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.
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!
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.
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.
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.