Chicago-based vocal group The Notations were formed in 1962 by two childhood friends, Clifford Curry and LaSalle Matthews, who attended Parker High School where they performed together in their high school’s talent show. After meeting James Stroud, a former Dunbar High School student, they rounded out the group and took their performances from high school talent shows to the local nightclubs. Eventually, their contacts led them to Tad Records where they produced recordings that were mostly sold hand-to-hand. It was a connection to the legendary Syl Johnson that led to their signing with Twinight Records and their first hit song, “I’m Still Here,” the inspiration for this compilation’s title.
Still Here brings together works from the period between 1967 and 1973. Included are previously unreleased titles such as “Young Girl,” from the Notations’ very first recording recovered from a cassette tape. This collection also includes only scarcely heard Tad singles—“Trying My Best To Find Her” and “Gonna Get Ready”—as well as recordings such as “I’m Still Here” from Twinight Records, and other singles that saw minimal distribution such as “What More Can I Say” and “I Don’t Want To Be Late” from their time at Cash Records. Although the group’s time at Curtis Mayfield and Eddie Thomas’s Curtom label is outside of the scope of this collection, Still Here offers an insightful view into the groups’ earlier recordings and their overall career through the songs and extensive liner notes.
The Dominoes’ first release with Federal records was the single “Do Something For Me” with the song “Chicken Blues” on the flipside. Though they had only entered the studio on November of 1950, by early 1951 “Do Something For Me” had reached #6 on Billboard’s R&B “Best Seller” list. Originally known as The Ques, Billy Ward, founder of the group as well as pianist, vocal coach, and bandleader, led his four additional members—Clyde McPhatter, Charlie White, Bill Brown and Joe Lamont—to win Apollo’s amateur show in October of 1950. Quickly they were introduced to Syd Nathan, head of King Records, who sent the newly named Dominoes to his subsidiary, Federal Records. Only a few months later, The Dominoes had a hit on their hands and the hits just kept coming. Now, Real Gone Music has released a comprehensive collection of recordings from this group that would eventually launch the careers of both Jackie Wilson and Clyde McPhatter. These 58 songs, tracked in order of release, and the accompanying essay by vocal group expert Bill Dahl, illuminate the Dominoes’ body of work, including well-known tracks like “Sixty Minute Man,” “Have Mercy Baby,” “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” and “Rags to Riches.” This collection also documents the changes in membership, including the addition of a former boxer from Detroit, Jackie Wilson, in 1953. By bringing together all of the Dominoes’ recording from their time at Federal and King Records, we’re offered a snapshot into one of the greatest and most influential R&B groups of the 1950s.
Hidden In Plain Sight: Vox Maximus Vol. 1. is the U.S. debut album for a cappella all-star group, Naturally 7. Musical director and group member Roger Thomas formed Naturally 7 in 1999 in New York City with his brother and a few other singers they met performing around the area. The group, who coined a term for their approach to a cappella singing called “vocal play,” is a seven-man team of vocalists representing a variety of instruments—guitar, turntables, bass, drums, harmonica and brass—using only the most powerful natural instrument, the voice. This dynamic group has garnered international success—their album Ready II Fly (2006)charted in Australia and France—and has begun to make their mark on the U.S., most notably through a breakout performance on The Ellen Show in 2008, opening for Michael Bublé on his last two international tours, and appearing in two Cheerios commercials at the end of 2014. While they’ve released six studio albums and two Christmas albums, Hidden in Plain Sight is their first U.S. release. As in their live shows, the album showcases Naturally 7’s harmonic prowess as well as their artful arrangements and compositions.
Hidden in Plain Sight is a compilation of covers, samples, musical mixes that Roger Thomas calls “hybrids,” and original songs. The lead single and one of the most thrilling tracks on the album is “Fix You,” a cover of Coldplay’s 2005 release from their album X&Y. A staple of Naturally 7’s live performances, the song offers a unique harmonic presentation along with the group’s vocal instrumental interpretations.
On “Mahalia,” Naturally 7 includes a sample of Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World,” adding their own spin on this tribute to the gospel singer. Most notable, however, is their sample of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (from A Night at the Opera, 1975) on the track “Galileo,” making them the first to successfully sample Queen. “Hybrids” are songs that take previously recorded songs by other artists and either use the music or sonic ideas as the basis for a new Naturally 7 song. These include the lush “Moments (I’ve Been Loved)” based on Art of Noise’s “Moments in Love” (1983) and “Life Goes On” based on Wham’s “Everything She Wants” (1984).
