Track 1 – Can’t Hardly Stand It Track 2 – Everybody’s Lovin’ My Baby
In the music world, earning a legendary status doesn’t necessarily stem from hits, success and riches. Such is the case with the highly influential and respected rockabilly wonder, Charles Feathers. Yet this unique talent who was there in the Sun sound booth spurring on a young Elvis, never even saw a billboard credit.
Charles Arthur Feathers was born in Slayden, Mississippi, just outside of Holly Springs, on June 12, 1932. Growing up on his parents farm, he became interested in music at a young age, singing in church and regularly tuning in to WSM’s ‘Grand Ole Opry’. The Opry was where young Charlie would find his earlier influences like Bill Monroe, but he’d was also picking up on the sounds of the Negro sharecropper’s who worked the fields in the Mississippi backwoods. One field hand in particular, Junior Kimbrough, introduced him to the acoustic guitar, providing him with valuable lessons which he eagerly absorbed.
By the age of nine, Feathers had become an adept guitarist and was beginning to develop his unique vocal style, which likely was patterned after that of his hero Bill Monroe. Honky tonk great Hank Williams’ MGM recordings of the period also impressed Charlie greatly. He could understand and appreciate the feeling in Hank’s lonesome hillbilly whine, and it soon rubbed off on him.
Charlie left school at a very early age, after the second or third grade, likely around 1948. He struggled finding any employment, so he traveled to Cairo, Illinois to work the oil pipeline’s with his father. This work later took him to Texas where Charlie, guitar in hand, hit the honky-tonks and juke joints in his spare time, providing him with valuable experience in playing the live circuit. In 1950, 18 year old Feathers moved back to Memphis where he got hitched. He also started working for a box manufacturer until a bout with spinal meningitis left him hospitalized. While bed ridden, he listened to the radio incessantly, and would emerged from his stay with drive and determination to become a professional singer.
By 1954, Feathers was working his way into the confines of Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service, with an eye toward getting something released on Sun Records. He filled in whenever and wherever he could, helping with arrangement ideas, even playing spoons on a Miller Sisters recording, Someday You Will Pay. He soon scored a very important writing credit along with engineer-steel guitarist Stan Kesler on the Elvis 7″, I Forgot to Remember to Forget. Released on August 20, 1955, this Sun 7″ is flipped with the gorgeous Junior Parker song (billed as “Little Junior’s Blue Flames” on the Nov. 1953 Sun release) Mystery Train!
Phillips decided to start up a non-union label called Flip to test out new local artists. He paired up Feathers with country session songwriter-musicians Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch, and released Charlie’s first single on that label, Peepin’ Eyes, flipped with I’ve Been Deceived. Released in April 1955, the record did reasonably well on regional charts, selling approximately 2585 copies in that first month (1). An eager Phillips brought Feathers back into the studio on November 1, 1955 for a second session.
January ’56 saw the release of titles from that session, Defrost Your Heart and Wedding Gown Of White (Sun 231). Phillips had complete faith with Feather’s latest release, but obviously disappointingly surprised with the unexpected low amount of units sold (approx. 919) this time around. The lack of success was certainly a unjust mystery, as some would say the two tracks were just as strong as Charlie’s Sun predecessor. As Feather’s contract was due to expire soon, Phillips was unwilling to renew his commitment to him for a second term, as he was now devoting much of his time to Sun’s latest stars, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, whose flames were shining far more brightly than Feathers’.
But the artist had bigger visions. Now tired of being cast in the hillbilly mould, and eager to record rockabilly, Charlie set about reforming his band in order to cut this new sound (2). Booking studio time for January 31st, the band headed to 706 Union where they cut four proto-rockabilly styled numbers, Honky Tonk Mind, So Ashamed, Frankie And Johnny and Charlie’s own Bottle To The Baby. But the shackles tying Feathers to a hillbilly stereotype proved difficult to break and the hope to convince Phillips to extend his contract with Sun for another term, seemed hopeless. But luckily for Feathers, his talent had not passed completely unnoticed.
Les Bihari, head of Sun’s cross-town rival Meteor Records, who had become aware of Charlie’s rockabilly intentions and unique talent, invited him to visit his studio on Chelsea Avenue to cut a demo session. Along with lead guitar player Jerry Huffman and Jody Chastain, who had switched from steel guitar to string bass, they laid down the two-sided rockers Tongue-Tied Jill and Get With It. Acetates of the two songs were sent back to Phillips who was, by all accounts, uninterested in either song but, particularly Tongue-Tied Jill, which he considered degrading to the vocally impaired. But Bihari on the other hand, showed a keen interest, and coupled both songs for release in June (Meteor 5032), both on a 10″ and a 7″ in 1956. Despite the quality of the record and the surprisingly good sales, royalty statements were poor, prompting Huffman to state “The first check was such a pittance. We told him (Bihari) what he could do with it”. Now, with no contract, the trio began to flounder. That is, until they were approached by Syd Nathan’s strong Ohio based independent label, King Records. Alerted by a Memphis based distributor for King who had heard the Meteor disc, Nathan dispatched King’s country division A&R head, Louis Innis, to the southern locale to audition Charlie and his band. An immediate contract was organised, and with the ink barely dry, a refreshed group were in King’s Cincinnati studio to cut their first session for the label on August 18. Four tracks were laid down with dirt and authority, and it is here that Charlie Feathers’ rockabilly flame burns best.
His gift was apparent from the beginnings, and his 1956 King releases were all shine from the get go! The first King release for Charlie is my standout Feather’s 45, with the flaming echo laden Everybody’s Lovin’ My Baby on the A side, and the infamous flipped out flip, Can’t Hardly Stand It (King 4971 October 1956).
Well, the sun’s gone down
And you’re uptown
And you’re just out runnin’ around
I can’t hardly stand it
You’re troublin’ me
I can’t hardly stand
It just can’t be
Well, you don’t know, a-babe I love you so
You got me all tore up, all tore up…
The lines are simple, but the infatuation is deep. Feathers sings this broken ballad while drunk on love, and I can’t help but feel, that if that little lady could only hear this howling call out on his six string, she would have him back in a smack! God I love this! Even his guitar feels sadness, like that of a loyal dog when he knows his master is feeling lost. One bass, one guitar and one bruised man, and you have an iconic Feathers classic. Again, many years later covered by The Cramps, and with that great electrifying shock wave manner that The Cramps do so well, but this song belongs to Feathers, and it’s him inside and out! From that same one day session, One Hand Loose and a reworked Bottle To The Baby (King 4997 December 1956) was released and is another two sider, filled with hot twangy stuttering goodness!
Very soon after, another four titles (3*) were cut in the studios on January 6th, 1957. Louis Innis oversaw the session and attempted to polish Charlie’s sound, by adding a vocal group fronted by Johnny Bragg. This cleaner “country pop” result I think it’s fair to say, didn’t really complement Feather’s style nor did it improve Charlie’s rockabilly reputation. In an attempt to expose Charlie to a wider audience and possibly sell more records, he was booked to play gigs with Sun label luminaries such as Warren Smith, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. Record sales were a defining factor to a performers success, so when Feather’s King records were still selling poorly, he was dropped from the company’s roster later that year.
