Welcome to the December 2009 issue of Black Grooves. This month we’re offering an overview of holiday albums, from the old to the new, from the funky to the traditional— you’re sure to find something suitable for that office party or quiet evening roasting chestnuts in the fireplace. Also featured is an assortment of box sets from Bear Family, Hip-O Select, and Thompkins Square—these would make ideal gifts for your music loving friends. If you need a stocking stuffer, check out the 2010 Classic Blues Calendar/CD combo, which is volume 7 in an ongoing series that just keeps getting better and better. Finally, Light: On the South Side from Numero Group receives our vote for best new coffee table book, with fabulous candid images of the ’70s club scene plus 2 LPs chock full o’ blues.
No doubt the funkiest holiday CD released this year, In the Christmas Groove is guaranteed to spice up your parties. The compilation features 12 rare soul, funk and blues tracks from the golden era of ‘60s and ‘70s soul music “when the good groove met the jingle bells to devastating effect.” Selections include “Boogaloo Santa Claus” by J. D. McDonald, “Funky Funky Christmas” by Electric Jungle, “Soul Santa” by the Funk Machine, a rocking “Auld Lang Syne” by Seattle’s Black on White Affair, and an upbeat “Black Christmas [in the ghetto]” by the Harlem Children’s Chorus. An extensive booklet with original sleeve artwork and liner notes by James Maycock accompanies the CD (unfortunately not included with my promo copy).
Following up on the success of “Blues, Blues Christmas: 1925-1955” (Volume 1, DOCD-32-20-9), Document has just released a second volume of Christmas songs “in the blues, jazz, boogie-woogie and gospel spirit.” The budget priced two-CD set includes illustrated liner notes by Jeff Harris and 44 tracks that offer a grab bag of holiday themed entertainment. Selections range from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Christmas Eve Blues,” and Lightnin` Hopkins’ “Merry Christmas” to Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph, Run,” Fats Waller’s “Swingin’ Them Jingle Bells” and the MoonGlows’ “Hey Santa Claus.” There’s also plenty of “gospel spirit,” including “When Was Jesus Born” by the Heavenly Gospel Singers, “There Was No Room At The Hotel” by the Lucy Smith Jubilee Singers, “Silent Night, Holy Night” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” by Wings Over Jordan.
New Orleans jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins offers a swinging take on holiday classics ranging from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” to “Little Drummer Boy,” along with his own holiday compositions “Crazy Cool Christmas” and “A Saint’s Christmas.” Special guests include Irvin Mayfield on organ, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, and members of the Rebirth Brass Band. Ruffins also adds some respectable vocals to the mix. This gets our vote for best new holiday release of 2009 in the non-gospel category.
Originally released in 1963, this compilation has been called “the greatest rock & roll Christmas album of all time” due, in part, to the legendary “wall-of-sound” added by producer Phil Spector. Featured artists include the Ronettes (“Frosty the Snowman,” “Sleigh Ride,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”), the Crystals (“Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers”), Darlene Love (“White Christmas,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home,” “Marshmallow World”), and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans (“The Bells of St. Mary,” “Here Comes Santa Claus”). Many thanks to Sony Legacy for getting this classic back in print.
Title: Ultimate Christmas Collection
Artist: Jackson 5
Format: CD; MP3
Release Date: October 13, 2009
Many tribute albums, videos and films have already been released this year, but who can get enough Michael Jackson, especially little Michael with the Jackson 5? This compilation includes the group’s 1970 Christmas album along with other fun bonus tracks, such as MJ’s version of “Little Christmas Tree” and some funky new remixes. A wonderful bit of nostalgia for us older folks, and an album you’ll want to share with the kids during the holidays.
Heading up our list of contemporary gospel holiday CDs is this new release by the Clark Sisters, their first Christmas CD in nearly 20 years. By bringing in younger members of their extended family, the Clark Sisters have produced an album that will have cross-generational appeal. Cousin Bill Moss, Jr. and the Nashville String Machine perform the ballad “We are the Reason,” J Moss weighs in with his take on Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas, ” and Kierra Sheard lends her R&B styled vocals to “Beautiful Christmas.” Not to be outdone, The Clark Sisters contribute a number of holiday classics, including a fun version of the “Chipmunk Song” for the youngsters.
