Monthly Archives: July 2011

Have guitar will travel

Much has been made of the classic Bo Diddley beat, the now-clichéd shave-and-a-haircut rhythm.  Popularized by Diddley, the beat’s place in rock ‘n’ roll was staked when his eponymous 1955 debut for Checker Records turned into a surprise success.  Affirmed early on in hits by Johnny Otis (“Willie and the Hand Jive”) and Buddy Holly (“Bo Diddley”), the Bo Diddley beat would be enshrined for good with the appropriations of the Rolling Stones and seemingly every other mid-’60s British beat group and American garage band.

Less is made of the sound of Bo Diddley’s guitar playing, though, and the specific raw, pulsating, electric beauty of it.  This is the factor that, for me, lies squarely at the core of Bo Diddley’s eternal appeal.  Before the Velvet Underground or Jimi Hendrix, few other rock ‘n’ roll guitarists – besides, perhaps, Link Wray – were so consistently, deliberately and gleefully moving the weird electric frontier of rock ‘n’ roll forward.

Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley, 1961, guitar hero as gunslinger. An appreciation of the pioneering guitar sound of Bo Diddley this week.

With their raw, trebly fidelity and cavernous echo and tremolo, Bo Diddley’s classic ‘50s and ‘60s recordings for Checker Records, like many of the blues and R&B records of post-War Chicago, crackled with electricity. Some of this was in keeping the studio production standards of the time.  More, simply, had to do with Diddley’s own tastes.

Different ingredients factored into Diddley’s proclivities.  As an artist he was clearly attracted to certain sounds, rhythms and, moreover, the possibilities of electricity.  In interviews he’s acknowledged early violin lessons, freight trains and influence of John Lee Hooker.   As a tinkerer, Diddley understood electronic technology, maintaining his own home studios, wiring his equipment and designing his guitars.

And, so, consequently, much brilliant music came from these predilections.  Bo Diddley’s recordings – percussive expositions of sustain, odd tunings, feedback, distortion and crashing reverb – weren’t necessarily accidents, even if they started out that way.  The instrumental interludes and workouts that lined Bo Diddley’s numerous LPs from the ’50s and ’60s are especially rich.  Guitar solos were treated as rhythmic breaks rather than individual clusters of notes; the break in a song like “Give Me a Break” became an opportunity for strange, percussive, awesome sound.  The hypnotic effects of repeated, overdriven chords and electronic noise were explored in different, otherworldly ways.  Drones and odd harmonics were generated and then incorporated into the logic of a song like “Back to School.”  The first ten seconds of“We’re Gonna Get a Married” highlights some of the most beautiful guitar tone ever.  And so on.

As an appreciation, this week we look at a few prime examples of ‘50s and early ‘60s R&B.  Listen for the guitars.  They’re overdriven, suffused in tremolo, echo and other early analog effects, they’re played with rhythmic gusto, with trance-like repetition favored over melody.  All three selections, to some degree, owe a debt to the experiments of our hero Bo Diddley.

Wilbert Harrison, Happy in Love (Fury 1047 F-1093)1.  Wilbert Harrison, Happy in Love (Fury 1047 F-1093)
Wilbert Harrison was the idiosyncratic vocalist, songwriter, guitarist and pianist best known for 1959’s “Kansas City” and 1969’s “Let’s Work Together.”

Identifying Wilbert Harrison’s orbit in post-War music is somewhat difficult, as he didn’t really follow any of the typical patterns of his R&B contemporaries; if any, his career and, in some small way, style were analogous to Fats Domino’s, though that’s simplifying things, too.  Despite countervailing trends and decades of commercial releases between the early ‘50s and mid-‘70s, Harrison never really reinvented himself or changed his style – his vocals always stayed low-key and curiously hypnotic, his productions charmingly nonchalant.

Wilbert Harrison

Wilbert Harrison in the early '60s. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.

