Monthly Archives: September 2010

Daughters of Yma

The inimitable South American vocalist Yma Sumac is one of the figureheads of ‘50s exotica, often if not always mentioned in the same breath as Les Baxter, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman.

And for good reason.  Sumac was exotica’s ultimate thrush and its much-needed female half.  Her music and album covers, like Baxter’s and Denny’s, encapsulated all that was at once breathtakingly evocative and ridiculous about post-War exoticism. The music – arranged and composed for the most part by maestro Les Baxter and Sumac’s husband-at-the-time Moises Vivanco –  was pure South American pastiche, an orchestrated fantasy of sun maidens and pasión and lost Andean cities and strings and flutes and percussion.

Yma Sumac, Voice of the XtabayAs with Denny or Baxter, Sumac’s album covers played a critical role in extending the fantasy. They featured the striking young Sumac, resplendent in precious metals and stylized native finery, poised mid-song amidst elaborately staged tableaux of Incan imagery and gorgeous orange and blue volcanic sunsets.  Usually there was the suggestion of fire.  Always there was an air of ancient mystery.

But it was her voice that was the singer’s immediate identifier and lasting claim to fame.  A shattering instrument that Sumac made to ululate, trill, groan, moan and swoop in a virtuosic exposition of sound and color, it was said to be four octaves, and hailed in its day as a revelation.  (Hear excerpts of “Xtabay (Lure of the Unknown Love)” and “Chuncho.”)

Yma Sumac, Legend of the Sun VirginIn no way did Sumac make for easy listening, though.  This is perhaps what distinguishes Sumac among exotica’s dominating figures, and what doesn’t get mentioned enough.  One didn’t casually put on a Sumac record the way one did with a Baxter or Lyman record.  Sumac’s voice was just too commanding, too jarring, too avant-garde to work as a background mood-setter.  Theater unto herself, Sumac exuded charisma and mystery and compelled listeners’ attention with something that was more sexual power than sexuality.   Furthermore, while a Les Baxter or Martin Denny made no particular personal claims on the imaginary lands they conjured, Yma boldly embodied those lands with her music and album covers – even if hers were hardly any more authentic.  The whole psychology of the Yma Sumac listening experience was different.

Sumac was first discovered touring the country with a South American folk trio in the late ‘40s.  Her first album, Voice of the Xtabay (Capitol Records, 1950), was a sensation, selling in the hundreds of thousands, her five or six subsequent albums also charting well.

The common line was that Sumac was a child of the remote high Andes, and a direct descendent of Incan royalty, though details of her biography have never been confirmed. Sumac’s diminishing public presence in the decades after her ‘50s heyday did little to refute the legend that persisted even up to her passing in 2008.   I’m not the first to suspect her biography was in reality somewhat more mundane.

But, still, there could only ever be one Yma Sumac.  Interestingly, there were some notable releases from other vocalists that do bear some comparison.  Jewish singer Bas Sheva’s The Passions is the famous, and probably best, example.  Leda Annest’s wordless Portrait of Leda and Sylvia Copeland’s Wild is Love are also cited.  But that guileless American habit of capitalizing upon others’ commercial precedent was for once subdued by the greater force of Sumac’s personality and sheer distinctiveness.  Though now utterly fascinating, and irresistible as a subject, at the time to try to sing anything like Yma Sumac was to invite instant, and inevitably unflattering, comparison.  For the most part those who would make like Sumac, this week’s exercises included, would remain a one-off phenomenon.

Note: These three selections can also be found at my new site, the Exotica Project.

Carmen Lesay, Sunset Mood (Kal K-602)1.  Carmen Lesay, Sunset Mood (Kal K-602)
Recorded and released around 1960, “Sunset Mood” is an obscure Les Baxter composition and a barely-disguised derivation of his own “Quiet Village.”

Obscure being the defining word here.

Easily among my top-ten favorite exotica 45s, “Sunset Mood” brilliantly incorporates many of exotica’s definitive motifs – its bird calls, vibraphones, flutes, etc.  Its flipside, a calypso-cum-samba, is also a Baxter composition, though not a terribly interesting one, even if it does include, as I believe it does, the ubiquitous Plas “Pink Panther” Johnson on saxophone.  It all makes me wonder whether Carmen Lesay (if there truly was a Carmen Lesay) was marketed as a “tropical” nightclub act.

The record’s production values and Los Angeles pedigree also lead me to think that other jazz-versed session musicians and Baxter associates – players like pianist Eddie Cano, percussionist Larry Bunker and guitarist Howard Roberts – may have been involved.  But, alas, that’s pure speculation.  Even the publishing company, Nemrac (Carmen spelled backwards), reveals or confirms nothing.

