Introducing, the Barney Kessel Collection

Image of Barney Kessel (Wikimedia Commons)

One year ago, LaBudde Special Collections (LSC) and the Marr Sound Archives (MSA) made a valuable and historic addition to our collections through the remarkable generosity of Phyllis Kessel, widow of legendary guitar player Barney Kessel. Mrs. Kessel donated her late husband’s collection of nearly 400 audio/video items and hundreds of print documents. It turns out that one of hardest-working musicians to ever pick up a guitar was also a meticulous archivist. As a result, the Barney Kessel collection is a goldmine for music historians and fans alike. Through the efforts of LSC Graduate Student Assistant Anthony LaBat, MSA Public History Intern Taylor Bye, and the rest of the LaBudde and Marr team, we have finished processing the collection. This is the first of a series of posts taking a look at the breathtaking scope of Kessel’s career and offering a tiny taste of what the collection holds.

According to an official biography, “Barney Kessel was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma on October 17, 1923. He started playing guitar at the age of 12 and within a couple of years was playing in a local jazz orchestra. While he was still a teenager, Kessel met guitar legend Charlie Christian by chance in an Oklahoma City nightclub. Impressed by the youngster’s talent, Christian offered to pass his name on to renowned bandleader Benny Goodman. Christian’s guitar playing was a great influence on Kessel’s playing, which was essentially a further refinement of the older guitarist’s style. Kessel worked hard on his technique to create his own exciting, “straight-ahead” bebop jazz guitar, with no blues licks. Although he soon became well known locally as a talented guitarist, Kessel realized that there wasn’t a career for a jazz musician in Muskogee, and he moved to Los Angeles in 1942. Life wasn’t easy there and, at first, he had to make a living out of washing dishes at a restaurant, but he managed to get a break with the Chico Marx (of Marx Brothers fame) Orchestra in 1943, and this led to radio and studio work. A year later he appeared as the only white musician in an award-winning documentary film, Jammin’ The Blues. Word of Kessel’s abilities soon spread and during the remainder of the decade he also played with the bands of Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet, and eventually Benny Goodman himself.”

By the 1960s, Kessel’s reputation was growing. In 1965, he made his first live record at P.J.’s Nightclub on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, just a few blocks over from the Sunset Strip. 1965 was right as the Sunset Strip was entering its heyday as an epicenter of American Rock & Roll.

Album Cover for On Fire (courtesy of Discogs)

Despite the burgeoning rock scene, clubs like PJ’s still catered to jazz audiences. PJ’s later became the Starwood Rock Club, before closing for good in 1981. Below are excerpts from a test pressing of his 1965 live show, which he released as the album “On Fire” on his own label (Emerald Records.)             

Another singular item in the collection is what we believe to be an unreleased recording made for Reprise Records (part of Warner Brothers) in either the early or mid-1960s. The recording features Kessel playing alongside tenor sax whiz Zoot Sims. With Kessel and Sims were Monk Montgomery, Johnny Gray, and John Piscatelli on bass, 2nd guitar, and drums, respectively. According to a 1992 letter, Warner Brothers never released the album, though Kessel wanted them to release it as a CD. For copyright reasons, we can’t upload any of the material from that session. However, it is just one example of the unique items in the Kessel collection that researchers can use to uncover new stories about the history of American music.

Sources:

Barney Kessel Collection, MS295, LaBudde Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

http://articles.latimes.com/1991-04-27/entertainment/ca-675_1_sunset-strip

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starwood_(nightclub)

http://martinostimemachine.blogspot.com/2016/12/pjs-night-club-las-first-discotheque.html

Early days of “The Pitch”

The Pitch was first published in July 1980 as the Penny Pitch, a music sheet handed out by Penny Lane, the erstwhile Westport record store at 4128 Broadway. The first 13 issues were printed under the early banner before undergoing a series of name changes – including KC Pitch and Pitch Weekly – beginning in January 1982. Since then The Pitch has expanded into an alternative weekly newspaper serving the greater metropolitan area and covering music, film, arts, entertainment, news and investigative reporting.”

The above quote is from a 2010 online exhibit made by LaBudde Special Collections to commemorate thirty years of The Pitch. Now, as the paper changes back to a monthly format, we thought it appropriate to revisit that exhibit. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at some of the historical, insightful, colorful, and even unusual stories that made the pages of The Pitch in the 1980s.

This back page contains a letter to the editor and an promo for the record store.

The first issue of Penny Pitch came out in July 1980. Clearly the paper had a long evolution ahead of it. The two top headlines were a tanning contest sponsored by KY102, and an interesting story by editor Warren Stylus about Penny Lane’s unique stock of records (Stylus being either a pseudonym, or a perfect last name for a music writer). The tanning contest seems to have been underwhelming, a fact the writer attributed to ash from Mt. St. Helens still blocking out the sun over Kansas City. For those who may not remember, Mt. St. Helens had erupted just a few weeks prior in May, 1980. Stylus’ story is more interesting. He chronicles the story of The House, an important distributor of small independent record labels – over 350 according to Stylus. The House had a colorful history, first occupying an actual house in St. Louis, then the limestone caves around 31st St in Kansas City, before finding a home in the same building as Penny Lane. As with any first issue, the writers were finding their feet. Still, the paper established some columns and segments that would become stalwarts over the next decade. One example was the music review column known as “Ridin’ With the King” written by Leroy “LeRoi” Johnson.

By 1984, the paper (now the KC Pitch) was a more serious piece. In contained interviews with major musicians, advertising for Penny Lane, and an extensive music calendar. With Stevie Ray Vaughan, Van Morrison, Robert Cray, and the Grateful Dead all coming to town in 1984, it was a good time to be a music fan in Kansas City.

LeRoy “LeRoi” Johnson kept Kansas City music fans well informed on both the good and the bad of newly released records.

LeRoy Johnson continued to write music reviews as well. In his reviews he put a (literal) stamp of approval (“WOW”) next to records he liked, and a stamp of dis-approval (“FLY ME”) next to those he did not.

The cover story for April 1984 was an interview with Jazz legend-in-the-making Ronald Shannon Jackson. Jackson was born in Fort Worth, Texas. He attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri where he roomed with piano legend John Hicks. Shannon had formed his own band, The Decoding Society, in 1979. Shannon and his band had just returned from a tour of Asia. Of the tour, Shannon said “we were invited to do the Singapore Jazz Festival and the Malaysian Jazz Festival…most of the crowds we played for were two, three, four thousand. They have a total thirst for western music.” Shannon also theorized that Asian audiences were more likely to dance to his music because the unconventional beats he used were akin to beats used in Asian musical genres. Shannon appears to have believed that in 1984 Asian (or European) audiences had less rigid standards for what constituted “Jazz” than Americans did. As a result, they were more “accepting” of his music, although he also said Americans were getting better. Describing his musical style, Shannon said that “there is no actual lead [instrument]” in his melodies. Instead, his melodies were based on rhythms produced by traditional “background” instruments like drums or bass. In Shannon’s songs, “the drums are like a lead instrument.” The Shannon interview demonstrates how America’s signature art form – Jazz – continued to be modified by innovative performers. Critically, it also shows how worldwide audiences were attracted to American music, even if that music did not fit more rigid American audiences’ definitions. Kansas City’s jazz heritage is often thought of as an American phenomenon, but Kansas City takes on global significance when you consider jazz as an important American cultural export. The Shannon interview hints at this relationship.

In October 1988, ahead of a solo appearance by Robert Plant, the KC Pitch asked “Does Kansas City hate Led Zeppelin, or does Led Zeppelin hate Kansas City?” Apparently, in 1969, the crowd at a Zeppelin show at Kansas City’s Memorial Hall booed them off the stage. This, according to writer Anthony Henge, became the first and last time Zeppelin played Kansas City until Plant and Jimmy Page made separate appearances in 1988. By 1988, the paper had grown to over 30 pages long. What had been a simple newsletter for a record store had become arguable the important source of entertainment news in the city. But, some things had stayed the same. LeRoi was still writing music reviews. Some of the articles still had a tongue-in-cheek style. And the paper was (and is) still free.

Sources

Youtube

Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)

Content sharing in the ’30s

It’s probably 16 inches wide, and you hold it carefully by the edges. It could be made of glass or aluminum, coated with black cellulose nitrate. If you’re lucky the coating hasn’t started flaking off yet. Alternatively it might be made of vinyl, like an LP, but bigger. It plays at 33 1/3 RPM, holds 15 minutes of recorded sound, and was a key tool in the development of syndicated radio programming in the United States. We’re talking about transcription discs.

lacquer_metal

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A cellulose nitrate over aluminum transcription disc. Note where the coating has flaked off. When that happens, that part of the recording is lost.

