Mod jazz

From the avant-garde to the mainstream, it’s easy to brood on the status of jazz in this lifetime, at least insofar as its public visibility and cultural vitality go. Jazz seems to hit low after historical low, and, likewise, it’s pretty easy to indulge the question of what this says about us as a society.

The days when an honest-to-god jazz combo like the Ramsey Lewis Trio could pack Chicago clubs with their brand of hip, accessible jazz are over, certainly. And so, too, are the days when they might turn around and have a genuine chart hit with something that they’d recorded the only night before.

I simplify, of course. The Trio’s 1965 smash hit “The In Crowd” (hear an excerpt here) really wasn’t the first of its kind. Lewis and company’s was an earthy jazz infused with traces of Latin boogaloo, gospel, and R&B; (as well as a dash of sartorial nightclub style) that trumpeter Lee Morgan had pioneered with his 1963 hit “Sidewinder.” There were others who had done – and would do – the same, but it was the Ramsey Lewis Trio that truly popularized the style that would later be identified as “mod jazz” in soul and jazz fans’ circles. Their “The In Crowd” would never set the world aflame, but its infectious brand of club-based jazz was, if nothing else, the last time that modern jazz was truly a viable form of pop music.

1. Reggie Cravens Quartet, Uptight (Jond-or)
Reggie Cravens was a pianist who played at the Arlington Hotel, a grand, storied pile in the spa town of Hot Springs, Arkansas – and apparently once a refuge for notorious mobster Al Capone

Recorded around 1967, Cravens’s loose-limbed version of the 1966 Stevie Wonder hit “Uptight” must have made for quite the dissipated Saturday night at Hot Springs when his quartet took the stage. I can see the bluehairs momentarily abandoning their gin rickeys and boozily swaying to the “Uptight” chorus, as verily I can smell the English Rose perfume.

Reggie Cravens is no longer with us, sadly. Thanks to a wonderful communiqué from Kimberley H., though, who provided information about Reggie Cravens as well as about his bass player Buck Powell. Powell now plays piano, and continues to stay active in jazz circles.

2. Jimmie Willis, Soul Power pt. 1 (Orr)
Jimmie Willis’s “Soul Power” leans to the funkier R&B; side of the equation, but its catchy, Latin-ish piano vamp and, moreover, its celebratory party atmosphere are pure mod jazz mojo (à la Ramsey Lewis, again). If the mid-‘60s were a send-off party for post-War America’s swinging, recreational buzz – Jimmie Willis definitely wanted you to be there.

3. Jimmie Willis, Soul Power pt. 2 (Orr)
Whether you were hearing “Soul Power” blaring from a jukebox, or whether you were hearing it live, anywhere could be good times. Provided, of course, that there was a crew of shouting, wasted partygoers.
“Soul Power” was recorded in the late ‘60s on Orr Records, an obscure Chicago label with a few other fine soul releases.

I believe that it’s Willis himself at the helm of the gurgling Hammond B-3 organ on this selection.

4. Googie Rene Combo, Smokey Joe’s La La (Class)
Los Angeles’s Googie Rene Combo recorded for the Class label in the late ‘50s and ‘60s; like so many working R&B; and jazz combos of the time, Rene had a few minor instrumental hits (“Wiggle Tail,” “The Slide”) that reflected rather than advanced their art form.

Rene would record throughout that time, however, with several LPs and numerous 45s to his name. Whether it was Googie’s serviceable musical talents on keyboards or the fact that Googie’s father Leon (a well known Los Angeles songwriter and record label honcho) owned the Class label that allowed him to record so prolifically is subject to debate. When it sounds as good as the thumpingly hip “Smokey Joe’s La La,” though, it sort of makes such debate moot.

From 1966, “Smokey’s Joe’s La La” was released near the end of Rene’s recording career. The composer credit here goes to one Jeanne Vikki, a mysterious presence at Class Records (and its subsidiary label Rendezvous) who gets a lot of the writing credits on Rene’s recordings. Who Vikki was – and what role she might have played in what is only nominally a “composition” – remain a mystery as well.

