Monthly Archives: November 2010

Señor Blues

It’s impossible to talk about jazz pianist Horace Silver without regurgitating the same plaudits that, in reality, are entirely accurate.  To begin with, Silver is a consistent and prolific composer with an enviable body of original material to his name.  Moreover, he is one of the giants of post-War bop piano, a sophisticated craftsman and highly influential trendsetter.  The elegant, stylized aspects of blues and gospel music that have infused his playing since the early ’50 subsequently informed the hard bop aesthetic that coalesced later in that decade, many of the musicians who’ve passed through Silver’s combos championing the style in turn.

But if it’s the infectious, earthy tones of compositions like “The Preacher” and “Sister Sadie” for which Silver is best known, it’s the dark, Latin-tinged and exotic side of his discography – compositions like “Song for my Father,” “The Dragon Lady,” “Safari,” “Tokyo Blues,”  “Baghdad Blues” and many others – that have made Silver, for me, a lasting favorite.

The influence of Cape Verdean folk music (Silver’s father came from the Portuguese-speaking Cape Verde islands off the West African coast) on Silver’s exotic strain gets a lot of citation.  In my opinion the extent of that influence is a bit overstated.  If anything, it was Afro-Latin forms – the early Latin bop experiments of Machito, Dizzy Gillespie and Chico O’Farrill, for instance, as well as the pervasiveness of and vogue for popular Latin rhythms like mambo, guaguanco and cha at the time in New York City – that informed Silver’s aesthetic in at least equal measure.

Either way, it’s one of his best-known Latin-derived recordings that gets the spotlight this week.  “Señor Blues” first appeared on Silver’s classic 1956 album Six Pieces of Silver.  It was recorded by some top-flight musicians, all borrowed from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers: trumpeter Donald Byrd, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, bassist Doug Watkins and drummer Louis Hayes.  And, crucially, it was one of Silver’s earliest Latin-inspired compositions.  The hypnotic melody, unusual time signature and perfectly balanced arrangement of “Señor Blues” exemplify everything appealing about Silver’s darker, more exotic proclivities.

Since its original release, “Señor Blues” has been recorded countless times, organically working its way into the Latin jazz repertoire as well.  It has also, perhaps more than any other Silver composition, inspired a fair number of vocal readings over the years.   The lyrics were penned by Silver himself, as far as I can tell, and are simple to the point of cliché, and not a bit ridiculous:

Señor Blues is what they call him
Way down Mexicali way
Señoritas fallin’ for him,
With the hope that he will stay

But somehow the image of the wayfaring lothario works here.  It fits the mysterious atmosphere of the composition beautifully, summoning the night, heartbreak and wild impulses all at once, transporting the listener to other, more tempestuous places.

Jeri Southern, Señor Blues (Capitol F4135)1.  Jeri Southern, Señor Blues (Capitol F4135)
Vocalist Jeri Southern was born Genevieve Hering in 1926 in the tiny northeastern Nebraska town of Royal.

A tremendous musical talent, Southern began classical piano training very early on.  Upon graduating from Notre Dame High School, Southern increasingly gravitated towards pop, and not long thereafter, jazz.  Omaha hotel residencies and World War Two Navy recruiting tours were followed by the inevitable move to the Chicago in the late ‘40s.  As her professional nightclub career gained momentum, it would be her unique singing – a talent that she’d only developed incidentally – that attracted the most attention.

Better club dates followed, and so did regular Chicago radio and television appearances, and so, eventually, did a contract with Decca Records.  Along with some excellent early ‘50s 78 sides for the label, her seven jazz-inflected Decca albums – from 1953’s Warm… Intimate Songs in the Jeri Southern Style to 1958’s Southern Hospitality perhaps best encapsulate Southern’s introspective style.  Southern had a gift for balancing control with naturalistic, almost detached, expressiveness – the result of which is a deep, very attractive sense of melancholy.  In addition to accompanying herself on piano, Southern’s Decca records also showed a notable penchant for unusual song choices – witness “Miss Johnson Phoned Again Today” or the exotic “One Day I Wrote His Name Upon the Sand.”

