The Grateful Dead, American Beauty, Warner Brothers WS-1893, 1970
For the 364th album that I am featuring during this year long exercise, I’ve chosen something by The Grateful Dead. The perennially touring San Francisco based band that made a career out of touring and selling a peaceful laid back vibe for 30 years rarely had a hit record, but this one came close. In classic Deadhead style, American Beauty took four years to achieve Gold status, and 16 years to reach Platinum. The Grateful Dead never worked well with a deadline….
1970 was the year of the twin classic Dead albums. Workingman’s Dead came out in February, while American Beauty was released in November. Both are highly influenced by Country and Bluegrass, along with a healthy dose of hanging out with Crosby, Stills Nash & Young. For a while there the drugs were somewhat under control, and the band decided to really focus on writing and recording, in part to impress their new label, Warner Brothers. When Rolling Stone last updated their Top 500 Albums list, Workingman’s Dead came in at #262 and American Beauty came in at #258. They really are fraternal twins.
Perhaps this record came in a tad higher because of the “hit” single Trucking’. I always loved the fact that The Dead were so popular despite the fact that for years the #64 high chart position of Trucking’ was the biggest single the band ever had. It wasn’t until A Touch Of Grey from In The Dark hit #9 in 1987 that Trucking’ was finally surpassed. Because they have always been in demand, Grateful Dead albums are truly collectible today. Finding this record for $8 is a minor miracle, especially given its condition. Generally I try to play a record once before writing about it, but this clean copy of this amazing piece of Dead memorabilia has been in high rotation on my turntable since I found it.
Cost: $8, $11 Remaining
Van Morrison, Moondance, Warner Brothers WS-1835, 1970
Sometimes a remarkable album comes out by someone you’d least expect from. Yes, Van Morrison had made bit of a name for himself as the lead singer of Them, and with a slightly bubblegum-ish 1967 hit single, Brown Eyed Girl. But who knew he had THIS in him? Brown Eyed Girl was a big enough hit that he got a major label deal with Warner Brothers, and Morrison spent most of 1968 preparing his Warner’s debut, Astral Weeks. It was a very jazzy and abstract record that was a hit with musicians and critics but didn’t really sell.
Moondance was the follow-up, and Morrison spent most of 1969 writing and recording it in Woodstock New York. When a half million hippies rolled into town, Morrison left for the city where he finished the record. Dropping a needle on side one, the record opens with And It Stoned Me, a song that literally jumps out at you. From there, you’re drawn in deeper and deeper until it ends. Crazy Love, Moondance, and Into The Mystic are classics of their-or any other-era. Yes, I love this record.
Oddly, there were no hit singles from Moondance. Come Running and Crazy Love were both released as singles, but neither charted. For some bizarre reason, Moondance was released as a single at the height of the Disco era in 1977, when it climbed all the way to #92. The album only reached #29 on the charts, but despite failing in all of the traditional measures of a hit album, Moondance still sold over three million copies. It has probably never been out of print. Naturally, I held out for an original Warner Brothers copy, with its gatefold cover and extensive liner notes.
Cost: $7, $19 Remaining
Miriam Makeba, Pata Pata, Reprise RS-6274, 1967
There is a world of possibilities waiting for a vinyl collector in the world music bins. Sure, you’ll find some junk, but you’ll also find some incredible experiences that you might not ever find out about any other way. I think most people know about The Beatles struggles-as an English speaking group no less- to be taken seriously in the US, so imagine how incredible a non English speaking international recording star had to be to even get a record release in this country. They would have to be well established and yet still able to create new music. It would be one thing to perform in a language somewhat familiar to Americans like French, Italian, or Portuguese, but it would be miraculous for a record sung in the Southern African language of Xhosa to catch on. Yet here one is.
It’s just a real shame that an artist with the stature of Miriam Makeba was subjected to the liner notes that Reprise came up with to sell this record. “Mama Africa”, her unofficial nickname given to her by an adoring continent would probably be surprised to know that she was “as splashy as Victoria Falls”. Still, it probably wasn’t as hard to overcome as growing up in poverty in Apartheid in South Africa. On her own since she was a young teen, it was a fortuitous meeting in London with Harry Belafonte in 1959 that led her to international fame, even though she never set foot in her homeland until the 1990s. Along the way, she became a leading voice for the struggles of black South Africans and performed around the world spreading the message.
