Category Archives: Jazz Obscura

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

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

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

Jeri Simpson

I first posted Jeri Simpson’s “In My Black Lace” back in 2006.  It has been one of the great mysteries around here, a marvelous, truly one-of-a-kind recording whose story I’d long given up hopes of ever learning.  But I’m happy at last to have some more conclusive details on Jeri Simpson.  Many, many thanks to her niece Susan and nephew James, who contacted me recently.

Jeri Simpson, circa early '60s

Jeri Simpson, circa early '60s. Jeri is seated second from the left. Her sister Doris is seated third from the right. Her brother Bill Simpson, one of the authors behind "Black Lace," is seated with his wife across from Jeri. Photo courtesy of Susan

Born Louise Geraldine Simpson in the 1920s, Jeri Simpson came up in a musical family in the Chicago area.  It was, more to the point, a large family – Jeri, as she was better known amongst her family, was the youngest of ten children.  Music was a strong presence in the Simpsons’ lives, with the five girls of the family forming a singing group growing up.  (Susan’s mother Laura sang and played piano for the family.)

Two of the brothers – Jack and Bill, the authors behind “In My Black Lace” – were also drawn to singing and writing songs early on.   Incidentally, another sister, Doris, later achieved some fame as screen siren Doris Merrick.

Jeri Simpson, In My Black Lace (Sun-Kist S700)Jeri Simpson, In My Black Lace

Jeri had been in California for some time already – since the late ‘30s – when she recorded “In My Black Lace” in 1957.  The session occurred in Los Angeles when Jeri was in her mid-thirties, and somewhere around the time of her marriage to Jay Ranellucci.  Ranellucci worked deep in the music industry as a recording engineer and mixer for a decades-long stretch at Capitol Records between 1957 and 2007.  (Ranellucci’s resume included not only the jazz-pop of Peggy Lee and Nancy Wilson, but also crucial early rock ‘n’ roll by Gene Vincent, country by Hank Thompson and Merle Haggard, FM radio rock by Steve Miller and the Band, and psychedelic jazz excursions by David Axelrod and the Fourth Way – among many others.)

Jeri Simpson in California, circa 1948 or 1950

Jeri Simpson in California, circa 1948 or 1950. Photo courtesy of Susan.

It seems likely, given Jay Ranellucci’s connections to the music industry and, in particular, to Los Angeles-based jazz guitarist Barney Kessel, that he also played some role in engineering the “In My Black Lace” session.   Either way, it is a captivating recording to this day, an expertly produced exercise in moody jazz, Jeri borrowing a bit of Julie-London-style sensuality while imbuing it with her own wholly unique “exotic” flavor.

Jeri had, according to family members, a “sultry,” “sexy” aspect.  No surprise, given the evocative atmosphere of “In My Black Lace.”   But she was also a housewife and mother (one daughter) who raised dobermans and rottweilers as a hobby, and alas this 45 seems to have been her only commerical recording, at least to anyone’s knowledge.

Given the quality of both “In My Black Lace” – which seems clearly to have been written for Jeri – and its flipside “Sugar” and Simpson’s obvious vocal talents, it’s too bad.  But as her niece Susan noted, “[she] wanted to be a singer but never pursued her dream.”

Jeri Simpson passed away in 2012.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura, Updates | 5 Comments

Nature Boy

I can think of at least a few reasons for the continued appeal of the song “Nature Boy.”

There’s its philosophical, pseudo-mystical message for one. It was heady, if not radical, stuff for 1948, at least as far as pop songs went, and furthermore its gentle sentiment and lyrics, unlike many “message” songs, have weathered with enviable resilience over the years.

It helps that melodically it’s also a difficult song to get wrong. There’s a robustness to its structure, one that has engendered a particularly attractively set of moody, exotic arrangements amongst its many adaptations.

"Nature Boy" sheet music

The original 1948 sheet music for "Nature Boy," with an image of Eden Ahbez. Image courtesy of Online Collections (The Strong) / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

There’s also the not-insignificant appeal of Eden Ahbez, the Wanderer himself and the songwriter behind “Nature Boy.”  I covered Eden Ahbez here, this fascinating, quintessentially American character who also embodied, self-conciously, but still sort of admirably, “Nature Boy.”   “Nature Boy,” the song, is Eden Ahbez – a combination of autobiography and self-mythology.

