1954: An Explosive Year for Music

We all know that 1954 was the year of Elvis Presley’s famous and influential Sun recordings, but 1954 was also highly noteworthy for the combined impact of these 3 particular tunes — all instrumentals:

1.  “Stratosphere Boogie” by Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant:  phenomenal, blazing twin guitar work – rock and roll by any other name (although some might call it “hillbilly jazz“).  Recorded September 2, 1954.  Bryant is using a “Stratosphere Twin” double-neck guitar with 6-string and 12-string necks.  The 12-string neck, curiously, is tuned in thirds, thus sounding like twin lead guitars playing lines in harmony.

Stratosphere Twin - Jimmy Bryant

“Stratosphere Boogie”     Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant     1954

2.  “Space Guitar” by JohnnyGuitarWatson:  unhinged guitar paired with playful production (and unpredictable reverb) – as Larry Nager so adroitly dubbed it, “punk blues.”  Recorded as ‘Young John Watson’ in Los Angeles on February 1, 1954 and released on Syd Nathan‘s Federal Records.

“Space Guitar”     Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson     1954

Space Guitar 453.  “Pork Chop Stomp” by Grady Martin and His WinginStrings – crisp production,       great chops (so to speak) and a little humor go a long way.  That’s Bud Isaacs on pedal steel, with Grady Martin and Hank Garland both playing lead on this spirited piece of western swing – recorded January 13, 1954.

“Pork Chop Stomp”     Grady Martin & His Wingin’ Strings     1954

Grady Martin doubleneck guitarApproximately 12 Years Later:

Johnny Echols of seminal Los Angeles folk-punk band, Love, would be seen playing one of those rare Stratosphere double-necks originally made famous by Jimmy Bryant:

Johnny-Echols-with-Stratosphere

Pioneering Pop: Car Keys as Percussion

In November 1952 Wynonie Harris – with Sonny Thompson’s ensemble serving as his backing band – recorded three songs at Cincinnati’s King Studios, the most compelling one being “Greyhound.”

Wynonie Harris

Greyhound – Wynonie Harris

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play “Greyhound” by Wynonie Harris.]

I love the driving rhythm that is augmented by a nice jingly set of car keys.  According to the liner notes in the Wynonie Harris CD anthology – Women, Whiskey & Fish Tails – this Amos Milburn cover became the highlight of Harris’s stage act:

“Purvis Henson, tenor saxophonist with the Buddy Johnson band, which backed Wynonie during a tour of the Midwest and South in the summer of 1953, remembers that Wynonie would start clapping his hands until the audience joined in, while the band played the chugging riff behind him.”

Could Wynonie Harris’s 1952 recording be the first pop recording that features car key percussion?

Bonus video link to a 78 recording of Amos Wilburn’s original version of “Greyhound” that features great bus sound effects – but alas, no car keys.

Bobby & Jeannie Bare Are Going to Vegas

One of the country “outlaws” who doesn’t always get the recognition is Shel Silverstein, who not only wrote Johnny Cash’s iconic “Boy Named Sue” but also many of Bobby Bare‘s RCA releases through the 1970s, including this great 45 about going “all in”:

Vegas – Bobby & Jeannie Bare

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play “Vegas” by Bobby & Jeannie Bare.]

Vegas” – recorded in September 1976 at Nashville’s RCA Victor Studio and released as a single – was subsequently played on the January 24, 1977 broadcast of The Ralph Emery Radio Show.  Bare recorded “Vegas” toward the end of his long run with RCA (he signed with Columbia in 1978), and this song appears not to have been reissued until 1997’s 20-song The Essential Bobby Bare compilation.

Bobby Bare & Shel Silverstein

Shel continued writing for Bobby Bare during his tenure with Columbia, including a typically bent take on the truck driving genre with “World’s Last Truck Drivin’ Man” from 1980’s Drunk and Crazy.

A couple years back Bobby Bare and his son, Bobby Bare, Jr., curated a tribute album to Silverstein entitled, Twistable, Turnable Man that features Shel’s songs covered by the likes of My Morning Jacket, Frank Black, Andrew Bird, Todd Snider, Lucinda Williams, John Prine, and The Boxmasters featuring Billy Bob Thornton – here’s a link to an NPR piece about this special recording project.

Patience is a Virtue

Fun ad for Ford trucks tagged onto the end of “Vegas” with music by Merle Haggard & the Strangers featuring Roy Nichols on lead guitar.

