Archive for the ‘CD Review’ Category

Big Star: In Space

Thursday, January 16th, 2020

Expanded edition of reformulated Big Star’s 2004 return to the studio

After reformulating Big Star with the Posies John Auer and Ken Stringfellow in 1993, Alex Chilton eventually mustered up the interest to record a new album in 2004, and release it the following year. But in ways similar to Big Star’s third album (and to be fair, even the Chilton-led, mostly Bell-free Radio City), one might ask what it means to be a Big Star album. There is material here – largely from Auer, Stringfellow, and original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens – that harkens back to the band’s early-70s British pop inspired beginnings. But there are also strong currents of Alex Chilton’s rag-tag solo work, and his propensity to record cover songs. It’s difficult to hear this as continuous with the band’s earlier work, though there are moments; it’s not an erszatz doo wop band touring under someone else’s name, but it may be more accurate to think of this Big Star moniker as more ancestry than identity.

Despite having acceded to performing as Big Star, Chilton retained an uneasy relationship with the group’s earlier material. The new album was apparently born out of both his boredom with the narrow setlist he was willing to play on stage, and the opportunity to collaborate with bandmates with whom he enjoyed making music. After ten years of sporadic gigs, the group was really solid, rooted in the legacy material they performed, but not beholden to its ghosts. Chilton evidenced little interest is writing material for the new album that echoed his past, leaving it to his bandmates to mine the band’s legacy. Jon Auer and Jody Stephens’ co-writes touch most closely on the band’s earlier work, with both “Best Chance” and “February’s Quiet” offering guitar riffs and melodies that fit comfortably with the band’s first two albums. Stephens’ drumming on the former highlights just how fundamental he was to Big Star’s sound, and the closing chord of the latter song will provoke aural deja vu.

Chilton’s funky “Love Revolution” and “Do You Want to Make It” are more in line with his solo career than earlier Big Star, and the Olympics’ “Mine Exclusively” is just the sort of obscure cover that had long since become a Chilton trademark. Chilton’s post-Big Star penchant for spontaneous, raw performances threads through several tracks, including the rock ‘n’ roll rave-up “A Whole New Thing,” a ploddingly-delivered arrangement of Georg Muffat’s baroque “Aria, Largo,” and the cacophonous closer, “Makeover.” There’s craft to be heard, as on Ken Stringfellow’s Beach Boys’ pastiche “Turn My Back on the Sun,” but it’s not the sort of crystalline sounds the original band recorded in the early 1970s.

The original album is expanded on this 2019 reissue with a half-dozen bonus tracks that include songwriter demos, an a cappella take of Auer’s Beach Boys tribute, a rough mix of “Dony,” and “Hot Thing,” a track originally recorded by Big Star for their own tribute album Big Star, Small World. The demos are particularly interesting as working documents that sketch the initial inspiration and evolving views of the singer-songwriters. Liner notes from Auer, Stringfellow, co-producer/engineer Jeff Powell, assistant engineer Adam Hill, and Rkyo Records exec Jeff Rougvie offer first-person memories and warm anecdotes of what turned out to be a one-off studio effort. In retrospect, this is a nice coda to the Big Star legend, if not exactly a straightforward element of the canon. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

David Ball: Thinkin’ Problem

Tuesday, January 14th, 2020

Expanded 25th anniversary reissue of 1994 honky-tonk landmark

Having gained artistic and fan notoriety in Austin’s Uncle Walt’s Band, David Ball spent more than a decade searching for commercial success in Nashville. He recorded an album for RCA in 1988, but after the initial singles had only middling chart success, the album was vaulted until this 1994 Warner Brothers release broke nationally. The sessions offered uncompromising neotraditional country, just as the neotraditional movement was giving way to crossover sounds; but fans apparently hadn’t gotten the marketing memo, as the  album launched five country chart singles and sold double platinum. At the age of 41, Ball’s maturity – both musically and experientially – shows in music that’s rife with broken hearts that won’t stop loving, bittersweet memories that continue to surface, and emotional bruises salved with an alcohol liniment.

Produced by Blake Chancey and engineered by the legendary Billy Sherrill, the album is backed studio players who came together into a tight, twangy honky-tonk band of fiddle, steel, piano, drums and generous amounts of Telecaster. Ball’s voice was recorded without the sort of mid-90s studio effects that polished and pumped singers for radio, and it leaves his emotional connection to the lyrics exposed for everyone to hear. The record doesn’t sound anachronistic (even for its own time), but the throwback connections from Ball’s earlier work with Uncle Walt’s Band are clear. The album’s lone cover is a devastating take on Webb Pierce’s “A Walk on the Wild Side of Life,” opening with a haunted acapella intro that leaves the protagonist to forever stalk an empty house. Ball’s original material — reportedly winnowed down from a hundred songs over two years to the ten included on the original album – is superb.

The uptempo title track provided the first of five singles to make the country chart, falling just shy of the top at #2. The other four include the mid-tempo honky-tonk of “Look What Followed Me Home” and “Honky Tonk Healin’,” the slow, bluesy “What Do You Want With His Love,” and the pained ballad “When the Thought of You Catches Up to Me.” The album tracks are just as good, including the rockabilly-tinged “Down at the Bottom of a Broken Heart” and the Tex-Mex flavors of “Don’t Think Twice” that evoke Buck Owens, Doug Sahm, and the Mavericks.

