Ed Bland

Ed Bland is an American composer, musical arranger and producer with a considerable catalog of contemporary classical compositions – “Art Music,” as Bland would note – to his name. Bland is, at least among a coterie of vintage soul fans, also identified with his recordings of the ‘60s and ‘70s, singular R&B; and jazz arrangements so distinct that they unwittingly dominate the music at times. You’ll know what I’m talking about by the end of this post.

Ed Bland was born in 1926 and grew up in Chicago’s South Side, studying as a young saxophonist and clarinetist at the University of Chicago and the American Conservatory of Music after World War Two. Composition studies behind him, infatuated by philosophy and West African drumming, he immersed himself in avant-garde musical theory as well as the intellectual life of post-War Chicago trying, all the while, to get his songs and compositions published. In 1959, he co-produced the experimental film Cry of Jazz, an exposition of race and jazz (with rare early footage of Sun Ra), before moving with his family to New York City in the early ‘60s.

In New York City, Bland found work as a freelance producer, composer and arranger on the strength of his jazz and conservatory pedigree. Ed Bland’s musical objective was to “create a raw, colorful, funky, soulful sound combined with complex linear patterns,” according to his own abstract musical philosophy. Therewith he would spend much of the next two decades in the record industry, eventually becoming a producer and A&R; head at Vanguard Records from 1974 to 1978.

Settling in Los Angeles in 1984, where he continues to live and work, Bland wrote music for motion pictures, TV and occasional record productions, composing the scores for A Raisin In the Sun and The House of Dies Drear and orchestrating A Soldier’s Story. Bland still actively composes, his recent score for 34th St. NYC and albums of compositions like Urban Classical: The Music of Ed Bland (Cambria) and Dancing Through the Walls (Delos), though with no obvious connection to his days as an R&B; innovator, evincing an idiosyncratic vision at work.

Looking over his discography, one gets the feeling that Ed Bland is one of these gifted American musical minds who successfully navigated the straits of the record industry but who was rarely granted the latitude to fulfill their vision – especially on the industry’s commercial terms. There’s something of a maverick quality to Bland, a musical individualist if not eccentric, which perhaps explains why his handiwork never found a more consistent niche in an industry that rarely rewards such qualities. Helloooo, Office Naps.

1. The Pazant Brothers, Skunk Juice (RCA Victor)
Brothers Eddie (saxophone) and Alvin Pazant (trumpet) were raised in a musical family in Beaufort, South Carolina, though it was in New York City with Lionel Hampton where Eddie’s professional career first took root in the late ‘50s and also where, a few years later, both Eddie and Alvin met Ed Bland, then a freelance arranger with Hampton. Forming their own group in 1964, their sporadic records as the Pazant Brothers would alternate throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s with supporting gigs in Hampton’s band and Pucho & the Latin Soul Brothers (among other notables).

Theirs, mostly, is a long discography of jazz, R&B;, soul and rock session work, but with the Pazant Brothers’ handful of late ‘60s 45s – as well as their 1975 LP Loose and Juicy – something different is clearly happening. One senses that in the Pazant Brothers Bland had found his ideal protégés, musicians who were both sympathetic to his unorthodox vision and had the chops to realize it. Tellingly, the ‘70s recordings the Pazant Brothers issued without Bland’s involvement – and there are a handful of such 45s – suffer as merely decent instrumental funk.

There are identifiable solos, riffs and verses in Bland’s charts, it’s just they’re never conventional. By his standards, 1969’s “Skunk Juice,” with its wildly kinetic expressions of melody, is still quite exceptional, though. Whole honking flocks of geese, whole brass bands, are swallowed and spat back out, all in march tempo. Hope is renewed for tuba players everywhere.

The Pazant Brothers play today as leaders of the Cotton Club All-Stars.

2. James Moody, If You Grin (You’re In) (Sceptor)
An important and accomplished post-War bop composer, saxophonist and flautist, James Moody was born in 1925 in Georgia, grew up in New Jersey, and, like many other second-generation beboppers, found himself in army bands overseas during World War Two. His return to the states included – again, like many of his generation – a formative apprenticeship in the pioneering bop orchestra of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Though much of his post-War time was spent abroad in Europe’s more jazz-sympathetic cities, Moody established a higher profile with some leader dates in the late ‘40s, recording “Moody’s Mood for Love,” (based on Jimmy McHugh’s “I’m In the Mood for Love”) in Sweden, a significant hit in 1949 and an even bigger hit in 1952 with singer King Pleasure’s vocalese reading.

Moody also spent an increasing part of his days in his cups, a struggle later recounted on 1958’s Last Train From Overbrook. The five decades since have seen Moody leading small groups of his own, and, with the exception of a few funkier sessions and some years spent as a backing musician in Las Vegas in the ‘70s, he’s rarely veered from sterling, straightahead bop. Though well regarded amongst other musicians and devotees, Moody’s consistent, prolific output has perhaps been overlooked by casual jazz fans only interested the latest Blue Note reissues.

“If You Grin (You’re In)” was taken from Moody’s 1964 LP Running the Gamut and was recorded with a group including Patti Bown (piano), Albert Heath (drums), Reggie Workman (bass) and Thad Jones (trumpet). Though it is an early recorded date for him, the arrangements and wild horn play are unmistakably Ed Bland. There’s no logic anywhere that says a single, unwavering organ chord should sound so funky, but it does, and gloriously so, and I suppose that is why, finally, Ed Bland was the arranger here and not you or I.

Ed Bland also produced Moody’s ’76 album Timeless Aura. James Moody himself is still very much active.