I’m not alone in my fascination with the song. Since its million-selling treatment by Nat “King” Cole in 1948, it’s become a pop and jazz standard.  And it’s also inspired a decades-long, wildly varied body of readings across many styles.  This week’s three versions are but a few of my favorites.

Clete Grayson and the Thurston Trio, Nature Girl (Nature Boy) (Pacific PA-1007-A 45-111)1.  Clete Grayson and the Thurston Trio, Nature Girl (Nature Boy) (Pacific PA-1007-A 45-111)

Released in 1961 on what was almost certainly a Los Angeles-based label, there’s surprisingly little else to be learned of either Clete Grayson, the Thurston Trio or Pacific Records (which was unrelated to the more widely known Pacific Jazz / World Pacific Records).

Either way, Clete Grayson was certainly a capable vocalist, and he sings here with winning gusto. His lyrical gender transposition is a unique twist, and the professional production isn’t too shabby, either, with an emphatically rockin’ beat and an ondioline making a rare solo appearance during the instrumental break.

With any style of mainstream, mass-produced culture, no matter how commercial, there are bound to be a few nonconformists, oddballs that slip through the cracks in the guise, in this case, of conventional pop music.  One of thousands of teen pop and rock ‘n’ roll records being cranked out in the early ‘60s, “Nature Girl (Nature Boy)” might not have succeeded commercially – it’s just too strange – but it is unequivocally great.

(I owe my copy of this gem to Jack at the great Out of the Bubbling Dusk.   Thanks Jack.)

Richard Barbary: Soul Machine, Nature Boy (A&M 953)2.  Richard Barbary: Soul Machine, Nature Boy (A & M 953)

Richard Barbary is a puzzling case in the world of ‘60s R&B, a talented unknown who seems, after just one excellent, lavishly-produced album on a major label, to have just as quickly disappeared.

A singer with a smooth, world-weary baritone, Barbary had, at the time of this record, just one release under his belt – 1967’s “Get Right” b/w “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” the debut 45 for future soul powerhouse Spring Records.

But Barbary is better heard on his first LP, Richard Barbary: Soul Machine, which was rolled out with all the trimmings – sumptuous production, a cadre of cream-of-the-crop session players, deluxe gatefold album cover – by A&M Records in 1968.

Richard Barbary: Soul Machine

Richard Barbary: Soul Machine, the album.

Produced by Creed Taylor, arranged by studio veterans Artie Butler, Horace Ott and Jimmy Wisner and recorded by legendary jazz engineer Rudy Van Gelder, it’s an East Coast recording but, with its up-to-the-minute production qualities, a West Coast sounding record.  It seems to have been conceived somewhat in the style of a Lou Rawls, Willie Tee or Jerry Butler – smooth-voiced, sophisticated R&B singers with appeal to both pop and jazz markets.

“Nature Boy,” which is featured on Richard Barbary: Soul Machine, is one of the album’s highlights, both Barbary’s mellow reading and a subtle, Horace-Silver-influenced Afro-Latin jazz feel asserting the song’s inherent wistfulness.

A&M Records invested no small amount of stock in Barbary, perhaps cultivating him as their Lou Rawls.  But his debut would, sadly, and for reasons unknown, turn out to be his only album. Furthermore, it seems to have been his last recording, period.  I would love to know more of the story.

Etta Jones, Nature Boy (Prestige 45-237A)3.  Etta Jones, Nature Boy (Prestige 45-237 A)

Like other stylists who never quite got their due – Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln springing to mind – the great Etta Jones never crossed over much into the more visible worlds of R&B and pop music,  perhaps ultimately to the detriment of her career, though she was widely respected as one of the purest of all jazz vocalists.

Born in 1928 in South Carolina, Etta Jones came up in Harlem.  After winning the attention of bandleader Buddy Johnson at an Apollo talent contest in 1943, she joined his popular orchestra, her exposure thenceforth leading to more work, including gigs with drummer J.C. Heard and pianist Earl Hines, and a set of fascinating mid-‘40s releases recorded with Leonard Feather.

