Monday, March 28, 2011

Sonny Burns on Bear Family

I was pleased to see Bear Family announce on their website that Sonny Burns - A Real Cool Cat: The Starday Recordings is set to be released on May 30. The subtitle is not as explicit as it should be: this is Burns's complete Starday recordings, including eight unissued songs and two alternate takes. There was a Burns bootleg a couple of years back (titled after his worst record, the awful "Satan's A-Waitin'"), and that was better than nothing, but this one will be definitive in every way. All but one or two tracks are taken from the original studio tapes, resulting in a huge improvement to the original vinyl. It turns out Jack Starns' home studio didn't sound so bad after all.

Burns, despite being a big star in Houston and Galveston in the early-to-mid 1950s, didn't leave a whole lot of documentation behind. He lived fast but didn't die young. Unlike the rockabillies, there was no "honky-tonk revival" for people like him later in life, and it appears he got out of music around 1970. The only reason he's mentioned at all in country music history was his brief connection to the young George Jones, but this has been wildly exaggerated -- of the 31 surviving Starday masters by Burns, only two are duets with Jones. Starday cut Sonny loose (or he quit) after his January, 1956, session, so there were no "Thumper" Burns rockabilly singles from him, or Dixie soundalikes.

This release will hopefully recover Burns's true legacy: a formidable interpreter of honky-tonk music who simply never found the right song.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Frankie Lee Sims on Specialty 487

Frankie Lee Sims - Rhumba My Boogie / I'll Get Along Somehow (Specialty 487)

"Rhumba My Boogie"

Frankie Lee Sims' Lucy Mae Blues LP on Specialty, released in 1970 (but kept in print through the '90s), and drawn from sessions made in Dallas in 1953-54, is probably the single finest blues album by a Texas artist. The only contenders for that title are Lightnin's Herald album and/or Lightnin's Texas Blues Man LP. Sadly, it came out too late for it to benefit Sims, who died just before it was released. Sims should have been "rediscovered" in the early '60s, but wasn't.

Lucy Mae Blues was compiled by Barry Hansen, a man of impeccable taste. Hansen carefully listened to all of Sims's Specialty masters and selected the 12 best. For a long time, I assumed that these were "the complete" Specialty recordings of Frankie Lee Sims. Wrong. Hansen deliberately left out several masters, including both sides of this, Frankie's final Specialty single, from 1954.

Above: Frankie Lee Sims c. 1969, among his huge collection of rare 78s and LPs.

I don't blame Hansen for leaving "Rhumba My Boogie" off the LP. It is the weakest track Sims ever recorded, a goofy attempt to cash in on the current pop craze for rhumbas. A rural Texas bluesman recreating himself as Xavier Cugat is not going to produce great music, but the music world being what it is, it isn't hard to picture "Rhumba My Boogie" becoming a huge hit and Sims becoming known as "The Texas Rhumba King" for the rest of his career. Billboard said on April 3, 1954, that "there's no denying the power of this Latinized R&B effort."

"I'll Get Along Somehow" is better, but only marginally, being a generic "Worried Life Blues" re-write.

Only one photograph of Sims exists, taken a year before he died by Chris Strachwitz, who also interviewed him. Sims was born in New Orleans and absorbed some of that city's culture (he claimed "Buddy Bolden's Blues" the first song he learned) but grew up in Marshall, Texas. One reason why he wasn't "rediscovered" might have something to do with the fact that he shot a man in Dallas ("drinking all that wine, all that mess") and must have spent some time in jail. As with everything else to do with Sims, the dates are hazy.

Below is the complete Sims interview by Chris Strachwitz. Click images to enlarge.

"Frankie Lee Sims" - Blues Unlimited #119

Page One

Page Two

Page Three

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Starday Story by Nathan D. Gibson

The Starday Story: The House That Country Music Built
by Nathan D. Gibson with Don Pierce
University Press of Mississippi, 2011

And so we have a Starday book. Even in my least pessimistic moments, I would not have thought that such a conception could be realized in these distressing times. But Nate Gibson and the increasingly daring editorial board of the University Press of Mississippi have embarrassed my cynicism into temporary remission with this book.

