Posts Tagged ‘Bear Family’

Various Artists: Woody Guthrie – The Tribute Concerts

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

Lavish expansion of 1968 and 1970 Woody Guthrie tribute concerts

Bear Family’s lavish three CD, two book set collects material from two live tribute shows, featuring performances by Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan (his first appearance after his motorcycle accident), Odetta, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Jack Elliott, Country Joe McDonald, Tom Paxton and Earl Robinson, along with narration from actors Robert Ryan, Will Geer and Peter Fonda. The first tribute included an afternoon/evening pair of concerts staged at Carnegie Hall in 1968, the second tribute was staged at the Hollywood Bowl in 1970. Material from both tributes was released in edited, collated and resequenced form on a pair of 1972 LPs, Part 1 on Columbia and Part 2 on Warner Brothers, and eventually reissued on CD and MP3.

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Guthrie’s passing, Bear Family has gathered all of the extant concert materials – including the entire Hollywood Bowl concert – to recreate the original, scripted concerts by adding back narration and musical performances that were elided from the LPs, and adding in interview clips that shed light on Guthrie and the productions. The three CDs are fitted into the back cover of a 160-page hardbound book that overflows with photos, essays, press clippings, remembrances, artist and production staff biographies, ephemera, notes on production, recording and filming, a discography, a bibliography and a filmography. The book is housed in a heavy-duty slipcase alongside a reproduction of the 1972 volume, The TRO Woody Guthrie Concert Book, which itself includes photos, sheet music, and song notes from Guthrie and Millard Lampell. All together, the package weighs in at over five pounds!

Lampell’s script for the shows threads together Guthrie’s songs and autobiographical writing, Lampell’s script tells Guthrie’s story through the people he met, the stories he sang and the musicians he influenced. Highlights of the New York shows include Will Geer’s knowing tone in describing his longtime comrade, the then-recently minted starlight of Arlo Guthrie shining on his father’s “Oklahoma Hills,” the sound of Pete Seeger’s banjo and his physical embodiment of the folk movement’s hard-fought roots, and Tom Paxton’s mournful “Pastures of Plenty.” Dylan’s band-based triptych stands apart from the more traditional folk arrangements of his castmates, and shows the directions he’d been developing during his eighteen month hiatus.

For all the camaraderie and good feelings of the Carnegie shows, they weren’t without controversy, as Phil Ochs’ snub led to the deeply bitter feelings recounted in his interview. Ochs’ was particularly critical of Judy Collins and Richie Havens, the latter of whom had only then recently released his debut and performed at Woodstock. But Ochs’ recriminations were misplaced, as both artists commune with Guthrie’s legacy; Collins’ embrace of “Plane Wreck At Los Gatos (Deportee)” is tear inducing, and Havens’ slow, rhythmic performance of “Vigilante Man” is hypnotic. The show closed with the cast singing Guthrie’s alternate national anthem, “This Land is Your Land,” sending the audience out to share Guthrie’s music with the world.

The Los Angeles show largely repeated the script from New York, with Peter Fonda replacing Robert Ryan in the co-narrator chair, and Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Jack Elliott and Richie Havens newly joined by Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald, Earl Robinson and a house band that included Ry Cooder. Dylan’s semi-electric set felt like an outlier among the acoustic arrangements of 1968, but by 1970, the house band is heard throughout much of the Hollywood Bowl program. Stretching the songs further from their acoustic origins emphasizes their their continued relevance as artistic and social capital. The band-backed songs also provide contrast to acoustic numbers such as Baez and Seeger’s audience sing-a-long “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh.”

Baez sings both “Hobo’s Lullaby” with empathy and tenderness, and the band’s support on Odetta’s “Ramblin’ Round” inspires a looser performance than she gave in New York. Country Joe McDonald, who began his solo career the year before with Thinking of Woody Guthrie, sings a rousing version of “Pretty Boy Floyd” and provides original music for the previously unrecorded Guthrie lyric “Woman at Home.” Woody Guthrie’s performance style echoed most strongly in Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s “1913 Massacre,” and placed back-to-back with Arlo Guthrie’s blues-rock take on “Do Re Mi,” highlights how amendable the songs are to reinvention.

