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Fortissimo! The Combo Recordings 1954-57, CD (£11.50)
He’d made a big name for himself in the mid-late 1940s, with his million selling recording of the much-covered ‘Open the Door Richard’ and other classics for (mostly) the Black & White label, but the hits had well and truly dried up by the time that tenor player Jack McVea brought his current group of musicians to Jake Porter’s Combo label in 1954.
Even without hits to help him pull in the crowds, McVea had been working regularly in places a far afield as Alaska and Hawaii. However, when the call came from Porter to come down and cut, he did not require too much persuasion to return to his native Los Angeles in order to see what could be accomplished. Ultimately, things did not go particularly well between the two men – to find out why, you’ll have to buy the CD! – but happily for all fans of small group 1950s R&B, McVea did stick around for long enough to cut sufficient repertoire to fill a whole compact disc, one which Ace is proud to add to our ever-increasing collection of 1950s West Coast R&B collections this month.
McVea’s Combo recordings were more or less his last recordings, period. (Happily he did not die in obscurity but, rather, in well-earned retirement after working almost 30 years as a clarinetist in a strolling trio at Disneyland in Anaheim). “Fortissimo” collects up at least one version of almost every track released on Combo with Jack’s name under the title – the only exceptions being both sides of the single ‘Fish Man’/’I Owe Everybody’, which are essentially solo vehicles for his pal and long time guitarist Gene Phillips. These both appear at least once already on Ace CD, and there are no further alternate takes in the Combo tape inventory, so I opted to omit the tracks on this occasion.
Speaking of alternates, several of the masters of Jack’s Combo 45s have, of course, been reissued on CD by Ace in the past. Wherever alternates exist on such masters I have chosen to use them instead, in an effort to minimize duplication for the long time Ace collector. The alternates that have been used are by no means inferior to the masters and, because Jack never played solos the same way twice, many of them offer a welcoming fresh look at a familiar piece of material.
As well as being heavy on the booting sax-led instrumentals that one would naturally expect, “Fortissimo” also throws the spotlight on the many talented singers who featured with the McVea band in the early-mid 1950s, notably Christine Chatman, Jack’s wife Louise Beatty, his drummer Rudy Pitts and Al Smith, later to find a more substantial fame as 60s bluesman Al King. Between them, they paint a vivid picture of what Los Angeles nightlife must have been like for the local black community in the years immediately preceding rock ‘n’ roll.
If you hear any noise, it’s just Jack and the boys (and girls, of course) – playing “Fortissimo”!
By Tony Rounce