The Madison Time

'IT'S MADISON TIME...HIT IT!': Depending on a person's musical preference, the name Ray Bryant may mean different things to different people. Those with a keen ear for jazz know the lively piano player for a long series of recordings capped by his often-performed, multiple-part "Little Susie." Rhythm and blues fans are well aware of his work with a youthful Aretha Franklin. A larger percentage, perhaps, remember him for "The Madison Time," a hit that had him taking a back seat to deejay Eddie Morrison, who used the vinyl grooves to explain how to execute a popular dance containing several specific moves.

Philadelphian Raphael Bryant came into the world on Christmas Eve, 1931. His parents both played piano and mom in particular began teaching her son the rudiments as soon as he could reach the keys; he began formal classical training around the time he started first grade. Older brother Tommy Bryant became a bassist, younger brother Len Bryant played drums; the music bug was passed to three nephews, trombonist Robin Eubanks, guitarist Kevin (Tonight Show) Eubanks and their kid brother, trumpeter Duane. Raphael shortened his name to Ray and was making money performing at dances before he entered his teens. Art Tatum, the jazz piano master from Toledo, Ohio, was Ray's main influence (no epiphany there, as Tatum impressed just about everyone in those days).

In 1948 he joined Tiny Grimes and his Rocking Highlanders, a kilt-wearing R&B group. Guitarist Grimes (Lloyd his real first name) had previously worked with Tatum and that was good enough for the 17-year-old Bryant; he spent two years traveling with Grimes and the Highlanders and recorded a few sides with them for the Gotham label in the summer of 1949. He started his own trio with brother Tommy and played at a number of Philly clubs, settling in at the Blue Note, where he backed the likes of Big Apple-based sax greats Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins and all-time top trumpet man Miles Davis; these connections led him to New York in 1955, where he contributed to an album by harmonica player Toots Thieleman, The Sound, on Columbia.

In May 1955, he joined the soon-to-be celebrated Betty Carter on Meet Betty Carter and Ray Bryant, released by Epic Records, then lent his ivory-key expertise to 1955 studio sessions by The Miles Davis Sextet and The Sonny Rollins Quartet. His own first release, The Ray Bryant Trio, featuring drummer Kenny Clarke and bassist Wyatt "Bull" Reuther, came out on Epic in early 1956; Cuban conga player Candido sat in on "Cubano Chant," the album's most popular track. In high demand the next few years, Ray backed some of the top names in jazz and worked extensively with native NYC singer Carmen McRae, backing her on a pair of albums. In between the two he made his first album for Prestige Records, Ray Bryant Trio, with new sidemen Ike Isaacs on bass and Charles "Specs" Wright on drums. One triumph followed another as he joined Hawkins and trumpeter Roy Eldridge for a memorable performance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Later in the year he recorded for the Verve label with sax players Rollins and Sonny Stitt and mad-blowin' trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

Drummer Jo Jones, who'd played on earlier recordings with Bryant, fronted his own trio with the Bryant brothers rounding out the roster. Jo Jones Plus Two, issued by Vanguard in 1958, featured another take on "Cubano Chant" and the first version of Ray's later hit "Little Susie." Bryant went into the studio all by his lonesome in 1958, coming out with an album on the New Jazz label, Alone With the Blues, and its single, "Stocking Feet," the first of many such solo efforts. Ray was working all the angles, burning both ends of the candle and making quite a name for himself. In September 1959, another version of "Little Susie" came alive in the studio with bassist brother Tommy and drummer Oliver Jackson, released as the Ray Bryant Trio on the Signature label in two parts (2 and 4, strangely enough); on the track, Bryant got more juice out of one note than many others can squeeze from an entire 88-key canvas.

Within weeks, Ray Bryant was signed to Columbia by producer/A&R man John Hammond, making his first recordings there in December 1959. Excerpts from the "Little Susie" sessions were edited and became the title track of his first album for the major label, its cover sporting a photo of Ray and his young daughter with liner notes revealing her name, which is...you guessed it! Then in March '60, "Part 4" from the Signature 45 became a hit on the R&B charts. Columbia answered by releasing its own single with parts 1 and 3; it was then possible to have all the "Susie" segments on two separate 45s on two different labels, something seldom, if ever, seen outside this one example.

