The Five Keys, during their short stint with King Records, would carry out three recording sessions between 1959-1960 that would yield two albums for the label. One album, Rhythm & Blues Hits: Past and Present, would be released in 1960, while the other self-titled album would be released, oddly enough, 17 years later on the Gusto subsidiary. Note that the Five Keys original King album can fetch over $500!
One song title in particular seems to call attention to itself – “Your Teeth and Tongue (Will Get You Hung)” — fittingly, the album’s final track. Could this be an attempt at social protest, not unlike Lowman Pauling & the Five Royales’ “The Slummer the Slum”. Still decoding the lyric, but if true, might explain why this song was never put out for single release (*correction: Gusto would issue this song as a B-side in 1982).
Although this record bears the “James Brown Production” logo, the labels credit a Steve Baron as the actual producer of both tracks. Baron is also the songwriter on both of these tunes, which to me are reminiscent of the kind of sophisticated funk that Galt MacDermot was turning out around this same period. I’m sure JB approved.
Blakey would be identified as “Cincinnati Talent in Action” by Billboard in its May 23, 1970 edition:
Dennis Wholey, a resident of New York since his syndicated talk show bearing his name was chucked by WKRC-TV five months ago, was a visitor here last week, accompanied by singer Carolyn Blakey, whom he has under contract. Miss Blakey cut a session at King Records here, with Wholey monitoring. Her initial release on the label some months ago was “Tomorrow’s Child.” Now working out of the William Morris office, Dennis is still mulling the idea of presenting The Who here, with he as emcee.
Lord BooBoo‘s lone single release on King Records would end up being the calypso singer’s entire recorded output! Michel Ruppli’s 2-volume King discography reports that Lord BooBoo laid down these two tracks – “De Knife, De Fork, De Spoon” b/w “No Man and Woman Get Along” – in NYC on April Fool’s Day, 1957.
“De Knife, De Fork, De Spoon” Lord BooBoo 1957
Note that this single was issued on 10-inch (78) as well as 7-inch (45) vinyl.
Session guitarist Mickey (“Love Is Strange“) Baker — whose work would grace dozens of releases by King Records and its subsidiaries — would end up being allotted exactly one solo album by the label as an artist in his own right: 1963’s But Wild.
Recorded in Paris in June of 1962, this album would feature Baker’s guitar (as Michel Ruppli’s King Label discography would seem to indicate) overdubbed onto instrumental tracks – licensed from the Versailles label – of French studio musicians.
Merle Travis — along with Grandpa Jones — would inaugurate King Records in 1943 as the first twomusical artists to record for Syd Nathan. But because both musicians were under contract to Powell Crosley’s WLW (“The Nation’s Station“), Travis and Jones would record under assumed names (i.e., ‘The Sheppard Brothers’ and ‘Bob McCarthy’) in the next big city north of Cincinnati: Dayton. Nearly lost in history’s shuffle is this interesting historical tidbit: Merle Travis’s lone King recording as a solo artist (“What Will I Do“) would be captured in 1944, while King was still in its embryonic stages, but kept in the can for nearly 20 years until issued in 1963, along with tracks from other country artists, in a compilation album entitled Nashville Bandstand (no audio for this track yet on YouTube).
Includes rare 1944 track by Merle Travis, depicted below by upside down guitar
[Merle Travis and Grandpa Jones would also team up with The Delmore Brothers (Alton & Rabon) as The Brown’s Ferry Four, a gospel quartet (augmented by Louis Innis on guitar and Ray Starkey/Red Foley on bass), whose final recording sessions in 1951 and 1952 would take place in Cincinnati at the King Studios.]
One other notable early comic title: In September of 1945, King Records released a 78 by The Carlisle Brothers whose B-side — “Baby You Done Flubbed Your Dub With Me” — features an infectious chorus and sweet swooping lap steel (click on audio link below):
“Baby You Done Flubbed Your Dub With Me” The Carlisle Brothers 1945
The audio clip above was posted on YouTube (as I type these words on October 10, 2016) just 10 days prior on September 30th
This same song would be covered thirteen years later by rockabilly duo Tag & Effie and released on Kentucky indie, Summit, in 1958. Notably, Tag Willoughby would take songwriting credit in spite of what Cliff Carlisle (and/or Syd Nathan) might have to say:
“Baby, You Done Flubbed Your Dub With Me” Tag & Effie 1958
Jazz pioneer and long-time NPR (“Piano Jazz“) host, Marian McPartland, would have exactly one encounter with King Records: a NYC recording session March 15, 1951 that resulted in 4 songs [“Flamingo“; “It’s Delovely“; “Liebestraum No. 3“; “Four Brothers“] that would enjoy release in the US, UK, and France. In additional to two 78 releases, King subsidiary, Federal, would issue a playfully-titled EP — Progressive Piano with Cello, Harp, Bass and Drums — in 1954, while these same songs would be issued in the UK four years later under the title of the Cole Porter track, It’s Delovely.
1954 Federal EP 1951 FRENCH 78 – with Art Deco lettering
The father of New Orleans piano playing — “Professor Longhair” (i.e., Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd) — would cross paths with King Records by way of a single New Orleans recording session – December 4, 1951 – that yielded four songs: “K.C. Blues“; “Curley Haired Baby“; “Rocking with Fes“; and “Gone So Long.” These four songs would be divided between two single releases on Federal, while “Gone So Long” would also be included on 1963 King compilation album Everybody’s Favorite Blues.
Henry Glover would also be one of the three songwriters behind “Pig Latin Blues” — playfully articulated by LaVern Baker (backed by The Todd Rhodes Orchestra) — a song recorded July 1, 1952 in Cincinnati.George Stogner would find a way to fuse boogie with hot rodding — “Hardtop Race” — in 1953, two years before Charley Ryan’s original “Hot Rod Lincoln.”Musical Synchronicity: Two mambo-themed songs were recorded at Cincinnati’s King studios on the very same day — November 12, 1954: “Mambo Honky Tonk” by The Morgan Sisters (no audio yet on YouTube) + “Tennessee Mambo” by Bonnie Lou.
Clearly, 1954 was the year of the mambo, just judging by the titles of all 4 songs recorded by Don Ippolito & His Orchestra on December 14, 1954: “Camptown Races Mambo,” “Swanee River Mambo,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game Mambo” & “Can’t Do It Mambo.”In Billboard‘s August 28, 1954 edition, a piece entitled ‘Coinmen You Know – Miami’ states that “Henry Stone, A&R man for DeLuxe Records, signed The Three Harmonicaires, [harmonica trio] winners on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show, to a recording contract and now predicts their first number will be a hit.”Henry Glover would also co-write Red Klimo‘s “Grandma Loves to Rock ‘n’ Roll” — recorded February 2, 1956 in Chicago.
Yet another patented King “bio-disc” (thanks, RANDY MCNUTT!)
“Many bluegrass bands incorporated Elvis spoofs into their comedy routines, further testimony to their fans that they were on the right side of the rock and roll controversy. Thus in August  of 1956 [in Cincinnati], when Reno and Smiley made their first recordings since becoming a full-time group, included was Don Reno’s “Country Boy Rock and Roll,” a tongue-in-cheek anthem to the joys of the music: ‘I guess to some folks I look foolish, Just let ’em make a fool out of me.’”
Among the earliest recordings in the canon of truck driving country giant, Dave Dudley: the toe-tappin’, roots-rockin’ “Rock and Roll Nursery Rhyme” — recorded March 28, 1956 in Cincinnati (a 45 that today commands a healthy two figures at auction).Exactly one King recording session in Cincinnati on February 12, 1956 for The Rockers, whose membership would include Annie Mae (i.e., Tina) Turner on keys and Ike Turner on strings. “What Am I to Do” features the commanding guitar work of Turner, who would return to Cincinnati the following year on April 9th fronting his own band, Ike Turner & the Kings of Rhythm (with Jackie Brenston) — six songs recorded that day, including “Rock-a-Bucket.”
It would be almost criminal not to point out an overlooked B-side by Lowman Pauling — Messin‘ Up — a rockin’ doo wop song from The Five Royales (with stellar guitar sounds from El Pauling himself), that was recorded August 13, 1957 in Cincinnati.
