Monday, August 28, 2017

The 1980s format war: Vinyl, CD, cassette, MiniDisc... videocassette?




A DIY record label called Four-Headed Records started up recently to release albums on VHS tapes. "It will be the only VHS Tape Label in existence and will be the first of its kind," the label's announcement says. "It hasn't been done before."

I applaud their spirit but hate to break it to them that, like so many alleged firsts, it has been done before. Over thirty years ago, in fact. 

In the early 1980s, the audiophile label Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab offered a handful of classic albums on digital-audio VHS and Betamax videocassettes.

Why? Because the then-new PCM (pulse-code modulation) adaptors could convert "any VCR (Beta or VHS) into a digital audio tape recorder capable of the same quality as the best Compact Discs," as explained in a 1985 article in the Chicago Tribune, "Ultimate Tape Recorder, at One-Tenth the Cost."

MFSL's digital-audio Betamax cassette release of
Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
The introduction of the digital audio tape (DAT) in 1987 rendered digital-audio VHS/Beta tapes obsolete, but for a time, digital-audio videocassettes were a cool innovation not only for their sound quality but also for the amount of music that could be crammed onto them. 

Mobile Fidelity's 1983 catalog listed the following catalog numbers and titles. (The catalog entry is pictured at the top of this post.)

VHS/BETA-005 – Supertramp – Crime of the Century
VHS/BETA-017 – Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
VHS/BETA-025 – Earl Klugh – Finger Paintings
VHS/BETA-510 – Solti/London Philharmonic – Holst: The Planets
VHS/BETA-084 – The Alan Parsons Project – I Robot
VHS/BETA-507 – Maazel/Cleveland Orchestra – Feste Romane
VHS/BETA-120 – Donald Fagen – The Nightfly



Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The serinette (bird organ) and its hypnotic power over birds

Serinette

I was intrigued by this passage about the serinette, or "bird organ," in the 2015 book Eco-Sonic Media by Jacob Smith. The following paragraph appeared within a discussion of the training of songbirds—particularly the training of canaries—in 19th century Germany.
[The serinette was a] device that was thought to improve the overall quality of the bird’s vocalizing. Sometimes referred to as a "bird organ,” this odd contraption was about the size of a grandfather clock, with water-filled cylinders put in motion by a weight-and-pulley system similar to the acoustic-recording machines described in the previous chapter. As the weight fell, it pumped a bellows that sent air through the cylinders to produce a number of distinctive sounds, one of which was described as being “a low, plaintive monotone that goes on and on, like the sound of water running over rocks, or the wind’s motion in the trees.” Birds exposed to the machine were said to listen “as if fascinated” and became “gentle and teachable.”
A number of examples of serinettes in action can be found on YouTube, and their intonation ranges from something like that of a bird to that of an instrument like a calliope. I was more interested in the birdlike serinettes and imagine that these are the ones that would most interest songbirds as well. 


And here is an image of a canary that appears to be in a deep reverie or state of fascination, perhaps from listening to a serinette: 

Canary in state of fascination

Monday, March 6, 2017

Country music's "We Are the World"




They could have called it "Lemon Aid," because it turned out to be a real lemon. But it wasn't for lack of trying.

I'm talking about Heart of Nashville's "One Big Family," the country music world's attempt at a "We Are the World"-type famine-relief record.

It happened in 1985. After the all-star charity group USA for Africa scored a worldwide #1 hit with "We Are the World," country star Ronnie McDowell decided to organize a similar project in Nashville for country artists. Charity concerts and supergroups were everywhere—this was also the year of Live Aid and Farm Aid. Even heavy metal artists, under the name Hear ‘n Aid, organized a famine-relief record.

The
 charity craze started the previous year with British and Irish supergroup Band Aid, which Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats organized with Midge Ure to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. 