Omnivore’s anniversary reissue adds eight demos that show just how hard the choice of ten album tracks must have been. Ball’s liner notes suggest “I’ve Got a Heart With Your Name On It” as George Strait-styled material, but the simply arranged demo and Ball’s heart-on-sleeve vocal are more in line with Nick Lowe’s post-Jesus of Pop singer-songwriter works. The old-timey “Goodbye Heartache, Hello Honky Tonk” and “The King of Jackson Mississippi” reach back to Uncle Walt’s Band more directly than the tracks that made the album, and “Give Me Back My Heart” has some incredibly fine, and surprisingly extensive guitar picking, for a demo. The original album’s appeal has proven timeless in its emotion and artistry, and augmented by period demos, this reissue is a must-have upgrade for fans. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

David Ball’s Home Page

Tony Joe White: That on the Road Look “Live”

Monday, January 6th, 2020

Outstanding, yet long neglected, 1971 live set

Though originally planned for commercial release, this 1971 multitrack recording sat in Warner Brothers’ vaults for nearly forty years. Rhino Handmade released a limited edition CD in 2010, but it’s taken nearly another decade for these tapes to find a full retail release. Opening for Creedence Clearwater Revival, White is in great voice, his “whomper stomper” wah-wah pedal sets his electric guitar deep in the swamp, and he’s backed by a tight band that includes White’s longtime drummer Sammy Creason and organist Mike Utley, alongside MG’s bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. Together they work through more than an hour of material that mixes selections from White’s earlier tenure on Monument and his then-current run for Warners, including “Rainy Night in Georgia,” “Willie and Laura Mae,” and a ten-minute version of “Polk Salad Annie.” White connects deeply with the folk side of his material in this small group setting, often setting down his electric guitar for an acoustic that leaves more room for the gritty, intimate soulfulness of his voice. This is an outstanding set that catches a unique artist on the rise, and a must-have for all of White’s fans. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Tony Joe White’s Home Page

Essential Reissues of 2019

Thursday, January 2nd, 2020

Some of the best reissues of 2019. Click the titles to find full reviews and music samples.

Various Artists: The Bakersfield Sound

A towering achievement in musical archaeology, even when measured against Bear Family’s stratospherically high standard. Reissue producer Scott B. Bomar digs deeply into Bakersfield’s musical soil to explore the migrant roots that coalesced into the history, connections, influences and circumstances that forged the Bakersfield Sound. Ten discs, nearly three-hundred tracks, and a 224-page hardcover book essay the scenes development, how lesser-known players contributed to those who would become stars, and how the stars blossomed from their roots. Reissue of the year.

Various Artists: Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records – The Definitive Collection

Triple-disc set cataloging the riches of Narvel “Cadillac Baby” Eatmon’s Chicago-based labels, including Bea & Baby, Key, Keyhole, Ronald and Miss. Competing with Chess, Vee-Jay, Brunswick and Delmark in the early ‘60s, the entrepreneurial Eatmon sourced acts through his Show Lounge nightclub, and built a small, but artistically important catalog that includes blues, soul, R&B doo-wop and Latin-tinged numbers. The accompanying 128-page hardbound book includes a lengthy interview with Eatmon, alongside producer’s notes, liners, and artist profiles.

Blinky: Heart Full of Soul – The Motown Anthology

Sondra “Blinky” Williams may be Motown’s most widely heard unsung singer. She recorded dozens of sides for the Detroit powerhouse, but only a few ever made it to market. At the same time, she was heard weekly by millions of television viewers as Jim Gilstrap’s duet partner on the theme song to Good Times. Her many fans have lobbied for years to “free Blinky from the vaults,” and with Real Gone’s two-CD set, their wish has finally been granted.

Buck Owens and the Buckaroos: The Complete Capitol Singles 1971-1975

The third of three double-disc sets cataloging Buck Owens’ singles on Capitol. Though he didn’t have the same level of commercial success in the early 1970s that he’d had throughout the 1960s, his artistry was undimmed, and his omnivorous musical appetite was still unsated. Recording primarily in his own Bakersfield studio, he covered material from outside the country realm, and stretched out from his classic Telecaster-and-steel sound to incorporate pop, bluegrass and gospel. A strong and fulfilling chapter of the Buck Owens legacy.

Hank Williams: The Complete Health & Happiness Recordings

Third try is the charm. Williams’ 1949 radio transcriptions for patent medicine sponsor Hadacol have slowly been resuscitated and restored over a series of releases, culminating in this best-yet edition. In a year that saw Williams transition from the Hayride to the Opry, and evolve his material from a cover of “Love Sick Blues” to the iconic original “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” these eight shows capture Williams on a fast-moving train to stardom. This new restoration attends to both the physical issues of the source transcriptions and the aural issues of earlier remasters.