Feathers had signed a one-off deal with Charlie Kahn’s Kay label in Memphis late in ’58, and traveled to the WHBQ radio studio in Memphis to lay down four sides in December. After eighteen months away from a recording studio, Charlie’s originality had not worn away, and his fire was still well and alive, as the wild and glorious Jungle Fever proves (Kay 1001). But this searing rocker, along with the other 3 tracks recorded (4*) would not see the light the of day until June 1960. Kahn did not seem to appreciate the originality of the recordings, deciding to leave them in the can for almost two years.
Maybe it was an itch, or maybe built from frustration, but Feathers took a sharp turn off the rockabilly highway in ’59, when he teamed up with former Sun session men Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch, to record two folk inspired numbers Dinky John and South Of Chicago. These refreshing songs harked back to Feathers’ Bill Monroe influence and out shone the bland, typecast folk material of the day, yet Hi label boss Joe Cuoghi declined to push the recordings. Not to be easily thwarted, Charlie hawked the songs to Walter Maynard, who eventually put the record out in July 1960 on his Wal-May label under the pseudonym of Charlie Morgan.
Feather’s would continue to release a handful more 7’s, with various willing labels. Some notables are Wild Wild Party, released in December 1961, Johnny Burnette’s Tear It Up flipped with the fab Stutterin’ Cindy, was released in ’71, and Uh Huh Honey in 1973. But by this stage of his career he was performing to ever dwindling crowds, and his priorities shifted elsewhere, like car racing and softball. As Billy Millar illustrated, “…Charlie gained such a rep around town as a top fast pitch hurler that many of his teammates were unaware of his musical exploits”. But Charlie was never far from his guitar and tape recorder. He would continue to record and perform throughout the 70’s and 80’s and even release a bunch of 7’s on his own private Feathers label, which were sold at his concerts. And in ’91 he released a self titled album, his final recording.
On August 25, 1998 Feathers suffered a stroke and was admitted to the St. Francis I.C.U in Memphis. Falling into a coma a day later, his condition deteriorated and he passed away on August 29. His passing was of course a sad loss to his family and friends, but also to his many admirers worldwide.While he may never have achieved the chart success that he well deserved, his legacy is concrete and will continue to spread tomorrow and the days after.
“Rockabilly is different. Nothin’ can touch it, man; and it don’t take a big band to do it…a lead man and a good acoustic rhythm and a big slap bass. Can’t beat it, man!” Feathers was a true die hard believer of the “religion” til the last day.
1* Shortly after the Flip disc was launched onto the market, Phillips was forced to re-release the record on Sun proper (Sun 503), as he was threatened with legal action from one Ed Wells (owner of the Flip label) over improper use of label name.
2* With steel guitarist Jody Chastain brought into the fold, and very likely Jerry Huffman as the guitarist and one Shorty Torrance as string bassist.
3* Too Much Alike, When You Come Around, When You Decide and Nobody’s Woman.
4* Why Don’t You, and Jody Chastain’s release My My with instrumental flip Jody’s Beat (Kay 1001).
Rockabilly The Twang Heard ‘Round the World – Robert Gordon
Tip Top Daddy – Charlie Feathers, His Life and his Music by Shane Hughes
Jerry Lott a.k.a. Marty Lott, was born 30 January 1938, near Mobile, Alabama, and grew up in rural Leaksville, Mississippi near the Alabama border. As a kid he played country music on the school stage, which progressed to playing at Paynas Furniture Store in Lucedale, Mississippi. Jerry started entering and winning local performing contests, which led to touring, a familiar pattern to so many other artists on this blog.
But in 1956 when Elvis Presley came along, Lott’s eyes were pried opened, and his soul was charged with rock and roll. Country music was now the yesterday sound.
But Lott had written a simple yet sweet country love song, Whisper Your Love, which he says he spent a good 3 months putting it together. In the summer of ’58, Lott’s manager Johnny Blackburn, rented some studio time over at Gulf Coast Studios in Mobile, Alabama. Lott told Derek Glenister of New Commotion magazine in 1980, that someone had asked “What you gonna put on the flipside?”. Such was the naivete and innocence of the times, Lott had honestly never even thought about it. So he and the band shot form the hip on the B side! “Someone suggested I wrote something like Elvis ’cause he was just a little on the wane and everybody was beginning to turn against rock ‘n’ roll. They said, ‘See if you spark rock ‘n’ roll a little bit.’ It wasn’t any problem at all, and I wrote Love Me in about ten minutes”.
Lott continues with his story…”Me and Johnny Blackburn worked the controls in the studio, as we didn’t want it to sound like a commercial record, that was for sure. I put all the fire and fury I could utter into. I was satisfied with the first take, but everybody said, ‘let’s try it one more time’. I didn’t yell on the first take, but I yelled on the second, and blew one of the controls off the wall. I’m telling ya, it was wild. The drummer lost one of his sticks, the piano player screamed and knocked his stool over, the guitar player’s glasses were hanging sideways over his eyes, he looked like he was hypnotized”.
The result is a lusty explosion of animalistic energy, and if it had been 20 years later, you’d call hard punk! A monster was born on that day in ’58, and to this day, it still hasn’t lost any of that almighty fury! Clocking in at around 1.30 min., it’s a fast roller coaster ride through to the depths of rock ‘n roll hell, and it feels even with the frantic energy that Lott releases here, he is struggling to keep up with the manic “full steam ahead” drive the rest of the band are pushing out. But back then, wild got you nowhere without a record deal in your hands. Manager Blackburn sat on the tapes for more than a year, unable to clench any label interest.
Lott, known at this time as The Gulf Coast Fireball, left Mobile for Los Angeles to shop his master tape around. Then one day, on a truly bizarre impulse, he trailed pop crooner Pat Boone to church one Sunday morning and convinced him to give the tape a listen. It sounds like Boone had now been converted or had some kind of other spiritual awakening soon after. It was Boone’s idea to rename Lott The Phantom, and even agreeing to issue the record on his own Cooga Mooga label (an euphemism for God, as in Great Cooga Mooga). Eventually Lott signed a contract with Boone’s management but the single Love Me b/w Whisper Your Love was released on the label Boone recorded for, Dot Records in 1960 (apparently Lott never even met anyone at Dot). It was also released with a nifty picture sleeve, which normally was reserved only for the really big stars, and which I still have to get my hands by the way.
The song Love Me was appropriately covered by The Cramps in the late 70’s and released on both the Drug Train 7″ in ’80, and on the Bad Music For Bad People Lp in 84. The raucous romp is so very suited for Lux and Co., as can be seen in early footage from June of 1978, when they played at the California State Mental Hospital in Napa, CA.
But the deserved success story never really amounted for Lott, and in fact life instead, would soon drag him down into a darker chapter. Sadly in 1965, Jerry’s wife took her own life, and shortly thereafter, in 1966, while still attempting to tour, The Phantom was involved in a near fatal auto accident in York, South Carolina. After his car tumbled 600 feet down a mountainside he was left paralyzed below the neck. Lott continued to write songs, but he never recorded again.