Acclaimed female gospel group Trin-i-tee 5:7 has released a limited edition two disc (CD/DVD) set which includes videos from their recent Christmas television special filmed at Union Station. Along with classic Christmas songs such as “Joy To The World,” “Silent Night” and some contemporary Christian favorites, the trio rachets the CD up a notch with jazzy versions of “‘White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” and a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Give Love on Christmas Day.” Overall, a pleasant mix which will appeal to fans of the group.
I’m Coming Home for Christmas is billed as the first Christmas album ever released by the Impressions, and signals the return of lead singer Reggie Torian after a 25-year absence (the current group also includes original member Sam Gooden and Fred Cash, who joined the group in 1960). The majority of the album consists of traditional holiday fare–“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” etc. – though the newly composed title track offers up something original. A reworking of their hit song “Amen” (originally sung by Curtis Mayfield) is also included, as well as the Gamble & Huff penned “Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas.” Fans of the Impressions, and of vocal harmony groups in general, will no doubt rejoice over this new release.
Gotta Have Gospel! Christmas is a compilation of both classic and contemporary gospel Christmas favorites. All of the material has been previously released, but if you’re looking for a wide variety of songs and styles performed by gospel’s top artists, this will certainly suit. Featured are selections by Israel Houghton and Cece Winans (“We Wish You a Timeless Christmas”), Kirk Franklin & The Family (“Now Behold the Lamb”), Donnie McClurkin (“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”), Mary Mary (“Oh Come All Ye Faithful”), Yolanda Adams (“Little Drummer Boy”),Fred Hammond (“Go Tell It on the Mountain”), and American Idol favorite Mandisa (“O Holy Night”), among others.
If you’re shopping around for the perfect coffee table book, what could be better than a slick tome that’s packaged with 2 LPs chock full of vintage blues? Between 1975-1977 photographer Michael Abramson shot images of crowds and performers at various clubs on Chicago’s South Side, and over 100 have been selected for inclusion in the book, which also includes an essay by Nick Hornby. The accompanying 17 track compiilation features artists such as Little Ed (“It’s a Dream”), Syl Johnson (“Is it Because I’m Black?”), Willie Williams (“Detroit Blues”), Detroit Jr. (“Young Blood”), Bobby Rush (“Bowlegged Woman”), Lucille Span (“Women’s Lib”) and Arlene Brown (“I’m a Steaker Baby”). The tracks have been skillfully remastered, but still retain all of the grit of a South Side Blues club, as illustrated in the official promo:
If you act fast and score one of the first 1000 copies, you’ll also receive a bonus 45 (may only apply to purchases made directly from the Numero site).
Fire In My Bones features 80 amazing gospel performances that you’ve probably never heard but really should. With able assistance from Kevin Nutt of WFMU’s “Sinner’s Crossroads” and a handful of dedicated gospel music collectors, Mike McGonigal assembled this three-disc set of out-of-print and obscure selections. An admirably-compiled and illustrated companion booklet provides as much detail on the recordings as is available.
This eclectic and electrifying collection is different from other compilations of gospel classics in that it does not focus exclusively on a specific location, gospel music style (e.g., quartet), artist, record label or timeframe. It also doesn’t line up tracks in chronological order. Establishing loose time parameters of 1944 to the present day, the collection leaps back and forth with glee between decades. Its unifying thread is the raw and genuine emotion expressed in musical performances and sermonettes by largely-forgotten performers and ministers. The singers and musicians are so rooted in the old time way, in fact, that it is often difficult to aurally define a song’s vintage by the performance alone.
Fire In My Bones draws on a variety of sources: mostly old 78s and 45s but also field recordings made by modern-day Alan Lomaxes in search of the untarnished. This is not to suggest that it contains all unknowns; the set also includes examples by well-known gospel artists such as Elder Samuel Patterson, Little Ax & the Golden Echoes, Rev. Robert Ballinger and Prof. J. Earle Hines. But for every track by Sister O.M. Terrell, Marie Knight and Lucille Barbee, who managed to eke out 15 minutes of fame (or more) in their day, Fire In My Bones introduces other equally intriguing but lesser-known performers such as the Hickory Bottom Harmoneers, Willie May Williams, and the Straight Street Holiness Group.
