“You gotta go where you wanna go, do what you wanna do, with whoever you want to do it with…” From their very first single, 1966’s “Go Where You Wanna Go,” The Mamas and the Papas spread their singular brand of California sunshine. The group’s songs espoused the up-to-the-minute virtues of freedom and liberation at a time of seismic cultural change, yet despite capturing the ethos of the 1960s those songs remain as vibrant and timely today as ever. Real Gone has recently brought together every one of the group’s singles together with the solo ABC/Dunhill 45s from John, Denny and Cass for a comprehensive 50th anniversary celebration. The Complete Singles (RGM-0418) has 53 rare singles in their original, long out-of-print mixes – and other than five of those solo tracks, every song is in mono.
John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot’s first LP was titled If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears; indeed, the Mamas and the Papas didn’t look or sound like any group that had come before. In Papa John, they had a prodigiously talented, prolific songwriter and vocal arranger who could turn offstage dramas into universally accessible musical gold. His wife Michelle brought ethereal beauty and a sweetness to the vocal blend that was one part mellow and one part pure rock-and-roll. Denny had a perfect pop instrument, clarion and strong. Cass had a stunning voice every as bit as strong, powerful, charismatic and confident as her larger-than-life frame and persona. When the foursome linked their voices in tight harmony developed in their folk-singing days, they delivered a blend that was almost familial.
The breadth of the group’s talent shines on The Complete Singles. Aided by producer Lou Adler, engineer Bones Howe, arranger Marty Paich, and the studio veterans of the Los Angeles Wrecking Crew (including Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel and Joe Osborn), among others, The Mamas and the Papas’ 45s were eclectic as well as electric. The era-defining “California Dreamin'” remains both haunting and infectious; “Monday, Monday” marries an idiosyncratic lyric to a soaring pop melody with a dash of baroque splendor. Phillips turned autobiography into art with tracks like the musically-ebullient “I Saw Her Again” (based on Denny and Michelle’s romantic liaison) and the bouncy story-of-the-band “Creeque Alley.” The singles showcased the group’s various sides, from the hypnotic “Got a Feelin'” to the tight, ’50s-inspired vocal jazz of the brief “Once Upon a Time I Thought.” Cass’ most full-voiced Broadway belt exploded on the vaudeville-flavored “Words of Love,” while Michelle’s gentility added to the haunting quality of “Safe in My Garden.” Other singles came from the Motown and Rodgers and Hart songbook, but all were unmistakably the sound of The Mamas and the Papas.
The group’s inner turmoil led to its dissolution at the beginning of 1969, though contractual obligations would result in an underrated 1971 reunion for the album People Like Us. Happily, The Complete Singles features numerous solo singles from John, Denny and Cass; in fact, the sixteen cuts from Mama Cass (including the optimistic, inspirational trio of tunes from songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” “It’s Getting Better,” and “New World Coming”) could stand alone as a fine release! But the real thrill here is the first-time premiere of so many tracks on CD in their unique single mixes. (The majority of the tracks here are new to CD.) “Creeque Alley,” “I Saw Her Again,” “Words of Love” and several others have prominent variations in mono; these variations are detailed in Ed Osborne’s liner notes which draw on a new interview with Mama Michelle. A compilation such as this has long been thought impossible due to many missing tapes, yet the Real Gone team led by remastering engineer Aaron Kannowski has tracked down the best possible sources for remarkably strong sound that’s always faithful to the original 45 RPM singles. The Mamas and the Papas’ The Complete Singles: 50th Anniversary Collection is a nostalgic trip back for fans who have long been craving the CD release of the original single versions; its’s also a stellar and comprehensive introduction to one of the finest vocal groups of the 1960s – or any other era.
If King Curtis never became a household name, his music certainly did. The late saxophone great provided the indelible riffs for Coasters hits like “Charlie Brown” and “Yakety Yak,” and recorded a string of acclaimed albums from the late 1950s through the early 1970s including the hit Plays the Memphis Hits (1967) and Live at the Fillmore West (1971), culled from his performances at the fabled venue with Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. Real Gone has recently paid tribute to the King (real name: Curtis Ousley) with the most comprehensive collection ever of his classic recordings. The 3-CD set The Complete Atco Singles (RGM-0413) boasts 66 tracks, many of which are fiendishly rare and more than a third of which never appeared on a King Curtis album during his sadly-curtailed lifetime.
The collection features all of the 45 RPM releases from King Curtis’ two Atlantic/Atco tenures: 1958-1959 and 1965-1971. (In between, he recorded for labels big and small including Capitol, Enjoy, Prestige, and Tru-Sound.) The repertoire is a blend of standards (“The Birth of the Blues,” “You Made Me Love You”), pop hits (“On Broadway,” “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Ode to Billie Joe”), R&B/soul favorites from Motown to Stax (“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, “You Don’t Miss Your Water”), a smattering of rock (“For What It’s Worth,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale”) and country (“Harper Valley PTA,” “Make the World Go Away”), and original material. What these disparate songs have in common here is Curtis’ often torrid wailing. (Frequently it was on the tenor sax, but he also played alto and soprano.) Though he could (and did) hold his own with jazz greats, Curtis gravitated towards rock-and-roll and R&B, and the young genres were ideal for his sputtering, honking and screaming – yet melodic and accessible -style. Producers and arrangers including Chips Moman, Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler all added their distinctive touches.
The earliest tracks on The Complete Atco Singles touch on styles from swing to rockabilly; Curtis is sinuous on the shimmering, original instrumental gifted him by Leiber and Stoller, 1959’s “Heavenly Blues.” (Another Leiber and Stoller curiosity here is Curtis’ “Spanish Harlem,” with King playing over the original Ben E. King backing track.) Curtis often worked best when playing off a guitar; his “Restless Guitar” (the B-side to that Leiber and Stoller tune) could only hint, however, at the fireworks that would emerge when he teamed with Duane Allman and Eric Clapton, not to mention Memphis’ famed guitarist Reggie Young.
The Memphis R&B style became associated with King Curtis; The Great Memphis Hits (actually featuring the Alabama musicians of Muscle Shoals as recorded in New York, but no matter) became his first charting LP on the Billboard 200 in 1967. Four songs from the album appear here in their 45 RPM versions including the hits “Jump Back” (No. 63) and “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (No. 105) and B-side covers of “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” and “Green Onions.” Curtis began a winning streak that continued with albums like King Size Soul (featuring the indelible “Memphis Soul Stew” and a version of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” that shared space on the pop chart with the original), Sweet Soul (which teamed him with the American Studios session crew) and Instant Groove. The latter boasted the guitar of Duane Allman on four tracks including both sides of the first single, “Games People Play” b/w “Foot Pattin’ Part II.” The A-side snatched Curtis a Grammy in 1969 for Best R&B Instrumental Performance.
Curtis’ remarkable versatility is in evidence throughout these three discs on ballads and funky uptempo workouts alike. He’s effortlessly smoky yet rhythmic on “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” smoothly tender on “(Theme From) Valley of the Dolls” and languid on “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” But when he cuts loose on a brassy “I Was Made to Love Her” or a hard-driving take on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” (a No. 64 Pop/No. 43 R&B hit) there’s no doubt that he could bring power, conviction and imagination to any song he chose.
Real Gone’s collection is attractively housed in a digipak and features liner notes by historian Randy Poe. Mike Milchner has remastered all tracks from the original Atlantic/Atco masters; one previously unreleased single (“Ridin’ Thumb” Parts I and II) was unearthed during tape research and makes its premiere on this set. As on the Mamas and the Papas set for Dunhill, original Atco labels have been replicated on the discs by designer Tom Kline. King Curtis was tragically murdered outside his New York home in 1971, but his legacy of sweet and storming soul music lives on with this essential release.
Early in 2015, Real Gone released one of the year’s most significant finds for fans of classic vocal pop with Peggy Lee’s At Last: The Lost Radio Recordings. The label has more recently issued a worthy successor in the form of Nat “King” Cole’s Stardust: The Rare Television Performances (RGM-0412). 26 of the 35 songs spread across its 2 CDs are culled from Cole’s 1957 Nat King Cole Show, originally broadcast on NBC. The remaining tracks comprise The Mobil Limb Performances from Sydney, Australia in 1963. (The show was named for host Bobby Limb.) As with the Peggy Lee set, numerous songs here were never recorded commercially by the artist, making this package a must-have for connoisseurs of The Great American Songbook.
The artist’s co-conspirator on most of the television performances is the one and only Nelson Riddle, clearly at the top of his game as he reinvents “Button Up Your Overcoat” in brassy, swinging style or takes on four songs orchestrated by Gordon Jenkins for Cole’s chart-topping album Love is the Thing. Jenkins was perhaps the finest string arranger in pop history; Riddle reimagines “Maybe It’s Because I Love You Too Much,” “I Thought About Marie,” “It’s All in the Game” and title track “Stardust” with horns and winds. The atmospheric, saloon orchestration for “My One Sin” is consummate Riddle; a couple of charts by the great Billy May also appear: the piano-driven, beat-heavy “With You on My Mind” (featuring the accompaniment of The Randy Van Horne Singers) and the brassy ballad “Once in a While.”
Cole’s velvet croon and gift for lush balladry and romance is in evidence here on standards including “The Nearness of You” and “My Heart Stood Still,” neither of which were ever recorded by Cole as a vocalist with orchestra in the studio. (He had recorded “My Heart” as a pianist. Riddle’s work here anticipates his magnificent, stately recording a few years later with Frank Sinatra for the Chairman’s The Concert Sinatra album.) His rich, warm and expressive style proves just as remarkable as he pays homage to the young Johnny Mathis with the latter’s hit “It’s Not for Me to Say.” Cole has fun with a Latin-tinged rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Am in Love,” the novelty “When Rock and Roll Came to Trinidad” and a goofy, rock-and-roll spin on “Beer Barrel Polka.” He’s bright and vibrant on the Gershwins’ showtune “Love is Sweeping the Country.”
Though perhaps better-known as a vocalist, Cole was a top-notch jazz pianist; he returns to his roots on “Sweet Lorraine,” accompanied by a younger future legend of the keys – Oscar Peterson – plus Peterson’s Trio and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. (Coleman and Nat had recorded “Lorraine” together a decade earlier, with Nat on piano.) Peterson and Hawkins aren’t the only guests here; Broadway star Lisa Kirk (Kiss Me Kate, Mack and Mabel) shows up with Jimmie Komack on a loose “C’est Si Bon,” and old friend Billy Eckstine joins his voice with Nat’s on “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and “Rosetta,” both of which show off their easygoing rapport. Nat also tickled the ivories on “Life,” while Billy played an unusual trumpet called the jazzophone on “Rosetta.” (Other guests on the show included Sammy Davis Jr., Mel Tormé, Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte, Margaret Whiting, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald!)
The Mobil Limb Show performance of February 15, 1963, again, has Cole in top form as an interpreter if his tone is a bit huskier than on the earlier tracks. He swings hard on Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ “The Way You Look Tonight,” a song which many would be surprised to know he never recorded at Capitol. (He did record an instrumental in the 1940s, before his ascent as a vocal superstar.) On the show, he also tackled recent and older hits such as “Too Young,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Ramblin’ Rose” as well as “When I Fall in Love” which wasn’t released stateside as a single but remains associated with Cole to this day. These performances, arranged by Charles Albertine, Frank Como, Billy May, Ralph Carmichael and Belford Hendricks – show how Cole’s sound had evolved, taking in influences of light country and R&B in addition to pop and jazz. His command of the keys is evident on a fleet, piano-led instrumental of “Where or When.”
Stardust: The Rare Television Performances presents these tracks in better sound than on any previous unofficial release; though not of studio quality, they have been restored optimally by Mike Milchner at SonicVision. There are a few awkward edits and transitions here, but the strength of the performances makes this set indispensable for the collector. Jordan Taylor’s liner notes add welcome detail to the package. Indeed, one can only hope a second volume will follow with even more stardust from Nat “King” Cole, a truly legendary performer.
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