As I said last time, I spent more time listening to old music this year than I did to new music — when I bothered listening to music at all. Part of this is due to the fact that I have writing commitments to a couple of magazines and a radio show, all of which have to do with reissues or older music. Part of it, though, I have to admit, is that at least I knew what I was getting, and it wasn’t all confessional songwriting, which seems to have taken over these last few years — or at least taken over what shows up in my mailbox. At least there was some diversity in the reissues, and I appreciate that.
So, in no particular order, here are some of my faves. And, as with last time, remember that clicking on the link and ordering from it brings me a whopping 4% of the money, bringing me ever closer to getting out of Berlin — a worthy cause if there ever was one. Or, well, of course, that’s what I think…
Bob Wills: Legends of Country Music: Amateur rock historians always talk about how Elvis pioneered the vital fusion between black and white popular music, but that’s hooey. Bob Wills was there first. So were a lot of other people, but none of them was as successful, and as successful for so long, as Wills and his parade of brilliant instrumentalists. West Texas fiddle tunes and hot swing jazz only sounds like a weird idea until you drop the needle on some, and this collection is by far the finest assembling of Wills’ output ever. And although Legacy has the jump on others who’d compile this stuff, since most of Wills’ best music was made for Columbia, Gregg Geller and Rich Kienzle, who put this together, managed to come up with a whole disc’s worth of stuff made after he left that’s top-drawer. This set is not only an education in itself, it’s some of the greatest American music ever recorded. You need it.
Friends of Old Time Music: The Folk Arrival, 1961-1965: It was a total shock for the young folkies who’d been listening to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music that not only could some of these people still be alive, but that a lot of them actually were. After a number of them were located — and others, who’d never recorded, also showed up — there was a mad scramble to record them and present them live in concert. Probably the most notable concert series was run out of Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on McDougal Street in New York, by a group calling itself Friends of Old Time Music. True to their mission, they recorded every show, and the compilers of this three-disc set had their work cut out for them culling it down to what you see and hear here. What’s most remarkable — and, in a way, discouraging — is that most of what’s on this set is previously unissued; it’s discouraging in that the FOTM albums Folkways put out in the ’60s had some amazing stuff on them, and I don’t know where to point you to it. That said, this is heartwarming stuff, from Dock Boggs unveiling a new song to Mississippi John Hurt’s totally engaging on-stage presence. It’s a document of something that won’t pass this way again, captured when it was in its full flowering. Essential.
Country & West Coast: The Birth of Country Rock: It was only a short step from the folk revival to the birth of country rock, where various California cowpersons, would-be cowpersons, hippies, and Bakersfield malcontents — not to mention dissident folkies like Jim McGuinn — conspired to bring about a change in rock no less important than the one the Beatles had sparked. It wasn’t an easy transition, but it succeeded — all too well, as the birth of the Eagles attests. Compiler Alec Palao has done his homework, and this set not only includes some of the obvious — the Byrds, the Burritos, et al — but some worthy obscurities. Me, I’m really hoping for a Volume Two, but until then, this will continue to satisfy.
B.B. King Sings Spirituals: Another byproduct of the folk boom was the eventual concession by the folkies that maybe electricity was okay after all, and the subsequent discovery by the rock crowd of the great electric bluesmen who were still among them. None benefited from this quite so much as B.B. King, whose guitar style was one of the touchstones of the electric blues revival. But one of the things people have always missed about him was that it was his voice as much as his guitar virtuosity which had made him popular with black audiences from the beginning. On this album, Lucille takes a bit of a rest — although she’s by no means silent — and the result is an album that King has always said is his favorite of all of his extensive catalogue. Fans have long clamored for a second one, and maybe now that he’s retiring, we’ll get one. Meanwhile, this more than does the trick. No, the blues isn’t the devil’s music.
Hearing Is Believing: The Jack Nitzsche Story, 1962-1979 and Hard Workin’ Man: The Jack Nitzche Story, Vol. 2: Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound? That was Jack Nitzche. Phil had the idea, but it was his arranger who put it on paper for all those musicians. Naturally, an ambitious guy like Nitzche wasn’t going to stay in Spector’s shadow for long, and he went on to produce and arrange albums by a huge number of people, from Doris Day to Willy de Ville, before moving to the even more lucrative field of film scores. These two records document a wide variety of his work, from his early single “The Lonely Surfer,” through an absolutely radiant arrangement of Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul” for the Everly Brothers, to his work with Neil Young (and his playing in Crazy Horse), all the way up to his last work, with the obscenely talented young Louisianan C. C. Adcock. Two of my most-played discs of the year. Incredible stuff.
Rockin’ Bones: 1950s Punk and Rockabilly: Another piece of good homework. Rockabilly can be terribly tedious, as we listen to washed-up or never-was country singers attempting to get down with the kids, or kids thrashing around trying to be as cool as Elvis. By recasting this movement as “punk and rockabilly,” complier James Austin not only builds a bridge to the present, but clarifies the past, so that the hillbilly component is only part of the mix, and outright zaniness comes to the fore where it belongs. I’ve got some quibbles with the selection, but overall, this is a wonderful presentation of an era in American popular music when nobody knew what the formula was, but didn’t figure that was any reason to stop.
Waylon Jennings: Nashville Rebel: A figure in both rockabilly and country rock, Waylon Jennings was yet another of those Texas guys whose music didn’t fit in anywhere but refused to let that stop him. This four-disc collection is exhaustive, and I bet most of you will be satisfied with The Ultimate Waylon Jennings, which is a tidier selection, but then you’d miss Lenny Kaye’s liner notes and the version of “Jole Blon” Buddy Holly produced for him.
Spencer Wiggins: The Goldwax Years: Damn those Brits! When you think you’ve discovered all the great soul singers there ever were, they go and launch another CD full of astounding vocal work backed with great arrangements at you! Wiggins was from New Orleans, which figures, although his work didn’t partake of any of the Meters/Toussaint brand of exotica but went straight for fine country soul, which was what Goldwax did best. This is as fine a collection of his stuff as you’ll find, and I recommend you get it before the next amazing soul singer’s CD slides into my mailbox.
Wanda Jackson: The Very Best of the Country Years: Wanda Jackson wasn’t fazed by the fact that she didn’t become the female Elvis — at least in sales, since artistically she more than met her goal. She slid gracefully into a career as a country singer, and she sure had the pipes for it. So it’s hardly surprising that this collection is as good as it is, since the compilers were able to omit the so-so stuff that was a fact of life for every Nashville-based entertainer at the time and concentrate on stuff which extends her legacy. And when the new tough-girl Nashville gals — read Loretta Lynn — started happening, Wanda was ready: check out the bizarre “This Gun Don’t Care (Who It Shoots).”
Good God! A Gospel Funk Hymnal: Can I hear the congregation say, “Just plain weird?” Amen! This actually takes me back to the gospel shows I wrote about in my post about Village Music. The headliners would be in the grand tradition, but somewhere down the bill would always be a couple of groups of ambitious young local kids who just loved to jam, and, I bet, later wound up working the secular side of the street. But this, like most of the Numero Group’s releases, is completely idiosyncratic and bizarre, a collection of releases on private labels and limited pressings by funky gospeleers working a style that never took off and was eventually crushed by the ’80s mass choir movement. This has shown up on a lot of year-end best-ofs, and no wonder.
Eccentric Soul, Vol. 11: Mighty Mike Lenaburg: You know that “Funky Broadway” Dyke and the Blazers were singing about? It wasn’t in New York. It was — of all places — in Phoenix, Arizona, and Dyke was just the most successful of a whole bunch of funky guys, many of whom were captured on wax by — who else? — a white guy from Liverpool, who seems to have considered it his mission in life to document the Phoenix Scene. Some of these recordings are rough, but some are exquisite. Eccentric soul, indeed.
Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story: Oh, go ahead, listen to this. You won’t turn gay. I haven’t, anyway, although this does bring back the days when gay taste ruled the dance music scene in New York and the rock kids would gingerly approach clubs like the Paradise Garage, where Levan ruled the decks, if they were feeling adventurous. This collection is pretty much a primer of New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and ought to get any intelligent person re-thinking the opprobrium levelled at “disco” — or even whether such a label makes sense or ever did.
Lorraine Ellison: Sister Love: She was too old when she started, her career had a disastrous start with a jazz album (included here) that’s all but unlistenable, and then she cut a single that couldn’t be topped — by anybody, let alone herself. Lorraine Ellison had rough luck, if you want to look at it that way. But she also had the great good luck to hook up with one of the greatest soul music producers of all time, Jerry Ragovoy, for that single, “Stay With Me,” and then to make one more excellent album with Ted Templeman, a producer I’ve never liked. It’s all here, along with a whole disc of her demos, recorded with members of her family gospel group. Soul was giving way to funk when Ms. Ellison was doing her best work, but this is definitely worth hearing. Well, except for the jazz album. Jerry, what were you thinking?
James Brown: The Federal Years: Yeah, we lost him this year, but here’s how we got him in the first place. He burst onto the scene with “Please, Please, Please,” described by his ever-articulate label-owner, Syd Nathan, as “the worst shit I ever heard,” and then sold so many copies of it that he had to cut pale imitations of it for Nathan for four years in the hopes of achieving another blockbuster success. It wasn’t until he used his own money to cut a demo of a ballad, “Try Me,” and convinced them to let him record it that he had another hit. But then he was on his way, inventing a whole new kind of music. This starts slow, but Disc 2 takes off like a rocket.
The Complete Motown Singles, Vol 4: 1964: Motown Select has now gotten to the real nitty-gritty. 1964 was the year of the Supremes’ “Baby Love” and the beginning of the Motown juggernaut. You can still hear them tinkering with the formula here, but this is where they found it. Even the flops are hits. I’m most of the way through the 1965 box and have the ’66 sitting waiting to be heard. This series has its occasional bad tracks (less so after this volume, when Gordy finally abandoned his — yes! — country label, Mel-O-Dy), but this is a project no student of American music can pass up.
That’s just the best; I’m out of energy for the rest. Anyway, this’ll give you lots of listening pleasure, and I’ve got to get busy with next year’s batch. I mean this year’s. Enjoy.