Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ at the Half Note: The Evolution of an Album: Side 2: John Levy and Creed Taylor

Jazz Guitar Life thanks Dr. Wayne Goins for his invaluable service to the Jazz Guitar Community – both past and present – in his roles as a player, educator and writer/researcher and we are especially grateful for his insight into this iconic album. Dig into this article to learn more.

If you missed Part 1, please click here and Enjoy! – Lyle Robinson – Jazz Guitar Life


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Now that you’ve heard the saga regarding the evolution of about Wes Montgomery’s recordings on Smokin’ At The Half Note, it’s time we heard the flipside of this album—so here’s the vocal tracks related to this adventure. It’s a great story, and it bobs and weaves though several grooves, so let’s drop the needle on this thing!

The Vocal Tracks

It all started when I sent an early version to some of my most respected jazz guitar gurus to see what they thought about Part 1, and to welcome them to add/edit any material they thought deemed necessary. I was pleased to see that each one gave me a thumbs up. But one phone message response grabbed my attention more than the others, and it required a return phone call from me to get the details. Henry Johnson—superb guitarist and expert on all things related to Wes Montgomery—had left me a message saying he had a few things that he noticed I “needed to get right” before sending the article to press. I was about to find out just how right he was about a few things.

There was one issue in particular that Henry said I needed to correct, and it was based on a somewhat negative spin on the idea that brass and wind instruments were added to four live tracks from the recording on the “Half Note” album, and more than a few Wes followers perceived that it had somehow occurred against the wishes of Wes Montgomery, thereby inadvertently diluting the purity of the original, unaltered versions.

Johnson, however, was not one of those people. For starters, he hit me with this first fact: Wes Montgomery was NOT unhappy about the idea of using the brass/winds on the Willow Weep For Me album. In fact, according to Henry, he was quite pleased with it—contrary the response of musicians, fans, and critics who might have, over the years, thumbed their noses at Creed Taylor’s decision to “manipulate the original tracks after the fact.” But the next statement Johnson laid on me hit even harder: He gave me the “inside scoop” on the real story behind how that situation came to be, and, much to my surprise, I learned that it wasn’t just a decision between Wes and Creed Taylor. According to Henry, the circumstances surrounding the album actually had as much or more to do with John Levy—the manager of Wes Montgomery who steered Wes’s career from 1965 until Montgomery’s death (and beyond, if truth be told).

And just how would Johnson know so much about this situation between Wes and Creed Taylor? Well, it’s because John Levy was also Henry’s manager, guiding him through several successful albums and collaboration with numerous luminaries. Henry was with him after his first album (self-titled) came out in 1986. He joined Levy the following year (he wrote the tune, ”75th & Levy” dedicated to John on his second album, Future Excursions [MCA 42089]). “Levy had offices in Los Angeles and New York City,” he told me. Henry stayed with Levy’s company until he retired in the late 90’s.

When Henry joined the band of legendary jazz vocalist Joe Williams, Levy was already managing Joe’s career—a relationship that began during the same time frame as when he managed Wes, Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson, among a host of others. He got Nancy and Joe on TV shows—he could make a phone call and get things done.” Henry Johnson himself would eventually work with Nancy Wilson and become her favorite guitarist—they recorded an album together, Organic, for A440 Records in 2006. Johnson’s insight into the situation made me understand that there was so much more to the story, and I decided I’d better educate myself on the importance of John Levy and the significant role he played in Montgomery’s life. It didn’t take long to learn quite a bit out this man.

From previous research for articles I’d written, I was already aware that Cannonball Adderley was the one who connected Wes to Orrin Keepnews in 1959, who immediately signed Wes to Riverside Records based on Adderley’s recommendation (leading to a fruitful relationship between Wes and Rudy Van Gelder, a man whose expert engineering skills enhanced all of Montgomery’s Verve releases). It suddenly dawned on me that maybe there would be info related to Levy in a book I just happened to have on my shelf—the biography entitled Walk Tall: The Music & Life of Cannonball Adderley (written by Cary Ginell in Hal Leonard’s Jazz Biography Series).

Sure enough, there was a wealth of informative material about Levy first becoming Cannonball’s manager in 1956, and more about Levy’s later managing Nancy Wilson and a host of others. Essentially, Levy was a brilliant businessman that had a hands-on approach with his clients that was formidable when it came to dealing with record execs, film and television producers, club owners, attorneys, promoters, and the like.

When Levy published his 2008 autobiography Men, Women, and Girl Singers: My Life As a Musician Turned Talent Manager, he shared his philosophy and management style with the world, which included his love and respect for Wes Montgomery. Levy was a man who used his experience as a veteran acoustic bassist and manager of jazz pianist George Shearing. Levy preferred to make a deal based on a verbal agreement—it was a deal cemented on a handshake and no written contract.

The Verve Era of Wes Montgomery

A powerful bond was formed between Wes and Levy, who also managed an unprecedented number of high-profile African-American artists, including Freddie Hubbard, Ahmad Jamal, Les McCann, Ramsey Lewis, Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis, Cannonball (and his brother Nat) Adderley, and Freddie Hubbard. Female vocalists he’s worked with included Nancy Wilson, Roberta Flack, Abbey Lincoln, Randy Crawford, Betty Carter, and Shirley Horn. This was an extremely rare position for an African-American to be in during the 50’s. This helps to explain why Wes Montgomery’s career was on a consistently upward and steady-climbing trajectory from the time he met Levy.

Most people knew of theses artists’ successful careers, but it was Levy who was behind the scenes working the phone lines and having business meetings with executives, fellow artists, producers, promoters, marketing, TV and radio people, and others. Wes was one of the many black artists who enjoyed the fruits of Levy’s labor. This leads us to consider the business decisions made regarding the musical content of Smokin’ At The Half Note and Willow Weep For Me, two of Wes Montgomery’s highly-touted and somewhat controversial Verve projects.

So let’s now discuss those bookend albums released both before and after Wes’s untimely death. When examining the contents, it helps to understand that what’s not there is as important as what is there. We know that the club date wasn’t just a one-night stand. In my last article, I shared information about each issue of CDs related to the ‘Smokin’’ album, along with the obvious criticism related to the perceived shortcomings that came with the formatting of both ‘Smokin’ and ‘Willow’ albums.

But there are still so many music gaps left to be filled between those sessions, as Henry Johnson was quick to point out. “There was a whole week of gigs, there’s soo much more music out there, so you can’t be critical of the content on the ‘Half Note’ album. The music chosen that was ‘live versus the studio’ was a deliberate choice made between Levy and Wes. They held back material so that there would be some things left over that could be released years later that would extend the value of the music they’d captured. It was a business move that Levy exercised when he felt the need to do so.” Speaking of business, let’s go ahead and directly address the topic of whether Wes himself was okay with how that material was being presented.

This is something I have always wondered about and, admittedly, had a pre-conceived notion that he wasn’t fully in agreement with the choices that were made regarding how his music was offered. I also have to admit that this particular bias had more to do with what I’ve read over many decades—comments written by music critics that basically projected their own preferences and biases about their dislike for “syrupy strings” onto what they only assumed was the same stance that Wes took toward the music. So, I ask myself, did he really agree with the decisions that were being made on his behalf? Maybe I’m standing too close to the subject; could it be that I love the music too much and it’s a bit too precious to taint with strings and brass? If I stand back a bit, a clearer and more accurate image begins to take shape. Let’s now look at a few pertinent issues that cannot be ignored.

Wes won two Grammy awards with Levy—he sold more albums during this stretch of his career than anything he’d done previously with Riverside. The truth is, above and beyond all things, Wes was a family man, and he made no hesitation letting all involved know that that was his main priority. All the way to the end, he still maintained that music was “just a hobby.” He wanted to be able to support his large family, and, to that end, his “pop charts” success as a jazz artist did him no harm. To the contrary, it gave him exactly what he needed at that point during the height of his career. “Levy executed his [Wes] wishes to have a career path that would generate enough income that would comfortably allow for him to provide for his wife and children,” Henry duly informed me.

Creed Taylor

So now let’s talk a bit more specifically about Creed Taylor’s role in Wes Montgomery’s life and career—because Taylor had a great deal to do with the quantity and quality of musical output during this particular stretch of Wes’s career. In Bob Porter’s superb book, Soul Jazz: Jazz in The Black Community, 1945-1975, he devotes several pages throughout several chapters to the subject of Wes Montgomery, Creed Taylor and the Verve/CTI transition they both made together.

Taylor first arrived at Verve in 1961 after a highly successful achievement when he formed the Impulse! label for ABC-Paramount. Not long after that, Bill Grauer, Riverside label co-owner and business partner of Orrin Keepnews, died unexpectedly leading to the label’s demise. Once the reign of Riverside was over, Montgomery was on the move. By the time Wes arrived at the Verve label in 1964, Taylor had already patented the strategy of using lush string and brass arrangements—combined with the sonic capabilities of engineer Rudy Van Gelder—to enhance the instrumental stylings of his artists, including the Hammond B3 organ acrobatics of Jimmy Smith.

