Friday, April 20, 2012

Jazz Guitar Masters Play Rockabilly: The 1950s

Most of those that follow the blog will have noticed I have been working on guitar players from the 1950's who work in blues, rockabilly or R&B formats. Of particular interest lately is the use of session guitarists from the period and their inclusion on certain recordings. As the popularity of rockabilly exploded in the mid 50's, premier session guitarists and their talents acquired new appreciation among producers whose quest for a breakthrough single might be enhanced by a nifty, clean and catchy guitar solo. My last post on Grady Martin demonstrated the wide range of material a consummate session guitarist like Martin could work in and how his fretboard skills could lift and shape a recording. Eventually, my research on session guitarists from the period led me to something I knew would eventually lead to this post: the use of avowed and dedicated jazz guitarists on rockabilly recordings during the mid to late 1950's. Although not overly common, the practice was fairly widespread and seemed to be driven by the guitarists affiliation with certain record labels and/or dedication to certain producers. Since session player information is so scant on many of these recordings, it is really difficult to know just how many jazz players might have been drafted to perform on 50's rockabilly recordings. Also. although Jimmy Bryant's work with Sammy Masters might well have been included, (Pink Cadillac) I have limited the post to the use of three well known jazz guitarists; Howard Roberts, Barney Kessel and George Barnes.

I. George Barnes: Has been a favorite of mine for almost forty years. Back in the 1970's my friend Robert Haynes and I re-issued his LP "Guitars Anyone" which he recorded with the legendary Carl Kress. His very early use of an electric guitar and recordings in the 1930's with Big Bill Broonzy afford him indisputable iconic status. Barnes was such a phenomenal jazz player it's almost hard to conceive of him playing rockabilly. Nonetheless, he apparently loved the music and was featured on several recordings by Janis Martin and a couple by Eddie Fontaine. His infectiously tasteful sound and flawless execution really stands out on these recordings and add to their historical importance.

Eddie Fontaine: Barnes has a searing, innovative solo on Nothin Shakin that begins at 1:38. This is a cut that was covered by the Billy Fury here and later by the Beatles, here. Barnes also has an outstanding solo on his Decca recording Cool It Baby in which his chops are jazzy and perfectly measured. His solo begins at 1:23.

Janis Martin's RCA recordings usually featured either Chet Atkins or George Barnes, depending on the recording site. All have a bit of a Texas Swing feel to them and are of exceptional quality. Barnes is in top form on most of the RCA numbers, his work on "Little Bit" is particularly good, his first solo begins at 0.56 and a second at 1.15. Also check out his remarkable solo beginning at 0.30 on Ooby Dooby. Finally, Barnes has a very nice solo on Barefoot Baby beginnig at 0.47.

II. Barney Kessell: An accomplished jazz musician, Kessell was also a truly versatile session player who worked with a wide range of musicians, from Mel Torme and Dean Martin to Sam Cooke. He could lay down some very tough sounding rockabilly guitar when called upon. . Although best known for his work on the Imperial recordings by Lew Williams, he has a fascinating role on obscure rockabilly artist Dodie Randle's "I Fell in Love Again from 1956." Solo begins at 1:37.

Kessell's most memorable rockabilly sessions are with the Texas rockabilly musician Lew Williams, also recorded in 1956. Most notable are Centipede, with classic rockabilly tone and phrasing. His solo begins at 1:17. Kessel also smokes on the classic Bop Bop Ba Doo Bop , a tune Bill Millar claims the Straycats plagiarized on their very similar Fishnet Stockings. Listen and be the judge.

