Ace Records History Part 7
A year of deaths, celebration and buying catalogues.
In March, Hy Weiss of Old Town / Barry Records died in Florida. The idea of deaths as ‘burning libraries’ certainly applied to Hy, a fount of insider knowledge about the music business from the mid-50s onwards. He was frank about it being full of scams and dodges. Most of his artists we met had no illusions about him, but also real affection. Plus, he could tell you a thing or two about them, too. He featured in many books, some more discreetly than others and it is a shame he never did tell his own tale. What tales he had to tell: tall, frighteningly honest and often very funny.
You could hardly find a more different character to Hy than Frank Werber. Yet both had that restless hustle of many music business entrepreneurs. Frank also died this year, shortly after Ace purchased his Trident Productions, having done business with him for the previous nine years. He was a man of great contrasts: manager of popular folk combo the Kingston Trio and loud advocate of marijuana - which led to a short prison sentence. Based in San Francisco, he also ran the Bay Area’s Trident Restaurant and had a music production company of the same name. One obituary described him as hobo, beatnik, photographer, music and entertainment entrepreneur, nightclub owner, race car driver, hippy visionary, newspaper owner and hermetic guru - among other things. I think we can add producer of very fine pop and rock music and a man with a life fully lived.
Lew Bedell had died seven years earlier. We had licensed successfully from him and also had issues over rights that were not easily unravelled. He was a one of those Hollywood hustlers who never gave up: there is always another hit around the corner. Lew didn’t have many hits but his first was, to say the least, part of pop history. In 1958 his next door neighbour, the teenager Harvey Phillip Spector produced and sang with the Teddy Bears. Their ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ went to #1 in the Billboard charts. Lew also had Top 10s with ‘Baby Talk’ by Jan & Dean and ‘Percolator’ by Billy Joe & the Checkmates - a mask name behind which sparkled top Hollywood session players including Ernie Freeman, Earl Palmer and René Hall. Lew made many novelty records. When we bought the Dore label, we also found in the tapes a lot of great, often quirky 50s pop and rock’n’roll as well as superb soul sides.
“The Golden Age Of American Rock’n’Roll” reached Vol. 11 and so most of the obvious choices of an initially less than mainstream list had been used. The idea was not to recycle the same old tracks that had been oldied to death over the years, but to go after those ‘hard to find’ records that were still ‘hits’ - no matter how lowly their chart placing. Collay & the Satellites’ ‘Last Chance’ fitted nicely into that category. Led by Trevor, the intrepid Ace team managed to track down label owner Jim O Stewart and we bought the handful of 45s that constituted the entire catalogue. We went on to use both the flip of the hit and tracks by - yet another - Soul Brothers. We have yet to use the Saxons’ ‘Camel Walk parts 1 & 2’. Maybe it will make it to a future volume of “Land Of 1000 Dances”.
Talking of ‘Camel Walk’, there were many 45s released under that title - though not always the same tune. The Ikettes recorded a fantastic take on the idea. We had issued in 1987 an LP of their Modern recordings with a fabulous photo of four women on the cover. The slight problem was none of them were the Ikettes on the records. We rectified this with a collection of all the sides the Ikettes cut with Ike Turner for the Biharis. It included seven previously unissued and a couple of Vanetta Fields solo performances, making a 27-track corker of an album - with the right photo. It also included really great and insightful studio chat - mainly barbs aimed at Ike.
Three very diverse soul brothers made it onto Kent. Billy Butler’s complete - and we did mean complete - Okeh recordings were gathered on CD for the first time. Some of his 45 releases had instrumental versions as their flip so we added those, alongside some stunning unissued sides which were good enough to make you wonder why they had stayed in the can. Danny White was a New Orleans-based performer who recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s and in Memphis with upcoming young writers/producers Isaac Hayes and David Porter. They wrote and produced several White sides, using the Stax horns, “Teenie” Hodges on guitar and drummer Howard Grimes. Luther Ingram was the most commercially successful of the three soul men, famous for charting ‘(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right’ on KoKo, before Isaac Hayes and Millie Jackson even got to the song. KoKo was owned by Johnny Baylor, a ‘presence’ around Stax in the 70s. Later, Hy Weiss brokered it to Randy Stewart - who had been in the Fiestas on Old Town. Funny how it all goes around. Ace ended up licensing from Randy.
