Live at the Haunted House

Title: Live at the Haunted House
Artist: Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band
Label: Rhino Handmade (limited edition)
Catalog No.: Rhino 7771
Date: 2008

Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band were a popular L.A. group in the 1960s. Heavily influenced by James Brown, Otis Redding, and groups such as Sly & the Family Stone, they were known for performing R&B covers as well as original songs that helped to define the emerging funk genre and forge a distinctive L.A. sound. They first achieved national recognition as the back-up band on the Bill Cosby albums Silver Throat: Bill Cosby Sings (1967) and Hooray for the Salvation Army Band (1968), and were signed to Warner Bros. Records shortly thereafter.

From 1965 to 1968, Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band were regulars at the Haunted House, a popular Hollywood nightclub. Though known as a venue for upscale bands, the interior of the Haunted House was high kitsch, with monster props and a stage configured as the giant head of a beast that spouted steam from its nostrils (perhaps not coincidentally, this was the same period when the Munsters and Addams Family were TV hits). Wright wanted some live tracks for the bands’ next album, and convinced Warner Bros. to record an entire set at the Haunted House on May 18, 1968. Three songs would appear later that year on the bands’ sophomore album, Together, including “Something You Got,” “Knock on Wood,” and a cover of James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” However, none of the other material from this live concert was ever released, and the three tracks from Together were heavily edited.

The Rhino Handmade two-CD set, Live at the Haunted House: May 18, 1968, features 37 tracks with complete, uncut performances that were remastered from the original 4-track tapes. In addition to Wright on guitar and lead vocals, band members include Bill Cannon and John Rayford on tenor sax, Melvin Dunlap on bass, Al McKay (who later joined Earth, Wind & Fire) on guitar, James Gadson on drums, Gabriel Flemings (a former member of Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm) on trumpet, and Ray Jackson on trombone and congas.

Disc One opens with “The Joker,” the only original song by Charles Wright. The remaining tracks are all covers, ranging from T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” to Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” (this concert was just a few months after Otis’s tragic death). As one might expect, some of these covers pale in comparison to the originals. Many others, however, are much more creative, like the funky instrumental version of the Supreme’s “Come See About Me,” the rock guitar laced version of Willie Bobo’s “Fried Neck Bones,” a far-out improvisation on the Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” and a medley on “Stand By Me” that morphs between the vocal stylings of Ben E. King, Jackie Wilson, David Ruffin, Chuck Jackson, and Howlin’ Wolf, with a little Roy Rogers thrown in for good measure.

Live at the Haunted House offers listeners a chance to experience the late 1960s L.A. club scene and revel in the sound of a proto-funk jam band performing before a live audience. Though there is some unevenness between tracks, overall the album is a great blast from the past.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss