The One Hit Superstar - Willie Mabon ©JCMarion
Willie Mabon was born in 1925 in Tennessee and as a teenager started fooling around on the piano. By the time he moved north to Chicago in the early forties he was a self taught pianist and blues styled vocalist. In the late 1940s with Earl Dranes, Mabon formed a group called The Blues Rockers and played in various clubs in the Chicago and Gary Indiana areas. He began recording for Chicago's Aristocrat label. In late 1949 "Times Are Getting Hard" / "Trouble In My Home" hit the streets. Willie and his combo takes part in a "Battle of the Blues" with Muddy Waters and his band at Chicago's Ebony Lounge. The band continued to appear mostly in the Chicago area for the next year. In the meantime, Leonard Chess had reorganized his recording company by dropping the Aristocrat name and going with Chess Records. Willie Mabon, now appearing as a solo artist got another chance to record some tracks and in late October "I Don'T Know" was released. The record hit the streets and the airwaves like an atomic bomb. The reaction to this tune was very much like that of "Driftin' Blues" by Charles Brown. Everywhere you went in most any Black community in America you would hear the strains of "I Don't Know". The record sold and sold and sold. Chess #1531 was one of those landmark recordings that defined the music and the time. Once again the surest sign of a monster hit in the R & B field, the production of White pop cover versions, was at hand with this tune by Mabon. The Buddy Morrow orchestra on Mercury recorded a version for mainstream pop music much as they did with Jimmy Forrest's "Night Train". After years of scuffling and meager times, the bright lights now awaited. Into early 1953, Willie Mabon becomes the number one performer in the R & B field. His great tune and matinee idol looks are a hard combination to beat. Country music star Tennessee Ernie Ford releases a version of "I Don't Know" for Capitol.
Mabon who also wrote the song is now reaping the publishing rewards as well, as his writing talents now are in demand. There is great anticipation as time grows near for his first appearance at the citadel of Black entertainment in America, New York's Apollo Theater. As the result of the continued massive popularity of the song, another sure fire indicator of its success is presented - the 'answer' record. This time it is sung by Linda Hayes on the Recorded In Hollywood label, and is called "Yes I Know (What You're Puttin' Down)". In the spring of 1952 that most amazing of happenings is apparent - that of White teenagers discovering the record and buying them in significant numbers. This would be one of the most important trends of the post war years, and would be the boost that Alan "Moondog" Freed needed to become the pied piper of rock and roll. Mabon appears at the Apollo with Betty McLauren, and then returns to Chicago to do a set of appearances at the Regal with Illinois Jacquet hot off his "Port of Rico" disc. An interesting and curious event now takes place. The publishing rights for "I Don't Know" are acquired by, of all people, Sammy Kaye of "swing and sway" fame. It seems that the maestro of sweet band music has recognized the vast potential of Rhythm & Blues tunes to sell and become money makers now that White buyers are part of the scene.
After the success of Linda Hayes' answer record, the fad seems to be growing quite rapidly. Entertainment attorney Lee Eastman (the father of the late Linda McCartney) is retained as legal counsel to protect the copyright publication of original songs that are subject to answer records. The number one example is Willie Mabon's "I Don't Know". Answer records are also released by Oscar McLollie on Class and Little Caesar on Recorded In Hollywood. In late spring Chess finally releases a followup - "I'm Mad" / "Night Latch". It does very well right off the bat selling in excess of 30,000 in the first week and a half. Mabon continues to be in great demand as a songwriter and in the spring signs an exclusive agreement for his musical works. During the Labor Day weekend, Willie does big time business at Pep's in Philadelphia. Chess releases "You're A Fool" / "Monday Woman" in mid September. While his tenor sax player, Charlie Ferguson recovers from injuries suffered in an auto accident, Willie himself is involved in a crash on the way to a show for WDIA radio in Memphis, Tennessee. By the year's end Chess puts out "Cruisin'" / "I Got To Go". Willie appears at the Flame Lounge in Chicago in early 1954 and soon Chess releases "Late Again" / "Would You Baby" but sales are minor as is airplay. The two year old success of "I Don't Know" remains as large numbers of White teenagers continue to ask for records made by Mabon. In the fall Willie appears at a huge "Jam With Sam" show for Sam Adams at the Madison Rink in Chicago. The final release by Chess of the year is "Poison Ivy" / "Say Man". The 'A' side ("Poison Ivy") sells moderately well, but it is certain that it will be difficult for Willie Mabon to recapture the magic of his one monster hit.
In early spring of 1955 Willie appears at a huge R & B show in Cleveland with The Drifters, Ravens, and Todd Rhodes. "Come On Baby" / "I Feel So Good" is the next Chess release out in late March. Leonard Chess attests that "I Don't Know" is the biggest seller ever on that label. The one record with a good shot to replace it is Chuck Berry's "Maybelline".In the middle of the year Willie makes appearances in St. Louis and Louisville. In the fall Chess records releases "Seventh Son"/ "Lucinda" with 'Son' getting decent airplay. In the spring of the next year Chess tries again with "Knock On Wood" / "Got To Let You Go" and Mabon takes part in a big R & B revue in Gary Indiana. In what may be a harbinger of the future, while Mabon's disc sales lag, Chess is heavily promoting two White southerners Bobby Charles and Dale Hawkins. By 1957 Mabon was now recording for the Federal label. His first outing for them is "Light Your Lamp" and "Rosetta Rosetta" on #12306 but it is not a success. Continued poor record sales and sparse radio play spell the end for Willie Mabon as a national R & B performer. To complicate matters he fell into poor health for a time in the late 50s and early 60s and recorded sporadically at best. But - if ever a career and an identity were forged on the strength of one record Willie Mabon was the performer and "I Don't Know" was the song. It was such a landmark recording that any compilation of R & B music of the early fifties that is without it is lacking in both substance and accuracy. It remains one of the very few songs that instantly defined the sound of an era and we are the better for the effort and talent of Willie Mabon.
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