Monday, April 27, 2009
An appearance with Jimmy Witherspoon in Detroit at the Flame Show Bar in 1952 helped to launch Big Maybelle's prolific career as a rhythm and blues singer. While never achieving the recognition of her contemporaries Ruth Brown, Little Esther and Big Mama Thorton who worked in the same style, Big Maybelle (Mabel Smith) was a formidable live performer who cut some exceptional records in the 1950's and continued to work in the soul and rhythm and blues vein throughout the 1960's until her death in 1972. She also performed with some of the top jazz and R&B musicians of her time, including legendary trumpet man Hot Lips Page, pianists Erroll Garner and Willie Mabon, and tenor sax ace Gene Ammons. She also hit the hottest R&B venues of the day: The Apollo Theater in New York, The Earle Theater in Philadelphia, Chicago's Crown Propeller Lounge and Kansas City's famous Orchid Room. Interestingly, her popularity coincides with the crossover trend, and there is evidence that her 1950's recordings had some impact of young white rock and rollers of the decade.
Big Maybelle's first recordings appear on the Okeh label, then a subsidiary of Columbia records. Maybelle's first Okeh recording, "Gabbin Blues," (1952) which includes running dialogue, climbed quickly on the R&B charts enjoying urban popularity in mid-west cities. Big Maybelle continued to tour extensively in order to promote her recordings and hook up with legendary performers. Her 1954 hit "I'm Getting Along Alright" demonstrates a more polished sound with a superb R&B backing, as does her incredible take on getting jilted, "One Monkey Don't Stop the Show," which features super tight R&B backup and sweet guitar work. Maybelle's version of this tune seems to be the forerunner to the more famous song recorded by sixties soul artist Joe Tex, which in turn was covered by the Animals in 1965. Also of great interest is Maybelle's 1955 rendition of "Whole Lotta Shakin," produced for her by the young Quincy Jones. Maybelle's version is the second recording of this song, and appears two years prior to Jerry Lee Lewis' earth-shaker in 1957. Rockabilly Sun recording legend Warren Smith also covers "Tell me Who," a song Maybelle recorded at an earlier date with more of a straight early rock and roll sound.
Big Maybelle continued to record into the sixties and her style, dictated by the success of the Motown sound, takes a decided turn toward soul and songs with broader appeal, such as a cover of the Beatles's "Eleanor Rigby" and another of Question Mark and the Mysterian's 96 Tears. It's entirely understandable why Big Maybelle pivots in this direction, but for me, nothing compares with her classic 1950's recordings.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
One of the more interesting early offshoots of fifties rock and roll is "surf guitar" or the "surf sound" that emerged from Southern California between 1958 and 1962. More recently, propelled in part by Quentin Tarantino's decision to foreground the surf sound as the backdrop to his 1994 film Pulp Fiction and Dick Dale's steadfast dedication to the style he forged, this musical style has taken off in the last decade as dozens of surf ensembles are now performing and recording all over the United States and Europe.
Surf music was born at the intersection of time and space in Los Angeles where a veritable melange of musical styles and influences coalesced to create the surf sound, whose primary instrument was the electric guitar. Flamenco and Mexican guitar techniques, the Bakersfield sound from country, T Bone Walker from blues and Les Paul from jazz all contribute to in their own way to surf music, as do new innovations in amplification and the types of guitars used to produce the sound. The new surf sound proved to be a most interesting, albeit short lived interlude between the decline of rockabilly and the British Invasion. With no pretense of offering a complete picture of the surf sound, I offer a brief outline of the development of this fascinating and unique style.
Rock and roll and rockabilly styles also nourished the surf sound, and the heavy, twangy intonations of Link Wray and Duane Eddy in the mid to late fifties were the obvious forerunners to surf style guitar. Wray's heavy staccato guitar work on Mr Guitar and Run Boy Run are classic instrumental antecedents to to the surf sound, and his classic Apache captures the essence of the style. Duane Eddy also anticipates the oncoming wave in terms of guitar tone with his 1958 hit Rebel Rouser.