Band Aid's song "Do They Know It's Christmas" was a big success—it topped the UK chart in 1984 and then reached the UK Top 3 again in 1985. Geldof and Ure helped to organize Live Aid in 1985, and at Live Aid, Bob Dylan made a comment about American farmers that led to Farm Aid later that same year.


Heart of Nashville
In the midst of all this charity, country star Ronnie McDowell got the idea for his charity supergroup. The goal was to raise money for worldwide hunger relief, and McDowell managed to sign up some of country music's biggest stars.

The record was to be released under the name Heart of Country by Nashville's Compleat Records. Unlike earlier fundraisers for Ethiopian famine relief, Heart of Country would "benefit the hungry in both America and the world," as stated on the single's picture sleeve. McDowell co-wrote the song that the group would record, "One Big Family," which echoed the theme of global togetherness heard on "We Are the World."

Unfortunately for McDowell, the Heart of Country would not be met with peace and harmony. Less than 24 hours before the vocal recording session, McDowell found out that RCA Records forbade its artists from taking part in the project, which eliminated Alabama, the Judds, Louise Mandrell, and Ronnie Milsap, all of whom had agreed to participate.

Likewise, none of the expected artists from MCA Records appeared, including Lee Greenwood and the Oak Ridge Boys. Only one artist from Columbia Records—George Jones—showed up.

Apart from the Kendalls, who recorded for Polygram, most of the approximately 40 acts who actually participated were either unsigned or independent artists. The label that was going to release the Heart of Country single, Compleat Records, was itself an independent label, so it certainly seemed as if the major labels were conspiring to kill the project. 

MCA wouldn't comment on why it prohibited its artists from participating, but other labels' representatives didn't hesitate to hold forth. Joe Galante from RCA told Spin, "Yes, I told our artists not to participate. I felt that instead of being a major event, as was the 'USA for Africa' single, [Heart of Country] would be one of many trying to duplicate it."

And Dale Cornelius of the Nashville Music Association claimed to be thinking about organizing a separate fundraiser. "We're exploring it further," he said, "but don't want to jump on any bandwagon." How he intended to organize a big charity supergroup that didn't involve some bandwagon jumping is unclear.


The 45's picture sleeve
The Heart of Nashville record came to pass anyway and featured a lot of stars, many of whom were old-timers: Roy Acuff, Rex Allen Jr., Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Chet Atkins, Bobby Bare, Lane Brody, T. Graham Brown, Little Jimmy Dickens, Karen Taylor-Good, Dobie Gray, Sonny James, George Jones, The Kendalls, Dave Kirby, Neal Matthews, Kathy Mattea, O.B. McClinton, Ronnie McDowell, Lorrie Morgan, Colleen Peterson, Webb Pierce, Boots Randolph, Jerry Reed, Jeannie C. Riley, Ronny Robbins, Ray Sawyer, Troy Seals, Jeannie Seely, Rick Schulman, Gordon Stoker, Tanya Tucker, Mack Vickery, Porter Wagoner, Duane West, Bergen White, Leona Williams, and Faron Young. 

An official music video was produced. It alternated between shots of Africans and shots of the supergroup in the studio. George Jones and Tanya Tucker were the most prominently featured solo vocalists. Some of the others, such as Lynn Anderson and Faron Young, sang a single line in the song and really poured their hearts into it. Still others, such as Little Jimmy Dickens and Webb Pierce (the latter of whom wasn't listed on the single's sleeve but appears in the video), sang only with the group on the choruses and can't really be heard.

A promotional single was pressed on red vinyl. The music video was promoted by Aristo Music Associates, the first video-promotion service in Nashville. When the record was released, it spent nine weeks on the Billboard country chart, but—despite the promotional efforts and all-star cast—climbed no higher than #61. 

Nashville's major labels succeeded in nearly spoiling the project by withholding then-current stars who could have raised the record's profile substantially. And, not surprisingly, the majors never got around to creating a charity group of their own.



Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Chicago country singer Gerrie Lynn, 1964-1967




For reasons unknown, Columbia/Legacy reissued Gerrie Lynn's sole album—an obscure country LP originally released in 1966—as a digital download in September 2016. 

