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+.

Bill Holland LP

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.

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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]

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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).

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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

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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