Author Archives: Little Danny

Lotus Land: The curious legacy of jazz exotica

This is an essay I wrote back in January for Melbourne, Australia’s mighty PBS 106.7fm.  Many thanks to Richie1250 for having me aboard, and for keeping the torch ablaze for progressive radio.

Martin Denny, Forbidden Island

1958's Forbidden Island, one of Martin Denny's definitive albums of cocktail jazz exotica from his classic (late '50s through mid-'60s) period.

Exotica was a colorful programmatic music that conjured impressions of Polynesia, of the East, of Africa, of various fabricated paradises, Shangri-Las and faraway latitudes. Popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it sprang largely from the imaginations of Hawaiian tourist bar musicians and Hollywood composers. Exotica’s repertoire was of jungle interludes, languid tropical reveries and exotic arrangements of familiar standards, its instrumentation an atmospheric mélange of flutes, Afro-Latin percussion, vibraphones, bird calls and bogus incantations.

Exotica encapsulated a moment in Western, and specifically American, culture when an increasingly suburban middle class had both the leisure time and the means to avail themselves of the newly-introduced stereo system (and the realistic, album-length sonic environments it facilitated).  There was no mistaking the subtext of exotica’s beautiful, lurid album covers and song titles like “Forbidden Island,” “Taboo,” “River of Dreams” and “Return to Paradise.” Exotica meant escape, if momentarily, from the Atomic Age ideals of a well-ordered society, structured workaday life and prescribed social and sexual mores.

Les Baxter, Ritual of the Savage

Baxter's Ritual of the Savage, recorded in the early '50s, is perhaps the seminal exotica album, and remains a highpoint.

Recordings by Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and Yma Sumac, along with dozens of albums by other artists in cocktail combo and easy-listening settings, are today cited as exotica’s foundation.

Exotica was nothing if not catholic during the music industry’s mid-century boom, however, finding expression in an array of genres, including Latin music, girl-group pop, rhythm & blues, surf music and early rock ‘n’ roll.

It was postwar jazz, however, where exotica found perhaps its most fascinating and richly fruitful host. Jazz, that most authentic of American art forms; jazz, that increasingly rigorous, increasingly elite 20th-century music. Not only did bop deliver tropical idylls to discerning listeners in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but it indulged many of the same musical tropes and took many of the same thematic liberties as its easy-listening counterparts.

Down in Jungle Town

Sheet music for "Down in Jungle Town," a 1908 Tin Pan Alley ditty by Theodore Morse that evinces an earlier vogue for the exotic. Image courtesy of Vintage Ephemera.

But first a brief tangent.

While it only became a bona fide phenomenon in the decades after World War Two, exotica on record extends far back to the 78rpm era, to the early recorded works of Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel, to impressionistic Hawaiiana, to “oriental” orchestras and to assorted dubious Tin Pan Alley jungle novelties.  Similarly, one can trace a thread of exotica back in prewar jazz, too. All but the best few sides were a trifle forced, however.  For every Duke Ellington “Echoes of the Jungle” or Mills Blues Rhythm Band “Congo Caravan” there were many more tacky jungle music cash-ins and dire “Streets of Cairo” leitmotifs.

It wouldn’t be until the mid-‘40s that jazz, in its sleek new bebop guise, finally found a convincing language for channeling its exotic impulses. Though it would always mirror popular tastes to some degree, it’s worth noting a few additional factors why jazz became a natural outlet for exotica in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Crucially, there was the new freedom of bebop’s radical harmonic language.  Early examples abound of boppers working in unusual modes with exotic themes, from Oscar Pettiford’s “Oscalypso” (1950), Howard McGhee’s “Night Mist,” (1947) Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” (1946) and Tadd Dameron’s “Jahbero” (1948) to lost 78rpm gems like Sax Mallard’s “The Mojo” (1947) and Eddie Wiggins’s “Orientale” (1946).

Eddie Wiggins's "Orientale"

An unusual 1946 jazz exotica side from saxophonist Eddie Wiggins. Image courtesy of the indispensable Red Saunders Research Foundation.

The success of mambo-jazz crossover experiments was also a critical factor. Ambitious early cubop recordings by Machito, Dizzy Gillespie and Chico O’Farrill helped to establish “exotic” Afro-Latin percussion and rhythms as a fixture in bop.

Simultaneously, recorded jazz itself was itself maturing and expanding from a three-minute-per-side phenomenon, gracefully taking advantage of the long-playing album format in a host of extended jazz compositions and adventurous suites.

For the first time, jazz’s forays into exotica sounded properly otherworldly and mysterious. While jazz exotica never constituted a concerted, self-conscious movement, dozens of jazz musicians would record unambiguously exotic sessions during bop’s recorded apogee of the ‘50s and ‘60s. 1  Geographical concepts often got blurry, but a few essential themes coalesced.

 

Paul Horn, Impressions of Cleopatra

Flautist and saxophonist Paul Horn's Impressions of Cleopatra, from 1963.

The Middle East and Asia proved especially popular choices as concepts, from Walt Dickerson’s Jazz Impressions of Lawrence of Arabia, Paul Horn’s Jazz Impressions of Cleopatra, Eddie Bonnemere’s Jazz Orient-ed, Paul Gonsalves’s Cleopatra Feelin’ Jazzy, Cal Tjader’s Breeze from the East and Several Shades of Jade, Phil Woods’s Greek Cooking, Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Impressions of Japan and Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite to obscure albums like Lloyd Miller’s Oriental Jazz and Joe Maneri’s Music of Cleopatra on the Nile.

 

There were works that were inspired by or incorporated African and Afro-Caribbean music, including Buddy Collette’s Tanganyika, Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro, A.K. Salim’s Afro Soul/Drum Orgy, Randy Weston’s Uhuru Afrika, Randy (Bap Beep Boo-Bee Bap Beep-M-Boo Bee Bap) and Music from the New African Nations, Guy Warren and the Red Saunders Orchestra’s Africa Speaks America Answers, Shorty Rogers’s Shorty Rogers Meets Tarzan, Harold Vick’s Caribbean Suite and Shelly Manne’s Daktari.

Buddy Collette, Tanganyika

Superb music, superb album cover. Multi-instrumentalist Buddy Collette's Tanganyika, from 1956.

And there were odd outliers like Buddy Collette’s Polynesia and pre-Columbian suites by Dizzy Gillespie (The New Continent) and Art Farmer (Aztec Suite), along with albums oriented around a generalized exoticism: Sun Ra’s The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra and Fate in a Pleasant Mood, Duke Ellington’s Afro-Bossa and Roy Harte & Milt Holland’s Perfect Percussion.

From dark, swirling jazz thrillers to sonorous tone poems, individual album tracks by boppers expanded the boundaries of jazz exotica even further. James Moody’s “Zanzibar,” the New York Jazz Quartet’s “Jungle Noon,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Africana,” Cannonball Adderley and Milt Jackson’s “Blues Oriental,” Sonny Rollins’s “Jungoso,” Andrew Hill’s “Chiconga,” Dave Pike’s “South Sea” and Art Farmer’s “Mau Mau” are among the best of a list that includes dozens and dozens of recordings.

Gerald Wilson, Algerian Fantasy

Very obscure mid-'50s jazz exotica from brilliant West Coast bandleader Gerald Wilson.

It’s interesting that jazz, while rightly perceived as an authentic art form, very often trafficked in the same constructions and tropes as Les Baxter or Martin Denny.  If African, Eastern and Afro-Caribbean themes were popular, they comprised a relatively vague set of parameters. Tracks like Gene Shaw’s “Karachi,” Gerald Wilson’s “Algerian Fantasy” and Philly Joe Jones’s “Land of the Blue Veils” were moody, terrific compositions, full of unusual contrasts and bewitching moods, but the relationship with the distant lands they summoned was dim.

 

While most jazz exotica made few, if any, concessions to incorporating indigenous music, it’s worth singling out four jazz musicians – Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Yusef Lateef, Herbie Mann and Art Blakey – who did go further in adapting non-Western modes and instruments with some degree of consistency, if not authenticity, in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

 

Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Jazz Sahara

Ahmed Abdul-Malik's Jazz Sahara, from 1958.

Yusef Lateef, Jazz Mood

Yusef Lateef's 1957 album Jazz Mood commenced a fascinating series of jazz exotica studies.

A bassist with Sudanese roots, Ahmed Abdul-Malik was an in-demand sideman who largely focused on music of the Near and Middle East on his own late ‘50s and early ‘60s efforts. Proficient on the oud, albums like Eastern Moods of Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Jazz Sahara, East Meets West and Sounds of Africa introduced jazz players into a pseudo-Eastern context.

 

Detroit-born Yusef Lateef primarily played saxophone and flute, but took a voracious, life-long interest in ethnic wind, reed and percussion instruments, featuring many of them to striking effect in his compositions – see in particular Lateef’s albums Eastern Sounds, The Centaur And The Phoenix, Jazz And The Sounds Of Nature, Jazz ‘Round The World and Prayer To The East.

Flautist Herbie Mann was similarly omnivorous in his musical predilections, and, in addition to a number of Latin jazz and Brazilian dates, would record several Afro-Eastern works: African Suite, Family of Mann, The Common Ground and Impressions of the Middle East.

 

Finally, powerhouse drummer Art Blakey, leader of the venerable Jazz Messengers, recorded a handful of albums with large percussion ensembles (Drum Suite, Orgy in Rhythm, vols. 1 and 2, Holiday for Skins, vols. 1 and 2, The African Beat) that reflected his own interests in the polyrhythms of Africa and the African diaspora.

 

While often superb, all of these artists’ recordings were clearly based in Western musical theory and structure, and ultimately fall somewhere too along the continuum of jazz exotica.

Herbie Mann, African Suite

Though credited to vibraphonist Johnny Rae, 1958's African Suite is just as much a Herbie Mann effort.

Exotica as a style hung in the air in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But why was it so particularly attractive to jazz musicians?

The colorful sounds, contrasts and motifs, the unusual rhythms and the emphasis on otherworldly atmospheres that characterized exotica were also natural vehicles for jazz’s practitioners’ restless creativity. In the guise of exoticism, the need to justify a strange tone poem or jazz fantasia was obviated. As a sort of musical shorthand, exotica provided the latitude for musicians to take chances, to exorcise creative impulses, to expend wild musical energies, to instantly transform a room’s ambience.  Also: conjuring the exotic Other just sounded so great.

Art Blakey, Drum Suite

Art Blakey's Drum Suite, from 1956

In the mid-’60s, modal and avant-garde jazz albums began making use of the imagery of faraway lands.  2 Such places were invoked largely with reference to the Pan-African interests of black consciousness rather than as loci of exotic escapism and leisurely pleasure, however. Various sitar jazz experiments came sometimes close to the spirit of exotica, too.  3 But these were more closely aligned with the younger, psychedelic counter-culture’s nascent interest in Eastern mysticism.

Notwithstanding such dalliances, jazz, itself contending with something of an identity crisis, its popularity in permanent decline, had, past the ’60s, largely ceased to be a vessel for exotica, at least in the previously established sense of the term. More to the point, all that had been previously thought of as popular music, including exotica and the broad reaches of easy-listening, had been irrevocably displaced by rock music by the mid-’60s. Messieurs Denny and Baxter would continue to have their exotic moments, but theirs was music that was, incontrovertibly, no longer hip cultural currency.

Clark Terry, Swahili

When the forces that originally engendered it evolved or were displaced, jazz-borne exotica – itself a curious tangent of an ephemeral manifestation of mid-century culture and music – dissipated along with them. Not surprisingly, no one particularly noticed its absence at the time. The modest, post-modern revival of space-age pop and tiki culture that began in the 1980s resurrected many of exotica’s central figures, but its more obscure representations continued to remain neglected.

Clark Terry, Swahili

Stunning 1955 jazz exotica from trumpet player Clark Terry.

Just below the surface of the postwar jazz discography exists this fascinating body of exotica. Musically, the best moments of jazz exotica are like the best moments of exotica proper, bypassing their sometimes unfortunate cultural misperceptions, and transcending a legacy as mere kitsch.

Fully realized jazz exotica tracks from Yusef Lateef’s “Iqbal” and Lloyd Miller’s “Gol-E Gandom“ to Chico Hamilton’s “Blue Sands” and Clark Terry’s “Swahili” are dark, otherworldly, unironically beautiful recordings.

  1. Many European jazz musicians were simultaneously following similar pathways into exoticism in this time – a vast topic for another essay.
  2. Pharaoh Sanders’s Tauhid, Bob Reid’s Africa is Calling Me, the East New York Ensemble de Music’s At the Helm, Toudie Heath’s Kawaida, the Black Unity Trio’s Al-Fatihah, etc.
  3. Alice Coltrane’s Journey In Satchidananda, Pat Martino’s Baiyina, Bill Plummer’s Cosmic Brotherhood, Gabor Szabo’s Jazz Raga, Emil Richards’s Journey To Bliss, etc.
Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura | 7 Comments

The Plum Beach Incident / Dave Yarnell

It was terrific to speak recently to Dave Yarnell, guitarist and singer with the Plum Beach Incident, whose sterling “Pretty Thing” I first featured back in 2010 in a post surveying ‘60s jangle pop.  A warm, friendly gentlemen whose continued passion for music was obvious, Dave filled me in on some of his ‘60s band history, and the story of the Plum Beach Incident.

Early life and Dantes

The son of an educator, Yarnell was born in Sacramento, CA, relocating with his family early in life to his family’s home state of Ohio, where he grew up.  Inspired by West Coast surf music and the rock ‘n’ roll of pre-British-Invasion groups like the Beach Boys, the Kingsmen, and Ventures, the self-taught Yarnell began playing guitar in the sixth or seventh grade.

The early version of the Dantes.  Playing at Ohio State University, circa 1964.
Early version of the Dantes. Playing at Ohio State University, circa 1964.

In high school Yarnell and his classmate Richard Wakefield formed an early edition of the Dantes.   (Yarnell referenced local group the Electras – the future Fifth Order – as an inspiration, noting their musical equipment and use of bar chords in particular.)

An early songlist for the Dantes
An early songlist for the Dantes, circa 1964

Halfway through high school in 1965, Yarnell moved with his family to Falls Church, Virginia, a town just outside the D.C. beltway. The Dantes would go on to eventually enjoy some success – a few of their 45s charted in Ohio – but, by that point, Yarnell was no longer with the group.

Ye Bay Rums

Yarnell was serious about music.   “I had a natural ear for harmony” – and he’d sometimes be seen carrying an inverted history book to strengthen the chording muscles in his hands.  He wasted no time in founding a new group, Ye Bay Rums, as a junior at George Mason High School.

