Reissue City: 2021
By Bill Bentley
With the advent of Compact Discs in the mid-1980s, it seems like the reissue business became a roaring behemoth in the music biosphere. The tsunami of releases turned the pricey box sets into a brand new division of many record labels, and listeners had a chance to live in whatever past glory suited their musical tastes. But now that streaming services have marginalized the sale of new albums, except for those expensive vinyl slabs, it’s like there’s a whole new ballgame happening in whatever record stores can still be found. But in a way that’s okay, because at least some deserving music gets a second chance at finding an audience, and all the unreleased tapes that had been sitting in dusty boxes somewhere might get a chance at life. Here’s ten releases that grabbed my ears and eyes, and even if some aren’t really reissues because they’d never actually come out before, they’re still from the somewhat distant past and deserve a shout-out now. Happy listening–and New Year!
Grateful Dead, Dave’s Picks Volume 38: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Uniondale, NY – 9/7/73. This bonus disc comes with the 3-CD Grateful Dead decathlon called Dave’s Picks Volume 38 that was recorded the next night at the Nassau Coliseum near New York City. All the music from this era was signaling how the Grateful Dead were moving forward. Keyboardist Keith Godchaux had been added to the position, and was bringing a brand new sound into the swirling Dead mix that was almost orchestral at times. And always welcome. Godchaux was a real player. The band was back from the overseas romp that was so ably shared on their EUROPE ’72 vinyl three-fer, and it seemed like all systems were go with a satchel of new songs. Vocalist and semi-organist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan wasn’t really part of the touring outfit then, or at least he wasn’t in the best physical shape to carry his load, and Donna Godchaux had joined as a much-valued singer on many of the songs. On this extra disc, the eight tracks are a gorgeous example of Grateful Dead.2. The boys were going places. And like many of the band’s live releases, which seem like there have been hundreds and hundreds, there is always a single song that the mind lasers in on and can’t seem to live without. On this set, it’s “Eyes of the World,” soon spotlighted on the WAKE OF THE FLOOD LP that was the first release on the group’s own Round Records, the band’s short-lived visionary imprint that didn’t really work. How could the Grateful Dead ever run their own record label, but that’s for a whole different discussion. For “Eyes of the World,” it’s the kind of recording that captures their psychic fancy on first listen and then just grows and grows over the years. There is such an essence of infinity on everything about the song — from the cosmic lyrics to the galloping rhythm to Garcia’s majestic lead guitar solos and Godchaux’s savvy piano playing — it’s a Dead high point that feels like a sonic talisman. On lyrics like “Sometimes we ride on your horses / sometimes we walk alone / sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own” spreading the Grateful Dead’s infinite glow across the sky, life opens up. For those who will always have a grateful compartment in their heart for the ultimate hippie house band, here is yet another live set to slip inside. The Dead forever.
George Harrison, All Things Must Pass 50th Anniversary. There are a few dozen rock records that deserve the kind of reissue program that literally calls for trees to be cut down to build wooden boxes to put them in. Okay: maybe a dozen. In so many ways George Harrison’s ALL THINGS MUST PASS collection is one of them. First, because for so many years Harrison took a backseat in The Beatles to Paul McCartney and John Lennon. He was younger, and was never really seen as their songwriting equal. Which was a totally unfair opinion, but one hard to change as the band got more and more gargantuan. So when it came time as the Seventies started, who would have thought it could be “the silent Beatle” who would steal the artistic and commercial thunder away from the other lads with his debut solo apex ALL THINGS MUST PASS. But that’s exactly what Harrison did. For this 50th anniversary blowout of that album, everything that could possibly be done to celebrate it has been done, down to the wooden box and the 96-page booklet. And let’s not leave out one boxed version that includes some replica gnomes of the ones that could be found in Harrison’s English garden. Really. Why not? There definitely won’t be another Beatles, nor will there be a celebrated album like this to be memorialized to the hilt. Everything is remixed, remastered, reverberated, rejuvenated and reborn. There is a total sense of joy behind it all too, much of it guided by wife and son Olivia and Dhani Harrison, and their loving hand is clearly at the wheel for the whole ride. In a way, this might be a capping event to the whole reissue phenomenon. It’s hard to perceive how the ultra-primo version of Harrison’s masterpiece can be bested. Unless, of course, the Harrisons themselves deliver it to the doorsteps of lucky buyers. But maybe stay tuned to amazon.com for future details, beamed in personally from Jeff Bezos just beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, in case a purchase from his ubersite includes a trip into space with the Harrisons. Film at 11.