Van Duren: Waiting – The Van Duren Story

Following Big Star by a few years, Van Duren suffered the same lack of renown as his fellow Memphians. Though Big Star’s public renown grew over the decades, Duren has remained obscure. A limited edition Japanese reissue of his 1977 debut failed to spread the word, and his follow-up album remained vaulted for decades. But with this documentary soundtrack sampling the rich Badfinger/Rundgren sounds of his late-70s power-pop, Duren’s music may finally reach the sympathetic ears it deserves.

Uncle Walt’s Band: Uncle Walt’s Band

This springboard for Walter Hyatt, Champ Hood and David Ball was well-known in their adopted Austin, and among in-the-know music fans; but their instrumental finesse and joyous mix of country, jazz, folk, blues, bluegrass and swing was too sophisticated for reduction to a commercial concern. Omnivore’s reissue of the group’s 1974 debut polishes the brilliant gem by doubling the original track count with eleven bonus demos and live recordings.

Yum Yum: Dan Loves Patti

The conflagration of criticism and meta-criticism that burned this release to a crisp two years after its release is one of the stranger chapters in pop critic history. Yum Yum’s Chris Holmes was, according to his former roommate Thomas Frank, a prankster faking out his record company in a quixotic bid to supplant corporate Alternative Rock with finely crafted orchestral pop. Absurd on its face, Frank’s critique caught fire in an escalating war of meta-criticism. More than twenty years later, Holmes’ creation remains sweetly satisfying to those with a taste for candy.

Robin Lane & The Chartbusters: Many Years Ago

Triple-disc set pulling together the great Boston band’s entire first-run catalog, including pre-signing demos and an indie single, two albums and a live EP for Warner Brothers, a post-Warner EP, demos, session tracks, and live material. The music rings with the passion of its author and the intensity of the band’s playing.

The Strangeloves: I Want Candy

Three Australian sheep-farming brothers turned out to be a trio of New York songwriter-producers coping with the British Invasion. The authors of the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” turned themselves into a beat group with the earworms “I Want Candy,” “Cara-Lin” and “Night Time,” and waxed a full album of catchy Bo Diddley beats. Reissued on red vinyl, the original mono mix delivers an AM radio gut punch and an object lesson in the power of mid-60s mono vs. stereo.

Various Artists: That’ll Flat Git It! Vol. 32
Twenty-eight years and thirty-two volumes in, there is still life in Bear Family’s rockabilly anthology series. This latest edition takes a fourth trip into the vaults of Decca, Brunswick and Coral, and turns up a surprising number of worthy sides. The label’s typical attention to detail fills out a 39-page booklet with period photos, label reproductions, and knowledgeable liner notes by Bill Dahl.

OST: Harper Valley P.T.A.

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

The title hit, Barbara Eden and selections from Nelson Riddle’s score

A decade after Jeannie C. Riley topped the country chart with Tom T. Hall’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” the song was made into a feature film starring Barbara Eden. Eden had turned her early training as a singer, and the fame generated by I Dream of Genie, into a 1967 album for Dot and numerous appearances on television variety shows. For the soundtrack of this 1978 film she sang the Tom T. Hall songs “Mr. Harper” and “Widow Jones,” the latter released as a single. The album leads off with the stereo version of the title tune, and adds well-known songs by Jerry Lee Lewis (“High School Confidential”) and Johnny Cash (“Ballad of a Teenage Queen”) to Carol Channing’s cover of “Whatever Happened to Charlie Brown.” Of more interest to soundtrack collectors will be Nelson Riddle’s instrumental pieces, which include swing, late-night jazz and a classical pastiche. Unfortunately, though listenable, the fidelity of the Riddle tracks doesn’t match that of the rest of the album. Worth getting, but someone should take another look in the vault for better source material. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Blinky: Heart Full of Soul – The Motown Anthology

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

The most widely heard unsung singer at Motown

Sondra “Blinky” Williams may be simultaneously one of the most obscure soul singers of her era, and one of the most widely heard. “Obscure,” because Motown’s hit-seeking radar somehow missed the brilliance in the dozens of tracks they recorded on Williams and then buried in their vault. “Widely heard,” because Williams was heard by millions of television viewers each week as Jim Gilstrap’s duet partner on the theme song to Good Times. The daughter of a baptist minister, Williams grew up singing, directing and playing piano in church choirs. She performed with Andraé Crouch, Billy Preston and Edna Wright in the Cogic Singers, releasing several records on the Simpson and Exodus labels, but solo contracts pulled the group apart, with Williams recording an album for Atlantic.

Williams had previously crossed into secular music with a 1963 single (and a flip) under the nom de record “Lindy Adams,” and a 1964 single for Vee Jay that backed the spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands” with “Heartaches.” She landed at Motown in 1968 under her high school nickname, Blinky, and debuted with the Ashford & Simpson-penned “I Wouldn’t Change the Man He Is.” An album of duets with Edwin Starr followed in 1969, along with three more singles  (one on Motown, and two on the label’s west coast imprint, Mowest), but despite opening for the Temptations and a spot in the Motortown Revue, the lack of a concerted promotional push left all of the releases to founder commercially.

Had this been the extent of Williams’ engagement with Motown, she might have been collected only by crate diggers, and remembered as a talent whose intersection with the label was artistically fruitful but commercially bare. What distinguishes Williams from other Motown shoulda-beens is the large number of finished, unreleased sides that were left in the vault alongside fascinating working tracks and live material. Motown rolled a lot of tape on someone they couldn’t (or more likely just didn’t) break, and the fervor of her fans (who mounted a now-successful “Free Blinky from the Vaults” campaign) reflects the riches that she recorded, rather than the limited sides that Motown actually released.