Tiny Topsy would find a way to fuse cowboy-shoot-’em-ups with doo-wop rock in 1958’s “Western Rock ‘n’ Roll” — a song that also slyly quotes from some of the early classics of the genre, including “Lollipop” (The Chordettes), “Get a Job” (The Silhouettes), “At the Hop” (Danny & the Juniors), “Short Shorts” (The Royal Teens). Note the decent prices being paid for this single at auction.Gene Reddand the Globe Trotters would record two songs at Cincinnati’s King studios on September 4, 1959 that comprised a 45 (King 5262), with one tune in particular transcribed by Ruppli (in his 2-volume King discographies) as “Surfin‘ Beat,” as this song is listed on 1964 King surf “cash-in” album, Look Who’s Surfin’ Now. Really? A “surf” song two years before Dick Dale & His Deltones’ first 45?! Unfortunately, the original song title used for the 1959 King 45 release was “Zeen Beat.”Big Moe and the Panics would cover the unstoppable “Tennessee Waltz” for the teen set in 1959, with their hard-to-find “Tennessee Waltz Rock” 45 EP on King-owned Audio Lab.Check out the decent prices being paid for original King 45s by The Mascots: lead singer, Eddie Levert, along with William Powell, Bobby Massey & Bill Isles — a band that would become The O’Jays in 1963. Among the songs recorded June 27, 1960 in Cincinnati at King’s studios: “Lonely Rain.”
Songwriter/producer (and future King talent scout) Ray Pennington would record a “popcorn/rockabilly” hybrid for King subsidiary Federal — “Three Hearts in a Tangle” — (under the name Ray Starr) on July 15, 1960 in Cincinnati. Pennington, by the way, features prominently in the ace roots-rock (non-King) compilation Great Rockers from Cincinnati.
first of two (non-King) albums by Ray Pennington & steel master, BUDDY EMMONS
“The Twist” (not everyone knows) was originally a King B-side for Hank Ballard&the Midnighters, before Chubby Checker ran away with this freakish hit, as a result of Ballard’s failure to keep his date with destiny on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand dance program. King clearly felt the pain, as noted in blood-red ink on the label for The Escos novelty 45 “Thank You Mister Ballard (For Creating the Twist)” — a song that was recorded November 22, 1961 in Cincinnati: “ATTENTION DJ: These are the cold hard facts. Hank Ballard composed the song and created the dance … THE TWIST.”Very eager to hear whether King artists, The Shilohs, managed to capture on record the authentic sound of a “Rebel Yell” in 1961 — exactly one hundred years after our nation’s war against itself had begun.
[Note: streaming audio unavailable unless the song title in question has a hyperlink]
Also curious to hear The Stanley Brothers song with the oddball title “Big Booger” (recorded September 17, 1963 in Cincinnati) that is only available on 1963 King LP America’s Finest 5-String Banjo Hootenanny (reissued in 1977 on Starday). It is possible (though not probable) that “Big Booger” would inspire Mac Davis to write and record “Uncle Booger Red and Byrdie Nelle” for his 1970 debut album.
Try Me, a King-owned subsidiary that served as an outlet for James Brown productions, would issue a groovy two-part organ instrumental – “Devil’s Den” – by The Poets [i.e., Brown’s backing band] that was recorded March, 1963 at King’s Cincinnati studios, along with one other track “The Thing in G” that would find release on Brown’s Prisoner of Love album. Ruppli’s discography credits Alvin Gonder with organ — and JB himself with “shouts.”Almost afraid to hear the A-side of Doris King‘s (rare) single for King — “Dumb Dumb” — released in 1966, as the title reminds me of Ginny Arnell’s horribly insensitive “Dumbhead” from 1963.
Sorry, kiddos — streaming audio not available
Rockabilly crime fighter, Delbert Barker (previously celebrated here) would record his final King 45 in Cincinnati on April 17, 1966 — “Color Me Gone” — a song for which no audio clips exist on YouTube.Another rare King 45 from 1966 – John Ukhart‘s “The Biggest Thrill” b/w “Death Row” – (note the prisoner ID #) was recorded at the King-affiliated studio in Macon, Georgia.Intrigued to hear the hauntingly-titled “Last Year, Senior Prom (This Year, Vietnam)” by Mary Moultrie – recorded in Cincinnati on April 17, 1966 – the flip side of the highly-sought “northern soul” dance track “They’re Trying to Tear Us Apart” for which people are prepared to pay up to three figures at auction.
One Vietnam-themed King release that is available for preview on YouTube: Jaci Damon‘s “A Place Called Vietnam” from the summer of 1967.Speaking of 1967, here is King’s brief intersection with “psychedelic” music:
Green Lyte Sunday, before their first (and only) psychedelic-flavored album was released in 1970 for RCA, would make their recording debut in 1968 on King: “She’s My Lover” b/w “Lenore” (King 6178). Good luck finding a copy of this Dayton, Ohio band’s rare debut 45 on King.
Starday-King would make one last (late) stab in 1971 with Wild Goose‘s surprisingly adventurous “Flyin’ Machine” which features trippy sounds at the opening and closing, as well as harmony guitar lines during the middle instrumental break.
1971 Wild Goose ‘psych 45’ on King-owned Agape
James Brown on organ, accompanied by three of The Dapps [Tim Drummond (bass), William “Beau Dollar” Bowman (drums), Eddie Setser (guitar)] and possibly a fourth [Tim Hedding (if not, Bobby Byrd) on piano], would record a wryly-titled instrumental, “Shhhhhhhh (For a Little While)” March 5, 1968 at King’s Cincinnati studios.On a related note, check out the three-figure sums being paid for rare King 45 by The SoulBelievers with The Dapps — “IDon’t Want Nobody’s Troubles” b/w “I’m With You” — recorded October 23, 1968 in Cincinnati.Marvel at this rare live footage of Marva Whitney — along with the rock-solid support of James Brown’s backing band, TheJBs — singing “It’s My Thing” from 1969.
Delight in the discovery that Bill Doggett once laid down 2 songs — “For Once In My Life” and “Twenty Five Miles” — at a recording facility in Detroit (c. February, 1969) with a studio band produced by Motown founder-in-chief, Berry Gordy. These tracks would form the respective A and B sides of a King 45 that easily commands two figures at auction (and whose flip side only would be included on 1969’s Honky Tonk Popcorn album).
1969 Bill Doggett B-side in “far-out” King sleeve
Very rare King truck driving 45 — Bethel King‘s “Addicted to a Truck” from 1968 — that I hope will turn up one day in my lifetime. Needless to say, no streaming audio.Some of us are curious to hear “31 Flavors” by The Las Vegas Ambassadors — recorded in Las Vegas on June 13, 1970 – fairly obscure King 45.1970 would also see the release of a song — “Classical Popsicle” — used as the lead-off track for a King full-length release Have a Heart, written by Arnold Bodmer of the group Heart (not the Wilson Sisters of “Barracuda” fame). Another hard-to-come-by King 45: Lewie Wickham‘s “Liberated Woman” from 1970 …… as well as the LP from whence the single came — on which Lewie is joined by brother Hank Wickham, not to mention Johnny Dagucon (on his debut/sole recording effort).Musical Mystery: A formerly long-lost predecessor to The JB’s1972 debut album on King subsidiary, People — 1971’s These Are the JB’s — was rescued from obscurity in 2014 as a vinyl release and then re-pressed again in 2015. As BlackGrooves explains, “the album was recorded in 1971 for King Records just before the band’s catalogue got bought out by Polydor. Only a few test pressings were produced, and they were presumed to have been lost.” Of the four songs recorded — including “These Are the JB’s” & “I’ll Ze” — the final medley is notable for including portions of “Let The Music Take Your Mind” (Kool & The Gang and Gene Redd Jr.), “Chicken Strut” (The Meters), and “Power Of Soul” (Jimi Hendrix).45Cat suggests that Indiana‘s cover of Bobby Darin & Terry Melcher‘s “My Mom” might have been released in the UK (November, 1971) before the US (1972). Curious, if true. Any pressures exerted on the band – White Cloud – to cover a song (“Hound Dog“) written by the (then) new owners of Starday-King, Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller, on their self-titled 1972 debut (and only) album issued on Starday-King subsidiary, Good Medicine?Smiling Faces would eke out two 45s in 1972 for Starday-King, the first – “Younger Girl” – being infinitely easier to locate than the second – “Tulsa Oklahoma” – whose very existence (King 6424) is still being debated by the nation’s top researchers. King would release exactly one single by The Sanfords (featuring Gary S. Paxton) in 1972 — “Skinny Dippin’” b/w “A Rare and Ordinary Thing” — with one more song in the can (“You’re My Everything”). Just as with the previous five 45s mentioned, no streaming audio.
Finally, Mike Wheeler — who would later form a band, Wheels, that would enjoy a big boost in popularity (as The Raisins did) due to their appearance on 1980 TV talent showcase Rock Around the Block — recorded 2 songs on April 10,1972 that would be released as a (hard-to-find) 45 on Agape: “Rocky Forge” b/w “Worn Out Leather.” Bonus link: Wheels performing “Keep Movin’ On” — sung/written by Michael Baney — a song that also served as the kick-off track for WEBN’s 2nd Album Project (annual compilation of Cincinnati-area bands) from 1977.
