Hipster troubadour poet, author, street preacher and hustler. Beloved of the Beatniks and the cool jazz crowd, Babs Gonzales was a man as colourful as the clothes he wore. Born in 1919, Babs made his tenure in the big bands, working as a band boy for Jimmy Lunceford, and later as a singer for Lionel Hampton and Charlie Barnet. In the 1940’s he moved to LA and in true Babs style, started wearing a turban and calling himself “Ram Singh”. Born Lee Brown, he then changed his surname to Gonzales, as to pass for a Latino American, and landed himself a job as Errol Flynn’s chauffeur.
At the time of conscription for World War II, Gonzales would indulge in antics such as cross dressing in order to be considered unfit for service. It worked and it also coincided with the emergence of the Bebop scene, a sound that was made for a wild spirit one such as Babs. Following a recording of Gonzales’ composition “Oop-Pop-A-Da” by Dizzy Gillespie in 1947, his career was off and running, with bebop and Babs’ own brand of bop vocalese in vogue.
Always a hustler, Gonzales would sniff out the recording sessions around town and approach with his tunes. His compositions fell into the hands of young and up-and-coming jazz musicians such as trombonist J.J. Johnson, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, pianist Wynton Kelly, and drummer Roy Haynes.
In the 1950’s, Gonzales spent time in New York City hustling, writing, recording, performing, making money, spending money, losing money, and putting all of it into his unique art. “To spend a half hour in conversation with Gonzales is to live temporarily in another world,” Valerie Wilmer wrote of him. “The world of the night people, the gamblers, the showmen, the sportsmen, the whores and the pimps, the world that is alternately flamboyant and seedy.”
In 1967 he released his memoir “I Paid My Dues:Good Times…No Bread” and began recording the first of several full length LP’s. Noted jazz historian Nat Hentoff wrote of Gonzales “To my mind, Babs is most creative and most valuable as a commentator on contemporary urban snares and delusions… he is somewhat in the same vein as Langston Hughes’ Simple or Bootsie in Ollie Harrington’s cartoons in the Pittsburgh Courier. Babs spends a lot of his time observing the hall of funhouse mirrors that passes for many people’s lives in the big cities… he touches something in the lives of nearly all of us.”
A survivor of the bygone era of bop, Babs Gonzales and his scatting vocalese and spoken work jazz paved the way for rap and cemented him with great fondness in the hearts of lovers of the jazz underground. In 2019, Worldwide FM broadcast a special show to celebrate Babs Gonzales’ 100th birthday. DJ and music writer Danny Fitzgerald is joined by two special guests, legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins and renowned British writer and photographer Valerie Wilmer, who both knew “Monsieur Bebop” personally. Hear their testimony, plus some rare and classic records.
You can listen to that special HERE