Yodeling Kenny Roberts' Indian Love Call LP does not mark most people's entree to the Starday label. But it becomes clear early on in this book that Nathan D. Gibson is not by any stretch an ordinary listener. A young undergraduate at Emory College in Boston, Gibson, exerting an enthusiasm for vintage country music that I would have thought completely alien to a modern college student, tracks down Roberts and invites him to appear on a recording session with his band in the early 2000s. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon he's on the phone with Don Pierce, president of Starday Records. When Pierce tells Gibson he's available to answer any questions he may have about the label, Nathan hops the next plane to Nashville. The idea for a book soon comes into focus.

Amazing what can happen when you talk to people.

Between 1953 and 1970, Starday and its affiliates released a staggering 2,200+ singles and EPs, and 500+ LPs. To help put that in perspective, Sun/Phillips International released a mere 323 singles and EPs, and 20 LPs within roughly the same time frame. It was one of the most prolific and active labels going during vinyl's heyday, a juggernaut that touched upon a wide array of American vernacular music styles -- except blues. As early as 1956, Pierce was advertising the label as "Exclusively Country-Western," like General Motors a brand name that you could trust.

Starday was begun by Jack Starns, Jr. and Pappy Daily, but it was really Don Pierce, a Seattle-born accountant (who bought into the label shortly after its formation) who made the label a success. Pierce comes across as one of the greatest hypesters in the music business, impossible to dislike, a born promoter who never has a negative thing to say about anyone. A savvy businessman, by the late fifties he recognized that a market existed for bluegrass and old-timers after the major labels had jettisoned them from their studios, and promoted this angle to the hilt. Starday thus became synonymous with "traditional" country music in the late fifties and sixties, perpetually hyping itself as the real thing, not some cash-in on the latest trend. (Pierce hoped no one remembered the rockabilly singles, and must have been tremendously embarrassed when Gibson brought them up.) It was a successful formula -- for awhile.

As you could expect from an economics major, Pierce is great with numbers, instantly recalling the exact sales figures of Starday's hits. And, as with any true music industry insider, he is constantly dropping names: Ralph Peer, Jim Denny, Syd Nathan, Jean and Julian Aberbach, and many more all flit through The Starday Story, and I'm sure Pierce could have kept going until the author stopped him. What Pierce is not so great with is music. His sole comment on the subject? "I want to hear the melody. I don't want no hot licks in there...I said, 'Keep it simple.' We're selling that song and the artist, we're not selling hot licks. That was my code." It was adherence to this "code" that in fact kept much of country music boring and predictable throughout the sixties, and in this regard, Pierce was identical to his peers at the major labels. After George Jones, Starday never developed another major young talent.

Starday eventually couldn't compete with the majors, and was in trouble by 1967. Pierce summoned his vast experience as a salesman and hypester to unload Starday and King, by then two barely functioning labels with only one commercially viable artist between them (James Brown) to Lin Broadcasting in 1970 for an astonishing $2.7 million ($14.9 million in today's dollars). It was only the two labels' song publishing branches (which were included in the deal) that have allowed a portion of that money to be recouped over the decades. Moe Lytle later bought the masters for $375,000.

Gibson covers a lot of ground in this book -- the early western swing and honky-tonk years get a chapter, rockabilly gets a chapter, bluegrass gets full coverage, and he, more so than Pierce ever did, realizes that the custom series is probably the heart of the Starday legend. It would be impossible to thoroughly cover so huge an array of artists and styles in one book, but Gibson does an admirable job hitting on all of the most relevant aspects of "the house that country music built." A remarkably thorough 70 page discography completes the book, helping make The Starday Story both a fun, insightful read as well as an essential reference work for years to come.