by Larry Benicewicz
One of the great R&B voices of the Mid-Atlantic region has been stilled. Haywood “Little Sonny” WARNER passed away this past April 12 after a long struggle with prostate cancer.
His gospel touring, with venues in each major metropolis (much like the fabled “chitlin’ circuit) eventually led him to the Apollo on 125th St in Harlem, wherein they, rechristened now as the Rockets, were recruited by Ahmet Ertegun to back his Atlantic records’ session pianist, Van Walls, on both of his single releases for that same label - “After Midnight” (#980 in 1952) and “Open the Door” (#988 in 1953). It was also during this short stint with Atlantic that he became influenced by the vocal inflections of budding superstar, Ray Charles, recently signed by the R&B independent.
About this same time frame, Lloyd Price, still basking in the glory of his R&B smash, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” (Specialty #428), was looking for someone to act as a steward for his outfit as well as to share the vocal duties with personal valet, Larry Williams, in Price’s warm-up group, the Lemon Drops. But Warner’s relationship with Price eventually soured, as Williams was often awarded more of the spotlight and granted first choice of the prime gigs. According to Sonny, Price always preferred Williams ahead of him and not particularly for his singing talent. “You see, Larry was also a hairdresser, which gave him an advantage, because Lloyd would always want to look good for his public. I could never compete with that.” In fact, Williams had made such a name for himself opening for the R&B crooner that Art Rupe of Specialty secured him for his West Coast label in mid-decade; after which he issued a slew of hits including “Short Fat Fannie” (#608), “Bony Moronie” (#615), “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy” (#626), and “Bad Boy” (#658). During a moderately successful tenure with Chess records, Williams was arrested on drug charges in 1960 which derailed his career substantially and he committed suicide in 1980 after several failed attempts at disco. However, Sonny Warner’s association with Lloyd Price was not without some benefits and at least did lead to an important connection that would later serve him in good stead - Bill Boskent, Price’s road manager and sometime producer.
Tiring both of Price’s favoritism and grueling touring itinerary, Sonny Warner returned to the Washington area in 1957. Still ever popular as a local legend, he began hanging out at all the area clubs, just hoping for an opportunity to sit in on the vocals. One evening proved to be a fateful encounter. “I met Jay McNeely at a place called Evan’s Grill in Forestville, MD, and his singer wasn’t doin’ nothing.’ The whole crowd egged me to go on; so I got Jay to agree. I never saw that vocalist again,” said Sonny. In short order the flamboyant honker of “Deacon’s Hop” renown pleaded with him over many weeks to go back on the road and finally prevailed upon the reluctant crooner, making him the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse. Leaving the small gigs, day job, and family behind, Sonny then undertook what would evolve into a five-year relationship with this illustrious tenor.
Of all places, Seattle, WA, would become their home base. “We especially played the Birdland at 23rd and Madison and the Bamboo Room, which was close by,” he said. Also during this sojourn, Big Jay’s brother, Dillard, came aboard, anchoring the rhythm section with his thunderous electric bass. It was in this city that they cut a demo of Jay’s composition, “There Is Something On Your Mind,” which somehow worked its way into the hands of pioneering, renegade Los Angeles DJ, Hunter Hancock, who with partner, Roger Davenport, operated Swingin’ records at 1554 North Grower in Hollywood. Suffice it to say that the single (#614) became one of the R&B wonders of 1959, even crossing over to the national Top 100 at #44. As a certified gold record, it became such a phenomenon that it was even covered by other R& B artists, most notably Bobby Marchan of New Orleans (lead singer of Huey Smith and the Clowns) on Bobby Robinson’s Fire label (#1022). Over the next two years, the duo cut five more singles (some instrumentals) for Swingin’ in different locales but none could duplicate the overwhelming public reception of their first collaboration. About 1961, the two parted ways over an ego issue - who was to receive top billing on the marquee. Sonny confessed that he felt he was always given the short shrift in this regard by the scene stealing McNeely.
By the time Sonny relocated to the Washington, D.C. area, old friend Bill Boskent had already settled on 14th St N.W. and become ensconced at his headquarters right on the still vibrant “Black Broadway” of that era - 913, “U” Street, N.W. Since the late 50s, this address was home to KRC (Kent Records Corporation), which had already produced a million seller in Lloyd Price’s “Just Because” (#587), leased to major ABC-Paramount (#9792). Founded by singer Lloyd Price, writer Harold Logan, and producer, Bill Boskent, KRC had been distributed by both Atlantic and Ace records of Jackson, MS, the latter headed by the late Johnny Vincent (Imbragulio). At the time of Sonny Warner’s arrival in the Nation’s Capital, Boskent (1925-2003) was already experimenting with a new label, reserved exclusively for homegrown talent, particularly after he had been eased out of the picture (and replaced with pop arrangers Don Costa and Sid Feller) after Price’s departure and smash with ABC, “Stagger Lee” (#9972). In short, Sonny was all too willing to start afresh and Boskent was just as eager to accommodate this most deserving candidate by inaugurating his new logo - Bee Bee, for Bill Boskent.
