Monthly Archives: July 2012

Black night

This is one of those weeks where three records get posted alongside each other not because they share some very specific theme or belong, musically- or culturally-speaking, in the same sub-sub-genre.  (Jazz, early rock ‘n’ roll, pop, R&B and country all get represented in one form or another here, and in different proportions.)

Rather, they’re grouped together because they fit that way in my mind.  There is some logic at work here, though, some shared sensibility that was in play in the post-War decades. Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and Peggy Lee’s “Why Don’t You Do Right” belong somewhere along this axis of atmosphere.  So do Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” and Etta James’s “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road).” So do countless female versions of “Summertime,” “Black Coffee” and “Fever.”

Nervous and bittersweet, too fast to be torch songs, too relaxed to be barnstormers, this week’s selections are, in the end, all nocturnal anthems of a sort, collectively oozing mood and sensuality.

Cheryl Thompson, Black Night (Deville MKT-1004)1. Cheryl Thompson, Black Night (Deville MKT-1004)
Born in 1944 in Florida, Cheryle Thompson made her way to Las Vegas in 1962 to pursue a singing career.  Initially landing work as a showgirl at the Sahara Hotel and Casino, Thompson soon met singer and bassist Norman Kaye, who, along with his sister, anchored the popular Mary Kaye Trio, one of the early lounge combos supplying the swinging, round-the-clock soundtrack for post-War Las Vegas.

Thompson’s first major exposure came in 1963 and 1964, when she was selected as Miss Las Vegas and Miss Nevada.  At a time in post-War popular culture when pageants represented a more viable launching pad for acting and music careers, Thompson was able to parlay her talents and new-found visibility, along with her connections through now-husband Kaye, into several recording deals.  Among them was the excellent “Don’t Walk Away” (b/w “It’s the End”), a Kaye composition that was released in 1965 on Chicago’s Vee Jay Records and that featured Thompson’s aching, Patsy-Cline-influenced vocals and an effective soul-pop arrangement.

Three more singles followed a year later on Decca Records (and its subsidiary Coral Records).  Cut very much in big-production Nashville countrypolitan mode, these included the modest 1966 hit “The Third Person,” which Thompson co-authored.

“Black Night” is the most obscure of Thompson’s sides.  It seems to have been Thompson’s very first recording, and while it’s tough to pinpoint its exact recording date, it did see release in 1964 (including a U.K. issue).   Most importantly, it’s a terrific record, a wicked intersection of rock ‘n’ roll, atmospheric pop and Nashville-style production values.

The 1960s passed and family life called, and Thompson effectively retired from the music business, joining Kaye in managing their expanding real estate business.  Cheryle Thompson passed away in 2003 in Las Vegas.

Sources: Las Vegas Sun

Honey Sanders, Some Like It Cool (Brighton 777-A)2. Honey Sanders, Some Like It Cool (Brighton 777-A)
Honey Sanders was a singer, actress and entertainer first and a recording artist second.

Born in 1927, Sanders evinced musical talent from an early age, and came up in New York City show business.  And Sanders – some time in the ‘50s for child-rearing notwithstanding – would remain in that world, returning to the stage in the late ‘50s, with various theatre and Broadway appearances over the next decade or two.  (If period accounts are to be trusted, she was sometimes finding roles as the “jolly fat type.”)

Released in 1963 on the obscure New York City-based Brighton Records label, the seldom-heard “Some Like It Cool” and its flipside “(Johnny Guitar) My Restless Lover” were both penned by songwriter, composer and conductor Pembroke Davenport, another Broadway veteran.   “Some Like It Cool,” featuring Sanders’s sultry, coolly understated vocal, is not only one of the more effective recorded turns by a theatre-based vocalist, but – with its jazzy sensibility, tight guitar interplay and some atmospheric bongos pattering through its three minute course – it’s one of the hippest, too.

Sanders would go on in the ’80s to open the Sanders Agency, a theatrical talent agency, in New York and Los Angeles.  She continued in the theatre world as a producer as well, remaining active from the ‘90s onwards before her death in 2003.

“Some Like It Cool” would be Honey Sanders’s only solo recording.

Sources: Variety

Barbara Pittman with Gene Lowery Singers, Handsome Man (Phillips International 3553)3. Barbara Pittman with Gene Lowery Singers, Handsome Man (Phillips International 3553)
Singer Barbara Pittman is best remembered for her handful of excellent 45s recorded for Sam Phillips’s legendary Sun and Phillips International labels between 1956 and 1960.

