Melba Liston: Trombone!

Photo Courtesy:  The Girls in the Band.

Photo Courtesy: The Girls in the Band.

I was quietly cataloging LP’s for Marr Archives from the Norman Saks Collection, when a local Kansas City artist caught my attention. IT WAS A WOMAN! It was a female jazz musician from Kansas City and it was not Mary Lou Williams or Julia Lee. As most women in jazz are known for singing or piano, I was doubly surprised to find that this female jazz artist was a TROMBONE player.

Melba Liston, the jazz trombonist, was born in Kansas City on January 13, 1926. She played with all of the great bands: Gerald Wilson, Dexter Gordon, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Quincy Jones.

She endured the abuse that many female jazz performers endured during that time and was outspoken about that mistreatment. This exploitation caused her to leave music for a while. She spent most of her years in California, but finally came back to music and music education in the 70’s. This brought her back to Kansas City for the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival with her band “Melba Liston Company”.

Even after a stroke, Melba continued to write and arrange music that melded African Rhythms with American Jazz.

The Marr Sound Archives carries many recordings featuring Melba Liston, but one of my favorite songs is “Pow” from the Melba and Her Bones LP on MGM’s Metro Jazz label.

Walter Page, Charlie Persip, Buck Clayton, Melba Liston, and an unidentified musician performing on stage. Photo Courtesy: The Buck Clayton Collection, LaBudde Special Collections.

Walter Page, Charlie Persip, Buck Clayton, Melba Liston, and an unidentified musician performing on stage. Photo Courtesy: The Buck Clayton Collection, LaBudde Special Collections.

Melba Liston performs with Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band. Photo Courtesy: The Charlie Menees Collection, LaBudde Special Collections.

Melba Liston performs with Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band. Photo Courtesy: The Charlie Menees Collection, LaBudde Special Collections.

Photo courtesy The Jimmy and Jeannie Cheatham Collection, LaBudde Special Collections.

Photo courtesy: The Jimmy and Jeannie Cheatham Collection, LaBudde Special Collections.

Contributed by Vicki Kirby, Library Information Specialist II and Special Formats Cataloger

Traditional vs. Contemporary in 1920’s New York

The Varese AlbumWithin American culture in the 1920’s, the audience was not aware of the advancements in music from the past twenty or so years. The concert halls were filled with traditional music that was composed in the 1800’s, during the romantic era. Most of the newer works were the generation of composers who died between 1890 and 1920—composers like Debussy, Rimsky-Korakov, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Debussy, etc. Edgard Varese sought to change this by bringing new works to New York.

Varese became popular very quickly after arriving in New York in 1915. His early conducting gigs gained him some fame within the music community. After that, he founded and became the conductor of the New Symphony Orchestra in 1919. He programmed music that had either never been performed before or had never been performed specifically in America. However, this came to a quick conclusion after two repeat performances. With an audience and musicians that wanted to hear and play standard repertoire, the NSO could no longer exist.

In the 1920’s he shifted his focus to composing and getting new music played through a society. He helped establish the International Composers’ Guild in 1921. Subsequently, the first concert was in February of 1922. The International Composers’ Guild was the first organization dedicated to the performance of contemporary music in America.

During the six-year run of the International Composers’ Guild, Varese had three premiers of his own work. Hyperprism caused a huge uproar from the audience. Some loved it and cheered for an encore, but many hissed at the music and began fighting. While the concerts were mostly a success, attracting between 300 and 1500 people, there were still those who longed for traditional music and resisted change.

Hyperprism includes a large battery of percussion with winds. Here is a sample from Hyperprism:

[audio:|titles=Hyperprism|artists=Edgard Varese]

One of his later works in 1931 was Ionisation. While Hyperprism has a large percussion section, this piece is strictly percussion. It is scored for thirteen percussionists playing a total of 37 instruments.

Here is a sample from Ionisation:

[audio:|titles=Ionisation.|artists=Edgard Varese]



Charles Dodge- Earth’s Magnetic Field & Bell Laboratories

dodgeCharles Dodge’s Earth’s Magnetic Field: Realizations in Computed Electronic Sound, was composed in 1970 and was released by Nonesuch. Bell laboratories developed many important technologies that were employed by electronic music composers. A more detailed account of the developments can be found in the annotations of Computer Music, by Nonesuch. One of the first main contributions from Bell labs, in the late 1950’s, was a computer sound synthesis program that could—theoretically—produce any sound. Another main component was the Digital Audio Converters that made it possible to hear the sounds that were being programmed. This translated to the work that was being done at Columbia and Princeton, where composers sought to utilize these developments. Charles Dodge was one of the composers working at Columbia and Princeton that worked also at Bell Laboratories on his music.