The definable surf sound took off from 1960 with the Northern Lights recording "Typhoid." The most popular of all surf based groups came together at the same time when the very talented guitarist Nokie Edwards, who was working with country star Buck Owens at the time, joined Bob Bogle to form The Ventures. Recognizable hits like Walk Don't Run, Apache and Pipeline followed in 1960, making the Ventures the most commercially successful surf band of the period. The Belairs, another very early surf band, contributed as well with their 1961 instrumental classic Mr. Moto, a tune containing the Mexican influence in the surf style. Finally, the Southern California aggregate The Tornados also made a splash with their 1962 hit "Bustin Surfboards," also included on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. By 1962 the surf style had crystallized and its songs were doing quite well on the charts.
The undisputed king of the surf guitar style is Dick Dale, and his most famous work Miserlou stands as a virtual anthem to surf music. Misirlou is originally a Greek song, and Dale's arrangement of it stands as an icon to the surf sound and the era. Miserlou is resurrected in Pulp Fiction as the title song to the movie's soundtrack. Using a specially built Stratocaster with very heavy gauge strings and innovative pick-ups, Dale achieved a unique sound that transformed the approach to the guitar during subsequent years. Dale was initially influenced by country music until he formed Dick Dale and the Del -Tones in 1960. Dale and his group made a name for themselves starting in 1961 playing at the Rendevous Ballroom in Bilbao, California primarily for young people engaged in the surfing sub-culture. Dale's success in 1961 and innovative surf style resurrected the Rendevous Ballroom that remains today as a legendary and historic venue for this unique brand of American Roots Music. Dale's famous surf instrumental "Lets go Trippin", recorded in 1961, is his first surf instrumental, and is followed by the less famous and more rockabillyesque "Shake and Stomp." Dale is still active and touring, and has not deviated from the sound that he made famous, as more recent live performance demonstrates.
Finally, the contemporary surf music revival has spawned a virtual proliferation of groups originating from all corners of the globe. Some precursory searching on myspace reveals that this unique American genre, along with rockabilly and blues, is alive and thriving. There are many groups, but some of my favorites are the British group Surfquake, the Italian ensemble The Wavers , the Iowa group The Del Stars and the U.S. surf noir group The Vanduras,whose playful sound ranges from traditional surf to almost parodical interpretations of the Ennio Morricone sound.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Wider appreciation of ethnic and non- Western traditions in music has increased substantially in the last several decades. The term "world beat" of "world music," which have come into common usage recently, are movements which seek to underline the authenticity and integrity of non-Western musical expression. This is certainly a positive development and has led to the recording and preservation of musical styles that had remained under appreciated or in obscurity for too long. While the efforts of American musicians such as Paul Simon, Ry Cooder and David Byrne are best known to the public, jazz musicians were the true pioneers of this sort of outreach. This post will look back at some of the preliminary efforts by American jazz musicians to expand awareness of alternative musical forms not only for their originality but also in order to enhance their own creative impulses.
In the 1920's U.S. jazz musicians like Jelly Roll Morton were aware of the rich and developing Cuban Jazz tradition that preceded the Spanish American War. The first U.S. jazz musician to establish musical contact may have been the incredible Cab Calloway, whose association with the Cuban trumpet man Mario Bauza in the 1940's led to Dizzy Gillespie being recruited by Calloway. Later, Bauza introduces Gillespie to Cuban conga player Chano Pozo to perform on the Bauza composition "Manteca," performed by Gillespie here. The percussive framework of this piece resonates in a lot of pop music of the following decades, making Bauza's "Manteca" a truly quintessential roots composition.
The fascinating jazz pianist Sun Ra (photo below Coltrane) had begun to embrace non western traditions early on, changing his name from Herman Blount to Sun Ra in 1952. During the 1950's Ra began to embrace an Afro-centric interpretation of history that would radically alter his musical approach. By the late 1950's Ra was using this new outlook to move beyond the strictures of be-bop into African inspired free improvistional jazz that became very popular in the 1960s. A few years later, in 1961, sax and flute player Yusef Latif was experimenting with Chinese flute music and incorporating it into his work, as his album Eastern Sounds demonstrates.