Jeri Southern

A representative publicity photo of Jeri Southern in the mid-1950s.

Southern’s Decca records proved her most commercially successful, giving her minor hits with “You Better Go Now,” “Joey” and “Fire Down Below.”  Several full-length efforts for Roulette Records in the late ‘50s were also of similarly high quality.

After relocating to Los Angeles in the late ‘50s, this 45-only version of “Señor Blues,” released early in 1959, would inaugurate a short-lived contract with Capitol Records.  And what a version.  With Bob Thompson’s orchestra providing thunderous, dramatic support, Southern is characteristically deadly here, exuding world-weariness and a cool sexuality.

Two full-lengths ensued for Capitol Records – both superlative efforts, again – but Southern, exhausted with the music business’s machinations, famously exited the industry at age thirty-six, in 1962, never to return.  In addition to penning the 1972 book Interpreting Popular Music At The Keyboard, Southern would live out her years as a vocal and piano coach in Hollywood.  She died in in 1991 from complications from pneumonia.

Bill Henderson with the Horace Silver Quintet, Señor Blues (Blue Note 45-1710-A)2.  Bill Henderson with the Horace Silver Quintet, Señor Blues (Blue Note 45-1710-A)
Chicago-born jazz singer Bill Henderson (b. 1926) took to show business at a very tender age, singing and dancing for local city Vaudeville-type theater and radio productions.  Like many of the post-War generation of jazz modernists, he spent time overseas during World War Two, entertaining in Europe as part of an Army Special Services company.  After the war, Henderson returned to Chicago to scuffle, resuming work in the music business in the ‘50s as a vocalist with an early incarnation of Ramsey Lewis’s jazz combo.  Again, like many jazz musicians of his generation, Henderson made his way to New York City, relocating there in 1956.

In 1958, Henderson made his debut recording with this, his very confident reading – and the first vocal original, I believe – of “Señor Blues.”   Along with Henderson’s distinctive baritone voice, it features the support of the Horace Silver Quintet, who are heard here two years after Silver’s original instrumental recording, this time with Silver, Louis Hayes (drums), Donald Byrd (trumpet), Eugene Taylor (bass) and Junior Cook (tenor saxophone).  Released only on 45, it sold fairly well for Blue Note Records, whose 45 discography remained widely popular in the jukebox era of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

This record would be one of several Henderson 45-only releases for Blue Note, and it demonstrates the rich, slightly rasping, blues-tinged croon that was his trademark.

Henderson’s career would be divided between Chicago and the East Coast over the next few years, with a series of solid and versatile bop-oriented albums for the Verve and Vee-Jay labels, dates largely made with different configurations of Chicago-based jazz musicians. (A 1963 Oscar Peterson session was a notable exception).

Bill Henderson

Cover for Bill Henderson's 1961 self-titled album on Vee-Jay Records. Image courtesy of GrooveCollector.com.

After time spent in the ‘60s as a vocalist with the Count Basie Orchestra, then still a touring juggernaut, Henderson settled in Los Angeles in the late ‘60s, where he pursued an acting career.   There were several jazz albums to his name for Los Angeles-based labels, along with some notable guest spots, but Henderson mostly supported himself with voiceover work and parts in television and film in the ‘70s and ‘80s, his recording and performance schedule slowing correspondingly.

Henderson, still currently living in Los Angeles, seems to have dedicated himself anew to his singing in recent years, with some notable East Coast appearances and a live album, 2008’s But Beautiful: Bill Henderson Live at the Vic, featuring the octogenarian vocalist sounding happily limber.

You can keep up with Bill Henderson at his website.

Rose Hardaway, Señor Blues (Decca 9-30893)3.  Rose Hardaway, Señor Blues (Decca 9-30893)
A now-obscure entertainer and vocalist, details about Rose Hardaway are meager at best.

Born in Arkansas in 1931, raised in Chicago, Hardaway’s name was best known in the ‘50s, when she spent periods in Detroit, New York City, London and Paris.  She seems to have carved a role in musical theater – not to mention a place in elite black entertainment circles – from the start.  At least in the early ‘50s, she was noted mostly for her fetching looks and her work in touring entertainment revues – as a risqué shake dancer, namely – the ups and downs of her personal life tracked obsessively by Jet magazine during the decade.

