Sunday, July 24, 2011

Destination: Malta

I realize that my posts have been pretty sporadic for the last few months, but it hasn't been for lack of trying. There has been a lot going on in my personal and professional life during this time that has kept me away from blogging. My posting activity will be even more infrequent - well, non-existent, actually - over the next three weeks because my wife and I will be on vacation (or holiday, if you prefer) in Malta for the rest of this month and into early August. I hope to resume reviewing albums for your listening pleasure shortly after my return stateside.

So as long as it's the topic of discussion, I just wanted to investigate the slight possibility of any blog readers living on the island or visiting during my stay. If so and you'd be interested in meeting up, please drop me a line so we can discuss a potential get-together. Bonus points to anyone who can show us the real off-the-beaten-path places in Malta and Gozo.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bunk Johnson/Lu Watters - Bunk & Lu (Good Time Jazz, 1953 & 1957; 1990)

These recordings were already more than ten years old when they were issued as ten-inch LPs by the Good Time Jazz label during the 1950s. The 16 sides presented here date from 1941 and 1944, during the early phase of the Dixieland jazz revival, whose advent roughly corresponds with the release of Frederic Ramsey's landmark book Jazzmen in 1939. The importance of this movement cannot be overstated since it helped lay the groundwork for the blues revival that would begin in earnest not long afterward. This CD serves as a particularly representative document of Dixieland's resurgence because it features performances by one of the most important early white revivalists as well as those by a black musician who had been an originator of the style at the dawn of the 20th century.


Lucius "Lu" Watters (1911-1989) hailed from a small town near Sacramento, California and started playing the bugle while attending military school as a child. Not long afterward, this instrument was ditched in favor of the trumpet. By the time he was a teenager, Watters had become an accomplished blower and was splitting his time between high school and traveling the country while often working as boat band musician. After completing his secondary education, he attended the University of San Francisco on a music scholarship before ultimately dropping out to become a full-time professional horn player. Watters toured throughout much of the United States as a member of various traveling pop bands during the 1930s. His visits to New Orleans proved to be extremely influential as he often sat in with groups of veteran Dixieland jazz musicians whose modus operandi was rapidly going out of style. At the end of the decade, he decided to focus exclusively on this type of music and organized what would eventually become the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, which was one of the first - if not the first - revivalist group of its kind. Eight of his earliest sides - "At a Georgia Camp Meeting," "Irish Black Bottom," "Original Jelly Roll Blues," "Smoky Mokes," "Maple Leaf Rag," "Memphis Blues," "Black & White Rag," and "Muskrat Ramble" (on which Country Joe & the Fish's "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" is based) - offer outstanding interpretations of material made famous by legendary figures such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, W.C. Handy, and Kid Ory, but are not merely slavish imitations. As the equally celebrated Nesuhi Ertegun explains in the booklet notes, "When one compares these Watters records with those of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton or the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, it is apparent the Watters group neither duplicated any single aspect of traditional jazz, nor used any one famous band of the past as a model."

Although his name is not as well-known as Oliver's or Morton's, William "Bunk" Johnson (ca. 1879-1949) was one of the premier early jazz musicians of New Orleans. The ten-year long peak of his early career ended in 1915 when he had to flee the Crescent City as a result of missing a Mardi Gras parade gig and being threatened with physical violence in retaliation. After living in the relative safety of New Iberia, Louisiana for a number of years, he lost the ability to play trumpet when he got his teeth knocked out during a dance at which his band was playing in 1931. Early jazz scholars including Bill Russell and the aforementioned Frederic Ramsey rediscovered him later in the decade and apparently paid for a set of dentures and a new horn to help him get his career going again. In the early 1940s, San Francisco had become a major center for the Dixieland revival, and it was there that, with the support of many musicians from Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band (though not Lu himself), Johnson began a series of extremely well-received shows in 1943. Studio sessions soon followed in 1944, with the results of the earliest recordings appearing here. For those partial to jazz of this variety, renditions of "Careless Love," "The Girls Go Crazy," and "Ory's Creole Trombone" will prove to be sublime experiences. On "2:19 Blues" and "Ace in the Hole," drummer Clancy Hayes provides vocals, while Sister Lottie Peavey does the honors on the superb gospel numbers "When I Move to the Sky" and "Nobody's Fault but Mine." Apparently the good Sister could not be convinced that "Down by the Riverside" was sufficiently sanctified for her to sing on it, so Bunk had to step in and do the job himself. Even though Johnson would go on to achieve even greater fame in New York City before his death at the end of the 1940s, he felt that the musicians in San Francisco were the best group that he performed with during his post-rediscovery years.


