Monday, April 30, 2007

One-Offs: Dry Bones

Rev. J.M. Gates, Dry Bones in the Valley.
Famous Myers Jubilee Singers, Ezekiel Prophesied to the Dry Bones.
The Four Gospel Singers, Dry Bones.
Delta Rhythm Boys, Dry Bones.
Fats Waller, Dry Bones (Dem Dry Bones).
Elder Charles Beck, Dry Bones.
Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, Dry Bones.
Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Dry Bones.
The Ames Brothers, Dry Bones.
Kay Starr, Dry Bones.
The Four Lads, Dem Bones.
Albertina Walker, Dry Bones.
Shirley Caesar, Dry Bones.
Sons of Andros, Dry Bones.

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones.
And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and lo, they were very dry.
And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.
Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.

Ezekiel, 37:1-4.

In which a bizarre vision of Jewish cultural resurrection becomes a song to teach children how human bones fit together, thanks to African-American preachers.

Ezekiel, priest from a long line of high priests and possible epileptic, was part of the Babylonian Captivity--when, after the kingdom of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonian Empire, the Jews had been deported en masse to Babylon. Around 595 BC, Ezekiel began having prophetic visions, often filled with lurid, strange imagery, that went on for some twenty years and at times left him paralyzed and, some have argued, psychotic; the Book of Ezekiel is a compendium of them.

Ezekiel believed that the Judeans' calamity was a just punishment by God upon a morally wayward people, but he prophesized that a remnant of the true Chosen People, now exiled in Babylon and their kingdom lost, would one day return and reunite, if not as a political nation, then as a religious fraternity.

So in one vision, Ezekiel wanders a valley strewn with ancient corpses. God asks him whether the bones that he sees on the ground could live again, then makes the bones stir in the wind, rise and link together. He drapes them in sinew and flesh, and at last breathes life into them. So Israel is resurrected, if only for a moment.

Some 2500 years pass. The Jews return from Babylon, are conquered again; Babylonia falls to the Persians. The Romans rise and collapse, bequeathing in death a new religion (in which the book of Ezekiel is shelved in the Old Testament) to their barbarian successors. Barbarians become kings, aristocrats, priests. Their kingdoms send ships to America, found colonies; Africans are shipped over as slaves, converted to Christianity.

By the late 19th Century, Ezekiel's vision had become a popular sermon topic for black ministers in the U.S., particularly in the South. In God's Trombones the writer James Weldon Johnson recounted: "I remember hearing in my boyhood sermons that were current, sermons that passed with only slight modifications from preacher to preacher and from locality to locality. Such sermons [included] "The Valley of Dry Bones," which was based on the vision of the prophet in the 37th chapter of Ezekiel..."

Black ministers took the Bible as a starting point for long, improvised sermons, favoring great dramatic passages that could serve as cogent metaphors for a people living under Jim Crow--the parting of the Red Sea, the fall of Jericho and the walk through the valley of dry bones. The ministers would extravagantly riff off of the actual verse, so while Ezekiel only wrote one line about the bones assembling ("there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone"), the ministers broke the image down and drew it out: Listen! On the day of resurrection, the leg bone! will be connected to the thigh bone! The arm bone...will be connected to the elbow bone! The back bone...will be connected to the neck bone!

The Rev. J.M. Gates' sermon on the valley of dry bones, from 1926, shows how it was done. On Vol. 4-1926.

The sermon lent itself naturally to musical accompaniment (James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosmond Johnson, have been credited with the most well-known melody), and recordings by the Famous Myers Jubilee Singers, from 1928, (Black Vocal Groups Vol. 4.) and the Four Gospel Singers (Charlotte, N.C. Gospel), from 1931, show the richness of the musical variations in this period.

It was the Delta Rhythm Boys who developed "Dry Bones" as most people know it, introducing the song's major hook--the use of half-step increases for each bone connection, and half-step decreases with each bone unlinked, a simple trick that added suspense and, above all, catchiness to the song.

In 2001, Jason Gross interviewed Carl Jones, a surviving member of the Boys, and asked how the song came together. Many of the original Boys had been music students at Dillard University, and had gotten an arrangement from some of the faculty there:

Jones: The original arrangement they did that they brought to New York, was done by the professor of music at Dillard. What they did is they started with the toe bone and your foot bone and you go on up to your knee bone, thigh bone, hip bone. Then you sing back down from the shoulder bone back to the foot bone. But you're changing keys in half-tones as you're going up. Then you're there at the top and you start changing keys again, coming down from the shoulder bone.

