In 1964, when the British Invasion reared its ugly – to the established American record biz – head, Memphis’ original pathfinding rock’n’roll imprint, Sun Records, was in its twilight years. Sam Phillips was never a follower of trends, but when his son Knox presented a fine example of the local grass roots reaction to the British in the shape of the Radiants, Phillips acknowledged their talent, and signed the enthusiastic youngsters to Sun. Their two singles on the iconic yellow label now count as the highlights of its latterday catalogue.
True to the diffuse nature of its musical heritage, Memphis had an interesting and unpredictable take on what the Beatles and their ilk inspired. Randy & The Radiants are an excellent example of this, and most likely the earliest: slightly derivative perhaps, but certainly inspired in content. Though the garage rock crowd know the band’s name for the crunchy chording of My Way Of Thinking, the considerable cache of Sun sessions from 1964 and 1966, the best of which are included upon “Memphis Beat”, reveal the Radiants as several fret-notches above the average teenage combo of the time.
There is the expected quotient of frat-band raunch and Anglicised rockabilly – while it is fascinating to hear the band cover older Sun copyrights such as Boppin’ The Blues– but the true gems in the Radiants canon are guitarist Bob Simon’s contemplative originals, with their own mature blend of harmony and soul, akin to that of the best British beat like the Searchers. The searing, irresistible Truth From My Eyes would have made a great mid-period Hollies single, and tunes like To Seek And Then Find, Nobody Walks Out On Me or I Won’t Ask Why are so effortlessly Mersey in execution, it’s easy to forget the grandaddy of rockabilly is behind the mixing desk. Add the warm, authoritative rasp of Randy Haspel, Memphis’ answer to Allan Clarke, and one can understand Sun’s excitement in having found a local and commercially-potent interpretation of the British beat.
As Haspel relates in a fascinating memoir included in the booklet to MEMPHIS BEAT, the tremendous promise of the Radiants was cut short just as they were hitting their stride, largely due to events beyond their control. But any group should be proud of what Randy & The Radiants accomplished in what was a relatively brief time together. That Knox and Sam Phillips helped them to their moment in the sun (pun intended) is the icing on the cake.
By Alec Palao