Taylor left the Verve label when he was offered a million dollars and a chance to gain a greater degree of independence as a producer and create his own subsidiary label under the auspices of Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss at A&M Records. Along with Levy, Taylor was instrumental in shepherding the career of several of his top Verve clients, which included making the smooth transition from Verve to A&M Records for Wes Montgomery. “Wes left Verve because Taylor left…Herb Alpert at A&M offered Taylor a sweet deal,” Johnson told me. “Taylor said, ‘I can bring Wes.’” He had no reservation on using some of the top musicians in New York, and in doing so delivered a level of consistency that was both respected by artists and appreciated by jazz fans alike. He regularly employed a “house band” that included the all-star rhythm section of bassist Ron Carter, drummer Grady Tate and pianist Herbie Hancock. For the orchestral arrangements he hired the best available, including Claus Ogerman, Don Sebesky, and Oliver Nelson. All these elements combined created a package that created its own unique lane in the record label business—different than Impulse!, Columbia, Blue Note, Atlantic, Riverside, Fantasy, and others.

Just as Levy was concerned with Montgomery’s well-being, so was Creed Taylor’s care and influence playing a central role. With the agreement and assistance from Taylor, John Levy encouraged Wes to enter into the relatively unpopular realm of guitarists who had the opportunity to perform with strings. Henry Johnson stated it quite succinctly when he told me, “When it came to the decisions made on Wes’ behalf, Creed was trying to give the guitar a greater level of importance—jazz guitars with orchestras or big bands were almost never featured as the focus of a recording session before Creed did this with Wes!” The opportunity was one that Wes seemed to relish.

Wes Was Willing!

Contrary to my original reservations regarding Wes’ involvement in the decidedly new direction of his career, there is hard evidence that he himself chose to enter the new realm with eyes wide open. Lest anyone doubt his willingness to fully participate in the proceedings, consider his statement Wes made that I found in Adrian Ingram’s seminal 1985 book, published in the UK, simply entitled Wes Montgomery: “Sure, I’ve had to adapt to making these kinds of records. You learn more by adapting. When somebody has to adapt to you, you’re not learning anything, they’re learning it; but when you’re doing the adapting, you find out more ways to do things.” Evidently the feeling was mutual, because Creed also was learning how to shape the music around Montgomery’s unique abilities—Taylor made, so to speak (I know, I know—it’s a horrible pun, but appropriate nonetheless!). “People liked Creed because he custom-made their
products,” Henry informed me. Creed was always forward-thinking, with his finger on the pulse of pop and rock music that easily sold in substantially larger numbers than the blues or R&B counterparts. Both he and John Levy had a plan to move Wes into a more financially lucrative environment. He chose tunes that were trending in pop culture of the day—Broadway and film material such as “People,” from the Barbara Streisand musical, Funny Girl. “Matchmaker” from the justreleased hit movie, Fiddler On The Roof.

Of course, Taylor’s approach doesn’t in any way constitute an inferior or unprecedented move, of course—Miles did it with “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Coltrane did it with “My Favorite Things,” Sonny did it with “Surrey With The Fringe On Top.” And I’m An Old Cowhand. (So for those detractors that wish to put a negative spin on Montgomery’s endeavors to venture into more crowd-pleasing arenas, you might wanna ease up on that.) This also applies to his recording with orchestration—Miles did it with Gil, and even Charlie Parker did an album with orchestra.

For Wes’ first big band album, Movin’ Wes in November 1964, Taylor employed Johnny Pate to arrange the music. Pate, a bass player from Chicago whose previous arranging work included a massive hit with his work for Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, “Keep On Pushing” (He also scored a major hit with B.B. King on the epic Live at the Regal album recorded that same month, only days after the Movin’ Wes sessions.) Wes recorded his parts live in the studio as the big band performed under the direction of Pate, with no overdubs. Because Wes didn’t read music, he only needed his ears to guide him through the proceedings.

The formula worked like a charm, garnering sales that were literally ten times as much as his best recordings on Riverside label with Orrin Keepnews. With over 100,000 copies sold, Wes knew a good formula when he saw one—his team of Taylor and Levy gave him the financial and popular success he needed.

Jazz-Pop Fusion to Smooth Jazz

As Bob Porter accurately points out, five studio albums immediately come to mind when one thinks of Montgomery’s “pop-era” career with Verve released between 1966-67: Bumpin,’ (he was nominated for a Grammy) Goin’Out of My Head (he won the Grammy for “Best Jazz Instrumental”), Tequila, California Dreamin’ and The Dynamic Duo (w/Jimmy Smith). Most people never realized that during the late 60’s, this formula gave Wes his first gold album—something never achieved with any previous label—while most blues, R&B artists struggled to attain the same number of sales during that time. All totaled, he recorded eleven albums between 1964 and 1966—a staggering achievement by any measure—and this is all before his exit to A&M/CTI.

