Saturday, December 18, 2010

Specialty Profiles Evidence of Art Rupe's Hall of Fame Career

Art Rupe was just honored as one of the two Ahmet Ertegun honorees (to non-musicians for contributions to Rock and Roll) by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and will be honored along with Dr. John, Neil Diamond, and Tom Waits. Rupe was an important independent record company pioneer whose Specialty Records label produced some of the classic jump blues, gospel and early rock and roll recordings. As Billy Vera says in the booklet accompanying the 5 CD box set, The Specialty Story, “If Art Rupe and his Specialty Records, had done nothing more than give us Little Richard, he would still deserve a place in the rock ’n’ roll triumvirate along with Sam Phillips (Sun Records) and Leonard and Phil Chess (Chess Records). … In little over ten years activity, Specialty Records growth paralleled, and perhaps defined, the evolution of black popular music—from the “race” music of the 1940s to the rock ’n’ roll of the 1950s.”

Specialty issued some amazing recordings. The core of the label’s output can be found on the afore-mentioned The Specialty Story which includes (among its 130 recordings) recordings that charted as well as recordings by artists or are of songs that would later become important. The box, specifically does exclude Specialty’s jazz recordings and only provides a token representation of the important Gospel catalog of the label. After Fantasy acquired the Specialty catalog (in 1990 I believe), they began issuing a great number of reissues from the Specialty catalog. Concord Music acquired the Fantasy catalog and have some new reissues of such material as well as many of the fantasy reissues remain still available. Concord did in 2006 issue some budget reissues that I reviewed initially for the December 2006 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 289), which I am posting today in part to salute Mr. Rupe.

Those purchasing these budget reissues may well wish to check out the prior excellent reissues of these artists as well as releases by such important performers as Guitar Slim, Little Richard, Brother Joe May, The Pilgrim Travelers, Don & Dewey and Wyonna Carr.

Concord Music Group’s release of six initial Specialty Profile budget reissues hopefully will introduce some to the great music that has been issued by Fantasy Records prior to Concord’s acquisition of the label last year. Originally called Juke Box, Specialty was one of the independent labels that emerged after World War II that was central in the release of so much rhythm’n’blues, gospel and blues as well as some of the most important pioneering rock ’n’ roll recordings. These releases have 14 performances by the featured artist and a second bonus CD with ten performances by various Specialty artists.

Roy Milton, inspired by the big bands led his Solid Senders, the prototypical jump blues band, that in its tight, punchy sound captured some of the flavor of the bigger bands on a program of blues and jump numbers. Milton was a swinging drummer and an ingratiating vocalist with a terrific band that featured the wonderful pianist Camille Howard. Milton had many charting records, which became staples of the emerging rhythm and blues music. Two of his recordings Milton’s Boogie, his version of Count Basie’s Boogie Woogie and Milton’s Hop Skip & Jump were recorded by Elmore James pianist Little Johnnie Jones while such numbers as R.M. Blues and Information Blues still appeal with the strong driving swing and superb musicianship. This is terrific stuff.

John Lee Hooker recorded prolifically between the late forties and early fifties for a variety of labels including Specialty who acquired sides produced by Bernie Besman in Detroit. The 14 selections presented by Specialty capture Hooker on his driving one-chord boogies such as his revisiting of his first hit, Boogie Chillen, his slow brooding lament about a cheating woman which he would later visit for Vee-Jay, I’m Mad, and the hot duet with harmonica player Eddie Burns, Burnin’ Hell, where he proclaims “Ain’t no heaven, ain’t no burning hell” as he lays down a hot boogie guitar riff.“ There is a small combo version of Rosco Gordon’s No More Doggin’. This is this writer’s favorite period of John Lee Hooker’s recording with some of his most powerful recordings to which this disc is an excellent introduction.

After Fats Domino, probably no New Orleans artist had the impact of one Lloyd Price whose recording Lawdy Miss Clawdy, was one of the first rhythm and blues hit recordings to cross over to a white audience in a massive fashion. Price went on to a celebrated recording and performing career. The 14 selections here come from two CDs of his music and is a reasonable sample of his earliest recordings, dating from 1952 or 1953 with the exception of 1956’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Dance. Price’s earliest recordings for Specialty had him backed by Dave Bartholomew’s legendary studio band with Fats Domino on piano for the Lawdy Miss Clawdy session while later sessions included pianists Edward Frank and Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and such horn players as Wallace Davenport and Herb Hardesty. These tracks are classic New Orleans R&B with tracks like Mailman Blues, or Where You At? being hot rockers. Price’s youth perhaps leads to some vocals sounding as a bit overwrought (If Crying Was Murder).

Larry Williams was Lloyd Price’s second cousin, and born in New Orleans although his family moved to the West Coast in his youth, returning to the New Orleans a couple of times, including stints with his cousin as driver and valet and then briefly with Fats Domino. He joined Specialty around the time Little Richard had quit music and with hits like Bony Moronie, Short Fat Fanny and Dizzy Miss Lizzy, which also influenced an imaginative John in Liverpool. He was a solid pianist, pounding out his boogie rocking licks backed by some of the best studio bands in Hollywood with transplanted New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer anchoring things. These were splendid rock and roll recordings. There is a nice rendition of his cousin’s Just Because along with Sonny Bono’s High School Dance and She Said Yeah, the coupling Bad Boy and Slow Down, covered by the Beatles, and Little School Girl, a reworking of the blues classic Good Morning Little Schoolgirl. Williams could not handle success leading to drug problems and an early death, but his legacy is these terrific recordings.

Percy Mayfield was labeled The Poet Laureate of the Blues, for his wonderfully crafted sophisticated blues. As a performer, he sang with an intimacy that matched the sophistication of his lyrics. Until disfigured in an auto accident he had the looks to make him a major star and still remained an major songwriter (hired by Rat Charles) as well as a performer who continued to make thoughtful and sophisticated recordings until his death. His songs, including Please Send Me Someone to Love, Strange Things Happening, The River’s Invitation, Lost Love (aka Baby Please) and Lost Mind, have become blues standards and his original recordings are terrific. Given that only 14 selections were chosen, Mayfield’s early demo of Hit the Road, Jack, might have been omitted along with the duet with Joy Hamilton, Sugar Mama-Peachy Papa, as they are below the level of these other included recordings.

The last of the reissues is devoted to the legendary Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers and includes of a nice sampling of his early gospel recordings along with several of his earliest pop recordings. Nine of the selections are Cooke as a member of the Soul Stirrers in which he shares the lead with Paul Foster whose vocals are as remarkable as Cooke’s. Listen to the closing I’m Gonna Build Right on That Shore, where Foster takes the first lead with Cooke taking the lead mid- song and then the two trade lead verses. Its a remarkable performance but just one of several classic gospel recordings here including renditions of Thomas Dorsey’s Peace in the Valley, Cooke’s Touch the Hem of His Garment and Jesus Gave Me Water. The five pop performances by Cooke include I’ll Come Running Back to You, Lovable and I Don’t Want to Cry, but Cooke’s mostly are overshadowed by his later pop recordings. Still, this is a fine overview of early Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers recordings that sound fresh even today.

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