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.

“Kalimba Story”: Thumb Piano Pop

My first encounter with a kalimba, the African instrument (also known as a “thumb piano” or, more properly, mbira) was when I read the album credits for Space Oddity in my youth and learned that David Bowie played a kalimba on the title track, Bowie’s first American breakout hit (a.k.a., “Major Tom”).  You can hear the kalimba’s shimmering effect in the intro and into the first verse (Bowie, no doubt, getting a strong vibrato effect by rapidly moving his finger on/off the instrument’s sound hole).

Hmm, I wondered – has any popular musical artist ever decided to write a song that celebrates or honors the kalimba itself?  As it turns out, yes:  Earth Wind & Fire‘s “Kalimba Story” from 1974’s Open Our Eyes, the group’s fifth album – and third for Columbia, since switching from Warner Brothers:

“Kalimba Story”     Earth, Wind & Fire     1974

How refreshing to see the kalimba makes its first appearance a mere 2 seconds into the song and then proceeds to kick out the jams a little further ways in.  Interesting to see this song released as the A-side of a 45 (#6 R&B, #55 Pop), the second of three singles from that album.

Seven years later, Earth Wind & Fire would issue “Kalimba Tree” on 1981 album, Raise! – an interesting melange of deep analog synthesizer, soprano sax, and vocal chants with gentle mbira embellishments.

A piece about the mbira wouldn’t be complete if I failed to mention the work of Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo, whose music not only embraced the instrument from the outset but also featured electric guitar lines that beautifully emulate a master mbira musician.

“Hanzvadzi”     Thomas Mapfumo     1993

Rolf Harris Introduces the Stylophone to the Masses

Right after I posted this piece, I was reviewing the musician credits for the Space Oddity album and was struck by the fact that, in addition to the kalimba, David Bowie also played a stylophone during the recording sessions.  A few years ago I was introduced to this monophonic electronic keyboard – that one plays with a metal stylus – by friends who graciously bestowed one upon me.  I had assumed all this time that the stylophone was a relatively recent invention, but seeing the instrument credited on a 1969 recording, of course, set me to wondering:  when did the stylophone enter the realm of popular music?

As it turns out, Rolf Harris – the Australian entertainer probably best known for his hits, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” and the Aboriginal-inspired, “Sun Arise” (produced by George Martin and probably the first time most Americans heard a didgeridoo) – is likely responsible for unveiling the stylophone to European audiences for the first time, as this documentary clip reveals:

Rolf Harris demonstrates the electronic instrument using a song from “the hit parade” – John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” first covered by Glen Campbell in 1967 – on a program that may have originally been broadcast on BBC in September, 1968.

This film clip, thankfully, answers the question – on which song did Bowie use the stylophone?  Answer:  the album’s title track (at around the 2:37 mark) during the instrumental bridge immediately following Bowie’s strummed acoustic guitar riff.