Rex Garvin: A Remembrance

From high times on the Chitlin’ Circuit to hard times pushing a broom, Rex Garvin could always look up and laugh

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He was just an old guy pushing a trash cart. That’s all I saw at first.

An old black guy, skinny and bald, who stooped over as he emptied the trash cans and swept the floor. He was the latest in a succession of cleanup workers to come through our office at a news wire service in a downtown Atlanta high-rise at the end of the day— many of them old, all of them black, all of them scraping out just enough of a living to keep on scraping by.

But then I learned he had a sense of humor.

He would enter our door in the middle of the evening, pushing his cart. First thing he said was “Good morning.” It was, in fact, nighttime. Not a huge joke, but a statement at odds with the circumstances. It made me look up, anyway.

Every night the greeting was “Good morning.” Sometimes he added, “Howaya, howaya, howaya,” like Arthur Godfrey did a half-century ago on a TV show that nobody in the office but Rex and I were old enough to remember.

That was his name, Rex.

Maybe his greetings were just his way of redefining the circumstances. Yes, he may have looked like an old guy with a broom and a trash can, but he accentuated the absurdity of the situation, walked through it like a man taking pleasure in just being there.

The next thing I noticed was he knew about music.

I keep a big picture of James Brown on my desk—I mean a poster-size headshot taken in the middle of a performance where the hardest working man in show business is bathed in sweat, his hair is glistening and in the incredibly clear photo, you can almost see the pores of his skin in the spotlight’s glare.

One night Rex gave a nod toward Brown’s picture, and all of a sudden he was telling me about the little vocal cues Brown gave his incredibly tight band to make them come to a dead stop in the middle of a drive, then punch it one time, punch it two times, and kick off the irresistible funky drive again.

I stopped and took another look at Rex. He spoke as if he knew this from experience.

So, you a musician?

What you play?

Yeah? You perform?
Yeah, long time ago, he said, jabbing his broom around the edges of my desk. Long time ago.

And you played out in clubs and stuff?

It clearly wasn’t something he was eager to tell me about, but now he had me curious. I imagined him as a young man behind a Hammond B-3, jamming on Jimmy Smith tunes in a smoky, half-filled bar, a glass of scotch resting atop his instrument, a cigarette in his mouth, a river of sound flowing around him at an easy, walking pace, the notes and the rhythm like waves in the river, carrying the crowd along.

I started looking forward to Rex’s visits. Every night around 8:30, I’d hear the beep of the security door and the rumble of hard plastic casters across the linoleum floor as Rex pushed his trash can down the hall into the office and issued his customary “Good morning.”

So you had a band? I asked him one night.

What was it called?
Rex Garvin and the Mighty Cravers.

He seemed a little embarrassed by the name, like they could have come up with something better than Cravers. I imagined them maybe playing at parties and clubs—a local band like every town has local bands, musicians who cover whatever tunes are popular. They play for spare change and tips and hope one day just to have a regular gig someplace like the Holiday Inn and never get any further.

But just for the hell of it, I googled Rex Garvin.


The man had a Wikipedia entry. It said he was “an American rhythm and blues singer, songwriter, keyboard player and arranger.” He had writing credits. He had made recordings. Some bands had covered his tunes.

Recordings? I checked YouTube.

And there he was: Rex Garvin and the Mighty Cravers throwing down on songs I’d never heard of, lots of them: “Emulsified,” “Sock it to ‘em JB,” “I Gotta Go Now,” “Strange Happenings” and more. Yackety sax tunes from the early ‘60s, novelty songs full of crazy haunted-house special effects, mid-’60s numbers with the thin Farfisa organ sound of the time, funky stuff made for shaking it up on the dance floor and disco music from the era of halter tops and platform shoes.

Hey Rex, man, you’re on the Internet, I said, next time I saw him. I showed Rex the Wikipedia entry.

He seemed a little stunned and then alarmed. I don’t think he liked the idea of random people just finding out about him on a computer. I wondered if maybe he didn’t want someone to track him down.

But now I started pestering Rex with questions—Where are you from? How did you get into all that? What was the music scene like back then? Did you play with any big names?