So that song became pretty popular?

We had to sing "Dry Bones" everywhere we went, on the radio and the big shows. We always did two songs because we told that we didn't just want to sing "Dry Bones." We wanted to sing something else. So we always sang two songs and "Dry Bones" had to be one naturally because that made the group popular. You can't fight that. We understood that too. We hated to do it but we had to do it because everybody asked for "Dry Bones."

The Delta Rhythm Boys recorded a number of versions of "Dry Bones": for Decca in 1941 and 1942, with their more famous version from 1947 on RCA. (On Jump 'n Jive Til One O'Clock).

And having achieved mass popularity, "Dry Bones" began to mutate. Fats Waller's version from 1940 is fairly blasphemous--it's the first secular recording of the song I've found, in which only the bones are mentioned, nothing about Ezekiel and the Lord. Fats even makes a joke about "fried neck bones with rice." It's my absolute favorite of all these versions; the sleepy, muted feel to the track is countered by Waller's singing, in which he seems to be in on a colossal private joke. (On The Last Years, which is out of print.)

(The Elder Charles Beck's 1946 recording at first seems like a corrective to Waller--Ezekiel and his prophecy have returned in force--but Beck delivers his message through a wildly swinging performance, with handclaps, a trumpet solo and a vocal that sometimes sounds like Big Joe Turner. (On Complete Recordings.))

This set the stage for the most gonzo rendition of all, Fred Waring's 1947 recording, complete with an army of percussionists thumping xylophones, gongs, wood blocks, bells, rattles, and what sounds like anvils, and coming close to minstrelsy at times, especially when the singers get religion. If the Marx Brothers had ever attempted "Dry Bones", it would've sounded something like this.

(Waring's recording was memorably used by Dennis Potter and Jon Amiel in The Singing Detective (song starts about 6:30 minutes in). On the original soundtrack.)

The Delta Rhythm Boys' version of "Dry Bones", however, remained the standard, and throughout the '50s, it was the template for further recordings. In 1952, The Ames Brothers, four Massachusetts-born brothers who were the sons of Ukranian Jews, offered a rendition infused with black gospel stylings; the Four Lads, a Canadian group, recorded a Dixieland rendition in 1961 that was used in "Fall Out," the final, insane episode of The Prisoner).

Tommy Dorsey's 1950 recording turned "Dry Bones" into a pop softshoe (on Complete Standard Transcriptions), while Kay Starr's 1958 take thankfully brought back some spark (Rockin' With Kay).

"Dry Bones" devolved into a pop novelty (here's Herman Munster's version), akin to "Davy Crockett" or "Purple People Eater," with "now hear the word of the Lord" sometimes replaced by the generic "and that's the way of the world.". And ultimately, "Dry Bones" became a standard of American childhood, sung in student musicals, on bus rides, in summer camp, on field trips. And true to the theory that kids can and will make any song's lyrics dirty, I recall my friends and I would crack each other up with lines like "the leg bone is connected to the ass bone" and many other worse variations.

Popkiss paused, looked up from his Testament, stretched out his arms on either side. The men were very silent in their pitch-pine pews.

"Oh my brethren, think on that open valley, think on it with me...a valley, do I picture it, by the shaft of a shut-down mine, where, under the dark mountain side, the slag heaps lift their heads to the sky, a valley such as those valleys in which you yourself abide...Know you not those same dry bones?...You know them well...Bones without flesh and sinew, bones without skin and breath...

Must we not come together, my brethren, everyone of us, as did the bones of that ancient valley, quickened with breath, bone to bone, sinew to sinew, skin to skin...Unless I speak falsely, an exceeding great army."

Anthony Powell, The Valley of Bones.

Finally, here are three modern renditions, in which the spirit of Ezekiel seems to have reestablished itself:

First, Albertina Walker in a 1972 recording, a track anchored by some ferocious bass playing and in which, towards the end, Walker puts a new twist on the lyric--she starts calling out members of her congregation for being stuck in their ways. "We got some deacons in our church, sure ain't nothing but a dry bone! We got some preachers in our church, sure ain't nothing but a dry bone!" On Sail Away Some Bright Morning.

In Shirley Caesar's version, she seems to be trying to out-prophesize Ezekiel himself. On Songs of Yesterday.

