Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

July 28, 2020

Floyd Cramer, “Night Train,” RCA-Camden LP, released 1967

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FLOYD CRAMER, “Night Train,” 1967 RCA-Camden LP

A1   Night Train 3:00
A2   Half As Much 2:47
A3   Theme From A Dream 2:30
A4   Long Walk Home 2:21
A5   Secrets 2:35
B1   Woodchopper’s Ball 2:48
B2   Town Square 1:58
B3   On A Fling Ding 2:00
B4   Shaggy Bop 1:54
B5   Want Me 2:15

 

floyd

Good old-style thrift stores/junk stores have gone the way of real rock’n’roll—-they’re still out there, but harder to find….and when you do find them, they are often corrupted by the commercialism and pretentiousness of the present day and the evil influence of Ebay. If anyone is a thrift store musical artist, it’s pianist Floyd Cramer (although based on my excursions in the last two years, Billy Vaughn wears the crown of most-common thrift store LP artist!).When I was in Central Louisiana a few years ago, catching the horse races at Evangeline Downs, I explored the small towns in the area and stumbled across a junk store that did not have much worthwhile, especially the record section, which was mostly trashed copies of things like SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER or Neil Diamond. The sole good thing I saw was about 20-25 Floyd Cramer albums, all in what could charitably be called VG condition and all for two dollars each! As I was traveling and as I am gradually selling off most non-essential items in my record collection, I decided to pass on them….except for one, an album that I owned back in the 80’s (and got for 99 cents) and had clear memories of, NIGHT TRAIN.

If you are not familiar with country pianist Floyd Cramer, he was one of the two most popular piano instrumentalists (as opposed to pianists who also sang, like Moon Mullican or Charlie Rich or Jerry Lee Lewis and his cousin Mickey Gilley) in country music, the other being Del Wood, a lady who played in a kind of honky-tonk/ragtime style. Cramer, on the other hand, had an instantly identifiable “slip note” style, which had him playing the melody of a song (and it was all about melody on a Cramer record!) in a relatively straight-forward manner, but with many of the notes he played, particularly at climactic moments, he’d “slip in” a second note a few steps away from the main note maybe a half second after the first note. If you can’t imagine that, just go to You Tube and search for his song “Last Date.” By the end of the first thirty seconds, you’ll know whether you like that style or not. Like many musical artists with a gimmick, Cramer brought that gimmick to MANY albums. If you liked his style, then obviously, you’d LOVE to hear it applied to your favorite country and pop hits. I would guess that during his heyday, from the late 50’s through the late 70’s, he probably recorded 3-4 albums a year, and that’s not counting re-packaged items and budget-label product, such as the album under review today. Much of Cramer’s output would be put in the “easy listening” category, if no one told you that it was considered “country.” Cramer was actually a fine player, a crack session musician (he’d been house pianist at the Louisiana Hayride!), and he appeared on many of Elvis Presley’s best Nashville sessions, but the “slip note” gimmick was what made him famous, and he continued to deliver the goods album after album after album…and many of those albums, at least for the first decade or so, were produced by Chet Atkins, who was doing a similar thing on his guitar instrumental albums.

Camden was RCA’s budget label, and to save on mechanical royalties, their albums usually offered only 10 songs as opposed to 12. Camden was used by RCA to reissue older material that might not sell at full price anymore, but would sell at department stores for 99 cents (mono) or $1.99 (stereo) to the kind of people who did not frequent record stores but enjoyed a new album now and then by a familiar name. It was also used to create albums of material by popular artists who had tracks that fell between the cracks–many of Elvis’ soundtrack songs from movies that did not have enough songs to create a soundtrack album would wind up on Camden LP’s for their initial release (if an EP was not issued), though Camden also issued new material among the re-treads. In perhaps the most outrageous example of that, Elvis’ smash hit Burning Love was first issued on a BUDGET album after its success as a single. It could have become the core of a successful full-price album, but Colonel Parker got a lump sum for each Camden album and was not a man who thought about long-term strategy.

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NIGHT TRAIN would seem to be an album full of tracks that fell between those cracks. Many of the Cramer albums I’ve heard had a theme to them, or at least a consistent sound throughout the album. This one does not. If Discogs is to be trusted (sorry, but I don’t know the Cramer discography intimately, although I’ve probably owned a dozen of his albums over the years and maybe 6 or 7 singles), the majority of the tracks were first released here, with a few tracks coming from a 1965 album and another track being a non-LP b-side, the album closer, WANT ME (see pic).

