Monthly Archives: January 2007

Walls of Sound

“Wall of Sound” is one of those descriptors that’s been tossed around for years in discussions of pop music. The phrase, though, is genuinely serviceable, referring generally to the ‘60s pop production style of erratic Los Angeles studio wizard Phil Spector – and those who sought to emulate him – and conveying something crucial about any classic Spector production: its physicality.

Even if you’re not familiar with his name or story, you’ve heard Spector’s handiwork. The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” all have that peculiar sense of physical, cavernous space.  You can almost feel the ground shifting during Ike and Tina’s “River Deep, Mountain High.”

Orchestrated and heavily engineered studio productions were nothing new to pop or rock ‘n’ roll or R&B in the early ‘60s. The history of commercial recording is often the history of producers wresting artistic control from the artists themselves.  The Wall of Sound aesthetic, however, set a new precedent for rock ‘n’ roll. Everything was subordinated to the producer’s art.

This week’s selections – while not Phil Spector productions themselves – were inspired by that ethos of grandeur. Singers were stripped of their backing bands, their voices becoming indistinct in a densely orchestrated mix. Guitar riffs were overwhelmed by echo. Bells rang out from distant rooms. For the Wall of Sound, the musician’s individuality and role in the creative process was deemphasized in a fundamental way. This, in the case of Phil Spector, is definitely not condemnation. He and his ‘60s protégés could be heavyhanded, overbearing megalomaniacs. But the Wall of Sound was conceived when use of technology like multi-tracking and studio echo was still innovative and full of experimental possibility. It was unashamed of its studio conception. It had no reason to be, either – it was a bold new form of pop.

1. The Date With Soul, Yes Sir That’s My Baby (York)
Jack Nitzsche was a quintessential West Coast studio man. He began his career in the Los Angeles of the late 1950s as an arranger and session musician, working his way into studio production and scoring a 1963 hit with the instrumental “The Lonely Surfer.” Having provided the arrangements for many of Phil Spector’s ‘60s sessions, Nitzsche also absorbed, at least initially, some of those grandiose Spectorian production sensibilities.

This group – the Date With Soul – was a studio project for Nitzsche, and it found him laboring in full Wall of Sound mode. His version of the enduring “Yes Sir That’s My Baby” is a distillate of the Los Angeles studio world: the voices buried in the chorus include, according to legend, Brian Wilson, Jackie DeShannon, and Sonny and Cher, amongst others. Soul vocalist Edna Wright sang lead, but this wasn’t soul, really – not even the polished Motown variety of soul. Slowness was used to great, dramatic effect here. Strings – another Nitzsche hallmark – descended in prismatic tones.

But no one else quite seemed to know how to handle this freakish new species of pop. “Yes Sir That’s My Baby” was passed along from record label to record label and released three different times between 1964 and 1967, with this version to be its last appearance.

2. Ruby and the Romantics, Your Baby Doesn’t Love You Anymore (Kapp)
Distinguished by Ruby Nash’s gorgeous lead vocals and – behind her – the sophisticated harmonies of the Romantics, Ohio’s Ruby and the Romantics were masters of smooth, romantic soul. 1963 hits like “Our Day Will Come” and “Hey There Lonely Boy” exemplified their style. Their lyrical fare was urbane, their productions jazzy and lush.

This 1965 jewel was produced and arranged by New York-based studio veterans Tom Catalano and Alan Lorber. Lorber was shortly to engineer one of rock’s most infamous cash-in campaigns, the “Bosstown Sound.”

3. The Flirtations, Nothing But a Heartache (Deram)
Eager for chart success and a more receptive audience, the Flirtations, an American female R&B vocal group, managed to find both in England in 1967 with the assistance of aspiring producer Wayne Bickerton. Bombastic in the best possible way, with crescendo after breathtaking crescendo of deep girl group harmony sound, their “Nothing But a Heartache” was a major UK hit and an instant sensation among the Motown-worshipping mods of 1960s Britain.  It would only later to be spoiled for these same souls after it appeared in a commercial for a popular fried chicken vendor.

Posted in Soul | 21 Comments

Promotional rescue

1. The Houston Post, Get With it (Pams Productions)
The basslines thump and the bongos bounce. “Get with it,” the voices exhort, “get with the Houston Post!” The mood is celebratory. A manufactured celebratory. But still – it’s celebratory.

