Roscoe Weathers, pt. 2

(Ed. note: This is part two of a post about the great ‘60s West Coast jazz and Latin jazz musician Roscoe Weathers. Weathers is a recurring source of fascination for me.

Various bits, sub-factoids and dead end details have trickled in since first posting about Weathers in June of 2006, and I’ve worked them into the original post accordingly. The introduction from that post is quoted below. This week’s musical selections themselves are all new for Office Naps, however.

– Little Danny)

From Office Naps, June 5, 2006:

Part of it is the mystery. As far as I can tell, West Coast jazz musician Roscoe Weathers’s entire output consisted of ten 45 rpm records. Several online references place Weathers in the post-War nightclubs of the Pacific Northwest where, as a saxophonist and bandleader, he’d play with Bobby Bradford, Floyd Standifer, Warren Bracken and other young Portland and Seattle beboppers. At some point in the late 1950s, however, Weathers relocated to California. There he’d contribute to the 1958 album Stringin’ Along, an obscure West Coast jazz session led by Bob Keene. More significantly, Weathers would release a series of 45s on tiny Los Angeles labels, becoming something of a regular in the bohemian clubs and Coffeehouse of the Venice Beach scene of the ‘60s.

Then there’s the music. Hip and atmospheric, the records feature Weathers’s talents on flute along with his crack jazz combo. They’re great examples of the Latin jazz that flourished on the West Coast among West Coast jazzbos like Cal Tjader, Eddie Cano and Bobby Montez, a form that favored hip exoticism over the hotter, brassier style of New York musicians like Machito, Dizzy Gillespie or Tito Puente.

It’s both the obscurity and the quality of these 45s, three of them featured this week, which have spawned something akin to fascination on my part. It all leads, finally, to the question: just who exactly was Roscoe Weathers?

1. Roscoe Weathers Quintet, Root Flute (Cornuto)
This is Roscoe Weathers in his most straightforward jazz groove. “Root Flute” is still plenty atmospheric, though, with its walking bassline and Weathers’s trademark trilled flute creeping around in the space between
jazz noir and wayward Kerouacian fantasy. In any other life this would have been the nightclub scene in Peter Gunn.

“Root Flute” was, I’d guess, recorded around 1962 or ’63.

2. Roscoe Weathers Orchestra, The Bob White Bird (Etulf)
“The Bob White Bird” could almost pass for a record from Spanish Harlem, its energetic Latin piano chording and tempo reminiscent of mid-‘60s maestros like Hector Rivera and Eddie Palmieri. As with all of Weathers’s material, though, there’s always that unusual kink. The piano descarga vamping may be the spirit of Nuyorica, but the whistling and birdcall flute instantly pinpoint Weathers in the Pacific Rim of Martin Denny, Les Baxter and other patron saints of exotica.

Weathers is joined here by the young Alfred “Fred” Ramirez, a pianist and vibraphonist who is still very much a torchbearer for West Coast Latin jazz. (Ramirez’s more recent recordings, if you can find them, are highly recommended)

3. Joe Wilson with Roscoe Weathers Quintet, Lady Is a Tramp (Cornuto)
Born in Oklahoma, the baritone jazz vocalist Joe Lee Wilson was a committed musician from the very start, building a career in Los Angeles, Mexico, New York and, later, Europe and Japan. The ‘70s would be Wilson’s most high-profile decade, recording with avant-garde jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp (on 1971’s “Money Blues,” most famously), releasing a few well-regarded albums like Livin’ High Off Nickels and Dimes and Secrets From the Sun and singing with jazz luminaries like Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis along the way. Wilson was also a notable pillar of New York City’s loft jazz scene of the ‘70s, founding the infamous Ladies’ Fort near the East Village in 1973.

Before the dashikis and Afrocentric ferment of ‘70s New York City, Joe Lee Wilson would simply be known as Joe Wilson, though, an aspiring young jazz vocalist working the jazz clubs of Los Angeles and cutting obscure records. Here he invests this Rodgers and Hart warhorse with the mellow balm intrinsic to so much post-War California bop.

Joe Wilson’s stint with Weathers would be more than a one-off occasion. The two released another record, “Whistle Song” (on Protone Records, a sister label of Cornuto), and would often perform together at the Gas House in Venice Beach in the early ‘60s. (Thanks to Shanna Baldwin-Moore for that information.) In Lionelle Hamanaka’s 2001 interview with Joe Wilson, Wilson provides a few more valuable details about Weathers as well, recalling of Weathers that he was, surprisingly, a jewelry maker and that he’d previously spent time playing in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra (which would have been around 1943, when Henderson was cutting some sessions on the West Coast).

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Jazz Obscura, Latin | 8 Comments

Detroit City

Any attempt to encapsulate the history of 1960s Detroit soul in a few meager paragraphs is destined to failure. A few items are worth noting, though. First of all, Detroit was one of the powerhouse cities, if not the powerhouse city, of ‘60s soul. Secondly, it’s impossible to talk about Detroit soul without talking about one label – the label – Motown Records.