Toots Thielemans: Ya Ya!

From Toots Thielemans’ appearance on David Sanborn’s ‘Night Music’ TV show, I learned that Toots is a jazz harmonica virtuoso who (1) played the harmonica on the original ‘Sesame Street’ theme song, as well as (2) whistled the famous melody for the Old Spice deodorant TV ads of the 1970s.

I recently picked up a Toots Thielemans LP on ABC’s kitschy Command label, famous for its 60s “Mad Men”-era geometric designs that often celebrated percussion:

Command - Percussion

The Toots Thielemans album that I picked up, Guitar and Strings … and Things from 1966, is notable for showcasing Toots’ great guitar work – which I hadn’t previously known about:

Toots - Guitars & Strings

Some of the tracks are very much in the sound and style of “Lolita Ya Ya” – such as the lead-off track, “The Continental”:

The Continental – Toots Theilemans

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to hear “The Continental” by Toots Thielemans.]

“When Fred Astaire danced to this sweeping tune in the film, ‘The Gay Divorcee’, the huge studio orchestra that accompanied him could scarcely project the essence of the tune as excitingly as this gentle easy treatment does.  The octave unison of Toots Thielemans’ guitar and the vocal trio is decorated with airy swirls from Phil Bodner’s flute.  Toots’ solo fits logically into the overall pattern of the arrangement, moving out of the line that he plays along with the girls.  And pay special attention to the drumming by Bill Lavorgna behind the girls after Toots’ solo as he dances merrily with his sticks and then joins in a little by-play with Phil Kraus’ scratcher.”  [from the album’s liner notes]

Toots’ Big Pop Moment:   Toots’ harmonica adorned Julian Lennon’s #5 US hit – “Too Late for Goodbyes” – in 1985.

’20 Solid Gold Hits’: 19 Studio Tracks + 1 Live One

I was about to write that the Crystal Corporation (based out of “Nashville-New York”) was a Ronco/K-Tel predecessor who put out a fairly decent repackaging of hits in 1969 entitled,  20 Solid Gold Hits:20 Solid Gold Hits!

But then I noticed that the Peter Max-inspired album design was done by Ely Besalel – the same guy who did the rainbow-and-doves-coming-out-of-a-big-detergent-box cover for Ronco’s Do It Now.  Could there be a connection?  I’m not sure if that mystery will ever be solved.

Anyway, there are a few decent tunes on this hits mix amidst the usual suspects:  “Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” by The Young Rascals; the aforementioned Johnny Nash – accompanied by Lyn Taitt & the Jets – with his top 40 rocksteady hit, “Hold Me Tight”; and the great Bee Gees single, “To Love Somebody,” which was originally written at the request of their manager, Robert Stigwood, for Otis Redding who, alas, never had a chance to record it.

Interestingly, this album also includes a live track:  a rousing version of Dionne Warwick’s big hit from 1964, “Walk On By” – check out how appreciative this audience is:

Walk on By – Dionne Warwicke

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to hear a live performance of “Walk On By” by Dionne Warwick.]

‘Do It Now’: Ronco’s Licensing Feat of Strength

From what I can tell, this might be Ronco’s first hits compilation – Do It Now – from 1970:

Do It Now

When is the last time you’ve seen Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles on the same album?  Not to mention Buffalo Springfield.  And The Byrds.

Interesting to note that the Buffalo Springfield selection – Neil Young’s dark horse of a tune, “Flying on the Ground is Wrong” – was not even released as a single.  Likewise with The Byrds and their horn-driven, anti-amphetamine cautionary tale, “Artificial Energy,” as opposed to one of their more jangly numbers.  Come to think of it, Jimi Hendrix’s straight-ahead blues original, “Red House,” is also an unexpected choice for a hits mix (as is Eric Burdon’s deeply questioning and frankly bizarre, “When I Was Young“).

This album was once in our family record collection growing up – I have since obtained a cheap copy.  Funny to re-read the notes on the back cover:

“This album is a celebration of life – a feeling of energy and love by the poets, artists and musicians who have joined together to speak up for a purpose – to relay the message against drug abuse.  The DO IT NOW FOUNDATION is dedicated to helping fight this problem.  Never before in the history of the recording industry have so many artists donated their services for a collage album [emphasis mine].  We wish to thank all those caring people, the record companies and music publishers, whose contributions went into making this album a reality.”