Jones seems to have sung jazz from the very outset of her professional career.  Her early recordings evince mature sensibilities – the Billie Holiday influence is at its most pronounced, and era-standard jump blues are suffused with deep feeling.  But, despite the early promise, Jones was not swept up in a bebop revolution that might have logically included her.  Her fortunes as an artist foundered as the 1950s progressed, but changed with 1960’s Don’t Go to Strangers, her debut full-length album recorded for the Prestige jazz label.  Don’t Go to Strangers was a commercial success, and many critics have since cited the album as a water mark (it was also earned her the first of three Grammy nominations in her lifetime).

Don’t Go to Strangers would in reality be but one of a large number of highly consistent sessions for Prestige Records during Jones’s reemergence in the first half of the ‘60s.  Her unusual reading of “Nature Boy” deserves a special place of honor here. Recorded and released in late 1962, her all-star support included Jerome Richardson (tenor saxophone), Sam Bruno (bass), Bobby Donaldson (drums) and either Kenny Burrell or Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar.  Though it didn’t ultimately find much commercial traction, Prestige sensed enough potential in its chugging, Latin beat to release it as a single to the relatively lucrative jukebox/R&B market.

Her Prestige Records run ended in the mid-‘60s, and though Jones was never again quite as prolific in the studio, her performing career resumed with renewed energy for the next decades, a long-time partnership with soul jazz saxophone stalwart Houston Person proving especially fruitful.

Etta Jones passed away in 2001 from complications of cancer.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura, Rock 'n' roll | 6 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

Jazz Exotique

A broader, more inclusive idea of exotica – exotica less as genre and more as creative style – is basically the central motive behind the Exotica Project, and a case I’m constantly building around here as well.

What has in last decade or two coalesced as exotica refers to a too-limited cluster of albums released by major labels (and nationally distributed independent labels) in the ’50s and ’60s.  These are the Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman and Yma Sumac LPs that Middle American audiences bought by the millions in the ’50s and ’60s, along with a set of a few dozen albums by similar artists that catered to the same audiences and that followed, with a few exceptions, the same formula – beautiful, colorful album jackets, faux-Polynesian, -African, -Eastern cocktail jazz and easy-orchestral settings.

In reality, though, exotica drew from a larger pool.  A world of forgotten singers, soloists, bands and orchestras used the basics of exotica – reverberant instrumentation, certain sets of musical motifs, some fanciful idea of other cultures and places – as an imaginative exercise, a platform for expending wild, colorful musical energies.  A wide variety of musical backgrounds, pedigrees and technical ability is represented accordingly, the records themselves reflecting an array of motives and approaches to music.   A lot of this music is very obscure, and only appears on 45.

Much of the most fascinating exotica was made by jazz musicians.  There were many – Herbie Mann, Ahmed Abdul Malik, Art Blakey, Lloyd Miller, to name a few – that made a concerted effort to incorporate indigenous rhythms, instrumentation and modes into their music with some degree of authenticity.  But there were just as many jazz musicians – especially some of the obscure examples charted at the Exotica Project – for whom the Exotic Other was complete fantasy, the relationship to the cultural forms being evoked indirect at best (and disrespectful at worst – a charge generally applicable to much of America’s pop culture).

Exotica as creative force afforded great latitude for taking chances with the music without having to justify it as an experimental and, either way, some of these obscure exotica records can and should be enjoyed as sonorous tone poems, pure, stand-alone reveries and atmospheric, crazy, intensely creative examples of the ways that post-War musicians explored moods, sounds and modes.

This week we look at three jazz exotica favorites.

Mike Baltch Quartet: "Delilah" [Green Dent 1008]1.  Mike Baltch Quartet, Delilah (Green Dent 1008)
From the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area of upstate New York, the Mike Baltch Quartet were a working group, though there’s little evidence of the group in terms of live appearances, or whether any additional recordings were made.

This selection was released in 1961 or ’62, I’d guess.  Of the four musicians noted on the 45’s back sleeve, drummer Mike Baltch, as bandleader, is actually the most obscure of the bunch, with little to be found aside from his listed freelance support work.  Based on his picture at the drums on the sleeve, he appears to be in his late teens or early twenties at the time.