It’s easy to forget, but Motown, for all its international scope and finishing-school philosophy, was still fundamentally a Detroit label. Its offices and studios were located in a residential neighborhood in west Detroit. Its staff and stable of singers, groups and session musicians were predominately assembled from post-War Detroit’s burgeoning African-American population – middle class, poor or otherwise.

No other Detroit soul label would ultimately succeed in recreating Motown’s success, of course. Few had a Berry Gordy at the helm, and few could afford either Motown’s business model or its top-to-bottom vision of production. Of the profusion of small, soul-oriented record labels that sprouted during the city’s ‘60s soul boom, few could afford not to be aware of the staggering popularity of Hitsville’s soulful groove, though.

It’s one of the great recurring patterns in America’s independent recording industry: Detroit begat Motown whose unparalleled success in turn begat many more Motown wannabes. First, there were the city’s dozens of recording studios, some housed in small commercial buildings, just as many in the converted residential backrooms and garages of Detroit’s west side neighborhoods. There was the network of innumerable personalities, too – the A&R; men, the producers, the DJs, the promoters, the engineers, the entrepreneurs as well as the singers and musicians, professional and amateur alike – who facilitated everything with varying amounts of scrupulousness.

Finally, there were the labels. Hundreds of them. D-Town, Impact, Inferno, Wheelsville, Soulhawk, Revilot, Marquee, Palmer, LaSalle, Wingate, La Beat, Karen, Thelma: the list goes on and on and on. With one eye cocked to the charts, however, all were ready to capitalize upon a pool of aspiring Detroit singers and groups not otherwise being serviced at Motown. Some labels, like Ric-Tic (with Edwin Starr’s “Agent Double-O-Soul”) or Golden World (with the Reflections’ “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet”) would enjoy bona fide national hits. Some, like Groovesville, might find a bankable singer in Steve Mancha who would consistently skirt R&B; success without ever scoring that breakout hit. Many, many other labels, the Temples and Enterprises, would barely endure past a single 45 release or two.

Thousands of ‘60s soul productions would come in time to constitute Detroit’s recorded legacy. Wheels turned, smoke billowed, soul records of the highest possible caliber rolled off the line. Careers were made and mishandled, dreams were summoned and smashed to bits. While it may be impossible to encapsulate the history of 1960s Detroit soul, its soul music, if nothing else, was an industry.

Thanks to the invaluable Soulful Detroit for much of this week’s historical information.

1. The Precisions, Such Misery (Drew)
The Precisions were a vocal group formed by Arthur Ashford, Michael Morgan and Dennis Gilmore on the Motor City’s west side, a neighborhood mecca for much of the city’s R&B; talent as well as the site of its densest aggregation of recording studios.

With a few obscure mid-‘60s singles on the prolific Detroit soul and R&B; label D-Town already to their name, the Precisions would go on to add young college student Billy Prince as a lead vocalist in 1967. This selection, the debut release of the reconfigured group, would be the first of five Precisions records on Drew Records, a label whose discography, as it turns out, only included other Precisions records.

“Such Misery” follows faithfully in that time-honored soul music tradition of rallying cries for the broken-hearted. Nothing new there. “Such Misery” is quite striking, however, for its drastic changes in feeling and tempo, its thudding drums and bass the colossal Yang to the celestial Yin of its vibraphone and graceful harmonies.

Two Precisions follow-ups, “Why Girl” and “If This Is Love (I’d Rather Be Lonely),” would enjoy moderate success on the R&B; charts. A move in 1969 to the nationally distributed Atco Records (part of the Atlantic Records empire) proved fruitless, though. The Precisions would fold shortly thereafter, theirs a not-atypical story of line-up changes, mismanagement and general vulnerability to an industry where singing talent was seen as the most dispensable part of the equation.

The Precisions reunited in the United Kingdom for 2006’s Prestatyn Weekender, performing, among other selections, “Such Misery,” “Why Girl” and “If This Is Love (I’d Rather Be Lonely).”

2. The Fabulous Peps, With These Eyes (Wee 3)
The Fabulous Peps, legendary in the ‘60s for their barnstorming showmanship and choreographed dances, were comprised of a trio of veteran Detroit tenor vocalists, Ronnie Abner, “Little Joe” Harris and Tommy “Storm” Hester.

Initially named the Peps, the group parlayed their live renown and reputation as popular exponents of the Impressions’ falsetto harmony sound into a few well-received releases on local labels like Thelma and Ge Ge in the mid-‘60s. Rechristened the Fabulous Peps, it would be at D-Town Records (with assistance from industry character and former Precisions producer Mike Hanks) that they’d enjoy their most fruitful run of releases.

By the time – 1967, I believe – the Fabulous Peps recorded their original “With These Eyes,” the mood of Detroit’s independent record industry was one of rapidly escalating excitement. Accordingly, details can get a bit hazy. The Fabulous Peps themselves were all over the place, recording more material in Memphis (with either the Hi rhythm section or the Stax rhythm section, depending on who you ask). Their three Memphis records would be released on another brief-lived Detroit soul label, Premium Stuff.

“With These Eyes,” from the same year, would be one of just three soul records on the brief-lived Wee 3 Records and, confusingly, the selection also appeared on yet another Detroit independent soul label, Wheelsville. It’s unclear how “With These Eyes” wound up on two Detroit labels simultaneously. These things just happened.

But for all the details that will likely forever remain obscure, it’s still easy to listen to “With These Eyes” and envision the excitement of the Fabulous Peps’ club show, the gravity-defying spins, flips and splits, the screaming call-and-response vocals, the impossible energy levels. It’s easy to envision that honest-to-goodness live weeping went along “With These Eyes,” for that matter. This was a group unafraid of pushing things to the brink.

Beset by mounting internal personal pressures, the Fabulous Peps would dissolve that same year, 1967, though several reunions would soon follow. Joe Harris would go on to greater fame in the early ‘70s as part of the Motown’s Undisputed Truth.

3. The Superlatives, I Don’t Know How (To Say I Love You) (Dynamics)
1969’s “I Don’t Know How (To Say I Love You)” is one of the highpoints of the Superlatives’ career, a discography which includes several other releases on Detroit’s tiny Dynamics label and, later, a lone 45 on Wal-ly Records.

This is a widely beloved track. Its classic soul harmonies, ringing vibraphone and rock-solid bottom end elicit approval throughout the wide, weird spectrum of soul fanaticism. (See recent appreciations at both Soul Sides and Funky16Corners.) Everything is groovy here – except that there is precious little information to be found on the Superlatives themselves.

The writer of “I Don’t Know How (To Say I Love You)” was not a member of the Superlatives, for instance. This was the vocalist Rhonda Washington, rather, who would later sing with the brief-lived female group Hot Sauce in the early ‘70s. Other Superlatives writing credits variously include J. Edwards, A. Lanot, G. Jones, J. Hendricks, T. Russell, and F. Robinson. Darius Moore, the arranger of “I Don’t Know How (To Say I Love You),” may have been a member of the group as well, but that’s nothing but naked speculation. Who were they? Hired songwriters? Group members? Both? Dead ends all.

This selection would prove popular enough that it was later picked up for distribution as one of the earliest releases of Armen Boladian’s nascent Westbound label.

4. The Gaslight, Here’s Missing You (Grand Junction)
Recorded for Marvin Figgins and Arnold Wright’s Gaslight label, “Here’s Missing You” was a fairly big-selling record back in 1970.

But personnel details for the Gaslight on this record are scarce, though they at some later point included vocalist extraordinaire Oliver Cheatham. Label information also connects the record to Detroit psychedelic funk artists Fugi and Black Merda, though their direct involvement here, if any, remains quite understated.

Several similar sweet harmony soul releases followed for the Gaslight on Grand Junction over the next year or two – and, a year or two after that, on Polydor Records – but none with the same commercial success as “Here’s Missing You.”

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Soul | 9 Comments

Overhauling the British Invasion (part two)

(Ed. note: This is part two of a post about wild British Invasion covers by ‘60s American garage bands. – Little Danny)

1964. Why did it take the British Invasion to re-ignite rock ‘n’ roll – a musical form that’d percolated out of our own national consciousness barely ten years prior?

I think part of the reason is that we, as Americans, persist in our boredom with what has already been established within our own culture. We habitually prefer our own vernacular culture packaged anew and handed back to us from external sources.

Coming from the Beatles and their brethren, rock ‘n’ roll, as an external product, was sleek and stylized. But it wasn’t simply that the English groups sensed some new potential in ‘50s American rock ‘n’ roll where American remained only blithely ignorant to it. After all, there were any number of American teen combos and surf groups that sustained the exuberance of early rock ‘n’ roll into the early ‘60s (well before the Beatles’ stateside arrival). Regionally and nationally popular American groups like the Kingsmen, the Joey Dee & the Starliters, the Sonics, the Astronauts, Johnny & the Hurricanes, the Wailers, Challengers, Paul Revere & the Raiders and the Trashmen were effectively modernizing rock ‘n’ roll, much as their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic were doing.

But the British had long hair, bigger amplifiers, dark matching suits and, of course, accents. It was nothing so calculated, but if we’re talking classic corporate marketing strategy here, the British succeeded in re-branding rock ‘n’ roll where American groups couldn’t. And young Americans went crazy for it in 1964.

It’s easy to look at the British Invasion and consequently think the worse of the American imagination. Sure, the British had to reinvent rock ‘n’ roll for us before we’d take it seriously again.

Think about backyard wrestling and the Watts Towers, though. Think about early hip-hip DJing and homegrown YouTube spoofs. As long as there’s mass-produced culture, there’ll always be certain American individuals and communities who, knowingly or not, transform it into something more creative and more interesting. You can hear a similar process at work in this week’s selections. The ‘60s garage band phenomenon may have largely been America’s localized response to the British Invasion, but whether the Ambertones, the Mopp Tops and the Jagged Edge were, for all their cover versions, trying to summon a British affect is of little consequence. They’d still come out sounding as indelibly American as ever.

1. The Mopp Tops, The Kids Are All Right (Fantastic)
The garage bands of the sixties included plenty of young combos whose existence was measured in months rather than years. That was time enough to play the high school talent show, pool their money and issue one 45 in tiny quantity before college or the Vietnam draft ended the whole equation.

