Gene Rosenthal & Adelphi Records: Ahead of the Curve

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)

adelphi-studios-aThus, 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, DavidHoneyboyEdwards, 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 VestineMax 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. 1963gene-rosenthal-aa

“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

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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.”

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[Adelphi’s Scully 280-2/4]                                [Adelphi’s Sony ES 22T]

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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:

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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.”

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  • Bill Holland & Rent’s DueIf 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+.

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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.’”

[Unicorn Times]

Bill Holland - promo ad

  • Stephen SpanoEye 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

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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 Trio Featuring Richie ColeStarburst
    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)

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Cole has worked with such artists as Buddy Rich, Lionel Hampton, Art Pepper, Sonny Stitt, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Crawford, Boots Randolph, Phil Woods, Eddie Jefferson, Bobby Enriquez, Nancy Wilson, Tom Waits, and Manhattan Transfer.

  • 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 BandPinetop 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).

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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.

adelphi-blue-bill-band-thunder-lpadelphi-blue-bill-band-bad-name-lp

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.”

Bill Blue Band - Unicorn Times (Jul 79)

[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).

Adelphi - Backwards Sam Firk-bAdelphi - Backwards Sam Firk-c

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

John Fahey - Dance of Death LP

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.

adelphi-skip-james-lpLater 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 RichardHacksawHarney; 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.]

Mike Stewart & friends

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. 

adelphi-backwards-sam-firk-lp-i-xFirk 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.

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Little Brother Montgomery’s Long Road toFolsom Prison Blues
… and Adelphi Records:
Historical Spotlight

little-brother-montgomery-crescent-city-blues

Zero to 180 previously examined the issue of Johnny Cash having to pay restitution to Gordon Jenkins over the misuse of a song “Crescent City Blues” that Cash essentially adapted for “Folsom Prison Blues.”   Clearly, Zero to 180 did not examine closely enough, as Jenkins himself had appropriated the title as well as melody of Little Brother Montgomery‘s 1930s instrumental of the same name (as noted by Jonathan Silverman in Nine Choices: Johnny Cash & American Culture from 2010).

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

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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:

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  • 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.

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  • 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 FloydHarmonica 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 editionadelphi-harmonica-frank-creem-letter

Cover design & illustration by Dick Bangham — Liner notes by Frank Floyd

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< = = = 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

Reggae’s “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida”

The Rocksteady Kid — Zero to 180’s radio alter ago — once had the good fortune to experience the frantic exhilaration of spinning classic Jamaican pop of the three-minute variety on the University of Maryland’s student radio station.  I very quickly learned you can’t be complacent when the tunes are coming so fast and furious:  stop to think for very long, and you just might miss your cue for the next track.

Things got even nuttier when the late, great Charlie Coleman (on Eastern Shore’s WKHS) allowed me to program a couple all-truck-driving radio shows in which a goodly number of the tunes were of the two-minute variety.   We were playing with fire each time we tried to carry on a conversation, and sure enough, one time we ended up playing one Moby Grape song too many.

Charlie Coleman & The Dieselbilly Kid @ WKHS     December, 2004

hp photosmart 720I can only imagine, therefore, the considerable ease of being a disc jockey in the 1970s when “Album-Oriented Rock” was the dominant format and short, sharp songs were the exception to the rule.  Stories are legend of DJs putting the needle on such long-winded tracks as Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain” (ten minutes), Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” (fifteen minutes), or that hoary cliche “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida” (seventeen minutes) so they could then disappear from the control room for vast stretches of time to do whatever.

One of the Rocksteady Kid’s favorite memories – and proudest radio moments – was when he had to cut the radio show short unexpectedly in order to allow the station to broadcast that night’s University of Maryland basketball game.  Thus, with nearly twenty minutes to fill, the Kid made an executive decision to play one final track as a swansong.  And it’s a doozy:

Lee Perry     “Free Up the Prisoners”     1978

I’m a little surprised that, with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s world renown as an “audio alchemist” of the First Order, only one audio clip exists on YouTube (with a paltry 1,248 “views,” no less).

