Category Archives: The Exotica Project

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

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

The desert, part three

Another variation this week on an all-time favorite Office Naps theme.

Its mystery and romance has provoked more than its share of paeans over the ages, but musical impressions of the desert’s expanse and mysterious beauty reached some sort of wiggy American culmination in the tremolo guitars and wide-open echo-chamber spaces of the rock ‘n’ roll instrumental.

More desert-themed instrumentals this week, with a hint of exotica and early psychedelia.

More desert-themed instrumentals this week on Office Naps, with healthy levels of exotica and hints of early psychedelia. Photo credit: flickr user Tom Olliver

Though drawn from different milieus – upstate New York teenagedom, the East Bay black community, the Los Angeles studio world – an unmistakable hint of Middle Eastern exoticism colors all of this week’s selections.  Furthermore, the hypnotic guitar riffs that drive the selections presage (in the case of two of the selections, at least) the ascendency of psychedelic raga-rock by several years.

If Office Naps and the Exotica Project have casually become a survey of some of the archetypal images of American rock ‘n’ roll, this week’s selections reinforce a basic tenet.  Many landscapes, spaces and places worked their way into instrumental rock ‘n’ roll’s motifs.  But few – the sea aside, interestingly – would inspire with such consistent, brilliant weirdness and experimental élan as the desert.

The Vaqueros, Desert Wind (Audition 6102)1.  The Vaqueros, Desert Wind (Audition 6102)
From 1963, the Vaqueros’ “Desert Wind” is one of thousands of American guitar instrumentals released in the pre-British Invasion era.  It’s also one of a much smaller set that really gets everything right.  In the process of summoning the Empty Quarter’s windswept spaces, it also dramatically captures, through sheer intensity and a spidery, Out of Limits mood, the later aesthetic of psychedelia.

No obvious clues present themselves about the Vaqueros or the group’s biography, sadly.  The song’s flipside, the also-excellent though more surf-oriented “Echo,” is again credited to writers Weld, Heath and Corona.  This seems to have been their only release as a group.

Incidentally, “Desert Wind” would also be one of the earliest releases on Audition Records, a cool Rochester label run by local promoter and impresario Al Cecere out of his office in the now-demolished Midtown Plaza.   Cecere’s Audition Records (and Nu Sound Ltd. Records, which succeeded it in name), would, over the next few years, be home to some terrific releases by upstate teen garage bands, including the Heard (“Stop It Baby”), the Humans (“Warning”), the Rogues (“You Better Look Now”), the Wee Four (“Weird”) and Pete Morticelli (“Lost”).

The Fatimas, Sandstorm (Original Sound OS-72)2.  The Fatimas, Sandstorm (Original Sound OS-72)
The Fatimas’ mysterious “Sandstorm” was released in 1967 on Original Sound Records, one of Los Angeles’s hipper indies of the ‘60s.

It should be pointed out that both “Sandstorm” and the single’s flipside, entitled “The Hoochy Coo,” are the same, musically speaking.  It’s just that the “The Hoochy Coo” has the chanted vocals of an overdubbed and otherwise unknown group of female singers – and does not enjoy the benefit of the howling wind sound effects.  (“The Hoochy Coo” is  the less commercial side, too – the vocals are memorable but strange, reminding me of late ‘70s female-led art-punk tracks like Kleenex’s “Hedi’s Head.”)

Either way, nothing suggests that the Fatimas were an actual working group.  The record was in all likelihood a one-off, anonymous studio lark.  But what a studio lark.  The handiwork of session musicians at their most inspired, the relentless beat and exotic production of “Sandstorm” are quite extraordinary, even with the vogue for all things “Oriental” and mystical then reaching a peak in rock ‘n’ roll.

The writer credits here belong to an unlikely threesome – popular Los Angeles disc jockey and comedian Bob Hudson, composer Richard Grove and future album cover artist Joe Petagno.  The basic composition was brought at some point in 1967 to the attention of Art Laboe, Original Sound’s proprietor, with his engineer Paul Buff – a freewheeling studio savant, musician, and surf music producer – creating the final version.

3.  Chuck (Big Guitar) Ernest with the Satellite Band, Blue Oasis (Delcro 45-826A)Chuck (Big Guitar) Ernest with the Satellite Band, Blue Oasis (Delcro 45-826A)
Like the other mystery discs this week, limited information is forthcoming about Chuck “Big Guitar” Ernest.

But Delcro Records warrants at least a few words.  The label was an imprint of the Berkeley-based label Music City, a fascinating independent record operation run by one Ray Dobard off-and-on from the early ‘50s to the mid-‘70s.  Dobard, the comparatively rare African-American record company owner in the post-War years, was in other ways the quintessential independent record hustler.  In addition to his labels, the diversity of his operations – he hosted radio shows and simultaneously ran a record store, recording service and publishing company – afforded him a certain measure of control over the local market for black music, if not some undue carelessness with royalty credits.   Perhaps better than any other single label, his would document the Bay Area’s blues, vocal group, gospel, R&B and soul music.  Dobard had a few minor R&B hits along the way, too, including the Four Deuces’ uptempo “W-P-L-J” in 1955 and guitarist Johnny Heartsman’s ‘57 instrumental “Johnny’s House Party.”

So who was Chuck Ernest?  A local guitarist, he obviously had some imagination and, if nothing else, enough confidence to get him in the door of a recording studio.   My first thought was that virtuosic session player Johnny Heartsman – something of an in-house bandleader for Dobard – might have been involved, but both “Blue Oasis” and its raucous flipside (“Party at Vern’s”) are too raw-sounding and too different, stylistically, to be anything that Heartsman had a hand in.  In reality Chuck Ernest’s backing band – the Satellite Band – was a group of young white and black Bay Area musicians, the “Duarte” listed as songwriter here a credit to their manager Vern Duarte.  According to the notes from Ace Records’ superb Music City Story, the sides were likely recorded by pioneering Oakland producer Bob Geddins and then leased to Dobard for their release on Delcro.  (Many thanks to sharp-eyed reader Boursin in Finland for the information.)

Released around 1960, “Blue Oasis” was also an anomaly coming from a label that largely focused on vocal sides.  Neither a hit, nor among the lost R&B, blues or soul obscurities most cherished by collectors, it is never mentioned in label histories.  No matter, though.  “Blue Oasis” is outstanding tremolo-driven exotica and quite prescient, too, confidently anticipating the faux-Eastern fixations of surf music and, later, psychedelia.

This track can also be found at the Exotica Project.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Garage Bands, Instrumentals/Surf, The Exotica Project | 11 Comments

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 cdbaby.com 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

The sea, part two

This week, a second part to one of my all-time favorite posts.  As before, tremolo guitar, dreamy tempos and loads of echo chamber drama carry the day.  There’s something of a desert island mini-theme this time around, too, though the moody tones here are far more ominous than idyllic, more Lord of the Flies than Gilligan’s Island.

Three strange desert island miniatures this week on Office Naps

Three strange desert island miniatures this week on Office Naps

All three of these selections can also be found at the Exotica Project.

The Sound Breakers, Marooned (Radiant 1502)1. The Sound Breakers, Marooned (Radiant 1502)
A Los Angeles studio group production, the significant names here are Lincoln Mayorga and Ed Cobb, the song’s co-writers.

Cobb and Mayorga’s musical partnership originated with the Four Preps, a Los Angeles teen-pop vocal group who had some national hits (“26 Miles (Santa Catalina),” “Down By the Station,” and “Big Man”) in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  Cobb co-founded the group in 1956, with the Mayorga, a musically-trained friend from Hollywood High School, hired as arranger and pianist.

Cobb and Mayorga were still actively involved in the Four Preps when, barely into their ‘20s, they began independently producing, writing and arranging for various side-projects, notably the Piltdown Men and the Link-Eddy Combo.  These were studio-only affairs that brought some modest success in the instrumental rock ‘n’ roll market.   (The Piltdown Men had six 45s in total; their “Brontosaurus Stomp” went to number 75 on the pop charts in 1960.  The Link-Eddy Combo had three, with “Mr. Big C.” getting to number 28 on the R&B charts in 1961.)

The Sound Breakers were another Cobb-Mayorga studio-only endeavor.   Released in the summer of 1961 by the small Los Angeles label Radiant Records, the sublime “Marooned” was the sole 45 conceived under the moniker, and seems to be essentially unknown.   It is also by far the most interesting of the Cobb-Mayorga instrumental sides.  With its psychedelic sheen, Mayorga’s interests in composition probably go some way towards explaining the unusualness and otherworldliness of “Marooned,” which sounds like nothing else on earth.

The Cobb and Mayorga partnership bore fruit again in the spring of 1962 with Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters.”   Despite the single’s massive success, Cobb and Mayorga would henceforth work largely independently of each other.

Cobb’s behind-the-scenes career would blossom in the mid-‘60s with some notable songwriting successes, among them “Every Little Bit Hurts” and “I’ll Always Love You” for Brenda Holloway, “Dirty Water” and “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” for the Standells and “Heartbeat” and “Tainted Love” for Gloria Jones (with “Tainted Love” a bigger hit again in 1981 for Soft Cell).  He also helped produce and engineer records for, among others, the Standells, the Lettermen, the Zoo, the Chocolate Watch Band and the E-Types.   Ed Cobb passed away in 1999.

Mayorga worked throughout the ‘60s as a keyboardist on dozens of Los Angeles rock, pop and jazz sessions.  In the late ‘60s, he would help to develop and run Sheffield Labs, a direct-to-disc studio and audiophile label. To this day Lincoln Mayorga remains active with Sheffield Labs as well as with its sister label, TownHall Records.

The Shelltones, Blue Castaway (Band Box No. 355)2. The Shelltones, Blue Castaway (Band Box No. 355)
The most overtly surf-oriented of this week’s selections, the Shelltones’ “Blue Castaway” was released in early 1964 on Denver’s fascinating Band Box Records.

Band Box Records warrants some attention, if only because it’s the most tangible part of the story.   Founded by Romanian immigrant Vicky Morosan around 1957, Band Box Records was both a label and a recording studio.  A cooler, quirkier independent operation in Colorado rock ‘n’ roll history would be tough to name.   Certainly it was the most prolific.  The label’s decade-long discography includes some excellent rock ‘n’ roll and R&B releases (Jimmy DeKnight, the Monarchs, Little Joey Farr, Jackie Lowell, the Lidos, the Four Chevelles, the Manderins, Freddie & the Hitch-Hikers, Orlie & the Saints, Lee Chandler & the Blue Rhythms, Sonny Russell and Ronny Kae), though many of the label’s dozens of barely-known country, jazz and pop releases are also outstanding.

Less, unfortunately, can be stated conclusively about the Shelltones themselves.   Based in the greater Denver area, and group came together in Adams City High in Commerce City, and would likely have participated in the vibrant teen rock ‘n’ roll scene that extended north to Boulder and Fort Collins and south to Colorado Springs in the early and mid-‘60s.

The eerie “Blue Castaway,” written by Cary Theil, the group’s bassist, would be the Shelltones’ only commercial release.   The perfect vessel for the cavernous production qualities of Band Box’s south Broadway studios, “Blue Castaway” takes the tremolo-driven atmospherics of the Islanders’ “Enchanted Sea” and the Safaris’ “Lonely Surf Guitar” and, to a certain degree, the Viscounts’ “Harlem Nocturne” to some new, lonelier place.

Flipside “Mark’s Blues,” another instrumental, features the hot fretwork of guitarist Mark Bretz.  After the Shelltones, Bretz would play keyboards with Denver-area garage band the Wild Ones in the mid-‘60s before joining, as guitarist, a late incarnation of Boulder’s nationally-known rock ‘n’ rollers the Astronauts in 1967.  Bretz would remain with the Astronauts through their name change to SunshineWard before settling in Denver for a career as a music teacher.

The Wailers, Driftwood (Golden Crest CR375)3. The Wailers, Driftwood (Golden Crest CR375)
The best-known name this week, the Wailers are often mentioned in the same breath as the Sonics, the Kingsmen and Paul Revere & the Raiders, Pacific Northwest groups who first blasted out wild rock ‘n’ roll and R&B in the early ‘60s twilight before the British Invasion.

A popular and locally influential live act in their time, the Wailers are somewhat underrated these days.   Formed in Tacoma, Washington in 1958 by several high school classmates, the Wailers attracted a local teenaged following and would find early, if somewhat unexpected, success with their “Tall Cool One,” a bare-bones sax-and-keyboard R&B instrumental.  The 45 became a national hit in mid-1959, helping to define the raucous aesthetic of early Pacific Northwest rock ‘n’ roll.

The Wailers, circa 1959.  From left to right are Rich Dangel, Mike Burk, Mark Marush, Kent Morrill and John Greek.

The Wailers, circa 1959. From left to right are Rich Dangel, Mike Burk, Mark Marush, Kent Morrill and John Greek. Image courtesy of music historian John Broven's fantastic website.

With their early line-up established – Mike Burk (drums), Rich Dangel (lead guitar), John Greek (guitar, trumpet, bass), Mark Marush (tenor sax) and Kent Morrill (piano and vocals) – the Wailers recorded a debut album.  At a time when full-lengths were still a fairly unusual proposition for regional rock ‘n’ roll combos, 1959’s The Fabulous Wailers, recorded for New York-based Golden Crest Records, was also an unusually original set of pre-surf guitar instrumentals.

