Better than the house red

I have always found the term “house band” vaguely disparaging, as if a recording studio has a house band in the same way an Italian bistro offers the “house red”: unlabelled and, at best, unremarkable. Sometimes, undrinkable. There may well be the odd house band out there that is like that – a bunch of jaded session musicians recording the sound track for a breakfast cereal commercial.

But here on Planet Vinyl we jump to the defence of such musicians – hey, they are making a living out of their art, and that is not to be scorned.  And many a house band is actually a fantastic ensemble, skilled and passionate players who in a more-just world would be household names.

Up_Tight!_(1968)_poster

Time is Tight was the theme to the 1969 movie Up Tight, a  drama about black militancy. Image: Wikimedia Foundation

There are some house bands which do score hits and become famous in their own right. The Shadows was one; The Band another.

In this illustrious company belongs Booker T and the M.G.’s, the “house band” for Stax studios in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1960s. “M.G.” just stood for “Memphis Group”, but there was nothing “no-name” about them They played behind the cream of soul singers, including Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Albert King and Carla Thomas.

And they had hits of their own, groovy, catchy instrumental numbers. This is one of their later releases, Time is Tight, part of a soundtrack they contributed to the 1969 feature film Up Tight. It has all the hallmarks of the MG’s at their finest: seamless group playing and an irresistible groove.

Just listen!

  • Artist: Booker T and the MG’s
  • Track: Time is Tight
  • Format: 7”, 45rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Stax
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalog: KK-2888
  • Year: 1969

 

 

 

 

Whistling up spring

Whistling precisely is hard. Try whistling the same tune with someone else – you will wobble out of key with each other, for sure. There are, however, some people who can whistle with great precision. A few have made a career out of it, and had novelty hits with whistled versions of popular tunes.

Such a one is Fred Lowery. Born in Texas in 1909, Lowery lost his sight at the age of two as a result of scarlet fever. While attending a school for the blind, he met a bird imitator who encouraged him to develop his whistling. Lowery became a featured act on variety shows and in 1939 he had a huge hit with his whistling version of Indian Love Call. It sold two million copies, a staggering number for the time. He had other hits over the years, including the theme to the 1956 Western film, The Proud Ones.

Fred_Lowery

Fred Lowery: a blind man with extraordinary skill at whistling.

This track comes from an LP late released much later – guessing mid-1970s? It is on Word, a gospel label. As you would expect it has plenty of golden fave hymns: Oh Happy Day, Old Time Religion, Precious Memories. All the usual suspects, and delivered beautifully, bang on key.

But the track I want to share is of a different character. Bring Back The Springtime channels Lowery’s old mentor, the bird imitator. It is unlikely as it sounds: a tone poem, for whistling and piano. And it is beautiful. Just listen.

  • Artist: Fred Lowery
  • Album: Precious Memories
  • Track: A6 Bring Back The Springtime
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: Word
  • Made in: United States
  • Catalogue: WST-8516-LP
  • Year: Unknown (mid-1970s)

Torching the organ

Back in the day, there were things called Cinema Organs. They were behemoths, monsters, with rows and rows of keys. They could make all manner of sounds besides a pipe note. You know the expression “all the bells and whistles”? That came from these organs: the biggest and most expensive models had extra pipes which, at the press of a key, rang bells, blew whistles and made a dozen other sounds.

Sidney-Torch

Sydney Torch at the mighty Christie organ.

The most famous Cinema Organ was the Wurlitzer, but its main competitor – the one you are about to hear – was the Christie. It was the size of a car, and weighed four tons.

In the 1930s, the best Cinema Organists were stars. People would go to a big cinema as much for the musical interludes as the movie program. One of these stars was Sidney Torch. He was a pianist by training, and his lack of experience with the organ is credited for the way he broke all the rules, and played the organ in ways that had never been done before, adapting it to play ragtime and jazz.

On this track, “Orient Express”, Torch uses the organ to imitate the sound of a powerful locomotive, then works in some vaguely eastern tunes to suggest a frantic ride through the Alps. It is pure showmanship. Imagine it, playing at volume on a great Christie, rising from the theatre floor in a cloud of dry ice – man, that would have been fun. Just listen!

  • Artist: Sidney Torch
  • Album title: Sidney Torch at the Organ
  • Track: A7 Orient Express
  • Label: World Record Club
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: R-06209
  • Year: c.1977 (recorded 1935)

 

Straight into overdrive

There are not many gears in the musical sub-genre of Surf Guitar. It is straight into overdrive, every time. There are no Surf Guitar tracks called “Moonlight Gently Touches Lapping Waters”.  But it is a musical form which has no pretence, and at its best it is fun, exciting music.

I have never learned to surf. I would like to, and I live near some famous surf beaches. Back when I was a teenager, surfers (we usually called them “surfies” or “skegs”) were vaguely disreputable, associated with bad language, dope smoking, and living off unemployment benefits. But that was not why I did not learn to surf. No, it was really just the fear of looking silly: falling off the board, or not even being able to stand up in the first place.

dick dale 2I grew up in a stupid culture of “can or can’t”. There were people who “could sing”, and people who “couldn’t sing”. The same divide applied to drawing, playing an instrument, success with girls, playing cricket – everything, really. The idea that you could try, learn, get better, didn’t really enter into it.

Me? I was good at school, was into music, could write poetry, and look moody. So I did those things, and didn’t try much else – all the stuff I “couldn’t do”. Far better, in this toxic worldview, to stand at the back of the hall looking aloof than to dance and  risk looking silly.