With this piece, Charles Dodge mapped magnetic field data to musical sounds. Over the course of a year, 2920 readings were taken of the magnetic field. This was then mapped to a four octave span, or 45 notes (the average span of an instrument). Between different points within this data, interpolations were made to create the other aspects of the music—tempo, dynamics, and register. Here’s part of the readings that he used:

Magnetic field data

Sample of magnetic field data

Regardless of the mapping and per-determined form, this piece still flows musically and has some beautifully crafted moments. With lyrical lines and sweeping gestures, the piece brings the data to life. In my opinion, the musical representation of the data can be quite catchy at points.

Here’s a sample of Earth’s Magnetic Field, from roughly eleven minutes into the piece.

[audio:|titles=Earth’s Magnetic Field.|artists= Charles Dodge]


Staff Picks: Buzzcocks – Love Bites

lovebitesWhat a rare treat it is to stumble across out-of-print punk rock and new wave LPs within the deep shelving of the Marr Sound Archives. Aside from an impressive library of releases from Sire Records and a short stack of SST recordings, the genre’s presence in our holdings is few and far between.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived at work one morning to find a newly cataloged import copy of Buzzcock’s Love Bites which had, apparently, been stuffed away with thousands of other items from our massive backlog of uncataloged LPs. This particular copy is an import distributed by Jem Records under a special licensing agreement which allowed the label to sell the album in the USA. It’s like my very own private valentine from the universe!

Buzzcocks generated copious amounts of recorded material in 1978, including their first two studio albums, a handful of hit singles, and two sessions with illustrious BBC disc jockey John Peel. Love Bites, was released in September on the United Artists label to tremendous success in the UK. The album’s initial single “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” won NME Single of the Year and earned the band a lip-syncing gig on Top of the Pops:

If love bites then so does this record, as does frontman Pete Shelley who comes out baring his teeth. Sharp hooks and sugary melodies make this album a masterpiece of pop genius, capable of rotting your molars right out of your head upon first listen. Shelley’s lyrics range from melancholy, to downright bitter and the universal appeal of the album’s subject matter has allowed this album to stand up to the test of time as a “feel bad to feel good” classic.

Deep cuts of note: “Operator’s Manual”, “Nostalgia”, and “Nothing Left.”

BBC Radiophonic Workshop ‎– Doctor Who – The Music

Dr Who CoverThe BBC Radiophonic Workshop in London opened in 1958 to produce music and new effects for radio. Composers for Doctor Who started working here in 1963, under the direction of Ron Grainer. The theme for doctor who was created mostly by Delia Derbyshire in the style of Elektronische Musik—or music created from only electronically produced signals. This term was coined in 1949 by Werner Meyer-Eppler, and rivaled the French style of Musique Concrete, which used sounds recorded from acoustical sources, instead. To use this style of music in television, was new and innovative. It was also groundbreaking, because “televised science fiction was a new concept for the BBC” (factmag). The soundtrack for Doctor Who was comprised almost exclusively of electronic music through 1989, and the composers working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop created most of the incidental music and sound effects.

One of the most famous tracks that was released in the 1970’s for this television show was “Sea Devils,” which was noted for being much more experimental than the usual incidental music of Doctor Who. It was composed by Malcolm Clarke, and used the EMS Synthi 100 of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

[audio:|titles=Sea Devils.|artists=Malcolm Clarke]

EMS Synthi 100 – Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Another important track on the LP is “The Leisure Hive,” composed by Peter Howell. By 1980, the workshop was creating music for every episode. By this time, the workshop had gained a lot more synthesizers, which would make the music a lot richer.

[audio:|titles=The Leisure Hive.|artists=Peter Howell]

Been Through Some Stuff: Cedell Davis and the Table Knife Blues

Cedell Davis with Table Knife

Image from Fat Possum Records

True innovation cannot be forced, and is often the result of circumstances or a mere accident. Penicillin was the result a petrie dish left out over the weekend. As a musician who has let the strings of an instrument or two detune over the course of a long time, I’ve stumbled into rare inspiration out of laziness (firstly, to avoid my instrument for several weeks; secondly, to fail to take 3 whole minutes to tune it when I pick it up again). But others innovate ways to triumph over difficulty. Blues guitarist, Cedell Davis, is one such man. Though not prominently featured in the film, his appearance in the 2005 documentary, You See Me Laughin, made an enormous impression on me. Amidst a veritable cavalcade of characters–including R.L. Burnside and his many offspring and admitted murderer T Model Ford–Cedell Davis appears in a small room playing a guitar with a table knife for a slide, clutched firmly in a two fingers of a hand gnarled by a childhood bout with polio, inelegantly moving up and down the fretboard.