Wilbert Harrison was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1929.  Following service in the Navy, Harrison settled in Miami for a spell in early ‘50s, where he’d pick up some of the Afro-Caribbean beat that later seeped its way into his recordings, and where his debut 45, 1952’s “This Woman of Mine,” would be released by the local label Rockin’ Records.  Harrison decamped to Newark, New Jersey, and a long, steady, consistent schedule of 45 releases would ensue for over twenty years, the best of them recorded between the early ‘50s and the early ‘60s, and these largely for two New York City-based labels – the R&B- and jazz-oriented Savoy Records and its late ‘50s upstart rival, Fury Records.

The Savoy sides were first-rate, at times presaging Harrison’s late ‘50s sound, but did little commercially.  Harrison’s stock soared upon his move to Bobby Robinson’s Fury Records in the late ‘50s.  His debut for the label was his version of Lieber and Stoller’s “Kansas City,” which topped the charts in 1959.   Driven by a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section, the single was an extension of the sound that Harrison had been developing, just sleeker and leaner.

“Kansas City” set the stage for many Harrison 45s that followed in turn.   To a certain extent that includes this selection, 1961’s “Happy in Love,” a Harrison original.  There’s the same loping rhythm and the expressive-but-slightly-detached vocals of Harrison.  Supported by an unknown group, there’s bit of a call-back to the echo- and tremolo-drenched guitars of a prior Harrison high-water mark, too, 1959’s “Don’t Wreck My Life.”   But the dual guitar work here is even more extraordinary, with a droning, ecstatic quality that is like little else from the time, Bo Diddley notwithstanding.   Surprisingly, the 45 has received little attention over the years.

Harrison continued to release 45s steadily into the mid-‘70s, for an array of mostly small independents.  There was some minor chart action, along with a few concessions along the way – 1963’s “Say It Again” featured girl-group-style back-up singers – but Harrison’s style – his vocals, his casual production sensibilities, his laid-back, shuffling rhythms – always prevailed.  A surprise hit came in the form of “Let’s Work Together,” a two-part single that reached the pop charts in 1969 and that was, with characteristic Harrison nonchalance, performed as a one-man band.

Harrison’s recordings tapered off in the mid-‘70s.  He died in 1994 in Spencer, North Carolina.

2.  Art Neville, Arabian Love Call (Specialty 656 5174)Art Neville, Arabian Love Call (Specialty 656 5174)
Born in 1937 into a famous Louisiana musical family, Art Neville’s decades-long career has largely been spent within the world of New Orleans rhythm & blues.  Neville remains active with a number of music-related project to this day, including some newer incarnations of the Meters, but he is perhaps still best known to the general public for his role in the Neville Brothers, an ongoing group formed with his younger brothers Charles, Cyril and Aaron in the late 1970s.

The Neville Brothers would ease comfortably into their role as national ambassadors for New Orleans music, but, earlier on, between the mid-‘50s and the mid-‘70s, Neville was, along with his brothers, situated on the vanguard of New Orleans music, absorbing R&B as it evolved through soul and funk, integrating the Afro-Caribbean tinge and syncopated rhythms of New Orleans, generating vibrant new forms in turn.

Art Neville

Art Neville in the '60s. Image courtesy of Red Kelly's mighty The B Side.

Art, though never as well known as his brother Aaron, can point to his own benchmarks in the national spotlight.   At one end, there was 1954’s “Mardi Gras Mambo.”  Featuring the teenaged Neville’s lead vocal, it was a big hit (and subsequent carnival oldies staple) for his group the Hawketts.  At the other end there was, perhaps most significantly, his handiwork as keyboardist for and founding member of the Meters, whose late ‘60s and early ‘70s hits “Sophisticated Sissy,” “Cissy Strut”, “Look-Ka Py Py” and “Chicken Strut” remain riveting, definitive moments of New Orleans instrumental funk.

