Earliest Recording of a Melodica?

One of Zero to 180’s earliest pieces (from 2012) concerned itself with documenting the earliest recording of a melodica (i.e., keyboard version of a harmonica), and 1966 seems to be year to beat in this regard, with the composer, Steve Reich, as well as future pop giants, The Bee Gees, having both committed the melodica to tape that same year.

This summer on a long road trip, I was enjoying a CD compilation of rare 45s and obscure album tracks that had been thoughtfully assembled by musician/scholar, Joe Goldmark, (and partner at San Francisco’s legendary Amoeba Records), when I was startled to hear a 1960s recording of South African township jive that includes a melodica!

“Ice Cream and Suckers (pts. 1 & 2)”     Soweto Stokvel Septette     1966?

Incredibly, when you search the entire Discogs database for recordings by the group, Soweto Stokvel Septette, only one item turns up:  a various artists LP release issued on the Mercury label for US distribution entitled Ice Cream & Suckers:  South African Soul, and which features the title track, parts one and two (stitched together in the mix above).

Ice Cream & Suckers - Various Artists Mercury LP-aZero to 180 is impressed with Mercury’s receptiveness to the exciting new sounds coming out of South Africa at that particular time in the 1960s (20 years or so before Paul Simon’s Graceland album) — only question is exactly when?  Before 1966, possibly?

Here’s a clue:  this 4-star review in Billboard‘s April 19, 1969 edition.  However, this description for an online auction sale pegs the album as being a 1966 LP release!  Curiously (or not), the description for this online auction sale approximates the release date to be “c. 1966,” while Lyon, France’s Sofa Records also understands the album’s year of release as 1966.

Assuming this is true, can we necessarily assume that Soweto Stokvel Septette recorded their two-part title track in 1966?  In other words, was the recording made the previous year or even earlier?  The back cover liner notes (courtesy of ElectricJive), unfortunately, do not shed light in this regard.  Nevertheless, “Ice Cream and Suckers” is now, at the very least, part of a three-way tie for earliest melodica recording.

Double-click on image below to view liner notes at maximum resolution

Ice Cream & Suckers - Various Artists Mercury LP-cc

One other supporting clue:  Soweto Stokvel Septette recorded a 45 of “South African ska” that also happened to be released in 1966, according to this vendor.

Soweto Stokvel Septette 45Zero to 180, you might recall, put Joe Goldmark’s music research to good use when its staff compiled a special list of King-related steel guitar releases from Joe’s landmark work, The International Steel Guitar and Dobro Discography.

International Steel Guitar - Dobro DiscographyZero to 180 history pieces related to the steel guitar

Melodica as High Art: “Talkin’ Blues” Dub Style

I confess I am not an Augustus Pablo scholar, but I would bet big money that Pablo’s dub take on Bob Marley’s “Talkin’ Blues” is among the most inspired recordings in his canon.    I only wish I could determine the source of the original Marley vocal and backing track – it’s a stellar version.  Pablo blows great lines with deep feeling from start to finish.  This song strikes me as a dub reggae version of the “high lonesome” sound for which country music is famous:

“Talking Dub”      Pablo & The Wailers

I never tire of listening to this recording – and neither should you.   This track can be found on a French import single-CD double release:  Fe Me Dub + Dubwise Shower Roots Rockers, on the Lagoon label:

.Dubwise Shower

Pioneering Pop: The Melodica on Record

You may not know the melodica by name, but you might have seen one or, more likely, heard one at some point in your life.  Essentially, the melodica is a wind-powered keyboard that sounds much like a harmonica:

Melodica-x

Wikipedia tells me that the “modern version” of the melodica (also known as the “pianica” or “blow organ”) was invented by Hohner in the 1950s, although its more primitive forebears go back to 19th-century Italy, apparently.

I first encountered the instrument in the 1980s during college via Joe Jackson’s ska-inflected “Pretty Boys” and the great side-two opening track off New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies album, “Your Smiling Face.”  Around the same time, someone lent me an album by Augustus Pablo, a dub reggae musician and producer who almost single-handedly popularized the melodica and inspired others to see it as something beyond simply being a “kiddie instrument.”

Wikipedia also tells me that composer, Steve Reich, was the first to use the melodica as a “serious” musical instrument on his 1966 composition entitled, “Melodica” (which would be released 20 years later on the 3-LP compilation of experimental works, Music from Mills, by Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, and Ramon Sender, among many others.).  Fortunately, serious music is outside the scope of this blog — and besides, as the person behind the electronic music blog, Orpheus Music, even admits, Reich’s piece is “certainly not among [his] better works”.

Moreover, I have discovered another musical artist who committed the melodica to tape around the same time as Reich but utilized the instrument within a composition that was aimed at a broader audience.  Who, you might ask, first pushed the boundaries of pop to include the lowly melodica?

Cover art for GERMAN market

Bee Gees LP - Germany

Incredibly, it’s The Bee Gees.  Their second album – originally released in Australia in 1966 under the title, Monday’s Rain (later Spicks and Specks, but repackaged here in the States as Rare, Precious & Beautiful on Atco) – includes a catchy, Beatles-y composition, “Tint of Blue,” that features an instrumental break whose haunting melody is played on the melodica:

“Tint of Blue”     The Bee Gees     1966

The first person who can find a melodica on a pop recording prior to 1966 wins the lucky two-dollar bill that I keep in my wallet.

ARGENTINA CASH-IN LP (with pugilistic cover concept) that includes “Tinte de Azul”

Bee Gees vs Beatles LP I - Argentina

¡UPDATE!  Click on link to November 29, 2017 melodica piece