It was 1971. Nixon was in the White House, All in the Family made its small screen debut, and cigarette advertising was banned from radio and television.
Audrey Jackson didn’t know a thing about politics or television. She was an unknown Gospel signer from Statesboro, Georgia who was as poor as a wandering field hand, but had a set a pipes that could make the devil weep. She’d come to Florida’s Ybor City during a July whose swelter made the resident black folks long for a South Carolina plantation.
No one knows for sure when she met Johnny Colton, but according to legend it was love at first song on a Friday night on Ybor’s famed Seventh Avenue.
Johnny and Audrey were a star-crossed pair from the start. He was a poor street performer with a Fender strat across his back and a Pignose amp at his side. She was a passerby looking for work and was seduced by the allure of an ax man who could make any note bend to his will.
Audrey jumped into one of his sidewalk jams and almost made Johnny flub a note when he heard her sing. It was like God had personally blessed her voice with the burden of man. You could hear the power and emotion from two blocks away. Listeners flocked to Seventh Avenue just be closer to the source and get a glimpse of the earth angel who was belting out such ragged perfection.
Johnny and Audrey improvised twelve bar standards on that very corner to the delight of hundreds, and by midnight had earned enough money for a bottle of whiskey, a night at the Don Vicente hotel, and three hours of recording time, which Johnny promptly booked with Sleazy Sid Chambers at Chamber studios.
Sid, Johnny knew from experience, was a stickler for time and would’ve kicked John Lennon out of his studio if he didn’t pay for his session up front. Fortunately for Johnny and Audrey, the only thing Sid liked more than clean books was a good single malt, a weakness that played into Johnny’s strength when he won a bottle of the best whiskey in Ybor after whooping the namesake owner of Charlie Ray’s pool hall in a game of nine ball. The winnings would be enough to get Sid passed out or render him unconcerned with the time overage it would take to properly record ‘Let me Hold You.’
Sleazy Sid may have been sauced by two o’clock that day, but not from Johnny’s bottle. Johnny and Audrey recorded “Let Me Hold You” in a single take. They paid the scrupulous studio owner in cash and gave him the bottle of single malt as gesture in good faith.
No one knows for sure who the other cats who played on the record were. Dozens of limelight searchers have since claimed they were in the studio that day, but nothing’s ever been proven. Like so much of the early blues, the identity of the supporting cast is shrouded in fabled mystique. Legends don’t often involve a roll sheet.
Apparently Sleazy Sid found something more in the work of Johnny and Audrey than a mere day’s pay. When the police finally found him, his massive body was sprawled on the floor of his control room. Heart failure was ruled the official cause of death.
As the story goes, ‘Let Me Hold You’ was in the take up position on the console’s main reel, having been the last song Sleazy Sid would ever playback before his soul stepped off the face of the Earth. He had the bottle Johnny had gifted him in his hand and a smile on his face. The crusty man went happy, so the legend goes.
Johnny knew the recording of ‘Let Me Hold You’ was the couple’s future, a calling card to fortune. He had the dream planned in full. Once the world heard the seraphic sounds of his lover’s vocals it would melt just as he had. He may have been right, but the world at large never got the chance. Nothing comes easy with the blues, dreams included.
Johnny and Audrey never made it to Atlanta and Sire Records where the dream was supposed to begin with the recording of the full-length LP that would feature ‘Let Me Hold You’ as its first single. Just after crossing the border and heading north into Georgia, the duo was stopped by Jessup county’s sheriff department. Johnny was issued a ticket for driving with an inoperable headlight. That much is official and a matter of record. The true punishment was much more severe than the crime. Local members of the Ku Klux Klan didn’t take too kindly to a white man driving a black woman through their zip code.
The bodies turned up about a mile into the woods off of Highway 75. Johnny had been bludgeoned to death. Audrey was repeatedly raped before she met the same fate as her lover. The usual investigation ensued. A formality and an exercise in paperwork. Nothing more. This was the South in the early 1970’s. A backwards land whose climate would never fully adjust to society’s racial edicts, no matter how often they were televised.
Johnny Colton and Audrey Jackson were victims soon forgotten by a world denied of their talents. Sire records would release ‘Let Me Hold You’ in 1972 on a limited pressing of a thousand units to little fanfare and paltry sales. The label went belly up later in the year. Then came the fire at the label’s warehouse which would naturally be suspected of arson and duly investigated. Nothing would ever be proven, but the insurance claims would more than make up for the lost inventory, which included several hundred copies of ‘Let Me Hold You’.
This has been an excerpt from 'Midnight Blue' , a short story by Fred Smith (currently a work-in-progress) about a radio host who receives a request from a suicidal caller.
The song on the Soundcloud link (above) was recorded in a garage in Gainesville, FL by Audrey and Tim Reynolds sometime in 2003. It was never officially released.