Michele (Valeri) & Bob (Devlin)’s Color-Your Own Album Cover

Zero to 180 has been a direct benefactor of Tom Avazian’s unending quest for musical inspiration, a journey that has informed this website in countless ways. When Tom recently handed over a selected set of second-hand musical acquisitions, he knew darn well that I’d be powerless to resist this color-your-own cover for a 1977 album by Michele Valeri and Bob Devlin whose title track derives inspiration from P.D. Eastman’s classic children’s tale, Are You My Mother?

original LP cover 

There seems to be an obvious story, however, behind the flaming red copyright sticker that interferes with the album cover’s imperative to “color me please.” Thanks to a phone conversation with Bob Devlin’s collaborator, Michele Valeri — graciously facilitated by Grammy Award-winning folk musician Cathy Fink — I now understand the situation with the discontented copyright-holder-in-question to be even more convoluted than I had initially imagined.

However, I am still experiencing cognitive dissonance over the fact that Devlin performed at some of the DC area’s most prestigious venues in the 1970s and 80s, including Wolf Trap, The National Theatre, The Kennedy Center, and even the White House, and yet this album – originally issued on West Springfield, VA-based indie label, Pot Luck Records – remains uncataloged on Discogs. Where do I file a grievance?

Odder still, around the time of this album’s “release,” Are You My Mother? was voted by the American Library Association as one of the top “children’s records” — even though the primary “distribution point” for obtaining the LP was Devlin, a master street performer, and Bread & Roses, a cooperative (i.e., “worker-run”) record shop located in Dupont Circle.

Helping to unpack this story is Jeff Krulik, DC-based documentary filmmaker (best known for Heavy Metal Parking Lot), who righteously endowed Zero to 180 with choice ads, articles, and artifacts from his vast archives of Unicorn Times back issues, thus almost single-handedly serving up the images used in this piece. Thanks to Krulik’s copy of Richard Harrington‘s Unicorn Times review, for instance, we now know that Are You My Mother? had been released just before year’s end in 1977.

Unicorn Times — December 1977 — “Aerial” view

This sophomore release on the fledgling Pot Luck label had been preceded in September of the previous year by the debut album Live at 18th & M from “The Bob Devlin Street Band” — in actuality, a one-person operation, who had been recorded documentary-style with nary a post-production enhancement.

Unicorn Times — December 1977

Alternate ad for Devlin’s live debut LP

Devlin, by this point, had also begun placing ads in the Unicorn Times that announced his weekly performance schedule at two downtown DC locations — 21st & L and 18th & M:

Connie McKenna‘s feature article “Sunshine Street Singer” in the March 1977 edition of Unicorn Times revealed that Devlin, who once managed DC’s esteemed Iguana Coffeehouse, “sang with Pete Seeger and others at the recent opening of the Woody Guthrie movie, Bound For Glory.”

Devlin’s musical career, we learn from McKenna, began after a two-year stint as an Army draftee, having spent two years in Germany. Observing all the greenbacks earned in just a couple hours by a DC street musician playing the hammered dulcimer, noted McKenna, Devlin saw a potentially viable escape hatch from the soul-crushing drudgery of office work. Initially shy, Devlin hid behind his harmonica at first. Once he plucked up the courage to sing, however, there was no denying that “singing and eye contact were the ultimate street skills.”

Devlin, meanwhile, continued to employ a folksy charm in his marketing outreach efforts:

Within six months of pressing his first album, Devlin announced in the June 1977 issue of Unicorn Times that all 500 copies of the first pressing had been purchased, primarily on the strength of street sales:

In October, Unicorn Times readers were informed that a new album by Michele Valeri, in collaboration with “The Bob Devlin Street Band,” was now in the works:

Michele Valeri relayed the details behind the making and marketing of this album by phone to Zero to 180. Valeri says that she and Bob initially got together to trade songs, with Michele sharing songs written as a children’s entertainer. “You have some kids’ songs, I have some kids’ songs,” enthused Devlin, “Let’s make a record!”

Meanwhile, Joan Cushing – “Mrs. Foggy Bottom” – who played piano in cocktail lounges and dished about DC politics (not unlike Mark Russell, whose place at the Shoreham she would one day take) and Michele developed a budding friendship. While Valeri was doing an engagement at DC’s Mayflower Hotel and Cushing had a string of dates in Alexandria, Virginia, the two would see each other’s show on days off.

Cushing would be recruited for the new record, along with Steve Gray (bass, banjo & guitar), Marc Spiegel (vocals), Connie McKenna (autoharp & vocals), Barbara McKenna (vocals), Linda Devlin (siren whistle & vocals), Rob Bayne (drums), Michael Cotter (flute & vocals) & Hank Tenenbaum (bones). The album was recorded in Marc Spiegel’s apartment at Calvert and Connecticut in the Woodley Park neighborhood above a bakery (hence the song title, “Strawberry Pastry”).

Mobile Master’s Ed Kelly, who engineered Devlin’s Live at 18th & M album, was on hand (somewhere between the hallway and bathroom, where the vocals were primarily recorded) to capture the performances, including a “disgruntled” neighbor, whose sounds were incorporated into “The Dinosaur Song.” The album was recorded in two afternoons, according to Valeri, with Joan Cushing providing her services at no charge.

With regard to the featured song “When the Rain Comes Down,” Valeri reveals that Devlin one day was waiting for the bus, along with a cross-section of America [i.e., a well-appointed gentlemen with lawyer’s satchel, wildly-attired “hippie” types, day workers], when an unsuspected rain event caught the entire assemblage by surprise — and sparked a classic folk song in the process:

“When the Rain Comes Down” Bob Devlin & Michele Valeri 1977

Bob Devlin: Guitar, Cymbal & Vocals
Joan Cushing: Piano
Michael Cotter: Flute
Steve Gray: Bass
Michele Valeri: Vocals
Connie McKenna: Vocals
Barbara McKenna: Vocals

Album mixed at Paragon Studio* — Silver Spring, MD
CD remastering at Tonal Park — Takoma Park, MD

Michele & Bob’s bios — from the LP’s inner sleeve

Richard Harrington’s album review from the December 1977 issue of Unicorn Times:

Woody Guthrie had a rare talent for creating children’s records that made children out of all listeners, regardless of age. It came from various qualities in the music, not the least of which was his refusal to pander to pre- or mis-conceptions of what children’s music should be about.

Bob Devlin and Michele Valeri have rekindled those attitudes in this delightful album. The most obvious qualities are a gentle insistence and honesty towards the music itself, supported by unpretentious and amenable lyrics. This is a friendly record, folks, and when you’re not considering the innocence of many of its themes, you’ll be laughing at most of its characters.

The title song is a variation on the Old McDonald theme, here taking a Roots-like approach, but all in fun. It’s the story of a little chick who gets hatched alone and has to try and locate the warmth that once surrounded it. Animals figure a lot on this album, from the “Dinosaur Song”‘s classic 50’s rock and roll parade of species to Devlin’s sly “Little Black Bug” ballad.

There are people too: the little girl who really does want chocolate, the shared learning partners in “The Letter Song.” There are even vegetables on parade in “Fruit Salad Scenario.” It’ll be a challenge after hearing that one to blot out the theme centering around the line, “Oh you can’t elope with a cantaloupe…”

In other words, this is fun. Valeri has a classic cabaret voice by way of the Grand Guignol and Devlin, of course, has been entertaining all sorts of children on street corners for years. They are joined by good friends like Steve Gray and Connie McKenna and Joan Cushing and poet Marc Speigel. The songs come mostly from Devlin and Valeri, but there are literally as many flavors as there are tunes. Somehow it flows together beautifully, anchored by a spiritual undertow from Devlin. This record will last because, like Guthrie’s best “children’s records,” its values are timeless and equally fun for young and old.

November 1977 — Unicorn Times

P.D. Eastman’s “Are You My Mother?,” as the title track’s reference point and backdrop for the color-your-own cover (drawn by Michael Cotter, founder of Blue Sky Puppet Theatre), was discussed at one point by the two artists after the album’s recording had concluded. Valeri suggested that perhaps they should seek permission from the powers-that-be; however, Devlin indicated that was not necessary, saying in essence, “I researched the matter and have found that you can’t copyright a title.”

Meanwhile, the album that (like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue) had been recorded in two days had somehow, as previously noted, made the American Library Association’s list of top children’s albums. Richard Harrington’s thumbs-up review added to the positive momentum.

Unicorn Times — December 1977

At this early point in their careers, there was so much uncertainty around the two musicians’ occupational trajectory, that Valeri’s parents’ West Springfield, VA address was listed as the base of operations for the wee Pot Luck label...This is an important detail, since by this time, Valeri had proactively and forthrightly mailed a copy of the new album to P.D. Eastman himself — in hindsight, almost certainly accelerating the chain of events that would inevitably follow...For, one day soon after, Valeri received a call from her mother, who told her, “I just signed a registered letter from Random House...I’m not sure, but I think you’re being sued!”

Many of her friends were delighted by the news, but Valeri, who was understandably horrified, immediately contacted an infuriated Eastman, who threatened to litigate. Valeri, whose teaching gig at David Perry’s Guitar and Lute Shop in DC’s Dupont Circle was her primary source of income, happened to have, by curious coincidence, Worth Rowley as a student.

Rowley — the guitar pupil who specifically sought out Valeri, as a result of his children’s enthusiasm for Are You My Mother? — was a prominent lawyer from a well-connected “Old Boston” family who had served the Justice Department for many years as an antitrust specialist. Rowley had turned up for his lesson one day to find Valeri especially down in the dumps and promptly agreed to intercede on her behalf. Before you know it, Rowley was in a three-piece suit and on an Amtrak train bound for New York City. Rowley clarified the optics of the lawsuit for Eastman and his legal reprentatives: “You’re suing a street musician and a special needs educator who serves severely handicapped children through music,” Rowley informed them. “Are you sure you want the bad publicity?”

Alexandria Gazette – June 28, 1979

Devlin’s “Folksongs Americana” children’s program at Fort Ward Park

[courtesy Jessie Devlin]

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Both sides, thankfully, worked out an agreement, whereby the first 2,000 copies of the original Are You My Mother? album would be allowed to remain as is, provided that copyright stickers be affixed to the front cover of each copy, as well as inner sleeve adjacent to the title track. Additionally, all future releases of this album must be done under a new title and without the inclusion of “Are You My Mother?” [The CD reissue would be retitled When the Rain Comes Down and include ten songs from the original album, plus “The Tomato Song”; “You Best Take a Bath” & “Tiny Little Gear”].

Fortunately, this legal episode in no way deterred Devlin from becoming the cover story (penned by Matt Holsen) for Unicorn Times‘ October 1980 issue:

Holsen gleans a bit of wisdom from Devlin, who observes — counterintuitively perhaps — that “the street audience is more attentive, more involved in the music than the club audience.” Devlin explains: “You look up and there’s a hundred people standing there. They’re not there to drink or socialize. They’re just listening It can really scare you.”

Devlin acknowledges the challenge of creating a body of work that is consistent with his strong Christian faith while being able to stand solely on its musical merits. Devlin points out that “the Gallop Poll indicates that there are 80 million Americans who say they are born-again Christians. To the record companies, that’s 80 million customers.”