Among standout originals like “High Wall,” “Shanghaied” and “Beat Guitar,” The Fabulous Wailers also included this overlooked exotic jewel.  The haunting, hypnotic tone poem “Driftwood” was released as a 45 by Golden Crest around 1960 (as seen above, with fab group photo label) and reissued, with a plain label design, in 1964.

A succession of Wailers 45s followed in the next seven or eight years, as did several more albums.  The Wailer’s 1961 version of “Louie Louie,” which predated the Kingsmen’s version, featured local singer Rockin’ Robin Roberts.  It was also the inaugural 45 release for Etiquette Records, a pioneering band-run label founded by Wailers Kent Morrill, Rockin’ Robin Roberts and Buck Ormsby (who joined the group around 1960).  The Etiquette Records years would be the Wailers’ best known, the group creatively peaking around 1965 with the caveman punk of “Hang Up” and the churning, wall-of-sound rock of “Out of Our Tree.”

Etiquette Records closed its doors around 1968.  The Wailers would remain popular in the region, but their later albums, including 1966’s Outburst! For United Artists and 1968’s psychedelic Walk Thru The People for Bell Records, while solid, would see diminishing returns.   Like labelmates and kindred spirits the Sonics, the Wailers were forged in an earlier era of rock ‘n’ roll.  Somewhat out of step with prevailing trends, exhausted by line-up changes and bad management decisions, The Wailers called it quits in 1969.

[Thanks to Peter Blecha’s great 2009 “Etiquette Rules!” essay for the label history.]

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Instrumentals/Surf, The Exotica Project | 5 Comments

Exotica mix

I have a new exotica mix (Time (Is Endless)) currently featured at online magazine Triple Canopy:

Time (Is Endless)

Time (Is Endless)

Time (Is Endless), my new exotica mix over at Triple Canopy

Since early 2008, Triple Canopy has been bringing together writing from essayists, researchers and cultural observers with work with contemporary artists of every stripe.  While somehow realizing, rather than merely hinting at, the promise of the Internet, the site above all honors good, clean writing and the intuitive structure of traditional print publishing.  It’s a true honor to be there.

The mix itself?  It’s an extension in many ways of the Exotica Project, pulling together an atmospheric and otherworldly sliver of a huge, forgotten discography of small-label exotica 45s and LPs that emerged in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

You can find podcast and playlist at Triple Canopy.  Hope you enjoy it, and please take the time to plunge into the site while you’re there.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Mixes, The Exotica Project | 8 Comments

The Lonely Beat: 100 themes from the Naked City

The Lonely Beat: One Hundred Themes from the Naked City

The Lonely Beat: Phase Two of the Exotica Project

The Exotica Project’s long-promised next phase is finally up and running:

The Lonely Beat: 100 themes from the Naked City

The Lonely Beat’s format should be familiar, but the collection focuses on post-War music inspired by, or evocative of (sometimes only loosely) the cluster of motifs, images and clichés associated with the mid-century American city.  This is a city based in some reality but remade by pop culture -  the gritty, dangerous, bohemian Naked City.

Again, the selections are diverse, with a panoply of 45s from different quarters featured:  obscure jazz musicians and exotic torch singers, Latin quintets and Hollywood arrangers summoning the city jungle, mambo-crazy R&B vocal groups and instrumental rock ‘n’ roll combos,  beatnik parodists, hipster-entertainers and various fringe characters.

I urge that the selections not be read in terms of either authenticity or purely commercial qualities – often they possess some measure of both.  I would also urge that the Lonely Beat’s index of motifs and themes not be taken too seriously.  The concept is more diffuse than the Exotica Project’s, the collection makes sense gathered together as a sort of world in sound, and its compilation was all subject to my own personal tastes and whims.  Selections at the Lonely Beat are included just as much for some indefinable atmospheric component as they are for any discrete, indexed motif.

Anyway, there’s still plenty of tweaking to be done, and much more that I hope ultimately to do with these beds of cultural obscura.  In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy the Lonely Beat.

Posted in The Exotica Project, The Lonely Beat | 14 Comments

The Exotica Project on Boing Boing

The Exotica Project got a nice write-up on Boing Boing today.  Gratifying to see the site finding some traction amongst non-record-people.  Thanks Bill Barol!

Boing Boing

Posted in The Exotica Project | 6 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.