Hasaan Ibn Ali, Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings. What’s the famous phrase about elusiveness: “An enigma wrapped in a riddle…” Or something like that. It describes pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali to a T. Known in the most exclusive of musical circles during the 1960s in Philadelphia, Ibn Ali had begun playing in the late 1940s and built a small but devoted following all through the ‘50s, but somehow had fallen out of attention for a few years before recording an album for Atlantic Records with Max Roach in 1965. Later that year he made his own release for Atlantic Records, which promptly disappeared. A new resurgence for Hasaan Ibn Ali’s music began when those tapes were discovered in the label’s vaults, eventually resulting in this double-disc collection of the pianist’s most moving and advanced work. It really is astonishing to hear how a musician so emotionally and technically advanced can make recordings of this order, only to have them vaporize before ever seeing the light of day. Luckily, that changed in 2021 and now we can hear some of the most incredible solo piano playing this side of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Ibn Ali takes off on flights of fancy so imbued with velocity it’s really hard to understand how he wasn’t recognized in his own time. Born William Langford, it’s like he was trapped in a zone where he just couldn’t find the way into his own spotlight. Whether playing original stratospheric compositions or so-called standards by Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, Ray Noble and other songwriting heavyweights, the twenty-one songs on RETROSPECTIVE IN RETIREMENT OF DELAY hit like a falling wall. The level of playing itself is in a league of its own, one that surely would have created a rush of excitement if it had been heard when the sessions were initially done. But music, like life itself, sometimes marches in its own time frame and the worthy can be cast aside for no apparent rhyme or reason. Which is exactly where righteous reissues come in: they correct such mind-blowing artistic errors and create a whole new life for achievements never previously known. Now is the time and this is the music to make that happen: Hasaan Ibn Ali.
Trini Lopez, The Rare Reprise Singles. In his own era of the 1960s, Trini Lopez was an artist who broke down barriers and became one of the biggest musical stars in the United States. From his beginnings in the Dallas-based band the Big Beats, the Texan first specialized in instrumentals played in various Lone Star cities, but soon saw a much bigger horizon ahead of him and headed for California. Once there, he came to the attention of Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records and before you could say “La Bamba,” Lopez was in the Top Ten and showing the world a Latin artist could reach the top of the charts. During that time on Reprise he recorded twenty albums from 1963-1969, appeared on all the major television programs and even made it into the movies. He also recorded two dozen non-album singles that are now collected in one place and show the fringes of Trini Lopez’s musical diversity between 1962-1970. And while these aren’t earthshaking stabs at expression, they are by turns rocking and deeply expressive, showing just how dedicated the Texan was to making sure everything he recorded had a groove and a certain greatness to it. From the center of all these songs is the soul of a young man who likely knew he’d boarded the rocketship of pop music by finding a home on Reprise Records during a time when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of their musical brethren were displaying a last glimpse of what music would be before the youth revolution changed the speed limit for it forever. And the good news about Trini Lopez is that he got his groundings in the rock & roll tumble of Texas towns, so was no stranger to wading into the wilderness when he felt like it. It’s as if he was one of the early hybrids of pop and rock, and when he cut loose on songs “Mi Felicidad” and “Let’s Think About Living” or painted the sky blue on Randy Newman’s “Love Story,” it was a given Lopez could walk both sides of the street. Eyes of Texas.
Frankie Miller, High Life. Sometimes the collision of artists from the U.K. with American royalty can explode into real revelation. When Glasgow’s blue-eyed soul brother Frankie Miller found his way to New Orleans to work with super producer Allen Toussaint in 1974, it might have seemed like an odd fit at the time. Miller was a rough and tumble pub rock singer who had not worked too far outside that realm, while Toussaint was still known for all the Crescent City classics he’d created with Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, the Meters and Dr. John. But somehow Miller and Toussaint took to each other like a musical house afire, and on HIGH LIFE made an instant all-timer album. It didn’t hurt that the singer from Scotland possessed a similar soul to Otis Redding, in the best way possible, and had no trouble getting into a Southern groove and working it for all he was worth. As for Toussaint, he heard something so extraordinary in Miller’s voice that he knew he’d stumbled onto a natural treasure. The opening song, after a brief Allen Toussaint intro called “High Life,” is titled “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues),” and still stands high above almost every other song released that year. Toussaint’s naturally funkified take on the bumpity-bump beat that permeates New Orleans like muffalettas and mint juleps, caused natives not only to dance differently but actually walk differently too. The chorus still stands as a testament to everything great about the Crescent City: “Play something sweet play something mellow / play something I can sink my teeth in like Jell-O / play something I can understand / play me some brickyard blues / play something sweet and make it funky / just make me lay back and act like a monkey / play something I can understand / play me some brickyard blues.” That song kicks off an album that is so individualistic it went right by almost the entire American listening populace. Really. It is hard to find anyone who ever heard it all those years ago, much less bought it. But the music has always stood as a testament of what inspirational feelings can really do, which is create their own universe and harbor life outside normalcy. Brilliant Allen Toussaint songs like “A Fool,” “With You in Mind,” “I’ll Take a Melody” and “Shoo-Rah Shoo-Ray” join Miller’s “Trouble,” “Little Angel,” “The Devil’s Gun” and “I’m Falling in Love Again” to live in the rank of any and all timeless albums of the 1970s. Listen and believe.