But you know what…plenty of “rockers” since, have been signed and have had deals, have hit the big stages and have recorded hundreds of hours of material, yet the majority, if not all of those songs, would crumble in fear if they came up against the wild young reckless animal that is Love Me! Jerry Lott passed away on September 4th, 1983 at the age of 45.
Jerry Lott (The Phantom) – Vocals
Frank Holmes – Electric Guitar
Pete McCord – Bass Guitar
H.H. Brooks – Drums
Bill Yates – Piano
Referencing and interests…
Rockabilly – The Twang Heard ‘Round The World – published 2011, Voyageur Press.
Well for this post it was actually not too difficult to find some strong reference and facts (which is a nice change), for this featured artist who is the dazzling Wanda Jackson. The difficulty this time was instead, trying to chose which 7″ to feature, as she has just so many that thrill me! I’ve decided to go with the glorious Japanese picture covered dancer Fujiyama Mama.
Wanda Lavonne Jackson was born on October 20, 1937, to Tom Robert Jackson and Nellie Vera Jackson, in Maud, a small town on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. Her father, who himself was a country singer, moved the family to Bakersfield, California in 1941, in hopes of a better life, by escaping the poverty created by the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. He was also a guitar player and a fiddle player, but in a time of deep and sad depressing surrounds, once little baby Wanda came along, he couldn’t continue with his music.
Wanda’s father noticed that his little young Wanda showed an interest in music, so he bought his only child that first musical instrument. Wanda recalls to Craig Morrison in the book Rockabilly The Twang Heard ‘Round The World, “When I was about six, he bought me a little guitar – it had the Uncle Sam hat on it because it was wartime. He put it in my hands and eventually I could reach around and he started teaching me chords”. He gave her lessons, taught her plenty of Jimmie Rodgers songs, and encouraged her to play piano, and in addition, he took her to see such acts as Tex Williams, Spade Cooley, and Bob Wills, which left a lasting impression on her impressionable young mind.
Tom moved the family back to Oklahoma City when his daughter was 12 years old. In 1952, she won a local talent contest and was given the prize of her very own 15 minute daily show on KLPR. The program soon after extended her spot to 30 minutes, which lasted throughout Jackson’s high school years. It was through this radio exposure that Jackson was discovered by country star Hank Thompson, who invited her to sing with his band, the Brazos Valley Boys. She began performing with them on weekends.
In 1954, she recorded the single You Can’t Have My Love, a duet with bandleader Billy Gray, which hit No. 8 on the country charts. Thompson tried to get her signed with Capitol Records, but Ken Nelson, a company producer, said “Girls don’t sell records,” so Jackson signed with Decca instead, recording a good batch of singles for the label between 1954 to 1956.
Jackson insisted on finishing high school before hitting the road, and when she did, her father became her road manager and traveled by her side. While her mother stayed back and continued to work, somehow on top of that, she found time to make and help design Wanda’s stage outfits. “I was the first one to put some glamour in the country music…fringe dresses, high heels, long earrings,” Jackson said of these outfits. When she first toured in 1955 and 1956, she was placed on the Ozark Jubilee tour that featured many up and coming acts including Elvis Presley. The two hit it off almost immediately and actually dated for a brief time. Jackson said it was Presley, along with her father, who influenced and encouraged her to sing rockabilly.
In 1956, Jackson finally signed with Capitol, and one of her first 45’s has one of my favourite rockabilly B-sides Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad. It’s a cracker! The next year Jackson cut the rockabilly hit Fujiyama Mama, penned by Earl Burrows. Jackson told country music expert Rich Kienzle that she first became aware of the inflammatory tune when she heard R&B artist Annisteen Allen‘s 1954 version playing on a juke box when she was still in school in 1955. Jackson recalls that she “just flipped over it.” Burrows’ lyrics demonstrate that the bombings in Japan a decade earlier, were still viewed as being an impressive display of American might, without any consideration given to the moral implications of the devastating destruction which was unleashed onto the enemy. It is only now that I’m featuring this song (this Japan pressing comes with the lyrics…if you’re lucky) and as I read the lines, do I wonder how this song could have been taken so lightly, and how would it go down today. Sensitivity versus tongue in cheek. In the end, it’s really just a damn good dance floor country stomper, with some very fiery vocals, sexy attitude and flammable one liners.
I drink a quart of sake, smoke dynamite!
I chase it with tobbacy and then shoot out the lights!
Well you can talk about me, say that I’m mean!
I’ll blow your head off baby with nitroglycerine!
Well you can say I’m crazy, so deaf and dumb!
But I can cause destruction just like the atom bomb!
‘Cause I’m a Fujiyama Mama
And I’m just about to blow my top!
And when I start erupting,
Ain’t nobody gonna make me stop!
Ironically, the song was a major hit in Japan and Jackson was treated like a dignitary when she toured there briefly in 1959. There are a few other versions of Fujiyama Mama that are totally enjoyable, one in particular released just after Allen’s version in 1955, by the very cutesy Eileen Barton, that has absolutely nothing wrong with it at all! For a punkish version, check Pearl Harbour‘s spin from 1981, and for something quite cheeky and off beat, go to Petty Booka‘s take, released in 1996, which sadly isn’t available on a 7″.
Jackson’s relationship with Capitol lasted until the early ’70s and in that time she released some “must have” 7 inches. Hot ones that I would suggest you add to your collection (as if you don’t already have them) are… the 1961 release Funnel of Love, B side to Jackson’s major country-pop single Right Or Wrong, the remarkable and favourite popcorn number Whirlpool from 1962, and the Elvis cover Hard Headed Woman which you can find on a french and Aussie 45 if you dig deep enough (likely pressed 1961). Another popular cut would be Let’s Have a Party, yet another Elvis cut, which was a U.S. Top 40 pop hit for her in 1960, after which she began calling her band the Party Timers. There’s also the fiery, violent My Big Iron Skillet from ’69, which humorously (perhaps) threatened death or assault for cheating on a spouse, made her a top 20 hit!
Jackson’s popularity bounced back and forth between country and rockabilly; she did this by often putting one song in each style on either side of a single. This is certainly the case with the flip of Fujiyama, which has the slow country ditty No Wedding Bells For Joe. As rockabilly declined in popularity in the mid-1960s, she moved to a successful career in mainstream country music with a string of hits between 1966 and 1973, including Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine, A Woman Lives for Love and Fancy Satin Pillows.
Wanda was a big attraction in Las Vegas from the mid ’50’s into the ’70s, and toured regularly, and in fact still does. She married IBM supervisor Wendell Goodman in 1961, and instead of quitting the business, as many women singers had done at the time, Goodman, like a good man, instead gave up his job in order to manage his wife’s career. Jackson followed Kitty Wells‘ lead as only the second country female vocalist to have her own syndicated television show, Music Village, from 1967 to ’68.
Obviously I’ve only touched here, on the talent and the star quality that is Wanda Jackson. Don’t be surprised if she turns up here again with another smokin’ 7″, cause as I said, she was packin’ them!
In 2009, Wanda Lavonne Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
References and interests…
Rockabilly – The Twang Heard ‘Round The World – published 2011, Voyageur Press.