Hidden in Plain Sight begins and ends with two compositions “Tempus Fugit (Motus I),” Latin for “time flies,” and “Eppur Si Mouve (Motus V),” Italian for “And yet it moves.” These operatic themes envelope the rich material of the album, and the operatic characteristics are sprinkled throughout the other songs on the album. Among the original compositions, highlights include one of the album’s most popular songs, “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” an energetic tune that has all of the rhythmic and harmonic R&B elements to make for a thrilling performance. Another notable original, “Rhapsody of the Queen,” layers semi-operatic singing with pulsating rhythms. Also particularly appealing is the dance track “Need You With Me,” as well as “Run Away,” a ballad that is placed brilliantly towards the end of the album.
Hidden in Plain Sight is a breath of fresh air. Naturally 7’s brand of “vocal play” truly highlights the versatility of the human voice and the melodies will stay with you long after the music has stopped.
The Sweet Inspirations, who sang behind many a soul hit for Atlantic Records, and later backed Elvis Presley, trace their roots to the talented Dionne Warwick/Drinkard family clan. Warwick and her sister, Dee Dee, started out as backup singers. When Dionne moved on to a solo career, her aunt Emily “Sissy” Houston (mother of Whitney Houston) joined the group. When Dee Dee left for a solo career, Myrna Smith replaced her. The same year, 1965, the Sweet Inspirations lineup heard on these tracks gelled: Sissy Houston, Sylvia Shamwell (sister of Stax singer Judy Clay – “Private Number”), Myrna Smith and Estelle Brown. The group was signed to its own Atlantic contract in 1967.
These two CDs cover the Atlantic singles A and B sides plus other tracks from the group’s four Atlantic LPs. Detailed liner notes by compilation producer David Nathan, along with detailed discographical data, are included in the booklet. Sound quality is varied, it sounds like some tracks are dubs from scratchy 45’s, but they could have been poorly recorded.
Tight harmonies, perfect timing and soulful singing were the group’s trademarks. They managed to avoid sounding too slick, but they never missed their marks. The southern-style soulfulness combined with the precision associated with years of New York City session work added up to a unique sound.
As for the songs in this compilation, they are mostly funky and interesting, but the group relied too much on cover tunes early on. No matter how good they sound, did they really need to record their versions of songs like “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man”? The impetus for those songs likely came from Atlantic A&R personnel, hoping to catch more lightening from the label’s current hits.
In any case, the group hit their stride with tunes written for them and by them. They also thrived from the variety of settings: some recordings were made at Atlantic’s New York studio, others at Fame Studio and Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama, and still others with producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Sigma Sound Studio in Philadelphia. In each setting, The Sweet Inspirations put their unique stamp on the music, and the backing musicians seem to play their best behind this group. The women leave room in the songs for instrumental riffs and hooks, and the studio ace players take advantage. The net result is a bunch of ear-catching recordings.
Cissy Houston left the group to pursue a solo career in early 1970, but the original Sweet Inspirations made one more recording session together, at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio on June 22 of that year. All of the output from that session, including three previously unreleased tunes, is included on CD2. Of the unreleased material, most interesting is an extended medley of covers: “Little Green Apples,” “Something” and “Think.” The tunes don’t seem a natural medley mix, but the Sweet Inspirations and the Muscle Shoals Studio house band make it work.
The Sweet Inspirations concentrated on harmonies and group singing. They were unlike modern female soul singers in that they didn’t indulge in vocal calisthenics, kept vibratos within reason, and clearly enunciated their words. These characteristics, combined with the superb musicianship behind them, make this reissue a pleasure to own.
Cissy Houston and Myrna Smith talk about the group and performing with Elvis Presley in this video:
The Ad Libs were a doo-wop band out of New Jersey that recorded in 1964 and 1965 for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Blue Cat Records. They had a hit in March, 1965 with “The Boy From New York City,” featuring the fine voice of lead singer Mary Ann Thomas. The song was later covered by, and was a hit for, the Manhattan Transfer. They made a few other musically interesting singles, but did not enjoy further chart success.
So why does this group merit its own CD, indeed nearly 80 minutes that apparently includes every scrap of tape run during Ad Libs sessions for Blue Cat Records? The answer doesn’t lie in the group’s previously released singles and B-sides, collected together here for the first time. It’s in the previously unreleased a cappella demos for many of those songs and some other songs never recorded with a backing band. These demos are a how-to master class in New York doo-wop soul singing. In this age of auto-tuning, double-tracking and other voice-“fattening” or “fixing” tricks, it’s refreshing to hear one woman and four men sing together, unaccompanied, and never miss a beat, a note or a harmony.
Where the listener may decide “that’s enough” is toward the end of the disc, where producer Ron Furmanek threw in the proverbial kitchen sink—alternate takes and even the backing track of the group’s one hit, “The Boy From New York City,” sans vocals. The completist collector will appreciate a one-stop source of every scrap of Blue Cat Records tapes of the Ad Libs, and the rest of us can just hit the STOP button after the a cappella demos.
The Ad Libs’ original commercial releases are worth special mention. The group had a consistently interesting sound and Thomas’s singing just got better during their short Blue Cat stint. Standout songs are “Kicked Around,” which was the B-side of their hit, and “On the Corner.” Also noteworthy are two songs recorded on March 10, 1965, but never released on Blue Cat singles: “The Slime” (penned by Lieber and Stoller) and “You’ll Always Be in Style,” which includes a nice use of Latin percussion and horns.
The following Youtube video shows the cool Blue Cat 45 single for “Kicked Around” and provides a taste of the Ad Libs’ music, but the sound is way better on this reissue CD:
Producer Furmanek deserves kudos for his stereo remixes, which bring out the excellent sound quality captured by original engineers Phil Ramone and Brooks Arthur. In the end, this CD resurrects a snapshot of a small corner of the peppy, poppy and highly competitive mid-60’s New York City music scene.
This is a strange compilation that seems to be one producer’s way to reissue a bunch of old doo-wop singles. Luckily, the music is quite good so the listening is easy. Despite the title, only 8 of the 18 songs are actual Winley Records singles recorded by the 1961 incarnation of The Clovers. Two more sides are from a split-off of the Clovers called the Fabulous Clovers, which remained with Winley after the rest of the band signed with Atlantic in 1962. Four more sides are from “Charlie White of the Clovers” even though White had left the group in 1954. And then the last 4 sides are unrelated doo-wop songs “previously available on 45 only,” as described in the CD’s very brief liner notes.
Sorting out the history of The Clovers and Winley Records takes about as long as playing this CD. Better to let the music do the talking and spend some time surfing Google. The short version of the Clovers story: the band was formed in Washington DC in 1951 and was one of the earliest doo-wop groups. Their best-known hit is probably “Love Potion #9,” covered several times in the 60’s by rock groups, but they had other songs that placed high in the Billboard charts.
By the time they recorded for Winley Records (owned by the brother of long-time Clovers member Harold Winley), they had undergone many personnel changes and the doo-wop era was fading. None of these tunes moved far on the charts or got much radio play. But that doesn’t mean they are bad tunes. It’s a pity that “One More Time,” the B-side of “Stop Pretending” didn’t get heard by more 60’s rock bands, it’s ripe for a cover. Same goes for the A side of their second Winley single, “It’s All In the Game.”
The last four songs on the CD are two sides each by the New Souls and Early Knight & George Kelly. They are nice entertaining rarities, but they don’t display chart-topping potential so one can understand why they faded into obscurity.
The transfers from 45RPM singles mostly sound quite good, with some records in rougher condition than others. Winley Records stayed in business up into the hip hop era, and was the first label to record Afrika Bambaataa. There is still a band called The Clovers, with a website and claiming regular bookings in the Washington, DC area.
The new Bear Family release, Only Believe… tells part of the endlessly fascinating story of the Prisonaires, a vocal R&B group founded in the early 1940s at the Nashville State Penitentiary in Tennessee. While it was not uncommon at the time for groups of prisoners to form causal singing ensembles to pass away their sentences, the Prisonaires were an exceptional case who, through a series of chance events, became Southern celebrities. They had both the right mix of talent, with lead tenor Johnny Bragg providing new original songs, and the right timing, with a new prison leadership focused on rehabilitation and community involvement. They were signed to Sun Records and released recordings on Excello as well, all the while remaining prisoners of the State of Tennessee.
While there have been previous compilations that anthologize the Prisonaires’ Sun and Excello releases, Only Believe… features previously unreleased concert recordings and alternative tracks that provide unique historical insight into various aspects of the group’s career. For example, at the time these recordings were made, around the early 1960s, the prison had begun to receive negative press for wasting money by allowing the Prisonaires to travel and record. The prison warden saw an opportunity to change public opinion and make money by developing a program to sell indulgences—personalized songs and recordings from the Prisonaires for wealthy sponsors. This album draws from one such rare record and is primarily a concert of the Prisonaires performing for a wealthy donor. There are introductions to songs by the Prisonaires, thanking the warden and asking for the well-wishes of the sponsor. The spiel is clearly scripted and rehearsed but serves as a useful historical framing device. Also included are six alternative versions of songs recorded for Sun Records by the Prisonaires, plus eleven tracks by the Solotones and the Marigolds (later prison groups led by Johnny Bragg).