In the 1920s, radio stations needed a way to replicate and share programming consistently. They weren’t allowed to play commercially released records on-air because musician’s unions believed that hurt record sales. So radio content had to come from somewhere else. Live broadcast was inconsistent, time consuming, and expensive. Not every radio station could afford to have its own in-house musical groups, but all stations wanted to attract more listeners. At this time the first radio networks were beginning to form. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was created in 1926, and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) was formed in 1927. As these networks made more programming and acquired more satellite stations, they needed a way to distribute programming. Larger radio stations were creating programming of their own that they wanted to share with the networks. In short, there was a huge market for pre-recorded radio programming, but distribution of content was still a major hurdle. Transcription discs were the solution.

By the 1930s, transcription disc recorders had become ubiquitous at larger radio stations. Program producers were able to pre-record a program, make copies, and distribute it to other radio stations for future broadcast. This meant that stations in networks could all get the same programs. Individual stations could also add out-of-network programming to their repertoire by purchasing them from distributors. A station could also record its own unique local program using transcription discs, and then re-use it later. As a result, small stations could avoid the expense of live programs. Bigger stations and networks could get their shows to a wider audience. This meant listeners in Boston, Kansas City, and San Francisco could hear the same program at the same time. The ability share programming is a big reason why radio contributed to the growth of popular culture across America. To paraphrase Marr Sound Archives director Chuck Haddix, “radio was like the internet” because it brought people closer through information sharing. Everybody got to hear the same radio programs and news broadcasts, giving people similar cultural and political knowledge. We take this for granted today. Imagine for a moment a conversation with someone from two or three states away. They hadn’t heard Adele’s latest song or weren’t able to listen to that Ted Talk that enthralled you. Of course the opposite would be true as well. Its 75 degrees here in Kansas City. What snow storm in Ohio? That political protest in Washington that they went to? You had no idea until weeks later. Certainly newspapers allowed content-sharing, but radio was a huge leap forward, and it’s largely thanks to the humble transcription disc. One of the big 1930s radio stations that made a lot of transcription discs was KMBC here in Kansas City. Many of these discs are now held in the Marr Sound Archives.

KMBC joined CBS in 1928 as the 16th affiliated station. In 1930 station moved to the eleventh floor of the Pickwick Hotel. Under the direction of Arthur B. Church, KMBC became a model for other stations. Church and KMBC produced a wide variety of syndicated shows which were recorded on transcription discs and then distributed. One of these programs was the Texas Rangers. Another example from the KMBC collection that highlights the importance of transcription discs is a recording of one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats.” The recording can be heard below. It was made by CBS at the White House on May 2, 1943. It was then presumably broadcast by all CBS network stations, including KMBC. FDR could not have reached the entire country without transcription disc technology.

Sources

Museum of Broadcast Communications. Encyclopedia of Radio. Edited by Christopher Sterling. Vol. 3. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004.

 

Selections from the Equal Rights Songbook

In 1971-1972, the National Organization for Women, along with other women’s rights advocacy groups fought for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. First written by Alice Paul in 1923, it was brought before Congress repeatedly over the ensuing decades. In 1971, the House of Representatives finally passed an updated version of the Amendment, which read as follows:

 Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

The ERA eventually passed the Senate in the spring of 1972. As with any potential amendment, it then went to the states for ratification. It needed 38 states to ratify for passage, but only received 35 before the expiration of the ratification deadline. 5 other states eventually rescinded their ratification. The ERA still has support, and has been re-proposed numerous times. However the campaign of the 1970s remains its high water mark. LaBudde Special Collections houses some memorabilia related to the ERA crusade of the early 1970s. This post brings you a pamphlet with several “Songs to Pass the ERA By” (pictured below).

KIC Image 0001

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The small collection of songs appears to have been compiled from contributors, whose names and locations are noted with each song. The songs in the brochure are drawn from several sources. First, “Shoulder to Shoulder” is derived from the song “March of the Women.” “March of the Women” was written in 1910 by two Englishwomen; composer Ethel Smyth and actress/writer Cecily Hamilton.