III. Howard Roberts: Roberts was a session player extraordinaire who played on a very wide range of recordings. According to Bill Millar, Roberts was apparently used on the four Imperial recordings Roy Brown did in 1958, all of very high quality and fascinating in that they are some of the few examples of "black rockabilly," i.e., an African American musician working in the genre. Although all four are worthy, Roberts is in top form with two outstanding solos on Hip Shakin Baby. Roberts is also featured on Eddie Cochran's Sittin on the Balcony from 1957 in which he provides a fascinating solo that begins at 0.55.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Grady Martin: Decca Rockabilly Session Ace

His chops still resonate, even when we don't know it's him, from the opening guitar line in Roy Orbison's Oh Pretty Woman and the precise R&B comping on Brenda Lee's 1958 classic Rocking Around the Christmas Tree to the unique acoustic Tex Mex guitar sound he achieves in Marty Robbins' classic El Paso from 1960. To find a session guitar player with the range of experience possessed by Grady Martin is difficult, throughout the 1950's and 60's Martin was continually called on to provide the his innate sense of rhythm, precise playing and production experience to the widest range of material within the parameters of Nashville country music. In the post I would like to foreground a few of Martin's lesser know efforts as a consummate session guitarist in the rockabilly style for Decca Records during the 1950's.

The recordings I have selected here are all session pieces in which Martin provides superb rhythm backup and at least one solo. A few are actually not Decca recordings, a testament not only to the respect Martin carried within the genre but also among musicians in general. The majority feature his rockabilly style that most are familiar with in the songs he is featured on for the Johnny Burnette Trio recordings for in 1956. Grady's guitar work is easily identifiable on many of the songs recorded during these sessions, and Paul Burlison's role was minimal, well documented here. Martin's work with The Johnny Burnette Trio is so definitive that in many ways it might be said he creates a whole rockabilly guitar style that he also showcases on many of the recordings here. While not trying to diminish the contributions of James Burton, Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup and Hal Harris, Grady is the most prolific force in the creation of a rockabilly guitar style.

1)Red Foley - Midnight - This is one of Martin's earlier recordings, well before his rockabilly style emerged some four years later. Nonetheless, a nice guitar break in a blues vein at 1:22.

2) Red Sovine - Juke Joint Johnny - This is the best example of Sovine's experimentation with a rockabilly style with a Texas swing flavor. Martin is flawless in his backup role.

3) Mimi Roman - Little Lovin is a completely forgotten rockabilly gem from 1956. Grady's style here is unmistakable and his break at 1:05 reminiscent of some of his work with with Johnny Burnette Trio.

4) Brenda Lee - Bigelow 6200 - Even though Grady isn't given much space on the break his intro licks are vintage on this excellent cut by Lee.

5)Buddy Holly - Modern Don Juan - superb solo here by Martin at 1:35 his sound is perfect on this, one of the few cuts he backed Holly on.

6) Ronnie Self - Big Fool - Another excellent break by Grady at 1:08 on the classic by one of my all time favorites, Missouri's own, Ronnie Self.

7) Johnny Carroll -Carroll's incredible Hot Rock is one a definitive rockabilly cut, inspiring many subsequent covers. Martin has two solos here but his intro shines. Crazy Crazy Lovin - is another rockabilly classic, as all the Decca recording Carrol recorded. Grady's solo begins at 1:00.

8) Tex Williams - Let's Go Rockabilly - Yes, just about every country singer recorded at least one rockabilly song in 56 or 57. Very nice solo by Martin at 1:14 who also finishes with a flourish.

9) Jimmy Lloyd -Where the Rio de Rosa Flows: While Grady and Hank Garland team up on Lloyd's better know rockabilly recordings I Got a Rocket in My Pocket and Your'e Gone Baby, Martin handles the solo alone here beginning at 1:33.

10) Chuck Bowers - Till My Baby Comes Home is a unique and somewhat hybrid song that combines elements of straight ahead country, rockabilly and commercial pop. Martin has a nice solo at 1:15.

11) Roy Hall - Diggin That Boogie - While Hall's fame comes from having recorded this Dave William song, Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On, before Jerry Lee Lewis this is a fabulous rockabilly effort and Martin blazes at 1:30 with a solo with a perfect amount of echo. Hall's Three Alley Cats features both Martin and Hank Garland, Marin solos at 1:18.