And little by little, night by night, he told me a few things. He grew up in Harlem in the 1940s and ‘50s, just a couple of blocks from the Apollo Theatre. His religious mother made sure he got piano lessons, but she could not abide jazz or blues—the Devil’s music. Rex, of course, had different ideas. He came of age as big band swing gave way to bebop, but the kids took another direction altogether, mixing the pounding post-war beat of an ascendant America together with raw blues, stirring in a little jazz and a hint of gospel, then spicing it with adolescent hormones and cooking up all the permutations of what came to be called rock ‘n’ roll.

As it happened, one of Rex’s neighbors played a pivotal role in his career. Zelma Sanders was a big, intimidating woman who carried a gun and promoted musical groups. Rex said she was a policewoman or security officer. She had her own record label, affiliated with Chess Records in Chicago. With the permission of Rex’s mother, Zelma Sanders hired Rex to play keyboards for her teenage singers. Among them was a duo, Johnnie and Joe. Johnnie was Mrs. Sanders’ daughter. Joe was one of Rex’s buddies. At around age 16, Rex wrote them a song: “Over the Mountain, Across the Sea.”

There’s a YouTube video of Johnnie and Joe lip-synching it on Milt Grant’s Record Hop, a teen dance show that aired in the Washington, D.C. area in the late 1950s. In the grainy, black-and-white footage, a peppy white guy in a dark suit stands in front of a Motorola sign and holds a plastic transistor radio.

“Now let’s tune in our Motorola portable, and let’s bring on Johnnie and Joe from the Howard Theatre…” He twists the radio dial and brings the radio to his ear as the recorded music starts.

As the big TV camera rolls across the dance floor between the white, teen couples, you can hear the cameraman whistling through his teeth to shoo them out of his way. Some stare into the camera as it passes. And then Johnnie and Joe are there, swaying—Joe, tall, thin, with ebony skin, wearing a jacket and no tie; Johnnie a little shorter with a coffee-and-cream complexion and wearing a pale sleeveless dress of some heavy fabric.
It’s a slow tune like “Oh Donna,” built around a I-VI-IV-V progression, gently rhythmic so the couples can hold each other close.

Over the mountain, across the sea
There’s a girl waiting for me…

And in the end, Johnnie speaks the final words:

Darlin’ here I am, over the mountain
But all the mountains of the world couldn’t block your love from my heart

That was 1957. It became Rex’s biggest hit—first when Johnnie and Joe sang it and again a few years later, when Bobby Vinton covered it. Vinton’s cover rose to No. 21 on the Billboard Top 100 and No. 8 on the Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary charts. Somebody clearly made good money off that song—but that somebody wasn’t Rex. He told me he got some royalties, but they didn’t amount to much. Bad contracts he signed when he was young and didn’t know any better—a familiar story.

Now here’s something I ask you to keep in mind: I never made notes on my conversations with Rex, as I would if I planned to write an article. Though plenty of times I delivered broad hints that I’d like to do exactly that.

Rex, you ought to write your story.
Nah, not interested.

But Rex, I’d say, people will want to read this stuff. You were there at the creation. You were among the originators; you were one of the ones who laid down the soundtrack we all grew up to.

And I wanted to add, I’ll do it for you. I’ll take your words and put them down on paper. But he shied away from any suggestion of an article, much less a book, so I didn’t press the point.

A lot of details he shared have slipped away through the cracks in my memory. I managed to refresh some of them with help from the Internet. I’m indebted to Andreas Vingaard, a video journalist and music lover who has searched out and interviewed many of the lesser-known figures of early rock music. On his website,, is a Q-and-A he did with Rex a few years ago.

Andreas told me it took persistence to persuade Rex to grant him an interview, but Rex finally gave in. Most of what Rex told him I had already heard from Rex. But reading that Q-and-A, I can hear Rex’s voice again, telling how he idolized the singers who played at the Apollo, starting with the crooners of the ‘40s and on up through groups like The Platters and stars like Jackie Wilson. Then he joined their ranks on that same Apollo stage and at the Howard in Washington, the Regal in Chicago and countless others in what was called the Chitlin’ Circuit. He was only a kid among the stars, the youngest musician on the scene, but Rex got close enough to his idols to discover they were just human beings, just people like anyone else. Big Mama Thornton, he said, was an unabashed lesbian—a striking personal statement for a female entertainer at the time—and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was as weird behind the scenes as he was on stage. Bluesman Jimmy Reed was a hardcore drunk with a chronic gambling habit that he indulged between sets. And Bo Diddley, for all his power and rhythmic genius, wasn’t a particularly skilled guitar player. Like many rural players did then and still do even today, he tuned the guitar to an open chord and used one finger to move that chord around the neck. Big Joe Turner, who originated “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” wasn’t much of a shaker. He would just stand there and sing. And one time, outside the Howard Theatre, Rex said he saw James Brown and Little Richard get into a shouting, cussing match in the street, two dandified short guys with pompadour hair threatening loudly and profanely to rain down destruction upon one another until their respective entourages dragged them away.