Ye Bay Rums included Tim Woolsey (drums), George Cotner (Hammond organ and vocals), Tom Turrisi (bass) and Yarnell (guitar and vocals).  The group played local events, dances (“Great money for kids in high school”) and the occasional opening slot for touring artists like the Ohio Express and Wilson Pickett.  The group’s repertoire featuring period covers (Beatles, Sam & Dave, Young Rascals, Wilson Pickett) along with the occasional band original like Yarnell’s “Picture with the Eyes that Move” and Cotner’s “Love Came on” and “Let Me Make it Up.”  Yarnell also played cornet in his high school’s band and would, along with Cotner (a fellow horn player) be seen grabbing his horn onstage for covers of “Land of 1000 Dances” and “Midnight Hour” and other period soul and R&B.

Ye Bay Rums made some demo records for Lionel Hampton’s Glad Hamp Records, but, while there was commercial interest, nothing was actually released.  By 1967 Yarnell had graduated high school and began attending Corcoran School of Art in D.C..  Ye Bay Rums would disband in 1968.

Plum Beach Incident

The Plum Beach Incident was started around 1968 by Art Morales, a colorful local musician who modeled himself on guitarist Eric Clapton, then with Cream.

Plum Beach Incident
The Plum Beach Incident. (front, l-r): Arturo Morales, Sharon Theet, Johnny Smith, Karen Theet, Keith Edwards; (rear): Steve Croson.  Note: Yarnell is not pictured.

Yarnell’s involvement began upon answering an audition ad posted by Morales at a local music store in 1968.  The group – which would largely coalesce through Morales – would come to include Johnny Smith (keyboards), Steve Croson (bass), both previously of the Organic Cavemen – a popular Northern Virginia band, Keith Edwards (drums – the “hippie-est,” according to Yarnell), and the telegenic singers (and sisters) Sharon and Karen Theet.    Everybody in the group sang.  The group was listening to and performing a lot of West Coast psychedelic rock at the time. (Yarnell also cited the Bee Gees’ “Words,” the Doors’ “Love me Two Times” and covers of Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield, with the Theet sisters assuming lead vocal duties.

The Plum Beach Incident playing the Knights of Columbus hall in 1968
The Plum Beach Incident playing the Knights of Columbus hall in 1968. (l-r): Steve Croson, Sharon Theet, Karen Theet, Dave Yarnell, Johnny Smith, Arturo Morales, Keith Edwards.

The Plum Beach Incident played live around northern Virginia, Washington D.C. and Maryland, attaining enough local celebrity to land opening slots for nationally-known artists like Vanilla Fudge as they came through the area. The group also shared stages with local groups of the day like the Fallen Angels, the English Setters, and later, the Cherry People.

Envelope direct from Orpheum Records.  Postmark August 1968.
Envelope direct from Orpheum Records to Arturo Morales. Postmark August 1968.

The Plum Beach Incident, Pretty Thing

The group’s management team helped facilitate the recording session that led to “Pretty Thing” along with its flipside “Summer Love.”  The session took place over the course of a few days in New York City in August 1968.  The lyrics were handed to the Plum Beach Incident, the arrangement and interpretation were entirely the group’s own.   In addition to the 45, a few other songs were also recorded in that time to acetate, including an original, “You Need a Friend.”

Plum Beach Incident, 1968
Plum Beach Incident, 1968. (l-r): Steve Croson, Sharon Theet, Arturo Morales.

Despite its potential – “Summer Love” was discussed for placement in a Clairol advertisement at one point – the 45 was not a commercial success.   It probably didn’t help that its release was delayed in deference to Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ version of “Pretty Thing,” or that Orpheum Records, along with its sister label Pop-Side, was winding down its operations by the late ‘60s.

The group lasted less than two years, the pressures of the draft, drug busts, lifestyle changes, pregnancies and family life eventually finally catching up with them.

After the Plum Beach Incident

Of the group, it was bassist Steve Croson – he passed away in 2010 – who enjoyed the most success in the music world – playing and singing on a number of Nashville country sessions, touring for years with various country music artists and, in recent years, founding the Roy Orbison tribute show “In Dreams.”

Yarnell enlisted for a stint in the Air Force as an AF Illustrator after being drafted in 1969, and would afterwards return to finish his studies in fine art.  He started a family along the way, worked as a graphic artist and, later, as a licensed boat captain between D.C. and the Florida Keys.  Dave still plays music, and currently can be heard playing around northern Virginia as Capt. Dave and the Neptunes.

Many thanks to Dave Yarnell for the archival photos, and for this interview.

Posted in Garage Bands, Psychedelic/Pop, Updates | 5 Comments

Another view from the outer fringes

I always feel a little bit leery of posts like these because there’s nothing in the way of, say, regional or sociocultural provenance or shared stylistic cues drawing the selections together, nothing guiding them into cohesive genres or concepts with tidy boundaries.  These are fitted together mostly because they fit together somehow in my mind.

So this is actually a continuation of a post from a million years ago.   Beginning in the ’50s, and continuing into the ’80s, a spate of unusual, unhinged, otherwise untrammeled examples of musical individualism found their realization on the 45rpm record, that most democratic and affordable of the post-War recorded formats.  An overall concept that’s nothing particularly new in the Office Naps universe.

But the Beat Generation – its electrifying, groundbreaking forms and beatnik clichés alike – looms in some way behind each of these selections, even if it’s only inadvertent, and somehow the fact that these three 45s, which would have been unorthodox no matter their year of release, evoke the spirit of an entirely earlier decade seemed worth more exploration.  So here we go.

Tamara’s New Generation, Traffic (IRC 6943B)1. Tamara’s New Generation, Traffic (IRC 6943B)
Tantalizingly few credits to work with here.

Recorded in mid-1967, “Traffic” was released on the Chicago-based IRC Records.  IRC was operated to a large degree as a custom label – meaning that, for a fee, it would press a set quantity of a record for any artist or small recording studio.  IRC’s small LP run favored European folk music while its 45 discography, which extended from the early ‘60s until the mid-‘70s, included a relatively unfiltered cross-section of period sounds, including teen pop, sound effects novelties, gospel, personality records and, perhaps most notably, some mid-‘60s garage band singles by the Little Boy Blues, Placy Anatra & Jimmy Watson, Danny’s Reasons and the Phantoms.

And this selection?  Tamara’s deadpan spoken word meditation on the modern condition in “Traffic” – not to mention those charmingly artless flute accents – are the very image of youthful Greenwich Village existentialism of a decade earlier.   As with a lot of custom label output, obscure ysteries would often see release, but little else among IRC’s schedule would sound like “Traffic.”  Little else anywhere sounded like “Traffic,” though the Miriam 45 bears some passing resemblance.    (“Just Flowers,” the nominally more orthodox flipside, is a more psychedelic number that seems straight from some jam at the Golden Gate Park Be-In, again with flute and a bit of Tamara’s spoken word vocals).

The Night People, Erebian-Borialis (Del-Nita DN-1002B)2.  The Night People, Erebian-Borialis (Del-Nita DN-1002B)
The Night People were a mid-‘60s Cleveland-area group.

While the Night People might read like your standard local mid-‘60s garage band on paper, it’s clear with this 1967 45 – the first of the group’s two releases – that something slightly different was going on.  To begin with, the a-side of this 45, a crudely psychedelic rave-up entitled “We Got It,” featured a prominent theremin, an instrument otherwise nearly unheard of in the context of local ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll.

This selection, “Erebian-Borialis,” is the yet-more-anomalous b-side.

