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
YouTube Dayton Selby Trio Channel
Wikipedia entry for the International Sweethearts of Rhythm
Personnel on “Rice Pudding”: Willene Barton (tenor saxophone), Robert Banks (organ), guitar and drums unknown.