Author Archives: Joseph Neff

Graded on a Curve:
The Beau Brummels,
Bradley’s Barn

The Beau Brummels are mostly remembered for the exemplary folk-rock of “Laugh Laugh” and “Just a Little,” both Top Twenty hits in 1965. But they also crafted one of the earliest and best examples of country-rock, the masterful 1968 LP Bradley’s Barn.

I find it hard to not be somewhat conflicted about The Beau Brummels. Not in terms of quality, for they were one of the USA’s finest (and earliest) acts to emerge in the wake of the British Invasion, but simply in defining their historical legacy. For starters, they were signed to disc-jockey Tom Donahue’s small Autumn label during their early period of widespread popularity, a circumstance that limited the distribution of their two biggest hits (“Laugh Laugh” stalling at #15 and “Just a Little” at #8 respectively). And yet they were considered legitimate teen idols of the time, appearing not only in two motion pictures but also on TV’s The Flintstones (as the uh, Beau Brummelstones). It’s enough to make a mind contemplate what might have transpired had the band been in the hands of a more capable label, for their first two LPs Introducing The Beau Brummels and Volume 2 stand amongst the best records issued by American acts in the immediate post-Beatles aftermath.

But when the group made the switch to Warner Brothers, they were initially mishandled. Beau Brummels ’66 was an ill-advised (if not at all bad) covers-only LP conceived because the label didn’t initially control the band’s publishing. Their first “real” record for Warners, ‘67’s outstanding slice of baroque-psyche Triangle, remains one of the better psychedelic excursions of the period, an effort that unfortunately got buried in the year of Sgt. Pepper’s. Bradley’s Barn followed in ’68, and after it floundered commercially (Triangle only managed to briefly squeak onto the Billboard Album Chart at #197) singer Sal Valentino and guitarist Ron Elliott (the band having been reduced to a duo after bassist’s Ron Meagher’s induction into the Army Reserve during the recording of Triangle), called it a day.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Ghetto Brothers,
Power Fuerza

The story of the Ghetto Brothers is an inspiring one, though it’s also an account possessing the deep reality checks of disappointment and strife. It’s a tale of struggle, of growth, of the positive tendencies of human behavior, and naturally some fine music. The reissue of Power Fuerza by the Truth & Soul label makes the essence of a legendary group easily available for anyone desirous of hearing it, and in the process it transcends their legend to become one of the best of all possible things; a record that can be spun and enjoyed many times.

The rediscovery and easy availability of long sought-after musical documents reliably comes with varying degrees of pomp and circumstance. It’s a ceremony partly directed to serious collectors, those individuals that have dedicated countless hours and energy in the pursuit of unearthing that rare and enticing artifact of delectably persuasive cultural marginalia, but it’s additionally aimed at listeners possessing a sincere interest in the contents of those recordings if little of the often rabid intensity (and substantial moolah) that’s required to actually procure original copies of these frustratingly elusive objects.

Occasionally these records are so rare they are essentially considered “lost,” indeed so obscure that even the most hardcore of collectors can’t get their hands on a copy, and in these instances the accompanying promotional verbosity can rise to the level of full-blown lather. The reason why almost always boils down to extreme (and at times overblown) passions on the part of those doing the reissuing, or less attractively the understanding from the participants that the music is, well, ultimately not all that great, the ensuing hyperbole aimed at increasing record sales, with honesty getting cast aside amongst the hoopla.

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Graded on a Curve: Memphis Minnie,
Blues Classics

The appearance of female blues guitarists didn’t begin with Bonnie Raitt, as she’d be the first one to tell you. There were surely a few gender trailblazers in the genre, and the most successful was Memphis Minnie. But she was no mere curiosity, possessing great ability both as a singer and string-bender, recording in four decades as a solo performer and in fine collaboration. The Arhoolie Records subsidiary Blues Classics was the first label to give her work serious attention after the end of her commercial heyday, and it’s an effort that’s still worthy of commemoration.

It can be difficult to adequately express just how crucial the Arhoolie label of Chris Strachwitz was in exploring the sheer depth of the American Music of last century, particularly the ins and outs of the blues, a form that in its raw state had become a tough sell for more commercially minded companies, especially after the innovation of the long-playing record really got its hooks in.

