Hey, Hey… It’s BOXing Day!!
OK, so maybe the title is a bit on the hokey side, but there’s a reason. ’Tis the season, and all that sort of stuff, and this piece is to give you, dear reader, some idea of the possibilities for strewing your holiday pennies! One of the side-effects of the change-over from LPs to CDs was that every label’s back-catalogue became a very profitable cash cow; not much expense and a higher profit margin. Additionally, the 50 Year “rule” in the UK freed up much material for anyone to use. Some labels went down the re-issue trail with taste and tact, while some just threw it together, almost thoughtlessly, merely to make a fast buck. Some packages are simple, while others border on the anal retentive – those done with care are usually worth purchasing, though, for an in-depth view of some important and worthy musical aspect.
Speaking in generalizations, there are two kinds of box sets out there in the roots music world… the carefully put together, and the quick, cheap, and dirty. In the former, the vintage materials are re-mastered into the digital realm from the best available sources by the most adept engineers using the most appropriate intermediary equipment available. Think the late John R. T. Davies, for example. In the second category, any old tapes have been cobbled together with little attention to sonic quality so that the music is “lost”. That second category is usually sold at rock-bottom, rot-gut prices and so one usually gets what one pays for… cave canem! Occasionally, the “fifty year” el-cheapos have acceptable sound quality, but one cannot predict in advance with any safety – you need to have first-hand listening experience. If you still have such a thing available to you, talk with your knowledgeable retailer before purchasing is probably the best advice.
I’m not exactly sure, but I think that the box set (plus anal retentiveness) may have begun in Japan in the sixties. I purchased a box of LPs that contained all of the sides recorded by Jimmy Rodgers… the “compleat” Victors… from there. I know that similar Nippon agglomerations of The Carter Family, as well as a Hank Williams box, were around back then as well. There were also many boxes of jazz material, but they all tended to be too dear for my pocketbook to handle. Various European countries produced similar efforts, with the US lagging way behind. The whole box thing really took off with the introduction of the CD and jazz seems to have been the first genre for such an all-inclusive treatment.
Thanks, then to people such as Kiyoshi “Boxman” Koyama, and, later, Michael Cuscuna, or Lawrence Cohn for their efforts, amongst others. What with back-catalogues having been mined to death by now, it’s appropriate to scan the many-cornered landscape and highlight some of the best in boxed works. I cover here an unrepresentative sampling of what’s out there, focusing mainly on American roots music of all sorts, jazz included. Each box chosen will give you, dear reader, hours of satisfying listening and may even open your ears to something you haven’t considered before; not that there’s anything wrong with that! Music never stops giving, folks, so… ready… set… SPEND!!
The Specialty Story (5CDs) Specialty(US)/Ace(UK)[Shock]
The name Art Rupe may not be familiar to most of you out there, but his “product” will be. Beginning in 1944 as a partner in the now-forgotten Atlas record label, Rupe really hit the ground running in 1946 with Specialty Records out of Los Angeles. This was a prime “race” label, focussing on the rhythm & blues, and Black gospel that the major labels had lost touch with at that time leaving the field wide open to those “indies” with imagination and moxie. Artists such as Percy Mayfield, The Soul Stirrers, Guitar Slim, Jimmy Liggins, Don & Dewey, The Pilgrim Travelers, Joe Liggins, Larry Williams, Wynona Carr, Lloyd Price, and Roy Milton are amongst the label’s successes. And then there was Little Richard! What you get here is five albums of prime 40s/50/60s R&B, gospel, and Black rock ‘n’ roll from a label at least as important as Chess or Sun in the history of it all… maybe more so! While it lasted, Art had the goods!!
Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944) (10 CDs) Sony/BMG
Even if Ms Holiday couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, these albums would be worth purchasing for the top-shelf jazz musicians backing her – it’s a who’s who of the “swing” era! Of course, this is not a problem here, for these sides document the rise of one of the most distinctive jazz singers of all time (forget Diana Ross and the film). Starting with her debut in 1933, it’s all here, alternative takes included, from eleven years of recording for Vocalion (ARC) until she moved over to Decca in 1945 (save her Commodore “Strange Fruit” session, which Columbia/Vocalion would not record… but that’s another story – read the book!). Set out chronologically, the alternative takes are intelligently collected after all the issued ones. There are also some “air-shots” from her short tenure with the Count Basie band. This set is a little beauty, encased in a package that slightly resembles a 10” album for 78s – it’s a must for Holiday devotees, and most general jazz fans as well.
