Category Archives: R&B/Vocal Groups

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 | 11 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 | 20 Comments

Blue Flame: a new mix

I put together a new mix for my Dutch compadre Cortez for the fifth anniversary of his fabulous Club Cortez blog.  You can find it there now.

Club Cortez has been around as long as Office Naps.  Cortez’s tastes in music immediately stuck out from the pack then – believe it or not, there just weren’t that many of us around in 2006 – and, moreover, they still do.   That we share eclecticism and certain stylistic sensibilities – a broad appreciation for musical beauty, for one – doesn’t hurt, of course.  Either way, I hope and fully expect us to be rhapsodizing about music and our latest obscure finds five years from now.

Blue Flame, a new mix

Blue Flame, my new mix over at Club Cortez.

When I delivered the mix over to Cortez, I was feeling a bit abstract, describing it to him this way:

A mix for the bittersweet hours.

Here is mystery and melancholy strewn with chunks of ecstatic, post-War energy: Jazz on a rhythm & blues kick, rock ‘n’ roll on a mambo kick, a palpable sense of clubland’s frayed edges. Put the lights out behind you when you leave.

But I’d say that’s about right.  If you enjoy Office Naps (or the Exotica Project or the Lonely Beat), you’ll dig it, anyway.

Get the mix and playlist at Club Cortez, and do check out what he’s got going on over there.   Thanks to Cortez for inviting me aboard and, again, congratulations.

Posted in Blues, Exotica/Space-Age, Instrumentals/Surf, Jazz Obscura, Latin, Mixes, R&B/Vocal Groups, Rock 'n' roll, Soul, The Exotica Project, The Lonely Beat | 2 Comments

Have guitar will travel

Much has been made of the classic Bo Diddley beat, the now-clichéd shave-and-a-haircut rhythm.  Popularized by Diddley, the beat’s place in rock ‘n’ roll was staked when his eponymous 1955 debut for Checker Records turned into a surprise success.  Affirmed early on in hits by Johnny Otis (“Willie and the Hand Jive”) and Buddy Holly (“Bo Diddley”), the Bo Diddley beat would be enshrined for good with the appropriations of the Rolling Stones and seemingly every other mid-’60s British beat group and American garage band.

Less is made of the sound of Bo Diddley’s guitar playing, though, and the specific raw, pulsating, electric beauty of it.  This is the factor that, for me, lies squarely at the core of Bo Diddley’s eternal appeal.  Before the Velvet Underground or Jimi Hendrix, few other rock ‘n’ roll guitarists – besides, perhaps, Link Wray – were so consistently, deliberately and gleefully moving the weird electric frontier of rock ‘n’ roll forward.

Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley, 1961, guitar hero as gunslinger. An appreciation of the pioneering guitar sound of Bo Diddley this week.

With their raw, trebly fidelity and cavernous echo and tremolo, Bo Diddley’s classic ‘50s and ‘60s recordings for Checker Records, like many of the blues and R&B records of post-War Chicago, crackled with electricity. Some of this was in keeping the studio production standards of the time.  More, simply, had to do with Diddley’s own tastes.

Different ingredients factored into Diddley’s proclivities.  As an artist he was clearly attracted to certain sounds, rhythms and, moreover, the possibilities of electricity.  In interviews he’s acknowledged early violin lessons, freight trains and influence of John Lee Hooker.   As a tinkerer, Diddley understood electronic technology, maintaining his own home studios, wiring his equipment and designing his guitars.

And, so, consequently, much brilliant music came from these predilections.  Bo Diddley’s recordings – percussive expositions of sustain, odd tunings, feedback, distortion and crashing reverb – weren’t necessarily accidents, even if they started out that way.  The instrumental interludes and workouts that lined Bo Diddley’s numerous LPs from the ’50s and ’60s are especially rich.  Guitar solos were treated as rhythmic breaks rather than individual clusters of notes; the break in a song like “Give Me a Break” became an opportunity for strange, percussive, awesome sound.  The hypnotic effects of repeated, overdriven chords and electronic noise were explored in different, otherworldly ways.  Drones and odd harmonics were generated and then incorporated into the logic of a song like “Back to School.”  The first ten seconds of“We’re Gonna Get a Married” highlights some of the most beautiful guitar tone ever.  And so on.