Other groups, like the Mopp Tops, would last a bit longer. The Mopp Tops were a popular rock ‘n’ roll combo, the kind with local fan clubs and local radio airplay, the kind that might open for the Yardbirds or Paul Revere & the Raiders when they headlined the local amphitheater.

The Mopp Tops’ was not an atypical history. Early in their career, numbers like “Flipper” found the Mopp Tops playing the kind of souped-up rock ‘n’ roll that prevailed at suburban high school auditoriums and campus bashes before the advent of the British Invasion. Five years later, the Mopp Tops would wind up stoned out of their minds for their final 45, “Our Lives,” a post-Woodstock, acid-rock testament to crushing volume. And, in between, the Mopp Top’s trajectory would include a few 45s of the classic teen garage band variety, like this version of the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” (hear an excerpt here).

What most distinguishes the Mopp Tops is that they were an integrated group from Honolulu, Hawaii. Here they imbue the “The Kids Are Alright” with the requisite amount of rasping fuzztone guitar and adenoidal teenage angst, evidence that all was not just luaus and long tropical farewells in our 50th state.

At the time of this recording (circa 1966), the Mopp Tops included Michael Payton (drummer) and Jessie Morgan (rhythm guitar and vocals), two of the group’s main songwriters. I’m unable to identify other Mopp Tops, alas.

2. The Jagged Edge, Midnight to Six Man (Twirl)
Like many other American garage bands, the Jagged Edge gravitated to the hipper and more aggressive British groups of the mid-‘60s, their tastes in cover versions favoring the Rolling Stones, Kinks or Small Faces over the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers or Dave Clark Five.

“Midnight to Six” is a mod anthem originally by the Pretty Things, a tough London R&B; group who took the Rolling Stones’ punky aesthetic to wildly ungroomed extremes in the mid-‘60s. This version of the Pretty Things’ paean to nocturnal hipsterdom is actually pretty faithful (hear excerpt of the original here and watch vintage footage here). Which is ironic, as any attempts at nightlife for the Jagged Edge probably meant creeping down the hallway after their parents had gone to bed.

This was one of a number of American ‘60s bands named the Jagged Edge. Nothing seems to be known about this particular permutation, though it can be reasonably inferred that their “Midnight to Six” was recorded in 1966, that zenith year of the garage band experience.

3. Ambertones, I Can Only Give You Everything (Rayjack)
The Ambertones were one of a number of popular local rock ‘n’ roll bands from Los Angeles’s Hispanic East Side in the sixties.

Groups like the Ambertones, Thee Midniters, Cannibal & the Headhunters, the Premiers, the Romancers and the Sunday Funnies were extremely versatile, striving to outdo each other with their showmanship and sets of impeccably matched suits. Even if their visibility was somewhat circumscribed by their community, the vibrancy of East Los Angeles’s music scene in the ‘60s meant that the Ambertones might regularly play before crowds in the thousands. Live, these groups’ repertoires were calculated to excite, and were dominated by arrangements of the latest R&B; dances, novelty instrumentals, and vocal group and Latin pop hits. There was also, of course, room for the occasional raw rave-up like “I Can Only Give You Everything,” too. Whatever it took to stir audiences into a frenzy.

This is the Ambertones’ version of the 1966 Them anthem. (Hear an excerpt here. Them was Van Morrison’s first group.) If you had a fuzzbox you were ready; thanks to its brilliant simplicity, “I Can Only Give You Everything” worked its way into many a ‘60s garage band’s repertoire. And, thanks to its instantly identifiable riff, “I Can Only Give You Everything” – even more than the similar “Louie Louie” or “Wild Thing” – managed simultaneously to capture adolescence’s euphoric swagger and its breathtaking stupidity.

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Garage Bands | 10 Comments

Summer break

Greetings all, I’m taking the week off. I wish I could say it was for a commensurate stretch of rest and relaxation in some distant locale. But, no, the deadline for another sort of writing project looms and must take precedence.

See you on Labor Day, though. And thanks for reading!

-Little Danny

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Personal natter | 1 Comment

Everybody wipe out now

When they’re discussed at all, the early 1960s are usually derided as rock ‘n’ roll’s Dark Ages, the years when the hot guitar licks and sexualized strains of boogie and backbeat were subdued by an army of brylcreemed teen idols steering pop music safely back to Middle America.

It’s an unfair characterization. First, the Fabians and Frankie Avalons aside, there actually were a number of fascinating teen pop and R&B; productions particular to the time.

Second, and far more significantly, there is truth to the prevailing idea that rock ‘n’ roll in its original form fell out of commercial favor during the early ‘60s. But the spirit of adolescent musical fervor would remain very much alive in that time. The spirit had just reconfigured itself, stealing into the high school gyms, dancehalls and beer parties of the American landscape.