Mike Baltch Quartet: "Delilah" [Green Dent 1008]Better known are the quartet’s pianist John McLean and bassist Mike Flanagan.

McLean, a mainstay in upstate jazz circles, was long associated with saxophone legends J.R. Montrose and Nick Brignola, and, in addition to supporting touring jazz musicians for many years, he led his own groups for many years.  (McLean passed away in 2011.)

Flanagan led his own group as well – Mike Flanagan’s Hot Six – and played bass in the area into the ‘90s with other local jazz combos.  He later operated the Petit Paris restaurant in Albany.

Mike Baltch Quartet: "Delilah" [Green Dent 1008]Saxophonist Bob Cedar was early on fully immersed in the New York City bebop life but had established himself more or less for good in San Francisco by the mid-‘50s, where he continued to play informally, and where he emerged as something of a North Beach character with, alas, bouts of alcoholism and homelessness.  Cedar’s handiwork on “Delilah” likely took place between long-term residencies in San Francisco.  He is clearly heard in full command of his powers.

This record gathered together different types of musicians and personalities, but, of the many ’50s and ’60s jazz treatments of Victor Young’s “Delilah,” it is to my ears not only one of the deepest versions, but also a definitive version.   Released on R&B singer Joe Boatner’s tiny Green Dent label, Baltch and co. conjure, through stark arrangement and ample echo, dim-lit clubland interiors and ancient temptresses to mesmerizing effect.

Orpheus Four: "Caverns" [Orpheus OR-101-B]2.  Orpheus Four, Caverns (Orpheus OR-101-B)
How to describe this gem succinctly?

The Orpheus Four’s story plays out along the arcs of two intertwined Los Angeles-based ’60s Latin jazz groups: the Afro-Latin Soultet and the Afro Blues Quintet.

In addition to sharing a few members, these groups – along with fellow travelers like the Harold Johnson Sextet – shared a sensibility, taking the cool, exotic Latin jazz sound of earlier West Coast maestros like Cal Tjader, Tony Martinez and Bobby Montez and adapting it to slightly hipper soul jazz, Bossa Nova and pop sensibilities.

Another crucial player in the Orpheus Four story is Jack Millman, also known as Johnny Kitchen.  Originally a West Coast-based jazz trumpeter (there were a few bop-oriented albums to his name in the ‘50s), Millman returned, after a brief retirement in the early ’60s, to the business side of the West Coast music industry, pursuing work as a manager and publisher.  Among his charges would be both the Afro Blues Quintet and the Afro-Latin Soultet.

Millman not only helped manage and promote these groups, but he saw to the release of their recordings.  Some of this material found relatively legitimate outlet in its time.¹  And some of this material saw later, questionable budget label reuse, like the Afro Blues Quintet’s Guantanamera (Surrey) and Afro-Blues Today (Crestview) albums.

The most obscure of this latter bunch is the Afro-Soultet’s Afrodesia LP, privately pressed on Banyon Records at some point in the late ’60s or early ’70s.  In true budget label fashion, Afrodesia comes together as an album from a melange of musicians and sessions, and suffers a bit from some obviously overdubbed strings in parts.  Furthermore, one track, “Soul Rockin’,” was simply a retitled Afro-Latin Soultet track, and another, “Afro Revolt,” was lifted from an unrelated jazz group’s session tapes.²

Afrodesia is, not surprisingly, a varied stylistic exercise.  Modish Latin jazz and instrumental boogaloo, breezy ’60s easy-listening, straight ahead bop, Afro-percussion interludes and various “ethnic” accountrements all get space.  There is a mad vibe to it, but, because the styles represented are so much of their time and, on top of that, they just sounded so groovy together, it works.

Which finally brings us to the Orpheus Four.  Both this track and its flipside (“The Shepherd”) were released on the one-off Orpheus label circa 1968, and, significantly, these two sides too would later turn up on the Afrodesia album, retitled as “Le Berber” (in edited form) and “Mozamba,” respectively.

