Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cover Song Cage Match #2

OK Turkeynecks, gather ‘round, ‘coz it’s time for another Cover Song Cage Match. The Hillybilly Jim collector card above ought to give some idea of #2’s general theme⎯Except for the almighty Mud, we got a regular hillbilly Rumble Match. Just who gets on the wrong end of the elbow drop⎯the original, or the copier? You be the judge. Feel free to cast your vote using the Comments tool.

First up is Jody Reynolds’ “Tight Capris,” the great flipside to “Endless Sleep,” on the Demon label (offering the “Highest in Fi”), from 1958. That's the great Al Casey, of "Surfin' Hootenanny" fame, playing guitar there. The Challenger: the Gibson Brothers’ version, attempted thirty years later, from their Homestead LP Dedicated Fool. One thing I loved about those Gibson Bros records: they made me feel like even I could play guitar with them! Now that’s punk!

Up next is Johnny Horton’s “I’m Coming Home,” A-side to the more famous flip “I Got a Hole in My Pirogue,” from ’57 on Columbia, vs. Dexter Romweber, going solo, post-Flat Duo Jets, with his version “Comin’ Home” from his Folk Songs CD, from 1996.

And finally, probably the closest contest on this evening's card, Muddy Waters performing “I Got My Mojo Working” at the 1960 Newport Jazz Fest, vs. Roy Head & the Traits’ pretty ace version, from the same year, for Renner Records. Hard to step to the Mud in his prime, with that band that included Otis Spann, James Cotton, & Pat “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby” Hare, but the Traits give it a few chops to the obliques.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Joe Maphis: Fiery Strings and Strange Embraces

Joe Maphis, early chicken-picker extraordinaire, might never have heard of Rimbaud, or heard him proclaim that "unknown inventions demand new forms," but he definitely plied his craft with a pretty strange, previously unknown invention, the double-neck Mosrite Joe Maphis model guitar, pictured above.

With that double-necked beast, custom built by Semie Moseley, founder of the Mosrite guitar company, and his own “Firey Fingers,” Maphis established himself as the West Coast’s top dog guitar virtuoso, band leader, and session man throughout much of the 1950s & early 60s. For years his Town Hall Band backed pretty much every act to appear on LA area hillbilly music show Town Hall Party, and Maphis can be heard playing on records by Wanda Jackson, Ricky Nelson, Merle Travis, Terry Fell, Skeets McDonald, Larry Collins, and more.

During his early musical development, Maphis didn’t even play guitar. Growing up in Cumberland, MD, in the 1920s & 30s, he started out on piano and fiddle, and his subsequent guitar style, noted for its meticulous precision, fluidity, and speed, is said to have developed from transposing fiddle licks to what would later become his signature instrument. However it developed, Maphis soon became a crack multi-instrumentalist, and began to appear on radio & television shows like Boone County Jamboree (from Cincinatti), the Wheeling Jamboree, and the Old Dominion Barn Dance (from Richmond, VA). In Richmond he met his wife-to-be, Rose Lee, and by 1951, they moved to LA, eventually settling in at the Town Hall Dance Party and doing session work on the side.

Maphis plays on Wanda Jackson's debut Capitol LP Rockin’ with Wanda!, most of which was also released as singles. A pretty complete Ace reissue (compiled from her 1st two LPs) can be found here. Below is a clip of Joe & Wanda doing up “Cool Love” on Tex Ritter’s Western Dance Party, 1958.

He cut a long list of sides with Johnny Bond, of which I own but a few, namely “Sick Sober & Sorry,” and Bond’s version of Charlie Ryan’s “Hot Rod Lincoln,” a tune more tailor-made for Maphis’s brand of chicken-pickin’ you’d be hard-pressed to find. Too bad Maphis’ playing is so subdued there. But then, Bond’s monologue is the song’s main focus, after all. Despite all the restraint, you can hear Maphis doing some pretty crazy tricks on the volume knobs throughout. In a seeming gesture of mutual admiration, Ryan would later cut his own version of the Maphis standard "Hot Rod Guitar" for the 4-Star label.

Fellow Compton hillbilly Terry Fell⎯that’s right, infamous Compton was once LA’s Okie Town⎯employed Maphis on the Christmas classic, “(We Wanna See) Santa do the Mambo.” Maphis’ fiddle can also be heard on Fell’s “Get Aboard My Wagon” and “He’s In Love With You”⎯good honky tonk weepers, those last two, but nowhere near Fell’s wildest stuff like “Caaveman” and “Don’t Drop It.”

Maphis played on a slew of Collins Kids recordings, such as their version of Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor Over You,” plus “Hop, Skip, and Jump,” “Missouri Waltz,” and others. Little Larry Collins, with his own custom double neck guitar and slick technique, was most definitely a Joe Maphis protegĂ©. Together they cut the songs “Hurricane,” “Bye Bye,” “Moonshot,” and “Flying Fingers,”, which originally appeared on the Columbia EP Swinging Strings, and they regularly performed flashy expositions of guitar wizardry on Town Hall Party. Watch the clip below and see how Maphis’ full-growed height versus Collins’ pre-adolescent sprout-hood, and the positions imposed by those crazy guitars, sometimes placed them in a rather strange embrace.

