Category Archives: Exotica/Space-Age

Lotus Land: The curious legacy of jazz exotica

This is an essay I wrote back in January for Melbourne, Australia’s mighty PBS 106.7fm.  Many thanks to Richie1250 for having me aboard, and for keeping the torch ablaze for progressive radio.

Martin Denny, Forbidden Island

1958's Forbidden Island, one of Martin Denny's definitive albums of cocktail jazz exotica from his classic (late '50s through mid-'60s) period.

Exotica was a colorful programmatic music that conjured impressions of Polynesia, of the East, of Africa, of various fabricated paradises, Shangri-Las and faraway latitudes. Popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it sprang largely from the imaginations of Hawaiian tourist bar musicians and Hollywood composers. Exotica’s repertoire was of jungle interludes, languid tropical reveries and exotic arrangements of familiar standards, its instrumentation an atmospheric mélange of flutes, Afro-Latin percussion, vibraphones, bird calls and bogus incantations.

Exotica encapsulated a moment in Western, and specifically American, culture when an increasingly suburban middle class had both the leisure time and the means to avail themselves of the newly-introduced stereo system (and the realistic, album-length sonic environments it facilitated).  There was no mistaking the subtext of exotica’s beautiful, lurid album covers and song titles like “Forbidden Island,” “Taboo,” “River of Dreams” and “Return to Paradise.” Exotica meant escape, if momentarily, from the Atomic Age ideals of a well-ordered society, structured workaday life and prescribed social and sexual mores.

Les Baxter, Ritual of the Savage

Baxter's Ritual of the Savage, recorded in the early '50s, is perhaps the seminal exotica album, and remains a highpoint.

Recordings by Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and Yma Sumac, along with dozens of albums by other artists in cocktail combo and easy-listening settings, are today cited as exotica’s foundation.

Exotica was nothing if not catholic during the music industry’s mid-century boom, however, finding expression in an array of genres, including Latin music, girl-group pop, rhythm & blues, surf music and early rock ‘n’ roll.

It was postwar jazz, however, where exotica found perhaps its most fascinating and richly fruitful host. Jazz, that most authentic of American art forms; jazz, that increasingly rigorous, increasingly elite 20th-century music. Not only did bop deliver tropical idylls to discerning listeners in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but it indulged many of the same musical tropes and took many of the same thematic liberties as its easy-listening counterparts.

Down in Jungle Town

Sheet music for "Down in Jungle Town," a 1908 Tin Pan Alley ditty by Theodore Morse that evinces an earlier vogue for the exotic. Image courtesy of Vintage Ephemera.

But first a brief tangent.

While it only became a bona fide phenomenon in the decades after World War Two, exotica on record extends far back to the 78rpm era, to the early recorded works of Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel, to impressionistic Hawaiiana, to “oriental” orchestras and to assorted dubious Tin Pan Alley jungle novelties.  Similarly, one can trace a thread of exotica back in prewar jazz, too. All but the best few sides were a trifle forced, however.  For every Duke Ellington “Echoes of the Jungle” or Mills Blues Rhythm Band “Congo Caravan” there were many more tacky jungle music cash-ins and dire “Streets of Cairo” leitmotifs.

It wouldn’t be until the mid-‘40s that jazz, in its sleek new bebop guise, finally found a convincing language for channeling its exotic impulses. Though it would always mirror popular tastes to some degree, it’s worth noting a few additional factors why jazz became a natural outlet for exotica in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Crucially, there was the new freedom of bebop’s radical harmonic language.  Early examples abound of boppers working in unusual modes with exotic themes, from Oscar Pettiford’s “Oscalypso” (1950), Howard McGhee’s “Night Mist,” (1947) Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” (1946) and Tadd Dameron’s “Jahbero” (1948) to lost 78rpm gems like Sax Mallard’s “The Mojo” (1947) and Eddie Wiggins’s “Orientale” (1946).

Eddie Wiggins's "Orientale"

An unusual 1946 jazz exotica side from saxophonist Eddie Wiggins. Image courtesy of the indispensable Red Saunders Research Foundation.

The success of mambo-jazz crossover experiments was also a critical factor. Ambitious early cubop recordings by Machito, Dizzy Gillespie and Chico O’Farrill helped to establish “exotic” Afro-Latin percussion and rhythms as a fixture in bop.

Simultaneously, recorded jazz itself was itself maturing and expanding from a three-minute-per-side phenomenon, gracefully taking advantage of the long-playing album format in a host of extended jazz compositions and adventurous suites.

For the first time, jazz’s forays into exotica sounded properly otherworldly and mysterious. While jazz exotica never constituted a concerted, self-conscious movement, dozens of jazz musicians would record unambiguously exotic sessions during bop’s recorded apogee of the ‘50s and ‘60s. 1  Geographical concepts often got blurry, but a few essential themes coalesced.


Paul Horn, Impressions of Cleopatra

Flautist and saxophonist Paul Horn's Impressions of Cleopatra, from 1963.

The Middle East and Asia proved especially popular choices as concepts, from Walt Dickerson’s Jazz Impressions of Lawrence of Arabia, Paul Horn’s Jazz Impressions of Cleopatra, Eddie Bonnemere’s Jazz Orient-ed, Paul Gonsalves’s Cleopatra Feelin’ Jazzy, Cal Tjader’s Breeze from the East and Several Shades of Jade, Phil Woods’s Greek Cooking, Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Impressions of Japan and Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite to obscure albums like Lloyd Miller’s Oriental Jazz and Joe Maneri’s Music of Cleopatra on the Nile.


There were works that were inspired by or incorporated African and Afro-Caribbean music, including Buddy Collette’s Tanganyika, Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro, A.K. Salim’s Afro Soul/Drum Orgy, Randy Weston’s Uhuru Afrika, Randy (Bap Beep Boo-Bee Bap Beep-M-Boo Bee Bap) and Music from the New African Nations, Guy Warren and the Red Saunders Orchestra’s Africa Speaks America Answers, Shorty Rogers’s Shorty Rogers Meets Tarzan, Harold Vick’s Caribbean Suite and Shelly Manne’s Daktari.

Buddy Collette, Tanganyika

Superb music, superb album cover. Multi-instrumentalist Buddy Collette's Tanganyika, from 1956.

And there were odd outliers like Buddy Collette’s Polynesia and pre-Columbian suites by Dizzy Gillespie (The New Continent) and Art Farmer (Aztec Suite), along with albums oriented around a generalized exoticism: Sun Ra’s The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra and Fate in a Pleasant Mood, Duke Ellington’s Afro-Bossa and Roy Harte & Milt Holland’s Perfect Percussion.

From dark, swirling jazz thrillers to sonorous tone poems, individual album tracks by boppers expanded the boundaries of jazz exotica even further. James Moody’s “Zanzibar,” the New York Jazz Quartet’s “Jungle Noon,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Africana,” Cannonball Adderley and Milt Jackson’s “Blues Oriental,” Sonny Rollins’s “Jungoso,” Andrew Hill’s “Chiconga,” Dave Pike’s “South Sea” and Art Farmer’s “Mau Mau” are among the best of a list that includes dozens and dozens of recordings.