If music is a reflection of the society that engenders it, then the Houston Post’s America was equal parts discotheque glamour and marketing pitch. Sure, the Houston Post was trying to sell more newspapers, but that’s only half the story. “Get With It” doesn’t worry itself with the Post’s expanded sports section or its new Washington office.

Instead, it advertises the broader idea of the Post’s get-with-itude. It’s classic branding, and the Post’s determination to be something more than just the first choice in newpapers for Houston suburbanites is obvious here.

The flipside of “Get With It” contains the instructions for a dance.  You can get a sense of how The Wink goes here. A little later here, too – you’re coming along nicely! Still, a little further alongeverybody ready to Wink? You think you are, but actually you’re still not quite ready to do the Wink. Finally, after more instruction, it all comes together here, sort of.

No one ever learned how to Wink. That wasn’t the point. Inventing a zany dance was the point. It was part of branding your product to the young and the hip in 1966.

Alas, the outreach never paid off for the Post. The paper eventually folded in 1995; the youthful demographic they so desperately appealed to grew up and started reading the Houston Chronicle instead.

A short history of the Houston Post can be found here.

2. Vox’s Wah-Wah Demonstration Record
This was a product demonstration record for the new Vox Wah-Wah guitar pedal, the device that quickly became the guitarist’s choice for sounding way groovier. The Wah-Wah would endure as one of pop music’s emblematic guitar sounds throughout the ‘60s, heard to sleazier effect as the ‘70s wore on. In early 1967, however, the Vox Wah-Wah was still an unproven commercial commodity. Likewise, the quarry here was not the average amateur teenaged musician but rather the business community, the music shops and suppliers and studios. They needed a little persuasion before stocking something ostensibly little more than a psychedelic do-dad.

If you can’t make it through the first four-and-a-half minutes of sales pitching, you can jump to the last bit, where everything is breezily wrapped up for us with the verve that we’re accustomed to.

Originally distributed on a laminate card to music shops that stocked Vox guitars and amplifiers, this selection has all the inevitable fidelity of music etched into cardboard grooves. The musician patiently demonstrating all of this for us is the California session guitarist (and inventor) Del Casher. There’s a good interview with Del here, where he reminisces about his involvement with the Wah-Wah pedal, Fender’s EccoPhonic Tape Delay/Echo unit, and a mysterious entity known as the Vox Ampliphonic Orchestra.

3. The Utica Club Natural Carbonation Band, The Utica Club Natural Carbonation Beer Drinking Song (RCA Custom)
Sadly, this garish discotheque existed only in TV commercials for Utica Club, once the proud “flagship” beer of the Matt Brewing Company.

An indispensable part of any Far Out scene is a balcony bar where characters from disparate moments in history could convene over a cold one.

Anything could happen at Utica Club. Paintings came to life. Waitresses slid down firemen’s poles. Octogenarians. Anything.

It was a spontaneous and strangely psychedelic fraternity that awaited you at Utica Club. As far as the music went, “The Utica Club Natural Carbonation Beer Drinking Song” was basically a post-“Incense and Peppermints” material that celebrated good-time, inebriated spontaneity. And why not hully gully your way over to the Wegman’s for a case of discount brew?

This selection was created for Matt Brewing Company by one of commercial music’s best-credentialed composers, the great Sasha Burland. Burland was also the brains behind two albums by the Nutty Squirrels, jazz cousins to Alvin & the Chipmunks.

“The Utica Club Natural Carbonation Beer Drinking Song” has been documented before at Otis Fodder’s music blog, the 365 Days Project. The discussion which originally ensued was instrumental in writing this post.

Posted in Miscellaneous Flotsam | 6 Comments

Organ safari

Rarely did exotic masquerade as authentic.  That’s part of what made exotica exotica: an odd minor key or flourish of African percussion here, some warmed-over Arabic melody there.

Exotica, in all of its post-War musical splendor, created an aura of mystery and taboo with only a vague musical relationship to the culture it simultaneously tried to evoke.  In the hands of Les Baxter, for instance, a composition described within an album’s liner notes as “Congolese-inspired” might otherwise have no audible connection to African music.  Being told that there was a connection was enough for many listeners.  All of this gets problematic, of course.  To so casually invoke the exotic is to invite old stereotypes about the “primitive” and a sorry history of Western ethnocentricism.

This week’s selections skirt the issue somewhat by completely transcending any geographic or cultural source of inspiration. That’s why I love the more obscure strains of exotica – even early psychedelia.  They maintained a basic degree of air-conditioned comfort for the sedentary daydreamer, but, in leveraging the idea of the exotic, musicians could paint with wilder, weirder strokes than they might have conventionally used.

Jimmie McGriff, Jungle Cat (Part 1) (Jell 502)1. Jimmie McGriff, Jungle Cat (Part 1) (Jell 502)
Philadelphia organist Jimmy McGriff, born in 1936, was one of the most successful organists of his generation.

Though rooted in gospel and blues traditions, McGriff was also a trendsetter.  His 1962 hit – an instrumental version of Ray Charles’s “I Got a Woman” – was a massive crossover success, a benchmark in the jukebox-friendly idiom that would coalesce in the ’60s as “soul jazz.”

Jimmie McGriff, Jungle Cat (Part 2) (Jell 502)2. Jimmie McGriff, Jungle Cat (Part 2) (Jell 502)
Exotic, Latin-influenced jazz from 1964, McGriff’s obscure “Jungle Cat” is an anomaly among his generally blues-oriented work, however.

McGriff is joined on “Jungle Cat” by his longtime guitarist Larry Frazier (with a stunning solo on part two) as well as his brother Hank (on bongos). Together they lurch forward into a thick, fetid gloom of studio echo, leaving it to the listener to decide whether they ever emerged again.

McGriff, a legendary, prolific career to his name, passed away in 2008.

Walter Bolen, Lion Hunt (Part Two) (Pick-A-Hit 101-B)3. Walter Bolen, Lion Hunt (Part Two)(Pick-A-Hit 101)
From July 10, 2011, an update.

A great pleasure to hear recently from Walt Bolen, who filled me in on the backstory behind “Lion Hunt,” as well as some of his own biography.

Walt Bolen, born in 1948, was raised in the San Fernando Valley, California.  His was a musical family, especially on the side of his mother, Alma Bowser Bolen (who was also related to pioneering bop pianist Bud Powell by marriage).

In addition to a Hammond A-105 organ at home, Bolen would grow up playing organ in the church, as well as participating in the San Fernando school system’s music program.   Bolen attended one of the few high schools in the area with a Hammond console, taking classes there under the supervision of Mrs. Thelma Becky, the school’s choir teacher.

“[I was] looking to gain popularity among my school mates and friends. Music was my way of doing that,” Bolen notes.  It was 1966, Bolen’s senior year at San Fernando High School, when he first wrote “Lion Hunt,” which was partly inspired by Les Baxter’s exotica standard “Quiet Village.”

Walt Bolen, 1966

Walt Bolen, age eighteen, 1966. From a newspaper article, image courtesy of Walt Bolen.

In 1966, Bolen and Adolphus Alsbrook – a veteran jazz bassist and arranger introduced to Bolen through his horn player friend Carl Smith – went into Los Angeles’s legendary Gold Star Studios to record.  There, joined by a drummer, and with charts written by Alsbruck, they used the Hammond organ to lay down the basic tracks for “Lion Hunt.”   Saxophone and guitar parts would be added by session players in turn.

In 1967, Los Angeles record producer and impresario Bobby Sanders released the recording on Pick-A-Hit Records, one of several labels he operated at the time.  Somewhat to Bolen’s surprise, the B-side of the single – “Lion Hunt (Part Two),” that is – was the same recording, only with dubbed-in lion sound effects, an idea that was entirely Alsbrook’s.

Bolen remained in the San Fernando area in the ensuing years, teaching music, playing lounge and club gigs, and making some (unreleased) home recordings. In the early ‘70s, Bolen and his friends Willard and Ernestine Stroud formed the Ar-Que recording company, for whom he released a strong 45 – “Breaking Out” b/w “Peace Chant” – in 1972.

Walt Bolen otherwise remained away from commercially released music until more recent years.  Bolen, who now resides in Antelope Valley, California, remains active in music to this day, returning to his roots and playing organ for his church.  He’s also released a CD of his own inspirational material – The Casting of Pearls – which is available at cdbaby.com or through his facebook page.  Please do check out more of Walt Bolen.

Many thanks to Walt Bolen for contacting me, and for the great conversation and great music.

4. The Living End, Jumpin’ At the Lion’s Gate (Bolo B-757-B)The Living End, Jumpin’ At the Lion’s Gate (Bolo B-757-B)
Like other regions, the Pacific Northwest had its own circumscribed rock ‘n’ roll scene in the twilight years before the British Invasion. Popular groups like the Kingsmen, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Wailers and the Sonics all emerged from the scene, honing their raucous R&B-infused version of rock ‘n’ roll on the Northwest’s club circuit and mixing it up with versatile, sometimes racially integrated, seven- and eight-piece horn combos.

If this selection’s flipside – a tight James Brown-inspired instrumental entitled “Skyride” – is any indication, the Living End were pretty typical of the scene. “Jumpin’ At the Lion’s Gate,” is another story. Part mod jazz instrumental, part go-go floorshow romp, the Living End didn’t necessarily set out to be exotic, but this still probably sounded pretty primal after throwing back a few Coffee Grogs fireside at Kona Kove.

The lone record by the Living End, “Jumpin’ At the Lion’s Gate” was released on Bolo, which, along with sister label Seafair, was one of the Pacific Northwest’s great indie labels.  (Sharp-eyed readers might remember another Seafair/Bolo 45 from this post.)   Released in 1966, it was also something of a symbolic endnote in the chronology of the early Northwest sound.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura | 13 Comments

Raga rock

There came a point in the mid-‘60s when pop’s cutting edge was culminating in a great blur of flowers, sex, drugs, and haphazard Eastern mysticism. And rock music, more than anything, was right there, the vessel of a new pop counterculture. If you couldn’t avail yourself of a sitar you made your electric guitar sound like one. Eastern spirituality was evoked, kind of. And lyrics were, depending on your state of mind, mystical, provocative, or just incoherent.

The Yardbirds had “Heart Full of Soul,” the Rolling Stones had “Paint It Black.” The Kinks did it with “See My Friends” and the Beatles, too, did it with “Rain.” There wasn’t anything authentically Eastern – Indian, Arabic, or otherwise – about this new sound in the pop charts. Nor was that really the point. I believe that most pop musicians generally understood their limitations, and understood, too, that – odd exotic modes and chords and Pentatonic scales aside – heavy amplification and psychedelic Eastern-sounding guitar solos belonged together in some sort of profound, predetermined way. It was kismet, in other words, and if someone somewhere was flashing on the Taj Mahal and blue clouds of hashish smoke, then so much the better.

1. The Off-Set, Xanthia (Lisa) (Jubilee)
The Off-Set were a popular band in mid-‘60s Brooklyn, recording their debut 45 as the Jagged Edge before renaming themselves for their second record, the stunning “Xanthia (Lisa).”

A peerless psychedelic dirge that bears some similarity to the work of cross-town compatriots the Velvet Underground, “Xanthia (Lisa)” would be the Off-Set’s last 45. However briefly, though, the Off-Set flourished in the atmosphere of 1966 pop experimentalism. Vocalist Elliot Ingber breaks into something that sounds like Latin two thirds of the way into the song, and when it came time for a solo, there’s the sound of a steel Zippo lighter slid against guitar strings. The Byrds had their 12-string guitar freak-out “Eight Miles High,” so why not try the same with Zippo lighters, communiqués from “the night wind,” and a metric tonne of reverberation?

The Off-Set were Drew Georgopulos (rhythm guitar and vocals), Art Steinman (lead guitar and vocals), Kenny Bennett (drums), Elliot Ingber (lead vocals), and Harley Wishner (bass). Check out Mike Dugo’s great interview with lead guitarist Art Steinman here (with the story of this recording) , and Steinman’s personal history and official site for the band here. Both features were used in writing this post.

Xanthia is a genus of nocturnal moth.

2. 1st Century, Looking Down (Capitol)
The 1st Century’s exact origins remain unknown. If the involvement of Don Nix (former Mar-Keys saxophonist and future blues songwriter) is any indication, though, “Looking Down” was a Memphis production, the 1st Century themselves a one-off group of studio musicians.

“Looking Down,” their only recording, features lyrics straight from a lost epilogue to The Doors of Perception, and the hypnotic propulsion of an unidentified stringed instrument. Whether oud, bouzouki, or otherwise, the real miracle of “Looking Down” is that this instrument had even worked its way up the Mississippi and into some corner of a Memphis studio, when, in 1968, it could finally be put to proper use.

Authorship credit here goes to Ray Stinnett, former guitarist for Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs (of “Wooly Bully” fame).

3. The Raves, Mother Nature (Smash)
In 1967, sometimes you needed your harmonies, organ, bass, and your guitars all to hang in the air and vibrate in sympathetic melisma with the East. In the process of doing so, the Raves generated this sublime psychedelic pop classic.

One of innumerable garage combos who released a few fine 45s in the 1960s and who’ve languished in obscurity since, the Raves’ blissful harmony sound is reminiscent of the era’s West Coast recordings. Their exact whereabouts a mystery, though, the involvement of A&R and production stalwarts Ron Haffkine and Jerry Ross on this 45, however, suggest that New York City was home to the brothers Jimenez.

Posted in Garage Bands | 16 Comments

The Now Sound

Beneath the racy exteriors of this week’s selections – the exotic chimes and flutes, the fuzztone distortion, the invitations to grooviness – beat the cocktail-tippling heart of an older generation. The work of veteran New York City and Los Angeles studio arrangers, composers, and musicians, they’re selections calculated to appeal to a set eager for relevancy and curious about – and wary of, too – current pop culture.

The Now Sound was just that. It did not suggest a whole countercultural lifestyle the way that, say, the more threatening strains of psychedelic rock music might.   The Now Sound acknowledged pop culture but kept it at arms’ length.  It could still fade into the background when necessary: the Now Sound accessorized.  In doing so, it unwittingly gravitated to the more commercial end of the American musical landscape, eventually finding its proper home in ‘60s soundtrack and television themes, advertisements, game shows, and your bachelor uncle’s living room.

1.
The Big Game Hunters, See the Cheetah (Uni)
This number, with its bouncy sex kitten insouciance, reclining bucket seats, and Zowie-Flute®, could turn the most sexless bachelor pad into a pulsating discothèque in seconds.

As Pop art as a Lichtenstein print or any Batman episode, “See the Cheetah” was written by Alden Shuman (composer of the 1973 soundtrack to The Devil in Miss Jones), produced by Dave Pell (veteran West Coast bandleader, musician, producer) and Russ Regan (ubiquitous West Coast A&R man), and arranged by our guy Mort Garson. It was a pure distillation of the Los Angeles studio world from the kind of session veterans who could sit down at a table in 1967 and rub their hands together and half an hour later records would be hurtling themselves into heavy rotation over at KHJ.

2. The Distant Galaxy, Blue Scimitar (Verve)
After the engineering fantasies of 1950s Popular Science-style articles and paranoid overtones of the early Space Race, the galaxy assumed more stylish tones in the late ‘60s. At least after watching Star Trek, you could reasonably assume that space was the place for a casual rendezvous. Not to mention those gleaming ensembles of mod, plastic-molded furniture. Think of the Distant Galaxy that way. None of this science business, just soothing light of the nebulae, a place to cool your head after, say, a night of Sake Bombs.

The Distant Galaxy was in reality the studio project of Don Sebesky, a composer and arranger best known for a fruitful series of collaborations with producer Creed Taylor. Their lush, commercial orchestrations for jazz artists were ubiquitous in the late ‘60s twilight of jazz’s mainstream currency. “Blue Scimitar,” which features Richard Spencer on soprano sax and the stinging fuzztone guitar of the young Larry Coryell, was taken from the 1968 Verve album of the same name, the first (and better) of two groovy, lightly psychedelic pop-jazz albums from Sebesky.

3. Marty Manning and the Cheetahs, Tarzan (Tarzan’s March) (Columbia)
Marty Manning was one of many New York City arrangers, composers, and musicians who might play the occasional jazz or pop date, or cut an album or two under their own name. Mostly, though, they toiled and made their living in the anonymity of their studio-bound pop, jazz, and soundtrack work. Manning, one of the busiest, is best known today as the creative genius behind 1961’s The Twilight Zone: A Sound Adventure in Space, a memorable one-off album of
outer space-themed exotic percussion, electronic instrumentation and wordless vocals that was loosely affiliated with Rod Serling’s television show.

“Tarzan’s March,” likely recorded around 1966 as a tie-in with the NBC television show, is something else altogether.  It would have made a lot of sense as an updated theme for some Dragnet or Perry Mason morality drama, marching forward with fuzztone guitars, organ, and a spirit of justice.

Posted in Now Sound | 6 Comments

New at the Lonely Beat:


A bit "Lotus Land," a bit "Key Largo," Dizzy Gillespie's "Rumbola" is rarely-heard side, recorded in 1954, and a lovely example of dark jazz noir in an exotic Latin setting.