Express Compact ETP-4277 Japan 1970
Track 2 – A1 Yoru Ga Aketara
Maki Asakawa was a born in Ishikawa Prefecture, January 27, 1942. After graduating high school she worked as a civil servant for a short time before moving to Tokyo to pursue a far more inspirational career in music. She started by playing at United States military bases and cabarets, where she refined her style, which she says was largely influenced by Blues queens such as Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson.
In 1967 Asakawa made her debut recording, releasing Tokyo Banka with B side Amen Jiro on Victor. In 1968, Asakawa got her big break when she appeared for three days running at the Shinjuku underground theater known as Sasoriza, a project of underground playwright Shuji Terayama. She soon signed with Toshiba, and by the next year had released the very, VERY cool and slick Yo ga aketara (At the Break of Dawn) and Kamome (Gull) on Toshiba’s subsidiary Express label.
1970 saw this featured Asakawa release, which has as the B2 track, Chicchana Toki Kara. This wonderful, yet not easy to find EP, has to be my favourite from Maki, with it’s big beat drive, high energy horns and cinematic production. Every time I play this I get comments as to how hasn’t Tarantino used this track for one of his movies. It’s 70’s sex, has a good amount of sting, and would be the ideal punch for a strong femme fatale introduction. And having the slow swinging Yo Ga Aketara as the opening track makes this 7″ a real delight (that distant train at the end…I mean really, what a way to see out such a cool track). Just the thought of seeing this performed in a dark underground club of Tokyo by Maki and that time just does my head in. The smoke, the black, the neons and the distant traffic outside…not too difficult to visualize. But this wasn’t just a time for Asakawa’s musical exploration.
In 1971, Asakawa made her big screen debut when she played the stairway prostitute in Shuji Terayama’s experimental Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets. It was the first film for poet-playwright Terayama, and it was about an angst-ridden teen who hits the streets after dealing with his dysfunctional family. This hard to find movie has a strong underground following due to it’s non-linear Avant-Garde vision and amazing pre-punk psychedelic soundtrack. Asakawa’s recording of Nemuru No ga kowai is included amongst the tracks, and can also be found on her 1971 Maki II album, which by the way also include covers of Gin House Blues and The House Of The Rising Sun. That great LP also happens to include the incredible psychedelic Govinda (there should be a link below)…such a stand out Asakawa composition! The next year in ’72, Asakawa would release Blue Spirit Blues, and again here her voice somehow feels so right within the warm minor chords.
In 1973 Asakawa would this time hit the small screen on the dark Japanese TV Series Kyôfu Gekijô Umbalance. From what I can put together, she appeared in season 1 episode 7, and I’m almost certain the link below is the clip from that episode, where she plays herself singing Yo Ga Aketara, on a cinema screen in a dark seedy theater, and with the dark seedy characters to match.
Over the next 30 or so years, Asakawa recorded quite a lot of records, but it wasn’t all dark moody blues and folk jazz. I discovered the Catnap album through a favourite blog, Interstellar Medium – Foriegn Lavish Sounds, which you should hit up, for a far more detailed look into the great album. Released in 1982, it’s a colourful, bold yet smooth collision of electronic jazz funk post punk plus, and for myself, it was so exciting to discover this side of Asakawa. The opening track Kurai Me Wo Shita Joyuu and also Shinkyoku B are real high lights, if I was forced to choose. This album holds up to quite high to today’s very standard standards in my opinion.
As Maki Asakwa grew older, she never stopped performing live. Just before an appearance on January 15-17, 2010 where she had a concert in Nagoya, she died of heart failure before the show could go on. She was 67.
References and inspirations…
Track 1 – Tobago Track 2 – The Old Boat
Ever feeling like going away…far, far away? Sometimes the best trips are only as far as your record player. I have wanted share eden ahbez for some time on this blog, but the man was mysterious, you could even say mythical. Meaning there’s just not a lot out there to be found on this ahbez’s life.
Thankfully Brian Chidester’s elaborate Eden’s Island blog unveils a bit about the man, although after going through it all, you still want to know more. I’m so thankful that there are people out there spending the time documenting their knowledge and experiences with these disappearing artists. With some other news articles and such, here’s a brief summary of what I could put together, on eden ahbez and in particular, the story that leads to this 7″.
George Alexander Aberle was born, along with his twin sister Editha, on 15 April 1908, in Brooklyn, New York, to a Jewish father and a Scottish-English mother. Born in the depression, orphaned along with 12 other siblings, he spent his early years in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York. He was then adopted, in 1917, by a family in Chanute, Kansas, and raised under the name George Mc Grew. During the 1930s, he lived in Kansas, where he performed as a pianist and dance band leader. But he didn’t stay long. He never stayed at any place for very long. He figured he didn’t fit into any prefabricated niches of society. He read books on Far Eastern cultures and philosophies and adopted the concept of a universal God. Then he was at home in the world. He hopped freight trains and waked across the country many times, and absorbed the echos of life around him. It’s probable he lived in New York City for some time, although little is known of that period of his life.
ahbez ventured to Hollywood, because he heard that’s where you go if you have a song…
Around 1940, Aberle arrived in Los Angeles and began washing dishes and playing live piano at the Eutropheon, a small health food store and raw food restaurant on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. The cafe was owned by John and Vera Richter, German immigrants who followed a Naturmensch and Lebensreform (1.) philosophy influenced by the Wandervogel (2.) movement in Germany. John Richter gave lectures throughout the Greater Los Angeles area during the 1940s, and some of the employees at the Eutropheon were young Americans who’d adopted his transcendentalist philosophy.
These followers, known as “Nature Boys” and who included Robert “Gypsy Boots” Bootzin, wore long hair and beards and ate only raw fruits and vegetables, a lifestyle that would be influential on the hippie movement that was to come, in California. During this period, Aberle adopted the name eden ahbez, choosing to spell his name with lower-case letters, claiming that only the words God and Infinity were worthy of capitalization. He is also said to have desired the A and Z (alpha and omega), the beginning and the end, in his surname, but he was known to friends simply as ahbe. During this period, he wore long unkempt hair, a bronze beard and a flowing white toga with leather sandals. ahbez would soon met Anna Jacobson, who became his wife and the mother of his only child, Zoma.
Nature Boy – In 1947, ahbez approached Nat King Cole’s manager backstage at the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles and handed him the music for a song he wrote (some say it was he’s valet that passed on the piece of sheet music to Nat). That song was Nature Boy, and Cole began playing the song for live audiences to much acclaim, but he needed to track down its author before releasing his recording of it. Legend has it, that he, along with his wife, were discovered living under the first L of the famous Hollywood sign. He would became the focus of a media frenzy when Cole’s version of ahbez’s composition shot to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and remained there for eight consecutive weeks during the summer of 1948. Just for the record, Capitol Records sat on the recording for about a year, then finally put out the track as a B-side to Lost April.
ahbez was covered simultaneously in Life, Time, and Newsweek magazines. Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan later released versions of the song. ahbez also faced legal action from Yiddish musical composer, Herman Yablokoff, who claimed that the melody to Nature Boy came from one of his songs, Shvayg mayn harts (Be Still My Heart). ahbez claimed to have “heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains.” There’s also reports that ahbez told the press that he’d heard the melody in the solitude of a cave, a notion he reiterated throughout his life. However, legal proceedings resulted in a payment to Yablokoff of $25,000 in an out-of-court settlement. (3.)
