Monthly Archives: September 2007

Cinema funky

Just as its antecedents in the mid-‘60s had their sitar interludes and fuzztone atmospherics, the hipper cinema of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s oozed with wah-wah guitars, jazz basslines and funky backbeats. And why not? Whatever Tinseltown’s machinations, film had long been a dramatic and stylish medium, and its soundtrack composers were some of the coolest talents around. Movie and television scores afforded lucrative opportunities for a Lalo Schifrin or Henry Mancini to satisfy some serious interests in jazz and composition, if not to experiment with riffs from psychedelic rock or dark rhythms from funk.

Before funk became an obligatory element of every post-Shaft blaxploitation picture, though, before it became a cliché on primetime television fare like CHiPs, there were this week’s selections. Some of these were written for movies. Some of them weren’t written for the screen but wound up there. Some of these were versions of soundtrack themes that exceeded the original. At one end of town, circa 1970, there were serious young men with serious pedigrees from music conservatories sitting in studios with handfuls of annotated charts. At the other end of town, the poorer part of town, churning funk music spun out in endless iterations. And, in that planetary stretch in between, these selections happened.

1. Roy Budd, Carter (DJM)
Roy Budd was a British musical prodigy who began his professional career as a jazz pianist at the tender age of sixteen. It would be his later soundtrack work for movies like Kidnapped (1971) and The Wild Geese (1978), however, for which Budd would find his lasting fame.

Budd imparted a chilly minimalism to “Carter,” his theme for 1971’s Get Carter, a British thriller starring Michael Caine. One can run down the possibilities all day and still never account for how Budd managed, with only a motley ensemble of bass, Indian tablas, and electric harpsichord and piano, to create a tableau so perfectly redolent of both the stark landscape of northern England and of the gangsters who went shooting about there with characteristic disregard.

Budd passed on in 1993. He was forty-six.

2. Julio Gutierrez, Last Tango in Paris (Vico)
The great Julio Gutierrez emigrated from his native Cuba in the late ‘50s, pursuing his calling in both Miami and New York City with freelance stints as a composer, session pianist and musical director. Despite two very hip ‘60s Latin jazz LPs, Progressive Latin and Havana B.C., Gutierrez would never regain the stature he’d enjoyed in Cuba, where, in addition to leading the legendary Cuban Jam Sessions series, he’d been among his country’s best known modern bandleaders and composers.

1972 would perhaps represent the crowning year for the pornographic movie in its brief-lived moment of mainstream chic, and few soundtrack themes would better encapsulate its adults-only art-house cachet than Argentinean saxophonist Gato Barbieri’s “Last Tango in Paris.” 1972 would also mark one of the final years of Gutierrez’s recording career, but if his would hereafter be one of diminishing visibility, it wasn’t for lack of audacity. Other Latin bandleaders like Mongo Santamaria, Willie Rosario and Tito Puente would tackle Barbieri’s continental boudoir anthem, but no one else would inject it with the same groovily psychedelic flair.

Gutierrez died in New York City in 1990.

3. The Johnny Harris Orchestra, Footprints On the Moon (Warner Brothers)
British-born Johnny Harris first made a name for himself in the mid-‘60s writing arrangements for pop singers like Petula Clark and Jackie Trent. Later in the decade, Harris would produce and arrange sessions for Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdink, Shirley Bassey and other pop acts including the Flirtations. His career arc would also include turns in the late ‘60s touring with Tom Jones and serving as musical director for British singer Lulu’s brief-lived variety show Happening For Lulu.

We are not discussing a serious jazzbo or renegade experimentalist here. Harris’s, rather, was a professional kind of hip, a kind that distinguished itself as a turtleneck-and-beads-wearing young talent in the somewhat staid end of the British pop studio system.

While an ear attuned to the latest in the pop charts meant getting served with unenviable tasks like resuscitating Paul Anka’s career, it also afforded its share of fringe benefits. Like John Schroeder, Harris would release a handful of LPs and 45s under his own name. Albums like 1970’s Movements were uneven affairs, certainly, with polite, state-of-the-art covers of “Light My Fire” and “Give Peace a Chance” along with some more adventurous moments like the funky “Fragments of Fear,” “Stepping Stones” and this selection.