The Los Angeles recording is more detailed than the tapes made from the house system in New York, and though it’s musically rich, with Guthrie’s passing two years further in the past, it doesn’t feel as urgent as the earlier shows. Disc three is filled out with interview clips that shed light on Guthrie and the tribute concerts. As Arlo Guthrie recounts in interview, and Lampell echoes in his opening essay, Guthrie had developed a legacy in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but it was the folk revival that really cemented his popular artistic immortality. The tribute concerts consolidated the discovery of the revival, acknowledging the original context in which Guthrie wrote, and renewing his songs’ significance by highlighting their ongoing relevance to then-current issues. The shows employed the folk tradition as stagecraft.

The interview segments are interesting for their mix of accurate and misremembered moments. Arlo Guthrie remembers the New York shows as benefits for the Guthrie children, when they were actually fundraisers for the newly formed Huntington Chorea organization. Rick Robbins remembers Dylan having been an unannounced surprise guest, when his role was actually advertised beforehand. This set is deluxe, even by Bear Family’s uniquely high standards, but it rests comfortably on two memorable concerts. Those seeking only a taste of the concerts might check out the CD reissue of the original concert albums. But for a fully immersive experience, this two-book, three-CD set is a welcome gift for the holidays. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Woody Guthrie Website

Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup: Rocks

Friday, August 4th, 2017

Late-40s and early-50s sides from the father of rock ‘n’ roll

Arthur Crudup is most widely remembered as the writer of Elvis Presley’s first single, “That’s All Right,” and the later B-side “My Baby Left Me.” But by the time Presley waxed these sides in the mid-50s, Crudup had already quit the recording business in disgust. Crudup was denied a share of the royalties his songwriting and recordings had generated, and after years of subsisting on low wages for sessions and performances, he’d had enough of enriching others. He eventually returned to recording and performing, continuing on into the 1970s, but even with legal help, he was never able to claim the royalties for the songs that had launched others onto the charts.

Bear Family’s 28-track collection focuses primarily on the sides Crudup recorded in Chicago for RCA in the 1940s, supplemented by a few early-50s recordings made in the studios of WQXI (Atlanta), WRBC (Jackson, MS) and WGST (Atlanta), and in 1962, New York City. Crudup began recording for RCA in 1941 with a basic session of acoustic guitar and washtub bass, but a two-year-long musicians strike created a gap that stretched from 1942 until the end of 1944. This set picks up with 1945’s “Open Your Book,” with Crudup’s energetic guitar playing backed by drummer Charles “Chick” Draper. The lyrics touched on the phrase “that’s all right,” though it wouldn’t solidify into the title song until the following year.

Another guitar-and-drums session, this time with Armand “Jump” Jackson on skins yielded the hit “So Glad You’re Mine,” which Elvis revived a decade later for Elvis. By Fall of 1946 Crudup had been reunited with string bassist Ransom J. Knowling, and along with drummer Judge Lawrence Riley they worked their way up to the iconic “That’s All Right.” Before recording the icon, the trio warmed up the key “that’s all right” phrase and the “de de de” scat on the raucous “So Glad You’re Mine.” Those two elements would continue to thread through Crudup’s work for years, including the subsequent “I Don’t Know It.”

Crudup, Knowling and Riley continued to record throughout 1947, Crudup traveling up to Chicago from his native Mississippi to which he’d returned in 1945. They mixed mid-tempo laments with up-tempo numbers whose excited vocals and sharp drum accents point in a straight line to Presley’s early Sun work, and the rock ‘n’ roll revolution. Late in 1950 the trio laid down “My Baby Left Me,” complete with the drum and bass intro that Bill Black and D.J. Fontana reworked for Elvis’ 1956 B-side. Crudup’s last Chicago session, and the last session the trio would play together, was held in Spring of 1951, and yielded the nuclear war paranoia of “I’m Gonna Dig Myself a Hole.”

By 1952, Crudup had a new rhythm section (bassist Jimmy Sheffield and drummer N. Butler), and recording had moved to Atlanta, to the studio of radio station WQXI. Crudup’s guitar has a more subdued tone in these sessions, and his vocals aren’t as exuberant as his hottest Chicago sides. He ventured down to Jackson, MS to moonlight for Chess with the juke-joint blues “Open Your Book,” and the push from Robert Dees’ harmonica returned the spark to his singing. He waxed the energetic blues “She’s My Baby” for Champion with a muddily-recorded piano adding a new sound to his records, and he returned to RCA in 1954 where a lack of with hits led to the end of his contract and an exit from recording.

Eight years later, in 1962, producer Bobby Robinson tracked Crudup down in Frankfort, VA, and brought him to New York. Together they re-recorded stereo versions of Crudup’s earlier work, of which three are included here. Crudup’s songs and style have reverberated throughout rock ‘n’ roll’s entire history, and though well known for the exposure Elvis Presley’s debut provided, his own recordings haven’t been as widely heard. Bear Family’s 28-track collection highlights his years with RCA and beyond, and the 36-page booklet includes informative liner notes by Bill Dahl and a detailed discography. More can be heard on the box set A Music Man Like Nobody Ever Saw, but as a starting point, this is “all right!” [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Note: to play this collection in chronological order, program 11, 28, 9, 2, 7, 13, 6, 10, 19, 23, 24, 22, 4, 8, 3, 14, 15, 17, 21, 25, 16, 1, 12, 5, 26, 27, 18, 20.

The Platters: Rock

Saturday, July 8th, 2017

The mid- and uptempo sides of ‘50s ballad legends

Like many of rock ‘n’ roll’s founding acts, the decades have largely reduced the Platters’ memory to their hits – “Only You,” “The Great Pretender,” “My Prayer,” “Twilight Time” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” But, also like many of their colleagues, there was a great deal more to the Platters catalog than these iconic singles. Bear Family’s generous thirty track collection explores beyond the group’s familiar ballads, and focuses on mid- and uptempo tracks from the Mercury years of 1955-1962. The set’s most rocking tunes, including “Bark, Battle and Ball,” “Don’t Let Go,” “Hula Hop,” “I Wanna,” “Out of My Mind” and “You Don’t Say,” reach back past the pop balladry to the group’s R&B roots; but even the slower songs, including bass vocalist Herb Reed’s interpretation of “Sixteen Tons,” are more juke joint than supper club.

The group revs up the standards “On a Slowboat to China,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” and “Let’s Fall in Love” to show tempo, giving a sense of what they might have sounded like at a hop. All five Platters get lead vocal spots, and the group is supported on several tracks by the orchestral direction of Mercury’s David Carroll. Also heard here are Wrecking Crew regulars Plas Johnson, Barney Kessell, Earl Palmer and Howard Roberts, and on the scorching opening pair, saxophonist Freddie Simon and guitarist Chuck Norris. Bear Family’s crisp reproductions of mono and stereo masters are housed in a tri-fold digipak with a 36-page booklet of photos, liner notes and a detailed discography. This is a novel view of the Platters’ catalog, but one that sheds new light on their range. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Herb Reed’s Platters’ Home Page

Various Artist: Big City Christmas

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

various_bigcitychristmasBear Family’s Christmas present to the label’s fans

There are few reissue labels with Bear Family’s long, consistent history of knowledge, taste and quality, and all three are part of the package for this 2016 Christmas collection. The 30 tracks, totalling more than 70 minutes of music, mostly sidestep the oldies chestnuts, though Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” and Dean Martin’s “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” will be very familiar to American holiday shoppers. More surprising are the lesser-known recordings from well-known artists, including Frankie Valli and the Four Lovers’ hopped up “White Christmas” (an alternate take to the commercial single, no less!), Brenda Lee’s Cajun-influenced B-side “Papa Noel” and Dean Martin’s 1953 single “The Christmas Blues.”

Chestnuts are also spruced up, as Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” is sung by a very jolly Teresa Brewer, and “Jingle Bells” is given a jazzy read by Ricky Nelson and turned jivey by Pat Boone. The former also provides a warm version of “The Christmas Song” and the latter returns to MOR form with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” The Cadillacs lay some R&B on “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Eartha Kitt gives a year-later update to “Santa Baby,” and Irving Berlin’s “Snow,” featured as a group number in 1954’s White Christmas, is sung solo by Rosemary Clooney. Chuck Berry’s B-side cover of “Merry Christmas Baby” is backed by Johnnie Johnson’s inimitable piano stylings and Berry’s riff on “White Christmas.”

But what really animates Bear Family releases, aside from the encyclopedic length of their box sets and booklets, are the obscure singles and unreleased vault finds they bring back to life. By digging through the label’s catalog of compilations and box sets, the producers have assembled a wealth of Christmas-themed pop, rock, rockabilly, blues and R&B rarities. Highlights include Charlie Starr’s homage to Chubby Checker, “Christmas Twist,” Cathy Sharpe’s rockabilly “North Pole Rock,” the Moods’ original B-side “Rockin’ Santa Claus,” and novelties from the Holly Twins (“I Want Elvis for Christmas”), Patty Surbey (“I Want a Beatle for Christmas”) and Sheb Wooley (“Santa Claus Meets the Purple Eater”).

