Thursday, August 25, 2011

Forgotten Music Thursday: Various Artists - The Legendary Story of Sun Records (2002)

The Legendary Story of Sun Records is worthy as an educational tool even if you're not fond of all of the music this double CD set has to offer. Just as film appreciation and history classes require that certain movies need to be shown as part of their curriculum, this 2002 release with thirty (Yes, thirty!!) songs on each disc is mandatory listening for anyone wanting an education in the history of rock 'n roll, country, R&B, blues, and American popular music in general.

This very interesting and mostly listenable release has a number of huge, early rock 'n roll hits. Jerry Lee Lewis does "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" and "Great Balls of Fire." Carl Perkins’ original "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Matchbox" (later covered by the Beatles) are here too, as well as Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," but the real treasures lie with the more obscure tracks that are featured in abundance. Some are rarities, some were regional hits, and there are even a few "B" sides. Due to the diversity of stuff Sun released it is possible that you will not like every track here but, in order to fully understand owner Sam Phillips' influence on rock music, it is important for you to listen to all sixty remastered tunes. I guarantee that the songs you do like will outnumber the ones you don’t.

Little Junior's Blue Flames check in with the original "Mystery Train," (1953) one of the songs Elvis Presley recorded for Phillips that helped the singer acquire his RCA recording contract less than two years later. Little Junior's real name was Herman Parker. He once was a sideman with Howlin' Wolf.

A vocal quartet whose members were all serving long stretches in Tennessee State Penitentiary, dubbed The Prisonaires, were brought to Sun Studio in shackles to record the hit single, "Just Walking in the Rain."

Rufus Thomas had a hit with with "Bear Cat," a response to Presley's "Hound Dog."  Phillips lost a lawsuit claiming this record was too similar to Big Mama Thornton's original. One listen tells you why the plaintiff won.

Neither of the two discs have any solo Presley recordings. His Sun sessions have been covered extensively throughout the years on his own retrospectives, most recently on the excellent Elvis at Sun, a nineteen song collection featuring all of his best singles for Phillips. However, The King is here on three tracks as part of the Million Dollar Quartet, the group recordings he made for the label with Lewis, Perkins, and Cash. You could count them as a very early supergroup, way before the term ever came into our lexicon in the late sixties.

In addition to those artists listed above the lineup on this set includes Roy Orbison, Howlin' Wolf, Charlie Rich, bluesman Little Milton, Earl Hooker (John Lee's first cousin), Sonny Burgess, Bill Justis, Anita Wood (Elvis's pre-army girlfriend)  and many, many more.

The liner notes include a history of Sun and each song title is accompanied by a brief story about its creation. The remastered sound is excellent. If you want to know what Sun Records was all about there are a lot of rewards for you to sample on this outstanding compilation.

The Legendary Story of Sun Records is available at Amazon.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rory Gallagher - Notes From San Francisco (2011)

For a man with a short career there certainly are a lot of urban legends surrounding Jimi Hendrix. True or not, he supposedly said a lot of wonderful things about other musicians, and considering his iconic status in the rock world, if you ever had your name connected to one of the many compliments attributed to him it would only help your reputation. Such was the case with Rory Gallagher. Hendrix is credited with answering "I don’t know, go ask Rory Gallagher" when he was posed with the question of what it was like to be the world’s greatest guitarist.

Gallagher has often been referred to as the "Irish Hendrix" and he has a worldwide reputation as being a pretender to Hendrix’s throne. Unfortunately, his reputation has not carried over into the United States due to the fact that he didn't tour here very often and his records weren't always immediately available. Those factors, when combined with his death in 1995 at the fairly young age of 47, caused many American rock fans to only know him by reputation. However, Gallagher has recently been making news because of a new double set CD just released from Eagle Rock Entertainment, Notes from San Francisco.

