Posts Tagged ‘Bear Family’

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: That’ll Flat Git It! Vol. 32

Saturday, June 29th, 2019

Bear Family’s signature rockabilly anthology still rockin’ at 32!

At thirty-two volumes in twenty-eight years, one might wonder if Bear Family’s signature rockabilly anthology has run out of gas. But even on a fourth excursion into the vaults of Decca, Brunswick and Coral, Bear Family has unearthed many fine rock ‘n’ roll platters, and maintained their traditional attention to detail and presentation. The thirty-nine page booklet includes period photos, label reproductions, and knowledgeable liner notes by Bill Dahl. The thirty-three tracks clock in at over seventy-five minutes, and play like the collector’s jukebox Bear Family envisioned when they programmed 1992’s Volume 1. Best of all, the well of good material is still gushing with legends Johnny Burnette, Ronny Self, Brenda Lee, Bill Haley & His Comets, and Buddy Holly sharing the stage with superb acts known primarily to rockabilly aficionados.

Buddy Holly’s sides include a cover of the Clovers’ “Ting-a-Ling,” cut in Nashville in 1956, and the original “I’m Lookin’ For Someone to Love,” cut with Norman Petty in Clovis, NM. The former’s rockabilly treatment was resurrected by the Kingbees in 1980, while the latter’s terrific vocal and guitar solo was overshadowed in rock ‘n’ roll history by its A-side, “That’ll Be the Day.” Holly’s music has been so deeply canonized at this point, that hearing his records mixed into a rockabilly collection is a good opportunity to reset their connection to the musical times in which they developed. Johnny Burnette’s cover of “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee” features Burnette’s unabashed vocal and Paul Burlison’s hard-twanging guitar, and Brenda Lee’s B-side “Little Jonah (Rock on Your Steel Guitar)” features the swinging steel of Buddy Emmons.

Ronnie Self found his greatest commercial success as a songwriter (penning “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothins” for Brenda Lee), while his recording career turned out classic rave-ups such as “Bop-A-Lena,” but no big hits. His self-penned debut on Decca included the twangy mid-tempo “Big Town” backed with the wilder flipside “This Must Be the Place.” Cut in Nashville, both sides feature A-listers Buddy Harman, Floyd Cramer and Hank Garland. Bill Haley and His Comets’ 1958 single “Lean Jean” was cut in the same New York City studio in which they’d arguably birthed rock ‘n’ roll four years earlier with “Rock Around the Clock.” At 33, and with rock ‘n’ roll having exploded in his wake, Haley seemed to be a step behind the times as this mid-tempo number doesn’t generate the unbridled excitement of the group’s earlier recordings, and limped on to the charts at #67.

That said, Haley’s co-written “Broke Down Baby” provided the Philadelphia-based Tyrones an opportunity to rock in show band style, suggesting that the early roots of rock ‘n’ roll weren’t entirely dead; but it does beg the question of how one even defines “rockabilly.” Hank Penny, a western swing star in the ‘30s and ‘40s, echoes Haley’s fading glory as “Rock of Gibraltar” sounds like something that would have been more at home in an early rocksploitation movie than a rockabilly hop. Joe Hudgins was a country artist and protege of Marty Robbins, and his original “Where’d You Stay Last Night” is as much R&B as it is rockabilly. Jimmy Duncan’s “Run Little Joey” includes a Latin rhythm and doo wop-styled bass vocal alongside a rock ‘n’ roll sax and guitar solo. Jack & Jim’s novelty “Tarzan and Jane” sounds like folk music with a primal beat (though Glenn Reeves’ “Tarzan,” also included on this set, manages to swing more freely), while the flip “Midnight Monster Hop” has more rock ‘n’ roll in its guitar and drums. The Brooklyn-based doo-wopping Bay Bops manage to stir up some real excitement with the jivey “Follow the Rock,” while Sandy Coker’s “Honky Tonk Freeze” sounds more like a cross between Chet Atkins and the tamer instrumentals that Larry Collins cut with Joe Maphis; it’s a tasty instrumental, but rockabilly?

The set opens with the Elvis-like strains of Lance Roberts, a singer who cut two singles for Decca before moving on to Sun. Roberts’ freewheeling “Gonna Have Myself a Ball” was written by the legendary Boudleaux Bryant and features a driving beat and plenty of twangy guitar. Elvis also cast his spell over Johnny Duffet’s dizzying minor key original “Just Give Me Your Heart,” Buddy Holly’s hiccups informed Arthur Osborne’s loose-stringed, “Don’t Give Me Heartaches,” and the Everly Brothers seem to have opened the door for the Los Angeles-based Barker Brothers’ “Well All Right… Friday Night.”

