Tag Archives: Ring of Fire

Million Dollar Quartet

Sun Records

7 Aug , 2012,
Miles
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Sun Records


Sun logo

Sun Records

Sun Records—I was about five years old in the early 1970s, when my grandmother first played a Johnny Cash record for me. I think it was “I Walk the Line”, or maybe “Ring of Fire”. I liked the way the rhythm reminded me of a train. I liked Johnny’s voice, and I liked the guitars of Cash and Luther Perkins. My dad had already played some old Elvis records for me, which I also liked. I had rockabilly in my ear from an early age. What I didn’t know at the time was, this sound that I liked was known as the “Sun Sound”. Both Elvis and Johnny Cash started their long careers at the Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, with Sun founder, Sam Phillips acting as music producer, guiding and directing their sound.

Sun Records–Sam Phillips and a Good Idea

Sam Phillips at Sun Records

The Sun Sound began when Phillips launched his record company in early 1952. He named it Sun Records as a sign of his perpetual optimism: it was a new day and a new beginning for Phillips and for music in general. Phillips rented a small space at 706 Union Avenue, in Memphis, for his own all-purpose studio. Sun Records was launched amid a growing number of independent labels, and in only a short time Sun gained the reputation throughout Memphis as a label that treated local musicians with respect and honesty. Phillips provided a non-critical, spontaneous environment that invited and encouraged creativity and vision.

Sam Phillips had a good ear for music. He could tell when something was “good” or merely “good enough”. Phillips was patient and willing to listen to almost anyone who came in off the street to record. In the early 1950s, Memphis was home to a diverse musical landscape–gospel, blues, hillbilly, country, boogie, and western swing were all popular in the South, and were gaining popularity in the rest of the country. Phillips was a businessman who was able to take advantage of this range of talent–and to eventually become wealthy in the process. In one form or another, Sam Phillips found a way for Sun to record all styles and genres of music. Because of the vast pool of talent to draw from locally, there seemed to be no limitations at Sun. Sun Records was already doing well, but the label hadn’t yet found the One to put it on the map

Sun Records–Elvis and the Million Dollar Quartet

Million Dollar Quartet

Then, in 1954, by chance, a young truck driver from Mississippi, named Elvis Presley, came into Sun studios to record a song for his mother. In Elvis, Phillips found an artist who could perform with the excitement, unpredictability and energy of a blues artist but could reach across regional, musical and racial barriers. Elvis helped form the beginnings of the Sun Sound by infusing Country music with R&B. Elvis’s bright star attracted even more ground-breaking talent to the Sun galaxy. Among his Sun contemporaries were Johnny Cash, the “killer” Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. These four soon became known as the Million Dollar Quartet, because of an accidental, impromptu recording session, one Tuesday afternoon in December 1956.

Shortly after those stars were signed at Sun, came Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Bill Justis, Harold Jenkins—later to be known as Conway Twitty–and other equally memorable musical talents. All these artists eventually sold on Pop, R&B, and Country charts and grew to international fame.

Sun Records–Rockabilly to the Masses

Sun Studios2

Rockabilly became the major evolution in the Sun Sound. Lyrically the music was bold; these kids sang about things that the generations of young people before had only thought about, but dared not mention out loud. The music itself was sparse and exciting; and it certainly moved in ways that popular music hadn’t moved before.

In the 1950s, Country music rarely used the drums that were so vital to jazz, blues, and jump bands. In fact, at the time, drums were prohibited on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. But in Rockabilly, drums played a vital role in driving teens across the nation to get behind the Rockabilly movement and the revolutionary Sun Sound. Once again, Sun was able to break new ground, recording music of unparalleled diversity and creativity.  The lasting quality of Sam Phillips’ Sun label is vibrancy that survives to this day. Sun produced sincere, passionate music that has stood for almost 60 years. Sun’s music takes us back to our roots, while it moves us forward. It is music that has reached across race, age and gender boundaries. It reflects the diversity and vision of the talent that recorded on the Sun label, and indeed, American popular culture itself. Sam Phillips didn’t set out to change American music forever, it just happened. Sun Records was a place for locals to make some music, and for Phillips to make some money without having to get a real job. Phillips only wanted to pay his rent, and have fun while doing it.

 

Sun Records.