All leads run out early and fast with Carmen Lesay.

Bat’ya, Main Theme of Exodus (Chelan C-500)2.  Bat’ya, Main Theme of Exodus (Chelan C-500)
Compelling creative forces intersected to produce this gem in 1961 or ’62.

The two significant names here are Bat’ya, of course, and Bumps Blackwell, whose orchestra supported her on this date.

Robert “Bumps” Blackwell (1922-1985) was a talent scout, A&R man, songwriter, producer and arranger, a pioneer who helped lay the groundwork for Los Angeles as the pop music capitol of the ‘60s.   Though he’d remain a fixture within the Los Angeles music industry well into the 1980s, Blackwell’s name is most frequently associated with early rock ‘n’ roll and soul, and with his championing of Little Richard and Sam Cooke, specifically.

Bat’ya is by far the lesser-known quantity.  An Israeli-born, European-trained singer and performer, the one album to her name – Bat’ya Sings Great Israeli Hits – released on Frank Sinatra’s then-new Reprise Records in 1961, reveals little biographically about the singer.

Bat’ya and Blackwell’s collaboration is not as unlikely as it sounds.   Blackwell, a skilled musician and bandleader, had a hand in a number of contemporaneous pop, jazz and Latin dates, for starters.  But their “Main Theme of Exodus” still sounds like nothing you’d expect.  Released on Blackwell’s Chelan Records (a label he’d run off-and-on for over a decade), it capitalizes on the popularity of Ernest Gold’s 1960 Exodus soundtrack theme while sounding nothing like it or, for that matter, Bat’ya’s Great Israeli Hits album.  Abstract and otherworldly, Bat’ya is clearly channeling Sumac more than anything else here, summoning the dark spirits from other, more shadowy places.

The 45 – and the elliptical references to a certain Bat’ya scattered in the literature – do nothing in the way of revealing any details of her biography.  All of Bat’ya’s documented performances (including, I believe, a few television appearances) in this country can be traced to 1960 or 1961, which lead me to speculate that she did not settle in the states for long.  “Cyprus Wine,” this single’s flipside, is another atmospheric and jazzy nightclub original, its songwriting credit to Blackwell along with a mysterious “D. Elyagon” and “I. Miron” (whom I’d guess is Issachar Miron, writer of “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” and other Jewish folk songs) further compounding the mystery.

Sylvie Mora, Taboo (Verve V-10197x45 B)3.  Sylvie Mora, Taboo (Verve V-10197×45 B)
Subtler shades of Yma than this week’s other two selections but, still, they’re there.

In Mora’s hands, “Taboo” – possibly my favorite of many chestnuts by Ernesto Lecuona, that genius forefather of modern exotica – is given one of its infrequent, and one of its best, vocal readings.

Mora seems to have been a pop and jazz vocalist based, again, on the West Coast, but with just a few scant 45s to her name, I’m obliged to report that she too exhausts further investigation.

This selection, released in 1960, would be the second of Mora’s 45s for New York City-based jazz powerhouse label Verve Records.  Both this and her excellent first 45 (with recordings of favorites “Summertime” and ”Misirlou”) were recorded in Los Angeles in August of 1959 under the direction of the great West Coast jazz bandleader, arranger and composer Russ Garcia.  Aside from a 1975 45 on Columbia Records, for whom she recorded as Silvia Mora, these would form the extent of Mora’s discography.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age | 8 Comments

Early country rock

Country rock is largely, and probably accurately, identified with late ‘60s Los Angeles.

The new sensibility drew its earliest and most influential adherents from a variety of musical quarters and pedigrees.  In 1966 and ’67, when it first began to take shape, country rock was just as much open-minded country and bluegrass session musicians crossing over into the rock ‘n’ roll world as it was seasoned veterans from southern California’s commercial rock and folk-rock groups.  For the starpower it drew – the Byrds’ Chris Hillman and Gene Clark, the Buffalo Springfield’s Richie Furay and the Monkees’ Mike Nesmith – it was a rejection of the commercial and musical excess of Los Angeles, a return to serious musicianship and songwriting roots.

Its devotees, drawn together by the new sound and songwriting possibilities of this music, defined and refined the movement at shared gigs and impromptu sessions.  The proximity and participation of a group of adventurous, extremely competent young session musicians – their skills honed from playing in California country music epicenter Bakersfield – cannot be overstated here, either.  While many of the rock ‘n’ rollers were skilled instrumentalists, it was prodigies like Clarence White, Gib Guilbeau and Gene Parsons who could really play the pedal steels and mandolins and fiddles with authority, and who gave these early experiments a sense of gravitas.

