Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - 79
Lowe in '04.
then, things were segregated; Buck Clayton,
Basie's trumpet player, guitarist Al Casey, and
many others were situated across the road,
but John managed to get us together for jams.
John wrote an article for Esquire magazine
that eventually became a book and included
a piece about me that drew some attention.
"When I was separated from the service
in 1945, I sent him a telegram. John was
living in New York City and called to let
me know that Ray McKinley was putting
a band together and wanted me to be part
of it; Ray took over the Glenn Miller Band
after Glenn disappeared in the war. I spent
about a year and a half with Ray, then went
with Benny Goodman for a short time and
later left to settle back in New York to work at
Cafe Society. In fact, I quit Goodman twice
and he fired me three times (laughs). After
that, I got the staff job at NBC."
Photo: Bob Barry.
NEW YORK, NBC, AND
THE TODAY SHOW
Lowe was born and grew up in the
Mississippi Delta farming community of
Laurel, between Jackson and the Gulf Coast.
Formative years spent in a rural area during
the depths of the Depression provided the
impetus for the young, ambitious artist to
make his way to New Orleans.
"I got tired of two things - working on a
farm and bad country music," he said.
From the Big Easy, he found his way to
Broadway via the Grand Ol' Opry, where at
16 he worked as a sideman for the Sons of
the Pioneers. The future would hold many
more extraordinary events, from producing
storied guitarslinger Roy Buchanan, playing
sessions for Elvis Presley and other seminal
rock artists, and a gig as staff guitarist at NBC
in New York City, which included playing for
the original "Today" show and broadcasting
pioneer Dave Garroway.
Along with many famous peers, Lowe
became a fixture on the 52nd Street jazz-club
scene in NYC before being hired to compose
for Columbia Pictures in Hollywood.
Despite his status as a world-class artist,
the guitarist still has a soft spot for authentic
"My dad's group was the Shady Grove
Ramblers, so I can appreciate real roots
music," he said. "But so much of what we
hear today is not country music at all. It's
created in a studio. The same thing happened
to rock and roll. I went through the era of
Johnnie Ray, who was a precursor of rock
and roll and played on his huge hit, 'Cry.'
And of course, the Four Lads, the Four Aces,
the Four Coins and so forth, but in those
days we were just trying to make a living in
a tough racket, so whoever rang the phone got
us. I did, however do sessions with Presley,
Jackie Wilson, Bobby Darin, Big Joe Turner,
Ruth Brown, and a few more. But too much
of the other stuff was simply formulated to
make money. Record companies were selling
widgets on pieces of vinyl that had nothing
to do with art."
Lowe is among the coterie of artists whose
careers were furthered by producer John
Hammond. It includes Charlie Christian,
Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Bruce
Springsteen, Benny Goodman, Leonard
Cohen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Count Basie,
Big Joe Turner, and Bob Dylan. Hammond
also oversaw the reissue of the indispensable
Robert Johnson recordings.
"I met John when I was in basic training
at Camp Plachet, outside of New Orleans. I
didn't know who he was and had barely heard
of Benny Goodman, though I knew Charlie
Christian was in his band. John and I became
good friends. He liked jazz and would set up
jam sessions at the enlisted men's club. Back
"When I was working on the 'Today' show
with drummer Ed Shaughnessy and bassist
George Duvivier, at night we'd often work
Birdland. Sometimes after a long night, I'd
go back to the musicians' room at NBC and
I'd fall out until 6:00 or 6:30, when it was
time to rehearse. That was of course when
Dave Garroway had 'Today.' He went to bat
for me many times, God bless him.
"Once, I got a message to go upstairs and
see Lee something or other, who turned out to
be NBC president David Sarnoff's son-in-law.
He was in charge of the legal department. He
said, 'Mr. Lowe, I'm sorry to tell you this but
we don't allow black players on camera.' I said,
'Namely who?' He said, 'Your bass player, Mr.
Duvivier.' I said, 'Lee, take this up with Dave
and I'll do whatever he wants done. In the
meantime, because Dave hired me, George
Duvivier will be on camera.' He said, 'Oh, no,
I don't want to bother Dave. We just signed a
contract with him and I don't want to upset
anything.' I said, 'Well then, you're gonna
have a black bass player on camera.'
"Dave wouldn't tolerate such a ridiculous
policy. He was such a terrific person."
During that time, Lowe would arrange his
schedule to play "outside" gigs like working
weekends with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.
"Even during the jazz scene on 52nd
Street, the words 'greatness' and 'genius'
came [later]. I've said this to many who've
asked what it was like to work with Charlie
Parker. It was wonderful, but he had the same
problem - we were simply trying to pay the
rent. There was no thought of 'Is this genius
stuff?' We were workaday musicians."
Working studio and outside gigs enhanced
Lowe's visibility and cachet among fellow