Whether or not the “Alex Garcia” listed on the label, or whether any of the (likely inaccurate and/or pseudonymous) personnel listed on Afrodesia’s back cover – Joseph “Little Joe” DeAguero, (vibes, and formerly of the Afro Blues Quintet), Frank Morris (guitar), Eddie Paris (drums), Johnny Kitchen (AKA Jack Millman, drums), Dean Elliot  (percussion), William Quinn (flute and sax) and Bill Collins (piano) – can be positively stated to have played on “Caverns” is anyone’s guess.

My own suspicion is that “Caverns” was a DeAguero-helmed recording and that its flipside “The Shepherd” was taken from an unreleased-at-the-time Afro-Latin Soultet session.

Either way, “Caverns” is a terrific 45, an otherworldly, wholly unique tone poem, one of those records where, from the first shimmering vibraphone notes onwards, it’s instantly clear that something special is happening.  It’s also a fascinating glimpse into machinations of the city’s local record industry in that time.

To read a more about the Johnny Kitchen saga (which I have greatly reduced here), please check the Ubiquity Records blog, who interviewed Kitchen/Millman for the occasion of the recent Afrodesia reissue.   And pick up the reissue while you’re at it – it’s a highly-recommended artifact.

¹ The Afro Blues Quintet had four LPs on local indie Mira Records.  The Afro-Latin Soultet had two albums on Capitol subsidiary Tower in ’66 and ’67, though their personnel changed entirely between these two LPs.

² The Afro-Soultet’s “Soul Rockin’” had been released earlier as “Afro Breed” on the Afro-Latin Soultet’s Wild! Album from 1966.  Even more curiously, Afrodesia‘s “Afro Revolt” was taken from an earlier session by a similar but entirely unrelated West Coast group, the Jazz Corps.  The track appears as “Chalan Pogo” on the Jazz Corps’s fine album (The Jazz Corps under the direction of Tommy Peltier featuring Roland Kirk), originally released in 1966 on the Pacific Jazz label.

Ross Anderson Chorus and Orch.: "Tam-bu Theme" [Channel 45-7002]3.  Ross Anderson Chorus and Orch., Tam-bu Theme (Channel 45-7002)
Unrelated to jazz  saxophonist and fellow Chicagoan Ross Anderson, the Ross Anderson behind “Tam-bu Theme” was the leader of a working dance orchestra that played in the greater Chicago area during the 1960s.

Every large city had at least one of these groups in its post-War decades.  Though these vestiges of the big band era would never really achieve much in the way of mass currency again, they kept apace with the times with hipper contemporary arrangements and repertoire, even the occasional bop solo.

In Ross Anderson’s case, his several releases demonstrate a polished, competent orchestra that reflected some of the jazzier, Latin-tinged moments of easy maestros like Warren Barker and Les Baxter.  Even by these measures, “Tam-bu Theme” is extraordinary, a dramatic fantasia with deep, sultry atmosphere and great production values, and easily a highlight of Anderson’s discography.

Released in 1961, “Tam-bu Theme” followed Anderson’s debut 45 (“Topaz” b/w “Blues Train”) by several months.  Both were released on Channel Records in 1961.  All of Anderson’s releases – including a 1966 45 (“That Certain Feeling” b/w “Tuff Cat”) and a full-length album (Misty) the following year – seem to have come through his own Channel Records label.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura, Latin, The Exotica Project | 5 Comments

The frayed edges

The post-War decades were golden times for the torch-y, late-night jazz vocal.

Swing-style jazz retained some of its earlier mainstream popularity but, by the late ’40s and ’50s, big bands were shrinking, their relevancy plateauing.   Out of practical necessity, and certainly in terms of its cultural currency, smaller-group jazz, especially bop, was ascendant.

The modern, jazz-inflected vocal ballad would achieve some sort of apotheosis in this time.  As the locus of jazz moved away from ballrooms and halls to clubs and lounges, smaller groups and more intimate settings prevailed, engendering the popular image, if not reality, of aworld-weary singer captivating dimly-lit club-goers.

Interestingly, as audiences for jazz were becoming more select, the best-selling representatives of jazz, modern or otherwise, became its vocalists.  Musicians steeped in jazz – Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, Billy Eckstine, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, etc. – sold albums by the million.  So did singers like Julie London, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, who brought subtle jazz sensibilities, if not jazz pedigrees (especially in Cole’s case) to their performances.

