Graded on a Curve: What’s Shakin’

A compilation featuring unreleased tracks from The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Tom Rush, Al Kooper, and a studio supergroup called Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse? Sounds like a total monster, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. But What’s Shakin’, issued by Elektra in 1966, still has a lot to offer, and maybe its best attribute lies in its solid taste of rock music as it began to take itself quite seriously indeed.

As the rock ‘n’ roll impulse proved to be much more than just a flash in the pan, it slowly gathered a general if often grudging cultural acceptance, and record labels of all sizes, even those once reluctant to soil themselves with such an unkempt and unsubtle a form, began making room on their rosters for this new sound.

And unsurprisingly, there was mixed results. For example, companies that held an attitude of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” could be reliably counted on for tepid, bandwagon-hopping junk that was frequently late for the trend and as a result, is largely forgotten today.

As rock music became business as usual in the music business however, the idea of the label compilation or promotional “sampler” began taking hold, mainly as a way to spread the word over new releases that might not have been getting the right amounts of airplay, press, or word of mouth.

Probably the most significant example of this phenomenon was the “Loss Leaders” of Warner/Reprise, a steady deluge of ultra-cheap, single and double LP sets available only through mail-order that blended the popular with the obscure, the eccentric with the mainstream, and the rocking with the non-rocking to serve as prime dishes of discovery for thirsty ears.

It was a smart tactic. Many a record was added to this writer’s collection via an introduction from that series. Yes, those purchases were mostly used vinyl picked up twenty or more years after the fact, but the impulse was essentially the same, one of casual exposure over the hard sell. I’m sure anybody who’s sought out a record based on a cut from a friend’s well-made mix-tape, or even via one of those one once ubiquitous magazine-giveaway sampler discs can relate to this very situation.

By the late-‘80s comps had become so prevalent that the overall attitude toward them was fairly negative. Smaller independent labels had grasped upon the exposure concept with a vengeance. What’s more, many imprints caught the folk-inspired fever of documenting fresh musical developments and geographical scenes via the format; this worked out pretty swimmingly with Beserkley Chartbusters Vol. 1, Wanna Buy a Bridge?, Tokyo Rockers/Tokyo New Wave, No New York, Yes LA, Dunedin Double EP, Flex Your Head, Sub Pop 100 (or 200, natch) and c86.

But, by the latter portion of the decade, the urge to document every last locale with the handful of bands/performers that inevitably end up getting anointed as a “scene” really took its toll. If a listener was lucky, they might’ve found three good to great bands on a LP holding up to a dozen different acts, and if the quality material proved intriguing enough to warrant further investigation, it was quite likely that the bands had either broken up or adapted their sound into something far less interesting.

This was quite a different experience from what hungry young music fans received from those abovementioned comps and indeed from the “Loss Leaders” sets, which began in 1969 and ran for over a decade thereafter, and predictably ended up in used bins all over the map as a guide to some good to excellent stuff (and yes, some bad and downright ugly sounds as well) from the pre-punk era.

But Warner/Reprise’s winning concept was by no means the beginning of the comp/sampler situation. It was merely one of the most prolific and persistently interesting. Jazz and folk oriented labels like Impulse and Vanguard had been keen on the idea of comps since the early ‘60s. And three years before the “Loss Leaders” emerged, Elektra Records had issued What’s Shakin’, partially to help promote the label’s careful forays into the rock market.

The reason for Elektra’s cautiousness regarding rock had nothing in common with the situation over at Columbia, where notorious rock hater Mitch Miller had held his odious sway for far too long. No, in this case it was simply that Elektra founder Jac Holzman wanted his initial stabs at harnessing this still very young music to hold more than merely monetary importance.

In 1966, Elektra’s identity was still solidly entrenched as a small independent folk label. The previous year had seen the imprint release the very fine debut by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and ’66 would see them land a pair of Top 40 hits from the spectacular Los Angeles band Love, but the true breakthrough wouldn’t come until The Doors arrived and went smash with their classic debut in ’67. But Holzman was busy lending an ear and studio time to some very intriguing and historically notable rock-inclined acts, and it’s always been a bit of a stumper why What’s Shakin’ doesn’t have a bigger rep.

Well, part of the reason might be that nothing on the album is particularly mind-blowing. But exploding lobes wasn’t really the intention. The previous year Elektra had landed an unexpectedly huge success with the comp Folk Song ’65, the reaction largely due to the inclusion of “Born in Chicago” from Butterfield. So it seemed like a good idea to corral the results of assorted (and notably incomplete) sessions, a few from artists that had slipped through Holzman’s fingers, into a collection that made no bones about not being that big of a deal.

What’s Shakin’ sold pretty well, apparently, though not as well as Folk Song ‘65. But if it had been unveiled to the public four or five years later it’s easy to speculate that it would’ve sold a whole helluva lot more. The reason comes directly down to the lineup being a much bigger kettle of fish in 1970 than they were in 1966. And while the LP smartly divides up the contributions for a maximal listening experience, it really makes sense to relate its qualities by artist rather than on a track by track basis.