Among the set’s biggest surprises is Crickets drummer Jerry Allison, backed by bassist Joe Mauldin and the unmistakable guitar of Buddy Holly, covering Johnny O’Keefe’s “Wild One,” under the title “Real Wild Child” and the nom-de-disque “Ivan.” The Maine-bred Dodie Randall is wound up on “Man Hunt” and its flip “I Fell in Love Again,” both cut in Los Angeles with guitarist Barney Kessell and a talented, but unnamed pianist, and Johnny Bell’s “The Third Degree” hits the rockabilly trifecta of angst-filled lyrics, a hopped-up vocal and wild guitar playing. The 33 tracks fill the disc with over seventy-five minutes of original rock ‘n’ roll, documented in a 40-page booklet filled with photos, label reproductions and Bill Dahl’s informative liner notes. At 32 volumes, this series is still rocking like a teenager! [©2019 Hyperbolium]

The Everly Brothers: Studio Outtakes

Saturday, May 11th, 2019

Alternate takes from the Everly Brothers hit-making years on Cadence

Among early rock ‘n’ roll acts, the Everly Brothers’ catalog is one of the most thoroughly documented. In addition to album reissues and greatest hits collections on numerous labels, Bear Family has issued three omnibus box sets (Classic, covering the ‘50s, and The Price Of Fame and Chained To A Memory, covering their years on Warner Bros.), along with two themed compilations (Rock and The Ballads of the Everly Brothers), a two-disc reissue of the classic Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, and a one-disc “mini box” titled Studio Outtakes. That latter disc, featuring 36 illuminating alternate studio takes from the brothers’ Cadence-era sessions, including 26 that were not included on the Classic box set. Studio Outtakes fell out of print and is reissued here in a jewel case with a 34-page booklet that’s slimmed down from the original issue’s 64-pages.

Unlike the multi-disc Outtakes volumes on Johnny Cash, Billy Riley, Gene Vincent, Johnny Tillotson and Carl Perkins, or the grey market two-volume Cadence Sessions, the conciseness of this single disc doesn’t require slogging through the repetition of false starts, incomplete takes and a half-dozen alternates of the same title. The multi-disc outtakes sets make a nice addition to a collector’s archive, but this 79-minute single disc is the more musical experience, playing as a well-curated compilation of hits, B-sides and album tracks with the twist of alternate takes. The evolution heard in these alternate takes offer listeners a peek inside the Everly Brothers creative process, and for the most familiar songs, an opportunity to relive a bit of the experience of hearing them for the first time.

What’s truly impressive is how quickly, and seemingly easily, the Everlys struck up their brotherly chemistry in the studio. First takes of “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Bird Dog,” “Bye, Bye Love,” “Claudette” and “Wake Up Little Susie” hadn’t always settled on the vocal lines or instrumental accompaniment that would turn the song into a hit, but you could hear the magic building, particularly in the brothers’ magnetic harmonies. The differences are often subtle changes in rhythm, harmony, tempo, accompaniment, instrumental balance or production effects, offering an aural lesson in the tweaks a producer and artist make as they search for a hit. For example, the softening of the vocal attitude between takes 1 and 5 of “All I Have to Do Is Dream” finds the song evolving into its dreamy final form, while tempo, lyric and key changes differentiate takes 3, 5 and 7 of “Poor Jenny.”

Rather than arranging the disc with multiple takes of the same song side-by-side, the producers have curated the track list for spinning from beginning to end. The mix of hits and lesser known sides plays like an album, with one song segueing thoughtfully into the next. The selection of material is complemented by the high quality of the original recordings, Jürgen Crasser’s mastering, Andrew Sandoval’s liner and song notes (along with quotes from Phil and Don Everly) from the set’s original 2005 issue, and numerous candid and promotional photos. As a behind-the-scenes look at the Everlys’ recording process, this set is hard to top; fans who want to dig deeper into the Everlys’ methods should also check out the songwriting demos featured on Varese Sarabande’s 36 Unreleased Recordings from the Late ‘50s and Early ‘60s. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Lefty Frizzell: An Article From Life – The Complete Recordings

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

The exquisite, final word on a country legend

Born in Texas, and raised in Arkansas, William Orville “Lefty” Frizzell took in the seminal influences of Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb and others, and forged an original vocal style that impacted an entire generation of singers. His next-generation disciples included Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Jones and Roy Orbison, and his influence continues to reverberate today through the works of Brennen Leigh and many others. His 1950 debut topped the charts with both “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)” and its flip, “I Love You a Thousand Ways,” and the hits that followed stretched into early 1953. But Frizzell was a mercurial artist, firing his manager and band in 1952, joining and quitting the Grand Ole Opry, and moving to Los Angeles, where he joined the Town Hall Party. His 1954 single “I Love You Mostly” would be his last Top 20 hit for four years, and though he’d move to Nashville and regain the top slot with 1964’s “Saginaw Michigan,” his health and success steadily declined until his death at the age of 47 in 1975.

