One of the most enigmatic figures in rock history, briefly a star in his early days with one national hit and other regional hits to his credit, all of which he wrote himself, many of them going on to have countless cover versions over the years. But it’s the tragic ending to his story with an improbable script that Hollywood would find too outlandish that provides the enduring interest his career long after his name otherwise would’ve passed into obscurity.

Born James Douglas Waynes in Houston, Texas in 1920 (or 1924), the musically gifted kid with a penchant for trouble may have – according to the man himself – trained as a commando during the late 1940’s. He was arrested in 1950, the same year he made his debut on Sittin’ In With Records, his second release in early 1951 reached #2 on the national charts and he seemingly was on his way to stardom.

With his unique voice, quirky rhythmic sense and colorful songwriting he was rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with in rock as his third single, “Junco Partner”, was something picked up in prison where it was a popular ditty of drug addicts. Though widely thought to have been based on a legendary Champion Jack Dupree song that formed the basis of much of New Orleans rock, the song actually has very little connection to that and seems to have been mostly created, or at least shaped, by Waynes himself and has gone on to be recorded by a wide array of big names.

All of his output on Sittin’ In With sold very well, especially around the Gulf Coast, but he received very little compensation for it and remained bitter about being ripped off the rest of his life.

From there he bounced to other labels, his most fruitful sessions coming for Imperial (as Wee Willie Wayne) where he scored another memorable song in the mid-50’s with Dave Bartholomew’s band, but stints at Aladdin and Peacock and other smaller labels produced no further hits and he returned to Imperial where in the early sixties he re-cut his earlier hit for the company in what was his last recording session.

It’s here that Wayne – who had long since dropped the “s” from his last name – falls off the map and conjecture overrides verifiable fact. What’s known is he had continued writing songs and was hoping for a comeback in 1967 when he witnessed a murder in Los Angeles and after initially cooperating on the case he refused to identify the accused killer and his erratic behavior raised eyebrows despite passing the polygraph regarding his account of the slaying.

Fearing he was being targeted by the mob while he stopped at a hotel to pitch songs to B.B. King, he fled after arguing with hotel clerk, then in the hopes of getting the police there for his own protection he threw a Molotov Cocktail on the hotel roof – before or after being shot at three times by the clerk. Taken into custody for arson and attempted murder he was pronounced legally insane as a paranoid schizophrenic when none of his claims – including of being a famous singer and songwriter – were believed or even looked into by the authorities.

Committed to a state mental hospital he continued making the same statements and still nobody took him seriously, having already been conditioned to believe he was delusional. Finally, after being locked up and drugged for seven years to “cure him” of his delusions his case for release came to a public defense attorney (whose full recounting of this tale absolutely needs to be read in its entirety).

Initially it was going to be shuffled through the court like everything else, but after meeting with Wayne – who exhibited every classic sign of craziness including saying he could dodge bullets because of his commando training and claiming to have a letter from President Nixon thanking him for his help in getting him re-elected – the lawyer’s curiosity was piqued and he began to check into some of the contacts Wayne had given him.

He was stunned when they all turned out to support his so-called “delusional” claims. The more he followed the trail, the more it showed that Wayne was telling the truth… the murder case he was a witness to, the music career, the back royalties owed him (Dr. John had just recorded some of his songs on huge selling records), even the letter from Nixon… all true.

The lawyer concocted a plan to win Wayne his freedom by going through the ordeal of a jury trial yet telling the judge and D.A. opposing him in the case that he was doing so just to have it over with, that he knew he couldn’t win and the outcome was never in doubt… it’d be short and no hassle for anyone.

Then once the case was underway he sprang the evidence which proved that Wayne wasn’t insane, wasn’t a danger to anyone and mostly proved that, once again, the criminal justice system is inherently unfair and incompetent, particularly when it came to black men.

Released in 1974 Wayne still exhibited signs of being… well, slightly crazy, using his BMI royalty check to pay a “mojo man” to remove a hex from him. He died in 1978… his songs, however, live on to this day.
JAMES WAYNE DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Sittin’ In With 573; August, 1950)
A mesmerizing atmospheric song that is more concerned with creating an aura than telling a story and with its lazy horns, chiming piano and sharp vocals it pulls it off with ease leaving an indelible impression on all who hear it. (7)

(Sittin’ In With 573; August, 1950)
As unlikely as it seems this daydream put to wax wherein Waynes fantasizes about having a private waitstaff in his home should he ever get rich is so disarming and hauntingly delivered that you can’t help but be captivated by his beguiling sincerity. (8)

(Sittin’ In With 588; February, 1951)
His lone national hit may also be his most easily accessible for while it’s got some of the quirky vocal touches he was known for, the arrangement is lean, tough and focused… it’s nothing elaborate but it sounds like a hit from the second it starts. (8)

(Sittin’ In With 588; February, 1951)
The far more typical structure of this song doesn’t suit the quirky Waynes, though he makes an admirable effort to conform, but this isn’t the kind of thing that will stand out even though all involved do a fair enough job on it. (5)

(Sittin’ In With 607; July, 1951)
The defining record of his career finds Waynes singing an off-beat tale of a drug addict in a fractured vocal pattern backed by distinctive overlapping rhythms that is like nothing else on the scene, yet all the more addicting for its unique qualities. (9)

(Sittin’ In With 607; July, 1951)
A rousing song with an eager and endearing vocal that has Waynes personality stamped all over it even as he largely defers to the hot band with a pair of scalding sax solos and a rolling rhythm that never lets up. (7)

(Imperial 5151; October, 1951)
Though he definitely embodies the sad and slightly bitter refugee from his place of birth, Wayne gives us reason to think he’s just overly sensitive as he offers nothing beyond some unfocused generalities about how he’s been mistreated while the band remains a neutral observer. (4)

(Imperial 5151; October, 1951)
A self-conscious attempt at a pop song, fairly well written but without the voice to croon effectively while the band is just as uncomfortable as Wayne is… though ultimately neither entity is as uncomfortable as the listener will be in trying to sit through it more than once. (2)

(Imperial 5160; November, 1951)
Though Wayne’s delivery makes this sound like one of his own compositions the story itself is not quite up to his standards and neither is the arrangement which falters after a nice opening, making this decent effort a relative disappointment. (5)

(Sittin’ In With 622; November, 1951)
A fairly standard story whose humor comes more from the premise and vocal delivery rather than the written lines and with a fairly uneventful musical track this exists largely on the still engaging persona of Wayne himself. (4)

(Sittin’ In With 622; November, 1951)
Though his performance rings true, the character he’s embodying here is far too weak to engender any sympathy and so we’re left with a decent sounding record with a simple rhythm track to bolster its appeal on a song that doesn’t resonate much. (5)

(Imperial 5166; February, 1952)
An endearing performance by Wayne who’s singing the praises of his older woman, though dancing around the reasons for it due to the moral code of the day, yet it’s easy to read between the lines especially with how eagerly the band is churning along behind him. (7)

(Imperial 5166; February, 1952)
Quite effective, but incredibly bleak, Wayne does his job in conveying the loneliness he feels after his baby leaves for reasons unknown to us, but as well done as it may be it’s hardly a hit sound and remains a maudlin listening experience. (5)