Category Archives: Country

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

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

Black night

This is one of those weeks where three records get posted alongside each other not because they share some very specific theme or belong, musically- or culturally-speaking, in the same sub-sub-genre.  (Jazz, early rock ‘n’ roll, pop, R&B and country all get represented in one form or another here, and in different proportions.)

Rather, they’re grouped together because they fit that way in my mind.  There is some logic at work here, though, some shared sensibility that was in play in the post-War decades. Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and Peggy Lee’s “Why Don’t You Do Right” belong somewhere along this axis of atmosphere.  So do Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” and Etta James’s “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road).” So do countless female versions of “Summertime,” “Black Coffee” and “Fever.”

Nervous and bittersweet, too fast to be torch songs, too relaxed to be barnstormers, this week’s selections are, in the end, all nocturnal anthems of a sort, collectively oozing mood and sensuality.

Cheryl Thompson, Black Night (Deville MKT-1004)1. Cheryl Thompson, Black Night (Deville MKT-1004)
Born in 1944 in Florida, Cheryle Thompson made her way to Las Vegas in 1962 to pursue a singing career.  Initially landing work as a showgirl at the Sahara Hotel and Casino, Thompson soon met singer and bassist Norman Kaye, who, along with his sister, anchored the popular Mary Kaye Trio, one of the early lounge combos supplying the swinging, round-the-clock soundtrack for post-War Las Vegas.

Thompson’s first major exposure came in 1963 and 1964, when she was selected as Miss Las Vegas and Miss Nevada.  At a time in post-War popular culture when pageants represented a more viable launching pad for acting and music careers, Thompson was able to parlay her talents and new-found visibility, along with her connections through now-husband Kaye, into several recording deals.  Among them was the excellent “Don’t Walk Away” (b/w “It’s the End”), a Kaye composition that was released in 1965 on Chicago’s Vee Jay Records and that featured Thompson’s aching, Patsy-Cline-influenced vocals and an effective soul-pop arrangement.

Three more singles followed a year later on Decca Records (and its subsidiary Coral Records).  Cut very much in big-production Nashville countrypolitan mode, these included the modest 1966 hit “The Third Person,” which Thompson co-authored.

“Black Night” is the most obscure of Thompson’s sides.  It seems to have been Thompson’s very first recording, and while it’s tough to pinpoint its exact recording date, it did see release in 1964 (including a U.K. issue).   Most importantly, it’s a terrific record, a wicked intersection of rock ‘n’ roll, atmospheric pop and Nashville-style production values.

The 1960s passed and family life called, and Thompson effectively retired from the music business, joining Kaye in managing their expanding real estate business.  Cheryle Thompson passed away in 2003 in Las Vegas.

Sources: Las Vegas Sun

Honey Sanders, Some Like It Cool (Brighton 777-A)2. Honey Sanders, Some Like It Cool (Brighton 777-A)
Honey Sanders was a singer, actress and entertainer first and a recording artist second.

Born in 1927, Sanders evinced musical talent from an early age, and came up in New York City show business.  And Sanders – some time in the ‘50s for child-rearing notwithstanding – would remain in that world, returning to the stage in the late ‘50s, with various theatre and Broadway appearances over the next decade or two.  (If period accounts are to be trusted, she was sometimes finding roles as the “jolly fat type.”)

Released in 1963 on the obscure New York City-based Brighton Records label, the seldom-heard “Some Like It Cool” and its flipside “(Johnny Guitar) My Restless Lover” were both penned by songwriter, composer and conductor Pembroke Davenport, another Broadway veteran.   “Some Like It Cool,” featuring Sanders’s sultry, coolly understated vocal, is not only one of the more effective recorded turns by a theatre-based vocalist, but – with its jazzy sensibility, tight guitar interplay and some atmospheric bongos pattering through its three minute course – it’s one of the hippest, too.

Sanders would go on in the ’80s to open the Sanders Agency, a theatrical talent agency, in New York and Los Angeles.  She continued in the theatre world as a producer as well, remaining active from the ‘90s onwards before her death in 2003.

“Some Like It Cool” would be Honey Sanders’s only solo recording.

Sources: Variety

Barbara Pittman with Gene Lowery Singers, Handsome Man (Phillips International 3553)3. Barbara Pittman with Gene Lowery Singers, Handsome Man (Phillips International 3553)
Singer Barbara Pittman is best remembered for her handful of excellent 45s recorded for Sam Phillips’s legendary Sun and Phillips International labels between 1956 and 1960.