Rose Hardaway

1952 glamour shot of Rose Hardaway. Image courtesy of Vielles_annonces's extraordinary archive of Jet magazine scans.

At some point in the mid-‘50s, Hardaway seems to have begun concentrating more on vocal work, with ensuing appearances in touring shows and various musical productions.  In the late ‘50s, a handful of recordings also appeared.  Released in mid-1959, Hardaway’s “Señor Blues,” a torrid, vampy reading that betrays her theater sensibilities, would be the first, and best, among them.   Another Decca 45 (“That’s What We’re Here For b/w “What You Don’t Know Won’t Hurt You”) would follow, with a full-length album by Hardaway released in 1960 for the New York City-based Latin-oriented label Seeco.

That album – It’s Time for Rose Hardaway – was a solid pop vocal effort.  It would also be her last recording.  There’s little, almost drastically so, about Hardaway’s subsequent whereabouts.   She seems to have been beset by various travails at points in her life, however.  In 1952, she was picked up for drugs (along with pianist Erroll Garner) as well as cited independently as the “other woman” in the divorce proceeding between dancer Teddy Hale and his wife.  And in 1959, she was jailed for some combination of larceny and forgery, though in the short run this seems to have been inconsequential to her recording career.

There are more details, undoubtedly, but for the moment they remain untold, it being hard not to suspect that further personal and legal troubles contributed to her complete disappearance from the limelight.  I would love to know more about Rose Hardaway.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura, Latin | 3 Comments

’60s Jangle pop

One of the reliable axioms of commercial music is that every chart success will inspire a legion of derivatives.  In no way is this meant as criticism.  The pattern tends to get a lot of appreciation around here, the cycles of emulation and appropriation being one of pop music’s peculiar charms, especially when applied to the endless quantities of independently produced and created post-War American records.

The mid-’60s American garage band phenomenon?  A textbook example.  Thousands of local bands from the suburbs of southern California to the frozen hinterlands – inspired by the British Invasion and the success of the Beatles and company (and the wave of popular American bands like the Byrds and Paul Revere & the Raiders that followed shortly thereafter) – picked up guitars, compact organs and drums, and made some terrific music in the process.

A cumulative body of thousands of obscure, small-label 45s is their legacy, but, the occasional Nuggets compilation or indie movie soundtrack appearance aside, knowledge of these raw, sometimes brilliant and nearly always interesting recordings, especially the more obscure examples, is still largely consigned to the worlds of record collecting and fanatical music appreciation.  And within that rarified world it’s generally the rawer, hormonal end of the garage band continuum – the fuzz-guitar-wrangling, drum-bashing, girl-putting-down bands, the bands emulating the harder British R&B-based groups like the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Animals, Them, etc. – that dominates discussion.  (Which is not to discount the many American garage bands who produced unique and wildly inventive sides with no obvious antecedents.)

But this makes for a slightly skewed representation of what was actually going on.   While local teenage bands were certainly covering the Kinks and the Yardbirds with zeal, in nearly equal measure they were playing Motown hits and R&B dances, square AM pop, Dylan songs and protest fare – even jazzy numbers like “Comin’ Home Baby” or “Summertime.”  Anything, really, with some commercial antecedent or live performance potential – anything that lay within the musical reach of the average musician in their teens or early twenties, and that was a lot – might get the garage band treatment.

Which brings us to this week’s artists.  Not everyone could be, or wanted to be, Mick Jagger.   Inadvertently reflecting the flower-child innocence of West Coast sunshine pop, the harmony vocals, 12-string guitars and reflective, imagistic lyrics here favor sensitivity over the attitude and raunchy swagger that garage band collectors tend to cherish.  The selections are vaguely redolent of British groups like the Hollies and the Searchers (and the Beatles, too, in their chimier moments) and American groups like the Byrds, the Merry-Go-Round, the Beau Brummels and even, dare I say it, the Monkees.   And while their small label release, raw production qualities and teen combo aesthetic still conform to the typical garage band profile, these tracks lie at a poppier, prettier, more romantic end of the spectrum, and unapologetically so.

Lots of flowers, love and pretty things this week on Office Naps.

The Second Set, Picture Window (Raven OOS-2A)1.  The Second Set, Picture Window (Raven OOS-2A)
I feel pretty confident in declaring this a Pittsburgh-area record.  According to BMI publishing, the authors on both sides of the 45 are Alan Sirockman and Dennis Lash.  The Second Set recorded and released “Picture Window” in 1967, but, alas, investigative efforts on this obscurity pretty much hit the wall there.

Regardless, the stunning “Picture Window” exudes an attractive melancholy that’s peculiar to all of this week’s selections.  Additionally, its dramatically ringing guitar break stands out as one of the most effective non-solos, ever.

 

LD: A great thrill to hear recently from Alan Herod, one of the original authors (credited as A. Sirockman) and performers behind the long-mysterious “Picture Window” by the Second Set.  Alan took some time to kindly provide much-needed background information.

The Second Set were in reality based in the northern West Virginia town of Clarksburg.  The group originally formed in 1965 as the Mysterians, eventually changing their name to the Second Set to avoid confusion with Question Mark and the Mysterians, who were ascending the pop charts in 1966 with “96 Tears.”

A quartet, the Second Set’s original members included Dennis Losh (lead guitar and vocals), Dave Hood (rhythm guitar and vocals), Johnny Marra (drums) and Alan Herod himself playing bass and (occasionally) keyboards. Drummer Marra had left the group at the time of “Picture Window” and its flipside (“Walking Home,” another great original), replaced by Ron Marucca for the recording.

Befitting the lyrical introspection and musical ambitiousness that separates the Second Set’s 45 from the thousands of other mid-’60s garage band records, the group did play locally, but – accordingly to Herod – the bulk of the group’s material was original, and their following was correspondingly somewhat limited.

The group would record two other 45s, originals all – “Toward the Sea” and “Time,” along with “My Little Girl” – around the same time.  These two 45s, issued under the Mysterians’ name, would also see release on Raven Records, a label owned and operated by Herod and local deejay Lee Rhoades.   (The label, in its time, would also issue some other fine period rock ‘n’ roll, including 45s by local groups the Prodigals and the Esquires.)

Alan stills makes music, playing with his sons and several other musicians in the group Now & Then.  Many thanks again to Alan for the update and for this sterling examplar of 1960s jangle-pop.

The Revelles, Little Girl (Jim-Ko B-106) 2.  The Revelles, Little Girl (Jim-Ko B-106)
The Revelles were an excellent rock ‘n’ roll band from Chicago, a city whose suburbs already teemed with excellent garage bands in the ‘60s.  Clearly no slouches, the Revelles managed steady gigs, radio airtime and a handful of 45s in 1965 and ’66, despite a brief existence and a flurry of line-up changes.   (Their shifting roster reads like a who’s-who of late ‘60s Chicago-area rock, with future members of the Robbs, the Flock and the New Colony Six each doing time in the group.)

Their second 45 – 1965’s “You Don’t Love Me No More” – is well-known amongst garage collectors, and is pure mid-‘60s angst.  In my opinion, though, “Little Girl” is their finest moment, its swirling harmonies, chiming guitar parts and moody aesthetic bearing some resemblance to Saturday’s Children, the Revelles’ Anglophilic compadres from Chicago’s northwestern suburbs.  Written by the group’s lead guitarist and vocalist Bruce Mattey, the Revelles’ lineup at the time of “Little Girl” also seems to have included Bruce Gordon (bass and vocals, and another of the group’s mainstays) and Marty Pichinson (drums).

Released in 1966 on James Kolb’s Jim-Ko, a cool Chicago independent label whose short run included some local R&B, garage and psychedelic rock 45s, “Little Girl” would be the last of the Revelles’ four 45s.  (Oddly enough, “Little Girl” was re-released a year later by the Los Angeles-based RPR Records, and attributed to the Shady Days.)

Bruce Mattey performs with a new version of the New Colony Six out of Chicago these days, his “Little Girl” occasionally working its way into their live repertoire.

The Plum Beach Incident, Pretty Thing (Orpheum 4503) 3.  The Plum Beach Incident, Pretty Thing (Orpheum 4503)
NOTE: The story of the Plum Beach Incident has been updated here.

A Washington D.C.-area band, the Plum Beach Incident released this keen and gorgeous (again, unabashedly) gem in late 1968.

The group’s members included Art Morales (lead guitar and vocals), Dave Yarnell (guitar and vocals), Steve Crowson (bass and vocals), Johnny Smith (keyboards), Keith Edwards (drums) and twin sisters Karen and Sharon Theet (vocals).

Recorded in New York City, “Pretty Thing” was produced by veteran easy-listening arranger and composer Richard Wolfe, and released by Orpheum Records, a short-lived label operated by Bill Grauer, the founder of the great jazz label Riverside Records.

“Pretty Thing” itself was penned by the Brill Building songwriting team of Paul Leka and Shelley Pinz (whose best-known credits together include “Green Tambourine”).  Incidentally, Gary Lewis & the Playboys turned in a decent – though more commercial, and not nearly so haunting – reading of “Pretty Thing” for their 1968 album Now!

This would be only 45 to the Plum Beach Incident’s name, unfortunately.

Posted in Garage Bands, Psychedelic/Pop | 8 Comments

The Bee Gees’ “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show,” as recorded in a half-million gallon tank by David Paul

I make a rare detour this week to feature an extraordinary video, and to talk to its creator, David Paul.

The sour truth of being an obsessive music collector is that, like any addiction, the longer you feed it the longer it takes to reclaim those visceral moments of excitement that guided you into the habit in the first place.  I listen to thousands of new and new-old recordings every month.  Of those, only a few dozen will make it into any sort of permanent rotation in my life, whether it’s my physical record collection or my iTunes playlists.  And, of those, it’s only every few months that something really takes me out of myself for a bit, and that has me instantly and obsessively reaching to replay a recording.

This was one of those recordings.

In full disclosure I am a huge fan of the Bee Gees’ ‘60s pop records – “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man,” in particular – and I’m a big fan of the sound and effect of echo.  This recording has both.  But there are many great components of David Paul’s recording beyond mere acoustics and song choice.

There’s the lighting, for one.  Simple but dramatic – an unwavering luminescent globe bathes the performer.  There’s the tank.  It creates an utterly alien, unreal atmosphere, the vastness of its interior indistinguishable in the gloom but instantly obvious from the boundless echo.   There’s the performance itself.   The chords are basic, serviceable.  Here it is the human voice that provides the focal point.   Unrehearsed but clear, it soars high, playing off oceanic masses of gorgeous, decaying sound.

Like any memorable recording, this performance transcends its components, becoming an experience.  There’s the artfulness and drama of its setting, of course, but everything here breathes honest, spontaneous, solitary joy.  There is something heroic about the pure and stupendous sound that one person can create.

Well, it stirred me.  And there was obviously a good story in there.  So I recently contacted the recording’s creator – electrician and musician David Paul – to ask him some questions, to which he kindly assented.

LD: I’d love to have any biographical details about yourself, as well as about your musical background.
DP: Well first off Dan, I wanna thank you for your interest and taking the time to expose me getting tanked! Ha!

I live in Kansas City, Missouri, where I was born and raised.  I’ve always seemed to have a knack for playing music, as far back as a young child, when I learned to play guitar by ear and noodle on my grandparents’ reed organ. I played trumpet in elementary school and worked my way up to first chair, until circumstances forced us to sell it.  I never bothered to try and read music after that.  I always had a guitar around, though, playing old three-chord standards, you know, “Home On The Range,” “On Top of Old Smokey,” “Down In The Valley,” etc.  Around 1971 or ‘72, I got Neil Young’s album Harvest, and that really struck a spark in me – must have learned every song on that record! That’s when I took up the harmonica.  I bought about three or four harps before I got the right key to play “Heart Of Gold.”