Lewis Porter's extraordinary biography of the legendary John Coltrane makes the claim that he was really the first musician to play "world music." What is demonstrable is his association with Thelonious Monk bassist Ahmed Abdul Malik and flugelhornist Wilbur Hardin, the latter of whom had recorded with Latif. Coltrane's move in this direction is evidenced on his 1958 recording "Dial Africa" in which he teams up with Hardin and Tommy Flanagan, particularly on cuts such as "Gold Coast" and "Tanganyika Strut." A good example of the African influence in Coltrane can be heard on Afro Blue, featuring an extraordinary solo by McCoy Tyner. By the early 1960's Coltrane was consciously incorporating African elements into his work while also exploring the work Ravi Shankar, Chinese music and even songs from Spain. Coltrane explains his unique and eclectic approach here in a fascinating interview.
Other interesting forays into alternative forms can be found in the projects by jazz legends Stan Getz and Charles Mingus. Tenor sax player Getz is best know for his association with Brazil's legendary composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, with whom he cut the Getz/Gilberto in conjuction with guitarist Joao Gilberto. Gilberto can be heard here teaming up with Getz on "Corcovado." Mingus was drawn to the Afro-Colombian based music known as cumbia original to Colombia. This style served as the primary inspirational force for his trips to Colombia and subsequently, his 1976 album, Cumbia and Jazz Fusion.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
America's love affair with the automobile inevitably finds its way into American popular music as far back as the 1920's. Memorializing the car through song has become a tradition that is well represented in practically all genres. The car theme tends to pick up steam in the 1950's as automobiles become more accessible to the middle class and as musical styles pay homage to the power and status a nice ride brings with it. The sheer number of songs in the roots mode that deal with cars is vast. In this post I will mention a few of my favorites.
Perhaps a good place to start is with legendary blues icon Robert Johnson, whose 1936 rendition of Terraplane Blues, while not referring to ownership of Terraplane, underscores the power of "driving a vehicle" albeit metaphorically. Also in a blues mode is K.C. Douglas' classic 1949 song "Mercury Boogie," which later became a huge hit (number 1) for country music star Alan Jackson in 1992 as Mercury Blues. In the late 1940's Jump Blues phenom Jimmy Liggins recorded Cadillac Boogie which is said to be the inspiration for one of the all time classics, the oft covered Rocket 88 supposedly composed by Jackie Brenston, but recorded first by Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm at the Sun studios in 1951. Covered the same year by Bill Haley and the Comets, Rocket 88 has been spuriously dubbed by some to be the first real rock and roll song, perhaps because of the Haley cover. Chuck Berry's crossover hit Maybelline from 1955 is a classic in the same vein, and Chuck's marvelous voice and guitar work are remarkable.
Rockabilly musicians also glorified Detroit's massive V8s throughout the 1950's. The Cadillac becomes the icon of the era, exemplified by Bob Luman's famous "Red Cadillac." One of my all time favorites is rockabilly swinger Sammy Master's "Pink Cadillac," which combines country swing and rockabilly and some great guitar work on this classic cut. To close out the era, Johnny Bond's 1960 cover of the Charlie Ryan tune "Hot Rod Lincoln" is a beauty, and certainly served as inspiration for the more famous Commander Cody cover in 1972. Unfortunately, a link doesn't exist to "Trans Am" a classic eighties car tune by the Morells.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
By early 1955, after Elvis made his big splash in 54 with the Sun recordings, the style we call rockabilly literally caught fire. Scores of musicians that just months earlier would have been classified as "country and western" suddenly became"rockers" or "cats" by latching on to the new back-beat coming out of the Sun recording studios. This phenomena, whose epicenter was Memphis, rippled throughout the South, and when aspiring Texas musicians like Bob Luman and Buddy Holly saw Elvis perform his magic live in the summer of 1955 on a tour through Texas, the issue was settled. Their recordings, along with those of other musicians that followed in the Lone Star state solidified the rockabilly craze in Texas.