The Sons of Andros are a vocal quintet from the Bahamas. Their recording, made in the '90s, merges the old Johnson melody with what sounds like the chorus of Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie". (On The Bahamas: Islands of Song.) Perhaps we should imagine "Dry Bones" leaving America for good, moving out first to the nearby islands, then heading further outward, changing but remaining ever-constant, finally going home.

Monday, April 23, 2007


The Falcons, You're So Fine.
Larry Bright, Mojo Workout.
John Coltrane, Syeeda's Song Flute.
The Fascinators, Oh Rose Marie.
Buster Brown, Fannie Mae.
Kitty Wells, Mommy For a Day.
The "5" Royales, I Know It's Hard But It's Fair.
Dave "Baby" Cortez, The Happy Organ.
Arthur Gunter, No Naggin' No Draggin'.
Eugene Church, Pretty Girls Everywhere.
Charles Mingus Septet, Fables of Faubus.
The Bell Notes, I've Had It.
Webb Pierce, I Ain't Never.
Mississippi Fred McDowell, Soon One Mornin' (Death Come A-Creepin' In My Room).
Lefty Frizzell, The Long Black Veil.
The Sheppards, Island of Love.
The Coasters, What About Us.
Danny Zella and His Zell Rocks, Wicked Ruby.
Frank Sinatra, The One I Love (Belongs To Somebody Else).
Robert Lowell, Skunk Hour.

The '50s are dead, long live the '50s.

The Falcons' "You're So Fine," the best single of '59 for me, starts with four bars of rolling piano notes, then erupts with Joe Stubbs' (Levi's brother) lead vocal. The record (and the Falcons as a whole) is a dress rehearsal for '60s soul--in addition to Stubbs, Eddie Floyd is also on vocals, and in a year or two, the young Wilson Pickett would join the group.

"You're So Fine" was released as Flick 001 and then as Unart 2013 (this is the original Unart 45 here, folks, hence the scratchiness/fuzziness--consider it a demonstration for youngsters as to how most people actually heard records in 1959.). On 29 R&B Classics.

Larry Bright
once claimed he was Howlin' Wolf trapped in the body of Pat Boone. Born in Norfolk, Virginia, raised in Texas, and a Navy veteran, Bright was playing dive clubs in Los Angeles when he was discovered by producer Joe Saraceno. In October '59, Bright went into the studio to record a version of "Hound Dog," but fifteen minutes into the session he changed his mind, instead making up a new dance song based on Muddy Waters' "Got My Mojo Working," which Bright only half-remembered. The session pros, who included Earl Palmer and Red Callender, went along with him. "Mojo" became a huge hit on the black music charts by mid-1960 (many DJs and listeners thought Bright was a black artist).

Released as Tide 006 c/w "I'll Change My Ways" (Bright didn't, really--his drinking sabotaged a number of opportunities, including being Elvis' guitarist). On Shake That Thing!

For jazz, 1959 was the year the canon was created--it was the year of Kind of Blue, Time Out, Giant Steps, Mingus Ah Um, The Shape of Jazz to Come and a bunch of other records that can be found in every single Barnes & Noble jazz section in the country.

"Syeeda's Song Flute" is from John Coltrane's Giant Steps. While it's not as groundbreaking as the title track, its sweet, sliding melody (it was named after Coltrane's 10-year-old daughter, whose name is actually spelled "Saida") makes it one of my favorites from that record. Recorded in New York on May 5, 1959, with Tommy Flanagan (p), Paul Chambers (b) and Art Taylor (d).

The Fascinators were from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn--they were Tony Passalaqua, Angelo La Grecca, Nick Trivatto, Ed Wheeler, and George Cernacek. (Cernacek, the bass singer, was really a tenor in disguise, and had to smoke cigars before recording so his voice would be deeper). They were signed to Capitol, recorded a few tracks with a session band that included the ubiquitous King Curtis on sax and Panama Francis, Count Basie's drummer. After three singles, with "Oh Rose Marie" being the last and greatest, Capitol dumped the group, which quickly disbanded.

Passalaqua went on to have a career of near-misses: he joined the Soul Survivors but left six months before the band released "Expressway to Your Heart"; he joined the Archies after the hits had dried up. Released as Capitol 4247 c/w "Fried Chicken and Mac-Aronie." On Spotlite on Capitol Vol. 2.

