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RECORDINGS - The Washington Post

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    RECORDINGS

    By Geoffrey Himes and Richard Harrington November 30, 1994

    The problem with "The Sun Records Collection" (Rhino) is not that the legendary Memphis label had too little music for a three-CD boxed set but that it had too much. Each of Sun's four major artists -- Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash -- deserves his own boxed set. Moreover, the label was also responsible for landmark early-'50s blues recordings, a lion's share of the rockabilly worth remembering and a few country gems. The serious music fan is going to want far more of the Sun Records catalogue than this set can offer.

    If you had to boil down the tremendous Sun Records output to 74 songs on three CDs, however, it would be hard to do a better job than the Rhino compilers have done here. The set comes with a 32-page booklet with complete session info, a helpful Jimmy Guterman essay and an interview with Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records and its longtime producer. Phillips produced Jackie Brenston's 1951 "Rocket '88,' " often called the first rock-and-roll record, and Howlin' Wolf's first recordings, but these were leased to Chess Records in Chicago. They're included in this set, though, as are Phillips's productions of such milestone blues sides as Junior Parker's original "Mystery Train," B.B. King's "B.B. Blues" and Rufus Thomas's "Tiger Man."

    Everything changed for Sun Records -- and for American music -- on July 5, 1954, when a 19-year-old Memphis truck driver who'd been nagging Phillips for a session finally got his chance. The result was Elvis Presley's first single, "That's All Right," which toppled the barriers between African American blues and European American country music. Soon every hillbilly kid who thought he could sing the blues was banging on Phillips's door, and he recorded the best of them: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Warren Smith, Sonny Burgess, Billy Riley and Charlie Rich.

    All are briefly represented in this boxed set, but you might consider turning elsewhere for the fuller story: Presley's "The Complete Sun Sessions" (RCA) or, better yet, the five-CD box "Elvis -- The King of Rock & Roll: The Complete '50s Masters" (RCA), Perkins's "Original Sun Greatest Hits" (Rhino), Cash's "The Sun Years" (Sun/Rhino) and "The Jerry Lee Lewis Anthology" (Rhino). -- Geoffrey Himes

    (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8151.)

    'Blackbox: Wax Trax 1980-1983'

    Having fostered classic independent record labels (Chess, Vee Jay) and feisty modern ones (Alligator, Flying Fish), the city of Chicago can also claim the noisiest in Wax Trax. "Blackbox: Wax Trax 1980-1983" (TVT/Wax Trax) is a three-CD set -- housed in both a collector's limited-edition metal box and a regular folks' black slipcase -- that traces the history of a label that has become synonymous with industrial rock, thanks to such bands as Ministry, KMFDM and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult.

    Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher started Wax Trax in the mid-'70s as a record store receptive to the emerging indie-rooted punk, new wave and electronic movements often ignored by mainstream retailers. Since many customers were also musicians, it's not surprising that a label eventually evolved. One of its first acts was female impersonator Divine, in Chicago for the 1981 Alternative Miss World Contest. Divine's "The Name Game" is one of 41 cuts here, along with "Elephant's Graveyard" by Strike Under, the punk-leaning band that was Wax Trax's first signing.

    It was with the 1981 arrival of Ministry and its disturbingly charismatic leader, Al Jourgensen, that Wax Trax ignited the industrial noise revolution. Nash and Flesher define "industrial" as "anything with a mechanized sound or distorted vocal," but one of Jourgensen's latter-day descriptions is more accurate: The music he prefers to call "aggro" is "erotic, neurotic, psychotic, cyberaggresive, new-beat dance, country new wave punk with a metal edge ... and just a touch of insanity."

    Jourgensen is aggro's Phil Spector -- his wall of noise, of course, includes the floor and ceiling -- and he's represented by several Ministry cuts, as well as a sampling of his many collaborative projects (Pailhead's "I Will Refuse" with Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, RevCo's "Beers, Steers & Queers" with Chris Connelly, 1000 Homo DJs' previously unreleased cover of Black Sabbath's "Supernaut" with vocals by soon-to-be Nine Inch Nail Trent Reznor).

