Organ safari

Rarely did exotic masquerade as authentic.  That’s part of what made exotica exotica: an odd minor key or flourish of African percussion here, some warmed-over Arabic melody there.

Exotica, in all of its post-War musical splendor, created an aura of mystery and taboo with only a vague musical relationship to the culture it simultaneously tried to evoke.  In the hands of Les Baxter, for instance, a composition described within an album’s liner notes as “Congolese-inspired” might otherwise have no audible connection to African music.  Being told that there was a connection was enough for many listeners.  All of this gets problematic, of course.  To so casually invoke the exotic is to invite old stereotypes about the “primitive” and a sorry history of Western ethnocentricism.

This week’s selections skirt the issue somewhat by completely transcending any geographic or cultural source of inspiration. That’s why I love the more obscure strains of exotica – even early psychedelia.  They maintained a basic degree of air-conditioned comfort for the sedentary daydreamer, but, in leveraging the idea of the exotic, musicians could paint with wilder, weirder strokes than they might have conventionally used.

Jimmie McGriff, Jungle Cat (Part 1) (Jell 502)1. Jimmie McGriff, Jungle Cat (Part 1) (Jell 502)
Philadelphia organist Jimmy McGriff, born in 1936, was one of the most successful organists of his generation.

Though rooted in gospel and blues traditions, McGriff was also a trendsetter.  His 1962 hit – an instrumental version of Ray Charles’s “I Got a Woman” – was a massive crossover success, a benchmark in the jukebox-friendly idiom that would coalesce in the ’60s as “soul jazz.”

Jimmie McGriff, Jungle Cat (Part 2) (Jell 502)2. Jimmie McGriff, Jungle Cat (Part 2) (Jell 502)
Exotic, Latin-influenced jazz from 1964, McGriff’s obscure “Jungle Cat” is an anomaly among his generally blues-oriented work, however.

McGriff is joined on “Jungle Cat” by his longtime guitarist Larry Frazier (with a stunning solo on part two) as well as his brother Hank (on bongos). Together they lurch forward into a thick, fetid gloom of studio echo, leaving it to the listener to decide whether they ever emerged again.

McGriff, a legendary, prolific career to his name, passed away in 2008.

Walter Bolen, Lion Hunt (Part Two) (Pick-A-Hit 101-B)3. Walter Bolen, Lion Hunt (Part Two)(Pick-A-Hit 101)
From July 10, 2011, an update.

A great pleasure to hear recently from Walt Bolen, who filled me in on the backstory behind “Lion Hunt,” as well as some of his own biography.

Walt Bolen, born in 1948, was raised in the San Fernando Valley, California.  His was a musical family, especially on the side of his mother, Alma Bowser Bolen (who was also related to pioneering bop pianist Bud Powell by marriage).

In addition to a Hammond A-105 organ at home, Bolen would grow up playing organ in the church, as well as participating in the San Fernando school system’s music program.   Bolen attended one of the few high schools in the area with a Hammond console, taking classes there under the supervision of Mrs. Thelma Becky, the school’s choir teacher.

“[I was] looking to gain popularity among my school mates and friends. Music was my way of doing that,” Bolen notes.  It was 1966, Bolen’s senior year at San Fernando High School, when he first wrote “Lion Hunt,” which was partly inspired by Les Baxter’s exotica standard “Quiet Village.”

Walt Bolen, 1966

Walt Bolen, age eighteen, 1966. From a newspaper article, image courtesy of Walt Bolen.

In 1966, Bolen and Adolphus Alsbrook – a veteran jazz bassist and arranger introduced to Bolen through his horn player friend Carl Smith – went into Los Angeles’s legendary Gold Star Studios to record.  There, joined by a drummer, and with charts written by Alsbruck, they used the Hammond organ to lay down the basic tracks for “Lion Hunt.”   Saxophone and guitar parts would be added by session players in turn.

In 1967, Los Angeles record producer and impresario Bobby Sanders released the recording on Pick-A-Hit Records, one of several labels he operated at the time.  Somewhat to Bolen’s surprise, the B-side of the single – “Lion Hunt (Part Two),” that is – was the same recording, only with dubbed-in lion sound effects, an idea that was entirely Alsbrook’s.

Bolen remained in the San Fernando area in the ensuing years, teaching music, playing lounge and club gigs, and making some (unreleased) home recordings. In the early ‘70s, Bolen and his friends Willard and Ernestine Stroud formed the Ar-Que recording company, for whom he released a strong 45 – “Breaking Out” b/w “Peace Chant” – in 1972.

Walt Bolen otherwise remained away from commercially released music until more recent years.  Bolen, who now resides in Antelope Valley, California, remains active in music to this day, returning to his roots and playing organ for his church.  He’s also released a CD of his own inspirational material – The Casting of Pearls – which is available at cdbaby.com or through his facebook page.  Please do check out more of Walt Bolen.

Many thanks to Walt Bolen for contacting me, and for the great conversation and great music.

4. The Living End, Jumpin’ At the Lion’s Gate (Bolo B-757-B)The Living End, Jumpin’ At the Lion’s Gate (Bolo B-757-B)
Like other regions, the Pacific Northwest had its own circumscribed rock ‘n’ roll scene in the twilight years before the British Invasion. Popular groups like the Kingsmen, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Wailers and the Sonics all emerged from the scene, honing their raucous R&B-infused version of rock ‘n’ roll on the Northwest’s club circuit and mixing it up with versatile, sometimes racially integrated, seven- and eight-piece horn combos.

If this selection’s flipside – a tight James Brown-inspired instrumental entitled “Skyride” – is any indication, the Living End were pretty typical of the scene. “Jumpin’ At the Lion’s Gate,” is another story. Part mod jazz instrumental, part go-go floorshow romp, the Living End didn’t necessarily set out to be exotic, but this still probably sounded pretty primal after throwing back a few Coffee Grogs fireside at Kona Kove.