The compilation leans heavily on the sounds of the Sanctified Church, where any instrument is fair game as long as it gives praise. Electric guitars play a prominent role in Fire In My Bones. One recording in particular, “I Made a Vow to the Lord,” originally released in 1953 on Elko Records, sounds so much like Elder Utah Smith, it wouldn’t be surprising if it actually is Smith under a pseudonym. After all, Elko issued a 78 by a “Sister Christine” which was really a well-known coupling on BBS by the Clara Ward Singers.
The CD booklet presents brief stories behind the music that are often as fascinating as the performances themselves. The selections from Rochester, New York’s Fine Records, for instance, would never have made it to this compilation had they not been saved from complete deterioration by Australian Mark Taylor. Taylor purchased the entire contents of the already-dilapidated studios and shipped them thousands of miles, square-inch by square-inch, to his home for cleaning and restoring. Or Elder Roma Wilson and Family, a harmonica band who in 1948 became unwitting recording artists. They made a test recording in Detroit, but later found out their performance was released commercially on Philadelphia’s famed Gotham Records.
What Fire In My Bones tells us, more than anything, is that the vein of astonishingly honest and powerful gospel recordings is rich, exciting, overwhelming, and the largest remaining frontier in American music collecting and archiving.
Five of Five Stars
NOTE: A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Fire In My Bones will benefit the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund.
Reviewed by Bob Marovitch, Editor, The Black Gospel Blog (reprinted with permission from the author; copyright 2009 by Robert M. Marovich).
In May 1961, Ella Fitzgerald did a ten-night stint performing at the Crescendo, one of Hollywood’s best jazz clubs; the following year, she returned for two more nights. The 1961 album Ella in Hollywoodwas released with material from that first performance series, and is regarded as one of the best live recordings of Fitzgerald’s career, and several tracks from the 1962 performances were released as singles. However, the rest of the material from those performances has gone unreleased and unheard for the past forty-eight years. Hip-O Select’s new four-disc box set Twelve Nights in Hollywood seeks to rectify that omission: excluding the previously released material from Ella in Hollywood and the 1962 singles, it instead brings together her best performance sets from all twelve nights, including alternate performances of already-released songs and premiere recordings of songs that Fitzgerald had not yet recorded in the studio at the time of these performances. This set showcases Fitzgerald at the height of her career, from her easy stage presence to her virtuosic scatting and improvisation.
This new three-disc set from Hip-O Select draws together recordings from Oscar Peterson’s first performances in the U.S. in 1949-1950. All 49 tracks are duo recordings, as Peterson performed with upright bass accompaniment by either Ray Brown or Major “Mule” Holley, in the time before he developed his trio format. While most of the tracks in this set have been released on earlier albums, Debut compiles them, newly remastered, into a set that captures an early but important stage of Peterson’s career. Besides early singles and album tracks, this collection also includes a previously unreleased version of the song “There’s A Small Hotel.” The set is expansively packaged, with liner notes by David Ritz, reproductions of album covers, and a lengthy discography.
The middle years of Billie Holiday’s career were recorded on Commodore and Decca, though these recordings are often less celebrated than her early and late work on Columbia and Verve, respectively. Her collaboration with Commodore records began in 1939, when Columbia refused to allow her to record the controversial “Strange Fruit,” and she negotiated a one-time four-song session with her friend (and Commodore producer) Milt Gabler—an agreement that led to a ten-year working relationship with Gabler, first on Commodore and then on Decca starting in 1945. Holiday’s work on Commodore and Decca focuses particularly on “loser” songs such as “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” and “What Is This Thing Called Love.” However, that output also include lighter pop songs such as “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “Lover Man.” While the material in this set has all been released previously on other albums and compilations, this three-disc set is the first to collect in one place all fifty of Holiday’s tracks produced by Gabler, as well as two additional tracks that completed her deal with Decca.