As Holsen observes —

Commercial music may be dominated by simple-minded hedonism, equally simple-minded cynicism or, at best, the dark melancholy of a Jackson Browne, and Christian music may be just another marketing strategy, but Devlin knows that he has an audience. He sees it every day on the street. He also knows that the very qualities that hinder his commercial success — his optimistic outlook and his unassuming, folksy style — are what endear him to that audience.

An unabashed proponent of folk music, Devlin believed its verse/chorus, verse/chorus structure to be a fundamental device for engaging others, providing opportunities for the audience to “join in.” Since people in other parts of the globe abide by the verse/chorus format, Devlin reasoned earlier to Unicorn Times in 1977, “it must be a part of the human psyche, it’s what works for people.” Furthermore, “the secret is to watch people walking by, to sing to each person as he comes by. Give ’em a wink. Be there for people.”

Matt Holsen noted in his October 1980 Unicorn Times cover story that the US Dept. of Labor once devoted four pages of a Bureau of Labor Statistics bulletin to Devlin, who was presented as a “model for youngsters considering careers in the performing arts.” This surprisingly informative bulletin from 1979 (#2001-14) speaks in practical terms to those considering Performing Arts, Design, and Communications Occupations:

Bob looks the crowd over with a practiced eye as he strides up to the busy corner in the heart of the business district. “Mostly office workers out for lunch, as usual, but there seem to be some tourists today too...Quite a mixture, in fact...They have the makings of a good audience,” he thinks to himself as he begins to set up his gear.

He removes the backpack that holds his guitar and a folding stool, then sets up his speaker system and hooks the microphone into it.  After removing his guitar and leaning it upright against the stool, he unpacks a large cymbal and places it on the ground.  He takes several record albums out of the pack and props them up against the speaker. Next he pulls his harmonica out of a side pocket of the pack and attaches it to a brace around his neck.  Finally he places a very small cardboard box a few feet in front of the stool.  “Hello, folks. How are you today?” he says into the mike as he sits down and begins tuning his guitar.  A few people stop to watch, but most just continue on their way.  Bob blows into the harmonica a few times, strums a chord, and then, assured that his guitar is in tune, begins to play.

“Bob Devlin’s my name, and I’m going to start off today with an old ballad that you may know.”  With that, Bob starts to sing.  More people stop to watch.  As he begins the second verse, he can feel himself warming up to the song.  About a dozen people have gathered around him, although most of the sidewalk traffic is still moving.  As he finishes his song, a distinguished-looking man in a pin-striped suit walks over and drops some coins into the box.  Bob acknowledges the contribution with a nod and a smile, then moves right into another tune.  A faster one, this time.  His right foot moves in time to the music, tapping the brass cymbal.

He’s feeling fine. .It is a beautiful summer day, sunny and warm, and Bob knows from experience what a difference the weather makes to a street musician.  A balmy day like this is perfect.  Bob moves quickly from one song into another, pausing between songs only now and then to talk to the people gathered around him.  A number of people know him, or at least recognize him, and call to him by name.  Bob has played on this corner before, and many of the people who work in nearby office buildings are familiar with his music.  They make a point of coming when they find out that he’s giving a lunchtime concert here.  

Bob is pleased with the audience he’s developing in this part of the city. And that audience, after all, is one of the main reasons he plays on the street.  The money’s good—for only a few hours’ work he can make $40 on a good day.  But the main advantage of playing on the street is the exposure he gets.  More people hear him play on this corner sidewalk than would hear him play at a coffeehouse or club.  In fact, most of the club dates he’s gotten lately have come about because someone from a nightclub heard him on the sidewalk, liked his music, and offered him the job.  Playing on the street has actually saved him the trouble of having to go and audition.

Career World — 1980

[COURTESY JESSIE DEVLIN]

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Right now, Bob’s musical goal is to make a name for himself in Washington, D.C.  He wants as many people as possible to recognize his name, his face, his musical style. He hopes that as he becomes better known, more and more people will make an effort to catch his performances—on street corners, in the parks, at craft fairs, wherever he happens to be playing.  Then, as his reputation grows, there will be more demand for him to perform.  Later on, Bob hopes to go on tour with an established singer or group...And he expects to make more records.

Bob already has made one album [Live at 18th & M]...He cut the album last fall, knowing how hard it would be to make a living by playing on the street once winter came and the weather turned cold.  Bob hoped that his record sales would bring in enough income to tide him over the winter.  He sold them throughout the year wherever he played, in nightclubs, coffeehouses, and private parties

Like all musicians who are just starting out, Bob had to cover the cost of cutting the record himself.  He used his savings, around $700, and borrowed the rest from friends. He made the recording, or master tape, during a session when he was playing on the street.  That saved him the expense, which can be quite substantial, of having to rent a recording studio. .Later he took the master tape to a record pressing plant that transferred the taped recording onto a master disc.  The master disc was then used to create the molds, called stampers, that were used in pressing the records.  Having the album covers made was expensive, but Bob was able to afford both the album and the covers at the same time.  In the end Bob found that the $ 1,100 he had was enough money to cut about 500 records.

Selling his records at $5 each, Bob was able to regain his initial investment after selling less than half of the first printing.  From then on, everything he sold was pure profit.  He sold all 500 records within 7 months, and, when people continued to ask to buy copies, he decided to print 1,000 more!  With the master disc already made, the second printing was much less expensive.  He paid for those records with money he had saved from earlier record sales.

[COURTESY JESSIE DEVLIN]

A few college and underground FM radio stations have given his music air time, but he’s found it difficult to get his music played on most of the commercial AM stations.  “I’m lucky to have opportunities like this to advertise my record,” he thinks as a teenager in faded jeans picks up one of the albums and then pulls a wallet from her pocket.  Most of Bob’s income still comes from performing, however.