Back in 1978, I took up the fiddle, and about six months later I was asked to join a local band named Denver Locke. That’s when I started playing professionally – full-time for about four-and-a-half years. We had an old 1959 Greyhound bus and toured Colorado, the Northwest and Canada.  I’ve been in and out of bands every since. My most recent venture musically has been with my good friend Harv Fitzer, a professor and guitar teacher at JCCC in Kansas. Harv got on a roll and started writing songs, and I’d throw in my two cents’ worth. We just call ourselves “Fitzer and Paul”. We currently have a song called “Stupidity” on Neil Young’s web site Living With War.  You can also hear some other stuff on our website or our myspace page.

Over the years, I’ve had to have a real job, so I make a living as a handyman, jack-of-all-trades, so to speak, master of none (same with musical instruments).  Over the last several years I have been an electrician, building control cabinets and wiring for these big train and ship engines with generators on them. Many small towns have their own power houses and use these to generate electricity for peak use and power outages.

Which brings us around to how I gained access to the big tank.

LD: Right – how did you come across the tank – and at what point did you realize “Hey, this would make an interesting place for a recording”?
DP: We were working in Belleville, Kansas at the city power plant, and right outside of the place the city was upgrading their water system.  We (Steve Payne, mechanical and electrical engineer and guru for Industrial Diesel Service, and a guitar picker in his own right) watched this half-million gallon steel tank being constructed from the ground up.

When it was finished and painted inside and out, they’d left the hatch unbolted, and we got the idea to take some instruments in there in the evening after work. With flashlight in hand, we proceeded to check it out.  The sound bounced around in there so much that we could barely understand each other when we tried to talk – simply mind-boggling.  Steve commenced to experiment with his guitar, and me with my mandolin, not really playing any songs in particular, just bouncing notes around. We only had cell phones and a digital camera as a means to capture the experience.

Well, once was obviously not enough, and as luck would have it, the tank went untouched (except by us) for a few weeks. We must have had a few hours of noodling out notes in there, but so far I’ve been too cheap to by any software to try and edit it down to something listenable.

LD: The Bee Gees’ song worked beautifully within the tank.  Were you a fan of the early Bee Gees in particular, or was “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man” a spontaneous choice, knowing that it was a song that would work well in there?
DP: Being born in 1958, I grew up listening to every Beatles album as it was released, and we (brothers) had the Bee Gees’ first album somewhere around 1968. It always struck me as a great album, and was very Beatle-ish sounding. Whilst working I would think about songs to try out in the tank, and then “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man” popped in my head. I remembered how it started out with that chant that sounded like it was in a big cathedral, and wanted to see how it sounded in there. The night I recorded it, I went in there alone with a flashlight, guitar, and Panansonic Lumix digital camera. Propped the light to where it shone on the wall, and set the camera on a paint can. Proximity to the microphone is fairly critical.  I later realized being too far away, your voice is indistinguishable, and too close, you lose the “big” sound.  As luck would have it, the camera was placed about right.

LD: Your singing and harmonizing with the guitar and echo was incredible, yet it feels spontaneous.  Had you already worked out the parts to the song?
DP: Well, sorta. I never could understand what the Bee Gees were chanting in that song, so I just made something up to fit. But it was the first time I ever tried to play that song, just prior to going in there, so the spontaneity seems apparent.

In hindsight, I probably would have left the last round out of the song, but I was having so much fun with it I didn’t want to stop!

LD: You mentioned “Within You Without You,” too.   Did you try any other songs in there?
DP: One night I had my fiddle in there, and the Beatles’ song “Within You Without You” came to mind.  I probably played that over and over for at least half an hour, having never played it before, until I thought I was happy with it. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t have the means to edit the sessions, so I haven’t posted any more “tank sessions” on YouTube yet.  If I remember right, I think I have bits of “Amazing Grace”, and some Moody Blues stuff on the fiddle, as well as lots of miscellaneous noise.