This was by far her biggest hit in the US. While there are horns, a big beat, and amazing background singers, this is not an R&B or Soul record. Xhosa is indecipherable to understand a word of, but its clicking sounds and vocal pops create an incredible rhythm. It’s both foreign and familiar in a way, and a real joy to listen to. Almost every decent record store has an international section, and I’ve found some very interesting things in those bins. And they are much cheaper than international travel.
Cost: $6, $26 Remaining
The Beatles, The Beatles Again (a/k/a Hey Jude), Apple SW-385, 1970
This is a really weird one. Generally, a Beatles album is an example of a well crafted piece of pop music that will always stand the test of time. The Beatles never took the easy road, they we always expanding horizons. At least until this record came out. In case you couldn’t tell from the cover photography, these are four Beatles who are not exactly comfortable in their surroundings and seem lost in what they are doing. As it turns out, these pictures were taken at the last photo shoot the group ever had. As another sign of the band’s problems, the photo shoot was in August 1969 at John Lennon’s estate and this album was released at the end of February 1970. Apple was rotting at the core.
The not so creative force behind this record was Alan Klein, John Lennon’s choice to run the group’s business affairs. Mick Jagger had once remarked how Klein had saved The Stones from some British taxes, and that was good enough for John (and George & Ringo) to choose him to run their affairs (over Paul’s objections). With sales of Abbey Road slowing down, and with no new recording going on or any idea when Phil Spector might be done editing the Get Back/Let It Be sessions for release, Klein needed a “new” album in stores to keep up cash flows and justify his existence. The only thing to do was to look back to the group’s biggest hit, Hey Jude, and build an album of already released songs to go along with it.
Ah, but what songs! Since Hey Jude was never released on an album, the idea was to put it out with other past singles that had also never been released on an album in the US. While they didn’t look as far back as Vee-Jay released songs like Misey, There’s A Place, and Love Me Do, they did start with the six year old Can’t Buy Me Love. That song and I Should Have Known Better were both in A Hard Day’s Night, but that album was a United Artists release. 1966’s Paperback Writer and Rain are the other true oldies, with the rest of the songs being A and B sides from some non album singles. But the whole package reeks of a cash in, and it came along at a time when tempers were high with the group. This move didn’t help the internal struggles and three months later Paul announced he left the group. This album was a nail in the coffin.
Cost: $5, $32 Remaining
Little Anthony & The Imperials, We Are…, End 303, 1959
Not to sound like a broken record, but I always buy any reasonably priced 50s record. Not just because I usually get one home and find a pleasant surprise when I look it up in my trusty Goldmine Record Album Price Guide, but also because they are really fun to listen to. This record was a little bit of both.
There were two price tags on this record. While I knew this record would be valuable, the $100 price tag meant I would never get to know what it sounded like. Then I noticed the second price tag. At $5, I didn’t have to think twice about buying it. But what price tag was right? The clerk charged me $5, and I didn’t question him, so I raced home with it to look it up. It turns out that this little $5 record would also be a value at $100. Goldmine values We Are The Imperials at $250 for a good copy.
Sure, there is some hiss, but the record is a very good copy. The hit, Tears On My Pillow lead it off, but the whole album is filled with that classic New York Doo-Wop sound. Eagle-Eyed Neil Sedaka fans will notice The Diary on here. Sedaka was thrilled to present his best song to The Imperials for this record as a follow up to Tears…, but it didn’t chart. The failure of it was a shock to him to the point where he recorded it himself. It was his first single as an artist, and a pretty good sized hit. But trivia aside, I found a real gem $245 under value!
Cost: $5, $37 Remaining
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Going To A Go-Go, Tamla TS-267, 1965
If your goal is to collect every Motown album, you sometimes pick a placeholder. It would be a really great if I found a near mint stereo copy of this incredible Miracles album for $3, but all I got was this “good” copy. There are pops and crackle galore through the best songs, but it’s still really great to hear these classic Motown tracks in original stereo. The production is all incredible, especially seeing as the music was all recorded in the basement of a cramped old house in West Detroit.
Actually, side 2 plays really well. With all four top 40 hits from the album on side 1, I’m guessing the original owners hardly every played side 2. The non hits are songs I’ve barely ever heard, so it’s easier to hear how good The Miracles were. I always pay more attention to a new (to me) song when I hear one than I do to, say, the 26,851st time I’ve heard The Tracks Of My Tears.
The original owners, who were apparently not very good at maintaining their record players. but also used the back of the jacket to make a list of their favorite Miracles songs. They must have been real fans though because the songs listed go all the way back to Bad Girl, one of the first Miracles records to chart. This copy is good enough to hold me over for the near mint copy that I’ll find one day, but I’m grateful to have it.