So, we’ll begin with The Lovin’ Spoonful, who landed four of the fourteen cuts on What’s Shakin’. The songs, recorded in ’65 before the group decided upon the Kuma Sutra label in favor of Elektra, capture them at their earliest point, and interestingly, the tracks have never been legitimately available anywhere else than on this comp, which was also issued in ’67 in the UK under the title Good Time Music.

That’s the title of the opening track, one of two Spoonful originals, and the one that comes closest to the band’s defining folk-rock hits. “Good Time Music” nicks much of its lyrical gist from Chuck Berry’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” so it’s really not that surprising to find them also knocking out a cover of Sir Charles’ killer “Almost Grown.” And a fairly spiffy cover it is. It’s just not particularly revelatory concerning either the direction of the Spoonful’s immediate future or the state of rock in 1965-’66.

Their other original is “Don’t Bank on it Baby,” which radiates with a bluesy vibe due to some down-home style harmonica, but the finest moment from this early snapshot of the Spoonful comes through a very judicious cover of The Coasters’ “Searchin’.” Basically, they don’t screw the pooch by trying to replicate the tricky essence of the original, instead sounding like a bunch of half-tanked frat-rockers. So, it provides a very pleasant little twist.

Five of the cuts here are from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, all from the fitful sessions that led to that eponymous debut from the previous year. The troubles that surrounded the eventual appearance of that album; the initial session scrapped, a live album aborted, and the third time proving to be the charm, really drives home the seriousness of Holzman regarding his ventures into the rock field, an attitude that extends to the musicians as well.

Therefore it’s curious that the Butterfield tracks, all initially cast aside, are probably the most the successful selections on What’s Shakin’. Yes, the earnestness that made Butterfield and company such a major event is here, so deeply in fact that maybe it’s not really accurate to call what the band is doing rock ‘n’ roll. It’s really straight up cooking Chicago blues (which was often rock ‘n’ roll yes, but you hopefully get my point), and the severe studiousness the band displays wasn’t really extended upon by the band until East-West came out later in ’66. Things tended to happen rather quickly in those days.

But the five songs here are a collective treat. It’s immediately obvious that Butterfield was ridiculously sensitive to the attributes of the Windy City blues style, with a note perfect reading of Little Walter’s “Off the Wall,” a smooth version of “Spoonful” and a terrifically raucous take of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” making this crystal clear. However it’s Butterfield’s originals that really prove the difference, his “Lovin’ Cup” possessing a touch of Willie Dixon’s songwriting acumen and “One More Mile” resonating like prime Otis Rush. Overall, it’s a fine slate of tracks from a very important band.

Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse contribute three songs to the album, and if there was any reason why What’s Shakin’ would’ve been a significantly larger affair if released a few years later, these cuts are it. In ’66 Clapton was hardly known in the states, a circumstance shared by the other members of the Powerhouse. That would include Steve Winwood (then of the Spencer Davis Group) on vocals, Jack Bruce (then of Manfred Mann) on bass, Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones on harmonica, Ben Palmer (most notable as Cream’s future tour manager) on piano, and Pete York (of the Spencer Davis Group) on drums.

Recorded in England by Joe Boyd (who made his name a bit later in the fertile UK folk-rock field), the three songs can’t help but be a little anticlimactic. “I Want to Know” is a loose if too brief blues jam that probably took all of fifteen minutes to get into recording shape. By no means bad, it also feels a bit like an outtake, particularly next to the tenacity of the Butterfield stuff.

“Crossroads” is a cover of the Robert Johnson tune that Cream made famous and classic rock radio all but ran into the ground. And as such this take, less frenetic and brawny than Cream’s version, is something of a breath of fresh air. “Steppin’ Out,” another cover more notable through versions by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream, is put through its paces well enough, but maybe its most endearing moment comes not from Clapton but from Bruce, his oddball solo spot actually sounding like an agitated tuba. What a jazzbo!

That leaves one track each from folkie Tom Rush (who along with Butterfield was also a carryover from Folk Song ’65) and Al Kooper, then a member of The Blues Project. Rush, whose ‘60s stuff is reliably interesting and in the case of ‘68’s The Circle Game provides an underappreciated masterpiece, covers Fats Domino’s “I’m in Love Again,” the song likely an outtake from the rock covers side of Rush’s pretty nice ’66 LP Take a Little Walk With Me. It’s a classy piece of work. It won’t knock you sideways with its brilliance, but sometimes a small pleasure is preferable to a wallop.

Kooper was part of the band for that track, as were other members of The Blues Project. During the sessions for Take a Little Walk with Me, Kooper and crew laid down a cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “I Just Can’t Keep from Cryin’ Sometimes” that just about steals the show. And considering that I’m a little lukewarm regarding Kooper (The Blues Project were alright, but that Supersession stuff, not so much), that’s really saying something. The coolest aspect of the tune is the piano, which is more than a little reminiscent of Ramsey Lewis. It’s a real curveball and a fine addition to this modest if very thoughtful early rock compilation.

What’s Shakin’ has been reissued on 180-gm vinyl by Sundazed, so there is no need to scour the used record store bins. That’s where I found a copy roughly twenty-five years ago, and while it’s never blown me away, it’s always provided a very good time.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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