Archive for the ‘Five Stars’ Category

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

Various Artists: Land of 1,000 Dances – The Rampart Records Complete Singles Collection

Friday, January 3rd, 2020

Landmark catalog of the West Coast Eastside Sound

Like many regional music scenes, the West Coast Eastside Sound was a one-of-a-kind confluence of artists, managers, record labels, entrepreneurs, nightclubs, radio DJs, and commercial and social circumstances. As detailed in this set’s introductory liner notes and  label history, a key  sociological spark that informed the Eastside’s musical development was race restrictions in Los Angeles clubs that led African-American artists to gig on the Eastside. This seeded the area’s Mexican and Chicano musicians with an R&B foundation to which they added flavors of Rancheras, Nortenos, and Salsas, and jacked up with the energy of doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll. Local labels, including Del-Fi, Chattahoochie, Whittier, Faro, Linda, Boomerang, Prospect, Valhalla, Gordo and Rampart built a recording scene, and it’s the latter’s catalog of singles that is featured here.

Eddie Davis, Rampart’s founder, first entered the music industry as a child member of the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir, appearing in a 1941 documentary (Forty Boys and a Song) and backing Bing Crosby in the 1944 film Going My Way. He joined the Navy in World War II, studied music at the College of the Pacific, owned a succession of restaurants, and returned to a quickly aborted singing career before founding his first label, Faro, in 1958. Faro led to the founding of Rampart in 1961 with the debut of Phil & Harv’s romantic ballad “Darling (Please Bring Your Love)” and its joyous New Orleans-tinged flipside cover of Cole Porter’s  “Friendship.”

Davis initially employed the mixed-race, Oxnard-based Mixtures as a backing band, but also pulled in A-listers from Los Angeles. A third label, Linda, was established in 1962, the same year that Davis branched into the promotion of teen dances. As with the Los Angeles club laws that incentivized bands to book shows on the Eastside, the city’s prohibition of for-profit teen dances led Davis to promote shows in Pomona’s Rainbow Gardens, outside the reach of the big city’s restrictions. And as with the club shows, the teen dances exposed the Eastside’s Mexican-American audiences, and more importantly,  its local musicians, to the cream of Los Angeles’ R&B acts.

Rampart’s early years included a Ray Charles-styled cover of “Home on the Range,” hot guitar and sax-led instrumentals, and with the Atlantics’ B-side “Beaver Shot,” the introduction of a horn section. The label hit its commercial apex with Cannibal & The Headhunters’ 1965 cover of Chris Kenner’s “Land of 1000 Dances,” memorably built on the incantory “Na, Na Na Na Na” improvisation, and on its original, uncut version, a revival-styled intro. Both the original and edited-for-radio single are included here. The single’s success led Cannibal and the Headhunters to television appearances and an opening slot on the Beatles 1965 U.S. tour – including shows at Shea Stadium and the Hollywood Bowl – yet the group was unable to extend their commercial breakthrough. Three follow-up singles, including the “1000 Dances” knockoff “Nau Ninny,” and the sunny, King Curtis-backed “Follow the Music,” failed to click, and the band moved on from Rampart to Date.

Rampart continued its releases  the 1960s with singles by the Atlantics, Souljers, Summits, and Four Tempos. There were Sam & Dave-styled duets, boogaloo workouts, uptempo soul, beseeching ballads, and even the socially-conscious philosophy of Pvt. Randy Thomas’ “The Great Crusade.” In 1968 the Village Callers released the oft-sampled (and recently “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” soundtrack featured) “Hector” with a sophisticated soul organ lead backed by a powerful rhythm track and horn chart. The soul turned swampier on the B-side “Mississippi Delta,” and the East Bay Soul Brass worked out with sax, trumpet and organ on “The Cat Walk.” The label continued to imaginatively mix 50s-styled  throwback ballads, airier mid-tempo late ‘60s soul, and foreground Latin flavors, pulling in both original and cover material for an evolving slate of artists.

A four year break from 1972 to 1976 found the label returning with the Eastside Connection’s update on the traditional “La Cucaracha,” and kicked off a short string of disco singles. The label’s sporadic subsequent releases included rock, new wave, uptempo Spanish-language synth dance numbers, but without the earthy soul of the earlier years essayed on the set’s first three discs. In addition to the introductory notes from Luis Luis J. Rodriquez and label history from Don Waller, the 102-page book includes a photo essay of Cannibal and the Headhunters on the road in shows promoted by Murray the K, Dick Clark and Motown, opening for the Rolling Stones and the Beatles in 1965, and performing on television’s Hullabaloo and It’s What’s Happening.