Buster Brown was born Wayman Glasco in Cordele, Georgia, in 1911, and spent much of his life playing harmonica and singing at local clubs. He moved to New York and was working at a barbecue restaurant when he was discovered by Fire Records owner Bobby Robinson. And in '59, at the age of 48, Brown finally got a hit record with an electric blues called "Fannie Mae," the sound of an era that seemed to be disappearing by the day.

Released as Fire 1008 c/w "Lost in a Dream." On Peter Young's Soul Cellar.

Kitty Wells typically was cast as the wronged woman in her songs (i.e., "A Woman Half My Age"), so her "Mommy For a Day" is a reversal--here, Wells is apparently the cheater (though she claims she's been a victim of village gossip), the spouse cast out of her home and who is only allowed to see her daughter on Sundays. Wells sings the lyric with a measure of stoicism, but it's only a front--there's a well of self-pity and misery behind every word.

"Mommy" was written by Buck Owens and Harlan Howard, and produced by Owen Bradley: released as Decca 30804. On Millennium Collection.

The "5" Royales
came to an close with the decade, and in '59 they released their last great records: "Wonder Where Your Love Has Gone," in which the band seems to be outmaneuvering Ray Charles to create soul music for the next generation, and "I Know It's Hard But It's Fair," where Eugene Tanner falls in love with his best friend's girl but sounds blissful enough about it.

"Fair" was recorded on March 10, 1959 and released as King 5191; On It's Hard But It's Fair.

meet the royal couple

"The Happy Organ": if you've a taste for cheese, this is a fine vintage. Dave "Baby" Cortez had blown his voice out and couldn't sing the track selected for one Saturday morning recording session, so he started goofing around on the organ, though he could only play in the key of C. Clock records owner Doug Moody called the jam, which was basically a riff on "Shortnin' Bread", "The Happy Organ," gave it to a Richmond DJ on a lark, and the song eventually hit #1 nationally. Released as Clock 1009; on 25 Rockin' Instrumentals.

Arthur Gunter, a few years after he made "Baby Let's Play House," is going back home, and he's not that happy about it: all he wants is to not fight for one evening, but he seems resigned to the fact that squabbling is all he and his woman have left. Released in August 1959 as Excello 2164; on Excello Story Vol. 3.

Eugene Church, by contrast, is all optimism. Everywhere he goes, he sees women that he wants to meet, but whether he acts on his impulses is another story. "Pretty Girls Everywhere" also features some of the loopiest lines in rock & roll history:

If I make it to the show,
There's a pretty girl there.
Even at the rodeo,
They came on horses

Released as Class 235 c/w "For the Rest of My Life"; on Lost Gems.

he's got a house made-a glass

Orval Faubus was the governor of Arkansas. In defiance of the Supreme Court, he had first called out the National Guard to prevent African-American students from attending Little Rock Central High, and had shut down the Little Rock school system during the '58-'59 school year rather than allow integration. Fate dealt with Faubus pretty handily, though: by the '70s, he was left so destitute as the result of a divorce that he had to take a job as a bank teller. And for the final twist, if Faubus is remembered at all in the 21st Century and beyond, it will be as a name on a composition by a black jazz musician.

Recorded in New York on May 5, 1959, with Charles Mingus (b), Jimmy Knepper (tb), John Handy (as, cl) Booker Ervin (ts), Curtis Porter (ts, as), Horace Parlan (p), and Dannie Richmond (d). On Mingus Ah Um.

The Bell Notes were from Long Island--they were Carl Bonura (lead vocals, sax), John Casey (d), Ray Ceroni (lead vocals, g), Lenny Giambalvo (b), and Peter Kane (p). "I've Had It," their first single for Time Records, is ur-garage rock, with a great caveman guitar riff. The singers may be ticked at their girlfriend, but they sound more drunk than anything else. Released as Time 1004 c/w "Be Mine"; on Still Rockin'.

Webb Pierce's "I Ain't Never" finds Webb trying on rock & roll for size, with the help of Hank Garland and the Jordanaires. Pierce never had as big a crossover pop hit again (it reached the Top 20 in some markets), nor would he ever again come close to rocking this much.

Recorded in Nashville on May 15, 1959 and released as Decca 30923; on King of the Honky Tonk.

Two mortality tales: Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Soon One Morning"--the sound of a man who's looked death in the face a few times, and doesn't seem too mussed about it. Recorded in the summer of '59; on Southern Journey Vol. 3.

