Musical Man of Mystery: Baby Face Willette

Baby Face Willette

Baby Face Willette

With a name more suitable to a gangster from Capone’s Chicago and a frustratingly short biography Baby Face Willette skidded across the face of American popular music for a brief span of time in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I don’t know if there was a pan involved but Baby Face’s career certainly was over in a rapid flash.

The biography begins with his birth in New Orleans, Louisana. Or was it, as some claim, really Little Rock, Arkansas? Both stories have their supporters. Everyone agrees, though, that wherever he entered this world, he was given the grand name of Roosevelt, after, one assumes (but we cannot be sure) of the newly inaugurated President of the USA: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 1933 was the year.

After some time learning how to play the piano in his hometown church the young (and young faced) musician decided to try his luck in the big city. He found himself in New York where he played and recorded with such soul-jazz luminaries as Lou Donaldson (sax) and Grant Green (guitar). He had by now left the piano behind and was fast mastering the Hammond B-3. Like so many other young men and women he idolized Jimmy Smith, probably the greatest B3 player to come out of the US and jazz world.

For whatever reasons after leaving his musical imprint as a sideman and leader on several records he moved to Chicago. Here he seemed to find an audience. He played regular gigs in clubs across the windy city, continuing right up to the early 1970s, when all trace of him disappears. His end, like his beginning, shrouded in uncertainty.

The record we share tonight, Stop and Listen, was recorded in Chicago in 1961 with his friend Grant Green on guitar and the favoured drummer of many B3 players, Ben Dixon on the traps. Baby Face may have been named like a gangster but he played the organ like an angel. His touch is light and dreamy almost delicate; he can swing (listen to the intense drive of Jumpin’ Juniper, with that left hand keeping the beat roiling in the lower register) and importantly knows how to play with others. The sympatico atmosphere he creates with Green and Dixon allows all three to shine and contribute, not just serve him as leader.

This record has been in the vaults for many years and I’ve really loved listening to it over and over in the last few days. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do. And as our musical man of mystery himself did in making it!

Stop And Listen 1

Track Listing:
01 Williow Weep for Me

02 Chances Are Few

03 Jumpin’ Jupiter

04 Stop and Listen

05 At Last

06 Soul Walk

07 Worksong

08 They Can’t Take That Away From Me

BFW

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