Various Artists: Rock ‘n’ Roll Bell Ringers

Period covers of ‘50s rock and R&B

The modern-day music market teems with cover albums featuring past-their-prime artists attempting to re-create their hit singles; there are often passed off with misleading cover art that fails to indicate these are re-recordings. But once upon a time covering other people’s hits was more of an art form, adding dashes of new creativity even as the copy rode the coattails of someone else’s stardom onto the charts. These twenty-six singles were originally released on the Bell label as covers of 1950s R&B and rock classics, with band arrangements that are polished and expertly played. A few of the top-line names, such as Sy Oliver, Edna McGriff and Jimmy Carroll will be familiar, as will be some of the ace New York session players, including Billy Mure, Al Caiola and Charlie Shavers.

The song selections will be familiar to anyone who’s heard a ‘50s hit collection, but the singers will mostly draw question marks. Jim Brown won’t make you forget Chuck Berry as he sings “Maybellene,” but hot guitar licks and a rousing sax solo signal that there’s top-flight talent on board, and Edna McGriff’s version of Lee Hazelwood’s “The Fool” is more hit parade than Sanford Clark’s rockabilly original, but it still packs a punch. The low twang, heavy sax and rolling piano of Jimmy Carroll’s “Big Guitar” fits into the Las Vegas Grind genre, and though Johnny Newton never became a household name, he sounds right at home on the Impalas’ “Sorry (I Ran All the Way Home).” The album closes with Tom & Jerry (soon to be known as Simon & Garfunkel) covering Jan & Dean’s pre-surf hit “Baby Talk.”

The Bell label specialized in quickie covers sold at a low price; but even in their hurry to beat an original single to the charts, they lavished a surprising amount of attention on these recordings. The arrangements, bands and recordings often outstrip the talent of the singers they could round up, but there’s a quality to these sides, and an authenticity of era, that greatly surpasses the middling results of current labels recreating 50 year old hits. These are no substitute for the originals, but given the mechanics of the record industry at the time and the passage of decades, they’ve gained an historical patina that elevates them beyond cheap knock-offs. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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