Inspired by the Apollo moon landings and subsequently used for the British ITV Network coverage of NASA’s lunar missions, “Footprints on the Moon” follows in the great tradition of Les Baxter’s Space Escapade or Dick Hyman and Mary Mayo’s Moon Gas, albums where the moon’s surface was imagined more as luminescent lovers’ playground than science’s new frontier. Each reverberating piano note of “Footprints on the Moon” seems to bring the listener one gravity-defying step closer to their astrological love destiny. Careful, Libra, your love investments will soon pay off, but watch for a calculating Capricorn to step across your earth shadow.

Since 1972 Johnny Harris has lived in Los Angeles, working mostly in television composition, most famously for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Wonder Woman.

(Thanks go to this site for much of the information on Johnny Harris.)

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura, Latin, Miscellaneous Flotsam, Now Sound, Soul | 7 Comments

Roscoe Weathers, pt. 2

(Ed. note: This is part two of a post about the great ‘60s West Coast jazz and Latin jazz musician Roscoe Weathers. Weathers is a recurring source of fascination for me.

Various bits, sub-factoids and dead end details have trickled in since first posting about Weathers in June of 2006, and I’ve worked them into the original post accordingly. The introduction from that post is quoted below. This week’s musical selections themselves are all new for Office Naps, however.

- Little Danny)

From Office Naps, June 5, 2006:

Part of it is the mystery. As far as I can tell, West Coast jazz musician Roscoe Weathers’s entire output consisted of ten 45 rpm records. Several online references place Weathers in the post-War nightclubs of the Pacific Northwest where, as a saxophonist and bandleader, he’d play with Bobby Bradford, Floyd Standifer, Warren Bracken and other young Portland and Seattle beboppers. At some point in the late 1950s, however, Weathers relocated to California. There he’d contribute to the 1958 album Stringin’ Along, an obscure West Coast jazz session led by Bob Keene. More significantly, Weathers would release a series of 45s on tiny Los Angeles labels, becoming something of a regular in the bohemian clubs and Coffeehouse of the Venice Beach scene of the ‘60s.

Then there’s the music. Hip and atmospheric, the records feature Weathers’s talents on flute along with his crack jazz combo. They’re great examples of the Latin jazz that flourished on the West Coast among West Coast jazzbos like Cal Tjader, Eddie Cano and Bobby Montez, a form that favored hip exoticism over the hotter, brassier style of New York musicians like Machito, Dizzy Gillespie or Tito Puente.

It’s both the obscurity and the quality of these 45s, three of them featured this week, which have spawned something akin to fascination on my part. It all leads, finally, to the question: just who exactly was Roscoe Weathers?

1. Roscoe Weathers Quintet, Root Flute (Cornuto)
This is Roscoe Weathers in his most straightforward jazz groove. “Root Flute” is still plenty atmospheric, though, with its walking bassline and Weathers’s trademark trilled flute creeping around in the space between
jazz noir and wayward Kerouacian fantasy. In any other life this would have been the nightclub scene in Peter Gunn.

“Root Flute” was, I’d guess, recorded around 1962 or ’63.

2. Roscoe Weathers Orchestra, The Bob White Bird (Etulf)
“The Bob White Bird” could almost pass for a record from Spanish Harlem, its energetic Latin piano chording and tempo reminiscent of mid-‘60s maestros like Hector Rivera and Eddie Palmieri. As with all of Weathers’s material, though, there’s always that unusual kink. The piano descarga vamping may be the spirit of Nuyorica, but the whistling and birdcall flute instantly pinpoint Weathers in the Pacific Rim of Martin Denny, Les Baxter and other patron saints of exotica.