Pioneering the boogie-woogie swing style of rockabilly's inception in Texas prior to Sun influence was radio host Bill Mack, who recorded "Play My Boogie" for Imperial in 1952. The cut reveals Texas swing influence with pedal steel guitar and roadhouse boogie piano, and is extraordinary in that it anticipates the coming rockabilly wave. One of the first Texas country music groups that felt rockabilly's Memphis undertow was Sid King and the Five Strings. One of their first rockabilly efforts was from 1955, the fascinating When My Bay Left Me, which contains both traces of Texas C&W and even echoes of gospel music within a rockabilly format. The group had little if any commercial success in the fifties but interestingly Sid is still kicking today in Alba, Texas. The early work of Alvis Wayne is also classic Texas rockabilly, particularly his 1956 single Swing Bop Boogie on the Westport label which features steel guitar and excellent lead work as well. Other early Texas rockabilly musicians who recorded but languished in relative obscurity are Joe Poovey whose 1957 hit "Move Around" on the Dixie label caused quite a stir in his hometown Dallas. As with so many rockabilly musicians of the period, wider fame eluded him, as it did the virtually unknown Houston rocker Bill Blevins, whose 1957 Crazy Blues is a very unique number that draws from diverse Texas musical traditions, primarily blues. The same can be said for Eddie Dugosh, a Texas swing musician whose 1956 rockabilly cut Strange Kinda Feelin on the Sarge label has some really sweet Texas swing style guitar work.
Another intriguing artist who got into the scene early was Lew Williams, pictured above. Lew was a true innovator in that he forged an eclectic style that drew on blues, gospel and country music traditions from Texas. His first recording of "Cat Talk" (1954) predates the Sun explosion that begins the same year and is exemplifies the new feeling of "cat music," the hybrid blend of rhythm and blues and country traditions. Williams' recordings on the Imperial label in 1955 and 1956 are absolute gems of early Texas rockabilly that have a unique flavor somewhat out of the sphere of far-reaching Sun influence. His classics "Was it Something I Said" and Centipede not only feature his unique vocals but also guitars solos that appear to be more closely tied to Texas Swing guitar than anything coming out of Memphis at the time. The inclusion of piano on his more bluesy Gone Ape Man also distinguishes Lew's work from other similar ensembles of the period. Lew has made a comeback in recent years and has played festivals here in the U.S. as well as several countries in Europe. This recent live version of Something I Said is great, but it's hard to capture the magic of the original.
It would be difficult to talk about early Texas rockabilly without mentioning the outstanding 1955 recordings of Sonny Fisher and his ace guitarist Joey Long. Fisher recorded several very unique rockabilly numbers for the Starday label that capture the essence of his most distinct sound. Rockin Daddy and I Can't Lose should not be missed by fans of early rockabilly with a regional flavor, in this case, Texas. Like so many rockabilly musicians of this period, Sonny could never expand his following beyond his home-state Texas, and eventually came to be more widely appreciated in Europe than the U.S.
With the obvious exception of the almost mythical Buddy Holly, the three rockabilly artists to experience some commercial success were Bob Luman, Johnny Carroll and Ronnie Dawson. Luman's most authentic rockabilly work can be heard on his earl 1957 Imperial recordings, All Night Long is a good example. His appearance in the movie Carnival Rock is exceptional, where he is backed by the young James Burton on guitar on This is the Night. His later work moves more toward a country mode but retains its very high quality. Johnny Carroll had some very high energy rockabilly recordings on the Decca label from 1956 in which he was accompanied by the fabulous Grady Martin on guitar. Check out Hot Rock and Crazy Little Mama, a cover of the 1955 hit "At My Front Door" by the wonderful early Doo Wop and R&B combo The El Dorados. Martin's nifty guitar work and Carroll's vocal work on "Hot Rock" make this an extraordinary piece. Finally, Dallas born Ronnie Dawson's work in rockabilly began while the Sun was highest, and his fame in Europe eclipsed his recognition here in the U.S. Check out his energy on this sampler of "Do Do Do". Dawson's 1959 hit Rockin Bones is a classic of late rockabilly whose lyrics beg for transcendence and anticipate Bill Kirchen's wonderful take on the whole era with his tune Rockabilly Funeral , recorded live in France with Red Volkeart on lead guitar.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
The development of the saxophone is directly related to the development of jazz, and when we think of great sax players we immediately think of some of the tenor giants of the genre: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, just to name a few. Among alto players, Benny Carter, Charlie Parker and Johnny Hodges are generally enshrined in the pantheon of legends. One really gifted alto player who has been overshadowed by the other greats is Oklahoma born Earl Bostic, whose fluency in standard jazz, bebop, ballads and the 1950's R&B style is a testament to his power and versatility. Anecdotally, Bostic reaches almost legendary status: he is said to have "cut" Charlie Parker in a competitive jam session and also to have been a major influence on John Coltrane.