1. At a Georgia Camp Meeting - Lu Watters
2. Irish Black Bottom
- Lu Watters
3. Original Jelly Roll Blues
- Lu Watters
4. Smoky Mokes
- Lu Watters
5. Maple Leaf Rag
- Lu Watters
6. Memphis Blues
- Lu Watters
7. Black & White Rag
- Lu Watters
8. Muskrat Ramble
- Lu Watters
9. Careless Love - Bunk Johnson
10. 2:19 Blues
- Bunk Johnson
11. The Girls Go Crazy
- Bunk Johnson
12. When I Move to the Sky
- Bunk Johnson
13. Ace in the Hole
- Bunk Johnson
14. Ory's Creole Trombone
- Bunk Johnson
15. Nobody's Fault but Mine
- Bunk Johnson
16. Down by the Riverside
- Bunk Johnson


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mister Charlie's Blues 1926-1938 (Yazoo, 1970)

Mister Charlie's Blues is an extraordinary LP for two reasons. First, it marks the only instance in which a Yazoo 1000-series album was devoted exclusively to white musicians - in this case, early country (or, if you prefer, hillbilly) artists. Second, this item arguably sports the most provocative cover artwork of any record in the company's catalogue, which is no small feat considering the often eyebrow-raising imagery the label used to illustrate other releases. As for the two characters featured on this particular album jacket, I'm almost sure that the guitarist in blackface is original Yazoo owner Nick Perls. He was known for fancying young black men, so I'm guessing that the person in whiteface was one of his boyfriends.


In case you were wondering, "Mister Charlie" is an obsolete African-American slang term for Caucasian male that is in the same vein as "whitey," "honky," "cracker," and "buckra." These 14 tracks are not simply hillbilly recordings. More specifically, they are examples of Southern white musicians performing material that was either blues in a technical sense or had been strongly influenced by their black counterparts. As the Yazoo brain trust discusses in the liner notes,
While the bluesman's imitations of white and pop music always rank as his most banal work, the hillbilly's encroachments upon a genre that has always been held as the province of blacks make for fascinating music. They also make a mockery of the old notion that no white can play country blues, and even expose the deficiencies of many contemporary whites who work the blues idiom. The usual failing of the hillbilly blues guitarist is the same that nearly always inheres in white guitar-playing of the 1920's: a preference for limiting picking patterns that the best musicians of either race always surmounted. In general, the sensitivity of the white blues musician is remarkable when one considers the race prejudices of his class.
Even though I'm not a musician, I think what they are getting at is that the typically white obsession with rigidity and structure has often stood in the way of artistic innovation, whereas the more improvisatory approach of black instrumentalists from the 1800s and early 1900s generally led to the development of new and uniquely American styles of musical expression. The sides presented here for the most part focus on the hillbilly anomalies (i.e. those among "the best musicians of either race" mentioned above), and what wonderful exceptions to the rule they are. Indeed, certain labels in the 1920s and 1930s felt some of these performances sounded so authentically black that they were marketed as race records.


There does not seem to be much, if any, information available about guitarist Wesley Long, but "They Are Wild Over Me" convincingly demonstrates his instrumental prowess. The liner notes astutely point out that his approach is reminiscent of the ragtime material recorded by Frank Stokes, Mississippi John Hurt, and Hambone Willie Newbern as well as the playing style of Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence. Who says white people don't have rhythm? One listen to Herschel Brown's breathtaking performance on spoons (which accompanies the equally impressive guitar picking of L.K. Sentell) will make you rethink any preconceived notions you might have about such things. Another biographical non-entity, Brown possibly came from Georgia, where he was the leader of a washboard band. As a recording artist for the OKeh label, his novelty sides produced significant sales figures during the late 1920s. Although it sounds like a good name for a police-themed porn movie, Dick Justice was actually a guitarist from Logan County, West Virginia and a friend of the better-known Frank Hutchison. Many aficionados of old-time American music consider them to be among the best of prewar white blues musicians, a view strongly supported by Justice's superb "Black Dog Blues" and "Cocaine." On the former, he turns in a performance that is similar to "Don't Let That Deal Go Down," while the latter compares rather favorably to Virginia bluesman Luke Jordan's rendition recorded two years earlier in 1927. Tennessee native and early Grand Ole Opry star Sam McGee was proficient on several stringed instruments, although he was first and foremost a guitarist of the highest caliber, which the instrumentals "Buck Dancer's Choice" and "Franklin Blues" make abundantly clear. That's early country music legend Uncle Dave Macon providing the vocal interjections throughout both tours de force. "Cross Tie Blues" and "Pouring Down Blues" qualify as two more phenomenal white blues instrumentals. In this case, the performers are Buster & Jack, which was the name assigned to 78s by white string band Jack Cawley and his Oklahoma Ridge Runners that were sold as race records. Few black musicians could come close to duplicating Blind Lemon Jefferson's nearly inimitable way of guitar playing, so it comes as quite a surprise that the most convincing cover version of his "Match Box Blues" was recorded by a white guy from Kentucky. Larry Hensley ordinarily played guitar with the string band Walker's Corbin Ramblers, but this interpretation of the Texas bluesman's signature piece finds him in a solo setting. According to the liner notes, "Hensley's elaborations upon the original set him apart from Jefferson's usual imitators, who were more apt to copy only the vocal parts of Jefferson's blues. Unlike other white bluesmen, Hensley also imitates a black vocal style, producing a fair approximation of Jefferson's singing." The South Georgia Highballers supply another pair of appealing instrumentals, "Blue Grass Twist" and "Bibb County Grind." To my ears, they sound like guitar duets peppered with banter between the two performers who are likely brothers Albert and Vander Everidge. The most famous white blues-playing siblings of the prewar era, however, were probably Austin and Lee Allen, who hailed from the eastern part of Tennessee near Chattanooga. Executives at their original label, Columbia Records, mistakenly thought they were black and issued their debut release from 1927 ("Laughin' and Cryin' Blues" b/w "Chattanooga Blues") as part of their race series, much to the Allen Brothers' chagrin. After threatening the company with a lawsuit for damaging their reputations, they switched over to Victor, where they waxed the bulk of their discography, including the novelty talking blues "Maybe Next Week Sometime." If you can't get enough instrumentals of this variety, the irresistible "Just Pickin'" by Roy Harvey (on loan from the Charlie Poole-helmed North Carolina Ramblers) and West Virginia native Leonard Copeland will definitely hit the spot. While no one would ever mistake the sweet-sounding vocals of the Anglin Brothers (consisting of Red and twins Jim and Jack) as those of black blues singers, the guitar playing heard on the Tennessee-born trio's "Southern Whoopee Song" is another matter entirely.