The album is an odd mixture of various styles. It opens promisingly with a cover of the R&B classic “Night Train”, which is performed in a crime-jazz style, and you could imagine Craig Stevens strutting down a dark alley at 2 a.m. in a PETER GUNN episode while it played. The second track is in the classic Cramer style, its first notes echoing “Last Date,” and it’s a cover of the country classic “Half As Much,” associated with Hank Williams. It’s got the light frosting of strings and ohh-ing and ahh-ing backing vocals that one expects in the “country-politan” style of the day, a sound very much associated with Cramer’s producer and good friend Chet Atkins. The next song, “Theme From A Dream,” sounds like a direct carbon-copy of the Duane Eddy style, but with the plonk of Cramer’s piano substituting for Eddy’s guitar twang. The military drumming and vaguely “western panorama” feel of the piece certainly evoke Eddy, and in case the listener is too pre-occupied with cooking dinner to make the connection, there are a few guitar “twangs” tucked into the mix. The next song, “Long Walk Home,” sounds like it could be the theme song from some TV-movie mystery, circa 1971, starring Gene Barry and Yvette Mimieux–I can see some stylish mansion, with a dead body draped over an ornate writing desk in the plush study, stumbled across by Mimieux at 3 a.m. She pauses, her jaw drops, the film’s title appears on the screen, and the Cramer musical theme starts playing. Etc. Etc.

Every song on the album is atmospheric in one way or another. It’s the perfect piece of thrift store vinyl, (and speaking of Discogs, I see you can STILL get a copy for 99 cents), kind of the music equivalent of the cheapo comic books I often review here. Someone probably enjoyed this dollar album for 20 years, playing it hundreds of times while frying up pork chops, dusting the living room furniture, or balancing the checkbook right before payday. Now YOU can get that copy yourself, and you can let it be the soundtrack to YOUR life activities. I can’t really call this a “lounge” album, but it certainly qualifies as easy listening, and it’s got everything that’s great about thrift-store LP’s. Cramer was born in Shreveport, a great music town, and passed away in 1997. He explained his slip-note style this way: “”The style I use mainly is a whole-tone slur which gives more of a lonesome cowboy sound. You hit a note and slide almost simultaneously to another.” His last chart hit was in 1980, a cover of the theme from the TV show DALLAS, which somehow seems fitting. Getting a thrift-store LP is like seeing a film at the dollar theater….your expectations change and you’re open to a wider variety of expression, finding the valuable in what others look down their noses at. Ahhhh, but it’s their loss. Floyd Cramer’s NIGHT TRAIN LP will be the best 99 cents you’ll ever spend….and if you’re lucky, you might even score the 8-track tape version of it (see pic).

floyd 2

July 3, 2020

Elvis Presley, “Almost In Love” (Camden, originally released in 1970)

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elvis almost

ELVIS PRESLEY

“ALMOST IN LOVE”   Camden Records (RCA’s budget subsidiary), originally issued in 1970

I own a 1985 cassette (pictured above), on the Camden label but licensed to “Special Music Company,” a major player in the 80’s/90’s budget-label world, especially with cassette tapes.

special music

You could find stacks of their releases, usually for $1.99 or so, at gas stations, convenience stores, supermarkets, etc. I picked this one up in the dollar bin at a used record store in Roanoke, Virginia, in the mid-to-late 1980’s. The great thing about the Elvis budget LP’s on Camden is that they often have a wide variety of then-uncommon deep-cuts from Elvis’ large catalogue of songs, an odd mix of movie songs from films that did not have soundtrack LP’s (some actually getting their first release anyplace on these budget albums), B-sides of singles, and oddball combinations of things going back to the Sun era. These albums certainly showed off Elvis’ versatility as an artist, and to isolated fans in the hinterlands (as I was at varying times), they were even more interesting and satisfying than the better-known, mainstream albums. Let’s be honest….some of Elvis’s 1970’s studio and live albums were not great, and with Camden budget albums selling for half of what a full-price new album on RCA would, it’s not hard to see why these albums full of lesser-known material sold so well, often better than the “new” releases.

These Camden budget albums also had incredible staying power. Discogs lists 48 (!!!!) release variations since 1970 on LP/cassette/8-track/CD, and the album has never been out of print. You can still buy it on CD today, RCA keeps it in print, and I have seen that budget CD at gas station convenience stores here in Texas in the last ten years. Prior to the license with Special Music, ALMOST IN LOVE was sub-licensed to Pickwick in the 1970’s, and who knows how many tens of thousands of copies that cassette sold at the K-Marts of the South and Midwest. For you 8-track fans out there, I’ve put a scan of the Canadian Pickwick 8-track release at the bottom of this post (and as often happens with that format, the songs are in a different running order than on any other format’s version of the album).

elvis almost 2

The music on ALMOST IN LOVE is an amazing assemblage of what was probably considered throwaway filler at the time, but as the Elvis Information Network has observed, it  “looks far stronger now than it did when it came out.” I can’t imagine anyone with an unbiased set of ears listening to this album and not concluding that, at minimum, Elvis Presley was a versatile artist capable of an amazingly eclectic set of performances…and most of this material came from within a 2-3 year period.

Let’s take a look at what’s on here:

1 Almost In Love, from LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE, Elvis’s oddest feature film, this is a bossa nova ballad, co-composed by Luis Bonfa, and is Elvis at his most lounge-iest ever.