Soon after Nature Boy hit the top of the charts, R.K.O. Pictures optioned the rights to turn the song into a feature-length movie script, which likely melded into the late 1948 film, Boy with the Green Hair, a bizarre war time tale directed by Joseph Losey, starring Dean Stockwell. The picture featured Nature Boy throughout, and ahbez’s name was amongst the first in the opening credit roll.
ahbez continued to supply Cole with songs, including Land of Love (Come My Love and Live with Me), which was also covered by Doris Day and The Ink Spots, but unfortunately, none of these versions brought in any real success. For a brief period, some of the biggest jazz and pop artists of the day took an interest in working with ahbez, and recorded his songs for major American record labels. In 1950, ahbez’s own Nature Boy Orchestra released End of Desire b/w California, the latter was also recorded by Hoagy Carmichael, re-titled Sacramento, about a vagabond traveling the California coast by freight train. End of Desire was recorded by April Stevens & also Jack Powers, backed by another ahbez original, Guitar Totin’ Cowboy. ahbez would also collaborate with Wayne Shanklin during the 1950s, and together they came up with Hey Jacque, released in 1954 by Eartha Kitt. B-side to Kitt’s holiday hit, This Year’s Santa Baby, thousands of homes unknowingly had another ahbez ballad on their hands if they’d only turned the record over. ahbez also worked closely with jazz musician Herb Jeffries, and in ’54, the pair collaborated on an album, The Singing Prophet, which included the only recording of ahbez’s four-part Nature Boy Suite.
Throughout the ’50s ahbez continued recording with prominent black artists, including Sam Cooke, whose 1958 Lonely Island would be the second and final ahbez composition to hit the Top 40. Gene Chandler also recorded an almost identical version of that very song, that same year. In 1958 ahbez produced a doo-wop version of Nature Boy by R&B vocal group the Shields, featuring Jesse Belvin. R&B singer George “Biggie” McFadden recorded ahbez’s The Lesson of Love for Jackpot Records in 1958 too. In an interview with the Associated Press from June ’58, ahbez called Lesson his true follow-up to Nature Boy, insisting that he was also writing a “rock ‘n’ roll spiritual.”
In US mainstream, the strong tiki culture had introduced “exotica” music, a crossover between smooth jazz and Latin swing, with haunting melodies rooted in folklore sounds from different parts of the world. Often there were sound effects that would create an almost spooky jungle or dreamy island beach atmosphere, and even today it’s so easy to be completely taken away while listening to some of the Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman masterpieces of that time. ahbez’s first foray into the instrumental genre came in 1956, with three compositions he wrote for Bob Romeo & his Jungle Sextet’s Aphro-Desia LP. The tracks were Lisbon Street Dance, Zen and Sahara. The album jacket was graced by Anita Ekberg wearing a gypsy costume, and the cover also warned that the primitive rhythms therein could arouse uncommon emotions for the unaccustomed listener. Bob Romeo met ahbez’s Middle Eastern chord structures with proto-exotica percussion and abstract flute tones, with guidance from West Coast cool jazz giant Laurindo Almeida on guitar.
Eden’s Island – It was in 1960 when ahbez finally took an opportunity to record his full length solo album, Eden’s Island (Del-Fi Records). He had spoken of a “spiritual song cycle” as far back as 1958 in an interview with the Associated Press, and often performed bongo, flute and poetry gigs at L.A. beatnik coffee-houses such as the Insomniac Café (Hermosa Beach) and the Gas House (Venice Beach). ahbez approaches the field of exotica music from a different point of view, creating an epic concept album about an utopian society living in peace and harmony on an island far away from the modern western world as we know it. He would also utilize unusual combinations of instruments (flutes, bongos, vibes) and sound effects like creaking boats to conjure up the aural equivalent of a tropical breeze, but unlike Denny or Lyman, ahbez often added his own spoken poetry, speaking of coves, paradise, and other idyllic subjects. Eden’s Island seemed to be the grandiose summation of ahbez’s philosophic idealism.
The 7″ released from this album actually has a twist with the A side, in that it is an instrumental version of the opening and title track of the LP. I personally find this version, title Tobago on the 45, more pleasing. It’s pure escapism with it’s wind through the trees and the faraway birds. It’s not too difficult to picture ahbez’s figure standing distant on an far island hill, but close enough to make out his robe and hair slowly blowing through the salty wind, as he plays his wooden flute…and this weaving and undulating melody. On the B side is The Boat Song, as it is laid down on the LP. Again here, the listener is transported, however this time, the journey is further away, deep into the far ocean, but it still carries with a lovely rhythmic sway. Perfect track to listen to after a long night out DJ’ing or dancing, when you’ve just come home and you’re feeling completely wrecked! Chances are you’ll be completely lost into a peaceful state of sleepful bliss by the time the track is done…and it’s likely 8 hours later you’ll wake up to the crackling needle wearing down on the turntable.
Very grateful to have a 7″ release from the unique Eden’s Island album, especially with these two tracks. And while the whole LP is a journey that probably should be taken continuously from beginning to end, Full Moon, Banana Boy, and the prophetic La Mar all a big thumbs up from me. But was the world ready to take a trip out to Eden’s Island in 1960? Well, according the record’s producer Bob Keane, the album sold less than 500 copies. Adding another reason why it’s now a quite sort after record for a lot of exotica collectors. After this album, ahbez’s appearance on vinyl became thin.
During the ’60s, he did release a handful of singles on various labels. Surfer John (flipped with John John), is an amusing and snappy shot of surf-exotica by Nature Boy & Friends (Bertram International Records) that tells a brief tale of a surfer who wasn’t afraid of taking on the largest of waves, well until until one fatal day that is. The kooky Yes, Master (b/w Jungle Bungalow), by Don Carson & the Casuals (Bertram International Records) is also witty and includes sound disciplinary clapping that sounds more like spanking to me. In 1960, there was also quite an illustrious operatic version of Nature Boy (b/w Lonely King of Rock and Roll) by Don Reed & “The Voice Of Love” Lorelei, that is truly wondrous (A&R Records). The novelty tune titled Mr. K by John Bean (Reprise Records) from 1963, with burps and all, makes you wonder can it get any more bizarre?
Anna Ahbez died in 1964, at the young age of 35, from cancer. Footage of her funeral shows family members and friends looking on as ahbez sits crossed-legged by Anna’s gravestone, playing a gong, and reciting some unknown words (the footage being silent). Zoma Ahbez died of a drug overdose in 1969, having been found seated in a lotus position. Some have claimed foul play was involved.
From 1970 onward, ahbez himself released very little. After Elvis Presley’s death in August 1977, ahbez’s old songwriting partner, P. Sterling Radcliffe (aka Don Sterling, aka Don Reed), re-recorded The Lonely King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a tune the pair had written and released in 1960, as a new single on Via Records; Radcliffe left ahbez off the credits.
Anbez passed away on March 4, 1995 due to injuries incurred from an auto accident. At the time of his death, ahbez had been working on a book and album titled The Scriptures of the Golden Age. The overnight smash, Nature Boy, is best remembered for its universal benediction, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” It has since been covered by literally thousands of artists, including Miles Davis, Grace Slick, and David Bowie. Congressman Bill Aswad recited the lyrics before the Vermont House of Representatives at the passing of his state’s same-sex marriage bill in ’09.