Doris Day is delightful as she sings “Ol’ Saint Nicholas,” Frankie Lymon’s beautiful soprano is both bold and solemn on “Silent Night,” and the collection closes with Jo-Ann Campbell’s year-end “Happy New Year, Baby.” Reissue producers Nico Feuerbach and Marc Mittelacher (the latter of whom also provides short song notes) have beautifully sequenced recordings from the ‘40, ‘50s and ‘60s into an incredibly compelling program, and Tom Meyer’s mastering blends it together aurally. All mono, except 4, 15, 16 and 23, but you’ll hardly notice, as the fidelity is crisp throughout. In the annual avalanche of recycled holiday oldies, Bear Family’s terrific collection tops the tree. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Bear Family’s Home Page

BR5-49: One Long Saturday Night, Plus

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

BR549_OneLongSaturdayNightPlusRevivalist country legends in the flush of early greatness

Initially formed in 1993, it took only a few years for BR5-49 to catch on with the Nashville locals at Robert’s Western Wear, score a major label deal with Arista, and find themselves touring the world. This set of country standards, western swing tunes and original songs was performed live on German television in October, 1996, hot on the heels of the release of their debut EP and album. The quintet set up in a cafe setting and ran through a full set for a small audience, just as they had been doing a year earlier in Nashville.

As was their practice, the songs were called off on the fly, rather than written out in a setlist, demonstrating not only their deep knowledge of classic songs, but their innate ability to string them together into a rousing program. Their originals (“Even If It’s Wrong,” “Bettie Bettie,” “Hometown Boogie,” “My Name is Mudd,” “Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)” and “One Long Saturday Night”) are nearly indistinguishable from their brilliantly selected and inventively arranged covers of Hank Williams, Harlan Howard, Webb Pierce, Carl Perkins, Gram Parsons and others.

The group’s panache comes across on both this CD and the parallel DVD issue. The CD includes nineteen tracks from the German Ohne Filter show plus four soundboard recordings captured a week later in Japan. Bear Family’s digipack comes with a 30-page booklet that includes notes by Chuck Mead and a wealth of period photos. The Blasters, Domino Kings and Derailers trolled similar retro territory, but none plowed Nashville roots as deeply as BR5-49, and the excitement they stirred up was never more evident than on stage. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

BR5-49’s Facebook Page

Conway Twitty: Rocks at the Castaway

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

ConwayTwitty_RocksAtTheCastawayOne-of-a-kind Conway Twitty live set from 1964

More than a decade before Conway Twitty became one of country music’s most prolific hitmakers, he was a pompadour-wearing rock ‘n’ roller, schooled by Sam Phillips at Sun Studios. Starting with 1958’s chart-topping “It’s Only Make Believe,” Twitty strung together nearly two years of pop hits that included “Lonely Blue Boy,” “Mona Lisa” and a bouncy take on “Danny Boy” (all of which can be found on The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years box set, or the more concise Conway Rocks). He turned to country music in the mid-60s, and with 1968’s “Next in Line,” began twenty years of nearly unparalleled chart success. The transition from ’50s rocker to ’60s country star found Twitty and his band the Lonely Blue Boys on the road, playing bars and clubs throughout the country, mixing original hits with covers from blues, rock, R&B and country.

In August 1964 the group touched down for a week’s stand at Geneva-on-the-Lake’s Castaway Nightclub. Hobbyists Alan Cassaro and Bob Scherl used an Olsen reel-to-reel recorder and an Electrovoice EV 664 microphone to capture two sets on each of two nights. With only a single microphone (which Twitty generously allowed them to place next to his stage mic) and a mono recorder, Cassaro and Scherl were at the mercy of stage mixes that shortchanged the drums, sax and keyboards, but Twitty’s guitar and vocals are clear, and the band’s crowd-pleasing performances are superb. This material has been issued before, but Bear Family has improved the sound, cherry-picked the best version of each song from the four different sets, and included the previously unissued instrumental “Rinky.”