Charles Mingus, Mingus at Carnegie Hall Deluxe Edition. On January 19, 1974 jazz giant Charles Mingus and his merry band of musical pirates commandeered the stage at Carnegie Hall and may as well have burnt it to the ground their playing was so on fire. It was an evening that will never be forgotten for those fortunate enough to be there. Luckily Columbia Records had the foresight to record the concert, and released a single album edition of the evening. It had the kind of extraterrestrial lift-off like the best jazz albums had, and showed Mingus’ celestial writing prowess as well as this distinctive ability to build a band like very few other leaders could in the 1970s. There was something about this outfit at Carnegie Hall that reeked of greatness. Onboard were musicians George Adams (tenor saxophone); Hamiet Bluiett (baritone saxophone); Roland Kirk (tenor saxophone); Don Pullen (piano); and Dannie Richmond (drums). On two tracks, they were joined by John Handy (tenor saxophone); and Charles McPherson (alto saxophone). And, of course, the man himself Mr. Charles Mingus anchored the evening on his powerful stand-up bass. To say this was an aggregation of the musical spheres is an understatement. Now, after 47 years, the entire evening’s concert has been rightfully released on one set, allowing all those who did not hear every note played at Carnegie Hall that night the exquisite luxury of finally doing so. There is something so swingingly humanistic about these six songs that it is almost impossible to sit still while listening. For starters, longtime drummer Dannie Richmond has once again rejoined the group and every beat he plays is like a sonic catalyst for some seriously supercharged swinging. It has often been claimed that a band can only be as great as their drummer, and Richmond takes the Mingus men to the very top of the stairs. It is such a joyous ride listening to them blast free of gravity and head for the cosmos that it’s hard to say how life can be lived without this sound, one of majesty and humanity blended into one glorious groove. The 1970s were the beginning of the end of the reign for the true American jazz giants, but for a time it seemed like they–and everyone else–would live forever. Charles Mingus had become a legend of music and life by that point, and this night on West 57th Street in New York City shines like some luminous star in the history of the solar system, now available for all to hear and head for the galaxies. What a thrill.
Dusty Springfield, The Complete Atlantic Singles 1968-1971. She might have been born Mary Isobel Catherine O’Brien, but once the woman started going by Dusty Springfield and recording with producers Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd, it’s like an entirely new person emerged in the studio and proceeded to set the world straight with songs like “Son of a Preacher Man,” “Just a Little Lovin’,” “Early in the Morning,” “Breakfast in Bed,” “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” and “Willie & Laura Mae Jones,” it seemed like there was a new higher being on the scene. Springfield’s voice captured the pain of love and life in a way that went beyond sadness straight into the ether of human heartbreak. There was never any thought that this was a party woman who liked to paint the town red. Blue was Springfield’s color of choice, and she was an expert at casting the world in that hurtful mist. Those early records inspired by the Memphis musicians at Chip Moman’s American Sound Studio have glowed in living, breathing beauty for over 50 years now without a single wear or tear in sight. Maybe that’s because Dusty Springfield’s depth of feeling is so profound there is no way for time to touch it. Instead, it just stays in the present and feels like it is breathing right next to the speakers.There are very few singers of either gender who can get close to such purity of emotion, and never seem to go overboard into the red zone on the tape machine. Maybe that’s because Dusty Springfield was a walking ball of anxiety, never quite sure where she belonged in the world, and took those jangly feelings of unsuredness so deep to heart that it all came out in her vocals. This overwhelming collection of her Atlantic Records singles is a serious set for sure, with 11 of the Memphis-inspired songs, and others produced by Gene Dozier and Roland Chambers along with those by the teams Gamble-Huff Productions, Ellie Greenwich & Mike Rashkow and Jeff Barry. And even if Springfield never surpassed her initial efforts with Moman and his cohorts, she never really lost the inner spark that put her at the top then. Instead, she sang like her voice and records would live in their own glow right past the end of time. And they will.