Gerald Wilson, Algerian Fantasy

Very obscure mid-'50s jazz exotica from brilliant West Coast bandleader Gerald Wilson.

It’s interesting that jazz, while rightly perceived as an authentic art form, very often trafficked in the same constructions and tropes as Les Baxter or Martin Denny.  If African, Eastern and Afro-Caribbean themes were popular, they comprised a relatively vague set of parameters. Tracks like Gene Shaw’s “Karachi,” Gerald Wilson’s “Algerian Fantasy” and Philly Joe Jones’s “Land of the Blue Veils” were moody, terrific compositions, full of unusual contrasts and bewitching moods, but the relationship with the distant lands they summoned was dim.


While most jazz exotica made few, if any, concessions to incorporating indigenous music, it’s worth singling out four jazz musicians – Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Yusef Lateef, Herbie Mann and Art Blakey – who did go further in adapting non-Western modes and instruments with some degree of consistency, if not authenticity, in the ‘50s and ‘60s.


Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Jazz Sahara

Ahmed Abdul-Malik's Jazz Sahara, from 1958.

Yusef Lateef, Jazz Mood

Yusef Lateef's 1957 album Jazz Mood commenced a fascinating series of jazz exotica studies.

A bassist with Sudanese roots, Ahmed Abdul-Malik was an in-demand sideman who largely focused on music of the Near and Middle East on his own late ‘50s and early ‘60s efforts. Proficient on the oud, albums like Eastern Moods of Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Jazz Sahara, East Meets West and Sounds of Africa introduced jazz players into a pseudo-Eastern context.


Detroit-born Yusef Lateef primarily played saxophone and flute, but took a voracious, life-long interest in ethnic wind, reed and percussion instruments, featuring many of them to striking effect in his compositions – see in particular Lateef’s albums Eastern Sounds, The Centaur And The Phoenix, Jazz And The Sounds Of Nature, Jazz ‘Round The World and Prayer To The East.

Flautist Herbie Mann was similarly omnivorous in his musical predilections, and, in addition to a number of Latin jazz and Brazilian dates, would record several Afro-Eastern works: African Suite, Family of Mann, The Common Ground and Impressions of the Middle East.


Finally, powerhouse drummer Art Blakey, leader of the venerable Jazz Messengers, recorded a handful of albums with large percussion ensembles (Drum Suite, Orgy in Rhythm, vols. 1 and 2, Holiday for Skins, vols. 1 and 2, The African Beat) that reflected his own interests in the polyrhythms of Africa and the African diaspora.


While often superb, all of these artists’ recordings were clearly based in Western musical theory and structure, and ultimately fall somewhere too along the continuum of jazz exotica.

Herbie Mann, African Suite

Though credited to vibraphonist Johnny Rae, 1958's African Suite is just as much a Herbie Mann effort.

Exotica as a style hung in the air in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But why was it so particularly attractive to jazz musicians?

The colorful sounds, contrasts and motifs, the unusual rhythms and the emphasis on otherworldly atmospheres that characterized exotica were also natural vehicles for jazz’s practitioners’ restless creativity. In the guise of exoticism, the need to justify a strange tone poem or jazz fantasia was obviated. As a sort of musical shorthand, exotica provided the latitude for musicians to take chances, to exorcise creative impulses, to expend wild musical energies, to instantly transform a room’s ambience.  Also: conjuring the exotic Other just sounded so great.

Art Blakey, Drum Suite

Art Blakey's Drum Suite, from 1956

In the mid-’60s, modal and avant-garde jazz albums began making use of the imagery of faraway lands.  2 Such places were invoked largely with reference to the Pan-African interests of black consciousness rather than as loci of exotic escapism and leisurely pleasure, however. Various sitar jazz experiments came sometimes close to the spirit of exotica, too.  3 But these were more closely aligned with the younger, psychedelic counter-culture’s nascent interest in Eastern mysticism.

Notwithstanding such dalliances, jazz, itself contending with something of an identity crisis, its popularity in permanent decline, had, past the ’60s, largely ceased to be a vessel for exotica, at least in the previously established sense of the term. More to the point, all that had been previously thought of as popular music, including exotica and the broad reaches of easy-listening, had been irrevocably displaced by rock music by the mid-’60s. Messieurs Denny and Baxter would continue to have their exotic moments, but theirs was music that was, incontrovertibly, no longer hip cultural currency.

Clark Terry, Swahili

When the forces that originally engendered it evolved or were displaced, jazz-borne exotica – itself a curious tangent of an ephemeral manifestation of mid-century culture and music – dissipated along with them. Not surprisingly, no one particularly noticed its absence at the time. The modest, post-modern revival of space-age pop and tiki culture that began in the 1980s resurrected many of exotica’s central figures, but its more obscure representations continued to remain neglected.

Clark Terry, Swahili

Stunning 1955 jazz exotica from trumpet player Clark Terry.

Just below the surface of the postwar jazz discography exists this fascinating body of exotica. Musically, the best moments of jazz exotica are like the best moments of exotica proper, bypassing their sometimes unfortunate cultural misperceptions, and transcending a legacy as mere kitsch.

Fully realized jazz exotica tracks from Yusef Lateef’s “Iqbal” and Lloyd Miller’s “Gol-E Gandom“ to Chico Hamilton’s “Blue Sands” and Clark Terry’s “Swahili” are dark, otherworldly, unironically beautiful recordings.

  1. Many European jazz musicians were simultaneously following similar pathways into exoticism in this time – a vast topic for another essay.
  2. Pharaoh Sanders’s Tauhid, Bob Reid’s Africa is Calling Me, the East New York Ensemble de Music’s At the Helm, Toudie Heath’s Kawaida, the Black Unity Trio’s Al-Fatihah, etc.
  3. Alice Coltrane’s Journey In Satchidananda, Pat Martino’s Baiyina, Bill Plummer’s Cosmic Brotherhood, Gabor Szabo’s Jazz Raga, Emil Richards’s Journey To Bliss, etc.
Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura | 8 Comments

Bright Lights

Bright Lights!

Like AM Radio Dust, its companion volume, Bright Lights is just as much an exploration of lost spaces and places as it is of sound.

I hope you enjoy it.