During his first few years in Washington, Boskent would avail himself of a studio but by the time Sonny came to him in late 1961, he was doing the taping out of his own office, which became a club house for local musicians. The pop flavored ballad “Wallflower” backed by the bouncy “That’s for Me” (#130), Bee Bee’s first release, failed to make much of an impact outside of local airplay, as well as two follow up duets with Marie Allen for the same trademark - a remaking of Warner’s initial effort (#222) and “Hand in Hand” (#221) in 1962.
At the end of this same year, Boskent, undaunted by his lack of success, encouraged Warner to try his luck with Lloyd Price, who by then had made many connections in the industry and who had just founded Concertone records, a short lived venture, based in New York City. Among the few releases of Concertone included two 45 rpms by former Boskent protégée and erstwhile KRC artist, Stella Johnson, who scored regionally with “Trial of Stagger Lee.” But Warner’s only single for the fledgling label, “My Love for You” and “Nothing,” (#200) fell far short of expectations.
Sonny’s last release and most commercially viable attempt since his Swingin’ period came in 1966 for Checker records of Chicago, a subsidiary of R&B indie Chess, then located at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. In a session in the Windy City supervised by Ted Bodner, “Bell Bottom Blue Jeans” (#1151) was a catchy tune and reflective of the fashion of the times. It remains a much sought after collector’s item, especially by British aficionados of “Northern Soul.” And it, too, remained a favorite of Sonny’s and he thereafter always included it as part of his repertoire.
When his Checker number had run its course and he wasn’t invited back for an encore in the studio, he probably could have again approached Bill Boskent, who had by then established a close association with Baltimore’s Rufus Mitchell and his Ru-Jac label (427 Laurens St) and who was now producing for Mitchell up-and-coming Charm City soul stars like Little Winfield Parker and Jimmy Dotson. Sonny, who could easily move between the two genres of R&B and down home blues when the situation demanded it, probably would have been a natural for this other, rather eclectic, home grown affair. But he never seemed to have the drive or ambition to capitalize on his genius. But maybe there was even another more compelling reason for his lack of aggressiveness, as far as furthering his career aspirations.
When I interviewed Sonny several years ago in conjunction with the obituary of Bill Boskent, he confessed that had he really wanted to travel, he probably would have made a name for himself. Evidently for him, family and friends counted most. “I guess I was always a homeboy at heart,” he said. But in the end, he seemed satisfied with all the decisions he had made and expressed few regrets.
Over the years, Sonny had become a familiar figure in the vicinity, appearing at many concerts, including two Labor Day weekend DC Blues Festivals (1992 and 1998) and a fixture at Lamont’s Entertainment Complex in Indian Head, MD. Then there was one memorable engagement, an oldies show, at the Warner Theatre, which also featured Etta James, the Orioles, and Pastels. According to the Falls Church News Press, he was aided immensely in his later “retirement” period by community activist Dave Eckert, who “rediscovered him” and helped arrange performances for him at (Falls Church’s) First Friday jamboree, commencing in 2003, and the annual Tinner Hill Festival (dedicated to the first rural NAACP chapter in Virginia). The publication also reported that he “mesmerized audiences” with his superlative supporting cast, the Blues Crew, at venues such as the City of Falls Church’s “Concerts in the Park” series held in Cherry Hill Park.
But perhaps nothing jump started his late career plunge as much as his triumphant reunion with Big Jay McNeely at Monkton, MD’s, Hot August Blues Festival in 1997. Sonny, though 67 at the time, was his former animated self, gliding easily through the audience, like parting a wave. His voice also in fine form, Sonny, just like in old times, soon whipped up the crowd to a fever pitch. In fact, Big Jay McNeely, himself, used to his customary role as chief attention grabber, had to turn it up a notch in order to outdo his friendly rival when it was his turn to strut his stuff through the same assembled multitude.
Little Sonny Warner was indeed a local treasure and it’s a shame that he didn’t leave behind for posterity a body of work befitting his legendary status - only a handful of rather obscure singles to show for a lifetime immersed in blues and R&B. And I agree wholeheartedly with longtime editor of the DC Blues Society, Ron Weinstock, that if there were an area Hall of Fame, he’d have to be included as a charter member. Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned. We always think these local figures are going to be here forever - the Bill Boskents, Nap Turners, the Pookie Hudsons, the Joe Stanleys, and now Sonny Warner. A whole generation of living history is rapidly passing from the scene. Appreciate what you have while you still have them.
Little Sonny Warner leaves behind his devoted wife, Catherine, seven children, two stepchildren, sister Jessie Mae Simmons, brother Joseph Hunter, thirteen grandchildren, and twelve great-grandchildren.
Larry Benicewicz, Baltimore Blues Society
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