“Larry Banks’ Soul Family Album” was a spin off from Dave Godin’s “Deep Soul Treasures” series. Dave’s last request was for a tribute to writer / producer and sometime performer Larry Banks. Both of Larry’s wives were represented: Bessie with a version of ‘Go Now’ from a newly discovered session reel; Jaibi with a superb demo of the gorgeous ‘You Got Me’.
Following on from the two CDs which dealt with the black experience in Vietnam, “Change Is Gonna Come” charted the voice of black America through the decade from 1963. From the hopeful title track, it moved to the history lesson of ‘Forty Acres And A Mule’ to the determined ‘To Be Young, Gifted And Black’, to the militant voice of Gil Scott-Heron. A celebration of the full musical gamut of political and emotional response from a people still not part of the land of the free.
A very different celebration took place in North London as Winfield Parker, Mary Love, Tommy Hunt, the Flirtations and Maxine Brown stepped out at the Forum in exaltation of 25 years of the Kent label at Ace Records. It was a real Soul Revue, with all of the acts inspiring each other to greater heights of soul ecstasy. We knew it was going to be good when at the end of the meal the night before Maxine huddled with Mary, Tommy and Winfield for a quick chorus of the harmonies on the encore song ‘It Takes Two’. They ran them down a few times a cappella and the whole restaurant burst into applause. Soul power for Showtime indeed.
We reached the third volume of the works of writer/ producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller but the year really kicked off with the first volumes of what was to become a signature series for Ace: “Songwriters”. At the centre of the series was the loose group of teenage songsmiths generally referred as Brill Building writers - for the office block at 1619 Broadway many of them worked from. First up was a collection of Gerry Goffin & Carole King songs. Aretha Franklin, Bobby Rydell, Dion, Gene McDaniels, the Animals, Nancy Wilson, the Chiffons, the Byrds, Dusty Springfield, the Monkees: the list of Goffin & King tunes is as endless as the artists are diverse. That first CD was just the start and, led by Mick Patrick, the “Songwriter” collection has blossomed into one of the great Ace series.
The Pomus-Shuman partnership was the second “Songwriters” collation. Doc Pomus was a short guy, crippled by polio as a child and confined to crutches. There’s a great photo of him on stage in 1947 propped up on his sticks and belting out R&B. In 1956 he came up with ‘Lonely Avenue’ for Ray Charles and later teamed up with Mort Shuman, who took over the tunes while Doc crafted great pop lyrics for ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’, ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You’, ‘Suspicion’ and ‘Hey Memphis’. This was LaVern Baker’s retort to Doc and Mort’s ‘Little Sister’ cut by Elvis as one half of possibly the greatest double-sided 45 with ‘(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame’, also a Pomus/Shuman song.
“Birth Of Surf” is self-explanatory - though it’s perhaps worth pointing out it is all-instrumental. It kicked off with sides from Duane Eddy, Johnny & The Hurricanes and others from the pre-dawn of the genre, not all of whom lived by the seaside. Eventually, it settled into the sound and the fury of the surf, with those distinctive guitar runs mimicking the thrills of the crashing waves. The classics were here: ‘Pipeline’, ‘Miserlou’, ‘Baja’. By the end of 1963, it was ‘Wipeout’ for surf music – or maybe not, according to later compilations in the series.
With just three 45s to his name, Roddy Jackson had a pretty short career spanning 1958-1959. Remarkably, the ‘Central Valley Fireball’ returned in the 1990s and hit the new rock’n’roll live circuit, living up to the reputation he had as an explosive performer. Alec found enough unissued tracks in the Specialty vaults to squeeze out a 16-track CD around 50 years after they were recorded. Roddy also co-wrote, with Sonny (&Cher) Bono, Larry Williams’ storming rocker ‘She Said, Yeah’ - as mangled by many a British beat combo.
