Ace Records History Part 2
THE EVOLUTION OF ACE REISSUES
When Chiswick was licensed to EMI in 1978, they made it clear that they had enough back catalogue of their own, thank you. So, we needed a new label name for the reissue end. Just before signing on with EMI, Johnny Vincent of Ace Records in Jackson, Mississippi signed on with us. Without any malice aforethought we promptly borrowed his label name, though he was cool about it at the time.
We maintained a dynamic on-off working relationship with him, using the old-style record business trick of continually fronting him cash then chasing the recoupment with some more releases. The five volumes of “The Ace Story” we put out remain definitive.
Ray Topping, a regular customer of Ted’s who had helped pen the notes for the Link Wray album, suggested we explore the Houston-based group of labels owned by Pappy Daily. Ray was one of the small group of pioneering blues aficionados and discographers in the UK who had been instrumental in bringing that music to a wider audience in the 60s. He became Ace’s first repertoire consultant. With an encyclopaedic knowledge and tremendous feel for blues and R&B as well as rockabilly and country, he was an essential element in the growth of Ace. The standards he set way back then have underpinned everything the label has since done.
So in 1978 a licensing deal was signed with Daily, who produced the early George Jones recordings and trawled the Gulf Coast areas of South Louisiana and East Texas to acquire recordings for his D, Dart, Dixie and Starday labels. Ted and Ray headed out west to Texas in search of musical gold; the first of many trips to the US in search of masters. We issued a compilation of fine rockabilly sides from George Jones and a 10” comp of Sonny Fisher’s Starday recordings, which even then fetched big bucks on original 45s. Ted and Ray tracked down Sonny and in 1980 he left the States for the first time in his life and toured the UK. He also cut an EP of new material for Ace on his visit.
Discovery of the year: the previously unissued monster rockabilly side ‘Jitterbop Baby’ by Hal Harris.
To accommodate catalogue records that didn’t fit on Ace and new recordings deemed to have insufficient commercial appeal for EMI, we set up another label, BIG BEAT. It debuted with the debut 45 by Johnny (Winter) and the Jammers. Later it became home to the burgeoning psychobilly/garage scene, our own punk and rock back catalogue and repository for all things 60s beat, folk, garage and psych.
The Ace reissue 45s just kept coming as well, notably Thumper (George) Jones’ ‘Rock It’ and Link Davis’ ‘Allons A Lafayette’, a real swingin’ in-house favourite and a solid smash in any other universe. Having acquired something of a jones for the deliciousness of 10” records, we put out a couple more. But, because Chiswick through EMI took up so much of our time, catalogue issues took a back seat to the pop end of our business.
Still, at the end of 1979, a deal was put in place with Modern Records of Hollywood, California. Many of the blues aficionados did not fully grasp the depth and breadth of the repertoire embedded in the Modern group of labels. But, as so often, Ray Topping knew better. A license deal was struck with Jules Bihari, the last of the fraternal owners still active at the company.
Cowboy Calypso record of the year: Link Davis’ ‘Allons A Lafayette’
Even after the Modern Records deal was struck and inked, it still took a year and a US trip to wrestle tapes from Jules Bihari and so the catalogue did not come on-stream till late 1980. The first four LPs compiled by Ray were a brace from two Texans based in Los Angeles: Little Willie Littlefield and Pee Wee Crayton; one by the great band leader and producer Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm and one by Rosco Gordon from deep in the soul of Memphis. Rosco appears later in the story – in person.
By then the Modern operation in Los Angeles was reduced to a custom pressing plant, much of which had been converted to making poker chips. The label changed hands several times over the next decade until Ace finally bought it in 1990. A proper inventory of the tapes was eventually made and a coherent reissue programme developed, though with a catalogue as vast as Modern’s, there is still a way to go.
The year also saw the seedling compilation that was to eventually flower into the signature idea underpinning the Ace collection of CDs in the future. Ted put together his ideal “Teenage Rock’n’Roll Party”. From the opening fog horn of ‘Sea Cruise’, it rocked its way through 14 irresistible boppers and jivers with the odd break for a smooch. It was a breakthrough compilation which featured both headline artists and others not so widely known, mixing in the arcane, whilst entertaining the young ‘uns righteously.