The lone record by the Living End, “Jumpin’ At the Lion’s Gate” was released on Bolo, which, along with sister label Seafair, was one of the Pacific Northwest’s great indie labels.  (Sharp-eyed readers might remember another Seafair/Bolo 45 from this post.)   Released in 1966, it was also something of a symbolic endnote in the chronology of the early Northwest sound.

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13 Responses to Organ safari

  1. Anonymous says:

    lovin that jungle cat

    l. frazier has such a gruff way with the guitar.. nice nice nice

    hey danny – just found a chet baker cut called “speedy gonzalez”

    nothing too crazy but hell it’s called speedy gonzalez and that just makes me happy – so easily pleased I am

    slow poke

  2. Congrats – I’m always in search of namesake songs, but have only found one called “Little Danny,” a ’60s country weeper about a boy known to his parents as “Little Danny.” Once confined to a wheelchair, he’s now in heaven. A little angel, this Little Danny. The chorus is something like “I’m playing up in heaven / The way I never could before.”

    Anyway, which Chet Baker LP?

    Larry Frazier had a great, great 45 (“After Six” b/w “Before Six”) on Impulse, the only release that came out under his own name, as far as I can tell. I couldn’t resist posting an mp3 of it:

    http://www.officenaps.com/larryfrazier_aftersix.mp3

    Probably ’65 or ’66.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have that l. frazier piece – spun it at the peacock when we convened that time.. both sides do it right..

    impulse no less

    anyway – the speedy cut is on “a tast of tequila” by mariachi brass and chet baker

    brassy brassy – sexy cover – trying to one up herb alpert

    pure novelty schlock of course

    but fun all the same

    little danny singing a bit sweeter in heaven huh?

    sounds about right

    marty robbins

  4. Anonymous says:

    Big LD,

    You know anything about the “Soultown Corp.” mentioned at the bottom of the “Pick-a-hit” lbl? any association with the soultown label? that lbl was distributed my Keymen, which put out a Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band 45 “Spreading Honey”, which was Charles Wright’s band. Charles Wright was also from LA. And if you listen close enough, I mean real close, you can even hear that the lion roaring on this 45 is actually Charles Wright. He must have taken the day off from rehearsal’s with Bill Cosby to overdub some lion roars. Pick-a-hit indeed.

    Express Yourself,
    Roar E.

  5. It’s gotta be the same label; Bobby Sanders was producing records and cutting deals with a lot of Los Angeles indies around that time (in addition to his own Soultown label, as you noted).

    Good eye, either way, Roar E. I always knew Office Naps readers were a cut above.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Been a few weeks since I last commented — I feel so ashamed. Excellent choices as always, Little Danny. And as others have previously noted, your writing is unmatched in the blogosphere. Do you have a journalism background?

    – Mr. Attention

  7. Oh, you flatter me. No journalism background for me, though.

  8. mbek says:

    tight jb inspired instrumental skyride… curious. you say typical, does that mean the tracks not nice?

  9. Hey Matt, no, “Skyride” is decent, just as memorable or unusual as “Lion’s Gate”

  10. KC says:

    Walt Bolen is currently our church organist here in California. You should give him a call or visit his facebook and send him a message. His facebook is here: http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001000548526

    What a great piece. He wanted you to know he played the organ on the Lion Hunt tune.

  11. Walt Bolen says:

    Hi I’m Walt Bolen. As a young San Fernando High school student in the 1960’s I had the privilage to study the organ at one of the few high schools that Had a Hammon console, and organ class under the supervision of a Mr’s Thelma Becky, who tought the high school choir, at San Fernando. It was in my senior year at sSan Fernando High that I wrote a little soul tune which I intitiled Lion Hunt.I was encuraged to record this work in 1966, and was introduced to a professional string base player by the name if Adolfice Allsbrook. who took me into Goldstar recording studio in Hollywood and layed down the oran and drum track. Later at a house studio we sweetin’d it with a guitar and soulful sax. It was in 1967 that a friend of my family intoducd me to singer, producer Bobby Sander’s who placed the Lion hunt on the Pick a Hit record Label, and thus began the beginning of my recording career. My secound recording would not be until 1979 With a Willard, and Ernistien Stoud on a Lable that we called Ar-Que. Peace Chant, and Breaking Out with a good thing. In 2002 I began my vocal and song writing works with the production of a christian CD. The Casting of Pearl’s is my latist CD being sold over cdbaby/walt bolen, and itune’s.

  12. Walt Bolen says:

    In 1966 I was a young High school teen just looking to gain popularity among my school mates and friends. Music was my way of doing that. I was encuraged to make a record by a friend named Carl Smith , and Carl introduced me to a professional bass player by tghe name of Adolfiss Allsbrook. Mr. Allsbrook took me into Goldstar recording studio in Hollywood Ca. and we layed a drum and organ track for a little thing that I called Lion Hunt. You see I was a fan of les Backster, and the music intitled Quite Village. After adding a guitar, and sax track at a home studio, I went home with my tapes, and a dub record. In 1967 Iwas introduced through friends of my family to the producer Bobby Sander’s, who placed the Lion Hunt on the Pick a Hit lable. I remember my fist and ownly engagement was in a Night club on Logan street in San Diego Ca. How green I was in those day’s.
    I come from a musical family on my mother’s side. My mother was Alma Bowser Bolen ; the second cousin of Buttercup Douglas Bowser Powell. Buttercup was the wife of jazz pianoist Bud Powell.As a teen I attended San Fernando High school in San fernando Ca.; were among my friends was Al Mckay; who went on to become lead guitarist for Earth, Wind,m and Fire.

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