B.B. King – The Vintage Years (4 CDs) Ace (UK) [Shock]
This set has already been lauded in these pages by our esteemed founding editor… plus it was my personal choice of top re-issue one year! This is The King of the Blues at his hungry and fiery best, when he was collating his influences and creating his own style. He was so successful at that, it’s impossible to hear modern blues without hearing something that has come from B. He’s been that influential. What too many guitarists have not taken from the man is his talent for not playing; like Miles Davis, King knows what notes to leave out – a rare and important ability. This is a superb package on all fronts and contains the first flowerings and later successes of a modern blues giant.
Roots n’ Blues – The Retrospective (1925-1950) (4CDs) Columbia [Sony/BMG]
Larry Cohn has subversively been responsible for more exceptional re-releases from the various past labels controlled by Columbia Records than anyone. Back in the long-forgotten LP days, he helped get the complete Bessie Smith to the public’s ear. In the more recent Legacy series, he’s gotten boxes of Blind Willie Johnson, Brownie McGhee, Blind Willie McTell, as well as an anthology of White blues performers of the 20s/30s (“A Lighter Shade of Blue”). Then there have been single CDs of important artists, along with many “themed” collections. This box is the ne plus ultra of the Legacy series and is comparable to the fabled Harry Smith collection (ask Bob Dylan!), except it draws on only one label-group source. Larry has gathered, in roughly chronological sequence, a raft of both previously released and un-released material, both secular and sacred, both White and Black. This is one of the best conglomerations of American roots music that you’ll find and is a “must” purchase for one and all.
Charley Patton: Screamin’ & Hollerin’ the Blues (7CDs, plus) Revenant [www.revenantrecords.com]
This triple-Grammy winner is well-nigh the ultimate anal-retentive package. It looks just like an old 10” album of 78s, contains all of Patton’s recordings, plus those by folks who recorded at the same time (Bertha Lee, Willie Brown, Henry Sims, Louise Johnson) on five CDs. THEN a full CD of those considered within Patton’s “orbit”… including Howlin’ Wolf, and Pop Staples, followed by a CD of interviews with numerous folk who knew or saw him in action. But, that’s not all, folks! There is also a re-print of John Fahey’s 1971 Studio Vista book about Patton and his music. And there’s more! A 128 page booklet filled with essays by important scholars, and including repros of old ads and labels, plus stickers! Everything but the fabled letter from old Charlie’s proctologist!! Tres complete and wonderful if one is very flush.
Mosaic Records [www.mosaicrecords.com]
I haven’t singled out one particular release from this label, because they issue in limited editions (5K or 7.5K each title). Mainly jazz, with a rare occasional blues job, these are quite complete… part of their sales pitch. While the packaging tends to the near-generic: basic B-flat B&W cover photo; 12”X12” box; same sized, detailed booklets. But the music is always worthwhile. Label head Michael Cuscuna (and former partner, the late Charlie Lourie) would go back to the original studio masters whenever possible so that the sound is superb. I’ve purchased the complete Ellington from Capitol Records, same of Andrew Hill from Blue Note, and the same for Bix & Tram from OKeh and Brunswick. While not aesthetically outstanding visually, all their output is seriously and superbly put together – jazz fans will find something to like in their mail-order only catalogue. They have a bitchin’ Chu Berry box!
Atlantic Rhythm & Blues: 1947-1974 (8CDs) Atlantic [WEA]
In 1947, the son of the former Turkish ambassador to the US started a record company (along with Herb Abramson) using seed money from his dentist! Only in America!! Ahmet Ertegun loved Black music and wanted to record it “properly” so that more people than usual would appreciate and buy it from him. This set cherry-picks just over a quarter of century of the Atlantic labels’ output of African-American popular music during an exciting and important point in time for US (and world) popular music. To label this label as “influential” would be an understatement… just the names Ray Charles, or Aretha Franklin would suffice as proof! This stuff is seminal regarding the developments in R&B, soul, funk on into rock and pop. ’Tis a grand selected overview on show here.