As an appreciation, this week we look at a few prime examples of ‘50s and early ‘60s R&B.  Listen for the guitars.  They’re overdriven, suffused in tremolo, echo and other early analog effects, they’re played with rhythmic gusto, with trance-like repetition favored over melody.  All three selections, to some degree, owe a debt to the experiments of our hero Bo Diddley.

Wilbert Harrison, Happy in Love (Fury 1047 F-1093)1.  Wilbert Harrison, Happy in Love (Fury 1047 F-1093)
Wilbert Harrison was the idiosyncratic vocalist, songwriter, guitarist and pianist best known for 1959’s “Kansas City” and 1969’s “Let’s Work Together.”

Identifying Wilbert Harrison’s orbit in post-War music is somewhat difficult, as he didn’t really follow any of the typical patterns of his R&B contemporaries; if any, his career and, in some small way, style were analogous to Fats Domino’s, though that’s simplifying things, too.  Despite countervailing trends and decades of commercial releases between the early ‘50s and mid-‘70s, Harrison never really reinvented himself or changed his style – his vocals always stayed low-key and curiously hypnotic, his productions charmingly nonchalant.

Wilbert Harrison

Wilbert Harrison in the early '60s. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.

Wilbert Harrison was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1929.  Following service in the Navy, Harrison settled in Miami for a spell in early ‘50s, where he’d pick up some of the Afro-Caribbean beat that later seeped its way into his recordings, and where his debut 45, 1952’s “This Woman of Mine,” would be released by the local label Rockin’ Records.  Harrison decamped to Newark, New Jersey, and a long, steady, consistent schedule of 45 releases would ensue for over twenty years, the best of them recorded between the early ‘50s and the early ‘60s, and these largely for two New York City-based labels – the R&B- and jazz-oriented Savoy Records and its late ‘50s upstart rival, Fury Records.

The Savoy sides were first-rate, at times presaging Harrison’s late ‘50s sound, but did little commercially.  Harrison’s stock soared upon his move to Bobby Robinson’s Fury Records in the late ‘50s.  His debut for the label was his version of Lieber and Stoller’s “Kansas City,” which topped the charts in 1959.   Driven by a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section, the single was an extension of the sound that Harrison had been developing, just sleeker and leaner.

“Kansas City” set the stage for many Harrison 45s that followed in turn.   To a certain extent that includes this selection, 1961’s “Happy in Love,” a Harrison original.  There’s the same loping rhythm and the expressive-but-slightly-detached vocals of Harrison.  Supported by an unknown group, there’s bit of a call-back to the echo- and tremolo-drenched guitars of a prior Harrison high-water mark, too, 1959’s “Don’t Wreck My Life.”   But the dual guitar work here is even more extraordinary, with a droning, ecstatic quality that is like little else from the time, Bo Diddley notwithstanding.   Surprisingly, the 45 has received little attention over the years.

Harrison continued to release 45s steadily into the mid-‘70s, for an array of mostly small independents.  There was some minor chart action, along with a few concessions along the way – 1963’s “Say It Again” featured girl-group-style back-up singers – but Harrison’s style – his vocals, his casual production sensibilities, his laid-back, shuffling rhythms – always prevailed.  A surprise hit came in the form of “Let’s Work Together,” a two-part single that reached the pop charts in 1969 and that was, with characteristic Harrison nonchalance, performed as a one-man band.

Harrison’s recordings tapered off in the mid-‘70s.  He died in 1994 in Spencer, North Carolina.

2.  Art Neville, Arabian Love Call (Specialty 656 5174)Art Neville, Arabian Love Call (Specialty 656 5174)
Born in 1937 into a famous Louisiana musical family, Art Neville’s decades-long career has largely been spent within the world of New Orleans rhythm & blues.  Neville remains active with a number of music-related project to this day, including some newer incarnations of the Meters, but he is perhaps still best known to the general public for his role in the Neville Brothers, an ongoing group formed with his younger brothers Charles, Cyril and Aaron in the late 1970s.

The Neville Brothers would ease comfortably into their role as national ambassadors for New Orleans music, but, earlier on, between the mid-‘50s and the mid-‘70s, Neville was, along with his brothers, situated on the vanguard of New Orleans music, absorbing R&B as it evolved through soul and funk, integrating the Afro-Caribbean tinge and syncopated rhythms of New Orleans, generating vibrant new forms in turn.

Art Neville

Art Neville in the '60s. Image courtesy of Red Kelly's mighty The B Side.

Art, though never as well known as his brother Aaron, can point to his own benchmarks in the national spotlight.   At one end, there was 1954’s “Mardi Gras Mambo.”  Featuring the teenaged Neville’s lead vocal, it was a big hit (and subsequent carnival oldies staple) for his group the Hawketts.  At the other end there was, perhaps most significantly, his handiwork as keyboardist for and founding member of the Meters, whose late ‘60s and early ‘70s hits “Sophisticated Sissy,” “Cissy Strut”, “Look-Ka Py Py” and “Chicken Strut” remain riveting, definitive moments of New Orleans instrumental funk.

Neville’s time between the late ’50s and the late ’60s would see a string of lesser-known New Orleans R&B and soul 45 sides recorded for several different record labels, among them Specialty Records and, later, Instant and Sansu Records.

Which brings us to “Arabian Love Call.”  Art Rupe’s Specialty Records, for whom Neville recorded this track in late 1958, would, along with several other West Coast labels, help get New Orleans R&B to the national market in the rock ‘n’ roll era.  Of the three different 45s that Neville recorded for Specialty, “Ooh-Whee Baby” and “Cha Dooky Do” were small novelty-oriented hits, but the third and best of these 45s, “Arabian Love Call,” represents something else entirely.

Recorded at the storied Cosimo Recording Studios in New Orleans, the session, in addition to Neville on vocals, included first-rate support from Roy Montrell (guitar), Frank Fields (bass), Ed Blackwell (drums), Allen Toussaint (piano) and Alvin “Red” Tyler and Rufus Gore (saxophones).  With its minor key, sly Latin rhythm and stunning, Diddley-esque tremolo guitar work by Roy Montrell, “Arabian Love Call” transcends its lyric, exploring all sorts of weird, resonating modes, its sound, like the best of such experiments, becoming almost psychedelic in the process.

3.  Marvin and Johnny, Ain’t that Right (Modern 45x947)Marvin and Johnny, Ain’t That Right (Modern 45×974)
An excellent ‘50s Los Angeles R&B duo, Marvin and Johnny were influential in the R&B market in their time, anticipating the sound of rock ‘n’ roll without ever enjoying much crossover success.

The singers responsible for Marvin and Johnny’s “Ain’t That Right,” were Marvin Phillips (b. 1928) and Emory Perry (b. 1931).   This was, in fact, not the first line-up of Marvin and Johnny – Marvin Phillips, at the duo’s core, would perform with several different “Johnny” counterparts at various points – but it would be the most prolific and stable of the duo’s incarnations.   (Further confusing matters, Phillips had previously anchored the duo Marvin and Jesse with R&B legend Jesse Belvin.)

Marvin and Johnny

Marvin and Johnny, from a mid-'50s promotional photo. Image courtesy of the great French music blog Roll Call

Transplanted Southwesterners both (Emory Perry was from Texas, Marvin Phillips from Oklahoma), both also played saxophone, working at one point alongside each other for popular Los Angeles R&B bandleader Richard Lewis in the late ‘40s.

Emory Perry officially joined Marvin Phillips after Marvin’s previous “Johnny” (Carl Green, with whom Phillips recorded “Baby Doll” for Specialty Records, a 1953 R&B hit) had left the duo.  Phillips and Perry would go on to chart with both sides of their “Cherry Pie” b/w “Tick Tock” 45 in 1954 for Modern Records, another big Los Angeles-based R&B label, and one of the several sister R&B labels run by the Bihari brothers in the ‘50s.

No further hits ensued for Marvin and Johnny, but they would continue to perform, tour and record and release 45s throughout the next several years.  (Marvin Phillips worked again for a bit with Jesse Belvin during this time, too, and would also record solo as Long Tall Marvin in 1956.)

Most of the many mid-’50s Marvin and Johnny sides were representative of Los Angeles’s commercial post-War, pre-rock ‘n’ roll R&B: a mixture of smooth ballads and raucous sax- and guitar-driven uptempo R&B, usually with high-quality session support.  Recorded in 1955, “Ain’t that Right,” like all of this week’s selections, was representative, too, yet also somehow different within the artist’s oeuvre.  The stuttering Bo-Diddley-style riffs are mostly an exercise in percussive sound here, with the strange, sinuous unison guitar-and-vocalization breaks adding an otherworldly dimension to an already unusual approach.  Heady stuff for mid-’50s commercial R&B.

As the sound of rhythm and blues evolved rapidly in the early ’60s, Marvin and Johnny’s own commercial recordings would taper out; both remained in the Los Angeles area for years to come, though largely retired from the music business.

Posted in R&B/Vocal Groups, Rock 'n' roll | Leave a comment

Walt Bolen’s Lion Hunt

A great pleasure to hear recently from keyboardist Walt Bolen, who filled me in on the backstory behind his organ-led R&B exotica instrumental “Lion Hunt” (Pick-A-Hit 101, which I first wrote about at this ancient post), as well as some of his own biography.

Walt Bolen, born in 1948, was raised in the San Fernando Valley, California.  His was a musical family, especially on the side of his mother, Alma Bowser Bolen (who was also related to pioneering bop pianist Bud Powell by marriage).

In addition to a Hammond A-105 organ at home, Bolen would grow up playing organ in the church, as well as participating in the San Fernando school system’s music program.   Bolen attended one of the few high schools in the area with a Hammond console, taking classes there under the supervision of Mrs. Thelma Becky, the school’s choir teacher.

“[I was] looking to gain popularity among my school mates and friends. Music was my way of doing that,” Bolen notes.  It was 1966, Bolen’s senior year at San Fernando High School, when he first wrote “Lion Hunt,” which was partly inspired by Les Baxter’s exotica standard “Quiet Village.”

Walt Bolen, 1966

Walt Bolen, age eighteen, 1966. From a newspaper article, image courtesy of Walt Bolen.

In 1966, Bolen and Adolphus Alsbrook – a veteran jazz bassist and arranger introduced to Bolen through his horn player friend Carl Smith – went into Los Angeles’s legendary Gold Star Studios to record.  There, joined by a drummer, and with charts written by Alsbruck, they used the Hammond organ to lay down the basic tracks for “Lion Hunt.”   Saxophone and guitar parts would be added by session players in turn.

Walter Bolen, Lion Hunt (Part Two) (Pick-A-Hit 101-B)In 1967, Los Angeles record producer and impresario Bobby Sanders released the recording on Pick-A-Hit Records, one of several labels he operated at the time.  Somewhat to Bolen’s surprise, the B-side of the single – “Lion Hunt (Part Two),” that is – was the same recording, only with dubbed-in lion sound effects, an idea that was entirely Alsbrook’s.

Walter Bolen, Lion Hunt (Part Two)(Pick-A-Hit 101B)

Bolen remained in the San Fernando area in the ensuing years, teaching music, playing lounge and club gigs, and making some (unreleased) home recordings. In the early ‘70s, Bolen and his friends Willard and Ernestine Stroud formed the Ar-Que recording company, for whom he released a strong 45 – “Breaking Out” b/w “Peace Chant” – in 1972.

Walt Bolen otherwise remained away from commercially released music until more recent years.  Bolen, who now resides in Antelope Valley, California, remains active in music to this day, returning to his roots and playing organ for his church.  He’s also released a CD of his own inspirational material – The Casting of Pearls – which is available at or through his facebook page.  Please do check out more of Walt Bolen.

Many thanks to Walt Bolen for contacting me, and for the great conversation and great music.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura, Latin, R&B/Vocal Groups, The Exotica Project, Updates | 2 Comments

It’s your voodoo working

This week Office Naps surveys some R&B favorites from the early ‘60s.

There’s no tight conceptual theme, though these selections share some sensibilities.  They mine the arrangements and robust, minor-key melodies of compositions like “Fever,” “St. James Infirmary” or “Summertime.”   They’re pop-friendly but they’re highly stylized blues, too, infused with feeling without invoking all the usual 12-bar clichés.   They’re tinged with subtle, underlying Latin rhythms and an air of melancholy, even exoticism.

There’s also a poignancy here.  These selections capture the pivotal moment (years, actually) in the early ‘60s when R&B, as a commercial force, was being irrevocably superseded by an ascendant, and rapidly maturing, soul music.  Ray Charles and Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and Atlantic Records and Stax Records were already changing the game.  It wasn’t the end of R&B – which, either way, became a blanket term for pop-oriented commercially-produced black music.   But these transitional years were a sort of final, and irrevocable, shift for the R&B form.

Rhythm and blues had come a long way by the early ‘60s.  These three productions have a moody, churning power; stylistically distant from the R&B’s roots, they represent the best of the form’s final, most sophisticated commercial bloom.

Charles Sheffield, It’s Your Voodoo Working (Excello 45-2200)1. Charles Sheffield, It’s Your Voodoo Working (Excello 45-2200)
Born in Beaumont, Texas, Charles Sheffield cut the superb “It’s Your Voodoo Working” in 1961.  It would come amidst a sporadic eight-year-long run of 45s for this mysterious R&B vocalist.

Sheffield’s 45s, recorded for a handful of excellent Southern labels, together form an interesting primer on the Gulf Coast strain of R&B and blues.  As “Mad Dog Sheffield,” his first 45 (“Mad Dog” b/w “Clear My Night of Misery”) was a fairly straight-ahead blues shouter for the pioneering Louisiana label Goldband Records in 1957.  After this debut came Sheffield’s two 1958 singles (“Never No More” b/w “Is It Because I Love You” and “I’ve Gotta Love” b/w “Shoo Shoo Chicken”), much in the same vein, on Rocko Records, one of several labels run by the Crowley-based J.D. Miller, another key Louisiana studio and label operator.

Two more releases on Nashville’s Excello Records, including both this selection and its follow-up (“I Would Be a Sinner” b/w “The Kangaroo”), followed in 1961.

Charles Sheffield, circa 1962

The elusive Charles Sheffield. Newspaper photo, circa 1962

Sheffield’s three final 45s, all released in the mid-‘60s, were recorded as “Prince Charles.”  There was a swampy blues 45 for Huey Meaux’s Teardrop Records (“Come On Home” b/w “Only You”) and a second 45 for Meaux’s Jetstream label (the slightly more modern “Sick” b/w  “Get Down On Your Knees And Pray”).  And there’s the slinky “Baby Call Home” b/w “I Must Be #1,” released by NRC, an Atlanta record label.

Of Sheffield’s releases – which were commercially fruitless – “It’s Your Voodoo Working,” cut at J.D. Miller’s Crowley studios in 1961, is the highpoint.   This track is relatively sophisticated fare for Excello Records, one of the great post-War blues labels, though this track still maintains the Afro-Latin underpinnings and dark atmosphere that characterize Excello’s finest Louisiana sides.

Sheffield seems to have become finally disenchanted with recording music at some point in the ‘60s, a state of affairs that, in retrospect, was probably hastened by his dealings with some of the region’s most notorious music business hustlers.  Otherwise, Sheffield seems to have disappeared without a trace; I’d love to know more of what happened to him.

Thanks to Dan Phillip, who wrote of Charles Sheffield, and this 45 in particular, at Home of the Groove several years back.

2. Marv Johnson, With All That’s In Me (UA 423)Marv Johnson, With All That’s In Me (UA 423)
The great R&B vocalist and songwriter Marv Johnson was born in Detroit in 1938.  His early musical profile reads like that of many a young R&B singer from the time: a musically gifted youngster, he was raised on gospel music and secular R&B and pop material, sang with local vocal groups in his teens and debuted, at the age of twenty, with the obligatory obscure local single, 1958’s “My Baby-O” b/w “Once Upon A Time.”

Johnson was spotted in 1959 by fledgling producer, songwriter and future Motown mogul Berry Gordy, and “Come to Me,” Johnson’s ensuing 45, was, notably, the inaugural release on Gordy’s Tamla Records.

If “Come to Me” was the first Motown record, the seed from which the empire grew, at the time it was a more propitious beginning for Johnson, as the song’s commercial potential got the attention of the major label United Artists, who immediately stepped in and signed away Johnson, licensing and nationally releasing the 45 in turn, and with immediately successful returns.

The young Marv Johnson

The young Marv Johnson. Image courtesy of Yesterday's Gold.

Johnson enjoyed further success at United Artists, early on scoring with pop and R&B hits like 1959’s “You Got What It Takes,” 1960’s “I Love the Way You Love,” “(You’ve Got to) Move Two Mountains” and “Happy Days” and 1961’s “Merry-Go-Round.”    Television and tour appearances ensued for Johnson, and United Artists kept him on a prolific schedule of releases – including two full-length albums – over the next five years.

Johnson released the electrifying “With All That’s In Me” in February, 1962.  Penned by Detroit songwriters and musicians (and Motown associates) Clarence Paul, Andre Williams and Joe Hunter, it was neither a hit, nor typical of Johnson’s sterling-but-pop-oriented catalog, its piano vamps, titanic drum fill and Johnson’s commanding vocal giving the song a fearsome potency.

Indeed, like many of his cohort, Johnson’s smoother style, developed in the late ‘50s, would put him increasingly at odds with prevailing trends.   As the Motown sound and contemporary soul sounds exploded, Johnson’s sales figures for the somewhat stodgy United Artists would dwindle.

In 1965, Johnson returned to the Motown stable (even during his tenure at United Artists, Johnson co-wrote songs with Berry Gordy), recording three promising 45s with an updated sound that, however, did not seem to receive the complete support of the Motown promotional machine.  1968’s “I’ll Pick a Rose For My Rose,” on Motown’s Gordy imprint, would be Johnson’s last commercial release for the label.

Nonetheless, Johnson remained in the industry into the ‘70s, penning songs and working behind-the-scenes in Motown sales and promotion.  Though Johnson continued to perform live nearly until his 1993 death (following a stroke), his last Motown recordings would, with the exception of some recordings produced by UK Motown fanatic Ian Levine in the late ‘80s, represent his last releases, period.

Please refer to Pete Lewis’s 1992 interview for more on the fantastic Marv Johnson.

3.  Bobby King, Thanks Mr. Postman (Federal 45-12473)Bobby King, Thanks Mr. Postman (Federal 45-12473)
Not to be confused with several other R&B artists of the same name, Chicagoan Bobby King was a blues guitarist and vocalist who had a good local following and the greater respect of fellow guitarists, if not the added misfortune of living in a city full of such.

Born near Little Rock, Arkansas in the early ‘40s, King made his way to Chicago in 1959.  King, by all accounts a gifted guitarist, early on seems to have sought and found work as a supporting musician.  He played live behind R&B heavyweights like Hank Ballard and Bobby Bland, and contributed his spiky guitar licks to sessions for Lee Shot Williams, Jesse Anderson, Lonnie Johnson, Freddy King, Sonny Thompson and others in Syd Nathan’s King-Deluxe-Federal Records group at their peak in the first half of the ‘60s.

Bobby King, mid-'70s

Bobby King, playing live in Chicago in the mid-'70s. Image courtesy of the Recorded Live at Queen Bee cover.

King himself would also record a handful of 45s for the Federal Records in the early ‘60s.  They’re decent, capturing a capable singer who doesn’t move much beyond the trappings of Chicago blues.

1962’s “Thanks Mr. Postman” is the great exception to that.  A very loose answer to the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” the selection stands out as a marvelously moody, atmospheric anomaly, hinting only obliquely at the blues, not excepting King’s stinging guitar solo.

A good, if funkier, blues outing – “Froggy Bottom” for Weis Records , a Stax affiliate – would appear in the late ‘60s, and would be the terminus of King’s commercially-produced singles.   In the mid-‘70s, the French record label MCM released a live album by King – Recorded Live at Queen Bee – that captured him plowing through blues standards like “Stormy Monday Blues” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” in a local lounge in 1975.

After recovering from a stroke, King returned to playing for several years with the 21st Century Rhythm & Blues Band (who also recorded a live date, the obscure Elsewhere on the North Side).  Tragically, a second stroke incapacitated King, and he passed on in Chicago in 1983, barely in his early forties.

Posted in R&B/Vocal Groups, Soul | 5 Comments

The desperate hours

This week we look at a few representative examples of a wonderfully dark, slow strain of post-War rhythm and blues.

The lyrical content has always hovered around the same subjects – lost love, deep loneliness, obsession, suicide, death – a cluster of images and motifs traceable in turn to a body of material popular with pre-War blues musicians – sepulchral, haunted laments and pleas like “St. James Infirmary Blues,” “One Kind Favor” or “Poor Boy Blues.”

With R&B’s national marketing and ever-increasing commercial viability in the post-War years, however, a certain set of standard stylistic indicators would crystallize.  The aesthetic was embodied early on in R&B hits like the Dominoes’ “The Bells” (1952) and Nolan Strong and the Diablos’ “The Wind” (1954).   Classics like Donald Woods and the Vel-Aires’ “Death of an Angel (1955),”  Tarheel Slim & Little Ann “It’s Too Late” (1959) and the Vibrations’ “So Blue” (1960) further defined the aesthetic:  spare instrumentation, spectral vocals and harmonies, a funereal beat.  Some dramatic examples, like Billy Miranda’s “Go Ahead” (1959) and Jackie and the Starlites’ “Valarie” (1960) – not to mention “The Bells” and “Death of an Angel” – would feature actual sobbing.  Most of all, there was a persistent, sometimes relentless, note or sequence of notes picked out on a piano or guitar, a droning, repetitive quality eerily conveying the very passage of time.

Desperate hours

Some atmospheric R&B for the desperate hours this week.

Soul music precipitated out of gospel and R&B in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but the basic sensibility would persist.  Diamond Joe’s “Moanin’ and Screamin’” and Jean Knight’s “The Man That Left Me” held something of the funeral dirge at their heart.  There is high cinema to this week’s three selections, too, a kind of voyeuristic pleasure to be taken from the drama and slow beat of despair.    They go to those bleak places so we don’t have to.

Merle Spears with Lionel Whitfield's Orch., It's Just a Matter of Time (Whit 713)1.  Merle Spears with Lionel Whitfield’s Orch., It’s Just a Matter of Time (Whit 713)
Who was Merle Spears?   I can tell you little beyond what Sir Shambling provides at the excellent Deep Soul Heaven.

Born in 1939 in Louisiana, Merle Spears’s profile, or what we know of it, is not unlike other aspiring Southern and Gulf Coast R&B vocalists and musicians in the ‘60s.  He cut a few records, probably performed live and made some guest appearances around Baton Rouge and Shreveport and, on occasion, may have provided his talents in the studio as a supporting musician.

If Spears never made the full-time leap into the professional music business, it was not for lack of talent.  His recorded legacy is thin – a handful of 45s, all dating to the mid-‘60s – but consistently excellent, revealing a vocalist with a rich baritone and an unruffled sophistication that owes much to then-reigning Texas blues stylist Bobby Bland.

Among Spears’s handful of 45s are fine R&B dances like 1964’s “I Want to Know,” classy mid-tempo numbers like “Ain’t No Need” (the flipside to “It’s Just a Matter of Time”) and deep Southern fare like “Wisdom of a Fool.”   But 1965’s riveting “It’s Just a Matter of Time” will always remain my personal favorite.  Likely recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary New Orleans studio (thanks to Ana B and Dan Phillips for that tidbit), here the debt to Bobby Bland is blatant.  The production invokes the slowed-down meter of Bland ballads like “I’ll Take Care of You” or “Lead Me On,” Spears infusing his phrasing with an otherworldly, almost detached, level of emotion and foreboding.