The two-disc set opens with Williams’ unreleased album Sunny & Warm, immediately provoking the question of what else Motown had going on that led them to leave this in the vault. To be fair to Motown, Williams’ album was slotted between Diana Ross’ eponymous 1970 solo debut, and the Jackson 5’s Christmas album, so Motown’s promotions staff was certainly busy. If it’s any consolation to Williams, Jimmy and David Ruffin’s I Am My Brother’s Keeper was in the same spot, though released on the subsidiary Soul label. Sunny & Warm opens with the single “I Wouldn’t Change the Man He Is” (which Williams can be seen performing on Chuck Johnson’s Soul Time USA), and features a new interpretation of Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me,” produced by the song’s co-writer, Raynard Miner. Clay McMurray produced the gratified “This Man of Mine” and the questioning “Is There a Place,” and Ashford and Simpson’s “How Ya Gonna Keep It” (backed with a stunning, deep soul cover of Jimmy Webb’s “This Time Last Summer”) was slated to be the next single.

And then… nothing. No album, and no explanation. Williams kept plugging away, making a connection with Sammy Davis Jr., and touring with him while continuing to record for Motown. Disc one fleshes out the unreleased album with the singles Motown and Mowest released in 1972-73, live material (including a previously unreleased performance of “God Bless the Child”) from the Motortown Revue, and several tracks from anthologies and soundtracks that include a studio take of “God Bless the Child” that was released on 1971’s Rock Gospel – The Key To The Kingdom, and a commanding performance of the early blues  “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” from Lady Sings the Blues.

The set’s second disc includes twenty-two previously unreleased tracks recorded with a variety of Motown producers, including label material and covers. Among the latter is an original soul arrangement of Graham Gouldman’s “Heart Full of Soul,” and a thoughtful, extended cover of the Stylistics “People Make the World Go Round.” A few of the tracks are mastered with control room slates or musician count-ins, giving them the aura of work-in-process, but these are finished pieces that offer performances, arrangements and sound that are all up to Motown’s standards. Why were they left in the vault? Perhaps Williams’ gospel roots were too soulful for the pop-leaning Motown, but more likely she was a victim of the sheer volume of material that the well-oiled Motown machine could produce. Motown’s investment may not have yielded commercial returns, but the artistry of these sides is undeniable, and freed from the vault, they’re finally available for Williams’ longtime devotees to enjoy. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Johnny Costa: Plays Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Friday, November 15th, 2019

Jazz impressions of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

By the time that Pittsburgh pianist Johnny Costa met Fred Rogers, he was an accomplished jazz musician who’d led albums released by Coral, Savoy and Dot, was featured on Manny Albam’s A Gallery of Gershwin (a theme Costa revisited on 1994’s A Portrait of George Gershwin) and served as music director for television’s Mike Douglas. Costa returned to Pittsburgh in the mid-60s where he met and partnered with Fred Rogers in creating the music for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Costa’s college background in both music and education matched that of Rogers, and his fluid musical style (one that Art Tatum likened to his own) and imaginative arrangements were a perfect match for the emotional insights that Rogers illuminated with his song concepts and lyrics. Costa was a charter resident of the neighborhood, joining in 1968, playing live, adding improvisational continuity, appearing on camera on occasion, and serving as Rogers’ musical director until the pianist’s passing in 1996.

This 1984 release features Costa’s piano in a trio setting with Carl McVicker on bass and Bobby Rawsthorne on drums. As an instrumental jazz outing on the short-lived Mister Rogers Neighborhood label, but not featuring Mister Rogers himself, it likely didn’t sell well to either the television show’s preschool viewership or jazz hounds, and so the original vinyl release has become quite rare. Omnivore’s reissue includes the album’s original thirteen tracks, all written by Fred Rogers. Fans of the television show will immediately recognize the warm welcome of the opening “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” but as you would expect from a talented jazz musician, Costa uses the theme as a launching point for spirited improvisation. The same is true for the closing “Tomorrow,” which is given a heavier dose of optimistic melancholy than in its television incarnations.

Costa’s playing is florid, dramatic, inquisitive, frenetic, humorous and contemplative, mirroring the themes and emotional lessons of Rogers’ lyrical compositions. The yearning for reassurance that Rogers wrote into the lyrics of “Please Don’t Think It’s Funny” is equally well expressed in Costa’s introspective soloing. “Everybody’s Fancy” includes fancy runs, “I Like to Take My Time” proceeds at a jaunty stroll, and “Something to Do While We’re Waiting” is filled with irrepressible childhood energy. Costa is fleet-fingered and lyrical as he expresses through his piano the emotional core of each song. This collection of  instrumental treatments provides a terrific complement to Fred Rogers’ originals, twenty-three of which are collected in Omnivore’s companion volume, It’s Such A Good Feeling: The Best Of Mister Rogers. Taken together, the two releases highlight the musical and emotional resonances between Rogers, Costa and their audience. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Various Artists: The Bakersfield Sound

Friday, November 15th, 2019

Awe-inspiring anthological history of the Bakersfield scene

Bear Family is well-known to collectors for the imagination and thoroughness of their box sets. Their cataloging of American country music in artist-based collections is unparalleled in its detail. But even against that high bar of quality, this set is something else, as it draws a comprehensive picture of a scene, rather than a more easily defined artist or label catalog. To assemble this set, producer Scott B. Bomar needed to develop a deep understanding of the history, connections and influences that forged the Bakersfield Sound over thirty-five years. They needed to identify artists, producers, engineers, studios, labels, clubs, radio and television stations, and records, and they needed to dig deep beneath the commercial surface, to find the rare materials that spurred and cross-pollinated artistic advances. The results are ten discs, nearly 300 tracks, and 224 pages that demonstrate how the scene developed, how lesser-known players contributed to those who would become stars, and how the stars themselves grew from their roots. It’s an astounding achievement, even on the Bear Family scale.

Situated at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, Bakersfield is a commercial hub for both the Central Valley’s agriculture and the surrounding area’s petroleum and natural gas production. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl drove many Texans, Oklahomans, Arkansans and Missourians west, with many migrants resettling into agricultural and oil work. The Owens family moved from Texas to Arizona in the late ‘30s, and Buck Owens eventually settled in Bakersfield in 1951. The Haggard family moved from Oklahoma to California in the mid-30s, where Merle Haggard was born (in Oildale) in 1937. Bakersfield became both a physical confluence of refugees from the Plains states, and an artistic melting pot of their musical tastes; a place and time in which influences could combine and grow into something new.

As Bomar notes in his liners, Bakersfield was really more of an aesthetic than a singular sound. The range of artists ascribed to Bakersfield (including some who never actually lived or recorded there) are as varied as the influences that shaped the city’s music. As Joe Maphis chronicled, Bakersfield’s honky-tonks – including the Blackboard, Trouts, Lucky Spot, Tex’s Barrel House, and the Clover Club – were genuine dens of dim lights, thick smoke and loud, loud music, and as Nashville softened its approach in the 1950s, Bakersfield hardened its own. As Nashville toned down the twang and added strings and backing choruses, Bakersfield plugged in electric guitars to complement the fiddle and steel. As Nashville sweetened the arrangements and slowed the tempos for crooners, Bakersfield picked up the beat and highlighted vocalists singing harder-edged lyrics. Bakersfield wasn’t necessarily reacting to Nashville’s changes, but acting outside its commercial forcefield.

Owens’ and Haggard’s legends are rooted in Bakersfield’s honky-tonks, where they developed and honed their particular brands of music alongside the many foundational acts documented here. Bear Family has cast a wide net to haul in field recordings, radio and television broadcasts, live sessions, vault finds, vanity recordings, alternate takes, demos, rare local singles, B-sides, album tracks, and a selection of hits, to tell the story of Bakersfield’s development, rather than recite the well-known riches at the end of the creative rainbow. The set begins with early ‘40s field recordings gathered in the Central Valley migrant work camps that were run by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The rustic vocal, guitar and banjo music of the camps’ residents was as important a cultural touchstone as were the physical wares they’d packed into the trucks and beat-up cars that carried them west, and its mix of influences the roots of the Bakersfield music scene.

The set moves to 1944 with a fiddle-heavy cover of Fred Rose’s “Home in San Antone,” and establishes radio’s role in expanding local musicians’ regional reach with transcriptions from Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and Elwin Cross & The Arizona Wranglers. The latter group, whose “Back in Dear Old Oklahoma” strikes a nostalgic, homesick note, included Bill Woods, who would soon become a pillar of the Bakersfield scene as a bandleader at the Blackboard. From these earliest days of the Bakersfield scene, the upbeat tempos of swing and boogie drove many of the original songs, with twangy steel, guitar and fiddle prominently featured throughout. Billy Mize is heard on 1949’s “Got a Chance With You” and Roy Nichols’ influential guitar playing on 1950’s “Baby Blues.”

Capitol Records and producer Ken Nelson – both key elements of Bakersfield’s commercial success – enter the collection with Ferlin Husky’s 1951 single “I Want You So,” recorded under the stage name of Terry Preston. Buck Owens first turns up at Capitol as a studio picker on Tommy Collins’ “You Better Not Do That,” and Capitol’s Hollywood studio was the site of Bakersfield’s first national hit with Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky’s “A Dear John Letter.” The song had been recorded twice before on local Bakersfield labels Grande and Kord, which along with Mar-Vel and others featured early performances by Bakersfield figures Bill Woods (who was so important to building the Bakersfield scene, that Red Simpson released a tribute to him in 1973), Fuzzy Owen, Lewis Talley, Billy Mize and Bonnie Owens. Many of the records most deeply associated with Bakersfield were actually recorded in Los Angeles, including the Blackboard Club-inspired honky-tonk of Joe Maphis & Rose Lee’s 1953 “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music).”

