Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Middle East after hours, part two

In the first half of the 1960s, when this week’s selections were recorded, exotica hadn’t waned as a commercial or creative force.  And the Arabic world was one peculiar, and significant, branch of the exotica tree.   It was a branch informed by a limited, loose and now-quaint geographic and cultural projection that was fired in turn by pop culture, especially the Middle East of Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, Columbia’s various Sinbad movies, and a million other spy and swashbuckler adventures.

Even the ostensibly “authentic” National Geographic’s post-War construction of the Middle East, while well-intentioned, relayed a certain romantic exoticism.  This is not to suggest that the average American’s knowledge has gotten any less limited.  It’s just that the clichés have changed.  The image of the Arab World of the ‘50s and ‘60s – Hollywood and Madison Avenue’s in particular – was variously opulent, desolate and mysterious, a pleasure palace of sheiks, zaftig belly dancers, hookahs and silk and incense and candles.

Belly Dancer

Nothing but high Orientalist camp this week on Office Naps. Image cropped from cover of the 101 Strings' East of Suez album.

Every single one of these clichés would find its way into popular music in turn.  This was nothing new, obviously: one needn’t look any further than Ravel’s Bolero for musical antecedents.  There were ethnic field recordings and domestic releases of Lebanese and Egyptian pop (see Philips’ and Capitol Records’ International series, for one) to be had, of course, but for the most part the ‘60s proved some sort of musical peak for our cultural approximations of the “Orient,” from Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” at one of the decade to a lot of the faux-Eastern psychedelic rock (which is exotica) at the other.  And every imaginable version of “Caravan,” “Delilah” and the theme from Lawrence of Arabia along the way.  Even the extremely popular belly-dance LPs that nominally contained authentic music were packaged in lurid jackets that invoked every imaginable stereotype.

Most importantly, though, there were many, many glorious and gloriously obscure 45s that exploited the camels-and-caravans fantasy to the nth degree.  (See the Exotica Project for a number of these faux-Eastern gems.)    A fun post this week and a follow-up to this early dispatch as we explore few more of them.  Aqaba!

The Merits, Arabian Jerk (Bandstand USA BA-20165-A)1.  The Merits, Arabian Jerk (Bandstand USA BA-20165-A)
A white group from the Memphis area, little is known about the Merits, and nothing conclusive can be stated about either Wade Tillman (or Tilmon) or Carlton Reynolds, the authors of “Arabian Jerk.”

Bandstand USA was one of several subsidiaries of Goldwax Records, Quinton Claunch and Rudolph “Doc” Russell’s excellent label that, after Stax and Hi Records, did much to advance the region’s R&B and soul talent (including O.V. Wright, James Carr, the Ovations, and Spencer Wiggins, among others) in the mid-‘60s.  Also among the Goldwax discography are some country artist and garage band releases.  But nothing quite like 1965’s “Arabian Jerk,” an inspired, slinky example of organ-fueled casbah hokum if ever there was one.

Its flipside (“Please Please Little Girl”) is an odd thing lying somewhere betwixt garage band and Stax R&B outtake.  This seems to have been the Merits’ only 45.

Jack La Forge, The Cleopatra Kick (Regina R-284)2.  Jack La Forge, The Cleopatra Kick (Regina R-284)
New York City-based pianist, organist, composer and bandleader Jack La Forge was in his time fairly prolific.

Born in 1926, La Forge seems to have been foremost a businessman , though one with obvious inclinations for playing music.   His Regina Records, which he founded and operated, enjoyed a brief but busy run between 1963 and 1965.   Among the Regina discography would be good albums by jazz saxophonist Charlie Mariano, nightclub singer Frances Faye (to whom he’d once been engaged) and obscure singer Sylvia DeSayles (to whom he’d recently become engaged), along with some interesting girl-group, jazz, instrumental and R&B 45s.

But more than anything Regina Records seems to have served as a sort of outlet for La Forge’s own musical penchant – there are at least seven full-length albums of piano-based orchestral pops fare attributed to him (not to mention his first LP – 1962’s Hawaii & I – recorded for Purpletone Records, or his last – 1966’s Hit the Road, Jack – recorded for Audio Fidelity).   These albums have been largely forgotten.  It’s not that the stuff is bad – covers of hip fare like “Hit the Road, Jack” and “Comin’ Home Baby” are fun – it’s just that for the most part there’s none of the studio whiz-bang or stereophonic adventure that rescue this particular brand of easy-listening retread LP.

“The Cleopatra Kick,” from 1963, is the big, mod exception to that.  An original, with an electric harpsichord put to particularly deft use, the thundering arrangements and misterioso atmosphere here are provided in part by the great Don Sebesky, a studio man with his own proud legacy of now-sound-style grooviness.

La Forge died sadly early, stricken by a heart attack in early 1966 at the age of forty.