Strachwitz’s now celebrated imprint combined the no-nonsense DIY spirit that’s commonly associated with the contemporary “indie” experience with the urge for documentation of styles of music with essences so pure and intense that they’ve always resided on the margins. That is, they were limited in their potential for widespread “pop” success, but absolutely crucial in providing insight into how creativity could flourish and give meaning to everyday life when concerns of monetary gain weren’t a central and often overriding issue.

For instance, Arhoolie was essentially founded to annotate the discovery of a then obscure Texas musician Mance Lipscomb, a singer and guitarist that had never previously recorded. Lipscomb’s Texas Sharecropper and Songster, the first in a series of enlightening volumes of his repertoire that retain their potency to this very day, set the course for the general vibe of a massive hunk of the subsequent Arhoolie discography.

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Graded on a Curve: Andre Williams, “Bacon Fat” b/w “Just Because
of a Kiss”

Zephire Andre Williams has packed a lot of living into his nearly 80 years on this planet, and along the way his name has been attached to a whole lot of records. In the second half of the 1950s he cut a slew of smolderingly low-fi platters for Detroit’s Fortune label, with “Bacon Fat” b/w “Just Because of a Kiss” growing into a national hit. The a-side is amongst the most potent R&B of its era, and it rightfully stands as a classic.

Specifically due to its scarcity, Andre Williams’ early work was once the stuff of legend. Not just his run of singles for Fortune, but his subsequent motions for ventures of differing size and longevity such as  Wingate, Sport, Avin, Checker, and Duke. He was also noted for his role behind the scenes at Motown during the first half of the ‘60s and as a co-writer (with Otha Hayes and Verlie Rice) of “Shake a Tail Feather,” the original of which was recorded in Chicago by The Five Du-Tones for the One-derful imprint.

The waxing of that ludicrously swank monster occurred in 1963 during one of Williams’ absences from Motown. It’s now well-established that he and Berry Gordy’s relationship was a highly volatile one, and by ’65 the two men had parted ways for good. His biggest post-Motown success came at Checker, one of the numerous subsidiaries belonging to Phil and Leonard Chess. Hooking up with Ike Turner in the early-‘70s sent Williams’ life into a downward spiral, mainly due to the steady availability of copious amounts of cocaine.

And Williams’ frequent label-hopping combined with his overall lack of national hits to basically insure difficulty and neglect in the anthologizing of his discography, even after he’d made his comeback. In ’84 Fortune Records, still in business against seemingly insurmountable odds, issued the compilation Jail Bait, but by the point of his ‘90s resurgence copies of that slab were long gone.

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Graded on a Curve: Randy California,
Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds

After departing the group Spirit, guitarist Randy California knocked out an underrated and underheard covers-centric solo album Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds. While not a masterpiece, it still provided a solid chunk of early hard rock action, and the disparate nature of those cover tunes also did a fine job of blurring the divisions that can result from over-strident genre categorization.

When the discussion comes around to the topic of the great Los Angeles bands of the late-‘60s (and with the right combo of stamina and substances the talking will arrive at that destination much sooner than a person might think), it’s sort of a no-brainer that The Byrds will be awarded their just due and such worthy names as The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Love, and even Capt. Beefheart & His Magic Band will have their moments of appreciation.

But you’ll know the conversation is fortified with good company if somebody stands up to stump for the cause of Spirit, a fine bit of discernment that will directly relate to that band’s truly unusual mixture of rock, jazz, psych, and pop influences. And it was a blend that proved fairly popular at the time; all four of the LPs by the original five-piece lineup hit the Billboard Top 100 Album Chart, and all four are mandatory purchases for those curious over the serious-minded American rock music of the period.

The records are Spirit (#31) and The Family That Plays Together (#22) both from 1968, Clear (#55) from ’69 and Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (#63) from ’70, and the membership of the initial incarnation was guitarist/vocalist Randy California, drummer Ed Cassidy, keyboardist John Locke, bassist Mark Andes and percussionist/vocalist Jay Ferguson. And anyone impressed by the above quartet of albums by this unique quintet should investigate their soundtrack to French director Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, unreleased at the time but given a nice LP issue by the ever dependable Sundazed concern back in 2005.