Both were active in the English Women’s Rights movement, and they wrote the song for the Women’s Social and Political Union, active in England 1903-1917. At the time it was written, the song was described as “at once a hymn and a call to battle.”

The “call to battle” theme continues with a song set to the US Army marching tune “Caissons Go Rolling Along.” Like “March of the Women,” it focuses on unity, or “sisterhood.” The other contribution to the NOW songbook that draws on American patriotism was a pro-ERA song set to the tune of “America the Beautiful.” This song is not a call to battle, instead it is a celebration of a brighter future in which men and women are “living in full equality.” The battle to pass the ERA coincided closely with the bicentennial of the United States, a point the NOW songwriters did not overlook. Both patriotic songs emphasized that 200 years had passed since the Declaration of Independence.

The little songbook is peppered with creative adaptations of popular songs as well. Two short sing-a-longs are set to “Brother John” (“Frère Jacques”) and “Row Your Boat.” A member of the Chicago branch of NOW submitted a pro-ERA song set to “Dinah Shore’s Chevy Song.”

Even though the jingle itself was a couple decades old, Dinah Shore would have been familiar to TV audiences from her numerous variety shows in the 1950s to her daily talk show during the 70s.. “Bella Ciao” takes a different approach, leveraging a less lighthearted subject. “Bella Ciao” (Italian for “Goodbye Beautiful”) is a song of resistance that was sung by anti-fascist Italian groups the 1943-1945 Italian Civil War. Again, a version of it is below. (LaBudde Special Collections is not responsible for any of these songs getting stuck in your head.)

These songs are evidence that ERA supporters saw themselves as part of a much wider movement. By borrowing from patriotic American traditions, they linked themselves with America’s past. They also looked worldwide, borrowing from longs of resistance and political movements written in other countries. Finally, the songwriters cleverly recycled one of the most famous commercial jingles ever written into a song for political action. This is a small document, but it encapsulates the vibrancy of the ERA movement and the NOW membership. Whether “Bella Ciao” or “Row Your Boat,” songs can become more than the sum of their parts, and music’s flexibility as a medium allows its use by groups across space and time.  

Sources

YouTube

http://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/336era.html

NOW Collection, MS-302, LaBudde Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a Reference Guide, 1866–1928. (London: Routledge, 2001).

Evie Quarles and Her Muse

KIC ImageAfter 35 years of designing greeting cards, Evie Quarles finally decided to pursue her innate yearning to become a professional photographer. In the Fall of 1997 her son Josh persuaded her to put down her paintbrush, pick up a camera and enroll in a photography class at Penn Valley Community College. What Evie would choose to photograph was not to be of the usual common nature, but rather a phenomenon ingrained into her spirit at a very early age, referred to as the Blues. Growing up in West Tennessee, she would accompany her father to joints to service Juke Boxes on weekends or in the summertime. It was in the black joints she would discover her call to the Blues. In her words, “the call would come as a whisper”, because “race’ music was not played on the radio in those days. Parents did not want their teenagers to be influenced by the Devil’s music.

A few months into her photography class she was wandering around 39th and Main iMillage Gilbertn Kansas City, looking for visual material for her final exam. She heard music coming from the open door of the Grand Emporium, a local Juke Joint. She wandered in and quickly became immersed in the music of Millage Gilbert’s Blues. When the band took a break she introduced herself to Millage and asked if she could photograph his next set. He approved her request,, and so here her new journey began.  Quarles soon contacted the proprietor Roger Naber to obtain permission to photograph local & national acts, to which he agreed. For the next seven years the Grand Emporium would become her “Muse”. GE

In May of 2013, Ms. Quarles bestowed upon the LaBudde Special Collections a generous selection of photographs from her vast collection. The black & white images create a compelling depiction of Quarles’ love and passion for the epic American art form known as the Blues.

Teresa Wilson Gipson

From Swedish sex to Muppets

Sheet Music cover for the song Mah-na Mah-naAll fans of the Muppets are familiar with the song Mah-na Mah-na but, what many don’t know is that the song was written for the 1968 Italian film Sweden: Heaven and Hell. “A pseudo-documentary about sexuality in Sweden. It shows contraceptives for teen girls, lesbian nightclubs, wife swapping, porno movies, biker gangs, and Walpurgis Night celebrations. It also examines Sweden’s purported drug, drinking and suicide problems.” from IMDB.com

To top all that off it’s X rated.