This is a rich document of a label born at the confluence of social circumstances, musical influences and commercial opportunity. Having the B-sides is particularly gratifying, as the label rarely shortchanged the flips – the Atlantics’ novelty “Sonny & Cher” B-side notwithstanding. To gain a full picture of the Eastside Sound, listeners will need to track down material from sister labels Faro and Donna, and key releases from Thee Midniters, The Romancers and other Eastside icons, but you could hardly find a better place to start enjoying and appreciating this unique moment in musical history than with this incredible set. Issued in a limited run of 1000, pick this one up before it becomes a collectors item alongside the original vinyl singles! [©2020 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]

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]

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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Hank Williams: The Complete Health & Happiness Recordings

Saturday, August 10th, 2019

Essential, remastered 1949 radio transcriptions

For a star of Hank Williams’ magnitude, it’s surprising that these October 1949 radio transcriptions have had a life as rough as his own. First released by MGM in the early ‘60s in bits and pieces, the transcriptions were subjected to overdubbed applause intended to turn the studio recordings into live sets. Polygram’s 1993 reissue, Health & Happiness Shows, stripped away the manipulations, but evidenced physical problems with the transcriptions, and Time-Life’s 2011 reissue, The Legend Begins, repaired many of the transcription issues, while offering a remastering that some listeners found too heavy on the high end. This latest version features new transcriptions and remastering by Michael Graves, alongside liner notes by Colin Escott.

As with the two previous releases, this set includes the eight shows that Williams recorded on two successive Sunday’s at WSM-AM’s Nashville studio. Each show stretched to fifteen minutes when augmented by ad copy read by a local announcer, and here they clock in a few minutes shorter. Williams opens each show with the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Happy Rovin’ Cowboy” and fiddler Jerry Rivers closes each episode with the instrumental “Sally Goodin.” In between Williams sings some of his best-loved early hits, original songs and gospel numbers, and much like the later performances gathered on The Complete Mothers’ Best Recordings… Plus! (or its musical-excerpt version, The Unreleased Recordings), the spontaneity and freshness of the live takes often outshine the better-known studio versions.

Williams had a few hits in 1947 and 1948, but 1949 was the year his career really took off. Moving from Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride to Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry, Williams’ catalog evolved from February’s chart-topping cover of the 1920’s show tune “Love Sick Blues,” to November’s iconic original “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The latter’s release, as a B-side to “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” was still a month away when performed on this show, but as Williams explains to his radio audience, it’s performance on stage was already generating requests. It’s taken here a hair slower than on the single, and with the single’s fiddle solo omitted there’s more room for Williams and Don Helms’ pedal steel to draw out the song’s anguish.

As noted, each of the eight shows opens with Williams singing the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Happy Rovin’ Cowboy,” followed by WSM announcer Grant Turner introducing Williams to sing one of his original songs. A commercial break, unfortunately not included here, led into a second Williams song, a second commercial break, a tune by fiddler Jerry Rivers, a sacred song, and the fiddle song “Sally Goodin’” to close things out. The repetition gets a bit tiresome by the eighth go-round, but the shows are broken into discrete tracks that allow you to choose whether to listen to the continuity of a program, or navigate past the intros and outros to pick out your favorite tracks.

Williams was in fine voice for both days of recording, and the live-in-the-studio setting brought out vital performances from this initial Nashville lineup of the Drifting Cowboys. Williams omits his earliest hits (“Move It On Over” and “Honky Tonkin’”) and the then-yet-to-be-released novelty “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” but features the rest of his hits to date, including 1948’s “I’m a Long Gone Daddy” and “A Mansion on the Hill,” and 1949’s “Lovesick Blues” and “Wedding Bells,” twice each, “Mind Your Own Business,” “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave),” “Lost Highway” and the upcoming “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” These are terrific renderings – in both performance and sound quality – that easily sit side-by-side with the better known singles. Williams’ performance catalog at this point also included the non-charting 1947 single “Pan American” and the non-charting B-sides “I Can’t Get You Off My Mind” and “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight.”

