The first Record Store Day of 2021 is June 12 with a second on July 17. RSD is so nice they are celebrating it twice. Some of the artists with RSD vinyl releases spread across these two dates include Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, AC/DC, Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, The Doors, Prince, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Dylan. Jazz is also in on the act with special vinyl releases by Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Steely Dan, and Charlie Parker.
Since I have done previous write ups about Record Store Day itself, this month’s Tech Rap talking point is more a celebration of vinyl in general. Perhaps you might call it Tech Rap: Recommended Records. Late last year, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported that records outsold CDs for the first time since the 1980s! If you have not discovered (or rediscovered) the joy of vinyl, now is as good a time as any.
And buying your new vinyl now is the best time because the huge increase in demand coupled with continuing COVID supply chain issues (lack of shipping container space, shipping bottlenecks, etc.), makes keeping new titles in stock a challenge for many retailers. As if that was not bad enough, the Apollo Masters warehouse fire in California early last year took out nearly 85% of their lacquer plates. Apollo is only one of two plants that produce the lacquers used to create the master plates for stamping records worldwide. The lesson of the story- If you see a new record you like, buy it or else you might have to wait a long time until it comes back in stock again.
Before I get into the meat of this month’s Tech Rap, just for fun I rang up a dozen MA RSD-participating record stores at random and asked them each just one question: What vinyl record are you playing right this very minute in your store? Here are my results:
Inclusion Records, Norwell, MA: Red Hot Chili Peppers- The Getaway
Vinyl Index, Somerville, MA: Madonna (self-titled)
Village Vinyl & Hi-Fi, Brookline, MA: Gravediggaz- 6 Feet Deep
The Record Exchange, Salem, MA: Rolling Stones- Sticky Fingers
The Record Spot, East Bridgewater, MA: John Coltrane- A Love Supreme
Vinyl Destination, Lowell, MA: Durand Jones & The Indications (self-titled)
The Vinyl Vault, Littleton, MA: Earth, Wind & Fire (self-titled)
Dyno Records, Newburyport, MA: The Nack- Get The Nack
The Nevermind Shop, Upton, MA: Heart- Magazine
Sunset Records, Somerset, MA Blodwyn Pig- Ahead Rings Out
Purchase Street Records, New Bedford, MA: Billy Squire- Don’t Say No
Joe’s Albums, Worcester, MA: Joe Strummer- Assembly
Thanks to these shop owners for taking the time to let me know what wax they were spinning on their turntables. Before there was this thing called the Internet, there were record stores. Be it Record Store Day or any other day, please support your local independent record store.
For Tech Rap: Celebrating Vinyl II, I had a browse through my modest record collection and I grew a list of eight titles I thought would make for enjoyable listening and interesting reading, especially the interviews. After all, behind every great record is a great story. These titles have no direct tie-in with RSD, though I do point out if the artist has some other special release for RSD. I am not presenting my selections in any real particular order other than I start with the most recent first and end with the most outrageous last. Links to purchase each are provided at the very end.
Mike Flanigin: The Drifter (Black Betty Records, BBST-4068)
Released in 2016 on 180 gram vinyl, I lead with the youngest record of the eight selections. I discovered Mike Flanigin’s The Drifter by chance while I was attending a CES (Consumer Electronics Show) several years ago in Las Vegas. I walked into a large suite to check out a particular brand’s latest hi-end stereo equipment. As I entered their demo room the music sucked me in as if the devil himself had taken a deep breath. The music was playing on a ridiculously expensive stereo system I could not afford even if I lived to be 300 years old. I knew the recording had to be excellent quality for them to use as demo material because such an accurate system would easily reveal any flaws. I asked one of the staff what fantastic record I was listening to and without saying a word (presumably not to interrupt my listening experience) he handed me the empty record sleeve to The Drifter by Mike Flanigin.
The record sleeve was a gatefold, meaning it opened up like a book. Inside was a big color picture of a bunch of junk spread out over a beat-up vintage car interior, including a Panasonic RQ-830S “Dynamite” 8 track tape player. This only made the whole thing more intriguing. If Flanigin was into vintage cars and 8 tracks, then this definitely was my kind of record! I bought The Drifter right after I got back home from Las Vegas.
If you are not familiar with Texas-born Mike Flanigin, neither was I. Flanigin readily admits he is the least-known musician on his own album. Although we might not know this Hammond B3 organ player, the musicians he has worked with over the last two decades certainly do. You know, little names like Steve Miller, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, ZZ Top, Robert Plant, and Charlie Sexton.
The Drifter was Flanigin’s first solo effort and he is supported by an amazing cast that any musician would gladly give his glockenspiel to play with. I am talking Jimmy Vaughn, Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Gary Clark Jr, Kat Edmonson (vocals and Producer), Clem Burke (Blondie), Alejandro Escovedo (guitar, vocals), Bob Malach (horns), and others.
Then 51, Flanigin wrote the songs on the heels of a divorce. Although the record became a kind of personal music journal for him, it is not one of those ‘I lost my wife, my house, and my dog’ records. What does not kill you makes you stronger, and this is one heck of a strong album.
By the time Flanigin finished up the recordings two years later, he had just about exhausted his savings and the project languished. Top-notch studios and string sections do not come cheap. Like running a marathon, the last mile always seems to be the hardest. With nowhere else to turn, Flanigin launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign and raised nearly $42,000 from ordinary people who believed in his music as much as he did. Had he not raised the money, The Drifter might well have been limited to a dozen cassette tapes (or 8 tracks) made for the band members and select fortunate friends.
Outside of the title track which was inspired by a 1979 Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown + Roy Clark version, all the songs were penned by Flanigan. If I were to list my favorite songs from The Drifter, I would start with the jazziest track, The Devil Beats His Wife, then Stop the World (with Gary Clark Jr), All Night Long (with Jimmie Vaughan), and Nina, a jazzy ballad sung tenderly by Kat Edmonson who also produced the album. The Drifter itself drifts musically, but in a good way. You will hear jazz, Texas blues, gospel, folk, and even some semi-punk rock. But no need for concern. Being the gifted artists they are, Flanigin and friends make it all run smoothly. Sort of like what Flanigin did with his rescued 1974 Dodge Charger (which he named “Black Betty”) that graces the front and back album cover (and whose seat is pictured inside the gatefold) of The Drifter. Appropriate, because the music has muscle and it will take you on a powerful ride.
I caught up with Flanigin by email and asked him about his life and music:
PS: What is your family lineage? If your last name was spelled Flanigan I would have guessed Irish.
MF: “Flanigin is an Irish name, it’s just an unusual spelling of it. It’s rare to see. My family on both sides are from Texas/Oklahoma territories and goes back a way’s.”
PS: Was the making of The Drifter therapeutic? Is it any easier for you to listen to it today?
MF: “It was definitely therapeutic at the time. It basically tells the story of my life falling apart. Although it’s not really a sad record or anything because I had a lot of fun too while my life was going down the drain! There were down and up times. But like everybody experiences. I wanted people to identify with it. Overall, it was just fun to make because I got a chance to work with my friends and so many people. Plus, I did it all on my own. No record company. I had to figure a lot of things out myself and produce it myself and start a record label too. There was a lot to it. The album kind of saved my career. I’m not sure I even had a career before The Drifter, just a lot of gigs. After its release, I had a career suddenly.”
PS: Did you have to do many takes of each song?
MF: ”…a lot of what’s on it is one take. I was too naive to even do two takes. If it seemed good, I’d just say we’re done after the first try. But usually first takes are the best, but still…kind of dumb, ha!”
PS: Do you have a favorite track from the album?
MF: “Nina is my favorite track, of course. I think it’s a beautiful song, and I like the strings and the way Kat sang and the mix. We mixed it in NYC. I mixed the album 3 different times…“
Lyrics from Nina:
When dark clouds rise above you
These arms of mine will surround you
You will know
You will see
It will always be
That I love you
PS: Your daughter was young when you wrote NIna. What does she think of it now?
MF: “I think Nina likes the song. It’s hard not to like a song written for you?! When we performed it at The Paramount Theatre with all the strings and the big band and Kat singing live. I think she liked that. People will still say, ‘Oh, you’re Nina from the song!’ She’s doing great. Graduated from Texas A & M last year and is working a job here in Austin. She’s a really funny girl. I hope she’ll listen to the song when she’s a little old lady and remember how much her Daddy loved her.”
PS: Is the organ the most under-appreciated instrument? I feel like if you closed your eyes it would disappear.
MF: “I don’t know if it’s the most under-appreciated instrument, but it’s just such an odd bird. That sound just doesn’t come out of anything else.”
PS: Do you still own Black Betty?
MF: “Yes, I still own Black Betty. She’s sitting in my driveway right now. We still get out and hit the town together!”
PS: How does someone with the success you have had and played with the legends you have played with still manage to remain humble?
MF: “I’ve just been lucky to meet and play with some of my big heros. But I learned very quickly that they are wonderful human beings, aside from being legends. Billy Gibbons n’ Jimmie Vaughan…I never thought I’d meet them. Much less play with them. They are two of my best friends now. It’s funny. ZZ Top, Eric Clapton. Steve Miller, the Cheap Trick guys, Robert Plant. Getting to meet n play with those people. I’m just a kid from Denton, Texas. Once you meet people like that, it’s easy to be humble. Because they are so nice and pros and legends. But the thing you notice is that they are just people, like you or me.”
PS: With the pandemic starting to wind down and businesses opening back up, have you been able to get out and play any live gigs?
MF: “We’ve been doing a weekly show we call The Texas Blues Party at Sagebrush here in Austin. It’s an old dancehall. Me, Sue Foley and Chris Layton. We have all our friends come out and play and just have a good time together. Jimmie, Billy, Charlie Sexton, CC Adcock, Soul Man Sam, Anson Funderburgh…have all been out. It’s real cool. I think other gigs are picking up for the Fall. But for now, I’m just enjoying swimming in Barton Springs or taking little road trips around Texas to see the sights.”
PS: Are you into records, CDs, downloads, or streaming? You still listen to 8 track tapes?
MF: “I do all of the above. Mostly in my car I listen to CDs. I listen to 8 tracks or vinyl or cassettes around the house. I stream mostly when I’m on the road on the bus. I like 8 tracks the most. They sound good and you just pop them in and they start playing. I love that about them.”
PS: What music are you listening to these days?
MF: “I’ve been listening to Lightnin’ Slim a lot in my car. I’ve got that Rooster Blues/Bell Ringer CD. I can never get enough of him. Anything on the Excello label…Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester. I just love that stuff. I also have a Tammy Wynette 8 track that I’ve just about had in the player all year…it’s called Take Me To Your World/I Don’t Want to Play House. It’s so good. The whole thing, the singing, playing and production. I have a cassette player in my kitchen and when I wash dishes I’ve been listing [sic] to a Dire Straits ‘Making Movies’ cassette lately. I listen to a lot of different things. And always Baby Face Willette on Blue Note and Big John Patton.“
The Drifter is one of those rare records you can listen to over and over again and never tire of. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Rolling Stone called it “a road trip-worthy record that veers from punk rock to Bible belt blues glued together with the swirl and swoon of B3 organ. This is day-driving mood music, with Flanigin creating his own version of atmospheric Americana.” Take your record collection to the next level. The Drifter will light it up. The cover should include a warning sticker advising you not to put it too close to your other records or risk warping them.