Loosely-structured and freewheeling, it’s in the spirit of other early psychedelia, but the instrumentation and intimate production values of “Erebian-Borialis” are both quite unusual.   (The title itself seems to be a meaningless invention.)  Like “Traffic,” this side is simultaneously of its time and out of time; “Erebian-Borialis” succeeds in being utterly psychedelic, while little but a fuzzed-out electric guitar separates it from the flute-and-bongo coffeehouse aesthetic of a decade earlier.

“Erebian-Borialis” featured the group’s guitarist Terry Paul, drummer Greg Paul (likely on the bongo), bassist Joe Rose – and his brother Frank Rose on the recorder.   (Vocalist Bob Holcepl is not heard here.)

The Night People’s second 45, while also excellent, is much more in the vein of straightahead period garage band records.

The New Bangs, Go-Go Kitty (Prism 45-PR-1935)3. The New Bangs, Go-Go Kitty (Prism 45-PR-1935)
According to Buckeye Beat, the New Bangs were a studio-only project composed of members from two Dayton, Ohio combos.

The first of these, the Dawks, were a working group that included Terry Lawson (vocals), Jim Henson (lead guitar), Mike Clark (rhythm guitar), Lou Gore (drums) and Larry Henry (bass).  They recorded several times for the Prism Records label, their discography notably including “Good Thing,” a ringing gem that appeared on WONE: The Dayton Scene, a battle-of-the-bands compilation, in 1966.

And the second combo was the Bangs, an otherwise undocumented girl group.

This side was released in early 1966.  Even by the standards of b-sides – where the weirder, anything-goes material tended to live – “Go-Go Kitty” is a strange artifact, a shambling teenage head trip that transcends novelty by its sheer uncompromising, uncommercial wigginess.    It makes sense that this might have been a studio lark.  It’s certainly nothing like “Get Back in Your Tree,” its pop a-side.

The group released a second 45 (“The First Time b/w “She’s Gone”), also on the Prism label, but these sides again bore no resemblance to the madness of this selection.

Thanks goes to Buckeye Beat for much of the information.

Posted in Garage Bands, Psychedelic/Pop | 5 Comments

Jazz Dramatique

Over at the Lonely Beat I discussed the Naked City, the version of the modern American city in the post–War popular imagination.  And how a singular form of American commercial music, in time referred to by collectors as “crime jazz,” would converge in the late 1950s as a sort of jazz shorthand for the all images, clichés and motifs of the city.

This week we dig a bit deeper into a particular subset of crime jazz.

Never mind that these selections’ tie-ins with actual crime thrillers is vague (“Jazz Dramatic”), if non-existent (“Lili’s Theme”).  Recorded between the late ‘50s and the early ‘60s, and inspired by bestsellers like Henry Mancini’s Music from Peter Gunn, Warren Barker’s 77 Sunset Strip and Pete Rugolo’s Music From Richard Diamond, these have all the hallmarks of a golden era of crime soundtrack music.

But the three selections are more than just the sum of their jazz atmospherics, walking bass lines and bursts of brass, organ and strings.  These share a peculiar theatricality with other jazz-based themes of the era – themes that, during opening credits, foretold ninety minutes of intrigue and high-stakes thrills.  These selections embody the spirit of DRAMATIC ACTION.  The sense of danger, justice and dark, moving forces is flamboyant, even hysterical.  Sometimes it’s not enough for music just to be listened to.  Sometimes it has to kick down the door and scream at you.

Paul Dunlap, Lili's Theme from "The Rookie” (Capitol 4293)1. Paul Dunlap, Lili’s Theme from “The Rookie” (Capitol 4293)
Born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1919, Dunlap started out young in music, his aspirations eventually bringing him to the University of Southern California for advanced studies in music in 1940.  Through a family connection his compositions caught the attention of the influential director Samuel Fuller – a propitious moment for Dunlap, as it led not only to a series of film scores written for Fuller (starting with 1950’s The Baron Of Arizona), but a professional career spent largely in Hollywood as a film and television composer, conductor, director and arranger.

Though he wrote scores until 1980 (his final contributions were for that year’s Gorp), Dunlap’s most prolific years were in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  Dunlap composed for many genre and B-movies – science fiction and fantasy pictures, comedies (including several ‘60s-era Three Stooges movies), Westerns, detective thrillers and horror movies.  Among this run were cult notables like 1957’s Blood of Dracula, 1958’s How to Make a Monster, 1959’s The Angry Red Planet, 1959’s The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake) and 1963’s Shock Corridor.  And, along with Fuller, Dunlap’s associations with writer and producer Herman Cohen (beginning with 1957’s cult classic I Was a Teenage Werewolf) and director Harold D. Schuster (beginning with the 1953 Western Jack Slade) would also prove quite fruitful.

In his later years, Dunlap wrote opera and choral pieces, and expressed some ambivalence about a legacy so identified with the cinema. 1   The composer passed away in 1990 in Palm Springs.

Dunlap was hardly a household name.  Few composers were, aside from obviously marketable entities like Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones or Bernard Herrmann.  He was a professional, though, and despite the constant pressure of limited resources and preparation time his use of stark moods, dissonance and jazz elements elevated the low-budget productions they scored.  The innovative electronic effects of 1959’s Invisible Invaders and the beatsploitation jazz of 1959’s The Rebel Set come to mind here.  As does this selection, also from 1959.

Full of gritty angst, the arrangement on “Lili’s Theme from ‘The Rookie’” is quite inspired, a dramatic swirl of strings, organ and electric guitar that evokes the crime jazz aesthetic while avoiding some of its more formulaic motifs.  (European film music fans might also notice the distinct organ stabs that neatly anticipate later work by Italian soundtrack legend Piero Piccioni.)  I haven’t seen The Rookie – an obscurity, even among comedy fans – but haven’t found any reason to doubt that this side transcends the movie.

Sources: Be sure to read Randall D. Larson’s great 1983 interview, where Dunlap discusses his process for composing film music extensively, among other subjects.

Det Moor Orch., “Jazz Dramatic” (Gallant GT-3004)2. Det Moor Orch., “Jazz Dramatic” (Gallant GT-3004)
Credited to the Det Moor orchestra, this selection is the handiwork of composer, arranger and conductor Bob Mersey.

Born in 1917 in New York City, Mersey began his professional career in Los Angeles.  An arranger and composer from the start, Mersey’s arrangements started appearing on releases by Abe Lyman and, most notably, Woody Herman’s Orchestras in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.

Mersey joined NBC radio as a staff arranger after World War Two, a stint in Europe scoring film productions following that.  Returning to the states in the ‘50s, he released some easy-listening singles in the late ‘50s under his own name as well as under nom de plume Spencer Ross (Ross’s “Tracy’s Theme” was a minor instrumental hit in 1959).

Mersey’s catalog ran deepest during the ‘60s.  His string of contributions as staff arranger, composer, conductor and producer at CBS television, Columbia Records and Columbia’s Colpix Records division included work on Andy Williams’ “Moon River” and Barbra Streisand’s “My Name is Barbra,” not to mention recordings by big sellers like Aretha Franklin, Johnny Mathis,  James Darren and Nina Simone.  Mersey’s Columbia and Colpix recordings tend to overshadow the rest of a not-inconsiderable body of work, though, including credits on a number of different labels (arranging for Dion, Johnny Nash, Frankie Avalon, among others).

