One rainy morning early in 1962, Rod Pierce, who ran Rendezvous Records, called me and asked if I would come to his office and play piano on a recording session they were doing at noon....
There was nothing unusual about the phone call since I had done business with Rod before, having sold him the first record I ever produced, a single by Sherry Lee, just three months earlier. I agreed to do the date that day, assuming he just wanted me to play piano background on the session. However, what was unknown to me at the time was Ernie Freeman, the musician who had played lead piano on 'Bumble Boogie', the original hit for B. Bumble and the Stingers, was not going to play on the group's next record, 'Nut Rocker'. For whatever reason, and without my knowledge, Rod Pierce had decided to use me as the lead performer.
A few months before the 'Nut Rocker' session a friend had informed me that Rendezvous was looking for someone to go on tour as B. Bumble, along with some other musicians, to promote 'Bumble Boogie'. I had considered applying for the job and learned to play the song but, since I was becoming very busy as a record producer and songwriter, finally decided against the idea. In retrospect, I assume that my friend, having heard me practice 'Bumble Boogie', had recommended me to Rod Pierce.
When I arrived at the Rendezvous office a little before noon, I noticed that they had turned the place into a makeshift recording studio. Rod greeted me by shaking my hand with one hand and handing me a vinyl disc of the composition he wanted me to learn with the other. The disc turned out to be a recording of 'Nut Rocker' by my friend H.B. Barnum. I discovered later that H.B. had recorded the song for the small Del Rio label using the name Jack B. Nimble, no doubt in hope of a little B. Bumble-style instrumental chart action. The platter was subsequently re-released on Dot Records.
Although I felt a little confused by the whole thing at first, I don't remember asking anything further of Rod or the other musicians and simply sat down at the piano. Rod quickly carried a chair over to my side and placed a small portable record player on top of it with H.B.'s recording on the turntable. At that point I figured I'd better begin trying to learn the piece they all expected me to play. I listened to a few bars of the demonstration record, memorized the small part I heard and simply repeated it on the piano. After I felt I had that much figured out, I replaced the needle onto the vinyl disc for another few bars and continued to repeat the process until the end of the recording. I only had a half hour to memorize the whole thing, which wasn't really enough time for me.
I didn't know what the hurry was but, for some reason, Rod decided to record the first take while I was still trying to practice the piece with the other musicians. Because I was so rushed to learn 'Nut Rocker', I was not happy at all with my performance on that first take. However, in spite of my asking Rod to let me do it over again, he said he liked it just fine the way it was. I knew that I had made a few mistakes and could have done it better but I couldn't change his mind. Rod later told me that the reason he recorded it so quickly was because he heard exactly the sound he wanted while I was practicing and was anxious to get it on tape.
It was only a few weeks later that I began hearing myself play 'Nut Rocker' on the radio and it wasn't long before the record was on its way to selling millions. I recall one local disc jockey saying as the record ended, "I heard that B. Bumble was spreading his stinger all over town". I'm not exactly sure what he meant by that but I thought it sounded a little risqué for those days. Soon many of my friends in and out of the music business began to refer to me as Mr. B. Bumble and other stupid nicknames like Mr. B. or Mr. Bumble. Friends would walk up to me and ask, "How's your stinger today, Al?" A respectable gentleman doctor who has been my internist for over twenty years still insists on greeting me as B. Bumble.
There are a few notable things in regard to the 'Nut Rocker' recording session that I remember. For instance I recall that Rod Pierce very cleverly put flat metal thumbtacks on the piano hammers that gave the piano a special rinky-dink sound similar to an old time barroom upright. The kind of piano sound you might hear in a Western movie, set in the 1800s and starring John Wayne. I also remember, that while we were actually recording the track, I needed Rene Hall, the guitarist, to signal me when to come in after his solo guitar break, by nodding his head. I asked him to do this because I kept losing track of where I was while we were playing the song. Not only did Rene have to concentrate on his guitar performance but he had to worry about keeping me on track as well. I just faked my way through the whole session but somehow it all worked out. My final memory regarding that one-hour session was the fact that my middle finger was bleeding after sliding it hard up the ivory keyboard at the end of the song. I guess I must have scraped my finger a little too hard while trying to get the most I could out of the ending. Every time I listen to 'Nut Rocker', even to this day, I wince at that final moment of the record, remembering the pain of my bleeding finger and the blood we had to wipe off the white ivories afterwards.