Rare Slim Gaillard 78s on King “race” subsidiary label, Queen
King’s attempt to cash in on surf music (see previous story on The Impacs) would also produce a compilation album (and future Zero to 180 piece) Surfin’ onWave Nine. Left in the King vaults are a pair by The Nu-Trons, including “Don’t Give Me No Phony Love.”
Also in the King vaults is something by Tonni Kalash, second trumpeter for Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass (who released a lone King 45 “The Boss” b/w “Shuckin’“): a single unissued track entitled “The Surf” that was recorded April 2, 1962.
Speaking of shuckin’, King’s vaults also contain two tracks recorded by Carl Thomas in Macon, Georgia on January 11, 1964: “Just Shuckin’” (as well as “Off Beat Boogie”).
Don’t forget the stellar soul tune — 1966’s “Ain’t You Glad” by Mill Evans — that sat in the can for 35 years until valiantly rescued by UK’s Kent Records [as reported here] in 2001.Edgar Allen & the Po‘ Folks would record two tunes, “My Tears Are Drippin‘ (in CoffeeThat I’m Sippin‘)” and “Denny‘s Tune,” c. March, 1967 that have never enjoyed release.
One humorous (and particularly long-winded) early unissued song title:
“(I Didn’t Think You’d Really Go) I Didn’t Think You’d Ever Leave Me” — Hank Penny from October, 1946 — a song also covered by Moon Mullican in October, 1946 and then likewise locked away in the vaults!
The Dapps (previously celebrated here and here) have a few tunes in the King vaults that have never been issued including “White Christmas”; “I Can’t Stand Myself”; “Who Knows”; and two other tracks recorded in Cincinnati — “I’ll Give You Odds” (March, 1968) and “Later for the Saver” (December, 1968).
Cincinnati musician, and one-time James Brown sparring partner, Dee Felice, would record quite a few songs that remain in the King vaults, including (besides JB covers such as “Cold Sweat”) what might be an original tune, “Double Funky” that was recorded in Cincinnati on December 10, 1969.
Also in King’s vaults by the aforementioned William Hargis “Beau Dollar” Bowman: “My Concerto” (c. Spring, 1969) and “Funky Street (January, 1970).
Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis would record his own version of “SoulPride (pts. 1 & 2)” in the summer of 1968 that will not likely see the light of day, as well as (veiled message perhaps?) “Time for My Release” later that October in Miami.
Ruppli’s King discography has a listing for “More Mess on My Thing (pt. 1 & 2)” by The New Dapps [i.e., The Pacesetters: William “Bootsy” Collins, Phelps “Catfish” Collins, Frank “Kash” Waddy & Phillip (pre-Spinners) Wynne] — according to Bootsy, September, 1969. Even though a 45 release is indicated (King 6271), a strange thing happens when you numerically scroll to that number on this King Records 6000 Series 45 Discography — 6271 & 6272 are both identical: Arthur Prysock “23rd Psalm” b/w “I Believe”! Some funny business there. Sadly, no King 45 for The New Dapps. Notice that Ohio Soul Recordings, for instance, lists it as an actual 45 release.
James Brown himself would record a song whose title would be used as a band name for a Maceo Parker-led outfit of former JB sidemen – “All the King’s Men” – in Cincinnati on November 5, 1970 that remains unissued (as is a track recorded the previous month in Macon, Georgia — “We Need Liberation“).
Psychedelic soul rockers Grodeck Whipperjenny, led by James Brown associate David Matthews (previously celebrated here) have one track sitting in the King vaults — “Ain’t It Jellyroll” (possibly from early 1971).
Elaine Armstrong (vocalist and civil rights pioneer previously celebrated here) would record two songs that remain in the King vaults, including “Tears Begin to Fall.”Blues & soul singer/guitarist Albert Washington would record a number of songs that remain locked away, including “Without Love Ain’t It a Shame” — recorded in Cincinnati on October 16, 1970.
1971 Albert Washington 45 on Deluxe (Label Revived by Starday-King)
A group whose name requires a pronunciation guide — The Prix’s — recorded two songs in early 1968 (“The Smoother” & “Take Everything“) likely to remain forever unheard.
Frank Gorshin of TV’s Batman fame (previously celebrated here) recorded a handful of songs that remain permanently sequestered, including “Love Slave” — recorded in Nashville June 3, 1970.
Mike Appel – ¿the same Mike Appel who was Bruce Springsteen’s manager at the time? – recorded at least 10 songs (“Queen of the Harvest”; “Timber Clown” et al.) for Starday-King in 1972. Note that “Queen of the Harvest” is the title of a song listed on Mike Appel’s website as being one for which he owns all the publishing rights and master recordings.
NASHVILLE — The Starday-King label and its publishing firms have been sold by Lin Broadcasting Co. to a group of music executives including one of its former officers.
Hal Neely, President of Starday-King and an offical of Lin until the time of purchase, leads the purchasers. Sale price was listed at $1.4 million. Offices will remain here, under the new name of Tennessee Recording and Publishing Co., Inc.
Other purchasers were the songwriting team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, and Fred Bienstock, a former executive with Hill & Range.
Neely and his associates will receive all of the Lin Music division’s “current and fixed assets, to include receivables, copyrights, and publishing interests, recorded masters, inventory, contracts, real estate, studios in Nashville, Cincinnati, and Macon, Ga., and the pressing and printing plant in Cincinnati.”
Lin had indicated some time ago it was interested in selling its music division. It had acquired Starday-King shortly after the two firms, Starday here and King in Cincinnati, had merged.
Starday, formed as a country music label by Pappy Dailey and Jack Starnes, was later acquired by Don Pierce, who was its president for a number of years. After the Lin purchase, Hal Neely became president, and Pierce moved into an advisory capacity.
King, too, was originally a country label, but later became deeply involved in the development of rhythm and blues. One of its top performers, James Brown, recently moved to Polydor in a contract sale. Starday, too, divested itself of some of its leading talent, many of whom moved to Chart Records. However, the company retains artists with both labels.
There will be immediate releases with the existing artists, who are listed as The Coasters, J. David Sloan, The Manhattans, Jack(y) Ward, Gloria Walker, Max Powell, and White Cloud. Additionally, there will be product release on Red Sovine, who has moved to Chart.
Tennessee Recording and Publishing will continue to release and distribute the King, Starday, Deluxe, Nashville, Agape and Federal labels.
Coda: For Whom the Bell Tolls
Billboard‘s February 5, 1972 edition would include the following grim announcement:
“EQUIPMENT FOR SALE. Pressing — Printing — Plating — Milling — Fabrications — Art Cameras — Recording Studio Equipment.
King Records, Cincinnati, Ohio is liquidating its Complete Pressing and Printing Plant and Recording Studio. 7″ and 12″.
All Equipment First Class. Guaranteed. Opportunity for Export.
Contact: Johnny Miller
1540 Brewster Ave., Cincinnati, Ohio 45207
I suspect Gene Rosenthal will roll his eyes at the obviousness and artlessness of this observation, but let history officially note: In 1966, when Eric Clapton and company were reviving Skip James‘ “I’m So Glad” for Cream’s debut album (which enjoyed worldwide distribution – even Saudi Arabia, unofficially), Rosenthal had already recorded the pioneering blues guitarist two years prior — James’ first recordings since the Depression — at his parents’ house in Silver Spring, Maryland!
Adelphi Studios – 516 E. Indian Spring Drive – Silver Spring, MD
(since equipped with solar panels, but still awaiting historical plaque)
Thus, Gene’s Adelphi Studios helped to put Silver Spring on the world’s musical map before Track Recorders had even opened its doors, while Rosenthal’s audio engineering skills would help draw attention to such other “rediscovered” blues artists as Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White, Johnny Shines, David ‘Honeyboy‘ Edwards, Big Joe Williams, Furry Lewis, and Gus Cannon, as well as emerging local guitarist, “Takoma” John Fahey.
Rosenthal, as some blues enthusiasts might tell you, was part of a so-called “East Coast Blues Mafia” of non-conformists and free-thinking types who took an activist approach toward revitalizing the careers of forgotten American blues artists. This group of renegades would include Fahey and Bill Barth (who tracked down Skip James), Ed Denson (who relocated Bukka White, with assistance from Fahey), Dick Spottswood and Tom Hoskins (who used the lyrics of “Avalon Blues” to locate Mississippi John Hurt), along with Michael Stewart, Henry Vestine, Max Ochs, Stefan Grossman, Nick Perls, and others who collectively sought out blues, country, folk and other “primitive” sounds (i.e., simple, therefore “unsophisticated”) decades before the rest of America would catch on to the notion that ‘simple’ can convey a power that often eludes more athletically-gifted musics with fancy time signatures and such.
