I’ve talked a lot about the ascendance of the guitar instrumental in the interstices of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll and ‘60s rock, how the nascent rock ‘n’ roll was sustained by the instrumental form during those years, how bands like the Trashmen, Johnny & the Hurricanes, Link Wray and his Raymen and countless others filled clubs, armory halls, and high school dances with wild, vital, electric music.
I’ve talked, too, about the guitar instrumental’s manipulation of atmosphere, its sort of homespun impressionism. Lots of motifs and themes got thrown around in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, various combos freely mixing their American archetypes and B-movie motifs in a clamor of echo, space-age guitar riffs and crashing drums. Trains, outer space and science fiction, American Indians and the West, beatniks, wild animals, classical mythology, the Far East, the jungle, natural and meteorological phenomena, gangs and the city streets, and the supernatural were just a favorite few among many images and themes evoked, with surf music, at the chronological end of the continuum, the greatest, sleekest efflorescence of them all.
This post’s selections are one peculiar iteration of the guitar instrumental phenomenon. They form a loose and obvious conceit for a post, and a roundabout continuation of this very early post, but one that goes a long way in demonstrating a point I like to make.
A compelling riff or melodic arrangement was a prerequisite for a great guitar instrumental. Production aside, the riffs and arrangement were the guitar instrumental. And it helped for some dramatic motif – some menace, mystery or exoticism – to give shape to the recording’s sense of atmosphere and emotion. There was nothing necessarily precise about the instrumental, though, no particular magic to its creation. Just as often it was the title that eventually determined the particular type of tableaux, image or mood being conveyed.
The trick, often, was not just how you did the song, but how you named the song.
1. The Sherwoods, El Scorpion (Maggie 501)
The Sherwoods were a rock ‘n’ coll combo who operated along the margins of New York City’s pop music scene in the late ‘50s and early-to-mid-‘60s.
Biographical details of the group are meager, but its core songwriters seem to have been Joseph Renda, Frank DiGiacomo, and Zacharie Clements – all classmates from White Plains. New York City’s record industry, though irrevocably losing ground to Los Angeles as the center of pop music commerce, was still a powerhouse in the early ‘60s. With some talent and ambition, one could manage steady work, as the Sherwoods did, backing local singers (Johnny Schilling and Tony Reno), nailing down some songwriting credits (for black vocal group the Shells and, strangely, for French entertainer Henri Gabriel Salvador), and turning out a handful of somewhat dated, if fun, instrumentals, vocals, and R&B/twist-style 45s along the way.
Highlights of the Sherwoods’s discography include 1963’s rockin’ “Monkey See, Monkey Do” and their last 45 record as a group, 1965’s “Shotgun”-derivative “Ice Cream.” But it’s the terrific “El Scorpion,” released on the tiny Maggie label in 1961, that stands out. It’s nothing too complicated, just a simple, elegant arrangement of Lecuona-style riffs and faux-Eastern organ vamps, a mix of twist and gloriously heedless exoticism for uptown dancers.
Of the three songwriters here, it was Renda who remained most active in local industry, founding the Ren-Vell studios in White Plains in the mid-‘60s and thereafter – a bizarre 1981 album of disco-novelty-rock as Crazy Joe and the Variable Speed Band notwithstanding – working behind-the-scenes as an area producer and studio operator. DiGiacomo seems to have disappeared from the pages of music history, and Clements later became a teacher and motivational speaker.
2. The Storms, Tarantula (Sundown 45-114)
The Storms were technically the backing band for Jody Reynolds. Reynolds, born in 1932, was a talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist who toured with country artists and played rock ‘n’ roll guitar early on in the southern Plains and the Southwest. Relocating to California, he succeeded in interesting the Los Angeles-based indie Demon Records in his death-dirge “Endless Sleep.” Recorded at Gold Star Studio in 1958, the session produced a brilliant song – the biggest of Reynold’s career – but also introduces Al Casey, who played on the session at Demon Records’s insistence, into the story.
Guitarist Casey is another unsung hero of rock ‘n’ roll and the subject, I’m hoping, of a future post. Born in 1936, Casey got his start in Arizona as part of the fascinating ‘50s Arizona rock ‘n’ roll and country scene, the same milieu that got Lee Hazlewood, Duane Eddy and Sanford Clark started, among many others, artists whose early records tended to share an overarching aesthetic due to sheer proximity and Casey’s ubiquity. Even in his teens, Casey was backing everyone, live and on records – dozens upon dozens of them – his exquisite tone most famously propelling Sanford Clark’s “The Fool,” a hypnotic masterpiece of early rock ‘n’ roll.
By the late ‘50s, Casey was dividing his time between Phoenix and the West Coast, his path crossing with Reynolds in Los Angeles for the “Endless Sleep” session. Casey, thereafter a de facto member of the Storms, would join Howard Roberts (rhythm guitar) and Noel Stutte (bass) on a series of Reynolds’s follow-up singles. None of these ever achieved the same popular success, but “Tarantula,” recorded in 1959, would perhaps remain the Storms’ finest moment. Session saxophonist Plas Johnson joins them here, but “Tarantula” truly is Casey’s record, his cavernous licks instantly identifiable and dominating the record. Rarely would rock ‘n’ roll guitar be so redolent of the high desert.
Reynolds remained in Southern California, running a music store, working in real estate, and occasionally playing music. He passed away in November, 2008. Casey, too, continued in Los Angeles. He enjoyed a few instrumental hits in the early ‘60s as the Al Casey Combo, and a surf LP lark (Surfin’ Hootenany), but the preponderance of his work came as a prolific commercial pop, easy-listening and rock session guitarist. He returned to Arizona in 1983, remaining active in music until his death in September, 2006.
3. Cecil Moore, Diamond Back (Sarg 206-45)
Cecil Moore was a talented guitarist and singer who grew up singing and playing country in his early years and who found a fleeting niche with his series of hot rock ‘n’ roll guitar instrumentals.
Born in 1929 in Luling, a small central Texas oil town, Moore, some time in Korea excepted, would remain in the area for the entirety of his musical career, working the rural Texas club and dancehall circuit as both a backing musician and as leader of the Notes. Earliest recordings under Moore’s aegis – most of his recordings, period – were recorded for release on Charlie Fitch’s Sarg Records, a clearinghouse for local rock ‘n’ roll, country, polka and conjunto, and a label that epitomized what was great about regional indies and Texas music. Moore’s first batch of recordings were good ‘50s country- and R&B-inflected rock ‘n’ roll.
It wouldn’t be until 1964 and the release of this atmospheric burner, however, that Moore enjoyed any broader chart success. Not much in the way of melody on “Diamond Back,” just Southwestern-y rhythm and gorgeous guitar tone – and the suggestion of its title, of course – again deftly summoning the desert environment.
Alas, Moore, isolated in central Texas and away from the big studios, would never fully capitalize on his talents. Guitar instrumentals would never be as popular again, and though a series of similar, often great, sides from Moore would follow, “Diamond Back” would be his crowning commercial moment.
Moore seems to have largely retired from music by the ‘80s. He passed away in February, 2006.