It is also remarkable to remember that the song was recorded in the Rendezvous Records office on Selma Avenue and not at a professional recording studio. Rod Pierce had simply assembled some used Ampex recording machines and microphones and, by using his waiting room for a recording booth and his private office for the studio, had cut a hit record. And what is more, if you take into account that we all agreed to accept a percentage of the record instead of being paid, it had cost practically nothing for him to produce the song.
'Nut Rocker' became the biggest selling record ever for B. Bumble and the Stingers and is still used at times as background for movies such as Butcher Boy in 1998 and Big Momma's House two years later. It was a pretty strange and wonderful feeling for me to be sitting in a movie theater watching Butcher Boy after all those years and suddenly hearing myself playing the piano in the background. Or sitting in my den at home watching Big Mamma's House on television and having the same experience. I also remember a day in the summer of 1996 when I was sitting quietly watching the Atlanta Olympics on TV. I nearly fell off my couch when I suddenly heard 'Nut Rocker' playing in the background as a young gymnast performed her routine. It occurred to me at the time that my piano playing was being heard all over the world by millions of people that day.
About two months after its release 'Nut Rocker' became the number one record in England. Later, Rendezvous Records decided to fly me over to London to make some personal appearances. I remember staying in a part of the city known as Knightsbridge in a small apartment building that had once been used as stables for the horses of wealthy Englishmen. I'm not totally sure but I think I remember having to share the apartment with Kim Fowley who was the publisher of 'Nut Rocker' and was promoting himself as well as his song.
I recall doing a few television interviews while I was there, which was fun. Actually, since I'd had the top record in the country, some of the English people looked upon me as a star, although I certainly didn't feel like one. I was considered much more of a celebrity over there than in the United States. Needless to say, this created some amenities for me such as free dinners at the finest restaurants and tickets to the current hit stage shows. It also afforded me a chance to meet some interesting people, the names of whom I have long forgotten, except for a few gentlemen I happened to be introduced to one evening.
Before I had to return to the States, I was asked by a local record distributor if I would consider doing an up and coming rock band a favor by joining them at a London restaurant for dinner. I don't remember the name of the restaurant but the name of the group was the Beatles. I had no idea who they were. This eatery was the hot new place to go in London. When I arrived, I was escorted to a private, softly lit dining room on an upper floor and was introduced to four well-dressed gentlemen sitting comfortably around a dining table. That was the night I spent chatting with some nice young guys named The Beatles. At the time it meant very little to me but it wasn't long after I returned home that the British Invasion began and that night became a treasured memory for me.
Meanwhile, because of the success of 'Nut Rocker', I was anxious to produce a rock piano record of my own. Consequently, I teamed up with Lester Sill who agreed to finance me on the production of two more piano recordings. I composed some new rock and roll arrangements on a couple of piano pieces entitled 'Malaguena' and 'Chopsticks'. One day I went over to see Stan Ross at Gold Star and asked him if he thought we could duplicate the piano sound we got when I recorded 'Nut Rocker'. I left him a copy of the record and asked him to listen to it at home. I thought this was necessary because I felt sure the special sound we got at Rendezvous was a very important reason for B. Bumble's success. Stan said he felt confident he could duplicate the sound so I scheduled the session for the following week.
On the day of the session, Stan and I welcomed Sharky Hall on drums, Ray Pohlman on guitar and Carol Kaye on Fender bass and, without much fooling around, we all quickly got set up to record. But before we actually began, and at my request, Stan was kind enough to accommodate me by putting the same type of metal thumbtacks on the studio upright as Rod Pierce had done months before at Rendezvous Records. Now we were ready to begin the session. After a few takes of 'Malaguena', I realized there was something important missing. The piano did not record with the same presence and dynamic sound I heard on 'Nut Rocker'. Stan just couldn't seem to figure it out. Either it had something to do with the control board in the engineer's booth or maybe there was just something special about the ambience in the Rendezvous office that couldn't be duplicated. It just wasn't happening and we never did get the sound to my satisfaction.