The set list features many ‘50s and early ‘60s rock, pop, R&B and blues standards, including Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working,” Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man,” Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee,” and incendiary covers of Elmore James’ “Shake Your Moneymaker” and Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover.” The latter finds Big Joe E. Lewis laying down a great bass line over which the sax, piano and guitar solo. Twitty’s talent as a rock ‘n’ ‘roller was overwhelmed by his later success as a country star, but he sings here with real fervor, and lays down several hot guitar leads. Twitty’s 1960 original “She’s Mine” shows a heavy Jerry Lee Lewis influence, and his hit “Lonely Blue Boy” (sung both in medley and standalone) has the unmistakable imprint of Elvis Presley’s growl.

By 1964 Twitty was already cutting country demos, and the next year he’d jump from MGM to Decca to record with Owen Bradley in Nashville. His live set was incorporating country material, including Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and Bobby Darin’s “Things.” His band still favored blues, rock and pop, but you can hear Twitty’s vocals starting to add country flavor to the bent notes. Even more country, his cover of “It Keeps Right On a-Hurtin’” adds a helping of  honky-tonk to Johnny Tillotson’s string-lined original, and “Born to Lose” is sung as a blues that fits between Ted Daffan’s 1943 original and Ray Charles’ lush cover.

Bear Family’s knit the tracks together with bits of stage patter, audience chatter, pre-intermission vamping and even a few flubs, to provide a sense of the overall performance; all that’s missing are the tunes sung by band members when Twitty too a break. The band shows off their road-honed chops as they swing into each song at Twitty’s calls. The set list depicts a relentless show that powers through up-tempo singles “Is a Bluebird Blue,” “Danny Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” and packs emotional crooning into covers of “Unchained Melody” and “What a Dream.” The set’s booklet offers Bear Family’s typical riches of photos, graphic design and well-researched liner notes. This is a great release for Twitty’s ardent fans, documenting the earliest phase of his transition from a rock ‘n’ roller to a country icon. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner: Just Between You and Me (Bear Family)

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

DollyPartonPorterWagoner_JustBetweenYouAndMeA monument to one of music’s greatest-ever duos

Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s partnership is remarkable even within a genre known for its venerable pairings. At the start of their professional relationship, Wagoner was an established star with dozens of hit singles and a weekly television program, and Parton was the new “girl singer” who had to win over fans of the departed Norma Jean. By the end of their partnership, seven years later, Wagoner’s chart action was winding down, and Parton’s stardom, which had begun its flight during her tenure with Wagoner, was about to go into hyperdrive. Parton said goodbye to Wagoner with “I Will Always Love You,” and lawsuits followed, but their chemistry as a duet was strong enough to survive their separation, with previously recorded material continuing to chart.

Parton and Wagoner were each artistic forces to be reckoned with. They were A-list songwriters and performers, and the enormous volume of material they recorded together was paralleled by a wealth of solo releases. Early on, Wagoner wrote surprisingly little for their pairings, choosing to showcase Parton’s material alongside that of other Nashville greats and a few adventurous selections, like Dan Penn’s “The Dark End of the Street.” Wagoner’s songwriting contributions picked up in the latter half of their partnership, and the pair also wrote several songs together. One has to wonder if the increasing fortunes of Parton’s solo career directed her original material to herself, and Wagoner was drawn to fill the void alongside his singing and producing duties.

Wagoner’s craft was meticulous, and the sidemen he selected included members of his road band (led by Buck Trent and featuring fiddler Mack Magaha) and the cream of Nashville’s session players (including Pete Drake, Lloyd Green, Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins and Roy Huskey, Jr.). The catalog he produced with Parton is impressive for both its size and uniformly high quality. The songwriting, vocals, production and playing never wavers across the duo’s seven-year partnership, and their commercial appeal lasted from an early cover of Tom Paxton’s folk classic “The Last Thing on My Mind” through Wagoner’s “Is Forever Longer than Always.” Along the way, fans will find the hallmarks of both Wagoner and Parton’s individual material, including the former’s dramatic recitations, the latter’s hard-scrabble roots and both of their religious faith.

Duet singing is ultimately more about the chemistry of conversation and the revelation of interpersonal dynamics than about the individual vocalists. Wagoner’s spoken-word interlude gives Parton’s lyric of family tragedy an extra shot of morbidity in “The Party,” and the easy give-and-take of “I’ve Been This Way Too Long” could just as easily be the extemporaneous bickering of a long-time couple. Though neither family nor spouses, the pair sang with the sort of connectedness that marks blood harmonies – and feuds. In retrospect, the spark that brought even the most common romantic themes to life now seems freighted with foreshadows of their bitter dissolution, eventual detente and final emotional reunion.

