Towards the end of last year I had a chat with rockabilly legend Matt Lucas from his home in Florida, Matt recorded some of the most raw and primal rockabilly records that you are ever likely to hear. There is an unparallelled sense of urgency on his early records, it's an intense mix of rockabilly and R&B. Matt creates a pulsating rhythm, he's a powerful drummer with an impeccable sense of timing. You can hear it on his great version of the Bobby Blue Bland classic Turn On Your Lovelight, Matt takes the song and gives it a distinct Bo Diddley feel, it has a real jungle rhythm and certainly matches Jabo Starks' playing on Bland's original. It also has a funky guitar break delivered by the great Travis Wammack, Matt's vocal certainly matches the urgency of the rhythm with Matt pleading and imploring. Blues and jazz are the foundations of Matt's sound they are his greatest musical influences, it's not hard to hear that in the syncopated rhythms on his early work and even in the new music that he is currently recording.
Matt was born in Memphis and raised by his adopted parents in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, growing up in the Delta region Matt was exposed to music at a young age, the sound of jazz and blues captured the young budding musicians imagination. Matt has a great independent spirit and a desire for adventure which sometimes got him into trouble, at the age of 14 Matt was sent to reform school in Boonville Missouri. Matt had grown tired of small town life and wanted to see what life was like outside Poplar Bluff so he and some friends liberated a cement truck to make their escape! After his release from reform school Matt returned home to see out his parole before making the trip to L.A. Matt's father ran the local movie theatre and Matt was a big film fan so what better place to head to than the glamour of Hollywood. Matt told me stories of great Hollywood parties and meeting some of the great stars of the day including the Perry Mason star Raymond Burr. Matt didn't make any headway in Hollywood so he returned home to Missouri, where rock n roll and rockabilly were starting to gain a popular foothold in the south. Matt found some resistance to his playing R&B in Poplar Bluff so he headed to St Louis and found enough clubs where he could play almost all year round. Matt worked at a club in St Louis with bandleader Ike Turner, Matt rated Ike highly as a bandleader and Ike liked Matt's propulsive drumming style and rock solid beat. Matt had some exciting times playing in St Louis and then further afield in Chicago,
"Just before I went on the road with Narvel while playing a club in St. Louis .....A Gangster from Chicago came into the Club and told me , Matt, Ill make you a STAR if you come to Chicago and work in my club. I told him I had a job waiting with Narvel Felts in Mo. He said "How much money will you make?? I said Big Money 100 to 125 a week. He took out a roll of money and peeled of 2 one hundred dollar bills and told me that would be my pay each week if I went to Chicago. I said sorry, ive already told Narvel id take the job with him. He peeled off another one hundred dollar bill then tore the 3 ioo dollar bills in half and gave me half! He said Lots of women plus "Ill Make you the Singing Gene Krupa of Chicago! Wow!!! Wheres the phone , ill call Narvel! South Chicago Club the Bar X was a wild place with B-Girls robbing customers and dope being sold behind the bar, The Musicians I played with were Rummies or Speed Freaks and I played till 6 am in the morning!"
Around 1959 Matt got a call whilst working in East St Louis from fellow Missouri native Narvel Felts who asked Matt to join his trio. The trio hit the infamous southern roadhouse circuit, Matt has a great story of a gig he played at the Starlite lounge in Lepanto Arkansas, it was a rough place fists and chairs flying in equal measure as the band played behind chicken wire! The trio soon found themselves in Memphis and they were cutting a session at Sonic studios helmed by legendary local producer Roland Janes, Matt had been singing blues songs during his sets with Narvel and so at the end of the session he asked if he could cut a song. From that session came the classic I'm Movin On a cranked up version of the Hank Snow song, Matt really tears into the song. It's very stripped back with a great walking bass line by J.W Grubb sitting alongside Matt's in the pocket drumming. Matt sounds like he is having a great time ad libbing and exhorting and making wild train noises!
Everyone knew it was a hit but Matt had trouble getting the record played as there were not many white musicians who sounded like Matt and back in the early 60's a white southern singer sounding like blues singer was not embraced by radio. Still Matt perservered and found an ally in Rufus Thomas legendary Stax performer and prominent Memphis DJ on WDIA, Rufus played and promoted the record. Matt was also helped out by legendary WLAC DJ John R Richbourg who suggested Matt go and see Zenas Sears in Atlanta who also plugged the record. I'm Movin On was a huge hit in the south and cracked the billboard chart peaking at #56, it was a huge hit in Canada and also was popular in Europe. The song got a lot of airplay in Australia when it was issued on the Phillips label in 1963 and may have made the kent music charts here. In talking to Matt he mentioned that in 1963 he was offered the chance to tour Australia with Lee Gordon's rock n roll tours but Lee died suddenly before the tour could take place.
Matt started recording for Dot records in late 1963 and his second release on the label was Turn on Your Lovelight, it's B side was the frenetic rocker Put Me Down with some ferocious piano work. This 45 stands out as one of the most raw, rocking rockabilly records that you will ever hear, Travis Wammack who was about 15 displays his prodigious talent he has those fluid screeching solos that Robbie Robertson was becoming well known for at around the same time. Matt's drumming on this song is fantastic he just lays a groove so solid that everything just floats alongside it.
Matt's first release for the label was a wonderfully deranged version of Chuck Berry's Maybelline, once again taken at a storming pace with a solid walking bass line and Matt's solid groove. Matt had established himself as a popular performer in Canada working with legendary promoter Harold Kudlets who Ronnie Hawkins nicknamed the Colonel! It was around this time, 1965 that Matt signed with producer/label owner Ollie McLaughlin who had worked with the likes of Del Shannon, The Capitols and Barbara Lewis. The records that Matt cut with Ollie in Detroit are truly amazing, they demonstrate Matt's musical versatility because the rockabilly rebel is now the blue eyed soul wonder. Matt recorded The Motor City Twine at United studios in Detroit with the legendary funk brothers session group backing him. It's got that classic Northern Soul sound but with a funky dirtier sound. Matt wails, screams and hollers "it's the Motor City baby" it sounds like there is a party going on in the studio!
The M.C Twine was a big hit around the Detroit area and of course on the CHUM chart in Canada, Matt recorded a follow up Baby, You Better Go Go which has a more distinct Motown flavour, the song has that distinct Northern Soul groove. Matt recorded about 10 sides for Ollie and most of those are unreleased there are some gems in that list, come Back Baby is another floor stomping classic, Matt seems really at ease with the soul tempo.
In the mid 70's Matt recorded for the Canadian label Quality and cut the hit You Gotta Love which re-united him with Ollie McLaughlin and featured some great backing from Donny Hathaway, Minnie Riperton and Phil Upchurch. The B side I'm So Thankful is Matt at his most expressive in a vocal context, it's a great 45. Matt continued to record and tour in the ensuing decades, he lived and worked in the U.S Virgin Islands for some years. Matt lives in Florida with his wife Barbara, he continues to record and tour, he is constantly writing and recording new music. He recently cut a jazz album at the Quarter Moon studios owned by his good friend Dan Daniell, the results are truly impressive. Matt has an unbridled passion for music, from jazz to Chicago R&B he has a great philosophy towards his playing which is to enjoy himself and rock as hard as he can!
Editors note: I have some audio of a recent interview with Matt will hopefully upload in the near future when I can work out how!