Bear Family has pulled out all the stops to honor Frizzell’s legendary career, gathering 361 tracks on 20 CDs, including all of his singles (45s and 78s) and albums, demos and session material, and a wealth of newly discovered material. The discs are packaged in double digipaks, which are themselves housed in a 12-½” x 12-½” x 3” box that includes a massive 264-page hardcover book. This box set represents the third iteration of Bear Family’s archival work on Frizzell, having previously issued the 14-LP set His Life, His Music in 1984, and the updated 12-CD set Life’s Like Poetry in 1992. This is a superset of both earlier releases, and though a few scraps might still be hiding in a dusty vault, this is likely to be the definitive statement on Frizzell’s recording career. In addition to complete coverage of his 25-years of commercial releases, the demos, private recordings, radio airchecks and U.S. military program transcriptions stretch back into the 1940s. The set’s final eight discs feature Frizzell’s younger brother David reading his biography I Love You a Thousand Ways.

Discs 1 through 9 repeat the same commercial material as was originally offered on Life’s Like Poetry. Discs 10-12 include demos, radio airchecks and transcriptions that provide a rich picture of the artist in development. These latter recordings vary in quality, and some of the earliest material is rough in spots, but Frizzell’s voice always manages to emerge from the surface noise of acetates and metal parts. New to this box are two dozen full and partial demos and non-session recordings, including late-40s covers of Ernest Tubb (“I’ll Always Be Glad to Take You Back” and “I’ll Always Be Glad to Take You Back”), Jimmie Rodgers (“My Old Pal of Yesterday,” “Jimmie the Kid” and “California Blues”), Ernest Tubb (“Mean Mama Blues”), Hank Williams (“I’m a Long Gone Daddy,” “Last Night I Heard You Crying in Your Sleep” and “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight”), and 1950 band recordings of Frizzell originals “If You’re Ever Lonely Darling,” “I Love You A Thousand Ways” and “Lost Love Blues.” Of particular interest among the new tracks are three solo acoustic takes of “I Won’t Be Good For Nothin’” that show how Frizzell developed his approach to the song.

The transfers and mastering of the studio material highlight the microphone’s love for Frizzell’s voice. His presence is palpable sixty years after he first stood and sang these numbers, and his feel for a song’s tempo remains unerring, never rushing a lyric, but never dragging the beat. As described by Merle Haggard, Frizzell would “hold on to each word until he finally decided to drop it and pick up the next one.” Charles Wolfe’s biographical essay, updated and revised by Daniel Cooper and Kevin Coffey, pieces together Frizzell’s personal and recording history from a variety of sources. Frizzell was apparently not fond of being interviewed, and the authors augment the artist’s own memories with those of his family, friends, supporting musicians and colleagues. The book (weighing in at a somewhat unwieldy five pounds) is laced with archival photos, and supplemented by Richard Weize and Kevin Coffey’s detailed discography. This collection is the epitome of the Bear Family box set, overwhelming in its completeness, attention to detail and love for the artist. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Various Artists: At the Louisiana Hayride Tonight

Monday, December 18th, 2017

Massive, deluxe box set chronicles “The Cradle of the Stars”

By the numbers: 20 CDs featuring more than 167 acts performing more than 500 songs, clocking in at more than 24 hours of recordings packaged in a heavy-duty box with a deeply detailed and spectacularly illustrated 224 page book, altogether weighing in at a healthy 9 pounds. But that’s statistics; the heart and soul of this set is the revolutionary Shreveport radio show, nicknamed the “The Cradle of the Stars,” that aired weekly from 1948 to 1960. In contrast to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, the Hayride hitched its wagon to an ever developing set of acts that they discovered, nurtured into stardom and often lost to the Opry. Among those the Hayride helped boost to fame were Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Kitty Wells, Jim Reeves, Slim Whitman, Johnny Horton and Elvis Presley.

Williams and Presley provide the bookends to the Hayride’s most influential period, with Williams having been the show’s first superstar, and Presley’s rise paralleling the Hayride’s decline. The box set shows off the transition between the two, detailing the show’s twelve year run with a constantly evolving lineup of local, regional and national acts whose growth and innovation helped shape popular music in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Beyond the music, the show’s continuous, unrehearsed flow of artists, comedians, ads and announcers created a tapestry of entertainment that really filled a Saturday night. The recordings sourced here were cut for radio distribution and proof-of-advertising to sponsors, and without aspiration for commercial release, they capture the spontaneity of a show performed for a live audience rather than a recorder.

A set this massive has to be treated more as a pantry than a meal. It’s something from which listeners can draw upon for years, and though a once-through inks a picture of the Hayride’s arc, individual discs and performances play nicely in isolation. The set opens with pre-Hayride material from the show’s radio outlet, KWKH, providing an historical record of the station’s 1930s battle for its frequency, early broadcast continuity, and studio recordings waxed for commercial release. KWKH’s founder, William Kennon Henderson, Jr., was a colorful, self-aggrandizing iconoclast whose personal broadcasts railed against the then newly-formed Federal Regulatory Commission, chain stores and other stations intruding on his channel.

Henderson had sold KWKH by the time the Hayride began broadcasting in 1948, but the earlier material highlights the wild west roots from which radio was still emerging. With recorded music growing in popularity, radio stations performed double duty as broadcast outlets and recording studios. The Hayride and its peer barn dances became tastemakers as their live shows promoted the artists, their records and their tour dates. The show’s announcers even call upon the listeners to inquire about bringing a Hayride tour stop to their hometown, and it’s easy to imagine many taking the opportunity to drop their “one cent postcard” in the mail for details.

The announcers choreograph each show, introducing and conversing with the musicians as they’re brought on to play one or two songs before giving way to the next act. The set’s producers have deftly selected long, multi-artist segments that retain the continuity of intros, music, comedy and advertisements intact. Listeners will get a feel for the Hayride’s complete evening of entertainment, and how the program evolved over the years. In particular, the collection reveals the Hayride’s uncanny ability to discover and develop new talent (in part, a defense against the continual flow of their stars from Shreveport to Nashville) as the show’s constantly evolving lineup introduced and few performers into stars.

The slow churn of the Hayride’s cast turns out to have been one of its charms, and the intertwining of stars, soon-to-be-stars and talented performers who failed to catch on gives this set a widescreen perspective that’s often elided in reissue material. There are numerous hits from famous performers, but the broader context in which this collection sets them is especially interesting. The earliest live program included here, from August 1948, features a 24-year-old Hank Williams, who’d debuted on the country chart the previous year with “Move It On Over” and wouldn’t hit #1 (with “Lovesick Blues”) until the following year. Williams’ rising profile was his ticket to Nashville, but after being fired by the Opry in 1952, he returned to the Hayride, where he performed “Jambalaya (on the Bayou)” to a surprised and enthusiastic audience.

Williams would die only three months after his return to the Hayride, and it would be more than a year until Elvis debuted in 1954. Presley converses shyly with the announcer in his first appearance, but rockets off the stage to the screams of the audience (and the immortal announcement “Elvis has left the building) in his 1956 finale. Elvis’ growing fame and ensuing tour commitments often kept him from the Hayride’s stage, so the show sought to satisfy its growing contingent of teenage fans by booking Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison in his place. But even the Hayride’s legendary nose for talent couldn’t help the show stay afloat amid the confluence of television, rock ‘n’ roll and the growing importance of record sales (and the radio DJ’s who spun them) to a teenage audience. By 1960, the Hayride could no longer hold stars in its regular cast, draw media attention or fill an auditorium.

The set’s massive book (so large and heavy, that it’s actually difficult to handle) includes a history of the Hayride by Colin Escott, a detailed timeline of show casts, an essay by Margaret and Arthur Warwick, detailed show and artist notes by Martin Hawkins, photos, and record label and promotional ephemera reproductions. Escott’s liner notes are knowledgeable and entertaining, though a bit prickly in unraveling the grandiosity of Horace Logan’s recollections. He’s no doubt correct in calling out many of Logan’s stories as self-aggrandizing fabrications, but the repetition of his derision gets tiresome. Hawkins’ notes offer museum-quality details about the individual show segments that help the listener place the artists, songs and performances in both historical and Hayride context.

The sound quality varies throughout, as one would expect from sixty-year-old recordings not waxed for posterity, but all of the tracks are listenable, and many are of surprisingly good fidelity – better than most listeners probably heard over the AM radio at the time. The mix of longer and shorter segments gives the listener a feel for the show without distracting from its core musical focus. The massive volume of material testifies to the Hayride’s monumental achievement of mounting a weekly live show for a dozen years with fresh, new artists amid changing musical tastes. Bear Family’s well-deserved reputation for lavish reissues is on full display here, and just like those who paid sixty-cents to attend the Hayride in person, you’ll get more than your money’s worth from this set. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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 Artists: 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