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Jazz Obscura | 10 Comments

In the trail of Telstar

There’s a special place in the constellations for the brilliant British pop producer and innovator Joe Meek and his 1962 instrumental hit “Telstar.”

Britain’s musical eccentrics and studio experimentalists did not enjoy the same host of independent labels that America’s did in the 1950s and ‘60s. Joe Meek’s vision of pop sonics was so strong and so distinct – and his production techniques so eccentric – that he chose to, or rather had to, work outside the conservative studio system then dominating the British music scene. And so, after a few fairly constrained years as an engineer in London’s IBC studios, Meek set up shop in his own London flat, recording on his home-made equipment and recording very much on his own terms, leasing the masters he made to the big British labels. His maverick studio shop was a bold move, but the Joe Meek sound proved not only immediately identifiable but also quite successful. Many of his recordings were British hits, and some, like the Honeycombs’ “Have I the Right,” charted in America as well.

His sound ultimately fell out of favor with the advent of ‘60s psychedelia, but Joe Meek’s body of work has earned a fair amount of deserved attention in the past decade or so. It’s not really his prodigious recording or the bizarre, dramatic arc of his personal life that this week’s Office Naps is devoted to, however. Rather, it’s the one song which was far and away his biggest international hit, and the song for which Meek is best remembered: “Telstar.” (Listen to an excerpt of “Telstar” here.)

“Telstar,” performed by Meek’s house band the Tornados, topped the American pop charts for five weeks in 1962, and occasionally you’ll see it described as the first hit of the British Invasion. That’s a bit misleading, though, as “Telstar” is wholly dissimilar from the groups of the British Invasion – the song truly belongs to the preceding years of space age pop and guitar instrumentals. And though it’s pretty singular to that era as well, “Telstar” was typical of the Joe Meek sound: multi-tracked musical parts, echo, a shrill and “compressed” production, electronic gadgetry and home-made sound effects, an outer space aesthetic, and weird, exotic instruments (like the clavioline keyboard heard prominently).

The Space Race, that ominous amalgam of astrophysics and Cold War ideology, may have spooked some. Meek, though, saw the Space Race not for its undercurrent of nuclear annihilation but rather for what it really was: pure, exhilarating pageantry.

(I do not even begin to adequately describe the Joe Meek saga. John McCready’s excellent Mojo article is a good place to start for that.)

1. The Vulcanes, Twilight City (Capitol)
The Vulcanes were a studio-bound instrumental group in early ’60s Los Angeles; they released a few big-production instrumentals on Capitol Records with help from industry producers and players like H.B. Barnum and Joe Saraceno.

“Twilight City,” from 1964 (along with the excellent “Moon Probe,” its flipside) is the most interesting of the lot. It doesn’t copy the “Telstar” riff, exactly, but the anthemic thrust and the reverbed guitars are there, and so is the effect: the cold majesty of outer space. Of course, you could have named this track “Wave Rider” or “Surf Whip” and it would have made a great surfing paean, too. That’s what’s endearing about a lot of ‘60s guitar instrumentals: so much depends upon the title.

Sharp-eyed readers may have spotted the name David Axelrod for his producer credit. It’s not the sublime orchestrated funk for which he later earned the lasting support of DJs and funk collectors, but the echo and crystalline production style are quintessential Axelrod.

Thank to former Vulcanes saxophonist Don Roberts for the information on the Vulcanes.

The Astronomers, Relay – Son of Telstar (Ember)
“Telstar” done in the style of definitive ‘60s guitar instrumental group the Shadows, Britain’s tasteful, glasses-wearing counterparts to the Ventures.

“Relay – Son of Telstar,” released on New York City’s Ember label around 1963, was recorded in Britain.  I suspect this is the Shadows themselves, actually, playing under an assumed name. Not only does “Relay” sound exactly like the Shadows’ handiwork, but the songwriters involved – Ray Adams, Elaine Murtagh, and Valerie Murtagh – also penned songs for the group.

On final note, “Relay”’s producer, Gerry Bron, is perhaps best known today for his legacy of producing and wrangling British hard rock dinosaurs Uriah Heep

3. The Double IV, Magic Star (Capitol)
Electronic flourishes, crushingly white vocals and trebly, glass-shattering production – “Magic Star” is exactly how you’d write the vocal vision of Meek’s big hit.