1. Lebensreform (“life reform”) was a social movement in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Germany and Switzerland that propagated a back-to-nature lifestyle, emphasizing among others healthy raw organic foods, nudism, sexual liberation, alternative medicine, and religious reform and at the same time abstention from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and vaccines
2. Wandervogel is the name adopted by a popular movement of German youth groups from 1896 onward. The name can be translated as rambling, hiking, or wandering bird, and the ethos is to shake off the restrictions of society and get back to nature and freedom. Soon the groups split and there originated ever more organisations, which still all called themselves Wandervogel, but were organisationally independent.
3. To that end it is worth noting that the first two measures of the song’s melody also parallel the melody of the second movement in Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A, Op. 81 (1887). It is unknown if ahbez and/or Yablokoff were familiar with Dvořák’s piece, or if they arrived at the same melodic idea independently.
Again I have to mention how useful Brian Chidester’s elaborate Eden’s Island website was for this post. Please do visit it for a far more in-depth reading on abhez and the life around him. Also referencing…
Track 1 – Number 9 Train Track 2 – Wildcat Tamer
Alden Bunn, aka Allen Bunn, Tarheel Slim, was born in the country side outside of Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1924, and grew up working in the tobacco fields and listening to his mom’s Blind Boy Fuller 78’s. Eventually he learned to play guitar, and by around 20, was singing and playing in church right by Thurman Ruth, the leader of a local gospel quartet called the Selah Jubilee Singers. But before we ride on the Number 9 Train, there was quite a journey that “Slim” lead, with other groups and ventures, that we should know about.
THE JUBILATORS – THE LARKS
The story of The Larks begins sometime around 1927, when singer Thermon Ruth founded the Selah Jubilee Singers in Brooklyn, New York. Later in the 40’s, The Selah’s based themselves in North Carolina where they had a radio show…a daily program of jubilee music that aired over WPTF in Raleigh. In 1945, Ruth tried to persuade Eugene Mumford (from The Four Interns) to join the Selah Jubilee Singers, but before he could do so, Mumford was falsely charged and convicted with quite an ugly crime (1*). His incarceration would put his life on an unpleasant hold.
Allen Bunn who had joined The Southern Harmonaires in 1945, soon joined Thermon Ruth in the Selah Jubilee Singers as the group’s guitarist and second lead singer. The group recorded for Decca from 1939 to ’44, with their most well remembered recording I Want Jesus To Walk Around. Three years later, Ruth and Bunn decided to break away to form a new group, The Jubilators. They linked up with Mumford, now released from prison, and with three members of The Southern Harmonaires, David McNeil, Hadie Rowe Jr., and Raymond “Pee Wee” Barnes.
Thermon hired two teachers to get them into shape according to his standards, and for a few months they were taught how to sing together and also got a few lessons on stage presence. The Jubilators then competed against other gospel and jubilee groups in the state, even winning a 50 pound cake in a contest with the Selah Jubilee Singers!
Finally, the Jubilators decided it was time to get on record. So all six of them piled into Bunn’s car and drove up to New York. They stayed with some of Ruth’s relatives on 143rd Street in Harlem and for about a week they rehearsed constantly. Then, on October 5, 1950, they were ready, and they set out for what was possibly the most amazing day of recording in history. In one single day, they recorded 17 songs for four different labels, under four different names (2*). Apollo owner Bess Berman recognised the realm of possibilities, and signed them to a contract which allowed the other companies to release the other recordings, but wanted to promote them as an expansive R&B group rather than a gospel group. So the Jubilators faded into history (at least for several years), and “The Five Larks” emerged (even though there were still six of them). Thermon Ruth deliberately selected the name to fit in with the Ravens and Orioles, as a “bird group.”
The Larks were then booked on their first tour, and drove down to Washington, D.C., when they lost Hadie Rowe to the army (after receiving his draft notice, he was no longer able to continue on with the group…this probably is the reason why the “5” was dropped from the group’s name). In December 1950, they had their first session for Apollo, featuring Mumford on lead vocals. The session produced two masters, Coffee, Cigarettes And Tears and a cover of My Heart Cries For You (3*), but in the end, the recording didn’t even hint at the greatness inherent in the group. But on January 18, 1951, they returned to the studios to cut a couple of new tracks, which would prove far more successful and are really now Larks “classics”. With Gene on the lead once again, they laid down It’s Breaking My Heart (a pretty ballad that Apollo chose never to issue), When I Leave These Prison Walls, and Hopefully Yours. The latter two songs had been written by Gene when he was in jail and show a certain hope for the future.
On February 14, 1951, they got national exposure by singing Lucy Brown on the Perry Como TV show, a Norfolk Jazz Quartet original, which was recorded in 1938 and known as Suntan Baby Brown. Their take is a much more upbeat snappier version, and it’s dynamite! While Thermon would sing lead on the recorded version, it’s Gene out in front on the Como show. Please I beg you, look it up on you tube…Allen Bunn plays the guitar, but rarely opens his mouth to sing. If you’re into 78’s, try and get Lucy Brown as it has the great I Ain’t Fattening Frogs For Snakes on the flip.
Finally chart success would come later in 1951, with the bluesy Eyesight To The Blind, with Bunn on lead vocals and guitar… it made # 5 on the R&B charts. This was followed up by another R&B top ten hit Little Side Car, a reworking of Smokey Hogg’s Too Many Drivers, and again with Bunn on lead vocals. This is one sweet 45 and has the drifting Hey, Little Girl on the flip.
Another standout track that has to be mentioned is Shadrack written by Robert MacGimsey in 1938. While Louis Prima, Louis Armstrong and even The Wanderers all do amazing versions of this biblical classic, The Lark’s jiving version is so super! Again live footage out there with Allen Bunn singing lead! This period was the height of The Larks’ popularity, however, Bunn decided this was also the right time to go out own his own.
Going Solo – His first solo sessions were for Apollo in ’51 where he recorded two sessions that produced four singles, and were issued under the name Allen Bunn (accompanied by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee). Amongst the recordings were The Guy With The .45, Wine, Discouraged, Baby I´m Going to Throw You Out and the very down and dirty Two Time Loser. He was still touring with The Larks when he cut his first session for Bobby Robinson Red Robin label. One of these tracks is the amazing Too Much Competition (reissued in ’73), which stands mighty and tall, and you could call it the big brother to Betty James’ I’m a Little Mixed Up (it really makes me wonder sometimes, if that is in fact Bunn on that killer Betty James track).
The Lovers – Around 1955, Bunn married his sweetheart Lee Sanford, who were intertwined with deep love and affection for one another, but they also shared a strong musical chemistry. “Little Ann” and Bunn sang and recorded together, first as The Lovers, for Lamp, Aladdin’s subsidiary in 1957. Together the tight partnership would go on to release a string of 45’s for other labels including Fire, Fury and Port. They’d also have name variations on some releases, and while Bunn was now pretty much going by the name “Tarheel Slim”, his writing credits were mainly represented as Bunn. The earlier Lovers tracks were slow dancers and appropriately very cutesy love songs. Once they ditched the “Lovers” tag, I feel it was then, that they got a bit more “down with it” so to speak. Can’t Stay Away and the charming dancer Security, proved they both could let their hair down some and get a bit shakey. The heart wrenching 1959 It’s Too Late, is a stunning blues ballad with a broken hearted poor little Ann weeping hysterically… literally (this song would get a reworking as Two Time Loser a few years later, only this time it’s Slim who breaks down). I Submit To You is also high on recommendation.