Lost 45 of the year: ‘Automobile’ by the Stick Shifts. It could readily have been from the 50s, though it was a Chiswick release.
Ace’s main activity was its reissue programme but there was some indulgence in new acts recording in the old style rather than aiming at the charts. This year saw the first contemporary LP releases on Ace, with the second LP, “Hot Little Mama” from American jump bluesmen Roomful Of Blues and some rowdy R&B from Juice On The Loose, then tearing up the London pubs. In subsequent years, Ace went into the studio with John Potter, Dana Gillespie, Diz & The Doormen, the Dynamite Band and other mainly UK-based R&B bands. Mike Vernon took over that side of things in 1987 with the revamped BLUE HORIZON label with, among others, our favourite star Dana Gillespie. But that’s another story.
Licensing arrangements were struck with the first of two major labels. MCA provided remarkable access to their vaults and a slew of albums ensued, drawn from Don Robey’s Duke and Peacock labels, starting with Bobby Bland and the tragic Johnny Ace.
Ray stepped on the gas with blues LPs. Apart from more 10” records, there were full play long plays including Ace’s first outings for the impeccable B.B. King and the thrilling Elmore James (both Best Of sets), a magnificently moody volume from John Lee Hooker and an album by that ‘Tough Lover’ gal Ms Etta James.
Ray Topping with Joe Bihari and Ike Turner's 'Kings of Rhythm'
The guys with the quiffs and flat-tops and the girls with the big gingham dresses and stacked ‘dos were catered for with a special compilation of our finest rockabilly – though it has to be said that the younger rockin’ set was increasingly happy dancing to the R&B sides as well. Talkin’ about that g-g-gener-ation of hip young things, many of them could be found of a Thursday night down at Gossips club in Soho stepping out to Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues and hopefully buying the Ace soundtrack to the night the following Saturday from Rock On.
There was also an anthology of great rock’n’roll and rockabilly from Charlie Fitch’s Texas-based Sarg label, a snapshot of how regional 50s America worked in small towns like Luling, where Charlie was from.
Things were hottin’ up at Ace as they were getting distinctly chilly in Chiswick.
Best 45 side of the year: John Lee Hooker’s ‘Shake, Holler And Run’.
The second major to come on board as a licensor were old friends EMI. Ace produced a very nice compilation of Shirley and Lee, so beloved by our Caribbean buyers, and a facsimile of the Johnny Olenn Capitol LP – very Ted, very Ace.
Howling Wolf rode in on the moonlight as we debuted some primeval blues sides for the first time. We continued the blues with a 12” LP outing for another musician we got to know – Pee Wee Crayton, a real gent. Also there was a collection from Little George Smith, the other great harp ace with a diminutive prefix.
A pair of consecutive albums (#58 and #59) introduced two of the hippest guys on the R&B planet, Young Jessie and Richard “Louie Louie” Berry, both of whom we were privileged to meet in due course. With their street savvy lyrics and some slick pickin’ from South Central’s finest, they produced a lot of very cool waxings.
Glen Glenn, star of the first Ace album “Hollywood Rock’n’Roll”, got his own Story LP.
As Chiswick gradually wound up in the early 80s, Ace took over as the primary label. But it was soon joined by KENT, magnificently curated in a soulful mode by Ady Croasdell aka Harboro Horace, who leapt in with “For Dancers Only”, an LP of superb Northern soul sounds culled from the Modern vaults and the first of many 45s, a three-tracker with Mary Love’s ‘You Turned My Bitter Into Sweet’ as the top deck. With our second consultant on board we leapt into the 60s.
We also set up CASCADE, the fulfilment of Ted’s dream to have a successful budget label, even though it was mid-price. Price-point notwithstanding, Cascade sold a lot of records and in some way helped to create the next generation of rock’n’roll and R&B fanatics by giving them various artist compilations at an affordable price – on car-friendly cassette as well. Under the “20 Great…” prefix, it covered not just rock’n’roll but blues, doo wop, gospel, teen, soul and the 60s too, and that prefix was not a lie on any of them.