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Graded on a Curve:
Harry Nilsson,
Nilsson Sings Newman

In the first month of 1970, RCA Records released Nilsson Sings Newman, a collaborative album between one of the period’s strongest and most unique pop vocalists and a truly gifted if somewhat obscure songwriter known primarily for providing other artists with prime material. A theoretical perfect match; it’s therefore unsurprising that hardly anybody bought the thing when it first came out.

On a purely commercial level, Harry Nilsson is vindicated by his very fine version of superb singer-songwriter Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” initially an album track given second life by its use in the epoch-defining New Hollywood film Midnight Cowboy, and by the smash success of his 1971 LP Nilsson Schmilsson, which rose to #3 on the Album Chart and wielded three Top 40 singles including a #1 in “Without You,” another cover via UK group Badfinger.

Considering Randy Newman through this same specifically commercial prism finds him justified not only through the sizable hits his songs provided for other artists, but also via his late-career transformation into a film-scoring juggernaut, though it bears mentioning that he had an unlikely and somewhat unrepresentative #2 hit with “Short People” in 1977. However, many also know him through the smaller, though much longer-lingering success of his biting tribute to Los Angeles, “I Love L.A.”

But if there is one thing that the careers of Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman share, it’s in the way they exploit the futility of judging an artist purely in terms of record sales. To do so with Nilsson is to depict an artist of fitful slow-growth potential finally scoring a breakout success with his seventh album (or ninth if you count his soundtrack to Otto Preminger’s eternally divisive hunk of weird-meat cinema Skidoo, where Nilsson actually sang the film’s end credits, and his early ’71 “remix” LP Aerial Pandemonium Ballet) and then going through a long, slow decline.

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Graded on a Curve: Jimmy Reed,
I’m Jimmy Reed

One of the first great electric blues LPs is titled I’m Jimmy Reed, and it’s loaded with twelve songs from one of the 1950s only true blues crossovers. Over half a century later it still holds up spectacularly well and additionally provides a solid contrast to the electrified delta sounds that poured out of the studio Chess during the same period.

Jimmy Reed’s blues is amongst the most accessible ever recorded in either the acoustic or electric permutations of the form. Master of a relaxed, natural style lacking in the rough edges that his contemporaries Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker utilized with prideful relish, Reed’s stellar run of sides for the Vee-Jay label displayed how in the bustling post-WWII urban environment the blues could represent more than the power of the plantation transmogrified after traveling up the Mississippi River (Muddy, Wolf, etc.) or the horn-laden high strains of citified sophistication (Louis Jordan, Charles Brown, Tiny Bradshaw, Willie Mabon).

In contrast to Muddy, who instigated a booming ensemble sound that while impressively groundbreaking completely on its own terms would also prove an essential component in rock music’s ‘60s growth spurt, Reed was somewhat closer to the norm of a “folk-blues” player, offering up simple and often insanely catchy guitar figures and an unfussy, plainly sung (some might say sleepy) vocal approach with accents of trilling rack harmonica.

This shouldn’t infer that Reed engaged in any forced gestures of aw-shucks down-home authenticity, at least not in what’s considered his prime. Hell, one glimpse at the picture on I’m Jimmy Reed’s back cover presents a man of top-flight refinement and truly choice threads, and his image intersected with the sound of his records extremely well.

To some extent less celebrated than those abovementioned Chess bluesmen as a key factor in the development of rock, Reed appears in retrospect to be equally if not more influential, both in terms of the user-friendly simplicity of his template, for he was adapted by blues rockers, garage bands, folkies, psyche merchants, and even a few punkers, and in the sheer number of prominent covers; Elvis, The Rolling Stones, Them, Grateful Dead, Steve Miller (no surprise), and four times by Bill Cosby (a surprise), and that’s just for starters.

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Graded on a Curve:
Phil Ochs,
All the News that’s
Fit to Sing

The union of political subject matter and music can surely make for a problematic, sometimes even dysfunctional relationship, but the occasions where the results actually work are cause for celebration. Unsurprisingly, much of the good stuff sitting at the big crossroads of social issues and song sprang forth from the 1960s, and one of the best protest singer-songwriters of the era was Phil Ochs. His music shines great illumination upon the tumultuousness of that decade, but in its specificity to concerns of its period it also manages to present a somewhat discomforting commentary on the present.