Across two fun compilations, boys sang about girls - who then answered back. “Girls Girls Girls: A Collection Of Dream Dates” name-checked a decade of females from 1955’s Lillie Maebelle to 1965’s Barbara Ann. On the “Answer To Everything”, the girls had their turn, making it plain that ‘He’ll Have To Stay’, that ‘Yes, I’m Lonesome Tonight’ but ‘I’m No Run Around’.
Although Norman Petty was most associated with the 50s, as the producer of Buddy Holly and the Fireballs, he cut a swathe of garage and pop psyche sides. Alec assembled them into a pair of fine and gritty compilations.
Another of the really great double-sided 45s was Bob Lind’s ‘Elusive Butterfly’/‘Cheryl’s Goin’ Home’ sung, produced by Jack Nitzsche. Both were on an essential CD of all the recordings Bob and Jack cut together - including ‘Mr Zero’, also cut by Yardbird Keith Relf. Bob turns up later in our story, as does Jack.
After the demise of the Zombies, lead singer Colin Blunstone cut some sides for Deram as Neil MacArthur. These formed the basis for “Into The Afterlife” with the addition of previously unissued sides from Rod Argent, Chris White and the Zombies. Yes, you just can’t have enough Zombies — probably the finest unsung British band from the 60s. We even put out a CD single of ‘Time Of The Season’.
45 mania broke out again, with a welcome stack of rare and in-demand dancers on Kent. The Dyke & The Blazers catalogue got a make-over, with both 7” and 12” singles proving that ‘We Got More Soul’ was still a perfectly correct and very funky statement.
Optimistic title of the year from John Fahey – “Yes! Jesus Loves Me”.
It wasn’t deliberate, but 2008 turned into a monster year for keynote releases and compilations that shaped the next few years of Ace, with the usual oddities thrown in.
It all started ‘one night in the big city’, back in 2006, when Roger noticed that the Theme Time Radio Hour: With Your Host Bob Dylan featured a lot of sides to be found on Ace CDs. The recognition was great but maybe there was a promotional opportunity here, too. Via mutual friends Susan Clary and Hudson Marquez, Roger contacted series producer Eddie Gorodetsky. The idea was to see if we could post little somethings on the website pointing out that “Bob played this and here is where you get it”. You know the kind of deal. Well, next day an email came down the pipe from Bob Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen. Not only was he happy for us to do just that but the email finished with a query: “Why don’t you do the compilation?” Pretty soon, Eddie and Roger were swapping lists of potential tracks drawn from the first Theme Time Radio Hour series. The first volume of the CD was put together through 2007 with much trading of tunes and several lightbulb moments. This was compiling on epic scale, covering all kinds of music: popular, not-so-popular and vernacular music of the 20th century, plus slightly more up-to-date tracks. This sheer eclecticism meant they were not compilations for the faint-hearted. The series opened appropriately with Grandpa Jones’ ‘Turn Your Radio On’ and closed 20 months later with ‘Happy Trails’ by Roy Rogers & Dale Evans. All in all, 78 years of music was covered. A fitting number.
This series was to act as a sort of calling card for Ace and so the look and the notes had to be top of the range. Rather than one annotator we took the track-by-track approach developed with the Golden Age series, but utilising multiple writers. This made for a real editing challenge and Carol, with assistance from our old friend Pete Silverton, pulled the whole thing together so it read as a piece. We had worked with Phil Smee almost from the start of the label and he produced artwork that fitted in with the mood of the radio shows themselves. Whereas much of our design has a strong element of ‘period’ look, the range of music here took us away from that and so we came up with a different look. And it was a very intense experience for all of us putting these together, but they are an enduring testimony to the quality of the company.