There were some very good new soul records emanating from the US. Led by Trevor, we had a brief flirtation with contemporary soul, kicking off with Carnival Records’ New Jersey Connection and ‘Love Don’t Come Easy’. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a hit on it, or the next two releases on our short-lived label NITELIFE. We will return to Carnival later.
Farewell of the year – the 10” LP – for a couple of decades at least.
With the catalogue expanding at a rate, it was just as well that the Kentish Town Road premises were vacated before the floors collapsed under the weight of wax. We had been above Rock On in Camden from the off and had expanded next door into offices above Holts, the Dr Martens shoe shop made famous in Madness videos. Now it was time to move on, to Grafton Road, further up the Kentish Town Road and over to the left a bit. It proved to be a stop along the way to the promised canal.
The year got off to a great start with an anthology of Arthur Alexander’s Dot recordings, one of our most enduring and definitive releases. Barely known in his native US, this great pioneer of country soul was a massive influence on UK musicians of the 60s: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Gerry and the Pacemakers cut covers of his songs. As well as the Dot tracks, the anthology included his debut single, the super-rare June (Junior) Alexander Judd 45 ‘Sally Sue Brown’ and its flip. I guess Bob Dylan must have got a copy as he covered it six years later. Arthur made a great comeback album for Elektra in 1993, which included a fine new version of that first record.
Anyone old enough to have listened to Two Way Family Favourites in the mid-50s on the BBC’s Light Programme will know Archie Bleyer from his strange and creepy ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’, that crops up later in our story. He was also the owner of New York’s Cadence Records, home of the Everly Brothers, the Chordettes and Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’, which Archie hated but put out anyway, because his daughter loved it. With the Cadence deal in place we set to ripping it up with a compilation of the rockin’ side of the Everly Brothers’ first album followed by their second LP, the nostalgic “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us”.
(Next time you watch Back To The Future, look for the scene in which Michael J Fox first arrives in the 50s. As he backs along the wall, he passes a record store window full of original 50s albums sleeves. On the left is our Phil Smee-designed 1983 Chordettes compilation – a tribute to Ace authenticity.)
In the autumn of 1983 Ted put on what has to be the best R&B show ever to hit London. A line up of Willie Egan, Chuck Higgins, Big Jay McNeely and Young Jessie played to a few lucky people in Camden’s Electric Ballroom on 28 August. Backed up alternatively by Red Beans‘n’Rice and Juice On The Loose, you could get the whole entertainment and a bar for £6.50. While in London, Ted cut studio sessions with them all. The consequent album came out on Ace in November. Ted remains confident that we will recoup within the next millennium.
Speaking of Chuck Higgins’ ‘Pachuko Hop’, his was the first album we issued that year from Jake Porter’s Combo Records. The label was almost a part-time operation for Jake as he was an in-demand session trumpet player and played in many road bands, including Little Richard’s. Mostly he cut friends - Chuck, Jack McVea and Joe Houston - at his house, in a basement studio, which was equipped with a full wet bar. “The Jake Porter Story” Ace compilation soon hit the stores. It included his nearly big hit ‘Ko Ko Mo’ by Gene and Eunice. Only ‘nearly’ because before Porter’s Combo cut got too chart-bound, the Aladdin label’s Mesner brothers took advantage of the small fact that they already had the duo under contract, re-cut the tune and had the bigger hit. Jake still had the publishing, though - which meant he got the income on the Perry Como cover as well and the last laugh.
Though we had been concentrating on the more robust end of American music we were not averse to the odd pop record. With Johnny Tillotson and Sanford ‘The Fool’ Clark, we had two fine singers well to the right side of the “Bobbys” and with a severe lean towards country.
The home-grown variety of rock’n’roll was memorialised with “Rockin’ Again At The Two ‘I’s”, a record that must have completely baffled our American buyers, leaving them wondering how, in a few short years, Britain got to the Beatles and the Stones from here. However there is undoubtedly a naïve enthusiasm about these records and the Vince Taylor sides stand out in particular.
Bob Keane’s Del-Fi Records entered the picture briefly with a “Story” compilation and disappeared immediately. Original Sound likewise made a brief stopover with the Skyliners’ LP “Since I Don’t Have You”. From the same stable Ace issued our first US 60s garage band LP as we were invited to “Turn On” by the Music Machine.