As Bob finishes another song, a few people begin to clap.  Soon the entire crowd is applauding.  He pauses for a moment, then starts into a well-known folk tune.  “You probably all know this one,” he says, “so sing along if you like.”  The music Bob plays is easy to listen to and appeals to a large audience.  That’s part of the reason for his success.  It would be harder to be a successful street musician with a classical repertoire.  

His rapport with his audience is another reason for Bob’s popularity. He talks and jokes with the people gathered around him in a relaxed, easygoing way.  At the same time, Bob attributes some of his success to downright practical considera­tions—picking the right time of day and the right places to play.  The crowd around Bob grows larger, and people start walking up and dropping money into his box.  He continues playing, responding to the encouragement and appreciation of his audience.

[COURTESY JESSIE DEVLIN]

Bob has been a professional musician for only a few years.  He never thought seriously about being a musician when he was growing up, even though he’s played the guitar since 8th grade.  He never even took guitar les­sons—just learned to play by ear, picking up what he could from friends.  He played occasionally in coffee­houses while he was in high school and college, but at that time he thought of music as a hobby rather than as a possible career.  Shortly after college, however, he decided that he was bored with his job as a shipping clerk in a warehouse.  Playing on the street might be an interesting way to earn some money, he decided. So he gave it a try.

Once he started playing on the street he realized how important music was to him.  All of a sudden he knew that, if he could manage it, he wanted to devote himself to music for the rest of his life.  Bob feels lucky to be able to support himself by making music.  For only the $15 annual cost of a vendor’s license, he’s able to play on the street whenever he wants, and make enough to live.  Bob knows that performing is a very competitive field, and he doesn’t expect to become famous overnight.  Until he does, he’s content with days like today, when he’s able to share his music with people on a street corner.  For Bob, a life that revolves around music is reward enough.

Montgomery County MD’s Journal — Sept. 23, 1988

The Montgomery County native “does not simply start a song, he launches it”

[COURTESY JESSIE DEVLIN]

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Original track listing for the 1977 Are You My Mother? LP

[ARTWORK BY JENNY, CHRIS & VALERI GILMAN]

Cover for the 1984 CD reissue

[artwork by Rae Owings]

CD track listing

By the 1990s, Devlin would halt his street performing work in order to make recordings that “reflected his strong Christian commitment,” as Richard Harrington noted in his tribute for The Washington Post in 1995. Nevertheless, Devlin possessed a special ability — as many have borne witness – to connect with people of all ages. “What Bob did was to transcend all the divisions that are there for entertainers, when it comes to what age you can appeal to,” Cathy Fink told Harrington, who joined WOWD host DJ Mackie in 2019 for a celebration of legendary DC street performers Bob Devlin and Flora Molton, among others. “Little kids, old folks and everybody in between liked him. Bob could get a 60-year-old to sing along as fast as he could get a 4-year-old to sing along,” recalled Fink, “He had a keen sense of the fact he was able to entertain every audience he got in front of.”

Harrington tells Zero to 180 that Bob was “a public showman” who “reveled in that role, leading people into song and choruses.” Devlin was “in a field of one” in his capacity to evoke an uninhibited response from young people, whether inside a school building or out on the streets, says Harrington. Christine McKenna, in her 1977 Unicorn Times profile, stated that “one of Bob’s best nights was when he had 150 people jammed into Canal Square, ‘singing like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, one song after another, it was like magic, like something from another time.'”

Michele Valeri minces no words today —

[Bob] was definitely one of my mentors.  He pushed me into recording that LP.  I don’t know where I would be in the world of music without him.

Special Bonus: Color-Your-Own Bob Devlin!

[performing at Silver Spring, MD’s Armory (demolished in 1998)]

According to Jessie Devlin —

Silver Spring put out a mini 8-page coloring book about their wonderful city. It was published by the SS Urban District.  There is no date on it….some time in the 90s??  Some of the topics are penguins [unofficial mascot] waiting for the metro, the bronze statue of a juggling unicyclist, and the SS 10K Challenge Run, and there on pg 6 is a nicely done drawing of the One-Man-Band [whom Devlin hoped “would never break up,” remembers Ken Giles of Bright Morning Star].

