Some raw, wild instrumental combo rock ‘n’ roll from the late ‘50s this week. Contemporaries, these three selections embody the type of sound that would keep rock ‘n’ roll vital and interesting before the British Invasion.
While there’s no highly specific theme to otherwise link them, there are some shared sensibilities here. Hovering about them is a vaguely Latin tinge, the kind that rock ‘n’ roll instrumentalists like the Champs and Preston Epps would mine with great success in the late’ 50s and early ‘60s. There is, too, a wonderfully overdriven sound that owes something to the fearless guitar riffs of Link Wray and Bo Diddley.
Moreover, there’s a healthy dash of bongo-rattling exoticism. It’s a great illustration of a phenomenon that gets a lot ink here at Office Naps and the Exotica Project: Namely, how some idea of the exotic – even if expressed in song title alone – gave license to groups like these to push the instrumental rock ‘n’ roll form into ever darker, weirder, more daring territory.
1. Marty Wyler and his Quartet, Chalypso No. 8 (Planet X 9623)
Marty Wyler and his Quartet were a New York City-based group, their “Chalypso No. 8” recorded in late 1957 or early 1958. It would be among a handful of interesting 45s issued by the short-lived Planet X Records, a label that also released, in quick succession, Bernie Moore’s “Rock Guitar, Rock” and “It Takes Two,” a rare R&B vocal group side by Henry Sawyer and the Jupiters.
An October 1958 issue of Billboard connects Marty Wyler to Holland Records, another tiny New York City label with a small discography divided between rock ‘n’ roll and vocal group R&B. But all other leads dry up early on with Marty Wyler and company.
This is Rock ‘n’ Roll 101. Even at this early stage, the chord changes are breaking no new ground, and a thousand other instrumentals would follow the same essential formula. But few would do it so well. Lean, mean, all attitude, biting guitar and torrid, squealing saxophone, “Chalypso No. 8” exemplifies what makes a lot of early rock ‘n’ roll so brilliant. It wasn’t necessarily what you did, but how you did it.
2. Gene Sikora & The Irrationals, Tanganyika (Coin 45-1506)
Milwaukee-based guitarist Gene Sikora is arguably the best-known of this week’s three artists.
Born in 1932, Sikora’s work seems to have happened largely behind-the-scenes, and not as your typical rock ‘n’ roller. In addition to work as a guitar instructor, Sikora would play for a time with accordionist, polka maestro and Milwaukee institution Louis Bashell.
Sikora cut loose in 1959 with two churning, highly original solo 45s, both recorded by Chicago-based promoter and producer Paul Geallis and released on Frank McNulty’s Coin Records. (In its time Coin Records would also feature some good teen pop and rock ‘n’ roll releases by Sonny Williams, Clyde Bowie and Marv Manning.)
An exoticized, percussive, noisy workout, “Tanganyika” was the first of Sikora’s Coin 45s. Sikora’s follow-up 45 – “Non Comprendo” (and “Mystery,” its flipside) – is similar in style, his sleek guitar sound a bit reminiscent of a Chet Atkins or Nicky Roberts at their most electric and echo-drenched.
Sikora would resurface as a solo recording artist in the early ‘70s with two more 45s, both – the instrumental “Green Bay Picker” in particular – reflecting a slightly-updated version of the gorgeous style observed on his late ‘50s sides.
Thanks to Gary Myers’s On That Wisconsin Beat and Dominic Welhouse for the information.
3. The 4 El-Moroccos, To-bango (Alton 500-A)
Another group that seems to have come and gone without a trace, the mysterious 4 El-Moroccos unleashed this wild instrumental upon the world in July of 1959.
The salient detail here is that both “To-bango” and its flipside “El Mambo Cha Cha” were recorded under the aegis of one Julius Dixson.
Dixson got his start as a deejay but is better known as a prolific and versatile New York City-based commercial songwriter. Among his dozens of songs placed with various aspiring vocal groups and teen singers in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a number would become pop or R&B hits, including 1955’s “Dim, Dim the Lights (I Want Some Atmosphere)” for Bill Haley and the Comets, 1957’s “It Hurts to Be in Love” for Annie Laurie and ”Begging, Begging” for James Brown and, biggest of all, 1958’s “Lollipop” for the Chordettes.
The seemingly tireless Dixson also owned and operated several small independent record labels devoted to teen rock ‘n’ roll and commercial R&B, including Deb Records and Alton Records. Among Alton’s discography was a sizeable hit – 1959’s “The Clouds” by the Spacemen. The fact that the “The Clouds,” not to mention several follow-up instrumentals by the Spacemen and the Skyscrapers (another Dixson session group), was a studio-only affair leads me to believe that the 4 El-Moroccos may have been the same – that is, a Dixson project comprised of for-hire New York City musicians.
None of this detracts from the “To-bango” experience, of course, which doesn’t so much rock as swagger. Primitive, clanging, this is where the rock ‘n’ roll instrumental stood before its final incarnation and creative peak as surf music.