But what about those “new forms” demanded by those “unknown inventions”? About the closest Maphis came to finding them was on his solo Fire on the Strings LP, on Columbia, from 1957. While songs like “Flying Fingers” and “Guitar Rock and Roll,” do reach new heights of stratospheric boogie, all those “chops” sometimes threaten to drain any semblance of rock'n'roll from record. Fortunately for Maphis, tho, most of his recordings avoid falling into guitar wanking, thanks in part to his hillbilly roots, and probably also to the restraints imposed on him as a side-man. Let’s end with one of Joe Maphis’ best instrumentals, from his post-Columbia days, the “Water Baby Boogie” single, recorded in Ecco-Fonic Sound for the Republic label.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cover Song Cage Match #1

Introducing a new feature to the GS: Equal parts comparison study and contest, the idea here is to locate original versions of a few songs and pit them against imitators in a Cover Song Cage Match. Hey, it might not be as fun as a chicken fight, but at least it’s cleaner, and you're less likely to break yr pecker. Anyway, if you want to vote on a winner on any of these matchups, just user Blogger’s comment tool below.

First up⎯Can’t rightly start a Cover Song Cage Match without this one, eh?⎯The Novas vs. the Cramps doin’ “The Crusher.” My copy of the original comes from Back from the Grave, vol. 2. Liner notes on that comp say this about it: “THE NOVAS⎯The Crusher. The height of intellectual psychedelia. These Minnesota Gentlemen must be the ‘precocious,’ ‘ephemeral,’ and ‘interpretive,’ teenagers referred to on the liner notes to the RCA/COLUMBIA collection MINDBLOWERS.” The Cramps’ version ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at neither. You be the judge.

Next, another one from Back from the Grave, vol. 2, the Unrelated Segments’ original version of “Cry, Cry, Cry” (originally released on the Liberty label) vs. the Cynics’ cover, from their 1990 Get Hip LP Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Finally, the main event on this week’s card, Roy Orbison & the Teen Kings’ original 1956 version of “Go Go Go” (Sun 242) vs. an entire tag team of challengers. You got Jerry Lee Lewis doing his version, which he called “Down the Line,” from the Live at the Star Club LP, from 1963. Then there’s the Killers’s cuz Mickey Gilley’s version, from 1965, likewise dubbed “Down the Line,” on the Astro Label (and yes, that one does play better than it looks). And the Del-Tinos' 1963 version puts the Atomic Knee Drop on it to wrap things up.

All right turkey necks, until the rematch…

Monday, May 4, 2009

Frank Frost: Jelly Roll King

Frank Frost was one apple what never fell too far from the tree. Arkansas born and bred, and, by now, anno domini 2009, Arkansas dead. In blueseology he ranks as one of Helena, AR’s patron saints, both cursed and blessed to dwell in the shadow of King Biscuit main-man Sonny Boy Williamson.

In fact, in the 50s, Frost, a talented multi-instrumentalist (guit, keys, and harp), played for several years in SBW’s band, an experience that Frost credited as a big influence on his own playing style. Before Sonny Boy, however, Frost played with Little Willie Foster, up the river a ways, in St. Louis. This was young Frank's only extended foray away from good Arkansas fishing holes. Here he met lifelong friend and band-mate, drummer Sam Carr, whose father was Robert Nighthawk. Frost and Carr formed the Jelly Roll Kings and played together as such for the rest of Frost’s life.

As a harp player, Frost was an able imitator, known to possess an encyclopedic repertoire of riffs. He could hang way up in the upper register, piercing eardrums like Jimmy Reed, sustain mid-range blasts like Little Walter, and peel off inventive phrases that recalled the style of his former employer. Frost’s talent, along with Carr’s⎯possibly the greatest drummer to ever come out of the delta⎯eventually came to the attention of Sam Phillips. In April, 1962, along with guitarist Jack Johnson, they cut a batch of songs for Phillips International. Among these are the Howling Wolf cop “Everything’s Alright,” plus “Jelly Roll King,” “Baby You’re So Kind,” “Gonna Make You Mine,” “Pocket Full of Shells,” and “Crawlback” (featuring guitarist Roland Janes), plus others. These tunes demonstrate both the stylistic range of Frost’s harp playing, and his subtly powerful vocals. And say what you will about Sam Phillips⎯you can add Frost to the list of black musicians who, in the end, had nothing good to say about him⎯the man knew how to get that slap-back reverb.

Eventually Frank Frost jumped labels, moving over to Jewel Records, owned and operated by Shreveport Svengali, Stan “the Man” Lewis. Stan the Man also owned Stan’s Record Shop, where Dale Hawkins once worked (see archived GS post on Hawkins), and had connections with most of the great R&B labels of the day. Through Leonard Chess’ urging, he formed Jewel. In 1965 he booked a session in Nashville where Frost, Carr, & Big Jack Johnson, cut “My Back Scratcher,” fashioned after Slim Harpo’s hit “Baby, Scratch My Back,” b/w "Harp & Soul,” plus other sides, all produced by Elvis’ former guitar player, Scotty Moore.

The Jelly Roll Kings remained regulars of the King Biscuit Blues Festival until Frost’s death in 1999. Later in his life, the cigs had robbed him of the lung power to blow harp, so Frost mostly stuck with the keys. On one of his last recordings he and Carr backed T-Model Ford on a cut from his 1997 Fat Possum debut Pee-Wee Get My Gun, “Been a Long Time,” which does sorta capture the sound of old men dying. Matthew Johnson’s liner notes for that album are pretty funny, recalling how, at one point in the session, T-Model’s “constant refrain (‘T-Model is going to remember you sorry fuckers how it’s done’) became more and more emphatic. Seconds before ‘Been a Long Time’ was recorded, Frank Frost felt compelled to state, ‘I want everyone to know that I’m now playing against my will.’”