October 15: Booker T and the MGs, Ray Charles, The Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Tito Puente, Ray Price, Sarah Vaughan

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.

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:

Adatewiththeeverlybrothers

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…

tito

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.

Status update: 658 listened to (65%), 343 remain.

 

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November 27: Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton & trio, Marty Robbins

This week I’ll be delving into a genre about which I know almost nothing: country and western music! There’s plenty of trailhands and cowgirls on the list, so let’s see what they have to offer.

Johnny Cash, ‘At Folsom Prison’

Cash had been playing gigs in prisons for years before recording this concert, which famously features a song written by one of the inmates among others that sound like they could have been. If you’ve heard any Cash you’ll know the basic template: his baritone murder ballads over a shuffling beat provided by his backing band The Tennessee Three. Prison suits his style though: the track sequencing is good, the gradual shifts in mood work and the interstitial jawing with inmates is fun (even if the album seems to abruptly terminate during a Q&A session). There are two other Cash albums on the list but this sets the bar high.

Ray Charles, ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’

Sort of a cheat as this isn’t a country album per se but a selection of country songs translated into Ray’s soulful big band stylings. The combination suits both the songs and the style, as it brings the melodies to the forefront without being drowned out by cornball arrangements of weeping pedal steel or violin. One of just two of Ray’s albums on the list, this is a gorgeous record.

Waylon Jennings, ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’

This album has an interesting back-story: Jennings invited a songwriter called Billy Joe Shaver to come meet him, but then forgot the invitation and neglected it. Shaver, livid, threatened to beat Jennings up if he didn’t listen to his songs: a risky move given Jennings’s tough-guy entourage. Lucky for Shaver, the songs were so good that Jennings decided to record a whole album of them. The record’s a bullish good-old-boys album, but Waylon’s own melodramatic voice is the most distracting feature. The crooning ‘You Ask Me To’ and the oddly swooning closer ‘We Had It All’ are the stand-out tracks here. As with many albums this week, it ends before the 30-minute mark: brevity appears to be a characteristic of the genre.

Loretta Lynn, ‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ with Lovin’ on Your Mind’

With country music, as with most music, it’s important that you believe the voice of the singer: sure we know that Johnny Cash hasn’t shot a man in Reno, but we can believe that he might. It’s the difference between authentic and ‘authentic’. Lynn was married to the same guy for fifty years but the relationship was volatile, which adds a veneer of plausibility to the title track and the gloomy ‘I’m Living in Two Worlds’. Initially sounding impenetrably cheesy, I warmed to this album the longer it went and when it finished after just 28 minutes I was disappointed that there was no more.

Willie Nelson, ‘Red Headed Stranger’

One of Nelson’s best-known albums is a concept album about a preacher who murders his adulterous wife and eventually finds redemption in the arms of another. Feels as sparse on justice as on instrumentation: many of the tracks here are stripped down to vocals and guitar only for long stretches. The first half, filled with violence and melancholia, is better than the second half’s corny instrumental sections (including a solo piano by Nelson’s sister) and unrewarding salvation.

Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, ‘Trio’

Ronstadt’s only appearance on the list as featured artist (although she’s on background vocals on ‘Harvest’) sees her team up with country stalwarts Dolly and Emmylou for a long-anticipated collaboration. I wanted to like this but it doesn’t quite work: whether because of the Dixieland cheese, the cheap-sounding piano on ‘Telling Me Lies’ or Ronstadt’s musical theatre take on Kate McGarrigle’s ‘I’ve Had Enough’, this isn’t an album befitting the three powerhouses. It seems redundant to say that the harmonies are on point, though, and Parton and Harris’s other albums on the list should be better fare. I was hoping this album contained the trio’s ethereal take on Neil Young’s ‘After the Gold Rush’ but alas that’s on ‘Trio II’.

Marty Robbins, ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’

The oldest album this week sees Robbins concern himself with affairs of the heart: will it be Cupid’s arrow that pierces it, or a bullet? The protagonists of his stories are often morally wrong (on ‘I’m Getting Married Tonight’, he shoots his ex-girlfriend and new lover purely out of jealousy) but driven by loneliness and/or heartbreak. It sounds plausible coming from Robbins, and the melancholy is often spiced up by a Mariachi sound that comes in whenever he looks across the border (such as on ‘El Paso’). Good stuff.

Next week: we’ll be taking the time machine back to the 1950s as I cast my ear over some of the oldest albums on the list.

Progress update: 352 listened to (35%), 649 remain