Just as Montgomery found Taylor when he went to Verve, he followed Taylor (and arranger Don Sebesky) when he left Verve in 1967 and went A&M under the Taylor-made banner of CTI subsidiary that Creed had developed as part of the deal, lasting three years from 1967-69. In his last year, three albums would emerge under Montgomery’s banner, all using the classic formula of sweet strings being heard over, under, and around Montgomery’s single-note and octave melodies.

In Levy’s autobiography he describes the hit-making process in two different approaches. Early on, it was: “Wes would lay out what he wanted to do with a tune and Don would create an arrangement to fit.” Then it shifted. “Many albums later when Creed and Don suggested recording Beatles tunes, we had a slightly different challenge.” This altered approach was mainly because Wes didn’t know the music of the Beatles (songs like “Yesterday,” “A Day In the Life” and “Eleanor Rigby” were tunes that were obviously not from his generation) and so the process was basically reversed, where Wes would be given a tape recording of the songs to listen to for a while, and, after studying the contour of the melody and chord progression, send back an arrangement of what he wanted to play based in his insight, and the orchestral arrangement would be built around what he provided on his tape.

Under these unique circumstances, Wes had an uncanny ability to make this potentially difficult situation sound so easy. What was it about Montgomery that allowed him to perform so well under adverse conditions? I reached out to none other than his son, Robert Montgomery who offered a rare and personal thoughts about his dad’s ability to make magic in the recording studio.

Robert Montgomery

“That’s what made him special,” Robert told me. “One of the most outstanding things about his playing is that there was nothing that you could give him that he couldn’t put his touch on it to make it his own.” I probed further, asking about what his thoughts were regarding the change in direction toward pop music that his dad embraced during the A&M and CTI era. I wondered if his thoughts might reflect his own father’s views. His answer was insightful. “The biggest thing that people don’t understand is that music evolves in jazz…it started out as one thing, but it changed as time went on. It progressed, it evolved.” When asked to clarify his point, he said something incredibly revealing. “Well, it was gonna have to evolve. Now suddenly, you got smooth jazz. Where’d that come from really? That came from Wes.” I hadn’t quite thought of it those terms, but I had to admit, he had a point. “Think about it,” he said. “Who else was doing that with jazz guitar? Nobody was.”

The full weight of Robert’s comments suddenly began to sink in, and he further elucidated on the gift his father gave us. “How many guitarists do you know that can go in and give you all that at the same time? It’s classical music, it’s bluesy, it’s jazz. It’s R&B. He gives you all of that. He doesn’t take anything away, but he plays it within the composition that he’s given…not everybody can do that.” As we wrapped up the interview, I causally mentioned that A Day In The Life was my favorite album among those Wes recorded in that era. Robert’s voice lit up, as he enthusiastically exclaimed, “Yes! I agree! And there was a lot going on in our country at that time…but that ‘Day In The Life?’ Just the whole composition to me is about his whole life. And every instrument represents something that was going on inside him that one day of his life. That album, to me, represents a day in the life of Wes Montgomery.”

Robert Montgomery’s words totally corroborated the evidence I’d been gathering when I examined both Creed Taylor’s and John Levy’s attitude regarding those sessions. Nowhere in Levy’s book does he describe any hesitancy or reluctance on Wes’s part to fully participate and excel during the proceedings. Three albums were created in this manner, and they came in rapid succession: A Day In The Life, Down Here On The Ground, and Road Song represents the final trilogy albums of Montgomery’s career on CTI, arriving in the twilight of his life—he would be gone by June 1968. According to Levy, it was exactly fourteen months after Wes signed with A&M when he passed away.

During an interview with journalist Sam Yenigun for NPR News in 1999, Levy said of his relationship with Wes, “I just took care of arranging his bookings and arranging his travel and just before he died, set up his business arrangement for him, set up his music publishing, which has made more money for him since he’s dead than it did while he was living.” Henry corroborated the statement. “Yes, it’s true–Levy managed their publishing companies! ‘Taggie Music’ was Wes’ publishing— you see it attached to all the original songs Wes wrote that were listed on the album credits.” Montgomery’s company was then and still is managed under the umbrella of GOPAM Enterprises, a collective for licensing, publishing, songwriting of all the artists on Levy’s roster.

This was one of the most thoughtful and selfless acts a manager can do—genuinely look out for his clients, and his forethought was incredibly helpful for Montgomery who had not nearly enough experience to know how to protect himself for the shark-infested waters that can sometimes be associated with the music business. When speaking about Montgomery’s career and his move to secure his client’s financial security, Levy stated, “that publishing thing has paid off for him. A lot of different people have recorded his material that he wrote during that era.