His picking hand is not as dexterous as other bluesmen; he strums, but not simply. His left hand works the strings, playing the everliving crap out of each chord and note, and his voice howls with great power. Blues are a high-stakes emotional genre–even, perhaps especially, for an old man who was playing guitar before polio mangled his hands at the age of 10–and it’s plenty evident in Davis’ style.

But before the Fat Possum film crew came to Arkansas and Mississippi Hill Country and had Iggy Pop and other gush about these dilapidated bluesmen, Louis Guida received a grant to document many previously unrecorded Arkansas blues musicians. Many had appeared on King Biscuit Time, a 15 minute per weekday of country hill blues music from 1941 to the present. Until the 1960s it was a live-format radio show where artists would perform in studio, then it switched over to a recorded blues format, and later swelled to an hour-long program.

In 1976 over the course of eight months, Guida recorded over 50 musicians. 17 sessions and 9 hours of recordings later the result was Keep it To Yourself:  Arkansas Blues released by Rooster Blues records.

Keep it to Yourself Album Cover

The Marr Sound Archive holds Volume 1:  Solo Performances, which is a small collection of very powerful blues music. Cedell Davis’ four songs for the album are in good company with Reola Jackson, who’s song for the record was recorded in the Cummins Prison for Women where she was an inmate at the time. Davis plays 2 original songs, “Lonely Nights” and “Big G Boogie” with the hokum song, “Let me play with Your Poodle” and “How Much More.”

It seems easy enough, probably anyone could sit down and play a guitar with a table knife slide, or mess around with the tuning pegs, but seeing Davis and listening to him truly emphasizes the point that blues cannot be learned or practiced, you have to come by it naturally.

Secret Stash: The Anne Winter Collection

Anne Winter was co-owner of Recycled Sounds record store for 18 years. She donated a wealth of local music history to the Marr Sound Archives shortly before her passing in 2009. Photo Courtesy The Kansas City Star.

Anne Winter was co-owner of Recycled Sounds record store for 18 years. She donated a wealth of local music history to the Marr Sound Archives shortly before her passing in 2009. Photo Courtesy The Kansas City Star.

The Marr Sound Archives received a number of local rock and roll releases from the late 1980s to the early 2000s from Anne Winter, shortly before her passing in 2009.

The collection is a modest one, but the nostalgia factor is soaring as it shines a spotlight on the time period in which I was just getting into music as a teenager, when I used to browse the aisles of Anne’s record store, Recycled Sounds at 3941 Main Street in Kansas City, MO.

What stands out most, aside from a smoking batch of Forte Label 45s and some rare Man Or Astroman? EPs, are the records that were independently pressed and released either by locally centered record labels or by no label at all; otherwise known as the private press. We certainly wouldn’t have the DIY mentality of the private press as it exists today without the influence of independent record stores such as Recycled Sounds. So, in tribute to this very special relationship, I present to you some highlights from the Anne Winter collection:

– Kansas City art school punks Mudhead released their 7 inch record The Jumbo Sound of Mudhead in 1988, the very same year Recycled Sounds opened its doors. Their sound falls somewhere in between Rudimentary Peni and The Jesus Lizard, complete with growling vocals and groove-laden post-punk riffs. The cover art features work by vocalist Mott-ly (aka The Human Skeleton, aka Lee Tisdale) and one time member Archer Prewitt, later of the Coctails (also featuring Mudhead bassist Barry Phipps) and The Sea and Cake. Listen to “Eleutheromania” here:

– In 1989, Shrinking Violet Records put out a box set entitled A Limited Gourmet Box Set of the Unclean & Imperfect, which contained wax by Kill Whitey, The Sin City Disciples, Magic Nose, and Mudhead.  The first 50 copies (we have number 216/500) were made with glow in the dark ink and each disc contains a photocopied insert. The artwork and subject matter range from unclean to imperfect, as advertised. The box itself came with its fair share of wear and tear, likely due to the amount of local music history crammed into such a small container.

– Folk musician Danny Cooke released “What Goes Up Must Come Down” b/w “Inside Another Time” in 1991 on Nep Tune Records. His Brian Wilson meets Daniel Johnston songwriting and performance style is an acquired taste for some and outsider artist gold for the rest of us. After hours of casual research, I have found very little information on Nep Tune Records aside from two releases by Brent Wiebold, to whom Cooke gives special thanks on his record.