The Southern rockabilly front men, if you could find them in 1961, might be singing country in hinterland juke joints. Elvis was onscreen warbling “Blue Hawaii,” Little Richard had gone gospel and the Beatles were still pups. But from Tacoma, Washington and San Antonio to Minneapolis and Portland, Maine, every American burg had its young proponents of rock ‘n’ roll in the early ‘60s, its homegrown version of the Fireballs or the Champs. They were the combos turning out energetic, boozy covers like “Greenback Dollar,” “Tequila,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” and maybe a wild original or two. They took up the mantle of rock ‘n’ roll where the first generation had left off, taking their cues from a different lineage of musicians: the Isley Brothers, Link Wray and Wraymen, Bo Diddley, the Coasters, the Fendermen.

With saxophones, twangy guitars, matching suits, and a repertoire of party-friendly R&B; vocals and raunchy instrumentals, groups like the Ventures (“Walk, Don’t Run”), the Rivieras (“California Sun”) and the Johnny & the Hurricanes (“Red River Rock”) sprang from the demographic that would sustain rock ‘n’ roll for decades to come: the towns and suburbs of middle class America. It wasn’t as flamboyant perhaps as the first generation, but great rock ‘n’ roll, it turns out, was not in a state of hibernation in the early ‘60s. Not at all. It had just flown to the provinces.

Two or three years later, some groups might update their repertoires with the staccato guitar runs of surf music, that most stylized form of early ‘60s instrumental rock ‘n’ roll. Another year or two would pass and other groups might ditch the saxophones and buzz cuts altogether and, with any luck, transition successfully into the British Invasion. Some, however, seem to have always existed in a twilight zone of their own singular making. Like this week’s selections.

1. The Lincoln Trio, Shake Down (Fascination)
Fascination was a small independent label founded in the late ‘50s by legendary Detroit record impresario Armen Boladian. With only one other 45 (the similarly obscure and exotic “Garden of Eden,” also on Fascination Records) to their name, the whys and hows of the Lincoln Trio, however, remain elusive. The names in “Shake Down”’s writing credits can be spotted on several other Fascination releases, suggesting that Claude Howard, Jacob Davidson and Isidore Jacobs were Detroit studio songwriters and musicians that Boladian regularly hired.

They may been professional musicians. Or not. The guitar is muffled, the bass nearly non-existent: Boladian’s production technique is either sloppy or bracingly spontaneous, depending on the frame of mind. There’s a wonderfully dark and raw energy to 1960’s “Shake Down,” though. The kind of energy that says danger and drama. The kind of energy that’s impossible to recreate if you’ve had more than ten minutes to practice beforehand.

Armen Boladian would go on to form one of the great independent soul labels of the ‘70s, Westbound Records, home to the Parliament/Funkadelic aggregation, the Ohio Players and the Detroit Emeralds among other notables.

Boladian, strangely enough, has been in sampling and copyright law news in recent years.

2. The Crescents (Featuring Chiyo), Pink Dominos (Era)
The Crescents were formed in Los Angeles in the early ‘60s by Tom Bresh (guitar), Tom Mitchell (bass), Ray Reed (saxophone) and the mysterious Chiyo (guitar).

Bill Eucker (the writer credited for “Pink Dominos”) was a guitar instructor at Ernie Ball’s store and studio in Thousand Oaks, California. It seems likely that it was there that Eucker handed off “Pink Dominos” to the Crescents’ guitarist Thom Bresh, then a young pupil at Ball’s studio.

Idle speculation aside, the group’s second 45 was “Devil’s Surf” and, with a title like that, you pretty much knew what you were getting: a minor-key title laden with echo, crashing drums and exotic surf guitar riffs. On the other hand, no listener would ever have any idea what “Pink Dominos” were, which in turn meant that Chiyo and company could do pretty much whatever they wanted with it. And so they did, turning their studio time into a noisy, pounding workout that was popular enough with the part of America that did not suffer from migraines to make it a small hit in 1963.

The Crescents were like other early ‘60s instrumental bands during California surf music’s glory years, issuing a few obscure 45s before migrating on to other things with the advent of the British Invasion. The Crescents were categorically unlike any other such groups, however, in one way: Chiyo was female. This would make her one of the very few, if not the only, female guitarists in all of surf music, as far as I know.

The Crescent’s guitarist Thom Bresh is the son of legendary country singer-songwriter and guitar picker Merle Travis. Bresh, himself a renowned guitarist, has enjoyed a wildly varied career in television,
film and country music since a young age. He remains active in the industry today.

3. Ronny Kae, Swinging Drums (Band Box)
Session drummer Ronny Kae’s professional career began in his native New York City, but he’s more likely to be remembered – at least in his adopted state of Colorado – as the founder of one of Denver’s venerable music shops, Drum City (now
Drum City Guitarland).

Before Drum City’s beginnings in 1965, though, before the Louisiana Purchase and before, even, the signing of the Magna Carta. It was somewhere around last Ice Age, I believe, back with the wooly mammoths and glaciers and everything when Ronny Kae would be cutting a few feral records of his own. Sandy Nelson, Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine: there was precedent for session drummers who made successful pop instrumentals in the early ‘60s, but nothing could have prepared audiences for the hairy kinetic racket that is 1962’s “Swinging Drums.”

“Pink Dominos” may be primitive, but “Swinging Drums” is positively prehistoric. If the instrumentation of “Shake Down” is unorthodox, then “Swinging Drums” is avant-garde. Minimalist art or caveman curiosity? As with all the best early rock ‘n’ roll recordings, “Swinging Drums” must be considered both ways.