The sacred songs include the only known recording of Hazel and Grady Cole’s “The Tramp on the Street,” Pee Wee King’s “Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine,” and the originals “When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels” and “I Saw the Light.” On the latter, steel guitarist Don Helms and bassist Hillous Butram step up to the microphone to provide backing vocals. Williams’ wife Audrey sings a number on each of the first four programs, and while her solo slots – “I’m Telling You” and a cover of Doris Day’s then-current “(There’s a Bluebird) On Your Windowsill” – don’t evidence much talent, the duets “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies” and “I Want to Live and Love” show off the chemistry she shared with her husband and her resolve to be heard.

These shows sat in the vault until the Spring of 1950, latching on to the fame Williams would generate over the next three years. Colin Escott takes a third swing at the liner notes for this material, having written the notes for Polygram’s and Time-Life’s earlier reissues, and tells the tale of the show and the show’s patent medicine sponsor, Hadacol. As with Joe Palmaccio’s restoration for Time-Life’s 2011 release, Michael Graves erases the sonic artifacts that plague the transcription discs, and reveals the high quality of the original recordings. Williams would record additional transcription programs in 1950 (Garden Spot) and 1951 (Mothers Best), but these 1949 sessions, caught at the start of his rocket ride to stardom, are as essential as any recordings in his catalog. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

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

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

Buck Owens closes out his phenomenal first run on Capitol

After a pair of double-disc sets covering Owens’ trailblazing, chart topping singles of 1957-1966 and 1967-1970, Omnivore closes out the Bakersfield legend’s run on Capitol with this superb third volume. Owens’ early ‘70s singles didn’t repeat the commercial dominance of his 1960s output, but several still landed in the upper reaches of the charts (and at #1 with Bob and Faye Morris’ “Made in Japan”), and demonstrated continued creativity. The early ‘70s were a time of artistic exploration for Owens as he recorded in his then-newly built Bakersfield studio, produced himself, covered material from outside the country realm, and stretched out from his classic Telecaster-and-steel sound to incorporate pop, bluegrass and gospel. As this set attests, his declining chart fortunes were more a product of changing public tastes and industry trends than a slip in artistry.

Owens opened 1971 with a moving cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” featuring a solemn vocal, acoustic guitar and atmospheric backing harmonies that take the song to a different emotional place than Simon & Garfunkel’s original. He showed off his omnivorous musical appetite and sense of humor with a southern-funk take on Jimmy Driftwood’s “Battle of New Orleans” a transformation of Shel Silverstein’s “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” into the country-styled “On the Cover of the Music City News,” a loping bluegrass arrangement of Cousin Emmy’s “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man” and an energetic version of the traditional “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” The latter two expanded the Buckaroos’ musical palette with the addition of Ronnie Jackson’s banjo.

The biggest hits in this five year span came from the pens of others, but Owens continued to write fresh material for himself. He cracked the Top 10 with “Great Expectations,” and the novelties “Big Game Hunter” and  “(It’s A) Monster’s Holiday,” and further down the chart he scored with the defeated “In the Palm of Your Hand,” the discontented “Arms Full of Empty,” the defiant “You Ain’t Gonna Have Ol’ Buck to Kick Around No More” and the happy-go-lucky “Ain’t It Amazing, Gracie.” Owens clearly had fuel left in his songwriting tank, even if country radio and the listening public weren’t paying as close attention as they had the previous decade.

Owens’ songwriting prowess can also be heard in B-sides that include the Mexicali-tinged waltz “Black Texas Dirt” and the steel and fiddle heartbreak of “I Love You So Much It Hurts.” He picked up excellent material from Terry Clements, John English, Dennis Knutson, Robert John Jones and Buckaroos Jim Shaw, including “(I’m Goin’) Home,” “41st Street Lonely Hearts Club,” and his last Capitol single, “Country Singer’s Prayer.” With the 1974 death of Don Rich having deeply dented his enthusiasm for music making, his waning commercial success led him to a mutual parting of the ways with Capitol (who shelved his last album in the process). He signed with Warner Brothers for a pair of albums that garnered middling chart success before he slipped into a hiatus that lasted much of the 1980s.