The Double IV were not a Joe Meek vehicle, though, just a impeccable simulation.  A Los Angeles studio group, the Double IV were assembled by Jimmie Haskell, who, in addition to a long, ongoing career in the Los Angeles studio world as a for-hire pop arranger, composer, and conductor, himself cut a fascinating album of knob-turning pop-electronica in 1957 entitled Count Down.

Haskell and company’s “Magic Star” was released around 1963.

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Instrumentals/Surf | 10 Comments

Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue

Dusty Springfield, with her big voice, big bouffant, and hits like “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” “The Look of Love,” and “Son of a Preacher Man,” may have been the queen of ‘60s blue-eyed soul. She wasn’t the only ‘60s white soul girl, though.

To a certain extent, much of commercial pop music is black music retooled for white audiences. Such interests may have played into the record contracts and promotional support accorded to this week’s singers, but there’s far more to Evie, Chris, and Sharon than just financial bottom lines and marketability. They’re three supremely talented individuals at the end of all, with their own idiosyncratic ways of rendering heartbreak and delivering the emotional gravitas.

1. Evie Sands, I Can’t Let Go (Blue Cat)
Even during the 45 rpm record’s halcyon years as the medium for attaining pop success, you needed more than the blessing of innate ability, dark good looks and a stunning, husky voice. You needed more than top-notch production and the brilliant pop songwriting talents of Al Gorgoni and Chip Taylor. The music-obsessed, Brooklyn-raised Evie Sands, perched several times throughout her career on the brink of bigger success, was blessed with all of these qualities except, it seems, for that most slippery ingredient of broader pop fortune: luck.

Sands’ first single, “Take Me for a Little While” – also on songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Blue Cat label – was characteristic of her mournful, soulful style.  While terrific, it was beaten to the charts by a competing version from Chicago singer Jackie Ross. If “Take Me for a Little While” was worthy, then “I Can’t Let Go” – which followed a few months later – was thumping 1965 girl-soul perfected, with one of the catchiest choruses in ‘60s pop. Sands was expert at conveying vulnerability with her voice – it verily coursed with the hormone surges of the young, lovelorn America.  But “I Can’t Let Go,” too, only grazed the charts. In 1969 Sands would enjoy her greatest success with “Any Way That You Want Me” and an excellent full-length album on A&M.  It would mostly be her songwriting talents that carried Evie Sands financially through the ‘70s, however. Sands retreated from the music business not long thereafter, her career perpetually remaining one of continued undervaluation – a fact which, if nothing else, guaranteed Sands an existence in the purgatory of diehard soul fans’ adoration.

Sands would eventually reunite with songwriter Chip Taylor in 1999 for her album Women in Prison.

Incidentally, England’s Hollies would cover this song in 1966. Their version is well worth seeking out, too.

Chris Clark, Love’s Gone Bad (V.I.P.)
Like this week’s other artists, Chris Clark’s releases eventually found their way to a niche of soul fanatics, but broader musical fame eluded her. Which isn’t to say that Clark didn’t manage success – she did. That success came in the same place where she’d started: behind the scenes at Motown Records. Clark started work at Motown as a receptionist in 1963, eventually working her way up to a position as Vice-President of the label’s Television and Movies division in the ‘70s.

The irony, of course, is that Clark, who’d always wanted to be a singer, truly belonged out there in front of the scene the whole time.  Perhaps there was only room in the American mind for one statuesque blonde with a skyward bouffant, though, and we already had that in Dusty Springfield. Either way, Clark would release a few other fine soul 45s for V.I.P. (a subsidiary label of Motown Records) and album or two for Motown itself, but the self-penned “Love’s Gone Bad,” from 1966, would remain her biggest hit, which, sadly, isn’t saying too much.  “Love’s Gone Bad,” raw Detroit soul at its heart, may have confused a record-buying public – whether they were even aware that Clark was white – looking to Motown for its perfected formula of polished pop-soul.