Crucially, too, recording technology had improved enough by the ’50s to effectively capture the sensitivity of vocal performances on the long-playing album format, most of all its quiet ballad performances.  Superlative examples like Helen Carr’s Down in the Depths of the 90th Floor, Johnny Hartman’s Songs From the Heart, Chris Connor’s Sings Ballads of the Sad Cafe and Mel Torme’s It’s a Blue World were hushed expositions of atmosphere and stylized loneliness.  They sounded great on hi-fidelity stereos.   So did Peggy Lee’s Dream Street, Nat “King” Cole’s Love is the Thing, Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, Jeri Southern’s Coffee, Cigarettes & Memories and all of Julie London’s early small-group releases – releases that, incidentally, sold very, very well.

And so the working reality of smaller, quieter supporting groups, the vogue for torch-y jazz ballads and the affordances of modern recording technology that, made, in turn, these captured performances a rewarding experience for at-home listeners guaranteed that lot of jazz and jazz-inspired vocalists cut records in the ’50s and ’60s.  Together they loosely form a fascinating, often obscure, discography of LPs and 45s.

Female vocalists are unequivocally more closely associated with the form, and a future post is planned for them.  This week, however, I survey a few of the most haunting examples from the men.

Babs Gonzales, Lonely One (Prestige 45-204B)1.  Babs Gonzales, Lonely One (Prestige 45-204B)
A true original, Babs Gonzales led a fascinating, colorful life, working, in addition to myriad odd jobs, as singer, lyricist and composer, bandleader, poet, manager and active proponent of jazz and jazz culture.  However, if it’s hard to pin down exactly what Babs Gonzales was, it’s because he was first and foremost a personality – a scenester, a tireless self-mythologizer and authentically colorful character.

Born Lee Brown in 1919, Babs grew up in Newark, New Jersey.  Early on he showed an aptitude for music, growing up playing drums and piano and singing in local clubs barely out of his teens.  He had a gift for adopting personae, too, reinventing himself as Gonzales while living in Hollywood, where he famously worked as Errol Flynn’s chauffeur.

Babs Gonzales

The inimitable Babs Gonzales, shown here with group in the mid-to-late '40s. Image courtesy of William P. Gottlieb via Wikimedia Commons

Gonzales returned and inserted himself into the jazz and creative world of post-War New York City, working and living there – singing, writing, recording, collaborating, hustling, generally presiding – on-and-off, with some obligatory spells in Europe, until his passing in 1980.  His wide-ranging exploits are better-documented elsewhere (see I Paid My Dues, a wildly entertaining biography).  But it’s worth noting here a bit more about his contributions as a recording artist, especially those as a singer.

Of particular note are Babs’s early recordings, where he focused the most on his singing.  (As ‘50s wore on, his releases tended to feature his distinct spoken-word musings – a separate, better-known chapter of his story.)  Babs Gonzales was not only one of the first jazz singers to effectively embrace bop, but he was a pioneer of vocalese, a post-War extension of scat improvisation that used words, rather than nonsense syllables, sung as bop jazz solos, a technique later made more famous by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

His most important 78 sides were recorded between the mid-‘40s and the early ‘50s, during which time he sang with top-tier beboppers – including James Moody’s orchestra and Babs’s own group, Three Bips & a Bop – and released some of his best-known compositions, including “Oop-Pa-A-Da,” recorded by Dizzy Gillespie in 1947.

While prolific – a dizzying number of records were made for major labels and tiny independents alike – there is some truth to the consensus that his singing was limited, and that there was a whiff of novelty hanging about his recordings.  But Gonzales also wrote some very serious, very dark songs like “Weird Lullaby,” “Prelude to a Nightmare” and “Lullaby of the Doomed,” all of which received terrific instrumental treatment in the hands of jazz heavyweights like Wynton Kelly, Art Pepper and Bennie Green.

Atmospheric and stunningly beautiful, “Lonely One” belongs among those as well. Recorded with an unknown trio for the great Prestige Records in a comparatively late 1961, Babs brings such harrowing, effective feeling that one wishes for more like this, but, sadly, this would be among of his last “serious” recordings as a jazz singer.

