Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fred Neil - Trav'lin Man: The Early Singles (Fallout, 2008)

I became a fan of Fred Neil
about 15 years ago after a particular rare records dealer who I can no longer mention by name assisted in my introduction to the music of this incomparable deep-voiced 12-string guitarist. My desire to acquire his complete discography became apparent to this vinyl merchant during a subsequent phone conversation in which I was negotiating the purchase of the odds 'n' sods Other Side of This Life LP. While indulging in a bit of braggadocio, he revealed that he had all of Neil's ridiculously rare rockabilly singles from the late 1950s and early 1960s in his private stash. No, he wouldn't make me a cassette dub of these sides, but he wished me luck in my search for them.

Since that time, I had never forgotten the existence of these legendary 45s, but my attempts to find them at used record stores, resale shops, and estate sales always failed to bear fruit. Then - lo and behold - this item appeared a couple of years ago, even though it didn't exactly look like a legitimate release. Clocking in at less than a half-hour, Trav'lin Man: The Early Singles does exactly as its title suggests by compiling Neil's pre-Greenwich Village musical output. While its booklet notes are minimal and the photographs recycled from other releases, Fallout (the successor to James Plummer's Radioactive Records?) has done a pretty nice job of remastering these tracks, which helps make this CD a worthwhile listening experience in terms of sound quality. And let's face it: this is a much more affordable alternative to the arm and leg it would cost to buy the original releases issued by Epic, ABC-Paramount, Look, and Brunswick.

So are these songs any good? Well, your opinion will depend on what you're looking for. If you expect these singles to sound like the groundbreaking folk-blues-country-raga stuff that appears on Tear Down the Walls, Bleecker & MacDougal, Fred Neil, or Sessions, then you're in for a disappointment. For those who are aware of the singer-guitarist's Southern roots and early musical influences, however, Trav'lin Man should at least be interesting as an opportunity to hear the starting point of his recorded legacy. Even though Neil achieved some success as a Brill Building songwriter for other people (e.g. Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Bobby Darin), his compositional ability never translated into success as a recording artist, as demonstrated by the paltry sales figures of the sides presented here. Some of these tunes deserved their fate, others did not. The one constant is Neil's force-of-nature baritone, which rescues even the most lackluster selections from being complete wastes of time. Many tracks are properly classified as rockabilly or 1950s rock 'n' roll, whereas others fall into the ballad or novelty song bags. Not surprisingly, those belonging to that first category deliver the most consistent listening pleasures. "You Ain't Treatin' Me Right," "Listen Kitten," "Heartbreak Bound," "Trav'lin Man" (a superb two-and-a-quarter-minute performance rightfully chosen as this CD's title), "Slipping Around," and "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry" compare favorably to anything that the aforementioned Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison - or even Elvis, for that matter - were doing around the same time. Despite Neil's vocal prowess, the syrupy country-tinged ballads "Don't Put the Blame on Me," "Take Me Back Again," "Secret, Secret" and "Rainbow and a Rose" often suffer from excessive arrangements. One suspects that Neil used his nighttime excursions to Greenwich Village clubs to escape the drudgery of having to perform overproduced music such as songs like these. The sparse nature of "Love's Funny" helps to make it more bearable, even if the singer's crooner-like approach leaves it sounding somewhat schlocky. "Four Chaplains," a novelty piece inspired by the heroism of a quartet of military clergymen during World War II, is an inspiring tale that would not have sounded out of place in Johnny Horton's repertory but gets dragged down its somewhat hokey presentation.

1. You Ain't Treatin' Me Right
2. Don't Put the Blame on Me
3. Listen Kitten
4. Take Me Back Again
5. Heartbreak Bound
6. Trav'lin Man
7. Love's Funny
8. Secret, Secret
9. Slipping Around
10. You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry
11. Rainbow and a Rose
12. Four Chaplains

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ralph Willis - Carolina Blues (Blues Classics, 1970)

When it comes to the performing arts, Chicago usually can't come close to the variety of musicians and entertainers one can see on any given night in New York City. That said, Chi-town has always had a much more vibrant blues scene by virtue of its geographical position above Mississippi and other states in the Deep South, which facilitated the migration of millions of black Americans in search of greater opportunities in the urban Midwest during the Great Migration. In addition to other cultural elements, many of these transplants brought the Delta version of that musical genre with them, with Muddy Waters being the most notable example. Nevertheless, the Big Apple has always had its own less-celebrated community of blues singers, many of them coming from the Piedmont region of states including Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama. Not surprisingly, these musicians often performed in a style strongly indebted to their Southeastern origins. Moreover, in his analysis of such music in The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Blues, researcher Paul Oliver states, "These bluesmen reflect that the music did not vanish in 1941 and that there was still a demand for it. In fact there would appear to be a fair claim that this older style of music survived in the great metropolis longer than elsewhere in the country, on record at any rate."

Although not as well-known as other New York-based performers like Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, and Josh White, guitarist Ralph Willis arguably personifies the phenomenon discussed by Oliver better than anyone else. Despite the fact that nearly all of his 50-odd sides were recorded in the late 1940s and early 1950s, his music has a distinct prewar sound to it, in similar fashion to most of the tracks collected on the previously-reviewed Document CD, Rural Blues Vol. 1 (1934-1956). Born in Alabama in 1910 and based in North Carolina during the 1930s (where he apparently played with Blind Boy Fuller and Buddy Moss), Willis displays an anachronistic sound influenced both by his upbringing in the Southeast as well as a probable familiarity with 78s from the 1920s and 1930s recorded by blues artists from other regions. Indeed, as Oliver mentions in the liner notes for this LP, "He was known as 'Bama' because of his rural manners and was apparently rather proud of it." Other than his date of death in 1957, blues scholars know precious little else about Willis, an oddity for such a relatively prolific postwar musician. As far as I can ascertain, there aren't even any photographs of him known to exist. Well, at least we still have his music.

Carolina Blues remains the finest overview of the man's oeuvre ever assembled and includes material recorded between 1946 and 1952 for a variety of independent labels like 20th Century, Savoy, Signature, Jubilee, and Prestige. On the Alabama Trio sides, Willis's accompanists include a second guitarist who is probably Brownie McGhee as well as an unknown bassist. "So Many Days" clearly bears the influence of Blind Boy Fuller, while "That Gal's No Good" is a more uptempo number notable for its amusing put-down lyrics and engaging guitar interplay. That distinctive style of Carolina blues manifests itself once more on "I Will Never Love Again," an introspective piece that displays the bluesman's sensitive side. The obscure singer Judson Coleman joins in on "Goin' to Chattanooga," a performance played at breakneck speed that seems to have been equally derived from songster standards "Alabama Bound" and "Jim Jackson's Kansas City Blues." Willis radically transforms Luke Jordan's "Church Bells" into an engagingly sloppy solo performance on which the singer sounds as if he had a few drinks prior to the recording session. "Salty Dog" is another inspired, unaccompanied rendition of a song that is as old as the hills. The atmospheric "Cold Chills," my favorite selection on this album, features him teamed with McGhee, harmonicist Sonny Terry, and an unknown bass player in an aggregation dubbed the Ralph Willis Country Boys. Two more group performances, "Mama Mama Blues" and "Amen Blues," find Willis recording pseudonymously as Sleepy Joe and his Washboard Band and backed by Pete Sanders on laundry-implement-turned-musical-instrument. "Good Bye Blues," "Blues, Blues, Blues," the latter-day hokum of "Cool That Thing," "Every Day I Weep and Moan," and "Income Tax Blues" serve as fine examples of the singer-guitarist's work with frequent collaborator McGhee (dubbed "Spider Sam" on one side), and in some cases with additional musicians. Oliver's notes even go so far to opine that these recordings are not only among Willis's best efforts, but can also be considered some of Brownie's finest moments, too. I can't really say that I disagree with that assessment.

1. So Many Days - Ralph Willis Alabama Trio
2. That Gal's No Good
- Ralph Willis Alabama Trio
3. I Will Never Love Again
- Ralph Willis Alabama Trio
4. Goin' to Chattanooga
- Ralph Willis Alabama Trio
5. Church Bells - Ralph Willis
6. Cold Chills - Ralph Willis Country Boys
7. Mama Mama Blues - Sleepy Joe and his Washboard Band
8. Amen Blues -
Sleepy Joe and his Washboard Band
9. Good Bye Blues - Ralph Willis-Brownie McGhee
10. Salty Dog - Ralph Willis
11. Blues, Blues, Blues - Ralph Willis featuring Brownie Magee (sic) and Orchestra
12. Cool That Thing - Ralph Willis and Spider Sam
13. Every Day I Weep and Moan - Ralph Willis and Brownie McGhee
14. Income Tax Blues - Ralph Willis
featuring Brownie Magee (sic)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Get Low Down! - The Soul of New Orleans '65-'67 (Sundazed, 2001)

While the Sundazed label hasn't always been successful with releases that stray from their bread and butter of 1960s garage and psychedelic rock reissues, one has to give them credit for trying to keep their catalogue as eclectic as possible. About ten years ago, they started branching out into R&B, soul, and funk, mostly with good results. This superb two-CD compilation of mid-1960s material from the Crescent City remains their crowning achievement for music of this variety.


Get Low Down! The Soul of New Orleans '65-'67 features 50 tracks from the vaults of the Sansu, a record company that got its name from a corruption of "cing sou" ("five cents" in French slang), according to Bill Dahl's information-packed booklet notes. The label was owned by Marshall Sehorn and the legendary Allen Toussaint and had a distribution deal with Bell Records, with some of their acts appearing on the Amy and Tou-Sea imprints. The latter figure handled most of the production duties and was noted for his modus operandi that included laying down the instrumental tracks in their entirety before bringing vocalists into the studio to complete the recordings. In addition to writing most of the songs included on this collection, Toussaint also plays piano on several of these performances. Many of the other musicians, however, remain unknown, and the featured singers never had any face-to-face contact with them. In the wrong hands, such methods might have led to a succession of rather formulaic releases. But thanks to Toussaint's golden touch, his productions display great variety while simultaneously possessing that je ne sais quoi unique to music from New Orleans. Indeed, these efforts for Sansu helped revitalize the declining R&B scene in the Big Easy that had been so vibrant from the late 1940s until the early 1960s, the fact that the label had only one national hit to its credit notwithstanding.


I would classify these tracks as something like 85% soul and 15% funk with a touch of blues thrown in for good measure. Although there are some notable exceptions, the primary focus here is on the singers, not the instrumentalists. However, that is certainly not to suggest that the musicians are slouches by any stretch of the imagination. You just won't find much in the way of extended solos or wah-wah guitars, for example. Consequently, fans of Funkadelic might find these tracks lacking in the mind-expansion department, but aficionados of contemporary Motown releases should find many of these tracks to be right up their alley. Of all the artists included on Get Low Down!, Lee Dorsey likely qualifies as the one with the name most familiar to readers by virtue of his classic "Ride Your Pony." "Holy Cow," while not as well-known, is no less magnificent. Largely unknown outside of New Orleans, Benny Spellman displays his vocal prowess on his lone Sansu 45, "If You Love Her" b/w "Sinner Girl," and shows why he deserves greater recognition in the process. Former cement truck driver Wallace Johnson caught the attention of Toussaint and Sehorn not only for his great singing ability but for his lyric-writing skills as well. His compositions "Baby Go Ahead," "If You Leave Me," "Something to Remember You By," and "I'm Grown" suggest that he could have been a major figure in the Crescent City music scene had he received a lucky break or two. Eldridge Holmes is similarly underappreciated, a pity considering that his vocals on "Wait for Me Baby," "Without a Word," "Beverly," and "Until the End" variously recall singers like Otis Redding and Ben E. King at their best, as the booklet notes astutely point out. Referred to by some as "The Lost Soul Queen," Betty Harris originally hailed from Florida and had success in the early 1960s while making records in New York City, although one could be forgiven for thinking she was a New Orleans native based on the distinctly Deep Southern flavor of "Bad Luck." "Nearer to You" bears distinction as Sansu's biggest - and only - national hit, peaking at #16 on the R&B charts in 1967. In my estimation, Curly Moore's songs merit recognition as this collection's finest moments, a sentiment probably shared by the compilers who chose his "Get Low Down" as the title for this anthology. His engagingly earthy singing on this two-part masterpiece receives perfect accompaniment from Toussaint's driving piano, and "Don't Pity Me," "We Remember" (with nods to James Brown, Otis Redding, and Stevie Wonder), "Goodbye," and "I Love You" are all nearly as good. Diamond Joe (whose last name seems to have been Maryland) first started working with Toussaint in the early 1960s and was reunited with him at Sansu, where they waxed the superb "Gossip, Gossip," "Don't Set Me Back," "Wait a Minute," "Hurry Back to Me," and "How to Pick a Winner." A veteran of legendary New Orleans pianist Huey Smith's band the Clowns, Raymond Lewis did one single for the label in 1967, the solid "Smooth Operator" b/w "Good-bye My Love." Guitarist Earl King had been cutting records in the Big Easy since the early 1950s, with his sound somewhat updated on the fine "She's My Driving Wheel" and "You'll Remember Me," while mystery man Bobby Lu Cure is represented with the previously-unissued "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" and "Send My Love to Me." Willie Harper was another singer whose connections to Toussaint went back to the early 1960s before being brought into the Sansu fold. His "You, You" and "Soda Pop" come off as some of the funkiest numbers on this comp, which also features the first-time-released-anywhere "Here Comes the Hurt Again" and "You See Me." It is highly probable that the Rubaiyats, whose tracks include "Tomorrow" and the inscrutable "Omar Khayyam," was an alternate name for Willie & Allen, a moniker that Harper and Toussaint used when they were teamed together as on "Baby Do Little" and "I Don't Need No One." A pre-Meters Art Neville offers a distinctly NOLAfied interpretation of "Bo Diddley," while listening to "Too Late" will make you wonder why it stayed in the can. Another alumnus of Huey Smith's Clowns, John Williams (& the Tick Tocks) provides some quintessential New Orleans grooves on "Do Me Like You Do Me," the irresistible "Operation Heartache," "A Little Tighter," and "Blues, Tears and Sorrows." Obscurities Lee Calvin and Ray Algere chip in respectively with the Marvin Gaye-like "Easy, Easy" b/w "You Got Me" and the punchy, horn-driven "In My Corner." The CDs close with slightly different versions of "Hot Tamales," which are both outstanding examples of early New Orleans instrumental funk. The key difference between the two is the fretwork. On "Part I," the guitarist lays down some absolutely phenomenal fuzz, while "Part II" finds him playing in a more conventional but no less impressive manner.


Disc 1

1. Ride Your Pony - Lee Dorsey
2. If You Love Her - Benny Spellman
3. Baby Go Ahead - Wallace Johnson
4. Wait for Me Baby - Eldrige Holmes
5. Bad Luck - Betty Harris
6. Get Low Down, Pt. 1 - Curly Moore
7. Get Low Down, Pt. 2 - Curly Moore
8. Gossip, Gossip - Diamond Joe
9. Good-bye My Love - Raymond Lewis
10. She's My Driving Wheel - Earl King
11. I'll Never Fall in Love Again - Bobby Lu Cure*
12. You, You - Willie Harper
13. Omar Khayyam - The Rubaiyats
14. Don't Set Me Back - Diamond Joe
15. Bo Diddley - Art Neville
16. Without a Word - Eldridge Holmes
17. Do Me Like You Do Me - John Williams & the Tick Tocks
18. Baby Do Little - Willie & Allen
19. Easy, Easy - Lee Calvin
20. If You Leave Me - Wallace Johnson
21. Wait a Minute - Diamond Joe
22. Don't Pity Me - Curly Moore
23. Operation Heartache - John Williams & the Tick Tocks
24. Here Comes the Hurt Again - Willie Harper*
25. Hot Tamales-Part 1 - Prime Mates

Disc 2

1. Hurry Back to Me - Diamond Joe
2. Something to Remember You By - Wallace Johnson
3. A Little Tighter - John Williams & the Tick Tocks
4. In My Corner - Ray Algere
5. We Remember - Curly Moore
6. Beverly - Eldridge Holmes
7. Nearer to You - Betty Harris
8. Soda Pop - Willie Harper
9. Tomorrow - The Rubaiyats
10. Holy Cow - Lee Dorsey
11. You'll Remember Me - Earl King
12. Send My Love to Me - Bobby Lu Cure*
13. You Got Me - Lee Calvin
14. Blues, Tears and Sorrows - John Williams & the Tick Tocks
15. Sinner Girl - Benny Spellman
16. Goodbye - Curly Moore
17. I Don't Need No One - Willie & Allen
18. Smooth Operator - Raymond Lewis
19. I'm Grown - Wallace Johnson
20. Until the End - Eldridge Holmes
21. How to Pick a Winner - Diamond Joe
22. You See Me - Willie Harper*
23. I Love You - Curly Moore*
24. Too Late - Art Neville*
25. Hot Tamales-Part 2 - Prime Mates

*previously unissued

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sir Robert Charles Griggs - The Legend of Sir Robert Charles Griggs (Capitol, 1973)

This is one of those albums that I bought without knowing a thing about it or the person who recorded it. The cover photograph simply stuck me as interesting, and I recognized some of the names of the musicians and engineers listed in the liner notes. Although there is a great value to music blogs that allow people to read about and sample obscure LPs before seeking them out for purchase, the gambler in me still enjoys taking a chance on a mystery record and bringing it home to find out what possible musical pleasures await me in its grooves.


When I found this item in the bins of the secondhand record store where I bought it, I immediately wondered about the backstory of this character who bears the title "Sir" and is dressed in an outfit similar to what Dave Mason sports on the cover of Alone Together.
Born in smalltown Ohio in 1936, Robert Charles Griggs spent his early youth in Indianapolis before his family relocated to the Los Angeles area in the mid 1940s. His mother and aunt were early musical influences and helped cultivate his love for jazz and country. He made something of a name for himself as a teenage singer-guitarist during the 1950s, which helped earn him a regular spot as "Bobby Charles" (not to be confused with the identically-named singer of "See You Later Alligator" fame) on Town Hall Party, the noted country music radio and television program, from 1955 until 1960. The 1960s found Griggs taking up electric bass and forming his own group with veterans from Bob Wills's Texas Playboys as well as being recruited to play the aforementioned instrument in guitarist Jimmy Bryant's band. Additionally, he spent time working with jazz vibraphonist Bob Harrington, a collaboration that produced the song "Young Man on the Way Up," which was most famously covered by singer Joe Williams in 1967. By the end of the decade, the erstwhile Bob Griggs picked up the "Sir Robert Charles Griggs" appellation from some friends who were fellow songwriters. With this new moniker, he relocated to Nashville during the early 1970s and found work as a studio musician in addition to gigging with local jazz bands. His efforts brought him to the attention of Capitol Records, which released his intriguing first LP, The Legend of Sir Robert Charles Griggs, in 1973. However, commercial success as a solo artist was not in the cards despite his work with luminaries such as George Jones during the 1980s. By the 1990s, Griggs had kicked his drinking habit, reaffirmed his Christian faith, married a woman he had known in high school, and moved back to California. In 2005, Sir Robert was reported working as a custodian for the school district near his current hometown, Hemet. He apparently no longer plays country music and now devotes himself strictly to jazz, as indicated by his self-released CD from 2008, In to Jazz.


The Legend of Sir Robert Charles Griggs is more a country album than anything else, and a delightfully bizarre one at that. With production from Gary S. Paxton and support from musicians like pedal steel guitarist Pete Drake and fiddler Doug Kershaw, it features a more traditional Nashville sound combined with psychedelic touches courtesy of a Moog synthesizer and sound effects. While some people might cringe at the very notion of the latter elements, I feel that they are used judiciously and enhance the performances instead of overwhelming them. Legend can best be appreciated as an artistic statement from a supremely talented sideman whose experiences with the music industry have left him disenchanted, to say the very least. Griggs wrote the impressive lyrics for every song and delivers them with a voice that at times recalls the singing of Gram Parsons or Willie Nelson. "Fabulous Body and Smile," "Keep It Country," and the poignant "Clint Texas" all sound like his observations on the record-making business and country music in general, while "West Coast Billy," "Sing My Old Songs to Somebody New," "A Sideman Talks to God," and "Country Soul" come off as eloquent autobiographical pieces. My favorite cut, "Singing for the Lord" is the LPs hardest-rocking moment and seems to mock those who inordinately profit from performing religious material. "Vhi-Vhamp-Thieu," "In L.A.," and "Uncle Ned" respectively comment on the early 1970s conflicts in Vietnam and Cambodia, Griggs's experiences in southern California, and the drug culture of the time. "Cricket Conversation Interlude," "Moogie Woogie," "Birds," "Heartbeats and Death Gasp," and "Freak-out Moog" are brief electronic pieces that serve as bridges in between some of the longer performances.


1. Fabulous Body and Smile
2. West Coast Billy
3. Cricket Conversation Interlude
4. Singing for the Lord
5. Moogie Woogie
6. Sing My Old Songs to Somebody New
7. Vhi-Vhamp-Thieu
8. A Sideman Talks to God
9. Keep It Country
10. Birds
11. In L.A.
12. Heartbeats and Death Gasp
13. Country Soul
14. Freak-out Moog
15. Uncle Ned
16. Clint Texas

Friday, March 18, 2011

Love - Forever Changes - Collector's Edition (Elektra, 1967; Rhino, 2008)

I'll admit that Love's Forever Changes is an album that can hardly be considered obscure. Indeed, it has been reissued on CD three times: the notoriously thin-sounding initial re-release from 1987, an expanded remaster with seven bonus tracks that came out in 2001, and, most recently, the 2008 Collector's Edition with an entire disc of additional material, almost all of it previously unreleased. Good consumer that I am (or sucker, depending on how you look at things), it's a recording that I've purchased five times over the last 20 years. I own all three CD versions (and actually bought the 1987 reissue twice because my first copy was stolen) as well as a late 1960s vinyl pressing of the original LP. It just goes to show you how the music industry has profited enormously from committed fans such as myself over the years and why I don't feel that bad about the current situation in which the remaining big corporate labels find themselves.


Since there have been so many first-rate pieces written about the making of Forever Changes (including
Andrew Sandoval's superb booklet notes included here), there is not much that I can add other than my own personal perspectives on the recording. One of the most influential record-collecting resources that I had as a teenager was a secondhand copy of The Rolling Stone Record Guide from 1979 in which the album was summed it up as "indescribably essential" in a Dave Marsh-penned review. I made a concerted effort to build up my fledgling music collection with as many of the book's five-star albums as possible, and that's what compelled me to seek out Love's landmark third album sometime during the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. My initial impression was that it was pleasant enough but sounded too much like soft rock to my 17-year-old ears. Still, I really liked the cover art, and Arthur Lee just looked so damn cool in that group photo on the other side of the CD insert. These were signs that the music had to be too good for me not to like eventually, so I resisted the urge to include it with my next trade-in at the local used record store. In retrospect, I realize that Forever Changes was my first "grower" album, and by that term I mean one that grows on the listener over time. I didn't give it a second chance until my junior year in college, which I spent as a study abroad student at the University of York during the 1993-1994 academic year. A number of friends that I made in England had a copy in their respective music collections, and it was through them that I became reintroduced to what a promotional billboard in Los Angeles once referred to as "the third coming of Love." The second time for this third coming was the charm as it clicked with me in a way it had failed to do so a few years earlier. Although I was into only a few particular songs at first, I eventually learned to appreciate all of them as a seamless whole. Toward the end of college and during my grad school years, Forever Changes was one of the most listened-to albums that I owned. Due to its multifaceted nature, it revealed something new every time that I played it on my sound system, with Arthur Lee and Bryan MacLean's lyrics becoming permanently embedded in my consciousness in the process. It is a work of such great beauty and depth that it will continue to speak to future generations in ways that few other albums can. Indescribably essential indeed.


Forever Changes
succeeds on so many different levels. It is arguably the greatest mind-expanding LP ever made that predominantly features acoustic arrangements supplemented with string and horn sections. What is perhaps most remarkable about the album is that Love was on the verge of disintegration just before production began. In what is now a well-known story, singer-guitarist MacLean, lead guitarist Johnny Echols, bassist Ken Forssi, and drummer Michael Stuart rediscovered inspiration and instrumental competence only after Lee proposed the possibility of completely replacing them with studio musicians during the recording sessions. Whether this was a calculated move by the mercurial singer and bandleader or not remains unknown, but if it was, the end results of this motivational tactic were and still are phenomenal. Every one of the songs on Forever Changes is a masterpiece whether we're talking about the orchestrated majesty of "Alone Again Or," "Andmoreagain," "Old Man," "The Red Telephone," "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This," and "You Set the Scene"; the demented and quintessentially LA folk rock of "The Daily Planet," "Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale," and the Dylanesque "Bummer in the Summer"; or the outstanding psychedelia of "A House Is Not a Motel" and "Live and Let Live," which both feature exceptional fretwork from the underappreciated Echols. The second disc in this set not only features an alternate mix of the entire album (with a mono single remix of "Along Again Or" thrown in for good measure) but several fascinating bonus tracks as well.
"Wonder People (I Do Wonder)" bears the distinction of being the greatest five-star album outtake of all time, while "Hummingbirds" provides a fascinating glimpse of "The Good Humor Man" as a work in progress. More of the same is offered on the interesting if not indispensable backing tracks to "A House Is Not a Motel" and "Andmoreagain" as well as the tracking sessions highlights of "The Red Telephone" that wind up with the band running through an impromptu take on "Wooly Bully." Despite the fact that this incarnation of Love met its demise not long after the completion of Forever Changes, it didn't go down without a fight as their tremendous final single "Your Mind and We Belong Together" b/w "Laughing Stock" (which quotes "My Little Red Book" from their first album) proves in hard-rocking fashion. The tracking session highlights for the A-side demonstrate how Lee helped coax Echols into playing that jaw-dropping guitar solo at its conclusion.


Disc 1 - Original Album

1. Alone Again Or
2. A House Is Not a Motel
3. Andmoreagain
4. The Daily Planet
5. Old Man
6. The Red Telephone
7. Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale
8. Live and Let Live
9. The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This
10. Bummer in the Summer
11. You Set the Scene

Disc 2 - Alternate Mix

1. Alone Again Or
2. A House Is Not a Motel
3. Andmoreagain
4. The Daily Planet
5. Old Man
6. The Red Telephone
7. Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale
8. Live and Let Live
9. The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This
10. Bummer in the Summer
11. You Set the Scene
*Bonus Material*
12. Wonder People (I Do Wonder) (outtake-original mix)
13. Hummingbirds (demo)
14. A House Is Not a Motel (backing track)
15. Andmoreagain (alternate electric backing track)
16. The Red Telephone (tracking sessions highlights)
17. Wooly Bully (outtake)
18. Alone Again Or (mono single remix)
19. Your Mind and We Belong Together (tracking sessions highlights)
20. Your Mind and We Belong Together
21. Laughing Stock

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tony Scott - Tony Scott (Verve, 1970)

For those into collecting the complete discographies of certain musicians like I am, the following piece will hopefully strike a chord with you. In many instances, I have only one album by a particular artist, and the only reason that it's in my collection is because it features one or more of my favorite instrumentalists as accompanists. Such is the case with this LP.


Since I only dabble in jazz, presenting an authoritative essay on clarinetist Tony Scott (nee Anthony Sciacca) is beyond my qualifications. In brief, his choice of instrument consigned him to relative obscurity during the 1950s when trumpets and saxophones were considerably more popular. Nevertheless, he worked with notables such as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and Bill Evans. What ultimately made Scott an influential figure was his interest in world music and his successful melding of various Asian styles with jazz during the 1960s while largely residing outside of the United States. Although he is best-known for his experiments with Japanese and Indian music respectively on Music for Zen Meditation & Other Joys and Music for Yoga Meditation & Other Joys, the clarinetist also had an affinity for Middle Eastern music. This is convincingly demonstrated on certain selections from his eponymous late-1960s effort for Verve, which was also apparently issued under the title Homage to Lord Krishna in Europe. There seems to be a great deal of confusion on various sites about when this album was recorded and released. I've seen several sources indicate that Homage to Lord Krishna was issued in 1967. Yet the usually reliable sites shows that the sessions most likely occurred in December 1969, which meant that the LP came out the following year. But I digress. The reason that I bought this album in the first place? The fact that it features the peerless John Berberian's oud on three tracks. Be that as it may, this is a good effort all the way through, and one of these days I'll replace the MP3 versions of other Tony Scott albums that I've downloaded over the years with the genuine articles on vinyl.


Things get off to an exotic start with "Ode to an Oud," a superb fusion of jazz and Middle Eastern music that obviously features the aforementioned Berberian in addition to a couple of his bandmates on percussion, Souren Baronian (normally a clarinet player) and Steve Pumilia, who mesh perfectly with the performance's more traditional instrumentalists. (As an interesting sidebar, Mainstream Records appropriated Ode to an Oud as the title to a Berberian two-fer from 1974 that reissued his phenomenal mid-1960s LPs, Expressions East and Oud Artistry.) "Homage to Lord Krishna" takes things a step further with the addition of sitar player Collin Walcott, whose work graces Bobby Callender's Rainbow album among other things. Although the interplay between his instrument and Berberian's almost inaudible oud is not quite what I hoped it would be, the piece remains an impressive bit of jazz-world psych. The same goes for the mind-blowing "
Swara Sulina," which unfortunately lacks Walcott's presence but does showcase the impressive ability of Berberian and his cohorts to adapt to Indian music. Add Hungarian guitarist Attila Zoller to the mix on these three tracks, and you can understand why the results are so impressive. To all but more conventional jazz buffs, however, the rest of this LP might be a bit of a letdown, as impressively performed as this material may be. Standards such as "My Funny Valentine" and "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" are nods to Scott's formative years during the 1940s. Beril Rubenstein's organ adds some nice texture to "Satin Doll" and "Blues for Charlie Parker," while "Sophisticated Lady" finds Scott blowing baritone sax backed only by bassist Richard Davis. Of the more straight-ahead jazz numbers, I'm most partial to "Nina's Dance" due largely to Zoller's formidable guitar and Scott playing the clarinet in manner reminiscent of John Coltrane's performances on soprano sax.


1. Ode to an Oud
2. My Funny Valentine
3. Satin Doll
4. Homage to Lord Krishna
5. Blues for Charlie Parker
6. Sophisticated Lady
7. Swara Sulina (The Beautiful Sound of the Flute)
8. Nina's Dance
9. Brother Can You Spare a Dime


Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Georgia Blues 1927-1933 (Yazoo, 1968; 1991)

Although it features Yazoo's usual fine track selection and their commitment to high-quality sound, The Georgia Blues 1927-1933 might be one of the label's most inaccurately-titled and haphazardly-compiled compilations in their 1000-series. I'll cut Nick Perls, Stephen Calt, and company some slack on this album's shortcomings because blues scholarship in the 1960s wasn't what it is today, which led to a number of misconceptions at the time. In some instances, this collection includes recordings by musicians who were Georgia-born but generally not musically identified with the state because they had developed their playing styles in other regions. Other songs are done by artists with no collection to the Peach State whatsoever. Nevertheless, fans of prewar guitar blues will find much to enjoy.


Although the legendary Blind McTell is conspicuously absent from The Georgia Blues, his influence is still felt through the presence of Atlanta musicians who operated within the outer periphery of his orbit as well as the prevalence of 12-string guitars on the performances herein. Fred McMullen was best-known as an associate of guitarist Curley Weaver (who served as accompanist on a significant number of McTell's 78s) but displays a compelling musical individuality on "Wait and Listen," an interpretation of the "Big Road Blues" theme most closely associated with artists from Mississippi. As an elder statesman of the aforementioned city's prewar blues scene, it should not be surprising that Joshua "Peg Leg" Howell also presents the most rural-sounding piece on this collection, "Rolling Mill Blues." The addition of Eddie Anthony's violin gives it something of a white flavor in accordance with the booklet notes' contention that it is "of hillbilly origin." The commentary also concedes that although Blind Blake was a native of Florida, his "career was frequently Georgia-based before it allegedly ended with his death in the 1930s," thus accounting for the appearance of "Police Dog Blues" and "That'll Never Happen No More." Amos "Bumble Bee Slim" Easton and James "Kokomo" Arnold exemplify Georgia-born guitarists whose musical identities were primarily developed in Northern cities as demonstrated on the former's "No Woman No Nickel" and the latter's earliest sides from 1930, "Rainy Night Blues" and "Paddlin' Blues," both recorded under the nom de disc "Gitfiddle Jim." In contrast, I have no idea why the lackluster "Can't Be Trusted Blues" by Louisville, Kentucky musician Sylvester Weaver (whose instrumental recordings are of far greater interest) was selected for inclusion. The remaining cuts, however, can be thoroughly appreciated as excellent examples of a distinctively Georgian approach to playing 12-string slide guitar. Robert "Barbecue Bob" Hicks, seems to have been most responsible for popularizing this style and contributes with the superb "Unnamed Blues," while his brother Charlie Lincoln (aka "Laughing Charley," nee Hicks) offers his own intriguing variation on this modus operandi with the sexually euphemistic "Doodle Hole Blues." Willie Baker and George Carter are performers of a more deliberate variety with a penchant for a comparatively delicate touch as displayed on "Weak-Minded Blues," "Rising River Blues," "Hot Jelly Roll Blues," and "Crooked Woman Blues."