There’s an excellent anthology of Clark’s work available here (and Clark is looking fabulous in her huge, round sunglasses). It’s worth every music fan’s while.

3. Sharon Tandy, Stay With Me (Atlantic)
A fascinating vocalist whose life story warrants some sort of Lifetime channel biopic, Sharon Tandy grew up singing in Johannesburg, South Africa. At the behest of the young music impresario and manager Frank Fenter, Tandy made her way to the England of the mid-‘60s – there, in the swirling pop art milieu of London, she was a sensation.

Though her time in the spotlight would be lamentably brief-lived, Tandy managed not only to cut some amazing pop, soul, and psychedelic records, but found herself featured as an opening act of the 1967 Stax-Volt European tour as well – an improbable slot which probably had something to do with the persevering promotion of Fenter – by then both Tandy’s husband and a rising star in the executive ranks of Atlantic Records. Throughout, though, there was Tandy’s spectacular voice. Her 1968 version of Lorraine Ellison’s “Stay With Me” is one of several releases she made with her backing band, the Fleur de Lys (English contemporaries of the Who), and, characteristically, it smoulders with sexuality and her formidable presence. This record must have sparked mod riots every time it was spun – there seems no other good explanation for why this 45 is so hard to find nowadays.

Tandy, grown increasingly disillusioned with the music business, eventually separated from Fenter, and returned to South Africa in 1970 to continue recording. Fenter would go on to co-found Atlantic’s subsidiary refuge of ‘70s southern rock, Capricorn Records; Tandy, though, would never find the international success that she deserved.

The flipside of “Stay With Me” is, incidentally, “Hold On,” a thundering slab of mod psychedelia that I hope to showcase on Office Naps at some future point. You can hear it on the meantime – along with all of Tandy’s recorded output (including unissued recordings made in Memphis for Stax records) on Ace Records’ justifiably lauded You Gotta Believe It’s… Sharon Tandy anthology.

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Soul | 11 Comments

Office Naps Mix Spring 2007

The second installment of the Office Naps mix. More of my favorite ‘60s soft psychedelics and electronic pop.

Office Naps Mix Spring 2007

Millennium, Prelude (7”, Columbia)
Appletree Theatre, Hightower Square (7”, Verve Forecast)
Joyride, Childhood’s End (Friend Sound, RCA)
J.K. & Co., Fly (Suddenly One Summer, White Whale)
Bobby Christian, Mooganga (Vibe-brations, Ovation)
Critters, Awake in a Dream (Touch ‘n Go With the Critters, Project 3)
White Noise, Firebird (An Electric Storm, Island)
Beautiful Daze, City Jungle, pt. 1 (7”, RPR)
Network, The Boys and The Girls (7”, Spar)
Chapter V, The Sun is Green (7”, Verve Folkways)
Human Touch, I Can Imagine (7”, Warner Brothers)
Lee Mallory, Many Are the Times (7”, Valiant)
Shadow Casters, Going to the Moon (7”, J.R.P.)
Rouges, Secondary Man (7”, Thunderbird)
Ceyleib People, Changes (7”, Vault)
July, The Way (7”, Columbia)
World of Oz, Like a Tear (The World of Oz, Deram)
Ken Thorne, Sadie’s Theme (The Touchables, soundtrack, 20th Century Fox)
Chamaeleon Church, Camillia is Changing (Chamaeleon Church, MGM)
Don Robertson, Why? (Dawn, Verve)
Lewis & Clarke Expedition, Why Need They Pretend? (7”, Colgems)
Antonio Carlos Jobim, Children’s Games (Stone Flower, CTI)
Young Idea, Colours of Darkness (7”, Capitol)
David McCallum, House of Mirrors (Music: It’s Happening Now!, Capitol)
Beach-Niks, Last Night I Cried (7”, Sea-Mist)
Electric Prunes, I (Underground, Reprise)
Freeborne, Land of Diana (Peak Impressions, Monitor)
King Biscuit Entertainers, Pride (7”, Burdette)

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Garage Bands, Miscellaneous Flotsam, Mixes, Now Sound, Psychedelic/Pop | 24 Comments


If the West has impulsively exoticized the rest of the world for centuries now, then the brilliant Los Angeles arranger and composer Les Baxter was the greatest twentieth century pop music proponent of this impulse. A staff arranger and conductor for the young Capitol Records in the late 1940s, Baxter distinguished himself early on with 1948’s Music Out of the Moon, a lunar-themed pop suite for chorus and theremin. A few years later, Baxter’s seminal “Quiet Village” (click for excerpt) was a commercial success as well, with the LP from which “Quiet Village” was taken, 1952’s Ritual of the Savage (subtitled Le Sacre du Sauvage, for added ethnographic impact), inaugurating and essentially defining the post-War American form of exotica.