The year’s other epic was “Take Me To The River: A Southern Soul Story 1961-1977”. Three CDs packed in a handy hardcover booklet, it did not claim to be the last word on Southern soul, but it was a hell of a good listen and it did cover all bases. It’s amazing how a record that has been played to death on the radio can, in the right context, come to you as if fresh born. Such transubstantiation sure applied here - most clearly with Percy Sledge’s ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’, reclaiming it from Levi’s ad burnout. The set maintained a chronological drift, opening with the sublime ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ by the wonderful William Bell. When Ace won a Mojo Award for Compilation of the Year, we flew William in to accept the award. Over the years, he has been a true friend of Ace, always willing to come over to help out and ever the complete gentleman. This was the third time we’d brought him over. The box set was extremely well received among critics and public alike, becoming one of our all-time biggest sellers.
On any weekend afternoon in the late 70s Rock On in Camden Town was more like a club than a shop. An ideal meeting place to hang out or go on somewhere – the pub, usually. The music was invariably great and the stock was about as diverse as the Theme Time Radio Hour selections. In fact, Bob Dylan himself once dropped by and picked up some gospel records. Ted and Roger put together the sound of rockin’ Camden. A typical 1978 Rock On Saturday covered Cajun, R&B, Rockabilly, rock’n’roll, soul and garage — plus whatever category you reckon you could fit Link Wray’s monstrous ‘I’m So Glad, I’m So Proud’ into. Halcyon days when 45s were small works of art and CDs were in the future.
Vicki Fox is one of many of Ace people who had served time behind the counter at Rock On. She knows her stuff when it came to records and is also a cat lover. Putting these two things together, she came up with “Feline Groovy”, the ultimate cool-for-cats compilation. A puurrrfect play list for pussycats and their owners alike. Slinky.
Another innovative idea was “You Heard It Here First”: compilations of songs that were certainly familiar but not necessarily as performed by the artists featured. It was kind of like a collection of answers to many a pub quiz question. Who beat the Mindbenders to ‘A Groovy Kind Of Love’? Was there really a version of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ before Bill Haley turned it into a cinema riot? The Troggs may have had the hit, but what was the first version of ‘Wild Thing’? Amaze your friends with fascinating facts.
The artist usually gets most of the credit, but the guy with his name in small print below was often as responsible for the quality of the performance and certainly the overall sound of the record. This certainly applied to two producers whose work we greatly admired and gathered into career-spanning compilations.
Jerry Ragovoy produced his first session in 1953 but only came into his own as producer, arranger, conductor and sometime piano man in the 60s as R&B evolved into soul and the recordings became more complex. Had Jerry only ever made Lorraine Ellison’s ‘Stay With Me’, his position in the soul Hall Of Fame would have been assured. It was possibly the most gut and heart wrenching vocal committed to vinyl. Of course, his credits went a lot further. He wrote ‘Time Is On My Side’ - best known by Irma Thomas, though also covered by beat combo the Rolling Stones. And he had a long-term working relationship with the great Howard Tate. Our CD compilation rounded off with a 2001 performance of ‘Get It While You Can’ by Howard Tate, accompanied by Jerry Ragovoy on piano. Stunning.
Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns co-wrote ‘Piece of My Heart’ - made famous by Erma Franklin then crossed over via the lungs of Janis Joplin. Like Jerry, Bert was a Jack-of-all-trades: producer, arranger, songwriter, guitar player. His career was tragically short, though. Only seven years elapsed between his debut 45 as producer and his premature death at the end of 1967. What it lacked in longevity, it more than made up for in quality, though. “Twist And Shout” was just the first of three volumes of the Bert Berns Story. A journeyman producer, he was all over the mid 60s Atlantic catalogue, making records with Solomon Burke, Ben E King and Wilson “The Wicked” Pickett. When the young John Lennon shredded his throat on ‘Twist And Shout’, that was because he was trying to match up to the Isley Brothers version, produced by Bert and quite trumping the Top Notes’ anodyne Phil Spector-produced original. Bert came toLondonin 1965, producing the angry young Them’s ‘Here Comes The Night’. When, later, he formed his own Shout and Bang labels, he also produced Van Morrison’s joyous solo debut, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. Bert’s back story is remarkable and well worth reading about in Joel Selvin’s book Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues.