Rex learned from all of it, whether about stage presence or music or romance. He got his education on the road. Two older musicians recruited him to form a band, and the Mighty Cravers were born. Rex said in the early days he deliberately modeled his vocal stylings on Ray Charles. There’s a photograph of the Cravers on the back of their one album: Rex in the middle, flanked by sax player Clayton Dunn and drummer Pete Holman, all of them wearing shades, whether in emulation of Charles or just making a statement of coolness.

I was the youngest one, Rex said. These old cats were my teachers.

Some of the older musicians on the Chitlin’ Circuit and in the recording studios were veteran jazz horn players, reduced to tooting out rhythm lines behind upstart kids doing a hopped-up version of down-home blues with pounding rhythms and bad grammar, abandoning the very idea of melody for screaming, sex-fueled, amplified sound.

Rex was a melody man at heart. One of his best-known melodies he made up on the spot, yet he got no credit for it. Rex said it happened as he was hanging out at a bar called Beefsteak Charlie’s around the corner from the old recording studios in Manhattan. Musicians congregated there, hoping to be snatched up for some session work. A mug of beer cost a quarter, and pastrami sandwiches were cheap. One day Rex said he was summoned to lay down an organ part for a song called “Any Day Now.”

You mean the one by Chuck Jackson? The one about, “Any day now I will hear you say goodbye my love”?
Yeah, that one. They called me in, showed me the song and said “play an intro.” Rex thought a few seconds and came up with a tune. In the intervening years, it has been heard by millions of people.

Rex’s intro to “Any Day Now” is memorialized in From Always Magic in the Air by Ken Emerson:

Kicking off with a baion beat straight out of the Leiber-Stoller songbook, the song introduces itself with a shrill figure played on the Hammond organ that is as indelible as the vocal melody and as nagging as the singer’s dread that his “wild, beautiful bird” of a lover will desert him. Shifting from major to minor chords, doubling and halving the tempo, leaping an octave, the music embodies both the singer’s agitation and the flightiness he fears in his lover.

To me the organ doesn’t sound like a Hammond, but more like a Farfisa—the ‘60s-era portable electric instrument responsible for some of the thin, cheesy keyboard sounds of the day. But Emerson had a good ear to take note of Rex’s work. Indelible, he called it. Yes, that’s what it is.

That recording of “Any Day Now,” written by Burt Bacharach, became a hit in 1962, a classic. No one who listened to the radio back then would have missed it. I remembered it well.

Rex, that was you?

I shook my head, amazed.

I had been listening to Rex’s music when I was a kid and never knew it. I have found no references that give Rex credit for the intro—and who credited session musicians in those days? But I have no reason to doubt his story. Everything else Rex ever told me checked out. He said he just threw it together on the spur of the moment with hardly any time to plan or compose. Just played what sounded right at the time. I guess he got paid for the session, and that was it. The work brought him the biggest airplay of his career and next to no money.

More and more I began looking forward to Rex’s visits, welcome respite amid the long hours of grinding out news copy on the evening shift. Every night when Rex came around, we would talk about music. Often we would try to stump each other. I’d think of a song during the day, some obscure tune from the 1950s, and when he got to the office I’d hum a bar or recite a random fragment of a lyric. Usually he nailed it. When he did the same for me, I was often at a loss.

We talked about today’s recording artists too.

Rex was fascinated by Justin Bieber, bringing him up time and again. He worried about how success was affecting Bieber—how a young man who suddenly wins fame, money and the adulation of millions, especially millions of willing women, will become warped.

“That does things to you,” he would say. We commiserated about how that experience changed Elvis, the Mississippi white boy who absorbed the black blues and magically transformed them into rock ‘n’ roll. That enchanted boy who lost his way in all those sappy Hollywood plots and sequined suits, the bloat, the dope, the toadies.
We talked about the decline of melody since the ‘40s, how song had devolved to rock and then to rap. It pissed Rex off. He said he rarely shared that opinion with younger musicians, but if they tried to goad him, he would let them have it, both barrels.