1. They Are Wild Over Me - Wesley Long
2. Spanish Rag - Herschel Brown
3. Black Dog Blues - Dick Justice
4. Buck Dancer's Choice - Sam McGee
5. Cross Tie Blues - Buster & Jack
6. Match Box Blues - Larry Hensley
7. Blue Grass Twist - South Georgia Highballers
8. Maybe Next Week Sometime - Allen Brothers
9. Just Pickin' - Roy Harvey & Leonard Copeland
10. Cocaine - Dick Justice
11. Franklin Blues - Sam McGee
12. Pouring Down Blues - Buster & Jack
13. Southern Whoopee Song - Anglin Brothers
14. Bibb County Grind - South Georgia Highballers


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Fiend's 45s Vol. 2

I would put together more of these 45 comps if they weren't such time-consuming projects. The positive feedback that I received for this series' first installation was somewhat surprising because, as explained in the post for Vol. 1, my stash of singles is considerably smaller than my LP collection. While I possess a few 45s that I particularly prize, none of them are truly mind-blowingly rare, in contrast to some of the seven-inch mega-obscurities owned by fellow vinyl junkie friends who work the local bar disc jockey circuit. Anyway, here are 25 choice cuts that collectively make up Fiend's 45s Vol. 2. There is no unifying theme; these are simply songs that I like. You'll find hits from the 1960s and 1970s alongside material that has probably never received so much as a moment of radio airplay. Even in instances where titles will be familiar to most readers, these songs are for the most part presented in their mono single mixes, which often differ from their stereo album counterparts. Hopefully, this collection will offer a little something for everybody.


1. H.P. Lovecraft - The White Ship (single edit) (Phillips, 1967)

Arguably the most legitimately psychedelic group to come out of Chicago during the 1960s, H.P. Lovecraft released two LPs containing performances that ranged from pretty good to great. The diversity of their personnel helped provide the band with a solid foundation of influences ranging from folk to classical to straightforward rock. This background resulted in H.P. Lovecraft being a much more interesting and sophisticated group than other acts associated with Dunwich Productions, such as the one-dimensional Shadows of Knight and the American Breed. "The White Ship," with its distinctive baroque keyboards, was the closest thing that the outfit with a horror writer-derived name had to a hit and is presented here in its truncated plug-side version.

2. Charlie Daniels - Uneasy Rider* (Kama Sutra, 1973)

It's hard to believe that this acoustic, novelty country number done "talking blues"-style is by the same guy who did "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," mostly on account of its pro-counterculture sentiments. Charlie Daniels takes pride in the reactionary redneck image that currently defines him, and most of his post-1975 work holds no interest for me whatsoever. Nevertheless, his lesser-known recordings from earlier in the decade have a number of pleasant surprises for the uninitiated. "Uneasy Rider" was a deserving #9 pop hit in 1973 and probably the best thing that the cowboy hat-wearing fiddler ever did.

3. The Spike-Drivers - Baby Let Me Tell You How I Lost My Mind (Reprise, 1966)

In a more just world, this mind-expanding folk rock nugget would have been one of 1966's biggest hit records. Obviously, that didn't happen, making the Spike-Drivers one of the most talented but least commercially successful bands of their era, at least in terms of record sales. This is a Canadian pressing of "Baby Let Me Tell You How I Lost My Mind" and is considerably more poppy than the unreleased demo version heard on the first-rate Folkrocking Psychedelia from the Motor City collection. Although lead guitarist Sid Brown disparages this side in his booklet notes for that CD (referring to the group's Reprise 45s as "shit shingles, not hit singles"), I'll have to respectfully disagree with his assessment.

4. Bobbie Gentry - Okolona River Bottom Band (Capitol, 1967)

I've seen picture sleeve versions of this 45 at used record stores all around the country, suggesting that Capitol Records must have thought "Okolona River Bottom Band" was going to be as big of a hit as one of Bobbie Gentry's previous releases, "Ode to Billie Joe," which had peaked at the #1 and #17 positions respectively on the US pop and country charts earlier in 1967. This single, from the Delta Sweete LP, didn't even come close (#54 pop) to replicating that success, but it is still a fine example of the singer's unique country-soul-rock style and features some exquisitely atmospheric, perhaps even psychedelic, production that gives things a uniquely Southern feel.