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Wall of Voodoo

7 Aug , 2011,
Miles
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Wall of Voodoo

Wall of Voodoo 2 band photoEven as a kid, I knew Wall of Voodoo. I remember in the late 1970s and very early ’80s, seeing Wall of Voodoo on SNL and hearing them on the hip radio stations in Southern California. Those guys were a little strange to me. I liked them. Mexican Radio was the first song I heard by Wall of Voodoo, and it’s the only song of theirs that I remember off of the top of my head. I had just started listening to KROQ–Modern Roq of the ’80s!–and my world, at least musically, was expanding at a furious rate. I was discovering New Wave and so much of what that realm encompassed.

Wall of Voodoo–one of my early New Wave experiences

The years 1979 and 1980 blended together to me, musically. By that time, disco and the Bee Gees were pretty much done, and I was just beginning to hear a different music. I was going on 12. Pop radio just wasn’t interesting to me. I was out-growing what I was being spoon-fed by some of the traditional, commercial radio stations, and I wanted to hear something different.

b-52s yellow album

The B-52s’ Rock Lobster was a song that turned my world upside-down the first fewtimes I heard it on the radio. So was Dance This Mess Around and Planet Claire. I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to say about Rock Lobster and the B-52s soon. I remember when Devo’s Gates of Steel was released after their first two singles, Freedom of Choice and Whip it! As damned silly as I recognized New Wave was, there was something about it that I liked. There were some other good Devo yellow albumsongs and artists that got my attention in my early-adolescence. One artist–one band in particular–I have been thinking of for the past few days is Stan Ridgway and “his” Wall of Voodoo. Wall of Voodoo was one of the sillier bands to come out of that time, and that was okay with me. Music was changing for me. I still held my parents’ Beatles, Stones, and Dylan LP collections in the highest regard, and I felt that I had so much more to learn.

Wall of Voodoo was a concept by Stan Ridgway. Ridgway had started a film-score business in Hollywood. Acme Soundtracks was right across the street from the Masque, one of Hollywood’s early punk clubs. He had  been making tapes–with overdubbed, synthesized drums and keyboards. and vocals–in the studio with a friend one day. Ridgway was fooling around, layering sounds, feeling pretty good about himself, when he compared his multiple-drum tracks and Farifsa organ-rich recordings to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The friend laughed and commented that they sounded more like a Wall of Voodoo. That was it. Wall of Voodoo. The original line-up for Wall of Voodoo was Stan Ridgway, Marc Moreland on guitar, Bruce Moreland on bass, Chas T. Gray on keyboard, and Joe Nanini on drums.

Stan Ridgway–Wall of Voodoo’s First EP

Wall of Voodoo released a self-titled EP in 1980 which featured a unique, synthesizer-driven New Wave version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, which didn’t entirely suck. The second half of “Ring of Fire” features a dissonant guitar and synthesizer solo covering the theme to the 1966 film, Our Man Flint, and was interesting for a young Johnny Cash fan to hear.

Wall of Voodoo–Dark Continent

Wall of Voodoo cover

In 1981, Wall of Voodoo released their first full-length album, Dark Continent. Bruce Moreland left the band–for the first time–soon after this, and Chas Gray performed on both bass and keyboard during this time. The band recorded their biggest-selling album, Call of the West in 1982. That same year, Wall of Voodoo opened for the Residents on part of the cult band’s first tour, “the Mole Show”, in Pasadena CA in early summer. The track “Mexican Radio” was their only Top 100 hit in the USA and the video for the song got some good exposure on the newly created MTV. Bill Noland was added as a keyboardist soon after the release of this album.

According to Stan Ridgway, the situation around Wall of Voodoo was becoming increasingly chaotic due to a lot of drug use and out-of-control behavior by the the band members. And, there was the sketchy behavior of the band’s managementand record label, who were jerking the band around over money.

Wall of Voodoo–Play the US Festival…then Disband

Wall of voodo 2Wall of Voodoo appeared at the largest show they had ever done–possibly the largest show in Southern California since Cal Jam II a few years before–the second US Festival–on May 28, 1983, immediately following the US Festival, Ridgway, Nanini, and Noland all left the band, and Stan Ridgway soon went on to a successful solo career, appearing as guest vocalist on a track on the Rumble Fish score and releasing his first solo album in 1986.