Bright Lights
(single MP3 file)

Susan Rafey, “The Big Hurt”
Jerry Lee Trio, “Banshee”
Rick Durham and the Dynamics, “Southern Love”
Stan with the Marauders, “Echo Valley”
Maggie Ingram with the Ingramettes, “Melody of Love”
Zena Ayo, “Long Long Gone”
Mike Baltch Quartet, “Delilah”
Cheryl Thompson, “Black Night”
The Checker Dots, “Alpha Omega”
Fantastic Dee-Jays, “This Love of Ours”
The What Four, “Gemini 4″
Carole King, “A Road to Nowhere”
The Bittersweets, “Hurtin’ Kind”
Charles Wright and the Malibus, “Runky”
The Missing Links, “I Cried Goodbye”
J. Gale and the Games, “A Million Nothings”
The Benjamin Specials Gospel Singers, “I Am on the Right Road Now”
Link Wray, “Girl from the North Country”
Shirley Mc Donald accompanied by The Kay Nines K-9′s, “You”
The Santells, “These Are Love”
Houston and Dorsey, “Ebb Tide”
Dub Benson, “Shaping Up Today”
Henry Kaalekahi, “Hookipa Paka – Maunawili”
Johnny Love, “Rain Drops”
George Johnson, “Capricorn”
Fay Simmons, “Bells”
Cee Cee Carol, “The Right Guy”
Lou Smith, “I’ll Be the One”

Posted in Blues, Country, Exotica/Space-Age, Garage Bands, Girl-Groups, Gospel, Instrumentals/Surf, Jazz Obscura, Mixes, Now Sound, R&B/Vocal Groups, Rock 'n' roll, Soul | 11 Comments

Raqs ‘n’ Roll

The records that capitalized on post-War America’s tastes for Middle Eastern music encompass an absolutely fascinating continuum.

At one end there were the country-by-country ethnic field recordings released by Folkways, Lyrichord, Monitor and other specialist labels, academic packages for armchair anthropologists.  At the other extreme was the unreconstructed orchestral exotica of albums like Ron Goodwin’s Music for an Arabian Night, Bob Romeo’s Aphrodisia and Sonny Lester’s How to Belly Dance for Your Husband and a proliferation of novelty “Oriental” rock ‘n’ roll singles like Bill Haley’s “Oriental Rock,”  Johnny & the Hurricanes’ “Sheba” and Ralph Marterie’s “Shish Kebab.”

And somewhere between ethnography and exotica lay a substantial subset of secular Arabic music that was very successfully marketed to American audiences.  The music originated amongst a set of musicians, generally first- or second-generation immigrants, who played a loose circuit of restaurants, theaters, hotels, night clubs and social functions in the Northeast and Upper Midwest.  Though nominally authentic, theirs was a music that was modern enough to appeal to American consumers with a casual interest in Middle Eastern music and rhythms.  The albums these groups made, found easily in local record stores, and typically sleeved in colorful covers featuring belly-dancers in kitschy “Casbah” interiors, sold very well, with bigger names like Fred Elias, Gus Vali, Artie Barsamian, Eddie Kochak, Eddie Mekjian, Naif Agby, Mohammed El-Bakkar, George Abdo releasing dozens upon dozens of recordings in their time.  The music itself tended to reflect these groups’ diverse repertoire of Armenian, Lebanese, Syrian, Turkish, Greek, Egyptian and Jewish folk songs, ballads and dances.

But there were also the occasional recordings that were a bit stranger, and a bit more difficult to classify.  Generally these attempted to mix Arabic and Western forms, taking shape as either curious rock ‘n’ roll hybrids or exotica larks incorporating Latin dance rhythms or elements of American jazz or pop.

Sometimes these experiments worked beautifully, becoming something more than the sum of their parts.  Sometimes they just came out strange.  Nearly always they were interesting.

This week we look at three of the best.

Eddie Kochak & Hakki Obadia, Jazz in Port Said (Bossa Nova Araby) (Georgette 403)1.  Eddie Kochak & Hakki Obadia, Jazz in Port Said (Bossa Nova Araby) (Georgette 403)
Released in 1962, the spellbinding “Jazz in Port Said” was one of the earliest recorded products of a long-lasting collaboration between percussionist Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak and violinist Hakki Obadia.

Kochak was born Eddie Soubhi Ibn Farjallah Kochakji to Syrian parents in Brooklyn, New York.  Drawn to drumming as a child, Kochak would come to be a specialist in the derbeki drum.   Hakki Obadia is an Iraqi-born Jew and classically trained multi-instrumentalist who first established a name for himself in the Middle East with concert and radio appearances as a child prodigy violinist.

The two musicians first met in the mid-‘50s.  Kochak was then performing and leading groups in various New York and New Jersey-area venues. Obadia was playing around New York City area, where he’d recently settled after pursuing music studies at Berkeley.

First as performers, and later in the recording studio, they would create and promote their “Amerabic” sound – the melodies and rhythms of various Middle Eastern Arab standards and folk songs updated for American audiences.

Their “Jazz in Port Said” was one of the earliest of these recorded collaborations.  It was, in terms of its Western jazz sensibilities and moody, propulsive arrangement, also among their most adventurous early recordings. 1

“Jazz in Port Said” also saw inclusion on their Ameraba: Music with the New Amer-Abic Sound.  The album would be among the first in a series of very popular LPs by Obadia and Kochak, along with their frequent partner, the violinist and oud player Fred Elias.  Many of these albums were recycled and repackaged throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s with successive waves of interest in belly-dancing, their Strictly Belly Dancing series proving especially popular.

Kochak and Obadia continued to release their “Amerarabic” music over the years.   Kochak himself remained one of the bigger names in post-War Arab-American entertainment, and something of a fixture in New York show business.   Obadia, who published his Oud Method book in 1969, worked as a music teacher in the public schools of Long Island, and continued to perform and record.

Sources: Katherine Benson & Philip Kayal’s Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York City,, Phyllis Saretta’s Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak.

The Sheiks, Ya-Habibi (Sultan S-1001)2.  The Sheiks, Ya-Habibi (Sultan S-1001)
“Ya-Habibi” 2 was at least partly the handiwork of New York City-based Frank Cari and his songwriting partner Anna Vito. 3

As a freelance writing team, Cari and Vito penned a number of songs in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, largely for the doo-wop and teen pop markets.  Their biggest hit, “High on a Hill,” performed by Brooklyn singer Scott English in 1963, was typical of the New York City pop sound that the British Invasion would soon obviate.

In this time Cari also operated both his Turban Music publishing concern and his Frank Cari Productions, which was responsible for a number of pop-oriented 45 releases.  And finally there was Sultan Records, which Cari founded in the late ‘50s.  Among the 45s released during the label’s brief few years were the Inspirations’ “The Genie,” the Accents’ “Rags to Riches,” and, more interestingly, the Aztecs’ Duane-Eddy-inspired “Aztec Rock” and the Social Outcasts’ “Mad,” a strange instrumental with a wisp of the Middle Eastern aesthetic.   (Note the recurring Middle Eastern motifs here.)

But nothing in the Sultan catalog quite matches the electric, booming “Ya-Habibi,” which was among the label’s very first releases, and which is nearly psychedelic in its instrumentation and echo-chamber aesthetic.  Its flipside, the slightly-less-unhinged-but-also-great “Sultan’s Delight,” was penned by Jack Ghanaim, a musician whose kanoon playing is heard on jazz bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s groundbreaking 1958 debut Jazz Sahara.  Likely released in 1959, its players and backstory remain otherwise maddeningly mysterious, though it seems very likely that it’s Ghanaim heard on the oud on both sides of this 45.  4   Clearly there was more in the way of “authentic” musicianship here than the average Middle Eastern rock ‘n’ roll novelty, either way.