In late 1977, the guitarist and his band completed a very long, six month World tour and then flew to San Francisco to record a new album. The producer was Elliot Mazer, famous for working with a host of classic rockers, including Neil Young, Janice Joplin, and The Band. Despite the heavy hitter in the control room Gallagher was very unhappy with the results so he shelved the finished product in January 1978 and broke up the band he played with for the last five years. Fortunately for fans, earlier this year Donal Gallagher, Rory’s manager and brother, allowed his son, Daniel, to resurrect the album and remix it for release as disc one of this new package.

Disc two was another discovery previously never before offered to the public. It features twelve live songs culled from four shows in December 1979 recorded in San Francisco’s Old Waldorf Theater where Gallagher returned to the more stripped down sound of the power trio he preferred. According to the record company's press release Daniel Gallagher included the live show to prove why his uncle shelved the earlier studio album.

Gallagher has long been considered one of the pioneers of the power trio format with his first band, Taste, in 1966. It was the same year Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker formed Cream.

The attractive cover art is just part of the overall fine packaging. It includes some terrific pictures of the great city by the bay and handwritten notes and lyrics by Gallagher himself.

If you prefer something a little more polished the long forgotten studio album is for you. If you prefer the simpler, edgier, grittier guitar assault you may find the live CD more to your liking. Either way Gallagher fans should find comfort in the fact that they finally have some new music to rock out to.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Keith Richards - Life (2010)

I've never been a big fan of The Rolling Stones. I like them but don't love them. My favorite Stones songs are "Jumpin’ Jack Flash," "Gimme Shelter," and "Mother’s Little Helper." I also like "Tumbling Dice" but most of Exile on Main Street is too muddy and too raw for my tastes.

Despite my ambivalence toward the band, Life, by Keith Richards is among the most interesting autobiographies I've ever read. Because the 547 page book is a very detailed narrative you can tell that Richards was truly involved with its creation. It's not just the work of his collaborator, James Fox.

You have to be amazed by The Stones' great guitarist for his candidness about his wild, hedonistic lifestyle. He makes no excuses for his exploits, never sugarcoats them, and he is equally blunt about his family and his former and current bandmates. At the same time he possesses a soft spot for many of the people who have passed through his life. It's easy to believe he's being brutally honest about everything even though, as with most memoirs, there are detractors such as Mick Jagger’s former squeeze, Marianne Faithful.

The Glimmer Twin covers all aspects of his life. He discusses his parents (who he refers to as Doris and Bert), including his feelings about his Mother's longtime affair, the fact that his Father was a good guy who lacked ambition, and his closeness to his maternal Grandfather. Richards tells us how he met Jagger, Brian Jones, and the rest of the original Stones. He talked about Ian Stewart, the band’s founder, who was later fired by their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, before they became stars simply because he didn't fit into the band’s carefully cultivated public image. Stewart is one of Richards’ soft spots, so is Charlie Watts, the famous quintet's drummer, and there is also a lot of room in his heart for saxophonist Bobby Keys and the late Gram Parsons.

Unlike a lot of scandalous "tell all" books Richards doesn't just dish out the dirt. He expounds about how the blues influenced his music and how music influenced his life. He spends considerable time explaining how he became one of the pioneers of five-string open tuning for the guitar, how Oldham singled out Jagger and Richards as the band’s composers and essentially forced them to be the men who would carry the load. One of his most interesting and astonishing musical stories is about how there are no electric guitars on "Jumpin’ Jack Flash" and "Street Fighting Man." Both songs feature heavily distorted acoustic guitars that are made to sound like electrics.

We learn of Richards' long heroin addiction, the very seedy details describing how he injected drugs, the effect they had on his sanity, his physical health, and the many close calls that potentially could have cost him his freedom and put him behind bars for many years. Lurid details of syringes, the great pains he and his hooked friends would take to score their next high, and the excruciating pain of crashing back into sobriety as the high dissipates, are vividly detailed by one who lived the lifestyle daily. The agony of going cold turkey to get off the junk forever is also portrayed as another necessary evil that serves as a final punishment. Fortunately, Richards got off the deadly hard stuff in 1978 yet he continued to use cocaine well into the new century and only stopped because he needed brain surgery after falling out of a tree.

