Here comes the Sun
In the eyes of many jazz critics and jazz fans, there is “serious” music (jazz) and there is lowbrow unwashed pop music, which is to be disdained or perhaps tolerated in a condescending way.
Of course, a lot of actual jazz musicians don’t quite feel that way. Miles Davis dug Hendrix and Sly. Sonny Rollins recorded with The Rolling Stones. Even back in the early days, Louis Armstrong recorded with country-music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers. And Herman Poole “Sonny” Blount, better known in this solar system as Sun Ra (1914-1993), not only played cosmic jazz but also dabbled in doo-wop and R & B in the 1950s and a little funky soul in the ’ 60s and ’ 70s. And danged if Ra didn’t make that sound cosmic too!
Norton Records recently released three CDs of his material. Interplanetary Melodies and The Second Stop Is Jupiter feature recordings from the mid1950s, while Rocket Ship Rock spans the late ’ 50s through early ’ 70s. Some of these songs appeared, mostly in different versions, on earlier Sun Ra compilations like The Singles (1996) and Spaceship Lullaby (2003).
Ra’s relationship with R & B goes back to the late 1940s. His first recordings were with R & B wild man Wynonie Harris. Back in 1954, Ra, then living in Chicago, became fascinated with R & B vocal groups. According to John F. Szwed’s 1998 biography Space Is the Place: The Loves and Times of Sun Ra, Ra grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, listening to gospel quartets, so writing music for doo-wop groups came naturally to him.
Among those who appear on Interplanetary and Jupiter are The Qualities, The Crystals (not the girl group Phil Spector made famous), and, most appropriately for Sun Ra, The Cosmic Rays. But The Cosmic Rays weren’t as otherworldly as The Nu Sounds, who performed on songs like “Spaceship Lullaby” and the drum-heavy “Africa.”
One of the truest delights on the first two albums is Juanita Rogers, who sang a couple of heartbreakers called “Teenager’s Letter of Promises” and “I’m So Glad You Love Me.” Interplanetary has little Juanita singing the first song a cappella (under the title “Love Letters Full of Promises”). This is immediately followed by the full-blown version featuring a spoken introduction— with heavy reverb— by a guy named Lynn Hollings, saying, “Yes, teenagers do sometimes keep their promises. Meet Little Juanita, a teenager with the soul of an angel and the recipient of a love letter full of promises.”
My favorite of these three albums is Rocket Ship Rock, simply because the music is at least a couple of notches crazier than it is on the other albums. Credit this to a singer called Yochanan, an R & B shouter who made Little Richard sound like a certified
public accountant by comparison. According to Szwed’s book, by the mid-1950s, Ra had a way of attracting top-notch musicians, as well as some outright weirdos: “The band was also a magnet for the strange, drawing all sorts of people off the streets for rehearsals and performances. One of the most bizarre of those who turned up was Yochanan ... [who] had many stage names, including the Man from Outer Space, the Man from Mars, and the Muck Muck Man, and declared himself a descendant of the Sun. Dressed in turban, sandals, and red, orange, and yellow ‘ Asiatic’ robes, he was always quick to hold forth to anyone on his private philosophy. And when he performed, he was unpredictable and crude, often working bawdy material into the last song he sang at club appearances.” In other words, my kind of entertainer. The Man from Mars is featured on the first nine tracks of Rocket Ship Rock. His shining moment is the down-and-gritty “Hot Skillet Mama.” There are two versions on the CD, one of which was the flip side of the single “Muck Muck,” which also appears in two versions here. But even nuttier than Yochanan’s contributions is the song “I Am Gonna Unmask the Batman.” There are two versions. A short one (under four minutes) is sung by Chicago blues guitarist Lacy Gibson, who at the time was Ra’s brother-in-law. A horn riff suggests the “Batman Theme” from the AdamWest television show. This is an extended version of a single released by Ra in 1974. And then there’s a sprawling seven-minute lo-fi version that sounds like a rehearsal.
This wasn’t Sun Ra’s first encounter with the caped crusader. In 1966, he played organ on what Szwed called a “children’s album” — but I call a “cash-in” record — titled Batman & Robin, released during the height of popularity for the TV series. It’s jazzy, kinda cheesy, mostly instrumental rock— with song titles referring to the Dynamic Duo and the villains they fought. The band was called The Sensational Guitars of Dan & Dale, and musicians include Al Kooper and members of The Blues Project. It’s actually available — in glorious mono!— for download on Amazon and iTunes.
These Norton CDs show that while Sun Ra had his head in the cosmos, his feet were firmly planted in the soil and grit of this crazy planet. Check out nortonrecords.com.
Terrell on the radio: Hear selections from these new Sun Ra collections— plus a little taste of that crazy Batman record— on Terrell’s Sound World, free-form weirdo radio, 10 p.m. Sunday. And don’t forget The Santa Fe Opry, the country music Nashville does not want you to hear, same time on Friday, both on KSFR-FM 101.1.
Got blogs if you want ’em: You can find my “Terrell’s Tune-Up” archives, my radio playlists, videos, music samples, and rants about the music industry at steveterrell.blogspot.com. And for those interested in the strange world of New Mexico politics, check out my political blog at roundhouseroundup.com.
Welcome to my mind: What do garage rock and jug-band music have in common? Find out on the latest episode of The Big Enchilada podcast, bigenchiladapodcast.com. Hear my favorite music on your iPod or computer. ◀