Ganimian & His Orientals, Come With Me to the Casbah (Atco 45-6142)3.  Ganimian & His Orientals, Come With Me to the Casbah (Atco 45-6142)
Oud player Charles “Chick” Ganimian was born in 1926 in upstate New York.   Like many of the figures of in post-War Arab-American music, Ganimian grew up in this country; his father, an Armenian immigrant who’d arrived from Turkey, also played oud, and from an early age the younger Ganimian seems to have been fascinated with the music of his heritage.

In the mid-‘30s, the Ganimian family moved to New York City.  In the late ‘40s Chick first formed the Nor-Ikes Orchestra, a group largely comprised of Armenian musicians, one of the first to consciously revive the music for mixed audiences, playing various social engagements for the broader Arab-American community.

Well regarded early on as an oud player, Ganimian did not record as prolifically as some of his peers.  He was nothing if not bold about exploring different forms, however.  A modest (and surprising) pop hit in 1958, his “Daddy Lolo (Oriental Rock ‘n’ Roll”) b/w “Halvah,” was crossover rock ‘n’ roll at its weirdest.

Which brings me to “Come With Me to the Casbah.”  Released in 1958, its spoken word bits are straight Orientalist hokum but its fine solos and terrific arrangement still make for a fun experience.   The selection would see release on a full-length album, also entitled Come With Me to the Casbah, that was released the same year on Atco Records, sister label to R&B giant Atlantic Records.

That album, recorded over the course of several sessions in 1957 and 1958, is an unusual and fascinating artifact, a mix of a slightly updated dances from the Arabic world, East-West rock ‘n’ roll novelties and fairly faithful readings of American standards performed on regional instruments.

The 1958 session that produced “Come With Me to the Casbah” featured an interesting roster.  Not only did Ganimian’s longtime compadres in the Nor-Ikes – Steve Bogoshian (clarinet), Ed Malasian (or Malkasian, percussion), Aram Davidan (dumbek) and Souren “Sudan” Baronian (tenor sax) – participate in the session, but they were joined by Anglo jazz musicians  Al Schackman (guitar), Peter Ind (bass), Dick Palazzolo (drums) and Peter Franco (drums).

Ganimian’s overlap with the jazz world is worth noting here.  Obsessives might have noticed the Lennie Tristano connections; Peter Ind in particular had a long-running, crucial association with the influential jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, whose “school” was very influential in post-War bebop and cool jazz.  Interestingly, both Bogoshian and Baronian had played with Tristano, too, though Bogoshian’s association, which is only alluded to in the liner notes of the Come With Me to the Casbah LP, is unconfirmed by other sources.

Ganimian would continue performing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, making regular appearances and enjoying residencies in New Jersey and New York.  His few recorded appearance from included a live date from 1978 (released later), as well as an independently-released 1975 LP with the Nor-Ikes.  He would also occasionally appear on other jazz dates; he’s heard in the mid-‘60s on flautist Herbie Mann’s Wailing Dervishes and sublime Impressions of the Middle East albums, and on David Amram’s 1972 Subway Night.  Perhaps only fellow oud player John Berberian and trumpet player and percussionist Roger Mozian would enjoy as much overlap with the jazz world in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Charles “Chick” Ganimian passed away in 1989.

  1. Both musicians can be heard blending Eastern and Western forms prior to “Jazz in Port Said.”  Kochak’s obscure solo 78 sides from the ‘50s saw him experimenting with bebop and Latin music on tracks like “Ha Bee Bee Blues” and “Mambo Arabia.”  And Obadia’s “Cha Cha Baba” – heard on his 10 Nights in a Harem LP from 1960 – is excellent Latin exotica.
  2. Arabic term of endearment – loosely “my love,” or “my dear old friend.”
  3. Cari and Vito are shortenings of, respectively, “Cariola” and “Mangravito.”
  4. Ghanaim also played with Eddie Kochak in the ‘60s.
Posted in Exotica/Space-Age | 1 Comment

Jeri Simpson

I first posted Jeri Simpson’s “In My Black Lace” back in 2006.  It has been one of the great mysteries around here, a marvelous, truly one-of-a-kind recording whose story I’d long given up hopes of ever learning.  But I’m happy at last to have some more conclusive details on Jeri Simpson.  Many, many thanks to her niece Susan and nephew James, who contacted me recently.

Jeri Simpson, circa early '60s

Jeri Simpson, circa early '60s. Jeri is seated second from the left. Her sister Doris is seated third from the right. Her brother Bill Simpson, one of the authors behind "Black Lace," is seated with his wife across from Jeri. Photo courtesy of Susan

Born Louise Geraldine Simpson in the 1920s, Jeri Simpson came up in a musical family in the Chicago area.  It was, more to the point, a large family – Jeri, as she was better known amongst her family, was the youngest of ten children.  Music was a strong presence in the Simpsons’ lives, with the five girls of the family forming a singing group growing up.  (Susan’s mother Laura sang and played piano for the family.)

Two of the brothers – Jack and Bill, the authors behind “In My Black Lace” – were also drawn to singing and writing songs early on.   Incidentally, another sister, Doris, later achieved some fame as screen siren Doris Merrick.

Jeri Simpson, In My Black Lace (Sun-Kist S700)Jeri Simpson, In My Black Lace

Jeri had been in California for some time already – since the late ‘30s – when she recorded “In My Black Lace” in 1957.  The session occurred in Los Angeles when Jeri was in her mid-thirties, and somewhere around the time of her marriage to Jay Ranellucci.  Ranellucci worked deep in the music industry as a recording engineer and mixer for a decades-long stretch at Capitol Records between 1957 and 2007.  (Ranellucci’s resume included not only the jazz-pop of Peggy Lee and Nancy Wilson, but also crucial early rock ‘n’ roll by Gene Vincent, country by Hank Thompson and Merle Haggard, FM radio rock by Steve Miller and the Band, and psychedelic jazz excursions by David Axelrod and the Fourth Way – among many others.)

Jeri Simpson in California, circa 1948 or 1950

Jeri Simpson in California, circa 1948 or 1950. Photo courtesy of Susan.

It seems likely, given Jay Ranellucci’s connections to the music industry and, in particular, to Los Angeles-based jazz guitarist Barney Kessel, that he also played some role in engineering the “In My Black Lace” session.   Either way, it is a captivating recording to this day, an expertly produced exercise in moody jazz, Jeri borrowing a bit of Julie-London-style sensuality while imbuing it with her own wholly unique “exotic” flavor.

Jeri had, according to family members, a “sultry,” “sexy” aspect.  No surprise, given the evocative atmosphere of “In My Black Lace.”   But she was also a housewife and mother (one daughter) who raised dobermans and rottweilers as a hobby, and alas this 45 seems to have been her only commerical recording, at least to anyone’s knowledge.