Omnivore’s double disc set includes the A’s and B’s of all 21 singles that Owens released on Capitol from 1971 to 1975, both with the Buckaroos, and in duets with his son Buddy and his protege Susan Raye. The latter includes charting covers of the Browns’ “Looking Back to See” (with a twangy steel solo from Ralph Mooney) and Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange,” and a re-recording of “The Good Old Days (Are Here Again),” a song that Owens had released as a Buckaroos-backed B-side just two months earlier. The 16-page booklet includes liner notes by Scott Bomar, photos, picture sleeve reproductions, and detailed release, chart and personnel data. This is a worthy capstone to Owens’ monumental career at Capitol, and an essential volume for fans of his music. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Gordon Lightfoot: The Complete Singles 1970-1980

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019

Thirty-four A’s and B’s from Lightfoot’s hit years on Reprise and Warner Brothers

Gordon Lightfoot wore many hats as a musician. Initially signed to United Artists in the 1960s, he subsequently arrived at Reprise as a songwriting album artist, where he spun off a series of hit singles that included “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and many others. His international commercial success cooled a bit after moving to Warner Brothers and releasing 1978’s Endless Wire, but he remained popular in his native Canada and on the concert circuit. Real Gone’s thirty-four track anthology collects Lightfoot’s singles from 1970’s “Me and Bobby McGee” through 1980’s “If You Need Me,” including several hard-to-find single edits and mono mixes, but leaving out the latter part of his run at Warner Brothers. Lightfoot’s music was typically grounded in singer-songwriter folk, but the productions variously add a backing band and singers, strings and even pedal steel, all without distracting from the emotional directness of his lyrics and vocals. With remastering by Mike Milchner at SonicVision, new liners by Richie Unterberger, and the pairings of A- and B-sides, this is an interesting alternative to a standard greatest hits package, and a treat for Lightfoot’s longtime fans. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

The Choir: Artifact – The Unreleased Album

Saturday, February 17th, 2018

Cleveland garage rock legends’ stellar unreleased 1969 album

Many rock ‘n’ roll fans were introduced to The Choir through the appearance of their 1966 single “It’s Cold Outside” on Pebbles, Vol. 2. In those pre-Internet days, fans learned from the album’s liner notes of the band’s Cleveland roots (and teased Stiv Bators’ 1979 cover), but failed to learn of the connection between the Choir and Cleveland’s greatest-ever pop export, Raspberries. What many found out later is that the Choir’s Wally Bryson, Jim Bonfanti and Dave Smalley would join with Eric Carmen (who’d unsuccessfully auditioned to sing with the Choir) to form Raspberries. Even less known was that after the Choir initially disbanded in 1968, they reformed a few months later with three new members, including organist Phil Giallombardo, joining keyboard player Kenny Margolis and drummer Jim Bonfanti.

This latter lineup recorded ten tracks in 1969, unsuccessfully shopped the results to labels, released a cover of the Easybeats’ “Gonna Have a Good Time Tonight,” and broke up for good in 1970. Although the title track of this collection was included on a 1976 Bomp EP, and three more turned up on Sundazed’s 1994 collection Choir Practice, the rest of the 1969 project was only recently rediscovered by the studio owner’s son, and is issued here for the very first time. By this point in the Choir’s history their sound was heavier than the garage rock of 1966, anchored by Hammond organ and hard rock, psychedelic guitars. Touches of pop-jazz (ala BS&T) and progressive rock mingled in, but the band retained their melodic roots in the British Invasion, as evidenced here by a cover of the Kinks’ “David Watts.”

Phil Giallombardo cites Procol Harum as a primary influence, but you can also hear the Left Bank’s baroque pop in “Anyway I Can,” Steppenwolf’s roar in “If These Are Men,” Robin Gibb’s fragility in “Have I No Love to Offer,” Santana’s organ magic in the instrumental “For Eric,” and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s good-timey vibes in “Mummer Band.” What’s most bewitching about this material is that three years on from “It’s Cold Outside,” the new lineup touches on the band’s earlier pop roots while seamlessly transitioning to a new, heavier direction that includes explosive drumming, heavy organ and blistering guitar solos. These are finished stereo productions, packaged with a 12-page booklet that includes period photos and a band family tree. It’s hard to imagine how no one took a commercial interest in these tapes at the time, but it’s great to have them now! [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Chris Bell: Looking Forward / I Am the Cosmos / Complete

