Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hot Smoke and Sasafrass, Bubble Puppy (1968)

Armchair musicology, as it turns out, is an optimistic avocation.  Which is a good thing, because I am not optimistic by nature. Every time I think I've exhausted all the ideas for a blog post, one thing leads to another and new doors open. That's exactly what happened with Bubble Puppy.  

In this instance, the door was Pandora-based. I don't even remember which "radio station" it was now, but in the rotation was an arresting song by someone named Billy Wade McKnight called Trouble's Comin' On.  So obscure was this that it wasn't even on YouTube. But a search by my friend Wade (no relation to B. Wade McKnight) unearthed a compilation called Never Ever Land: 83 Texan Nuggets from International Artists Records 1965-1970 and lo ... three CDs worth of uncharted territory presented itself to me.

Sure enough, there that guy was, with two singles, but so was Bubble Puppy, whose big hit Hot Smoke and Sasafrass I'd forgotten about completely.  My indie record store-owning friend Dave ordered the box set for me, and I've been listening to it obsessively like an acid head for days now.

The thing about psychedelic music was, I didn't always like it.  The sound bending that went along with the mind bending wasn't very musical - although it could be.  Hot Smoke was.  The instrumental bridge alone is worth the price of admission, that drummer, David Fore, was 17 when he played it. 

Bubble Puppy's roots were in San Antonio and Corpus Christi; one of its precursor bands, fronted by guitarist Rod Prince, was the Bad Seeds (not to be confused with the name they later migrated to, the New Seeds; Nick Cave's Bad Seeds; or the Seeds of Pushin' Too Hard fame), which had a locally popular following with such songs as Taste of the Same.  Check out Prince's solo - certainly a "taste" of what was to come later.

Eventually the seed persona lost its luster, however; once coming under the influence of Jimi Hendrix and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, they latched upon Bubble Puppy as a variant to a phrase in the book. They got their big break as performers when their then-manager invited the Who, then on tour in Texas, to spend some of their down time in the Puppy's rehearsal venue (as Rod Prince described it, "a godsend to a touring act"). Being up close and personal led to an invitation to open the San Antonio show. Happenstance like that is a thing of the distant past in this age of LiveNation. 

Moving on to Austin and then Houston, they were seen in a psychedelic club called Love Street Light Circus and signed to International Artists. (Although the club no longer exists, its legacy continues as a nonprofit organization where local acts raise money for children's causes in Houston.)

They became IA's most successful group. Unfortunately IA's lack of a head for business, apparently legendary, made it impossible to do right by its acts, which also included the 13th Floor Elevators. The tales are so many and varied it would be pointless to try and summarize them, but the music industry was as unsavory then as it is now, suffice it to say. Rod Prince himself described IA as a organization of "no-talent lawyers, thugs, and the spawn of the shallow end of the gene pool - clueless all."

After a tour with Steppenwolf, Prince and company were convinced to relocate to California, where another literary allusion - Hermann Hesse's novel Demian, one of my absolute favorite novels of that time - led to a name change so that they didn't have to fight with IA over the use of Bubble Puppy. Here's Love People, a vastly mellower sound but just as pleasing.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Two of Us, Beatles (1970)

The final months of high school for your typical Class of '70 baby boomer will always have certain associations - the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the resulting widespread student demonstrations against the Vietnam War; the killing of students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio and by state law enforcement officers at Jackson State University in Mississippi; the first-ever Earth Day; the Beatles' announcement they were breaking up; and the release, 40 years ago this weekend, of their final album together, Let It Be.

I'm sure there are teenagers who didn't care one whit about the Beatles.  I'm always surprised when I talk to people today - my peers - who profess to having had no particular interest in them. I tell myself that these people are few and far between. 

For me, the breakup of the Beatles was about as traumatic as it could possibly be. It was like a death, not that I'd had any experience with death at that point.  Nonetheless, I had a very difficult time grasping the fact that four people who had clearly loved each other, were better as a unit than they were separately, and changed the world with their magnificent music no longer cared to be associated - and in fact would probably have done some real damage to each other if forced to remain together a minute longer.  I felt like I was being abandoned, truth be told.

Graduating from high school is a scary time under the best of circumstances.  From an historical perspective, this was not the best of times, clearly, to be contemplating setting foot on a college campus (when I arrived, three months later, I was treated to a recipe for a Molotov cocktail on the front page of the student newspaper), and from a personal perspective - well, my parents were going through a terrible divorce and the fallout from it was grotesque on so many levels.