Lynn never had a national hit and didn't have a very long recording career, which makes the reissue all the more baffling. As of this writing (February 2017), the album has had zero sales on Amazon.com, and I was the first to view some of the tracks on YouTube, so the reissue doesn't appear to have been due to popular demand.

Lynn was a country singer from Chicago who first recorded for Nashville Records, an imprint of Starday Records, where she cut two singles in 1964-65. 

The first single was "Every Time I Do Right" and "Lonely," the latter of which featured Pete Drake and his talking steel guitar. Tommy Hill produced, and Lynn wrote one song by herself and co-wrote the other with Nashville Records label-mate Billy Hill. 

The second single, "I Love You More and More Every Day," became a Top 10 hit at WJEF in nearby Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1965. Lynn also enjoyed some airplay on Chicago's WJJD, which changed formats in 1965 from Top 40 pop to country. 


Billboard, Mar. 12, 1966
Encouraged by this success, Lynn sent a demo to producer/A&R chief Don Law at Columbia Records, and he signed her. 

Lynn's Columbia debut was "My Lips Will Never Tell (What My Eyes May Show)" b/w "Forget Me (The Next Time Around)" in March 1966. Law never called upon her songwriting abilities—everything she recorded at Columbia was composed by professional songwriters.   

Lynn's sole album, Presenting Gerrie Lynn, followed later that year. It's a typical mid-'60s Don Law and Frank Jones co-production, with the kind of precise and uncluttered arrangements that I associate with Law's other Columbia productions around that time for artists such as Jimmy Dean and Carl Smith, although Presenting Gerrie Lynn is more pop oriented than Law's productions for Smith. 

The album contains no originals—it's a routine assortment of popular country songs with few surprises. Lynn sings Patsy Cline ("Crazy," "I Fall to Pieces"), Connie Smith ("Ain't Had No Lovin'," "Once a Day"), Jody Miller ("Queen of the House"), and Jeannie Seely ("Don't Touch Me") as well as recent hits by Jack Greene, Ray Price, and Sonny James. The only non-hit song is "Stranger," a tune that Lefty Frizzell recorded (and Law and Jones produced) for Columbia in 1962. 

The best cut, in my opinion, is "Unloved, Unwanted," a Kitty Wells song from 1962. Lynn's rendition has a wordless soprano vocal part on the chorus that sounds like a musical saw. The only other really notable arrangement is "Ain't Had No Lovin'," which features the distorted guitar sound introduced on Marty Robbins' "Don't Worry" (another Law production) in 1961.   

Billboard, Dec. 3, 1966
Billboard listed the album as a "special merit pick" in its Dec. 3, 1966 issue, but HiFi/Stereo Review gave the album an unfavorable review: 
Gerrie Lynn is the latest blossom to emerge from the hillbilly orchard. She sounds like a matronly Molly Bee, and on most of the bands on this debut disc, she seems curiously out of place in the idiom. She is really more of a pop stylist, and her slow, bluesy, almost lethargic approach to reading lyrics makes her a very boring interpreter....

Billboard had a higher opinion of Lynn, and in its April 29, 1967 issue predicted that "I'll Pick Up the Pieces" (an answer to Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces") would reach the Hot Country Singles Chart. The song didn't chart nationally but might be Lynn's best-known song. It nearly reached the Top 40 on WYDE in Birmingham, Alabama, and was included on the 2007 Bear Family Records anthology ...And the Answer Is: Great Country Answer Discs from the '50s and Their Original Versions.

Curiously, the flip side, "Down Home Country Girl," reached the Top 5 on WMAS in Springfield, Massachusetts. 

The liner notes from the back of the original Presenting Gerrie Lynn album tell her story:
Spell it out—S-U-C-C-E-S-S! For that's what Gerrie Lynn's warmly appealing voice most definitely spells, and that's what this new Columbia album, PRESENTING GERRIE LYNN, most assuredly is!
Although Chicago-born Gerrie is a brand-new addition to Nashville's roster of recording stars, she's by no means new to Country music. This young lady has been a successful performer in the field ever since.... But let Gerrie tell you the story herself. 
"One evening not long ago, my husband Bill and I went to a little club in Chicago that features live Country entertainment. Bill, who's always loved Country music, is a big fan of Grand Ole Opry's weekly broadcasts, as I am now, too. I enjoyed what I heard at the club so much, we found ourselves going back often. 
"One night, without my knowing it, he and the bandleader decided to call me up to the stage to sing! Bill knew that as a youngster I'd sung in my church choir and that I liked singing around the house some of the songs I'd heard on our evenings out. Not only was I a big success with the customers, but I was hired as a regular performer at that club and others like it. These appearances led to my being featured at an auditorium show in Hammond, Indiana, in a program starring Carl Smith, Ernest Tubb, Jim Reeves, Sonny James and many more big names. 
"This was an important turning point for me, for now I realized that I really loved performing Country music and wanted to be a part of it. I made a demonstration record and submitted it to WJJD, a Chicago all-Country music station. They aired it, and before long it rated high on their popularity charts and, of course, made my name known to a great many people. This really gave me confidence, so I sent a copy of the 'demo' to Don Law, Columbia's great Country and Western producer. He must have been mighty pleased, because he asked me to come to Nashville to make the album."
You'll be mighty pleased, too, when you hear Gerrie interpret great Country hits like Ain't Had No Lovin', I Fall to Pieces, Queen of the House, Unloved, Unwanted, and Don't Touch Me
And now, ladies and gentlemen . . . PRESENTING GERRIE LYNN! 

 Gerrie Lynn discography


1964 – Nashville 5184 – Every Time I Do Right / Lonely 

1965 – Nashville 5213 – Heed My Warning / I Love You More and More Every Day

1966 – Columbia 43574 – My Lips Will Never Tell (What My Eyes May Show) / Forget Me (The Next Time Around)

1966 – Columbia CL 2585 – Presenting Gerrie Lynn (mono)

1966 – Columbia CS 9385 – Presenting Gerrie Lynn (stereo)

1967 – Columbia 44099 – I'll Pick Up the Pieces / Down Home Country Girl

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The first million-selling gospel single?



What was the first million-selling gospel single? The answer is not straightforward.

Many sources say that it was "Sorry I Never Knew You" by the Sego Brothers and Naomi, which reached #50 on the Billboard country chart in 1964. 

Billboard, August 4, 1979
That is a remarkably low chart peak for a record that supposedly sold a million copies, but its weak chart performance doesn't necessarily rule out the possibility that it was a big seller. Some bestselling records didn't chart at all or were under-ranked on the charts, such as albums that were sold through nontraditional channels (like television commercials) and albums that sold steadily over a long period of time without having the kind of sales spurt that would put them on a bestsellers chart (like Jim Nabors' albums).

In the clipping pictured above, Billboard itself repeated the claim that "Sorry I Never Knew You" was "the first million-selling gospel disk" but softened the claim by adding that it "is said to be the first."

Billboard might equivocate in this matter, but many books don't—some say straight-up that the Sego Brothers and Naomi's record is the first gospel million seller. One example is the 1979 Gospel Music Encyclopedia by Anderson and North.

I became suspicious of this claim after mentioning it to Bill Buster, who has operated both American Record Sales, Inc., and Eric Records since the 1960s and knows a lot about hit singles. He said that he has never sold a single copy of "Sorry I Never Knew You." That seemed odd.

After looking into it more, it turns out that Billboard and I were right to doubt this bit of gospel music trivia. The first gospel single to reportedly sell a million copies was released more than a half century earlier. It was the Fisk Jubilee Singers' "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in 1909, according to Bil Carpenter's 2005 book Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia.

