Vocalist Sir Robert Charles Griggs recalls his mother and Aunt Louise as “beautiful, mysterious enigmas.” Before he was five, his mom had already taken him to see Spike Jones and The City Slickers, Glenn Miller, Pearl Bailey and Fats Waller at the Circle Theater in Indianapolis. As you might expect from her taste in music, Marie Griggs had more excitement on her mind than the Midwest could offer in 1947, so she pulled up stakes, and moved her husband and kids from Indiana to California where there were radio and movie stars.
Post WWII Los Angeles was a tough and exciting place for a kid born in rural Ohio. When Bobby Griggs and his family moved into the Crown Hotel downtown at Third and Flower, the Los Angeles Riots of 1943 (also known as the Zoot Suit Riots) were still an open wound that stretched from Pasadena to Compton. The pachuco gangs were battered but galvanized. Jazz, swing and jump blues --the sounds of the pachucos--proliferated, and Bobby couldn’t have been happier about that. He had been listening to everyone since he was in the cradle, and though he loved country and hillbilly music, he loved jazz more.
His mother’s sister, Louise, owned a bar not far away in Cudahy, and she hooked young Bobby up with her jukebox. He took up guitar and practiced with his stack of records every spare minute. To make money, he’d sell papers on the street, and yodel in contests for a cash prize. His earnings came home to his mother who shuffled to make ends meet, but somehow she made sure music was always figured into their tenuous budget. His aunt put him on stage at fourteen, bullying the bands at Louise’s Cocktail Lounge to give him a chance. In 1953 Bobby and his classmate from Compton High, Jimmy Robbins, started playing amateur shows as a duet. Bobby was studying guitar with Lester Blackwell.
Bobby caught a break when he became a cast member of Town Hall Party, a country music, jamboree-style barn dance that was broadcast from 1951-1961 on radio (and later TV) from Long Beach Boulevard in Compton, CA. Aunt Louise wangled an audition for Bobby with Wesley Tuttle and Johnny Bond, who hired him while he was still in high school. On his debut night, with only seconds to go before Bobby Charles Griggs was about to step on the Town Hall Party stage for the first time, Johnny Bond yelled to the announcer, “Call him Bobby Charles!” From that moment, with no opportunity to protest, he became known to the world as Bobby Charles. It was a shock to the young performer, and it didn’t play too well in the Griggs household for awhile, either. Nonetheless, Bobby Charles remained on the popular show from ’55 to ’60.
Town Hall Party drew a crowd of about 2500 each night to see and hear artists like The Collins Kids, Lefty Frizzell, Tex Ritter, Johnny Cash, Merle Travis, Carl Perkins, Wanda Jackson and Patsy Cline perform. The broadcasts were handled by KFI (NBC Radio), and also KTTV Channel 11. Bobby’s impression routine of the top acts of the day-Roy Acuff, Frizell, Cash, Hank Snow, 50’s Elvis - never disappointed, and the announcer’s introduction highlighted his unique status as “the kid from right here in Compton.” Among the cast he was an anomaly as the country player who loved jazz, and Bob admits, he loved to be obnoxious about it, too.
Vindication came one night when he went to a huge jazz concert at the Shrine featuring Brubeck, Basie, Joe Williams, and Cal Tjader. He returned to Town Hall Party the next week to find fan mail which read, “Hey, saw you at the concert at the Shrine.” Bobby realized then that people who love good music often love a variety, and he didn’t feel so odd any more. By ’59, Bobby had taken up the electric bass, and he was gigging as much as possible. In the ‘60’s Bob formed his own band,
The Bobby Charles Band, with alumni of the great Bob Wills Band: Cameron Hill, Howard Gibeault, Monte Mountjoy, Dick Hamilton, Jack Lloyd, Jim Corwin, Jimmy Pruitt and Buddy Kendrick. and violinist Buddy Ray. Ray was a good influence on Bob’s musicianship; he encouraged him to study, and the two often saw legendary players like Hall of Famer Stuff Smith, a pre-bop violinist who influenced Dizzy Gillespie.
A highlight of the ‘60’s was when Bob was hired to play bass by guitarist Jimmy Bryant, whose explosive guitar style was the envy of many other greats. Another influential moment in Bob’s life occurred when Jimmy Wyble, a key player with Bob Wills, Benny Goodman and Red Norvo, recommended Bobby as a demo singer for Bob Harrington, the vibraphonist/composer. Bob worked with Bob Harrington, and studied with him from the ground up for three years. The relationship produced the song, “Young Man On The Way Up,” with lyrics by Bob Griggs and music by the late Bob and Vikki Harrington.