And Lefty Frizzell's "The Long Black Veil," a newly-written ballad that seems like a lost Hawthorne story. Recorded March 3, 1959 and released as Columbia 41384; on Look What Thoughts Will Do.

The Sheppards were Murrie Eskridge, O. C. Perkins, Millard Edwards, Jimmy Allen, James Isaac and Kermit Chandler. In their "Island of Love," the singer sounds so desperate to believe in this lover's paradise that you wonder just how bad things are for him at home. Released as Apex 7750 c/w "Never Felt Like This Before." On The Only Doo Wop Collection You'll Ever Need.

The Coasters' last great single, "What About Us"/Run Red Run," is where the masks start to slip off. "Red" begins with poor Red playing poker with his pet monkey, and gets progressively weirder and more violent, ending with the Fall of Man. The amazing "What About Us" is pure class resentment, a precursor of the Kinks' "Dead End Street" or CCR's "Fortunate Son." Released in November '59 as Atco 6153; both sides are on Coast Along with the Coasters.

Danny Zella was a six-foot, 280-pound bruiser from Detroit, and his "Wicked Ruby" was the only hit for Fox, a Detroit label trying to sign up local talent until it was wiped off the map by a rival label one Berry Gordy was launching. "Wicked Ruby" holds no indication as to Detroit's Motown future: its crude, thumping beat and wailing sax mark it instead as a glorious throwback. Released as Fox 10057; on Golden Age Vol. 8.

"The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else," by Gus Khan and Isham Jones, was a song that Frank Sinatra recorded a half-dozen times in his youth, but in this version, an outtake from No One Cares, Sinatra seems graciously resigned to fate.

"The One I Love" was cut from No One Cares for technical reasons. In the early days of stereo LPs, sides had to be short due to the broad groove width needed for "optimum separation of channels." So "The One I Love," though it was the best track on the album, was dumped and forgotten, surfacing at last in 1973, when the Longines Symphonette released a mail-order Sinatra compilation. With the recent CD reissue of No One Cares, the track's finally back where it belonged. Recorded, with arrangements by Gordon Jenkins, on March 25, 1959.

And at last, while summer is just on the horizon for us here in the U.S., for Robert Lowell, a long winter is beginning on Nautilus Island, Maine.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town...
My mind's not right.

A car radio bleats,
"Love, O careless Love..." I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat...
I myself am hell;
nobody's here--

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat...

Skunk Hour.

Films of '59

Rio Bravo. The duet alone makes it genius.
Ride Lonesome.
North by Northwest.
Day of the Outlaw.
Les Quatre-Cents Coups. Antoine Doinel in therapy.
Shadows. If you like the first minute, see the rest.
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu).
The Hanging Tree.
Neotpravlennoye pismo (Letter Never Sent).
Bridges Go Round. Might be from '58.
OhayƓ (Good Morning).
Ballada o Soldate (Ballad of a Soldier).
The Wonderful Country. I'll say it one last time: everything Bob Mitchum did in the '50s is worth seeing.
Some Like It Hot.


So what lies ahead? First, a few one-off posts--theme ideas that never made the grade, jokes, curios. And then, around Memorial Day, it will be time for another overly ambitious theme series for the summer, which you might enjoy (if not the posts, then the summer at least).

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, The Last Words of Copernicus.
Ornette Coleman Quartet, Focus On Sanity.
Ornette Coleman Quartet, Just For You.
Ornette Coleman Quartet, Forerunner.
Ornette Coleman Quartet, The Circle With a Hole in the Middle.

I suggested gospel music, and he was enthusiastic. I brought something I felt he might like: sacred harp music -- white, rural, choral music, about 100 voices in loose unison. We listened to "The Last Words of Copernicus," written in 1869 and recorded by Alan Lomax in Fyffe, Ala., in 1959.

"That's breath music," he said, as big groups of singers harmonized in straight eighth-note patterns, singing plainly but with character. "They're changing the sound with their emotions. Not because they're hearing something." But then we were off on another topic -- whether a singer should seek a voicelike sound for his voice. "Isn't it amazing that sound causes the idea to sound the way it is, more than the idea?" he asked.

Finally the listening experiment broke down. It's hard to keep Mr. Coleman talking about anyone else's music. His mystical-logical puzzles are too interesting to him.

Ben Ratliff, "Listening With Ornette Coleman," NY Times, 22 September 2006.