Weathers is joined here by the young Alfred “Fred” Ramirez, a pianist and vibraphonist who is still very much a torchbearer for West Coast Latin jazz. (Ramirez’s more recent recordings, if you can find them, are highly recommended)

3. Joe Wilson with Roscoe Weathers Quintet, Lady Is a Tramp (Cornuto)
Born in Oklahoma, the baritone jazz vocalist Joe Lee Wilson was a committed musician from the very start, building a career in Los Angeles, Mexico, New York and, later, Europe and Japan. The ‘70s would be Wilson’s most high-profile decade, recording with avant-garde jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp (on 1971’s “Money Blues,” most famously), releasing a few well-regarded albums like Livin’ High Off Nickels and Dimes and Secrets From the Sun and singing with jazz luminaries like Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis along the way. Wilson was also a notable pillar of New York City’s loft jazz scene of the ‘70s, founding the infamous Ladies’ Fort near the East Village in 1973.

Before the dashikis and Afrocentric ferment of ‘70s New York City, Joe Lee Wilson would simply be known as Joe Wilson, though, an aspiring young jazz vocalist working the jazz clubs of Los Angeles and cutting obscure records. Here he invests this Rodgers and Hart warhorse with the mellow balm intrinsic to so much post-War California bop.

Joe Wilson’s stint with Weathers would be more than a one-off occasion. The two released another record, “Whistle Song” (on Protone Records, a sister label of Cornuto), and would often perform together at the Gas House in Venice Beach in the early ‘60s. (Thanks to Shanna Baldwin-Moore for that information.) In Lionelle Hamanaka’s 2001 interview with Joe Wilson, Wilson provides a few more valuable details about Weathers as well, recalling of Weathers that he was, surprisingly, a jewelry maker and that he’d previously spent time playing in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra (which would have been around 1943, when Henderson was cutting some sessions on the West Coast).

Posted in Jazz Obscura, Latin | 8 Comments

Detroit City

Any attempt to encapsulate the history of 1960s Detroit soul in a few meager paragraphs is destined to failure. A few items are worth noting, though. First of all, Detroit was one of the powerhouse cities, if not the powerhouse city, of ‘60s soul. Secondly, it’s impossible to talk about Detroit soul without talking about one label – the label – Motown Records.

It’s easy to forget, but Motown, for all its international scope and finishing-school philosophy, was still fundamentally a Detroit label. Its offices and studios were located in a residential neighborhood in west Detroit. Its staff and stable of singers, groups and session musicians were predominately assembled from post-War Detroit’s burgeoning African-American population – middle class, poor or otherwise.

No other Detroit soul label would ultimately succeed in recreating Motown’s success, of course. Few had a Berry Gordy at the helm, and few could afford either Motown’s business model or its top-to-bottom vision of production. Of the profusion of small, soul-oriented record labels that sprouted during the city’s ‘60s soul boom, few could afford not to be aware of the staggering popularity of Hitsville’s soulful groove, though.

It’s one of the great recurring patterns in America’s independent recording industry: Detroit begat Motown whose unparalleled success in turn begat many more Motown wannabes. First, there were the city’s dozens of recording studios, some housed in small commercial buildings, just as many in the converted residential backrooms and garages of Detroit’s west side neighborhoods. There was the network of innumerable personalities, too – the A&R; men, the producers, the DJs, the promoters, the engineers, the entrepreneurs as well as the singers and musicians, professional and amateur alike – who facilitated everything with varying amounts of scrupulousness.

Finally, there were the labels. Hundreds of them. D-Town, Impact, Inferno, Wheelsville, Soulhawk, Revilot, Marquee, Palmer, LaSalle, Wingate, La Beat, Karen, Thelma: the list goes on and on and on. With one eye cocked to the charts, however, all were ready to capitalize upon a pool of aspiring Detroit singers and groups not otherwise being serviced at Motown. Some labels, like Ric-Tic (with Edwin Starr’s “Agent Double-O-Soul”) or Golden World (with the Reflections’ “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet”) would enjoy bona fide national hits. Some, like Groovesville, might find a bankable singer in Steve Mancha who would consistently skirt R&B; success without ever scoring that breakout hit. Many, many other labels, the Temples and Enterprises, would barely endure past a single 45 release or two.