If you insist that we consider only certified million sellers, then "Sorry I Never Knew You" is still not the first gospel record on the list. 
The first certified million seller is the Carter Family's "Can the Circle Be Unbroken (Bye and Bye)," originally released in 1935. 
The Carter Family

It's worth mentioning here that many million-selling records were never officially certified as million sellers by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), either because the records were released by independent labels that didn't (or couldn't) keep track of their sales, or because the records' peak sales occurred before the RIAA existed. Nevertheless, many records' status as million sellers is widely accepted despite the lack of certification.

Here is a chronological list, up to 1965, of the earliest million-selling gospel singles, which I extracted from Carpenter's book. The ones that are followed by an asterisk are not certified by the RIAA.

You'll notice that the Sego Brothers and Naomi are not on the list at all. What's up with that?


Million-selling gospel singles through 1965


1909 – Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, AKA Fisk Jubilee Singers – "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"*

1935 – The Carter Family – "Can the Circle Be Unbroken (Bye and Bye)"

1937 – Marian Anderson – "Ave Maria"*

1938 – Louis Armstrong – "When the Saints Go Marching In"

1945 – Sister Rosetta Tharpe – "Strange Things Happening Every Day"

1947 – Fairfield Four – "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around"*

1948 – The Chuckwagon Gang – "I'll Fly Away"

1948 – Mahalia Jackson – "Move on Up a Little Higher"*

1955 – Clara Ward Singers – "Surely, God Is Able"*

1957 – Clara Ward Singers – "Packing Up"*

1957 – Staple Singers – "Uncloudy Day"

1965 – The Impressions – "People Get Ready"

*Not certified by the RIAA.





Sunday, January 8, 2017

Music Weird's best albums of 2016




Some people are saying that 2016 was an unusually great year for music. I, on the other hand, felt like I had to work twice as hard to find half as many albums as I liked in 2015. Nevertheless, here are the ones I liked the most. Click on the album titles for more info.


1. Magic Potion – Pink Gum



2. Little Barefoot – Never Always




3. The Hairs – While I Hated Life, Barbarian



4. Tele Novella – House of Souls



5. Doombird – Past Lives



6. Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing



7. Eerie Wanda – Hum



8. Black Marble – It's Immaterial



9. Kakkmaddafakka – KMF



10. Vague – In the Meantime



11. Red Sleeping Beauty – Kristina



12. Peter Astor – Spilt Milk



13. Keeps – Brief Spirit



14. Day Wave – Headcase/Hard to Read



15. Seth Bogart – Seth Bogart



16. Lost Tapes – Let's Get Lost



17. Balue – Wavy Daze



18. Enemies – Valuables



19. Acid Ghost – WARHOL



20. Liquids – Hot Liqs


Some runner-ups are Goon Sax, Japanese Breakfast, Woods, Yumi Zouma, Work Drugs, Miniature Tigers, Chook Race, The Album Leaf, Motorama, and Worriedaboutsatan and the EPs by Lumnos. The final Allo Darlin' single was good too. 




Friday, January 6, 2017

Billy Joe Shaver's "I'm Just an Old [???] of Coal"




I noticed a few erroneous variations in the title of Billy Joe Shaver's song "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I'm Gonna Be a Diamond Someday)" in some country music books the other day. If this blog had a "mildly interesting" tag, then this post would get it.

Shaver wrote the song for his 1981 album of the same name, and Jon Anderson had a Top 5 country hit with it the same year. 

These variations are just mistakes that were missed in editing—at least two of these books get the title right elsewhere. 

Country Music: The Rough Guide writes it as "lump" of coal on page 374:


Country Music: A Biographical Dictionary writes it as "hunk" of coal on page 8:


"Hunk" also appears on page 9 of The Big Book of Country Music: A Biographical Encyclopedia


I wondered if anyone accidentally wrote it as "piece" of coal and found one record retailer that did in a listing for a single by the Near Beer Band. (The label of the record itself shows the correct title.)