Gene Rosenthal – Adelphi Studios c. 1963
“Beloved abroad, but underappreciated at home” is a common theme that runs through the history of the arts and one that would ring true to some extent, at least initially, for Adelphi Records. As Billboard would note nearly 40 years ago in its December 24, 1977 edition, “The label is another example of small American record manufacturers finding a greater response for its artists abroad.”
And yet Adelphi Records is still very much a vital concern some 48 years later, having signed a new artist — Ken Swartz& the Palace of Sin, who recorded an album in New Orleans, Smile Away the Blues — and inked a major deal with respected Oxford, Mississippi-based indie label Fat Possum to acquire Rosenthal’s vaunted “Blues Vault,” from which it has assembled Worried Blues, a ten-album series that features rare and previously out-of-print recordings on vinyl, CD, and digital download (released July 21).
Zero to 180 notes an independence of spirit in Rosenthal, whose label remains one of the last of the original postwar independent labels (having entered the business initially as a distribution point for Takoma and Arhoolie as early as 1964) that brings to mind another notable “indie” – Syd Nathan – whose King Records would inspire Seymour Stein (and Richard Gottehrer) to create Sire Productions, thus sowing the seeds of today’s contemporary “indie” scene. Rosenthal, in fact, would help organize his fellow music entrepreneurs into a national association of independent record distributors (known initially as the National Association of Independent Record Distributors, or NAIRD) just a few years after forming Adelphi Records.
Gene Rosenthal: The Track Years
This historian-in-training would arrive in the DC area just as Track Recorders was closing its doors, thus making my attempt to piece together the studio’s history feel somewhat like groping in the dark. Let me first express much appreciation to all the participants who helped “crowd source” this work-in-progress and fill in the historical gaps, particularly Rosenthal, who helped me understand his unsung supporting role, as it relates to the Track Recorders story:
“Adelphi made a (zero-dollar) deal with Track’s then engineer, Obie O’Brien, and loaned Track Adelphi’s Spectrasonic 16x4x2 Mixing & Recording console, along with their Scully 280-2/4, which is clearly visible [in this photo] as the 2nd Scully in the main studio, as well our Sony ES 22T studio transport machine which was used in Studio ‘B.’ When Obie left, he couldn’t guarantee the safety of Adelphi’s equipment any longer, so it was removed at the same time as his departure.”
[Adelphi’s Scully 280-2/4] [Adelphi’s Sony ES 22T]
Ah, the truth is starting to become clear!
In the earlier Track Recorders history piece, do you recall the Billboard snippet from the June 17, 1972 issue that noted Track’s having “two rooms” – albeit the second one “incomplete” and thus not fully operational? Rosenthal, consequently, endowed Track with equipment that helped transform “Studio B” into a secondary room that could be used for playback and editing, as well as a place for conducting auditions.
Unsurprisingly, Silver Spring’s Track studio — with its futuristic Neve 8036 console (and its motorized mechanical faders), not to mention 3M 16-track tape machine — would be the recording facility of choice for a handful of Adelphi artists in the mid-to-late 1970s on the following LP releases:
Liz Meyer was – as noted in Richard (“music writer”) Thompson’s 2011 obituary for Bluegrass Today – “one of Europe’s adopted American bluegrassers” who was a “very pro-active and vocal promoter of the European World of Bluegrass (EWoB) and European bluegrass music in general.”
Bill Holland & Rent’s Due — If It Ain’t One Thing…
Recorded and mixed substantially at Track between 1974/75 — released 1975 (Adelphi AD 4104). Reviewed by none other than Robert Christgau (“Dean of American rock critics”), who bestowed the album with a B+.
Phred A. Heutte, in the April,1980 edition of DC arts monthly Unicorn Times, would observe If It Ain’t One Thing to be “one of the first Adelphi rock albums,” as well as “one of the only local albums in a barren period for DC vinyl,” noting that it “was well recorded by the standards of the day, and received positive notices from all quarters, particularly for Bill’s solid, quietly humorous and intelligent lyrics.” Holland would inform Heutte that “Gene Rosenthal somehow sold 2000 Bill Holland records – before anybody outside my close family knew who that was – simply because they heard it on the air, or saw it in a store, or somehow told them about me,” adding that he “had worked very closely with Adelphi on all phases of the first LP, from recording to mastering to stuffing publicity packages himself. ‘I could have written that article in the March issue [about manufacturing records],’ he laughs.’”
Stephen Spano: Eye to Eye
Recorded in 1975 at Track’s main studio, as well as Adelphi Studios & Bethesda’s Urban Recordings (Adelphi AD 4103). Rosenthal would perform engineering and production responsibilities.
Eye to Eye’s trippy photo-montage and “textured” album cover
This “kaleidoscope of folk, rock, and jazz” (as described by Adelphi) is well demonstrated on album opener “Love Is the Sound,” with its inventive bass work. Music blogger Play It Again, Max (who profiles “out-of-print LPs never issued on CD”) declares Eye to Eye to be “a great record” and “well worth the listen.”
The Reuben Brown TrioFeaturing Richie Cole— Starburst
Recorded completely at Track 1975 and released 1976 — featuring the DC jazz group, The Reuben Brown Trio: Reuben Brown, Marshall Hawkins, Bernard Sweetney. (Adelphi AD 5001 — also re-released on CD – GCD 5001).
U.S. cover (left) designed by Dick Bangham vs. JAPANESE cover (right)
The Nighthawks: Several Nighthawks LP releases were recorded at Track = Open All Nite [Adelphi AD 4105, noted below in Adelphi Album Releases of the 1970s] engineered by Obie O’Brien in 1976; as well as Side Pocket Shot, its ‘progressive’ and wider-ranging follow-up (Adelphi AD 4115), engineered and mixed by Gerry Wyckoff & (Cap’n) Jon Curlin in 1977 [noted below in Dick Bangham Historical Spotlight]; Jacks & Kings (Adelphi AD 4120) from 1978, which was recorded with members of The Muddy Waters Band — Pinetop Perkins, Bob Margolin, Guitar Jr. & Calvin Jones — plus Dave Maxwell “in the wee wee hours of Summer & Fall 1977”; and the live album, Times Four (venue: El Mocambe, Toronto – c. 1979), with studio sessions recorded 1977-78 at Track, plus a live set hosted by John Hall at Georgetown’s radical radio station, WGTB — released in 1982 (Adelphi 2-LP AD 4130/35).
Gerald Herzhaft in the Encyclopedia of the Blues says Pinetop Perkins “is at his best on the collections Living Chicago Blues (Alligator) and Jacks and Kings (Adelphi); the latter was recorded with the Nighthawks.” Brawner Smoot, meanwhile, would write in his review for Unicorn Times‘ October, 1982 edition — “The previously unreleased material is a representation of the broad range of influences the Nighthawks have absorbed during their ten year, ten album trek around the States” (check out highlight “How Many More Years” with Guitar Jr.).
Bill Blue Band — Two Adelphi LP releases recorded and mixed at Track: Sing Like Thunder — Recorded 1978, released 1979 (Adelphi LP – AD 4109). Givin’ Good Boys A Bad Name — Recorded 1979, released 1980 (AD 4118), and “produced by [Cap’n Jon] for Adelphi,” according to Unicorn Times in their April, 1980 edition.
Says one 60s/70s rock blogger — “After releasing two albums Indian Summer Blues and Street Preacher on the Richmond, Va. based Feather Records, Bill signed with the prestigious Adelphi Records, one of the best blues labels in the US with worldwide distribution releasing Sing Like Thunder and Givin’ Good Boy’s A Bad Name. This gave [Blue] the exposure to play venues all over Europe and the US.”
[Thanks to Bill Hanke Music Research Archives for vintage unicorn times access]
+ + + + +
However, there is a built-in structural problem in trying to tell the history of Gene Rosenthal and Adelphi Records in a linear fashion for, at any point in the story, a number of vectors may be in play, as Gene has worn many hats over the years: musicologist, audio engineer, photographer, producer, label owner, distributor, political organizer and activist (who spoke out, for instance, against the strict segregation policy of DC’s Glen Echo amusement park).
Using Takoma Records as the source of inspiration – as Washington City Paper’s David Dunlap, Jr. noted in 2006 – Rosenthal would launch Adelphi Records in 1968 (“I named it after a Fahey song, ‘The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill,’”), and only four years hence be one of the principal forces behind the creation of the National Association of Independent Record Distributors (NAIRD, to evolve into AFIM, or the Association for Independent Music), along with Dennis Bursh and Gary Seibert. The following year, 1973, Rosenthal – along with Takoma’s Charlie Mitchell and Bob Koester of Chicago’s Delmark Records – would serve on the Steering Committee when the NAIRD officially established itself (the same year, incidentally, Adelphi would release the first solo album by one of pop music’s all-time songwriters, Gerry Goffin).