2 Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On) , from DOUBLE TROUBLE, is a furious rocker that starts off in high-gear and features a sizzling fuzz-tone guitar dueling it out with Elvis….it’s also one of his shortest-ever singles, clocking in at 1:29. It reached #63 on the charts and sold 250,000+ copies. Yes, it’s a tossed-off throw-together with lyrics like a laundry list, but it rocks, it sizzles, and it’s over before you know it. Most people’s reaction, when the single was over, would be to ask, “what the heck was that?” I saw Double Trouble at a cheapo theater on a triple Elvis bill circa 1969, and I LOVED this song. Its presentation in the film makes it even more surreal.

elvis long legged
3 Edge Of Reality, also from LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE, was Elvis’s only foray into psychedelia (well, lounge-psychedelia), and in the film it actually appears in a freak-out sequence!
4 My Little Friend was the B-side of Elvis’s hit single “Kentucky Rain” and NOT a film song. No less than Julian Cope rhapsodized about the song, so let me turn this over to him: “The country-soul flavoured ‘My Little Friend’ is an overlooked gem from the prolific 1969 Memphis sessions which produced the albums ‘From Elvis In Memphis’ and ‘Back In Memphis’ as well as classic singles such as ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘Kentucky Rain’. It appeared on the b-side of the latter, with which it shares a pained vocal style and an incisive arrangement. The piano player and backing singers are content to take a backseat for the most part, giving maximum impact to their strategically-placed contributions. Elvis’s tone of voice is perfectly complemented by the string and horn sections which lurk unnervingly in the left channel, waiting for gaps in the vocal which they fill with bursts of spiky melodicism. It’s a genuinely inspired piece of work which proves that the King didn’t surround himself with mere hacks. And what an amazing opening line: ‘My warped and worried mind resorts to wandering off to ponder things I never talk about.”
5 A Little Less Conversation
6 Rubberneckin’
7 Clean Up Your Own Back Yard
8 U.S. Male  Tracks 5-8 present Elvis at his re-energized country-funk best circa 1968, and getting all these first-rate tracks from obscure 45’s on one album, and a budget album at that, was undoubtedly an exciting experience for the many who bought this album. Of course, tracks 5 & 6 became huge posthumous hits for The King in remixed versions, and may well be among the best-known Elvis songs for those under 30 today. These four tracks are the same Elvis who appeared in the black leather suit in the 1968 comeback TV special, and that period was certainly one of this best-ever periods, when he pulled it all together after too many years in the Hollywood film-soundtrack world.

charro_47-9731
9 Charro  The title song from Elvis’s 1968 film, an Americanized faux-Spaghetti Western a la Hang Em High, was the only song in the film. It’s a rich western ballad and started the film off on a good foot. The film Charro has never been a critics’ favorite, though I remember it playing for a year or more on the drive-in circuit, surfacing as a second feature with other National General releases and on Elvis multi-film bills. It was an auteur film for Charles Marquis Warren (originally a protege of F. Scott Fitzgerald, believe it or not, during FSF’s “Pat Hobby” period), who’d done a number of films for Lippert Pictures 15 years earlier. Many Italian Westerns started off with a moody “loner ballad” to set the tone of the film (I can hear about a dozen of them in my head as I’m typing this), and Charro did that very well and was a true prize on this album.

stayaway_47-9465
10 Stay Away  is not the song “Stay Away Joe” (my choice for Elvis’s worst film), although some early pressings of the album DID include that performance. No, this is a rewrite of the melody of “Greensleeves” which appeared as the B-side to U.S. Male. It’s a jaunty song that’s also quite moody and it’s powered along by acoustic guitars and strings and emphatic, fast-paced percussion and later shimmering piano that give it a unique flavor.

elvis 4

One critic, in a book called THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM: LISTENING TO MEDIA, in a very perceptive section devoted to Elvis’s Camden albums (which I just stumbled across as I was finishing up writing this piece), describes them as “a kind of proto-rarities compilation, a genre of album taken up by labels to head off bootleggers….not unlike the bootleg, the Elvis budget albums present an alternative view of the central image crafted and re-adjusted by RCA and Elvis’s management.”

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Of course, the Camden albums got Colonel Parker a 50/50 cut with Elvis from RCA, much higher than his usual cut on RCA royalties, so the Colonel was motivated to create a number of these albums. A quick advance payment of a few hundred-thousand dollars for each album was nothing to sneeze at, and Elvis didn’t have to DO anything he hadn’t already done for one of these albums to enter the marketplace. Also, they appeared at retailers (usually NOT at record stores, but other kind of stores, getting even wider traction than a “normal” release) across the nation at affordable prices ($1.98 or $2.98), so they were essentially keeping the “brand” alive and visible.

It was a win-win situation for artist, manager, label, and the Elvis fans who bought the albums because they were getting wonderful collections of obscure material, most of a high quality and especially a wide variety of music on each one, even though they usually ran 25 minutes or so, containing only 10 tracks. The Camden albums are an important part of Elvis’s recorded legacy, and even though all this material has since been compiled into meaningful compilations with exhaustive liner notes and finally properly contextualized, the randomness of the Camden albums is one of their strengths. It’s like dipping  your ladle into a pot of gumbo, where you have no idea what ingredients its maker put into it, and getting both a big surprise and an amazing and satisfying meal. And of course, as with an 8-track, it’s always better on cassette tape. I’m glad I still own and listen to mine….50 years after the album’s initial release!

elvis almost 8track

 

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