The early songs of home and homesickness quickly gave way to songs of romantic infatuation, love and recrimination, often with a forwardness that was disappearing from Nashville’s productions. The Farmer Boys’ “It Pays to Advertise” is surprisingly direct with the romantic boast, “when it comes to making love, I don’t leave girl neglected,” and Billy Mize’s “Who Will Buy the Wine” is scathing in its appraisal of a wayward spouse’s downfall. By 1956, rock ‘n’ roll was influencing Bakersfield’s players as Wanda Jackson’s “I Gotta Know” features a tug of war between upbeat rockabilly verses and a slow country chorus, Dusty Payne & The Rhythm Rocker’s “I Want You” has a rockabilly backbeat, Sid Silver’s “Bumble Rumble” offers up countrified skiffle, the bluesy guitar of Johnny Taylor’s “Sad Sad Saturday Night” is backed by Bill Woods’ piano triplets, and Buck Owens’ jangly guitar adds flair to Bill Woods’ “Ask Me No Questions.”

Buck Owens’ first session for Capitol as a leader included the bouncy 1957 single “Come Back to Me,” and his charting single, “Second Fiddle,” is also included early in the set. Owens quickly became a monumental presence in the Bakersfield scene as he dominated the country charts throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Owens had one or more Top 10 singles every year from 1959 until 1974 (including fourteen straight #1s from 1963 to 1967), with 1974 marking the death of Don Rich, and not coincidentally the year that ends this set. Owens’ catalog is detailed elsewhere, including three Bear Family box sets [1 2 3], and so the producer has cherry-picked sides that demonstrate Owens’ evolution as a singer, songwriter, producer and live performer, including the classic Buckaroos’ lineup first session on 1964’s “Close Up the Honky Tonks.” The Buckaroos were such a prolific, powerhouse group that they had a parallel career without Owens out front, represented here by selections fronted by Don Rich and Doyle Holly, the instrumental “Chicken Pickin’,” and sides backing artists who recorded at Buck Owens’ Bakersfield studio. The latter includes a track from Arlo Guthrie’s 1973 album Last Of The Brooklyn Cowboys, and Don Rich’s last session, backing Tony Booth’s “A Different Kind of Sad.”

Wynn Stewart also recorded for Capitol, but it was at Challenge and its subsidiary Jackpot that he waxed the singles most associated with the Bakersfield sound. Included here is his superb 1960 take on the Bakersfield club favorite “Playboy,” but his hits – 1958’s “Come On,” 1959’s “Wishful Thinking” and “Above and Beyond (The Call of Love),” and 1961’s “Big Big Love” – showed off an artistic range emblematic of Bakersfield’s many influences and musically adventurous spirit. Though not as commercially successful as Owens or Haggard, Stewart was highly influential, and he left behind a rich catalog (documented in full on Bear Family’s box set Wishful Thinking) that’s worth its own investment.

Haggard was in and out of juvenile detention and jail as the city’s music scene developed, but a late-50s stretch in San Quentin renewed his interest in a music career in which he’d previously dabbled, and upon his release in 1960 he began performing and subsequently recording for Tally. Like Owens, Haggard was both an artistic and commercial force. Though born in California, his autobiographical songs were rife with the hardship of Dustbowl refugees, and the struggles of outsiders. He first appears on this set as a songwriter and bassist for Johnny Barnett’s 1963 Tally single “Second Fiddle,” and he debuted on Tally’s next single with “Singin’ My Heart Out” and its flip, “Skid Row.” Haggard’s early Tally releases also included themed song, “Life in Prison,” as well as his first duet with Bonnie Owens, “Slowly But Surely.” Haggard’s transition from Tally to Capitol was meant to be heard in two versions of “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart” (one recorded for Tally, one recorded for Capitol) but the earlier unreleased Tally version ran into legal issues, and though described in the book, has been elided from the disc. A well-curated selection of his Capitol sides threads through the remainder of the set, and shows off both his commercial and artistic reach.

Owens and Haggard may have garnered the bulk of the scene’s commercial success, but the sheer volume of Bakersfield-related material that’s been collected here is astonishing. The Hollywood-based Capitol (and its Tower subsidiary) had the lion’s share of major-label Bakersfield success, but Columbia and RCA made inroads with Billy Mize, Liz Anderson, Tommy Collins, and others. Even more impressive is the wealth of local indie singles that paint a full color picture of Bakersfield’s deep pool of singers, songwriters and instrumental talent. Bakersfield essentially fielded a country version of the Wrecking Crew with a core group of musicians that formed and reformed in various aggregations to back singers in Bakersfield and Los Angeles. There are too many ace musicians in the crew to name them, but among them, only one regular female presence in Helen “Peaches” Price, a much sought-after drummer who played with Wynn Stewart, and backed Merle Haggard on several of his classic albums and singles.

Gary S. Paxton appears as an artist on 1966’s “Goin’ Through the Motions,” but makes his mark as a producer, both in Los Angeles, and for a time in 1967-68, in Bakersfield. His productions include the Gosdin Brothers country hit “Hangin’ On,” and a variety of singles that includes Leon Copeland’s cover of Merle Haggard’s “I’m Out of My Mind,” the Sandland Brothers’ tight duet “Vaccination for the Blues,” and the sly instrumental “Buckshot” by Larry Daniels and the Buckshots. Many of Paxton’s productions featured the inimitable guitar playing of Clarence White, including White’s unissued-at-the-time cover of “Buckaroo.” Paxton’s stay in Bakersfield wasn’t long, but he was productive, and cut records with Suzi Arden, Dean Sanford, Larry Daniels, Stan Farlow and others.