The Earth itself is in space; it's just a matter of looking up and looking down.

Ornette Coleman.

On one late evening in May, and on two afternoons in October 1959, four men--a Texas-born saxophonist who once, in Baton Rouge, was beaten up by thugs in the street for having played so wild a solo that it stopped a local dance; his closest collaborator, a trumpet player who kept his piece, as small as a toy, in his pocket; a bassist who had learned his trade in his family's hillbilly gospel band; a drummer who had defected from swing--gathered in a room and began speaking in a new language.

A catechism on free jazz: Questions are from an essay on Coleman by Gary Giddins, responses by Ornette Coleman, mainly from 1960 interviews.

Harmony: If you can resolve any note in any chord, why not do away with the chords and allow harmony to proceed serendipitously from melody?

In music, the only thing that matters is whether you feel it or not...chords are just names for sounds, which really need no names at all.

Melody: What will it sound like if it follows its own course, free of harmonic pretenses?

Blow what you feel--anything. Play the thought--the idea in your mind...Break away from the convention and stagnation and escape!

Rhythm: What is 4/4 but an artificial subset of 1/1, and who says we have to submit to it?

My music doesn't have any real time, no metric time. It has time, but not in the sense that you can time it. It's more like breathing--a natural, freer time.

"Focus on Sanity" was the first track that the Ornette Coleman Quartet recorded for Atlantic Records. It opens with the horns offering a mad, reeling fanfare, and then, at once, a massive Charlie Haden bass solo starts--Haden has been given nothing to work with but a couple chromatic intervals and the ghost of a melodic phrase, and so he sets off on his own, moving outward, offering at first not even a basic tempo. At last the horns reappear, barking out the theme fragment again. Then Coleman is off (Shelly Manne, in 1959, described Coleman's sound as being "like a person crying... or a person laughing"). Don Cherry's trumpet solo is a bit more conventional, though the rhythm section appears in fits and starts, while Billy Higgins on drums offers a series of gnomic signals that only occasionally serve as rhythms. The horns end the piece with a shriek of triumph.

"Just for You" offers some reassurance--it's one of Coleman's more gorgeous melodies, brought into being by Coleman and Cherry with acerbity and grace. While "Focus" was included on Coleman's first LP, the epochal The Shape of Jazz to Come, "Just for You" was kept in the vaults until the '70s.

[The day I met Ornette], it was about 90 degrees and he had on an overcoat. I was scared of him.

Don Cherry.

A month before the Coleman Quartet achieved notoriety during their residency at New York's Five Spot (at the end of one set, Max Roach walked up to the stage and punched Coleman in the mouth), they were back in the studio to record their second Atlantic LP, Change of the Century. Where Shape was radical, Change hinted at a great network of sources--Latin music in "Una Muy Bonita," the blues in "Ramblin'."

And "Forerunner" is a mutated strain of bebop. Coleman described its conception: "I was listening to what the others were playing. I tried to make my own playing tie up everything. I was playing in circles, but the circles were all in one direction, all one way."

"The Circle With a Hole in the Middle," recorded during the October sessions but held in the vaults for a decade, is dominated by a Coleman solo during which, far from playing in circles, Coleman seems to vault his way through the spheres, up into the Primum Mobile.

All the tracks were recorded at Radio Recorders, in Hollywood: "Sanity" and "Just for You" on May 22, "Forerunner" and "Circle" on October 9. All can be found on the fantastic box set Beauty is a Rare Thing; also, "Sanity" is on Shape of Jazz to Come, whose title wasn't hyperbolic; "Just for You" and "Circle" were released on The Art of the Improvisers in 1970; "Forerunner" is on Change of the Century.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


The Fleetwoods, Come Softly To Me (A Cappella).
The Fleetwoods, I Care So Much.
The Fleetwoods, Mr. Blue (A Cappella).

The flipside of teen rebellion: the sound of awful yearnings, quiet defeats, of a love always just out of reach.

Greil Marcus, on The Fleetwoods' Greatest Hits.

The Fleetwoods were Gretchen Christopher, Barbara Ellis and Gary Troxel: they had known each other since childhood, in Olympia, Washington, and in their senior year of high school, they formed a vocal trio.