Bostic, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, received formal musical training and grew up playing in the now famous Deep Deuce neighborhood of the jazz rich Oklahoma City in the 1930's and 40's. He undoubtedly came into contact with other jazz contemporaries Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Don Byas and Jimmy Rushing who frequented the city's famous clubs like the Aldridge Theater and The Ritz Ballroom, preferred venue of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils. The blues oriented style of Oklahoma jazz left a distinctive mark on Bostic's style that can be heard in his later R&B combo work.
Earl eventually graduated to the New York scene where he excelled and became a leader of jazz ensembles in Harlem's premiere clubs like Small's Paradise and Minton's Playhose. By the early 1950's jazz was beginning to divide into those following the new be-bop trend pioneered by Charlie Parker and those that steered toward a more blues rooted R&B sound. Bostic, possibly due economic reasons, seemed to prefer the latter, but was such a versatile player that he excelled in both styles.
Bostic's most commercially successful recordings are in the R&B vein, particularly his 1948 hit Temptation and then to an even greater degree in 1951 with his more popular Flamenco. Both these tunes are absolute gems of Bostic's late 40's early 50's raunchy and somewhat raucous style that was catching on at this time, and which go on to influence other contemporary players like Tab Smith and much later in players like David Sanborn. On both Bostic displays a mastery of alto tone and range within a bluesish framework. Bostic also covered majestically the famous Ernesto Lecuona's Jungle Drums, part of the score to John Waters' film Cry Baby.
Sunday, April 5, 2009
I think we can all agree it is the vast and under-appreciated history of American music that lives on in a good part of our music today. Perhaps in anticipation of some future posts, here is a very, very abbreviated list of some of the contributors to this great tradition. You know roots music will never die when you hear......
The silky smooth and oh so sublime sound of Johnny Hodges soloing with the Duke, reminding us that "Things ain't what they used to be" - so true in music!
Hank Garland effortlessly ripping through his own Sugarfoot Rag
Art Tatum redefining the parameters of jazz piano with Tiger Rag
Gene Vincent Cruisin with Cliff Gallup riding shotgun.
Memphis Minnie warning the HooDoo Lady
Merle Travis bouncing out the Cannonball Rag
Roosevelt Sykes barrel-housing through Gulfport Boogie
Johnny Burnette with (Burlison or Grady Martin?) absolutely tearing it up
Big Walter Horton playing La Cucaracha on a Marine Band Harmonica
Eddie Lang and Carl Kress teaming up and smokin
Big Joe Turner Feelin Happy
Joe Maphis rippin it up on several instruments
Skip James' haunting Devil Got My Woman
Texas rockabilly ace Lew Williams rippin out Centipede
Tiny Grimes swingin at a dance party
The Hawk literally soaring through Indian Summer
These cats from Perth, Australia stay true from afar
Any other suggestions?
Friday, April 3, 2009
When musicians cover another musical composition or "song", it can be seen as respectful recognition of the creativity of the original piece or as an opportunity to showcase talent in a pre-formatted way. Or perhaps both. Santo and Johnny's classic instrumental, Sleepwalk, which hit number one in the summer of 1959 is a classic duet that followed a tradition of guitar duets like Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, featuring the console or pedal steel guitar and a traditional guitar. Sleepwalk is a melodic number that has an ethereal, dreamlike quality to it and hence is aptly named. The fact that so many great, contemporary guitarists have covered it only helps to assure it a very special niche in the annals of American Roots music.