Neville’s time between the late ’50s and the late ’60s would see a string of lesser-known New Orleans R&B and soul 45 sides recorded for several different record labels, among them Specialty Records and, later, Instant and Sansu Records.

Which brings us to “Arabian Love Call.”  Art Rupe’s Specialty Records, for whom Neville recorded this track in late 1958, would, along with several other West Coast labels, help get New Orleans R&B to the national market in the rock ‘n’ roll era.  Of the three different 45s that Neville recorded for Specialty, “Ooh-Whee Baby” and “Cha Dooky Do” were small novelty-oriented hits, but the third and best of these 45s, “Arabian Love Call,” represents something else entirely.

Recorded at the storied Cosimo Recording Studios in New Orleans, the session, in addition to Neville on vocals, included first-rate support from Roy Montrell (guitar), Frank Fields (bass), Ed Blackwell (drums), Allen Toussaint (piano) and Alvin “Red” Tyler and Rufus Gore (saxophones).  With its minor key, sly Latin rhythm and stunning, Diddley-esque tremolo guitar work by Roy Montrell, “Arabian Love Call” transcends its lyric, exploring all sorts of weird, resonating modes, its sound, like the best of such experiments, becoming almost psychedelic in the process.

3.  Marvin and Johnny, Ain’t that Right (Modern 45x947)Marvin and Johnny, Ain’t That Right (Modern 45×974)
An excellent ‘50s Los Angeles R&B duo, Marvin and Johnny were influential in the R&B market in their time, anticipating the sound of rock ‘n’ roll without ever enjoying much crossover success.

The singers responsible for Marvin and Johnny’s “Ain’t That Right,” were Marvin Phillips (b. 1928) and Emory Perry (b. 1931).   This was, in fact, not the first line-up of Marvin and Johnny – Marvin Phillips, at the duo’s core, would perform with several different “Johnny” counterparts at various points – but it would be the most prolific and stable of the duo’s incarnations.   (Further confusing matters, Phillips had previously anchored the duo Marvin and Jesse with R&B legend Jesse Belvin.)

Marvin and Johnny

Marvin and Johnny, from a mid-'50s promotional photo. Image courtesy of the great French music blog Roll Call

Transplanted Southwesterners both (Emory Perry was from Texas, Marvin Phillips from Oklahoma), both also played saxophone, working at one point alongside each other for popular Los Angeles R&B bandleader Richard Lewis in the late ‘40s.

Emory Perry officially joined Marvin Phillips after Marvin’s previous “Johnny” (Carl Green, with whom Phillips recorded “Baby Doll” for Specialty Records, a 1953 R&B hit) had left the duo.  Phillips and Perry would go on to chart with both sides of their “Cherry Pie” b/w “Tick Tock” 45 in 1954 for Modern Records, another big Los Angeles-based R&B label, and one of the several sister R&B labels run by the Bihari brothers in the ‘50s.

No further hits ensued for Marvin and Johnny, but they would continue to perform, tour and record and release 45s throughout the next several years.  (Marvin Phillips worked again for a bit with Jesse Belvin during this time, too, and would also record solo as Long Tall Marvin in 1956.)

Most of the many mid-’50s Marvin and Johnny sides were representative of Los Angeles’s commercial post-War, pre-rock ‘n’ roll R&B: a mixture of smooth ballads and raucous sax- and guitar-driven uptempo R&B, usually with high-quality session support.  Recorded in 1955, “Ain’t that Right,” like all of this week’s selections, was representative, too, yet also somehow different within the artist’s oeuvre.  The stuttering Bo-Diddley-style riffs are mostly an exercise in percussive sound here, with the strange, sinuous unison guitar-and-vocalization breaks adding an otherworldly dimension to an already unusual approach.  Heady stuff for mid-’50s commercial R&B.

As the sound of rhythm and blues evolved rapidly in the early ’60s, Marvin and Johnny’s own commercial recordings would taper out; both remained in the Los Angeles area for years to come, though largely retired from the music business.

