Songs

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Roaratorio Records remains one of our favorite labels based in Minnesota. One of their recent releases was a 7-inch with two songs by The Cleveland Wrecking Crew, a Quicksilver-ish Bay Area band from the 60s who never released any recordings.

And the label’s most recent release is the next in a series of un-issued recordings by Sun Ra and his Arkestra. It is the third such collection they have released, and the first which is a double LP. Owing to the ongoing interest in Sun Ra’s music, the other two are already out of print.

Sun Ra Intergalactic Thing

The tracks on The Intergalactic Thing are taken from rehearsal recordings at the House of Ra, the Philadelphia residence of Sun Ra and many members of his Arkestra. This collection contains much more information about the recordings than the previous two Roaratorio releases, including recording dates and personnel. All tracks are from the early winter of 1969, presumably the same era as Atlantis and My Brother the Wind.

We have several copies in stock, but anticipate that this release will also quickly fall out of print. We have been really enjoying it, although we suppose the astro-infinity music of Sun Ra isn’t for everyone. We really liked this track, “In Over and Under,” which reminded us of other clavinet classics in his catalog, like “Love in Outer Space.”

It was a beautiful weekend for gardening, and that’s what we did until we were sunburned and sore. It was sunny and beautiful on Sunday when we got the bad news that our neighbor Katy Vernon Thomasberg had passed away.

We are shocked and saddened. In addition to being an awesome neighbor who we’d often see gardening, Katy led a country band, Vernon Dixon, who played regularly in bars around town. The group was the perfect combination of honky tonk and old time country. Their album, Corn Whiskey, is like a jukebox filled with great country singles. Katy wrote the songs and created all the awesome art for the album and sleeve. She described her work this way: “I’m slingin’ drinks, writing songs, and spreading a good time, from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the Delta.”

 

vernon dixon

Katy was a good friend, a good neighbor, and a hell of a singer. Guess all there is to do is stop at the Schooner tonight and raise a glass of corn whiskey in her honor. Here’s a couple songs from that great album, which came out two years ago.

five chinese 1

When our kids were young they had a pretty awesome collection of storybooks which have since been given to friends as the books were outgrown. One of these was a story first published in 1938, but not familiar to either of us until we had our own children, called “The Five Chinese Brothers.” It was written by Claire Hutchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese in 1938.

Each of the five Chinese brothers has a special attribute — one can swallow the sea, one can stretch his legs to any length, one cannot be burned, etc. The brother who could swallow the sea always captivated our imagination.

five chinese 2

He would sup it up like soup and hold it in his cheeks until they were enormously swollen, “and all of the treasures of the sea lay uncovered.” The image of the seabed revealed is captivating to us.

five chinese 3

This Chinese brother is taken advantage of, and the following four take his place in succession. Some have said Wiese’s art in the children’s book is racist, but we have never really seen the story that way.

When this book was given to us when our children were small, our first thought was of the song “7 Chinese Brothers” on REM’s second album, Reckoning. Like most early REM songs its just another exercise in cryptic absurdism, but apparently at least partly inspired by the storybook.

rem rekoning

“7 Chinese Brothers” is an early example of REM’s ability to captivate us even when we have no idea why we are so compelled to continue listening. What is this song about, and why is it one of our favorites on the album? Reckoning is a remarkable album in this way, for few songs are singularly memorable, but on a re-listening all are essential. And yes, there is a line about swallowing the ocean, or something. It’s so damn difficult to understand any of the words on those first few REM records.

In fact, it was so difficult to understand Michael Stipe, let alone hear and record him, that it was a problem when recording Reckoning. At one point the album’s producer, Don Dixon, gave Stipe an album and asked him to read the liner notes so he could be heard and understood. It was The Joy of Knowing Jesus by the Revelaires. This exercise took place over the backing track of “7 Chinese Brothers.”

rem-revelaires-back

The resulting take was so weirdly successful that it was released as the b-side of the single for “So. Central Rain” as “The Voice of Harold.” It was also included on the band’s b-side compilation (and a favorite album of ours) Dead Letter Office. In the liner notes, Peter Buck describes the alternate lyrics as “extemporaneous,” but the delivery is stunningly predicative.

From this point forward there seems to be a growing confidence in Stipe’s vocals, perhaps inspired by … “The Voice of Harold.” All we know is that it is hard to imagine the Michael Stipe of most songs on Reckoning singing “Everybody Hurts” a decade later, but it somehow makes sense when you hear “The Voice of Harold.” For us, a record store is like “the treasures of the sea lay[ing] uncovered.” There is always something to find.

 

Although “Caravan” is one of the most famous Duke Ellington standards, the first version was not released under his name. It first appeared as a 78rpm single by Barney Biggard and his Jazzopaters in 1936, featuring septet of Ellington Orchestra members which included the Duke himself as well as co-composer Juan Tizol.

Ellington made his first recording of the song with the Orchestra the following year and it was released on a new label founded by Ellington’s then-manager, Irving Mills (you can see the label for that original Master Records single here). Notably, that first release credits the song solely to Tizol. Sonny Greer opens the track with exotic percussion, and Tizol states the melody on his valve trombone.