My sincere gratitude to Mike Flanigin for being so generous with his time. Flanigin released his second album last year, West Texas Blues, on CD, cassette, reel-to-reel, and of course, 8 track tape.
Trivia (provided by Flanigin): “I was offered a major part in a TV remake of Peyton Place back in the 80’s. They just spotted me in Dallas at a nightclub and offered it without even an audition. I turned it down, saying I wasn’t an actor.”
Steely Dan: Aja (ABC Records, AA-1006)
Although some have criticized Steely Dan’s music for being too polished, I have been an admirer for a long time. I was fortunate enough to see them live fifteen years ago from an upfront seat at The Tweeter Center in Mansfield, MA (at the time I literally lived less than ten minutes from the venue). I somehow managed to surreptitiously smuggle my portable Minidisc recorder past security and record the show. Michael McDonald was the opening act and sang with them, which was very cool considering McDonald sang with the group when they toured in 1974. He also sang on Aja, the subject of this segment. I recall Donald Fagen striking me as being rather eccentric, and at first, I wondered if he had gone blind because he wore dark sunglasses throughout the entire concert, even after it got dark. And although he had a good sense of humor and had every reason to smile, Fagen always looked to me like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
I am especially fond of Steely Dan’s Aja (pronounced “Asia”) album, partly because it enjoys a reputation amongst audiophiles for its superior sound quality. It is worthy of demo record status to show off your Como Audio Turntable and music system. Aja won a Grammy for Best Engineered Recording in 1978 and was also nominated for Album of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Group with Vocals.
Roger Nichols was the engineering genius behind Aja. Nichols was a nuclear engineer by trade and an audiophile, and with a little help from his friends, built his very own recording studio from scratch in what was formerly a garage. He was hired by ABC Records in 1970 to maintain their studio equipment and assist with engineering. In addition to Steely Dan, Nichols’ engineered records for John Denver, Frank Zappa, Roy Orbison, James Taylor, Motorhead, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Placido Domingo, and Mark Knopfler among others. Nichols invented the Wendel sampling computer which digitally replicated drum and percussion sounds. It was first used on Steely Dan’s Gaucho album. His extensive written material was published posthumously by his family as The Roger Nichols Recording Method.
Steely Dan spent a year and a half in the studio honing Aja, working with forty different session players and auditioning nineteen different guitarists. The effort clearly paid off, with masterpieces like the eight-minute title track featuring a saxophone solo by the great Wayne Shorter, Larry Carlton on guitar, and Joe Sample on electric piano, Deacon Blues (Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour on guitar, Victor Feldman on electric piano), Josie (Jim Keltner on drums, Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour on guitar, Victor Feldman on electric piano), Black Cow, and Peg (with Michael McDonald on backing vocals), one of my all-time favorite Steely Dan songs: I like your pin shot / I keep it with your letter / Done up in blueprint blue / It sure looks good on you / And when you smile for the camera / I know I’ll love you better.
The album name and cover have its own back story. The older brother of one of Fagen’s high school chums traveled to Korea to marry a Korean woman named Aja. “We thought that was a good name, just, it was a very romantic sort of image, the sort of tranquility that can come of a quiet relationship with a beautiful woman”, Fagen explained in an episode of the British documentary series Classic Albums. The partially obscured face on the album cover is that of Japanese model Sayoko Yamaguchi. This, combined with the red print against the black background, creates a stimulating visual. Some album covers in and of themselves rival works of art. Personally, I put Aja squarely in that category.
After its release in late 1977, the record climbed to #3 in the US charts and #5 in the UK. It remains the group’s best-selling record. The Library of Congress chose Aja for preservation in the National Recording Registry in 2010. It is currently rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon. In his October 9, 1977 review, Robert Palmer writing for the New York Times said “Aja is an idiosyncratically brilliant piece of work. The title tune, an eight‐minute extravaganza which [Walter] Becker calls “sound sculpture,” is one of the most evocative pieces of popular music to come out of the 1970’s. The lyrics are a model of economy and grace, and while every listener will bring his individual interpretation to them, they seem to be about America’s double‐edged fascination with the East…” Just to be clear, despite the album’s name and cover, there is no Asian-flavored music on Aja.
I was browsing through a used record store in MA a couple of years back when I ran across an original ABC Records pressing of Aja in near mint condition and immediately snapped it up. The cover has some slight ring wear but still has its sheen and looks lovely. It even has the original inner cardboard sleeve with the printed lyrics and band personnel. You will find original copies of this LP alongside reissues on eBay with prices all over the map.
The years have not been kind to Steely Dan. Aja recording engineer Roger Nichols died in 2010 from pancreatic cancer. Steely Dan co-founder and guitarist Walter Becker died four years ago this September from esophageal cancer. However, co-founder, singer, and keyboardist Donald Fagen is still going strong having turned 73 earlier this year (I am proud to share his birthdate) and still tours. Speaking of Birthdays, Aja will mark its 45th Birthday in September of next year. Please do not wait for the occasion to celebrate. Take my advice- Get yourself a nice, clean copy of Aja and go to heaven without having to die first to get there.
For Record Store Day, Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature from February 2000 will be released for the first time on vinyl, limited to 5,000 pressings.
Trivia: The band took its name from Steely Dan, the oversized, steam-powered sex toy in William S. Burroughs’s 1959 novel, Naked Lunch. Just thought you would like to know.
Bob Thompson: The Sound of Speed (Dot, DLP25,123)
You have heard of the speed of sound, but have you heard The Sound of Speed? This 1960 Space Age pop concept album by Bob Thompson and the Orchestra del Concerti di Roma celebrates all things transport, from tricycles to Vespa scooters, jets to rockets, and subways to locomotives. The two-channel stereo recording creates a larger-than-life sound by placing the corresponding sound effects (recorded with “almost frightening actuality” as described out in the liner notes) in one speaker and gradually moves them to the other, reinforcing the sense of movement right before your very ears. “These are just a few of the experiences that lie within the grooves of this album, encompassing stereophonically man’s vehicular progress…the result is a truly new experience in the expanding world of sound…” Good Lord. With liner notes like that, how could you not buy this record?
Ambientexotica.com called the album “a proper and no-compromise Space-Age artifact of 12 unique compositions…its biggest achievement is found in-between the superbly multilayered string cocoons, the throning as well as silkily veiled brass counterparts and the many harps, flutes, triangles, mallet instruments, timpani and other devices that occur throughout the colorful settings.”
The master behind this music lived an interesting life. Bob Thompson was a composer, arranger, and orchestra leader who worked with music luminaries like Rosemary Clooney (he was Clooney’s touring band leader in the 60s), Bing Crosby, The Andrew Sisters, and Judy Garland. Clooney called him “one hell of an arranger”. Thompson’s Just for Kicks song received a Grammy nomination in 1959 for best orchestral performance. He also crafted music for nearly 1,000 television commercials (Dial Soap, Goodyear, Colt 45, GM, Bank of America, Texaco, Ball Park Franks, Budweiser) earning him multiple Clio Awards for excellence in advertising music.
After donning my detective’s fedora, I tracked down Bob’s son, Spencer Thompson, who graciously emailed me some of his family photos and recounted some great memories including meeting Rosemary Clooney in the 1980s: “She was very kind to me and Bob. My mom was jealous of their relationship. They were both beautiful people. In [Clooney’s] book, Girl Singer, she said [my father] came to her house to talk to her about quitting drugs. That was like both of them, one to help the other to report on it. We have a note from Rosie that says “Bobbie Dear Here We Go” on the eve of a tour that took them to Stockholm, the Copa in NYC, and so on.
“In Girl Singer, [Clooney] talks about the fact that Bob knew music theory, and he did, from UC Berkeley and an off-campus education from Professor Denny. This allowed him to be flexible and go for the sound of The Sound of Speed that has been endlessly copied for commercials and fill music over the decades. Many have opted for the real stuff like Letterman, Old Navy, and so on. He’d get weird little checks from ASCAP with usages in Scandinavia and so on. This was part of the reason I began the archeological dig on my dad, as I was born as his career wound down.
I asked Thompson if he had ever been in the recording studio with his father. “I do remember going to the studio with him”, Thompson recalled. “A commercial date. They played the monitors LOUD even for banks and beer commercials. My mom took me out of school to watch a date. They called sessions ‘dates’. Dad insisted I come on the floor and listen and I have never felt so self-conscious. I was 12. Anyway, you can’t beat the sound of live strings and hearing them in the studio re-enforces that. This was United Studios in Hollywood that has a storied history. In a pic the guys in the studio look properly coked-out (sun glasses, 1980s).”
Of his father’s record, The Sound of Speed, Thompson remarked, “I believe the pizzicato melody is an orchestration/melodic “invention of Bob”–probably from Ravel from who he adored. You can hear the artistry here; he was going for a “pop” record…this was not the music at his core which was Duke, Monk, Kern and the other songwriters. He knew that this work was considered “Americana”, as I had discussions with him about this record…The Sound of Speed is an accident, an aberration, and window into a slice of Bob’s talent…The records are not camp and frankly Bob had a disdain for folks thrown in with him with the exception of Esquivel…Bob was a highbrow but had the goods…
“Van Dyke parks would come up to the house in Hollywood Hills…he and others called him “VD” which stands for STD now, which was a joke. Like Bob, he was another musical hyperliterate who was hyper-self-critical. They had a sense of humor…Bob was at one of VDPs records being created and I think Bob came in with an “out-there” orchestration idea which VDP used. VDP pulled Bob in for arranging duties on 70s records. VDP wanted Bob’s strings on records by Harpers Bizarre and other records. At any rate, Bob [was] a serious and fun and humorous and literate musician and that is all you need to know.” Thompson died at the age of 88 from complications from Alzheimer’s in 2013 in California.
I was fortunate enough to find my original Dot stereo recording of The Sound of Speed on the web sporting a cover that looks almost like I just walked out of the record store with it, which is pretty amazing for a record over sixty years old. I really dig the cover’s graphics and bright colors. My copy even has the perfectly aligned neon-orange “Ultra High Fidelity Stereophonic” hype sticker in the upper left corner. It is available in a remastered (in “wide angle stereo”) reissue by the great folks at Sundazed (link at the end of this article) if you prefer a pristine pressing over a musty used copy. Either way, you do not need to be a rocket scientist to enjoy The Sound of Speed. It is a train, plane, and boat ticket to a new destination for your ears. Zip up your g suit, turn on your GPS, and securely strap yourself in before you take this album for a spin on your Como Audio Turntable. Oh, and leave the driving to Bob.
My personal thanks to Spencer Thompson for sharing his family pictures and his memories of his father and his music with me.
Trivia (provided by Spencer Thompson): During the great depression, Bob Thompson’s parents (who were very poor) paid for an airplane ride for him when he was a boy. Thus, his love of the sound of speed was born at an early age.
Glenn Gould: Bach: The Goldberg Variations (Columbia, ML 5060)
Ordinarily, I try to resist impulse buying, but after watching a fascinating television documentary on Glenn Gould, I was moved to buy his Bach: The Goldberg Variations. This was the record that catapulted the classical pianist onto the world stage in 1956 at the tender age of twenty-four. The material was an odd choice given the obscure work, and it was an equally unique performance. Up until that point the work had traditionally been performed on harpsicord.