Jessie Devlin Responds to An Early Draft of This Zero to 180 Piece

  • As soon as I began reading this, a name came to mind – Chris Core – he was an announcer for WMAL radio.  He often played Bob’s music on the “talk” radio which I thought was really dear of him.  He loved Bob and his music and paid Bob a wonderful tribute on radio when he died.  Last time I was in contact with him, I think he lived in Bethesda/Chevy Chase area, but he’s easy to find thru radio if you want to include him. 
  • As to the P.D. Eastman story, our first notice that we were in big trouble was the fact that Michele, Bob, and Potluck Records each received a registered/sign-for letter from Random House.  This letter alone was enough to freak us out and luckily, as you write, Worth Rowley who just happened to be going to NY City for some kind of meeting told Michele he would check out the situation.  Michele told me later that Worth’s biggest convincing argument – besides his legal stature – was that he asked the Random House rep somewhat along the lines: Do you really want your very big corporation to be seen as going after a young lady who makes her living off of teaching guitar lessons, and, a young married street musician with a newborn child who lives in a one-bedroom rental?  That did it.  And Worth returned with a decent agreement that allowed us to sell the remaining albums with the promise not to print more.  As to Bob, he was very concerned; he realized the seriousness of it all.  But he always had this attitude of: Well, if it doesn’t work out, we’ll fix it; and that’s it. 
  • In his early gigs, when he was the Bob Devlin Street Band, his performances were mostly outside so there was never a problem having all the instruments played.  However, as the number of indoor gigs picked up, he realized that the under-foot cymbal – bent to give it a pop-back-up motion for the next beat – was not going to work.  It was deafened on rugs and scratched wood floors.  So “Rock” was added to the group.  Rock was a piece of slate Bob found on one of his endless shopping trips – he was amazing at always finding exactly what he needed.  Rock was chipped to the appropriate size and at the next gig, Cymbal and Rock had their own duo going.  But rugs came in handy outside also.  Bob was wearing so much electrical wiring in addition to having a ton of equipment around him that anyone who was partying a little too hard and got too close, well, it could be dangerous.  So, to have a more “official” placement, he would put a rug under his setup and let people know that it was his “staging area, (as well as adding a little bit of hominess!). 
  • I believe it was the Washington Post writer Eve Zibart, who added the suffix to what became “Bob Devlin One-Man-Band Extraordinaire.”   Bob often introduced himself:  “I’d like to introduce the members of my band!  Fingers! on guitar” – with a ripping guitar solo; “Feet! on drum and cymbal” – solo added to by Fingers;  “Mouth! on the harmonica” – blasting a full-speed every note solo; and finally ~ “my name is Bob Devlin and I am the lead singer! of the group” at which moment he would launch into a most glorious ripping rendition of “The Wabash Cannonball.”  People went wild with delight, only to laugh even more when Bob added after the musical intro:  I’d be in big trouble if the band ever decided to break up!”
  • In 1979, Bob launched into a business deal with real estate businessman, Harvey Fernebok, whom he had met through Marc Spiegel (think Strawberry Pastry!).  Harvey would make it financially possible for Bob to record his next album, String Rambler.  It was a street singer made classy!  Bob’s writing skills were finally in the forefront of what they were thinking as a next big national hit.  But although the album received acclaim, by others it was judged harshly because of the multi songwriter genres that were presented.  Some said it was fantastic and original; others who couldn’t understand his talent said he needed one concentration of type. 
  • In 1980 Bob was featured in Career World as a successful Offbeat Job in which one could make a reasonable living.
  • In Richard [Harrington]’s tribute to Bob, he mentioned: By the 1990s, Devlin would halt his street performing work in order to make a recording that “reflected his strong Christian commitment.”  This is a little off on timing and reasoning.  And it’s not something he went after.  It came after him!  His Christian songwriting had already begun taking form but it was something very personal for him – more like worship – and he postponed doing much publicly until he strongly felt the time was right.  Once in a while he would share a song at church, mostly for the children.  Then one time, LillAnne Pitts, head of the Children’s Dept of the church, approached Bob and asked if he could possibly write “two or three” songs to use with the Bible School curriculum that year, 1983. After looking over the curriculum and meeting with LillAnne, he came home and in less than three days composed nine of the twelve songs that would become the tape: For the Shepherd’s Children.  I think it took him by surprise as much as any of us.  
  • Also, by 1983, Bob was experiencing a huge influx of indoor gigs.  Having started out singing year-round including in cold weather, these were a welcome treat.  Not only for the warmth but also the guaranteed income.  Wanting his wife to be an at-home mom for their two girls, these gigs multiplied income into a dependable support.  Indoor gigs also included an upgrade in costume.  Although the street bandanna and red carnation remained, the jeans were replaced by black suit pants, and the once brown leather cap was replaced with the same style of Greek fisherman’s cap but in black.  And the brown shoes were traded in for black.  This was difficult because his shoes/boots weren’t just any kind.  The heel of the boot had to be made of a hard substance, more like wood that when striking the bass would create a sharp, clear, cracking sound rather than a muddled sponge-rubber of comfort heels.  More indoor gigs included numerous museum and zoological performances, local craft and music festivals, and countless school performances that had first begun in 1977.   He was considered entertainment and when pressured to be just as entertaining but to somehow make it educational, he designed his infamous and educational “Folksongs Americana” presentation. 
  • In 1985, Bob was once again asked to write songs for the Bible School curriculum.  However, now having both a 7 and 4 year old at home, he knew he wouldn’t get the silence he needed so the church offered to allow him to use one of the empty Sunday School rooms during the week and he was able to leave most of his equipment there overnight.  Another unexplainable happening – much like any great writer, designer, performer, artist – achieves in those special once-in-a-lifetime moments, Bob – in a span of less than two weeks – composed twelve songs that combined to become Circle of Love.  Another Devlin classic but short-lived, as we didn’t have the advertising help of big backers.  Ultimately, after Bob’s death in 1995, the non-profit designed to field these two tapes was dissolved by meeting IRS requirements of paying past taxes due on all monies received.  In the meantime, it was one more amazing creation to be boxed away and set aside to make room for further dreams. 
  • Also, the reason we don’t have a whole lot in pics of the private gigs is because most would have had to be taken before or after the guests appeared.  Not that they were nervous about anything, Bob understood as when you are in the upper echelons and you are invited to a home for the evening, you want to enjoy the food and people and the music without having a camera in your face.  But one fantastic thing that these gigs did was to let people see Bob out of his street gear and into his very classy presentation dress wear.  So more people felt relaxed and wanted to hire him.  And the residence part of his career took off.

10 Questions with Jessie Devlin

Q01:  What memories stand out from the recording sessions for Are You My Mother? 

A01: Memories…..Anytime I think of those recording sessions, the most memorable thing was the light – we were in Marc’s empty rental apt and there was so much light coming thru the windows.  And everyone was happy!  There was a lot of laughter and also a lot of ideas created in the moment as to how a line should be played or where an instrumental flourish could be added.   I was there to watch.  I took a ton of pictures and I enjoyed every part. 

Q02At the time, did “When the Rain Comes Down” hold any special place in Bob’s repertoire?  I know Bob was not commercially driven or oriented, but was there any thought given to making “Rain” the A-side of a single release? [Cathy Fink estimates that 30 other artists include the song in their repertoire as a result of her championing the song].

A02: “Rain” always held a special place in his repertoire.  It was the song that people sang along to.  And it would meld audiences together into one.  As to an A-side single, no, we were doing everything we could money-wise for his music on our own and we never discussed …..no, I can’t say that – we did discuss it.  But it just wasn’t possible.

Q03Was Bob particularly concerned during the legal tussle over the copyright issue, or was he able to hold the matter at bay and trust that everything would work out in the end?   Or neither?

A03: Random House – that’s elaborated [in the preceding paragraphs] above

Q04Did Bob originally contact Bread & Roses about distributing Pot Luck releases?  Was this a “special” arrangement, or did Bread & Roses support other local musicians in this regard?  

A04: Bread & Roses – this is one aspect I knew nothing about because I didn’t handle any of this.  But knowing Bob, it was probably something he presented to them.  As to other artists, you’d have to ask someone who knew B&R.  I was mainly the mom, cook, cleaner, bookkeeper, drop and pick up Bob at gigs or on the corners.  It wasn’t until the girls got a little older and lot of indoor gigs began to happen that I began to be the gig scheduler.

Q05How would you describe the energy that Bob conveyed as a street performer, and what were some of his favorite techniques or characteristic ways of engaging rapport with an audience?

A05: Engaging the audience:  Not much of a need there.  He was a HUGE happening and people wanted to be part of it, so they would come pouring out of their offices for lunch and join in with clapping and singing – Bob was a respite for their brains and a stress reliever for their bodies!  Once in a while he would add little stories to introduce a song and if the story worked he would keep it with the song but he never overused a story – just once in a while; a rarity.  Because his music was so welcoming and friendly, he didn’t have to draw people in – they couldn’t wait to jump in. 

Q06Given that DC is the Federal City, I’m just curious to know if there any other notables – besides Jimmy Carter, Cesar Chavez, Pete Seeger, and Sen. Howard Metzenbaum – who have been entertained by Bob?

A06: Oh sure, tons, but I can’t even begin to get into that right now.  It would take a ton of time and research.  I will say, he played for George and Barbara Bush ….I can’t remember if it was the Easter Egg Roll or one of the Congressional Picnics. 

Q07Did Bob and Flora Molton ever play any sets together while street performing?

A07: Flora Molton.  I slightly remember Bob taking his guitar and harmonica down to Flora’s corner [7th & G] one time but it was a very limited thing.  I think it was just something he wanted to do, to be with her.  And it wouldn’t be on the books because it wasn’t a paying gig. 

Q08Who were Bob’s favorite musical artists (or “heroes,” if any)?  Was Bob a music collector or “consumer” in any serious regard?

A08: Fav music artists ….oh my ….this is one of those questions that could be answered with a much shorter list by saying who he didn’t like.  In fact, I can’t remember him ever dissing another artist – famous or local.  That wasn’t the type of person he was.  Some of his favs included Bob Dylan – of course, and any song sung by someone with soul or party attitude or whatever.  He knew hundreds of songs besides the ones he had written and it’s what made it possible for him to play absolutely any type of gig that came along. 

Q09I suspect Bob had little to no tolerance for any commercial radio stations (even WHFS) – were there any DC stations that Bob actually enjoyed?

A09: Actually there were several stations he enjoyed.  I’d have to get a list and tell you because I can’t remember the call letters off the top of my head.  Why are you dissing WHFS?  Bob loved rock music …..haha…..that’s what he’d say to people when he put Rock on a rug in a home and he’d say:  Okay, we’re going to be hearing a little rock music tonite.  People would good-naturedly boo and then laugh.  He loved ALL music in the sixties ….well, except maybe the acid rock.  That was a bit much.  But all the songs written with good lyrics, whether supporting a march or walk-out or just a good time with a girlfriend, he appreciated the writer’s creativity.  But on top of it all – he rarely listened to radio – he was SO busy writing music and recording it over and over to see if he should change or add something.  Radio was not a high demand in his week or even a month. 

Q10What were the circumstances that led to Bob’s decision to retire from street performing?

A10: Like I said – there was no retirement.  It was more of a thing where, although he was making a ton of bucks at the time, the indoor gigs were even more financially beneficial and as people got to know him as an indoor performer, the gigs multiplied.

Northern VA’s Gazette — Oct. 25, 1984

David Arnold

[“whose one-man band is one of few besides Devlin’s on the East Coast“]

Quote: “Bob Devlin is certainly the best no-hands harmonica player I’ve ever seen”

Postscript

Bread & Roses: A Community Record Store

The cooperative record store that once stood in Washington, DC at 1724 20th St. (between R & S) — and served as a distribution point for Pot Luck Records — no doubt took its name (Bread & Roses) from a slogan (“Bread for all, and roses, too”) coined by Helen Todd that captured the essential spirit driving the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century:

Not at once; but woman is the mothering element in the world and her vote will go toward helping forward the time when life’s Bread, which is home, shelter and security, and the Roses of life, music, education, nature and books, shall be the heritage of every child that is born in the country, in the government of which she has a voice.— Helen Todd, 1910

Ralph Nader reported on Bread & Roses and other cooperative enterprises for In the Public Interest‘s March 4, 1974 edition in a piece entitled “Coping With Consumer Shortage:

One development in various parts of the country that bears watching is the spread of “community stores,” particularly in Seattle, Washington, Minneapolis, Madison, Wisconsin, Ann Arbor, Michigan and Washington, D.C. ..In the nation’s capital, drab with bureaucracy and impersonal architecture, a colorful, almost oldfashioned group of these community store coops are busily serving people who want to change their habits and find less expensive alternatives. “Stone Soup” and “Glut” sell food and another store, “Rainbow Bridge,” is about to open...There is a community warehouse and trucking coop to serve this network that hopes soon to connect up directly with farmers...“Bread and Roses” is a community record shop not far from a community bookshop. .“Romah” is a home repair service while the Quaker House Print Shop helps the communications process...A community pharmacy and food store called “Fields of Plenty” is now underway to practice the preachments of consumer protection.