3. Lionel Hampton and his Inner Circle of Jazz, Greasy Greens (Glad-Hamp)
Jazz’s best-known vibraphonist. Born in Kentucky in 1909 and attracted to music – drums, originally – from an early age, Hampton played a few early ‘30s Chicago vibraphone dates, some of jazz’s earliest, before being discovered in Los Angeles by clarinetist Benny Goodman. Famous swing dates with both Goodman and with his own all-star groups ensued, and though he played piano and drums capably, it was Hampton’s spellbinding, consummately swinging work on vibraphone which made him a star during the swing era. After World War Two, Hampton continued leading his own big bands and absorbing popular tastes. Sometimes his groups reflected bebop, just as often they sounded like R&B;, but Hampton remained popular with audiences as one of jazz’s elder statesmen until his death in 2002.

Hampton’s own Glad-Hamp Records was a label that was home to many of his ‘60s albums. It was label that, in between endless iterations of warhorses like “Flying Home,” one can find some interesting selections. Take this, for instance, a number commissioned for Ed Bland by Hampton in 1967. “Greasy Greens,” thumpingly funky, sounds unlike anything Hampton, or anybody else, had ever done – not counting other Ed Bland productions, of course. Hampton would later make other funk-tinged records in the early ‘70s for Brunswick Records, but nothing so bracing.

Credit Hampton for making this record, and for making “Greasy Greens” something of a concert staple. The musicians on this first version include Wallace Davenport (trumpet), Ed Pazant (alto sax), Dave Young (tenor sax), John Spruill (piano), Billy Mackel (guitar), Skinny Burgan (bass), Ronnie Kole (drums) and Hampton on vibraphone.

4. Phil Upchurch, Muscle Soul (Milestone)
Chicago’s Phil Upchurch has long enjoyed a fairly high profile, which has as much to do with his infectious, funky R&B; instrumental hit, 1961’s “You Can’t Sit Down,” as it does with his professional musical career.

Upchurch never quite recaptured the spotlight of “You Can’t Sit Down.” Nor did he have to: beginning with late ‘50s blues and R&B; sessions for Vee-Jay Records and, later, soul and jazz for Chess Records in the ‘60s, Upchurch has been a wildly successful studio guitarist (and bassist), his name showing up everywhere over the decades – on Donny Hathaway albums, on Staple Singers albums, on Cat Stevens albums, on Chaka Khan albums for that matter. Upchurch also has his own extensive recorded history as a leader, and while his late ‘60s soul jazz releases like The Way I Feel have some psychedelic rock moments, mostly his solo releases mirrored the straight ahead pop, blues, soul, jazz and R&B; of his studio work.

“Muscle Soul” is more straightforward than this week’s other arrangements. If, that is, straightforward can be said to consist of five things going on where in Bland’s case there’d normally be ten: it’s still a jolt of crashing freneticism. This selection originally appeared on what is Upchurch’s first and probably strongest jazz-oriented LP, 1967’s Feeling Blue, with Ed Bland providing arrangements. The album also includes Al Williams (piano), Chuck Rainey (bass), Bernard Purdie (drums), Warren Smith (congas), Wallace Davenport (trumpet) and John Gilmore, Pat Patrick and Eddie Pazant (saxophones).

Now based in Los Angeles, Phil Upchurch is as active as ever.

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Jazz Obscura, Soul | 13 Comments

Vocal group exotica

A post-War vocal harmony group like the Flamingos could summon angels with a haunting ballad like “I Only Have Eyes For You.” So why not, with a bit of tweaking, conjure the reverie of the faraway jungle isles as well? And so it would be, the Billy Wards reaching for the vaporous high notes of “Pagan Love Song” or the Platters crooning “Harbor Lights.” Vocal group exotica essentially was easy-listening and instrumental exotica transposed to a more human scale, its yearning for mysterious, faraway continents transposed to yearning for that unattainable love – the next block over, across the sea, it didn’t matter.

The effect was similar, but the music was somewhat different. Groups who’d first harmonized together in the theaters, nightclubs, school hallways, churches and street corners of post-War America necessarily availed themselves of simpler mechanisms than the dark swells of Les Baxter’s orchestra or Martin Denny’s shimmering vibraphone tones. Here the otherworldly atmospherics were accomplished with soaring, ethereal harmonies and layers of crude studio echo.

Here there were lyrics, too – vocal groups were after all entertainers, not just purveyors of mood music and jungle tone poems. From the Cleftones (“Red Sails in the Sunset”) and the Avalons (“Ebb Tide”) to the Four Jokers (“Beyond the Reef”) and the Cardinals (“Misirlou”), always the theme was love, and always the love was lost, departed or unrequited. If instrumental exotica records obviated travel for the armchair fantasist, then vocal groups obviated exotica’s very instrumentation, their spectral falsettos jungle passion enough for any lovelorn soul by his turntable.

1. The Charades, Flamingo (Skylark)
The Charades’ brief history was intertwined with that of Billy Storm, a longtime Los Angeles vocalist noted for a solo hit, 1959’s teen ballad “I’ve Come of Age,” as well as for his earlier involvement with the Valiants, an R&B; group who’d scored with 1957’s “This Is the Night.” It was Storm who co-produced and sang lead on this 1964 version of Edmund Anderson and Theodore Grouya’s enduring “Flamingo.” This would be the most memorable of several obscure Charades singles recorded between Storm’s ongoing commitments as a solo singer and as a member of local groups the Nuggets and the Electras.

This is music for Valium eaters, a hypnotic, slower-than-sunset reading of “Flamingo.” That’s not the distant surf you hear, that’s the gurgling sound of you, fallen asleep to Love Boat reruns.

Billy Storm continued recording into the early ‘70s, always with somewhat marginal success. His later endeavors would include the gospel-pop supergroup the Brothers and Sisters of Los Angeles (with their 1969 album Dylan’s Gospel), as well as the psychedelized soul group Africa (with 1968’s Music From ‘Lil Brown’).