One day I brought him a CD, a collection of R&B hits from the mid-1950s and he was glad to accept it. When I saw him the next week, I asked him how he enjoyed the music. Rex turned quiet a moment and then said, “I listened to a little bit of it. That was all I could handle. I’m going to listen to it a little bit at a time.” He mentioned one singer whose voice he heard on the disk, a woman. He spoke her name and grew pensive, silent. From his tone and his silence, I could tell he had a thing for her back then. Looked like he still did. I don’t know, maybe he hadn’t heard her voice in years. He loved her and she was gone, and the music brought it all back. For the life of me, I cannot now recall that singer’s name.

“Rex,” I said one night, “I hope you’re still getting paid for your music, because they’re still selling it. I bought some of your songs on Amazon last week.” It was an MP3 collection of music that appeared to range from the ‘50s to the ‘70s.

He seemed a little sheepish and let me know it wasn’t his best stuff. He didn’t want copy of the CD, didn’t even want to listen to it.

I played it, I know what it sounds like was all he said.
So do you ever play anymore?
Nah, no money in it. After disco all the clubs had DJs. Musician couldn’t get paid.

Rex told me he made his way to Atlanta in the 1970s as the gigs were drying up. For a while he worked as music director for a local radio and TV personality named Alley Pat, one of Atlanta’s first popular black TV figures. Alley Pat’s schtick was the heavy use of ghetto repartee, trash talk from down in the alley—hence the name.
But even Alley Pat wouldn’t come up off a dollar, Rex said. Discouraged, he put away his keyboard.

By then, he said, the bottle was killing him.

I never got into dope like other musicians, he said. There was plenty of dope around him all along the way, and he recited the names of performers like Ray Charles who were slaves to the needle. But dope wasn’t Rex’s problem. Alcohol was.

By the time he reached Atlanta, Rex said he would drink anything he could lay his hands on, so long as he got a buzz. We joked about the hard-luck bottle brands: MD 20-20 and Thunderbird.

What’s the word, I’d ask Rex.
Thunderbird, he shot back. What’s the price, thirty twice.

Finally, a doctor gave him an ultimatum: Lay down the bottle or lay down and die. Rex said he just up and quit. No rehab, no Alcoholics Anonymous—just quit.

And when his head had cleared, he looked for a job—any kind of job—to keep himself going. He found one pushing a broom.

Still, Rex said, he would still allow himself a beer on the weekend.

And of course a little reefer.

“How you think I get through all this?” he said with a smile, gesturing at his broom and cart, his long evening of dirty floors.

Every now and then Rex made some odd requests. He asked me if I could go to the store for him and buy him stuff.

I don’t have transportation, he said. I can’t get to the stores outside my neighborhood.

What he needed was duct tape. Black duct tape. Wouldn’t say why. I stopped by a big-box hardware store and got him a large roll of Gorilla tape—duct tape on steroids. A few months later he needed some more, and I bought him a couple more rolls. I never learned for sure why he needed it, though I think it may have been for home repairs in the rooming house where he lived. But he meticulously paid me back for the things I bought him.

And then last fall he asked me to help him find a new AC adapter so he could power up his synthesizer.

I lost the old one.

He wondered if maybe an adapter from Radio Shack would do the trick.

I spent a weekend evening online, searching for the right adapter for his decades-old keyboard. I finally found one and ordered it. After it arrived in the mail a few days later I proudly brought it in and handed it to Rex.

So did it work? I asked him the next day.

He smiled.


Now I need to tell you one more thing: I’m a musician too. Not a professional one, but I take it seriously for an amateur. Count me among the millions of white boys who picked up a guitar after The Beatles, Cream and Hendrix arrived and turned music inside out, lit it on fire and shot it into outer space. Like anyone with ears to hear it, I came to realize that all the music I loved had black roots. Black America made the sounds that moved me, and that’s who I wanted to play music with. For the past decade or so I have played gospel music on the weekends, backing up black singers in quartets and church choirs all around Georgia.

And now, I was thinking, maybe we’ll make it happen. I want to jam with this man—make musical contact with one of the soul survivors, a guy who played at the Apollo, rubbed shoulders with James Brown and Little Richard, played on the same bill with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I wanted so badly for that to happen.