Bunn also released a couple of 45’s with a group called The Wheels whom he evidently managed. Let’s Have A Ball was on Premium in 1956 and the upbeat Clap Your Hands was released on Folly in 1959.
Tarheel Slim – So now to the real reason why we’re here reading all this. While “Slim” made his official entrance in 1958 with his wife Little Ann, it was the next year when he would release his solo and most desired red hot screamin’ 45 on Fury. The A side Wildcat Tamer is a perfect rhythm and blues dancer. Nice and raw and perfectly tempo-ed. But despite the track name, it’s more of a tempting entree of what’s to come steaming your way when you journey to the flipside. And the monster that awaits is named Number 9 Train. Tarheel’s vocals and rhythm here is sharp and classic blues rocker material. But there’s another element going on here underneath, that’s adding even more to the fire, and the name of that wild spark is Wild Jimmy Spruill. Although session guitarist Spruill is best known as a sideman (4*), he was a wild and sought after guitar player. His sound was unconventional, notable for its hard attack and sense of freedom, unexpectedly going from assertive lead parts to rhythmically dynamic, scratching rhythms. At no time did Spruill use picks or any effects on his guitar – his sound was solely the result of his fingers. You can hear more of his impeccable finger work on his solo recordings, notably Hard Grind from ’59, The Rooster and Cut and Dried from ’64 and I believe he also played on Tarheel Slim’s Security. Together these two cats mix up a storm, and make both sides of this 45 hard to pass. Train really does come to life when it’s up loud on a worthy amplifier…and preferably with a dance floor close by!
Unfortunately Taheel Slim and Little Ann’s career seemed to fade away around the early 60’s and nothing was heard from them until the early 70’s when blues researcher Peter Lowery dug up Tarheel Slim to play a few gigs where he performed with an acoustic guitar in the style of “folk blues”. Slim played a few festivals in 1974 and was well received, and even got back into the studio and would release a couple albums for Pete Lowry’s Trix label, which harked back to Bunn’s Carolina blues heritage. The 1972 single release No Time At All is a beautiful melon collie finger picking instrumental which I believe was his last 45. These later sessions would prove his last. In 1977 he was diagnosed with throat cancer and died from pneumonia brought on by the chemotherapy.
(1*) On July 1945, Mumford had been arrested and jailed by the army Military Police who were rousting people looking for marijuana. They turned him over to civilian authorities, whom he satisfied of his innocence. But just as he was leaving police headquarters, a white woman pointed him out as a recogniseable criminal. Subsequently re-arrested, he was charged with attempted rape, housebreaking, and assault. The case took a year to come to trial and, in spite of an alibi, he was found guilty, a conviction that was upheld in the subsequent appeal. Sent to prison, Mumford spent two and a half years on a prison work gang. Finally, enough evidence came to light that he was granted a full pardon from the governor of North Carolina. (This was treated as a miracle; a black man in the 1940s South being pardoned after having been accused by a white woman.) On June 1949, after having served 29 months in jail, Gene Mumford was a free man. For a more detailed account of his sentence, click onto Marv Goldberg’s in-depth Larks entry below.
(2*) Initially, billing themselves as the Selah Jubilee Singers, they recorded four gospel songs for Jubilee Records, before moving on to record as The Jubilators for Regal Records in New Jersey. Then they drove to Newark, recording four secular blues songs, including Lemon Squeezer, as The 4 Barons for Savoy Records. Finally, they drove back to Apollo Records in Manhattan, where, as The Southern Harmonaires, they recorded four more gospel tracks. For a more detailed account of this day, click onto Marv Goldberg’s in-depth Larks entry below.
(3*) My Heart Cries For You was a hit for Guy Mitchell, Dinah Shore and Vic Damone.
(4*) Other notable Wild Jimmy Spruill moments are The Happy Organ by Dave “Baby” Cortez, Wilbert Harrison’s Kansas City, and Bobby Lewis’s no.1 hit Tossin’ and Turnin, which by the way, Peter Criss from KISS covered on his solo album! Also check out Dale Hawkins version of Number 9 Train!
Referencing and recommendations…
The Larks photo from top left clockwise…Allen Bunn, Gene Mumford, Raymond Barnes, Thermon Ruth and David McNeil
Slave Girl (Side 2 Track 2)
While this is a far lesser known track from the Farina brothers, this exotic sultry instro has to be my fav from this talented duo! And to find it on a 45, means I can now take it with me everywhere I go.
Farina brothers, Santo Anthony & John Steven, were born in Brooklyn, New York, just 4 years apart. Santo, the elder, was born October 24, 1937 and then Johnny followed, April 30, 1941. The boys were young when their Dad was drafted into the army and stationed in Oklahoma. One evening on the radio, he heard this beautiful accent while listening to country and western…it was the sound of the steel guitar. He wrote home to his wife and said “I’d like the boys to learn to play this instrument”. When he returned from the war they searched out for a man who could get them started with the steel. The boys, I imagine, probably jumped for the opportunity. What kid doesn’t want to play a guitar of sorts?
But although their dad was super keen to have the boys learn that very particular style that carried those unyielding memories, and although he was successful in finding a lap steel guitar somewhere in a music store in Brooklyn, there was no certainty that the right teacher who had the specific skills would materialize. After a few failed attempts from baffled music school tutors, who just lacked the know-how to master the “sound”, their frustrated dad searched himself and eventually found an authentic Hawaiian musician with the skills. The brothers finally had a teacher with the expertise, and thanks to some Italian food coaxing, he would tutor the boys at their own home. After about 5 months, the teacher headed back to Hawaii, and the brothers never saw him again, but he had left behind enough of his teachings for Santo and Johnny to now take flight…and spread their wings they did.
When Johnny reached the age of twelve, he began to play accompaniment to Santo on a standard electric guitar (his big brother helped him learn to play). Their supportive father had bought them a Webcor tape recorder, and encourage them to write their own material and record everything. The brothers eventually formed a duo and became rather popular in school, soon started performing at church dances, weddings, clubs and other events in the New York boroughs. The Farina brothers began to gather fans from Brooklyn to Long Island.
In 1958, Mike Dee & The Mello Tones (Santo Farina on steel guitar; Johnny Farina on electric guitar and with their uncle Mike Dee on drums) recorded a self-penned instrumental which they called Deep Sleep. Loosely inspired by the song Softly, As In The Morning Sunrise (Sigmund Romberg, 1929), it had the same chord progression but a simpler melody line. Deep Sleep would in time become Sleep Walk.
