One afternoon during the 1954-55 winter, Texas-born teenager Luther McDaniels and an adult friend named Carl Williams drove to the Salinas River to check Williams' rabbit traps. Along the way, Williams stopped at a liquor store and bought a quart bottle of Italian Swiss Colony white port and a small can of lemon juice. McDaniels took an immediate liking to the drink, a mix of about four parts wine to one part lemon juice.
"It was real mellow," McDaniels remembered, speaking by phone from his home in Salinas. "It tasted pretty good. It was a cheap high, really."
The traps turned out to be empty, but the cocktail inspired McDaniels to pen a catchy doo-wop ditty called "W-P-L-J." He and three buddies from nearby Fort Ord, who called themselves the 4 Deuces, worked up an arrangement and sang it for Mercy Dee, a popular blues-singing pianist of the period who was passing through Salinas. Dee recommended they do an audition for Ray Dobard, a former construction worker from New Orleans who had recently opened a record company, recording studio, and retail store at 1815 Alcatraz Avenue in Berkeley, all called Music City.
Well, I went to the store; when I opened up the door, I said, 'Please, please, please give me some more of that white port and lemon juice,' McDaniels crooned in a mellow tenor as the others harmonized behind him. Dobard liked what he heard and arranged a session a few days later with multi-instrumentalist Johnny Heartsman's band supplying shuffling support. Oakland radio station KWBR (later known as KDIA) began playing "W-P-L-J" immediately upon its release. The tune became a huge Bay Area hit and received airplay in other regions, including Texas, where McDaniels' relatives heard it on the radio.
McDaniels said he never received a dime for composing and recording the tune, not from the original recording (rock 'n' roll historian Alec Palao estimates it sold 100,000 copies), nor for rerecording it as an Italian Swiss Colony commercial jingle (for which McDaniels heard Dobard was paid $15,000), nor for Frank Zappa's cover version on the 1969 Mothers of Invention album Burnt Weeny Sandwich. He and the other three Deuces did, however, spilt the $50 Dobard paid for each of several concerts he booked them on in Oakland and Fresno.
"It was just gas money for us," the singer reflected. "We were just having fun. We weren't expecting too much of anything."
"W-P-L-J" stands as a classic of the doo-wop genre of the 1950s, yet it was unavailable for decades, except on obscure bootleg albums. North London native and longtime Bay Area resident Palao acquired rights to the Music City catalog for Ace Records in England in 2008 after a series of frustrating negotiations. A year prior to his death in 2004 from throat cancer, the notoriously difficult Dobard signed a licensing agreement with and cashed a check from Ace, then refused to make the master tapes available to the company. His Alcatraz Avenue home ended up in foreclosure and its contents, including the tapes and thousands of ultra-rare records, in the hands of real estate speculators.
Once he obtained the full catalog, Palao spent more than two years listening to countless hours of music, much of it never issued, on 1,500 reels of tape to compile The Music City Story. The just-released three-CD, 75-song overview of Dobard's productions from 1953 to 1973 opens with "W-P-L-J." The set includes songs by such other Bay Area doo-wop groups as the Midnights, Gaylarks, Rovers, Crescendos, Five Lyrics, and Five Campbells, along with some blues, a little gospel, the 1957 Heartsman instrumental "Johnny's House Party" (Music City's only nationally charting hit), and soul sides by the likes of the Music City All Stars, Two Things in One, Ballads, and current cult favorite Darondo. Palao is currently working on a full CD of unreleased material by Darondo and some nine other various-artist doo-wop, blues, rock, soul, and funk collections for release on Ace.
During a recent interview, Palao's finished copy of The Music City Story, filled with his lengthy, extensively researched booklet notes and dozens of vintage photographs, sat on the kitchen table of his El Cerrito home, having just arrived in the mail from England. At a nearby counter, his wife Cindy was polishing his and her black leather shoes in preparation for a trip to the Grammy Awards. His Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968 garage-band compilation for Rhino Records was nominated for Best Historical Album. He wouldn't win, however, given that his competition included The Beatles (The Original Studio Recordings).
Because Dobard had never reissued any of his old recordings and had rejected offers from others to license them — many command hundreds of dollars on the collector's market — Palao considers The Music City Story to be "perhaps the last true holy grail of American popular music." Unfortunately, it will not be eligible for a Grammy, being a product of the UK rather than the United States.
Despite all the grief Dobard had given him, Palao developed respect for the producer after listening to hours of studio conversation on the master tapes, as well as from tapes he'd made of numerous telephone conversations with disc jockeys and record distributors.
"His greatest skill was seeing what was happening and what was coming," Palao said. "He had a direct link to what kids wanted because they were coming into the store and asking for records.
"Everybody called him a crook because they never saw any money, but Dobard wasn't a gangster. He was a total control freak. He learned early on that you lock up the artist and you lock up the song. That's how he survived. He was able to get people to do things."
Even McDaniels, after having received no money at all for "W-P-L-J," recorded twice more for Dobard as solo artist Lord Luther. He didn't get paid for those records either.
"He was very personable," the singer said of the late producer.