Posted in R&B/Vocal Groups, Rock 'n' roll | Leave a comment

Walt Bolen’s Lion Hunt

A great pleasure to hear recently from keyboardist Walt Bolen, who filled me in on the backstory behind his organ-led R&B exotica instrumental “Lion Hunt” (Pick-A-Hit 101, which I first wrote about at this ancient post), as well as some of his own biography.

Walt Bolen, born in 1948, was raised in the San Fernando Valley, California.  His was a musical family, especially on the side of his mother, Alma Bowser Bolen (who was also related to pioneering bop pianist Bud Powell by marriage).

In addition to a Hammond A-105 organ at home, Bolen would grow up playing organ in the church, as well as participating in the San Fernando school system’s music program.   Bolen attended one of the few high schools in the area with a Hammond console, taking classes there under the supervision of Mrs. Thelma Becky, the school’s choir teacher.

“[I was] looking to gain popularity among my school mates and friends. Music was my way of doing that,” Bolen notes.  It was 1966, Bolen’s senior year at San Fernando High School, when he first wrote “Lion Hunt,” which was partly inspired by Les Baxter’s exotica standard “Quiet Village.”

Walt Bolen, 1966

Walt Bolen, age eighteen, 1966. From a newspaper article, image courtesy of Walt Bolen.

In 1966, Bolen and Adolphus Alsbrook – a veteran jazz bassist and arranger introduced to Bolen through his horn player friend Carl Smith – went into Los Angeles’s legendary Gold Star Studios to record.  There, joined by a drummer, and with charts written by Alsbruck, they used the Hammond organ to lay down the basic tracks for “Lion Hunt.”   Saxophone and guitar parts would be added by session players in turn.

Walter Bolen, Lion Hunt (Part Two) (Pick-A-Hit 101-B)In 1967, Los Angeles record producer and impresario Bobby Sanders released the recording on Pick-A-Hit Records, one of several labels he operated at the time.  Somewhat to Bolen’s surprise, the B-side of the single – “Lion Hunt (Part Two),” that is – was the same recording, only with dubbed-in lion sound effects, an idea that was entirely Alsbrook’s.

Walter Bolen, Lion Hunt (Part Two)(Pick-A-Hit 101B)

Bolen remained in the San Fernando area in the ensuing years, teaching music, playing lounge and club gigs, and making some (unreleased) home recordings. In the early ‘70s, Bolen and his friends Willard and Ernestine Stroud formed the Ar-Que recording company, for whom he released a strong 45 – “Breaking Out” b/w “Peace Chant” – in 1972.

Walt Bolen otherwise remained away from commercially released music until more recent years.  Bolen, who now resides in Antelope Valley, California, remains active in music to this day, returning to his roots and playing organ for his church.  He’s also released a CD of his own inspirational material – The Casting of Pearls – which is available at or through his facebook page.  Please do check out more of Walt Bolen.

Many thanks to Walt Bolen for contacting me, and for the great conversation and great music.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura, Latin, R&B/Vocal Groups, The Exotica Project, Updates | 2 Comments

The sea, part two

This week, a second part to one of my all-time favorite posts.  As before, tremolo guitar, dreamy tempos and loads of echo chamber drama carry the day.  There’s something of a desert island mini-theme this time around, too, though the moody tones here are far more ominous than idyllic, more Lord of the Flies than Gilligan’s Island.

Three strange desert island miniatures this week on Office Naps

Three strange desert island miniatures this week on Office Naps

All three of these selections can also be found at the Exotica Project.

The Sound Breakers, Marooned (Radiant 1502)1. The Sound Breakers, Marooned (Radiant 1502)
A Los Angeles studio group production, the significant names here are Lincoln Mayorga and Ed Cobb, the song’s co-writers.