Band Box was a tiny Denver record label. Shortly after “Swinging Drums,” Kae would follow up with another lowbrow milestone, “Drums Fell Off a Cliff,” also on Band Box.

After a successful, decades-long run in the retail musical instrument business, Ronny Kae passed on in 1993. His sons Tim and Jason now run Drum City Guitarland.

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Instrumentals/Surf | 20 Comments

1968: The R&B instrumental

It could be a jazz organist angling for a catchy original number to climb the R&B; charts. It could be a young six-piece combo who played together in their high school band and who were now letting loose with a funky James Brown-style instrumental workout. It could be a handful of session musicians stretching a recycled blues riff over the two sides of a 45 rpm record.

The sixties were the R&B; instrumental’s halcyon days. As well as encompassing every possible regional variation of the form, the decade’s R&B; instrumentals absorbed every new development in popular music from one end (e.g., Dave “Baby” Cortez and 1959’s “Happy Organ”) to the other (e.g., Eddie Bo with 1969’s “Hook and Sling”).

Stylistic developments and differences aside, the R&B; instrumental’s niche in the continuum of post-War music owes most everything to its live and spontaneously funky quality. This was much of its broader crossover appeal. The form did not set out to make history or invoke spiritual revelation. The typical R&B; instrumental sounded best performed in a club in the wee smoky hours, or rattling through the boozy din from a corner jukebox. Nor did it put on airs. A few beers, copies of “Green Onions” or “The Horse,” your turntable: an R&B; instrumental also sounded pretty fabulous in your friend’s living room.

If the R&B; instrumental was its own self-sustained phenomenon, then its rapid evolution closely followed soul music’s rise from rhythm & blues in the sixties. As soul grew ever funkier and ever more colorful, absorbing Latin and psychedelic influences with each passing year, its instrumental counterparts would do the same.

This week’s trio of selections falls somewhere in that overlap between the mod-styled thump of shingaling soul and the polyrhythmic surge of James Brown-style funk. Its instruments? Horns, of course, and the organ, which from the powerhouse churn of the Hammond B-3 to reedier Farfisa organ, was vibrating nightclub walls with peals of piercing electricity. Its look? Dark mohair suits, turtles, leather boots, the whole works. The net result? Pure discotheque dynamite.

1. Booker T. Averheart, Heart ‘n Soul (Soultex)
Memphis-style Horn stabs, dramatic changes, minor key vamping: with a few added lyrics “Heart ‘n Soul” could have been any number of ‘60s dance crazes. Were it not, of course, for its deadly, stony-faced sense of self-possession.

The Dallas/Fort Worth area, though never the hub of Texas R&B; that Houston was, still had its own vibrant club and studio scene. The independent Soultex Records, operated by local entrepreneur and guitarist Roger Boykin, was one of several musician-owned labels that served the area’s jazz and R&B; musicians.

In addition to being a airplane pilot, motel owner, local music promoter, Booker T. Averheart was a Dallas-based bassist, keyboardist and bandleader. A string of four late ‘60s 45s, all excellent, exemplified Texas’s gritty, funky strain of soul and R&B.; 1969’s “Heart ‘n Soul,” the follow-up to his “I Wanta Be the President,” would be the last 45 released the Soultex label.

Averheart passed on in 2004.

2. The Touch, Pick & Shovel (Lecasver)
The Touch, likely inspired by the success of funky late 60’s instrumentals like the Meters’ “Cissy Strut,” labored here under the assumption that America would also be mentally ready for the “Pick & Shovel” and its pure Cubist strains of organ. And clearly, America wasn’t, as the dizzying “Pick & Shovel” sank without a whisper. Led by the obscure session keyboardist John Frangipane, these were probably New York City studio musicians, but little is otherwise known about the Touch or how many Newports they smoked before knocking out this gem.

“Pick & Shovel” was released on New Jersey’s Lecasver label, circa 1969.

3. The Bobby Cook Quartette, Ridin High, Part 1 (Compose)
There is some evidence to suggest that the future free jazz guitar pioneer James Ulmer played on this selection, but there’s precious little information about either Bobby Cook, a Detroit jazz musician, or his quartet.

The several minutes that you take to listen to both sides of 1968’s “Ridin High” will likely be several minutes that you will later have a difficult time remembering. This is the hypnotic power of “Ridin High.” Both the Hammond player (presumably Cook himself) and saxophonist take solos here but you’d barely notice them – or anything, for that matter – for all of “Ridin High”’s surging forward momentum.

4. The Bobby Cook Quartette, Ridin High, Part 2 (Compose)
This is the first of two 45s that Bobby Cook released on the Compose label. (The second, “On the Way” and its flipside “Sister Lu,” is credited to Bobby Cook and the Explosions.) Compose was a tiny label run from Ecorse, Michigan, a town outside Detroit and home to another lost nugget of gurgling Hammond gold, the Organics’ “Foot Stumping.”

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Jazz Obscura, Soul | 9 Comments

The Varitone Saxophone

History has not been kind to the dreaded Varitone saxophone.

What is the Varitone? It’s an electric saxophone, simply put, part of a broader post-War trend of oddball, electrified instruments and effects.

Except for a control box with visible knobs and switches, and a cable plugged in to a separate amplifier, the Varitone looked much like a regular saxophone, but like the electric sitar or the Mandocaster the Varitone was always more than just an acoustic instrument with an electric pickup plopped into it. The entire instrument was engineered around the placement of its electronics. (For a good technical overview and picture of the Varitone saxophone, check out this article.)

The Varitone’s effect is somewhat harder to describe. The sound was, if nothing else, original. The electronics of the Varitone allowed you to add echo and tremolo to the saxophone’s signal, but the instrument’s most obvious attribute was its sub-octave buzzing effect and curious, almost vocal-like overtones. You knew it when you heard it, I’ll put it that way.

Developed around 1965 by esteemed French instrument maker Selmer Company, the Varitone saxophone would first go into commercial production a few years later. Company management must have been encouraged when Chicago-based saxophonist Eddie Harris scored almost immediately with 1968’s “Listen Here” (hear excerpt here, watch great vintage footage here), a funky, Latin-tinged hit instrumental that featured the new contraption prominently. Harris, along with creating one of jazz’s biggest-selling hits with his 1961 jazz version of the Ernest Gold theme “Exodus,” would go on in the late ‘60s to be the Varitone’s staunchest champion. Themed albums like The Electrifying Eddie Harris, Silver Cycles and Plug Me In would be wild explorations of the instrument as well as some of Atlantic Records’ top ‘60s jazz sellers.

Unfortunately for Selmer, Eddie Harris – with a few other popular dabblers like Sonny Stitt and John Klemmer – would basically be the Varitone’s only popular champion. Jazz’s critical establishment has rarely looked favorably upon gadgetry, especially electronic gadgetry, especially electronic gadgetry that reconfigured an iconic jazz instrument like the saxophone. The record-buying public? They seemed intrigued by the Varitone, at least. It wasn’t psychedelic, exactly, just different. There was always something of the air of novelty that seemed to hover about the instrument, though. You might catch a glimpse of the Varitone on the occasional soul or jazz record, but by the late ‘70s, hardly a decade after its introduction, the contrivance was basically extinct.

Sonny Cox, Chocolate Candy (Bell)
Landon “Sonny” Cox was a soul jazz saxophonist who, with his trio the Three Souls (including organist Ken Prince and drummer Robert Shy), worked the vibrant Chicago club scene of the ‘60s. 1969’s “Chocolate Candy” followed several Three Souls albums for the Argo jazz label, and one album (The Wailer) under Cox’s own name on Cadet Records (Argo’s sister label). “Chocolate Candy,” which only appeared in 45 form, would be Cox’s final commercial effort.

Penned by hip freelance guitarist Phil Upchurch and produced by Chicago studio legend Richard Evans, this selection brims with the accessible earthiness and vamping rhythms so characteristic of ‘60s soul jazz. At its core this selection is pretty by-the-numbers soul jazz, actually, which I think was part of the Varitone’s initial appeal for a lot of the jazz saxophonists who dared pick it up. It changed anything, now matter how banal, into an instantly groovy situation.

Sonny Cox would later coach three Illinois boys’ high school basketball state champion teams.

2. Jerome Richardson, Soul Cry (Part I) (Verve)
A highly respected saxophonist and flautist, Jerome Richardson would release a handful of solo albums throughout a prolific life in jazz, but it’s mostly his career as a journeyman session saxophonist – working with everyone from Betty Carter and Charles Mingus to Steely Dan and Quincy Jones – for which he made a lasting mark.

3. Jerome Richardson, Soul Cry (Part II) (Verve)
Session pop and jazz work was good work if you could find it, and many a jazz musician indeed sought it out. Session work, however, demanded versatility, professionalism and – no matter one’s credentials – the willingness to make concessions to the latest trends. This would never be a problem for Jerome Richardson.

If jazz purists liked to decry to the Varitone in the ‘60s, then “Soul Cry” must have seemed like the apocalypse itself, a portent of the dark year when robots would walk the earth and technology taught its own metal self to get funky. From the guitar, piano and bass down to the Varitone (of course), the overdubbed flute, yes, and that unidentifiable whistle that imbues side two with a rare tea kitchen quality: everything on this obscure 1968 gem is electric.

Jerome Richardson passed on in 2000.

** And… now you can hear the unbroken edit of “Soul Cry,” courtesy of Mr. Fab from Music For Maniacs. Thank you sir! **

Jerome Richardson, Soul Cry (Parts I and II) (Verve)

Soul Merchants, For “Wes” (Weis)
Despite Weis Records’ distribution out of Memphis (courtesy of Volt Records), the Soul Merchants were another Chicago crew, their leader Eddie Silvers a veteran songwriter and saxophonist on the Windy City’s R&B; and jazz scene.

Like George Benson’s “I Remember Wes,” Kenny Burrell’s “Blues for Wes” and David T. Walker’s “Direction Wes,” this selection was one of a spate of tribute songs to jazz guitar legend Wes Montgomery following his 1968 death.