2. The Passions, Jungle Drums (Audicon)
The Passions were like Dion and the Belmonts, Vito & the Salutations, the Mystics or any number of other New York City-area harmonizers, the very model of the white street-corner vocal group. From Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood, one of vocal groupdom’s fertile crescents, the guys first formed as the Sinceres, coalescing shortly thereafter with the revamped line-up of Jimmy Gallagher (lead), Tony Armato (first tenor), Albee Gallone (second tenor) and Vinnie Acierno (baritone) and a new name, the Passions.

The group scored a minor hit with their first record “Just to Be With You” on A&R; veteran Sol Winkler’s Audicon label in 1959, but the returns would mostly be diminishing from that point onwards. This 1960 version of Ernesto Lecuona’s exotica warhorse “Jungle Drums” was the b-side of their third Audicon single. Its a-side, an iteration of the oft-covered Leon Rene vocal number “Gloria,” seems especially well-regarded among doo-wop fans. Personally speaking, however, I find “Jungle Drums” the Passions’ most compelling recording. I know what you’re thinking, and I agree: most white doo-wop is pretty corny, but the Four Seasons never had these booming blasts of slide guitar.

After five 45 releases on Audicon, the Passions went on to record for a number of labels, including Diamond, Jubilee, Octavia and ABC, all in a similar style, all without much luck. The Passions finally called it quits in 1963.

3. The 4 Most, The Breeze and I (Relic)
An obscure New Jersey group, the 4 Most’s members Bobby Moore (lead), Ronald Mikes (tenor), Charlie Chambers (baritone) and Bobby Frazier (bass) first formed in Newark in the late ‘50s. They rehearsed, they hustled, they found a sympathetic manager, they played a few high-profile gigs at the Apollo Theatre and elsewhere, they built a local following. And they released single 45 record on a tiny local record label, too: the group’s version of yet another Lecuona chestnut, “Andalucia” (later known as “The Breeze and I,” with 1941 English lyrics by songwriter Al Stillman). Issued on local record impresario Joe Flis’s Milo label, “The Breeze and I” would be a resounding flop when released in 1960. It would also be the 4 Most’s only release – at least initially. Their story no more remarkable than any of the era’s other vocal groups, the 4 Most dissolved the next year.

Oddly, though, “The Breeze and I” (and its flipside “I Love You”) would be released again, on a separate occasion, just three years later. Its second issue in 1963 on Relic Records – an early collector label devoted to vocal group reissues – netted significant local recognition. Enough recognition, in fact, that Bobby Moore, who had recorded in intervening years with the Fiestas as well as under the name Little Bobby Moore, reconvened the 4 Most in 1964. A few more 45s by the group would be recorded and scattered though the mid-‘60s. Again, it was all to be without much success. Bobby Moore sang with Duke Anderson’s big band in the ‘60s, remaining more or less inactive since.

But back to this selection. In a theme common to exotica lyrics, some third party – a flamingo, the jungle drums, the breeze – assumes the role of messenger among separated lovers. And, in a theme common to doo-wop, the lyrics of “The Breeze and I” are subsumed by its vocal pyrotechnics, the lead tenor personally taking the role of “the Breeze.” This is the baritone’s eternal lament. Why does the romantic lead always go to the tenor? Why do the tenors always get to play the part of the breeze? Fuck you tenors

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, R&B/Vocal Groups | 5 Comments

Office Naps Fall 2007 Psychedelic Pop mix

This is the rose-colored soundtrack I strive to cocoon my life in,
a CD-length metaphor for the first time you watched Solaris. Part of the ongoing Office Naps psychedelic pop mix series.

Office Naps Fall 2007 Psychedelic Pop Mix

The Punjabs, Raga-Riff (7″, Prince)
The Deep Six, Rising Sun (7″, Liberty)
The Buff Organization, Upside Down World (7″, Original Sound)
Chip Taylor, You Should Be From Monterey (7″, Rainy Day)
The Gordian Knot, Year of the Sun (7″, Verve)
Celebrated Renaissance Band, Heavy Is the Sundown (7″, Lion)
Hard Times, Blew Mind (Blew Mind, World Pacific)
Phil Cordell, Red Lady (7″, Janus)
The Glass Family, Agorn (Elements of Complex Variables) (7″, Warner Brothers)
Junior Parker, Tomorrow Never Knows (7″, Capitol)
Mercy, Our Winter Love (The Mercy and Love (Can Make You Happy), Sundi)
The Group Therapy, Thoughts (7″, Mercury)
English Setters, Wake Up (7″, Jubilee)
Dave Miller Set, Mr. Guy Fawkes (7″, Spin)
Art Guy, Where You Gonna Go (7″, Valiant)
Smokey and His Sister, Creators of Rain (7″, Columbia)
The Raik’s Progress, Why Did You Rob Us, Tank? (7″, Liberty)
The Federal Duck, Peace In My Mind (The Federal Duck, Musicor)
Sonny Bono, Motel II (Chastity, soundtrack, Atco)
Peter Pan & the Good Fairies, Kaleidoscope (7″, Challenge)
The Collection, Both Sides Now (7″, The Hot Biscuit Company)
Pipes of Pan, Monday Morning Rain (7″, Page One)
Emil Richards and the Factory, No Place I’d Rather Be (7″, Uni)
The Sandals, Coming Down Slow (The Last of the Ski Bums, soundtrack, World Pacific)
Thomas Edisun’s Electric Light Bulb Band, Common Attitude (7″, Tamm)
The Yardbirds, Glimpses (Little Games, Epic)
Eden’s Children, Echoes (Sure Looks Real, ABC)
The Soundz, Freak Out, pt. 1 (7″, Crown-Psychedel*lite)

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Garage Bands, Instrumentals/Surf, Jazz Obscura, Mixes, Psychedelic/Pop | 14 Comments

The Del-Vetts & the Pride and Joy

1960s garage bands were largely a white, male, middle and upper class phenomenon. And Chicago, its mushrooming rings of post-War suburbs home to, well, lots of white teenaged males, would distinguish itself in the ‘60s as a hotbed of band activity.