In 1967, the great Joe Williams recorded “Young Man On The Way Up” on his album Something Old, New and Blue (Solid State Records) as a swinging jazz waltz with a chart written by Thad Jones. Though there were many performances of the song, on The Dick Cavett Show and Playboy After Dark amongst them, Bob was most tickled to see Joe Williams perform it on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1967. It appears now on an album of Williams’ named One More For My Baby. The Legend Of Sir Robert Charles Griggs In the late 60’s, when Bob was beginning to indulge his interest in drinking to a large extent, he and a bunch of like-minded songwriter friends decided they wanted their own “lodge” to hang out in. They named themselves the “Knights of the Turntable” and regular “knighting ceremonies” took place at The Blue Room, their regular hang-out. During one such event, Bob Griggs became “Sir Robert Charles Griggs.”
Within a few years, Bob and a couple of buddies left L.A. for Nashville in a panel truck, and for awhile Bob slept in the parking lot of the Hall of Fame Motor Inn there. In a classic story characteristic of the heady days of the recording industry in 70’s Nashville, a conversation in the parking lot led Bobby to a deal with Capitol Records. The resulting 1973 album, The Legend of Sir Robert Charles Griggs, produced by Gary S. Paxton, had sixteen original songs by Sir Robert, one of which, “Fabulous Body and Smile,” was released as a single. Another,“Country Soul,” was recorded by Dick Curless on his album The Last Blues Song. The Legend of Sir Robert Charles Griggs is out of print, but it has attained cult status as much for content, which has been described as experimental alt-country, as for the use of moog synthesizers and sound effects.
It is considered way ahead of its time, and it’s a collectors’ item. In Nashville, Sir Robert Charles Griggs worked jazz gigs with guys like Chiz Harris and the late, legendary John Propst, the jazz pianist who worked with such diverse artists as Coltrane (on Giant Steps), Boots Randolph and Billy Cobham. They played at Wind in the Willows, Windows by the Cumberland, and at Blair School of Music on the Vanderbilt Campus among other popular Nashville spots. Fame eluded Bob, and he worked as a sideman in Nashville for years.
In 1979, he was hanging around with buddy Charlie Williams one night, when they stopped into the Western Room in Printer’s Alley. Bob sang George Jones’ composition, “Seasons of My Heart,” prompting Jones, who was in the audience, to invite Bob Griggs to work with him. Bob had a spot at intermission in Jones’ show at the Embers, following Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Straight Ahead, Man In 1994, after Bob put his drinking to bed, he was working a day job in Nashville, studying (as he has continuously since the 1960’s), and teaching Sunday school. He was singing in a choir, and by then only taking jazz gigs, no more country picking and singing.
Through a mutual friend he became reacquainted with a classmate, Betty Hill, whom he had known at Compton High School. Betty, a dynamic, retired history teacher who also happens to be a sports aficionado and authority, was living in Southern California. Bob invited her to visit him in Nashville, and for the singer, it was love at first sight; he knew he wanted to marry her and he did just that, leaving Nashville behind and moving to the desert in Hemet, California. Happy and content, Bob faced the fact that record labels aren’t much interested in seniors, or in vocal jazz for that matter.
Still, he continued to sing, everywhere and at every opportunity. In 2006 Bob was performing in Idyllwild, California at Jazz in the Pines Festival with his old friend, Chiz (who has since passed away). Through a variety of encounters there, Bob met Jim De Julio, the bass player/producer/composer who was one of Frank Sinatra’s sidemen. Over coffee, Bob told Jim his story, and Jim responded “Let’s record.” De Julio assembled a list of players that’s staggering; in addition to Jim De Julio on bass, the album personnel include Alan Broadbent and Paul Smith, Joe La Barbera, Pete Christlieb and Steve Hufstetter.
The result, InTo Jazz, released independently in 2008, is a bopper’s dream. DJ’s nationwide are “discovering” Sir Robert Charles Griggs for the first time, and old friends are discovering him again. Bob makes it seem so easy on a dozen covers (‘Round Midnight, Four, Invitation, among other stellar cuts) and originals (Young Man On The Way Up, One Of The Good Guys, and the title track), you really wish there had been less time between his first and second recordings. But life unfolds according to plan, and as Bob Griggs would say, “Straight Ahead!”