Electric blues guitarist Freddie King has been largely neglected in the annals of rock history, for all that his career spanned three decades and his style strongly influenced newer guitarists from Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Part of this is due to his recording history—he jumped from label to label and alternated spellings of his name almost randomly, so assembling his body of work is a challenging effort. Some of it, too, is that the tracks of his later years are somewhat uneven, as he tried to ride the waves of changing rock/pop styles, spanning novelty dance crazes like the Twist and the Watusi, as well as musical trends such as surf rock and bossa nova. Finally, since he died at the age of 42 in 1976, it’s impossible to say where his career might have taken him in the past three decades had he lived. Nevertheless, the “Texas Cannonball” built his own style off of B.B. King’s single-string playing, doing the picking with fingers and thumbs for a more down-home Texas sound, but crossing well into rock territory with fiery solo riffs and passionate vocals. He was also one of the first Black bluesmen to front an integrated band, a practice continued throughout his career (his penultimate solo album Burglar, released in 1974, was produced and recorded with Eric Clapton, who had already been playing his own covers of King’s songs for ten years.)
Taking Care of Business spans most of King’s career, omitting his last few years and labels. The first four discs follow his music through the 1950s and 1960s, including influential signature tracks such as “Hide Away,” “San-Ho-Zay,” and “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” as well as novelty tracks such as “Low Tide (Zoo Surfin’),” “Do the President Twist,” and “The Bossa Nova Watusi Twist.” They also include alternate takes of some of King’s standards, offering different stylistic interpretations of signature tunes. The last three discs see King through the late sixties into the seventies, incorporating funk and soul into his sound, as well as including a number of live tracks and untitled instrumentals. Accompanying the set is a large, lavishly-illustrated hardbound book by Bill Dahl that traces King’s life and career, including an extensive discography, and would be equally at home on a coffee table or a library shelf. Though this isn’t a complete collection, it makes an excellent compilation King’s career with all its highs, lows, and little-knowns.
Title:The Marvelettes Forever: The Complete Motown Albums, Vol. 1
Format: 3 CD set
Catalog No.: B0011516-02
Release Date: May 2009
Nearly fifty years after the formation of the Marvelettes, Hip-O Select has released a three disc compilation celebrating the talent of Motown’s first female pop/soul group. Most recognized for their very successful and chart topping “Please Mr. Postman” of 1961, the Marvelettes never really received the acclaim they deserved. Plagued by health issues, disappointing song choices, and competition from Motown’s other girl groups (most notably the Supremes), the Marvelettes had only a few sporadic hits despite releasing a number of noteworthy albums. This new compilation includes their first six albums along with bonus tracks, live tracks, and even mono singles and rare sides. Complete with a booklet of photographs, biography information, and track listings with credits, The Marvelettes Forever collection pays homage to the brief but strong presence of these gifted ladies. Vol. 2, scheduled for release in 2010, will complete the set.
Sweet Soul Music, a new series by Bear Family Records (after Peter Guralnick’s book by the same title), provides an overview of soul music spanning 10 years (1961-1970) over 10 individually issued CDs. Each volume consists of 20-30 “scorching classics” packaged in a gatefold cardboard case. The accompanying booklets, averaging 100 pages in length, are authored by soul music expert Bill Dahl, who conveniently provides the listener with an in-depth analysis of each song’s cultural and musical context within the given year. The liner notes are supplemented with rare photos, artist biographies, discographical notes, and bibliographies. Featured artists include mainstream musicians (Marvin Gaye, The Dells, Howard Tate, Sam & Dave, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, etc.) as well as lesser known or forgotten entertainers of yesteryear that tend to be very difficult to find.
Bear Family beautifully depicts the compelling nature of American soul music. The series will be particularly useful in classroom situations, where Dahl’s year-by-year analyses of black popular music could be used to supplement lectures on history and culture in the ’60s. Finally, if you like this format, be sure to check out Bear Family’s “Blowing the Fuse” series, which covers R&B from 1945-1960, following the same year-by-year approach.
John Tefteller has produced another great calendar featuring classic artwork and rare photographs of legendary Blues performers. The 2010 calendar (Vol. 7) is once again accompanied by a not-to-be-missed CD that includes two Henry Townsend songs (newly remastered from the only surviving copy), unreleased songs from Blind Blake and Frank Palmes, plus additional tracks by Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Robert Wilkins, and Skip James. The ideal gift for the blues fan on your list.