To celebrate the variety of music on Blue Thumb Records, a brief but brilliant label founded by Bob Krasnow in 1968, I’ve chosen 10 favorites. Hard to say if they’re the 10 best albums on the label, but they are all certainly records good enough to merit a listen or two.
Blue Thumb was recently revived to release blues records, but its original catalog of everything ranging from Captain Beefheart to the Crusaders is largely hard to find. Rarely is any of it in print on vinyl.
(10) The Crusaders 1
Music journalists may have said that the Jazz Crusaders reinvented themselves by becoming the Crusaders but as a fan I’d say they simply evolved. 1 is no pop record so any “sell out” malice should be directed towards records they made nearly a decade later.
The Crusaders’ recording of Carole King’s “So Far Away” is a solid example of jazz interpretation – No wonder it became a ‘Saders standard. One of Hymies’ helpers once came in while I was listening to 1 and said, “What a terrible thing to do to a Carole King song”. For a short while I thought maybe everybody didn’t love this record as much as I do but I’ve come to realize our friend is just a hater. Its not like he loved the Carole King record to begin with. He probably hates that, too.
(9) Joao Donato A Bad Donato
Inside this great front/back jackets is a latin jazz gem, with a solid lineup of west coast musicians like Ernie Watts, Pete Candoli and Bud Shank. Joao Donato never became as well-known in the United States as he was in Brazil, but A Bad Donato is a favorite of DJs. Some of Donato’s keyboard playing on the album is similar to what Chick Corea was doing on more straightforward fusion records at the time.
(8) The Butts Band
Another example of Blue Thumb’s eye-catching packaging is The Butts Band with its amplifier design. Old know-it-all rocker guys will be quick to tell you this record is rare (Which its not) and that its the Doors (Which its not). If you want to listen to the post-Morrison Doors you’ll want to hunt down copies of Other Voices and Full Circle. You will find the Butts Band (Which does feature Robby Kreiger and John Densmore) to be more like some of Elektra’s other acts at the time, like Audience and Love. You will also find, if you listen to Ray Manzarek’s first couple albums after Full Circle, that he was the one who really continued to explore the Doors’ post-Morrison sound.
These first two tracks – “I Won’t be Alone Anymore” and “Baja Bus” – pretty much capture the Butts Band sound. They were essentially a supergroup along the lines of Rhinoceros, another Elektra act that never really came together. “Baja Bus” has all the jam band charm of The Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach or At Filmore East.
Other tracks like “I Won’t be Alone Anymore” and “Love Your Brother” sound more like Brave Belt, the short lived post-Guess Who Randy Bachman project that evolved into B.T.O. – Maybe this is the direction Butts Band would have moved, hard to say. Some members lived in London, some in California – Not an arrangement conductive to creative development. Still, there are some really great moments on this album, which was allegedly passed on by several labels before being taken up by Blue Thumb.
(7) All Day Thumbsucker
The early 70s were a golden age for the generally benign record label sampler, especially those that featured jazz. The double LP Impulsively! captured the variety of styles being explored by Impulse! records, and Pacific Jazz and Mainstream each put together great samplers. The majors even put together excellent collections, especially Warner/Reprise (Whose double LP samplers often mixed together tracks as varied as Captain Beefheart, Gordon Lightfoot, T Rex and Fats Domino).
Blue Thumb was an excellent jazz label, although the sampler All Day Thumbsucker doesn’t offer any highlights. Instead it focuses on the labels’ peculiar blues, rhythm and blues and folk releases. All things told, this is probably my favorite record on the label, even if its not an album per se.
The tracks you can hear above are Fred McDowell’s “Shake Em On Down” and Sammy Lay playing “Maggie’s Farm”.
A sequel, All Day Thumbsucker Revisited, was released by MCA in 1995. Over three colored discs it collects a wider variety of highlights from the label including nearly all of these 10 classics. Sadly, it did not herald a more expansive reappearance of the catalog. These last two tracks are also from the original. First is “Cat Black” by Tyrannosaurus Rex (Later to become the more successful glam rock group T Rex) and “Eagle Sails the Blue” by steel string guitarist Robbie Basho.
(6) Ike and Tina Turner The Hunter
Produced by label founder Bob Krasnow, the two Ike and Tina albums on Blue Thumb are overlooked 70s R&B gems. Not as fancy and lush as “River Deep, Mountain High” and not as slick as hit albums like Workin’ Together, sales of Outta Season and The Hunter probably weren’t helped by Blue Thumb’s generally unsuccessful promotion. From a label most known for its esoteric jazz and rock releases, Ike and Tina’s gut bucket soul is fresh air.