Cost: $3, $42 Remaining
Johnny Cash, Ring Of Fire: The Best Of Johnny Cash, Columbia CS-8853, 1963
Johnny Cash was one of a kind. No other artist that I can think of managed to break all the rules while adhering to conventional norms. Take this album for an example: I always wanted to find the original album that featured Cash’s biggest hit Ring Of Fire. I never found it because it doesn’t exist. Cash placed the biggest single yet in Country Music on a greatest hits package. It never was on a “regular” Cash album.
I suppose you can’t argue with results. This record was released in August 1963, and yet when Billboard published its first Country Albums Chart in January 1964, this was the #1 album. Now, Beatles albums sometimes replaced other Beatles albums at #1, and The Monkees first two albums spent months at #1, but I don’t know of any album, Greatest Hits or not, that spent 8 months at #1.
It’s mostly just a collection Cash’s Columbia singles from 1958-1963, so it doesn’t play now as a standard release might have. But that also means that there’s not a dud to be found, and you really hear the progression of Cash’s style during these still early years. It falls below my standard for an essential record, but its really nice to have. I may have overpaid at $10, but it is a flawless original copy.
Cost: $10, $45 Remaining
Joni Mitchell, Blue, Reprise MS-2038, 1971
This is a very highly rated album with both critics and record buyers. It’s #30 in the Rolling Stone Top 500 albums of all time if that appeals to you. Of course, you’ll have to get past Joni Mitchell’s singing voice, which is very much an acquired taste. While I happen to love this album, others would prefer listening to car alarms or animals in pain.
The stand out track is California, which naturally enough was written in France. James Taylor, who was Ms. Mitchell’s love interest at the time, plays guitar on it. Like the rest of the album, it is so direct and honest that it’s almost feels like fiction, but this all really happened in real life. As such, and despite both Carey and California being released as singles, neither was a hit on AM radio.
But for $3, what does it matter? Trust the Best Of lists and listen to this record. Don’t compare the voice to another vocalist you like. Listen to the words and the incomparable songwriting, it will grow on you. And then you’ll get what Blue is all about. As Alan Rickman says to Emma Thompson in Love, Actually “To continue your emotional education”.
Cost: $3, $55 Remaining
The Four Seasons, Ain’t That A Shame, Vee Jay 1059, 1963
I’ve written about The Four Seasons before, and how they were, for a while, the biggest group in the world. I’ve also written about Vee-Jay Records, and how this little R&B label in Chicago ended up with both The Four Seasons and The Beatles on their roster. This record came out at the time the band and the label had their falling out.
It was the fourth Vee-Jay album released by the group in one year. If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it was. As Candy Girl was reaching its #3 peak chart position, the group began to realize they hand’t been paid for any of it. The group not only sued, but also held back material from the company. Vee-Jay, always desperate for cash, would mine this album for singles and re-titled Re-Releases for a year.
And its not that good of an album! Stay!, a cover song that was a very good cover version, is the best song on it. The rest, however, is not the group’s best material. The group must have been exhausted from all the writing and recording that they were just pooped out. As was their record company, struggling to keep the lights on despite overwhelming success. I just wish it was an album I actually liked..
Cost: $5, $58 Remaining
Booker T. & The MG’s, Doin’ Our Thing, Stax S-724, 1968
There’s not a better feeling for a record collector than to find a new-to-you record from a group you love. And there’s not much better than a Booker T. & The MG’s record. From their first hit in 1962, Green Onions, they made hit after hit for themselves and the incredible Stax/Volt artist roster. That means if you’ve ever enjoyed a song from Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Rufus or Carla Thomas, and on and on, you’ve enjoyed the music of Booker T. & The MG’s.
Their albums are a mix of the hits of the day plus some originals. This unassuming and light years ahead of it’s time for being interracial little band essentially created soul music in the 60s, and lent a hand in turning it into funk in the 70s. It was a body of work good enough for admission to the Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame. You can hear why on this record, as they make songs as diverse as Sonny & Cher’s The Beat Goes On and Bobbie Gentry’s Ode To Billy Joe their own.
This record came out just as Booker T. returned full time to the group after studying music in college. It’s easy to forget that he was only 17 in 1962 when Green Onions came out. Unfortunately it was also at the same time when Stax was losing its business relationship with Atlantic Records. Without Atlantic’s support, distribution, and, most importantly, access to their artists like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, Stax found it hard to stay in business. But the music lives on and it’s my goal to find all 11 of their Stax releases.
Cost: $7, $63 Remaining