It’s not the psychedelized, socially conscious soul of Sly & the Family Stone or Cloud Nine-era Temptations I’m talking about. Nor is it the tripped-out voodoo of the first Funkadelic record (Funkadelic) either, though that’s getting a bit closer to it. Jimi Hendrix was too much his own inimitable entity, and the Equals (of “Baby Come Back” fame) were British (via the West Indies) and just not very psychedelic.
If we’re discussing successful early prototypes of black psychedelic rock this week, it must be the Chambers Brothers’ 1967 “Time” (hear an excerpt here). A major pop hit, “Time” (along with its full eleven-minute album version) was an excellent example of early psychedelia, its demented weirdness matched, against all odds, by its commercial achievement. “Time,” like all of this week’s selections, was music realized in that brief window when, if they weren’t desperately casting about for new formulas in psychedelia’s puzzling tumult, major record labels were actually taking chances on new artists and configurations of artists. Marketed to mostly white audiences, this was a rare and fleeting form of psychedelia before soul evolved into the socially-, culturally- and politically-engaged funk, transforming everything irrevocably.
Sly, Funkadelic, “Say It Loud”-era James Brown: theirs was music that, like “white” psychedelia, had a conscience. Theirs was music that was countercultural, colorful, rhythmic, and long enough to permit extended flights of instrumental fancy. But theirs originated in African-American communities – rather than from external agencies like major label record companies. Even if it did enjoy crossover success, funk captured an ethos in a way that immediately obviated the sort of industry efforts that, no matter how good the intention, went into coupling R&B; and soul singers with psychedelic instrumentation – like, for instance, this week’s ephemeral curios.
Of course, it’s just such ephemeral curios that I’m most interested in. So let’s take a look.
1. Larry Williams & Johnny Watson with The Kaleidoscope, Nobody (Okeh)
Maybe the most unlikely of an unlikely bunch this week, “Nobody” unites shimmering ethno-psychedelic rock with the world of rhythm & blues.
Larry Williams’s career began in the early ‘50s as a session pianist at Cosimo Matassa’s New Orleans recording studios. He briefly joined Lloyd Price’s band, and thereafter earned a name for himself as an R&B; shouter with late ‘50s hits like “Short Fat Fannie,” “Bony Moronie,” “Bad Boy” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” on the great Specialty label. In the early ‘60s, Williams relocated to the West Coast, there working as a producer and A&R; man for Okeh (Columbia Records’ R&B; subsidiary) and a handful of other California labels. Never quite able to revive his early successes as a recording artist, Williams lived out the sort of disreputable life that you expect of the echt R&B; musician, succumbing to a gunshot wound in 1980 that, depending on who you ask, was not necessarily self-inflicted.
When Williams’ friend, the multi-instrumentalist Johnny Watson, arrived in early ‘50s Los Angeles, he’d already gigged with Houston bluesmen like Johnny Copeland and Albert Collins. Still in his teens, Watson toiled in Los Angeles as a session guitarist and, a year or two later, he’d begin making – now as Johnny “Guitar” Watson – a string of gutsy R&B; singles. These included, amongst many others, the stratospheric 1954 instrumental “Space Guitar,” his autobiographical “Gangster of Love” (re-recorded in 1963 and again in 1978), and his biggest ‘50s hit, the swamp pop-flavored “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights.” Watson would continue recording and performing in the ‘60s in a more uptown, sophisticated soul style. It wouldn’t be until the ‘70s that Watson would finally find his enduring fame, however, with his funky Southern blues persona: the “Gangster of Love.”
In the mid-‘60s Williams and Watson joined briefly together for a few fine duet releases on the Okeh label. There were obvious similarities in their career trajectories up to this point. Both were hardened, Gulf Coast-born R&B; musicians. Both maintained ties to the criminal underworld: as a musician, Watson earned money on the side as a pimp (or vice-versa, according to Peter Guralnick), and Williams had a criminal record for dealing drugs and extensive involvement, it was rumored, in prostitution.
From 1967, their exceptional “Nobody” features the instrumentation of the Kaleidoscope, a preternaturally eclectic California group who, with varying degrees of success, were fusing elements of Middle Eastern music, folk, and psychedelia in the late ‘60s. Was it Kaleidoscope’s bohemian influence, or was it just the beatific vibes afoot in the Summer of Love? Either way, both Larry Williams and Johnny “Guitar” Watson were able to momentarily suspend their darker natures for this improbable Aquarian artifact.
Check out Richie Unterberger’s great interview with the Kaleidoscope’s multi-instrumentalist and founder Chris Darrow, who recounts the “Nobody” session in great detail.
2. Junior Parker, Tomorrow Never Knows (Capitol)
Born Herman Parker in the blues mecca of Clarksdale, Mississippi, Junior Parker cut some raucous R&B; sides early in his career as “Little Junior Parker” for Memphis’s Sun Records (in the label’s pre-Elvis, pre-rockabilly years). It was a prolific stretch at Houston’s Duke Records in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, though, that showcased the smooth, warm vocals and brassy R&B; for which Parker is still best known.
In the mid-‘60s, Parker was recording in a more soul-inflected style for the Mercury label. In 1970, when this selection was recorded, it was an era of aging bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf making some pretty dire psychedelic rock albums. Parker’s version of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” appeared on what was marketed by Capitol Records as Parker’s “heavy” record, Outside Man. Outside Man was actually more a sort of funky electric blues album, however – and not a bad one at that. Still, “Tomorrow Never Knows” was easily its highpoint.
When Parker intones, “Listen to the color of your dreams,” it sounds like some stark moonlight incantation. If “Tomorrow Never Knows” was the Beatles at their most blindingly experimental, then Parker (with the help of veteran jazz and pop arranger Horace Ott) manages to do the impossible by retaining the original’s spookily psychedelic flavo
r and transforming it into something entirely his own.
3. Pepper & the Shakers, Semi-Psychedelic (It Is) (Coral)
This group, at least according to my sources, is thought to be the same Pepper & the Shakers who cut a rare Doo-wop record for Kentucky’s Chetwyd Records in ’59.
I’m not entirely sure it’s the same group. I’m not entirely sure this was an African-American – or integrated, at least – group, for that matter. It puts me in the somewhat problematic position of assaying the race of a singer from the sound of his voice, but for the sake of a complete post and a satisfyingly obscure theme, I’m including “Semi-Psychedelic (It Is).”
Actually, the whole concept of “semi-psychedelic” seemed a bit problematic for me at the outset. A few paroxysms of fuzztone and Echoplex delay later, though, and I had a much better sense of it.
This relic was recorded in 1967.