The sacred and secular songs on Only Believe… are well performed by the groups but will probably be of only causal interest to all but the most devoted Prisonaires fan. The album is still worthwhile, however, for the historical value of the previously unheard concert, as well as the account of the recording career of this one-of-a-kind group in the meticulous booklet written by Martin Hawkins.
Based on the commentary and personal memories of a wide array of accomplished acappella musicians, Street Corner Harmony tells the story of doo-wop on the street corners of Philadelphia, Jersey City, and New York City in the 1950s and ‘60s. The film features modern-day footage of the cities so loved by the former street musicians, allowing viewers to explore the back alleys of the East Coast that became “concert halls” for these burgeoning adolescent musicians. The endearing men who tell their stories are still passionately involved in the performance of acappella music—and they’ve still got it! The music is great and the stories recall the nostalgia of teenagers in the 1950s and their drive to make an impact on their neighborhoods.
The question of race was deliberately unimportant when these young men of all creeds and colors were seen on the same corner, enjoying a cathartic and rejuvenating afternoon of acappella performance. This color-blind fervor for acappella is what makes their story even more universally appealing and important, focusing on groups like The Persuasions, Five Jades, Chessmen, and many more. Former members of The Concepts (an early ‘60s acappella group that recorded on the same label as the more prominent Persuasions) and the producer, director, and writer of the film, Abraham J. Santiago, beautifully bridge the gap between doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll in this valuable account of acappella street corner harmony.
It’s hard to believe that the a capella group Take 6 has been making music for 25 years and is still going strong. Founded in the 1980s by classmates from Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, Take 6 has made an indelible mark in music. Performing in several genres including gospel, jazz, rhythm & blues and doo-wop, it appears there is no style Take 6 can’t handle, including the holiday music featured in their latest project. “The primary objective in the making of the album was to create a sense of familiarity,” says group member Claude McKnight III; I must concur. This project is very accessible, while harmonic arrangements from the identifiable Take 6 make this a new standard for Christmas/Holiday music. Some of the songs covered are “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and “Jingle Bells.” My personal favorite, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” is a playful Dr. Seuss inspired tune that will humor both young and old. Though cliché, audiences of all ages will enjoy this heartwarming collection of Christmas favorites. I can already smell the chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
There have been many compilations devoted to the Golden Gate Quartet, one of the oldest and most beloved of all the jubilee/gospel vocal quartet groups, and the latest addition is the double disc Hommage released by Buda Records. Compiled and annotated by Christian Bonneau, the accompanying booklet is illustrated with many historical photographs and contains a chronological history of the group and its members, which have changed considerably over the 60 plus years of the group’s existence. The set seeks to pay tribute to the various “Gates,” with particular emphasis placed on live recordings made in France, the group’s official home since 1959.
Though most historical compilations are arranged chronologically, Hommage begins in 1997 following the retirement of tenor Clyde Riddick, whose tenure with the group lasted over 50 years, from 1939-1994. The opening track is a rendition of “Soon, I Will Be Done,” recorded at the St. Sermin cathedral in Toulouse, France in 1997. Ten additional tracks from this concert are interspersed throughout the set and feature Frank Davis (1st tenor since 1995), Charles West (2nd tenor from 1934-39), Henry Owens, Willie Johnson, and Orlandus Wilson. tenor, 1995-1999), Paul Brembly (baritone since 1971), and bass Orlandus Wilson, one of the founding members of the group who died a year after this concert.
Over the course of the set, the tracks skip around in time, interspersing the earlier a cappella material with later songs accompanied variously by piano, guitar, and rhythm combo. The Golden Gate Quartet’s first recording, their famous rendition of “Gospel Train” with a soaring tenor over syncopated vocalized “chugging,” is included on track 10. Recorded August 4, 1937 in Charlotte, North Carolina, “Gospel Train” features early group members William Langford (1st tenor from 1934-39), Henry Owens, Willie Johnson, and Orlandus Wilson. Other a cappella songs by this same group include an innovative version of the jazz standard “Dipsy Doodle” (one of the few secular arrangements on the set) and “Lead Me On and On” (from Jan. 24, 1938), “Let My People Go” (a.k.a. “Go Down Moses” from 1939), “Noah” (Feb. 2, 1939), and “I’m a Pilgrim” (Oct. 6, 1939).
After Langford was replaced by Clyde Riddick in 1939 the line-up was fairly stable for the next decade, except for some substitutions during WWII. Hits from this era, all recorded stateside, include “Didn’t It Rain” from 1941; a jazzy version of “Shadrack” along with “Run On,” and “Hush!” from 1946; and “Amazing Grace” and “I Want Two Wings” from 1949, among other favorites. The final New York sessions on the set feature two more secular arrangements from 1952, “Lover Come Back To Me” and “Careless Love Blues,” featuring pianist Conrad Frederick, a well-known New York session musician who also ad libbed during the 1949 sessions.
The remaining tracks on the set were all recorded in Europe between 1955-1997 and include material less generally available in the U.S. Locations range from recording studios in Boulogne, Berlin and Paris to live concerts at various churches in France. Several of their traditional numbers are reinterpreted, such as “Good News” and “Jericho” which are backed by a combo, and “Deep River,” which is accompanied by an unidentified church choir. These contemporary arrangements, though all well sung, lack the spontaneity as well as the rhythmic and stylistic variety of the earlier recordings by the group.
The set concludes with a seven minute history of the quartet narrated by Orlandus Wilson and recorded at his Paris home in 1980. Though no new information is imparted, its nice to hear the Gates story in Wilson’s own words, even though he seems to be reading from a script and the narration is punctuation by songs and applause, which is often distracting.
This recent video compilation illustrates the style of the current GGQ:
Extensive liner notes are presented in French and English, but the translation is quite stilted and would have benefited greatly from a copy editor. Though performers, recording dates and places are all documented at the end of the booklet, it’s a bit difficult to match them to the individual tracks since the order is not chronological. If you’re a traditionalist, you’ll probably be better off purchasing compilations of the Gates’ pre-1950 recordings. However, if you want a broad overview of the Golden Gate Quartet’s career and enjoy contemporary renditions of the classics, this set will deliver.
Title: The Standard
Artist: Take 6 Label: Heads Up
Catalog No.: 3142
Release date: September 30, 2008
Since the 1980s, Take 6 has aimed for new heights in a cappella singing and they’ve rarely missed the mark. For the group’s followers, who have come to expect outstanding harmonies and musicianship, great individual vocal talent and arrangements, The Standard will not disappoint. Through various personal incarnations over the years, Take 6 has performed a mixture of gospel, R&B, popular music, and jazz. The Standard follows this format but features five jazz standards along with the usual eclectic mix of musical genres and a host of exceptional guest performances to boot.
The core six members of the group are featured on six (mostly gospel) selections, performing in their characteristic tight harmonies and with almost unfathomable musical meticulousness. The vocal arrangements by lead singer, Mark Kibble are an important part of the group’s successful sound, blending colors and rhythm. In particular, Quincy Jones’s “Grace” (recorded twice in a “pre-prise” and an extended version) stands out for its distinctive smooth and soulful appeal.
Guest artists include George Benson on “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” Jon Hendricks and Al Jarreau on “Seven Steps To Heaven,” Aaron Neville on “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans,” Brian McKnight on “What’s Going On,” and Shelea Frazier is introduced on “Someone to Watch Over Me.” A sampling of Ella Fitzgerald tops off the guest list with a swingin’ and sweet new a cappella arrangement of “A Tisket a Tasket.”
The addition of Ms. Frazier (who is assisted by jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove) in particular is a great discovery. Frazier’s voice squeezes every bit of emotion out of her feature number and then some, rendering the song anew. This may be the singer’s premier to the mainstream but it certainly won’t be her final hurrah.
Whether you favor jazz, gospel, R&B or just good music, The Standard is a performance not to be missed.
Editor’s note: As you may have heard, The Standard was recently nominated for 3 Grammy Awards: Best Gospel Performance for “Shall We Gather At The River;” Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) for “Grace” (arranged by Take 6’s Cendric Dent); and Best Jazz Instrumental Solo for “Seven Steps To Heaven.” Want to know Cedric Dent’s favorite Christmas albums? Check out his latest blog entry here.
Title: Music of the Old South
Artists: Polk Miller & the Old South Quartette
Label: Flaherty Recordings
Cat. No.: F-2006-1
Date: Dec. 2006
In the June 2007 issue of Black Grooves we provided an overview of Lost Sounds: Black and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1918, the companion CD to the book of the same title by Tim Brooks. Anyone interested in the early recorded history of African American performers will also want to check out Music of the Old South, the story of Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette, privately issued by Ken Flaherty, Jr. Polk Miller is prominently featured in Lost Sounds(chapter 15) and between Brooks’ account and that of noted ethnomusicologist Doug Seroff, who provided the liner notes for Music of the Old South, a complete and utterly fascinating story emerges.
