1. (I’m a) Night Owl – (1951) Lowell Fulson (blues)
2. Night Owl (1955) – Tony Allen (doo wop)
3. Night Owl – (1961) Gene Chandler and The Dukays (doo wop)
4. The Sad Nite Owl – (1961) Freddy King (blues)
5. Night Owl Walk – (1965) Booker T. & the MG’s (soul/R&B)
6. Night Owl Blues – (1966) Lovin’ Spoonful(blues)
1. (I’m a) Night Owl – (1951) Lowell Fulson
This 1951 song is the earliest instance I can find of an American popular song with night owl in the title. “I’m a Night Owl” follows the 12-bar blues AAB formula in structure and message. As such, the song is a series of short one line verses repeated twice, followed by a refrain, with both parts rhyming. Lloyd Glenn is credited as the author, but like most blues writers he borrows heavily from traditional blues lyrics and concepts.
His lover is gone and he’s got the blues again. If that wasn’t bad enough, the whole world seems to be turning on him. It’s a typical blues trope. Complaints about duplicitous, unfaithful or treacherous women told with self-pity and whining about loneliness are staples of early blues. Bluesman Robert Johnson (1911- 1938) was particularly fond of writing these kinds of songs.
One of the nice features of this recording is the lush saxophone work of Stanley Turrentine. Ray Charles also played with Lowell Fulson in the early 50s and that is likely him on piano. In the 2004 film Ray, Lowell Fulson is portrayed by blues musician Chris Thomas King.
In the “Encyclopedia of the Blues,” Gerhard Herzhaft says, “[Lowell Fulson] along with T-Bone Walker is the creator of modern California blues. He is still close to his rural roots, although he borrows many inflections form jazz and the ballad … Lowell Fulson recorded some of the most beautiful postwar rural blues.”
Fulson is probably best known today for his raunchy 1970 recording of John Lennon’s “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”
In 1965 BB King recorded the same song. He sings the original two verses but drops the last two, which underscored the artist’s neediness. King ends his version with a sly question to his lover about whether she’s happy or not, because he doesn’t think they’ll ever meet again.
2. Night Owl (1955) – Tony Allen
In Lowell Fulsom’s song he’s not a night owl by choice. The only reason he’s “roaming the streets from dusk to dawn” is to find his lover. She’s made him codependent.
The title of Tony Allen’s “Night Owl” refers to his lover, not himself. She’s a night owl — and he doesn’t call her that as a compliment. The piano bangs out chords in triplets. Somebody shouts “who, who” like an owl every now then. The backup singers wail “Ooh, Night Owl” and “shoo bee wah.” When Tony Allen greets his lover, there’s no self-pity or even chastisement in his message. He’s not having any more of it. “So long, night owl,” he says. And he sends her on her “merry way.”
The story behind “Night Owl,” according to what Tony Allen himself wrote on the Doo-Wop Society of Southern California’s website in 1999 is that:
“Night owl was a name my ‘mother’ Nila had for me because I was always staying out late at night. I turned that phrase into a little song and recorded it on July 4, 1955, at Master Recorders in Hollywood, with The Chimes singing behind me, even though they were billed on the record as The Champs. [The Chimes were a doo-wop group from Brooklyn.]
“Thanks to “Night Owl” being such a big hit around Southern California and other parts of the country, I’m always singing somewhere these days. I’ve sung at five or six Doo-Wop Society shows. My favorite was the time Gaynel Hodge, Richard Berry, Eugene Church and I formed a vocal group together, a one-time-only group, and sang our asses off.”
There are at least six covers of this song.
Dick Dale and the Del-tones covered it on their first album, “Surfer’s Choice,” in 1962. Although arguably the first surf rock tune, “Let’s Go Trippin,'” appeared on this album, the Del-tones version of Tony Allen’s “Night Owl” stays true to the doo-wop style.
Frank Zappa loved doo-wop and he does a brilliant cover. Ray Collins’ falsetto chorus reminds me of “Stay” by Maruice Williams and the Zodiacs.
Tim Timebomb made this cover in 2012 sounding like a mafia don telling his Molly she’s off the goombah payroll. She can still work at the Bata Bing but now she’s got to find a pole to dance with.
Here are some of the notes Tim Timebomb included with his cover:
“This was done at Ryan Foltz’s place in Cleveland with the Ohio Ramblers. I’ve heard three versions of this song, and I dig them all. One is by Tony Allen and The Champs from the 50s, another is by Bobby Paris, which was a Northern Soul hit in the 60’s, and there’s a great reggae version by Horace Andy from the early 70s. Our rhythm is like the Bobby Paris version, and our chorus is more like Tony Allen’s. If I ever met Horace, I’d ask him what version he was influenced by. I feel this is the kinda song where everyone adds something to every new version as it floats down the river of music. Our addition to the ‘Night Owl’ was our call and response Outro.”
There is also a cover by Soul Hooligan from 1997
Sorry for all the covers I’ve embedded. I like them all for different reasons. And I just love the song.
3. Night Owl – (1961) Gene Chandler and The Dukays
In 1961, Eugene Dixon (Gene Chandler) wrote both “Night Owl” and the song he’s best known for, “The Duke of Earl.” But according to an interview, Dixon gave to Tom Popson of the Chicago Tribune in 1985, Dixon had a problem. Even though “Night Owl,” which Dixon had recorded with the Dukays on the Nat label, was climbing up the charts, Nat was not interested in recording “Duke of Earl.” Vee-Jay Records was interested in buying “Duke of Earl” from Dixon, but because he was under contract to Nat, he wouldn’t be able to record the song for Vee-Jay — unless he quit Nat and came over to Vee-Jay. Which he did. Because his Nat contract did not permit him to record under his own name for any other label, he adopted the name Gene Chandler (after his favorite actor, Jeff Chandler). Vee-Jay also purchased the rights to “Night Owl,” and the song is available on both labels.
Like Lowell Fulsom’s “Night Owl,” Dixon’s song with its sassy tenor solo is a doo-wop classic, with a . But the year is 1961 and R&B lyrics are more urban now. The night owl in Dixon’s song is a teenage boy, being scolded by another family member, probably his younger brother or sister. He doesn’t listen to his father because he thinks “that he’s a square.” The instrumentation is minimal, with a simple, steady drum beat. The lyrics are conversational with lots of words repeated and nonsense syllables in the backup chorus.
The Tren-Dells, a white Louisville, KY group, also recorded Chandler’s tune in 1962. There’s a sassy tenor sax at about 1:30.
4. The Sad Nite Owl – (1961) Freddy King
In 1961, Freddy King’s instrumental “Hide Away” reached number five on the R&B charts and even busted into the pop charts at number 29. Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jeff Healey would later record covers of it — Healey’s version was nominated for a Grammy in 1988. After the success of “Hide Away,” King’s producer at Federal Records encouraged him to record more instrumentals. Over the next three years, King and his band recorded 30 instrumentals including “The Sad Nite Owl.”
Freddy King is often referred to as one of the “Three Kings” of electric blues guitar, along with Albert King and B.B. King. Freddy King was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
In his book, “Obsessions of a Music Geek,” Ted Drozdowski writes: “King’s instrumentals crossed over more effectively than those of his blues contemporaries because of his compositional intellect. He wove a sophisticated sonic tale into the 12-bar form, employing arrangements rather than jams, with hooks melodies, bridges and distinct movements.”
Guitar teachers often start students who want to learn the blues with King’s “Sad Nite Owl.” It’s a standard instrumental for many blues groups.
5. Night Owl Walk – (1965) Booker T. & the MG’s
As the house band for Stax records in the 1960s, Booker T. & the M.G.’s laid down a distinctive funky soul backup heard on hundreds of R&B recordings by artists such as Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus Johnson, Bill Withers, Albert King and others. They also recorded instrumentals under their own name, featuring Booker T on the Hammond organ. Booker T explores the Hammond’s rich, breathy tones, playing short, staccato bursts, sustained chords over multiple bars and nice little blues and jazz runs up and down the keyboard.
Most people know the band’s 1962 hit, “Green Onions.” If you like “Green Onions,” you’ll like the “Night Owl Walk.”
6. Night Owl Blues – (1966) Lovin’ Spoonful
Back in the early 1960s, The Lovin’ Spoonful began appearing at the Night Owl Cafe on West 3rd Street in the Village. The music they and others were playing started to be called folk-rock, reflecting the changes folk music was undergoing under the influence of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and others.
Unlike the Byrds and other folk artists of the time, such as Joan Baez and even bands like the Jefferson Airplane, the Spoonful’s music carried no political messages. This and the quality of their music appealed to the producers at NBC-TV and Screen Gems Productions and they tried to persuade the band to come to Hollywood to be in a TV series revolving around life as members of a youth rock band. The Spoonful prized their freedom too much and declined. So Hollywood created the Monkees instead.
The “Night Owl Blues,” a sassy blues instrumental, is a tribute to the Spoonful’s Greenwich Village venue. It was released as the backside of the Spoonful’s big hit, the old-timey, laid back “Daydream,” which reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966. John Sebastian opens with some sweet harmonica riffs, followed by a couple of bluesy guitar choruses by Zal Yanovsky while Joe Butler keeps time on drums. Many years later, in 1996, John Sebastian would write another song dedicated to the Night Owl Café, this time including lyrics. (See #13)