Cobb and Mayorga’s musical partnership originated with the Four Preps, a Los Angeles teen-pop vocal group who had some national hits (“26 Miles (Santa Catalina),” “Down By the Station,” and “Big Man”) in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  Cobb co-founded the group in 1956, with the Mayorga, a musically-trained friend from Hollywood High School, hired as arranger and pianist.

Cobb and Mayorga were still actively involved in the Four Preps when, barely into their ‘20s, they began independently producing, writing and arranging for various side-projects, notably the Piltdown Men and the Link-Eddy Combo.  These were studio-only affairs that brought some modest success in the instrumental rock ‘n’ roll market.   (The Piltdown Men had six 45s in total; their “Brontosaurus Stomp” went to number 75 on the pop charts in 1960.  The Link-Eddy Combo had three, with “Mr. Big C.” getting to number 28 on the R&B charts in 1961.)

The Sound Breakers were another Cobb-Mayorga studio-only endeavor.   Released in the summer of 1961 by the small Los Angeles label Radiant Records, the sublime “Marooned” was the sole 45 conceived under the moniker, and seems to be essentially unknown.   It is also by far the most interesting of the Cobb-Mayorga instrumental sides.  With its psychedelic sheen, Mayorga’s interests in composition probably go some way towards explaining the unusualness and otherworldliness of “Marooned,” which sounds like nothing else on earth.

The Cobb and Mayorga partnership bore fruit again in the spring of 1962 with Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters.”   Despite the single’s massive success, Cobb and Mayorga would henceforth work largely independently of each other.

Cobb’s behind-the-scenes career would blossom in the mid-‘60s with some notable songwriting successes, among them “Every Little Bit Hurts” and “I’ll Always Love You” for Brenda Holloway, “Dirty Water” and “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” for the Standells and “Heartbeat” and “Tainted Love” for Gloria Jones (with “Tainted Love” a bigger hit again in 1981 for Soft Cell).  He also helped produce and engineer records for, among others, the Standells, the Lettermen, the Zoo, the Chocolate Watch Band and the E-Types.   Ed Cobb passed away in 1999.

Mayorga worked throughout the ‘60s as a keyboardist on dozens of Los Angeles rock, pop and jazz sessions.  In the late ‘60s, he would help to develop and run Sheffield Labs, a direct-to-disc studio and audiophile label. To this day Lincoln Mayorga remains active with Sheffield Labs as well as with its sister label, TownHall Records.

The Shelltones, Blue Castaway (Band Box No. 355)2. The Shelltones, Blue Castaway (Band Box No. 355)
The most overtly surf-oriented of this week’s selections, the Shelltones’ “Blue Castaway” was released in early 1964 on Denver’s fascinating Band Box Records.

Band Box Records warrants some attention, if only because it’s the most tangible part of the story.   Founded by Romanian immigrant Vicky Morosan around 1957, Band Box Records was both a label and a recording studio.  A cooler, quirkier independent operation in Colorado rock ‘n’ roll history would be tough to name.   Certainly it was the most prolific.  The label’s decade-long discography includes some excellent rock ‘n’ roll and R&B releases (Jimmy DeKnight, the Monarchs, Little Joey Farr, Jackie Lowell, the Lidos, the Four Chevelles, the Manderins, Freddie & the Hitch-Hikers, Orlie & the Saints, Lee Chandler & the Blue Rhythms, Sonny Russell and Ronny Kae), though many of the label’s dozens of barely-known country, jazz and pop releases are also outstanding.

Less, unfortunately, can be stated conclusively about the Shelltones themselves.   Based in the greater Denver area, and group came together in Adams City High in Commerce City, and would likely have participated in the vibrant teen rock ‘n’ roll scene that extended north to Boulder and Fort Collins and south to Colorado Springs in the early and mid-‘60s.

The eerie “Blue Castaway,” written by Cary Theil, the group’s bassist, would be the Shelltones’ only commercial release.   The perfect vessel for the cavernous production qualities of Band Box’s south Broadway studios, “Blue Castaway” takes the tremolo-driven atmospherics of the Islanders’ “Enchanted Sea” and the Safaris’ “Lonely Surf Guitar” and, to a certain degree, the Viscounts’ “Harlem Nocturne” to some new, lonelier place.

Flipside “Mark’s Blues,” another instrumental, features the hot fretwork of guitarist Mark Bretz.  After the Shelltones, Bretz would play keyboards with Denver-area garage band the Wild Ones in the mid-‘60s before joining, as guitarist, a late incarnation of Boulder’s nationally-known rock ‘n’ rollers the Astronauts in 1967.  Bretz would remain with the Astronauts through their name change to SunshineWard before settling in Denver for a career as a music teacher.

The Wailers, Driftwood (Golden Crest CR375)3. The Wailers, Driftwood (Golden Crest CR375)
The best-known name this week, the Wailers are often mentioned in the same breath as the Sonics, the Kingsmen and Paul Revere & the Raiders, Pacific Northwest groups who first blasted out wild rock ‘n’ roll and R&B in the early ‘60s twilight before the British Invasion.

A popular and locally influential live act in their time, the Wailers are somewhat underrated these days.   Formed in Tacoma, Washington in 1958 by several high school classmates, the Wailers attracted a local teenaged following and would find early, if somewhat unexpected, success with their “Tall Cool One,” a bare-bones sax-and-keyboard R&B instrumental.  The 45 became a national hit in mid-1959, helping to define the raucous aesthetic of early Pacific Northwest rock ‘n’ roll.

The Wailers, circa 1959.  From left to right are Rich Dangel, Mike Burk, Mark Marush, Kent Morrill and John Greek.

The Wailers, circa 1959. From left to right are Rich Dangel, Mike Burk, Mark Marush, Kent Morrill and John Greek. Image courtesy of music historian John Broven's fantastic website.

With their early line-up established – Mike Burk (drums), Rich Dangel (lead guitar), John Greek (guitar, trumpet, bass), Mark Marush (tenor sax) and Kent Morrill (piano and vocals) – the Wailers recorded a debut album.  At a time when full-lengths were still a fairly unusual proposition for regional rock ‘n’ roll combos, 1959’s The Fabulous Wailers, recorded for New York-based Golden Crest Records, was also an unusually original set of pre-surf guitar instrumentals.

Among standout originals like “High Wall,” “Shanghaied” and “Beat Guitar,” The Fabulous Wailers also included this overlooked exotic jewel.  The haunting, hypnotic tone poem “Driftwood” was released as a 45 by Golden Crest around 1960 (as seen above, with fab group photo label) and reissued, with a plain label design, in 1964.

A succession of Wailers 45s followed in the next seven or eight years, as did several more albums.  The Wailer’s 1961 version of “Louie Louie,” which predated the Kingsmen’s version, featured local singer Rockin’ Robin Roberts.  It was also the inaugural 45 release for Etiquette Records, a pioneering band-run label founded by Wailers Kent Morrill, Rockin’ Robin Roberts and Buck Ormsby (who joined the group around 1960).  The Etiquette Records years would be the Wailers’ best known, the group creatively peaking around 1965 with the caveman punk of “Hang Up” and the churning, wall-of-sound rock of “Out of Our Tree.”

Etiquette Records closed its doors around 1968.  The Wailers would remain popular in the region, but their later albums, including 1966’s Outburst! For United Artists and 1968’s psychedelic Walk Thru The People for Bell Records, while solid, would see diminishing returns.   Like labelmates and kindred spirits the Sonics, the Wailers were forged in an earlier era of rock ‘n’ roll.  Somewhat out of step with prevailing trends, exhausted by line-up changes and bad management decisions, The Wailers called it quits in 1969.

[Thanks to Peter Blecha’s great 2009 “Etiquette Rules!” essay for the label history.]

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Instrumentals/Surf, The Exotica Project | 6 Comments

New at the Lonely Beat:

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.