Dave Katz has this to say about this epic track in his biography, People Funny Boy:  The Genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry:

“Also noteworthy [from 1978] was ‘Free Up the Prisoners,’ a vocal magnum opus from Perry himself cut on a peculiar ‘Disco Prisoner’ 12-inch single at 33 RPM.  Issued on his new Conquering Lion of Judah label with a beautiful picture sleeve, ‘Free Up the Prisoners’ was nearly 13 minutes of Perry listing the reasons why those in captivity should be freed over a relaxed and rolling re-cut of [Clancy Eccles’] ‘Feel the Rhythm’; two versions of the single were issued in quick succession, the second made notably different through its inclusion of a prominent piano riff.  As the song progressed, a crescendo of sound effects emerged, with sine waves and electric seesaw sounds gradually overpowering the mix; the sobering B-side, ‘Chase Them,’ spoke of non-Rasta elements such as income tax and birth control that needed to be chased away.”

Lee Perry Disco 45Jo-Ann Greene’s review of the song on AllMusic is also worth a peek.

Carl Dobson & the Liberals: Lefty Reggae

In the interest of fair and balanced coverage (given yesterday’s item about 60s soul group The Conservatives), today’s piece features an unshamedly left-leaning outfit — Jamaica’s Carl Dobson & the Liberals on their (1976?) single, “Whopin Mama”:

“Whopin Mama” + Dub     Carl Dobson & the Liberals     1976

Great production from legendary reggae team – Joe Gibbs and his trusty engineer, Errol T. (The Mighty Two) – with the dub B-side surgically attached in this special YouTube mix.

Carl Dobson would also release a couple of singles backed by the “Mighty Liberals” around this same time.

This “wicked” 45 sold at an online auction in 2010 for $26.

Carl Dobson 45Prior to this recording, Dobson would also put out a couple of discs with the esteemed Morwells (Maurice Wellington & Eric “Bingy Bunny” Lamont) in 1974 & 1975.

“Rock Steady Rodeo”: Saddle Up, Mon

1996 saw the independent release of the debut album by a group of renegade Canadian musicians – The Reggae Cowboys – who, in a supreme leap of faith, dared to fuse Jamaican reggae rhythms with, well, cowboy music and imagery.

Van Halen’s “Hang ’em High” as kick-off track

Reggae Cowboys debut LPAs reported in this February 17, 1996 Billboard piece, “Reggae Cowboys Corral Audience“:

“Bird Bellony, leader of The Reggae Cowboys, figures that executives at multinational labels based in Canada might not be too impressed with his five-member group or reggae/country/blues-flavored debut album, Tell the Truth.

With an 1850s photograph of African-American roper and bronco-rider, Nat Love (a.k.a., ‘Deadeye Dick’) on the cover, the album features songs about black gunfighters and cowboys of the Old West.  The album was independently released Nov. 24, 1995 on the band’s Tumbleweed Records.

‘We chose not to look for a deal with a major Canadian record company, because black music, particularly reggae, is dead in Canada,’ says Bellamy, who goes by the name Stone Ranger in the group.

Reggae in Canada has not evolved much from the late ’60s and early ’70s, when such acts as Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley & the Wailers, Toots & the Maytals, Burning Spear and Third World were widely popular, while such Canadian-based acts as Jackie Mittoo, Joe Isaacs, Ishan People, Ernie Smith’s Roots Revival, Leroy Sibbles, Carlene Davis, Faybiene Miranda, and Messenjah struggled to find an audience.”

Two years later, country duo, The Bellamy Brothers, would title their album – coincidentally or not – Reggae Cowboys.  Musical thievery?  It is possible we will never know the answer.

The Reggae Cowboys would produce a video for the tuneful title track behind 1999’s Rock Steady Radio – an album of Bill Bellony originals (save for Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”):

“Rock Steady Rodeo” — The Reggae Cowboys — 1996

According to Discogs.com, this song – the album’s kick-off track – would be (wryly) retitled “Reggae Rodeo” on the track listing itself.  Is it possible this title change hampered the public’s ability to locate the band’s second studio effort?  Another musical mystery that may never be solved.