LD: And what was the experience of being and playing in the tank like?
DP: There was just such a magical feeling and sound inside the tank – especially when you turned off the flashlight… total darkness, only your mind’s eye at work. Every little sound was something new to your ears! It could be angelic, or to the other extreme. I wish there had been more time (and inspiration), and better equipment to really take advantage of the rare opportunity. We could have/ should have done so much more with it. And then, as usual, all things must pass, and the tank hatch was sealed, and filled with water, of which the town of Belleville now drinks.

LD: And then you eventually posted this to the Internet...
DP: Yeah, I’m glad I did. I am truly amazed and flattered by all of the comments and interest I have received from people around the world! For some reason, it has really had an impact on a few people. I love reading the comments, some of which are very humorous, and so far all have been quite positive. I wonder if any of the surviving  Bee Gees will ever hear it?

Thanks again to David for the interview and for his remarkable recording.  I would encourage anyone who enjoyed the video to leave a comment on David’s YouTube page (or here at Office Naps, too).

Posted in Miscellaneous Flotsam, Psychedelic/Pop | 4 Comments

Midnight in the Naked City

The common tropes of Asphalt Jungle, Peter Gunn, D.O.A., The Maltese Falcon, This Gun for Hire, Johnny Staccato and dozens of other classic crime and detective serials and movies are well documented.  Watching how certain motifs – the chase scenes, the smoky nightclubs, the femme fatales – get individually rendered and manipulated is one of the pleasures of Film Noir.

My favorite instrumentals tend to have some strong visual, atmospheric or cinematic component to them.  What’s so satisfying about the coded forms within film and television crime dramas applies to the corresponding jazz, pop and R&B instrumental music of the era.  Each finds expression in shared, meaningful motifs that are at once clichés, as well as things to be savored – the dark jazz of the nightclub scene, the galloping bongos of the chase through the streets, the sultry sax of the femme fatale’s entrance and so forth.

This week, as a sort of follow-up to some previous posts on the crime jazz and “suspense” instrumental phenomenon, we explore another favorite motif:  The solitude and quiet danger of the city.

One Man Against the World

It's one man against an unforgiving world this week on Office Naps. Image from the 1961 movie Blast of Silence, courtesy of the excellent Criterion Confessions.

This form owes a bit to “After Hours,” and a lot to the atmospherics of “Harlem Nocturne” and the brooding riffs of themes like The Naked City.  The visual analogue here is one of the cynical hero turning up his collar and disappearing into the night, or closing out an empty bar, the city’s loneliness, and his own isolation, rendered in the moody tones of the tremolo guitar and a lonely saxophone, a languid ballad marking the rhythm.

It’s one man against a corrupt, dangerous world this week on Office Naps.

Rusty Isabell, Manhunt (Brent 7006)1.  Rusty Isabell, Manhunt (Brent 7006)
A handful of 45s comprises pianist Rusty Isabel’s recorded legacy.

Born in Arizona in 1938, Isabell recorded his earliest sides barely out of his teens, allying himself early on with some of the central characters in Phoenix’s endlessly fascinating early rock ‘n’ roll scene (which I touch on here and here).  Starting in 1958, a brief flurry of wild rock ‘n’ roll songs and barrelhouse piano-driven instrumentals – often under the aegis of local Phoenix songwriter and guitarist Don Cole – would ensue for Isabell, including a 45 for the local Porter Records label (as Red “Hot” Russell), one for Capitol Records (as the Rio Rockers), and, following those, two more 45s that were picked up for release by the New York City-based indie label Brent.

This body of recordings was somewhat uncharacteristic of Phoenix in those years, often showing more of a Jerry Lee Lewis influence than the revved-up hillbilly and deep, echo-flooded guitar aesthetic that dominated the city’s early rock ‘n’ roll product.

Isabell’s most interesting sides tend to be his most atmospheric.  There’s the stupendous “Mexican Rock ‘n’ Roll” (with the Rio Rockers), for one.  And there’s this selection, his final 45 release.   Released in October 1959, “Manhunt” is perhaps the most uncharacteristic of them all, dripping with mood, ghostly laugh-cries and a downward, dirge-like drift.

There are rumors of a late ’60s live LP recorded in Las Vegas, but, following “Manhunt,” the Rusty Isabell trail becomes a bit difficult to follow.