The determined younger brother, Johnny, made the rounds of the New York record companies searching for a publishing deal, with a couple of their recorded demos in hand. His persistence and determination paid off and they got lucky with Canadian American Records, who signed them to a song writer’s contract. Although grateful I’m sure, it was a recording deal which is what they were really chasing, and soon enough the opportunity was granted to them. Their first release in 1959 was consummated, and it was called Sleep Walk. And did it do well? Umm…yes it did! It was recorded at Trinity Records in Manhattan and entered Billboard’s ‘Top 40’ on August 17, 1959. The moody eerie composition rose to the No.1 position on the American charts, for two weeks in September, and remained in the ‘Top 40’ list until November 9. There’s a great live version from ’59 on the Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show, on youtube I recommend you looking for.
Santo and Johnny actually wrote lyrics to Sleepwalk, and after the instrumental was a hit song, Betsy Brye (real name is Bette Anne Steele) released a beautiful “lynchesque” vocal version as a single in 1959 (Canadian American Records 106), which did not chart on the Hot 100, but damn I like it! At first it was believed that the composition was written at 2.am early one morning, when one brother woke the other with an idea. But a recent interview with Johnny reveals that it was a long and constant progression of revisited ideas that finally got them the hit.
The follow-up song “Tear Drop” was also a hit, though their self titled LP released that same year, was less successful in the United States. But that takes nothing away from the lp, which was arranged and conducted by Bob Davie, who had been the guiding hand to all of Santo and Johnny’s musical activities. It included some fabulous interpretations of well known ditties such as Caravan, Raunchy, Dream, and there’s even a take on Chuck Berry’s School Days. And you have to hear the wildly hypnotic version of Summertime. But the standout for me at least, has to be the self penned Slave Girl, and it wasn’t that long ago that I made the discovery of it in the form of a mono UK 7″ EP. There’s just something so exciting about this wonderful piece of exotica. It’s slinky (yeah I know I like using that term), sensual, so rhythmic, and it’s quite transporting, but unfortunately it’s also just too short! It’s a fine early night spinner, to get the right kinda’ cool in the air. This ep also includes a gorgeous version of Blue Moon which makes it even more desirable. Also funnily enough, I recently found an Aussie copy with an alternate picture sleeve, in a local record shop bargain bin.
With their unmistakable sound, they appeared on all the top music shows, “The Alan Freed Show”, “Dick Clarks’ American Bandstand”, “The Perry Como Show” etc. etc. Their fame spread to other countries and they got booked on tours in Australia, Mexico and Europe. After the less successful debut album, they issued five more albums for Canadian-American, before the company dissolved in 1965. But Santo & Johnny continued to record and release a great amount of Lp’s and 45’s with other various labels including Imperial, Ricordi and Produttori Associati, the Italian label founded in 1969 by Antonio Casetta. The albums were ethereal, relaxed, sometimes swinging, and variously themed (James Bond, Hawaiian songs, country music, rock and roll hits, etc.), but were more popular internationally than at home.
In 1964, they released an album of Beatles covers including And I Love Her, which hit #1 in Mexico and held the spot for 21 weeks (they received The Golden Kangaroo Award for it). In 1973, Santo & Johnny recorded Nino Rota’s The Godfather theme which went to #1 in Italy and stayed at that spot for 26 weeks which broke all records in Italy (there certainly feels like some Jean-Jacques Perrey channeling going on in that one). They received a “Gold Record” in Italy and were inducted into the Italian Music Hall of Fame.
Santo and Johnny’s distinctive sound influenced a generation of not just guitarists, but all kinds of musicians. “Sleep Walk’s in everybody’s DNA,” says Farina. “John Lennon said he was inspired by Sleep Walk, and that’s why he wrote Free As A Bird. George Harrison released a song called Marwa Blues inspired by Santo and Johnny”.
1999 was a great year for Sleep Walk, it earned BMI’s Millionaires Award symbolizing 2 million airplays on the radio. Also that year, Brian Setzer’s version earned him a Grammy Award for best instrumental of 1999. Because of constant radio airplay and numerous TV show and commercial plays, Sleep Walk continues to be one of the most popular and quickly recognized instrumentals of the 20th century. It was also used throughout the 1992 Stephen King movie, Sleepwalkers.
In 2002 Santo & Johnny were inducted into the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. Hanging proudly on his wall, Johnny has 2 Gold Records, one for Sleep Walk and on for The Godfather.
Santo retired from music in the early 70s, but Johnny continues to perform, now taking on the lap-steel role, and still finds time to record new material with his own band. He is also the president of Aniraf, Inc., an international record company based in New York, and currently operates the official Santo And Johnny website.
With a special Hawaiian theme coming up at Night Train this week, I thought what a great opportunity to post this wonderful exotic, twangy delight, that really, I know not that much about. And to tell you the truth, I don’t even own this! This copy belongs to a good friend of mine (hey Bibs!), who has let me look after it for some time…bless his soul. I remember that first night he played it in the background to a lovely summer night with great friends in the mountains. No one seemed to take much notice, however I turned around and looked at him with big (probably drunken) eyes of wonderment.
I had to find out more about this dreamy wave that was drifting me away.
There’s a few, I guess, odd things about this release. Firstly it’s an Aussie pressing, on an obscure local Sydney label called Carina Company. Can’t find a release date (yet), and when I looked through what I could find of the label’s back catalogue, I found a confusing collusion of ethnic all sorts. There’s cha chas and rumbas, national choirs and German hit parades, but also, what I found very strange amongst it all, is one Hendrix release (No Such Animal-1971). Looks like the label was on the circuit from 1957 to 1975, so not too sure why I can’t seem to source more info on it. The back cover tells me the manufacturer was set up in the Daking House, Rawson Place, Sydney.
The second odd thing about this release is the artist Sylvia Mayer, turns out to be Dutch. My researching (goggling) has lead me to Steel Guitarist extraordinaire, Edward (Ekualo) Mayer, who it seems Sylvia was married to. Currently he is established in South Florida and has a group named KAHANU ALA, and is apparently responsible for a majority of the background Steel-Sounds of Sponge Bob…although uncredited. Would love to confirm if it is he who is playing on these tracks, and who are these other “South Sea Hawaiians”? And did Sylvia record anything else other than these 4 tracks that appear here on this ep entitled Zuidzee-Dromen (meaning South Sea Dreams)?
Whether these musicians are authentic Hawaiians means little to me, as I love the sound that have here (I’m certain Edward was originally from the South Pacific). Ulili-e-hula I’m guessing (which I’m doing a lot of on his post) is a traditional song, as I’m finding a few lovely versions out there. I discovered two beautiful versions by Israe Kamakawiwo’ole, where I also was able to find English translation to at least his version.
The voice of the sandpiper is soft and sweet
Little bird who lives by the sea
Ever watchful on the beaches
Where the sea is calm
The sandpiper returns
Sandpiper runs along the beach
Where the sea is peaceful and calm
The voice of the ‘ulili is soft and sweet
How are you, stranger? Very well
You grace our land
Where the sea is always calm
The sandpiper returns
Sandpiper runs along the beach
Where the sea is peaceful and calm
I hope you also can feel the glow of this track. A lovely tune to play early in the set, while the cocktails are slowly getting stirred, and as the breeze is cooling.
UPDATE! Looks like a release date from 1956 according to rateyourmusic.com/artist/sylvia_mayer
Thanks ianhartnett for this info!