The Original Adelphi Studios: 516 East Indian Spring Drive
Prior to the studio’s construction, Rosenthal – as Billboard‘s Chris Morris would note – had been a “discophile” who used his reel-to-reel equipment to copy rare, expensive blues 78s (likely from Joe Bussard, who was influential to other blues scholars in making his 78s collection available to people like John Fahey). “The only way to make copies of early 78s, because you couldn’t afford to buy them,” Rosenthal pointed out, “was to have a tape recorder. Most of us couldn’t afford brand-new equipment, but very good second-hand semi-professional gear. Shortly after that, as my friends actually started going out and doing the first round of rediscoveries, the only thing to add was microphones. I had an early interest in audio, anyway, so it was just a natural progression.”
Construction efforts to turn the basement of 516 East Indian Spring Drive into a proper functioning recording studio began in late 1962 and were completed by mid-1964. Adelphi Studio’s inaugural recording — John Fahey’s third album, Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites — would take place on August 22, 1964, with DC’s new “beltway” (i.e.,Interstate 495) but a stone’s throw away, having officially opened five days prior.
“Contemporary Guitar” – recorded at Adelphi Studios
The following month or so, Rosenthal would record Skip James within days of his being rediscovered and brought back to the DC area by Fahey, Bill Barth and Henry Vestine. Gene Rosenthal fills in the details via the Adelphi Records website:
Skip [James] was found in the Tunica County, Mississippi, hospital by John Fahey and Bill Barth, young guitarists who were acting on a tip from Ishmon Bracey. Like James, Bracey had recorded blues 78s during the late 20s/early 30s heyday, but, as a sanctified preacher, Bracey had no interest in returning to the Devil’s music. According to Barth, age and infirmity had put James at the bottom of the plantation hierarchy, responsible for such mindless tasks as overseeing the sowing of cotton seeds into furrows, and Skip was both delighted and anxious to leave Mississippi farm life. The two young men paid the modest hospital bill and whisked Skip away to the thriving East Coast folk scene. After rehearsals and several performances, including a brief but memorable appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, Skip was ready to record again. Fahey, Barth and partner Ed Denson arranged for sessions with sound engineer Gene Rosenthal in the basement studio of the Rosenthal home in Silver Spring, Maryland. Those sessions, supplemented with live performance tapes made by Rosenthal at the Ontario Place Coffee House.
These 1964 recordings for Takoma would not see release, however, until 1993, after Rosenthal had the opportunity to buy back his own recordings.
Later in 1964, perhaps November or December, Rosenthal would record Mississippi John Hurt at the Ontario Place Coffee House for Dick Spottswood’s Piedmont label (Gene would also engineer Pete Seeger’s interview of Hurt at a house in DC’s Mt. Pleasant neighborhood around that same time). Toward the end of 1964, or possibly early 1965, Rosenthal would also record blues guitarists Archie Edwards and Frank Mizell, at Adelphi Studios.
Rosenthal – who met Michael Stewart while attending George Washington University from 1960-62, where he co-founded GW’s Folk Music Club (incorporated later as the Folklore Society of Greater Washington) – would work for Project Hope between the years 1962-1964, before recording Mississippi John Hurt in late 1964.
Gene would return to his studies, first locally for one year (Montgomery College, 1964) then in St. Louis for a couple more (Washington University, 1966-1967), before deciding to take the big plunge — via Adelphi’s founding in 1968 — to commit himself fully to music.
Soon after the label’s formation, Rosenthal — along with sister Carol and Mike Stewart — would take to the road. As noted in in The Guardian‘s 2007 obituary for Stewart:
Adelphi conducted several field trips to blues locales to trace and record half-forgotten musicians. Stewart was always on hand, whether to jog the performers’ memories by playing them their own music, learned from rare 78rpm discs, or to provide accompaniment. In Memphis he played with guitarist Richard ‘Hacksaw‘ Harney; in Chicago with Johnny Shines, Sunnyland Slim, David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards and Big Joe Williams [the latter serving as talent scout]; and in St Louis with pianist Henry Brown and singer-guitarist Henry Townsend.
[Memphis Piano Red, with Stewart, visiting Sleepy John Estes AT HOME IN TENN.]
Adelphi’s inaugural release, meanwhile, would be the 1968 debut album by a fellow member of the so-called East Coast Blues Mafia member, Mike Stewart, under the nom de guerre “Backwards Sam Firk” (now available as a digital download — GCD 1001). As it turns out, Stewart had been the first to lay down tracks at Adelphi in 1963, before construction had been completed on the studio.
Firk would team up with Stephan Michelson (i.e., “Delta X“) for 1969’s Deadly Duo (on which the pair would be joined by Tom Hoskins on “Nineteen Fifty-One Blues”) and also blues musician and singer, Henry Townsend (whose earliest recording “Henry’s Worry Blues” was released by Columbia in 1930) for Henry T. Music Man., a collection of recordings made between the years 1969-1974 — including 1971 sessions at Adelphi.
Little Brother Montgomery’s Long Road to “Folsom Prison Blues” … and Adelphi Records: Historical Spotlight
Little Brother Montgomery would later record No Special Rider – with Jeanne Carroll – for Adelphi in 1969, the label’s third album release.
1971 would see the beginning of additional new recordings of Adelphi artists previously recorded on the road in 1969, facilitated in part by these same artists visiting the Washington, DC area for musical engagements, such as Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival.
Adelphi’s early releases would embrace African-American “roots” music — Furry Lewis, Bukka White, Gus Cannon, David“Honeyboy” Edwards, Johnny Shines (one-time touring mate of Robert Johnson), and George & Ethel McCoy (niece and nephew, by the way, of Memphis Minnie [McCoy]) — at a time when many (white) Americans were still getting their blues distilled through a British sensibility — if at all.
1972 letter from renowned photographer David Gahr to Gene Rosenthal
Suni McGrath, whose Cornflower Suite would be Adelphi’s second full-length release, would note his primary musical influences on the album’s cover notes:
“The music on this record is my attempt to explore and further the American acoustic guitar. I have four sources for the musics here presented: Bulgarian music for rhythmic modes and ideas, also modulation of melodic modes and harmonies; Hindustani for subtle melodic graces and ideas of variation; Fahey for the conception of the art; Bartok for modal harmonies analogous to conventional western harmony, and treatment of themes.”
Featured song: “Cornflower Suite” by Suni McGrath (1969)
[Pssst:click on triangle above to play the entire “Cornflower Suite” by Suni McGrath]
1969’s Cornflower Suite (currently out of print and trading on Ebay for $19-$87, though soon to be re-released) was recorded at Silver Spring’s Adelphi Studios, as well as the following albums bulleted below:
Houston Stackhouse’s 1972 recording sessions at Adelphi, meanwhile, would finally see light of day in 1994 with CD release, Cryin’ Won’t Help You.
Suni McGrath‘s 1972 album, Childgrove received engineering and production assistance from Gene Rosenthal (who also served as photographer).
Paul Geremia‘s Hard Life Rockin’ Chair from 1973 would also be produced and engineered by Rosenthal at Adelphi Studios.
Stephen Spano would record the backing track for “Pam’s Song” from 1975’s s Eye to Eye at Adelphi Studios.(while the song would be further embellished at Track Recorders — see album history above)
Harmonica Frank Floyd — Harmonica Frank Floyd (Swamp Root) — full-length release from one-time “medicine show” performer of songs that were recorded 1972-74 and issued in 1976.
Letter to Creem Magazine – Feb. 1974 edition
Cover design & illustration by Dick Bangham — Liner notes by Frank Floyd
< = = = Historical Spotlight on Dick Bangham = = = >
DC-area artist Dick Bangham — most famously associated with his front cover image for Root Boy Slim‘s Zoom album of 1979 — has enjoyed working with Gene Rosenthal on a number of album releases over the years, in terms of cover design, illustration and/or art direction (most recently, he and wife Linda did the art & design work on the new album by Ken Swartz & the Palace of Sin noted above):
Bangham’s earliest Adelphi commission would be to provide the ink illustration for DC-area “hippie” ensemble Beverly Pureheart’s (now rather rare) EP from 1969: Continue reading →
Zero to 180 isn’t above recycling old tricks, like posting a “vintage” high-resolution image as a shameless distraction ploy to stall for time, while it finishes pulling together over fifty years of history celebrating Gene Rosenthal and his Silver Spring-based independent music operation, Adelphi Records.