Thank you, once again, to Jeff Krulik for all the images in the Bread & Roses gallery below (save the last one):

.*Note: Silver Spring‘s (forgotten) Paragon Studios notable in one regard, per Discogs:

THE MUFFINS – CHRONOMETERS (Cuneiform 55007) CD 73m
The Muffins were one of the most innovative fusion bands to emerge from the USA during the late-70’s, and whilst resembling Henry Cow in many ways, and also with notable Zappa/Mothers Of Invention influence, their complex style also drew them close to the Canterbury sound.

The recordings on this disc date from the very early days of The Muffins, circa 1975-76 and offer insight into the origins of a most talented and inventive band. The 23 minute suite, Chronometers itself, was only previously available in a very edited form on the Recommended Records Sampler, and it’s now really quite a revelation to hear it complete, notably the bizarre “Wizard Of Oz” collage and a music that nimbly cuts and jumps around, sounding like a mixture of Soft Machine (circa Volume 2 and Third), Matching Mole and Hatfield & The North. The other twenty, considerably shorter, tracks date from 1975, and would seem to be early demo recordings exploring a wide range of structures and styles. Mostly, these tracks present some of The Muffins’ most accessible music, rarely breaking out into the more crazed experimental realms of later works. Many of these tracks are arranged to flow in such a way as to seem like much longer suites, and thus (even though there are some very short pauses) tracks two to eight actually flow as if one 20 minute complex and cleverly conceived suite. Some of the tracks do stand on their own, like Peacocks, Leopards & Glass, a track previously heard many years ago on the Random Radar Records Sampler.

As an LP release, this would have been a double album, and thus Chronometers is an all round winner in terms of value for money, excellent music and as a curious insight into the origins of a most inventive band. A Recommended album indeed!
review by Alan Freeman in Audion magazine #25 (June 1993)

[COURTESY JESSIE DEVLIN]

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Bright Morning Star: Talkin’ Topical Wit & Artist Activism

My children’s violin instructor, Ken Giles, I was delighted to discover, had once been part of a contemporary folk ensemble that, as Stephen Holden of the New York Times noted, embraced “the left-wing populism of Pete Seeger,” as it also incorporated “comedy and theatrical horseplay” into its performances.   Formed in 1978 and named for an old Appalachian hymn, Bright Morning Star (“a lively and engaging fixture in the peace and antinuclear movement,” according to The Washington Post‘s Richard Harrington) once toured with Odetta and Pete Seeger, having also previously shared the stage with Holly Near, Ronnie GilbertJohn Hall, and Gil Scott-Heron.

Photos courtesy of Ken Giles

Often appearing at rallies and public events that promoted peace and safe energy, Bright Morning Star — Charlie KingCourt Dorsey, Cheryl Fox, George FulginitiShakarMarcia Taylor, Laura Kolb, and Giles — would travel with over two dozen instruments, including harmonica, guitar, autoharp, stand-up bass, electric bass, piano, drums, 5-string viola/violin, banjo, recorder, and various percussion.  Kolb served a special role within the group as artistic interpreter for the deaf and hearing-impaired during live performance.

[Back Row:  Taylor; Giles; Kolb — Front row:  Dorsey; Fox; King; Fulginiti-Shakar]

[

In the musical tradition of The Weavers and The Freedom Singers, the ensemble’s satirical sensibilities and “cabaret folk” approach hewed closer to Tom Lehrer, perhaps (Washington Post‘s Geoffrey Himes) or the San Franciso Mime Troupe (Boston Globe‘s Jeff McLaughlin).  Nevertheless, Pete Seeger himself gave the group his seal of approval, having once asserted, “I’m so proud — this whole wonderful group Bright Morning Star – they’re doing just exactly what Woody Guthrie and I tried to do 40 years ago.”

Founding member Charlie King would tell The Boston Globe in 1988:

“What I think Pete meant is Woody and I got on the union bandwagon and the Henry Wallace bandwagon; we went out into the communities and brought people together; we gave energizing concerts and we sang about the issues.  And we presented good music.  Bright Morning Star is doing that 40 years later with different issues, certainly a different crowd, different generation, different songs.  But there’s that continuity.”

Noting how the group leans toward celebration and humor rather than dark political commentary, King also shares this bit of wisdom gleaned from front-line experience:

“I think the political song at its worst says that things are really bad, probably hopeless, but at least you can feel self-righteous and get a cynical laugh during the last days of the empire.  There are a lot of songs written in that vein, I’m sure I’ve written a few.  But at its best, the political song builds a sense of possibility and humor.

I think political music records our history from the bottom up, from the grass roots, the stories of every day people; not just individuals, but also of popular struggles.  Within that historical context, it seems to energize and reinforce people and movements.  It  pokes fun at the powerful, reminds us that the emperor is naked.  I’ve always liked the quote – I’m not sure of the source, but I got it from Dorothy Day – that it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”

Bright Morning Star would sit still for a 40-minute interview with Studs Terkel that was broadcast on July 11, 1986.

Group photo from Sweet and Sour CD

The group’s three long-playing releases include two for Rainbow Snake Records — Arisin’ in 1981 (which includes women trucker anthem “Truck Drivin’ Woman”) and Live in the US in 1984 — plus one for noted Chicago blues & country indie label, Flying Fish, 1988’s Sweet and SourRob Okun would pen a mission statement for the group’s debut album:

“They pollinate the grass roots.  They bang away at the walls of indifference.  They celebrate humanity.

