Spanish archival label takes aim at two volumes’ worth of King and Federal
label rarities and belts ‘em out of the park.
BY WAYNE ROBINS
Before the Internet, collecting rarities
required shoe leather doggedness, a plethora of patience, willingness and
ability to travel, and just ordinary good luck. In the early 1970s, the key to
building my reggae and ska collection was simple, if costly: fly to London and
take the underground to the West Indian neighborhood of Brixton, where
skeptical record clerks and sullen rude boys stared while I loaded the counter
with exotic album covers of compilations and tasties by the Heptones, the
Upsetters, and Desmond Dekker. To bulk up my collection of New Orleans R&B,
visits were made Jim Russell Records on Magazine Street in New Orleans, where
we would stock up on records rarely seen outside of Louisiana (for a hefty
mark-up) before or after a longish liquid lunch at Commander’s Palace, less
than a mile away.
For bargains, a shopping adventure at a
department store phasing out its record section in Denver during my college
years allowed me to buy dozens of shrink-wrapped doo-wop rarities for as little
as 59 cents – for an album. And the thrift shops of Kingston, N.Y., turned up a
bounty of mint condition singles for as little as a nickel: Ike & Tina Turner
on Sue Records, group harmony oldies like “Cherilynn” by the Native
Boys, and a dozen James Brown singles like “Bring It Up” and
“There Was A Time” that kept feet moving at our Bard College dance
Brown was the most famous artist on King Records,
the Cincinnati-based label owned and operated by the entrepreneur Syd Nathan.
King and its associated labels Federal and Deluxe has one of the great catalogs
of post-World War II rhythm and blues, blues, jump music, jazz and early rock.
Its classic acts included Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, the Five Royales,
Little Willie John, Otis Williams and the Charms, Freddy King, Earl Bostic,
Bill Doggett, Wynonie Harris and so many more.
Albums and compilations featuring the best of
these artists have been available to sample, stream, or buy online. But there
are still devotees dedicated to drilling deeper, to get not just the hits, the
B-sides and album filler, but the failures, novelty tunes and unlucky long
shots released in, say, the late 1950s and early 1960s. The DJ Matt Fine, known
as Mr. Fine Wine, host of the Downtown Soulville show on New Jersey’s
noncommercial WFMU, has put together two such volumes “R&B
Hipshakers” of the great, the good and the strange from the King/Federal
vaults released earlier in 2011 by Vampisoul, a label run by fanatical
collectors and music lovers in Spain. (The U.S.
distributor is Light in the Attic; Vampisoul also has a Spanish sister label,
the more garage-tilting Munster.)
The first “R&B Hipshakers” set, Teach Me How to Monkey, sandbags you
with its quality weirdness. Covering 1958 to 1963, with a few outliers, these
mostly unreleased tracks are attempts to follow the conventional wisdom of the
era, which was the most direct way to a hit was a novelty dance tune. Like,
say, “The Twist,” written by King star Hank Ballard but unwisely
released as a B-Side before Chubby Checker’s version made song and the dance an
international sensation a few years later.
Among the dance novelties are “Do the
Ginger Snap,” by Little Bobby Moore, a little funkier and faster than
similar songs coming out of Philadelphia’s
Cameo-Parkway around this time (1962). Johnny Guitar Watson’s “Posin’
” can claim to have preceded Madonna’s imperative to “Vogue” 30
years later. Willie Wright & His Sparklers “Gibble Gobble” might
have had designs to fit in somewhere between the stroll and the waddle.
Transcending oedipal boundaries is the subtext of Little Emmett Sutton’s
“Mom, Won’t You Teach Me How to Monkey,” while the Five Royales’
“The Slummer the Slum” is simply transcendent, and one of the great
136 seconds of rock ‘n’ roll ever recorded. Supposedly a dance tune (Not the Slum. The Slummer the Slum.)
“One difference between me and you/is you got money in your pocket, and
I’ve got a hole in my shoe, from doing the Slummer the Slum,” says the
singer, as guitarist/songwriter Lowman Pauling fires off fusillades of riffs
and solos that would make him one of the most influential, if underappreciated,
musicians of this era.
In fact, brilliant musicianship is the reason
King’s catalog runs so deep. Stockpiled with great guitar players, King acts
and studio players included not just the peerless Pauling and the Five Royales
(subject of a new tribute album by Steve Cropper) and “Guitar”
Watson, but Fender benders such as Ike Turner, Mickey Baker, and the estimable
bluesman Freddy King.
But with oddities such as “Mr.
Astronaut” by the Drivers, and lesser known classics like Little Willie
John’s “My Nerves,” Mr. Fine Wine was only skimming the surface of
the bottom of the King/Federal vaults. Scratch
That Itch: R&B Hipshakers Vol. 2, contains fewer surprises – nothing is
surprising after “Mom, Won’t You Teach Me How to Monkey” – but plenty
For straightforward excellence, a toast is given
to “Jail Bird,” another consciousness-raiser masquerading as a
novelty dance credited to El Pauling and Royal Abbit. Mike Pedicin’s
“Burnt Toast and Black Coffee” is engagingly soulful, and Lula Reed’s
“Puddentane” captures some of the carnal hints missing from
“Puddin’ n’ Tain,” a 1963 pop crossover hit for the Alley Cats.
“The Buggy Ride” features proto-rapper, comedian and blaxploitation
star Rudy Ray Moore in an outré R&B comfort zone.
The set closes with Otis Redding’s breathless
early gospel soul screamer, “Shout Bamalama,” whose parable-like
message and frantic race to the finish really had no parallel in 1960.
Then you get songs doomed by their titles,
though the performances remain proud. A Freddy King instrumental called
“The Bossa Nova Watusi Twist”? The marketing department was
desperate, so why not. Jump blues great Amos Milburn putting his name on
something called “Whiz-A-Shoo-Pepi-Dada”? You never know what’s going
to catch on with the kids, you just never know.