'AND BACK TO THE MADISON': Depending on who you ask, the Madison dance craze either began around 1957 in Columbus, Ohio, or a couple of years later in Baltimore, Maryland. Promoter, club owner and entrepreneur William "Bubbles" Holloway claimed credit for the line dance built around a left foot movement; Buddy Deane was the host of a TV dance show in Baltimore where, in '58 or '59, the teenage dancers frequently did the Madison, leading to the belief it had originated there. Organist Bill Doggett (best known for the 1956 smash "Honky Tonk") sought to capitalize on the trend with an instrumental, "The Madison," on King Records, written by the label's A&R head Gene Redd, but the timing apparently wasn't right. Several months later, Bryant and fast-talking Baltimore disc jockey Eddie Morrison came up with a different tune featuring Morrison's spoken instructions; Columbia put out the 45 with a picture sleeve showing the various steps. In March 1960, The Ray Bryant Combo appeared on the national charts with "The Madison Time." But they had competition from a Baltimore-bred band seeking to exhibit those slick moves as their own!

Ray Bryant

'TWO UP, TWO BACK': A variation on the Bryant-Morrison song by Al Brown's Tunetoppers, "The Madison" (with composer credit to Brown), on the Amy label, started climbing the charts at the exact same time. As with Ray's group, the Tunetoppers featured Al's younger brothers in addition to a lead singer, the unrelated Cookie Brown. Regulars at Baltimore's Club Tijuana, and keenly aware of the local dance craze, Brown's band had put out a version of the song just days before Bryant's; a "who-came-first?" debate has been tossed around ever since. Both singles peaked in the pop top 40 in May, Brown's going higher, though Bryant had the bigger R&B hit, reaching the top ten on that chart. There were some differences in the lyrics of each; on Bryant's disc, Morrison's spoken routine instructed dancers to make moves like 'The Rifleman...Cleveland Box...big strong basketball with the Wilt Chamberlain Hook...big strong Jackie Gleason (and away we go!)...how about a little stiff leg there?...double cross and freeze,' while Brown's singing-and-speaking version called for dancers to make a 'Boss turn, Birdland twice, reverse that bird, step back over...hit it, like a rug.' With Bryant's rendition, once you had all the moves memorized, you could dance to the instrumental flip side featuring a prominent Bryant piano (the Tunetoppers opted to flip the record with more calls by Cookie Brown). The dance spread from coast to coast but within a couple of months another, much hotter, trend broke up the party when "The Twist," by way of Chubby Checker's number one hit, stole all the glory.

Giving Bryant little time to bask in the glow of his first two hits, Hammond handed him an intriguing assignment (though Ray may not have realized its significance at the time). The Ray Bryant Combo, expanded to a sextet with trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison, saxophonist Buddy Tate, trombonist Urbie Green and drummer Bill English (in addition to the Bryant brothers), backed Aretha Franklin on her first secular recordings (including her first two hits, "Today I Sing the Blues" and "Won't Be Long"), assembling them for posterity on the future Lady Soul's debut album, Aretha With the Ray Bryant Combo.

'YOU'RE LOOKIN' GOOD': Bryant moved on and didn't look back, making records for Columbia for three more years heading various Trios, Combos and Quintets. "Sack O' Woe," written by "Cannonball" Adderley, was an R&B hit for the Bryant Combo in 1961. He moved to Juggy Murray's Sue Records in 1963, notching a minor hit with the seriously jammin' "Shake a Lady" in '64; the following year he revived the song that bore his daughter's name, calling it "Little Susie '65." After that he signed with Cadet Records (one of the Chess labels), putting many, many singles and albums on the market over a four year stretch. A cover of Mississippi girl Bobbie Gentry's massive hit "Ode to Billy Joe" (slightly different spelling) made the charts in the fall of 1967 (as did a version by King Curtis's group The King Pins) at a time when jazz instrumentals of big pop hits seemed to be popping up everywhere. He respelled "Little Suzie" on yet another reworking of the song.

'AND HOLD IT RIGHT THERE': Ray Bryant began performing regularly in Europe during the 1970s as his studio recording sessions became more sporadic. He remade many of his signature tunes throughout the years but never revisited his biggest hit, "The Madison Time." But the song, and the dance, took on a life of its own. Ricki Lake and two dozen teenagers got in a 'big strong line' and did the Madison to the Bryant-Morrison hit in John Waters' popular 1988 movie Hairspray...and many younger fans took note of how to do the tricky line dance that had captivated millions, if only for a brief time. 'Wilt Chamberlain Hook,' anyone? 'Two points!'

- Michael Jack Kirby


The Madison Time