Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
In the world of visual art, it’s not too unusual for, say, a painting by a French artist who died a pauper to sell through a New York auction house for millions of dollars. Blues and soul artists from the States sometimes encounter a similar fate. After decades spent underpaid and underappreciated on their home turf, they might belatedly find a following in Europe or even further abroad—and for those who live to see it, this “rediscovery” can support a whole second career. Blues and R&B vocalist G.L. Crockett wasn’t one of the lucky ones, though. He died just a few years before an overseas audience recognized his enormous talent.
George L. Crockett was born on September 18, 1928, but little is known about his early years in Carrollton, Mississippi. (Many accounts have claimed he was born in 1929, and such uncertainty is common in the life stories of bluesmen from that era. Social Security records cleared that up.) We can be relatively sure that Crockett had moved to Chicago by the mid-50s, and he soon established a presence on the south- and west-side blues scenes, which were really happening at the time. During those years Crockett sang for the likes of Freddie King and Magic Sam, guitarists who helped define Chicago’s west-side electric blues sound.
Crockett’s discography consists of just four singles and an alternate take, all released in the 1950s and ’60s. He recorded for the first time in 1957, when he tracked some of his own tunes for Mel London’s brand-new Chief label. London was a Chicago-based songwriter and producer who’d already worked with blues luminaries such as Elmore James, Junior Wells, and Otis Rush. He released Crockett’s “Look Out Mabel” b/w “Did You Ever Love Somebody (That Didn’t Love You)” in early 1958 (with “Mabel” misspelled “Mable” on the center hub).
The single was credited to G. “Davy” Crockett, to capitalize on the Davy Crockett craze of the day—Disney had produced a Davy Crockett TV miniseries in 1954 and ’55, edited into two feature-length films released in ’55 and ’56. High-voltage guitarist Louis Myers and rollicking pianist Henry Gray also appeared on the single, and Billboard gave “Look Out Mabel” a thumbs-up: “Crockett packs a rocking wallop on this driving blues side,” reads the anonymous review. “Bright sound and good reading by the cat gives this a chance.”
Crockett’s hot-but-classy slice of electric R&B has an early rock ’n’ roll vibe (think Chuck Berry meets Fats Domino), but it didn’t climb the charts the way he’d hoped. He wouldn’t release another record until seven years later, when he signed with the Four Brothers label, also based in Chicago.
Four Brothers was run by Willie Barney, Granville White, and soul producer and songwriter Jack Daniels (who’d later launch the Jadan label). Other artists on its roster in the 1960s included Ricky Allen, Edith Brown, and a young Tyrone Davis, then billed as “Tyrone (the Wonder Boy).” Crockett released three 45s with Four Brothers, beginning with 1965’s “It’s a Man Down There.” The tune was almost certainly modeled on the Jimmy Reed hit “Big Boss Man,” and with its catchy B side, “Every Hour, Every Day,” it reached number ten on the R&B charts and number 67 on the Billboard pop charts.
“It’s a Man Down There” also spawned two “answer songs” in the form of Reed’s “I’m the Man Down There” on Vee-Jay and Prez Kenneth’s “I Am the Man Downstairs” on Biscayne Records. Its success convinced Mel London to license “Look Out Mabel” to garage-rock and soul label USA in 1965. He also licensed an alternate take to Chess Records imprint Checker.
Seven years after its initial release, the reissued “Look Out Mabel” arrived like a time-traveling Black rockabilly number, out of step with what was popular on the radio at the time. It didn’t become the smash it should have on its second release either, but it did prompt another answer song from Kenneth, “Messin’ With Mabel.”
Crockett’s final two singles were both for Four Brothers too. Later in 1965, he released the jazzy shuffle “Every Good-Bye Ain’t Gone,” whose B side, the “Watch My 32,” combines a reference to Junior Walker‘s classic “Shotgun” with Crockett’s distinctively smoky vocals. He followed it in ’66 with the swinging and soulful “Gonna Make You Mine,” with the grinding B side “Think Twice Before You Go.”
Crockett suffered from alcoholism, though, which could make him difficult to work with. When Daniels ran out of patience, that effectively ended Crockett’s recording career. The singer died in Chicago on February 15, 1967, from a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by hypertension. He was just 38.
European record collectors discovered “Look Out Mabel” in the 1970s. The Checker take of the song was included on compilations in Holland, the UK, and Germany and reissued as a single in 1978 by UK label RM (Record Mart). The song continues to make compilation appearances, and the original Chief version showed up in 2010 on the two-CD set Great Rock ’n’ Roll—Red Hot! Just About as Good as It Gets!
Famous UK DJ John Peel became a Crockett fan, which surely helped drive his overseas popularity—Peel would often spin Crockett tunes on his eclectic radio shows. Peel kept a “record box” at home, where he stored whatever vinyl he most wanted to save in the event of a house fire or other disaster—he could grab it quickly and run. Upon his death in 2004, its constantly shifting contents included 142 singles, including two by Crockett: “It’s a Man Down There” and the Checker version of “Look Out Mabel.”
“Look Out Mabel” remains beloved internationally, and though Crockett considered himself a bluesman, his most famous song has been posthumously included in a category that also includes early rock and rockabilly classics by the likes of Gene Vincent. I’d like to believe that his family or heirs are making some money off this, but everything I know about the music industry points in the other direction. The Secret History of Chicago Music can’t fix that problem, but at least it can help keep the flame burning.
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.