Pittman was born in 1938 and grew up musically inclined, one of twelve children in a large, poor family from North Memphis.  Unlike many of the white kids who went on to record for the Memphis-based Sun Records, Pittman wasn’t necessarily a country- or gospel-raised singer first – she was drawn early on to big band sounds and blues.

Which isn’t to suggest Pittman couldn’t sing country.  After initially being rebuffed by Sun, Pittman dug in, building her chops with two different Western groups, Clyde Leoppard’s Snearly Ranch Boys and Lash Larue.   With the former group Pittman recorded her first record in 1956, after finally convincing Sam Phillips.  “I Need a Man,” a rare female rock ‘n’ roll release for Sun Records, epitomized the label’s classic aesthetic – all lusty vocals, slapback bass and wild guitar and piano.

Over the next few years a small schedule of Sun 45s ensued, none of them particularly commercially successful.  There would be some missteps (the overwrought “The Eleventh Commandment”), along with some more great rock ‘n’ roll (the Jerry-Lee-Lewis-inspired “I’m Getting Better All the Time”) and several excellent ballads (“No Matter Who’s to Blame,” “Two Young Fools in Love,” “Cold Cold Heart.”)

“Handsome Man,” released in 1960, was Pittman’s fourth and final record for Sam Phillips.  I’m in the minority here but for me it ranks as the most attractive side in Pittman’s discography.  Penned and arranged by the Charlie Rich, still a young Memphis session whiz at this point, “Handsome Man” didn’t draw directly from Sun’s chart-proven country or rock ‘n’ roll style.  It rocked in its own way, but Pittman’s sultry, assertive lead vocal and Rich’s complementary support put its sensibilities somewhere closer to torch-lit clubland.

Pittman moved to California in 1962 and found work there as a session musician and club singer.  While she never enjoyed breakthrough success, she remained committed to a singing career, and, after marrying and moving to Houston, would reestablish herself in the early ‘80s with a set of younger fans of early rock ‘n’ roll.

Barbara Pittman passed away in 2005 at the age of 67.

Sources: Elvis Australia, Rockabilly Hall of Fame

Posted in Country, Jazz Obscura, Latin, R&B/Vocal Groups | 8 Comments

Feel a whole lot better

The Byrds’ “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” first released as a B-side in 1965, was several things.  It was, along with its A-side (“All I Really Want to Do”) the much-anticipated follow-up to the group’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the Columbia Records debut 45 that enjoyed massive commercial response a few months earlier.   Penned by the group’s lead singer, Gene Clark, it was also a relatively rare – at least amongst the Byrds’ early chart-topping hits – original group composition to be promoted as a single.

“All I Really Want to Do,” however, was not a huge hit.  And, despite a label push, neither was “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.”  But through some peculiarity in its composition – its robust, propulsive melody, its straightforward emotion and “put down” message, its energy, its relative technical simplicity – “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” tended, of all the Byrds’ songs, to get adapted by dozens of period garage bands.   It didn’t hurt that it also rocked like little else in the Byrds’ oeuvre.

I have yet to hear a bad ’60s version of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.”  This week we take a look at three of the best.

The Unknowns, I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better (Marlo 1550)1.  The Unknowns, I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better (Marlo 1550)
The Unknowns were an accomplished rock ‘n’ roll band from Belleville, Illinois (across the river from St. Louis).  The group made some excellent folk-rock 45s in the mid-‘60s, later, having renamed themselves Spur, releasing the album that remains their best-known recording amongst collectors, 1968’s Spur of the Moment.

The Unknowns first came together in 1964, with Jimmy Fey (guitar) Larry Wilson (drums) and Rick Willard (vocals and bass).  Their debut 45, which appeared on the St. Louis-based Marlo Records in 1965, was “You Want Me Too,” backed with a cover of the Beatles’ “Baby’s in Black.”

With the addition of Ed Kalotek on guitars and keyboard, and Jimmy Fey’s replacement by guitarist Stan Bratzke, the Unknowns would record their second 45 – this selection.  (Incidentally, Fey would return to the group in 1967 and this line-up, a sequence of drummers notwithstanding, would remain largely consistent throughout the rest of the band’s career.)

Released in 1966, their “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” bursts with the ringing guitar lines and raw exuberance that was so characteristic of period versions of the song.   (Flipside “The Modern Era,” though sombre, was also good.)

A year later the Unknowns released their third 45 (“All Over the World” b/w “You Could Help Me Ease the Pain”) on the local Cinema label.   Its folk-rock sound restated the group’s folk-rock leanings, its world-weariness presaging an aesthetic that eventually culminated in Spur of the Moment, their album of fully-realized “mature” folk-rock, country-rock and psychedelia.