Oscar Lindsay, Blue Prelude (ABB – 489)2.  Oscar Lindsay, Blue Prelude (ABB – 489)
Born in 1923 or 1924, singer Oscar Lindsay was a founding member of early black harmony group the Four Shades of Rhythm, who began gigging in their home city of Cleveland during World War Two.  A vocalist, drummer – Lindsay played the now rarely-seen cocktail drums – and mainstay of the group, Lindsay persisted through several personnel turnovers, a half-dozen 45s and 78s, long club residencies in Chicago (the group’s second home) and national tours.

After one final 45 release in 1960, the Four Shades of Rhythm dissolved.   Like popular precursors the Ink Spots, the Four Shades of Rhythm had played their own instruments, and, while not a jazz group per se, they could and did swing.  Like the Cats and the Fiddle, for example, or Slim and Slam (Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart), they also sang in jazz-inflected settings, adding popular jazz numbers like “Robbin’s Nest” and “Ghost of a Chance” to their repertory of ballads, uptempo numbers and instrumentals.

So it is less unlikely than it first might seem that, after the Four Shades of Rhythm ended, Lindsay would further explore jazz.  Based and working in Chicago, he released a few solo recordings in the early ‘60s, among them The Sophisticated Sounds Of Oscar Lindsay, an obscure and interesting album of jazz and pop balladry, supported by Chicago jazz pianist John Young and his group.

Which brings us to this selection, a version of Gordon Jenkins’s beautiful, despairing late-night ballad “Blue Prelude,” that, I believe, is again supported by John Young and group.   Of the era’s well-known versions, including Peggy Lee’s and Judy Garland’s, this version owes perhaps the most to the doom-y atmosphere of Nina Simone’s 1959 treatment.  Even by Simone’s standards, however, Lindsay’s is intense, a nocturne built of syrup-slow tempo, deep sensitivity and Lindsay’s wistful intonation.

This seems to have been Lindsay’s last commercial release as a leader, though apparently he still sang with groups into the early 1980s.

Oscar Lindsay passed away in the mid-‘90s.

Sources: Marv Goldberg’s R&B Notebooks, Red Saunders Research Foundation.

Burnie Peacock Quartet (Vocal by Harry Reed), “Jewell” (Burnie's Label BL-218)3.  Burnie Peacock Quartet (Vocal by Harry Reed), “Jewell” (Burnie’s Label BL-218)
Burnie, or Bernie, Peacock was an alto saxophonist and working jazz musician whose recorded legacy spanned the better part of two decades and whose career was spent largely, and largely anonymously, in the trenches of jazz and R&B session and ensemble support work.

Likely born in the late teens or early ’20s, Peacock came up playing music in Detroit and, like many younger journeyman musicians of the ‘40s, could move capably between swing and bop.  In the late ‘30s Peacock played briefly with the Jimmy Raschel band, an important incubator for modern jazz players in Detroit.  After his return from military service, Peacock passed through the ranks of several regrouped, streamlined versions of popular pre-War orchestras, including those of Don Redman, Lucky Millinder and Cab Calloway.

Contrary to popular history, the lines between bop, swing jazz and R&B were frequently blurred in the early ’50s, and, not unlike many professional musicians of the era who identified first as jazz musicians, Peacock – who spent a lot of time in New York City during this time – not only contributed to early ‘50s R&B-oriented sessions (by top sellers like Annisteen Allen, Bull Moose Jackson and Ruth Brown) but also led a handful of instrumental 78 sides clearly intended for the R&B market.

Those early solo sides document a sing-song-y tone, somewhat in the popular style of Earl Bostic, that hasn’t necessarily worn as well with time.   A decade later (after time spent in Korea, again for the military), though, when this recording was made, his tone had clearly mellowed.

From 1962, “Jewell,” the only 45 released on this label, is moonlit mellowness personified, mood music of the highest, most atmospheric order.  Sadly and quite surprisingly, vocalist Harry Reed, who here demonstrates his capabilities as a jazz vocalist to great effect, remains a total mystery.

Peacock was working again in the Detroit area at this point.  He would spend the next five or six years recording occasionally as a supporting musician for Motown Records as part of their large pool of studio talent, including hits for the Miracles and the Marvelettes, but he seems to have drifted into obscurity after that.

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