The Reggae Cowboys would round up one last collection of songs – 2003’s Stone Ranger – before riding off into the sunset.

Sonia Pottinger: Jamaica’s First Female Record Producer

Trailblazing, by definition, can be a lonely enterprise – but someone has to move civilization forward.  Therefore, hats off to Jamaica’s first woman music producer, Sonia Pottinger, who managed to navigate a path through a field that is still overwhelmingly dominated by men and left future generations a legacy of classic recordings.

“Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl” – one of the few photos of Sonia Pottinger

Sonia Eloise PottingerUpon her passing, Howard Campbell in the November 7, 2010 edition of The Gleaner would pronounce her “Jamaica’s most successful women producer” although, curiously, neglect to point out she was the first.  Campbell would also write:

“Born in St Thomas, Pottinger was introduced to the music business by her husband L.O. Pottinger, an engineer who had relative success as a producer in the mid-1960s.  She went on her own during that period, scoring a massive hit with ‘Every Night‘, a ballad by singer Joe White.  Pottinger had considerable success in the late 1960s with her Tip Top, High Note and Gay Feet labels. She produced Errol Dunkley’s debut album, Presenting Errol Dunkley, and hit songs by vocal groups like The Melodians (‘Swing and Dine’), The Gaylads (‘Hard to Confess’) and ‘Guns Fever’ by The Silvertones.”

I was also intrigued to learn that, as Campbell notes, Pottinger bought the catalogue and operations of the esteemed Treasure Isle label after the passing of its founder/owner, Duke Reid (but only after first doing battle in Jamaica’s Supreme Court with Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd, as well as Duke Reid’s son and Edward ‘Bunny’ Lee’; sadly, she would die the very next year after winning her case).   Incredibly, this same publication – just 16 months later – would publish a piece entitled, “Women Who Shaped Jamaican Music” … and fail to even mention her!  Is my indignation righteous enough?  Today’s piece, consequently, is my attempt to bring about some measure of pop music social justice.

Sonia Pottinger, who would go on to receive Jamaica’s Order of Distinction

Sonia PottingerAs pointed out in yesterday’s piece, Sonia Pottinger issued two singles by pioneering reggae vibraphonist, Lennie Hibbert.  Additionally, Pottinger would be among the first of the producers in Prince Buster’s wake to incorporate the traditional and deep Nyabinghi hand drum rhythms into rocksteady and reggae music, as evidenced on Patsy Todd’s uniquely Jamaican interpretation of Miriam Makeba‘s big hit, “Pata Pata” (with backing by Count Ossie’s mighty band) – both versions released in 1967:

Every Culture album that bears the Pottinger production mark is top-notch and a must-own.  Other crucial Pottinger productions worthy of your time include this short list:

“Ital Vibes”: Vibraphonic Reggae

Reggae is another realm of popular music where the vibraphone so rarely makes a foray.  As a result, Jamaican vibraphonist, Lennie Hibbert, pretty much has the field all to himself, as the intersection of reggae and the vibes essentially begins and ends with this one soul. Hibbert’s theme song – if one were to exist – would most definitely be “Village Soul,” easily his best known composition, but 1974’s tuneful instrumental “Ital Vibes” is another great starting point for vibraphone-infused reggae:

“Ital Vibes” – Lennie Hibbert – Produced by Harry Mudie

The bulk of Hibbert’s early work appears to be with Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One label, where he recorded as part of Coxsone’s house band, The Sound Dimension, and also released a few singles under his own name.  Hibbert did appear, however on at least two Nyabinghi-inflected singles recorded at the studio of pioneering female producer, Sonia Pottinger:  “The Retreat Song” (with Millicent ‘Patsy’ Todd) and “Pure Soul” (with Count Ossie & Lyn Taitt), both from 1968.  Hibbert would record two long-playing releases as a solo artist on Studio One – 1969’s Creation and 1971’s More Creation – before moving on to Harry Mudie’s label in the early to mid 1970s where he recorded a handful of 45s.

rear cover – 1969 Studio One LP, Creation

Lennie Hibbert

Hibbert’s biography on AllMusic points out that in 1976 the vibraphonist would be awarded the Order of Distinction for his contribution to Jamaican music, as well as his work as an educator at Kingston’s legendary Alpha Boys School, training ground for an extraordinary number of Jamaica’s top musicians and where a hall would be named in honor of Hibbert, who passed in 1984.

