Dusting ‘Em Off: Esquerita – Vintage Voola

When one sees an image of this flamboyant artist or hears Esquerita’s music, the first thing that would come to mind is probably Little Richard. That wouldn’t be too unfair of a reaction. Both men look very similar with their pompadour hairstyles; both have an extravagant and over the top performance; both wail with falsetto hollers; and both attack a piano with a vengeance. But then again, there’s a reason. Esquerita taught Richard Pennington how to play piano and through his already established eccentric personality, added to Little Richard’s style that got him noticed and pushed Richard over the top. Author James Sullivan summed it up best when he said, “…it was only when an unproven Richard had stretched out his Esquerita muscle…that he found his own voice…”

Esquerita was the stage name of Eskew Reeder, Jr, which itself was a play off his birth name, Steven Quincy Reeder, Jr.  S.Q. became Eskew which eventually morphed into Esquerita and on top of that he would also call himself the Voola. He was discovered while playing in the Owl Club barroom by Gene Vincent’s band member Paul Peek. Vincent was signed to Capitol as their answer to Elvis and the label saw this opportunity to sign a response to Little Richard. Capitol even went so far as to describe him as “truly the farthest out man has ever gone.” After signing to Capitol, Esquerita followed Vincent and Peek to Dallas. While in Dallas, Esquerita took his band to Sellers Recording Studio and laid down some demo tracks. These tracks were lost until the studio underwent a thorough cleaning and the original acetates were discovered. It’s these tracks that make up the majority of Vintage Voola.

Vintage Voola is not a collection necessarily, though some of these songs would be later re-recorded for and released by Capitol Records. These versions are rougher and rawer than his Nashville sessions. “What we did at Sellers wasn’t meant as professional recordings but you can tell we was ready to bust right out!” Esquerita said of these recordings. At times the sound does have the effect of it being recorded on the wrong end of a giant cone and fans of lo-fidelity tracks might get goosebumps upon listening. I personally just love it for being rock & roll, plain and simple.

The album opener, “Rockin the Joint”, is a much rawer version than what he recorded for Capitol. Beginning with his piano cascading down into a drum beat, it doesn’t take any more than two lines until the first falsetto wail is heard. Esquerita’s gravelly voice sounds as if he had been up screaming all night prior to recording the track, but it doesn’t take anything from the performance.

“This Thing Called Love” is one of those sad, lovey-dovey mid-tempo numbers that rest in between the slow ballad and the upbeat swing tunes popular during the mid-50s. Despite the sad confusion of the song’s protagonist, I am pretty sure that Esquerita was smiling large while singing. Later in August 1958 while recording in Nashville, Esquerita would re-record this track with backing vocals by the Jordanaires. The mid-tempo “This Thing Called Love” is placed nicely between the uptempo, high energy of “Rockin the Joint” and the low-tempo, blues of “Please Come On Home”, where Esquerita shows his tender side.

The energy is taken up again with “Oh Baby” and “Sarah Lee”. The lyrics to the latter song’s opening lines describe how a certain bunch of fellas are always trying to drag Esquerita down and get in the way of him and his lady. In a WTF moment, Weezer came to mind. I stopped the track and listened to it again. Sure enough, there is a bit of Esquerita in “Buddy Holly” and not just lyrically, but melodically and rhythmically.

“I Got a Lot to Learn” is one of those songs that would get danced to with the boys in one line, the girls across them in another and together, in pairs, they would sway down the lane. When Esquerita said that these recordings weren’t meant to be professional, this track stands out. Not because it is poorly recorded or played, it isn’t. Esquerita is terrific, as is the band, on this track. No, the reason why is because in the first half of the song there is a noticeable “thud” that can be heard. However, despite this potential disruption, the band’s professionalism shows through via them playing on and not being put off.

The final track of the Dallas sessions is “What Was Wrong” and is a straightforward rhythm & blues along the lines of songs by Fats Domino. The sax solo by an unknown member of his troupe is right out in front and is the highlight of the track.

The next two tracks on Vintage Voola, “Sweet Skinny Jenny” and “The Rock-a-Round” were songs written by Esquerita with him on piano and were actually Peek’s first solo singles. Ray Charles fans will find Uncle Ray’s “The Mess Around” and Esquerita’s “The Rock-a-Round” are pretty much the same song and this time it was Esquerita doing the taking. Charles’ hit was written by Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun and released in 1953.  Peek’s single didn’t see life until at least five years later. Regardless of any blatant or accidental theft, the song rocks and is a great dance number.

The closing number, “Dew Drop Inn” was originally released for Cross-Tone Records and was Esquerita’s swan song recording. Esquerita’s original version comes complete with harmonizing backup singers a la the Rayettes, but less dynamic.  Its inclusion here seems to be for more historical context as the following track is an excerpt from a Little Richard interview. By putting the song here, it allows the listener to effectively hear the original number before Little Richard covered it as part of a comeback album, giving a better appreciation for Esquerita, especially upon hearing the interview clip and how Richard dances around giving Esquerita his proper credit. In the liner notes to Vintage Voola Esquerita is quoted, “Ever hear “Dew Drop Inn” by me? Little Richard heard mine and he tried it.  See, Richard, that ol’ big head child, he’s hard headed sometimes. I told him, ‘man, if you do the song like I told you, word for word, you’d have a hit!” Seems he didn’t listen.

Esquerita’s records never sold and eventually Capitol cut him loose. It seems that by the time Capitol had his sessions ready for market, the pop demographic had already moved a little past the antics of Richard and Esquerita and had gone onto sweeter (and safer) singers like Fabian. Author Charles Gillett remarked in his book The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock n’Roll that the label and the producers never put any effort into the making or marketing of Esquerita’s records and certainly had no concern for the recordings’ commercial potential. Gillett sums it up, “The violence that was normally only a promise (or threat) in rock n’ roll was realized in Esquerita’s sound.” That realization may have intimidated record company executives and stopped them in their tracks.

After being dropped from Capitol, Esquerita label hopped through the end of the 60s and changed his stage name a few times all to no avail. After spending time in Rikers and in a Puerto Rican prison (where he lost an eye), he was last seen squeegee-ing car windows for tips. He died in 1986 from complications arising from AIDS.


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