This body of work most definitely includes Mersey’s album Great Jazz From Great TV and its crucial track “Jazz Dramatic.”  Released in 1962, the album is one of Mersey’s most obscure releases, and one of his finest efforts.  Comprised entirely of his compositions, Great Jazz From Great TV has all the right stylistic archetypes – cool club sequences, chase dramas, lonesome midnight nocturnes, etc., and all the right titles – “Club Cool,” “Flutesville,” “Forever Frantic,” “Call Girl,” etc.  The Det Moor orchestra, according to the album’s liner notes, were an uncredited group of European studio musicians, but the entire album sounds every inch a hip ‘50s Los Angeles studio jazz orchestra.   It’s a pitch-perfect suite of crime jazz.

The session itself was recorded a year or two prior for Sam Fox Music, a long-running clearinghouse for studio production music, and saw its eventual commercial album release on Gallant Records, a short-lived record label operated by Sam Fox, his son Fred Fox and New York City music industry insider Hal Dennis.  Its tracks could be heard individually as incidental music and cues in an array of shows throughout the 1960s, including Route 66, Ben Casey, Manhunt, My Three Sons and, later, the Doris Day Show, Gumby and Spider-Man.

Alvino Rey and His Orchestra, “The Bat” (Capitol F 4239)3.  Alvino Rey and His Orchestra, “The Bat” (Capitol F 4239)
“King of the Guitar” Alvino Rey was a bandleader and pioneering electric guitarist with a long career that extended beyond his swing-era heyday.

The specifics of Rey’s biography are better documented elsewhere (check these overviews for a start: Marc Myers’s Jazzwax and Smithsonian Magazine), but, briefly, Rey (born Alvin McBurney in 1908) started on banjo while growing up in Cleveland; barely out of his teens and playing professionally, Rey adopted the electrified steel guitar, then largely seeing use in Hawaiian music.  He followed several years in the late ‘20s as journeyman guitarist with a long spell of national exposure in Horace Heidt’s Musical Knights, where he helped pioneer the lap steel in swing music.  Rey formed his own group, the Alvino Rey Orchestra in the late ‘30s, and this group, which included not only the Four King Sisters – themselves formerly of Heidt’s group (Rey was married to one of the sisters, Luise King) – but also young jazz modernists like Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and fledgling arrangers like Neal Hefti, Ray Conniff and Billy May, established themselves as a big attraction in Los Angeles, scoring hits in the early ‘40s like “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” “On the Alamo” and “Music ‘Til Dawn.”  Rey formed a new orchestra in 1946 after returning from World War Two service in the Navy, and would enjoy more success – “Cement Mixer,” “In An Eighteenth Century Drawing Room” and “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” were hits – for a time with this much larger group.  The guitarist had a recurring role, and national exposure, again between 1965 and 1968, alongside the King Sisters on The King Family Show.  Alvino Rey led small groups after that, including a long spell at Disneyland, and eventually settled in Salt Lake City, where he died at age 95 in 2004.

While a household name at mid-century, Rey deserves to be better known these days, if for nothing else than for his early embrace of electronic technology.  Perhaps it was that he never had the fortune of having an iconic guitar named after him like fellow bandleader, guitarist and inventor Les Paul, or that his earliest guitar showcases didn’t always transcend electronic novelty.   But Rey was one of the earliest to push the boundaries of the electric guitar and electronics in the swing era, making his instrument sing and “speak.”  Not to mention the equipment he hand-built and hand-wired from an early age, or his development of the pedal steel guitar and the proto-vocoder electric “talk box.”

It didn’t help that for a time after World War Two Rey tied his fortunes to large jazz orchestras, whose prospects for success in the post-War years were diminishing rapidly.  Either way, Rey’s career was shifting from leading groups to lucrative behind-the-scenes session work during the ‘50s, and, to my ears, it’s this part of his discography that holds up the best.  Represented to a certain extent on Rey studio albums like Ping Pong and My Reverie, it’s his prominent guitar work on a series of bandleader Juan Esquivel’s late ‘50s and early ‘60s records for RCA and Reprise that are most exemplary.   Rey’s splashy playing – various swoops, runs, screeches, squiggles, futuristic accents – were a captivating and instantly defining feature of the swank stereophonic sound of Esquivel’s orchestra, with albums like Other Worlds Other Sounds and Exploring New Sounds in Stereo channelling mid-century America’s manic, Googie-esque sensibilities with a matching confidence.

“The Bat,” recorded and released during Rey’s golden period, reflected something of the same space-age production aesthetic, though, as the eponymous theme to the 1959 Vincent Price movie, it forewent cocktail perkiness for something much grittier.  Rey owns the side, his ascending slides adding an unusual and otherworldly quality to textbook crime jazz bombast.

  1. “I can only hope that I will be remembered for my piano concerto, or my choral piece, Celebration, and not the inferior movies I was forced to be associated with.” imdb.com
Posted in Jazz Obscura, The Lonely Beat | 8 Comments

The lonesome drifter’s tale

Three mournful country melodramas this week.  All released between 1957 and 1960, these make for a fun, highly atmospheric bunch.

These selections are somewhat tricky to place in the continuum of post-War commercial records.   They share some of the darkness of the archaic dirges and haunted story songs of American folk music, certainly, and more perhaps directly, the windswept melancholy of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Ramblin’ Man,” Red Foley’s moody “Midnight” and Lefty Frizzell’s haunting “Long Black Veil.”  They also generously invoke some of our more sombre pop Western motifs.  Johnny Cash tracks like “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” or the “The Caretaker” come to mind here, not to mention dozens of versions of “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” “High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me)” and “Streets of Laredo.”

Ghost Town

Drifters and haunted country melodramas this week on Office Naps.

But ultimately these three recordings came into existence not only wholly independently of each other, but also without clear commercial precedent, or so it seems.  Straddling a fine line between country, folk and blues lament, they’re paced at a funereal crawl, their intimate, cinematic moods summoned with the miracle of post-War recording technology and magnetic tape.  There is a certain theatricality in a lot of good country music, but these selections, with their visually evocative productions, their narratives of loneliness and gloom, their protagonists cut adrift, they’re existential tours de force.

Curly Sanders and the Santones, Walking Blues (Concept 45-Con-92)1.  Curly Sanders and the Santones, Walking Blues (Concept 45-Con-92)
Born in 1935 outside of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, Ray “Curly” Sanders was a singer and songwriter who found some success in the ‘60s and ‘70s, gamely changing with the times without ever quite having a breakout single.

Sanders, still in his teens, enjoyed a run of disc jockey stints in the ‘50s and, as early as 1954, was making singing appearances at local showcases like the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and the Lincoln Jamboree.

A young Ray "Curly" Sanders

A young Ray "Curly" Sanders. Image courtesy of the great Hillbilly Music

Sanders’s recorded output commenced in late 1956 with “Brand New Rock and Roll.”  1 Other 45s would be pressed locally around this time, too, including “Walking Blues,” but “Brand New Rock and Roll” is easily Sanders’s most prized side, showing Sanders adapting to the new rock ‘n’ roll form with the sort of raw enthusiasm that appeals to deep-pocketed rockabilly 45 collectors.

Following a year spent in El Paso, Texas, Sanders made his Grand Ole Opry debut in 1959.  The contract with prominent West Coast indie label Liberty Records that followed would inaugurate a long schedule of country music recorded for a variety of labels, big and small.

