Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

September 2, 2019

“Beating The Petrillo Ban: The Late December 1947 ‘Modern’ Sessions” (2-cd, Ace, UK)

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BEATING THE PETRILLO BAN: THE LATE DECEMBER 1947 ‘MODERN’ SESSIONS

2-CD set, 49 tracks, recorded in L.A. for Modern Records in December 1947

CD issued in the UK in 2013, compiled and annotated by Tony Rounce

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What the UK “ACE” label has done with the vast catalog of the Los Angeles-based Modern/RPM/Flair/Kent/Crown family of labels since purchasing the material from the Bihari family a few decades ago has been a wonder, and a model for other reissue labels to follow in terms of mining the veins of classic small labels of the past that they either own or have access to the vaults of. When a major label winds up with the rights to such a small label (think Chess, for instance), they usually do not do a lot with deep catalog excavations–they view it as potential “accounts receivable” through licensing or film/television use or publishing. An independent label such as Ace, though, paid a significant amount for this label (I’d guess they had to take a loan), but they viewed it as a long term investment and no doubt saw hundreds of possible CD releases coming out in a variety of genres: blues, R&B, soul, rock and roll, vocal groups, jazz, even country. Most importantly, they loved and cared about the music (having worked with the Bihari family on reissues prior to acquiring the labels themselves) and wanted to make as much of this great music available as possible, for people around the world to enjoy. While the plum of the collection was probably the massive amount of BB King material, from his greatest period (be sure to get all the volumes in the 11 CD “Crown” collection of King masters, each reissuing a Crown budget album and also stuffed full of related period from the period, and each expertly curated….the Crown Collection is surely THE body of King work to own), the archivists at Ace knew the thousands of quality masters in the catalog, and they’ve treated it with respect and care and enthusiasm. For the R&B/jump blues side of things,  you could start with their five volumes in the MELLOW CATS & KITTENS series, the casts a wide net of Los Angeles recordings from the late 40’s and early 50’s. The collections of JIMMY WITHERSPOON and ETTA JAMES and PEE WEE CRAYTON and GENE PHILLIPS and HADDA BROOKS should follow soon after. There are six compilations of random vocal groups, a few volumes of female R&B vocalists, and dozens of soul compilations from Kent’s 60’s/70’s period. And many unexpected delights….Chris Hillman’s pre-Byrds teenage bluegrass band THE SCOTTSVILLE SQUIRREL BARKERS recorded a quickie album for the Crown budget label, and Chet Baker also issued an album on Crown of Pacific Jazz outtakes…and both of those are available on CD for your listening pleasure.

Beyond the artist-based compilations, or compilations devoted to a style of music or to  performers working in a particular sub-genre, Ace has taken an interesting approach on a few compilations which focus on a short period of time (in this case, less than two weeks!) and do a deep archival dig into that period. One such comp dealt with the first releases on Modern from its beginning in 1945 (see pic at bottom of post). The set under discussion today is another, and it should be in the collection of every lover of late 40’s/early 50’s jump blues/R&B/post-Swing small combos, etc.

CD One:
THE EBONAIRES: Waterboy -1/ I’ll Never Do It Again 4/ The Old Folks At Home -1;
HADDA BROOKS: Poor Butterfly 1/ Old Fashioned Love -3/ Take Me -1/ The Best Things In Life Are Free -1/ This Will Make You Laugh -3; A Sailboat In The Moonlight -10/ Why Was I Born -1/ Mary Lou -1/ Moonlight On the Ganges -1;
AL ‘CAKE’ WICHARD: Gravels In My Pillow -1/ His Majesty’s Boogie -1/ Cake Jumps -2/ T.B. Blues -2;
GENE PHILLIPS: Snuff Dipping Mama -1/ Gene’s Guitar Blues -2/ Broke And Disgusted -1/ Royal Boogie -1;
ART SHACKELFORD: The Glory Of Love -2/ Play Fiddle Play -2/ The Jazz Me Blues -4/ Beatin’ The Ban-1

petrillo 2

HADDA  BROOKS  (be still, my heart….)