Thousands of ‘60s soul productions would come in time to constitute Detroit’s recorded legacy. Wheels turned, smoke billowed, soul records of the highest possible caliber rolled off the line. Careers were made and mishandled, dreams were summoned and smashed to bits. While it may be impossible to encapsulate the history of 1960s Detroit soul, its soul music, if nothing else, was an industry.

Thanks to the invaluable Soulful Detroit for much of this week’s historical information.

1. The Precisions, Such Misery (Drew)
The Precisions were a vocal group formed by Arthur Ashford, Michael Morgan and Dennis Gilmore on the Motor City’s west side, a neighborhood mecca for much of the city’s R&B; talent as well as the site of its densest aggregation of recording studios.

With a few obscure mid-‘60s singles on the prolific Detroit soul and R&B; label D-Town already to their name, the Precisions would go on to add young college student Billy Prince as a lead vocalist in 1967. This selection, the debut release of the reconfigured group, would be the first of five Precisions records on Drew Records, a label whose discography, as it turns out, only included other Precisions records.

“Such Misery” follows faithfully in that time-honored soul music tradition of rallying cries for the broken-hearted. Nothing new there. “Such Misery” is quite striking, however, for its drastic changes in feeling and tempo, its thudding drums and bass the colossal Yang to the celestial Yin of its vibraphone and graceful harmonies.

Two Precisions follow-ups, “Why Girl” and “If This Is Love (I’d Rather Be Lonely),” would enjoy moderate success on the R&B; charts. A move in 1969 to the nationally distributed Atco Records (part of the Atlantic Records empire) proved fruitless, though. The Precisions would fold shortly thereafter, theirs a not-atypical story of line-up changes, mismanagement and general vulnerability to an industry where singing talent was seen as the most dispensable part of the equation.

The Precisions reunited in the United Kingdom for 2006’s Prestatyn Weekender, performing, among other selections, “Such Misery,” “Why Girl” and “If This Is Love (I’d Rather Be Lonely).”

2. The Fabulous Peps, With These Eyes (Wee 3)
The Fabulous Peps, legendary in the ‘60s for their barnstorming showmanship and choreographed dances, were comprised of a trio of veteran Detroit tenor vocalists, Ronnie Abner, “Little Joe” Harris and Tommy “Storm” Hester.

Initially named the Peps, the group parlayed their live renown and reputation as popular exponents of the Impressions’ falsetto harmony sound into a few well-received releases on local labels like Thelma and Ge Ge in the mid-‘60s. Rechristened the Fabulous Peps, it would be at D-Town Records (with assistance from industry character and former Precisions producer Mike Hanks) that they’d enjoy their most fruitful run of releases.

By the time – 1967, I believe – the Fabulous Peps recorded their original “With These Eyes,” the mood of Detroit’s independent record industry was one of rapidly escalating excitement. Accordingly, details can get a bit hazy. The Fabulous Peps themselves were all over the place, recording more material in Memphis (with either the Hi rhythm section or the Stax rhythm section, depending on who you ask). Their three Memphis records would be released on another brief-lived Detroit soul label, Premium Stuff.

“With These Eyes,” from the same year, would be one of just three soul records on the brief-lived Wee 3 Records and, confusingly, the selection also appeared on yet another Detroit independent soul label, Wheelsville. It’s unclear how “With These Eyes” wound up on two Detroit labels simultaneously. These things just happened.

But for all the details that will likely forever remain obscure, it’s still easy to listen to “With These Eyes” and envision the excitement of the Fabulous Peps’ club show, the gravity-defying spins, flips and splits, the screaming call-and-response vocals, the impossible energy levels. It’s easy to envision that honest-to-goodness live weeping went along “With These Eyes,” for that matter. This was a group unafraid of pushing things to the brink.

Beset by mounting internal personal pressures, the Fabulous Peps would dissolve that same year, 1967, though several reunions would soon follow. Joe Harris would go on to greater fame in the early ‘70s as part of the Motown’s Undisputed Truth.