I am less self-conscious these days. I even swallowed my pride and took adult swimming lessons a while back. So, when the right time comes, I will take some lessons and catch some waves, and if I fall off and get water up my nose, who cares?

Surf Guitar was invented in the early 1960s, the key figure being Dick Dale and his band the Del-Tones. Decades later, around the time I didn’t have the nerve to try surfing, Dale teamed up with Stevie Ray Vaughan and recorded a reprise of an old hit, “Pipeline”.

And when I catch my modest wave, and wobble awkwardly into the shore, this is the soundtrack I want. Just listen!

  • Artist: Stevie Ray Vaughan And Dick Dale
  • LP title: Back to the Beach (film soundtrack, various artists)
  • Track: A2, Pipeline
  • Label: Columbia
  • Catalogue: CK 40892
  • Made in: United States
  • Year: 1987

Many of the records discussed in this blog, along with hundreds or others, are for sale on Discogs.

 

 

 

Girl from Tiger Bay

No one planned Tiger Bay. It just happened. In the 19th century, the Welsh port of Cardiff started trading with the world, and some of the world decided to stay. And some of these stayers were not white people. They coalesced into a dockside slum, Tiger Bay. It was a poor community, but also a place of welcome, of acceptance. By the 1930s, a black and coloured population of many thousands called Cardiff home. The community was astonishingly diverse. Muslims lived alongside Catholics and Sikhs. People from Barbados, from South Africa, from Singapore, mixed with and went to school with and married Arabs, Malays, Somalis. In an era of entrenched and unapologetic racism, Tiger Bay was a place of inclusion. A window, in its way, onto a better future.

And so it was possible, in 1937, for a Nigerian man, Henry Bassey, and his English wife, Eliza Jane Start, to have a daughter. She was lucky, this girl, Shirley. How many places in the world other than Tiger Bay would have allowed a mixed-race family to stay together? Like most of those in her community, Shirley was poor and left school early, working in a steel plant. But Shirley Bassey could sing, really sing. She was also possessed of a will as powerful as her voice, and through sheer persistence and a few lucky breaks she became a star.

bassey
Shirley Bassey in 1963. Image: Dame Shirley Bassey Blog

Shirley Bassey tends to be remembered now as a semi-caricature, a glamorous showbiz diva, the voice of those bombastic themes to James Bond movies. But there is so much more to her art. Have a listen to this 1957 single. “You, You Romeo”, the B side, is by turns coy and a belter; “Fire Down Below” a more seductive number. But both showcase Shirley Bassey’s extraordinary timing, delivery — even humour. Just listen!

You, You Romeo 

Fire Down Below

  • Artist: Shirley Bassey
  • A Side: Fire Down Below
  • B Side: You, You Romeo
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Philips 
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 326278 BF
  • Year: 1957

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

We need to tell the story again

The World at War was, when it was made in the early 1970s, the most expensive documentary series ever produced. Mixing archival footage and survivor interviews, in 26 episodes it told the story of the Second World War, skillfully shifting the focus between grand strategy and colossal battles, and the individual lives and experiences of combatants and civilians.

world-at-war-1973-74-opening-credits

The underlying drive behind making The World at War was that the lived experience of global conflict was fading. The producers wanted to capture the voices of those who had lived through the horror of death camps and carpet bombing and total war, so that the lessons of the tragedy might not be lost.

Right now, with the rise of Putin, Trump, Brexit and harsh intolerant nationalist governments from Poland to India, from France to Brazil – it seems we are forgetting those lessons again. Someone needs to reboot The World at War, update the effects and graphics, bring in some new and fresh material, and tell the story again.

I saw the series first as a boy, perhaps forty years ago. It made a big impression, not least because of the opening titles. They showed words being burned away, like the pages of a book being consumed in fire. The theme music – an original score by veteran screen composer Carl Davis – played over these images. It was perfect: beautiful, tragic, unsettling with its jumpy shifts in tempo. Here it is, taken from the LP released to accompany the series. Just listen!

  • Artist: Various artists
  • Album: The World At War
  • Track: A1 The World At War Theme (composed by Carl Davis, performed by the London Festival Orchestra)
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Decca
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: SPA 325
  • Year:  1973

Rascals in knickerbockers

Four young men, looking moody and  wearing knickerbockers and short ties. The cover picture on this EP is strange. What is this? Little Lord Fauntleroy Does Motown?

young rascalsI had not heard of the Young Rascals, the gents in the strange gear. But they were genuine stars in the late 1960s, with five US number 1 hits, including Good Lovin’, Groovin’, and People Got To be Free, a civil rights song.

LLF

An early-model Young Rascal

The Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes the Young Rascals as “one of America’s finest pop/soul ensembles” and explains:

Despite a somewhat encumbering early image – knickerbockers and choirboy shirts -the group’s soulful performances endeared them to critics and peers … one of the east coast’s most influential attractions, spawning a host of imitators

Most of their songs are smooth and soul-tinged, but the track I have chosen here has a rougher edge. It’s a stomper, a break-up song with strong vocals and nice harmonies. Ignore the knickerbockers, and just listen.

  • Artist: Young Rascals
  • EP title: How Can I Be Sure
  • Track: A2 You Better Run
  • Format: 12”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Atlantic
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: AX-11,407
  • Year: 1968

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs