Jimmy Castor, R.I.P.

Categories: Obituaries

Jimmy Castor was a smart aleck; a wise guy; a clean shit-talker with so much joie de vivre you had to laugh even when his truth-telling smacked you upside the head. So when he died this past Martin Luther King Jr. Day at 71 near his home outside of Las Vegas, far away from the streets of Harlem he once called home, the world lost a dependable source of laughter.

Known as the Everything Man—the E-Man (yup, he copyrighted it)—for his multitude of musical talents, Castor was one of the few cats on the planet who could legitimately be flossin' "from doo wop to hip hop" on any bling he desired and not get clowned. A quadruple threat—composer, singer, saxophonist, timbalero—the longtime bandleader wrote his first hit while in junior high, then got on the bus with the likes of Frankie Lymon, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, made girls scream and never looked back. He played and shared the stage with many, from Hendrix to Hathaway, and traveled the globe, performing in Small's Paradise and at Madison Square Garden, on Soul Train and Johnny Carson. And by all oral, written and visual accounts, the E-Man and his sharp-dressed band tore up the stage. Eric Clapton, P-Funk, Bad Company, Kool & the Gang, Tito Puente, the Commodores: the Jimmy Castor Bunch was a difficult act to follow.

Throughout his life he put out over a dozen albums and many more 45s; millions of folks bought them, eager to take Castor's beloved Leroy, Bertha Butt and Troglodyte personas home for a spin on the turntable or 8-track. DJs and hip-hop producers also found them worthy enough to recycle; the E-Man said he was sampled more than 3,000 times, more than enough to cement his (and songwriting partner John Pruitt's) six-decade legacy.

Castor was right when he told you he played "Pop, R&B, Latin, Funk," but the truth is he shied away from no genre. Growing up in the Dominican, Puerto Rican, Jewish and African-American neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Harlem, he soaked up the sounds of the street—rock n' roll, mambo, boogaloo, jazz, show tunes. Sometimes his music was serious; mostly it was seriously funny. He wanted you to dance and laugh. This could provide fodder for his critics, who, pointing to the many cartoonish characters that Castor committed to tape, claimed he was a mere novelty act. But he was no Disco Duck wannabe: Castor often stated the goofiness was simply his way of proving to the record labels he could get your attention. "I had to hook 'em right away," he told me some years ago. "I'd say, 'What we're gonna do right here is go back,' or 'Hey Leroy! Your Mama!' Then the record executives, when they'd hear these things, said, 'Oh, I want that!'"

Perhaps Jimmy Castor is not more of a household name because of his dynamic oeuvre. He walked away from many record companies who preferred to pigeonhole their artists—Wing, Atomic, Jet Set, Decca, Compass, Clown, Kinetic, Capitol, Smash/Mercury, RCA, Atlantic, Dream, Cotillion, T.K. "They'd say, 'Why don't you do one thing? How are we going to promote that?' But people expect[ed] that from me: total entertainment."

How to describe this "total entertainment?" I don't know. Perhaps if you threw together a dash of Little Richard, a twist of Frankie Lymon, a whiff of James Brown, the fat of Larry Graham's bass slapped onto the sensibility of Sly, then mixed in a cup of King Curtis's horn, a pint of Puente pachanga, a hearty helping of Hendrix's wail, then splashed in some of Sun Ra's sci-fi, Screaming Jay Hawkins's scream, Sammy Davis's swagger before mashing in a smidgen of the Mighty Sparrow, you'd have an idea of how his Harlem Stew tastes. And long before Kenny G, he wasn't afraid to let his sax get smoov.

To try and understand the man, and get a glimpse into his fruitful-yet-tumultuous career in the music biz, I think we need to take a step or two back. Back into time...

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