This selection, as well as two other great Spears sides – “I Want to Know” and “Ain’t No Need” – were written by one Calvin Reed, a Baton Rouge-based musicians and songwriter.  (Reed, also known, I believe, as Murray Reed, has a frustratingly vague biography as well.)

Notably, this 45 would also be an early release for producer and manager Lionel Whitfield and his Shreveport-based Whit Records, a label that would find some national success in the ‘60s with a series of records by blind R&B singer Bobby Powell.

Sadly, Merle Spears passed away in 2009.

Bobby Newton, These Empty Arms (Foxie 7003)2.  Bobby Newton, These Empty Arms (Foxie 7003)
A singer and entertainer from Reading, Pennsylvania, Bobby Newton is the best-known and most prolific of this week’s three artists.

Recorded around 1961, released on Foxie Records (a brief-lived R&B and teen pop subsidiary of 20th Century Fox), “These Empty Arms” would be one of Newton’s earliest recordings.   His releases over the next decade-and-a-half showcase a stylist changing with the times.  Newton’s greatest gift was his versatility, his voice moving from mellow baritone to soul shout, often in the span of a single record.

Starting with 1968 dance number “The Whip,” many of Newton’s releases found him working with Philly singer, producer and songwriter Jesse James as well as with musicians from the chart-topping MFSB stable.   Despite the cutting-edge professionalism of his productions and musical support, Newton was handicapped at times by somewhat undistinguished material.  He seemed poised for broader success at several points without ever quite breaking through, and his commercial releases tapered off after the mid-‘70s.

Of his eight or nine 45s, “These Empty Arms” is easily among the most memorable.  It is also the archetypal R&B dirge, all obsession and gloomy atmosphere, the arpeggiated guitar figure and Newton’s croon summoning, almost visibly, a sense of solitude and despair.

Bobby Newton is today still a force, and performs live with the Bobby Newton Band around Philadelphia area and southeastern Pennsylvania.

Billy Sol with Orchestral Accompanyment: Punty Guitar & the   Sensations, When You’re Alone (Domar DM-1124-A)3.  Billy Sol with Orchestral Accompanyment: Punty Guitar & the Sensations, When You’re Alone (Domar DM-1124-A)
R&B vocalist Billy Sol was likely Mexican-American, and almost certainly would have established himself on San Antonio’s West Side scene, a rich and fascinating milieu that produced pioneering groups like Sunny and the Sunliners, the Royal Jesters, Little Jr. Jesse and the Teardrops and Rudy and the Reno Bops and that became, along with East Los Angeles, one of the epicenters of Chicano R&B and soul in the ‘60s.

Sol’s place amongst the scene is poorly documented.  Released in 1966, “When You’re Alone” is the second of his two 45s on Domar Records, one of several San Antonio labels operated by local music hustler Paul Beckingham.  Sol’s third 45 was also released the eponymous Beckingham Records.   (Domar Records is probably best remembered today for several raw 45s by local garage band the Five Canadians, though the label also released teen pop, West Side R&B instrumentals and more traditional conjunto sounds.)

A mix of harmony ballads, Twist-type dances and more current horn-and-organ-driven soul, the music on Sol’s three lone 45s, all from 1966, is fairly characteristic of the repertoire of many young Chicano R&B groups of the period in San Antonio.  Even measured against the West Side scene’s somewhat flamboyant vocal standards – quivering ballad delivery, hoarse soul vocals and falsetto harmonies were typical – Sol’s singing style seems particularly dramatic.

This is amply affirmed on his version of “When You’re Alone,” a song originally recorded by the pop group the Hilltoppers in 1956.  Sol – helped in no small part by masses of echo and a gritty, atmospheric backing arrangement – is spectacular here, taking a fairly conventional theme of heartbreak to some harrowing new level of finality.

Incidentally, Sol clearly had idiosyncratic and particular taste in covers; among his three 45s would be a version of the aforementioned “The Bells.”

Posted in R&B/Vocal Groups, Soul | 2 Comments

New at the Lonely Beat:

A bit "Lotus Land," a bit "Key Largo," Dizzy Gillespie's "Rumbola" is rarely-heard side, recorded in 1954, and a lovely example of dark jazz noir in an exotic Latin setting.