Like all of Bear Family’s box sets, this set’s extensiveness is both a blessing and a challenge. The blessing, of course, are six discs of superb recordings and a lavishly illustrated seventy-eight page book; the challenge is in trying to absorb seven years of material without the division and pacing of the original singles and albums. Alanna Nash’s lengthy notes and Richard Weize’s detailed discography provide fans a guide to the duo’s intertwined paths, and the compression of their career into a box set highlights the evolution of their pairing at fast-forward speed. This collection stands tall, even among the very tall field of archival releases Bear Family has produced since it’s founding in 1975; start saving your pennies and dimes (and quarters and dollars), as this is a must-have for fans of Porter, Dolly and Porter & Dolly. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Dolly Parton’s Home Page

Various Artists: Country & Western Hit Parade 1966

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

Various_CountryAndWesternHitParade1966The 1966 country jukebox of your dreams

The passing of decades often elides the full range of music that spun on jukeboxes and the radio. The commercial necessities of CD (and now MP3) reissue and oldies broadcasting further reinforce this narrow view with hit anthologies and playlists stocked primarily with superstars. What quickly recedes from earshot are the lesser hits and journeyman artists that made up the full context of the times. Faintly remembered are artists like Nat Stuckey, who regularly visited the Top 40 for more than a decade, but only cracked the top-ten a few times, and indelible acts like The Browns are usually recognized for their sole chart-topper, “The Three Bells,” rather than their other half-dozen Top 10s. Even country music’s superstars, such as Faron Young, Eddy Arnold and Ray Price, had so many hits that the bulk of their work is overshadowed by a few well-anthologized icons.

But the true soundtrack of a year’s music is a mix of hits, album tracks, superstars, journeymen, one-hit wonders, chart-toppers, regional breakouts and singles that barely grazed the Top 40. It’s this tapestry that gives a year, an era or a genre its full flavor. Bear Family’s twenty-six volume series Country & Western Hit Parade covers the years 1945 through 1970, one year per disc, interweaving chart classics with a wealth of lesser-anthologized, but equally influential releases. Each disc recreates the sound of its year by placing oft-repeated hits in the company of their lesser-known chartmates, providing context to the former and returning status to the latter.

The mid-60s were a transitional time for country music, with the Los Angeles-based Country & WesternMusicAcademy (later rebranded the ACM) exerting a West Coast pull with the introduction of their all-country awards show. In addition to Nashville’s cross-over pop, torch ballads, 4/4 Ray Price beats and a sprinkle of throwback honky-tonk, 1966 found Bakersfield in full flight, with Buck Owens in the middle of releasing fourteen-straight chart toppers and Merle Haggard starting a series of sixty-one Top 10s, including his first #1, “The Fugitive.” Billboard’s expanded country chart and a refined method of measuring radio play led to faster chart turnover, an increased number of charting titles, and greater opportunity for new acts to break through. Jeannie Seely had her first (and biggest) hit with “Don’t Touch Me,” Mel Tillis broke through with “Stateside,” and Tammy Wynette scored with her first single, “Apartment #9.”

At the same time, veteran acts were winding down or changing direction. The Browns’ “I’d Just Be Fool Enough” was their next-to-last Top 20, and Eddy Arnold fully committed himself to middle-of-the-road pop with “I Want to Go With You.” The latter, though written by Hank Cochran, has a chorus and strings that overwhelm the hint of country in Floyd Cramer’s slip-note piano. Waylon Jennings’ “Anita You’re Dreaming” still bore Chet Atkins’ countrypolitan touches (including a marimba played by Ray Stevens), and though it would be another half-decade until he fully broke free of Nashville’s control, the seeds were being planted. Loretta Lynn found her feisty, personal songwriting voice  with “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and her first chart topper, “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).”

