Graded on a Curve:
Mid-Century Sounds: Deep Cuts from the Desert

Mid-Century Sounds: Deep Cuts from the Desert is the story of Phoenix, AZ-based studio operator, label owner, and publishing entrepreneur Floyd Ramsey, but per its title, it’s simultaneously a tour of music history spanning 1957 to 1973. Light on mindblowers but consistently engaging, the set offers 29 selections from an assortment of artists; the biggest name included is Waylon Jennings, as Duane Eddy twangs behind the scenes. There’s also Sanford Clark, Al Casey, Tommy Strange, and even a young Wayne Newton. Danke Schoen! Beginning in a honky-tonk and ending in a psychedelic soul shack, the limited-edition double 140gm vinyl in a gatefold sleeve is out now through Fervor Records.

Floyd Ramsey might not be a household name, but he’s far from a historical footnote. The first hit produced in his Audio Recorders of Arizona studio was Sanford Clark’s “The Fool,” but it’s his connection to guitar-wielding instrumentalist Duane Eddy, including his smash “Rebel Rouser,” that will secure Ramsey’s name in the annals of 20th century popular music. Additionally, he owned the record labels Liberty Bell, MCI, Rev, and Ramco, small but solvent branches of an enterprise outlined below.

“Never with Your Heart” by Ralph Smith with Bob Taylor’s Western Aces sets our journey into motion. It’s a vibrantly recorded slice of uncut honky-tonk, the leader’s potent C&W drawl accented by achy guitar tendrils as the lyrics detail disappointment in love. It’s a solid lead-in to the Eddy-assisted and Elvis-shaded (mainly through the backing vocals of local barbershop quartet the Devilaires) rockabilly of Glen Morris’ “I Got the Blues” and the country-jump of Joe Montgomery’s “Two Time Loser.”

It segues into the crisp, non-syrupy doo-wop of The Tads’ “She is My Dream” and Dave Moore’s previously unreleased R&B nugget “Four in the Morning,” which thrives on vocals loosely gliding over a framework of piano and a driving beat. It’s followed by the country-tinged pop of Gary Trexler’s “A Better Man Than Me,” the somewhat straight-laced backup singing and soft-spoken lead voice offset by sturdy guitar.

Trexler more than adequately sets the stage for the jus-folks innocuousness of “Start at the Bottom” by the Newton Brothers. Yes indeed, it features Wayne Newton in his pre-Vegas days, loitering on the edge of a sizeable cornfield through unbridled pep and positivity of message. Bluntly, I can only fully enjoy it while staring at the Friedman Brothers’ classic biographical comic strip Mr. Excitement: The Living History of Wayne Newton.

Side one ends with Ted Newman’s “Plaything,” its gal backing sass making it impossible to avoid thoughts of Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater,” though the potential for obnoxiousness is (somewhat) mitigated by a lack of a blatant novelty vibe. Still, it reinforces that Ramsey was caught up in all sorts of pop goings-on; some examples, like the pure teen soul-purge of Patti Lasalle’s “How Many Times,” are more worthwhile than others.

Side two alternates between highpoints and more moderate successes, with “Night Creature” by the Gigolo’s amongst the comp’s best moments. It consists of Eddy sidemen Bob Taylor and Buddy Wheeler, the now legendary reverb unit Ramsey converted from an empty water tank, fine licks from guitarist Don Cole, and Zeke Zoeckler icing the cake as he avoids getting too yakety with his sax. Next to it, the teen idol crooning of Nick Landers’ “You’ll Never Wear a Halo” is no great shakes, but at least it’s upbeat.

Richie Hart wrote that tune, but it’s the discotheque strutting of his “Do It Twist,” credited to Hart and his group the Hartbeats, that proves a real winner, as the band’s backing on Roosevelt Nettles’ “Drifting Heart” adds necessary heft to a well-conceived R&B-ish pop vocal number that ended up licensed to Chess for national distribution.

It’s followed by Judy Lunn’s “Old Enough to Have a Broken Heart.” Next to LaSalle’s side opener is not so hot, but if one desires to sit alone in a malt shop while staring dejectedly into an empty glass pondering the unfairness of the universe, it’ll serve as a decent soundtrack. If one wishes to get up and dance a bit, then the mildly Bill Doggett-esque “Cookin’” by the Al Casey Combo will do the trick.

The third side begins with “My World,” a Roy Orbison-like number Waylon Jennings cut for Ramco shortly prior to signing with RCA, and then shifts gears into the chiming guitar pop of P-Nut Butter’s “I’m Glad I Knew You.” Jennings steps back into the picture as co-producer of Phil and the Frantics’ “What’s Happening,” which combines zesty garage rock microphone action with Byrds-knock off folk-rock complete with harmonica swiped from you know who. Garage aficionados may already know these guys through other comps (namely the Pebbles series); this tune is reminiscent of Mouse and the Traps.

Donnie Owens’ influence on Mid-Century Sounds is deep, having written “Never with Your Heart” for Ralph Smith and playing an important role in Eddy’s band. Plus, he helms “Boo Hoo,” a likeable taste of mid-’60’s guitar pop likely to appeal to Turtles and Beau Brummels fans. Tommy Strange changes the course and lands smackdab in the middle of Bakersfield with the swell “One More Time.”

Longtime Hazlewood associate Sanford Clark’s gentle-toned “Once Upon a Time” shifts into a folkier zone, and Nadine Jansen’s jazz vocal “So Goes My Dream” brings an unexpected and understated finale to the set’s strongest portion. That’s not to suggest side four falters, though as the chronology hits the ‘70s the quality unsurprisingly ranges; for instance, the horn-section imbued sunshiny pop of Christopher Blue’s “Happy Just to Be Alive” isn’t amongst Mid-Century Sounds’ best moments, though it’s indisputably an earworm.

The intersection of Floyd Ramsey’s tale with the activities of “Mighty” Mike Lenaburg is a cool twist. Soul lovers might recognize Lenaburg from the volume of Eccentric Soul Numero Group devotes to the producer’s work, with Mid-Century Sounds reprising three tunes from that collection, Lon Rogers & the Soul Blenders’ excellent “Too Good to Be True,” the tough groove of the Soul Blenders solo showcase “Blending Soul,” and Michael Liggins & the Supersouls’ beautifully bent Hendrix-and-heavy flute fiesta “Loaded Back.”

Having provided the Now-Again label’s recent Function Underground: The Black and Brown American Rock Sound 1969-1974 with a highlight, “Loaded Back” closes out Fervor’s Ramsey retrospective in strong fashion and counteracts a pair of side four’s lesser cuts, specifically the vamped-out Blood Sweat & Tears stench of “Get Up” by the Harvey Truitt & Jack Miller Project, and the less egregious but still too instrumentally busy large band funk of “Ain’t No Time for Stoppin’” by Fat City.

Motion’s “One Afternoon” sticks out amid all this soulfulness, and its Brewer & Shipley-style vibes are appreciated. Mid-Century Sounds is aptly assessed as a mixed bag, but the set’s effectiveness in illuminating Floyd Ramsey’s staying power and the musical development he documented increases its worthiness considerably.


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