus, Roy Milton, Ray Charles, Sun Ra, and Hank Crawford, gigging on the east and west coasts, sponsored by Harmony Guitars (who supplied Calvin with a prized Meteor Electric). Phineas, meanwhile, became known as one of the greatest piano virtuosos to ever enter the jazz world, dazzling audiences with his prowess and brilliancy at the keys. Unfortunately, by the late ‘60s, his physical and mental problems had forced him from the New York scene.
When Calvin returned to Memphis to take care of an ailing Phineas in the early ‘80s, he discovered an entirely different Beale Street than the one he’d grown up on. He saw “tourists gazing at a map and looking puzzled outside the Visitor’s Information Center,” and “a station wagon stopping at W.C. Handy’s house,” where its driver took a snapshot then sped off. Musicians like Calvin Newborn were no longer so welcome in the rebuilt entertainment district. Nevertheless, he never forgot his Memphis roots. Calvin picked up gigs wherever he could, and began to focus on other outlets. He wroteAs Quiet As It’s Kept,an autobiography of his brother, who died of cancer in ’89.
Calvin worked as assistant director of Jazz Studies at LeMoyne-Owen College, where he earned a B.A. in Humanities. He taught underprivileged children at the Stax Music Academy, and he wrote a handful of stage plays and operettas. Calvin also recorded two solo albums: 1983’s “From The Hip,” released on Rooster Blues Records, and “Flying Calvin/UpCity,” originally released on his own Omnifarious label. Although he performed regularly in Memphis, he has largely slipped under the radar.
Today, the 70-something year old Calvin Newborn is ripe for a comeback. He still steps lively, while his entire body glows with a mixture of divine intelligence and unbridled energy. He’s writing another book,Rock ‘N Roll versus Rock ‘N Soul: How the King Won, an account of his friendship with Elvis Presley. He’s working on a documentary film called Triumph Over Chaos! which details the Newborn family’s musical legacy.
Calvin in 2005 recorded the album, “New Born,” for Yellow Dog Records, which is also reissued “UpCity.” “New Born” reveals how, more than a half-century into his career, Calvin Newborn is constantly refining himself as a musician. The album serves as an astounding testament to Newborn’s immense talent and as a reminder of the legacy of Memphis’ often-overlooked crossover musicians. Listen to tracks like “Newborn Blues,” or “After Hours Blues,” and you’ll hear the lineage that began on Beale Street and ends with New Born, recorded, appropriately enough, in Memphis more than half a century later.
“Blues & Beyond” and “Spirit Trane/Omnifarious” outline Calvin’s impeccable jazz pedigree, honed at New York City recording sessions and in the many smoky after-hours joints. Unlike many other players, however, Newborn sees no reason to repudiate or even reconcile his dual careers he plays both blues and jazz, an open-mindedness which fueled the spiritual and creative process behind songs like “When Kingdom Comes/Sho’ Nuff,” “Restorations,” and “The Streetwalker’s Stroll.”
Musician, playwright, author: Calvin is a piece of living history. With astonishing clarity, he can recall hundreds of stories about “the old days” magazines like Living Blues, Mojo, G.Q., and Cadence have mined dozens of tales about his work with Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Count Basie, and others and his image (George Hardin’s “Flying Calvin” photo was even co-opted by the Smithsonian Institution as the logo for their Rock’N’Soul exhibit). One of the greatest unsung heroes of blues and jazz, it is high time that the world found out more about Calvin Newborn.
“I always did like the blues because I could get attention playing the blues. I could do something with the guitar that a lot of guys couldn’t do. I had expression, and I moved with the guitar. I got that from my granddaddy he used to play his guitar in his church, and walk all over the church playin’. I guess I inherited that.”
Source: Yellow Dog Records