1. Wait and Listen - Fred McMullen
2. Rolling Mill Blues - Peg Leg Howell
3. Police Dog Blues - Blind Blake
4. No Woman No Nickel - Bumble Bee Slim
5. Weak-Minded Blues - Willie Baker
6. Unnamed Blues - Barbecue Bob
7. Doodle Hole Blues - Charlie Lincoln
8. Can't Be Trusted Blues - Sylvester Weaver
9. That'll Never Happen No More - Blind Blake
10. Rising River Blues - George Carter
11. Rainy Night Blues - Gitfiddle Jim
12. Hot Jelly Roll Blues - George Carter
13. Crooked Woman Blues - Willie Baker
14. Paddlin' Blues - Gitfiddle Jim


Shirley Collins and Davy Graham - Folk Roots, New Routes (Decca, 1964; Topic, 1999)

Yes, I am aware of the fact that this item has made the rounds through the blogosphere over the years and will doubtlessly be familiar to a large number of you. However, a friend's recent purchase of the just-reissued vinyl version of this album reminded me of how great it truly is. If there are some readers not familiar with Folk Roots, New Routes, I cannot recommend checking it out strongly enough.


For many in this postmodern era, it might be difficult to appreciate how radical the pairing of Shirley Collins and Davy Graham was in 1964 when this album was released. The former was practically the living embodiment of the traditional British Isles folk music movement at the time, while the latter was a musician's musician of formidable instrumental talent who was just as adept at playing prewar blues or jazz and Middle Eastern music. Although this is strictly a hunch on my part, I have a feeling that Folk Roots, New Routes (which, I should take the opportunity to add, may be one the most appropriate album titles of all time) and Collins and Graham's supporting live performances had a tremendous impact on the British music scene during the 1960s. Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, for example, would have been inconceivable without the existence of this LP. Folk Roots, New Routes still sounds so vibrant today because it marks one of the first and best attempts at marrying the vocal aspects of folk music from the UK with what was then considered exotic instrumental accompaniment. Indeed, the inherently rhythmic nature of Graham's guitar playing make many of these performances a lot more accessible to those who might otherwise be turned off by Collins' admittedly archaic approach to singing. If anybody found For As Many As Will and Sweet England to be overly-academic in nature, this album might be more to your liking.


The tracks on Folk Roots, New Routes are divided among selections featuring Collins and Graham together as well as those featuring each of them in a solo setting. In my estimation, the duet performances are the album's finest moments, whether we're talking about more traditional fare like "Nottamun Town," "Proud Maisrie" (which alone makes this album well worth having), "Hares on the Mountain," "Reynardine," "Pretty Saro," "Love Is Pleasin'," "Hori Horo" (tear-inducing, I tell you), "Bad Girl," and "Dearest Dear" or African-American-derived material such as "Jane Jane" and "Boll Weevil, Holler." "The Cherry Tree Carol" finds Shirley accompanying herself on banjo, with the a cappella "Lord Greggory" serving as a showpiece for her stately vocals. Not to be outdone, Graham displays his versatile string wizardry on cover versions of jazz standards "Blue Monk" and "Grooveyard" in addition to an original
Eastern-infused instrumental, "Rif Mountain."


1. Nottamun Town
2. Pround Maisrie
3. The Cherry Tree Carol
4. Blue Monk
5. Hares on the Mountain
6. Reynardine
7. Pretty Saro
8. Rif Mountain
9. Jane, Jane
10. Love Is Pleasin'
11. Boll Weevil, Holler
12. Hori Horo
13. Bad Girl
14. Lord Greggory
15. Grooveyard
16. Dearest Dear

Shame on you, Pat Quinn and Jeff Bezos

Suffice it to say, I'm not very happy with either of these twerps.

Attempting to offset a massive budget deficit caused by Illinois politicians misspending my and other citizens' hard-earned tax dollars, governor Pat Quinn has resorted to drastic measures. In an absolutely pathetic display of acquiescence to the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, he recently approved legislation relating to the collection of online sales tax. As a result, internet businesses must now collect that particular assessment for the state, otherwise they cannot operate in the Land of Lincoln. Why do I care? Because I'm soon to be an ex-Amazon Affiliate. Kindly read on.

In a typical piece of political bullshit, Quinn states, "Illinois main street businesses are critical to ensuring our long-term economic stability, which is why they must be able to compete with every company doing business online in Illinois. This law will put Illinois-based businesses on a level playing field, protect and create jobs and help us continue to grow in the global marketplace." I still don't understand how, for example, a referral from my site that would lead to a sale for a California-based company to a customer who lives in New York competes with Illinois businesses in any way, shape, or form. You can make a compelling case for this law if my referrals resulted in sales to consumers here in Illinois, but that's about it. Put simply, Not-So-Mighty-Quinn, your logic does not hold any water. Any gains that Illinois might make in sales tax revenue will be nullified by lower income tax collections caused by people being unfairly restricted from conducting business online. How can you, in good conscience, justify any kind of legislation that takes away income from regular people like me during these economically-trying times?

But I also blame you for his mess, Jeff Bezos. Yeah, I received your little bulk e-mail last week notifying me that my status as an Amazon Affiliate would be terminated effective April 15 as a result of this stupid legislation. I must conclude that your pride is the only thing standing in the way of a compromise between your company and states like Illinois that have enacted similar online sales tax laws. I find it very hard to believe that someone who is credited for developing one of the most effective sales and shipping systems on the internet could not also come up with some sort of algorithm that makes it possible for states to collect such taxes. It's not like you couldn't see this showdown coming, and it irks me that you made no attempt to find any middle ground with various state governments on this particular matter. Well, you're probably too busy trying to shove Kindles down everyone's throats to be bothered with someone like me whose contributions to your bottom line are admittedly somewhat minuscule. Nevertheless, I used to be pretty loyal to your site, but perhaps I will have to reconsider things.