In spite of that, 'Malaguena' turned out to be a very exciting recording I was proud of after all. In fact, Lester Sill liked 'Malaguena' so much that he put my arrangement of 'Chopsticks' on the b-side and released it on Philles, the label he owned with Phil Spector. I asked Lester to put the name Ali Hassan on the label, in place of my real name, which ended up causing some confusion later on. Because of that decision, a rumor was started that the person who played on 'Nut Rocker' in 1962 was someone named Ali Hassan. The truth is, there is and never was an Ali Hassan. Obviously, the name I used as the performer on 'Malaguena' somehow got mixed up with the B. Bumble recording through the years. Of course, it's of no great consequence but I hope that it can now be known that Al Hazan and Ali Hassan are one and the same and it is no longer a source of confusion.
The thing I remember most about the release of 'Malaguena' was that Dick Clark really liked it and was convinced it would be a hit. Because of his positive feeling about the record, he played it almost every day on his TV show, American Bandstand. I would watch the show each day to hear the record and watch the kids dance to it. However, in spite of the great exposure he gave it, he couldn't really get it off the ground. I don't remember how well it sold, but it didn't do what I had hoped for and that was very disappointing for me.
Later that same year, I was getting ready to perform 'Nut Rocker' at a concert in San Francisco, appearing for the local KPIX disc jockeys as B. Bumble of B. Bumble and the Stingers. It was a concert I was called personally to do by the KPIX radio station, and which I accepted gladly since I loved the city and could use the money. My appearance had been highly publicized by the radio station and although there were other acts on the bill besides me, they were mostly local groups hoping to make a name for themselves in their hometown.
The auditorium was filled that night with excited fans who seemed anxious to hear Top 40 music, especially if the performer was a recording artist. I could hear from backstage that there was a lot of hooting and hollering going on. It had only been a few months since I had recorded 'Nut Rocker' and I was just beginning to realize what a big hit it had become. The record must have been doing especially well in the Bay Area because the people who worked backstage and some of the other performers seemed extra nice to me.
During a break in the concert, and just before I was ready to come out on stage, someone told me I was wanted on the telephone. I couldn't imagine who'd be calling me at this inopportune time as I quickly walked over to the phone off stage. The caller turned out to be Mike Turner, the promotion man hired by John Miller, a financial backer of mine. Mike had been hired to promote my record 'Force Of Love', my first attempt as a vocalist. Mike told me that 'Force Of Love' by Al Anthony, the name I used on the label, was going to be played regularly on KPIX, the most popular Top 40 station in San Francisco. It was probably no coincidence that the station in question was the one I was doing the B. Bumble concert for that night. That’s how it worked. I was doing them a favor and they were doing one for me. KPIX had promoted a contest that consisted of introducing some of the newly released records for that week and inviting listeners to phone in and vote for their favorite. The winning record would be played every hour on the hour for the following week. 'Force Of Love' had gained the most votes and won the contest for best new release.
This was really great news and I began to feel even more pumped up than before. Here I was, about to go on stage with a house band and being paid two hundred dollars to perform a live version of a record that was already a hit. And then, on the same night, discovering my first vocal recording was to be played once an hour on the top radio station in San Francisco. It was turning out to be one of the great moments of my career. I wore a particularly wide smile on my face as I finally proceeded out onto the stage and over to the piano.
The recording of 'Nut Rocker' was just one of the highlights of my career
in the music business, which spanned a nine year period from around 1956
to 1965. It was a decade that evokes many memories for some of us and involved
an historic period when rock and roll matured into the phenomenon that is
now looked upon with great fondness by both young and old. I feel fortunate
to have been a small part of it. Although that night in San Francisco was
special for me, I never thought about being a singer or making a record as
a piano player when I began my career. My ambition was to become a successful
professional songwriter and nothing more. However, during that decade I managed
to have over sixty-five of my songs recorded and released, producing thirty-five
of them myself, and singing or playing lead piano on thirteen of them. It
had been more than I could ever have hoped for when I began writing at the
age of fourteen.
Visit Al Hazan on the web: http://www.alhazan.com
Illustrations courtesy Mike Edwards and Al Hazan
Presented for Spectropop by Phil Chapman, Mick Patrick and Simon White