Monthly Archives: August 2007

Summer break

Greetings all, I’m taking the week off. I wish I could say it was for a commensurate stretch of rest and relaxation in some distant locale. But, no, the deadline for another sort of writing project looms and must take precedence.

See you on Labor Day, though. And thanks for reading!

-Little Danny

Posted in Personal natter | 1 Comment

Everybody wipe out now

When they’re discussed at all, the early 1960s are usually derided as rock ‘n’ roll’s Dark Ages, the years when the hot guitar licks and sexualized strains of boogie and backbeat were subdued by an army of brylcreemed teen idols steering pop music safely back to Middle America.

It’s an unfair characterization. First, the Fabians and Frankie Avalons aside, there actually were a number of fascinating teen pop and R&B; productions particular to the time.

Second, and far more significantly, there is truth to the prevailing idea that rock ‘n’ roll in its original form fell out of commercial favor during the early ‘60s. But the spirit of adolescent musical fervor would remain very much alive in that time. The spirit had just reconfigured itself, stealing into the high school gyms, dancehalls and beer parties of the American landscape.

The Southern rockabilly front men, if you could find them in 1961, might be singing country in hinterland juke joints. Elvis was onscreen warbling “Blue Hawaii,” Little Richard had gone gospel and the Beatles were still pups. But from Tacoma, Washington and San Antonio to Minneapolis and Portland, Maine, every American burg had its young proponents of rock ‘n’ roll in the early ‘60s, its homegrown version of the Fireballs or the Champs. They were the combos turning out energetic, boozy covers like “Greenback Dollar,” “Tequila,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” and maybe a wild original or two. They took up the mantle of rock ‘n’ roll where the first generation had left off, taking their cues from a different lineage of musicians: the Isley Brothers, Link Wray and Wraymen, Bo Diddley, the Coasters, the Fendermen.

With saxophones, twangy guitars, matching suits, and a repertoire of party-friendly R&B; vocals and raunchy instrumentals, groups like the Ventures (“Walk, Don’t Run”), the Rivieras (“California Sun”) and the Johnny & the Hurricanes (“Red River Rock”) sprang from the demographic that would sustain rock ‘n’ roll for decades to come: the towns and suburbs of middle class America. It wasn’t as flamboyant perhaps as the first generation, but great rock ‘n’ roll, it turns out, was not in a state of hibernation in the early ‘60s. Not at all. It had just flown to the provinces.

Two or three years later, some groups might update their repertoires with the staccato guitar runs of surf music, that most stylized form of early ‘60s instrumental rock ‘n’ roll. Another year or two would pass and other groups might ditch the saxophones and buzz cuts altogether and, with any luck, transition successfully into the British Invasion. Some, however, seem to have always existed in a twilight zone of their own singular making. Like this week’s selections.

1. The Lincoln Trio, Shake Down (Fascination)
Fascination was a small independent label founded in the late ‘50s by legendary Detroit record impresario Armen Boladian. With only one other 45 (the similarly obscure and exotic “Garden of Eden,” also on Fascination Records) to their name, the whys and hows of the Lincoln Trio, however, remain elusive. The names in “Shake Down”’s writing credits can be spotted on several other Fascination releases, suggesting that Claude Howard, Jacob Davidson and Isidore Jacobs were Detroit studio songwriters and musicians that Boladian regularly hired.

They may been professional musicians. Or not. The guitar is muffled, the bass nearly non-existent: Boladian’s production technique is either sloppy or bracingly spontaneous, depending on the frame of mind. There’s a wonderfully dark and raw energy to 1960’s “Shake Down,” though. The kind of energy that says danger and drama. The kind of energy that’s impossible to recreate if you’ve had more than ten minutes to practice beforehand.

Armen Boladian would go on to form one of the great independent soul labels of the ‘70s, Westbound Records, home to the Parliament/Funkadelic aggregation, the Ohio Players and the Detroit Emeralds among other notables.

Boladian, strangely enough, has been in sampling and copyright law news in recent years.

2. The Crescents (Featuring Chiyo), Pink Dominos (Era)
The Crescents were formed in Los Angeles in the early ‘60s by Tom Bresh (guitar), Tom Mitchell (bass), Ray Reed (saxophone) and the mysterious Chiyo (guitar).