Given the quality of both “In My Black Lace” – which seems clearly to have been written for Jeri – and its flipside “Sugar” and Simpson’s obvious vocal talents, it’s too bad.  But as her niece Susan noted, “[she] wanted to be a singer but never pursued her dream.”

Jeri Simpson passed away in 2012.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura, Updates | 5 Comments

Nature Boy

I can think of at least a few reasons for the continued appeal of the song “Nature Boy.”

There’s its philosophical, pseudo-mystical message for one. It was heady, if not radical, stuff for 1948, at least as far as pop songs went, and furthermore its gentle sentiment and lyrics, unlike many “message” songs, have weathered with enviable resilience over the years.

It helps that melodically it’s also a difficult song to get wrong. There’s a robustness to its structure, one that has engendered a particularly attractively set of moody, exotic arrangements amongst its many adaptations.

"Nature Boy" sheet music

The original 1948 sheet music for "Nature Boy," with an image of Eden Ahbez. Image courtesy of Online Collections (The Strong) / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

There’s also the not-insignificant appeal of Eden Ahbez, the Wanderer himself and the songwriter behind “Nature Boy.”  I covered Eden Ahbez here, this fascinating, quintessentially American character who also embodied, self-conciously, but still sort of admirably, “Nature Boy.”   “Nature Boy,” the song, is Eden Ahbez – a combination of autobiography and self-mythology.

I’m not alone in my fascination with the song. Since its million-selling treatment by Nat “King” Cole in 1948, it’s become a pop and jazz standard.  And it’s also inspired a decades-long, wildly varied body of readings across many styles.  This week’s three versions are but a few of my favorites.

Clete Grayson and the Thurston Trio, Nature Girl (Nature Boy) (Pacific PA-1007-A 45-111)1.  Clete Grayson and the Thurston Trio, Nature Girl (Nature Boy) (Pacific PA-1007-A 45-111)

Released in 1961 on what was almost certainly a Los Angeles-based label, there’s surprisingly little else to be learned of either Clete Grayson, the Thurston Trio or Pacific Records (which was unrelated to the more widely known Pacific Jazz / World Pacific Records).

Either way, Clete Grayson was certainly a capable vocalist, and he sings here with winning gusto. His lyrical gender transposition is a unique twist, and the professional production isn’t too shabby, either, with an emphatically rockin’ beat and an ondioline making a rare solo appearance during the instrumental break.

With any style of mainstream, mass-produced culture, no matter how commercial, there are bound to be a few nonconformists, oddballs that slip through the cracks in the guise, in this case, of conventional pop music.  One of thousands of teen pop and rock ‘n’ roll records being cranked out in the early ‘60s, “Nature Girl (Nature Boy)” might not have succeeded commercially – it’s just too strange – but it is unequivocally great.

(I owe my copy of this gem to Jack at the great Out of the Bubbling Dusk.   Thanks Jack.)

Richard Barbary: Soul Machine, Nature Boy (A&M 953)2.  Richard Barbary: Soul Machine, Nature Boy (A & M 953)

Richard Barbary is a puzzling case in the world of ‘60s R&B, a talented unknown who seems, after just one excellent, lavishly-produced album on a major label, to have just as quickly disappeared.

A singer with a smooth, world-weary baritone, Barbary had, at the time of this record, just one release under his belt – 1967’s “Get Right” b/w “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” the debut 45 for future soul powerhouse Spring Records.

But Barbary is better heard on his first LP, Richard Barbary: Soul Machine, which was rolled out with all the trimmings – sumptuous production, a cadre of cream-of-the-crop session players, deluxe gatefold album cover – by A&M Records in 1968.

Richard Barbary: Soul Machine

Richard Barbary: Soul Machine, the album.

Produced by Creed Taylor, arranged by studio veterans Artie Butler, Horace Ott and Jimmy Wisner and recorded by legendary jazz engineer Rudy Van Gelder, it’s an East Coast recording but, with its up-to-the-minute production qualities, a West Coast sounding record.  It seems to have been conceived somewhat in the style of a Lou Rawls, Willie Tee or Jerry Butler – smooth-voiced, sophisticated R&B singers with appeal to both pop and jazz markets.

“Nature Boy,” which is featured on Richard Barbary: Soul Machine, is one of the album’s highlights, both Barbary’s mellow reading and a subtle, Horace-Silver-influenced Afro-Latin jazz feel asserting the song’s inherent wistfulness.

A&M Records invested no small amount of stock in Barbary, perhaps cultivating him as their Lou Rawls.  But his debut would, sadly, and for reasons unknown, turn out to be his only album. Furthermore, it seems to have been his last recording, period.  I would love to know more of the story.

Etta Jones, Nature Boy (Prestige 45-237A)3.  Etta Jones, Nature Boy (Prestige 45-237 A)

Like other stylists who never quite got their due – Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln springing to mind – the great Etta Jones never crossed over much into the more visible worlds of R&B and pop music,  perhaps ultimately to the detriment of her career, though she was widely respected as one of the purest of all jazz vocalists.

Born in 1928 in South Carolina, Etta Jones came up in Harlem.  After winning the attention of bandleader Buddy Johnson at an Apollo talent contest in 1943, she joined his popular orchestra, her exposure thenceforth leading to more work, including gigs with drummer J.C. Heard and pianist Earl Hines, and a set of fascinating mid-‘40s releases recorded with Leonard Feather.

Jones seems to have sung jazz from the very outset of her professional career.  Her early recordings evince mature sensibilities – the Billie Holiday influence is at its most pronounced, and era-standard jump blues are suffused with deep feeling.  But, despite the early promise, Jones was not swept up in a bebop revolution that might have logically included her.  Her fortunes as an artist foundered as the 1950s progressed, but changed with 1960’s Don’t Go to Strangers, her debut full-length album recorded for the Prestige jazz label.  Don’t Go to Strangers was a commercial success, and many critics have since cited the album as a water mark (it was also earned her the first of three Grammy nominations in her lifetime).

Don’t Go to Strangers would in reality be but one of a large number of highly consistent sessions for Prestige Records during Jones’s reemergence in the first half of the ‘60s.  Her unusual reading of “Nature Boy” deserves a special place of honor here. Recorded and released in late 1962, her all-star support included Jerome Richardson (tenor saxophone), Sam Bruno (bass), Bobby Donaldson (drums) and either Kenny Burrell or Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar.  Though it didn’t ultimately find much commercial traction, Prestige sensed enough potential in its chugging, Latin beat to release it as a single to the relatively lucrative jukebox/R&B market.

Her Prestige Records run ended in the mid-‘60s, and though Jones was never again quite as prolific in the studio, her performing career resumed with renewed energy for the next decades, a long-time partnership with soul jazz saxophone stalwart Houston Person proving especially fruitful.

Etta Jones passed away in 2001 from complications of cancer.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura, Rock 'n' roll | 6 Comments

Jazz Exotique

A broader, more inclusive idea of exotica – exotica less as genre and more as creative style – is basically the central motive behind the Exotica Project, and a case I’m constantly building around here as well.

