Posts Tagged ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’

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]

Chuck Mead: Close to Home

Monday, July 8th, 2019

BR-549 singer-guitarist celebrates his roots in country and rock ‘n’ roll

With BR-549 on hiatus, Chuck Mead’s managed to keep himself quite busy. In addition to three solo albums, he’s provided musical direction for the stage hit Million Dollar Quartet and the CMT dramatic series Sun Records. The latter afforded the Kansas-native Nashville immigrant time in Memphis, which led to his recording this fourth solo album at Phillips Recording, the studio Sam Phillips built to replace the original Sun studio. Mead expands on the neo-traditional roots of BR-549 with a retro palette that takes in the tall historical tales of Johnny Horton, the honky-tonk pain of Hank Williams, the rock ‘n’ roll joy of Chuck Berry, and even late-50s ska. He extols the wonders of lifelong musical preoccupation in “The Man Who Shook the World,” and Rick Steff’s piano adds a strong Johnnie Johnson vibe to “Daddy Worked the Pole.” There’s Hank-styled melancholy in the resonator guitar and yodel of “Better Than I Was (When I Wasn’t So Good),” and the bar-themed “Tap Into Your Misery” is a drowning pool of sorrow. The album’s Memphis locale raises its swampy groove with the guitar reverb and organ of “Shake,” and the wide-ranging set closes with the optimistic of “There’s Love Where I Come From.” Mead’s a chameleon as he bounds across a wide range of musical touchstones, but his fluency turns these echoes into flavors, and the album into a celebration of roots. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Chuck Mead’s Home Page

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]

Luther Russell: Medium Cool

Wednesday, March 6th, 2019

New rock ‘n’ roll sounds of the late ‘70s

For someone born in 1970, Luther Russell sure managed to soak up the feel of late ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll. If you were there, this album will transport you back to a time when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and your copy of Twilley Don’t Mind (not to mention the cutout copy of Radio City you managed to score) hadn’t been worn flat. It turns out that rock ‘n’ roll didn’t die with Tom Petty, even if there are few guitars to be heard on Spotify’s Top 100. Medium Cool not only conjures the sound – the instruments, melodies, rhythms and production – of late ‘70s rock, but the mood. It’s almost as if Joe Walsh continued on from the James Gang instead of eventually joining the Eagles.

Russell’s fealty to the late-70s is on-the-nose with the Roger Christian/Alex Chilton mashup, “Corvette Summer,” a tune that, in an alternate 1978, would have been the title theme to the like-named Mark Hamill film. “Have You Heard” turns a mythical comeback of rock ‘n’ roll into a clarion call, and all of the album’s elements are pulled together as “The Sound of Rock ‘n’ Roll” frees broken hearts to find one another in a misery-eliding drug haze. The acoustic “At Your Feet” suggests an emotionally prostrate version of Big Star’s “Thirteen” (which Russell has previously performed with Jody Stephens), but here the protagonist literally throws himself at the feet of his objet d’affection.

There’s a hint of Joe Jackson in the chorus of “Can’t Be Sad,” but the verses, powered by rock ‘n’ roll guitar, bass and drums that reach back past any hint of a new wave. The ringing guitars of “Talkin to Myself” bring to mind the Seattle pop moment just before grunge, and the introspective closer, “Can’t Turn Away,” doubles down on Russell’s unshakeable loyalty. Over the years Russell’s shifted from Replacements-styled rock with the Bootheels, to Joe Cocker-inspired sounds with the Freewheelers, to folk-pop with Big Star’s Jody Stephens in Those Pretty Wrongs. Elements of each can be heard here, but the trio’s playing is an especially pleasing tonic for ears that came of age in the late ‘70s. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Luther Russell’s Home Page