The six members of Bright Morning Star do a better job educating people to what’s right and what’s wrong on this crazy planet than a half dozen politicians, teachers, or preachers.

They take their music to big city auditoriums and down-home coffee houses, to college towns and union halls, to demonstrations and celebrations.  They put melodies to our brightest visions and lyrics to our darkest mornings.  On stage, and on this record, they lead odysseys into the worlds of personal and social change.  And they do it all with lightness, laughter, and love.”

Image of ‘Man with tricycle’ by Karl Valentin – University of Cologne

Steve Snyder’s “They Ought to Put It On the Radio” from Sweet and Sour prods the nation’s news media to rely less on sensationalism and, instead, report on a broader (and healthier) array of human activity, so as to foster a more compassionate world in which all human life is valued:

[Psst: Click on triangle for “They Ought To Put It On the Radio” by Bright Morning Star]

‘Sweet and Sour’ earned a four-star review in The Valley Advocate

A retired music teacher with DC Public Schools and a violin teacher with the DC Youth Orchestra Program, whose 35 years of working for health and safety programs was inspired by the social activism spirit of the 1960s, Ken Giles also enjoys singing with the DC Labor Chorus.

From Pete Seeger to Ken Giles

Postscript:  Bright Morning Star would band together once more in 2008 for a 20th Reunion Tour, with a show at Rockville, Maryland’s Saint Mark Presbyterian Church hosted by David Eisner’s Institute of Musical Traditions in nearby Takoma Park.

EncorePerformance footage of Pete Seeger along with Bright Morning Star singing “Well May the World Go.”

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

gene-rosenthal-track

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 - Scully 280-24 machadelphi-sony-es-22t-machine

[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:

adelphi-liz-meyer-award

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.”

adelphi-liz-meyer-lp

  • 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

adelphi-stephen-spano-lp-aaadelphi-stephen-spano-lp-bb

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)

adelphi-reuben-brown-trio-usadelphi-reuben-brown-trio-japan

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).

adelphi-nighthawks-jacks-kings-lpadelphi-nighthawks-times-four-lp

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

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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

“Streamline Train”: Folk Deco

Interesting to see the original 1936 recording of “Streamline Train” by Red Nelson recast in the UK as a skiffle tune in 1957, as the folk movement began to gain momentum in the US:

“Streamline Train”     The Vipers Skiffle Group     1957

    check out these striking images of streamline locomotives that accompany      Red Nelson’s original version of “Streamline Train”

Bob Dylan, in his February 6, 2015 acceptance speech as the recipient of MusiCares’ “Person of the Year” award, would have some illuminating observations to make about folk music that, at the same time, go a long way toward demystifying Dylan’s own songwriting process (thanks to Shortstaxx for the tip):

“I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs.  And I played them, and I met other people that played them, back when nobody was doing it.  Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.  For three or four years, all I listened to were folk standards.  I went to sleep singing folk songs.  I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals.  And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other.  I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.

“If you sang ‘John Henry’ as many times as me – ‘John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.’  If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written ‘How many roads must a man walk down?’ too…

“I sang a lot of ‘come all you’ songs.  There’s plenty of them.  There’s way too many to be counted.  ‘Come along boys and listen to my tale / Tell you of my troubles on the old Chisholm Trail.’  Or, ‘Come all ye good people, listen while I tell / the fate of Floyd Collins, a lad we all know well…’

If you sung all these ‘come all ye’ songs all the time like I did, you’d be writing, ‘Come gather ’round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.'”

“Tar and Cement”: Eco-Soul or Soul-Folk?

In the course of putting together a funk & soul mix, I previewed for consideration the songs on a 1960s Capitol Records compilation album entitled, Super Soul-Dees!  Volume 2:

Super Soul-Dees LP

One song in particular seemed to stand apart from the other tracks:  “Tar and Cement” by Verdelle Smith.  Certainly, Capitol’s 1960s soul roster skewed toward the pop end of the spectrum, but even this tune caught me by surprise with its folk-y sound and especially its lyric:  a cautionary tale about the deep hit to the spirit that can occur when we convert nature’s beautiful landscapes into urban spaces.

As it turns out, “Tar and Cement” is an English-language version of an Italian pop song, “Il ragazzo della via Gluck,” originally sung by Adriano Celentano.  Both songs were released in 1966, and Verdelle Smith’s version even went Top 40 here in the States — although you never hear it on oldies radio.  Why is that, I wonder – it’s a beautiful vocal and great tune:

“Tar and Cement”     Verdelle Smith     1966

Based on this Australian’s first-hand account, it would appear to be true that Verdelle’s version, indeed, really did go all the way to the top of the National pop charts in Australia.  “Tar and Cement,” after its initial 1966 single release, indeed, would be the title track of a 1967 EP release in Australia, as well as New Zealand.  EMI/Capitol would even release the song in Africa — says 45Cat:  “Rhodesia chart entry (within the Top 10) 21 January 1967 with a #3 peak.  South Africa chart entry 23 September 1966 with a #15 peak.”

Australian EP                                         New Zealand EP

Verdelle Smith bio from reverse side of EP

ABC Adelaide‘s investigative team, “the Baldies” — who had previously located Melanie Coe (young lady who inspired the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home“), Dolores Erickson (model on the cover of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass’s Whipped Cream album), and Ronnie Rondell (the man on fire on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album — tracked down Verdelle Smith in 2008 [includes audio of their conversation].

Verdelle Smith

Bonus video link to cover version by Françoise Hardy