So, here's an appeal to you, noble readers. Please help me make as much money as possible during my last month as an Amazon Affiliate. All proceeds go to my musical archive that I end up sharing with you all, which is as fine of an example of capitalism working in conjunction with socialism as you're likely to find. As you've probably noticed, I put a lot of hyperlinks for items on sale at Amazon in the text of my posts. Ideally, it would be great if you bought these things because I receive a small percentage as a referral fee (or at least until April 15). However, if the particular products are not of interest and you planned on buying other items from Amazon anyway, simply use the links as a means to access the site. You can then proceed with your anticipated purchases since this will also help me earn some referral revenue. Additionally, you can use this link to get to Amazon instead. After doing so, enter the name of the item you're looking for in the search box, and shop to your heart's content or your credit card's maximum limit, whichever comes first. And for all of you who have already been helping me out over the last several months through your purchases on Amazon via my hyperlinks, a really big THANK YOU for your support.

I will never request money or donations, but I'm not above asking you to buy my swag and/or to patronize businesses that provide me with a little financial compensation for my promotional efforts. As a result, I would also like to take this opportunity strongly to encourage you to consider buying an official Record Fiend shirt (many styles to choose from) by visiting my CafePress store, concert tickets from Vivid Seats, or some collectible music from Records By Mail or the merchants at GEMM. You can also access these sites through the corresponding buttons on the sidebar to your right. Most importantly, if you find said places on the web to be worthy of your patronage, please continue to visit them through this blog or the previously-provided hyperlinks above.

Thank you for your consideration.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Stovall Sisters - The Stovall Sisters (Reprise, 1971)

Since I consider myself to be a secular humanist, religious types are often puzzled by my interest in black gospel performers. My explanation is simple: along with blues and jazz, this particular genre forms the bedrock of African-American music, one of the United States' most precious resources. While stylistic similarities to the aforementioned non-religious genres are what initially drew me to such sanctified material, it is often the conviction with which the message is delivered - even if I don't happen to subscribe to the musicians' beliefs - that can make these recordings such powerful listening experiences.


The Stovall Sisters - Lillian, Netta (aka Nettie), and Joyce (aka Rejoyce) - were one of a seemingly infinite number of African-American family gospel groups to emerge during the 1950s. Getting their start in Indianapolis as God's Little Wonders, this trio was actually one of at least two sibling aggregations managed by their mother Della. Later, they became the new Valley Wonders after replacing their older sisters Dorothy, Frances, Georgia, and Billie who could no longer perform regularly due to the demands of married life. They were popular in the local gospel circuit and made recordings, sometimes as the Stovall Family when accompanied by their two brothers. The sizable brood relocated to Oakland, California in 1964, where the three sisters came to the realization that they would have to expand their repertory to include rock 'n' roll and R&B in order to establish themselves as professional entertainers. Although they continued to record gospel music as the Valley Wonders or the Stovall Family, they also performed as the Sisters Three when doing non-religious material and even did a stint as the Ikettes behind Ike and Tina Turner for awhile. Aware of what was going on the other side of the San Francisco Bay,
Lillian, Netta, and Joyce placed an ad in the Oakland Tribune in 1968 stating, "Three black girls looking for a Caucasian band to sing with," which quickly brought them to the attention of singer-guitarist William Truckaway (nee Sievers, formerly of the Sopwith Camel) and producer Erik Jacobsen. In short order, the sisters became noted for providing their heavenly backing vocals on late 1960s and early 1970s hits like Truckaway's "Bluegreens" and Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky." Seeing their commercial potential, Reprise Records rewarded them with their own eponymous LP, released in 1971.


Although The Stovall Sisters might be a little too polished for those with a preference for grittier gospel material, it's pretty hard to deny the consistent excellence of this album. It effortlessly combines elements of soul, funk, rock, and sanctified music without pandering to the individual styles. Indeed, the casual listener may not even realize that this a gospel record unless someone draws his or her attention to the song titles and lyrics. The rightly-celebrated "Hang on in There" is probably the sisters' best-known song, especially to modern-day fans, thanks to its inclusion on the What It Is: Funky Soul and Rare Grooves collection. "Sweeping Through the City" and "I Come to Praise Him" offer similar rhythmically-charged religious messages. "Yes to the Lord," "The World Is in a Change," "Rapture," "So Good," "The Love of God," and "I'm Ready to Serve the Lord" hearken back to the Stovalls' earlier days as more traditional gospel performers, although these tracks feature production standards that only a major label like Reprise could have offered at the time. Their take on Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" is interesting for the sake of comparison, but my favorite version remains that by the Kentucky Headhunters.


1. Hang on in There
2. Yes to the Lord
3. Sweepin' Through the City
4. The World Is in a Change
5. Rapture
6. Spirit in the Sky
7. So Good
8. The Love of God
9. I Come to Praise Him
10. I'm Ready to Serve the Lord

Finchley Boys - Champaign Music Festival DVD


For those of you who remember my and the north star grassman's posts on the Finchley Boys reunion concert at the Champaign Music Festival from last summer, this is something of a follow-up piece. As you know, a good time was had by all. As a fan, it's always a tremendous pleasure to find out that rock 'n' rollers who are a little long in the tooth can still put on a great show in an intimate block party-like setting. And as a collector, one can't help but get excited when a band's mega-rare lone LP suddenly becomes available at a non-collector's price. Anyway, you can read all about the event elsewhere on this blog.



For those of you who didn't have the opportunity to make it out to Champaign on Saturday, July 10, 2010, here's your chance to experience the sights and sounds of the concert in the comfort of your own home. The entire show was filmed for posterity, with the end results appearing on this excellent DVD that features ten hard-charging performances. The set list features an inspired mix of covers and originals from the Everlasting Tributes LP, including "Train Kept a Rollin," "Help Me Baby," "I'm Not Like Everybody Else," "It All Ends," "Whose Been Talkin,'" "Hooked," "Only Me," "Outcast," "Spoonful," and "Restrictions."


Produced by guitarist Garrett Oostdyk, the Finchely Boys: Saturday, July 10, 2010 - Champaign Music Festival DVD is available for $20 exclusively through Parasol Records in Urbana, Illinois. For those of you who live outside of the area, it can be ordered from this page on the store's website. International orders can be placed via this listing on eBay.


Sometime this spring, Parasol will be releasing a two-CD set titled Every Now and Then, which includes a remastered version of Everlasting Tributes with three bonus tracks as well as live recordings from the Finchley Boys' July 11, 2010 performance at the Clark Bar in Champaign. Stay tuned for more details. And for you vinyl junkies out there, Anazitisi Records recently reissued the original album in three different formats: black vinyl, colored vinyl, and a super-deluxe edition with tons of extras.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Euphoria - A Gift From Euphoria (Capitol, 1969; See For Miles, 1996)

Some collectors cite A Gift From Euphoria as a textbook example of the recording industry's excesses of the late 1960s. Others classify it as a lost masterpiece with a distinctive blend of mind-expanding rock, country, and classical music elements. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, although my fondness for psychedelia moves it much closer to the latter viewpoint in my estimation.