Both these labels made more fulsome appearances later in our story.
In mid-80s Britain, garage essentially came in two varieties. There was your 60s beat/garage scene in the Medway and the more psychobilly/garage hybrid in North London. As we had wound down Chiswick as our main recording arm, we went back to cutting raucous bands with attitude, on a budget. The Milkshakes and the Prisoners represented the Medway. In the North London corner were the Sting-Rays and Escalators, the latter having been born out of the ashes of the UK’s seminal terminal wreck’n’roll outfit the Meteors, who we had first recorded in 1981.
But the most exulted potentates of the rock’n’roll aesthetic were the Cramps. In 1983 we put out The Cramps’ third LP “Smell of Female”, the first in a run of remarkable albums we were privileged to issue in the UK.
We also put out our second Link Wray album, the aptly titled “Good Rockin’ Tonight”. And just to reiterate that, the assemblage of West Coast DJ “Huggy Boy’s Favourite Oldies From Caddy Records” was enough to really screw with your little rock’n’roll head.
The Kent label, meanwhile, progressed to catalogue number 012. Four of the albums were by the Impressions. They came courtesy of Trevor’s impeccable A&R as did the best-ever Irma Thomas compilation, put together by Ted. An early diversification for Kent was a collection of the Arlester Christian-led band, Dyke and The Blazers: the most in-your-face and under-your-feet funk ever laid down and I do mean laid down. “On The Soul Side” was best-ever in the soul compilation category. The young Kent label was finding its (dancing) feet.
We also dipped into that great well of American Musical Art called Jazz, opening our account with John Coltrane’s 1962 rarity “Coltrane Time”. Little did we know how deep we would find this well to be in the coming years. We called the label BOPLICITY.
Though CD was still to come, we discovered the joys of digital tape recorders with the Sony SLF1 set-up. Using Betamax video tape the Sony machine was really no more than a high-end domestic set-up, but it made perfectly good digital copies of analogue tapes at a fraction of the cost of pro machines. We bought a pair of Sonys and got ready to head for the States and get us some masters.
Oddity of the year – undoubtedly Janie Jones and the (C)Lash – ‘House Of The Ju-Ju Queen’, a record that could have seen us all locked up in the Tower, given the suggestions therein about the sexual proclivities of the judiciary – who ever heard of such a thing?
This year was to be the relative calm before the storm, as a steady stream of catalogue albums flowed out from Ace at an ever-increasing rate. It is a wonder that the entire operation didn’t drown in vinyl, as every available square inch of office space in Grafton Rd was packed with LP boxes. On 13 August, we packed up the wagons and the whole operation headed out from North London for the leafy glades, car repair shops and canal-side delights of our current premises inSteele Road, Park Royal.
Five new licensed labels were added to the roster in 1984: Laurie, Specialty, Scepter, Brunswick and Dootone. We eventually purchased the latter – well, most of it.
New York’s Laurie Records was home to Dion & the Belmonts and the Chiffons. It was such a favourite of Trevor’s that he had worked there as a summer holiday job in his younger days. We cut a licence deal with the label’s owners, brothers Gene and Robert Schwartz and they sent reel-to-reel tapes, but they were awful copies. So Roger headed to New York armed with one of Ace’s trusty SLF1 machines. Shortly before he departed, Trevor suggested that Roger check in with the RCA tape vault as the major had handled Laurie for many years. It turned out that not only did RCA have the Laurie tapes but the man in charge of the vault, Bruce Hailstock, was glad to see the back of them – they were cluttering up the place. Roger checked into Associated Studios with his state-of-the-art digital machine and spent the next week running reel after reel of Dion and other great masters to digital. This was the mother lode; it included session reels and a lot of previously unissued material, all impeccably recorded at Bell Sound Studios. This is what digital was made for.
One of the great things about doing this is meeting so many of the company owners who did it in the first place. Art Rupe of Specialty Records, for example, was full of observations and opinions about all he had been through. The mystery man of the 50s record business, Art pretty much kept himself to himself, yet specialised in the wild men of rock’n’roll. They didn’t get much wilder than Little Richard or Specialty’s other main act, the bad boy of rock’n’roll, Larry Williams. When we got involved with Specialty, Art was stepping back from the record business, leaving his daughter Beverly to run it. Beverly’s mother was Lee Rupe, the owner of Ebb Records — which by then was integrated into the Specialty operation. We kicked off the Specialty programme with a Guitar Slim compilation, closely followed by a lavish gatefold, Little Richard’s “Greatest Recordings”, the compilation and title coming from Ted, and he should know.
Dootsie Williams’ Dootone was known for its accidental hit, the Penguins’ ‘Earth Angel’, but it was also responsible for a small and perfectly formed handful of jazz records. These were our entrée into the label. Dootsie was one of the great black entrepreneurs of the period. Most of his releases were doo wop, R&B and, on his Blue imprint, often risqué / partee material. But albums from Dexter Gordon, Curtis Counce and (the jazz pianist) Carl Perkins sat nicely on our newly formed Boplicity label.
The tapes trawled in from MCA still delivered. The best of the crop was the svelte, but wig-popping “Jumpin’ The Blues” from the US Decca vaults, lovely recordings that really benefitted from the digital transfer.
From the Modern catalogue, Elmore James and His Broomdusters’ “Meteor And Flair Sides” rocked the blues while Jimmy Witherspoon shouted them and B.B. King sang ‘Rock Me Baby’ with a sexy swing.
Through a circuitous route, CBS Records Special Markets division ended up controlling rights - for a while anyway - to the Scepter / Wand and Brunswick catalogues. Though they were unrelated, they did become somewhat conflated in Ace compilations. They certainly provided a vast amount of material to feed the ever-growing roster of Kent compilations, including our first Jackie Wilson collection. Add to these Ike & Tina and Z.Z. Hill compilations of Modern material and some soul mining of the MCA labels and before the year was out Kent had hit 31 issues. “Footstompers”, “Hot Chills, Cold Thrills”, “Pure Soul”, “On The Up Beat”, “Soul Spin”, “S.O.U.L. Agents”, “Dancing Til Dawn”, “Kent Stop Dancing”, “Cry, Cry, Crying”: the sanctified heart and beat of UK soul passion screams from these titles.
The garage scene continued apace noisily with the Damned’s Dave Vanian joining in with his side group, the Phantom Chords, while the Milkshakes’ girlfriends stepped out as the Delmonas. The Escalators added some welly to become the Tall Boys, led by the imposing presence of ex-Meteor Nigel Lewis and the Vibes also passed through with a very strong EP.
If we hadn’t let the leader of Brownsville Station, DJ and Detroit scene maker Cub Koda loose to compile an LP for his legion of fans, then the world would have been deprived of ‘Surfin’ School’ by King Uszniewicz and the Uszniewicztones and been a poorer place for it.
Apart from the Cascade mid-price line we hadn’t issued cassettes on catalogue material, so the appearance of George Jones on tape was a first. Sounded pretty good, too.
Cool release of the year: “Rockin’ With Ricky”, showing Ricky Nelson could rock with the best of them, though having James Burton on guitar helped.
This was a bumper year for releases. We put out more cassettes but it was mostly the increasing LP output, helped by a couple of new labels and a pair of new licensing deals, one of which was to prove pivotal in the later development of the company.
The IMPACT label made a brief impact as a mainly girl group pop label. It did, though, manage to feature two Delmonas and Tracey Emin modelling for the cover shot of the label’s first release, “Stop Look Listen” a compilation of Laurie Records girls by Mick Patrick (now an Ace consultant); his first collection for Ace. The Shirelles, the Chiffons and even Gene Pitney got a look-in. Ady Croasdell put together a selection from his Camden Palace pop/soul set – a real dance round the handbags affair. When, four years later, in 1989, Marc Almond scored with ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’, we were the only company with a Pitney album on catalogue which featured the song. So, of course, we immediately put out a (nicely profitable) cassette of it, too.