What has in last decade or two coalesced as exotica refers to a too-limited cluster of albums released by major labels (and nationally distributed independent labels) in the ’50s and ’60s.  These are the Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman and Yma Sumac LPs that Middle American audiences bought by the millions in the ’50s and ’60s, along with a set of a few dozen albums by similar artists that catered to the same audiences and that followed, with a few exceptions, the same formula – beautiful, colorful album jackets, faux-Polynesian, -African, -Eastern cocktail jazz and easy-orchestral settings.

In reality, though, exotica drew from a larger pool.  A world of forgotten singers, soloists, bands and orchestras used the basics of exotica – reverberant instrumentation, certain sets of musical motifs, some fanciful idea of other cultures and places – as an imaginative exercise, a platform for expending wild, colorful musical energies.  A wide variety of musical backgrounds, pedigrees and technical ability is represented accordingly, the records themselves reflecting an array of motives and approaches to music.   A lot of this music is very obscure, and only appears on 45.

Much of the most fascinating exotica was made by jazz musicians.  There were many – Herbie Mann, Ahmed Abdul Malik, Art Blakey, Lloyd Miller, to name a few – that made a concerted effort to incorporate indigenous rhythms, instrumentation and modes into their music with some degree of authenticity.  But there were just as many jazz musicians – especially some of the obscure examples charted at the Exotica Project – for whom the Exotic Other was complete fantasy, the relationship to the cultural forms being evoked indirect at best (and disrespectful at worst – a charge generally applicable to much of America’s pop culture).

Exotica as creative force afforded great latitude for taking chances with the music without having to justify it as an experimental and, either way, some of these obscure exotica records can and should be enjoyed as sonorous tone poems, pure, stand-alone reveries and atmospheric, crazy, intensely creative examples of the ways that post-War musicians explored moods, sounds and modes.

This week we look at three jazz exotica favorites.

Mike Baltch Quartet: "Delilah" [Green Dent 1008]1.  Mike Baltch Quartet, Delilah (Green Dent 1008)
From the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area of upstate New York, the Mike Baltch Quartet were a working group, though there’s little evidence of the group in terms of live appearances, or whether any additional recordings were made.

This selection was released in 1961 or ’62, I’d guess.  Of the four musicians noted on the 45’s back sleeve, drummer Mike Baltch, as bandleader, is actually the most obscure of the bunch, with little to be found aside from his listed freelance support work.  Based on his picture at the drums on the sleeve, he appears to be in his late teens or early twenties at the time.

Mike Baltch Quartet: "Delilah" [Green Dent 1008]Better known are the quartet’s pianist John McLean and bassist Mike Flanagan.

McLean, a mainstay in upstate jazz circles, was long associated with saxophone legends J.R. Montrose and Nick Brignola, and, in addition to supporting touring jazz musicians for many years, he led his own groups for many years.  (McLean passed away in 2011.)

Flanagan led his own group as well – Mike Flanagan’s Hot Six – and played bass in the area into the ‘90s with other local jazz combos.  He later operated the Petit Paris restaurant in Albany.

Mike Baltch Quartet: "Delilah" [Green Dent 1008]Saxophonist Bob Cedar was early on fully immersed in the New York City bebop life but had established himself more or less for good in San Francisco by the mid-‘50s, where he continued to play informally, and where he emerged as something of a North Beach character with, alas, bouts of alcoholism and homelessness.  Cedar’s handiwork on “Delilah” likely took place between long-term residencies in San Francisco.  He is clearly heard in full command of his powers.

This record gathered together different types of musicians and personalities, but, of the many ’50s and ’60s jazz treatments of Victor Young’s “Delilah,” it is to my ears not only one of the deepest versions, but also a definitive version.   Released on R&B singer Joe Boatner’s tiny Green Dent label, Baltch and co. conjure, through stark arrangement and ample echo, dim-lit clubland interiors and ancient temptresses to mesmerizing effect.

Orpheus Four: "Caverns" [Orpheus OR-101-B]2.  Orpheus Four, Caverns (Orpheus OR-101-B)
How to describe this gem succinctly?

The Orpheus Four’s story plays out along the arcs of two intertwined Los Angeles-based ’60s Latin jazz groups: the Afro-Latin Soultet and the Afro Blues Quintet.

In addition to sharing a few members, these groups – along with fellow travelers like the Harold Johnson Sextet – shared a sensibility, taking the cool, exotic Latin jazz sound of earlier West Coast maestros like Cal Tjader, Tony Martinez and Bobby Montez and adapting it to slightly hipper soul jazz, Bossa Nova and pop sensibilities.

Another crucial player in the Orpheus Four story is Jack Millman, also known as Johnny Kitchen.  Originally a West Coast-based jazz trumpeter (there were a few bop-oriented albums to his name in the ‘50s), Millman returned, after a brief retirement in the early ’60s, to the business side of the West Coast music industry, pursuing work as a manager and publisher.  Among his charges would be both the Afro Blues Quintet and the Afro-Latin Soultet.

Millman not only helped manage and promote these groups, but he saw to the release of their recordings.  Some of this material found relatively legitimate outlet in its time.¹  And some of this material saw later, questionable budget label reuse, like the Afro Blues Quintet’s Guantanamera (Surrey) and Afro-Blues Today (Crestview) albums.

The most obscure of this latter bunch is the Afro-Soultet’s Afrodesia LP, privately pressed on Banyon Records at some point in the late ’60s or early ’70s.  In true budget label fashion, Afrodesia comes together as an album from a melange of musicians and sessions, and suffers a bit from some obviously overdubbed strings in parts.  Furthermore, one track, “Soul Rockin’,” was simply a retitled Afro-Latin Soultet track, and another, “Afro Revolt,” was lifted from an unrelated jazz group’s session tapes.²

Afrodesia is, not surprisingly, a varied stylistic exercise.  Modish Latin jazz and instrumental boogaloo, breezy ’60s easy-listening, straight ahead bop, Afro-percussion interludes and various “ethnic” accountrements all get space.  There is a mad vibe to it, but, because the styles represented are so much of their time and, on top of that, they just sounded so groovy together, it works.

Which finally brings us to the Orpheus Four.  Both this track and its flipside (“The Shepherd”) were released on the one-off Orpheus label circa 1968, and, significantly, these two sides too would later turn up on the Afrodesia album, retitled as “Le Berber” (in edited form) and “Mozamba,” respectively.

Whether or not the “Alex Garcia” listed on the label, or whether any of the (likely inaccurate and/or pseudonymous) personnel listed on Afrodesia’s back cover – Joseph “Little Joe” DeAguero, (vibes, and formerly of the Afro Blues Quintet), Frank Morris (guitar), Eddie Paris (drums), Johnny Kitchen (AKA Jack Millman, drums), Dean Elliot  (percussion), William Quinn (flute and sax) and Bill Collins (piano) – can be positively stated to have played on “Caverns” is anyone’s guess.

