Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sun Gems: Some R&B Recordings

The more I read about Sam Phillips the clearer it becomes just how out front he was in capturing for posterity some of the most relevant and exceptionally good American roots music from the 1950's. Influenced in part by his work as a disc jockey for WLAY (AM) radio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Sam became receptive to the concept of "open and balanced play lists" and more importantly, to the idea of the integration of the society through music. Sam's progressive attitude on this front essentially opened the door to the advent of rock n' roll. Although Phillips is best known for recording the canonical figures of rockabilly, the Sun vaults are also full of gems by black R&B and blues musicians who were recorded under the auspices of Phillips while he was owner of Sun Records. This video of Sam and Sun Records is a must see. A highly recommended box set of many of these recordings can be obtained here.

Sun Records got its start recording blues musicians from the Memphis and surrounding Delta region. One of the earliest to record for the company was the one man act Joe Hill Louis, whose recording of Hydromatic Woman showcases what a one man band can do. Also, on Tiger Man with barrelhouse ace Mose Vinson on piano, Louis provides the vocals while Big Walter Horton flies on this early recording on amplified harmonica. Check out this later cover of Tiger Man/ Mystery Train by Elvis.

It is fascinating to reveal how much of the R&B Sun material ends up being covered by later Sun rockabilly artists. Rufus Thomas began his lengthy recording career with his own 1953 version of "Tiger Man" for Sun. His earlier recording of "Bear Cat" with Sun from the same year precipitated a lawsuit with Don Robey of Duke Records for alleged plagiarism of Big Mama Thorton's 1952 recording of "Hound Dog," covered by Elvis a few years later. Junior Parker's early work for Sun is also frequently covered, such as his recording of "Love My Baby"
and his brilliant 1953 proto boogie rocker "Feelin so Good. " Parker is best know for the first known recording of the "Mystery Train", also recorded for Sun in 1953 and subsequently covered by many.

Another very nifty early Sun R&B classic is the fascinating instrumental "Hucklebuck" by guitarist Earl Hooker, known for his association with Ike Turner and Sonny Boy Williamson in the early 1950's. This 1955 recording is a dance shuffle and showcases some excellent hybrid guitar work that seems to draw from blues, jazz and country traditions. Finally, Billy "The Kid" Emerson recorded this incredible 1955 version of Red Hot for Sun which was later turned into the rockabilly smash by Billy Lee Riley for Sun (here) some two years later. Just about every group in rockabilly's second wave covered the Billy Lee Riley version. Emerson's original "When it Rains it Really Pours" is also very strong and leaves no doubt as to why Elvis decided to cover for Sun later the same year here and on an alternate take here, also for Sun in 1957.

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