A Shot in the Dark: Nashville Jumps; Blues & Rhythm on Nashville’s Independent Labels – 1945-1955 (8CDs) Bear Family [www.bear-family.de]
These Germans are nothing if not efficient and thorough: this box is as good as it comes, but it comes at a price! A 12”X12” hard-back book nearly an inch thick is a part of that thoroughness, telling the stories of the indie labels in Nashville, TN that dealt with R&B material… it wasn’t all country until later. One decade is dealt with here and the picture is fascinating; it’s all here: the hits, the misses, the never-were-close-and-off-almost-everybody’s-radar. Half of the book is a general essay by Colin Escott dealing with the myriad of labels in that time span – the other half deals specifically with the artists and recordings, one by one. And that music is uniformly good, with great sound (even when taken from rare 78s). What you’ve got here is an in-depth look at the Black music industry in what was to become the capitol of country music. (Apropos of that, there is a comparable set of White music on those indies during that same time period, with an identical first-half to its book!) Bear Family have deservedly built up a reputation for quality, complete collections… this is the best thing that I’ve seen or heard in all my years. Stunning.
The Sugar Hill Records Story (5 CDs/1 12” single) Rhino [www.rhino.com]
From the wilds of suburban northern New Jersey came the first successful (i.e. crossover) rap/hip-hop record label. Run by a Black entrepreneurial couple, Joe and Sylvia Robinson (she was once half of Mickey & Sylvia in the 50s), this label was in the vanguard of the nascent hip-hop culture’s commercialization in 1979. Politically important releases such as “The Message”, “White Lines”, “Livin’ in the Fast Lane” are here, as is “Grand Master Flash Meets the Wheels of Steel”, the first example of “cutting” made available to the public at large. There are also party anthems like “Rapper’s Delight”, “That’s the Joint”, and “Beat Street” here as well. If you are even mildly interested in the early, East Coast development of hip-hop/rap, then this is the mos’ def joint for y’all… indeed.
The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: the Complete RCA/Victor recordings; 1927-1973 (24 CDs) RCA Victor [Sony/BMG]
In my personal atheistic cosmos, if there is or was a God it’s name would have been Edward Kennedy Ellington who is oft cited as saying that there were two kinds of music… good music… and the other kind. His musical output over some sixty years fell into the former camp. Jesus, he was good: composer, pianist, arranger, band-leader par excellence. This massive set covers “the works” for R.C.A. Victor– the Cotton Club material of the late 20s/early 30s; the Blanton/Webster years (late 30s/early 40s), plus much of his post-Columbia output, starting with the fifties. Victor’s recording studios and engineers were the best in the business, especially in the early days, so that the sound quality of the original sources is top notch compared to Columbia, Brunswick, OKeh, Paramount, et al. With today’s technology, the sound one gets here is magnificent. There is really little else that I can tell you regarding this set – if you are an Ellington addict, it’s a must. Great and important music covering most of his career in great sound… what more could one ask for. A serious ¾” thick, 10”X10” soft-bound book is a part of the whole, all encased into a similarly sized box. Expensive, but worth it.
The King R&B Box Set (4CDs) King Records
Syd Nathan was a strange little fellow with coke-bottle-bottom-lensed glasses who began in the music business with a retail store in a “bad” (i.e. – Black) section of Cincinnati, OH. He was good at it, and learned his markets. Deciding to eliminate the middle-person, he began a record label in 1943, expanding into a location that ended up containing a recording studio, a record pressing plant, warehouse, and eventually a print shop and a line of “King” record players! Full service, indeed… Mr. Nathan was serious. King Records was one of the great “indie” labels of the 40s/50s/60s – it had two series; one for White music (red label), one for Black (blue label). This box deals with the latter. King had folks like Roy Brown, Earl Bostic, Wynonie Harris, Bill Doggett, Billy Ward & the Dominos, Freddy King, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Little Willie John, The “5” Royales, and, latterly, James Brown on its King, Queen, and Federal labels. A force to be reckoned with until Nathan’s death in 1968, this is great sampling of one of the great R&B labels… I’d love to see a similar box of their C&W/rockabilly, or their gospel (Black and White).