My own suspicion is that “Caverns” was a DeAguero-helmed recording and that its flipside “The Shepherd” was taken from an unreleased-at-the-time Afro-Latin Soultet session.

Either way, “Caverns” is a terrific 45, an otherworldly, wholly unique tone poem, one of those records where, from the first shimmering vibraphone notes onwards, it’s instantly clear that something special is happening.  It’s also a fascinating glimpse into machinations of the city’s local record industry in that time.

To read a more about the Johnny Kitchen saga (which I have greatly reduced here), please check the Ubiquity Records blog, who interviewed Kitchen/Millman for the occasion of the recent Afrodesia reissue.   And pick up the reissue while you’re at it – it’s a highly-recommended artifact.

¹ The Afro Blues Quintet had four LPs on local indie Mira Records.  The Afro-Latin Soultet had two albums on Capitol subsidiary Tower in ’66 and ’67, though their personnel changed entirely between these two LPs.

² The Afro-Soultet’s “Soul Rockin’” had been released earlier as “Afro Breed” on the Afro-Latin Soultet’s Wild! Album from 1966.  Even more curiously, Afrodesia‘s “Afro Revolt” was taken from an earlier session by a similar but entirely unrelated West Coast group, the Jazz Corps.  The track appears as “Chalan Pogo” on the Jazz Corps’s fine album (The Jazz Corps under the direction of Tommy Peltier featuring Roland Kirk), originally released in 1966 on the Pacific Jazz label.

Ross Anderson Chorus and Orch.: "Tam-bu Theme" [Channel 45-7002]3.  Ross Anderson Chorus and Orch., Tam-bu Theme (Channel 45-7002)
Unrelated to jazz  saxophonist and fellow Chicagoan Ross Anderson, the Ross Anderson behind “Tam-bu Theme” was the leader of a working dance orchestra that played in the greater Chicago area during the 1960s.

Every large city had at least one of these groups in its post-War decades.  Though these vestiges of the big band era would never really achieve much in the way of mass currency again, they kept apace with the times with hipper contemporary arrangements and repertoire, even the occasional bop solo.

In Ross Anderson’s case, his several releases demonstrate a polished, competent orchestra that reflected some of the jazzier, Latin-tinged moments of easy maestros like Warren Barker and Les Baxter.  Even by these measures, “Tam-bu Theme” is extraordinary, a dramatic fantasia with deep, sultry atmosphere and great production values, and easily a highlight of Anderson’s discography.

Released in 1961, “Tam-bu Theme” followed Anderson’s debut 45 (“Topaz” b/w “Blues Train”) by several months.  Both were released on Channel Records in 1961.  All of Anderson’s releases – including a 1966 45 (“That Certain Feeling” b/w “Tuff Cat”) and a full-length album (Misty) the following year – seem to have come through his own Channel Records label.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura, Latin, The Exotica Project | 5 Comments

AM Radio Dust

AM Radio Dust


A new, or new to Office Naps, mix this week.

AM Radio Dust was my 2009 contribution to the annual CD mix swap over at the Waxidermy forums, the weird id of contemporary record collecting.

AM Radio Dust is a good reflection of where my tastes as a collector and music enthusiast stand.  It’s a parallel universe of sound, a lost, echo-y place of girl-groups, instrumental obscurities, haunted country singers and teen crooners, inadvertent drone and difficult-to-classify, space-age flotsam.

I did choose to re-record (320kpbs) and re-mix the original tracks, however, which suffered from some variable bit rates and generally poor mastering.  As always, nothing was cleaned up, though, no pops or clicks removed.  So here it is.

AM Radio Dust
(single MP3 file)

AM Radio Dust

(zip file with mixed tracks)

The Houstons, “Solar Light”
The Caravelles, “Hey Mama You’ve Been On My Mind”
Jimmy Barden & Donna Byrd, “It’s Never Easy”
Undecided?, “Make Her Cry”
Shadow Casters, “Going to the Moon”
Kumar Basnyet, “Chyangba Ta Naun”
Donald Adkins, “Lonley Side Walks”
Joe D. Gibson, “21 Years (It Takes a Worried Man)”
Jerry Williams & the Epics, “Whatever You Do”
Ervin Litkei, “Music to Play E-S-P By”
The Ultra Mates, “Pitter Patter”
Andrew Paul with Music by The Agents, “A Hearts Not a Toy”
The Desert Rats, “Sohonie”
The Stratfords, “Never Leave Me”
Red Garrison and His Zodiacs, “Chant of the Jungle”
Tracy Pendarvis and the Swampers, “A Thousand Guitars”
Holmes Sisters, “The Love of Jesus”
Ronny Kae, “Swinging Drums”
The Lawrence Comp., “Moon Beams”
Wilbert Harrison, “Happy in Love”
Buddy Long, “It’s Nothin’ to Me”
Johnny Williams, “Another Love”
Bill Osborn – Guitar Solo By Doug Allen, “Bamboo and Rice”
Little John and The Monks, “Black Winds”
Lorrie Collins, “Another Man Done Gone”
Willie Gregg and the Velvetones, “You Fool”
Mona Davis, “I’ll Pick Up My Heart”
Billy Sol and the Thunderbirds, “When You’re Alone”

Posted in Country, Exotica/Space-Age, Garage Bands, Gospel, Instrumentals/Surf, Mixes, Now Sound, R&B/Vocal Groups, Rock 'n' roll | 20 Comments

The Cave

This week, both a Halloween-themed post and an iteration of a familiar Office Naps theme: Namely, the ways in which certain phenomena – natural, geographical, supernatural, technological, etc. – get played out in entertaining, cinematic ways in pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll and pop.  (See also: The Desert, The Sea, The Desert Island, Space, etc.)

So The Cave, then.  Not only is there something very evocative about this week’s selections, but they intersect gracefully with what was then going on in ’50s Hollywood B-movies.  Everything from Eegah (1962) and Night of the Blood Beast (1958) to Beast of Haunted Cave (1959) and Invisible Invaders (1959) – naming just a few – situated the cave as some locus of action.  The cave was the lair, the labyrinth, opaque darkness, the den of horrors.

Beast of Haunted Cave

The cave as another rock 'n' roll archetype this week. Image from Monte Hellman's 1959 movie Beast From Haunted Cave. Image courtesy of the indispensible Bad Movies.

A discussion of the psychological symbolism of the cave I leave to others.  If it made for a good filming location or dramatic cinematic motif then, somewhere, somehow, there was a 45 that appropriated it, and, suffice it to say, the cave was no different.  The concept of the haunted cave or underground alien hideout was, in fact, not only peculiarly well-suited to post-War paranoia but also to rock ‘n’ roll in general, the instrumental form then a proven chart commodity, the crucial, heavy use of echo redolent of subterranean acoustics.

As the teenaged market for rock ‘n’ roll novelties expanded to include various odd – and, in the case of these selections, spooky – themes and concepts, the cave would receive some fascinating, strangely effective treatments in turn.