12) Don Woody - Bird Dog - Martin is in classic form here from his signature rockabilly intro to this fantastic solo beginning at 0.48.

13) Wayne Walker - All I Can Do is Cry is a from 1956 features Martin in more of backup role, but the overall sound is perfect for the song.

14) Johnny Horton- I'm Comin Home - Great cut by Horton that highlights Martin's low string work with a tasteful solo at 0.49.

15) Grady Martin - When My Dreamboat Comes Homes - Recorded in 1956 By Grady and His Slew Foot Five, this unique instrumental has a superb solo by Martin in rockabilly style beginning at 0.45.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Bill Doggett, Billy Butler and Blue Velvet

David Lynch's decision to entrust the soundtrack of his film "Blue Velvet" to to the expertise of Angelo Badalamenti assured that its soundtrack would reflect the unsettling, indefinite timelessness the film projects. Lynch's subsequent collaborations with Badalamenti such as Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart and Mulholland Drive reveal a similar approach; eclectic soundtracks that largely foreground 1950's music in order to create a sense of the decade's atmospherics. In Blue Velvet, Their decision to include Bill Doggett's 1956 crossover instrumental hit "Honky Tonk" in the scene at Ben's apartment also resurrected from obscurity the instrumental prowess of R&B tenor ace Clifford Scott and the unique guitar work of Billy Butler, who composed the instrumental together in 1956. Both players are given extended solos on "Honky Tonk." The inclusion of Doggett's instrumental in the film is a perfect fit, it conveys the sordid nature of of the venue and transmits the uneasiness that Jeffrey is experiencing in Frank's seedy, underworld hangout. Moreover, the rough R&B edges of "Honky Tonk" contrast neatly with the surface innocence of other songs on the movie's soundtrack from the same period, most notably Ben's lip sych version of Roy Orbison's In Dreams and Isabella Rossellini's torch sung club performance, closest to Bobby Vinton's syrupy yet somewhat haunting 1963 recording of "Blue Velvet." If you have never heard the very different 1954 version recorded by The Clovers, take a listen here. Exceptional.

Butler's guitar work is featured on most of Bill Doggett's King Records recordings from the mid 1950's, almost exclusively in instrumental settings. With the exception of Wild Bill Jennings' outstanding work with Doggett on Big Boy from 1955, Butler was Doggett's guitarist of choice throughout the King years. Butler's got his start in swing jazz bands but was also very adept in R&B settings. Influenced by Tiny Grimes and Charlie Christian and on the jazz side and the blues stylings of T Bone Walker, Butler developed a style of his own that continued to evolve throughout his career. Butler's versatility is apparent in the diverse musical modes he explores throughout the 1960's and 1970's, he worked with facility in jazz, funk and soul formats, recording LPs in all three. His solo on Honky Tonk became standard piece for most aspiring combo guitarists in the late 1950's and early 1960's.

1) Honky Tonk I - Butler gets the first lead and his extension in a traditional 16 bar format is outstanding, great comping just before Scott's superb solo. The tune was such a sensation in 1956 that 1950's guitar icon Duane Eddy covered it a year later, here.

2) The languid pace of Blue Largo from 1957 has that after hours sound and features superb phrasing by Butler. Scott soars on tenor as well.

3) Ding Dong, recorded in 1957 has one of Butlers' finest solos which starts at 1:50.

4) Doggett's Rum Bunk Shush from 1957 was another of his more popular instrumentals featuring Butler with a chordal based solo beginning at 1:40. A very nice cover recorded by Danny Gatton's band here in the 1980's nods to the influence of Doggett. Gatton has also cited Butler as a major influence in his own work.

5) Hold It is another instrumental classic that was a favorite segue piece commonly performed by combos just before breaks.

6) The Twang from 1969 is a good example of the evolution of Butler's work and represents the jazz/funk approach he has adopted by this later date. Excellent work.