"Lord Luther" McDaniels
“Lord Luther” McDaniels, lead singer of vocal group the 4 Deuces, died from pneumonia on December 30th 2017 at the age of 79. Alec Palao remembers one of the most colourful characters from northern California rock’n’roll’s golden age.
Frank Zappa was but one of a legion of fans of a bluesy ode to a low-rent cocktail entitled ‘White Port & Lemon Juice,’ better known by the acronym ‘W-P-L-J’. The tune is a bona fide West Coast doo-wop classic that has remained so popular over the years that many assume the original recording to be a far bigger hit than it actually was. And while Zappa tried to cheekily take writer credit when he covered the number on the Mothers’ album “Burnt Weeny Sandwich,” it was actually the work of one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most colourful characters, Luther McDaniels – the magnificent “Lord Luther.”
Born in Panola County, Texas in 1938, McDaniels grew up in the church and came to California as a teenager, settling in the fertile Salinas Valley south of the Bay Area, a region often referred to as America’s Salad Bowl. Early experience as a gospel singer stood the youngster in good stead, once he began to sing R&B and fell in with a trio of older men stationed at nearby Fort Ord. This was 1954, and the vocal quartet named themselves the 4 Deuces. On a tip from bluesman Mercy Dee Walton, the feisty McDaniels guided his group up to Berkeley to audition for Music City, a store and fledgling record label run by black entrepreneur Ray Dobard. In his pocket, he had a tune inspired by a recent trip to check some rabbit traps, as he told me: “On the way down my friend stopped and got a bottle of white port wine and a can of lemon juice, mixed them together and said, check this out. It was cheap, so we started drinking it, and we called it “W-P-L-J.”
The astute Dobard recognized that the catchy refrain and street-hip subject matter could hit a chord in the black community that he serviced, but once the disc was released in August 1955, it garnered strong airplay on R&B stations in many markets, became popular with white teens, and even inspired a jingle for a white port distillery. Dobard took over management of the Deuces, booking them at affairs up and down the coast and beyond, but after a less successful beverage-themed sequel ‘Down It Went’, the group split - partly through disenchantment with the lack of remuneration from the label. “I had a passion for entertaining,” remembered McDaniels, “and so I decided to go as a single.” He gathered a set of players in Salinas under the name the Kingsmen, and embarked upon a career firmly in the rock’n’roll mode, a style perfectly suited to his lighter-toned, easygoing vocal style. In performance however, McDaniels – by now the now gentrified “Lord Luther” – could scream rock and R&B with the best of them, and he and the Kingsmen soon became a sensation amongst the teenage set in Monterey County. Ironically, his first solo release, 1957’s ‘Just One More Chance,’ would also be on Music City, Luther overlooking the claim that ‘W-P-L-J’ had not earned any money, even if Dobard surreptitiously kept the popular disc in print. This new single, a ballad with a lilting New Orleans flavour, proved another flop – at least as represented to Luther by Dobard.
Undeterred by a lack of record success, McDaniels fell in with a couple of local songwriters, Ric Masten and Don Stevens, which led to frequent recording sessions with the Kingsmen at the former’s funky garage studio in Carmel. Luther was able to add some grit to the duo’s lily-white pop compositions, and it was a highly productive period for all concerned. A pair of singles emerged in 1958 and 1959 on the Frantic label, including the novelty ‘(I Was A) Teenage Creature’ and a particularly rockin’ opus, ‘A Thinkin’ Man’s Girl,’ which was also issued nationally on Imperial. Other demos from this time came out on Gedinson’s, and once again, Music City. McDaniels had returned to Berkeley for a third time to work with Ray Dobard, in his own words admitting, “I was a glutton for punishment, I guess!” The crummy audio quality of Luther’s Dobard-engineered 1960 single ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Mind’ however put paid to the thought of any further collaboration.
By now Luther was promoting his own shows on the Monterey peninsula and drawing huge, multi-racial crowds who thrived on his showmanship and regal presence. However, as he got older, the singer began to prefer the intimacy of nightclubs, and by the early 1960s he was focused on club work. There was a James Brown-styled 45 on his own label Lusan in 1964, and in 1967 he cut the highly regarded northern item ‘My Mistake’ for the owner of the East Bay hostelry he was then engaged at – and who, according to the singer, headed up the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. That was typical of Luther – whether it be the parsimonious Dobard or a boss with segregationist tendencies, he could roll with the punches, and remain his charming self. In the 1970s and 1980s, he ran successful clubs of his own in the Salinas area, before graduating to work in real estate and loan assistance in more recent times.
I got to know Luther in the late ‘90s, and in all our discussions he was funny and always upbeat. One memorable get-together took place in Salinas with his old Frantic label chief Ric Masten, to reminisce over the innocent excitement of the late 1950s in the South Bay. An entertainer to the end, Luther would still occasionally perform in local bars, and he once insisted on pulling me up on stage to sit in on bass for a spirited ‘W-P-L-J.’ In the mid-2000s, he was even dragooned into appearing at an East Coast doo-wop nostalgia fest, joking to me that the promoter better have emergency medical personnel ready by the side of the stage, just in case. He was particularly happy to learn of Ace’s acquisition of the Music City masters, having despaired of ever seeing activity on the songs with which he had started his career. Over the years, I’ve had sundry rock royalty occupy our guest room, including members of the Zombies, Chocolate Watchband and Seeds, but it was a particularly proud occasion when the Lord came up north to visit. We spent a great evening, sorting through old masters in preparation for a Lord Luther collection on Ace, and laughing the night away in the process. Now the Lord has left the building, I’m really going to miss this kind-hearted and generous soul.