Willie Nile: Children of Paradise

Monday, December 10th, 2018

Fine set of rock ‘n’ roll originals drawn from a seemingly bottomless well

Anyone who’s been listening to or writing about Willie Nile over the past decade is likely running out of things to say. Nile’s twelfth studio album continues a string of incredibly consistent releases that dates back to 2006’s Streets of New York, and his enduring belief in rock ‘n’ roll’s redemptive powers is a welcome tonic amid social and political turbulence. Recording with his longtime road band, Nile offers up straight-ahead rock music with no apologies for the guitars, bass and drums, and topical songs that offer both concern and salvation. The title track’s recognition of those on the fringe is echoed by Cristina Arrigoni’s striking album cover portraits, and “Gettin’ Ugly Out There” seeks to hold on to a strand of human goodness amid the torrent of deceit that is our current political climate. Though mostly written in singalongs and anthems, Nile turns down the volume for the intimate ballad “Have I Ever Told You” and the solemn closer “All God’s Children.” If you like Nile’s last half-dozen albums, you’ll find more to like here; and if you haven’t yet listened to Willie Nile, this is a great place to dive in. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Willie Nile’s Home Page

Keely Smith: Sings the John Lennon-Paul McCartney Songbook

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

Imaginative early covers of Lennon & McCartney

Keely Smith is most often remembered for the 1950s Las Vegas lounge show and recordings that came from her partnership with then-husband Louis Prima. Her deadpan comedic chops gave way to a solo career in the 1960s, signing with Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label and attracting the talents of arrangers Nelson Riddle, Ernie Freeman and Benny Carter. After two albums of standards, this 1964 release drew exclusively upon the early works of Lennon & McCartney, cannily resetting them to make the most of Smith’s jazz and pop stylings.

“If I Fell” opens the album with a dramatic string-and-vocal passage that gives way to a Latin beat, while the chart for “This Girl” tips its fedora to Sinatra’s “That’s Life.” The latter is no surprise, given that Smith and Sinatra’s tracks were both arranged by Ernie Freeman and produced by Jimmy Bowen. Smith’s voice is in superb throughout, whether skipping along breezily or holding onto dramatic notes. The walking bass and fingersnaps that open “A Hard Days Night” nod to “Fever,” but Smith’s blue-jazz vocal and the quiet horn accents give the recording its own mood.

The Beatles’ quick fame made the Lennon & McCartney catalog ripe for exploitation, and while a few of the arrangements lean to novelty, the productions are full, and Smith found real artistic resonance with many of the songs. There’s a swinging sax solo on a waltz-time version of “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” and Smith punches up “Can’t Buy Me Love” with her brassiness. The album may been a commercially-inspired lark, but the talent elevates it well above the Beatle-related cash-ins that flooded the market. [©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]

Chuck Berry: Rockit

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

Berry’s 1979 rocker for Atco was the final release of his lifetime

The last album released during Chuck Berry’s lifetime, Rockit also marked a rare deviation from his tenure at Chess. Released in 1979, it would be Berry’s last release until the posthumous Chuck earlier this year. Berry’s voice, guitar and lyrical ability were intact, as was Johnnie Johnson’s inimitable piano playing, and the rhythm section – Berry’s longtime bassist, Jim Marsala, Nashville studio drummer Kenny Buttrey, and Muscle Shoals bassist Bob Wray – is tight. The production hasn’t the grit of Berry’s Chess years, but his roots shine through the too-tidy studio sound. “Move It” and “If I Were” show off Berry’s guitar licks and his lyrical dexterity. He borrows from his own “Back in the USA” for the joyous “Oh What a Thrill,” but unsuccessfully rearranges “Havana Moon” with an odd meter and distracting backing vocal. Much better is the biting rewrite of “It Wasn’t Me” as “Wuden’t Me,” the love letter “California” and the atmospheric blues “Pass Away.” The latter is particularly interesting for its spoken storytelling and a looser vibe that evades the rest of the album. This may not measure up to Berry’s landmark Chess records, but it’s vital, clever and satisfying. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Chuck Berry’s Home Page

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