It’s been months in the making, but music history – like good food – cannot be rushed. Coming this week (and not a moment too soon ) is the next installment of Zero to 180’s epic Silver Spring music history trilogy, with an encore salute to Track Recorders, the recording studio that once gave New York City and Los Angeles a run for their money.
This past weekend’s sojourn to the Bill Hanke Music Research Archives made even more clear to this historian-in-training that Track Recorders once led the DC area not only in the quality of its audio engineering but also in the creativity of its advertising. For the December, 1979 edition of DC’s leading arts monthly, The Unicorn Times, Track would produce yet another full-page ad to close the Seventies in memorable fashion. Can you identify the Track alumni whimsically depicted in the holiday-themed ad below?
[For maximum fun, click on the vintage ad above to view these musical magi, appropriately enough, in ultra high-resolution]
Note the playful reference to the aforementioned “Superman” ad referenced in this past February’s teaser for “Bill McCullough Remembers: Track Recorders.” By the way, on camelback, from left to right, that’s Gene Simmons (duh) of Kiss, Linda Ronstadt (wearing a “Vote Brown” button), and Root Boy Slim – naturally – wearing the custom “ROOT” eyewear.
Bill McCullough — who would serve music history as Track’s Chief Engineer from 1977-1983 — can readily conjure a mental image of the Silver Spring recording studio‘s control room in all its 1970s wood-paneled glory:
Photo(s) courtesy of Bill McCullough
Silver Spring, in the new century, is now blessed to have the presence of the American Film Institute, who would help revitalize – with county taxpayer support – an art deco movie palace that came this close to getting the wrecking ball as a public exhibition space. I remember attending 2013’s documentary tribute to the legendary Van Nuys recording complex, Sound City, and being particularly struck by the realization that the film is essentially a love letter to a recording console. But not just any console: Neve. (The true-life film suddenly gets very dramatic when Sound City becomes no longer solvent, thus threatening to forfeit its Neve console to the mixing board orphanage!)
Silver Spring – thanks to Track Recorders – was once also blessed with a hand-wired analogue mixing console designed and manufactured by Neve (of England). The big question on everyone’s minds: Is it Neve (like ‘Steve’) or Neve (like ‘Neve’ Campbell)? Answer: unclear.
1970s Silver Spring Breakout Star: Track’s Neve mixing console!
Ownership of a Neve console would figure prominently in the summary blurb Track provided* for The Unicorn Times‘ Annual Studio Guide in its October, 1980 edition. Track’s main recording room, McCullough notes, was spacious enough for an orchestra, and featured a hardwood floor mounted on springs that – when combined with a custom Neve mixing board – added up to stellar sound, as affirmed by no less an authority than Steely Dan producer, Gary Katz, not to mention Howard University Jazz Ensemble’s Gregory Charles Royal. (McCullough is unable to verify the model number or year of manufacturing but does affirm that Track’s mixing board had “Neve 1081 EQ for each input channel”.)
“No Drinks or Cigarettes on [the Neve!!!] Console”
When he was twelve years old, Bill McCullough already knew that he wanted to pursue audio engineering professionally. Perhaps this was inevitable given Bill’s background as the son of a musician mother and father who possessed dual engineering degrees. Transforming a Northern Virginia house into a recording studio with mentor, neighbor and best friend, Pete Lambert, proved to be a formative event in Bill’s young adult life. McCullough, around this time period, would also enjoy membership in a jazz group named Blue Horizon with future Danny Gatton bandmate, John Previti.
An early-career opening at DC’s Audio Video Concepts, a small studio with tape duplication services, was made available by Gerry Wyckoff‘s departure in 1974 to Track Recorders (which he would own a few years hence). Wyckoff would sagely advise Bill to ditch the long hair, thus helping to seal McCullough’s eventual success in being selected to join President Ford’s Election Committee for two years, beginning in February, 1974.
Bill’s audio engineering skills were immediately put to work fulfilling his job’s mandate to record everything Gerald Ford said in public. With funding from both the Ford Commission and the National Archives, every speech was recorded for posterity, as well as non-syndicated sound bites edited for radio. McCullough has the distinction of engineering the audio for Air Force One’s first ever press conference. [Historical aside: A photo exists of Bill shaking hands with Ford on the day of the election; “Thanks for the use of your headphones,” the former Vice-President would later say to McCullough, in reference to a prior act of generosity on Air Force One.]
Ooh La La! 25′ x 40′ Main Studio room – Track Recorders
McCullough’s intersection with Track Recorders would occur at the time Gerry Wyckoff was acquiring the studio itself, i.e., April/May 1977. Bill, in fact, “begged” for a job. Fortunately, for history’s sake, Gerry said yes.
Root Boy Slim & Track Recorders
Root Boy Slim would feature prominently early in Bill McCullough’s tenure at Track, and the sequence of events leading to his signing with one of the top major labels would have all the makings of rock legend. Dick Bangham, who would enjoy renown for his iconic cover image for Root Boy’s Zoom album, was another key participant during this period who saw it all go down:
“Joe Lee and I originally booked the studio in April 1977 to start recording the Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band demo album that would eventually lead to the 1978 Warner Bros release produced by Gary Katz. During that spring and summer, we would go into the studio for a few days at a time whenever the band was in town to play gigs.
Joe would take the latest mixes to Josh at WHFS, and he would play them on air. The other ‘HFS DJs soon jumped on the Root Boy bandwagon, and the demo became one of the most requested albums of the year – months before it was actually released as an LP!
Josh had gone to Bard College with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, and when we had a full album of material mixed he gave a cassette to Fagen and invited them to come see the band perform in DC. Then Fagen handed the tape to Steely Dan’s producer Gary Katz in LA and Gary flipped. He had recently been hired by Warner Bros Records A&R and after hearing the demo, signed Root Boy to a two-album contract.”
[L to R] Gerry Wyckoff, Les, Doug Percival, Kate Ragusa, Bill, Mark Greenhouse & Root Boy (Kneeling)
Upon being signed by Warner Brothers, Root Boy, along with the Sex Change Band, and associated musicians and personnel (e.g., Bill McCullough and Dick Bangham) would be flown to Miami to re-record the songs that got the band signed. During the time it took to record at Criteria Studios, the band found itself holed up in a mansion overlooking Biscayne Bay thanks to the label’s largesse.
McCullough would work with engineer (and songwriter) Roger ‘The Immortal’ Nichols while in Miami and later characterize these sessions as a major learning experience. McCullough took careful note of Nichols’ approach to mic’ing the drums, for instance — two microphones per tom, 10-12 microphones for the entire drum kit — and brought these ideas back to Track, thus directly raising the quality of audio engineering.
Bangham picks up the story again:
“Within 6 months since Joe [Lee] and I had brought them into Track, we were recreating the entire album (using McCullough’s masters for reference), with Katz producing and Roger Nichols engineering at Criteria Studios in Miami – and Fagen & Becker attending the sessions. We were in the studio for the whole month of November ’77.
Since we’d burned up so much time recording at Criteria, the mixing had to be done in December at ABC Studios in LA. Katz and Nichols couldn’t quite match Root’s puking vocals in ‘Boogie Til You Puke’ at Criteria, so they extracted that from the Track demo master.
Bob Marley and the Wailers (including guitarist Junior Marvin who currently lives in DC) came into Criteria one day while we were there in November ’77 to record a single, ‘Punky Reggae Party.’ We were all gobsmacked.”
Friends Making Music at Track:
Gerry Wyckoff, Root Boy, Doug Percival, Bill, Kate Ragusa, Les & Mark Greenhouse
The Washington Post, who fortunately were supportive of Root Boy from the beginning, informs Bangham, would dispatch Leslie Marshall to write a full-length feature profile of Foster Mackenzie III for the February 26, 1984 edition of its Sunday Magazine. WashingtonPost readers were no doubt intrigued to learn that ‘Ken’ – as “Prince La La” – would front a soul/R&B band named The Midnight Creepers while a Yale undergrad in the mid-1960s. The future Root Boy Slim, in fact, would attend Yale at the same time as our future 43rd President, reports McCullough (they would not get along). Would you be surprised to know that bassist Bob “Rattlesnake” Greenlee was also a Yalie?
Root Boy, Ron Holloway & Deanna Bogart
Ron Holloway, an “amazing” musician (as affirmed by McCullough), is quoted by Marshall as saying, “Slim started on a level — in terms of audience size and enthusiasm — that most bands in this city never even reach.” Holloway deserves recognition for being an important part of Root Boy’s success, McCullough emphasizes, having invested “hundreds of hours” in the band’s early days helping to develop its sound. [Holloway, who would go on to from The Ron Holloway Band, recorded a 7-inch at Track in 1984 (“Teaser“) shortly after McCullough’s departure with The Hijackers, featuring vocalists Ann Ellis & Amy Kale and guitarists Chris Moutson & Rick Prince — a Mitch Collins-produced session that included Steuart Smith on guitar and Jim Crenca on bass, congas & knob twiddling — picture sleeve design by Dick Bangham.]