It was also the year that Ace went Cajun, with Ted inking a pact with renowned producer Floyd Soileau, the man who virtually owned Louisiana music. John Broven, who later joined the Ace consultancy team, made his debut on the label with some fine sleeve notes, which he was more than qualified to do, having written the book in the first place: South To Louisiana. Floyd’s Jin and Swallow labels had been familiar around Ace for a while. In the Soho market stall days and courtesy of importer Flyright, many a Louisiana 45 was moved over the counter - to John Peel, among others. When Charlie Gillett’s Oval label issued “Another Saturday Night”, the definitive Cajun/Swamp Pop compilation, Rock On probably shifted most of the copies sold. One track was lifted off it as a 45, Johnnie Allan’s ‘Promised Land’, the most ramshackle, fall-over version of a Chuck Berry song ever, but which could still put life in a stiff anytime. Ace launched its own bayou programme with “Louisiana Cajun Special #1”, a compilation of very downhome two-steps and waltzes and had another fling at top pop success with the original Rockin’ Sidney version of ‘My Toot Toot’. It was Denise LaSalle’s cover that’s got the hit action on the song, though. Ace went on to mine not only the Jin and Swallow labels but, with the help of John Broven, cut deals with Lanor, La Louisianne and Goldband/Folk Star to produce a comprehensive Cajun catalogue.
Ben Mandelson was one of the Amazorblades, who spoke the ‘Common Truth’ on Chiswick 45 NS 20. Well, actually it was Rob Keyloch, whose studio now does quite a bit of work for Ace, who sang it. As does the young pop star Paulo Nutini who performs it as an encore. But I digress. Ben had played in various bands, most recently the Anglo-Ghanaian Orchestra Jazira. He then became a friend of the enigmatic 3Mustaphas3 – the World wrapped up in a band, wrapped up in the World. The mid-80s saw a surge of interest in non-Western Music, so Ace formed GLOBESTYLE Records, with 3M3 as its house band. The idea was they would act as a backing group for visiting artists. In fact, they ended up as a recording outfit in their own right. Their debut mini album, recorded on two mics in a mercifully empty swimming pool, was “Bam! Big Mustaphas Play Stereolocalmusic”. Talking of two mics, that is the exact number Ben and Roger took to Madagascar that year, to go boldly without so much as a pith helmet to record the local music.
In classic Ace style, we licensed some great recordings by the self-locating Super Rail Band Of The Buffet Hotel De La Gare De Bamako, Mali and Puseletso Seema and Tua Ea Linare from Lesotho. We also licensed “Yemenite Songs” by Ofra Haza and a story unfolded.
The deal with the most lasting impact was with Fantasy Records of Berkeley, California, for their CONTEMPORARY label and its West Coast, mainly Cool School jazz. Fantasy possessed the largest collection of jazz under one roof: Prestige, Riverside, Milestone, Pablo, and more. It was also home to Stax and, on the mother label itself, Creedence Clearwater Revival. In time it would also buy Specialty and Ebb Records.
In the meantime, we got very busy digging deep into its vaults. All three original Little Richard LPs escaped, along with further wild rock’n’roll from Larry Williams, Lloyd Price and Don and Dewey. For a touch of real class, though, Percy Mayfield “My Heart Is Always Singing Sad Songs” was hard to beat.
Compilations were all the rage, so we had a lot of them. A highlight was the sampler for Duke and Peacock “If It’s Not A Hit I’ll Eat My Hat” replete with a pic of owner Don Robey tucking into said headgear; guess he didn’t pay enough payola for that one to chart.
More singles ensued, including a run of great soul 45s on the new Kent TOWN prefix. Single-artist anthologies from Chuck Jackson, Tyrone Davis, Bobby Bland and the soulful side of the Shirelles also graced the Kent label. Alan Toussaint’s powerful “From A Whisper To Scream” LP provided a very different take on soul music.
In a radical move the two debut Kent LPs were converted to cassette for that dancing in the car experience.
There were also more of the then-fashionable mini albums, mainly by UK bands but we did sneak out the six released Dot sides by Nervous Norvus to horrify British sensibilities, with the bloody tale of ‘Transfusion’ (“pass the claret to me Barrett”).
The Garage scene stayed surprisingly buoyant, with the signature LP of the scene, “Rockabilly Psychosis And The Garage Disease”, perfectly summing it up. Several of the bands also appeared on the soundtrack LP of the 1985 horror comedy, “Return Of The Living Dead”. Arguably they were all outdone by an appearance by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, author of the totally incoherent ‘Paralysed’, who also had a new album on Big Beat.