Bob Reisdorff, who was setting up a record label in Seattle, heard a demo tape the trio had made, and in the summer of '58 recorded them in the tiny basement studio where, two years later, the Ventures would record "Walk Don't Run." "Come Softly," as the trio had called it, began as a melody Gretchen and Barbara had composed on a piano together. Troxel originally had intended to provide trumpet accompaniment, but instead wound up contributing another vocal line, which later Troxel would say was a take on the opening riff of the Dell-Vikings' "Come Go With Me."

Reisdorff had the Fleetwoods shorten the song, and asked that they add "To Me" to the title, so as to avoid any salacious implications (which is a bit ludicrous, as Gretchen would later claim she didn't even know what 'obsession' really meant). The trio recorded their vocal over and over again until it was perfected, and then the tapes were sent down to Los Angeles for overdubs. When it was released in February 1959, the single became a colossal hit, eventually reaching #1 nationwide.

The magic of the Fleetwoods lies in the intertwined, ever-changing points of view that the three voices provide--sometimes Gretchen and Barbara act as a chorus for Gary's longings; other times they're the heartbroken ones, with Gary musing alone in his own world. It's far from the typical set-up of male-lead-with-female-backup. Take the way, for example, Marvin Gaye sings "Don't Do It" with a chorus of girls behind him--it seems meant to assure the listener that Gaye's girl really isn't going to break his heart, or if she does, Gaye's got other options.

But with the Fleetwoods, nothing is certain in their records--heartbreak, fragility lies all around them, and the three dance through their little world, sometimes linked, sometimes walking alone. The original vocal of "Mr. Blue," their third single, is startling in its purity--the way Gretchen and Barbara both provide comfort to Gary's woes, but never quite assure him things will get better. Even a lighter-sounding track like "I Care So Much" reveals itself to be wracked with envy, longing and misery.

"Come Softly to Me" and "I Care So Much" were released on February 16, 1959 as Dolphin 1 (and later Liberty 55188); "Mr. Blue" as Dolton 5 in July 1959. On the tremendous collection Come Softly To Me.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


The Revels, Dead Man's Stroll (Midnight Stroll).

This one is dedicated to Rev. Tom Frost.

The Revels were five high school friends from Philadelphia. One of them, Billy Jackson, wrote a song as a Halloween cash-in for Hal Norton's Norgolde label, a production complete with shrieks, wails and chimes. But "Dead Man's Stroll" (according to legend, it was soon retitled "Midnight Stroll" after complaints) goes far beyond Halloween novelty to become a sort of doo-wop Totentanz. Maybe it's in the straightforward but unnerving narration: the singer, leaving work late at night, walks past a cemetery and spies a top-hatted corpse walking with a cane; disbelieving his eyes, the singer follows the corpse for miles until he at last realizes he's become a corpse himself, possibly walking to his own grave.

Or maybe it's just the combination of firing-squad drum rolls, satanic laughs, funeral chimes and a nice wailing sax break.

The Revels were John Grant, Henry Colclough, John Kelly, John Jones and Jackson (who, years later, would write and produce the Tymes' "So Much in Love"). "Dead Man's Stroll" was released in August 1959 as Norgolde 103; on These Ghoulish Things.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


he was the sixth person the monkey had hooked in one day

Ray Sharpe, Linda Lu.

Take one Ray Sharpe, a black rockabilly singer from Fort Worth, Texas, and a good friend of Ronnie Dawson (the pair once thought about teaming up under the name The Oreo Cookies). Then put Sharpe in the studio with a young producer named Lee Hazelwood and session guitarists Duane Eddy and Al Casey. Out of that cauldron, you get something like "Linda Lu."

Recorded in Phoenix and released as Jamie 1128, as the b-side to either "Red Sails in the Sunset" or "Monkey's Uncle" (the single was issued twice at least). On Linda Lu.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


The Drifters, There Goes My Baby.
Jim Reeves, He'll Have to Go.

These records, colossal hits of their day, are perhaps not as groundbreaking as legend has it, but you can still hear the future in them.

"There Goes My Baby," contrary to official record, wasn't the first R&B song to use strings (which was, you ask? Well, the Cardinals' "Offshore" from '56, has strings, and I'm sure you could come up with heaps of other candidates). And "There Goes My Baby," for some purists, was The End, the collapse of pure R&B into "arty" studio pop. One enthusiast I used to read on Usenet in the '90s would only refer to "There Goes My Baby" by its catalog number, as if he couldn't bear to say its name, writing things like "it all went to hell after Atlantic 2025."