McCullough still vividly recalls that one fateful day when Root Boy and the band were lounging at the studio playing billiards (or possibly the Missile Command arcade game) when the TV suddenly erupted to life with news announcements that the Shah of Iran had been deposed. All of sudden, before McCullough’s very eyes, a song was born — note Ernie Lancaster‘s “Iranian” intro that abruptly jumps (using what sounds like a good old-fashioned slice of the razor blade) to a re-start of the song in a modern blues groove, as Root Boy and the band put a twist on B.B. King’s big 1970 crossover hit.
“The Shah Is Gone” Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band 1983
Bangham adds this coda: “[Future Track owner] Mark Greenhouse wisely stored all of the Root Boy masters and I now have them, thankfully! I’ve reissued 4 of the 6 albums as CDs on Rip Bang Records, with bonus unreleased tracks on each of them. Currently working on a full length Root documentary which we hope will be done by next year.”
Bangham’s covers for 1978 Warner Bros. debut & 1984’s ‘Dog Secrets’ albums
Track Recorders as Magnet for DC-Area Talent
Singer-songwriter Bob Brown also played an important part in the Track Recorders story. Especially noteworthy is the musical connection Brown shared with Greenhouse going back to DC’s “beat” coffeehouse days of the Crow’s Toe (Jim Morrison’s old stomping ground), Through the Gates and the Iguana Coffeehouses [see Mark Opsasnik’s history piece in the Beltway Poetry Quarterly]. Thanks to Greenhouse, The Iguana would be the first of the DC coffeehouses to charge a cover to see Bob Brown perform.
A Provincetown gig opening for Richie Havens led to Brown becoming a recording artist signed to Haven’s Stormy Forest, an MGM subsidiary label. Havens produced and sang backup on Brown’s first two albums – 1970’s The Wall I Built Myself and 1971’s Willoughby’s Lament. Tompkins Square decided to reissue these two titles in 2016, an act made possible with assistance from the aforementioned John Simson. Brown eventually joined forces with Baltimore-area vocalist, Aleta Greene, and things looked promising when the two got signed to almighty Columbia in 1973, only to find themselves dropped in the wake of Clive Davis’s sudden departure from the label.
Bob Brown – NYC
Brown’s extensive recording experience at Track predated the “dynamic duo” of Bill McCullough and Mark Greenhouse. He had worked closely with George Massenburg at Hunt Valley’s ITI recording complex, where he and Aleta Greene recorded two albums, Let Me Be Your Love and Hit the Truth, that unfortunately did not enjoy official release until years later via Brown’s own website (Brown and Greene, interestingly, would record backing vocals for Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band’s Zoom album).
Under Greenhouse’s leadership, Brown continued at Track Recorders with sessions for the No Refunds for the Rainalbum. Songs were reconstructed in the studio, with backing tracks laid down by the indispensable rhythm section of bassist Jim Hanson and percussionist Steve Dennis. Brown treasured the “band of brothers” atmosphere at Track, where collaboration created a magical transformation into something greater – thanks to everyone’s input and sweat equity – than the songwriter could ever have imagined. McCullough’s “steady hand,” combined with Greenhouse’s musical command and Steuart Smith’s virtuosity made for a formidable team.
Greenhouse, Brown & McCullough at Track for the ‘No Refunds’ sessions
The team’s mastery of getting the most out of the artist was memorably displayed during the recording of No Refunds album closer “Quiet Waterfall” when Brown was told to play a solo vocal and guitar track “just to set the recording levels,” only to find his studio brethren waving their hands frantically behind the glass of the control room, motioning for him to let the final notes ring out. “You nailed it!” yelled Greenhouse, McCullough and Smith excitedly, as it dawned on Brown that this supposed “test” recording was simply a ruse to elicit a relaxed and unforced performance. And it worked like a charm.
[Pssst: Click on triangle above to play “Quiet Waterfall” by Bob Brown]
Cover photo by Big Al Sevilla
Fellow Track studio stalwart, Steuart Smith – who referred to Track as a “Polaris” for musical talent in the Maryland/DC/Virginia area – would point out in his liner notes for Brown’s No Refunds album that “the real reason to work there I think was the presence of two extremely talented and (for the time) accomplished pros; engineer, Bill McCullough and engineer, producer, musician and songwriter, Mark Greenhouse.” (Richard Harrington would also note that Smith enjoyed renown “as a guitarist and keyboardist in Washington and Nashville decades before he earned accolades for producing albums by Shawn Colvin, Terri Clark and Rodney Crowell, and 25 years before he started soaring as guitarist with the Eagles.”)
Steve Dennis at Track Recorders
We learned from Johnny Castle‘s profile in January’s epic overview of Track’s prodigious output about Dog Days Revue, a musical lark from a dedicated core of studio enthusiasts — Mark Greenhouse, Jim Hanson, Steve Dennis, Jeff Watson, Jamie McKinnon, Mitch Collins, Steuart Smith, and Castle — who would produce one of Bill McCullough’s favorite recordings, “Inspiration.” Jeff Watson’s name would appear on another special Track recording that McCullough would also find to be rather lyrically adept: “Didn’t Count on You” (composed by Mickey Jones) from Downtown’s debut album Band on a Budget – which won a “Wammy” award in 1985 by the Washington Area Music Association..
2005 Track Recorders Reunion!
[(L to R) Bob Brown, Big Al Sevilla, Steuart Smith, Bill McCullough, Jeff Watson]
A number of Track studio stalwarts — Steve Dennis, John Previti, Steuart Smith, Tim Jarvis, Han Ro, Pete Lambert & Pete Finney — would join together in common purpose to help fully realize the songs written by Mark Greenhouse for his Shore Leave album. Two of these songs – “Lifetime Guarantee” and “See It Through” – would be recorded around the time of the first Root Boy Slim album, when Gary Katz paid a visit to Track one day.
Mark and Bill had already said their goodbyes and begun the playback on “Lifetime Guarantee” when Gary came bursting back into the control room demanding to know, “What is that?!” Inspired by Katz’s enthusiasm, the musicians would go right back into the studio to record a few more songs. McCullough’s old band, Blue Horizon, would be brought in to play on “Caroline” – a song inspired by Caroline Kennedy that would include Previti, along with violinist Han Ro and guitarist Peter Lambert – as well as “Flags.”
Guitarist/violinist Coe Anderson and his roots rock revival band, The Hub Caps. were no strangers to Track Recorders, either. Anderson, McCullough remembers, would be brought in on one of Mitch’s own songs. McCullough also fondly recalls the sessions that produced seminal seven-inches from Original Fetish and The Slickee Boys in 1979 and 1980, respectively.
McCullough also enjoyed the five days or so it took to engineer The Muffins‘ groundbreaking album <185> on which Fred Frith would indulge his love for sounds played in reverse. French webzine, Guts of Darkness: Les Archives du Sombre et de L’Expermental would proclaim <185> (with the assistance of Google Translation) “the ultimate album of The Muffins” and assert that “the group did not usurp its place among the other great barons of Rock in Opposition, such as Henry Cow or Univers Zero” (Silver Spring-based independent label, Cuneiform Records, would reissue this album in 1996). Muffins percussionist, Paul Sears, well remembers Track Recorders:
“When Bill Tate owned the place long ago, I visited a few times. I actually helped carry that Neve mixer out of a Ryder truck, and up the stairs and down the hall and into control room to the pedestal. Took half a day and 6 or 7 people as I recall. Tate had a sledgehammer to just bash anything in the way! Tate or someone took lots of pix, but I never saw any. This was maybe 1973-4..? Years later when The Muffins had a budget in 1979, we visited all the local major studios, and Track had the best overall vibe, and a big room which was where my drums went. No drum booth for me…..EVER. Live sound! Bill and Mark Greenhouse were there then, and we ended up working with Bill on the <185> album. I remember the [Night]Hawks were next after us, and would hang out wondering what the hell The Muffins were doing! Bill suggested getting Fred Frith to produce a Root [Boy] record! Never panned out. <185> was the only album I have ever recorded right after a tour, so we knocked it out, ready for mastering in 4 days during Sept of 1980. I went back in 1984 and did some stuff with Mark Greenhouse and Dave Newhouse from The Muffins, which might see release someday, although the 2″ master was stolen from a storage space in 1995. I have mixes though ….. When Mark closed up and sold all the old stuff (1987?) I got the enormous chrome 3 head Pioneer cassette deck that was used for some slap echo. I think it was used for Nighthawks and Root Boy records. Bill would know. It finally died in 1992. A great place with great people. Fond memories.”