Out of the initial organic collaborations, shared interests and connections came the records.  Though obscure releases by the International Submarine Band, the Gosdin Brothers and Hearts and Flowers helped to define the sensibility and sound of country rock, it would be would higher-profile releases like the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, from 1968, and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace Of Sin, from early 1969, that proved the movement’s defining, influential moments.  It didn’t hurt, of course, that the Michael Nesmiths and Chris Hillmans had prior industry connections, or that the major labels were relatively adventurous in the day.  Nor did it hurt that the session players’ ubiquity on these early records ascribed the nascent country rock a professional and unifying aesthetic.

This introduction glosses over many of the personalities, stories and individual contributions, if only for reasons of space.  Incidentally, country rock was a relatively ego-less and – at least from a commercial standpoint – uncalculated phenomenon. At least initially.  Its true believers formed more a diffuse movement than anything so self-conscious as a “scene,” and the form was defined more by its working relationships than its personalities: everyone seemed to know each other, if indirectly, and they sang, played and wrote all over each others’ records.  While charismatic newcomers like Gram Parsons helped galvanize the form, personalities and ideology were largely subordinated to the music.  It made a statement only insofar as to disavow pop’s excess.

A genuinely innovative music in its early days, its aesthetic, its emphasis on songwriting, its whole back-to-basics precept, proved attractive enough to sustain commercial interest.  There’s obvious irony in what country rock became, and the bloated decadence of the Eagles and a million imitators.  The fire gone, the music wasted and watered-down, the original players long out of the game.  So commercial music goes.

Doug Dillard & Gene Clark, Why Not Your Baby (A&M 1087)1.  Doug Dillard & Gene Clark, Why Not Your Baby (A&M 1087)
In early 1969, when “Why Not Your Baby” was recorded, Gene Clark and Doug Dillard were at interesting, though somewhat different, points in their careers.

The Missouri-born Clark is probably most familiar to ‘60s rock fans as the lead singer, songwriter, and founding member of Los Angeles folk-rock innovators the Byrds.  Having parted ways with the Byrds in 1966, Clark was, if anything, beginning a return to his country and songwriting roots, the increasingly experimental rock of the Byrds further behind him as decade wore on.  Doug Dillard, a virtuosic banjo player, also Missouri-born, had himself recently separated from the Dillards, a well-regarded Los Angeles group who’d started out the decade as bluegrass traditionalists but who’d been struggling without much support against the rigid formalities of the form.

As it happened, and as with many of this post’s musicians, Dillard and Clark’s paths had intersected several times previously.  The Dillards had already toured with the Byrds, and Doug Dillard, in addition to playing on Clark’s first solo album (1966’s Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers) had supported the Byrds live on several occasions.

Los Angeles was a smaller musical world in the late ‘60s.  Based on their acquaintanceship and shared connections, Dillard and Clark began informally writing songs together and playing with guitarist and future Eagle Bernie Weadon, then recently of Hearts and Flowers fame.  With allies at A&M Records (to whom Gene Clark was already under contract to as a solo artist), an album by the group – known now simply as the Dillard and Clark – followed in the summer of 1968.  The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark would prove, in retrospect, one of the earliest and finest of the Los Angeles country rock albums.

Between that and their second (and last) album together – 1969’s Through the Morning, Through the Night – Dillard and Clark would record one of the great lost pop singles of the ‘60s.  Joined by Leadon as well as Donna Washburn on vocals, David Jackson on bass and Jon Corneal on drums, “Why Not Your Baby” was something of a return to the plaintive melodicism of Clark’s work for the Byrds like “Feel a Whole Lot Better” or “Set You Free This Time.”  With its  minor key hooks and “Walk Away Renee”-style string arrangements, the song, though not typical of Dillard and Clark’s work, stands out as perhaps the best product of their collaboration.

Dillard and Clark would split later that year.  Though he’d never reclaim prior levels of visibility, Gene Clark – a somewhat fragile personality who’d never been entirely comfortable in the limelight – would continue to release interesting, sometimes brilliant, music until his passing in 1991.  Doug Dillard would maintain an active solo and session career in bluegrass and roots-oriented music.

Corvettes, Level With Your Senses (Dot 45-17283)2.  Corvettes, Level With Your Senses (Dot 45-17283)
With just two great 45s to their name, the Corvettes were an under-recorded unit.

It certainly wasn’t for lack of talent.  The group’s members shared backgrounds among some interesting rock and pop innovators.  At its core the Corvettes were two singer-songwriters and guitarists: Chris Darrow – previously with the unique Eastern-tinged group Kaleidoscope in New York City, and, more recently, with the jug-band-turned-rockers the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – and Jeff Hanna – himself a founding member of the Dirt band.   After the two parted ways with the Dirt Band in 1969, Hanna and Darrow would be joined by an acquaintance, John London (bass), himself an occasional session musician and songwriter who’d most recently logged time in the excellent Los Angeles folk-pop group Lewis & Clarke Expedition.   London’s friend John Ware (drums) rounded out the Corvettes’ line-up.