Bill Eucker (the writer credited for “Pink Dominos”) was a guitar instructor at Ernie Ball’s store and studio in Thousand Oaks, California. It seems likely that it was there that Eucker handed off “Pink Dominos” to the Crescents’ guitarist Thom Bresh, then a young pupil at Ball’s studio.

Idle speculation aside, the group’s second 45 was “Devil’s Surf” and, with a title like that, you pretty much knew what you were getting: a minor-key title laden with echo, crashing drums and exotic surf guitar riffs. On the other hand, no listener would ever have any idea what “Pink Dominos” were, which in turn meant that Chiyo and company could do pretty much whatever they wanted with it. And so they did, turning their studio time into a noisy, pounding workout that was popular enough with the part of America that did not suffer from migraines to make it a small hit in 1963.

The Crescents were like other early ‘60s instrumental bands during California surf music’s glory years, issuing a few obscure 45s before migrating on to other things with the advent of the British Invasion. The Crescents were categorically unlike any other such groups, however, in one way: Chiyo was female. This would make her one of the very few, if not the only, female guitarists in all of surf music, as far as I know.

The Crescent’s guitarist Thom Bresh is the son of legendary country singer-songwriter and guitar picker Merle Travis. Bresh, himself a renowned guitarist, has enjoyed a wildly varied career in television,
film and country music since a young age. He remains active in the industry today.

3. Ronny Kae, Swinging Drums (Band Box)
Session drummer Ronny Kae’s professional career began in his native New York City, but he’s more likely to be remembered – at least in his adopted state of Colorado – as the founder of one of Denver’s venerable music shops, Drum City (now
Drum City Guitarland).

Before Drum City’s beginnings in 1965, though, before the Louisiana Purchase and before, even, the signing of the Magna Carta. It was somewhere around last Ice Age, I believe, back with the wooly mammoths and glaciers and everything when Ronny Kae would be cutting a few feral records of his own. Sandy Nelson, Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine: there was precedent for session drummers who made successful pop instrumentals in the early ‘60s, but nothing could have prepared audiences for the hairy kinetic racket that is 1962’s “Swinging Drums.”

“Pink Dominos” may be primitive, but “Swinging Drums” is positively prehistoric. If the instrumentation of “Shake Down” is unorthodox, then “Swinging Drums” is avant-garde. Minimalist art or caveman curiosity? As with all the best early rock ‘n’ roll recordings, “Swinging Drums” must be considered both ways.

Band Box was a tiny Denver record label. Shortly after “Swinging Drums,” Kae would follow up with another lowbrow milestone, “Drums Fell Off a Cliff,” also on Band Box.

After a successful, decades-long run in the retail musical instrument business, Ronny Kae passed on in 1993. His sons Tim and Jason now run Drum City Guitarland.

Posted in Instrumentals/Surf | 20 Comments

1968: The R&B instrumental

It could be a jazz organist angling for a catchy original number to climb the R&B; charts. It could be a young six-piece combo who played together in their high school band and who were now letting loose with a funky James Brown-style instrumental workout. It could be a handful of session musicians stretching a recycled blues riff over the two sides of a 45 rpm record.

The sixties were the R&B; instrumental’s halcyon days. As well as encompassing every possible regional variation of the form, the decade’s R&B; instrumentals absorbed every new development in popular music from one end (e.g., Dave “Baby” Cortez and 1959’s “Happy Organ”) to the other (e.g., Eddie Bo with 1969’s “Hook and Sling”).

Stylistic developments and differences aside, the R&B; instrumental’s niche in the continuum of post-War music owes most everything to its live and spontaneously funky quality. This was much of its broader crossover appeal. The form did not set out to make history or invoke spiritual revelation. The typical R&B; instrumental sounded best performed in a club in the wee smoky hours, or rattling through the boozy din from a corner jukebox. Nor did it put on airs. A few beers, copies of “Green Onions” or “The Horse,” your turntable: an R&B; instrumental also sounded pretty fabulous in your friend’s living room.

If the R&B; instrumental was its own self-sustained phenomenon, then its rapid evolution closely followed soul music’s rise from rhythm & blues in the sixties. As soul grew ever funkier and ever more colorful, absorbing Latin and psychedelic influences with each passing year, its instrumental counterparts would do the same.

This week’s trio of selections falls somewhere in that overlap between the mod-styled thump of shingaling soul and the polyrhythmic surge of James Brown-style funk. Its instruments? Horns, of course, and the organ, which from the powerhouse churn of the Hammond B-3 to reedier Farfisa organ, was vibrating nightclub walls with peals of piercing electricity. Its look? Dark mohair suits, turtles, leather boots, the whole works. The net result? Pure discotheque dynamite.

1. Booker T. Averheart, Heart ‘n Soul (Soultex)
Memphis-style Horn stabs, dramatic changes, minor key vamping: with a few added lyrics “Heart ‘n Soul” could have been any number of ‘60s dance crazes. Were it not, of course, for its deadly, stony-faced sense of self-possession.

The Dallas/Fort Worth area, though never the hub of Texas R&B; that Houston was, still had its own vibrant club and studio scene. The independent Soultex Records, operated by local entrepreneur and guitarist Roger Boykin, was one of several musician-owned labels that served the area’s jazz and R&B; musicians.

In addition to being a airplane pilot, motel owner, local music promoter, Booker T. Averheart was a Dallas-based bassist, keyboardist and bandleader. A string of four late ‘60s 45s, all excellent, exemplified Texas’s gritty, funky strain of soul and R&B.; 1969’s “Heart ‘n Soul,” the follow-up to his “I Wanta Be the President,” would be the last 45 released the Soultex label.

Averheart passed on in 2004.

2. The Touch, Pick & Shovel (Lecasver)
The Touch, likely inspired by the success of funky late 60’s instrumentals like the Meters’ “Cissy Strut,” labored here under the assumption that America would also be mentally ready for the “Pick & Shovel” and its pure Cubist strains of organ. And clearly, America wasn’t, as the dizzying “Pick & Shovel” sank without a whisper. Led by the obscure session keyboardist John Frangipane, these were probably New York City studio musicians, but little is otherwise known about the Touch or how many Newports they smoked before knocking out this gem.

“Pick & Shovel” was released on New Jersey’s Lecasver label, circa 1969.

3. The Bobby Cook Quartette, Ridin High, Part 1 (Compose)
There is some evidence to suggest that the future free jazz guitar pioneer James Ulmer played on this selection, but there’s precious little information about either Bobby Cook, a Detroit jazz musician, or his quartet.

The several minutes that you take to listen to both sides of 1968’s “Ridin High” will likely be several minutes that you will later have a difficult time remembering. This is the hypnotic power of “Ridin High.” Both the Hammond player (presumably Cook himself) and saxophonist take solos here but you’d barely notice them – or anything, for that matter – for all of “Ridin High”’s surging forward momentum.

4. The Bobby Cook Quartette, Ridin High, Part 2 (Compose)
This is the first of two 45s that Bobby Cook released on the Compose label. (The second, “On the Way” and its flipside “Sister Lu,” is credited to Bobby Cook and the Explosions.) Compose was a tiny label run from Ecorse, Michigan, a town outside Detroit and home to another lost nugget of gurgling Hammond gold, the Organics’ “Foot Stumping.”

Posted in Jazz Obscura, Soul | 10 Comments

The Varitone Saxophone

History has not been kind to the dreaded Varitone saxophone.

What is the Varitone? It’s an electric saxophone, simply put, part of a broader post-War trend of oddball, electrified instruments and effects.

Except for a control box with visible knobs and switches, and a cable plugged in to a separate amplifier, the Varitone looked much like a regular saxophone, but like the electric sitar or the Mandocaster the Varitone was always more than just an acoustic instrument with an electric pickup plopped into it. The entire instrument was engineered around the placement of its electronics. (For a good technical overview and picture of the Varitone saxophone, check out this article.)

The Varitone’s effect is somewhat harder to describe. The sound was, if nothing else, original. The electronics of the Varitone allowed you to add echo and tremolo to the saxophone’s signal, but the instrument’s most obvious attribute was its sub-octave buzzing effect and curious, almost vocal-like overtones. You knew it when you heard it, I’ll put it that way.

Developed around 1965 by esteemed French instrument maker Selmer Company, the Varitone saxophone would first go into commercial production a few years later. Company management must have been encouraged when Chicago-based saxophonist Eddie Harris scored almost immediately with 1968’s “Listen Here” (hear excerpt here, watch great vintage footage here), a funky, Latin-tinged hit instrumental that featured the new contraption prominently. Harris, along with creating one of jazz’s biggest-selling hits with his 1961 jazz version of the Ernest Gold theme “Exodus,” would go on in the late ‘60s to be the Varitone’s staunchest champion. Themed albums like The Electrifying Eddie Harris, Silver Cycles and Plug Me In would be wild explorations of the instrument as well as some of Atlantic Records’ top ‘60s jazz sellers.

