Sunday, February 28, 2016


The grooving and growling “Rice Pudding”, a honker recorded by tenor saxophonist Willene Barton and Her Trio either in 1963 or 1964, should be required listening for anyone seeking an R&B instrumental that could topple the domicile. Barton and her bandmates accomplished this effect in a scant 2:37, and Barton, in the process, cemented her credentials on the tenor saxophone, long the province of male musicians. Her somewhat gentler walking toward the very end of this cooker confers a small window of mercy upon the proceedings, when the listener may exhale and fully indulge his or her admiration of Barton, by then a musician in her mid-thirties. “Rice Pudding” itself responded to “Green Onions”, the hit recorded by Booker T and the MG’s. It appeared on the Sky-Mac label bundled with “Bossa Nova Twist” on the B-side.

Barton taught herself the saxophone. As a teenager, she encountered The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-woman swing and jazz band that flourished throughout the 1940s. In particular, she admired Vi Burnside, the band’s featured soloist, who also played the tenor saxophone. While she never played in the Sweethearts, Barton toured the country with the band’s former leader, Anna Mae Winburn, as part of a variety act in the early 1950s. During a stop in Cleveland, Barton participated in “cutting contests”—musical confrontations—with her idol, Vi Burnside, duels that, one night, left her to enjoy “a [saxophone] bell full of money and a chicken dinner!” Later, in the 1950s, Barton played in New York clubs with the likes of Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Stitt, and Ben Webster. For a spell, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis managed her career. She recorded a noteworthy album—There She Blows—with the Dayton Selby Trio in 1956.

Willene Barton with unknown musicians. (Photo credit: Dan Kochakian)

Owing to the popularity of guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll, Willene Barton drifted out of music shortly after recording “Rice Pudding”. She would make a comeback—often part of all-women bands—starting in the 1970s. She passed away in 2005. Her achievements, including the powerful voice and phrasings she delivered through her horn, ought to be stacked alongside those of the leading male honkers, such as one of this blogger’s favorites, Plas Johnson. During the fertile eras of jazz, jump blues, and early R&B, some female musicians—Cleo Brown, Nellie Lutcher, and Nina Simone, for example—played piano, sang, and recorded as leaders, but very few women led groups as saxophone players. Willene Barton should be acknowledged for her pioneering activity but also for some rice pudding that roars. 

Sources of information:

Dan Kochakian, “The Willene Barton Story”, Rhythm & Blues 289
Crown Propeller’s Blog, Eddie Chamblee,Willene Barton, Dayton Selby
Linda Dahl, StormyWeather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen (Limelight Editions, 2004)
Columbus Library Digital Collection, Picture of Dayton SelbyTrio
Wikipedia entry for the International Sweethearts of Rhythm

Personnel on “Rice Pudding”: Willene Barton (tenor saxophone), Robert Banks (organ), guitar and drums unknown.


mark wallace said...

That's some funky and HEAVY jumpin', right there. An excellent edition to any serious party mix.


Oh yeah. When Willene comes into the song, all the glass breaks. She doesn't "wait til later" or "warm up" or "suss things out" -- she comes in HEAVY as you put it, and doesn't diminish that until the song is over.

Rice Pudding should be on the food pyramid. As many servings as possible. Every day. I mean, it's already on the Jump Pyramid!


mark wallace said...

It's a song that wouldn't be totally out of place on this collection:

borderline.barger said...

love the sax and keyboards together .. whatever .. they're doing .. musical idiot .. but at one point they re-enter together in this braided way that is so PUNK ROCK. lol. everything that is good is punk-rock you see.


Thanks, Mark. I'll check out that play list when I get home from the dentist! --- BA


Hi borderline. Thanks for writing. I don't disagree with you. Many of the greatest jumps, early rock songs (50s to 60s) and early r&b songs like "Rice Pudding" prefigure avant grade / free jazz and punk. Not intentionally of course! But this is quite bad-assed before there was much of a map for bad-assed music. cheers, BA

Ted Zook said...

Thank you very much for bringing this remarkable talent to my notice -- great blog too!


thanks for your kind words, Ted. glad you liked the post -- and i'm much obliged you took time to comment. see you soon!