The recent health news of James Harman has reminded me, again, of the cyclical nature of the blues, and the passing down of music from one to another.
Lester Butler was (in)famous for partaking in this tradition. What many probably don’t know is that the most notorious song on “13 Featuring Lester Butler” is not exactly an LB original.
The roots of “Plague of Madness” date back to a 1957 single from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “Frenzy” (written by David Hess and Augustus Stevenson). A speeding, twanging getaway chase of a song, the accomplished music is the perfect launching pad for the wild notions that come bling!-ing out of Screamin’ Jay’s head (more on that in a bit).
Walk your fingers up the H racks in the Blues/R&B section to come upon Harman, James and his take on “Frenzy” 26 years later, on 1983’s “Thank You Baby” with the devastating Kid/Fats lineup of the James Harman Band. Again, this song suits James Harman and Co. at just the right time: A jumping, rip-roaring R&B rave-up that wouldn’t necessarily upset punks or rockabillys.
And it comes with its own art project music video that, if it didn’t make MTV, surely was a hit on local cable access. Where Screamin’ Jay had a macabre personality and stage coffins, the Harman band had a straitjacket, foam in the mouth and silent film star Michael Mann as … Hollywood Fats.
So where does Lester come in?
We’ve not heard any version of “Frenzy” by the Blue Shadows or Red Devils, nothing on “King King” tapes. But it is not hard to imagine that both Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and James Harman records were being spun at house parties, at set breaks and on boom boxes. And, it’s kind of an unforgettable cut.
In a 2011 interview with NoFightin.com, 13 guitarist Alex Schultz talked about how the songs were crafted for the “13” record. The vocals were overdubbed, which gave the band the musical license to do whatever was called for at the moment, and let Lester find his vocal themes later. Schultz even said he didn’t know what the songs were about until he finally heard them with Butler’s lyrics.
For instance: Here is an alternate take of the song that would become “Plague of Madness” — what sounds like the same backing track, a different guitar track or mix, and extemporaneous “Frenzy” lyrics:
The “Frenzy” is pretty clear on that vocal take. But there is a big difference in the way the song is presented from Hawkins’ version: If Screaming Jay had voodoo fingers working, Lester had a middle finger.
But you also hear the nascent “homicidal” lyrics that became the eventual “Plague of Madness” on 1997’s “13 Featuring Lester Butler” (with Butler now listed as the songwriter … sorry Hess and Stevenson). It’s Jalacy Hawkins on steroids, a confession, a manifesto … and comically ironic in a different way than his predecessors. (We have to remember this was the mid-’90s: Body Count, “Natural Born Killers,” Geto Boys and “horrorcore rap” going into new lyrical territory.)
1957, 1983, 1997. One song, two titles, three artists, four decades.