    As the band names and song titles suggest, this is aggressive, abrasive, pulse-pounding dance music that's either hypnotically compelling or annoyingly repelling; it's brutal drum-machine-driven metal disco that makes for uneasy, queasy listening. No wonder kids love it.

    "Black Box" also includes tracks from Swiss martial rockers Young Gods, industrial hip-hop from England's Meat Beat Manifesto, ironic covers by Yugoslavia's Laibach and Italy's Panko. The 3 1/2-hour collection also features offshoots of seminal industrial noisemakers Throbbing Gristle (Coil, Psychic TV); KLF's rave anthem "What Time Is Love?"; and newer bands like Frontline Assembly, Mussolini Headkick and Sister Machine Gun.

    Having helped establish the industrial rock agenda, Wax Trax started losing many of its most successful acts to major labels with deeper pockets and underwent Chapter 11 reorganization in 1992 (it's now a part of TVT). Recent releases, which can be sampled on the new "Afterburn" anthology, show the label to be essentially unrepentant in its energies.

    -- Richard Harrington

    (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8152.)

    'Sam Cooke's SAR Records Story: 1959-1965'

    The cover of "Sam Cooke's SAR Records Story: 1959-1965" (ABKCO) -- featuring Cooke's handsome face -- is a bit misleading. After all, aside from the guitar-only demo for his breakthrough pop hit, "You Send Me," and a few other cuts, Cooke is not to be heard on the 56 songs spread out over two CDs -- unless you count his spirit.

    From 1959 until his death in 1964, Cooke recorded -- quite successfully -- for RCA ("You Send Me" had come out on Keen, home of other early hits like "Wonderful World" and "For Sentimental Reasons"). The SAR collection spotlights his "other voices" -- as writer, producer, talent scout and independent label owner -- and Cooke's ongoing efforts to broaden gospel music's appeal by addressing it with pop studio craft.

    Cooke himself was a crucial figure in both gospel and pop, of course. He spent seven years as lead singer for the influential gospel group the Soul Stirrers, where he replaced the fabled (and stylistically influential) R.H. Harris. Cooke's departure for a secular career in 1957 was immensely controversial in traditional gospel circles, but he never abandoned his devotion to the music he'd been performing since childhood. In fact, Cooke's SAR signings included R.H. Harris and His Gospel Paraders; the Soul Stirrers with lead singer Jimmie Outler; and Johnnie Taylor, who had replaced Cooke in the Soul Stirrers and been replaced by Outler when Taylor began to pursue a career in soul.

    The first CD here focuses on SAR's gospel side, including the Soul Stirrers' "Stand by Me Father" (do you hear hints of the subsequent "Stand by Me"?), "Jesus Be a Fence Around Me" and "Lead Me to Jesus," which reappears on the secular Disc 2 as "Soothe Me," performed by the Simms Twins, whose vibrant, rough-edged call-and-response style clearly influenced Sam & Dave.

    In fact, crossovers are frequent here: The gospel stylings of the Womack Brothers are given a secular spin when they rename themselves the Valentinos and recast "Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray" as "Lookin' for a Love"; the Valentinos soon found their own voice with "It's All Over Now" (quickly covered by the Rolling Stones, it became their first big American hit). Cooke himself transformed "Somewhere There's a God" into "Somewhere There's a Girl" with the Womacks harmonizing behind him (it's released here for the first time).

    Although it never had the commercial impact of such other black-owned labels as Motown and Vee Jay, SAR did help launch the career of Bobby Womack, Johnny Taylor ("Rome Wasn't Built in a Day" was his first soul charter) and Billy Preston (a 16-year-old whiz-kid organist whose "Greazee Part I & II" was a harbinger of wild things to come). Lesser-known acts included the Simms Twins, Mel Carter and blues singer Johnnie Morisette, whose six cuts include a lively reading of Albert King's "Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong" (with Wah Wah Watson on guitar). -- Richard Harrington

    (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8153.)

    'The Sue Records Story'

    "The Sue Records Story: New York City/The Sound of Soul" (EMI) could only have been put together by a soul-loving foreigner, in this case England's Alan Warner. Warner is a key figure in his country's northern soul revival and, luckily, he's a knowledgeable, albeit obsessive, fan. For instance, only a few of the 100 cuts collected here are likely to be familiar, and the same is true for many of the acts. But the story of the black-owned label that operated for a decade out of New York is nonetheless interesting, as much for the perspicacity of owner Juggy Murray as for his achievement. Unlike Berry Gordy at Motown, Murray actually recorded himself -- once.

    Begun in 1958, Sue did have some minor hits: Bobby Hendricks's "Itchy Twitchy Feeling" (with Coasters singing backup to Hendricks, then lead tenor with the Drifters), Inez and Charlie Foxx's "Mockingbird," Barbara George's "I Know." Its most successful act was Ike and Tina Turner, who had their first hit in 1959 with "A Fool in Love" (originally intended for another singer, who failed to show up for the session). The set includes 10 Ike and Tina cuts, from R&B hits such as "I Idolize You" and "I Pity the Fool" to "It's Gonna Work Out Fine," in which Tina Turner's foil is not Ike but Mickey Baker (whose wife, Sylvia, plays guitar here).

    Another intriguing act was the sultry balladeer Baby Washington, whose New York mindset was perhaps revealed in "Leave Me Alone," where she sang "Who needs this mixed up world/ When everyone is out to get you?" Other Sue singers included Ocie Smith (later O.C. Smith), Pearl Woods, Lovelace Watkins, Sylvia Robbins (later Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records) and Jimmy Helms (now of Londonbeat). Some acts were already past their prime when they signed at Sue -- Bill Doggett and Jackie Brenston, for instance -- and others, like Don Covay and Jimmy McGriff, were not yet ready to make their mark.

    Many of the groups have wonderful names -- Linda and the Del Rios, the Matadors, the Senors, the Four Jokers and the Hollywood Flames -- but leave no immediately memorable legacy. That was part of the problem: Sue itself left no distinctive identity, as did such contemporary labels as Memphis's Stax or Detroit's Motown. -- Richard Harrington

    (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8154.)

    'The Swingtime Records Story'

    As World War II wound down, independent rhythm-and-blues labels sprang up around Los Angeles to serve the African American population that had recently arrived to work in the defense industry. The biggest of these small labels were Specialty, Aladdin, Modern and Imperial, but Swingtime Records (a k a Down Beat, Swing Beat, Flame) made an important contribution to the West Coast R&B scene, which helped build the bridge between blues and rock-and-roll. Capricorn Records has now released "The Swingtime Records Story," which tells the tale with 50 songs on two CDs in a boxed set that includes a brief but informative 16-page booklet.

    Founded by Jack Lauderdale in 1947, Swingtime had fleeting associations with Jimmy Witherspoon, Big Joe Turner, Percy Mayfield, Jimmy McCracklin, Charles Brown and the Hollywood Flames before going out of business in 1952. Swingtime is usually remembered, however, for its crucial role in the careers of three important artists -- Lloyd Glenn, Lowell Fulson and Ray Charles -- and they account for 24 of the set's 50 tracks. Glenn was to Swingtime what Willie Dixon was to Chess Records -- a songwriter, producer and musician who ran most of the company's sessions. A sophisticated pianist, Glenn helped Fulson make the transition from earthy Texas blues to swinging West Coast jump blues and wrote Fulson's breakthrough No. 1 R&B hit, 1949's "Blue Shadows." Glenn had a No. 1 hit himself the next year with the instrumental "Chica Boo."

    Glenn and Fulson hit the road with a band with a horn section that included Earl Brown and Stanley Turrentine and a young singer-pianist named Ray Charles. Charles was an unabashed imitator of Nat King Cole and Charles Brown in those days, but the example of Glenn and Fulson paid off. In 1951 Charles did a legendary Swingtime session with that road band and finally cast off the laid-back supper-club approach for the rocking, call-and-response shouter "Kissa Me Baby." It pointed the way to the future of African American music, but Swingtime wouldn't be around to reap the benefits. -- Geoffrey Himes

    (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8155.)