In the history of popular music The Fabulous Carousels are a footnote. But their story includes names such as superstar guitarist, Chet Atkins (creator of the Nashville sound); hit producer Robin Hood Brians (Judy in Disguise); Stan Lewis (owner of
/Paula); Sax legend, Boots Randolph, to name just a few of the people they met and worked with in just two years together.
Their melodic, blue-eyed soul track on Towne House records “Would You Love Me” commands £150 / £200 these days and was also a big popcorn record on the continent in the 1970s. Their harp and piano player was Bill Bush, who would go on to make the monster Northern Soul track, I’m Waiting. I asked Bill about the Carousels when he was over in the UK at Easter 2013 and attended the NUTS Crossfire allnighter.
The Carousels were based in Munro, Louisiana, and were Bill’s first professional band. Born in 1943 in the town he still calls home, Shreveport, he had a small group at High School and played piano at the mercy of whatever hicksville venue they were playing at using an upright piano and hoping it was in tune: “Most times it was not,” he says. They played on the local TV station and around Shreveport, which was a hotbed of R&B, Rockabilly and country music at the time, with the Civic Centre hosting the famous Louisiana Hayride.
“In 1961 I was going to join the navy,” says Bill. “The day before I was going a guy called Jerry Hawkins called me, he was Dale Hawkins’ brother, and he said he wanted me to join his professional band as keyboard player. He offered me $75 a week to play with ‘Jerry Hawkins & The Jayhawks’ – and hell, that was a lot of money. He told me we were going to play at the Stork Club in Bossier City, which was a nice place, so I jumped at it.
“My life would have been very different if that call had not come through because I didn’t join the navy. My Mother had to sign as I was just 17 and she asked me what I would prefer to do. I though about it for one second and told her that I’d rather play piano. When the recruiting officer turned up the next day my Mother said, ‘He’s changed his mind,’ and that was it – I think she was very relieved.
“At the time I loved Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bobby Bland, all R&B and very Black sounding material. There was no internet, no decent TV so music was a big deal, people in Louisiana like to dance, so being a musician was a very reasonable career choice.”
Jerry Hawkins, whose brother Dale had just hit with ‘Suzy Q’ bought Bill a Wurlitzer electric piano, the kind Ray Charles used on ‘What’d I Say’, and Bill was the first person in Shreveport to own one.
Bill played with Jerry for a few years improving his skills before meeting the Carousels, already an established professional band in Louisiana. He says: “They were based in Munro, LA, and playing occasionally in Bossier City, they were very tight. Band leader, Rocky Nelson, approached me in 1962 to take over piano, which I agreed to do. My first enduring memory of playing with the band was being in New Orleans the week JFK was shot.”
By the time he joined the Fabulous Carousels Bill Bush had bought a Wurlitzer organ and had still to discover the B3 sound that would later become his trademark. The drummer and leader was Rocky Nelson, the guitar player was Van Norman, both from Shreveport, on bass was Lloyd Radcliffe from Rayville, LA and Joe Auenson was on sax / vocals, Bobby Ship was on lead vocals (singing lead on ‘Would You Love Me’). Louis Melançon, who Bill occasionally plays with still, joined later on trumpet.
Interestingly, the line up above was also the band that recorded Little Johnny Clark’s grinding R&B track, Black Coffee, which has had some plays in the UK on the mod scene. Bill explains that there was no ‘Johnny Clark’, but that Chet Atkins sat in on guitar for that session. “We were in Nashville playing at the Pink Poodle in Printer’s Alley. The club across the street was owned by Boots Randolph so we’d go over and see him play, he was magnificent. We recorded ‘Black Coffee’ in a little studio there in Nashville I think. Joe Auenson sang the lead on that track but felt his Norwegian name awkward, so he changed it. We had stars hanging around the studio and it really was a great time – it was the same time that we did ‘Would You Love Me’ – the same band in Nashville.” Bill has no information about the Town House record label but it was recorded 1964.
(The Black Coffee / Now, Now, Now, credited to Little Johnny Clark may have been recorded at Robin Hood Brians studio in Tyler, Texas (still there) as the Carousels did some recording there just after the studios opened in 1963. Bill has no hard information, but the fact that this record came out on a label called Sherwood seems like too much of a coincidence, but it could be just that.)
Like so many bands of the time, The Fabulous Carousels were a working, touring group and their wives and girlfriends went with them on the road. The band was based at the Dynasty Lounge in Munro, LA, but would be on tour often. Bill recalled: “We played a series of gigs at Louisville, Kentucky; seven-nights-a-week and the club was called, The Office. After hours I would go across the River and play with the black bands, take my harmonica and just sit in. Life was much easier in the 1960s and there was very little crime compared to today, they were very welcoming and it really was a lot of fun.
“I married Judy, and we’re still married, but in 1964 we were getting tired of living in a 7ft x 12ft trailer and took the decision to return to Shreveport. When we were on tour we lived on trailer parks and other sites and each member had a car and trailer (caravan), which must have made for quite a scene as hundreds of similar outfits to ourselves, Black and White; R&B and country, cris-crossed the southern states from Nashville to Little Rock.”
This return to Shreveport marked the end of the Carousels after two years of performing with the band, and the line up drifted apart and each went their own way. The newly formed Bill Bush Combo took up residence at the Gold Rooms in Bossier City, where the owner bought him a Hammond B3 for $1800, paid up over two years. It was in 1965 and after leaving the Carousels Bill recorded ‘I’m Waiting’ at Donald Dobbs TV repair shop in Bossier City, and pressed 100 copies on Stan Lewis’ Ronn label. Incidentally, the chords are C-minor and B-flat, but the C-minor is paired with the C bass and B-flat with the G bass, which gives it that unique sound.
Bill chose regular work as a live musician rather than take his chances as a recording artist, which went very well. His popular gigs featured R&B material rather than country music. Playing casinos on the Red River, combined with running a successful nightclub business for over 20 years, kept him and his family very comfortable.
Picture: Bill Bush (centre) with his new combo shortly after leaving
the Fabulous Carousels