In addition to charting entries, this volume includes Johnny Paycheck’s outré album track “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone to Kill,” Dallas Frazier’s original non-charting single of “Elvira,” and the original demo of “Distant Drums” that (with the appropriate Nashville dubbing) became a posthumous chart topper for Jim Reeves. The list of artists is complemented by a who’s who Nashville and West Coast A-list session players and country songwriters that include Cindy Walker, Tompall Glaser, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Bill Anderson, Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller, Merle Haggard, Mickey Newbury, Dallas Frazer, Mel Tillis, Jack Clement, Johnny Paycheck, Liz Anderson and Waylon Jennings. Bear Family’s exquisitely selected 31-tracks (clocking in at 83 minutes) are amplified by the label’s attention to detail in sound (original stereo except for 9, 12, 17, 22, 28 and 32), documentation and packaging. Each disc is housed in a hardbound book with 71 pages of liners, color photos and song notes. The set’s only disappointment is the unnecessarily difficult cardboard sleeve in which the disc is housed; deal with it once and keep the disc in a separate case. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

The Drifters: Rock

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

Drifters_RockThe early and upbeat sides of the Drifters

The Drifters have one of the most complicated family trees a group has ever assembled under a single name. Over the six decades since their inception the group’s lineup has been completely replaced, cycled through nearly four dozen members and spun off several splinter groups and solo careers. Most notable among the latter is the post-Drifter success of former lead singers Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King, each of whom were also inducted with their respective editions of the group into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. The details of the group’s discography is as complicated as their membership, with big hits led by Clyde McPhatter, Johnny Moore, Bill Pinkney, Ben E. King, Johnny Lee Williams, Rudy Lewis and Charlie Thomas over a decade that stretched from 1953’s “Money Honey” through their last Top 10 R&B, 1965’s “At the Club.”

Like many bands of the early rock ‘n’ roll era, their catalog has been compressed by oldies radio, film soundtracks and greatest hits CDs to a handful singles that had the fortune to spring from the Brill Building and cross over to the pop charts. Starting with 1959’s “There Goes My Baby,” and continuing through early ’60s with “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway” and “Under the Boardwalk,” the Drifters carved what would become their most long-lasting image These hits represent the tenures of Ben E. King and Rudy Lewis, and the return of Johnny Moore after his hitch in the Army; wthey don’t tell are the upbeat R&B sides that the group waxed throughout their career, and especially in their early years with Clyde McPhatter out front.

Bear Family’s 32-track lineup samples tracks from 1953’s unreleased-at-the-time “Let the Boogie Woogie Roll” through 1959’s “Hey Senorita” and “Baltimore” (the latter pair featuring the distinctive sax of King Curtis), and a pair of stereo recordings from the 62/63, “I Feel Good All Over” and “If You Don’t Come Back.” Also included are spin-offs from Bill Pinkey’s Flyers (“On Bended Knee”) and Turks (“After the Hop” and “Sally’s Got a Sister”), and alternate takes of “Bip Bam,” “Such a Night” and “Drop Drop.” None of this is likely to be new to Drifters afficionados, but those who only know the early ’60s crossover ballads will be bowled over by the incendiary power this group sustained over the half-dozen lead vocalists (and countless studio musicians) featured here.

Eleven early sides showcase how Clyde McPhatter brought his gospel fire to secular sides, starting with the group’s very first session in June, 1953. The initial lineup pulled in a quartet of singers from McPhatter’s church group, and though his lead on “Let the Boogie Woogie Roll” pays off on the promise which lead to his signing, the Mount Lebanon Singers are just a touch too smooth to really bust loose. Atlantic prevailed upon McPhatter to develop a new lineup, and the reformed quintet hit the top of the R&B chart with their very first single, “Money Honey.” The same August, 1953 session found the lineup re-recording “Let the Boogie Woogie Roll,” and the differences — a slightly faster tempo, a bigger push from the piano, harder swinging sax and a more emphatic lead vocal — add up to something big.

The core of the new lineup — McPhatter, Bill Pinkney, Andrew Thrasher and Gerhart Thrasher — defined the group’s first golden era, laying down mid-tempo tunes with Latin accents, bluesy doo-wop, upbeat R&B and proto-rock ‘n’ roll. McPhatter’s high tenor leads were filled with excitement, and the backing harmonies of his fellow Drifters were equally sophisticated and highly-charged. McPhatter’s draft notice and the lure of a solo career led to Bill Pinkney’s cool lead on 1955’s “No Sweet Lovin’,” and subsequently to a number of singles featuring Johnny Moore, including “Ruby Baby” (eight years before Dion’s bigger hit with the same title), “I Gotta Get Myself a Woman” and a bouncy cover of Terry Noland’s “Hypnotized” that actually beat the writer’s rockabilly version to market. The group’s financial structure (which rewarded their manager more than the singers) led to numerous defections, several of which resulted in singles from splinter groups such as the Flyers’ catchy “On Bended Knee,” and the Turks’ slapback-tinged sides from Sun’s Memphis studio.