For as long as I’ve been cognizant of Phil Ochs, he’s been identified as a tragic figure. This reflects upon how undiagnosed sickness and a troublesome final act to an eventful life can cast a shroud over prior achievements that are quite substantial and worthy of praise. And the fact that he was a success as a topical folk artist who never really transcended the realm of modest renown to become a household name (ala some of his contemporaries) only contributes to the grimness that surrounds his story. Add in that, Ochs’ attempts to move beyond the constraints of folk-based protest persist in being underrated and the downbeat mood of the man’s life narrative is secure.

Phil Ochs committed suicide by hanging on April 9, 1976 after suffering a long period of depression, bipolar disorder, and alcoholism, and his self-inflicted death has often been linked to the creeping malaise that transpired in the ‘70s after the fallout of stumbled progressiveness that ended the previous decade. While denying this symbolic resonance is surely a mistake, it’s also true that wallowing in the difficulties of Ochs’ later years reduces him to an artist of fleeting productivity that was victimized by life’s struggles and ultimately died a failure.

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Graded on a Curve:
Fred Schneider,

Fred Schneider is famous for his work in The B-52’s, but over the years he’s also released a pair of solo LPs, the second of which found him in some unexpected company and delivering a set of pumped-up, punked-out mania. But ‘96’s Just…Fred isn’t really an outlier in the man’s discography, standing instead as a brief manifestation of an alternate career possibility that also reinforces how the ‘90s produced all sorts of unusual musical documents. The record’s charms could easily encourage a little bit of the ol’ pogo and might even inspire a few appropriate laughs, so in the end it’s very much a part of Schneider’s MO.

I can still remember quite clearly the reaction of certain friends and acquaintances over the arrival of Just…Fred, the out-of-nowhere solo record from instantly recognizable vocalist Fred Schneider. The general idea expressed by these folks was that in deciding to record an LP with a certain highly opinionated and defiantly indie-minded producer and a bunch of oft-noisy underground rockers as his backing, Schneider had suddenly, out of the blue, gotten “hip.”

To put it kindly, that assessment only made any kind of sense if one’s historical perspective spanned back to around 1988 or so. To put it less kindly, it was simply malarkey, a belief wrapped up in denigrating The B-52’s mainstream breakthrough Cosmic Thing and its smash hit single “Love Shack” as unworthy of any serious consideration.

That song’s ability to cross nearly any kind of social lines in its soundtracking of celebrations of all sorts has almost turned it into a cultural inevitability. If you’ll be attending a wedding party any time soon, the smart money is on hearing “Love Shack,” and maybe more than once. The groom’s grandma might even start a conga line. In this writer’s perception the tune has become so associated with revelry that imagining a person listening to it while alone in their abode, simply sitting in a chair and perhaps eating an apple, seems rather ridiculous.

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Graded on a Curve:
Terry Waldo,
The Soul of Ragtime

It’s been said that without the blues there would be no jazz, and while that’s a solid statement, just as important to the scenario is ragtime. The creators of this turn of the 20th century popular music are all long departed, but through the talents of veteran pianist Terry Waldo ragtime endures as a living art form. As the leader of assorted groups he’s been in the record business since the dawn of the 1970s, and his latest for the Tompkins Square label is an outstanding solo effort appropriately titled The Soul of Ragtime.

“I wanted some of that old, basic ragtime feeling…”
Andrew Hill, on his composition “New Monastery”

By the early 1920s ragtime’s popularity had largely subsided. And to this day some simply consider it to be an early manifestation of the consistently developing music that overtook it, namely jazz, but it was in fact a unique entity. Along with blues and spirituals, ragtime’s impact upon the subsequent flowering of jazz is indisputable. To “rag” a tune was to syncopate it and make it more vibrant and suitable for dancing, an African-American trend that by the end of the 1800s had developed into its own genre.  Even after its commercial fortunes had declined, rags remained a part of any well-rounded songster’s repertoire. Far into the 1930s, numerous guitarists later lumped into the category of country blues (Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller are two examples) employed the form as part of larger creative arsenals.

The retrospective renown of sophisticated ragtime dates back to World War II. However, its deepest appreciation came in the 1970s and mainly around the resurgence of interest in easily the genre’s most famous practitioner Scott Joplin. If ragtime was a popular music of its period, Joplin was ahead of it; his prominence while alive was based almost entirely on the 1899 publication of “The Maple Leaf Rag,” a steadily selling piece that more importantly proved influential upon the writing of many subsequent rags.

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