The Drifters had never quite recovered from the departure of Clyde McPhatter, and while they still made some solid records, the group had basically ceased to exist--"The Drifters" was a studio brand, their records performed by a rotating group of singers generally stuck with second-tier songs. Finally, in May '58, the current roster of the Drifters was sacked and replaced by members of a group called the Five Crowns, whose lead singer, Benjamin Earl Nelson, went by the name Ben E. King. Atlantic asked Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to get some material and record them.

It was a terrible night. The session began falling apart early on. On "There Goes My Baby," Leiber and Stoller were attempting a variation on the Brazilian baion rhythm on an out-of-tune timpani. The arranger Stan Applebaum had the string players sometimes doing what sounded like brass charts, other times pastiches of Rimsky-Korsakov, with the players introducing, halfway through the song, a new melodic line that had essentially no harmonic relation to anything else on the track.

And Ben E. King was so green that when Leiber and Stoller told him to start the first verse after the four-bar intro, King didn't know what they were talking about. You can imagine Leiber and Stoller about to lose it at this point. Jesus Christ. Listen, kid, just count to four four times and then start singing. Okay?

Many years later, King recalled the session on a TV documentary. He had the song (which he had co-written) completely sewn up, every line memorized, every phrase considered, and then he walked into a studio with some twenty string players and some guy fiddling with kettle drums. The arrangement was going to have King sing high above his usual register, which rattled him. "I was a bit off, but I knew once I started singing, it was their problem to fix, not mine." So King counted down, and delivered that vocal: searing, haunted, aching and completely out of sync with what the musicians were playing, or so the producers thought. "The date was considered a total fiasco," Leiber told Ed Ward decades later. "Everybody thought it was a terrible waste of time and money."

A while later, Leiber and Stoller played the tapes for Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Wexler, eating his lunch, simply hated "Baby": "It's out of tune and it's phony and it's shit and get it out of here!" Stoller, however, kept playing the track: "It's a fucking mess but there's very something magnetic about it." Ertegun at last gave them the okay to release it, and the track exploded--hitting #2 nationally, reestablishing the Drifters, and helping to create the pop music sound of the early '60s. Leiber, hearing the song played endlessly on the radio, still thought it was a wild mess. "It sounded like two stations playing one thing."

Recorded March 6, 1959, with Stoller on piano. Released as--of course--Atlantic 2025. On All Time Greatest Hits and More. (Session details are from either Ward's account in Rock of Ages, or "In the Groove," the second episode of the great, lost 1995 documentary Rock & Roll.)

"He'll Have to Go" had a much milder birth. Jim Reeves had begun his career singing stuff like "Mexican Joe" in a loud and strident tone--it was a voice meant to be heard across a prairie. But by the late '50s, Reeves had begun moderating his singing: he lowered his pitch and brought his lips so close to the microphone that he could kiss it. There was some resistance to this move from RCA, his label, but his producer Chet Atkins backed Reeves, and by '57, with the success of "Four Walls," the formula was in place.

Standard history has it that tracks like "He'll Have to Go" essentially turned country music into an adjunct of pop, replacing the wild rockabilly of the '50s with a more adult music bordering on the soporific. While that's far too broad a statement, Reeves' own transition--he went from wearing cowboy suits to the sort of evening attire Louis Jourdan would have sported in Nashville, while his records dropped the fiddles and added a wall of swooning backup singers--does embody a change in country's aspirations, if not in its artifacts.

"He'll Have to Go," Reeves' enormous country/pop hit, begins with Reeves in a bar somewhere, calling his lover. "Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone," he purrs, though his erotic banter is being drowned out by the jukebox, bar chatter and phones ringing. The man his lover's with--the one who has to go--is likely her husband, and it's hard to say whether Reeves makes the woman change her mind. David Cantwell, in his essay on the song in Heartaches by the Number, thinks Reeves scores. "He delivers his lines with the smooth air of someone who sounds pretty damn confident he'll get the answer he wants." Maybe I'm more cynical, but I think she finally hangs up on him, or maybe he never even called her in the first place. As smooth as the singer is, he's still a desperate creep who's trying to seduce someone on a pay phone.

Recorded in Nashville on October 15, 1959, with Hank Garland (g), Floyd Cramer (p), Bob Moore (b), Murrey "Buddy" Harman (d), Marvin Hughes (vibes). Released as RCA 47-7643. On The Essential.