Born in Virginia in August of 1844, Polk Miller was a white southerner. While growing up he was exposed to various elements of African American culture and developed a keen interest in the music emanating from the slave cabins on his father’s large plantation. He learned to play the fiddle and banjo by imitating black musicians, while also absorbing the local slave songs, stories, and dialect. After serving in the Confederate Army and operating a successful pharmacy business, he decided to devote his remaining years to performing. Miller’s shows, advertised variously as “Old Times in the South” and “The Old Virginia Plantation Negro,” featured banjo tunes, dialect stories and lectures presented in a fairly serious manner devoid of the blackface and comedic ridicule common to minstrel shows. He became a major hit with white audiences in both the North and the South, and was lauded by none other than Mark Twain. After touring as a solo act during the 1890s, he decided the show would benefit from the addition of “authentic negro singers.” Miller thus formed The Old South Quartette, comprised of various Virginia fieldhands selected through auditions.
In 1909 a series of seven wax cylinders were recorded for the Edison company featuring Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette, with Miller also providing banjo and guitar accompaniment. The greatest curiosity amongst these recordings is certainly “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” otherwise known as the confederate national anthem, rendered here with a black vocal quartet chiming in on the chorus. Also included are: a “Laughing Song;” the spirituals “Jerusalem Mournin’ [sic] (otherwise known as “I’ll Be Ready When de Great Day Comes”],” “Rise and Shine” (sung by Miller), and “What a Time” (the earliest recorded version of this popular work which features a call and response chorus); “The Watermelon Party” (a “coon song” apparently written by the quartette’s tenor, James L. Stamper); and “Old Time Religion.” According to Brooks, “[these] recordings were extraordinary on many levels. Polk Miller was sixty-five years old at the time and one of the few Civil War veterans ever to record commercially. He was probably the only person from the Civil War era who had first-hand knowledge of black music of that era and committed it to record. And, he sang with a black quartet at a time when integrated sessions were highly unusual.”
In 1911 Polk Miller stopped performing; he died two years later. The Old South Quartette apparently disbanded; however a group by that name made several recordings for the QRS label in 1928 and it is generally believed to have included at least one or two members from Miller’s quartette (he had used as many as 20 different musicians over the years). Music of the Old South includes these recordings as well. Of particular interest are the following tracks: “Oh What He’s Done for Me” (a jubilee song with banjo acc.); “No Hiding Place Down Here” (with call and response chorus); “Tobias and Keechungus” (a mock religious service, similar to later recordings titled “Bohunkus and Josephus”); “Pussy Cat Rag” (a novelty song first recorded in 1914); and “When de Corn Pone’s Hot,” based on the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem and possibly the only recording of the song.
While on the one hand Miller promoted black music, enjoyed performing with black musicians, and was generally both respectful and protective of “his negros,” his shows were simultaneously promoting the “good old days” of the Old South and the “ever faithful, ever true, contented and happy old Virginia plantation negro.” As summed up in the intro, “the story of Polk Miller and the men of the Old South Quartette is a quintessential example of the American experience;” i.e., complex and not easily compartmentalized. Of course this is a very brief summary of the Polk Miller story. I would highly recommend Music of the Old South to anyone who teaches African American history, U.S./Southern history, roots music, ethnomusicology or folklore. The plethora of issues raised by Polk Miller and his Old South Quartette would no doubt make for some provocative class discussions.
This is Ken Flaherty’s first CD release (in his day job he’s an engineer for DuPont Engineering Polymers in Detroit), but he has been collecting and researching early sound recordings for over 20 years. According to Flaherty, “I learned of these recordings over 15 years ago and was just amazed that they even existed. There have been sporadic publications regarding Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette over the years. In addition, the Edison cylinders were reissued but with very poor sound quality. My objective was to update the documented history of Polk Miller with high quality transfers of the Edison cylinders and QRS/Broadway 78s in one readable package.”
Flaherty’s devotion to the subject is evident throughout. The extremely handsome and exceptionally well-illustrated 25 p. booklet reproduces many images from the Polk Miller scrapbooks (now at the Valentine Historical Museum in Richmond, VA). The liner notes consist of an article by Doug Seroff, “The Enigma of Polk Miller,” originally published in 78 Quarterly. The booklet alone is a captivating read, and I spent a couple of hours just devouring the content before popping the CD in for a listen. Though the packaging may create some shelving difficulties for libraries (the CD is affixed to the back cover of a 9” x 9” softcover booklet), I certainly can’t fault Flaherty’s decision to ditch the standard jewel case and impossibly small text fonts commonly used for liner notes these days.