Juan Tizol was born in Puerto Rico, and learned music from his uncle Manuel who was a string bassist in the opera and the conductor of a municipal orchestra. He first met Duke Ellington at the Howard Theater after moving to Washington DC. Some years later Ellington asked him to perform on one of his famous broadcasts from the Cotton Club, and soon after Tizol relocated to New York to remain a member of the Orchestra for fifteen years. In Stanley Dance’s collection of interviews with Ellington alumni, he reports that “Duke and Tizol are lifelong friends.”

During the Cotton Club years, Ellington expanded the range of his composing exponentially in several directions. He had the freedom to explore music beyond dance programs, although this was still as specialty of the Orchestra. While Ellington was perfecting his early overtures and sketches for his extended suites, he was also crafting the “jungle” sound most associated with this period of his career. And this is where Tizol contributed the most in the songs he wrote. In Dance’s The World of Duke Ellington, he says, “I wrote a lot of tunes … but I never did go in much for arranging.”

Another tune Tizol contributed to the Ellington Orchestra in those years has always been a favorite of ours. Two takes of “Pyramid” were recorded in 1938, each featuring an improvised hand drum played by the Duke himself. “This was the first time we used a hand drum, before congas and bongos,” he says in the notes to The Ellington Era Volume II, a 1960s box set compiling singles from 1927-1940. “We made it out of a tambourine, without the tinkles, and a cardboard cylinder.”

While “Pyramid” is a lesser-known Ellington tune, “Caravan” became a widely recorded jazz standard. Irving Mills wrote lyrics for the song, but they are not familiar to most listeners. The song was even a minor hit on the charts in the early 60s for “Sleepwalk” duo Santo & Johnny.

dizzy the champ

Dizzy Gillespie recorded “Caravan” during one of our favorite periods in his career, when he was working with a small group which included Milt Jackson and violinist Stuff Smith. As with Ellington’s many (certainly well over a hundred) recordings of the song, Gillespie’s features a solo for the baritone sax, played by Bill Graham. In Ellington’s Orchestra this part was played by Harry Carney, who worked for the band for forty-five years.

caravan perez prado

Exotica arrangers loved “Caravan,” and it appears on albums by the likes of Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. Perez Prado recorded one of the most percussive versions we’ve ever heard, which is a favorite jazz single in our collection.

Juan Tizol returned to the Ellington Orchestra briefly after a number of years with Harry James and his Orchestra, where he was happy to be based in California. He enjoyed a long retirement in Los Angeles, appearing on only a couple records with James and his Orchestra in the 70s.

Corpse Reviver’s second album is out tonight with a big show at the Cedar Cultural Center. The band is named for a popular drink purported to be a hangover cure. Interestingly, Henry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Manual of 1930 includes two recipes.

The second of these, commonly Corpse Reviver #2, calls for equal parts gin, lemon juice, curacao liqueur, lillet wine and a little dash of absinthe. It’s super gross.

Some things from the 1930s have aged a little better, like the songs on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The three original volumes contain songs recorded between 1927 and 1932 which are still often performed and recorded today.

Many of those songs are much older, and certainly some are older than recorded music. Bascom Lunsford, whose recording of “I Wish I Were a Mole in the Ground” was included on the Anthology, was reported by Smith to have learned the song from a neighbor in 1901.

The recipe for Corpse Reviver on this new record is three extraordinary musicians, and we are honored to be participating in the release. We sheepishly admit we really aren’t fanatic “must have it on vinyl” collectors, but in this case we felt passionate about it. We also believe some future anthology should have a song performed by these three friends.

We can only guess where each of them learned “I Wish I Were a Mole in the Ground,” and its our fault for never having asked. I’m sure they’d all be happy to tell us all about it.

Corpse Reviver will be performing at the Cedar Cultural Center tonight to celebrate the release of their new album, Volume II: Dry Bones. Minnesota legend Spider John Koerner will perform as well.

gil scott reflections

We recently post a couple of songs from Lou Rawls’ album A Man of Value as a response to the man of little redeeming value who has secured the presidential nomination for the Republican party. Seems like dark times ahead for the grand ole party, if not for all of us.

Gil Scott-Heron reacted to the “mandate” of the President Elect in 1980 with one of his most acerbic political songs, “B Movie.”

The jingoistic rhetoric of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign is weirdly reflected as if in a funhouse mirror by the isolationist xenophobia of the current “Make America Great Again.” Scott-Heron’s glasses on the cover of Reflections offers a glimpse of the America largely ignored by both politicians. We can only imagine what Scott-Heron would have written about the candidacy of a reality television star, but we imagine it would have been a lot like “B Movie,” which is eerily relevant these two and a half decades later.

We read in Marcus Baram’s recent biography of Scott-Heron, Pieces of a Man, that Arista Records sent a copy of the 12″ single for “B Movie” to every single member of Congress. Maybe its time to do this again.

happy birthday usa

At a first glance, “Happy Birthday USA” is just another amusing leftover from the American bicentennial. Kid Cashmir and Winnie LeCoux were just a couple guys cashing in on patriotic fever, but one of them, Vincent Cusano, went on to become the second lead guitarist for Kiss as Vinnie Vincent. The other was Cyndi Lauper’s former partner and manager, David Wolff.

So this ’76 relic is a collectors item for Kiss fans, as it is likely the first recording of Vincent to be released on record.

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