Thanks to the Black Cat Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the liner notes to Bear Family’s excellent Rockin’ and Boppin’ in the Desert for the information.

Lem Davis, Lem Told Beethoven (Pattern 103B)2.  Lem Davis, Lem Told Beethoven (Pattern 103B)
Lemuel Davis, born in 1914 in Tampa, was a prolific saxophonist whose professional career took hold in the early ‘40s New York City jazz world.

Widely respected in his time, Davis honed his skills in the pre-War swing jazz idiom.  His peers in the ‘40s included some of the style’s most popular exponents.   Among others, Davis played and recorded with Billie Holiday, Rex Stewart, Billy Kyle, John Kirby, Joe Thomas, Eddie Safranski and, significantly, Coleman Hawkins and Eddie Heywood.  Davis would also occasionally record with his own band during these years.

It was a generation of musicians making an often uneasy transition to the radical new bop forms that were emerging in the early ‘40s, and Lem Davis would be no different.  Davis continued to gig with small jazz and R&B combos, and recording dates with popular bandleaders and musicians like King Pleasure, Buck Clayton, Joe Thomas and Bennie Green followed throughout the ’50s.   A far from ignoble fate – New York City was, after all, then at its apex as the world’s jazz capitol.

But the contemporary media spotlight would largely be accorded to the bop modernists henceforth, and perhaps Davis’s decrease in momentum was inevitable.  After some early ‘50s leader dates for the Prestige label, this 45 seems to have been the last release under his own name.  Written by obscure New York City-based composer and songwriter Maynor Steward, and released on the tiny Pattern Records label in the late ’50s, “Lem Told Beethoven” is of a piece with a lot of late ’50s R&B instrumentals.  But there’s some “Harlem Nocturne” about its tremolo guitar, too, and a whole lot of after-hours moodiness.   Like the unspooling introduction to some monochrome thriller, you can almost hear a narrator intoning in sotto voice.  The streets were dark with something more than night.

Davis passed away in 1970 in New York City.

Abie "Available" Baker, The Web (Laurel Lu-6001)3.  Abie “Available” Baker, The Web (Laurel Lu-6001)
A New York City-based bassist and bandleader, Abie Baker recorded prolifically in the 1950s and early ’60s.  That Baker’s recorded work occurred largely behind-the-scenes – even more so than Lem Davis – tends to obscure his name these days.

Baker first appears in discographies in the late ’40s, though I suspect his recording career extends at least back to the ’30s.  Likely born in the early part of the 20th century, biographical details are meagre, though his work as a bassist over the ensuing decade-and-a-half would include sessions for many of the era’s important R&B-oriented singers and vocal groups: Hadda Brooks, Steve Gibson and the Red Caps, Nappy Brown, Larry Darnell, “Big Mike” Gordon, the Four Fellows, Big Maybelle, Ethel Ennis, the Coasters, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Mickey Baker, Baby Boy Jennings and others.  Many of these sessions saw release on Atlantic and Savoy Records, two labels – Atlantic, especially – with impressive discographies of New York City R&B and jazz.   Baker, as further indication of his talents, regularly played alongside blue chip session men like Buddy Lucas, Sticks Evans, Al Sears, Bert Keyes and King Curtis.

There were also a few releases to his own name.   Baker’s earliest seems to be a 1949 single date as the Abe Baker Trio.  This 1959 selection, though, is perhaps the most interesting.  Released on Tony Sepe’s 45-only Laurel Records, a brief-lived New York City label (Baker would supply arrangements for a few other Laurel releases), “The Web” and its flipside “Moccasin Rock” are as pure a statement of creeping, end-of-the-rope anxiety as ever graced the two sides of a 45.

Interestingly, “The Web” can be heard punctuating moments of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, a wonderfully campy mad scientist flick that the Mystery Science Theater guys would later resurrect.

Also, Abie’s son Mickey Baker – who would achieve fame as part of the great R&B and pop duo Mickey & Sylvia, and for his considerable prowess as a session guitarist – is heard playing guitar on this selection.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Instrumentals/Surf, Jazz Obscura | 4 Comments

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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.