If you wish to learn more about Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette, visit Flaherty’s website. Seroff’s son, Paul, also has a terrific and extremely detailed article on his blog, Tofuhut, with additional information about the recordings. You can listen to samples of Polk Miller cylinders on the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project website at the University of California, Santa Barbara Library.
Finally, for all of you dog lovers, I can’t resist adding a fascinating bit of trivia. In his spare time, Polk Miller wrote a popular treatise on dog ailments and his Polk Miller Drug Company marketed various canine medicines under the Sargeant’s brand (named after Miller’s pet dog), which in 1965 pioneered the flea collar. Who knew . . . .
And last but not least, Doug Seroff has just co-authored a new book with Lynn Abbott, Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs,” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz, available from the University of Mississippi Press. I definitely need to get my hands on a copy a.s.a.p.
Most people knowledgeable about music agree that genres are elusive labels. Actual music does not always fit into clear-cut categories, and it is difficult to define most genres’ essential attributes, as characteristics of any one genre inevitably transude into others. Genres are not static; musicians continually form new ones as they modify their styles. In the twentieth century, this process has been especially apparent in the development of African-American musical genres: blues, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, soul, hip hop, rap; many of these in turn comprise their own subgenres. Music in which generic identity is unclear, or in flux, may reveal some fascinating characteristics. The Pearls vs. The Velours presents two vocal harmony groups of the mid- to late 1950s whose sounds blend r&b and doo wop (this was originally released as The Pearls vs. The Velours: The Complete Recordings by Hot Productions, 2000). It’s Not Unusual showcases the Dells, who began their career singing doo wop but later migrated to soul. These three groups’ outputs are not equally well known today. The Pearls were never very popular, although lead tenor Howie Guyton had the opportunity to tour with the successful Platters. The Velours had a couple of minor hits in the 1950s – sometimes reissued on doo wop compilations – and they continued to record sporadically through the 1990s. And although the Dells are still active and popular as soul musicians, not so many people know their doo wop recordings.
Small independent labels recorded some of the finest r&b and doo wop of the 1950s, from hits such as the Penguins’ Earth Angel (1954) to relative obscurities. Many of these labels floundered and went bankrupt after only one or two years, but there were some noteworthy exceptions: Chicago’s Chess Records, for instance, was a lucrative operation, which contributed immeasurably to America’s musical panorama (see Pruter, 1996: 55-83). Less successfully, Jerry Winston, a record salesman from New York City, started Onyx Records in 1956 and stayed afloat for under two years (Fileti, 2006). Onyx produced ten sides each by the Pearls and the Velours, which form the contents of The Pearls vs. The Velours. The Dells recorded for the prominent African American-owned and run Vee-Jay Records in Chicago.
Although the Pearls’, Velours’, and early Dells’ music is frequently classified as doo wop (Gribin and Schiff, 2000: 330-31, 425, 480), it differs markedly from the doo wop that was popular from the mid-1950s onward – the Del Vikings’ “Come Go With Me” (1956) and The Elegants’ “Little Star” (1959), for example. Doo wop began around 1950 as part of the emergent r&b genre. Its first exponents derived their styles from popular vocal groups of the 1940s, such as the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, and, more importantly, from the gospel-influenced r&b of the Orioles and Billy Ward & the Dominoes. Reflecting these influences, lead vocalists in doo wop would fluctuate their timbres and syncopate their melodies, and background vocalists would differentiate the timbres of each of their parts rather than blend them into one homogenous sound.1 They would construct textures out of “nonsense syllables” (for which doo wop was named) and “blow harmonies” (wordless chords on “aah-ooh” or similar syllables). Instrumental arrangements were thick and jazzy.
Following a string of doo wop hits in 1954 and 1955, doo wop groups began to compose and sing simpler songs. Melodies contained fewer notes and variations, and syncopation was less prominent. Nonsense syllables outnumbered blow harmonies, and timbres became increasingly homogenous. Doo wop has always been associated with the so-called “doo wop progression” (I-vi-ii-V) – the basis for innumerable slow ballads and some faster numbers as well. The first doo wop songs to use this progression were often in 32-bar AABA song form, so that the four bars of “B” would provide contrasting harmonic material. Eventually, AABA song form was all but discarded, and when the doo wop progression was used, harmonic variety was scarcer. These changes probably were responses to record labels’ efforts to meet the tastes of a whiter, younger demographic: white audiences would have preferred a smoother vocal style, while teenagers would have understood simplicity.