Ridgway’s Wall of Voodoo music could fairly be described as a cross between early synthesizer pop and the soundtacks to old,  Spaghetti-western films. Creating this distinctive yet strange sound were unusual percussive instrumentation–including many kitchen cooking utensils–some twangy guitar, and Ridgway’s unique vocal stylings.

Stan Ridgway–30 Years Later, What Does He Care?

Stan Ridgway probably has plenty to think about these days. He has a lot going on. Ridgway has had a pretty good career since his Wall of Voodoo days.  He probably doesn’t care that there is a guy out there who still thinks about and finds himselfband photo Wall of Voodoo4 singing what is possibly his favorite line ever– “I wish I was in Tiajuana, eating BBQed iguana…”. But, I gotta tell you, Wall of Voodoo was one of those bands who helped turn everything around for me as I made my way through puberty, saying goodbye to the ’70s and wondering what the 1980s would be about. Stan Ridgway and the Wall of Voodoo  helped bring me into New Wave.

 

 

Wall of Voodoo

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More About Johnny Cash…

24 May , 2011,
Miles
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How much more can I say about Johnny Cash?

I was introduced to Johnny Cash’s music when I was a little kid in the 1970s. My Oklahoma-raised grandmother listened to Johnny Cash since I can remember.

The first Cash record I can recall from before I could read, must have been Ring of Fire. Seems like I remember a 35 or 40 year old Johnny Cash standing cross-armed, like a tough guy against a purple background with concentric red rings like a bulls-eye, centering on Cash himself.

I’m reasonably sure that Ring of Fire had to have been a compilation record. It was my favorite at four years old. I loved hearing Cash’s guitar, sounding like a train leaving the station–Donk!-Chick’a, Donk!-Chick’a!

I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, Rock Island Line, so many good songs on one record.

 

Introduction to Cash’s music

At home, my cash2folks were all over the music spectrum. My brother and I would hear everything from the Beatles and Stones to Miles Davis and John Coltrane to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon to Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. One of the many things I liked about going to Grandma’s for the weekend, was getting to hear Johnny Cash.

In some ways it was a little weird, as I look back. I wonder how many of Cash’s lyrics Grandma actually listened to. There was a whole lot of drinking and cussing, fighting and killing, adulterous activity and general naughtiness that Grandma would not have approved of in real life.

Grandma read trashy Harlequin romance novels, too. After I learned what those were all about, I was shocked when I realized that Grandma had dozens of trashy romance novels, which as far as I know, she read her entire life. So, my grandmother was tough. She was an Oklahoma, Dust Bowl, depression-era, farm-girl. She could handle Johnny Cash.

One of the cool things is Grandma introduced me to Johnny Cash’s music. I don’t think I would have been exposed to Cash if it were not for her. Toward the end of her life, when she could still play in the kitchen, I was visiting and we were making

cash3

pumpkin bread or something. I brought my copy of the first record Johnny Cash recorded with producer, Rick Rubin, American Recordings, which we both enjoyed.

Cash in Oakdale, CA 1996

In 1996, my buddy, George and I saw Johnny Cash at the rodeo grounds in Oakdale, CA. Oakdale boasts of being the Cowboy Capital of California. Oakdale, Smokedale, ain’t no Jokedale. Seemed like the perfect place to see Johnny Cash in concert.

We couldn’t find tickets at TicketMaster. We had to go to the local feed and farm supply store to get our Johnny Cash tickets for $14.

There was a time when Johnny Cash could fill arenas in California. Now her was playing the country fair-like atmosphere of the Oakdale Rodeo Grounds. Nice. I don’t know how Johnny Cash felt about it, but it seemed to me like he was coming home.

The show was great! In many ways, it was like the culmination of a dream. I saw McCartney in 1990, and Johnny Cash

million dollar quartet in 1996. Cross those off the list.

Johnny Cash. Damn! There was some authenticity in American music for you. When I was in high school I would record Grandma’s Cash albums from the 1970s onto a 90 minute TDK cassette. I didn’t tell anybody that I liked Johnny Cash. But sandwiched between the New Wave, Classic Rock and everything else I was listening to, Johnny Cash was always in there somewhere.

My grandmother and I didn’t share a lot of the same tastes in music.  We could always find common ground in Johnny Cash.

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