Sanders, who worked henceforth as Ray Sanders, followed the dream throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, gigging tirelessly and finding some success with Liberty Records in 1960 (“A World So Full of Love” and “Lonelyville,” both top twenty country hits), and, later, with Imperial Records (“Beer Drinkin’ Music,” 1969) and on United Artists (with a version of “All I Ever Need is You,” 1971).  Sanders won Top New Male Vocalist at the Academy of Country Music in 1968, and made television appearances on Hee Haw in the early ‘70s.  (Hee Haw, for all of its cornpone humor, did help a lot of country musicians land national exposure.) He played with Ray Price for a time as well, but by the late ’70s Sanders was working the California club circuit, semi-retirement to Hawaii following that.

All of his singles and albums as Ray Sanders, along with his songs covered by other country artists, are good; it’s just that they’re somewhat straightahead Nashville product at the end of the day.  At least personally speaking, it’s Sanders’s idiosyncratic clutch of late ‘50s 45s on local record labels which invite the most interest.  Among these are the aforementioned “Brand New Rock and Roll,” of course, along with “You’re Smiling (I’m Crying),” an echo-drenched ballad.  And this selection, written by fellow singer Dell Shirley.  “Walking Blues” sounds like nothing else in Sanders’s discography and, as with the other selections, it is unabashedly and very successfully theatrical, a colorful piece of forlorn somnambulation.

Sources: Rockin’ Country Style, Praguefrank’s Country Music Discographies, Starday Custom Series, Hillbilly Music

Harry Charles, Petoskey Town (Wildcat WOO35A)2.  Harry Charles, Petoskey Town (Wildcat WOO35A)
This week’s mystery disc.

This 45 was released in 1960.  Harry Charles is very likely the same Harry Charles responsible for two other isolated teen pop 45s from the ’60s:  “My Laura” b/w “Challenge of Love” (released on New York City-based Rowax, 1963) and “I’ll Be There” b/w “I Want the Best for You” (released on the Oklahoma City-based Boyd Records, mid-‘60s).

Singer Harry Charles in 1963

The mysterious singer Harry Charles in 1963, then a Nashville resident. Photo courtesy of Billboard magazine.

But nothing actually leads me to believe that Harry Charles was in fact based in central Texas at the time, despite his 45′s release on Wildcat Records (a cool San Antonio-based indie with a short, sweet run of R&B, Tejano, pop, country, rock ‘n’ roll and vocal group sides in the late ’50s and early ’60s).

A contemporary account from the Petoskey News in 1960 refers to Charles performing at the local high school dance.  Though again it’s not clear whether he was visiting the titular northern coastal Michigan town as a stunt to promote this 45, or whether he was actually from the area, and was singing from some experience.  And another reference puts him in Nashville in 1963.

Harry Charles’s obscure trajectory aside, what a record.  Miles, stylistically, from the commercial pop of his other 45s, “Petoskey Town” paints a striking tableau, its well-placed cymbal rolls and Charles’s mournful vocals conjuring the frozen north country with grim effectiveness.

Sources: Petoskey News, Billboard Magazine.

Eddie Miller and His Band, Ghost Town (4 Star 1740x45)3.  Eddie Miller and His Band, Ghost Town (4 Star 1740×45)
Eddie Miller was born in 1919 in Camargo, Oklahoma, and while recalled primarily as a songwriter, he got his start as a musician, playing with and, beginning in the late ‘30s, leading his own Western Swing groups.

Like many from a post-Dust-Bowl Great Plains, he was drawn westward around World War Two, and spent a good deal of his subsequent career in Southern California.  As an aspiring songwriter, Miller – with a reformed version of the Oklahomans – would release “Release Me” (a song co-penned with guitarist Bobby Gene Yount) in 1949, one of a number of 45s and 78s he recorded for 4 Star Records, a prolific Los Angeles-based country label.

“Release Me” tanked at the time but would become a titanic country and pop hit for several different performers. (Ray Price’s and Kitty Wells’s 1954 versions and Englebert Humperdinck’s 1966 version are especially well-known.)  And while Miller’s own recordings tapered off, his songwriting success continued apace, with top ten hits for Carl Smith (“There She Goes,” 1955), Eddy Arnold (“After Loving You,” 1962) and Ernest Tubb (“Thanks a Lot,” 1963).

Eddie Miller was a somewhat inconsistent songwriter – there are a lot of dashed-off novelties in his voluminous catalog – and, as far as performing went, a limited singer.   But “Ghost Town,” among his last releases as a solo artist, is an entirely convincing performance.  2  Miller fully commits to his spurned, world-weary drifter character.  “Ghost Town” enjoys a slightly fuller production than the other two, but there’s that haunted, walking rhythm again, the song’s ghostly steel guitar accents and its mood of empty streets and lament making for an arrestingly visual tone poem.

While Miller’s returns from his published songs remained considerable into the late ’60s and ’70s, he decreased his output, shifting his energies into country music advocacy, helping to co-found both the Country and Western Music Academy in Hollywood (now the Academy of Country Music) and the Nashville Songwriters Association.

Incidentally, Eddie Miller cast Ray Sanders in his mid-’60s “country opera” The Legend of Johnny Brown, which was released as an album in 1966.

Eddie Miller died in 1977.

Sources: Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Wired for Sound, Steel Guitar Forum

  1. 78 recordings attributed to a Curley Sanders, likely a Texan, appeared in 1949 on Dallas’s Star Talent label, and in 1953 on Los Angeles’s Imperial Records.  I believe these are unrelated to the Curly Sanders in question.
  2. There has been some speculation at the Steel Guitar Forum about whether this was the “Release Me” Eddie Miller or whether it was, in fact, Eddie Miller, singer from the Texas-based Western Swing band the Miller Brothers, who also recorded for 4-Star Records.  I do believe “Ghost Town” was the handiwork of the “Release Me” Miller, however.
Posted in Country | 6 Comments

The Guild Light Gauge

It was my pleasure to recently speak with Fern Nash, the singer in both the Guild Light Gauge and Collection, whose 45s I featured back in May 2011.

This was something of a coup – there was so little that existed in the way of details about these 45s.   I was additionally surprised to learn that the two 45s were in fact directly connected through Fern and members of the Guild Light Gauge.  (I had originally written about the Collection and the Guild Light Gauge as entirely separate entities, connected only by a shared label and arrangement/production team.)

I’m thrilled to at last be able to provide some more details about the Guild Light Gauge, the Collection and Fern Nash.

Born Fern Kaufman in 1947, Fern grew up with two sisters in Queens, New York, her father a jeweler by trade, her mother a housewife.  While her father occasionally sang, Fern was, of her family, the one most inclined to music – she displayed an ear for playing music early on, picking out tunes overheard from her older sister’s piano lessons.  She also wrote lyrics, and loved harmony singing, teaching herself how to play guitar and flute along the way.

Fern entered Queens College in 1965, studying to be a teacher.  There she met fellow Queens College student Eddie Simon (Paul’s brother – they vocally sounded quite similar, apparently).  The two started harmonizing together during impromptu singing sessions at fraternity house events.   It was Eddie who introduced Fern to Ann Willcocks, then also a student, and from this trio of singers the Guild Light Gauge formed.

The Guild Light Gauge, from a series of publicity photos. Fern Kaufman (Fern Nash), Eddie Simon, Ann Willcocks. Bass player Stuie is in glasses. Note incorrect spelling of "Gauge."

Paul Simon and Artie (as he was known) Garfunkel were both around Queens College as well, and it was Paul who dubbed this new group the Guild Light Gauge, a name based on a particular weight of Guild guitar strings.

The Guild Light Gauge live at the Bitter End

The Guild Light Gauge live at the Bitter End, Greenwich Village. (l-r) Fern Kaufman (Fern Nash), Eddie Simon, Ann Willcocks.