Lennie Hibbert photoLennie Hibbert enthusiasts may want to seek out his exceptionally rare debut album, Moon-Light Party at the Myrtle Bank Hotel, although be prepared to pay through the nose: one copy sold in 2006 for $760.  Be advised, however, this is actually a studio album and not a live recording as the title would seem to suggest.

“Bankrobber”: Punk Roots Reggae, 2004

Great live performance of Mikey Dread at Glastonbury in 2004 where, in his tribute to The Clash’s Joe Strummer, he slyly mixes up the tempo about halfway through, as he veers playfully from torporific one-drop skank to ska at the drop of a hat:

Here’s a link to video footage of The Clash playing live with Mikey Dread on the band’s ‘Sixteen Tons’ tour — “Bankrobber” performed as the first song of their encore, no doubt from the three-camera shoot of the band’s concert at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey on March 8, 1980.

“Bankrobber” enjoyed release as an A-side (backed with “Rockers Galore”) after first being issued as a B-side (“Train in Vain” – London Calling‘s ‘hidden’ track that ended up being The Clash’s first top 40 hit) — although some markets, such as Germany, Netherlands, France & Australia, got to enjoy all three tracks on a “maxi” 45 released in those nations.

Clash Meets Mikey Dread

“Nosey Joe”: Where Version Meets Dub

[Note:  Third in a triptych of pieces about songs named Joe]

Technically, this near-instrumental is what’s known as “version” (as opposed to dub’s full-on, all-out adventurousness), though fortunately, this mix is enlivened by light dub treatments that follow the playful spoken word opening:

[Pssst: Click the triangle to play “Nosey Joe Version” by Bongo Herman & Faye Bennett.]

“Nosey Joe Version” is from the mixing console and recording studio of Niney the Observer, a.k.a., Winston Holness (née George Boswell), who replaced Lee “Scratch” Perry at Joe Gibbs’ studio in 1968 after Perry famously (and angrily) left to form his own musical enterprise.  Niney, a protege of Perry, would eventually end up collaborating with “Scratch” on 2001’s Station Underground Report.

Dennis Brown LP

Extra Credit:  Check out the original vocal version via Dennis Brown’s “Wolf & Leopards.”

“Awakening”: Modern Roots Reggae Inna 21st Century

It may be kind of hard to believe now, but at one time in the 1990s and the early part of the new century, the DC area was an important center of activity for roots reggae and other Caribbean sounds.  Georges Collinet, for instance, was broadcasting his internationally distributed radio show Afropop Worldwide out of DC, as Takoma Park played host to the West Indian Record Mart – where staff would spin vinyl records on a bona fide sound system, the way reggae music is meant to be heard but too rarely is here in the States – while Silver Spring served as home base to RAS Records (“Real Authentic Sound”), a respected roots label, founded by Gary “Dr. Dread” Himelfarb, that helped breathe new life into the careers of such storied Jamaican artists as Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse, Israel Vibration, Freddie McGregor, Yellowman, Inner Circle, Don Carlos, and Joseph Hill & Culture among many others.  And, as if by some divine bit of orchestration, these “conquering lions” of reggae could then record at Lion & Fox, a state-of-the-art recording facility just across the Potomac named, incredibly, for a real-life Lion (Hal) and Fox (Jim).

Charging into this robust music scene, playing strictly original songs and helping to bring roots reggae into the Modern Age, was (and is) JohnStone, who braved winter’s wrath in early 2005 to lay down tracks at Lion & Fox for their first full-length release, Eyes Open — which included the uplifting “Awakening”:

Awakening – JohnStone

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “Awakening” by JohnStone.]