Each of the ten discs reveals surprises, including Barbara Mandrell’s 1966 single “Queen for a Day,” released three years before she signed with Columbia, the Marksmen’s 1961 guitar instrumental “Scratch,” recorded in Seattle by Gene Moles with the Ventures’ Nokie Edwards on bass, Roy Nichols’ virtuoso version of “Silver Bells,” songwriter Fern Foley’s original version of “Apartment #9,” Harold Cox & The Sooners’ “Pumpkin Center” offering some iffy rhymes in celebration of a local weekly dance, Herb Henson’s Trading Post TV show theme song, “You’al Come,” and songwriter Homer Joy’s original recording of “Streets of Bakersfield.”

The set’s final disc include live tracks, songwriter demos and work tapes from many of Bakersfield’s mainstays. The disc opens with hot live material from Buck Owens’ 1973 Toys for Tots show, featuring Owens, Buddy Alan, Tony Booth, Susan Raye, and the Buckaroos. There’s a treasure trove of songwriter demos and alternate takes from Bonnie Owens, Vancie Flowers & Rita Lane, Billy Mize, Red Simpson, Bill Woods, Tommy Collins, and Joe & Rose Lee Maphis, providing a behind-the-scenes look at how the first nine discs came to be. The disc closes with eight tracks drawn from television and radio broadcasts, giving listeners a feel for a world before records came to dominate media, and consultants came to homogenize playlists. Sadly missing from disc ten are five Merle Haggard alternate takes and a live radio broadcast that were last minute, contractual-dispute scratches.

As overwhelming as is the typical Bear Family box set, the breadth and depth of this anthology is doubly so. The panoramic view of Bakersfield’s music includes folk, bluegrass, country (and western), boogie, rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, swing and more. Each disc provides a terrific program of music, and the arc from disc one to disc ten is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The accompanying 224-page hardbound book (weighing in at nearly four pounds) is as detailed as the music program, with historical notes, artist biographies, and song notes, and hundreds of photos and record labels. With 298 songs and a running time of more than twelve hours, this is a set to live with, rather than just listen to, and one you’ll be drawn back to over and over as you gain a feel for thirty-five years of Bakersfield’s musical history. No doubt this will be on many country music fans’ holiday gift lists, and by all rights it should be on Grammy’s list too. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Fred Rogers: It’s Such a Good Feeling – The Best of Mister Rogers

Saturday, October 19th, 2019

The timeless understanding and caring of Mister Rogers

Children’s entertainment is often filled with empty merchandising calories, and devoid of the thoughtful content that promotes intellectual and emotional growth. But that is not the case with the music of Fred Rogers, creator and host of the eponymous Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Educated in musical composition, divinity and child development, Rogers turned the meditations of his solitary childhood into a helping hand for preschoolers. While Sesame Street focused on helping young children get ready for the cognitive growth of schooling, Rogers prepared them for the parallel emotional development they would experience in new social situations. Rogers spoke and sang to children with insight and patience that acknowledged feelings and fears that adults had long since forgotten. He offered a helping hand through songs whose fundamental truths connected deeply with his audience.

His television show included many memorable characters and activities, but his music reached deeper. For those who grew up watching the show (or parenting children who did), the songs remain a sense memory that can instantly transport you back to an age of uncertainty and seemingly endless questions. His lyrics encompasses thoughts and lessons in friendship, optimism, attentiveness, confidence, vulnerability, perseverance, empathy, imagination, self-worth, humor, individuality and a myriad of questions, emotions and anxieties that children first encounter in their formative years. Rogers’ songs put a name to these feelings, and let children know that such feelings are both natural and shared.

Rogers recorded with a trio of musical director and pianist Johnny Costa, bassist Carl McVicker, and percussionist Bobby Rawsthorne. Their light, jazzy instrumentals typically stayed in the background, underlying the emotional lessons of the lyrics. Rogers released dozens of singles, EPs and albums, but few remain in print. Omnivore’s 21-track collection cherrypicks from four previous albums (You’re Growing, Coming and Going, Bedtime, and You Are Special), and adds five previously unreleased recordings, including the closing rendition of Rogers’ trademark show closer “Tomorrow.” The eight-page booklet includes an introductory note by film biographer Morgan Neville, and liners by Pittsburgh TV critic Robert Bianco. Rogers’ gentle manner may seem out of place in today’s belligerent times, which makes his lessons in civility all the more relevant. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Various Artists: Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records – The Definitive Collection

Saturday, October 19th, 2019

Extraordinary catalog of a little-known late-50s Chicago label

In the Chicago blues scene of the 1950s, it must have been hard to make a dent. And if you were a local, nearly neighborhood-sized label swimming in the pond with Chess, Vee-Jay, Brunswick and Delmark, you were lucky not to get eaten. Chess did manage to take a few bites out of Narvel Eatmon and his short-lived Bea & Baby label, but Eatmon’s life-long fealty to the blues, and his hustle as an entrepreneur, created a small but important catalog of blues-centered singles. By the time of Eatmon’s passing in 1991, Bea & Baby and its subsidiaries had been dormant for many years, and fifteen years further on, Michael Frank, who’d befriended Eatmon and helped him develop licensing deals, bought the catalog from Eatmon’s widow. The “label” at that point consisted primarily of dead stock 45s, paperwork, and most critically, publishing rights, but not many master tapes. So a project was begun, and thirteen years later, delivers this extraordinary four-disc labor of love documenting Eatmon’s original labors of love.