Plain and simple, in my unhappy pre-teen and teen years, the Beatles had been a source of joy.  Always joy.  Pan Am flew them in at a time when we were reeling from the assassination of our President, and when I was in dire need of something that let me know there were other emotions besides the ones I generally experienced. Those four boys from Liverpool, England, were how I spelled relief.  I was in awe of them - their talent, their exuberant life force, their good looks and humor, the songs they cranked out year after year as they grew and changed with the times.

It never occurred to me that it could take its toll.  And that they were human.

Let It Be was far from my favorite album, especially because I knew they'd had such angst producing it.  But like every Beatles album, it had songs I wanted to hear.  Here's one of them.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

I Found A Love, Falcons (1962)

Remember Wilson Pickett?  Remember the Ohio Players?  Well, this is the post wherein I show that there is only one degree of separation between them.

Back in 2008 when I wrote about Pickett and his 634-5789, I learned that he had been, for a time, the teen-aged lead singer of a Detroit-based group called the Falcons - his first foray into secular music after a life entirely oriented to singing gospel. In my post, I embedded a YouTube video of him stopping the show with the Falcons at the Apollo, the very embodiment of the term "soul howler." I've not been able to stop thinking about that song.  

Of course, Warner Music Group took the video down eventually and I've had a terrible time finding any online version of it - until just this week when I resurrected this gem from an mp3 on someone's now-defunct blog.  The song, I Found A Love, was a smash hit on the R&B charts for the Falcons, which included Eddie Floyd and Mack Rice, who eventually wrote Mustang Sally and Respect Yourself. 

The Falcons, formed in 1955, were one of the first 50's groups to make the jump from a doo-woppy R&B sound to the harder-edged soul that exploded in the 60's.  In 1959, they had their first catchy hit, You're So Fine. The following year, Wilson Pickett replaced Levi Stubbs' brother Joe as one of the two lead singers (Floyd being the other) and turned up the heat quite a few notches with songs like I Found A Love, which Pickett co-wrote.  As a matter of fact, in the lyrics, a reference to "in the midnight hour" foreshadows his later hit, co-written with Stax' Steve Cropper. (Pickett recorded I Found A Love as a solo artist in 1967.)   

So how do the Ohio Players enter into this?  Weren't they the 70's funk group known for such finery as Love Rollercoaster?  They certainly were.  But before morphing into the Ohio Players, they were known as the Ohio Untouchables, and it is they who are the remarkable backing band to I Found A Love.  I only know this because since I've become a frequent user of Inter-Library Loan and order up all kinds of crazy music books that I would otherwise never have access to, I am now in temporary possession of an amazing volume called Joel Whitburn Presents Top R&B Singles 1942-1999.    

Never mind what's in this 700 page delight - most people would die of ennui just glancing at it.  But for me, it's a gold mine. And I thought, why not look up the Falcons, and see what it says about their hits?  Maybe it could lead me to excavate I Found A Love from ... somewhere.  Mission accomplished!  There with the notes about when the song charted and other arcane items was a reference to the Ohio Untouchables as the "band."  What the what?  Being the Ohioan I am, I had to see what I could find on this outfit, which led me eventually to the mp3..

The Ohio Untouchables was founded in Dayton, Ohio, in 1959.  In 1961, they joined the small Lu Pine label that had been launched by a relative of the group's founder, guitarist Robert Ward (this relative, Robert West, was also apparently related to Eddie Floyd); at first they mainly accompanied other Lu Pine acts, which included the Falcons. In certain circles, Ward was much admired for his magnificent guitar work, which produced a distinctive vibrato sound using a Magnatone amplifier.

Most of the original members of the Ohio Untouchables, including Ward, eventually moved on, but Clarence Satchell, who played sax, bassist Marshall Jones, and vocalist Bernie McCain returned to Dayton and formed the Ohio Players in 1967.  The times they were a-changing.

Ward's career had its ups and downs after that, and he eventually got caught in a downward personal spiral that included some prison time. He was re-discovered in 1990 after years in obscurity - an independent record producer made it known he wanted to find him at all costs, and when Ward happened to walk into Fretware Guitars outside of Dayton one day, phone calls were made. The result was he produced some electrifying work with the Fear No Evil LP (plus two others) before his death in 2008.  I'll play myself out with his Lord Have Mercy On Me.