The lush strings, lilt of Latin percussion and Wes Montgomery-style “octave” guitar chording are all very easygoing and enjoyable here. Even with a brief, dramatic appearance of the Varitone, “For ‘Wes’” never drops its cool demeanor, though there’s still no obvious reason that such a lavish production would end after barely two minutes. Such vehicles would sometimes just succumb to the weight of their own hipness, apparently.

The Soul Merchants likely recorded and released this selection in 1969.

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Jazz Obscura | 9 Comments

Dream pop

It’s possible, as Joseph Lanza did in his Vanilla Pop: Sweet Sounds From Frankie Avalon to ABBA, to trace an unbroken lineage of effervescent vocals from the Four Lads all the way to ABBA, counting groups like the Chordettes, the Lettermen, the Fleetwoods, Chad & Jeremy, the Sandpipers and the Carpenters along the way. Lanza argued, convincingly so, for such artists’ place along a vanilla continuum of smooth, ethereal studio pop.

It’s pretty easy to dismiss unapologetically clean-cut harmoneers like the Lettermen. Uptempo choral fare like 1971’s “Everything Is Good About You” seems as square now as it did at the time. More than just their soothing qualities and easy palatability, such groups understood the potency of vocal harmonies, though.  The same crew, for instance, might deliver something at a slower tempo, and there the effect of the Lettermen was entirely different. A ballad like 1966’s “Our Winter Love” (hear excerpt here) is hypnotic and transcendent. With a sympathetic engineer and a narcotic cascade of studio echo, groups from the Flamingos (“I Only Have Eyes For You,” excerpt here) and the Association (“Never My Love,” excerpt here) to the Anita Kerr Singers (“Forever,” excerpt here) could transform dog-eared ballads.

This is one of the unappreciated beauties of harmony-pop: it can be pure Valium. Harmony-pop summoned twilight reverie and wistful romantic fantasia for the hi-fi escapist.  The fact is that this week’s artistes didn’t have to strive to sound like drugs. They already sounded like drugs.

1. The Ultra Mates, Pitter Patter (CRC Charter)
A dirge tempo, eerie female harmonies and cavernous echo evoke dark nights of serious teen melodrama. The cold rain never felt so warm and inviting.

What can be said of Ultra Mates?   They were in reality a group comprised of for-hire female session singers – Darlene Love, Jean King and Fanita James – singers who’d also record together occasionally as the Blossoms.  (Jean King would enjoy a solo career in the ’60s as well.)  Recorded at Gold Star Studios in 1963, where Phil Spector realized his finest work, it’s King providing the lead voice on this atmospheric and pre-psychedelic relic.   The songwriter here is likely the same Debbie Stanley responsible for another obscure girl-pop confection, 1964’s “Gary’s My Love” (with “It’s Him I Wanna Go With Mama” on the flipside).

CRC Charter Records was around for a few blips in the early ‘60s. A West Coast subsidiary of MGM Records, the label existed long enough for one hit, Johnny Beecher’s nocturnal instrumental “Sax Fifth Avenue.”

2. Mercy, Love (Can Make You Happy) (Sundi)
The Mercy saga began with a group assembled by Jack Sigler, Jr., who wrote this selection as a high school student in Tampa Bay, Florida.

The group’s biggest hit, “Love (Can Make You Happy)” was ultimately released in two different versions. The first version – this version – was recorded and released in 1968 on Sundi Records, a label run by Florida impresario Gil Cabot. At some point in their story, however, Mercy would attract the notice of the powerhouse label Warner Brothers, who signed Sigler and company on for a full-length album (1969’s Forever) while simultaneously releasing a remastered “Love (Can Make You Happy)” for 45 release. A somewhat ill-advised move on Warner Brothers’ behalf, perhaps, but both versions of the song proved popular, their cumulative sales landing Mercy the number two slot for a week on 1969’s pop charts.

Vying record labels meant that the band that toured as Mercy in the late ‘60s was not necessarily the same crew who recorded as Mercy, however. Furthermore, Gil Cabot, eager to seize upon the fame of his recently departed charges, rushed out a competing album attributed to Mercy (The Mercy and Love Can Make You Happy) that was comprised of cover versions, Jack Sigler demos and various odds and ends.

Mercy’s story, though complicated, was certainly not atypical in the exploitative tumult of the ’60s entertainment business. Nor was “Love (Can Make You Happy)” atypical of harmony-pop in general, and it’s impossible here to resist comparing it to another sunrise meditation, the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning.”. Both songs bubble with sensuality and hypnotic instrumentation.

3. The Shannons, Mister Sunshine Man (L&M)
Little is known about the Shannons, who released this confection around 1968. From its warm ripples of harmonies and tremolo guitars down to its dazzlingly naïve lyrics and vaguely Baroque touch of the harpsichord, “Mister Sunshine Man” is pure California sunshine pop.

Undoubtedly from Los Angeles, the Shannons’ “Mister Sunshine Man” was written by Johnny Cole, an obscure studio songwriter who also penned songs for the Sound Sandwich, a California psychedelic group (who also covered “Mister Sunshine Man” in 1968, incidentally)

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Psychedelic/Pop | 17 Comments