CD Two:
AL ‘CAKE’ WICHARD: Connie Lee Blues -2/ Big Fine Girl -1/ That’s Your Red Wagon -3/ Sweet Lovin’ Baby -1/ Grandma Grandpa -1/ Geneva Blues -1/ Piece Of Cake -2/ Boogie Woogie Baby -2;
HADDA BROOKS: Anna Lucasta -3/ I Can’t Get Started -5/ I’ll Get By -2;
LITTLE WILLIE JACKSON: Little Willie’s Boogie -1/ Shasta -1/ Baby -1/ Someday, Somehow, Somewhere -2;
BUTCH STONE: My Feet’s Too Big -2/ Put Your Brake On Mama -5/ Little Girl -1/ Baby Face -4;
MADAM IRA MAE LITTLEJOHN: Lonesome Road Blues -1/ He’ll Make The Way -2/ What More Can Jesus Do -1/ Go Devil, Go -1/ See Jesus -1/ My Record Will Be There –

Followers of 1940’s music know of the two recording bans, known as Petrillo bans, named after American Federation of Musicians president James C. Petrillo, which prohibited union musicians from participating in most recording sessions until more favorable terms were negotiated with record labels. The first ran from 1942-1944, although some labels began cutting deals with the AFM in late 1943. The “V-DISCS” (the only “official” instrumental recordings with union musicians made during the heart of the strike, before the first labels made deals with the AFM) from this era were recordings made specially for American troops overseas, through a special agreement between the military and the AFM, so they could have new music to listen to. The V-DISCS of artists such as Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington are priceless documents, capturing a period not available on commercial discs. It was the longest such strike in the history of American entertainment, and it affected the music scene in a negative (IMHO) way in that it brought pop vocalists to the fore (they weren’t AFM members) because they could be recorded without big bands behind them (with a vocal group). The result was that instead of having big-band records where the singer got merely one chorus, a “vocal refrain” as it was called, the records were then built around the vocalists. When the strike ended, that change in emphasis became permanent. Also, the earliest days of be-bop were not as adequately documented as they would have been without a strike. The strike was resolved fully in 1944, though in late 1947, a second recording ban was implemented by the AFM/Petrillo in response to the Taft-Hartley Act. This strike would begin at midnight on January 1, 1948.

In response to the oncoming recording ban, many labels began to stockpile material in the later months of 1947–that way, they’d have enough material to issue while the strike was on. Modern was particularly aggressive with this approach, and what the geniuses at Ace have done with this 2-CD set is to take material from the two weeks before the ban, rescued from the original session acetates, and make you, the listener, a fly on the wall during this hectic period of stockpiling. The material is in the order of recording, and only FIVE of the 49 tracks here were originally issued as Modern 78 rpm records, with a few more appearing on other ACE cd’s. The rest are different takes or in some cases entirely new songs. As usual for material coming direct from Modern acetates as restored and remastered by Ace, the sound is loud, clear, and full, sounding like you are in the room with the musicians. This album has been a joy for me to listen to since it came out in 2013. Let’s take a look at the contents:

THE EBONAIRES are a vocal group whom you could put on the same shelf as Steve Gibson’s FIVE RED CAPS or a secular version of the GOLDEN GATE QUARTET, one of those pre-Orioles vocal groups that came after the Ink Spots.

HADDA BROOKS was the first lady of Modern, and well-represented on ACE CD’s, as she ought to be. The classically-trained Brooks was the prototype for the many African-American female pianist-vocalists who specialized in both sultry torch songs and boogie woogie instrumentals, often based on classical themes (Camille Howard, who recorded for Specialty, is another fine artist in that vein, featured on a few Billy Vera-curated compilation albums). Brooks was really something special, and I really can’t imagine anyone into any kind of music not enjoying her work. It really transcends genre. Her phrasing as a singer is exquisite, her understated approach and subtle shading, and of course her combination of sexiness and “class” still work their magic today. Her 13 tracks here, though many are alternates, are a joy. Even a random take that was not issued of a standard such as “I Can’t Get Started” or “I’ll Get By” is a gem. I wish I’d had a chance to see Ms. Brooks live….she had a late-period career revival and was still in excellent form…and tell her how much pleasure I’ve gotten over the decades from her work. Fortunately, many others did get that chance, and I’m glad that when Brooks passed away, she was widely revered and the subject of many articles and tributes. There’s also a nice compilation of her post-Modern early 50’s recordings for OKEH on US Columbia called JUMP BACK HONEY: THE COMPLETE OKEH SESSIONS, which I see is going for as low as $2.50 on Discogs!