Various Artists, Greg Belson’s Divine Funk: Rare American Gospel Funk and Soul. It’s not hard to spot a reissue collection as being the beloved passion of an unhinged music lover who simply cannot live without compiling a set of songs to express their own unbridled passion for a certain style. Greg Belson lives deep in the sway of American gospel music that hits hard and deep on the souls of real believers, offering them a way to cross the separation line into a spiritual world of downright divinity. With Culture of Souls Records, they have crafted together a dozen selections here that have not been heard by almost the entire human population. The compilation plays out like an incredible surprise that is as heart-pounding as it is unexpected. Who has recently listened to, say, the Chariettes Gospel Singers or Zelia Jackson, or Pearl Farano and the High Lites of Joy or the Wearyland Singers? This indispensable disc lands like a spaceship from another planet, one where the glory of God is the fuel for a chance to step into the realm of funkified visions of eternity. Imagine stumbling into a backwater part of an American center and seeing a house of worship lit up bright and full of the true believers that will always keep gospel music alive. Propelled by modern percussion, chanking guitars and throbbing bass patterns, some of the songs feel like they could be coming from a country not even drawn on maps. Instead, the sound is forward by a secret sauce that might be secreted onto the planet by some special arrangement with the Almighty. Calling it Divine Funk is a visionary tip of the hat to that which cannot be seen, and must be heard to be believed. Needless to say, every one of these singers is a credit to the holy house where they reside. By the time the last song, “I’ve Got a Power in My Mind,” kicks in to take control, there is nothing left but the shouting. Hallelujah arrives tonight.
The Waller Creek Boys featuring Janis Joplin. Now here’s a fairy tale of an album that almost has to be seen and heard to be believed. During 1962 in the definitely still square town of Austin, there was a small contingent of baby beatniks who were pushing the social parameters of the central Texas town the best they could. The contingent were starting to dabble in mind-expanding plants and even thinking about taking up a march or two to try and open the social consciousness of the University of Texas student body. Caution was a given, since the vast majority of students and townspeople didn’t quite see the necessity for those kinds of clearly Communist-driven pursuits. In the corner of this liberal enclave was a trio of musicians who called themselves The Waller Creek Boys. Folk and blues infused for inspiration, guitarist-banjoist Lanny Wiggins, harmonica-vocalist Powell St. John and one Port Arthur-born singer-autoharpist Janis Joplin jumped in with both feet to kick up some musical sand. They played folk sings in the UT Student Union, private parties and impromptu shindigs out in North Austin at Kenneth Threadgill’s combo gas station/beer joint. The Waller Creek Boys didn’t last too long, but during their time they got next to some actual tape recorders to take their stab at posterity. Different songs have emerged in the past 60 years, but this album is the first real collection of those recordings, along with several that until now have been hidden away next to the peyote buttons and Freedom Now pins. Joplin, of course, gets much of the attention, and there is something so genuine and God-given on her vocals like “I’ll Drown in My Own Tears” and “St. James Infirmary” that it sometimes feels like ground zero for Americana is sitting right in their midst. This really is the band that was the twinkling in the eye of the Live Music Capital of the World that Austin now swears to be, but is also such a righteous run at self-expression for the sheer sake of it that it could be a primer for beginning musicians everywhere. It’s taken several decades to get the stars to align and allow this wonderful album to be released, but as eternity proves again there is no hurry. Miracles never cease.
Leo Wright, Blues Shout Plus Suddenly the Blues. Straight outta Wichita Falls, Texas, Leo Wright played with Charles Minugus, Booker Ervin, Kenny Burrell and Dizzy Gillespie. And that’s just for starters. During the 1960s and into the ’70s the inspired player was one of the first-call names on the jazz scene, highly respected by all he worked with. That said, he never made it into being a marquee musician, which had nothing to do with his highly-tuned abilities. Maybe because he relocated to Europe to live in 1963 Wright became a little harder to work with in the States, or possibly he just didn’t have the self-promotion often needed, even in the jazz world. These two Atlantic Records dates sure sound like he could have been a contender in jazz circles, especially on the oft-overlooked flute. Which all makes this twofer such a standout. Leo Wright’s tone on flute and saxophone is simply stellar: clean but always soulful. The bluesy overtones are front and center, with some of the man’s Texas roots flowing through, and with side players like pianist Junior Mance, drummer Charlie Persip, guitarist Kenny Burrell, bassist Ron Carter and others spread across the two albums, it is completely a first-class affair. It never ceases to amaze how many timeless jazz albums Atlantic Records released right into the ’70s, many produced by patron saint of that division Nesuhi Ertegun. Add two more to the long list and say hallelujah for the mortorvating individuals that run reissue departments around the world and who keep giving birth to some of the very finest music from the past. Keep it up.