Do It Now includes a fairly robust mix of labels for a reissue compilation, although admittedly top heavy on the major label side:

Atco (Buffalo Springfield) – Bell (Crazy Elephant) – Buddah (Melanie; Five Stairsteps) – Capitol (Beatles) – Columbia (Donovan; Janis Joplin) – Mercury (Steam) – MGM (Eric Burdon) – RCA (Jefferson Airplane) – Scepter (BJ Thomas; Mel & Tim) – Stormy Forest (Richie Havens) – Uni (Neil Diamond) – Warner Bros. (The Association; Ides of March; Jimi Hendrix) – Westbound (Teegarden & Van Winkle) – White Whale (The Turtles).

Taking into account that Warner Brothers-Seven Arts purchased Atlantic/Atco in 1967, there are 13 different labels represented on Do It Now, which strikes me as on the high side.  I wonder what the record is?

Anyway, one of the more interesting tracks on this hits compilation is “God, Love & Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Teagarden & Van Winkle from 1970 on the Westbound label:

Ed Ward makes this observation about the significance of Westbound once Motown shifted operations to the West Coast:

“Detroit in the late 1960s was a hotbed of talent, from the rock groups playing the Grande Ballroom to the soul talent vying for a deal with Motown, to numerous jazz groups at lounges all over town.  But when Motown left for California in 1971, that talent was left with nowhere to record.  But another label, Westbound Records, stuck around. In its eccentric way, it did its best to document black music as it changed in Detroit.”

Philanthropy Update:  I am happy to report that the Do It Now Foundation is still going strong – click here to check out this public service announcement.from Frank Zappa about the dangers of amphetamine use on the Foundation’s home page.

Cincinnati: Hard Rock Capital of the World?

I have an album of repackaged material from the Buddah label – a compilation entitled Heavy Mix – that is one of the odder releases from everyone’s favorite reissue label, Pickwick.   I love that the cover art has a cement theme:

Heavy Mix - Pickwick

Even more intriguing than the kitschy cover concept is the cryptic bit of text at the bottom of the label of “Heavy Mix” cement:Hard Rock Cement Co

First is an unattributed quote that proclaims in classic 1969-speak, “Gettting It Together,” followed by the name of a fictitious business – Hard Rock Cement Co. – that is allegedly located in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Not sure I follow, but okay, why not.   Now, it is true that The Sacred Mushroom came from Cincinnati, and it would be fair to call them “hard rock” – as this track from 1969 would clearly indicate.  Or perhaps Pickwick was making reference to the Ludlow Garage – Cincinnati’s closest approximation to Bill Graham’s famous Fillmore rock venues – whose proprietor in 1969 was Jim Tarbell, the one responsible for bringing in such “hard rock” acts as Neil Young, The Allman Brothers, and The Grateful Dead (and who would later become a Cincinnati City Council Member and hold the title – by mayoral proclamation – “Mr. Cincinnati” for life).

My favorite track on this motley mix is a surprisingly supple cover of the theme from the 1969 Oscar-winning film (Film; Director; Adapted Screenplay) – “Midnight Cowboy” – by John & Yoko’s one-time backing band, Elephant’s Memory:

Midnight Cowboy – Elephant’s Memory

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to hear “Midnight Cowboy” by Elephant’s Memory.]

There’s a nice little drum break starting around the 1:18 mark where the drumming alternates between speakers – consider using this track in the event you need to test the stereo directionality of your computer’s speakers.

Otis Williams & The Midnight Cowboys: Mere Marketing Myth?

I found an album from the early 70s at a record swap whose compelling story on the back cover I immediately latched onto due primarily to my interest in the King Records legacy – and secondarily to the groovy day-glo cowboy backdrops:Otis Williams & Midnight Cowboys

“Otis Williams . . . another black country singer?  The name Otis Williams may ring a bell if you’re also a pop music fan.  He had such hits as ‘Ivory Tower,’ ‘Ling Ting Tong’ and ‘Hearts Made of Stone.’   Back in the 50s he tried to persuade King Records to record him country, so you might have heard Otis Williams sing country before and didn’t realize it.  He was the guy who sang country harmony on most of the country hits from King Records.  The closest he came to cutting a country song was ‘Hearts Made of Stone’ and it was a million pop seller.

