There was a time when you couldn’t just stream, steal, or buy any piece of music ever recorded–in fact, a few works are rather elusive even now. I remember at the advent of the CD so many items I’d only read about but never seen in a store appearing before my eyes: The Velvet Underground and Nico, Funhouse, Out to Lunch. But even then, much very legendary music was either trapped in legal limbo or poorly distributed. I miss such exciting moments now, but in the latter half of the 1980s, if I saw an outlet mall along the highway, I never passed it by, because (this is just one example) you could always find King label r&b and country reissues (actual releases, not compilations) in the cut-out bin for anywhere from $5 to $8. The voracious but not particularly scholarly or careful folks at Gusto Records had snapped up all of King’s stuff (apparently, STILL has the rights to it!), and just slopped it out with no annotation or attention to sonic enhancement. I didn’t care about that then at all: I just relished the opportunity to actually hear George Jones’ raw Starday hits, the classic Stanley Brothers’ albums, and–especially–the Five Royales’ and Midnighters’ tracks that some argued might be the real beginning of what we used to call rock and roll.
Yesterday, I loaded the CD player carousel with Rhino’s ace compilations (now, like those Gusto cheapos, also out of print) of those latter two bands, Monkey Hips and Rice and Sexy Ways (respectively). They still sound HOT! The Five Royales, in particular, sound more amazing every year, thanks to Lowman Pauling’s nasty six-string knife-throwing and astonishingly varied and adult songwriting. The classics? “Right Around the Corner,” “Slummer the Slum,” “Tell the Truth,” “Think,” the original “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “When I Get Like This” are just a few. As a Missourian, sometimes I think subversive thoughts when I listen to this stuff and think about Pauling in comparison to the much better-known and officially lauded Chuck Berry. The gospel-fired group and solo vocals of the Royales (mostly courtesy of Johnny and Eugene Tanner) are nothing to sneeze at, either.
Hank Ballard’s Midnighters, in most ways, aren’t really in the same league (they even had to change their name from the Royals to avoid a confusion that probably would have benefited them). But Ballard’s unbridled, lusty hollering across the great “Annie” (and “Henry”!) series still sounds exciting and dangerous. And, though you might expect that the sequels would be sound-alikes, “Annie’s Aunt Fannie,” “Annie’s Aunt Fannie,” and “Henry’s Got Flat Feet” are distinct compositions that stand on their own, especially due to Ballard’s inventive lyrical twists and fiery contributions by Cal Green on guitar and the great Arnett Cobb on tenor. The expertly selected tracks include Ballard’s original version of “The Twist,” his JB-beloved ballad “Teardrops on Your Letter,” and the late dance masterpiece “Finger-Poppin’ Time.” Not that Hank forgot his meat and taters, as “Open Up the Back Door,” “Look at Little Sister,” and another sequel, “Let’s Go Again (Where We Went Last Night).”
I am happy that, via streaming, any listener can likely experience anything by these groups seconds after they learn about their existence (if they ever do, in the rushing tide of new). But I miss the thrill (and duration) (and surprises) of the hunt. It’s hard, but it’s fair–I hope as much to the artists’ estates as the listeners’ learning, but I have my doubts.
I was in an experimental jazz groove otherwise.
Jason Moran’s fizzy and appropriately loose-limbed Fats Waller tribute, All Rise.