A fourth member, Stuie, joined them a bit later, playing bass for the group.

The Guild Light Gauge, whose focus from the start was on harmonies, were absorbed into the New York City folk scene.  Their time together would include not only a residency at Greenwich Village’s Bitter End in 1968, but a variety of more unlikely appearances, from Long Island racetracks to a spot opening for Spanky & Our Gang in West Virginia.  In these years, Nash cited everything from the Everly Brothers to the Critters (“Mr. Dyingly Sad”) to Laura Nyro and the Beatles as favorites, but singled out the lyrics and music of Joni Mitchell as an influence.

The Guild Light Gauge, Cloudy
The Guild Light Gauge, CloudyBoth the Guild Light Gauge 45 (“Cloudy” b/w “14th Annual Fun & Pleasure Fair”) and Collection 45 (“Both Sides Now” b/w “Tomorrow is a Window”) were recorded while Fern was still in college.

The Collection, Both Sides Now (The Hot Biscuit Company P-1455)The Collection, Both Sides Now

The Collection 45 was recorded at a different session than the Guild Light Gauge, and again featured the vocals of members of the Guild Light Gauge – that’s Fern heard as soloist on “Both Sides Now” – though without Willcocks’s participation.  Both Jimmy Wisner and Artie Kornfeld were also on hand during these sessions.

While steeped in gorgeous, period-specific production and studio accoutrement, these vinyl releases did not necessarily reflect the largely acoustic format of the Guild Light Gauge, according to Fern.

Fern graduated from college in 1969 – in time to make it to Woodstock later that summer – and moved to Boston, there joining a group of folk singers named AHS. Recently married, and with her license to teach, Fern would relocate back to New York City in 1972, where in coming years she worked a variety of gigs, sessions and engagements on the periphery of the music world, including singing jazz (with the Bones of Contention – thirteen trombones!), writing jingles for Hudson’s, acting in commercials and joining a local musical theatre group.  In 1986, Fern began teaching music at Public School 139 (in Rego Park, Queens), and led her elementary school students in the Public School 139 Glee Club (who were featured singing at televised sporting events at Madison Square Garden and Shea Stadium).

Fern Nash, retired since 2010 from P.S. 139, and living in Bayside, Queens, has a full-grown daughter and son-in-law (both music major graduates), and a two-year-old grandson who enjoys the music he’s surrounded by.  Fern’s long-time love for singing and arranging continues to this day – she owns, and still plays, the piano she learned on as a child.

Note: Fern remained close friends with Ann Willcocks after the Guild Light Gauge dissolved.  Willcocks, who worked at Sony Music for many years (eventually rising to a Vice President position), is now retired and living in Atlanta, Georgia, and, according to Fern, still sings in her church’s choir.

Finally, there’s great YouTube footage of Paul playing “Anji,” with Eddie joining him on guitar (and Fern Nash making an appearance around 1:40).

Posted in Psychedelic/Pop, Updates | 3 Comments

Bright Lights

Bright Lights!

Like AM Radio Dust, its companion volume, Bright Lights is just as much an exploration of lost spaces and places as it is of sound.

I hope you enjoy it.

Bright Lights
(single MP3 file)

Susan Rafey, “The Big Hurt”
Jerry Lee Trio, “Banshee”
Rick Durham and the Dynamics, “Southern Love”
Stan with the Marauders, “Echo Valley”
Maggie Ingram with the Ingramettes, “Melody of Love”
Zena Ayo, “Long Long Gone”
Mike Baltch Quartet, “Delilah”
Cheryl Thompson, “Black Night”
The Checker Dots, “Alpha Omega”
Fantastic Dee-Jays, “This Love of Ours”
The What Four, “Gemini 4″
Carole King, “A Road to Nowhere”
The Bittersweets, “Hurtin’ Kind”
Charles Wright and the Malibus, “Runky”
The Missing Links, “I Cried Goodbye”
J. Gale and the Games, “A Million Nothings”
The Benjamin Specials Gospel Singers, “I Am on the Right Road Now”
Link Wray, “Girl from the North Country”
Shirley Mc Donald accompanied by The Kay Nines K-9′s, “You”
The Santells, “These Are Love”
Houston and Dorsey, “Ebb Tide”
Dub Benson, “Shaping Up Today”
Henry Kaalekahi, “Hookipa Paka – Maunawili”
Johnny Love, “Rain Drops”
George Johnson, “Capricorn”
Fay Simmons, “Bells”
Cee Cee Carol, “The Right Guy”
Lou Smith, “I’ll Be the One”

Posted in Blues, Country, Exotica/Space-Age, Garage Bands, Girl-Groups, Gospel, Instrumentals/Surf, Jazz Obscura, Mixes, Now Sound, R&B/Vocal Groups, Rock 'n' roll, Soul | 10 Comments

Raqs ‘n’ Roll

The records that capitalized on post-War America’s tastes for Middle Eastern music encompass an absolutely fascinating continuum.

At one end there were the country-by-country ethnic field recordings released by Folkways, Lyrichord, Monitor and other specialist labels, academic packages for armchair anthropologists.  At the other extreme was the unreconstructed orchestral exotica of albums like Ron Goodwin’s Music for an Arabian Night, Bob Romeo’s Aphrodisia and Sonny Lester’s How to Belly Dance for Your Husband and a proliferation of novelty “Oriental” rock ‘n’ roll singles like Bill Haley’s “Oriental Rock,”  Johnny & the Hurricanes’ “Sheba” and Ralph Marterie’s “Shish Kebab.”

And somewhere between ethnography and exotica lay a substantial subset of secular Arabic music that was very successfully marketed to American audiences.  The music originated amongst a set of musicians, generally first- or second-generation immigrants, who played a loose circuit of restaurants, theaters, hotels, night clubs and social functions in the Northeast and Upper Midwest.  Though nominally authentic, theirs was a music that was modern enough to appeal to American consumers with a casual interest in Middle Eastern music and rhythms.  The albums these groups made, found easily in local record stores, and typically sleeved in colorful covers featuring belly-dancers in kitschy “Casbah” interiors, sold very well, with bigger names like Fred Elias, Gus Vali, Artie Barsamian, Eddie Kochak, Eddie Mekjian, Naif Agby, Mohammed El-Bakkar, George Abdo releasing dozens upon dozens of recordings in their time.  The music itself tended to reflect these groups’ diverse repertoire of Armenian, Lebanese, Syrian, Turkish, Greek, Egyptian and Jewish folk songs, ballads and dances.

But there were also the occasional recordings that were a bit stranger, and a bit more difficult to classify.  Generally these attempted to mix Arabic and Western forms, taking shape as either curious rock ‘n’ roll hybrids or exotica larks incorporating Latin dance rhythms or elements of American jazz or pop.

Sometimes these experiments worked beautifully, becoming something more than the sum of their parts.  Sometimes they just came out strange.  Nearly always they were interesting.

This week we look at three of the best.

Eddie Kochak & Hakki Obadia, Jazz in Port Said (Bossa Nova Araby) (Georgette 403)1.  Eddie Kochak & Hakki Obadia, Jazz in Port Said (Bossa Nova Araby) (Georgette 403)
Released in 1962, the spellbinding “Jazz in Port Said” was one of the earliest recorded products of a long-lasting collaboration between percussionist Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak and violinist Hakki Obadia.