Their five year history netting them a grand sum of five 45s, the Del-Vetts’ was a typical ‘60s garage band trajectory of line-up changes, commercial aspirations and glimpses, ultimately transitory, of success. The Del-Vetts themselves, though – wild, competent and original – were anything but your typical three-chord garage band. They didn’t attain the same national visibility of mid-‘60s Windy City brethren like the Cryan’ Shames (“Sugar & Spice”) or the Shadows of the Knight (“Gloria”). The Del-Vetts, however, were one of Chicago’s top-tier bands in their day, especially locally, where, matching suits and all, they were briefly able to surround themselves with cars, girls and rock ‘n’ roll, the Holy Trinity of teenage fantasy.

Formed in Chicago in 1963, the quartet consisted early on of Jim Lauer (lead vocals and lead guitar), Bob Good (bass), Lester Goldboss (guitar) and Paul Wade (drums), an incarnation which lasted long enough to record one straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll 45 for the Seeburg label, “Little Latin Lupe Lu” and its instrumental flipside “Ram Charger.”

With a year or two of playing at popular local teen hangouts like the Rolling Stone and the Cellar, and just as many band member shuffles, the band’s line-up – Jim Lauer, Bob Good (now on rhythm guitar), Jack Burchall (bass) and Roger Deatherage (drums) – solidified. This would be the incarnation that issued three singles on producer Bill Traut’s Dunwich Records, where many other outstanding Chicago combos, including stars the Shadows of Knight (of “Gloria” fame), would find a hip industry ally.

1966’s “Last Time Around,” the Del-Vetts’ second 45 and the first of three releases for Dunwich, would be their biggest hit, charting in Chicago and other parts of the Midwest. The single that followed later that year, “I Call My Baby STP,” also on Dunwich, also excellent, underperformed. Rechristening themselves the Pride and Joy in 1967, the group soldiered on for two more 45s, the first, “Girl” (and its flipside “If You’re Ready”) was perhaps their finest moment. The second, “We Got a Long Way to Go” on Acta Records, reflected their end game pop proclivities.

By the 1968 the Del-Vetts were through, the victims of creative differences, a musical landscape leaning towards hippie aesthetics and the obligatory, disillusioning bout with the entertainment industry, Los Angeles-style. A well-worn theme to be explored again and again in Office Naps. This week, the Del-Vetts’ saga.

(Many thanks go to bassist Jack Burchall’s old website for much of this week’s information. Some great pictures there, too.)

1. The Del-Vetts, Last Time Around (Dunwich)
The Yardbirds were British heroes to stateside garage bands, their mid-period guitarist Jeff Beck’s swooping, proto-psychedelic lines in particular fascinating many American guitarists.

The Del-Vetts, intellectual property be damned, plunder Beck’s solo wholesale from the Yardbirds’ “You’re a Better Man Than I” (hear solo here), managing, like so many other American garage bands, to sculpt the English’s innovations into something crazier and more unstable. A bold new direction after their first 45 – a surf record – here the fuzztone ran amok and the lyrics didn’t so much have a message as set the mood, a bleak, chemically wracked mood.

Mid-‘60s garage band 45s all start sounding very much the same at some point, but never “Last Time Around.” Penned, as with all of this week’s selections, by the band’s friend Dennis Dahlquist, it was noncommercial, certainly, and antisocial, absolutely, but the Del-Vetts managed to land “Last Time Around” in the top request spot of Chicago’s AM giant WLS in the summer of 1966. They reportedly drove matching white Corvettes with their earnings. “Last Time Around,” in retrospect, would be their biggest success.

2. The Del-Vetts, I Call My Baby STP (Dunwich)
A somewhat odd throwback after the deadly “Last Time Around.” 1966’s “I Call My Baby STP,” was probably a year or two too late to be hip; it did not fare well on the music charts or among fans expecting the gripping drama of their previous hit. Still, this is really about as good as a hot-rod number gets. The Southern California-style harmonies are there, though there’s a certain surge in the guitars that belies the Del-Vetts’ garage band pedigree, too.

This single was apparently a promotional tie-in with STP, the fuel additive and hot rod culture icon, and included a decal useful for making a cool cultural statement or, alternatively, for holding those unwanted Jan & Dean records together.

3. The Pride and Joy, If You’re Ready (Dunwich)
The Pride and Joy are the Del-Vetts operating under a new name, apparently at the behest of their fan club. Which says something about the group’s commercial aspirations, and something about the wisdom of listening to one’s fan club.

“If You’re Ready,” though not their last record, would be the group’s crowning moment. A return to chart-tested territory, “If You
’re Ready” seems like an attempt to revive the earlier success of “Last Time Around.” It has the same bite, the same Yardbirds-inspired soaring guitar solos. It’s just denser and heavier, doing everything but invent what thunderstruck Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath fans would several years later know as riffage.

Though not as successful as “Last Time Around,” this selection (or rather its A-side, “Girl,” a polished pop number reminiscent of the Hollies) did perform well on the regional charts. Its 1967 release also coincided with the group’s extended visit to Los Angeles, where they’d record their final 45, the Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann composition “We Got a Long Way to Go.” There they’d film for the movie Somebody Help Me as well, a low-budget Dick Clark Production that featured them playing live.

