1969: Bethlehem’s Last Session?

As noted in Zero to 180’s recent history of Bethlehem Records in the “Post-Syd Nathan” era (i.e., starting in 1958, when Nathan acquired 50% of the label), Ruppli’s King recording sessionography indicates that some new recording had taken place at King’s Cincinnati studios in a few instances connected to the Bethlehem label, most seeming to take place 1962/63: The Mighty Faith Increasers; The Wilson Sisters; Jean Dee; Beverly Buff; The Guitar Crusher & The Vice-Roys.

Both Sides Now Publications documents the final years of Bethlehem in Part 4 of its informative Bethlehem Records Story:

By 1969, King had long since abandoned Bethlehem and its jazz catalog.  The last of those albums was released in 1965.  Syd Nathan himself had died in 1968, and the label was sold to Starday Records, now operating as Starday/King.  After four years of owning the imprint but releasing no product, Starday/King decided it would revive Bethlehem for a mixture of albums that didn’t seem to fit with their regular country (Starday) or soul (King) series.  So Bethlehem became the home of (1) a jazzy soul band (Dee Felice Trio) that was one of James Brown’s projects, (2) a saloon sing-along/ragtime/novelty band (The Saloonatics), (3) Wayne Cochran, a well-known rockabilly artist, (4) the Oscar Brandenburg Orchestra, a big band swing “orchestra” that was really Neil Richardson, Alan Moorehouse, and Johnny Pearson recording music to be used behind BBC test patterns for TV, (5) Azie Mortimer, a female jazz singer, and (6) to cap off the label, a reissue of a 1955 Dick Stabile studio album recorded in New York and advertised as recorded at a swanky New Orleans hotel.  Not the first time King pulled this trick, however.  The album had previously been issued on King 623 as Dancing on Sunset Strip.

The last Bethlehem-related session in Ruppli’s sessionography — The Saloonatics, who recorded their one and only album on April 29, 1969, Crazy World Crazy Tunes, which features country blues weeper, “I Get the Blues When It Rains” as the A-side of a 1969 single:

“I Get the Blues When It Rains”     The Saloonatics      1969

Note the 1929 Cadillac Dual Cowl Phaeton on the LP cover…

… while the rear cover features liner notes from none other than Mr. Dick Clark

Dick Clark’s liner notes:

The Saloonatics are a group of musicians and singers who entertain each night, and as a result of this daily contact with the people, they seem to know what the people like.  It is just that element, what the people like – that is reproduced here.

The story behind the Saloonatics and this album goes much further.  This recording is the accomplishment of an ambition for two men who have been in all phases of the music industry for many years.

Paul Striks plays piano and sings, Ralph Guenther plays bass and banjo and also sings.  They are the nucleus of the group presented here.  Saul was with a group called Somethin’ Smith and the Redheads from 1947 to 1960 and was on all the hit records produced by that group during those years.  Ralph was a recording musician for King Records in Cincinnati for many years, and participated in the recording of many hits.

Saul and Ralph knew each other but never worked together.  After a severe injury to Saul, which forced him to stop traveling, friends brought Saul and Ralph together again and insisted that they should work together.  The group, which began as an experiment, soon became an outstanding attraction in Cincinnati. 

The next step was recording:  the reasoning behind this was that Saul and Ralph had been on hit records before, but had never received credit for what they did on the records. They were anonymous.

Here are two experienced professionals finally getting the recognition they deserve.  The musicianship obvious in the piano and banjo playing is enhanced by the unique singing of both men.  Saul plays the piano and Ralph plays the banjo.  Saul sings “Me and My Shadow,” “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby” and “Red Silk Stockings.”  Ralph sings “Vo Da Dee O Do,” “I Get the Blues When It Rains,” “Just Because,” “Lock My Heart,” “San Francisco Bay Blues,” “Columbus Stockade Blues,” and the original song with the improbable title, “If My Baby Cooks as Good as She Looks, I’ll Be Happy All the Time.”

To this comination of musicians, another element was added – O.B. Marshall, a great arranger with many hits to his credits, was brought in to be the musical framework in which the talents of Saul Striks and Ralph Guenther would best be shown.  O.B. added a band of all-star recording musicians, and conducted the sessions as well as writing the arrangements.

That’s the crew:  Saul Striks, Ralph Guenther, and O.B. Marshall.  The result is this album.  We hope you enjoy it.  We did.

Bill Sachs, Cincinnati reporter in Billboard‘s ‘From the Music Capitals of the World’ column the week of June 10, 1972, notes that “The Saloonatics, namely Saul Striks, piano, and Ralph Guenther, banjo and bass, set for up an indefinite stay in the Terrace Hilton Hotel.  Striks was for many years with Somethin’ Smith and the Redheads.”

We know that Wayne Cochran and others had album releases on Bethlehem that followed The Saloonatics, so the big question that runs through this piece: Were the Saloonatics the last Bethlehem act to record at King’s Cincinnati studio — versus the Nashville studio used by the new consolidated Starday-King label (e.g., the JB’s featuring Bootsy & Catfish Collins and other CIncinnati musicians)?  And who exactly was the last artist to record at the King Studios – do we know?

Update!  Update!  Update!

Zero to 180 concluded its special King Records 75th Anniversary coverage with a piece posted on November 1, 2018 – Lord Thunder:  Final Deluxe 45? – that included this special postscript:

New Observations about Bethlehem‘s Final Releases!
Tip of the hat to the Bethlehem Records Discography Project

  • The James Brown recording session from May 20, 1970 (David Matthews’ “The Drunk” recorded in two parts, with only Part Two issued) that ended up as the B-side of a Bethlehem (not King) 45 “A Man Has to Go Back to the Crossroads” b/w “The Drunk”  appears to be the last original recording released on Bethlehem — a session that took place at King Studios in Cincinnati (as did the session for the single’s A-side on March 2, 1970, on which David Matthews served as Director).  Interesting to note that A-side “charted on 18 July, 1970 on Record World’s “Singles Coming Up” chart peaking at #110″ (Discogs).
  • The next-to-last entry for 1970 says that Arthur Prysock laid down 12 tracks with “unidentified orchestra” and Bill McElhiney serving as arranger/director at Nashville’s Starday-King recording facility on April 8, 1970 for Prysock’s Unforgettable album (released on King).  The two singles from this LP, curiously, would be issued on separate labels — “Cry” b/w “Unforgettable” on King, while “Funny World” b/w “The Girl I Never Kissed”  ended up on Bethlehem.
  • This discography of Bethlehem recordings/releases from 1958 to the present ends in the year 1970 — and yet omits any references to The Saloonatics from 1969. What up?  1969 would also see recording sessions in Cincinnati for Wayne Cochran and His C.C. Riders (previously paid tribute here), as well as The Dee Felice Trio (with Frank Vincent) for LP and 45 releases on Bethlehem.