And I did the same thing with Cannonball and Ramsey Lewis, Ahmad Jamal, all of them. I set up that. That was one of the best things I did for them as a manager, for all of them.”

The Shape of Jazz To Come?

So, what’s left for us to hear? Might there be even more music untapped from the Wes well? “The ‘Half Note’ gig was six nights,” Henry reminds me. “There’s a whole lot more stuff that was recorded that still hasn’t been released yet—John was saving some of that stuff for later…it was a way to keep royalties forthcoming for years to come on behalf of Montgomery’s family.”

While Levy’s strategy has surely paid off, so many of us still cross our fingers in hopes for more great music to be unearthed, maybe by Resonance Records, a company that has never failed to produce unexpected and superior surprises on behalf of the Montgomery Estate. “When Verve got sold, they got the whole vault of Wes’s stuff that’s still unreleased,” Henry said.” I wondered aloud if there might be even more material unaccounted for. Henry didn’t hesitate to pounce on that question. “In fact, the Seattle gig (the Resonance Records release of Wes’ Montgomery’s Smokin’ In Seattle: Live at the Penthouse,1966 [HCD2029] was [almost] the same band…that gig was also six nights!” Well, I guess that answers that question!

In closing, there is no better way to wrap to complete this side of the album without mentioning what I consider to be the most thorough and well-written biography on Wes Montgomery that currently exists.

The recent biography written by Oliver Dunskus, Wes Montgomery: His Life and His Music [Archtop Publications], was released in 2020, more than 35 years after the excellent Adrian Ingram book was published. Oliver’s book clearly benefits from Ingram’s work, but there is so much more—the organized structure and formatting of the contents in the Dunskus book makes it nearly impossible for any Wes fan to be uninformed about the complete trajectory of Montgomery’s career from start to finish. His dedication to keeping Montgomery’s memory alive is palpable, and this lengthy and exhaustive work was done with extreme care and attention to detail—he did it alone while in Dusseldorf Germany. It’s an absolute joyride from start to finish, and whatever blemishes or errors might be scattered throughout the numerous chapters are miniscule in comparison to the goodies that permeate the pages. For me, it was nothing less than required reading, and served as a mandatory handbook while I was doing the deep-dive investigation for this Part II of the Smokin’ At The Half Note article. I was so pleased when Dunskus reached out to me and offered compliments and appreciation for the Side 1 of this album, and I consider him a real friend.

I was even more thrilled when he shared a web link that confirmed the very thing that Henry Johnson proposed: Indeed, there absolutely is more Wes material out there! Dunskus informed me of an album that had eluded both of us until now—Wes Montgomery & the Wynton Kelly Trio: The Unissued 1965 Half Note Broadcasts. Released in 2013 by Jazz On Jazz [244555] label, it has previously unheard takes of so many of the tunes from the ‘Smokin’’ setlist we already know about, but extra bonuses include tracks 1-3 with none other than Ron Carter on bass (substituting for Paul Chambers) and Larry Ridley also subbing on bass (tracks 4-11).

What thrilled me even more was all the extra back-and-forth dialogue between Wes and the emcee/broadcast announcer Alan Grant for the gig the band performed on February 12 and 19, pre-dates the well-known Verve recordings. It’s always such a delight to hear Montgomery’s speaking voice, which is as silky-smooth as his guitar playing. The sound quality is inferior to the legendary Verve Half Note recordings, it’s still a thrill to hear the superbly sculpted solos flow freely from the fingers of Wes Montgomery. I can’t wait to hear what else is out there!

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Author Info: Dr. Wayne Everett Goins, University Distinguished Professor of Music (2015), is the Director of Jazz Studies in the School of Music, Theater, & Dance at Kansas State University, where he conducts big bands and teaches combos, private guitar lessons, jazz theory and jazz improvisation courses. He is also a prolific writer and published author many times over. For more detialed information please click here.


  1. Great article. I’ve been a Wes fan since I was 14, now almost 70 years of age. Many of those years it was just me, my guitar and my Wes albums all alone in my room determined to be the next Wes Montgomery. It didn’t take me long to discover there is only one Wes and will forever be only one. Now it seems like the whole world has jumped on the Wes Montgomery bandwagon. Glad to have the company.

    • Thank for the great comment Eygene and yeah…the Wes bandwagon still rolls…but better that than the alternative…:)

      Take care and keep on playing 🙂

      All the best.

      Lyle – Jazz Guitar Life

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