Pittman was born in 1938 and grew up musically inclined, one of twelve children in a large, poor family from North Memphis.  Unlike many of the white kids who went on to record for the Memphis-based Sun Records, Pittman wasn’t necessarily a country- or gospel-raised singer first – she was drawn early on to big band sounds and blues.

Which isn’t to suggest Pittman couldn’t sing country.  After initially being rebuffed by Sun, Pittman dug in, building her chops with two different Western groups, Clyde Leoppard’s Snearly Ranch Boys and Lash Larue.   With the former group Pittman recorded her first record in 1956, after finally convincing Sam Phillips.  “I Need a Man,” a rare female rock ‘n’ roll release for Sun Records, epitomized the label’s classic aesthetic – all lusty vocals, slapback bass and wild guitar and piano.

Over the next few years a small schedule of Sun 45s ensued, none of them particularly commercially successful.  There would be some missteps (the overwrought “The Eleventh Commandment”), along with some more great rock ‘n’ roll (the Jerry-Lee-Lewis-inspired “I’m Getting Better All the Time”) and several excellent ballads (“No Matter Who’s to Blame,” “Two Young Fools in Love,” “Cold Cold Heart.”)

“Handsome Man,” released in 1960, was Pittman’s fourth and final record for Sam Phillips.  I’m in the minority here but for me it ranks as the most attractive side in Pittman’s discography.  Penned and arranged by the Charlie Rich, still a young Memphis session whiz at this point, “Handsome Man” didn’t draw directly from Sun’s chart-proven country or rock ‘n’ roll style.  It rocked in its own way, but Pittman’s sultry, assertive lead vocal and Rich’s complementary support put its sensibilities somewhere closer to torch-lit clubland.

Pittman moved to California in 1962 and found work there as a session musician and club singer.  While she never enjoyed breakthrough success, she remained committed to a singing career, and, after marrying and moving to Houston, would reestablish herself in the early ‘80s with a set of younger fans of early rock ‘n’ roll.

Barbara Pittman passed away in 2005 at the age of 67.

Sources: Elvis Australia, Rockabilly Hall of Fame

Posted in Country, Jazz Obscura, Latin, R&B/Vocal Groups | 8 Comments

AM Radio Dust

AM Radio Dust

 

A new, or new to Office Naps, mix this week.

AM Radio Dust was my 2009 contribution to the annual CD mix swap over at the Waxidermy forums, the weird id of contemporary record collecting.

AM Radio Dust is a good reflection of where my tastes as a collector and music enthusiast stand.  It’s a parallel universe of sound, a lost, echo-y place of girl-groups, instrumental obscurities, haunted country singers and teen crooners, inadvertent drone and difficult-to-classify, space-age flotsam.

I did choose to re-record (320kpbs) and re-mix the original tracks, however, which suffered from some variable bit rates and generally poor mastering.  As always, nothing was cleaned up, though, no pops or clicks removed.  So here it is.

AM Radio Dust
(single MP3 file)

AM Radio Dust

(zip file with mixed tracks)

The Houstons, “Solar Light”
The Caravelles, “Hey Mama You’ve Been On My Mind”
Jimmy Barden & Donna Byrd, “It’s Never Easy”
Undecided?, “Make Her Cry”
Shadow Casters, “Going to the Moon”
Kumar Basnyet, “Chyangba Ta Naun”
Donald Adkins, “Lonley Side Walks”
Joe D. Gibson, “21 Years (It Takes a Worried Man)”
Jerry Williams & the Epics, “Whatever You Do”
Ervin Litkei, “Music to Play E-S-P By”
The Ultra Mates, “Pitter Patter”
Andrew Paul with Music by The Agents, “A Hearts Not a Toy”
The Desert Rats, “Sohonie”
The Stratfords, “Never Leave Me”
Red Garrison and His Zodiacs, “Chant of the Jungle”
Tracy Pendarvis and the Swampers, “A Thousand Guitars”
Holmes Sisters, “The Love of Jesus”
Ronny Kae, “Swinging Drums”
The Lawrence Comp., “Moon Beams”
Wilbert Harrison, “Happy in Love”
Buddy Long, “It’s Nothin’ to Me”
Johnny Williams, “Another Love”
Bill Osborn – Guitar Solo By Doug Allen, “Bamboo and Rice”
Little John and The Monks, “Black Winds”
Lorrie Collins, “Another Man Done Gone”
Willie Gregg and the Velvetones, “You Fool”
Mona Davis, “I’ll Pick Up My Heart”
Billy Sol and the Thunderbirds, “When You’re Alone”

Posted in Country, Exotica/Space-Age, Garage Bands, Gospel, Instrumentals/Surf, Mixes, Now Sound, R&B/Vocal Groups, Rock 'n' roll | 18 Comments

The teen art of lonesome

Heartbreak and loneliness, as topics, had already been beaten to death in teenage popular music on the eve of the British Invasion. But that wasn’t necessarily the problem.  Rather, it was that heartbreak and loneliness were always so poorly and superficially conveyed.  At least on the national pop charts, these were big years for throwaway commercial pop arrangements and teenage sentimentality of the most maudlin variety.  Where was all the existential despair, bleakness and bad decisions?