Then again, as I found out in that TV documentary, Gould was an odd man to say the least. He soaked his fingers in hot water before playing his piano, wore winter clothes in hot weather, and used a special chair that had to be positioned just so. Later on in his career he developed a reputation for cancelling his performances at the last minute. He had an aversion to being touched and he only ate one meal a day.
For his first record for Columbia, Gould took a very challenging work and made it even more challenging by giving it a Red Bull treatment. Wikipedia described it as a “unique pianistic method, which incorporated a finger technique involving great clarity of articulation (a “detached staccatissimo“), even at great speed, and little sustaining pedal.” Gould ignored the repeats and performed at such great tempi, the entire recording lasts less than 39 minutes (thus, my “Red Bull” energy drink reference). He also recorded the entire record in breakneck speed- just four days. It became Columbia Records’ best-selling classical record at the time and in 2003 was added to the U.S. National Recording Registry.
Gould wrote the liner notes to his own album. As one might expect from Gould, they are overly detailed and difficult to process, at least for me. He should have applied the Red Bull treatment to his notes. At the end he concludes “music which observes neither end nor beginning, music with neither real climax nor real resolution, music which, like Beaudelaires’s lovers, ‘rests lightly on the wings of the unchecked wind.’ It has, then, unity through intuitive perception, unity born of craft and scrutiny, mellowed by mastery achieved, and revealed to us here, as so rarely in art, in the vision of subconscious design exulting upon a pinnacle of potency.”
The Toronto-born Gould learned to play piano and read music at an early age and was writing his own little compositions by the time he was five years old. He was considered a child prodigy. Around the age of ten he fell off of a boat ramp and injured his back. His father made him a special adjustable chair allowing him to sit lower at the piano and Gould insisted on using the chair during all of his public performances.
At 31, Gould stop performing live concerts altogether, preferring the control of the recording studio, but that did not result in perfection. He had a habit of humming along while playing his piano and the recording engineers were not always successful at isolating just his piano.
Unfortunately, Gould was taken from the music world far too soon. He had a stroke in September of 1982, was hospitalized, and was taken off life support after evidence of brain damage. He died in Toronto on October 4, 1982 at just 50 years old. He never married and had no children. Gould would have turned 89 this September.
In 1981, about a year before he died, Gould did a rather unusual thing. He re-recorded Bach: The Goldberg Variations, but this time at the traditional slower-tempi, and included some of the repeats. The new version clocked in at just over 51 minutes, a full 12 minutes longer than his first recording. The new version was released in 1982 also on Columbia Records and won a Grammy the following year. It has gone on to sell over two million copies. It was Columbia’s first-ever digital recording.
Like the other artists and albums featured in this month’s Tech Rap, Gould is much larger than this one record…he was a broadcaster, conductor, writer, and a composer. But it is beyond the scope of Tech Rap to go into a comprehensive biography. If you are going to try to get a sense of this gifted, complicated man, I suggest you start from the beginning with this record. If you want the Full Monty and are not opposed to parting with a C-note, Sony Masterworks released a 180 gram vinyl version as part of a box set that includes five CDs containing the complete 1956 recording sessions, the album on CD, an interview CD, plus a 280 page hard cover book to boot!
Whether you decide to get Gould’s first 1956 recording of Bach: The Goldberg Variations as I did, or his 1981 reinterpretation, you will be able to listen from the best seat in the house…your seat in your house.
Trivia: During the 1958 recording sessions for of Bach: The Goldberg Variations, Gould performed no less than 21 versions of the introductory aria.
Xavier Cugat: Cugi’s Cocktails (Mercury, SR-60832)
Honestly speaking, I have never been into hard liquor. No matter, because you do not have to imbibe to enjoy Cugi’s Cocktails. I know what you are thinking…who wants to sit around listening to boring cocktail music? But Cocktails is not your father’s lounge music. Okay, it is your father’s lounge music, but like the drinks the songs are named after, the music has a twist. From the album’s delightful liner notes: “Next time you’re hosting your own home party, try this magical foolproof recipe and be a host with confidence. A visit to your nearest record shop, a spin of Cugi’s Cocktails –all twelve of them- will take the butterflies out of your stomach when guests knock and the strain of cocktail-fixing hour requires some Cugi magic”.
Recorded in 1963, Cugi’s Cocktails was Xavier Cugat’s first foray into stereo, and what a debut. The album cover might not be anything to write home about, but it will wet your whistle for the music amalgam that will flow into your ears after you gently drop the needle on the platter. With songs like Rum and Coca-Cola, Daiquiri, Zombie, and Singapore Sling, it would be wise to have a designated Como Audio operator while you play this record and avoid being cited for LWI (Listening While Intoxicated). AllMusic.com said the record “makes a fine addition to any record collection or bar.” It is currently rated 4.9 out of 5 stars on Amazon.
Interestingly, since this was Cugat’s first stereo release, and since stereo was still fairly new on the commercial recording scene, the liner notes detail which channel each instrument is located in (right, center, or left) and what type of microphone was used to record them, adding “the sessions were recorded on Ampex equipment at a speed of 15 inches per second.” And unusual detail is provided about the process: “The 15-degree cutter slant angle is utilized, the latest development in the art of disc recording. The vertical-tracking-angle between cartridge and groove greatly reduces intermodulation distortion and gives the utmost reproduction of the original sound through its dynamic depth control and reliable stylus tracking…In monaural or stereo, your MERCURY record will give you the truest possible reproduction of the original sound.”
And there is much original sound to enjoy. One Mint Julep is my favorite track from Cugi’s Cocktails, sounding like something from an Austin Powers movie. Oh, behave! Old-Fashioned has a slower pace as the name indicates. If you do not like to listen alone, there is a great track called Cocktails for Two. Manhattan is another fine song to nurse. Unlike the little neighborhood bar, nothing is watered down here. The two-channel stereo recording is 200 proof. To stick with the alcohol analogy, the music will burst through your Como Audio music system like a tidal wave of tequila.
And what of the musical bartender? Xavier Cugat was born in Spain in 1900 on New Year’s Day and began playing the violin at age four after moving to Cuba. When he was a teenager, he moved to New York City with his family. He drew cartoons for the L.A. Times, appeared in nine films, and started his own Mexican restaurant, but is best remembered for his big band Latin music. Although he certainly did not invent the genre, he was a major force in spreading its popularity throughout America. His colorfully dressed orchestra featured Desi Arnaz (yes, that Desi Arnaz), Tito Rodriguez, and the sultry singer Abbe Lane (whom became his fourth wife). He was married five times, with his last bride being none other than the sexy actress and guitarist Charro. The “Rumba King” died from heart failure in 1990 in his hotel suite in Spain at 90 years old.
Cugi’s Cocktails will turn 58 years old this August. I snagged an original Mercury stereo white label promotional copy on line in great condition despite its age. You will have no problem finding used copies out there, but be warned, some of them are very expensive, so know your limit.
Here is a recipe brimming with as much fun as one of Cugat’s caricatures. The ingredients include one Como Audio Turntable, one Como Audio music system, one copy of Cugi’s Cocktails, one moderately-sized ice bucket with tongs, two drink coasters, two plastic swizzle sticks in the shape of naked ladies, two vintage rock glasses, and copious amounts of your favorite chilled adult beverage. Preheat your turntable and music system, add Cugi’s record, and say a toast to Cugat as you hoist your drinks in tribute. Just remember, the music on Cugi’s Cocktails was shaken not stirred. Fancy another musical drink? Yes please. Sit back and let Cugat’s concoctions intoxicate you, or at least give you a serious music buzz. No need to show your ID. Just keep in mind this bit of doggerel about one’s drink limit: One is fine, Two is the most, Three and you’re under the table, Four and you’re under the host.
Trivia (from rsa.fau.edu).: Cugat “was a classically trained violinist who conducted with his bow, and can be seen in quite a few films waving his violin bow.”
Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (Columbia, CS 8163)
My introduction to this landmark Miles Davis album from 1959 came when I took a jazz music course as a student at Emerson College in Boston and as a jazz DJ on the college’s FM radio station. Kind of Blue is the best-selling jazz record to date having sold more than four million copies in the US alone. It is widely considered to be the best mainstream jazz record of all time. Last year, Rolling Stone listed it at #31 out of their 500 greatest albums of all time. It was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2002. The House of Representatives passed a measure in 2009 commemorating Kind of Blue’s 50th Anniversary.
What makes it so extraordinary? For openers, it features a supergroup before the word supergroup existed. In addition to Davis on trumpet, the other musicians included John Coltrane on tenor sax, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly (on Freddie Freeloader), Jimmy Cobb on drums, and Paul Chambers on bass. With legendary talent like that, something miraculous was bound to emerge from the recording sessions. This exact same line up would never again unite, making Kind of Blue nothing short of a music miracle.
Another contributing factor to the album’s legendary status was Davis’ desire to try to capture the first take of each song. The entire album was recorded with amazing alacrity…on two different dates in March and April of 1959 in New York City. The point was to encourage and preserve the improvisations flowing from each musician on the spot. This lends the record a freshness and spontaneity absent from the rehearsed and over-produced music we have become accustomed to. The musicians had to bring their “A” game right out of the gate with little advance preparation or direction. No pressure, right? Pianist Bill Evans’ back cover liner notes referenced the sessions: “Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a ‘take’”.
Starting at ground zero, Davis was born in 1926 in Illinois. His father earned a good living as a dentist, providing a comfortable upbringing for Davis. As a teenager, Davis attended what eventually became the Juilliard School of Music in New York. While in New York he played in Charlie Parker’s quintet and eventually formed his own quintet. In the late 1960s he pioneered the infusion of electronic instruments along with funk and rock elements in his music. Starting in the mid-1970s, Davis temporarily exited the world stage for health and personal reasons including drug addiction. He re-entered the music scene in 1981 releasing more recordings including contemporary jazz treatments of pop hits Time After Time and Human Nature. He won a total of eight Grammys, three Grammy Hall of Fame Awards, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990. Davis was thrice divorced, had three sons and one daughter. He was hospitalized in California in September of 1991 with pneumonia and suffered a stroke. He died a few weeks later at age 65. His official website states he died of a brain aneurysm, but Wikipedia claims he died after the decision was made to disconnect his life support. Miles Davis would have turned 95 last month.
There is one more Miles milestone I will relay since it could have been plucked from the Black Lives Matter headlines of the past couple of years. Kind of Blue had just been released and Davis was headlining at the famous Birdland jazz club in New York City. He stepped outside between sets for a smoke when a white NYPD officer approached him and ordered him on his way. Davis explained he was playing at the club and pointed out his name on the marquee. Unfazed, the officer insisted he move along or face arrest. Perhaps in disbelief, Davis just stared at him and did not say anything, prompting the officer to hit him with his baton, splattering blood all over Davis’ suit. He was transported to the hospital where he received ten stitches and was then handcuffed and jailed. Unbelievably, Davis was charged with assaulting a police officer and disorderly conduct. The charges were eventually dismissed and Davis intended to sue, but his attorney failed to file before the statute of limitations expired. In his 1989 autobiography, Davis wrote, “…if you’re black, there is no justice. None.”
Returning to Kind of Blue, I electronically liaised with Leon Lee Dorsey, musician, composer, arranger, and Assistant Professor of Jazz Composition at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, to help me further unpack the pure genius that is Kind of Blue:
“Kind of Blue is one of the most iconic albums of all time”, Dorsey wrote me in an email. “It is listed with the greatest albums of the 20th Century in any genre. Miles Davis’s resume was already legendary. He had been signed to Columbia Records in 1955. Davis had already played with Charlie Parker in 1944 and spear headed the West Coast Cool School movement in 1949. His debut album Round Midnight on Columbia Records cemented his place in the Hard Bop movement of the mid-1950s.
“Known for hiring stellar sidemen, Davis would have a portion of the original band from the Round Midnight session on the Kind of Blue album. The Round Midnight session would include John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums and Miles on trumpet. Kind of Blue would see several personnel changes and additions. Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans on piano and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
“Kind of Blue opened the door to a new improvisation universe. This album introduced the use of modal improvisational playing. This was a significant departure from the music framework used by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. The basic concept is focus on modes where the playing is around tonal centers without the idea of dominant-tonic harmony.
“This innovative modal concept would be influence to countless future generations of musicians. The impact would go well beyond jazz into jazz-rock and fusion, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and pop music. The impact of this album to this day has been immeasurable.”
A fortnight ago I reserved a very special release of Kind of Blue by Analogue Productions (AUHQR 0004) limited to 25,000 copies. It promptly sold out so I consider myself quite fortunate to be getting one. The record is on clear 200 gram UHQR Clarity Vinyl (pressed one at a time by hand!), includes a 16-page booklet, and comes housed in a beautiful slip case. But there is no need to empty out your bank account, as this record is available at more down-to-earth prices. As one would expect for a classic record that is 62 years old, Kind of Blue has been reissued numerous times over the decades so you should have no problem sourcing your copy of this Miles masterpiece. If you get a Columbia Records pressing, be sure it is from the 1992 remaster or after, as Side 1 on earlier versions was ever so slightly off-pitch due to a failure to correct the recording speed of the original tape. This five-hit wonder is a must for any record collection. Like any masterpiece, the music holds up remarkably well to this day. Play this record once and the natural high will linger long after. Just be polite and warn your neighbors in advance because you will want to play Kind of Blue so loud Miles himself will be able to hear it.
For Record Store Day, Miles’ Champions (“Rare Miles from the Complete Jack Johnson Sessions”) will be released on yellow vinyl. Bill Evans also gets a special release- Behind the Dikes…live recordings from the Netherlands in 1969. The three-record set on 180 gram vinyl includes an extensive booklet and will be limited to 3,500 pressings.
Many thanks to Assistant Professor Leon Lee Dorsey for his time as he juggled closing out the final semester with his Berklee students.
Trivia: Over the course of his career, Miles Davis was nominated for 32 Grammy Awards, has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Pete Rugolo: Behind Brigitte Bardot (Warner Brothers, WS 1371)
Look at that unmasked smile on your face! Is this an incredible album cover, or what? As I remarked before, some album covers approach works of art, like something one could frame and hang on a bare wall. Try getting that from a digital download or streaming service. I confess I bought Behind Brigitte Bardot mostly for its fantastic gatefold cover. Fully opened, it is a feast for the eyes. It is easily one of the sexiest (yet tasteful) album covers I have ever seen. Sex sells, so it is no wonder some artists feature sexy photos on their record covers, but I consider Behind Brigitte Bardot’s cover more art than cheesecake.
Curious about this incredible cover photo, I again donned my detective’s fedora and emailed the French firm that licenses Ms. Bardot’s name and likeness. I did not expect a response, but as the saying goes, no risk it, no biscuit. To my surprise, their Licensing Director, Véronique Allaire Spitzer, responded to my query: “The visuals of the Pete Rugolo soundtrack Behind Brigitte Bardot (Cool Sounds from Her Hot Scenes) seems to be Sam Levin images”, Spitzer explained in her email to me. “Sam Levin made many famous images of Brigitte Bardot. He was a movie set photographer and became a friend of BB. Brigitte Bardot was a pillar of his photo studio where she made many pictures sexy, sensual or shocking at the time. The picture of the record seems to have been made in 1958.”
Ostensibly, this would appear to be a record of songs sung by Bardot. Not an unreasonable assumption considering she is featured prominently one the cover, played the acoustic guitar, and recorded over sixty songs. But Beyond Brigitte Bardot is actually a compilation of instrumentals performed by Pete Rugolo and his Orchestra drawn from some of the blonde atomic bombshell’s movies. The songs are presented in typical 1960 jazzy fashion with a pinch of late-night naughtiness. Rugolo’s Orchestra includes such talented musicians as Bud Shank, Pete Candoli, Mel Lewis, Buddy Clark, Frank Rosolino, and Jack Sheldon.
During the same year this record was released, teens were doing The Twist, falling in love with Elvis Presley, and rocking with Roy Orbison. Heck, it was 1960, so why not make a record inspired by sex kitten Brigitte Bardot? Rugolo’s music is clearly from a different era and is not nearly as titillating as the album cover, but is still worthy of repeated revolutions on your Como Audio Turntable. AllMusic.com called Behind Brigitte Bardot a “charmer”, saying it featured “some of Pete Rugolo’s lushest and loveliest arrangements …wry, cool-toned jazz melodies heavy on innuendo and late-night appeal. Whatever the notion behind the session, the execution’s delightful”.
Regarding the “notion behind the session”, the album’s liner notes state: “In America someone known by his initials is usually a business man of exorbitant, aggressive ability. In France initials have been handed to an aggressive film actress who has created plenty of world interest and business for her films. It is B.B. (pronounced ‘bay-bay’), for Brigitte Bardot, a cannily concocted sex symbol who has emerged as one of the most important French export commodities since the war.”
The man responsible for these salacious sessions was Pete Rugolo. Rugolo was born on Christmas Day 1915 in Sicily and emigrated to the US with his family in 1920. For a period following World War II, Rugolo worked for Stan Kenton and the two became close friends. Other highlights from Rugolo’s resume include Music Director for Capitol Records (producing records for people like Miles Davis and Charile Parker), composer/arranger for MGM film musicals, and an A&R director at Mercury Records. Rugolo also contributed music to some classic television shows such as Leave It to Beaver, The Fugitive, and The Thin Man. He won three Emmy Awards. In 2011 he died at the age of 95 in California.
As for B.B., before retiring in 1973, the Paris-born Bardot had acted in forty-seven films. Paul McCartney and John Lennon both idolized Bardot and Bob Dylan wrote his very first song about her in 1956. Dylan’s Song to Brigitte remains unrecorded to this day. Bardot turns 87 this September and remains an outspoken animal rights activist (is there any other kind?). She is the founder of La Fondation Brigitte Bardot which is dedicated to animal protection. Bardot lives in St. Tropez with her fourth husband, Bernard d’Ormale, and her fifty pets.
Behind Brigitte Bardot has been reissued on vinyl, although at least one version has her image facing in the opposite direction on the cover. Bardot blasphemy! Relax, pour yourself a glass of wine, and have a listen, preferably with your life partner in close proximity. Music for modern lovers. If you want some seductive sounds for your suite along with a super sexy-cool vintage album cover to adorn your wall, just get Behind Brigitte Bardot. Yowza.
Trivia: Over the course of his career, Pete Rugolo had 364 compositions registered with ASCAP and a further 508 titles with BMI.
Paddy Roberts: Songs for Gay Dogs (Decca, LK.4560)
I am a sucker for the unusual, so I reflexively purchased this original mono UK Decca Records release from 1963 when I found it listed on eBay by a pleasant UK chap. Do not let the cover fool you. It was designed to make record shoppers do a double take in hopes they would buy the record. In reality, this record has nothing at all to do with homosexual canines, but you have to admit it caught your attention. Actually, back in 1963 the word “gay” was often used to describe someone or something (like dogs) that was cheerful. However you interpret it, it was a strange title. Which begs the question- Who was the man behind the title, the lyrics, and the piano, and what was he thinking?
John Godfrey Owen “Paddy” Roberts was born in South Africa in 1910 but lived most of his life in the UK. He served in the R.A.F. during World War II, had a brief stint as a commercial pilot, and was a lawyer. He began writing songs in the 1950s and co-wrote a couple of tunes that became hits in the UK. He is mostly known for his risqué novelty records, of which he recorded seven, some of which made the top 20 in England. Roberts won the Ivor Novello award five times which honors British and Irish songwriters and composers. He married twice, had two sons, and died in England in 1975 at the age of 65.
In his spoken introduction on the opening track, Roberts explains: “This is a collection of songs that I have gathered together over the years. Songs which have usually been accompanied by an ancient upright piano and a lot of alcohol.” On the back cover liner notes to Gay Dogs, he goes a step further, warning unabashedly in all caps, “THIS IS A VULGAR RECORD. I should like to make this fact quite clear before we go any further. So it won’t be any good your writing to me after you’ve bought it and complaining that you’ve been shocked.”
Some of the tracks on Gay Dogs include Don’t Use the WC, Ten in A Bed, Sweet Fanny Adams, Whore of Dunblane, The Woodpecker’s Hole, and Virgin Sturgeon: “I gave caviar to my grandma / She was approaching 93 / Now she’s chasing poor old grandpa / Round and round the mulberry tree.” Granted, the lyrics were more eye brow raising 58 years ago than they are today, but you and your four legged companion should still get a kick out of this amusing little record regardless of your pooch’s disposition or sexual orientation. Then again, they do not call them man’s best friend for nothing.
Trivia: Although all of Roberts’ studio albums were recorded in stereo, most were issued in mono only.
Step Up to The Platform
Our turntables have been a top seller ever since we introduced them, but serious supply chain disruptions caused by COVID have prevented us from being able to keep an ample supply in stock. I assure you this problem is not exclusive to Como Audio. The delivery date is a constantly moving target, but we are hoping to have at least some in stock by mid-late July. If you want to be sure you will get one, get yourself on our wait list and we will contact you when they arrive.
If you currently have or plan to purchase a Como Audio Turntable, consider the Como Audio Platform. The Platform fits around your Musica or Duetto and will not only save you some valuable space, it will isolate and elevate your turntable. This sturdy stand is made in the USA by highly skilled Amish woodworkers. It is finished using a power planer, saw, and sander all powered by a standby diesel generator. Wood biscuits, pin nails, and wood adhesive are used for the assembly, while low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint is used. The wood is sourced from an Amish-owned Indiana sawmill. Since it is American-made, the Platform has not been hit as hard by supply chain issues like our Turntables (which are manufactured in Austria), so we have Platforms in stock and ready to ship. Raise your music system to a new level by adding the Como Audio Platform. George from Sunnyvale, CA sent us the above picture of his system along with this note: “I have very limited space for a good sound system. Your components were the perfect answer. I now have a complete sound system in a very compact space. It’s a constant source of pleasure and entertainment.” Thank you, George.
Music is not a luxury, it is an essential part of life. Tower Records had it right: No Music, No Life. You do not have to wait for Record Store Day to get into vinyl. Pay a visit your local record store and see what gems you will discover. I hope my records in this month’s Tech Rap inspire you to check out some of those titles and to explore all that records have to offer in general. Place the stylus down on that spinning piece of vinyl magic and let the notes fly through the air. Whether you own one of our excellent Como Audio Turntables or some other brand, fire it up and start playing your platters. It is a tactile, fun, and retro-cool way to enjoy the music.
Ron Wood and Charlie Watts
July’s Tech Rap: Smart Fun in The Summer Sun
Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio as V.P. of Product Development. If you have any comments or suggestions for a Tech Rap topic, Peter can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org