Unfortunately for Selmer, Eddie Harris – with a few other popular dabblers like Sonny Stitt and John Klemmer – would basically be the Varitone’s only popular champion. Jazz’s critical establishment has rarely looked favorably upon gadgetry, especially electronic gadgetry, especially electronic gadgetry that reconfigured an iconic jazz instrument like the saxophone. The record-buying public? They seemed intrigued by the Varitone, at least. It wasn’t psychedelic, exactly, just different. There was always something of the air of novelty that seemed to hover about the instrument, though. You might catch a glimpse of the Varitone on the occasional soul or jazz record, but by the late ‘70s, hardly a decade after its introduction, the contrivance was basically extinct.

Sonny Cox, Chocolate Candy (Bell)
Landon “Sonny” Cox was a soul jazz saxophonist who, with his trio the Three Souls (including organist Ken Prince and drummer Robert Shy), worked the vibrant Chicago club scene of the ‘60s. 1969’s “Chocolate Candy” followed several Three Souls albums for the Argo jazz label, and one album (The Wailer) under Cox’s own name on Cadet Records (Argo’s sister label). “Chocolate Candy,” which only appeared in 45 form, would be Cox’s final commercial effort.

Penned by hip freelance guitarist Phil Upchurch and produced by Chicago studio legend Richard Evans, this selection brims with the accessible earthiness and vamping rhythms so characteristic of ‘60s soul jazz. At its core this selection is pretty by-the-numbers soul jazz, actually, which I think was part of the Varitone’s initial appeal for a lot of the jazz saxophonists who dared pick it up. It changed anything, now matter how banal, into an instantly groovy situation.

Sonny Cox would later coach three Illinois boys’ high school basketball state champion teams.

2. Jerome Richardson, Soul Cry (Part I) (Verve)
A highly respected saxophonist and flautist, Jerome Richardson would release a handful of solo albums throughout a prolific life in jazz, but it’s mostly his career as a journeyman session saxophonist – working with everyone from Betty Carter and Charles Mingus to Steely Dan and Quincy Jones – for which he made a lasting mark.

3. Jerome Richardson, Soul Cry (Part II) (Verve)
Session pop and jazz work was good work if you could find it, and many a jazz musician indeed sought it out. Session work, however, demanded versatility, professionalism and – no matter one’s credentials – the willingness to make concessions to the latest trends. This would never be a problem for Jerome Richardson.

If jazz purists liked to decry to the Varitone in the ‘60s, then “Soul Cry” must have seemed like the apocalypse itself, a portent of the dark year when robots would walk the earth and technology taught its own metal self to get funky. From the guitar, piano and bass down to the Varitone (of course), the overdubbed flute, yes, and that unidentifiable whistle that imbues side two with a rare tea kitchen quality: everything on this obscure 1968 gem is electric.

Jerome Richardson passed on in 2000.

** And… now you can hear the unbroken edit of “Soul Cry,” courtesy of Mr. Fab from Music For Maniacs. Thank you sir! **

Jerome Richardson, Soul Cry (Parts I and II) (Verve)

Soul Merchants, For “Wes” (Weis)
Despite Weis Records’ distribution out of Memphis (courtesy of Volt Records), the Soul Merchants were another Chicago crew, their leader Eddie Silvers a veteran songwriter and saxophonist on the Windy City’s R&B; and jazz scene.

Like George Benson’s “I Remember Wes,” Kenny Burrell’s “Blues for Wes” and David T. Walker’s “Direction Wes,” this selection was one of a spate of tribute songs to jazz guitar legend Wes Montgomery following his 1968 death.

The lush strings, lilt of Latin percussion and Wes Montgomery-style “octave” guitar chording are all very easygoing and enjoyable here. Even with a brief, dramatic appearance of the Varitone, “For ‘Wes’” never drops its cool demeanor, though there’s still no obvious reason that such a lavish production would end after barely two minutes. Such vehicles would sometimes just succumb to the weight of their own hipness, apparently.

The Soul Merchants likely recorded and released this selection in 1969.

Posted in Jazz Obscura | 9 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.