Its mystery and romance has provoked more than its share of paeans over the ages, but musical impressions of the desert’s expanse and mysterious beauty reached some sort of wiggy American culmination in the tremolo guitars and wide-open echo-chamber spaces of the rock ‘n’ roll instrumental.
Though drawn from different milieus – upstate New York teenagedom, the East Bay black community, the Los Angeles studio world – an unmistakable hint of Middle Eastern exoticism colors all of this week’s selections. Furthermore, the hypnotic guitar riffs that drive the selections presage (in the case of two of the selections, at least) the ascendency of psychedelic raga-rock by several years.
If Office Naps and the Exotica Project have casually become a survey of some of the archetypal images of American rock ‘n’ roll, this week’s selections reinforce a basic tenet. Many landscapes, spaces and places worked their way into instrumental rock ‘n’ roll’s motifs. But few – the sea aside, interestingly – would inspire with such consistent, brilliant weirdness and experimental élan as the desert.
1. The Vaqueros, Desert Wind (Audition 6102)
From 1963, the Vaqueros’ “Desert Wind” is one of thousands of American guitar instrumentals released in the pre-British Invasion era. It’s also one of a much smaller set that really gets everything right. In the process of summoning the Empty Quarter’s windswept spaces, it also dramatically captures, through sheer intensity and a spidery, Out of Limits mood, the later aesthetic of psychedelia.
No obvious clues present themselves about the Vaqueros or the group’s biography, sadly. The song’s flipside, the also-excellent though more surf-oriented “Echo,” is again credited to writers Weld, Heath and Corona. This seems to have been their only release as a group.
Incidentally, “Desert Wind” would also be one of the earliest releases on Audition Records, a cool Rochester label run by local promoter and impresario Al Cecere out of his office in the now-demolished Midtown Plaza. Cecere’s Audition Records (and Nu Sound Ltd. Records, which succeeded it in name), would, over the next few years, be home to some terrific releases by upstate teen garage bands, including the Heard (“Stop It Baby”), the Humans (“Warning”), the Rogues (“You Better Look Now”), the Wee Four (“Weird”) and Pete Morticelli (“Lost”).
2. The Fatimas, Sandstorm (Original Sound OS-72)
The Fatimas’ mysterious “Sandstorm” was released in 1967 on Original Sound Records, one of Los Angeles’s hipper indies of the ‘60s.
It should be pointed out that both “Sandstorm” and the single’s flipside, entitled “The Hoochy Coo,” are the same, musically speaking. It’s just that the “The Hoochy Coo” has the chanted vocals of an overdubbed and otherwise unknown group of female singers – and does not enjoy the benefit of the howling wind sound effects. (“The Hoochy Coo” is the less commercial side, too – the vocals are memorable but strange, reminding me of late ‘70s female-led art-punk tracks like Kleenex’s “Hedi’s Head.”)
Either way, nothing suggests that the Fatimas were an actual working group. The record was in all likelihood a one-off, anonymous studio lark. But what a studio lark. The handiwork of session musicians at their most inspired, the relentless beat and exotic production of “Sandstorm” are quite extraordinary, even with the vogue for all things “Oriental” and mystical then reaching a peak in rock ‘n’ roll.
The writer credits here belong to an unlikely threesome – popular Los Angeles disc jockey and comedian Bob Hudson, composer Richard Grove and future album cover artist Joe Petagno. The basic composition was brought at some point in 1967 to the attention of Art Laboe, Original Sound’s proprietor, with his engineer Paul Buff – a freewheeling studio savant, musician, and surf music producer – creating the final version.
3. Chuck (Big Guitar) Ernest with the Satellite Band, Blue Oasis (Delcro 45-826A)
Like the other mystery discs this week, limited information is forthcoming about Chuck “Big Guitar” Ernest.
But Delcro Records warrants at least a few words. The label was an imprint of the Berkeley-based label Music City, a fascinating independent record operation run by one Ray Dobard off-and-on from the early ‘50s to the mid-‘70s. Dobard, the comparatively rare African-American record company owner in the post-War years, was in other ways the quintessential independent record hustler. In addition to his labels, the diversity of his operations – he hosted radio shows and simultaneously ran a record store, recording service and publishing company – afforded him a certain measure of control over the local market for black music, if not some undue carelessness with royalty credits. Perhaps better than any other single label, his would document the Bay Area’s blues, vocal group, gospel, R&B and soul music. Dobard had a few minor R&B hits along the way, too, including the Four Deuces’ uptempo “W-P-L-J” in 1955 and guitarist Johnny Heartsman’s ‘57 instrumental “Johnny’s House Party.”
So who was Chuck Ernest? A local guitarist, he obviously had some imagination and, if nothing else, enough confidence to get him in the door of a recording studio. My first thought was that virtuosic session player Johnny Heartsman – something of an in-house bandleader for Dobard – might have been involved, but both “Blue Oasis” and its raucous flipside (“Party at Vern’s”) are too raw-sounding and too different, stylistically, to be anything that Heartsman had a hand in. In reality Chuck Ernest’s backing band – the Satellite Band – was a group of young white and black Bay Area musicians, the “Duarte” listed as songwriter here a credit to their manager Vern Duarte. According to the notes from Ace Records’ superb Music City Story, the sides were likely recorded by pioneering Oakland producer Bob Geddins and then leased to Dobard for their release on Delcro. (Many thanks to sharp-eyed reader Boursin in Finland for the information.)
Released around 1960, “Blue Oasis” was also an anomaly coming from a label that largely focused on vocal sides. Neither a hit, nor among the lost R&B, blues or soul obscurities most cherished by collectors, it is never mentioned in label histories. No matter, though. “Blue Oasis” is outstanding tremolo-driven exotica and quite prescient, too, confidently anticipating the faux-Eastern fixations of surf music and, later, psychedelia.
This track can also be found at the Exotica Project.