Together, the group represented that early subset of Los Angeles-based rock musicians making a return to more roots-oriented forms.  Even in 1969, when “Level With Your Senses” was released (produced by the group’s friend Micheal Nesmith), the Corvettes were perhaps still before their time.  The group was obviously confident with this transitional sound, though, their fine harmonies, slightly turned-on lyrics and the ringing electric guitars incorporated beautifully into a unified whole.

In short order, the Corvettes would be connected by Nesmith to the young Linda Ronstadt, who was then advancing her solo career, and for whom the Corvettes began work as a supporting group.  But the Corvettes didn’t gig much on their own, nor did their records’ release on the fast-foundering Dot Records help.   Finally, and perhaps fatally, Jeff Hanna left to reform the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  His subsequent replacement – omnipresent guitarist Bernie Leadon – was himself poached by the Flying Burrito Brothers shortly thereafter, and Ware and London followed the exodus, accepting Michael Nesmith’s invitation to join his country-rock outfit, the First National Band.  At a time when country rock was still a largely unproven commercial commodity, it’s hard to blame them for aligning themselves with the more established names.

It was the end, nominally, of the Corvettes, though Darrow himself would continue with Linda Ronstadt and a long career at the rootsier end of the California folk, country and pop spectrum.   Jeff Hanna, too, remained active as a player, maintaining a version of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in subsequent decades.

The Gosdin Bros., There Must Be Someone (I Can Turn To) (Bakersfield International BIP-1006)3.  The Gosdin Bros., There Must Be Someone (I Can Turn To) (Bakersfield International BIP-1006)
Though ostensibly the most “country” of this week’s artists, the Gosdin Brothers’ history, too, was intertwined with members of the Byrds.

The Alabama-born Gosdin Brothers – singers and string players both – were Vern and Rex Gosdin.  Vern joined Rex in Los Angeles in 1961, their voices and native talent landing them among the city’s nascent folk music scene, including future Byrd Chris Hillman’s bluegrass band the Golden State Boys.

An open-minded unit, connections made early on paid off with two higher-profile full-length releases.  The first album – 1967’s Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers – found them providing harmony support for the recently-solo Byrd Gene Clark.   The second, the brothers’ only album together as leaders, was 1968’s Sounds of Goodbye.  Both were marvelous efforts, and go well back-to-back, the former sounding very much like prime electric Byrds, albeit with a slight country twang (Byrds Chris Hillman and Mike Clarke both played on it, in fact, along with Clarence White), the latter a showcase for the brothers’ harmonies, songwriting and ongoing interests in blending country and folk-rock.

And, in between those two albums came several obscure recordings, including this sterling 1967 gem, the second of two 45-only releases for the Bakersfield International label.   The first 45, “Hangin’ On,” was a minor country hit earlier that same year.  Both 45s presaged the direction of their Sounds of Goodbye album.

“There Must Be Someone (I Can Turn To) was a notable release for several reasons.  For one, the session brought together the same young country and bluegrass studio musicians who played on so many embryonic southern California country rock records.  Guitarist Clarence White, fiddler Gib Guilbeau, drummer and guitarist Gene Parsons and bassist Wayne Moore all took part in the session.

Furthermore, “There Must Be Someone I Can Turn To” was recorded for and released by Bakersfield International Records, a label founded by talent scout, producer, singer and songwriter Gary Paxton.  The label’s ’67-’68 run of eight 45s capture both the energy of early California country rock and the superior talents of some of its supporting contributors.

Historicity aside, Paxton – who’d recently relocated to Bakersfield from Hollywood, and who is easily a chapter of music unto himself – was a sympathetic match for the Gosdins.  But I suppose it only goes to show the limits of open-minded country artists and their producers.  The early Bakersfield International experiments worked beautifully, and so did the Paxton-produced Sounds of Goodbye.   Likely they were, according to the old saw, just too country for the rock ‘n’ rollers, too rock ‘n’ roll for the country audience.  Highly-rated these days, none of the Gosdin Brothers’ early recordings would create much stir at the time.

Both Gosdins would retire from music not long thereafter.  Rex Gosdin passed in 1983.  Vern Gosdin, later nicknamed “The Voice,” returned to straightahead country music, enjoying a very successful career starting in the late 1970s.  He passed away in 2009.

“There Must Be Someone I Can Turn To” was notably covered by the Byrds on their Ballad of Easy Rider album.

Posted in Country, Psychedelic/Pop | 4 Comments