“In early 1960 he went to Epic Records [imprint of Columbia] with still a burning desire to be a country singer.  He recorded [Patsy Cline hit] ‘I Fall to Pieces,’ it was a great production, but it wasn’t a country record.  Now he’s with us here at Stop Records and he still wants to sing country.  I wanted something a little different, more than just another black singer, so Otis formed an all black country band, which he named the Midnight Cowboys.  These are the musicians that played behind a lot of the country artists in the Cincinnati, Ohio area.    No this isn’t just another black country singer, it’s a man who has done what he has been trying to do for many years, and he does it as well as any country singer I’ve heard.”

Pete Drake, President – Stop Records      [liner notes on back cover]

According to the Real Mr. Heartache blog, the thrust of the story is complete bunk – a bald-faced attempt to stoke controversy in order to increase sales.

The real story, according to Mr. Heartache, is that Williams had relocated to Nashville to work as a talent scout and shared an office with songwriter, Tom T. Hall, who at the time was working as a booking agent:

“Pete Drake, who would write those dubious liner notes, came through the office one day and convinced Williams to try his hand at country music for his label Stop Records. There was no all black Cincinnati country band and The Midnight Cowboys was pure invention, named after the popular movie. Louis McQueen does not play the fiddle and Bennie Wallace sat behind the steel guitar just for the photo shoot.

“The sessions took place at Music City Recorders and were produced by Drake and Elvis’ former guitarist, Scotty Moore . . . The rest of the sessions are an uncredited mix of Nashville studio cats and Williams current touring band, The Endeavors.

“The closest thing Williams would come to a hit country record, though, was with ‘I Wanna Go Country,’ which in May of 1971 peaked at 72 on the charts. It was a novelty number written by Charlie Monk and Jim Owen that was a bit too jokey to be taken seriously. The single should have been his office mate’s [Tom T. Hall’s] ‘How I Got To Memphis.’”

I agree – “How I Got to Memphis” is definitely one of the best tracks on the album.

So is Otis’s playful take on Jimmie Rodgers’ signature holler, “Blue Yodel # 8” – more commonly known as “Mule Skinner Blues.”  As Robert Christgau cogently observes, Charley Pride “would never deliver the ‘come here boy’ in ‘Mule Skinner Blues’ with such sarcastic relish” as Otis Williams:

“Mule Skinner Blues”     Otis Williams & the Midnight Cowboys     1971

I love the bit of marketing on the front cover -“Stereo-monic:  This Record Provides Both Stereophonic and Monaural Sound Reproduction.”  Also interesting to note that this 1971 album follows on the heels of producer Pete Drake’s sessions for George Harrison’s 1970 debut (triple) album, All Things Must Pass, where Drake played pedal steel.

Bonus video link to Dolly Parton singing “Mule Skinner Blues” on The Porter Wagoner Show.

“Wildcat Run”: World’s Fastest Key Change?

It is practically a law in country music that a tune must change keys at least once before song’s end.  And the key change must modulate upward, never downward.  Which raises the obvious question, and it’s a big one:

Q:  Which country song changes keys quickest starting from 0:00?

That’s right, get out your stopwatches.   In the meantime, I think I might have a contender:  “Wildcat Run” – a truck driving song from Red Sovine

Wildcat Run – Red Sovine

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to hear “Wildcat Run” by Red Sovine.]

Note that the song starts in G Major – but only 27 seconds later the song has already shifted up to G-sharp Major.  But wait, don’t get too comfortable just yet – only 25 more seconds will transpire and we will have modulated upward yet again to A Major.  That’s two key changes in just 52 seconds.   Even better – the entire song clocks in at a lean 80 seconds.

Can anyone beat 27 seconds?

Red-Sovine

“Wildcat Run” appears to have initially been released on the 1966 Starday truck driving album, Thunder on the Road.

Hey, Everybody – Look at Alan Price’s Face

Alan Price gets an intoxicating sound out of his trusty synthesizer on this lovely track from 1974’s Between Today and Yesterday on Warner Brothers:

If The Who’s anthemic “Baba O’Reilly” is – as Dave Marsh once stuffily proclaimed – the first “bona fide” use of the synthesizer as a rock instrument, then let me be the first to declare Alan Price’s “Look at My Face” to be the first “powerfully understated” use of the synthesizer as a pop instrument.

I sure have a knack for picking the B-sides – as it turns out, this tune was the flip side of his “Jarrow Song” 45 (which went to #6 in the UK).  Wikipedia tells me that Alan was educated at Jarrow Grammar School, so that’d be like if I wrote something called “Roselawn Song.”

Alan Price wants you to look at his face now:

Alan Price