If you consider the start of the album-as-artform to be mid-1960s, where rock artists worked to produce whole novels rather than just short story collections, then this week’s collection pre-dates that. This week, we’re looking at some of the oldest albums on the 1001. We’ve already covered much of the jazz, folk, country and Sinatra from the 50s, so this week’s list takes us into the early 60s. Saddle up.
Booker T and the MGs, ‘Green Onions’ (link)
One interesting thing about the 50s and 60s for the pop archivist is that instrumental pop music sold massively. Nowadays, an electronic dance song can sell very well, but Number Ones with no vocals are exceptionally rare; vocal-driven pop really is the dominant medium. But in the early 60s, an instrumental bluesy number played on the Hammond could be a huge hit and stick around forever. You’ll know the title track, then, and you’ll know ‘Twist and Shout’, although maybe not the MGs’ ebuillent take on it. The rest – a fusion of jazz, blues and soul – all pretty much sounds exactly the same, not helped of course by the fact that the fourth track, ‘Mo’ Onions’, is just a reprise of the title track. Of course, the organist who gives the band its name is no relation to the wrestler Booker T.
Ray Charles, ‘The Genius of Ray Charles’ (link)
Our second and final visit to Ray Charles is an album of two halves: upbeat big band on the first half, ballads drenched in strings and woodwind on the second. The big band side features at least two of Charles’s famous songs (‘Let The Good Times Roll’ and ‘It Had To Be You’), but the arrangements feel overdone, as if two big bands turned up by mistake and they just used everyone. The ballads are prone to Disney arrangements – massed backing vocalists, glockenspiel – but generally the songwriting and Charles’s performance are strong enough to overcome the dated orchestrations.
The Everly Brothers, ‘A Date With The Everly Brothers’ (link)
The Everlys are kind of the nice boys who study hard and who most mums would be happy to let their daughters date. Look at the album cover, straight out of Lisa Simpson’s Non-Threatening Boys magazine:
With angelic harmonies and twangy guitars, the Everlys play the sort of country-tinged rock and roll that James from ‘Twin Peaks’ must have loved. With none of the tracks approaching three minutes, these 27 minutes bridge the gap between the 50s pop of, say, The Crickets and the 60s pop of, say, Gerry and the Pacemakers.
Little Richard, ‘Here’s Little Richard’ (link)
Pop albums from this era don’t have very imaginative names, huh? This is the one with ‘Tutti Frutti’ kicking things off, and the lion’s share of the album follows the same template: this was an album designed to dance to. Richard’s energy drives the set: on both vocals and piano, he barely sounds like he can be contained by the songs, while the rhythm section just about manages to keep up, and saxophones stopping by to add some raunch. It’s kind of like ‘This is Fats‘ on dexedrine.
Tito Puente, ‘Dance Mania’ (link)
Celebrating its 60th anniversary next month, ‘Dance Mania’ might be the only mambo album on the list, but if you know Puente’s signature sound, there won’t be many surprises here. A vibraphone instrumental and some vocals from an uncredited female vocalist are the features that leap off the speaker, however the rest of the album mostly sounds like incidental music from an award ceremony. Of course, when I think of Puente I mainly think of his Simpsons cameo when he was suspected of shooting Mr Burns…
Ray Price, ‘Night Life’ (link)
A downbeat bit of honkytonk ideal for a late-night listen, this features Willie Nelson on guitar and one Johnny Paycheck playing almost all the other instruments. This seems to be vaguely conceptual: it opens with a spoken word section and seemingly focuses on barflies and other post-curfew activity. It’s the second ‘Twin Peaks’ reference this week, but I can imagine this music playing in the Roadhouse. I think this album overdelivered against my expectations: maybe I’m just a sucker for a vaulting tenor and a shimmering pedal steel.
Sarah Vaughan, ‘At Mister Kelly’s’ (link)
Recorded live in 1957 at the Chicago bar, an unnamed host (Mr Kelly?) manages the audience’s expectations by telling them Vaughan will be using lyric sheets. Vaughan still somehow manages to under-deliver on chaotic interpretations of ‘Willow Weep For Me’ (“I’ve really fouled up this song real well”, she sings, before remarking “they’ll probably use that one”) and ‘How High The Moon’, where none of the performers seem to know the song well enough to perform it, least of all Vaughan. It’s an unusually sloppy set to put out on a major label, then, but there’s something charming about the laidback pissing around interrupting otherwise by-the-book Irving Berlin vocal jazz. This stuff’s never going to be a personal favourite of mine, but I enjoyed hanging out with Vaughan here more than I probably would on any of her studio albums.
Next week: time to delve back into some of the prog, Kraut and other outlying weirdness on the list.
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