This collection of excellent music from the Modern vaults has been a long time coming. Compiled more than two years ago, it was back-burnered while I consulted the various oracles of R&B research for information on Albert C Wichard, aka “Cake”. Virtually nothing is known about the man whose drumming had been at the core of almost all of Modern’s early sessions, other than he’d been dead a long time and that he died young. But Cake Wichard was high profile enough to have had several sessions for Modern in his own name, and this top-notch package collects up the contents of all of them, in many cases for the first time on CD.
It’s fair to say that most of those featured on “Cake Walkin” are of higher profile than the mysterious Mr Wichard. There can’t be a blues fan alive or dead who hasn’t heard of Jimmy Witherspoon, Pee Wee Crayton and Jay McShann, while Big Duke Henderson has been an R&B cult hero for decades. They are all heard to excellent advantage here, particularly ’Spoon, whose first sessions for Modern these were and who shows a youthful exuberance in these sides that is missing from the recordings he made as a more mature singer from the late 1950s onwards. A little unbelievably for an artist of his stature, several of the sides here that feature Witherspoon are receiving their first ever release in this package. (The remaining three Wichard/’Spoon cuts that are not featured have been earmarked for future volumes of “Mellow Cats & Kittens”).
The somewhat less prolific Duke Henderson is also at the peak of his vocal powers here, particularly on the fearsome ‘His Majesty’s Boogie’. Not everyone can be as successful as they are talented, but in Sylvester Henderson’s case it’s a real shame that the quality of his performances did not result in some bigger hits.
There’s no existing session paperwork to confirm the presence of any individuals other than Wichard and the featured vocalists/instrumentalists, but it can be assumed that Hadda Brooks on piano and Bill Davis and/or Bill Day are in the mix on at least some of the tracks, providing a rock-solid rhythm section that’s always underpinned by Wichard’s metronomic timing. As small group mid-40s R&B goes, it’s pretty unbeatable.
Unfortunately, Al Wichard’s life was short and he passed away in the late 1950s before most researchers began their sterling work. Most of those who worked with him (including all the identifiable musicians on this CD) are also now gone, as are his wife and son. We may never find out more than the little we know now, but we can always say for sure that the early post-WWII Central Avenue R&B scene would have been much the poorer without his contribution.
By Tony Rounce