3. The Superlatives, I Don’t Know How (To Say I Love You) (Dynamics)
1969’s “I Don’t Know How (To Say I Love You)” is one of the highpoints of the Superlatives’ career, a discography which includes several other releases on Detroit’s tiny Dynamics label and, later, a lone 45 on Wal-ly Records.

This is a widely beloved track. Its classic soul harmonies, ringing vibraphone and rock-solid bottom end elicit approval throughout the wide, weird spectrum of soul fanaticism. (See recent appreciations at both Soul Sides and Funky16Corners.) Everything is groovy here – except that there is precious little information to be found on the Superlatives themselves.

The writer of “I Don’t Know How (To Say I Love You)” was not a member of the Superlatives, for instance. This was the vocalist Rhonda Washington, rather, who would later sing with the brief-lived female group Hot Sauce in the early ‘70s. Other Superlatives writing credits variously include J. Edwards, A. Lanot, G. Jones, J. Hendricks, T. Russell, and F. Robinson. Darius Moore, the arranger of “I Don’t Know How (To Say I Love You),” may have been a member of the group as well, but that’s nothing but naked speculation. Who were they? Hired songwriters? Group members? Both? Dead ends all.

This selection would prove popular enough that it was later picked up for distribution as one of the earliest releases of Armen Boladian’s nascent Westbound label.

4. The Gaslight, Here’s Missing You (Grand Junction)
Recorded for Marvin Figgins and Arnold Wright’s Gaslight label, “Here’s Missing You” was a fairly big-selling record back in 1970.

But personnel details for the Gaslight on this record are scarce, though they at some later point included vocalist extraordinaire Oliver Cheatham. Label information also connects the record to Detroit psychedelic funk artists Fugi and Black Merda, though their direct involvement here, if any, remains quite understated.

Several similar sweet harmony soul releases followed for the Gaslight on Grand Junction over the next year or two – and, a year or two after that, on Polydor Records – but none with the same commercial success as “Here’s Missing You.”

Posted in Soul | 9 Comments

Overhauling the British Invasion (part two)

(Ed. note: This is part two of a post about wild British Invasion covers by ‘60s American garage bands. – Little Danny)

1964. Why did it take the British Invasion to re-ignite rock ‘n’ roll – a musical form that’d percolated out of our own national consciousness barely ten years prior?

I think part of the reason is that we, as Americans, persist in our boredom with what has already been established within our own culture. We habitually prefer our own vernacular culture packaged anew and handed back to us from external sources.

Coming from the Beatles and their brethren, rock ‘n’ roll, as an external product, was sleek and stylized. But it wasn’t simply that the English groups sensed some new potential in ‘50s American rock ‘n’ roll where American remained only blithely ignorant to it. After all, there were any number of American teen combos and surf groups that sustained the exuberance of early rock ‘n’ roll into the early ‘60s (well before the Beatles’ stateside arrival). Regionally and nationally popular American groups like the Kingsmen, the Joey Dee & the Starliters, the Sonics, the Astronauts, Johnny & the Hurricanes, the Wailers, Challengers, Paul Revere & the Raiders and the Trashmen were effectively modernizing rock ‘n’ roll, much as their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic were doing.

But the British had long hair, bigger amplifiers, dark matching suits and, of course, accents. It was nothing so calculated, but if we’re talking classic corporate marketing strategy here, the British succeeded in re-branding rock ‘n’ roll where American groups couldn’t. And young Americans went crazy for it in 1964.

It’s easy to look at the British Invasion and consequently think the worse of the American imagination. Sure, the British had to reinvent rock ‘n’ roll for us before we’d take it seriously again.

Think about backyard wrestling and the Watts Towers, though. Think about early hip-hip DJing and homegrown YouTube spoofs. As long as there’s mass-produced culture, there’ll always be certain American individuals and communities who, knowingly or not, transform it into something more creative and more interesting. You can hear a similar process at work in this week’s selections. The ‘60s garage band phenomenon may have largely been America’s localized response to the British Invasion, but whether the Ambertones, the Mopp Tops and the Jagged Edge were, for all their cover versions, trying to summon a British affect is of little consequence. They’d still come out sounding as indelibly American as ever.