The fine art of teenage lonesome this week on Office Naps. Feel the sun going down. Image courtesy of Amarillo-based Charles Henry, who has many marvelous, evocative images of Texas spaces at his flickr page.

It took a special treatment to conjure melancholy and youthful despondency effectively and attractively – to make it, in effect, cinematic again.  The archetypes will always be timeless tracks like Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town,” Eddie Cochran’s “Dark Lonely Street” and Elvis Presley’s reading of “Blue Moon.”  Good lyrics were important, of course, though not absolutely crucial.  It was interpretation and, above all, the production that were paramount.  “A Cheat” by Sanford Clark or “Lonely Saturday Night” by Don French are spare to the point of nothingness, slowed down to a dream-like beat, and otherworldly, almost exotic at points.   This week’s selections, though performed by singers of wildly different pedigrees, all subscribe to the same basic vision in the end.  Crackling with shadows and atmosphere, there is some special, serious art to their loneliness.

Joe Gaston and the Crew, Without You (Brass 162 B)1.  Joe Gaston and the Crew, Without You (Brass 162 B)
Likely recorded in the early ‘60s – I’d guess 1961 – in Kansas City, there’s little information to be dredged up about singer Joe Gaston, alas, or the magnificent “Without You.”

All the components are there, though.  The aesthetic is redolent of some pure, lost surf instrumental ballad, the beautifully modulated echo chamber guitar and whistling conjuring solitude to great effect.  Again, it’s all very cinematic – an edge-of-town-at-sundown mood.  It would have sounded good coming through an AM radio.

“Without You” (and its flipside, the goofy rockin’ pop number “How Do You Know?”) seems to have been among the earliest releases for Kansas City businessman George Hodes’s Brass Records, a label that would go on to release a clutch of other country, pop, rock ‘n’ roll and instrumental releases into the ‘60s, including, most notably, an LP by folk group the Surf Riders (where future Byrd Gene Clark got his start), some cool ’64 country sides by Larry Good and Gene McKown and, a year or two later, three 45s by the Fab Four, a popular local garage band.

Incidentally, the Crew, Gaston’s backing band here, released a wild jungle exotica-type instrumental 45 (“Jaguar Hunt”) of their own around the same time on Brass Records that, speculatively, was recorded during the same session as “Without You.”   Decades later, the Norton Records team also turned up an excellent acetate by the Crew for the label’s Kicksville, Vol. 2 compilation, a track that features Gaston, I believe, again on vocals.

Johnny Williams, Another Love (Cinema 1001)2.  Johnny Williams, Another Love (Cinema 1001)
A Texas singer and entertainer in the Gulf Coast blue-eyed soul tradition, Johnny Williams will probably always be best known for his 1965 hit version of Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil.”

Born in the early ‘40s in Baytown, Texas, Williams’s “Long Black Veil” followed a haphazard, if felicitous, route into music.   He grew up on R&B, country, jazz and early rock ‘n’ roll.  Williams himself was a late-blooming musician, though, picking up guitar in college but quickly insinuating himself, with enviable pluck, into Austin’s early ‘60s east side R&B scene and the bands of the young Joe Tex and local favorite Blues Boy Hubbard.

Johnny Williams in his "Long Black Veil" days

Johnny Williams in his "Long Black Veil" days. Image courtesy of the the Johnny Williams website.

Upon returning from a stint in the Air Force in 1964, Williams fell in as vocalist with the Houston-area band the Jokers, who, as serendipity would have it, found themselves recording for the infamous Huey Meaux and, even more serendipitously, soon had a hit on their hands with a swampy, R&B-laced version of the great Lefty Frizzell ballad “Long Black Veil.”  A follow-up 45 and an album (with Williams and company covering of hits like “Miller’s Cave” and “The Last Letter”) was rushed out to capitalize on the single’s success.