5. B.B. King - Mashing the Popeye (Kent, 1962)

Even though he's a blues guitarist, some people forget that B.B. King has also recorded a number of excellent instrumentals over the years, especially during his 1950s-early 1960s heyday. Often tucked away as the B-sides to his more famous vocal hits, these performances have never received the attention they deserve in various anthologies of the man's recordings, with the excellent but far-from-complete Spotlight on Lucille being the only item that focuses exclusively on this aspect of his legacy. The sound of "Mashing the Popeye" is big and bold, just as you'd expect from a piece with such an audacious title.

6. Aum - Bye Bye Baby (Fillmore, 1969)

Ever the businessman, Bill Graham was not content just owning some of the country's hippest music venues during the 1960s, he also wanted to have a record company on which many of the performing acts could also release singles and albums. Although some psychedelic connoisseurs turn their noses up at many of the third- and fourth-wave Bay Area groups that he signed to his Fillmore (a CBS subsidiary) and San Francisco (distributed by Atlantic) labels, there was still some good music made in the process. Aum may not have been the Haight's most innovative band, but the driving, somewhat Jefferson Airplane-ish "Bye Bye Baby" ranks as the best track from their solid Resurrection LP and was a logical choice for a single release.

7. The Chambers Brothers - Uptown (Columbia, 1967)

Issued in November 1967, "Uptown" bears distinction for being the first single released from the Chambers Brothers' landmark The Time Has Come LP, about nine months before the considerably more successful "Time Has Come Today" hit the market. Columbia Records must have sensed they had a potential new hit-making act on their hands since this copy is a double-sided "Special Rush Service" white label promo. The company's instincts failed them in this particular instance, as "Uptown" peaked at a disappointing #126 on the US pop charts. The label often took a conservative approach with their artists during the 1960s, thus explaining the preference they gave to this song at the expense of "Time." Not that there is anything wrong with the soul-on-the-cusp-of-funk that characterizes "Uptown," but it probably had too much of an old school R&B flavor for the turned-on young record buyers of late 1967.

8. Jorgen Ingmann - Apache (Atco, 1961)

Danish guitarist Jorgen Ingmann was not the first person to have success with this classic instrumental (that distinction belongs to British group the Shadows, whose version was waxed in 1960), but, oddly enough, he was the first person to have a hit (#2 pop) with it in the US. As a young record collector, I had always assumed the Ventures had been the first musicians to record it. Ingmann's rendition is a little more polished and restrained, but it still showcases his beautiful guitar tone as well as some advanced-for-their-time sound effects. "Apache" is exhibit A for the great things that can happen when a guitarist isn't afraid to adopt a "less is more" approach to performing.

9. The Nightcrawlers - You're Running Wild (Kapp, 1967)

"You're Running Wild" is the B-side to "The Little Black Egg," a single for Dayton Beach, Florida band the Nightcrawlers that would prove to be rather influential in spite of its seemingly unimpressive #85 peak position on the US pop charts in 1967. Personally, I think the non-hit is the superior of the two songs since it better represents the tough garage band sound that truly defined the group. The snarling vocals and slightly off-kilter guitar work make "You're Running Wild" one of the most effective statements of girl-fueled, white teenage angst ever recorded.

10. Poco - You Better Think Twice (Epic, 1970)

Yeah, I'll admit that Poco can be held partially responsible for two awful things: in particular, the Eagles, and, in general, 1970s soft rock. That said, things did start out on a very promising note for this band, with their first two LPs, Pickin' Up the Pieces and Poco, being logical progressions of Richie Furay and Jim Messina's work with Buffalo Springfield in addition to earning a reputation as two of the most outstanding country rock albums in the history of the genre. "You Better Think Twice" (which made it to #72 on the US pop charts) comes from the latter of those two records and contains the outstanding instrumental work and vocal harmonies that would characterize Poco's earliest and best efforts, which were unfortunately too country for rock audiences and too rock for country audiences of the time.

11. Solomon Burke - Maggie's Farm (Atlantic, 1965)

How many of you knew that this was the first cover of "Maggie's Farm" ever recorded? Or that Solomon Burke was one of the first black singers to wax a Bob Dylan song? I sure didn't, at least not until I did a little research in preparation for this post. Whether this particular Dylan piece was pushed on Solomon Burke or he came up with the idea to record it on his own doesn't really matter since it's such a convincing interpretation. According to various sources, this version not only came out prior to the composer's own single release, it outsold it as well.

12. Friend and Lover - Reach out of the Darkness (Verve Forecast, 1968)

Friend and Lover's "Reach out of the Darkness" is one of those songs that detractors of 1960s music love to hate. Granted, it does feature a number of lyrical and musical cliches unique to the decade in which it was recoded. Nevertheless, with undeniable vocal hooks, an irresistible bass line, and production from Joe South, this #10 pop hit by the erstwhile folk duo of Jim and Cathy Post remains appealing to those who feel no shame in still believing that "it's so groovy now that people are finally getting together."

13. Spirit - Mechanical World (Ode, 1968)

What were the people at Ode Records thinking when they issued the incredibly complex "Mechanical World" as the single from Spirit's debut album? To wit, the song is divided into five or six different sections and clocks in at nearly five minutes, not exactly the sort of thing you would try to market to an audience that is notorious for generally having a short attention span. But it was the 1960s, after all, a time when record labels were still willing to take bigger chances. Randy California's awe-inspiring guitar solos throughout this performance continue to amaze this listener, even nearly 17 years after first hearing them.

14. The Staple Singers - New Orleans (Curtom, 1976)

After the collapse of Stax Records, the Staple Singers found a new home on Curtis Mayfield's Curtom label. It was with this company that they had their last significant hit, the title song for the Let's Do It Again soundtrack. The seriously funky and decidedly non-gospel followup single "New Orleans" also comes from that album, although it failed to produce similar results despite its many virtues. Does anyone know if both Mayfield and Pops Staples are playing guitar on this?

15. Sir Douglas Quintet - The Rains Came (Tribe, 1965)

Although "She's About a Mover" was the Sir Douglas Quintet's big hit from 1965, the less commercially successful "The Rains Came" demonstrates that it wasn't the only worthwhile thing they recorded that year. This cover version of a song originally done by the obscure Big Sambo and the House Wreckers in 1962 contains that same distinctively reedy organ, a catchy chorus, and other hallmarks that would become part of this Doug Sahm-helmed band's winning formula.

16. Mashmakhan - Days When We Are Free* (Epic, 1970)

Remembered, if at all, primarily for their 1970 hit "As the Years Go By," this progressive jazz-influenced Canadian quartet from Montreal apparently got their name from a variety of hash that was popular with the underground scene in their hometown. I wouldn't necessarily go as far as describing "Days When We Are Free" as psychedelic, but "mind-expanding fusion" seems to fit the bill just fine. Although this song appeared as the B-side to Mashmakhan's aforementioned hit, it's the superior performance in my opinion largely because of the first-rate guitar-keyboard interplay supplied by Rayburn Blake and Pierre Senecal.

17. Gene McDaniels - A Hundred Pounds of Clay (Liberty, 1961)

I remember hearing this song a lot on the local oldies radio station back when I was a teenager and thinking that it was a really nice piece of early 1960s orchestrated soul as well as a rather a clever reworking of the Pygmalion myth. Fast forward several years later to the time when I acquired Outlaw and Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse by Eugene McDaniels and finding out that he is the same person as Gene McDaniels. As you can well imagine, it was an extremely enlightening discovery. While those two LPs have received well-earned accolades as extremely deep artistic statements, the comparatively innocent-sounding "Hundred Pounds of Clay," a #3 pop hit, remains the singer's commercial high-water mark.