AL “CAKE” WICHARD was a drummer and bandleader who ran sessions for Modern and also recorded under his own name. In interviews, Jimmy Witherspoon has mentioned how Wichard contracted his own Modern sessions. His 12 tracks here, many featuring Witherspoon (or Duke Henderson), are  prime west coast R&B. His Ace CD (see pic below) is a must—-in fact, if you bought only one Ace CD of Modern’s family of labels and it was not by BB King, Jimmy Witherspoon, or Hadda Brooks, I’d say go for the Al Cake Wichard compilation–it’s one first-rate jump blues classic after another and it’s got a lot of Jimmy Witherspoon.

GENE PHILLIPS (see pic below) was a fine guitarist (with a unique tone and technique, who bent notes in the style of Andy Kirk’s guitarist Floyd Smith) and singer-songwriter who wrote catchy, earthy, witty songs about big-legged women, fish, and drinking that must have gone over very well in the clubs of Central Avenue and certainly always put a smile on my face at home or in the car. Ace offers two other CD’s of Phillips material, and they are highly recommended.

LITTLE WILLIE JACKSON was the alto saxophonist with Joe Liggins (The Honeydripper) band, and since Liggins was under contract elsewhere, Modern got him for some sessions and he brought much of the Liggins band with him. ACE issued a CD of Jackson material, which I have, and enjoy, and fans of Liggins will enjoy this material. He’s got a somewhat rubbery tone not unlike Louis Jordan, and his 3 tracks (all first takes of songs on the Jackson CD in later, issued takes) all swing…on slower material he has the rich sound of an Earl Bostic.

The ART SHACKLEFORD SEXTETTE, one of the two white artists included here, reminded me of some of Spade Cooley’s more swinging small groups, which lacked the cloying string sections Cooley loved and featured what Spade might have called “take-off solos” and a footing in post-swing jazz. The west coast was a hotbed of this kind of thing, and it’s no surprise Modern wanted a piece of it. A little online research showed me that Shackleford’s records were marketed to the Western Swing crowd, and those who favored the SWING over the western side of that enjoy these Shackleford sides as much as I do.

BUTCH STONE & HIS ORCHESTRA…. Stone was a regular with the Les Brown Band (best known to people of my age group as Bob Hope’s bandleader for decades), so his music is rooted in the Swing era, though here is doing R&B material, or should I say material in an R&B tinged vein. If you can imagine a pared-down version of, say, Bob Crosby’s band working in the late 40’s doing material with a Johnny Mercer-style vocalist who enjoyed Fats Waller, you should have no problem with this material. Is it pure R&B? No, of course not, but it does swing and only a purist could object to it. Some reviewers did not care for this material being on this album–I can understand where they are coming from, but it certainly fits into the mosaic of what Modern was recording in late 1947…and you can always skip it. Though Stone is not channeling Louis Prima here, Prima fans will dig these tracks. I’d guess Stone was a good nightclub performer, as he can take an overdone standard like “Baby Face” and do a jive version of it that brings a smile to one’s face.

MADAM IRA MAE LITTLEJOHN is a Gospel singer, and six of her recordings appear here, closing the album. The liner notes don’t identify if she is on piano or guitar, but she’ll remind many of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, with her raw and sanctified vocals. The blues-drenched guitar and piano accompaniment frames her delivery perfectly, and these tracks are the perfect way to end what is in many ways a perfect album, a wonderful way to spend two hours. Madam Littlejohn is also featured on the excellent Ace CD compilation GET ON BOARD LITTLE CHILDREN: THE ‘MODERN’ GOSPEL RECORDINGS.

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GENE  PHILLIPS

 

Ace has not been issuing as much material from the Modern/Kent/Flair/RPM/Crown vaults as they used to. Of course, much of the prime material has been issued, but one wonders if this kind of material does not sell as well as the soul and 60’s rock and roll reissues that Ace continues to put out. I can think of a lot of material not  yet issued by Ace, some of which as come out on Japanese “P-Vine” collections devoted to the labels. I guess this gives me something to look forward to in future years.

Until then, this 2-CD collection is a brilliant way to mine the rich vein that was Modern Records, run by the great Bihari Brothers, in late 1947. If they want to go back a few more weeks and cover sessions from October and November 1947, right before these sessions, and handle it in the same way they handled these, I’ll certainly buy a copy!

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AL “CAKE” WICHARD‘s band, see below for the Ace CD devoted to Wichard… Cake is the drummer and was a contractor/leader of many Modern sessions

wichard

modern

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