It is Williams’s 1966 side “Another Love,” though, that stands apart as his finest effort.  Penned by the Houston-based songwriting team of Jerry Wright and Larry O’Keefe, “Another Love” borrows a bit of “Long Black Veil,” taking it to some sort of hypnotic extreme in the process.  The arrangement here is beautifully realized, its ghostly chorus, muffled floor toms, spare guitar work and mounds of echo a triumph of mood.

“Another Love” would also be an early, in not the earliest, release for Houston’s Cinema Records, a label behind some good psychedelic and garage band sides in the latter half of the ‘60s.  Oddly enough, both sides of this 45 were re-released the same year by legendary Houston-based psychedelic label International Artists.

Johnny Williams stayed around Houston, recording sporadically – and these mostly as a country singer – with his own groups in the ‘70s.  His energies would generally be directed to his role as a live performer, his ongoing association with musician-turned-club-owner Mickey Gilley making Williams a fixture in Houston-area clubs in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Williams returned to recording music in 2005 with Johnny Williams Volume 1, an album of blues vocals.

You can read more about Johnny Williams at his website.

Bill Osborn, Bamboo and Rice (Camelot CS-129-A)3.  Bill Osborn, Bamboo and Rice (Camelot CS-129-A)
Bill Osborn, born William Robert Osborne in 1940, was a pop singer and songwriter, fairly well-known in the Seattle area in his time.

His handful of 45s (including this) recorded for the great local labels Seafair and Jerden were largely released under the pseudonym Billy Saint, though he’d also record as Johnny London (for the soul-inspired “Watching Over You” 45).  And, of course, he’d record as Bill Osborn.

The pop sensibilities of the various Osborn sides that I’ve heard put him somewhat at odds with the Pacific Northwest’s raucous rock ‘n’ roll scene.  But his penchant for penning unusual songs is also rather striking.  His “Tanganyika,” for example, is pure exotica; the quasi-mystical “Who Walks in the Garden” could have been an Eden Ahbez composition; “Tear Down the Wall” features cryptic lyrics about “the other side.”

“Bamboo and Rice” is perhaps the most remarkable.  A strange love song about the American war in Vietnam (or Korea or Japan, just as easily), the glacial, pseudo-martial tempo and exotic touches are nothing if not atmospheric, adding to some sense of haunted drama.  The 45’s flipside – an instrumental version with local musician Doug Allen’s deep, booming guitar lines supplanting the vocals – is also highly worthwhile.

Arranged, produced and impeccably recorded by indefatigable drummer-turned-engineer Jan Kurtis for his Camelot label, “Bamboo and Rice” was released in 1966, near the tail end of Camelot’s brief-but-prolific existence.

By the ‘80s, Bill Osborn seems to have largely foregone recording for business.  He passed away in 2009.

Posted in Country, Psychedelic/Pop | 5 Comments

Early country rock

Country rock is largely, and probably accurately, identified with late ‘60s Los Angeles.

The new sensibility drew its earliest and most influential adherents from a variety of musical quarters and pedigrees.  In 1966 and ’67, when it first began to take shape, country rock was just as much open-minded country and bluegrass session musicians crossing over into the rock ‘n’ roll world as it was seasoned veterans from southern California’s commercial rock and folk-rock groups.  For the starpower it drew – the Byrds’ Chris Hillman and Gene Clark, the Buffalo Springfield’s Richie Furay and the Monkees’ Mike Nesmith – it was a rejection of the commercial and musical excess of Los Angeles, a return to serious musicianship and songwriting roots.

Its devotees, drawn together by the new sound and songwriting possibilities of this music, defined and refined the movement at shared gigs and impromptu sessions.  The proximity and participation of a group of adventurous, extremely competent young session musicians – their skills honed from playing in California country music epicenter Bakersfield – cannot be overstated here, either.  While many of the rock ‘n’ rollers were skilled instrumentalists, it was prodigies like Clarence White, Gib Guilbeau and Gene Parsons who could really play the pedal steels and mandolins and fiddles with authority, and who gave these early experiments a sense of gravitas.

Out of the initial organic collaborations, shared interests and connections came the records.  Though obscure releases by the International Submarine Band, the Gosdin Brothers and Hearts and Flowers helped to define the sensibility and sound of country rock, it would be would higher-profile releases like the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, from 1968, and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace Of Sin, from early 1969, that proved the movement’s defining, influential moments.  It didn’t hurt, of course, that the Michael Nesmiths and Chris Hillmans had prior industry connections, or that the major labels were relatively adventurous in the day.  Nor did it hurt that the session players’ ubiquity on these early records ascribed the nascent country rock a professional and unifying aesthetic.