After Moore was drafted, the spotlight fell to Bobby Hendricks, who helped gain the Drifters notice on the pop charts with a superb recording of Lieber & Stoller’s “Drop Drop,” offered here in its released single version and a stereo alternate take. Hendricks also sang lead on the rock ‘n’ roll “Itchy Twitchy Feeling,” borrowing members of the Coasters to fill out the vocal lineup. The group’s second golden age began with the arrival of Ben E. King and his fellow Five Crowns, and though this lineup’s crossover success was based primarily on uptown BrillBuilding ballads, King also sang grittier R&B material like “Hey Senorita” and “Baltimore.” King’s departure led to Rudy Lewis’ arrival, and continued success on the pop charts. Johnny Moore returned to the Drifters after his discharge from the services, scoring several more hits, waxing soulful sides like “If You Don’t Come Back” and leading the group through the mid-70s.

Since the end of the Drifter’s chart action, they’ve become more a catalog than a group — much like the charts of famous big bands. You can still find heritage groups touring under the Drifters and Original Drifters names, and thinly related or completely counterfeit lineups plying their trade at county fairs and in small clubs. The group’s recorded catalog has been anthologized in greatest hits discs that emphasize their crossover material of King and Moore, but their earlier material can be found on sets like Rhino’s out-of-print Rockin’ & Driftin’, a two-fer from Collectibles and Jasmine’s singles collection. Bear Family is the first to focus so sharply on the group’s lesser-heard upbeat sides, homing in on their early R&B work, sprinkling in some important splinter singles, and adding a few alternates takes. The set comes packed in a tri-fold digipack with a removable 49-page (!) booklet stuffed with pictures, lengthy liner notes by Bill Dahl and discographical detail. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

The Drifters’ Home Page
The Original Drifters’ Home Page

Edna McGriff: Start Movin’ in My Direction

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

Winning collection of obscure ‘50s R&B vocalist

At the age of sixteen, R&B vocalist Edna McGriff scored a hit with only her second single, 1952’s “Heavenly Father.” But despite more solid outings on a half-dozen labels, she never again found true commercial success. Bear Family’s twenty-nine track anthology picks up the story in 1954 and winds through a multi-year tenure on Bell with backings from the Jimmy Carroll Orchestra, and one-offs for Brunswick, Felsted and Savoy. She and her producers ranged widely for material, covering many hits-of-the-day, including R&B, pop (The Chordette’s “Born to Be With You” and Sal Mineo’s “Start Movin’ in My Direction”), rockabilly (Lee Hazlewood’s “The Fool”), spirituals (“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”), folk revival favorites (“Freight Train”) and a trio of tunes from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song.

Though she was a sophisticated balladeer, her R&B numbers generate the most heat and vocal distinction. She hadn’t the bluesy grit of either Ruth Brown or Lavern Baker, but her energy really moves the former’s “Mambo Baby” and the latter’s “I Can’t Love You Enough.” At times she’s more kittenish, as on covers of “Sh-Boom” and “Dance with Me, Henry,” though, to be fair, even Etta James waited until 1958 to really hot-up the latter tune. McGriff could rock a bit, as she does on the clever multi-voiced, guitar-driven “Oh Joe!” She was a precise vocalist, and her control worked well on ballads, where the tremolo in her held notes added emotion. On rock ‘n’ roll tunes, such as the Bobettes’ “Mr. Lee,” her excellent diction feels at odds the song’s youthful exuberance.

McGriff’s commercial fortunes were hampered by Bell’s practice of splitting singles between two artists and diffusing DJ attention. At the same time, the focus on covering hot singles kept her from forming a distinct profile. Still, her sophisticated style and wide-ranging material should have garnered more action. Bear Family’s digipack includes an attached 43-page booklet that’s stuffed with photos, label and picture sleeve reproductions, discographical data and liner notes by Bill Dahl. Dahl spends several pages on McGriff’s earlier Jubliee releases (including duets with the Orioles’ Sonny Til) and several paragraphs on her post-Bell sides, making one wish Bear Family had expanded this into a “Complete Edna McGriff” package. For now, you’ll have to check out the grey market Heavenly Father to get more of the story. All tracks here are mono except 27-29, which are stereo. [©2012 Hyperbolium]