The Embers and Joe Mack Lackey, Alexandria (Newtime 513B)3.  The Embers and Joe Mack Lackey, Alexandria (Newtime 513B)|
A possibly-Philadelphia-based group who, after writing about them nearly three years ago, remain as elusive as ever.  Its flipside (“Burning Up the Airways”) offers no clues, and I’m still not entirely confident of the connection between this Embers and the Embers of “Peter Gunn Cha Cha” fame, to be honest.  And there may also be a connection to the Embers who backed Pete Bennett on his Booker T. & the MGs-inspired “Fever” from 1961.

Regardless of any tenuous links that can be drawn here, this thumpingly great selection, recorded in 1962, represents something that gets a lot of genuine appreciation around here: the continuous triumph of pop exoticism over authenticity.

Newtime was part of the Newtown family of record labels, which most famously issued some early 45s by Patti Labelle.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Instrumentals/Surf, Jazz Obscura, Latin, Now Sound, The Exotica Project | 1 Comment

Curt Boettcher productions

Curt Boettcher, ‘60s California studio wunderkind, belongs somewhere in a rarified constellation of pop music auteurs and true industry eccentrics.  His productions and arrangements, his compositions and lyrical bent, his gravity-defying voice occupy the more imaginative, cosmic end of ‘60s psychedelic pop.  His entire vision was a sort of peculiar and ephemeral manifestation of the hippie Aquarian ethos.

Boettcher’s earliest recorded work was with folk quartet the Goldebriars, a group he’d help found in 1962 while a student at the University of Minnesota.   A recording contract for Epic Records led to the group’s eventual relocation to Los Angeles, and their two full-length albums, both released in 1964, are if nothing else interesting artifacts, especially in retrospect, presaging the Mamas and the Papas’s sound and amply demonstrating Boettcher’s knack for unorthodox harmonies.

The GoldeBriars fell apart, but Boettcher’s contacts within Los Angeles’s folk music and industry circles, not to mention his growing reputation for innovative commercial arrangements, paid their dividends.   Studio handiwork as a for-hire producer and arranger – a venture consolidated in 1966 with industry insider Steve Clark and singer Victoria Winston as Our Productions – notably begat production duties on Tommy Roe’s 1966 hits “Dizzy” and “Sweet Pea.”  Among the impressive body of work created in a subsequent two-year period were also full-length productions and songs for Chad & Jeremy, Eternity’s Children, Tommy Roe and, perhaps most notably, the Association.  There were dozens of pop, rock and commercialized folk 45s on myriad labels, too, and these tend to be some of the more unusual and interesting of Boettcher’s oeuvre.  This week’s selections are but three examples.

Curt Boettcher, ‘60s studio wunderkind

A young Curt Boettcher (right) in the Columbia studios in 1964, during a GoldeBriars recording session. Image courtesy of GoldeBriars producer and New York City folk scenester Bobb Goldstein, who sits on the left.

Also among the 45s was a rare gem by the Ballroom, an ambitious male-female unit assembled by Boettcher in 1966, and a group that points logically to the next stage of his career.  Ever-increasing demand, and a creative relationship with A&R man and surf and hot-rod producer extraordinare Gary Usher, brought Boettcher on board Columbia Records as a staff producer in 1968.  There his sensibilities would reach some sort of celestial fruition with Present Tense, the first album by Usher’s pop project group Sagittarius, and especially Begin, the sole 1968 album by the Millenium, a bona fide eight-piece group, many of its participants drawn from the Ballroom and other Boettcher sessions.  Begin, co-produced by studio whiz and frequent Boettcher collaborator Keith Olsen, is the most lavish realization of Boettcher’s ambitions.

But I won’t belabor the more complicated details of his biography or his musical career’s finer points – the Curt Boettcher story and mythology are already well-documented.  In light of this week’s selections, it’s perhaps more helpful just to make a few observations about Boettcher’s aesthetic.

Despite some serious egomaniacal proclivities, Boettcher’s style – from his early GoldeBriars recordings to his final great work for Together Records, the brief-lived label co-founded with Gary Usher and Keith Olsen upon leaving Columbia Records in 1969 – remained consistent and steadfastly distinct.  An extremely ambitious presence, Boettcher occupied a different and somewhat curious psychic plane, one that found its outlet in his bigger studio productions.  Tracks like the Millennium’s “Karmic Dream Sequence #1” or the Ballroom’s “Spinning, Spinning, Spinning” are suffused with flowing layers of airy, ethereal harmonies, exotic instrumentation, studio echo and multi-tracking, tape loops and assorted electronic gadgetry.  There’s a fantastical quality to nearly all of Boettcher’s productions and compositions, too, distinguished by the soaring, somewhat awestruck vocals that he favored.

The effervescent sheen does not always wear well – the more upbeat side of Boettcher’s body of work is fey and lightweight to the point of treacle.  But among the darker, more minor-keyed pop are some otherworldly, unique and truly transcendent moments.   The selections this week are notable examples of the latter, and comprise some of my favorite Boettcher work outside of sessions with Sagittarius and the Millennium.

Those desiring more of an introduction to the work of Boettcher are advised to check out Sundazed’s deluxe Sagittarius and Millennium product, and Rev-Ola and Sonic Past‘s various releases of rare and unissued Boettcher-related material.