Thanks to changing musical tastes, what was once considered one of Capitol Records' most notorious failures has now been critically reassessed, which has led to it being reissued on CD not once, but twice. The subject of today's review is the See For Miles Records edition from 1996, released when precious little was known about Hamilton Wesley Watt, Jr. and William D. Lincoln, the duo collectively known as Euphoria. The booklet notes of the more recent reissue as well as an article that appeared in the December 2010 issue of Shindig! magazine apparently contain a lot more up-to-date information about these guys. I have neither in my possession (anyone out there wanna help me out?), so I'll just have to work with what I know from information through other sources that I've gleaned over the years.


According to an informative radio interview conducted by Steve di Costanzo, Watt and Lincoln respectively came from Cleveland and Seattle, although they would both end up in Los Angeles by the mid 1960s. They became introduced to one another as a result of their bands being regularly featured at the same club on different nights of the week. A friendship and professional partnership developed soon thereafter. Although the two musicians also evidently spent time in Texas, England, and several other locations either together or individually before A Gift From Euphoria was recorded in 1968, their West Coast connections were solidified by contributing two songs to the East Side Kids' The Tiger and the Lamb LP in addition to Watt's appearance on Lee Michaels' first LP, Carnival of Life. As Lincoln tells it, the two collaborated on their magnum opus in a home studio until they were able to make a rough mix (funded by the financial generosity of a friend of Watt's wife) that could be shopped around to various labels. Capitol eventually signed them and, thanks to the assistance of the influential Nik Venet, gave them the go-ahead to begin what would become a rather expensive endeavor for such an unknown group. Clearly, someone saw great commercial potential in them as recording sessions in Hollywood, Nashville, and London would suggest. Although Watt played lead guitar, acoustic guitar, and drums while Lincoln handled piano, second guitar, and bass guitar throughout the album, they also enlisted the assistance of Bradley's Barn session musicians David Briggs, Bobby Thompson, and Lloyd Green on the country numbers as well as utilizing orchestral accompaniment on the majestic Bee Gees-inspired tracks. The end result was quite impressive but probably too ahead of its time for the average record-buyer. To compound matters, Capitol sacked Venet after production was complete, leaving Watt and Lincoln without an industry heavyweight to help push their music. Due to a lack of promotion from the duo's label, A Gift From Euphoria suffered an ignoble fate and ended up filling cutout bins across the country.


As a product of its time, this LP can be a very disjointed listening experience, but that won't be a problem for fans of 1960s psych. While A Gift From Euphoria may not be a concept album, it does seem to address the wearying aspects of life that can take its toll on a person in a recurringly thematic fashion, as indicated by the concluding tracks on each side of the original record that both deal with suicide. Overall, the affair has an almost cinematic feel due in large part to extravagantly arranged performances like "Lisa" (with lyrics in French!), "Young Miss Pfugg," "Hollyville Train," "Too Young to Know," and the melancholy "World." Elsewhere, the Nashville element strongly manifests itself on "Stone River Hill Song," "Through a Window," "Sweet Fanny Adams," "I'll Be Home to You," and the instrumental "Something for the Milkman." Even the more blatantly conscious-raising rockers "Did You Get the Letter" and "
Suicide on the Hillside, Sunday Morning, After Tea" have enough twang to give them at least a slight country flavor. Yet another aspect to this album is represented by superb mostly-acoustic ballads like "Sunshine Woman," "Docker's Son" (written about the brother of Lincoln's English wife), and "Lady Bedford," with the gently quavering vocals on the last song being eerily reminiscent of Arthur Lee at his most delicate.

1. Lisa
2. Stone River Hill Song
3. Did You Get the Letter
4. Through a Window
5. Young Miss Pflugg
6. Lady Bedford
7. Suicide on the Hillside, Sunday Morning, After Tea
8. Sweet Fanny Adams
9. I'll Be Home to You
10. Sunshine Woman
11. Hollyville Train
12. Docker's Son
13. Something for the Milkman
14. Too Young to Know
15. World

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Melvin Sparks - Sparks! (Prestige, 1970; Beat Goes Public, circa 2000)

The late 1960s and early 1970s must have been a tough time for a lot of jazz purists. If fusion wasn't giving them fits, then certainly the growing popularity of groove-oriented guitar-organ-horn combos was a harbinger that the end was near, at least as far as they were concerned. The last decade of the 20th century was a time of reassessment for music of the latter variety, and I'm glad that record labels gave it a second chance to sink in with the public. As much as I recognize the importance of jazz in the history of American music, there are times when it occasionally comes off as overly cerebral and can leave me feeling cold. My preference in such instances is something that I can tap my foot along to but still has a sophisticated improvisatory edge, which describes the music of those guitar-organ-horn outfits to a "T." The definitive term for such aggregations has yet to be coined, although some of the best were well represented on Blue Note's Blue Break Beats series from the late 1990s.


Of all the guitarists to play in these groups, Grant Green receives the most accolades, but there were many others who are also worthy of attention. Texas-born Melvin Sparks would have to be Exhibit A in my book. With influences ranging from B.B. King to Cal Green, he can go from bluesy to funky and all points in between at the drop of a hat. Although he has spent more time as an accompanist to musicians such as Little Willie John, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Brother Jack McDuff, Reuben Wilson, and Lou Donaldson than he has as a band leader, it is also obvious that he incorporated these diverse influences into his own distinctive musical personality.


Sparks! was his debut effort released under his own name and is prime 1970 jazz-on-the-verge-of-funk. Redoubtable Hammond B-3 organist Leon Spencer, Jr. is the perfect right-hand man for the proceedings, which also includes Virgil Jones on trumpet, John Manning or Houston Person on saxophone, and the ubiquitous Idris Muhammad on drums. They transform Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" into an adventurous jazz exploration, while their interpretation of the standard "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" is an exercise in elegance. Further on, Sparks and crew breathe new life into a rendition of the Coasters' "Charlie Brown" of all things. Despite its title, "The Stinker," a composition by keyboardist Spencer, is anything but musically malodorous. This LP's finest moment, however, belongs to the sublimely stretched-out take on Eric Burdon and War's "Spill the Wine." At about seven-and-a-half minutes in, Sparks launches into an awe-inspiring solo that alone justifies his reputation.


1. Thank You
2. I Didn't Know What Time It Was
3. Charlie Brown
4. The Stinker
5. Spill the Wine