The band’s story is better documented elsewhere (see excellent commentary at Record Fiend).   The Unknowns’ trajectory is, in retrospect, similar to other ambitious regional rock ‘n’ roll acts in the ‘60s.  They began during the British Invasion with several youthful, of-their-time 45s.  And they would arc out of the ‘60s (and into the early ‘70s) with a full-length album and turned-on sound.

But, aside from their obvious musical talent, what interests me about the Unknowns, this selection included, was their attraction, from the outset, to the minor-key sound of many of the early wave of folk-rock bands (the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Grateful Dead and the Youngbloods come to mind).  This proclivity is heard persisting in their handiwork as Spur, with all of their recordings mirroring these better-known groups’ development from folk-rock into psychedelia and country-rock.

The cream of recordings – studio, live and unreleased-in-their-time – by Spur (as well as the Unknowns) has been recently compiled and released by Drag City.  Well worth seeking out.

Sources: Record Fiend, Rick Willard

The 4 of Us, I Feel a Whole Lot Better (Hideout H-1012)2.  The 4 of Us, I Feel a Whole Lot Better (Hideout H-1012)
The Four of Us, from Detroit suburb Birmingham, began playing together in 1965.  Their core included Jeff Alborell and Gary Burrows on guitars and vocals, though accounts conflict on the rest of the group’s personnel, which seems to have been fairly flexible either way.  (I am obliged to note that future Eagle Glenn Frey briefly sang with the band, though he’s not heard on this selection.)

A popular draw locally, the Four of Us, despite lineup changes, managed to make the most of their brief existence.  First and foremost, the band were regulars at the Hideout Club, an all-ages spot that played an important part in the very active teen rock ‘n’ roll scene outside of inner city Detroit.  Operated by local entrepreneurs Dave Leone and Ed “Punch” Andres, the Hideout would flourish for a few years in the mid-‘60s, and featured many of the hipper area teen rock ‘n’ roll bands from suburban Detroit in its time; Bob Seger and Suzi Quatro, among many others, would play the Hideout early on.

The Four of Us released two 45s, both on Hideout Records, the label that served as a direct outlet for many of the club’s resident bands.   Three Four of Us songs – “I Can’t Live Without Your Love,” “Feel a Whole Lot Better” and an unreleased-on-45 version of “Baby Blue” – also appeared on the rare Best of the Hideouts album, a full-length compilation released by Hideout Records in 1966.

This side, released in 1966, would be the second of their two mid-‘60s 45s.  Their first, “You’re Gonna Be Mine” is perhaps better known to garage band collectors, but the band’s reading of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” with its harmonies, jangling guitars and surging energy, stands out as the group’s finest moment.

The Four of Us dissolved by late 1966.

The Hitch Hikers, Feel a Whole Lot Better (Cuca J-6741)3.  The Hitch Hikers, Feel a Whole Lot Better (Cuca J-6741)
This version of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” was released in a comparatively late 1967.

This is perhaps the least known of this week’s selections.   The most immediately recognizable aspect of this 45, in fact, is that it’s on Cuca Records.  Democratic if nothing else, Cuca Records was a crazily prolific label and recording studio founded by James Kirchstein, who ran his operations between the late ‘50s and early ‘70s out of Sauk City, Wisconsin.  An exemplary post-War indie label, Cuca and its several subsidiaries would serve as a sort of clearinghouse for many area artists.  In addition to the garage band and R&B and soul releases for which it’s best remembered, stretches a catalog of hundreds of 45s, with polka, pre-British-Invastion rock ‘n’ roll and surf, country, gospel, teen pop, easy-listening and blues and jazz all amply represented.

The Hitch Hikers themselves hailed from the small Wisconsin town of Platteville, part of the University of Wisconsin system.   (Nearest city was Dubuque, Iowa – Sauk City was seventy miles away.)  The group included Jim Hake (lead guitar), Rick Tryne (rhythm guitar), Bart Bell (keyboards), Mike Hendrickson (bass) and Larry Popp (drums).  They played local college parties along with area shows in southern Wisconsin as well as eastern Iowa and northern Illinois.

This 45’s flipside is a solid, uptempo treatment of the rarely-covered Bob Dylan song “One Too Many Mornings.”  This 45, released in April of 1967, would be the band’s only recorded output.

Sources: Gary Myers’s On That Wisconsin Beat, Dominic Welhouse

Posted in Garage Bands | 4 Comments

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