The variety of covers of Sleepwalk share little in common other than adherence to the basic chord structures of the tune. Amos Garret has a very nifty instructional on how to approach the song through coordinated bends to simulate Santo's steel guitar. One very interesting acoustic take was by legend Chet Atkins with Leo Kotke, recorded live. Chet provides the structure while Kotke's slide work captures the steel guitar quality of the original. Together with an ensemble, jazz fusion master Larry Carlton has a sweet take on Sleepwalk based on single and bended notes to capture the melody and interplay between steel and six string guitar.
Brian Setzer's solo interpretation here is well conceived and does capture very well the tone and stylistics of 1950's guitar, punctuated by some clean jazz like runs to complement the melody. Instrumental wizard Joe Satriani also has a very tasty and clean version of this piece on his album Strange Beautiful Music (2002), heard here. Beautiful close.
Of all the covers of "Sleepwalk" I have listened to, Danny Gatton's is by far the most elaborate - some might claim to excess- and technically intricate with layers of complexity on display. As one guitar teacher on youtube writes: "I'm teaching my partner - a violinist - to play this on guitar so we listened to the various versions from S&J to Chet Atkins and - at the risk of repeating myself - have to say that this guy (Gatton) makes em all sound like Bert Weedon." Danny's take, recorded live, is certainly improvisational, in fact I doubt he ever played this tune quite the same way. One of Danny's advantages is his familiarity with the song, he was probably covering it since its release in 1959. In the introduction Gatton uses a variety of techniques: extreme bends and to simulate Santos' steel guitar, nice high low dynamics, and a harmonically rich melody and chord sequence. Gatton's solo in Sleepwalk uses the framework of the song to showcase some of his vaunted techniques, and the 40 second ending is a gem in itself.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
When Little Walter's classic instrumental "Juke" shot to the top of the Billboard R&B charts in 1952, Checker/Chess Records must have seen it as a major success. A harmonica instrumental number one for ten weeks? This was a first. What Walter seemed to have accomplished, with a little help from the Chess studio, was to find a "big," amplified sound for a small harp that was now ready to compete with the full bodied sound of the much more expensive tenor or alto saxophones. Just take a look at the number one R&B hits the top sax players from that year were cranking out: tenor Jimmy Forrest's Night Train and alto ace Earl Bostic's Flamingo, both from 1952, both with R&B ensembles. The release of Juke changed this dynamic. Little Walter went on to claim more success with almost jazzy instrumentals like "Roller Coaster" and "Off the Wall," but "Juke" also started something that just keeps getting larger and larger. Apart from Walter's virtuosity on both blues and chromatic harps, I can only marvel at the trend he seemed to set in motion, a trend that just seems to continue to grow almost exponentially as I write this. And not to diminish other great players who may have influenced Little Walter to varying degrees - Big Walter Horton and Sonny Boy Williamson II- but Little Walter really did forge a tone and a style that is even more popular now that it was in the 1950's.
The list of blues musicians Little Walter's harmonica style has influenced and inspired seems endless. Any precursory list among African American blusemen would have to include George "Harmonica" Smith, Junior Wells, Carey Bell, James Cotton and Jerry Boogie McCain. What is also fascinating is Walter's influence on white blusemen during the 1960's. Led by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band with Michael Bloomfield on guitar, the list grows rather long in a hurry: Charlie Musselwhite, Rod Piazza, and the Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson of Canned Heat, just to mention a few. Piazza's cover of Little Walter's Mellow Down Easy showcases his skills and excellent tone. In the early 1970's the J. Geils Band broadened popular awareness of Chicago blues harp with their 1971 album The Morning After.
More recently, the proliferation of blues harp ensembles rooted in the style that Little Walter pioneered has been remarkable. Kim Wilson's work with The Fabulous Thunderbirds and later as a soloist has been very strong, and while the list is far too long to start here, some of my personal favorites are Bharath and His Rhythm 4 for his huge tone and adherence to the Little Walter style, Mark Hummel for his versatility, and Bob Corritore. Also, David Barrett is an absolute whiz in the Little Walter style and also his position playing. Barrett really seems to take it about as far one can. Among younger players, check out Martin Lange, he has a great sense of timing. Meanwhile, literally hundreds of Little Walter imitators spring up almost daily, just check out youtube and Juke Little Walter,
that tune that started the craze back in 1952.