It would mostly be for naught. “We Got a Long Way to Go” was released on the Los Angeles-based Acta label, sounding fairly unremarkable and doing the same on the pop charts. The movie itself was never released. This would be the end of the Del-Vetts/Pride and Joy story.

As far as I can tell, only the group’s bassist Jack Burchall would continue in the music business, enjoying some later, albeit dubious, success with his Jump N’ the Saddle Band’s 1983 novelty hit “The Curley Shuffle.” Sadly, Burchall recently passed on in 1999. Drummer Roger Deatherage currently designs furniture in Houston, Texas.

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Garage Bands | 20 Comments

Bossa America, part two

(Ed. Note: This is essentially a continuation of an earlier Office Naps installment on American versions of the Bossa Nova. That first post can be found here.)

It’d started in the mid-‘50s with sophisticated young Rio musicians hooked on American jazz and pop, a new music that translated Brazil’s samba rhythms to guitars and trap drum sets with native African and Portuguese elements swirled all into the mix. In due time, American jazz musicians would be drawn to it, musical collaborations and overseas tours would ensue, and, next thing you know, strains of “Girl From Ipanema” wafted from your downstairs neighbor’s cocktail parties.

Like the mambo craze a decade earlier, the Bossa Nova was an “exotic” musical import to this country that was endlessly copied and endlessly bastardized. Blame can be fixed on America’s mostly appalling, occasionally endearing, habit of unapologetic indifference to the finer points and sensitivities of other cultures.

But, by some point in the ‘60s, everybody, and I do mean everybody, was having a go at the Bossa Nova. It could be a token version of “Corcovado” enlivening a lounge singer’s musty live repertoire. It could be whole albums of interpretations and original material by a Frank Sinatra or a Lionel Hampton. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But for every sour hornful of “Girl From Ipanema” that the aging Louis Armstrong blew forth, there was the thumping “Bossa Nova Blues” by Doris Troy or Nancy Ames’s sparkling, vibraphone-laden version of “Mas Que Nada.” Like this week’s selections, the Bossa Nova proved more a matter of attitude than authenticity.

1. Eddie Russ Trio, Natasha (Cascades Sound)
A jazz pianist and keyboard player who preferred to work from the ‘60s onward in his adopted state of Michigan – and one of innumerable talents struggling to stay relevant in the years of mainstream jazz’s declining popularity – it was perhaps always Russ’s lot to remain underappreciated.

Still, Russ would manage some notable, if obscure, recording dates, especially in the ‘70s. From straight ahead collaborations with aging bebopper Sonny Stitt to funkier releases with Detroit jazz combo the Mixed Bag, Eddie Russ proved himself adroit, certainly, a musician capable of keeping up with the times, even if later ‘70s releases like See the Light meant synthesizers, 4/4 beats and various disco accoutrement.

Likely recorded around 1974 or ‘75, “Natasha” was clearly an excerpt from a much longer jam session, the kind that ends when three not-too-stoned jazz musicians are reminded that the tape ran out forty minutes earlier. “Natasha” also observes one of those precepts of jazz, immutable no matter the decade: compositions named for females sound more convincing with a Bossa Nova rhythm.

It is Russ himself on the wonderfully atmospheric Fender Rhodes electric piano here. The other personnel on “Natasha” remain a mystery, but conceivably included Dan Spencer (drums) and Rob Brooks (bass), then members of Russ’s working group the Mixed Bag. Cascades Sound was a short-lived label that belonged to another familiar name in Michigan jazz circles, tenor saxophonist Benny Poole.

Eddie Russ continued playing and teaching music until his death in 1996.

2. Chris Connor, I Concentrate on You (FM)
Born Mary Loutsenhizer, the fabulous Chris Connor grew up in Missouri and sang in her late teens with various college ensembles in the Columbus and Kansas City area. In 1948, she left for New York, finding vocal work shortly thereafter with the Claude Thornhill orchestra, then – with Gil Evans’s and Gerry Mulligan’s modern boppish arrangements – in its modernist incarnation. After an early ‘50s residency with Stan Kenton’s progressive jazz orchestra in Los Angeles, Connors embarked on a solo career which, in the half-century since, has generated one of jazz’s sterling vocal discographies.

Stylistically, there’s little difference among early masterpieces like 1954’s Chris Connor sings Lullabys of Birdland or 1958’s Chris Craft, mid-‘80s rarities like New Again or even Connors’s recent Everything I Love. This is all part of the hip charm of Chris Connor. If Connor’s recording career never regained its momentum of the ‘50s, when she was one of jazz’s top-selling vocalists, it doesn’t seem to have bothered her. Despite popular music’s seismic shifts in the last five decades, the small jazz combo remains her favored setting while her demeanor remains implacably cool, coaxing every last syllable of meaning from endlessly fertile sources like the Gerswhin and Porter songbooks. Diamonds and sapphires have nothing on Chris Connor. Clear winter moonlight has nothing on her, either; she stays fixed like a cool blue star in the jazz cosmos, a paradox of simultaneous swing and restraint.

This Bossa Nova-tinged version of Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You” was recorded at New York City’s Village Gate jazz club in 1963. It originally appeared on Chris Connor at the Village Gate, an album released on the brief-lived FM Records label run by Connor’s manager Monte Kay. In addition to Connor, the personnel on this selection include Mundell Lowe (guitar), Ronnie Ball (piano), Richard Davis (bass) and Ed Shaughnessy (drums).

Chris Connor still sings and tours today.

3. “Charlie,” “Charlie’s Tune” (A Charlie Record)
This record was made as a promotional tie-in for Revlon’s 1974 introduction of its Charlie fragrance. Charlie was marketed as the perfume of the modern working woman – the perfume of plaid pants suits, company fast tracks and steady samba beats.

1974. The year that Richard Nixon resigned as president. It was also, promised the record’s label, the “Year of Charlie.
Kinda young! Kinda now! Kinda free! Kinda WOW! So sang early television campaigns cheerfully of the scent. What better than the Bossa Nova, the elegant and breezy Bossa Nova, to reinforce all of this? And what better than a little dab of perfume to make the Bossa Nova, easily over a decade old by that point, feel “floral and fresh,” feel, well, pretty again? The Charlie fragrance itself? It was an instant, smashing success. 1974 was a great year all around.

“Charlie’s Tune” was produced by “Charlie’s Way,” released as “A Charlie Record,” and distributed, lest we forget, by “The Charlie People.” Which is another way of saying that a group of studio musicians were wholly responsible for this classy little Bossa Nova-lite. This anonymous crew was also responsible for the record’s A-side (hear excerpt here), a spirited vocal sketch of “Charlie,” that girl whom summertime, turned heads and a newfound sense of confidence seem to follow around, Ipanema-style.

The Charlie fragrance was relaunched fairly recently, if anyone’s curious about what 1974 smelled like.

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Jazz Obscura, Latin | 4 Comments

Get rhythm

The drum machine was one of a wave of early mass-produced electronic instruments and studio devices in the ‘60s that expanded, by quantum leaps, the technological and creative bounds of music and recording.

Historically speaking, however, early drum machines like Ace Tone Rhythm Ace and the Maestro’s Rhythm King, with their somewhat awkward analog drum sounds and preset rhythms, would long remain marginal to keyboard synthesizer counterparts like the Moog. A Moog could wow early ’70s audiences with bleeps, gurgles and swooping sequences of tonal pulses. Early Japanese-made drum machines, intended from the start as an organ accompaniment or rehearsal aid, mostly just sat there, dutifully pattering away in metronomic samba time and eventually finding their niche as a built-in component in Lowrey and Hammond church organs.

The Maestro Rhythm King (Picture credit, Backbeat Books, from their book Strange Sounds: Offbeat Instruments and Sonic Experiments in Pop.)

It wouldn’t really be until after Roland’s introduction of its crunching TR-808 drum machines in the early ‘80s that the drum machine would finally find its true calling – electronic dance music – and become less of a bastard stepchild.

Nonetheless, from Bee Gee Robin Gibb (1970’s Robin’s Reign) and Sly Stone protégés Little Sister (1970’s “Stanga”) to Dick Hyman and soul-pop guitar innovator Shuggie Otis (1974’s “XL-30”), the drum machine did catch the attention of the occasional pop musician or two. For some, its gadgetry was enough to add a futuristic sheen. For others, like Sly Stone, who used it on the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, the drum machine was a probably a nice option after you’d fired another drummer. Most of these musicians seemed to recognize that the drum machine was too incidental to ever supplant an actual drummer, but, luckily for us, there were still a few eccentrics left over that heard the ring of the cash register somewhere in those mechanized rhythms.

Timmy Thomas, Funky Me (Glades)
Best known for his 1972 hit “Why Can’t We Live Together,” singer and keyboardist Timmy Thomas grew up in Indiana playing piano in his minister father’s Methodist Church. Graduating from Tennessee’s Lane College with a BA in music, Thomas did some session keyboard work for the Memphis soul independent Goldwax Records, and, a few obscure soul numbers under his name for Goldwax later, he settled in Florida in the late ‘60s. There he worked as a college administrator and opened his own Miami Beach club, “Timmy’s Lounge.” There, too, Thomas recorded his impassioned peace-and-harmony anthem “Why Can’t We Live Together” for the tiny local Konduko label in 1972.

Leased for distribution by Florida music impresario Henry Stone for his Glades label, the spare organ-and-rhythm arrangements of “Why Can’t We Live Together” (hear excerpthere) made for a somewhat unlikely million-seller in 1972. Just as unlikely, however, was its chugging instrumental flipside “Funky Me.” Unerring in its tempo, its juicy organ vamps and mechanical funkiness would have made a good b-side on some early ‘80s New York art-disco 12”.

In 1973 Timmy Thomas released the full-length album Why Can’t We Live Together, which sustained the spare aesthetic of “Funky Me” and “Why Can’t We Live Together.” Thomas currently works as a music teacher and director of One Art, an independent music and arts educational initiative in Florida, and has recorded sporadically in the decades since.

2. Simtec Simmons, Tea Pot (Maurci)
1967’s “Tea Pot,” for all its whimsy, was not some studio engineer’s after-hours lark. This selection was the handiwork of Simtec Simmons, the singer, guitarist and leader of aspiring Chicago R&B group the Tea Boxes. “Tea Pot,” according to
legend, was recorded at the behest of Herb “Kool Gent” Kent, a Chicago radio disc jockey who was taken with the sound of the rhythm machine and who in turn encouraged Simmons and his combo to record using it.

“Tea Pot” features Simtec Simmons on guitar and two members of the Tea Boxes – his brother Ronald Simmons on bass and Bobby Pointer on the drum machine. Released on Maurice Jackson’s tiny Chicago soul label Maurci in 1967, “Tea Pot” was, improbably enough, a good-sized regional hit, its anomaly and quirky appeal sending robots all over the upper Midwest to their local record shops.

Around the time of “Tea Pot”’s release, Simtec and the Tea Boxes were performing as part of a nightclub act with another local Chicago R&B group, Wylie Dixon and the Wheels. The two bandleaders would join together as the hard-edged funky soul duo Simtec and Wylie in 1969, going on in the early ‘70s to score some sizeable hits like “Do It Like Mama” and “Gotta Get Over the Hump”. After a few more years of recording and performing in Chicago, Simmons quit the music business in the late ‘70s.

