Posts Tagged ‘Bear Family’

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]

Sheb Wooley: White Lightnin’

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Boogie, swing and honky-tonk from 1945 to 1959

To those weaned on Wooley’s 1958 chart-topping rock ‘n’ roll novelty, “Purple People Eater,” his acting roles in High Noon, Giant and Rio Bravo, or his tenure in a featured slot on television’s Rawhide, the totality of his recording career may come as something of a surprise. Starting in the mid-40s on the Nashville-based Bullet label, moving on to the Fort Worth-based Blue Bonnet, and settling in with the coastal MGM label, Wooley recorded a wealth of country, boogie, swing and honky-tonk sides, both under his own name, and as a parodist, under the name of Ben Colder. He topped the charts a second time – the country chart, this time – with 1962’s “That’s My Pa,” and continued to score with singles throughout the rest of the decade.

Wooley’s acting career sustained him financially, but it was his move to Hollywood – ostensibly to break in to the movies as a singing cowboy – that shaped the sound of his records. Recording in California, he was backed by many of the same West Coast musicians (including Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant and Cliffie Stone) that played on Capitol sessions for Merle Travis, Tex Ritter and Tennessee Ernie Ford. But even before he got to California, Wooley was recording dance tunes like his steel-swing “Oklahoma Honky Tonk Girl” and the fiddle-led “Peepin’ Through the Keyhole (Watching Jole Blon).” He sang his upbeat tunes with a smile, stringing together clever wordplay on “Lazy Mazy” that echoes the hipster jazz sides of the late ‘30s. And even when he wasn’t writing parodies, he often wrote with humor, such as the troubled date of “Wha’ Hoppen to Me, Baby” and doghouse lodgings of “Rover Scoot Over.”

The two 1959 sides that close the set showcase different sides of Wooley. The driller-themed “Roughneck” has a rockabilly beat, while the hit single “That’s My Pa” is a talking blues novelty that anticipates “A Boy Named Sue.” The all-mono audio shows only minimal surface noise on some of the earliest sides, and noise reduction is so discreet as to be inaudible. The digipack is decorated with vibrant graphics, and the 31-page booklet includes photos, poster and label reproductions, a detailed discography (including label, recording dates and personnel) and liner notes by Todd Everett. This is a great look at Wooley’s boogie sides, and compliments Bear Family volumes that focus on western tunes and rockin’ sides, as well as their 4-CD box set. But for an introduction to Wooley’s country and honky-tonk sides, this is a great place to start. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders: Eric, Rick, Wayne, Bob – Plus

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Excellent, but ill-fated second album with super bonus tracks

Given the indelible mark Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders made with Clint Ballard Jr.’s “Game of Love” (#2 in the UK, chart-topping in the U.S.) it’s surprising just how short they ran as a unit. Nine singles, two albums, and by 1965 they’d gone their separate ways. In fact, their run ended as their singles (“It’s Just a Little Bit Too Late” from this second LP and “She Needs Love,” included on this reissue as a bonus) failed to capitalize on their breakthrough and Fontana’s solo career was realized more quickly than had previously been expected. It’s reported that he informed the band of his departure as he walked off stage midway through an October 1965 live show. Fontana and the band continued on separately (the latter scoring quickly with Toni Wine and Carole Bayer Sager’s “A Groovy Kind of Love”), and this second album, released three months after the split, was left to founder.

Fontana and the band had been pulling in different directions before the split – the former looking to highlight his singing, the latter (lead by guitarist and future 10cc founder, Eric Stewart) their instrumental abilities. The latter’s versatility is highlighted in the range of songs tackled on this second album – a collection that was put together over a longer period of time than the single day afforded their debut. There are only two originals (“Like I Did” and “Long Time Comin’”), both mid-tempo beat numbers written by Fontana under his given name of Glyn Ellis. The rest of the album picks up songs from a talented array of American writers, including Leiber & Stoller, Gene Pitney, Chuck Berry, Van McCoy, Goffin & King, Willie Dixon and Burt Bacharach. The selections are typically UK-centric, including a UK hit (“Memphis, Tennessee”) that was a non-charting U.S. B-side, and Merseybeat favorites from Richard Barrett (“Some Other Guy”) and Bill Haley (“Skinny Minnie”).

The album included the follow-up single to “Game of Love,” sticking with Clint Ballard for “It’s Just a Little Bit Too Late.” Despite its great beat, twangy guitar and catchy lyric, it only edged into the UK Top 20, and fell short of the U.S. Top 40. The group’s last single, included here as a bonus track, was yet another Ballard beat-ballad, “She Needs Love,” which cracked the UK Top 40, but failed to chart in the U.S. The album’s original dozen tracks are augmented on this Bear Family reissue with nine rare single and EP sides. Pre-LP singles include Jimmy Breedlove’s “Stop Look and Listen” (b/w a cover of Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”), and the group’s UK smash cover of Major Lance’s sweet soul “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um.” The latter is backed by a cover of the rare Doc Pomus and Phil Spector tune, “She Needs Love,” originally recorded by Ben E. King.

The final three tracks collect the rare Walking on Air EP (which also included “She Needs Love”). Here you’ll find covers of obscure soul favorites by Jimmy Williams (“Walking on Air”), Jimmy Hughes (“I’m Qualified”) and Billy Byers (“Remind My Baby of Me”). Together with producer Jack Bavenstock the group simplified the arrangements to fit the group’s rock ‘n’ roll sound, dropping the heavy sax and keyboards of Rick Hall’s original chart for “I’m Qualified” and upping the tempo on “Remind My Baby of Me.” All tracks are mastered in crisp, mono, and Bear Family’s reissue is housed in a digipack with a 22-page booklet stuffed with photos and liner notes in both German and English. This is a terrific artifact of the British Invasion, made all the richer by the nine bonus tracks, and a terrific complement to the group’s first album. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Country All Stars: Jazz From the Hills

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

countryallstars_jazzfromthehillsAll star country string-jazz session

This CD reproduces the 1954 RCA ten-inch String Dustin’, featuring country legends Chet Atkins, Homer Haynes, Jethro Burns and Jerry Byrd, and adds sides from 1956 that augment the all star lineup with jazz guitarist George Barnes. In retrospect, it’s easy to think of Atkins picking jazz, but at the time it was still unusual for country artists to cross over. Those who know Homer & Jethro from their comedy records may be surprised by their top-notch guitar and mandolin playing. The material is a mix of pop and jazz, and the group (which included a changing line-up of session bassists, drummers and pianists, as well as fiddle player Dale Potter) gives most of these tunes a hillbilly twist. Haynes, Burns and Byrd each sing a few, but the real charm of these sessions is the high-spirited instrumental interplay. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]