ATAMANUIK email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-01-16 published
Bluesman made his mark
Canadian harpist's brush with greatness was frustrated by his battle with the bottle
By Bruce Farley MOWAT Special to The Globe and Mail Thursday, January 16, 2003, Page R9
He will be remembered for creating some of the high water marks in the history of popular music in Canada. Blues harpist Richard NEWELL, also known as King Biscuit Boy, has died. He was found dead at his house in Hamilton on January 5.
Richard NEWELL's story is the stuff of legend, but not legendary. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary defines legend as "a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical, but unauthenticated."
Nearly all the career anecdotes surrounding King Biscuit Boy have been verified. Yes, he really was recruited for the Allman Brothers in 1969, for Janis JOPLIN's Full Tilt Boogie Band in 1970 and for a mid-seventies session with Aretha FRANKLIN. The stellar Houston blues guitarist, Albert COLLINS was recording a version of Mr. NEWELL's Mean Old Lady, before he died in 1994.
Mr. NEWELL, though, would rarely volunteer to offer up such information, unless you prodded him for it. He didn't think it was important.
He was born the son of Lily and Walter (Dick) NEWELL, an Royal Air Force airman stationed in Canada during the Second World War. Richard NEWELL developed an early interest in music, from the country of Hank WILLIAMS Sr. to the jump blues of Louis JORDAN, to the frenetic sounds of such original rock 'n' rollers as Little Richard. At age 12, he purchased his first harmonica after discovering the blues via late-night AM radio.
Mr. NEWELL spent seven years rehearsing his ever-expanding collection of blues 45s, which he purchased on regular hitchhiking forays to Buffalo. Few of his Friends at the time were even aware that he played harmonica and guitar.
In 1963, Ronnie COPPLE's sock-hop rock 'n' roll group, the Barons, recruited Mr. NEWELL as its lead singer. Mr. NEWELL had heard a recording of their instrumental original, Bottleneck, and came by with an record by the prototypical American electric blues slide guitarist, Elmore JAMES.
Within weeks of his joining, the group was transfigured into the flat-out, deep blues band, The Chessmen Featuring son Richard. The sound was guitar driven and harmonica-heavy, certainly not the type of thing you'd find at the average mid-sixties Southern Ontario teen dance. The band made it to Europe the following summer, playing successful shows at U.S. Army bases to predominantly black audiences.
Back in Canada, Mr. NEWELL would go on to become the lead singer of Richie Knight and The Mid Knights in 1966. He also made his debut professional recording at this time, as a session harmonica player on a recording by country singer, Dallas HARMS, best known for writing such hits as Paper Rosie for American country singer Gene WATSON.
When ex-Mid Knight and future Full Tilt Boogie band member Rick BELL was recruited for the Ronnie HAWKINS band in 1968, Mr. NEWELL's name came up. After one audition, he was hired on the spot and rechristened with the royal King Biscuit Boy moniker, a title he was never totally comfortable with.
Back in his native Arkansas, HAWKINS had rehearsed in the basement of the old KFFA radio station where blues harpist, Sonny Boy Williamson 2nd (Rice MILLER,) did his King Biscuit Flour Hour broadcasts. To HAWKINS, Mr. NEWELL must have sounded like a letter from home.
When JOPLIN scooped BELL and guitarist John TILL from HAWKINS's band early in 1970, Mr. NEWELL and drummer Larry ATAMANUIK were left with the task of re-assembling the band. That group would become the first King Biscuit Boy-led outfit, Crowbar. In a fit of pique, HAWKINS had inadvertently given the band its name in an exchange of parting shots at the Grange Tavern in Hamilton. "You guys are so dumb," he yelled, "you could fuck up the moving parts of a crowbar."
As the bandleader, singer, harmonica player and guitarist on Official Music, Mr. NEWELL was responsible for building a razor-sharp and singularly intense sound. The rehearsals for these sessions were apparently tension-laden affairs, but the payoff came when the album muscled its way on to the Canadian charts, (without the benefit of Canadian-content regulations), the fastest-selling domestic release to date.
Mr. NEWELL and the band would part ways after King Biscuit Boy and Crowbar had scored on the singles chart with the traditional piece, Corrina, Corrina. In 1971, Crowbar (without King Biscuit Boy) earned a place on the bestseller charts with a song that was to become a perennial Canuck rock anthem. Oh, What a Feeling was the first domestic single to take advantage of the newly legislated Canadian-content rules for broadcasting.
Fate intervened throughout the following years to rob Mr. NEWELL of his career momentum. The backing band he assembled to promote Good 'Uns, the 1971 followup to Official Music, was beginning to work on a third album, when the funding for it ran out.
With the momentum lost, that unit disintegrated, with guitarist Earl JOHNSON leaving to form the hard-rock outfit, Moxy.
In 1974, sessions produced by Allen TOUSSAINT, the architect of many a New Orleans Rhythm and Blues classic, would culminate in the Epic label release of a self-titled recording. Mr. NEWELL would tour the United States the following year with The Meters (featuring future members of the Neville Brothers) as his backup band. When the Epic label cleaned house later that year, though, he was one of the acts dropped.
In 1972, Mr. NEWELL wed Jacqueline WILLETTS but found that married life did not curb his increasingly frequent drinking binges. The couple divorced in 1979. Alcoholism was also the source of most of his professional woes for the better part of his life, as key shows were either cancelled, or worse, rendered into shambles. Musicians who worked with him tended to admire him, but found it incredibly frustrating that such an enormous talent was being squandered.
At several junctures in his career, Mr. NEWELL managed to quit drinking. Of the three albums he recorded and released in the eighties and nineties, two were the direct dividends of his abstinence. Those recordings earned him Juno nominations, in 1988 for Richard NEWELL aka King Biscuit Boy,and in 1996 for Urban Blues Re: NEWELL. The latter is still in print on Holger Peterson's Stony Plain label. Official Music, along with Good'Uns and Badly Bent, a best-of compilation, are available on the Unidisc label (http://www.unidisc.com). The rest of the King Biscuit Boy catalogue, including the 1980 Mouth of Steel album, is out of print.
In 2000, Mr. NEWELL's mother died and he left regular stage work, preferring the seclusion of his home in the central Mountain neighbourhood of Hamilton. His last recordings include a version of Blue Christmas, available on the Hamilton Hometown Christmas Compact Disk compilation assembled by saxophonist and long-time friend, Sonny DEL RIO. An original composition, Two Hound Blues, along with material recorded by DEL RIO and Mr. NEWELL in the late seventies (the Biscuit With Gravy sessions) is planned for release this year.
Mr. NEWELL, who leaves his father Dick, brother Walter (Randy,) and son Richard James Oddie, made his last public performance in a cameo appearance with The Little Red Blues Gang on September 12, 2002, at Mermaids Lounge in Hamilton. The 60 or so audience members present were treated to a version of his hit, Corrina, Corrina, which is strange, because he never particularly cared for that song.
Richard Alfred NEWELL, musician; born March 9, 1944, in Hamilton died in Hamilton, January 5, 2003.
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