The former addict is proud that Rolling Stone Magazine listed him number one every year for almost a decade as the rock star most likely to OD. Richards felt the joke was on them by annually defying the publication’s predictions. When he finally dropped to number nine on the list he was definitely disappointed.

Regarding the guys in the band, we read how Richards and Jagger had a very close friendship for almost twenty-five years before the latter contracted a case of the dreaded disease the author calls LVS. If not caught in the early stages the disease is almost always fatal to rock bands. In his world LVS stands for "Lead Vocalist Syndrome," the affliction that makes lead singers believe they are more important than the rest of the band. Fortunately, the controversial frontman was cured before The Stones heart stopped beating.

Then there is the tale of how Jones turned into a complete "asshole" during 1969, his last year with the group. Drugs, and his huge rock star ego, fueled his firing two weeks before he drowned in his swimming pool. For almost two years he had been missing concerts and recording sessions and the band got sick of covering for him.

We also learn of Richards' relationships with Watts, Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor, and Ron Wood.

Richards fathered two children and had a long affair with actress/model/junkie Anita Pallenberg who had previously dated Jones. After sobering up he left Pallenberg and is now married to Patti Hansen for almost thirty years. Together they had two more daughters.

The book's coarse language and its casual writing style suggest that Richards was speaking into a tape recorder and his words were then transferred into print in lieu of sitting down at a keyboard and typing out a manuscript. If so, the informal atmosphere suits the personality of the author quite well. Frequently, Richards injects short essays written by family members and friends into his story because they may have a better understanding of specific incidents than he does.

There should be no surprise to anyone who reads this book that Richards traveled in a totally self-centered world of debauchery. He still genuinely loves those close to him even if his lifestyle caused him to either neglect them or hinder their well being (read about his first two children with Pallenberg for proof). Richards knows he is lucky to have survived it all and he is totally lucid, not a burnout like Ozzy Osborne. He has some regrets, but not many, and to this day, in addition to his family, he still cherishes his life, his music, and The Rolling Stones.

Read more about Keith Richards at his website. Buy the book from Amazon and preview passages from it here.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Alex Steinweiss - Album Art Pioneer (1917 - 2011)

Alex Steinweiss, who died July 17th at age 94, belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for a non-musical invention. He is credited with inventing album cover art. In 1939 Columbia Records hired him to create advertising for their label. Upon arrival he noticed how drab the covers for most 78 RPM records were so his new job took on a different role. In an interview with Steinweiss after his retirement he said, "The way records were sold was ridiculous. The covers were brown, tan, or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal."

Steinweiss seldom used pictures of the artists.  Instead he drew covers that corellated with the music inside. The designer retired in 1973 when he decided his work was too out of date for the rock and roll generation but not before producing, what he claims, were about 2,500 album covers.

Steinweiss's first creation, pictured above, was for a 1939 collection of Rodgers and Hart songs. According to Wikipedia, his original cover for the 1949 soundtrack to South Pacific, seen here at left, is still being used today and you can buy it on CD from Amazon.

Newsweek Magazine wrote that sales of Beethoven's "Eroica Symphony" by Bruno Walter "increased ninefold" when the cover was illustrated with the artist's work.

Back in the day, when I was less careful with my money, I must confess that more than once I purchased a record because I was attracted to its cover.  Unfortunately, these purchases more often than not turned out to be a mistake proving Steinweiss was correct.  Good cover art could sell the music inside.

By the late 60s many of the top artists were putting almost as much work into their album covers as they did the music. It's safe to assume that if it hadn't been for Steinweiss some of our most iconic rock album covers may not exist today. Would Abbey Road have the same impact in a plain brown wrapper? How many people have taken the London tube to EMI Studios just to get their picture taken at the famous crosswalk?  I surely am not the only one.

Steinweiss has his own website that displays many of his best covers.