Honorable mentions from this collection include 7 inch records regional acts on independent labels: Split Lip Rayfield, Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys, Uncle Tupelo, Grither, Season to Risk, Cher (U.K.), The Sin City Disciples, Tenderloin, Cretin 66 and The Get Up Kids, among others.

A handful of LPs were also donated by Anne Winter. They are now cataloged and can be found in the MERLIN database. A spreadsheet listing all of her donated 45 RPM titles is available upon request, and, of course, donations of local and regional vinyl releases are always welcome at the archives.

Stevie Wonder’s Psychedelic Botanical Masterpiece

Staff Picks: Stevie Wonder, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (1979).

Secret LifeHere’s a formula for a hit record: provide a second-by-second description of an obscure film adaptation of a book about plants to a blind man and ask him to create a mostly instrumental double-album soundtrack.

Well, Motown wasn’t too jazzed about this idea either.

From 1971 to 1976 Stevie Wonder produced a string of six records that were each huge commercial successes and bold artistic leaps forward for R&B and pop music, in general. Following this “classic era,” Stevie took a three year hiatus (the longest of his illustrious career), and by 1979, his fans were clamoring for a follow-up to 1976’s brilliant “Songs in the Key of Life”. In October of 1979, Stevie finally released a double-LP soundtrack titled “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.” Riding the wave of his previous successes and the long wait for a new record, ‘Journey’ debuted at number four on Billboard, but due to the film’s limited release and the initial negative reaction from critics, it quickly plummeted off the charts, making it one of Stevie’s least commercially successful records of his career.

Since that time, however, this surprising and experimental record has gone on to become somewhat of a cult classic among Stevie fans.  In his recent memoir Mo Meta Blues Roots drummer and ubiquitous afro sporter ?uestlove calls ‘Journey’ “[his] Dark Side of the Moon, [his] psychedelic masterpiece.” And, in a 2004 interview, when asked to list the three albums that most represent him, Stevie listed “Songs in the Key of Life,” “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants” and a tossup between “Talking Book” and “Innervisions.”

The album begins with an instrumental track Stevietitled ‘Earth’s Creation’, an eerie sonic approximation of primordial earth’s beginnings that sounds like electric clouds circling above a pool of lava. On track two, ‘The First Garden,’ Stevie’s familiar harmonica provides a sweet melodic interpretation of the blooming of the earth’s first plants. And things get weirder from there. In “Venus Fly Trap and the Bug” a slightly terrifying robot voice narrates the perspective of a bug being tricked and devoured by a plant. Other tracks include screaming children, Japanese poetry, thunder claps and rain sounds, random crowd noise, orchestral strings over proto-Prince disco grooves,  and lots of not-quite-placeable synthesizer sounds. Perhaps my favorite track is the sentimental Side 3 closer about being reincarnated as a flower, “Come Back As a Flower” which features lead vocals by Stevie’s one time wife and long time collaborator Syreeta Wright. At Motown’s nervous request, Stevie did end up including more pop friendly songs like the catchy and sweet ballad “Send One Your Love” and the traditional-Stevie-sounding ‘Outside My Window.’

Aside from its experimental edge and poor commercial performance, the album is notable for a few other reasons, as well.  The album’s cover included the title and artist printed in braille along the bottom and in the original pressings, the inside of the cover was sprayed with a flower scented perfume (still faintly detectable in one of the archive’s copies), until it was discovered to be eating away at the vinyl records. Many consider ‘Journey’ to be one of the first New Age albums and truly if Stevie Wonder’s name wasn’t printed at the top, the cover would look right at home next to some crystals and incense at your local New Age gift shop.   ‘Journey’ also features the first use of the Computer Music Melodian, a digital sampling synthesizer, and is one of the earliest known albums recorded entirely digitally.

Here’s the charming music video for the album’s title track:

I’ve loved Stevie Wonder since I was a toddler blaring Oldies 95 on the kitchen radio and  jumping around to ‘Uptight’. And as I’ve been exposed to more and more Stevie over the years, I keep uncovering deeper levels to his genius. Starting with the poppy radio hits and then delving into the classic album cuts from ‘Music of My Mind’ to ‘Innervisions’ and ‘Songs in The Key of Life’, Stevie seems to have an answer for every mood, every passing feeling. At the suggestion of a friend, I only recently discovered this classic weird Stevie album and now, finally, I have Stevie’s answer for when I feel like just another carbon-based, multi-cellular organism.

UMKC students and staff can listen to the entire album for free on the American Song Database. Give it a listen!

