“Atomic Telephone”: King 78

Folks who do not have enough dough (or shelf space) for Bear Family’s undoubtedly meticulous and wide-ranging box set of popular music from the original Atomic Age, can nevertheless simulate the experience by (1) keyword searching 78 RPM using the wordatomic” (also “atom“) and then (2) listening to desired tracks via YouTube streaming audio.

Bear Family’s Atomic Platters 5 CD/1 DVD Box Set from 2005atomic-platters-box-set

I especially like that the search results from 78 RPM are in chronological order.  Note that the earliest songs in the first search (“atomic”) are from 1946, however the second search (“atom”) yields a song from 1945 that is not in the Bear Family box set and competes with Slim Gaillard’s “Atomic Cocktail” (not published until 1946, according to this site) for earliest song about atom splitting — “Atom Boogie” by Sammy Franklin (sadly, not yet uploaded onto YouTube).

The box set would also include King Records‘ big contribution to the national conversation: 1947’s “When They Found the Atomic Power” by Hawkshaw Hawkins and, four years later, The Spirit of Memphis Quartet‘s “The Atomic Telephone” – a song credited to Henry Glover, Lois Mann (i.e., Syd Nathan) and Eddie Smith.

“The Atomic Telephone”     The Spirit of Memphis Quartet     1951

The Spirit of Memphis Quartet – Jethro Bledsoe (lead vocals), Silas Steele, Willmer “Little Axe” Broadnax and others (supporting vocals) — recorded the original version of “Atomic Telephone” on August 14, 1951 at the King Studios in Cincinnati.  1951 would also see “The Atomic Telephone” covered by The Harlan County Four –recorded in Cincinnati on October 29, 1951, according to Ruppli’s King Labels sessionography — yet another early example of Syd Nathan putting one of “his” songs (published by Lois Music) to work in more than one “market.”

Johnny Sippel, Billboard‘s man on the “Folk Talent and Tunes” beat, would report in the May 3, 1952 edition that KMA disk jockey Lee Sutton of Shenandoah, Iowa “conducted a contest, asking listeners to guess the names of the Harlan County Four, new King artists” [i.e., Alton and Rabon Delmore, plus Zeke and Ulysses (“Red“) Turner, as affirmed by PragueFrankBillboard‘s record review of The Harlan County Four version in the February 9, 1952 edition would note that this “fast-tempo spiritual shows off the nice blend of the group and their sincere vocalizing.”]

The song would get name-checked in Bob Groom’s essay “Beyond the Mushroom Cloud:  A Decade of Disillusion in Black Blues and Gospel Song” [included in 2008’s Ramblin’ On My Mind:  New Perspectives on the Blues, edited by David Evans]:

Many of [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur’s supporters had favored “nuking” the enemy out of existence, failing to understand the consequences if Russia retaliated on behalf of China.  The lethal power of the nuclear weapon was not readily apparent from recordings like “Atom and Evil,” a humorous parody recorded by the Golden Gate Quartet on June 5, 1946 (Columbia 37236), and the Spirit of Memphis Quartet’s “The Atomic Telephone” (King 4521), recorded August 14, 1951.  It was hard to imagine the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki happening in America, and the government promoted among the population the naive belief that fall-out shelters would protect most people from harm.  The development of the hydrogen bomb offered an even speedier path to annihilation, but even this weapon could become a macho image.  Certainly, singer Bob Ferguson used it to stress his power as a performer when he adopted his nom-de-disque “H-Bomb” Ferguson in 1951.

The original 1951 King 78 release “Atomic Telephone b/w “He Never Let Go My Hand” sells for two figures at auction.

On a Related Note   

Check out bless-this-soul.com‘s King & Queen Gospel Discography

“Thankful”: Plateful of Grateful

A new subject category – Gratitude in Popular Music – has been added in order to allow the opportunity each year around this time to shine a musical spotlight on thankfulness.

Zero to 180 has observed this tradition in the past via populist anthems that promote unity, such as “We the People” by Allan Toussiant, “Time to Get It Together” by Tom Jones, and “This Old Town” by Wilson Pickett.

This year’s featured selection, “I’m Thankful” — originally produced by Sam Cooke and recorded for the 1961 album Jesus Be a Fence Around Me by The Soul Stirrers – was once performed live on television, and a tape of that broadcast (thankfully) still exists:

“I’m Thankful”     The Soul Stirrers     c. early 1960s

Billboard, in its July 3, 1961 edition, would describe the flip side of “I Love the Lord” thusly:

“A slow spiritual  with a higher voice taking over the lead.  The feeling of the side is in a quiet groove.  Simple backing assists the lead and the rest of the group”

soul-stirrers-45-aa

Barbara Keith’s Liberation Gospel

Ed Ward wrote a special section devoted to 45s (non-album releases) in the original Rolling Stone Record Review from 1971, with particular praise for Barbara Keith’s A-side, “Free the People”:

“You may remember Delanie & Bonnie’s version of this song, and how good it was.  Well, Barbara’s the one who wrote the thing, and she does it up just as well as you might expect.  It lacks the Salvation Army feel of the D&B rendition, substituting instead a deeply-felt intensity that shocks the listener into realizing that this is, after all, a religious song.  ‘Rainmaker’ [B-side] fares nowheres near as well, but it isn’t quite as good a song to start with.  But I feel that Barbara Keith is a talent to be reckoned with, and we’ll be hearing more from her.”

Barbara Keith would would initially sign with Verve for one album (1969’s Barbara Keith) but then switch to A&M Records in August/September,1970.   On A&M Records informs us that her first single “Free the People” was “soon covered by Barbra Streisand and Delaney and BonnieMs. Keith also worked on an album for A&M that was never released.”

Barbara Keith PromoBillboard, in its October 3, 1970 edition, would include the 45 in its “Special Merit Spotlight” noting:  “infectious original rhythm ballad with heavy lyric line has all the earmarks of bringing Miss Keith to the charts in short order.”

Barbara Keith would leave A&M for Reprise, who would issue a new 7-inch version of “Free the People” – a song that was also included on 1973 Reprise LP, Barbara Keith.

“Free the People”     Barbara Keith     1972?

Bass:  Lee Sklar
Drums:  Jim Keltner
Percussion:  Milt Holland
Electric Piano:  Spooner Oldham
Piano:  Craig Doerge
Pedal Steel Guitar:  Richard Bennett

Barbara Keith UK 45

Winston Groovy would record a lovely “strings reggae” version for the UK market in 1971.

“Free the People”     Winston Groovy     1971

“Free the People,” fortunately, would be deemed worthy of inclusion in Rock Song Index:  The 7500 Most Important Songs for the Rock and Roll Era.

Sheet Music

Barbara Keith's Sheet Music

Sister Rosetta – Rock & Roll Architect

Such a mighty presence, a powerful singer and electrifying guitarist, with her triple-pickup solid body Gibson – so why isn’t Sister Rosetta Tharpe mentioned as a rock & roll pioneer in the same breath as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley?  Elvis, in fact, would be directly influenced by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, as Gayle Wald points out in the PBS documentary, Sister Rosetta Tharpe:  The Godmother of Rock & Roll.   Ray Charles dared to fuse gospel music with secular content – and yet Sister Rosetta would beat him to the punch (although many seem to be unaware).  Firing off notes on her modernist polar white Gibson Les Paul Custom with gold hardware, she was Bo Diddley before there was Bo Diddley.  Jim Dickinson hit it right on the head in Gibson Guitars’ profile of Sister Rosetta Tharpe when he observed, “A female gospel singer playing electric guitar in a spangled evening dress was pretty unique in 1955.”

Rosetta Tharpe - bRosetta Tharpe - cRosetta Tharpe - fRosetta Tharpe - eRosetta Tharpe - dRosetta Tharpe - g

Years ago I threw Al Hirt’s breezy interpretation of “Up Above My Head” on a compilation, completely oblivious to the fact the song had originally been written by Sister Rosetta.  How fascinating, and amusing, to discover that Tharpe’s rocking guitar lines would inspire Nick Didkovsky — founding member of grindcore band, Vomit Fist — to play a note-perfect rendition of Tharpe’s gospel standard, “Up Above My Head,” and then break it down note-by-note for the rest of the world to learn (and hopefully one day master themselves):

Nick Didkovsky Duets with Sister Rosetta Tharpe on “Up Above My Head”

“Up Above My Head” would be also covered by The Blind Boys of Alabama, Laurie London, The Blue Diamonds, Long John Baldry, Mickie Most, Elvis Presley, The Wood Brothers, Rance Allen, Randy Travis, and Johnny Ray & Frankie Laine, among many others.

Inspiration for Sly Stone’s 1974 wedding at Madison Square Garden?

Rosetta Tharpe - wedding album