Baxter went on to release dozens of exotica albums; they shifted with eerie, wordless choral arrangements, and swelled and pulsed with lush string sections and jazzy passages. There were the compositions with titles like “Jungle River Boat,” “Voodoo Dreams,” and “Oasis of Dakhla.”  There were the Asian instruments and Afro-Latin rhythms and chants that populated these compositions – all appropriated freely from indigenous tradition and Baxter’s imagination.

Baxter’s initial success may have tapped into some lingering South Pacific nostalgia from World War II. Ultimately, though, it was that same latent Western fantasy of the Exotic Other that sold millions of Les Baxter’s records in the ‘50s and ‘60s – the same fantasy which found its way into Middle America’s living rooms and onto its console turntables. Sure, Baxter invoked some of the old Heart of Darkness-style tropes of the forbidden and the taboo. His music sounded great, though. And, besides, Les Baxter’s vision was weirder and more imaginative than the ‘50s middle-class demographic it was marketed to.

It was actually bandleader Martin Denny’s 1959 version of “Quiet Village,” though, which permanently affixed the song in the American consciousness. Denny’s version, which reached number one on the pop charts, was the most popular, and, in some ways, even more influential. Any lounge combo could add the token exotic number to their live repertoire and perform in Denny’s laid-back style of cocktail jazz.

There are tons of those Martin Denny-style exotica records, and I love them all accordingly. It’s the rarer, orchestral lull of the Les Baxter school of exotica that we turn to this week on Office Naps, though.

(Ed. note: Thanks to the Randy’s Bamboo Room for the Ritual of the Savage cover scan.)

1. Jack Medell and His Orchestra, Umbe’ (United)
I’d love to know more of the background story to 1957’s “Umbe’,” an obscure and unusual recording on an independent Chicago record label otherwise known almost solely for its black R&B, gospel, jazz and blues releases.

Very little can be turned up on Jack Medell, for one.  And what, if anything, does “Umbe’” mean?  It seems to be a bit of an Afro-Cuban ritual chant, if anything; set against that dark, quintessentially Baxter-ian sweep of strings, it makes for a fairly ambitious bit of torchlit jungle theatrics.

Thanks to the amazing Red Saunders Research Foundation for the discographical information.

2. Bill Justis, The Dark Continent Contribution (Bell)
Bill Justis is usually remembered for one raucous, honking contribution to rock ‘n’ roll instrumental history: 1957’s “Raunchy,” a hit for Memphis’s Phillips label (a subsidiary of the legendary Sun Records).

Like others who found eventually, if only momentarily, dabbled in orchestral exotica, it was in the relative anonymity of the studio that Justis found his calling. After “Raunchy” and a few years as an arranger and A&R honcho at Sun Records, Justis settled into the comfortable life of a full-time Nashville staffer, penning arrangements for artists in the Mercury/Smash Records stable, putting out some albums of fairly generic instrumentals, and scoring the occasional movie, Smokey and the Bandit, among them.

To anyone only familiar with Justis through his stiff versions of Memphis hits like “Green Onions,” the jazzy, cinematic thrust “The Dark Continent Contribution” will be a surprise. The increasing carnage of the Vietnam War probably laid to rest most lingering notions about the quaintness of the jungle village, but Justis demonstrated that a current of longing for the exotic was still there in some form, though, even in the late ‘60s..

