• Added info on Jimmy Ford, thanks to Volker Houghton. • Extended and corrected the post on Happy Harold Thaxton (long overdue), thanks to everyone who sent in memories and information! • Added information to the Jim Murray post, provided by Mike Doyle, Dennis Rogers, and Marty Scarbrough. • Expanded the information on Charlie Dial found in the Little Shoe post.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Wild Bill Graham

The Wild Drummer of Columbus
"Wild" Bill Graham & the Escalators

"Wild" Bill Graham released only a few singles during the decades and while he even had a strong regional hit on his hands in the 1960s, the world outside seems to have overlooked him. He is not to be confused with jazz musician Bill Graham, who enjoyed greater fame than his namesake.

Graham was a drummer and band leader, guiding the extremely popular black R&B band "The Escalators" in Columbus, Ohio. While neither soul nor R&B is my area of expertise, Graham caught my attention because he made a rare 45rpm record with a vocalist known as Bobby Wayne. Bobby Wayne of "Swing Train Twist"? This would be my area for sure. But even now I'm not sure of it's THE Bobby Wayne I'm looking for.

Wild Bill Graham, ca. 1950s
Taken from the book "Listen to the Jazz"

Biographical information on William Henry "Wild Bill" Graham is hard to come by. He was said to be a multi-instrumentalist but favored the drums, on which he really could turn lose, living up to his nickname to its fullest. His home base was Columbus, Ohio, were he and his bands were based during the 1950s up until the 1970s. Graham played several clubs and venues around Columbus, including the Club 7-11, the Musical Bar, and the Melody Show Bar in Springfield, Ohio. He led various combos there, the most popular became the Escalators.

However, before that, Graham made his recording debut in 1956 for Cliff Ayers Emerald record label from Indiana. His "Mama Chita" b/w "Sinbad Blues" was a strong regional seller reportedly. Especially "Mama Chita", introduced by Graham with a wild drum solo, was a savage piece of R&B. It was followed in 1958 by another moody sax driven shouter, "Good News Baby" with Paul Rey on vocals. This one was released on the Columbus based Canto label.

Billboard May 12, 1956 R&B review

Cash Box June 16, 1956, review

In 1962, Graham recorded a single which brought him to my intention. I had previously put considerable effort into researching the story of West Virginia born DJ Bobby Wayne, who is best remembered among record collectors for his "Swing Train Twist" from 1962. Shortly afterwards, Graham's single on the House of Joan label appeared. While Johnny Albert took over vocal duties on the A side of this release, Albert was joined by a certain Bobby Wayne on "Roll Clean Out of Your Life" on the B side. Wayne was working in Ohio, too, at that time. So he could be same. Proofs? Negative.

Graham took a break from recording for a few years but was back in the studio in 1966. By then, he founded a R&B ensemble known as "The Escalators". They recorded for another local, short-lived label, Nassau Records. This time credited to "Billy Graham and the Escalators", they released a loose cover of Jessie Hill's 1960 hit "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" plus an instrumental called "East 24th Ave". The latter was co-written by Graham and producer Bill Moss, a Columbus celebrity who was a DJ on local WVOK and owned the Nassau label.

Apparently, the single took off and was taken over by Atlantic Records, which re-released the single at the tail end of 1966. In early 1967, it saw also release by Atlantic in Canada and the UK. Surprisingly, I did not found any reports on success in Billboard, which is unusual for a disc that obviously went well enough for a big label to push it. In addition, there was no follow-up to "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" to built on its success.

Graham and the Escalators continued to work the Columbus area, where they remained favorites of the audiences. "As a high school senior, I was the President of St. Agatha CYO in Upper Arlington in 1967. Our Easter Sunday Dance each year was one of the teenage highlights on the spring. I begged my adult advisor to book Billy Graham and the Escalators for the dance. Upper Arlington being VERY WHITE at the time, he was very reluctant. He gave in and they 'rocked the house!' SRO, we had to turned people away at the door. Traffic jam, noise in the neighborhood it was unbelievable," recalls one witness. "We had a great time and made a lot of money that night."

Wild Bill Graham (far left) with the Escalators, ca. early 1970s.
Otis Clay (fourth from left on trumpet)

At some point, the Escalators disbanded but reformed in the early 1970s. Throughout the years, many local musicians were members of the Escalators. Phil Graham, Graham's cousin, was featured on bass, Robert Lowery was the vocalist on "Ooh Poo Pah Doo", Chips Willis played saxophone, Graham's daughter Brenda sang and Otis Clay was a trumpeter with the band. Unfortunately, it escapes me what happened to Graham and the band.

If anyone has more information out there, feel free to pass it along.


Emerald 2010: Wild Bill Graham - Mama Chita / Sinbad Blues (May 1956)
Canto 31458: Doctor Bop - Satin and Velvet / Paul Prey and Wild Bill Graham Quartet - Good News Baby (1958)
House of Joan No.#: Johnny Albert and "Wild" Bill Graham Orch. - April Fool / Johnny Albert and Bobby Wayne and "Wild" Bill Graham Orch. - Roll Clean Out of Your Life (1962)
Nassau 100: Billy Graham and the Escalators - Ooh Poo Pah Doo / East 24th Ave (1966)
Atlantic 45-2372: Billy Graham and the Escalators - Ooh Poo Pah Doo / East 24th Ave (Dec. 1966)

45cat entry
Memories commented by band members and relatives
Short Profile on Soulbot.uk
Chips Willis obituary
• David Myers, Arnett Howard, James Loeffler, Candice Watkins: "Columbus: The Musical Crossroads" (Arcadia Publishing), 2008

• Various: "Listen for the Jazz - Key Notes in Columbus History" (Arts Foundation of Old Towne), 1990, page 80

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