3. The Computer and the Little Fooler, Computing (Maurci)
Let me paint a picture for you. In 1967, a song like “A Day in the Life” (hear excerpt
here) was transcendent, an orchestral capstone to the Beatles’ Summer of Love tour de force. In 1967, Jimi Hendrix was pushing psychedelia’s outer limits with space guitar epics like “Third Stone From the Sun” (excerpt here). That same year the Velvet Underground’s noisy, experimental aesthetic would culminate in a selection like “I Heard Her Call My Name” (excerpt here), and, on the R&B; charts, James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” (excerpt here) steered popular African-American rhythms into dark new directions.

And, somewhere on the south side of Chicago in 1967, our friends from the previous selection – Simtec Simmons and Maurci Records head honcho Maurice Jackson – rushed this selection out to a market awaiting a follow-up to “Tea Box.”

4. The Computer and the Little Fooler, Sw-w-wis-s-sh (Maurci)
I’m not sure who or what the Little Fooler was, but I’d wager that he was roughly the size and shape of a pocket calculator.

The weirdest post-War American music has always shown up first on the 45 rpm record, one of the most expedient of commercial music media. But the strange-witted minimalism of “Computing” and its backwards flipside “Sw-w-wis-s-sh” beggars all belief. “Computing” was neither funny nor weird enough to be a novelty record, nor did it offer anything that anyone could point to as a being conventionally instrumental.  Sometimes I think this is the greatest record ever made.

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Miscellaneous Flotsam, Soul | 15 Comments

The Aquarian dream

Three selections this week from the obscure, hazy end of ‘60s psychedelic pop

From generational icons like the Mamas & the Papas and the Association to lesser-known groups like Sagittarius and the Sunshine Company, the psychedelic pop phenomenon of the ‘60s would feed itself primarily on the turned-on folkies and harmony groups of Southern California. Psychedelic pop was more than young, longhaired vocal groups with electric guitars, though. Psychedelic pop took those soaring voices and yearning lyrics, harnessing them to visionary recording engineers and the shiniest Los Angeles studio gadgetry. The Aquarian dream would unfold in cascading harmonies, chimes, fuzztone guitars and great caverns of glorious echo.

Psychedelic pop in time grew fat on its own Southern California abundance, coming to resemble something that sounded very much like Bread or Seals & Crofts. That would still be years down the road, though. It would remain fresh and dewy for a few more years in the late ‘60s, with albums like the Mamas and Papas’ If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears defining something genuinely new, something that every landlocked, college-bound teenager could gently groove to. You could hear it somewhere in the flute solo, I think, that dream of spiritual fulfillment and golden Pacific splendor for those who weren’t quite ready to drop out of society and join the revolution.

1. Emil Richards and the Factory, No Place I’d Rather Be (Uni)
Though ephemeral, the Factory were, unlike so many ‘60s Los Angeles projects, an independent and fully functioning group of Los Angeles musicians.

Led by Lowell George, later the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for classic rock stalwarts Little Feat, the Factory also included Warren Klein (guitar), Martin Kibbee (bass), Dallas Taylor (drums) and Ritchie Hayward (drums), musicians who’d shortly move on to form hippie-rock outfit the Fraternity of Man.

It’s George we hear singing dreamily on 1967’s “No Place I’d Rather Be,” and that’s likely Klein heard on guitar. The Emil Richards ostensibly fronting the group, on the other hand, would release some psychedelic ethno-jazz efforts of his own, like Journey to Bliss (1968), but ultimately he’s best known as an extraordinarily competent session musician who’s played vibraphone and percussion on innumerable pop, jazz and rock music productions and soundtracks. Richards’s Indonesian percussion effects on this selection are hardly insubstantial, but his role in the Factory was ancillary at best. We’ll likely never know what dark upper-management motives would come to identify Richards as the Factory’s frontman on this 45 and, for that matter, whether other Factory members actually played on “No Place I’d Rather Be.”

But, whatever. The shimmering, resonating aesthetic of “No Place I’d Rather Be” works on all levels, effectively conveying that groovy 1967 pleasure of lying very, very still for very, very long hours at a time.

2. The Robbs, Castles in the Air (Atlantic)
The pride of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, the Robbs were, at their core, the brothers Donaldson – Dee, Joe and Bruce – all of whom shared vocal and instrumental duties as a popular live band in the Great Lakes region. The Robbs’ recorded legacy began in the early ‘60s with a few surf and teen pop 45s on Chicago record labels. With drummer Craig Krampf solidifying their line-up, the Robbs fashioned themselves into a modern harmony pop-rock unit with the advent of the British Invasion, their initial recording forays catching the attention of Dick Clark, who eventually offered them a gig as the house band on his Where the Action Is television variety show.

The Robbs’ first record after relocating to Los Angeles, 1966’s “Race With the Wind,” was a modest hit and exemplified their deft folk-rock arrangements and breezy harmony pop. Despite a subsequent string of jangly, radio-ready 45s along with an LP in 1967, despite major label distribution and national television exposure, the Robbs suffered from poor promotion, a somewhat lightweight reputation and what can only be regarded as an improbable stretch of bad luck.

One gets the sense that the Robbs were willing to try something a little different in 1968. And therewith would “Castles in the Air” be different from anything else they’d release. This wonderful elegy to escapism and self-delusion, with its chimes, African thumb piano and underwater vocal and guitar effects would be effectively different from anything anybody was releasing, moreover. The shift in tack was little avail, however, as “Castles in the Air” became yet another trophy for their mounting pile of commercial misses.

The Robbs soldiered on for a few more 45s. Renamed as Cherokee, they headed in a country-rock direction with their full-length album for ABC Records in 1970. It would as founders of the storied Hollywood recording studio, Cherokee Studios, opened in the mid-‘70s and still in operation today, for which the three Donaldson brothers would finally achieve enduring success.