Kochak was born Eddie Soubhi Ibn Farjallah Kochakji to Syrian parents in Brooklyn, New York.  Drawn to drumming as a child, Kochak would come to be a specialist in the derbeki drum.   Hakki Obadia is an Iraqi-born Jew and classically trained multi-instrumentalist who first established a name for himself in the Middle East with concert and radio appearances as a child prodigy violinist.

The two musicians first met in the mid-‘50s.  Kochak was then performing and leading groups in various New York and New Jersey-area venues. Obadia was playing around New York City area, where he’d recently settled after pursuing music studies at Berkeley.

First as performers, and later in the recording studio, they would create and promote their “Amerabic” sound – the melodies and rhythms of various Middle Eastern Arab standards and folk songs updated for American audiences.

Their “Jazz in Port Said” was one of the earliest of these recorded collaborations.  It was, in terms of its Western jazz sensibilities and moody, propulsive arrangement, also among their most adventurous early recordings. 1

“Jazz in Port Said” also saw inclusion on their Ameraba: Music with the New Amer-Abic Sound.  The album would be among the first in a series of very popular LPs by Obadia and Kochak, along with their frequent partner, the violinist and oud player Fred Elias.  Many of these albums were recycled and repackaged throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s with successive waves of interest in belly-dancing, their Strictly Belly Dancing series proving especially popular.

Kochak and Obadia continued to release their “Amerarabic” music over the years.   Kochak himself remained one of the bigger names in post-War Arab-American entertainment, and something of a fixture in New York show business.   Obadia, who published his Oud Method book in 1969, worked as a music teacher in the public schools of Long Island, and continued to perform and record.

Sources: Katherine Benson & Philip Kayal’s Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York City, http://www.eddiekochak.net, Phyllis Saretta’s Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak.

The Sheiks, Ya-Habibi (Sultan S-1001)2.  The Sheiks, Ya-Habibi (Sultan S-1001)
“Ya-Habibi” 2 was at least partly the handiwork of New York City-based Frank Cari and his songwriting partner Anna Vito. 3

As a freelance writing team, Cari and Vito penned a number of songs in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, largely for the doo-wop and teen pop markets.  Their biggest hit, “High on a Hill,” performed by Brooklyn singer Scott English in 1963, was typical of the New York City pop sound that the British Invasion would soon obviate.

In this time Cari also operated both his Turban Music publishing concern and his Frank Cari Productions, which was responsible for a number of pop-oriented 45 releases.  And finally there was Sultan Records, which Cari founded in the late ‘50s.  Among the 45s released during the label’s brief few years were the Inspirations’ “The Genie,” the Accents’ “Rags to Riches,” and, more interestingly, the Aztecs’ Duane-Eddy-inspired “Aztec Rock” and the Social Outcasts’ “Mad,” a strange instrumental with a wisp of the Middle Eastern aesthetic.   (Note the recurring Middle Eastern motifs here.)

But nothing in the Sultan catalog quite matches the electric, booming “Ya-Habibi,” which was among the label’s very first releases, and which is nearly psychedelic in its instrumentation and echo-chamber aesthetic.  Its flipside, the slightly-less-unhinged-but-also-great “Sultan’s Delight,” was penned by Jack Ghanaim, a musician whose kanoon playing is heard on jazz bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s groundbreaking 1958 debut Jazz Sahara.  Likely released in 1959, its players and backstory remain otherwise maddeningly mysterious, though it seems very likely that it’s Ghanaim heard on the oud on both sides of this 45.  4   Clearly there was more in the way of “authentic” musicianship here than the average Middle Eastern rock ‘n’ roll novelty, either way.

Ganimian & His Orientals, Come With Me to the Casbah (Atco 45-6142)3.  Ganimian & His Orientals, Come With Me to the Casbah (Atco 45-6142)
Oud player Charles “Chick” Ganimian was born in 1926 in upstate New York.   Like many of the figures of in post-War Arab-American music, Ganimian grew up in this country; his father, an Armenian immigrant who’d arrived from Turkey, also played oud, and from an early age the younger Ganimian seems to have been fascinated with the music of his heritage.

In the mid-‘30s, the Ganimian family moved to New York City.  In the late ‘40s Chick first formed the Nor-Ikes Orchestra, a group largely comprised of Armenian musicians, one of the first to consciously revive the music for mixed audiences, playing various social engagements for the broader Arab-American community.

Well regarded early on as an oud player, Ganimian did not record as prolifically as some of his peers.  He was nothing if not bold about exploring different forms, however.  A modest (and surprising) pop hit in 1958, his “Daddy Lolo (Oriental Rock ‘n’ Roll”) b/w “Halvah,” was crossover rock ‘n’ roll at its weirdest.

Which brings me to “Come With Me to the Casbah.”  Released in 1958, its spoken word bits are straight Orientalist hokum but its fine solos and terrific arrangement still make for a fun experience.   The selection would see release on a full-length album, also entitled Come With Me to the Casbah, that was released the same year on Atco Records, sister label to R&B giant Atlantic Records.

That album, recorded over the course of several sessions in 1957 and 1958, is an unusual and fascinating artifact, a mix of a slightly updated dances from the Arabic world, East-West rock ‘n’ roll novelties and fairly faithful readings of American standards performed on regional instruments.

The 1958 session that produced “Come With Me to the Casbah” featured an interesting roster.  Not only did Ganimian’s longtime compadres in the Nor-Ikes – Steve Bogoshian (clarinet), Ed Malasian (or Malkasian, percussion), Aram Davidan (dumbek) and Souren “Sudan” Baronian (tenor sax) – participate in the session, but they were joined by Anglo jazz musicians  Al Schackman (guitar), Peter Ind (bass), Dick Palazzolo (drums) and Peter Franco (drums).

Ganimian’s overlap with the jazz world is worth noting here.  Obsessives might have noticed the Lennie Tristano connections; Peter Ind in particular had a long-running, crucial association with the influential jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, whose “school” was very influential in post-War bebop and cool jazz.  Interestingly, both Bogoshian and Baronian had played with Tristano, too, though Bogoshian’s association, which is only alluded to in the liner notes of the Come With Me to the Casbah LP, is unconfirmed by other sources.

Ganimian would continue performing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, making regular appearances and enjoying residencies in New Jersey and New York.  His few recorded appearance from included a live date from 1978 (released later), as well as an independently-released 1975 LP with the Nor-Ikes.  He would also occasionally appear on other jazz dates; he’s heard in the mid-‘60s on flautist Herbie Mann’s Wailing Dervishes and sublime Impressions of the Middle East albums, and on David Amram’s 1972 Subway Night.  Perhaps only fellow oud player John Berberian and trumpet player and percussionist Roger Mozian would enjoy as much overlap with the jazz world in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Charles “Chick” Ganimian passed away in 1989.

  1. Both musicians can be heard blending Eastern and Western forms prior to “Jazz in Port Said.”  Kochak’s obscure solo 78 sides from the ‘50s saw him experimenting with bebop and Latin music on tracks like “Ha Bee Bee Blues” and “Mambo Arabia.”  And Obadia’s “Cha Cha Baba” – heard on his 10 Nights in a Harem LP from 1960 – is excellent Latin exotica.
  2. Arabic term of endearment – loosely “my love,” or “my dear old friend.”
  3. Cari and Vito are shortenings of, respectively, “Cariola” and “Mangravito.”
  4. Ghanaim also played with Eddie Kochak in the ‘60s.
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A bit "Lotus Land," a bit "Key Largo," Dizzy Gillespie's "Rumbola" is rarely-heard side, recorded in 1954, and a lovely example of dark jazz noir in an exotic Latin setting.