One of the great rock’n’roll questions is “Can Your Pussy Do The Dog?” and The Cramps went in search of an answer with the first single from their forthcoming LP.
Moody album of the year – “Beat Girl” soundtrack by John Barry
The big event in 1986 was the advent of the digital Compact Disc. For an oldies label selling to people who were still distressed at the demise of the 78, this leap into new technology was not going to be easy. Ace eased into this new world tentatively, though we were better prepared than most as we already had much of the material in digital form. Still, caution prevailed, and the first shiny discs released were by the major acts on the label.
The first was the Cramps’ “A Date With Elvis” issued on LP and cassette a mere two months earlier. Jackie Wilson, Dion, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers and B.B. King all made it on to the new format, along with a brace of trial compilations. The future had arrived and Ace grabbed it with the tips of its fingers and sniffed it suspiciously.
Also sniffing at the new technology, but with the scent of opportunity in his nostrils was the Runyonesque figure of Hy Weiss of Old Town Records and New York. Irascible wasn’t in it with Hy but the Ace schmooze team went in and soon had a deal, based on his blues sides from Bob Gaddy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Larry Dale and even James Wayne – now there’s a story. A cautious man, Hy was not prepared to let go of his extremely valuable doo wop catalogue just yet. He also had great sides on R&B acts Billy Bland, Robert and Johnny and the Fiestas, plus a host of soul sides, mainly on his Barry subsidiary - named after his son, who went on to become a major music business player. Hy’s Old Town was one of the last of the 50s-style independent companies - companies that totally lack vice presidents of any kind whatsoever.
Increasingly enamoured of the compilation we had Rock’n’Roll Rhythm and Blues house parties, Rockabilly Shakeouts, did the Mardi Gras Rock’n’Roll with Art Neville and the Crescent City Bounce.
“Hey Baby, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me?” compiled the Peacock sides of two peacocks, Billy Wright and Little Richard.
Texas was represented by the big guitar of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown but, sadly, the latest from Pee Wee Crayton was a memorial album - issued not long after Ray and Roger had seem him climbing into the audience with the extended lead on his guitar looking fit as a fiddle.
Young Holt Unlimited - sometimes limited to a Trio - were led by Eldee Young and Red Holt. Their popularity was a sign that the jazzier end of soulful music was shuffling onto the dance floor. With a second volume of Jackie Wilson onKentand the Ace “Reet Petite” LP on CD, we were getting well into the fairly sophisticated soul ofBrunswick. So when the single of ‘Reet Petite’ re-charted in late 1986, we were ready, willing and able to ship albums with the single’s title emblazoned across the front cover.
We put out the first two collections of the field recordings made the previous year in Madagascar on the SLF1 digital recorder. Madagasque music of that kind hadn’t been recorded for some time, so we were pioneering. In fact, they were probably some of the earliest such recordings made digitally. They sounded pretty good, too.
Another 23 Contemporary LPs came out and, with the relationship with Fantasy developing, we licensed the two cult albums by Alec Chilton’s Big Star which had appeared on the Stax subsidiary Ardent — named after the studio in Memphis. Only a few years earlier, these records had been big cut-out favourites at Rock On. Who would have guessed then that they would become quite so revered and influential in years to come?
Cynically, it could be said that with the advent of CD the story of Ace is a repeat from here on in. There is an element of truth in that. For a while, CDs were little more than old LPs, sometimes expanded. Soon, though, the new format changed our thinking about how we put together and presented our records. As the sun set on 1986, we had 14 Compact Discs available – all silver.
Meanwhile, back on a “Date With Elvis”, the Cramps toured extensively, playing Hammersmith Odeon and then returning for several crazed shows at the Hammersmith Palais, at which Lux literally tore up the stage and climbed inside it. Rarely had rock’n’roll been this terminal — and there was us thinking we had retired to the backwater of the re-issue business.
Fairly bonkers album of the year – “Goes Ape!” by Wee Willie (Charlie) Harris pronounced without the haitch.