King Snake Records, back-porch jams, memories of the chitlin’ circuit
How the small Central Florida city played a pivotal role in keeping blues music alive in the Sunshine State
Published: June 4, 2014
In 1980, the members of the Sex Change Band parted ways. Greenlee moved to a house in Sanford built by his grandfather, a celery farmer named Roy Frank Symes. That house – or more accurately, an apartment above the garage – would soon become the home of King Snake Records, a label that helped put Sanford back on the blues music map again. Greenlee started the label because he had formed a band called the Midnight Creepers, Mrs. Greenlee says, named after his old college band. He tried to get the band some attention, but quickly grew frustrated because he wasn’t able to get a recording deal. So he built his own recording studio and formed his own label. “He dedicated his label to the music he grew up listening to on WLAC-AM 1500,” Mrs. Greenlee says. “The blues and roots rock.”
King Snake’s first release was Root Boy Slim’s 1984 album, Don’t Let This Happen to You. But it was Greenlee’s dedication to the dying art of Southern blues that really helped King Snake make a name for itself. Over the years, King Snake helped dozens of artists, some of whom had given up trying to make records, get their music before audiences. In an obituary written about Greenlee and published on the website WilliamVanDyke.com, international blues star Kenny Neal talks about how Greenlee traveled to Baton Rouge, La., to try to convince him to make a record with King Snake. “He believed in me more than what I thought I had in me,” Lee said at the time. “You just don’t get people too often who come to you and say you have a special talent. He meant that and he knew he wasn’t going to get rich off it.”
Over the course of 20 years that King Snake was in business, Greenlee worked with dozens of well-known blues artists. He recorded with the likes of Noble “Thin Man” Watts, B.B. King drummer Tony Coleman, James Peterson, Rufus Thomas, Raful Neal, Ernie Lancaster and more. On some of the records he made, he’d get guest appearances from high-profile musicians including James Taylor, Greg Allman, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Richie Havens and Taj Mahal.
“Between 1984 and when Bob fell ill in 2002, he produced over 100 albums at King Snake,” Mrs. Greenlee says, sitting outside on the front bench of the garage apartment that used to be King Snake. She has since renovated the second floor of the studio into an apartment again, but on the first floor, all things King Snake are stored.
“Lot of good times were spent outside on this bench,” she says with a smile. “Lots of funny smells going on.”
Like many fans of Southern blues music, Fields credits Greenlee with creating a place where struggling musicians – some of whom had yet to be discovered and others who had been all but forgotten – could gather, connect and record. During the ’80s, he sought out authentic musicians from the era of back-porch jams and old-school dives, and he also uncovered some unusual talent. In the same obituary in which Neal talks about Greenlee convincing him to record again, saxophone veteran Noble Watts gives Greenlee credit for reviving not just his career, but the entire Florida blues genre.
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