For an extraterrestrial visitor,
Saturn-born Sun Ra sure developed a knowledge of and love for all forms of
American music. He departed earth to return home in 1993, leaving behind a
massive catalogue of avant-garde big-band music that we’re still discovering
and learning from. It turns out he also had a knack for producing, arranging
and releasing 1950s-style doo wop and 1960s-style soul/funk music, working with
such mostly Chicago-based vocalists as the Cosmic Rays, the Nu Sounds, Lacy
Gibson and the far-out (even by Sun Ra’s standards) Yochanan.
Back in 1996, Evidence Records
issued a well-annotated, two-disc set of this material called The Singles; it’s still available and is
by far the most important way to collect and hear this material for the first
time. Since the way Sun Ra released his singles was so spotty, most folks –
even his fans – had never heard most of that material before.
Now Norton Records, working with
WFMU-FM’s Michael D. Anderson – a former Sun Ra Arkestra member and the band’s
archivist – has recently released three separate single-disc volumes of Sun
Ra’s “pop” side. There’s some overlap, but Anderson has also found previously unissued
studio and home rehearsals, alternate takes and extended versions.
The first volume, Interplanetary Melodies (6 out of 10
stars), features jazzy 1950s vocal-group material, as much Ink
Spots/Platters-influenced as teen-style doo wop, and the singers are very
talented. The voices on a rehearsal version of the Cosmic Rays’ “Dreaming” show
how well in pitch they were. Among the finds on this volume is their unissued
version of “Summertime,” with Sun Ra himself playing the discordant piano
chords. And a rehearsal version of the Crystals’
(not the Phil Spector girl-group) “Honey in the Bee Box” sounds like a
jazz-based vocal group at a drunken, country & western hoedown. The best
thing on this disc, however, is the a
cappella rehearsal version of Juanita Rogers’ sweet “Love Letters Full of
Promises” – so full of youthfulness and sincerity. (The version that Sun Ra
released as a single (also included here) has a hokey, echo-chamber narration
by a deejay named Lynn Hollings that turns the song into weird kitsch. It’s a
rare moment when Sun Ra seems to be condescending to his material.
The second volume, The Second Stop Is Jupiter (6 out of
10), features one wonderful new addition to Sun Ra’s groovy oeuvre, his
scat-like vocal and relaxed piano work on a 1949 home recording of a clever,
funny 1944 big-band hit, Betty Hutton’s “Stuff Like That There.” He must really
have loved stuff like that there.
The third volume, Rocket Ship Rock (8 out of 10), however,
is the rockingest – courtesy of Sun Ra’s strangest find, a bluesy singer called
Yochanan who sounds the way Rufus Thomas would if he didn’t know “Do the Funky
Chicken” was meant to be a joke. You wonder if he should be committed even as
you want to dance to it. Sun Ra’s Arkestra keeps pushing Yochanan on the single
version of the incomparable “Muck Muck”; a shorter alternate take finds the
band moving at an even hotter, dizzily swirling pace. To quote the lyrics, “Muckety
muck muck muck muck,” indeed!
But Yochanan had a rival in
trumpeter/vocalist Ebah, whose previously unreleased version of a 1968 song
that Sun Ra thought might be a novelty hit, “I Am Gonna Unmask the Batman,”
would make Fela jealous. It’s as great as anything James Brown was doing at the
time. (Ray Charles Band member Walter Miller helps out on a sizzling trumpet
solo.) The actual single version of “Batman” was recorded by a singer named
Lacy Gibson – it’s less vocally frenetic but still quite cookin’ – and an
extended version is included here.
Standout Tracks: “Stuff Like That There” by Sun Ra’ “I Am Gonna
Unmask the Batman” by Ebah STEVEN