What did rebels do before Elvis? And what happened to them once he arrived? Some, I think, reconnected with their home planet.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The place to start is Birmingham, Alabama in the second decade of the 20th century. In the year that Europe began its descent into madness, the Blount family welcomed their second son, Herman Poole. And Herm–I’m feeling familiar– turned out to be a musical prodigy. He got more or less the education you would expect a black child to receive in early 20th century Alabama although his talent was recognized by a prodigious local music teacher–a man relegated to teaching shop classes–and rewarded with a year of college-level study.
(For anyone wanting to dive into this online, I recommend the combined biography/discography put together by Robert L. Campbell, Christopher Trent, and Robert Pruter. It’s a work of love and scholarship and deserves to be recognized as such.)
In any case, failed by the institution our hero, now known by his nickname, Sonny, got to gigging. After losing his headliner he gained a band–The Sonny Blount Band –and found himself in Chicago to whence he would eventually return. For about a decade that band, sometimes labelled as the eponymous Orchestra, toured the Southeast. Blount had amazing chops and an ability to transcribe almost anything by ear so the band worked steadily, playing the hits of the day.
But the Deep South wasn’t a great place for any person of color let alone one who was a little different. His obtaining CO status during WWII didn’t help him fit in any better either, so when the war ended he decamped.
His first stop was Nashville and that’s where the recorded trail begins. Having gained a slot in Wynonie Harris‘ working band, he cut his first sides. One of those cuts, Dig this Boogie, showcases Sonny and it’s a pretty cool piece of work couched in a straight jump blues. His left hand is rock steady while his right is busy with a few tricks. He repeatedly strikes notes that are just out of key enough to be noticeable but not discordant and the beat is something to be toyed with. In a way, it’s a bit like Monk.
From Nashville he beetled off to Chitown where he worked steadily in bands including that of Fletcher Henderson. Yet despite those chops his recorded presence is overwhelmingly as an arranger. Among others, he worked on early Lavern Baker recordings and I Want to Rock is as good an example of what was to come as any. Check out the fat honks from Leon Washington‘s tenor sax and the stutter step beat before the vocal cuts in. Such work, and some self-released recordings, kept Sonny busy for quite a few years.
Then, in 1952, home called. Home being Saturn.
From that point on Herman Poole Blount essentially receded into non-existence. Le Sony’r Ra, Cosmic Communicator, member of an angel race, visitor from Saturn began to stride the planet. And while he worked along as a player and arranger, appearing on sides by Coleman Hawkins among others, his focus was increasingly to be his experimental big band, the Arkestra.
For the next 50 years there was some form of the Arkestra and it was always marked by Ra’s unique approach. The brassy themes from the front line, the playfulness with the beat, the viruosity of the ensemble. And the costumery. The Arekstra was a visual, as well as an aural, wonder.
Now what does this have to do with the usual fare we traffic in? I’m out of my league writing about music in the first place. Jazz, like Classical, is alien territory where people with bigger brains, and much finer ears, rule. It’s not the place for me.
And yet Sun Ra is arguably the jazzman most beloved by rockers. The rest of this post features videos. I’ll even include one of the master himself and make it all available, along with extras drawn from the above, in this week’s playlist.
Rocket Number 9
In the late 1960s a pair of musical Kentucky ex-pats moved to Miami, hooked up with the remnants of a local band and launched one of the more long-standing road acts of the century. Most widely know as a frat boy’s band, NRBQ covered a Sun Ra number on their Columbia debut. Here’s a 1995 rendition featuring members of the Arkestra.
The Old Man of the Mountain
Phil Alvin with the Sun Ra Arkestra
When The Blasters broke up each of the Alvins released a solo album. Dave’s marked the path he would blaze as a singer-songwriter of a particular stripe. The non-writing mathematician, Phil, dug deep into the Americana songbook and released an album of classic songs. Some featured him and a guitar, some the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, And some, including this old standard, featured the Cosmic Communicator and his band. Sorry, no video but the tune is worth the static screen.
The Violent Femmes were never my band. But bass player Brian Ritchie is a unique piece of work as his first solo effort–replete with ethnomusigraphic miscellany and religiously obsessed overtones–demonstrates. Nothing rocked harder back in the day when we worried about atomic annihilation than this reworking of a Sun Ra tune. Again, a static screen but worth it.
The Sun Ra Arkestra
Take the ‘A’ Train
If ever proof were needed that beneath that odd exterior there was a musical genius you couldn’t do much better than this live date from 1976. Taking on the Billy Strayhorn classic made famous (no, owned) by Duke Ellington, Ra and co go to town. Pay particular attention to Ra’s solo intro. He was evidently a lover of Rachmaninoff and some of the runs runs he plays are as jaw dropping as anything from the Russian master.
A few notes. The NRBQ debut is not on Spotify and neither is Brian Ritchie’s solo album. I picked an NRBQ tune, featuring the classic line up and an old tin pan alley standard, that drips Sun Ra in its arrangement. I didn’t even try with Brian Ritchie. Instead I selected a Femmes song with Ritchie on vocal and the same big bass sound as the solo album.