3. The Voyage, One Day (Decca)
Hampered somewhat by awkward songwriting, longtime New York City pop producer John Linde nonetheless took the late ‘60s vogue for the Eastern exoticism and expertly combined it with the Baroque sensibilities of the Left Banke (of “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina” fame) for the Voyage’s “One Day.” The ensuing trippy drama would be one of many of Decca Records’ tentative gambles at 45 rpm psychedelia undertaken in the waning years of the ‘60s. Alas, it would be one of just as many that did nothing to reverse the label’s foundering fortunes.

A New York City production likely recorded in late 1967, little is otherwise known of the Voyage or Richard Klaskow, the songwriter of “One Day.”

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Psychedelic/Pop | 6 Comments

Cinema funky

Just as its antecedents in the mid-‘60s had their sitar interludes and fuzztone atmospherics, the hipper cinema of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s oozed with wah-wah guitars, jazz basslines and funky backbeats. And why not? Whatever Tinseltown’s machinations, film had long been a dramatic and stylish medium, and its soundtrack composers were some of the coolest talents around. Movie and television scores afforded lucrative opportunities for a Lalo Schifrin or Henry Mancini to satisfy some serious interests in jazz and composition, if not to experiment with riffs from psychedelic rock or dark rhythms from funk.

Before funk became an obligatory element of every post-Shaft blaxploitation picture, though, before it became a cliché on primetime television fare like CHiPs, there were this week’s selections. Some of these were written for movies. Some of them weren’t written for the screen but wound up there. Some of these were versions of soundtrack themes that exceeded the original. At one end of town, circa 1970, there were serious young men with serious pedigrees from music conservatories sitting in studios with handfuls of annotated charts. At the other end of town, the poorer part of town, churning funk music spun out in endless iterations. And, in that planetary stretch in between, these selections happened.

1. Roy Budd, Carter (DJM)
Roy Budd was a British musical prodigy who began his professional career as a jazz pianist at the tender age of sixteen. It would be his later soundtrack work for movies like Kidnapped (1971) and The Wild Geese (1978), however, for which Budd would find his lasting fame.

Budd imparted a chilly minimalism to “Carter,” his theme for 1971’s Get Carter, a British thriller starring Michael Caine. One can run down the possibilities all day and still never account for how Budd managed, with only a motley ensemble of bass, Indian tablas, and electric harpsichord and piano, to create a tableau so perfectly redolent of both the stark landscape of northern England and of the gangsters who went shooting about there with characteristic disregard.

Budd passed on in 1993. He was forty-six.

2. Julio Gutierrez, Last Tango in Paris (Vico)
The great Julio Gutierrez emigrated from his native Cuba in the late ‘50s, pursuing his calling in both Miami and New York City with freelance stints as a composer, session pianist and musical director. Despite two very hip ‘60s Latin jazz LPs, Progressive Latin and Havana B.C., Gutierrez would never regain the stature he’d enjoyed in Cuba, where, in addition to leading the legendary Cuban Jam Sessions series, he’d been among his country’s best known modern bandleaders and composers.

1972 would perhaps represent the crowning year for the pornographic movie in its brief-lived moment of mainstream chic, and few soundtrack themes would better encapsulate its adults-only art-house cachet than Argentinean saxophonist Gato Barbieri’s “Last Tango in Paris.” 1972 would also mark one of the final years of Gutierrez’s recording career, but if his would hereafter be one of diminishing visibility, it wasn’t for lack of audacity. Other Latin bandleaders like Mongo Santamaria, Willie Rosario and Tito Puente would tackle Barbieri’s continental boudoir anthem, but no one else would inject it with the same groovily psychedelic flair.

Gutierrez died in New York City in 1990.

3. The Johnny Harris Orchestra, Footprints On the Moon (Warner Brothers)
British-born Johnny Harris first made a name for himself in the mid-‘60s writing arrangements for pop singers like Petula Clark and Jackie Trent. Later in the decade, Harris would produce and arrange sessions for Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdink, Shirley Bassey and other pop acts including the Flirtations. His career arc would also include turns in the late ‘60s touring with Tom Jones and serving as musical director for British singer Lulu’s brief-lived variety show Happening For Lulu.

We are not discussing a serious jazzbo or renegade experimentalist here. Harris’s, rather, was a professional kind of hip, a kind that distinguished itself as a turtleneck-and-beads-wearing young talent in the somewhat staid end of the British pop studio system.

While an ear attuned to the latest in the pop charts meant getting served with unenviable tasks like resuscitating Paul Anka’s career, it also afforded its share of fringe benefits. Like John Schroeder, Harris would release a handful of LPs and 45s under his own name. Albums like 1970’s Movements were uneven affairs, certainly, with polite, state-of-the-art covers of “Light My Fire” and “Give Peace a Chance” along with some more adventurous moments like the funky “Fragments of Fear,” “Stepping Stones” and this selection.

Inspired by the Apollo moon landings and subsequently used for the British ITV Network coverage of NASA’s lunar missions, “Footprints on the Moon” follows in the great tradition of Les Baxter’s Space Escapade or Dick Hyman and Mary Mayo’s Moon Gas, albums where the moon’s surface was imagined more as luminescent lovers’ playground than science’s new frontier. Each reverberating piano note of “Footprints on the Moon” seems to bring the listener one gravity-defying step closer to their astrological love destiny. Careful, Libra, your love investments will soon pay off, but watch for a calculating Capricorn to step across your earth shadow.

Since 1972 Johnny Harris has lived in Los Angeles, working mostly in television composition, most famously for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Wonder Woman.

(Thanks go to this site for much of the information on Johnny Harris.)

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura, Latin, Miscellaneous Flotsam, Now Sound, Soul | 7 Comments