Having opened a Pandora’s music box of songwriters, Mick Patrick rummaged around and came up with more great tunesmiths in need of lionising. From the same Brill milieu as Goffin and King came Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. On ‘Doo-Wah-Diddy’ and ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, they chewed up the English language with the best of them. But then they also hit the emotional heights of ‘River Deep - Mountain High’ and evoked great pathos with their two-minute teen opera ‘Leader Of The Pack’. They wrote the iconic Phil Spector songs, ‘Then He Kissed Me’ and ‘Baby I Love You’. Married in 1962, they separated in 1966 but carried on writing together, including songs for Neil Diamond - who was then signed to Bert Berns’s Bang Records. It all comes round.
Jackie DeShannon turns up on many of our compilations as a singer. “Break-A-Way” focuses on her songwriting. And what songs they are. The title track was first cut by Irma Thomas, then much later helped launch Tracy Ullman’s career. ‘When You Walk In The Room’ charted for the Searchers - who had already covered Jackie’s versions of the Jack Nitzsche-Sonny Bono song ‘Needles And Pins’. Jackie’s ‘Put A Little Love In Your Heart’ is one of the most positive of 60s songs and has been covered multiple times over the years. Though most associated with the 60s, Jackie also had a huge hit in 1981 with ‘Bette Davis Eyes’. We put out a second collection of her songs, plus three volumes of her own 60s recordings. The Jackie DeShannon story is quite something. She opened for the Beatles. She made the remarkable ‘Don’t Turn Your Back On Me’, with Jimmy Page. She cut a great album on Atlantic with Van Morrison and she wrote songs with Jack Nitzsche, Sharon Sheeley and Randy Newman.
On the subject of Randy Newman… Before the acerbic, satirical songs for which he is best known, he wrote in the classic American pop tradition, often with a hint of the film soundtracks that were part of the family trade. ‘I’ve Been Wrong Before’, ‘I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore’, ‘Nobody Needs Your Love’ and ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ were all melancholic ambitious songs. Between 1962 to 1971 his songs were recorded by such diverse performers as Frankie Laine, Erma Franklin, Irma Thomas, P.J. Proby, the Everly Brothers and of course Jackie DeShannon. He cited ‘Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear’ as a turning point, signalling a move towards writing at one remove from the character of the singer. The Alan Price version is on the album. We would just like to say that the shorter members of staff still lend their support to this record and its follow up.
It was such an event-filled year. We also put out two terrific anthologies of the works of Burt Bacharach and Darlene Love, both of which eschewed the obvious to dig much deeper into their respective careers.
In 2006, we tentatively started a companion series to “The Golden Age of American Rock’n’Roll” called “The Golden Age Of American Popular Music”. The idea was to explore the more overtly pop side of Billboard chart hits, trying hard not to tip over into the maudlin. A sequel was issued and, to keep it company, we also put out more tightly focused volumes of jazz, folk and country crossover hits. These proved to be very popular. Even 2009’s MOR.“With Strings & Things” sold well; it’s a surprisingly good listen.
On the very non-commercial front we reverted to type, buying up a couple more small, obscure and imperfectly formed west coast R&B labels; Flash and Music City.
Like us, Charlie Reynolds started a record label out of a retail operation. By the time that the 28 April 1956 issue of Billboard announced he had formed a new independent rhythm and blues label with Al Curry, he had already put out four releases on Flash Records. Al and Charlie were described as “Veteran disk dealers in the area”. The store was at 623 E Vernon Ave, just off South Central in Los Angeles. Many Ace veterans visited the store years later when it was run by Danny “Flash” - possibly Charlie’s nephew. Now, that was an experience.
Ray Dobard was a music producer, would-be politician and all-round hustler. At the core of his Music City label was gritty street level doo wop and R&B. He ran his operation for over 20 years from 1953, issuing around 50 singles, but he also seems to have run tape most of that time, given the sheer wealth of material that surfaced when we got to the vault.