Narvel Eatmon, better known in his adopted Chicago as Cadillac Baby, was a colorful man living in a colorful place at a colorful time. Eatmon developed his love of the blues as a child in his native Mississippi, but was drawn to Chicago in the mid-1940s by his musical passion. He quickly established himself as an impresario on the city’s South Side with Cadillac Baby’s Show Lounge, and his presentation of local and touring acts grew into the Bea & Baby record label. The label was most active in 1959 and 1960, recording both nationally known and local artists, and though several sides had the potential to break nationally, Eatmon’s lack of record industry background, and external pressures (which often seemed to include the machinations of Leonard Chess) undercut the label’s commercial success. Eatmon continued to issues a couple of sides a year into the mid-60s, and sporadically into the early ‘70s, but his dreams always seemed to remain bigger than his actual sales.

The label came to life in 1959 with Eddie Boyd’s “I’m Commin’ Home,” which together with its up-tempo flip “Thank You Baby,” garnered favorable, single sentence reviews in Cashbox. Both sides include the solid bottom end of Rob Carter’s bass and strong solos by saxophonist Ronald Wilson, the B-side also includes a piano playout from Boyd. Many of Bea & Baby’s singles featured the sort of eight-bar blues you’d expect of a Chicago record label, but early on Eatmon also produced jump blues, teen doo-wop and Latin-tinged numbers, and in later years he took to releasing gospel on his Miss subsidiary. The catalog also features several interesting oddities, including Clyde Lasley’s provocative “Santa Came Home Drunk.” the Daylighters’ vocal-overdubbed re-release of Eddie Boyd’s “Come Home,” and T. Valentine’s sui generis “Little Lu-Lu-Frog,” a single whose style seems to foreshadow the free-form freak outs of Red Krayola.

The label’s biggest hit, Bobby Saxton’s “Trying’ to Make a Livin’,” was licensed to Chess for reissue on their Checker subsidiary, but even with national distribution, it couldn’t lift the fortunes of Saxton or Bea & Baby. Cut while Saxton was fronting Earl Hooker’s band, the single features Hooker’s inimitable guitar, while the instrumental B-side includes fine playing from pianist Tall Paul Hankins, and sax players Ernest Cotton and Oett Mallard. Eatmon would tangle with Leonard Chess again when Tony Gideon’s “Wa Too Si” was reportedly spied in Chess’ pressing plant, scooped by the Vibrations’ “Watusi,” and bullied into being released on the Chess label as “Watcha Gonna Do.”

Disc two opens with Hound Dog Taylor’s first recording, “My Baby’s Coming Home,” waxed at the age of 43, a full decade before the Alligator label was launched to release his debut album. Taylor’s twangy slide is featured on both sides of the single, with the minimal lyrics of the uptempo flip leaving extra room for soloing. Eatmon continued to explore the boundaries of the blues with Little Mac’s doo-wop (with a harmonica solo!) B-side “Broken Heart,” Phil Sampson’s late-night croon “It’s So Hard,” Sampson’s eponymous jump tune with Singing Sam, Andre Williams’ New Orleans-influenced “I Still Love You,” Kirk Taylor’s string-lined “This World,” Tall Paul Hankins & The Hudson Brothers’ remarkable organ, guitar, bass and drum grooves on  “Joe’s House Rent Party,” and “Red Lips,” and the late-60s soul stylings of The Chances.

Had Eatmon been making a bigger commercial push for his label, one might think he was just throwing singles at the market to see what would stick, but the range and quality of the material suggests he was indulging his musical taste, rather than trying to triangulate hits. The results may not have been good for the label’s bottom line, but the records, A’s and B’s alike, harbor a sense of purpose that resounds with artistry and adventurousness over calculation. Eatmon describes his 1961 gospel releases as having been a market consideration, but the fervor of these sides indicates that whether or not they were going to be the ticket to commercial salvation, they were going to be infused with the artists’ faith.

The set’s 128-page hardcover book opens with an interview that Living Blues co-founder Jim O’Neal conducted with Eatmon in 1971. “Interview” might be a misleading description, since O’Neal seems to have asked “tell me how you got into the music business,” and Eatmon proceeds to tell his colorful life story with little more prompting or interruption. Eatmon also tells stories in audio tracks that are sprinkled throughout the set. O’Neal’s liners and Michael Frank’s producer’s notes are detailed and heartfelt, telling Eatmon’s colorful story as they also tell the stories of their relationships with Eatmon. Bill Dahl’s artist profiles and Robert M. Marovich’s gospel notes fill out a comprehensive view of the riches contained in these four discs. This revival of the Bea & Baby catalog was clearly a passion project for all concerned, and it’s sure to stir the passions of blues collectors everywhere. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

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