The Oracle, Don’t Say No (Verve Forecast KF5075)1.  The Oracle, Don’t Say No (Verve Forecast KF5075)
From an historical standpoint, the Oracle’s “Don’t Say No” is representative of a lot of Boettcher’s work created for Our Productions.  It’s representative of the lion’s share of Los Angeles ‘60s pop productions, for that matter.  Namely, there’s a kernel of a “real” group here – Louisiana native Terry Green  supplies the lead vocals on “Don’t Say No,” and he penned the flipside, too, the less-psychedelic but still terrific “The Night We Fell in Love.”  But there’s also a lot of assistance from Los Angeles’s omnipresent studio musicians.

“Don’t Say No” was recorded and released in late 1967.  Vocalist Green had only recently arrived in California from Lake Charles, where he’d left the Bad Roads, a raw garage band legendary amongst collectors for their searing “Blue Girl” 45.  “Don’t Say No” could hardly have been more different from the Bad Roads’ fuzztone and swaggering punk.

Created by Curt and Keith Olsen for their Mee-Moo Production partnership, the recording really pulls out all the stops, even by Boettcher’s baroque standards, a haunting opus of Indian instrumentation, electronic studio effects, cascading harmonies and blissful astrological vibrations.

The writer here is Ruthanne Friedmann, incidentally, who penned “Windy” for the Association and “Spinning, Spinning, Spinning” for the Ballroom, among others, and who enjoyed an interesting solo career of her own in California.

Action Unlimited, My Heart Cries Out (Parkway P-115-B)2.  Action Unlimited, My Heart Cries Out (Parkway P-115-B)
“My Heart Cries Out” is among the most obscure of Boettcher’s truly top-flight productions.   The recording was the work of an actual group, though again the Action Unlimited’s original sound is subsumed to a good degree by the mass of Boettcher’s psychedelic production.

The core of the group Action Unlimited was formed at Eastern Kentucky University as the Maroons.  By 1966, having changed their name to Action Unlimited, they were working in California to support Dick Clark, then current television host of Where the Action Is! Consisting, at least in part, of Kent Fox, Dave Osborn and Dewey Pope, the group – with the help of Dick Clark’s ties to Philadelphia-based Cameo-Parkway Records and the hustle of Our Productions manager Steve Clark – released “My Heart Cries Out” in 1966.

Ahead of its time for 1966 – ahead of its time, period – the shifting layers of sound here are textbook Boettcher.   A longing, deeply melancholic track, the tape-delay-treated vocals and instrumentation, one of Boettcher’s favorite studio tricks, work to especially great, hypnotic effect, seemingly pulsating into infinity.

The Action Unlimited would tour the West Coast and Las Vegas for a few years, but this would remain their only release.

Lee Mallory, Many Are the Times (Valiant V-751)3.  Lee Mallory, Many Are the Times (Valiant V-751)
Born in the Bay Area in 1945, Lee Mallory was a life-long guitarist, songwriter and vocalist.  One of Boettcher’s most simpatico associates, the bulk of Mallory’s recorded work was measured out in the late ‘60s, a legacy in no small part related to his collaboration with Boettcher.

Mallory as a teenager was drawn towards the folk music scene, then in full bloom, his skills as a performer honed in early performances in various San Francisco spots.  Like many Boettcher project regulars, Mallory first made the connection in Los Angeles, where he’d relocated in the mid-‘60s.  Mallory fell in quickly with Boettcher and Our Productions, lending his musicianship as a supporting player amongst the Boettcher session fraternity, and landing his songs with several Our Productions artists.

“Many Are the Times,” recorded and released in 1966, was Mallory’s debut single, and is a majestic expression of a Los Angeles folk music scene that was then emanating all sorts of interesting electrified, rock-inspired sounds.  Mallory’s voice and performance, though particularly riveting here, owe much to the shimmering, soaring drama of Boettcher’s production and vocal arrangements.

Mallory’s second Valiant Record 45, also facilitated through Our Productions, was released in early 1967.  It was not as strong, and neither of these two 45s went very far commercially.  Mallory’s work as a session musician continued apace, however, his talents as a guitarist and supporting vocalist finding their way into Boettcher’s Ballroom and Sagittarius productions and securing him a place as a core member of the group the Millennium. Millennium’s album Begin featured Mallory’s songs “I’m with You,” “Karmic Dream Sequence #1,” and “Sing to Me,” with more Mallory songs recorded for an unreleased successor to Begin.  After the Millennium dissolved, Lee’s association with Boettcher lasted long enough to log more session time for The Blue Marble, the second Sagittarius album, and to land a few songs on it, including “All That I Am Is Me” and the title track.

In the late ‘60s, Mallory joined the national touring company of Hair as a chorus singer and lead guitarist. Various projects with fellow Los Angeles musicians would follow upon his return, but the ensuing decades were generally less prolific for Mallory as far as recording went.  Returning to the Bay Area in the early ‘80s, Mallory remained a regular performer.  Mallory died in 2005 at the age of 60.

Rev-Ola’s That’s the Way It’s Gonna Be retrospective is a great place to hear more from Lee Mallory.

Posted in Psychedelic/Pop | 11 Comments

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