It was Billy Vera who tipped us to the tapes of the elusive 1966 Little Willie John recordings for Capitol, produced by David Axelrod, previously only available as a lo-fi issue of dubious provenance. So it was an absolute delight to be able to issue it at last in hi-fi audio. Featuring west coast session luminaries Arthur Wright, Earl Palmer, Jim Horn and Carol Kaye with arrangements by H.B. Barnum and the vocals of a man regarded by many as the greatest singer of them all, it couldn’t disappoint. The only sadness was Willie John’s return to prison and subsequent death two years after the recording, at the age of 30. The Axelrod sessions left us with this tantalising glimpse of the soul singer he would have become.
Ty Karim’s was a great soul story that turned out to be on our doorstep. Known and revered on the Northern circuit - several of her original 45s attracted big numbers - Ty died in 1983. However, her daughter lived just a couple of miles from Ace’s Harlesden HQ. So, with her help, Ady was able to piece the together her mother’s story. Ty was married to Kent Harris who back in 1956 was behind Boogaloo & His Gallant Crew’s ‘Clothes Line’, a song Leiber & Stoller borrowed from - liberally - for the Coasters ‘Shopping For Clothes’. Financial justice was done, though.
Attempting to sum up Jerry Williams on a single 24-track CD is like précising War And Peace on a postcard, but we tried. Inez & Charlie Foxx, Gene Pitney, Z.Z. Hill, Arthur Conley and the magnificently named Slick ‘n’ the Family Brick all benefitted from the production skills of the man latterly known as Swamp Dogg. He also appears on the collection as the artist known as Jerry Williams. A very good listen it is, even if not definitive.
Meanwhile “New Breed” added “Popcorn” as the dance floor got even stranger.
Night time in the “Naked City” and that empty despair of isolation in a place with no pity. A Kent CD compilation with a difference.
Our dear friend Armen Boladian celebrated 40 years of his Westbound label. We hosted a CD party in his honour simply called “Westbound 40”. Also from the same source we put out a best of the three Denis Coffey albums on the label.
Having bought the rights to most of Frank Werber’s Trident Productions and accessed the vaults, we had enough for a 2CD set of mainly previously unissued tracks. To complete the story, we brought back in the We Five’s 1965 hit on MGM , ‘You Were On My Mind’.
From 1965 to the end of the decade, Hugh “Jeep” Holland was a prime mover and shaker on the Michigan rock scene, running an agency, booking the bands at the Grande and operating the A-Square record label. Alec first met Jeep in the late 90s but, sadly, the Detroit music maker died soon after. It took until 2008 before his estate sorted out his vast collection of material. Now this had been done, we were finally able put out a fitting tribute to the work Jeep put into that brief period from which emerged both the MC5 and the Stooges. Both are represented on the compilation: the former with their first and exceedingly rare 45; the latter on an early Iggy outing, drumming and singing with the Prime Movers,
Memphis’s Ardent studio, run by John Fry, was widely known as the home of Big Star, the band that launched a thousand bands. In the early Rock On days, you could pick up their two Stax distributed LPs cheaply from cut-out dealers. We bought hundreds of copies, selling them on to appreciative and discerning customers. We knew how good they were and maybe in some small way, we helped fuel the Alex Chilton legend. Pre-Big Star, though, in the 60s, Ardent turned out a series of great garage and psychedelic recordings. We put them together on a luxurious 2CD set. Most of the tracks were previously unissued and most overseen by Memphis magician Jim Dickinson. A rare talent. He also sang lead on the Jesters’ ‘Cadillac Man’, which we included on the first collection of their late-period Sun recordings.
A Fugs box set materialised. Rumour has it that the White House levitated ever so slightly.
As if this weren’t enough excitement for the year, there was also the advent - for us - of the download. Clever kids had been doing this for some time now, only without the messy inconvenience of paying for it. As this was a version of the future, we decided to join - though getting excited about it was a challenge. As the years have rolled by the micro-pennies have increased in direct proportion to our enthusiasm. But it will never replace the 45 in our hearts - not even the CD.
Out-there record of the year - ‘Let’s Talk About Jesus’ on the Funkadelic “Toys” album.