3. Stu Phillips & Orch., Tropical Summer (Colpix)
The Los Angeles music studio world was a world where its staff – its arrangers, composers, producers, and session musicians – were hired to be competant rather than creative, and by that criterion, Stu Phillips was one of the city’s finest. Phillips was an enduring presence behind the scenes; his productions and session arrangements graced a lot of popular, pretty forgettable teenage pop in the early ‘60s. Phillips continued his streak with innumerable albums from the Hollyridge Strings, their saccharine versions of Beatles, Beach Boys and Simon & Garfunkel hits a future staple of thrift stores everywhere. (To his credit Phillips made a lot of great music, too, like his wild sitar instrumentals for the late ‘60s biker soundtrack Angels From Hell.)

Phillips made a handsome living by helping to manufacture pop fare; on “Tropical Summer” he does his “Quiet Village” imitation, distilling The Other to a small, easily digestible wafer with vibraphone cream filling, a cheery, vacation-cruise version of Polynesia that is quintessential exotica.

Thanks to Space Age Pop Music for the facts on Stu Phillips.

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Exotica/Space-Age | 11 Comments


Three Kandy-Kolored Klassics from the golden age of the psychedelic exploitation cash-in. Psychedelia was in full, gaudy blossom in 1967, and Los Angeles, entertainment engine of the solar system, was right there to capitalize. These particular instrumentals weren’t made for movie soundtracks, but they could have been; any of them would have made comfortable additions to fare like The Acid Eaters or The Love-Ins and those moments when you needed a panning shot of longhairs frugging on the Strip and some stern narrator intoning about bad trips and The Scene.

While Los Angeles may have been pop culture ground zero, there just wasn’t much commercial precedent for psychedelic instrumentals in the late ‘60s. Perhaps their existence owes more to the fact that a 45 rpm release was a low overhead investment in 1967, and that there were reserves of session musicians ready to grind out this sort of thing on a moment’s notice.

I tend to go on and on about Los Angeles and the crass commercialism of the ‘60s; to describe my relationship with the history of pop culture opportunism as love/hate is misleading, though, as it’s mostly love.

1. Peter Pan & the Good Fairies, Kaleidoscope (Challenge)
There’s no oxygen in chilly, rarified reaches of the stratosphere, just the shimmering cosmos and harpsichords and fuzzboxes criss-crossing like satellites.

No guitars here, either. A a pure studio concoction, the futuristic “Kaleidoscope” was in reality the brainchild of Jim “Jimmy” Gordon, a session bassist who recorded a few other ‘60s instrumental freakouts on the Challenge label.

This gem was released in 1967.

2. The Electric Tomorrow, The Electric Tomorrow (World Pacific)
It’s almost too easy to poke fun at the florid excess of ‘60s psychedelic names. Still, it doesn’t get much better than “Electric Tomorrow.” Forecast for next week: Chocolate Whenever.

Co-writing credit here goes to Clem Floyd, a British guitarist who played with David Crosby in the early ‘60s as one half of Crosby & Floyd. Jack Millman, the producer, is perhaps better known as a jazz trumpet player; he mostly labored in anonymity as a capable Los Angeles jazz session musician in the ‘50s and ‘60s. How they wound up together for this for stroboscopic artifact is somewhat beyond me.  So much happened in the shared excitement of cashing in.

Either way, the addition of that funky electric piano was at Millman’s behest, I’d suspect. I suspect, too, that the queasy sound of “The Electric Tomorrow” is the “speed” knob on an early flange pedal turned up for maximum seizure-inducing effect.

The flip side of “The Electric Tomorrow,” by the way, is “Sugar Cube.”

3. The Relations, The Image (Reena)
A theme in search of a B movie, a post-“Out of Limits” instrumental for the Now Generation, “Image” is more from our friend Del Kacher, the Los Angeles inventor and guitar whiz (see Vox Wah Wah promo).

I imagine that there are other obsessive music fans out there with a favorite year when everything in music, if not popular culture, was golden. Mine would be the late 1960s.   If Del Kacher wanted to put out a record in 1967 with a riff he’d invented five minutes before recording, then, for better or for worse, I’ll want to own it, and sit down and write about it.