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

The most detailed look yet at Chris Bell before and after Big Star

Chris Bell’s untimely death in 1978 not only robbed the world of his musical greatness, but also froze his artistic assets. A full appraisal of his art was retarded by the paucity of available recorded material that lingered for many years after his passing. Big Star’s debut, #1 Record, despite the contemporaneous critical praise and retrospective glory lavished upon it, had been poorly distributed at the time of its 1972 release. Reissued in 1978, apparently to Bell’s delight, it’s imported manufacture delegated it to specialty shops. That same year, Bell’s solo single, “I Am the Cosmos,” was released on Chris Stamey’s Car label, but it would be fourteen more years until Ryko’s 1992 full-length I Am the Cosmos really started to flesh out the Chris Bell story. By then, Big Star had become an iconic reference among 1980s indie pop bands, and with Alex Chilton’s new Big Star formation in 1993, interest in Bell continued to grow.

The next cache of Bell material to turn up were pre-Big Star recordings by The Jynx, Rock City, Christmas Future and Icewater on collections dedicated to Big Star and the Ardent label. In 2009, Rhino Handmade provided further insight into Bell’s post-Big Star period with an expanded edition of I Am the Cosmos. Omnivore now pulls this all together, expanding upon what’s been excavated before with three new releases. First is the single CD Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star, which adds six previously unissued tracks to the existing corpus of pre-Big Star material. Second is a deluxe reissue of I Am the Cosmos that adds eight tracks to the 2009 Rhino Handmade reissue. Third is an omnibus vinyl-only box set, The Complete Chris Bell, which collects the material from the first two sets, and adds an excerpt from Rich Tupica’s forthcoming biography, There Was a Light: The Cosmic History of Big Star Founder Chris Bell.

What’s immediately striking about the material on Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star is how good it sounds. Ardent studio owner John Fry had the presence of mind to train a handful of musicians on recording technique, and let them practice in the studio’s down time. These sessions were free from the pressure of a studio clock or a label’s budget, and they allowed the musicians to explore their craft as players, engineers and producers. The six previously unreleased tracks include recordings by The Wallabys (“The Reason”) and Icewater (“A Chance to Live”) and four backing tracks. Big Star fans drawn to the backing track “Oh My Soul” will find it unrelated to the Chilton song of the same name, but the chugging groove is infectious and Bell’s guitar work superb. The unfinished “Germany” has fine vocal overdubs, and the gritty guitar on the alternate of “Feeling High” is terrific.

What shines through the early Ardent sessions is everyone’s unbridled enthusiasm, and for Chris Bell in particular, an optimism that had yet to be crushed under the weight of #1 Record’s commercial failure. From the earliest track, “Psychedelic Stuff,” through the British Invasion tones of the Wallabys, breakthrough compositions like “All I See is You,” and material that would be re-recorded by Big Star, everything rings with a sense of musicians chasing their muse, unencumbered by commercial considerations and with a growing sense that they could make music as meaningful and moving as their idols. Alec Palao’s liner notes include insightful interviews with John Fry, Steve Rhea, Terry Manning, Alan Palmore, Jody Stephens, Tom Eubanks, providing detail on the scene, sessions and tracks.

The eight tracks added to I Am the Cosmos include alternate versions, backing tracks and mixes that provide the final clues as to the journey Bell’s songs took throughout his lifetime. As Alec Palao notes, “unless some new studio sessions come to light in the future, [this set] is essentially the last word on the work of this quixotic talent.” Omnivore relocates the Icewater and Rock City tracks Rhino added in 2009 to a more natural spot on Looking Forward, and adds several mixes from the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me. Bob Mehr’s liner notes tell of Bell’s spiritual, musical and geographical odysseys to record, overdub, mix and find a record deal. Alec Palao’s track notes further dissect Bell’s artistic restlessness by piecing together details of his intercontinental quest for perfection.

The avalanche of material that’s been posthumously released on Big Star, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton might feel Elvis- or Jimi-like, had the band not been so thoroughly ignored in their prime. The drive to learn how these artists came to produce #1 Record, Radio City and Third, and what became of them afterwards is delayed discovery rather than morbid curiosity. The books, documentary, reissues, best-ofs, box sets, archival artifacts, resurrections, reunions, and tribute performances might overwhelm lesser artists. But in the case of Chris Bell, the before and after provide a surround that magnifies the all-too-brief artistic flame. Those new to the Big Star canon should start with their albums, those who’ve already imbibed will want to dig the roots and the afterwards, and those who’ve already thoroughly explored the periphery will find something of value in upgrading. [©2017 Hyperbolium]