The Blue Note Years: 1939-1999 (14 CDs) Blue Note [EMI]
As with Atlantic, Blue Note Records was started in NYC by lovers of Black music (Alfred Lion, Francis Woolff) from other countries who turned their avocation into a “go-able” commercial entity. Of course, the two Austrians kept their context more narrow than did Atlantic, staying solely with jazz and did not venture intentionally into popular realms. It’s all here… the boogie woogie piano beginnings, Sydney Bechet, the swing vets, on into championing Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and Jimmy Smith. The list truly goes on and on. Blue Note’s reputation for intentional quality in their output tastefully and recognizably packaged made then the standard-bearer in the modern jazz world for over four decades. Revived in the 90s, The label is now home to Cassandra Wilson, Terrence Blanchard, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba; today one can add Norah Jones, Van Morrison, and Al Green into the mix! This well-presented package touches all the right bases for the jazz fan and is a valuable slice of American musical history. And if you really like someone here, it’s likely that this label (or Mosaic) will have more for you!
Kentucky Mountain Music: Classic Recordings of the 1920s and 1930s (7 CDs) Yazoo [Planet]
The prime re-issue label for “roots” music commercially recorded in the USA during the 20s and 30s has expanded their horizons a bit with this fine box. Firstly, it is a multiple album compilation; secondly, some of the material enclosed comes from field recordings… some from the mike of the Lomaxes, some not. In spite of the fact that Yazoo have already issued two single CDS of KY stuff (2013, 2014), this box is far from redundant. The content could be loosely referred to as “string band” music from the rural Appalachian Southeast. It’s so in all its many permutations from solo fiddlers or banjoists, to full-fledged mountain dance orchestras. As usual for Yazoo, great sound… decent notes… spotty discography – all in all, a real gem of “Old Time Music” at its best.
Louis Armstrong: the Complete Hot 5 & Hot 7 Recordings (4CDs) Columbia/Legacy [Sony/BMG]
Consider this set as a sort of Rosetta Stone for jazz as a soloist’s art: Louis “invented” and popularized the bravura jazz solo, as well as making the vernacular voice acceptable to the (White) pop world. Oh, and there is also the matter of the first hit record to feature “scat” singing (“Heebie Jeebies”) – it’s here, too. On these sides with all-star accompaniment, Armstrong raised his game from superior jazz side-man to another level (similar to Michael Jordan in basketball), re-creating himself into a popular star for decades to come. Anyone interested in the beginnings of recorded jazz as we know it needs this set. Great music with wonderful sound, and meaningful notes by Gary Giddins. All of jazz refers back to these sides in some form or another.
Elmore James: The Classic Early Recordings; 1951-1956 (3CDs) Ace (UK) [Shock]
Often dismissed as a one-riff wonder (“Dust My Broom”), this compilation of the first half of James’ short recording career is an ear-opener… in more ways than one! Nobody has sounded like Elmore as a guitarist or singer… in fact, he’s one of the unforgettable blues voices, right up there with Howlin’ Wolf, or B.B. King. He was truly a distinctive stylist. The five years covered here are seminal in nature and ought to be in anyone’s blues collection… I still can remember the first time that I heard an Elmore James record, and the impact it had, pinning me in my chair. Parenthetically, it is now easy to obtain the rest of Elmore’s recording sessions (save those for Chess) on Charly’s 3CD “King of the Slide Guitar”. Not a bad idea, either… can’t have too much Elmore in my estimation! Just play it LOUD.
From Spirituals to Swing: the Legendary 1938 & 1939 Carnegie Hall Concerts (3CDs) Vanguard [Shock]
On receiving some of this material on two LPs some four decades ago, New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett indicated that its arrival on his door-step was akin to rising in the morning, opening the curtains, and seeing dinosaurs in one’s back yard. The past was vibrantly presented in the “now”, and that image still holds. Increased to three CDs, this set contains the material that legendary producer John Hammond had recorded for him during the two concerts that he helped coordinate in the late 30s in support of a left-wing human/civil rights organization . Intended to give us Whitefellas a glimpse into the history and variety of African-American music at that point in time, the artists ran the gamut from Mitchell’s Christian Singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and The Golden Gate Quartet through Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry, Helen Humes and Ida Cox, to Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson, Hot Lips Page, James P. Johnson, Count Basie and Benny Goodman. Living history. ‘Nuff said!!
PETER B. LOWRY sent/RHYTHMS – unpublished, Dec. late 90s