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Psychedelic/Pop | 9 Comments

The gospel glow

Gospel was, and still is, music of the Church. Its recordings are less systematically commercialized (and less anthologized) than music made for popular consumption. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t thousands upon thousands of gospel records made during the post-War reign of the powerhouse quartets – gospel’s so-called golden age. There were. To this very day, though, the recording of gospel still seems to be incidental to the experience of it.

I guess it makes some sense, then, that of the major strands of 20th Century African-American music, it’s gospel that’s the most underappreciated, and perhaps the least understood, at least by the music fans whose experience lies outside the tradition. I’m no different. Someone hands me a box of gospel records and the best I can do is sort of dumbly squint at the grooves and await intervention. My instincts for gospel music boil down to listening to Kevin Nutt’s great weekly survey Sinner’s Crossroads and that vaguely dissatisfying knowledge one gets from reading compilation liner notes.

There is a particular sound in gospel productions that I do gravitate to, however, a sound that was an unintentional part of sounding heavenly. As with this week’s selections, my tastes tend to run to the more, well, I’m not sure how to put it exactly. The more psychedelic side of gospel.

Maggie Ingram with the Ingramettes, Melody of Love (Nashboro)
From 1964, the hypnotic “Melody of Love” sounds like nothing else I’ve heard. Otherworldly, if not downright heavenly, Ingram is sublime here. Her voice croons and yearns – mysterious vibrato pulses and the crescendos of the Ingramettes do the same to respond to her. Ingram might have just as easily stayed up there – unmoored in the aether – and simply floated away.

She didn’t, though. The Richmond, Virginia-based Ingram was, as of 2005, still performing. In addition to “Melody of Love” Maggie Ingram released seven other 45 rpm releases between 1962 and 1966 on Nashville’s fantastic Nashboro label. (Nashboro, founded in 1951, was surely the greatest and most prolific Southern gospel label in its day.)

Thanks to Robert Termorshuizen’s excellent Record Connexion (a Dutch website dedicated to post-War American gospel labels) for the discographical information.

2. Edna Gallmon Cooke, Lord When I Get Home (Nashboro)
“Madame” Edna Gallmon Cooke was born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1917. A gospel star in what was later her home city of Washington, D.C., Cooke recorded prolifically from the late ‘40s onward (for the Nashboro label, most notably) until claiming her reward in 1967.

On 1962’s “Lord When I Get Home,” Cooke uses her extraordinary voice to blur that line between gospel song and secular soul music (which gospel begat). You either go really fast or really slow to blur that line; it just depends on who’s doing the blurring, of course. Cooke’s would be the monumentally slow route.

A year later Mahalia Jackson would galvanize a crowd of hundreds of thousands assembled for the March on Washington with a permutation of this song known as “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned.” Edna Gallmon Cooke’s earlier version assumed a more earthly and intimate twist, however; her monologue (a Gallmon trademark, apparently) seems to be a premonitory rebuke to all would-be backstabbing friends and treacherous lovers.

Thanks again to the
Record Connexion, and to the mighty SC Gospel Quartets website for the Cooke mini-biography.

Staple Singers, I Had a Dream (Vee Jay)
Chicago’s Staple Singers, directed by the Mississippi-born Roebuck “Pops” Staples, were a richly talented family of gospel and R&B; vocalists whose deep Southern aesthetic imbued even their later crossover hits of the 1970s. This was an aesthetic most profound in their earlier recordings, like this selection, 1958’s “I Had a Dream.” Judgment morning – here in the hands of Pops Staples’ rasping tremolo guitar and his unearthly harmonies with daughter Mavis – rarely sounded quite so psychedelic.

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Gospel | 11 Comments

West Coast boogaloo

More this week on the Latin music scene of post-War California, a scene that I find endlessly fascinating and frustratingly undocumented.

Boogaloo was a mid-‘60s phenomenon original to New York City’s Spanish Harlem, a juiced-up mash of popular Latin dance styles like mambo and guajira, infused with R&B; and a bilingual Nuyorican identity. It was ephemeral, but as a style it attained a degree of national popularity beyond the Five Boroughs; Joe Cuba (“Bang Bang”) and Ray Barretto (“El Watusi”) sold hundreds of thousands of records.

The boogaloo’s popularity, in addition to its Latin roots and bilinguality, caught the attention of young musicians, Puerto Rican or otherwise, in Spanish-speaking communities beyond New York City, though. There are ‘60s boogaloo records from Miami. There are ’60s boogaloo records, albeit more infrequent, from Chicago, Albuquerque, Tucson and various cities in Texas, too. These were records made by local Latino groups who seized on the then-hip boogaloo, adding it to their live repertoires and stamping it in the process with a distinct musical and cultural pedigree. (The fairly rare boogaloos from the Southwest often have identifiable Tejano-sounding horn lines, for instance.)

Fed by the African- and Mexican-American communities of Los Angeles, as well as the loose-knit world of California Latin and Latin jazz, the boogaloo acquired its own polyglot tang after arriving on the West Coast. You could dance to it, but it was jazzy, too – and more relaxed than its hot-headed older brother from New York City. West Coast boogaloo was a profoundly Pacific creature.

1. Brown Sugar, Batakum (Mares)
That itchy-twitchy feeling in your toes. “Batakum” starts by beckoning us to the dance floor, thus observing one of the boogaloo’s guiding edicts.

Brown Sugar never quite unleash it all, however, the way their New York City counterparts might have done with their blaring trombone lines and crashing, percussive piano chords. Brown Sugar are Los Angeles instead. They’re air-conditioned. They’re Bob Barker. Unflappable, good with the ladies.

The tiny Mares label seems to have been a side project for the obscure Los Angeles-based pianist Vladimir Vassilieff – or someone fanatically devoted to his compositions. Both “Batakum” and the other record on Mares Records that I know of (Ray Medina and the New Latin Breed’s “Head’s Head”) are compositions by Vassilieff. Vassilieff was the Belgian-borne mastermind behind the Aquarians, who in turn released Jungle Grass, one of the definitive albums of ‘60s West Coast Latin jazz.

I’d guess “Batakum” was released around 1968. The group’s name and this selection’s flipside – the brown-eyed soul “In a Moment” – suggest that Brown Sugar hailed from the Mexican-American neighborhoods of East Los Angeles.

2. Hayward Lee and the Marauders, Oogaloo (The Scamm Sound)
“Oogaloo” follows the spirit of Latin boogaloo more than its letter. The basic vamping rhythm is there, but there’s no actual Latin percussion on this, no timbales or conga drums.

And, sure, it may have been rehearsed and recorded in two takes. Sure, it almost stalls under the weight of its own tastefulness. But “Oogaloo” was the B-side of the record, so give it a break. It makes sense, actually: the B-side was your wildcard, a place, say, to knock out your jazzy interpretation of some new Latin dance you’d heard across town. A place to channel your inner Spanish Harlem without losing that sense of West Coast composure.

The A-side of this record is a funky discotheque soul version of Billy Mayhew’s “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” with R&B singer Hayward Lee assuming a more direct role in the proceedings. This 45, released around 1967, was one of only a few records on Hollywood’s brief-lived Scamm Sound label.

3. Chuy Castro and His Orchestra, Swahili Baby (Baronet)
More unknown Los Angelinos, Chuy Castro and co. go native in their own way on “Swahili Baby.” Which is not an apology, just an explanation: contending with the boogaloo means contending with a novelty factor inherent to the era’s long lineage of disposable dance crazes and disposable lyrics.

It’s jazzy, and again there’s that vague sense of nonchalance. Of this week’s selections, though, “Swahili Baby” bears the most resemblance to the classic New York City boogaloo sound. Like Eddie Palmieri (“African Twist”), Orquesta Olivieri (“African Guajira”), Joey Pastrana (“Afro Azul”), or the Latinaires (“Afro-Shingaling”), Castro makes that hip connection between the boogaloo and Africa, too. Castro succeeds where his Nuyorican contemporaries don’t, however, with the rarest of all trifectas: a surfing reference. Helloooo, California.

“Swahili Baby” was likely recorded around ’65 or ’66. Baronet was a Los Angeles label known for its ‘60s R&B and soul releases.

Posted on by Little Danny | Posted in Latin | 6 Comments