This introduction glosses over many of the personalities, stories and individual contributions, if only for reasons of space.  Incidentally, country rock was a relatively ego-less and – at least from a commercial standpoint – uncalculated phenomenon. At least initially.  Its true believers formed more a diffuse movement than anything so self-conscious as a “scene,” and the form was defined more by its working relationships than its personalities: everyone seemed to know each other, if indirectly, and they sang, played and wrote all over each others’ records.  While charismatic newcomers like Gram Parsons helped galvanize the form, personalities and ideology were largely subordinated to the music.  It made a statement only insofar as to disavow pop’s excess.

A genuinely innovative music in its early days, its aesthetic, its emphasis on songwriting, its whole back-to-basics precept, proved attractive enough to sustain commercial interest.  There’s obvious irony in what country rock became, and the bloated decadence of the Eagles and a million imitators.  The fire gone, the music wasted and watered-down, the original players long out of the game.  So commercial music goes.

Doug Dillard & Gene Clark, Why Not Your Baby (A&M 1087)1.  Doug Dillard & Gene Clark, Why Not Your Baby (A&M 1087)
In early 1969, when “Why Not Your Baby” was recorded, Gene Clark and Doug Dillard were at interesting, though somewhat different, points in their careers.

The Missouri-born Clark is probably most familiar to ‘60s rock fans as the lead singer, songwriter, and founding member of Los Angeles folk-rock innovators the Byrds.  Having parted ways with the Byrds in 1966, Clark was, if anything, beginning a return to his country and songwriting roots, the increasingly experimental rock of the Byrds further behind him as decade wore on.  Doug Dillard, a virtuosic banjo player, also Missouri-born, had himself recently separated from the Dillards, a well-regarded Los Angeles group who’d started out the decade as bluegrass traditionalists but who’d been struggling without much support against the rigid formalities of the form.

As it happened, and as with many of this post’s musicians, Dillard and Clark’s paths had intersected several times previously.  The Dillards had already toured with the Byrds, and Doug Dillard, in addition to playing on Clark’s first solo album (1966’s Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers) had supported the Byrds live on several occasions.

Los Angeles was a smaller musical world in the late ‘60s.  Based on their acquaintanceship and shared connections, Dillard and Clark began informally writing songs together and playing with guitarist and future Eagle Bernie Weadon, then recently of Hearts and Flowers fame.  With allies at A&M Records (to whom Gene Clark was already under contract to as a solo artist), an album by the group – known now simply as the Dillard and Clark – followed in the summer of 1968.  The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark would prove, in retrospect, one of the earliest and finest of the Los Angeles country rock albums.

Between that and their second (and last) album together – 1969’s Through the Morning, Through the Night – Dillard and Clark would record one of the great lost pop singles of the ‘60s.  Joined by Leadon as well as Donna Washburn on vocals, David Jackson on bass and Jon Corneal on drums, “Why Not Your Baby” was something of a return to the plaintive melodicism of Clark’s work for the Byrds like “Feel a Whole Lot Better” or “Set You Free This Time.”  With its  minor key hooks and “Walk Away Renee”-style string arrangements, the song, though not typical of Dillard and Clark’s work, stands out as perhaps the best product of their collaboration.

Dillard and Clark would split later that year.  Though he’d never reclaim prior levels of visibility, Gene Clark – a somewhat fragile personality who’d never been entirely comfortable in the limelight – would continue to release interesting, sometimes brilliant, music until his passing in 1991.  Doug Dillard would maintain an active solo and session career in bluegrass and roots-oriented music.

Corvettes, Level With Your Senses (Dot 45-17283)2.  Corvettes, Level With Your Senses (Dot 45-17283)
With just two great 45s to their name, the Corvettes were an under-recorded unit.

It certainly wasn’t for lack of talent.  The group’s members shared backgrounds among some interesting rock and pop innovators.  At its core the Corvettes were two singer-songwriters and guitarists: Chris Darrow – previously with the unique Eastern-tinged group Kaleidoscope in New York City, and, more recently, with the jug-band-turned-rockers the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – and Jeff Hanna – himself a founding member of the Dirt band.   After the two parted ways with the Dirt Band in 1969, Hanna and Darrow would be joined by an acquaintance, John London (bass), himself an occasional session musician and songwriter who’d most recently logged time in the excellent Los Angeles folk-pop group Lewis & Clarke Expedition.   London’s friend John Ware (drums) rounded out the Corvettes’ line-up.