18. The Beau Brummels - Don't Talk to Strangers (Autumn, 1965)

On the rapturously jangly "Don't Talk to Strangers," the Beau Brummels practically out-Byrds the Byrds with the added bonus of one of Sal Valentio's finest vocal performances. Without question, this is the San Francisco folk rock outfit's most sublime moment, and it deserved a much better fate than the #52 position it earned on the US pop charts. At least our friends up in Canada had the good sense and taste to make it a #16 hit in their country.

19. Charlie Frederick - The Big Pipeline* (Cross Roads, circa 1975)

The most popular country music artists in the 1970s tended to be those who were lumped in with either the countrypolitan or the outlaw movements. On the outside looking in, there were singers who didn't belong to either group and recorded a few singles for small independent labels with little commercial success to show for it. One such performer is West Virginia's Charlie Frederick, whose forte are songs about working folks such as "Twenty-Nine More Men," included on the Works' Many Voices Volume I compilation. Even better is this heartfelt tribute to "the construction workers of the great Alaskan (oil) pipeline," as the inscription reads on the label of this fantastic but little-heard 45.

20. The Majic Ship - On the Edge* (Crazy Horse, 1969)

The orchestrated psych of "On the Edge" sounds considerably different than the more stripped-down material found on Majic Ship's lone LP that was recorded right around the same time. Nevertheless, the song is a great atmospheric performance with a doom-laden vibe and arrangements that become intrusive only when they occasionally overwhelm the song's wicked guitar solos.

21. The Spike-Drivers - High Time (Reprise, 1966)

I'll take my review on track #3 a step further by saying that the backing song "High Time" should have made this 45 a double-sided hit record. Once again, this version sounds a bit more AM radio-friendly than the alternate featured on Folkrocking Psychedelia from the Motor City, but the combination of the group's flawless harmony vocals and Sid Brown's redoubtable fretwork provide yet another example of why 1966 was one of my favorite years in the history of American music.

22. Medicine Head - Rising Sun (Polydor, 1973)

Medicine Head's "Rising Sun" was a sizable 1973 hit (#11) in the UK, and this English-Welsh duo must have been fairly popular in Europe as well. At least that's the conclusion I came to after finding this Yugoslavian-pressed picture sleeve 45 in a Zagreb record store during my visit to Croatia in 2002. As a quintessential piece of the early 1970s British music scene, this song comes off like something that would not have sounded out of place on a T. Rex album from around the same time.

23. The Rooftop Singers - Walk Right In (Vanguard, 1963)

Notable as Vanguard Records' best-selling single of all time, "Walk Right In" achieved massive success on the pop, Easy Listening, country, and even the R&B charts when it was released during the height of the early 1960s folk revival. I'm partial to the original 1929 recording by Cannon's Jug Stompers, but I still cannot deny the appealing nature of this somewhat pasteurized interpretation by the Rooftop Singers. Although Lynne Taylor's vocal contributions are admittedly cloying at times, Erik Darling and Bill Svanoe's resonant 12-string guitars perfectly complement one another, while the restrained snare drum accompaniment presages the forthcoming folk rock revolution that was yet to come.

24. Jimmy Witherspoon - I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water (Reprise, 1962)

Singer-pianist Jimmy Witherspoon is sometimes a little too smooth for my taste in blues artists, but when I'm in the right mood, his best performances go down like 100-year-old bourbon. I can easily picture him as Frank Sinatra's ideal kind of blues singer, possibly accounting for the two albums he recorded for Reprise in the early 1960s. This definitive take on the standard "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water" comes from the Roots LP, on which he is paired with legendary jazz saxophonist Ben Webster to excellent effect.

25. Dion - Abraham, Martin and John (Laurie, 1968)

The same oldies station (WJMK 104.3 FM for all you fellow Chicagoland people out there) mentioned in my write-up for "A Hundred Pounds of Clay" also played this song on a regular basis in the 1980s and early 1990s, which made me a lifelong fan of the folk rock phase of Dion's recording career. As corny as it may sound, I can't help getting a little choked up every time I hear this authoritative version of "Abraham, Martin and John," a testament to the power of DiMucci's unparalleled vocals and John Abbott's elegant arrangements. That it peaked at "only" #4 on the US pop charts seems to be a minor miscarriage of justice if you ask me.