Here are a few more great songs from classic Blue Thumb albums:
“Images” by Sun Ra and his Arkestra
“Lights Out” by John Lee Hooker
“Canned Music” by Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks
“Lust” by Ben Sidran
(5) The Last Poets Chastisement
Blue Thumbs’ artist-centered business model cultivated some pretty remarkable recordings, none of them are more rewarding than the Last Poets’ third album. Chastisement introduced “jazzoetry”, a sound far more expansive than the drums and voice arrangements of their early Douglas albums. Some tracks on this record actually have the same instrumentation and form as tracks from The Last Poets and This Is Madness, even exploring the same themes. What works so well here is that the poets take their time – Suliaman El-Hadi’s “Before the White Man Came”, for instance, would have previously been stomped and shouted in a minute or less and here becomes a substantial statement.
Chastisement is more punk rock than anything the Clash recorded and funkier than countless contemporaries – Its about as confrontational as records can get, but also inspirational in places.
(4) Luis Gasca
So you liked all the classic Pharaoh Sanders albums but you already heard all of them – Here’s something similar you will enjoy.
Those two long tracks were “Street Dude” and “Spanish Gypsy” from Luis Gasca’s self titled Blue Thumb album, which is so cool that the credits list the dog pictured with Gasca as “Cosmic dog: Moon.”
Who was Luis Gasca? Beside this, the only place I could find Luis Gasca in the shop was on some albums by the 70s latin rock band Malo (Some of those guys join him here). Luis recorded an album for Blue Thumb before this one but I’ve never seen it. Its probably good.
(3) Phillip Upchurch Darkness, Darkness
This is my favorite guitar record and one of those albums I’ve played enough to actually wear out all four sides. I even had to find a picture off the internet because I’m ashamed to show you my taped together copy.
Phillip Upchurch, maybe the best session guitarists of his time, actually put out a few records under his own name before his Blue Thumb debut – A 45 of “You Can’t Sit Down” by the Phillip Upchurch Combo was a million seller in the 60s. Even though Darkness, Darkness is heavily covers its all Upchurch and its all good.
Actually, my favorite track on Phillip Upchurch’s Darkness, Darkness is another Carole King cover. It starts with a relatively simple statement of the melody and starts to slowly bubble like a pot of water until its rolling wildly.
(2) The Crusaders 2nd Crusade
Crusaders Wilton Felder and Joe Sample were doing so well at Blue Thumb as to appear with Phillip Upchurch on some records (Like Arthur Adams’ Private Tonight) billed as “The Funky Thumbs”. 2nd Crusade is the first record on which Sample explored the Fender Rhodes piano and synthesizers. Its also the most interesting collaborative work by the Crusaders, featuring several tracks by all four founding members in a comfortably seamless format. Joe Sample’s infectious “Don’t Let It Get You Down” opens the album and segues smoothly into Wayne Henderson’s even funkier “Take It Or Leave It”.
As good as 1? Hard to say. I’ve always hoped “Don’t Let It Get You Down” could be the theme to the TV sitcom based on my wacky adventures, and several tracks have been staples on my mix tapes for years, but 2nd Crusade is a lot more funk and a little less jazz. Its guitar-heavy, as on “Stix” Hooper’s lauded piece “Journey to Within”. Its the first of several Crusaders records to feature Blue Thumb mainstays Larry Carlton and Arthur Adams. You could argue that between Darkness, Darkness and 2nd Crusade the funky, guitar-driven sound of tracks like “Look Toward the Hill” and “Ain’t Gon’ Change a Thang” was becoming the Blue Thumb sound.
Wilton Felder’s solo on “Ain’t Gon’ Chane a Thang” is awesomely played and awesomely recorded.
(1) Dave Mason Alone Together
Booted from Traffic by bandmate Steve Winwood, Dave Mason went off and recorded a better record all on his own. Well, he’s not really alone at all, being joined by everyone from Traffic drummer Jim Capaldi to Rita Coolidge and Leon Russell, but he is doing his own thing. It never really clicked like this again for Mason, but here he puts together a genuine 70s rock masterpiece. “Only You Know and I Know” is the highlight, but the album is solid through both sides.
About 30% of the original copies of Alone Together were pressed on famously beautiful swirly vinyl. Somewhere in the long and distant history of this blog we’ve already posted a picture, but there it is again. My copy is a little noisy because I’ve play it a lot (Records by the way were meant to be played).
The original tri-fold jacket was meant to be hung on the wall – It had a hole for the nail already punched near the top of Dave’s hat!
Mason got into an acrimonious and public conflict with Blue Thumb after Alone Together and his next two albums were unfinished, filled in by the label with live recordings. Even still, the results were pretty good.
Thanks for reading – Hope you enjoyed the songs! There are so many records on this label that I’ve never found, perhaps one day we’ll collect 10 more and post some samples.
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