It must have been 1969 when both Mike Leadbitter and Simon Napier (Simon’s only trip. I do believe) came the US leaving Blues Unlimited temporarily without an editor! Through them, I was able to have my first contact with the fabled “New York Blues Mafia”… N. Perls, Steve Calt, Pete Whelan, a.o. Also, their visit set in motion an interesting series of events. Leads had an appointment to see Tunc Erim at the offices of Atlantic Records and I tagged along with the two of them (Simon & Mike) out of curiosity – I’d never been close to a big operation like that! We were permitted to look through the various file books for additions to the post-war discography (Leadbitter/Slaven) and were amazed at the information that could be gleaned. They were efficient. So I elected myself as a party of one to go back after that initial contact to do more detailed copying than could be done that first time. Photocopiers had not yet taken over and I used a pen and notebook to transcribe it all. In doing so, something else came to the surface – the realization that somehow some of this stuff ought to be heard.
Actually, it was when I realized that there were thirteen unreleased sides by Blind Willie McTell that I became fixated on this idea. One LP wouldn’t do the trick… I had to work out some sort of package, including the McTell, and try and get it published/released. How to effect this end was the problem and I hit upon a brilliant solution – bribery! Now before anyone calls the cops, let me explain. Please remember that the Ertegun brothers had been record collectors in Washington, DC when their father was the Turkish ambassador to the US. They were lovers of Black music before they ever became involved in the record business. I needed to speak with Ahmet Ertegun and I needed a ploy to enhance my chances of successfully seeing him, so a supreme sacrifice was necessary. I said that I wanted to see him to ask a few questions and that I also had something to give him, something that represented the sort of thing that I was doing. My sacred copy of Godrich & Dixon!
Ahmet agreed to meet with me in his office and was quite taken with my gift. I showed him the McTell section and he remembered owning some of the Decca 78s (the only reason that he recorded Willie in 1949… there was no viable commercial reason). Then he looked up Jesse James, telling me that he was one of his favorites. At that point I struck! “What do you think about issuing some of the older material from your vaults, like all that McTell?” After a brief period of thought, he agreed that this was a good idea and possibility. I suggested that I work on the project gratis and so it came about. I traveled down to New York City every couple of weeks to go through the files more carefully and in depth, copying information out into a note-book of mine. I’m sure that Tunc thought that I was some sort of looney… not too far from the truth! Later on I was able to listen to master tapes, initially with the help of Ilhan Mimaroglu (a fine electronic “classical” composer who produced and arranged for Atlantic)… he showed me the ins and outs of the small listening studio I was allotted. Eventually, I was able to work alone and even call up tapes myself to listen to… sheer heaven!
Most of the music was on tape (7 1/2 i.p.s. mono ¼” tapes, usually on 7” reels), but some of the earliest stuff was on 16” acetate discs. The McTell discs were in mint condition and easily dubbed – there was one alternate take given to me, plus an interrupted one when what sounds like a pool cue hits the floor! The first Professor Longhair acetates were in less good condition, but the folks at Atlantic took up the challenge and got satisfactory dubs onto tape as well. Many blissful hours were spent listening, taking notes, marveling at the unissued gems that cropped up from time to time, wondering what happened to the (still) missing tape of master number A 2277 (untitled 12-bar blues instrumental) by T-Bone Walker, praying that the project would actually “happen”. I suspect that Ahmet’s blessing on the project kept it going, plus my unbridled enthusiasm for the music and the novelty of having the run of a large record company! Still, Blind Willie McTell did not take precedence over Led Zeppelin in the projected release schedule, much less in the financial ledgers (can’t for the life of me figure out why that might be… Willie was so much better!).
At one point I laid out a dozen album ideas and got the go-ahead for six. The second batch were to include a Meade Lux Lewis set, a Guitar Slim set, plus anthologies of female singers, of miscellaneous Atlantic blues artists, an album of instrumental blues, plus one or two from the Old Town catalogue that Atlantic had under its aegis at that point in time. Obviously, they never happened – not long after the first half-dozen came out, the corporate take-overs began and such projects were shelved until further notice. But at least six albums did make it into release, the “Blues Originals” series.
I tapped into my UK contacts, having been writing for BU since 1964, for liner-note-writing duties (Bastin, Leadbitter, Napier each got one… I did the other three), got photos together, thought all was ready to go. Then I was told that the higher-ups had decided that they were to be gate-fold packages! So I had to locate more photos, double each liner note essay myself (no time for trans-Atlantic re-writes) and sweat a bit, but the final packages (designed by Stan Zagorsky) were beautiful. Not good commercially, as I learned later with Trix, for they did not follow the Bob Koester dictum of “put the @#*^%$ artist’s name at the top, stupid, otherwise how’s anyone going to know who the hell it is in a browser bin.” But they WERE lovely. Atlantic took care of photo clearances, payment of fees (save that which I took care of out of the single large check I received for all the notes), and the like… I acted as project editor/programmer and I’m quite pleased (even today) with how the final result was quality music in quality packages. They didn’t have to do any of this, you know, but they did. And speaking of Led Zeppelin, I was later told that one of Jimmy Page’s favorite albums that year was the Texas Guitar release in the series. A sign of good taste.
Sadly, the second batch never happened and is now incapable of being done. The Old Town material has left the building, but, more effectively, a fire in their storage facility in 1976 destroyed many of the early tape and disc masters… no safeties had been made*. I was not as thorough as I might have been. This included the Meade Lux Lewis material. And so it goes. But enough about spilt milk… what did happen was worth the years I put into the project and it’s rather amazing that it occurred at all! After all the take-over stuff and Ahmet moving upstairs in the resulting conglomerate, that was all she wrote, folks, but it was good while it lasted! It was what the late Kenny Goldstein would have described as one of those acts of serendipity that occurs from time to time – he would have been right, too!
*The take-overs began with The Kinney Corporation bought them up – Kinney were best known for their parking lots and garages than for entertainment! THEY took much of the vault material and took it to New Jersey for storage – in the attic of a wood frame building. Not too swift, eh, folks? That’s what happened to so much music, including Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane in the jazz realm. Anything that had been issued on LP was intact, but not the unissued stuff. Sad, that. After that, Ahmet bought it back cheaply and then the company was sold a second time to Warners (now WEA – Warners – Electra – Atlantic), who owns it to this day. But the irreversible damage was done.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM