In the decade before the British Invasion and the completion of Interstate 5, Highway 99 was still California's main north-south thoroughfare. Among the towns evoked by the movie American Graffiti which dot its pathway through the San Joaquin Valley is Merced, approximately seventy-five miles east of San Jose. It is an unlikely crucible, but the whole Merced Blue Notes saga is unlikely: a multi-ethnic rock'n'roll cover band gets nurtured by the blues-loving town Fire Chief and civic activist, shuffles its membership and evolves into one of the all-time regional rocking rhythm and blues bands, leaving a handful of tough 45s including some of the 1960s finest blues-based instrumentals and many unissued tracks in its wake. Nearly forty years after the band split up and twenty years after their only album (of previously unissued material) was released on a small valley label, we can finally celebrate their first complete CD, featuring twenty-six glorious, rousing and bluesy tracks, including eleven heard for the first time and two alternate versions.
Formed in 1956 in their mid-teens to back Roddy Jackson (but never on record), the band was sponsored by the local Civitan Club at the urging of Fire Chief George Coolures. A blues-loving harmonica player (heard on Do The Pig and Fragile), Chief" Coolures guided his young charges toward more originals and R&B, even joining them onstage after Jackson left. By the summer of 1960, after some personnel and name changes, the band was set as the Merced Blue Notes, with the original white members replaced by black keyboard player Bobby Hunt and master shuffle drummer Carl Mays, Jr and also featuring black and blues-infused singer/guitarist Ken Craig, saxophonist Bill "Tiger" Robertson and funky Mexican bassist Gilbert Fraire. Following some obscure local releases in 1960-61 and moderate success with Rufus on Accent, the group connected with Harvey Fuqua's Detroit-based Tri-Phi label. Their second Tri-Phi single, released in 1963, was the thematic Whole Lotta Nothing, an amusing and hip introductory mix of self-deprecation and musical self-confidence, backed by the blues instrumental Fragile. After a stillborn association with the Motown-affiliated SOUL label and a two-sided rocker on Mammoth, the group saw two excellent 45s appear on Galaxy beginning in '65, but the attendant frustrations may well have contributed to their breakup soon afterward, after a now-legendary stretch of valley renown and the too-common saga of disappointing flirtations with broader opportunities.
by DICK SHURMAN