1. The Mopp Tops, The Kids Are All Right (Fantastic)
The garage bands of the sixties included plenty of young combos whose existence was measured in months rather than years. That was time enough to play the high school talent show, pool their money and issue one 45 in tiny quantity before college or the Vietnam draft ended the whole equation.

Other groups, like the Mopp Tops, would last a bit longer. The Mopp Tops were a popular rock ‘n’ roll combo, the kind with local fan clubs and local radio airplay, the kind that might open for the Yardbirds or Paul Revere & the Raiders when they headlined the local amphitheater.

The Mopp Tops’ was not an atypical history. Early in their career, numbers like “Flipper” found the Mopp Tops playing the kind of souped-up rock ‘n’ roll that prevailed at suburban high school auditoriums and campus bashes before the advent of the British Invasion. Five years later, the Mopp Tops would wind up stoned out of their minds for their final 45, “Our Lives,” a post-Woodstock, acid-rock testament to crushing volume. And, in between, the Mopp Top’s trajectory would include a few 45s of the classic teen garage band variety, like this version of the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” (hear an excerpt here).

What most distinguishes the Mopp Tops is that they were an integrated group from Honolulu, Hawaii. Here they imbue the “The Kids Are Alright” with the requisite amount of rasping fuzztone guitar and adenoidal teenage angst, evidence that all was not just luaus and long tropical farewells in our 50th state.

At the time of this recording (circa 1966), the Mopp Tops included Michael Payton (drummer) and Jessie Morgan (rhythm guitar and vocals), two of the group’s main songwriters. I’m unable to identify other Mopp Tops, alas.

2. The Jagged Edge, Midnight to Six Man (Twirl)
Like many other American garage bands, the Jagged Edge gravitated to the hipper and more aggressive British groups of the mid-‘60s, their tastes in cover versions favoring the Rolling Stones, Kinks or Small Faces over the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers or Dave Clark Five.

“Midnight to Six” is a mod anthem originally by the Pretty Things, a tough London R&B; group who took the Rolling Stones’ punky aesthetic to wildly ungroomed extremes in the mid-‘60s. This version of the Pretty Things’ paean to nocturnal hipsterdom is actually pretty faithful (hear excerpt of the original here and watch vintage footage here). Which is ironic, as any attempts at nightlife for the Jagged Edge probably meant creeping down the hallway after their parents had gone to bed.

This was one of a number of American ‘60s bands named the Jagged Edge. Nothing seems to be known about this particular permutation, though it can be reasonably inferred that their “Midnight to Six” was recorded in 1966, that zenith year of the garage band experience.

3. Ambertones, I Can Only Give You Everything (Rayjack)
The Ambertones were one of a number of popular local rock ‘n’ roll bands from Los Angeles’s Hispanic East Side in the sixties.

Groups like the Ambertones, Thee Midniters, Cannibal & the Headhunters, the Premiers, the Romancers and the Sunday Funnies were extremely versatile, striving to outdo each other with their showmanship and sets of impeccably matched suits. Even if their visibility was somewhat circumscribed by their community, the vibrancy of East Los Angeles’s music scene in the ‘60s meant that the Ambertones might regularly play before crowds in the thousands. Live, these groups’ repertoires were calculated to excite, and were dominated by arrangements of the latest R&B; dances, novelty instrumentals, and vocal group and Latin pop hits. There was also, of course, room for the occasional raw rave-up like “I Can Only Give You Everything,” too. Whatever it took to stir audiences into a frenzy.

This is the Ambertones’ version of the 1966 Them anthem. (Hear an excerpt here. Them was Van Morrison’s first group.) If you had a fuzzbox you were ready; thanks to its brilliant simplicity, “I Can Only Give You Everything” worked its way into many a ‘60s garage band’s repertoire. And, thanks to its instantly identifiable riff, “I Can Only Give You Everything” – even more than the similar “Louie Louie” or “Wild Thing” – managed simultaneously to capture adolescence’s euphoric swagger and its breathtaking stupidity.

Posted in Garage Bands | 10 Comments