Lonesome Gal: Virtual Seduction in the Golden Age of Radio

lonesomeheaderWe often take our modern technological communications for granted these days. One could be plugged into the virtual network 24/7 and never fully realize the capacity for human connection that these means afford us. Whereas the digital age has now completely saturated popular culture, the golden age of radio relied simply upon the power of the human voice to connect with its audience.


Lonesome Gal photo courtesy

Take radio personality Jean King as one example of how to effectively reach listeners and consumers alike. She developed a cult following beginning in the late 1940s as Lonesome Gal, the virtual girlfriend to everyman. Listeners of WING in Dayton, Ohio would tune in for 15 minutes each week just to get some special attention from their Lonesome Gal. Every episode played out as if she were speaking directly to each individual in her audience, to whom she referred to as baby, sweetie, angel, dreamboat, and muffin, among other cute pet names.

Episodes often began with the introduction, “Sweetie, no matter what anybody says, I love you better than anybody in the whole world,” as the organ plays her theme song and she proceeds to coo endlessly about your charming mannerisms and depth of character.

[audio:|titles=Lonesome Gal Opening Theme]

King’s vocal delivery has been described as warm, sexy, sultry, and, if I may add, mildly hypnotic and vaguely unsettling. In retrospect, her monologues may seem relatively tame, but under the traditional values and post-war mores of the time, King’s implicit sexuality was about as racy as it got. She earned a pack of rabid followers over her time on the air which led her to keep her identity a secret until 1953. For public appearances, she would even wear a mask to conceal her face, adding to the mystery that surrounded the Lonesome Gal character.

[audio:|titles=Lonesome Gal shows off her jealous side…]

These days, the lonely and alienated are more like demographics that need to be manipulated for profit rather than comforted and encouraged. While this was also true of Lonesome Gal, who seduced her predominantly male audience into purchasing beer and tobacco, King was able to tap the psyches of her devoted followers and provide the illusion that they were the center of the universe. When the program was picked up by over 50 other stations, she even went so far as to adapt her scripts to match the markets for which she performed, adding an intimate and unique level of involvement for her audience.

The Marr Sound Archives contains only two Lonesome Gal transcription discs in its holdings. One of them is composed entirely of holiday greetings and musings from your virtual girlfriend in Dayton, Ohio. Listen below as she assigns your chores for this weekend, just like a real girlfriend!

[audio:|titles=Deck the halls with boughs of holly.|artists=Lonesome Gal]

lonesomediscFor more history and analysis, consult Mary Desjardins and Mark Williams’ essay entitled, “Are you lonesome tonight?”: Gendered Address in The Lonesome Gal and The Continental” from the book Communities of the Air: Radio Century, Radio Culture, available in the EBL (E-Book Library) Database, or find more sound clips in The Internet Archive.

A Holiday Parcel c/o the Red-Headed Stranger

Staff Pick: Willie Nelson, Pretty Paper (1979), Columbia 36189


Even the most sentimental Christmas music afficionado (yours truly) tires of the same forty songs on the radio every December. My solution to Jose Feliciano overkill? Roll out the big guns, those Christmas albums that never get old. Willie Nelson’s Pretty Paper (1979) is one of those standards.

In the early days of his career, Nelson wrote “Pretty Paper,” but Roy Orbison recorded it first,and made it a hit: “Pretty Paper” rose to #15 on the charts in 1963.

(Fun fact: Before Willie wore braids and bandanas, he was an awkward, anxious, often sweaty, suit-wearing, up-and-coming songwriter, trying to make it in Nashville. His original success was found in writing hits for others, most notably Patsy Cline’s classic “Crazy” and Faron Young’s “Hello Walls.”)

Fast forward a decade-and-a-half, and we have Pretty Paper rounding out the tail end of a successful stretch of albums, from Shotgun Willie (1973)– the album that redefined him as an outlaw– to Stardust (1978), my personal favorite. Pretty Paper has all the standards of a successful artist’s requisite Christmas album (“Jingle Bells,” “White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland”), but for some reason the tracks sound sweeter when Willie’s laying them down. My personal favorites include his warbly versions of “Pretty Paper,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and the instrumental final track, “Christmas Blues.” But Willie’s bright spirit comes shining through in all twelve songs.

As an added bonus, the album cover is typically ridiculous, featuring a grinning Willie Nelson in a red beret on a postage stamp in the corner of a half-unwrapped package. Consider Pretty Paper Willie’s present to you: his gift of enduring sound.

[audio:|titles=Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper”]

Willie Nelson’s Pretty Paper is available in the Marr Sound Archives for your listening pleasure.