Post-midnight cruisers on interstates and deserted city streets punch radio buttons to find a soundtrack for the view through the windshield. Shift workers seek the right musical mood to get them through until dawn. Dedicated fans of soul/bop grooves and swirling organ riffs lose precious sleep to catch music they can't hear anywhere else.
The DJ of choice for this particular music is Leo Chears, who's been playing what he calls "mainstream jazz" since the '60s on stations such as KADI, WMRY and WSIE. And judging by the requests he receives, the favorite instrumental for any late-night activity appears to be Eddie Fisher's 1969 recording "The Third Cup."
It's a memorable five-and-a-half minute-cooker, blending Fisher's smooth, hypnotic guitar lines with a Hammond organ wash and an unshakable bass-and-drums groove. But the song is more than a local hit. Fisher's The Third Cup full-length, originally issued in 1969, has become a collector's item in hot demand around the world.
"People come in and ask for it all the time," says Joe Schwab, owner of Euclid Records and the Vinyl Shack. "I think it's every bit as popular now as it was when it first came out. And it's become very big in Europe and Japan because it's such a hot piece with DJs now. More people are hearing it, and once they do, they want to get it -- and that's understandable. To me, "The Third Cup" is a soul/jazz classic. It's a slow, cool groove that I think is the peak of that musical style."
Unfortunately for Fisher -- who still lives in Centreville, Ill., not far from the location of the now-defunct Blue Note club at 42nd and Missouri, where he composed "The Third Cup" -- the original album is long out of print. Chess Records, which had the inside track on St. Louis-based artists such as Chuck Berry, Little Milton Campbell and Fontella Bass in the '60s, originally issued The Third Cup on its Cadet label after learning that the original 45 on Oliver Sain's Vanessa label had sold more than 5,000 copies.
But Chess and Cadet fell on hard times in the '70s, and the rights to the recordings were sold several times -- eventually ending up with MCA, now part of the megacorporation Universal Music Group. As a result, The Third Cup, which went out of print approximately 20 years ago, has never been officially reissued.
"The song came out a few years ago on a collection on Charly, a label based in Europe," Fisher says in an interview at his Centreville home. "But they've never sent me any money for publishing rights over the years. Now we're finding out through the Internet that there's an incredible demand for The Third Cup, as well as some of my other early albums. Used albums are selling for $50 and more. But MCA, which has the rights, evidently isn't too interested in reissuing it."
Although Fisher wishes The Third Cup was more readily available, he seems to take the distribution problem in stride. He's continued to record over the years and now issues his work on his own Nentu label. His latest recording, 42nd Street, came out in 2001 and features him in a contemporary-jazz vein -- but with plenty of the soulful licks that marked his earlier work. In addition to selling copies locally through Blue Sky Distributors, Fisher and his wife, Christina Isaac, have been selling the CD across the country and internationally on their Web site (www.fisherjazzsound.com).
"We just appreciate that people are more interested in my music now," he says. "We just hope if they like The Third Cup they'll want to hear my new music. You can't get too focused on the past or on particular milestones in life. To me, it's all about the journey."
Fisher has certainly had an interesting journey -- one that has brought him from Arkansas to Memphis at the beginning of the Stax and Hi Records scene in the early '60s. "I learned to play guitar growing up in Little Rock, and after I graduated high school I was playing in local clubs," Fisher recalls. "Robert Talley, a Memphis musician who used to play in Jimmie Lunceford's band, heard me play and asked me to join his band in Memphis. This was in 1961, and it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."
Fisher ended up getting a crash course in composition, arrangement and musical theory from Talley. He also picked up skills from musicians he met on the Memphis recording circuit -- Isaac Hayes, Steve Cropper and Willie Mitchell. "It was a twofold learning atmosphere," Fisher says. "Talley was a real taskmaster, so I had to do everything right with his band. But cats like Isaac and Steve were loose. They were always in the studio, doing things professionally but in a real improvisational way. Memphis was a real recording town, and that made a big impression on me."
After touring with Solomon Burke for a couple of years, Fisher returned to Little Rock, where he began working with bassist Larry Davis. Fisher and Davis soon received an offer to play dates in the St. Louis area with blues guitarist Albert King. Davis returned to Arkansas afterward, but Fisher decided to continue with King. Eventually he became King's bandleader.
"I couldn't help being influenced by his style, but I kept trying to fight it because I really wanted to play jazz," Fisher admits. "But Albert let me do jazz instrumentals before he came onstage -- tunes like 'Milestones' and 'So What' -- so I was happy."
Fisher's blend of jazz and soul soon caught the ear of Leo Gooden, an East St. Louis politician, businessman and singer (and, some say, gangster) who ran a club called the Blue Note. His band, Leo's Five, included drummer Kenny Rice, organist Don James and sax players such as Charles "Little Man" Wright and Hamiet Bluiett.
"Leo was looking for a guitar player, and he asked me to sit in with Leo's Five," Fisher explains. "That was a dream come true for me because the only jazz radio station I could get when I was a teenager in Little Rock was KATZ. My favorite show was Spider Burks broadcasting live from the Blue Note. So I ended up playing there with great musicians like Oliver Nelson, Sonny Stitt and others who sat in when they were done with their gigs. On Sundays, there would be jam sessions, and younger guys like David Sanborn and Michael McDonald would come and sit in. I couldn't believe I was getting paid money to play jazz at that place!"
Initially Fisher composed "The Third Cup" for a Leo's Five recording, but Gooden's unexpected death changed those plans. Fisher decided to go ahead and record his music at Oliver Sain's Gateway Studios. The initial 45 single of "The Third Cup" became a hit, and Fisher's recording career began.
"I think the time is finally right for me now musically," Fisher concludes. "Just like Johnnie Johnson's time finally came -- maybe the same thing is happening for me. But music's not our whole life. Christina and I are involved with helping kids by getting them involved in media and doing TV PSA spots through the Youth Media Network. We're rebuilding our community theater here in Centreville, which burned two years ago, and hope to have it running again by the end of the summer. And I'm hoping to set up regular music concerts there and maybe do a college-campus tour. So the journey goes on: You just try and be yourself ... and hope at some point the recognition comes."