Eyes Open - JohnStoneEyes Open Dub - JohnStone

Reflecting DC’s diverse international community, JohnStone brought together players from Jamaica (Andre White), Guyana (Alfred Adams) and Ghana (Chet Nunoo-Quarcoo), as well as the United States (Brendan DeMelle and Joe Mannekin).  Guitarist/vocalist – and NCAA Division III soccer star – Andre White, formed JohnStone precursor, Zion Express, in 1995 with bassist DeMelle (whose brother, Jeff, has played bass with Clinton Fearon & the Boogie Brown Band) and Peyton Tochterman, before moving to DC in 2000 and forming JohnStone with drummer/vocalist, Alfred Adams.  By the time the band went into Lion & Fox to record their first album, Mannekin (keyboards) and Nunoo-Quarcoo (percussion) were also on board – with Ben Crandall joining in on sax.  Eyes Open would also receive a royal remix in the form of a dub version by engineer extraordinaire, Jim Fox.

JohnStone at Voice of America in 2003

JohnStone

[Bottom row]  Adams, Nunoo-Quarcoo & White — [Top row]  Mannekin & DeMelle

 

JohnStone has won several DC Annual Reggae Music Awards, including Song of the Year for 2001 (“Live On”) and 2005 (“Shashamane Land”), as well as Recording of the Year (“Eyes Open Dub”) in 2005 and Best Reggae Band in 2012.  Besides being headliners in their own right, JohnStone have also opened for such legendary reggae artists as Burning Spear, Toots & the Maytals, The Meditations, The Itals, Third World, Sister Carol, and Yellowman.  2007 would see the release of Innocent Children – whose title track was originally conceptualized and written by Adams, horrified by reports of the use of child soldiers in Haiti’s coup d’etat in 2004 – while 2010 would find the band issuing their second all-dub disc, Dub Confidence.

JohnStone’s personnel, anchored by White and Adams, has evolved over the years – Warren Pedersen II now anchors the bottom on bass while Reggie Moore spices up the treble on lead guitar – but their songs and sound are as vital as ever.   Click here to see where you can enjoy upcoming live performances or here to purchase their recordings.

johnstone at rockville town Center – 2010

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Secret Hidden Bonus Track

Andre (who sings lead on “Awakening”) and Alfred share lead vocal duties in JohnStone — here’s another track from Eyes Open – “Never Ever” – that features Alfred’s voice:

Never Ever – JohnStone

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “Never Ever” by JohnStone.]

“Play De Music” vs. “Finger Mash”: Festival Sound Clash

In the liner notes to Baba Boom! – Trojan’s compilation of Jamaica Independence Festival songs from 1966-1975 – one piece of text really jumped out at me:

“1974’s ‘Play De Music’ by Tinga Stewart – a monster hit and the very last one of the archetypal Festival Songs, celebrating the joy of music and its persuasive power to bring people of all persuasions together, that would prove as popular with the judges as it was with the record-buying public.”

Written & produced by Ernie Smith

Tinga Stewart 45

Lo and behold, the Upsetter himself – Lee Perry – released the oddly-titled “Finger Mash” that same year and (coincidentally or not) it pretty much sounded like an unabashed rewrite of “Play De Music,” despite claiming to have been written by Perry himself:

To be fair, the Upsetter mix does feature some trademark Lee Perry sonic surprises.  Sweet falsetto backing vocals, too, from The Silvertones.

Finger Mash - 7 inchHow likely is it that Tinga Stewart stole his Festival-winning song idea from Lee Perry? More importantly, who wins the ’74 Festival Face-Off:  “Play De Music” or “Finger Mash”?

Festival Song Competition:  A Thing of the Past?

Ominous story in the April 12, 2013 edition of the Jamaica Observer about the decision by the Jamaica Cultural Development Corporation to suspend the usual song competition in favor of allowing people instead to “vote for their favorite Festival song as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations” — thus, the “first time since the Festival Song Contest was held in 1966 that it will not be held in traditional form.”