But not all groups embraced these changes. Some remained close to “classic” r&b, and catered to an African-American audience for whom the gap between adults’ and teenagers’ music was less significant (George 1988: 68-69). This is true of the Brooklyn-based Velours. “Can I Come Over Tonight?” (1957) exemplifies their sound – its interest depends on the distinct timbres of the lead tenor (Jerome “Romeo” Ramos) and the bass (probably Charles Moffett). Both voices stand out; this allows their rhythmic interplay to be heard clearly. For the most part, their rhythms contrast yet complement each other. The bass sings shorter notes that convey a sense of motion, while the tenor sings a rhythmically free line of longer notes. At the ends of some of the lines, the bass’s rhythm contradicts the song’s 12/8 meter and provides a brief halting feeling that contributes to the song’s subtlety. “Can I Come Over Tonight?” is built on the doo wop progression, but within the framework of AABA song form; it incorporates harmonic variety atypical of mid-1950s doo wop. Throughout their half of The Pearls vs. The Velours, even in songs that iterate the doo wop progression exclusively, the Velours create interest through timbre and rhythm, despite the ostensible simplicity.
The Pearls, from Detroit, are more eclectic than the Velours; their sound is an amalgam of r&b, jump blues, doo wop, and rock ‘n’ roll. Their Onyx output contains one doo wop progression-based ballad, “Wheel of Love” (1957), but they mostly recorded jump tunes with blues-based harmonies. “I Sure Need You” (1957) begins with the thick texture of two saxophones, percussion, and the background singers’ blow harmonies. For the first line, “Everybody needs somebody,” Guyton punctuates “needs” with falsetto. This effect gives the song a frantic, unbuttoned quality, which is further intensified by Guyton’s practice of adding extra vowels to the beginnings and ends of words (“That’s why I’m-a in-a love-a with you-a!”). This is unusual in doo wop but follows a long tradition of African-American singing that can be heard on spirituals and blues recordings; it animates a number of the Pearls’ songs.
The Dells began singing in Chicago as the El Rays in the early 1950s. In 1955 they changed their name and made several recordings for Vee-Jay Records (Anderson, 2006). Like the Pearls and the Velours, they recorded not in the style of doo wop popular in the mid-1950s, but in a style of appeal to smaller African-American audiences. “Restless Days (Sleepless Nights),” for example, is constructed in a fashion similar to the doo wop hits of the 1950s, but lead tenor Johnny Funches’s tone, which suggest Percy Sledge at times, is far removed. His voice – richer than either Guyton or Ramos – gives the ballads and jump tunes on It’s Not Unusual a fuller, heartier sound than those on The Pearls vs. The Velours. He also incorporates a noticeable degree of melisma, as can be heard in the openings of “Tell the World” and the blues-based “I Wanna Go Home.” A car accident in 1958 put the Dells’ career on hiatus. They reformed in 1961, recruiting Johnny Carter to replace Funches, who had no desire to continue with the Dells. They worked with Dinah Washington on her Tears and Laughter album, recorded briefly for Chess, and returned to Vee-Jay in 1964. Their 1960s sound anticipates soul. Complex chromatic harmonies and string arrangements permeate “Poor Little Boy,” “It Looks Like It’s Over,” and “It’s Not Unusual” (made famous by Tom Jones). In a way this new sound was nascent in the melismatic earlier recordings – “I Wanna Go Home,” in particular, offers a foretaste.
Unfortunately, neither The Pearls vs. The Velours nor It’s Not Unusual provides adequate liner notes. Those for the former are sadly brief, and those for the latter, although lengthier, emphasize the people involved at the expense of their music. Still, it is better that these CDs’ deficiencies are in their packaging, rather than their contents. Both are fascinating retrospectives of vocal harmony groups that sometimes resist generic identification. Moreover, they both exemplify the dynamic, chiasmic truth of musical styles.
Anderson, Clive. Liner notes, The Dells, It’s Not Unusual: The Very Best of the Vee-Jay Years, 1955. Charly, 2006.
Fileti, Donn. Liner notes, The Pearls vs. The Velours. Empire Musicwerks 545 450 837-2, 2006.
George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm and Blues. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1988.
Gribin, Anthony J. and Matthew M. Schiff. The Complete Book of Doo-Wop. Iola, WI: Krause, 2000.
Pruter, Robert. Doowop: The Chicago Scene. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press,
Wilson, Olly. “The Heterogeneous Sound Ideal in African-American Music.” In On Music: Essays in Honor of Eileen Southern, ed. Josephine Wright with Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., 327-38 (Warren, Michigan: Harmonie Park Press, 1992).