Gary “Spider” Webb, The Cave (Part I) (Bamboo 504)1.  Gary “Spider” Webb, The Cave (Part I) (Bamboo 504)
Drummer Gary Webb is perhaps best known to rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts for his participation in the Hollywood Argyles; Webb was part of the hastily assembled crew of musicians that toured on the chart strength of the 1960 R&B-ish novelty hit “Alley-Oop.”  (The “real” Hollywood Argyles were a handful Los Angeles R&B and pop session musicians studio put together by Hollywood producer and character Gary Paxton for what was an informal studio lark.)

Prior to his involvement with the Argyles, Webb was enlisted overseas in the Navy for several years, where he’d played drums in the Jumpin’ Jacks, a service group.  After his return to the states, and just prior to his involvement with Hollywood Argyles, Webb was signed to the Los Angeles-based independent Donna Records in early 1960, cutting “Drum City” (a swinging instrumental somewhat in the style of Sandy Nelson) for the label a few months later.

Gary “Spider” Webb, The Cave (Part II) (Bamboo 504)2.  Gary “Spider” Webb, The Cave (Part II) (Bamboo 504)
“The Cave,” released in April of 1961, was the second, and last, of Gary Webb’s releases as a group leader.  Certainly “The Cave” is much headier, atmospheric stuff than the average novelty churned by the Los Angeles independent labels of the era.  “The Cave” also borrows much from the murky, menacing production and strange character voices of Bobby Christian and the Allen Sisters’ 1958 horror opus “The Spider & the Fly,” adding tremolo guitar, lunatic jungle drums and heaps of teen psychosexual drama in the process.

During much of the ‘60s, Gary Webb played in the supporting band for flamboyant Los Angeles club fixture, singer Troy Walker, but, after that, there’s unfortunately little else to be found about him.

Chuck Holden, The Cave (Unique 358)3.  Chuck Holden, The Cave (Unique 358)
The Charles Holden Orchestra was a supper-club affair with a long residency as the house orchestra at Manhattan’s chic El Morocco nightclub in the 1950s and ‘60s.   Holden’s sole album, 1957’s Dancing at the El Morocco, consisted of stolid arrangements of numbers like “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” “Putting on the Ritz,” and “That Old Black Magic” – about as polite as it got.

Likewise, Unique Records, a New York City-based record label that operated in the ‘50s, had a discography essentially dedicated to releases by hotel orchestras, cabaret singers and aging entertainers.  Few concessions were made at Unique Records to rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, jazz or contemporary music of any kind; it was a strange, staid relic of a bygone era.

Charles Holden & His Orchestra, Dancing at the El Morocco

Charles Holden’s 1957 LP, Dancing at the El Morocco. Nothing could be further from “The Cave.” Image courtesy of bsnpubs.

I belabor this not because “The Cave” is just an extraordinary record, but because the psychic distance between everything about its conservative pedigree on one hand and its effect in reality on the other is quite jarring.

Released in 1956, there is, even today, nothing conservative about “The Cave.”  Its indecipherable moans, its unearthly piano string runs, its peculiar zither chords: the effect is somewhere between haunted house and Avant-Garde theater piece.  Nothing, really, could prepare one for this record.   It might have been marketed as a sort of novelty, I suppose, but no trace of humor or fun lightens “The Cave”’s dreary atmosphere.  Not a particularly easy record to listen to, but certainly effective.

Richie Allen, Cave Man (Imperial 5872)4.  Richie Allen, Cave Man (Imperial 5872)
A solo-and-session-guitarist-turned-producer with a strong trademark sound, Richie Allen’s is a somewhat old-school profile, and a very Southern Californian one at that, especially in the context of the post-War pop music business.  A future Office Naps post will be dedicated entirely to some of his early recordings but, in the meantime, here’s “Cave Man,” an instrumental he released in 1962.

Born Richard Allen Podolor (and best known as Richie Podolor) in 1940 in California, Allen showed prodigious musical talents as well as a knack – starting with his instrumental support for singer Bonnie Guitar on her haunting “Dark Moon,” a 1957 hit – for negotiating the music industry.

Allen also recorded early on as a leader, including 1958’s “I Love You Girl (And I Need You So),” a good Buddy Holly-influenced rocker.  But it’s Allen’s very first 45 as a solo artist, 1958’s “Samoa,” that’s particularly significant.  An atmospheric instrumental with elegant, minor-key riffs, “Samoa” would, in a moment, not only anticipate the moodier instrumental surf music spectrum, but would also anticipate the aesthetic of Allen’s ‘60s oeuvre as both a solo guitarist and producer.  (Allen would also re-record “Samoa” several times in these early years.)

Allen stayed busy in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, composing songs, playing live (as part of the Pets), forging further connections with Los Angeles studios and cutting many sessions, including, mostly famously, a series of Sandy Nelson’s hit rock ‘n’ roll instrumentals like “Teen Beat” and “Let There Be Drums.”  With demand for his talents as a session guitarist, solo recording opportunities arose, culminating in three instrumental guitar LPs – Stranger from Durango, The Rising Surf and the early compilation Surfer’s Slide – all released by Imperial Records between 1961 and 1963.

Like many of the era’s studio-created guitar instrumental albums, these tended to be a bit generic – the surf-themed LPs only nominally sounded like surf music – but the best moments – like “The Rising Surf,” “Haunted Guitar” and “Stranger from Durango” – nonetheless demonstrated Allen’s stately, booming guitar riffs to great effect.   Among these moments is also “Cave Man,” released in September of 1962.   Moody, if not spooky, and with a great Spagetti Western flavor, it is the logical extension of Allen’s “Samoa” sound.

Allen continued to avail himself of studio opportunities, forming a fruitful relationship with producer Gary Usher, then doing much to capitalize on the surf craze, with notable session contributions for various Usher vehicles like the Devons, the Hondells and the Super Stocks in 1963 and 1964.

There were other exciting recordings made as a guitarist, among them the Ghoul’s surf-monster exploitation LP Dracula’s Deuce and 1966’s epic 45 version of “Stranger from Durango.”  But Allen’s engineering handiwork for groups like the Monkees and Electric Prunes began to supersede his role as an instrumentalist as the ‘60s wore on.  Even so, Allen’s tastes occasionally surfaced in fascinating ways – a clear line can be drawn, for instance, between Allen’s majestic psychedelic instrumentals for the Chocolate Watchband (“Expo 2000″ and “Dark Side of the Mushroom”) and his “Samoa.”

In the late ‘60s, Allen found still greater success working as a producer, most famously for Three Dog Night and Steppenwolf, with big hits (including “Joy to the World” and “Born to be Wild”) for both.   Work with other heavyweights – including Iron Butterfuly, Black Oak Arkansas, Phil Seymour and Dillards – would follow in the coming decades, an entirely different chapter better documented elsewhere.

Thanks to Black Cat Rockabilly for some of the Richie Allen/Podolor information.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Instrumentals/Surf | 4 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.