Mini Q & A with Bill McCullough
Q: Whose job was it to “fire up” the Neve each day – or did it ever get turned off?
A: Generally speaking, the Neve mixing board was left on. But if it were anybody’s job to flip the switch on the Neve, that responsibility belonged to Doug Percival, who did all the physical set-up tasks for each studio session, as well as greet artists and coordinate all the bookings as Office Manager.
Q: What’s the RIAA-certified gold record hanging on the rear wall of the control room?
A: Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel album.
Track Pokes Fun at Audio Engineering Jargon
Parse the dry ‘technicalese’ in the audio engineering text below – Track’s summary blurb for The Unicorn Times‘ Annual Studio Guide* published in their April, 1980 edition – and you will find a sprinkling of Gerry Wyckoff witticisms.
Unsuspecting readers might not realize that, in addition to actual audio enhancement devices — “aural exciter”; “flanger-doubler”; “harmonizer” — Wyckoff took liberties with the names of a few other studio equipment items by rebranding (or hyping) them as “sonic reflection inverter,” “electro-acoustic accelerator,” and (my personal favorite) “doomsday implosion simulator,” which McCullough explains is an EMT plate reverb utilized in a rather aggressive and heavy-handed manner. Did you also catch the cheeky reference to “4 casting couches” at the end of the equipment list above?
Differentiating Track: Marketing Over the Years
That same October, 1980 issue of The Unicorn Times would also include a head-turning full-page advertisement trumpeting Track Recorders’ ability to provide “studio musicians for all instruments and vocals on call.”
[Left to right: Bill McCullough, Mark Greenhouse & Gerry Wyckoff]
Things at Track weren’t always thus. Advertisements from earlier years reveal a studio in the process of establishing a reputation for excellence.
Track advertisement, circa early 1970s — All about the hits!
Track Recorders for President
How heartening it is to see Track Recorders perform their civic duty in April of 1980 when they paid for that pricy Superman-themed full-page ad.(as featured in “part one“); Younger readers (to the extent they exist) may not realize that The Unicorn Times – at that particular moment in time – was desperately trying to keep their wonderful arts publication free and wholly-supported by advertising.
Outtake Photo from 1980 Unicorn Times “Superman” Ad (Bill, Mark & Gerry)
Note that The Nighthawks would also do their part to keep The Unicorn Times the “people’s” publication, when they participated in a benefit volleyball game just before the band’s headlining set at the University of Maryland’s Richie Coliseum. [Polygram, points out Bill McCullough, continues to sit on an entire album of Jimmy Thackery-era Nighthawks material that was engineered at Track by McCullough — some of the songs would come out on the Ten Years Live album, while their respective studio versions continue to gather dust.]
Forever indebted to the Bill Hanke Music Research Archives for access to all the vintage ads featured in this piece.
Bill McCullough: Post-Track Recorders
Track’s approach during the Greenhouse and McCullough era was hands-on in all the right ways. As Steuart Smith would observe first-hand, “[Mark and Bill] had worked together on numerous projects and [were] able to give aspiring artists a chance to, with minimal financial investment, make high quality demos and local records that transcended the normal standards of such ‘products.’”
After his seven intensive years of Track came to a close, Bill McCullough went on to do audio engineering for television in his work for Arthur Young & Company (a studio facility that produced a successful series of instructional videotapes for Lotus 1-2-3). Bill’s new gig afforded him the opportunity to record the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra on a semi-regular basis as a philanthropic venture for Arthur Young — which would lead rather fortuitously to him meeting future wife, Didi, a member of the Reston Players theater ensemble.
McCullough reflects on his professional engineering experience at Track Recorders, most often in his home basement, where this three-dimensional “forced perspective” diorama (from the hand of Jim McCullough) hangs. Bill takes delight in his father’s blazing a trail in this particular art medium, ignited by a chance encounter in Juarez, Mexico.
Diorama in Forced Perspective:
Track Recorders from a Father’s Vantage Point
“Control room in Silver Spring, MD where the artist’s son, Bill, was the Chief Recording Engineer in the 1980s. The console offers the engineer a selection of over 1500 lights, dials, switches, sliders, buttons, and meters to use as he managed the music being received from many microphones, through amplifiers and other electronics into the 16 track recording machine (shown on right wall) and then back to the musicians’ ears through headsets, speakers, or both. After the session, 16 tracks are mixed until the best of all performances is preserved and lesser passages are discarded. After the mix, the product is played through the machines at left, which had four track, or two track stereo output. The engineer monitored the performers through the studio window where you might see the instruments, stands, mikes, and other gear waiting for the next session. On the left wall was a ‘Gold Record’ earned by Track several years earlier.”
I think my first contact with Track was in 1971 or ’72 on a session produced by Caltrick Simone (née Jeff Stein), whose Secant Records released quite a few titles from DC-area groups in the ’70s and maybe ’80s. I believe he did all his recording at Track. And I’m pretty sure our session was his first as well as mine. How we hooked up I can’t recall. Perhaps an ad in the teen section of The Washington Star.
Guitarist overdubbing on floor – Secant session at Track Recorders – 1971/2
That session was to record two songs for a 45 by a very precocious 16-year-old from Springfield, Va., Jan Ince, who wrote and sang well beyond her years. “I’ve Been Waiting” b/w “Sailor” was Pick Hit of the Week on an AM station in Easton, Md. We all drove down when she was interviewed by the DJ. She later moved to England and married Nick Glennie-Smith, now a big-time movie soundtrack guy: Sadly, I don’t think she’s done any more recording. She was quite wonderful.
Jan Ince Takes Dave Nuttycombe’s Ludwig Drum Kit for a Test Drive – 1971/2
I did a few more Caltrick Simone sessions and a bunch of jingles and soundtrack sessions with ad man Dan Pasley and/or composer Demos Chrissos (who I believe was at one time the mayor of Gaithersburg). There’s a picture of my drums set up at Track on my site, along with some of the tunes I recorded there.
Mixing Decks at Track Recorders – 1971/2
Then the singer in my band, Fran Tate [no relation to Bill Tate], got a job at Track and I got to hang out there much more often. I was there when Buffy Saint Marie stopped by, for reasons unclear then or remembered now. I was also there when Emmylou Harris was recording “Coat of Many Colors.” Not sure if that version ended up on her debut album or if it was just a demo. It was pretty spectacular. Tommy Hannum, then of the Rosslyn Mountain Boys, was playing pedal steel.
Cerphe with Little Feat at Track Recorders
And then there was that pilot for a TV show in 1977 starring Cerphe and Tommy Curtis. I think the only thing that was filmed was an interview with Little Feat at Track. I was the photographer and snapped a bunch of shots. Feat keyboardist Billy Payne met Fran at Track and they got married. At which point I did more recording at Omega, then in Kensington.
Lowell George & Bill Payne behind the board at Track
My ‘claim to fame,’ such as it is, was playing drums on the Jerry’s Ford jingle (“Let the Competition Beware”). I think the session was in ’73, and that earworm played on Metro DC radio for a quarter century. In fact, the tape finally wore out and the jingle was recreated with synthesizers. I was driving home and heard the new version and my ears did a double-take, which may not actually be possible.
Not yet done with the Little Feat photos – Paul Barerre playing with the Neve
So I called up Jerry, planning to do a fun little piece for City Paper about this odd bit of local ephemera. Of course he didn’t know who I was; he was not at the session. Sadly, I can’t remember the producer’s name, but it was just him and the engineer and he just left it to the musicians to come up with…something. The original session was a trio — myself on drums, Gary Falwell (later of Smalltalk fame) on bass and Marc “Chopper” Chopinsky on guitar. We noodled around with all kinds of crazy stuff for hours until the producer got us down to a repeating riff of four descending notes. Horns and vocals were added later.
Final Feat foto – Cerphe & Paul Barerre twiddling knobs
Got $25 for the session. If I’d asked for a nickel royalty I’d be rich today. The jingle was syndicated nationally. I was driving into Dallas one night and heard it on the radio, changed to something like “Frank’s Chevrolet makes it clear, let the competition beware.” And sure enough, there was a billboard for Frank’s Chevrolet with the slogan. I was driving a VW bug.
Anyway, I told Jerry that I was paid $25 for his jingle and he got very short and said, ‘I’m sure that was good money for the time.’ Then he cut me off and said he couldn’t talk any more about his ‘business dealings.’ Huh? I wasn’t Woodward and Bernstein coming to blow up his company. Sheesh. So no story. Until now, I suppose.
Unknown Band Rehearsing at Track Session Engineered by Co-Owner Bill Tate
Coda: One of the things I always liked about recording at Track was that there was a Little Tavern right across the street. That was pretty much the menu for every session.”