Together, the group represented that early subset of Los Angeles-based rock musicians making a return to more roots-oriented forms.  Even in 1969, when “Level With Your Senses” was released (produced by the group’s friend Micheal Nesmith), the Corvettes were perhaps still before their time.  The group was obviously confident with this transitional sound, though, their fine harmonies, slightly turned-on lyrics and the ringing electric guitars incorporated beautifully into a unified whole.

In short order, the Corvettes would be connected by Nesmith to the young Linda Ronstadt, who was then advancing her solo career, and for whom the Corvettes began work as a supporting group.  But the Corvettes didn’t gig much on their own, nor did their records’ release on the fast-foundering Dot Records help.   Finally, and perhaps fatally, Jeff Hanna left to reform the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  His subsequent replacement – omnipresent guitarist Bernie Leadon – was himself poached by the Flying Burrito Brothers shortly thereafter, and Ware and London followed the exodus, accepting Michael Nesmith’s invitation to join his country-rock outfit, the First National Band.  At a time when country rock was still a largely unproven commercial commodity, it’s hard to blame them for aligning themselves with the more established names.

It was the end, nominally, of the Corvettes, though Darrow himself would continue with Linda Ronstadt and a long career at the rootsier end of the California folk, country and pop spectrum.   Jeff Hanna, too, remained active as a player, maintaining a version of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in subsequent decades.

The Gosdin Bros., There Must Be Someone (I Can Turn To) (Bakersfield International BIP-1006)3.  The Gosdin Bros., There Must Be Someone (I Can Turn To) (Bakersfield International BIP-1006)
Though ostensibly the most “country” of this week’s artists, the Gosdin Brothers’ history, too, was intertwined with members of the Byrds.

The Alabama-born Gosdin Brothers – singers and string players both – were Vern and Rex Gosdin.  Vern joined Rex in Los Angeles in 1961, their voices and native talent landing them among the city’s nascent folk music scene, including future Byrd Chris Hillman’s bluegrass band the Golden State Boys.

An open-minded unit, connections made early on paid off with two higher-profile full-length releases.  The first album – 1967’s Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers – found them providing harmony support for the recently-solo Byrd Gene Clark.   The second, the brothers’ only album together as leaders, was 1968’s Sounds of Goodbye.  Both were marvelous efforts, and go well back-to-back, the former sounding very much like prime electric Byrds, albeit with a slight country twang (Byrds Chris Hillman and Mike Clarke both played on it, in fact, along with Clarence White), the latter a showcase for the brothers’ harmonies, songwriting and ongoing interests in blending country and folk-rock.

And, in between those two albums came several obscure recordings, including this sterling 1967 gem, the second of two 45-only releases for the Bakersfield International label.   The first 45, “Hangin’ On,” was a minor country hit earlier that same year.  Both 45s presaged the direction of their Sounds of Goodbye album.

“There Must Be Someone (I Can Turn To) was a notable release for several reasons.  For one, the session brought together the same young country and bluegrass studio musicians who played on so many embryonic southern California country rock records.  Guitarist Clarence White, fiddler Gib Guilbeau, drummer and guitarist Gene Parsons and bassist Wayne Moore all took part in the session.

Furthermore, “There Must Be Someone I Can Turn To” was recorded for and released by Bakersfield International Records, a label founded by talent scout, producer, singer and songwriter Gary Paxton.  The label’s ’67-’68 run of eight 45s capture both the energy of early California country rock and the superior talents of some of its supporting contributors.

Historicity aside, Paxton – who’d recently relocated to Bakersfield from Hollywood, and who is easily a chapter of music unto himself – was a sympathetic match for the Gosdins.  But I suppose it only goes to show the limits of open-minded country artists and their producers.  The early Bakersfield International experiments worked beautifully, and so did the Paxton-produced Sounds of Goodbye.   Likely they were, according to the old saw, just too country for the rock ‘n’ rollers, too rock ‘n’ roll for the country audience.  Highly-rated these days, none of the Gosdin Brothers’ early recordings would create much stir at the time.

Both Gosdins would retire from music not long thereafter.  Rex Gosdin passed in 1983.  Vern Gosdin, later nicknamed “The Voice,” returned to straightahead country music, enjoying a very successful career starting in the late 1970s.  He passed away in 2009.

“There Must Be Someone I Can Turn To” was notably covered by the Byrds on their Ballad of Easy Rider album.

Posted in Country, Psychedelic/Pop | 6 Comments

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