Don Sebesky: Clavinet Pioneer

Last November’s tribute to the funkiest musical instrument known to humankind would seem to designate NRBQ‘s “Stomp” (recorded December, 1968) as among the earliest of recordings to feature the clavinet, even though by article’s end I reveal my trump card: “Attractive Girl” by The Termites — an album track on 1967’s Do the Rock Steady, a Studio One LP that was originally released in Jamaica and the UK.

Termites LP-aTermites LP-bb

My gratitude to the mysterious Felix, who points out that Don Sebesky‘s “Water Brother” from 1968’s Distant Galaxy album – based on the recording date – undoubtedly precedes NRBQ’s first recordings for Columbia and highlights the clavinet work of Sebesky* himself (*actually, Warren Bernhardt plays the clavinet — Sebesky serves as the album’s arranger, conductor, and writer of three of its tracks, including “Water Brother”):

“Water Brother”     Don Sebesky     1968

Note the bass kalimba in the right speaker during the song’s opening, while a theremin begins to wail in the left.

Distant Galaxy, Sebesky’s second album for Verve, finds Larry Coryell (again) on guitar (“Lady Madonna”) and sitar (“Guru-Vin”), along with Chuck Rainey, Dick Hyman and Hubert Laws, among others, providing musical support.

Don Sebelsky LPAlthough a solo artist from the late 1960s through the 1990s, Sebesky enjoys much greater renown as an arranger, whose CV includes Jimmy Dean, Astrud Gilberto, Sonny Stitt, Dionne Warwicke, Esther Phillips, Hank Crawford, Leslie Uggams, George Benson, Maynard Ferguson, Gilbert Bécaud, Paul Desmond, Charles Brown, Wes Montgomery, Willie Bobo, Walter Wanderley, Doc Severinson, Carmen McRae, and Roberta Flack.

Sebesky’s earliest recognition, however, was for his jazz trombone work with Kai Winding, Tommy Dorsey, and Stan Kenton, among others.

Check out the assemblage of talent for Don Sebesky’s 1973 2-LP set

Don Sebelsky - Giant BoxUnfortunately, I’m about to pull another trump card of sorts out of my sleeve:  Aaron Kipness’s Hohnet Clavinet FAQ from 2007 in which the question of First Clavinet Recordings is addressed on page ten.  Stevie Wonder (to no one’s surprise) is identified as a potential clavinet originator; “ShooBeDooBeDooDaDay,” which opens with a funky clavinet riff, was released, according to the FAQ, in 1966!   Upon closer inspection, however, credible sources point to March, 1968 as the song’s actual release date.

The FAQ, additionally, offers Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You” (released January, 8, 1968 and recorded, according to Soulful Kinda Music, three days prior) as an early clavinet recording, which it is.

Nevertheless, “Attractive Girl” by The Termites – a track from their 1967 Studio One LP Do the Rock Steady remains, as best as I can determine, the medal bearer for Earliest Clavinet Recording.

Clavinet Update!  Special thanks to Jim Kimsey, whose March, 2016 comment ponied up “Six O’Clock” by (NRBQ fan) John Sebastian & The Lovin’ Spoonful – recorded in 1967 – as a new candidate for “Earliest Clavinet Recording” — now tied with “Attractive Girl” by The Termites.

J Mascis Takes a Run at the Sun

Allison Anders’ 1996 fictional film, Grace of My Heart – a clever and heartfelt tribute to the great sounds of the 1960s and early 70s – features original songs that take their inspiration from Brill Building & girl group pop, as well as Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” British Invasion beat groups, and confessional singer-songwriter balladry that later set the stage for “adult contemporary” pop.  The soundtrack’s effectiveness is due, in part, to the fact that a number of songs were written by veteran songwriters of the classic pop era in collaboration with more contemporary artists, as in the case of “God Give Me Strength,” which was written by Burt Bacharach with Elvis Costello.

“Take a Run at the Sun” – a deft blend of surf and theremin that is one of the soundtrack’s highlights – was written and performed by J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and is notable for sounding nothing like the gargantuan guitar roar for which the 90s “alternative” rock trio is famous:

The following year saw the release of a Dinosaur Jr. 3-song single (in the UK and Australia only) which featured “Take a Run at the Sun” as the A-side with “Don’t You Think It’s Time” and “The Pickle Song” on the flip side.

Take a Run at the Sun 45 - Dinosaur Jr

Paul Tanner: Musician-of-All-Trades & Oddball Instrumentalist

Paul Tanner, who just recently passed, lived to the ripe old age of 95.  I was delighted to learn that this one-time trombonist for the Glenn Miller Orchestra went on to play the pivotal theremin part on the Beach Boys’ worldwide 1966 hit, “Good Vibrations” – as well as on “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” from 1965’s Pet Sounds plus the title track from 1967’s Wild Honey.

According to Bruce Weber, Tanner went to California in the early 1950s to do film soundtracks, as well as live musical performances on ABC TV, and it was during this period in which he “became something of a musician-of-all-trades, taking up a variety of oddball instruments and performing on them when a quirky score called for them.”

Tanner became interested in the theremin – Leon Theremin’s self-named futuristic 1920s electronic musical instrument – as a result of having witnessed its effective implementation in the soundtracks of such 1950s science fiction films as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing (From Another World) click here to hear a theremin recording session for The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Tanner, after noticing theremin performers struggling with the instrument to obtain correct intonation and dynamics, contracted with a TV repair shop owner and friend, Bob Whitsell, to construct for him an instrument that would replicate the sound of a theremin but include manual levers that would allow the player to have greater control over volume and pitch.  Thus was born the “electro-theremin” (also known as the Tannerin) and first employed on Tanner’s 1958 “ambient” album, Music for Heavenly Bodies.

Heavenly Bodies - Paul Tanner

Here is an early work-up of “Good Vibrations” that features Paul Tanner’s electro-theremin part more prominently in the mix than the 45 version released in October 1966:

Alternate Vibrations – The Beach Boys

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to hear Paul Tanner’s electro-theremin featured in an early mix of “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys.]

Incredibly, Tanner donated/sold his one-and-only prototype of the electro-theremin in the late 60s “to a hospital to use for audiology work, because he believed that newer keyboard synthesizers made it obsolete.”

Extra Credit:  memorize the chart listings for “Good Vibrations” for various countries outside the United States.

National Chart (1966–67)            Peak Position
Australian Singles Chart                  2
Belgian Singles Chart                     6
Canadian Singles Chart                    2
Dutch Singles Chart                       4
German Singles Chart                      8
Italian Singles Chart                    12
Malaysian Singles Chart                   1
New Zealand Singles Chart                 1
Norwegian Singles Chart                   2
Rhodesian Singles Chart                   1
UK Singles Chart                          1
U.S. Billboard Hot 100                    1