Maybe he was just humoring me, but Rex said he’d like that too.

And then one night Rex was gone. The Monday after Thanksgiving, the office door opened, the cart came rolling down the hall and a different guy was pushing it. Rex passed, the man said, in answer to our questions. They found him in his room this morning.

He’d been fine the week before. On Saturday he called his job to say he was feeling sick. That’s the last anyone heard from him.

This man who I barely noticed at first, yet came to care about more than I ever expected was gone. He lived a musician’s life, riding high on the ascending turn of the wheel and living down low when the wheel turned again. He reached millions with his music, and he spent his golden years pushing a trash cart. I think maybe Rex would have found some way to make us both laugh about all of that. But he was no longer here to crack the joke.

There was a small funeral service at a mortuary in East Atlanta. Rex’s ex-wife and his son drove all the way from Colorado to be there. A handful of janitorial staff attended. Everyone got up and spoke. Some remembered his humor, some his intelligence and some his appreciation of women. But hardly any of Rex’s co-workers knew he was a musician. A friend of his, a tall, skinny trumpet player named Derrick Ward, brought his horn and played “Amazing Grace.” Rex would have laughed about the selection or maybe grimaced. He told me many times he had no patience for religion. Got enough of it when he was a kid.

Derrick told me Rex had been a mentor to him, ever since Derrick was in high school in the mid-’70s. He said Rex taught him plenty about music and taking it seriously. Derrick went on to get a music degree in college, and he has played jazz and R&B around Atlanta for years. Sometimes he plays for spare change downtown on Marietta Street.

But as close as Derrick was to Rex, he knew nothing about Rex’s recording career. When I played him my CD of Rex’s music, it came as a revelation to him.

He never explained to me that he was a recording artist, Derrick said.

I don’t know how to evaluate Rex’s “importance” as a musical figure. As far as I can tell, he penned just one song that made the charts. He played the intro and keyboards on a modest hit in 1962. He did plenty of other session work that he alone remembered, but he took that memory with him to the grave. Rex Garvin and the Mighty Cravers recorded a handful of songs on a changing list of labels: Epic, Chess, Chieftan, Like, Atlantic. They made one album, Raw Funky Earth. None of those tunes were exactly hits. But Rex was a figure of standing in the R&B world in his day, and not an insignificant one. He was among the creators who collectively shaped the sound of the time.

Rex attracted some fans—maybe not multitudes, but they can be intense. At the blog, DJ Larry Grogan opines that Rex’s music deserves “the highest possible esteem.” About one particular record, “I Gotta Go Now (Up On The Floor),” he writes, “If this record doesn’t send shivers up and down your spine and out into your limbs I don’t know what to tell you. This is the kind of record that soul music is all about, and the kind of record that moves me to the bottom of my soul. It is that powerful, and in the 20 or so years since I first heard it, over countless listens [it] has never lost an iota of its power for me. No matter how many times I listen to it, or pull it from my box and place it on the slipmat in a club, it is always as amazing as the last.”

Rex did not brag about his resume even to his friends. He mostly kept it to himself, savoring the good memories in private and enduring the painful ones on his own. From his rise as a hopeful kid on the Chitlin’ Circuit, just one hit record way from success, to his struggle for survival as an old man in humble circumstances, Rex was probably not unlike many black musicians of his generation—authors of the sounds that millions grew up to, danced to and made love to, but excluded by contract from the money and left with nothing but memories when it was all over. Rex clearly had every right to be bitter, yet to me he did not seem a bitter man. I know he carried pain inside, but he didn’t let it show. Rex recalled an odd saying of his mother: One day you gon’ wake up and find yourself dead. Rex told me any day you wake up and find yourself alive is a good day. Then he gave wry, philosophical smile and he chuckled.

As Rex sang in one of the tunes recorded by the Cravers,
When your world seems to fall apart
You don’t know where to start
Look up and laugh,
No don’t you cry
Because things will get better by and by.

When everything seems to go wrong
Keep telling yourself you gotta be strong
Look up and laugh, oh
Don’t you cry
Cause things will get better by and by

Look up and laugh, that’s all you can do
You’ll surely find out things will come on through
When your burdens get so hard to bear
Look up and laugh, your troubles will disappear

When your world seems to fall apart
You don’t know, you don’t know, you don’t know where to start
Come on and look up and laugh, baby
No, don’t you cry
Cause things will get better by and by