All tracks monaural, except (*) stereo.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Johnny Darrell - Water Glass Full of Whiskey (Capricorn, 1975)

The 1970s were not kind to Johnny Darrell. The decade started out on a promising note with the uneven but still worthwhile California Stop-Over, but that album also marked the end of his tenure with United Artists. Its failure to sell certainly factored into the company's decision not to offer him another recording contract. Between 1970 and 1975, Darrell didn't release any LPs at all, although he did have a handful of singles issued by the Cartwheel and Monument labels. Despite his low commercial profile, the press began to identity Darrell with country music's quickly growing Outlaw movement during this time. Several sources have mentioned his close friendships with Waylon Jennings and Kris Kirstofferson, and I imagine that he spent these years consuming large quantities of marijuana and liquor frequently in their company. Perhaps due to the successful crowd with which he was associated, Capricorn Records, the preeminent Southern rock label, was willing to give Darrell a final shot at reestablishing his once-promising career. When he entered the recording studio in late 1974 to begin work on Water Glass Full of Whiskey, it seemed like the beginning of an ideal match. Unfortunately, the LP failed to sell in significant numbers, and the singer was cut adrift by yet another record company.

Big Johnny Darrell fan that I am, I wish I could tell you that Water Glass Full of Whiskey is a lost country music masterpiece that simply went over the heads of too many of its listeners. However, that's simply not the case. It's not a terrible album, but it's not a particularly remarkable one, either. The back of the sleeve identifies it as part of Capricorn's "Kickin' Country" series even though there is very little kick to be found in any of these songs. People who bought this LP back in 1975 must have wondered what the fuss concerning Darrell's Outlaw credentials was all about. Some of the blame might be attributable to Billy Sherrill's involvement as a recording engineer since his preferred modus operandi at the control panel was to bury everything under his characteristic saccharine arrangements. That said, if you like mid 1970s countrypolitan records, Water Glass Full of Whiskey might be right up your alley.

The opening track, a fairly spirited interpretation of the country standard "Orange Blossom Special," starts off well enough, especially with Reggie Young's impressive electric guitar picking. When those telltale Billy Sherrill strings kick in, however, they rob the performance of the rootsiness that characterize the best renditions of this song. Selected as a single, it peaked at #63 on the country charts. This album gets its title from a line in the lyrics of "Pieces of My Life," a Troy Seals composition featuring Darrell's typically superb vocals that also happen to be encased in a coating of fluff. One can assess "Hardtime Charlie Softshoes" and "Love's Lullaby" in similar fashion. Things pick up with the stripped-down and relatively rockin' "Glendale, Arizona," a rare example of Darrell doing his own material (it was co-written with Judy Riley). Nevertheless, it's back to the easy-listening country formula that typifies Water Glass Full of Whiskey on "Rose Colored Gin," "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan," and "Singin' Lonely Songs," the last of which would have sounded a lot better had it been recorded by the singer with only the accompaniment of his own guitar. The same issues that prevent "Orange Blossom Special" from being completely successful also plague this LP's version of Bill Monroe's "Uncle Pen." That sterile string section in the mix leaves the song sounding about as far removed from its bluegrass origins as possible. The closing track, "Crazy Daddy," an updated take on another tune written by Darrell that first appeared as a single on Monument in 1973, has lyrics that suggest it may have been written with his daughter Lisa in mind. As touching as that sentiment may be, it doesn't prevent the performance from being as lightweight as most of the other songs on this record.

1. Orange Blossom Special
2. Pieces of My Life
3. Hardtime Charlie Softshoes
4. Love's Lullaby
5. Glendale, Arizona
6. Rose Colored Gin
7. The Ballad of Lucy Jordan
8. Singin' Lonely Songs
9. Uncle Pen
10. Crazy Daddy