Evidence of this childhood shattering fact can be found in our Popular American Sheet Music collection.

A Holiday Parcel c/o the Red-Headed Stranger

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

willie-nelson-pretty-paper-album

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:http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Pretty-Paper-Clip-1.mp3|titles=Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper”]

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

Kansas City’s “New Wave Scene”

New Wave band at unidentified location, 1981

New Wave band at unidentified location, 1981

So a recent donation of issues from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s of Star Magazine, the weekly supplement to the Sunday Kansas City Star has provided the occasion for some observations:

  • magazines used to run a lot of cigarette ads
  • it’s surprising how quickly restaurants fade from memory (Brown’s Chicken, anyone?)
  • one of the sad outcomes of putting  newspapers on microfilm is that you lose the color that was originally used in the paper’s production

That being said, one of my favorites issues in the stack of 127 is the one pictured here, from April 26, 1981.  Writers Jo E. Hull and Art Brisbane (who would later become the Star‘s publisher and ultimately land a gig at the New York Times) reported on their jaunt into “a thriving underground culture in Kansas City”.  There wouldn’t have been a New Wave scene without the music, which could be purchased at Rock Therapy, 7511 Troost, “Kansas City’s principal New Wave disc parlor, offering the coveted and obscure import records from England, always keeping pace with the trends”. The writers detail visits to the two primary New Wave clubs, further north on the same street: the Downliner, located in the basement of the Plaza East tavern at 4719 Troost, and the Music Box, located further up the block at 4701.  This same block also served as headquarters for the stores where devotees could acquire their New Wave garb – Rags Fashion Originals, 4733 Troost, and Punk Funk at 4739.  Interestingly enough, as the decade progressed and New Wave music fractured into increasingly specific categories – e.g., goth – the 4700 block of Troost continued to serve as the fashion nexus for club kids.  By 1986 Archaic Smile, at 4715, was the place for clothes and accessories.  The store’s owners also were the proprietors of the nightclub of choice:  Epitaph, located on 31st just east of Main.  So, as Ollie Gates and other developers continue to refashion the neighborhood around 47th and Troost, it’s good to be reminded of the area’s link to the city’s eccentric musical past.

Innovations on the B-side: The Tim Gillesse Collection of Caribbean Music, Part 2

Tim Gillesse

Tim Gillesse

Tim Gillesse, a long-time resident of Lawrence, Kansas and avid reggae enthusiast, made his first of many trips to Jamaica in the early 1970s. During these trips he scoured small record shops and sound studios in Kingston in search of rare reggae 45s and LPs. Upon Mr. Gillesse’s passing in April of 2013, his estate donated nearly 1000 of these recordings to the Marr Sound Archives. Dating from the early 70’s to the late 90’s, the Gillesse Collection of Caribbean Music showcases some rare and exciting moments in the history of the reggae sub-genre known as dub.
The Gillesse collection of 45s varies in origin from famed labels like Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle to lesser known, hand-printed labels like African Museum and Zippy, and features the work of many of the most important and innovative figures in the history of “dub”. The collection of reggae and “dub” records provides an invaluable sonic snapshot of an influential and often overlooked development in the history of not just Caribbean music, but popular music in general.

For a quintessential example of Dub style, compare the Lee Perry produced B-side, “Dub of Parliament” to the Meditations’ original A-side “House of Parliament.” Dub of Parliament

First, listen to the original: [audio:http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/03-House-of-Parliament.mp3]

Now compare this to the Lee Perry “Dub” version: [audio:http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/04-Dub-of-Parliament.mp3]

Perry recorded these tracks at his Black Ark Studios, which was well-known as a site of eccentric and experimental techniques, like covering the drum studio in chicken wire, recording and sampling shattering glass, and burying microphones under palm trees.

One of my personal favorites from the collection is Joe Gibbs and Errol T.’s reworking of Ranking Joe’s “Drunken Master” titled “Silver Fox.” Drunken Master

The Original: [audio:http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Drunken-Master.mp3|titles=Drunken Master|artists=Ranking Joe and Errol T.]

Joe Gibb and Errol T’s Dub Version: [audio:http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Silver-Fox.mp3]

The original song begins with 30 seconds of belligerent, drunken rambling, which in the B-side dub version is spliced up and masterfully reworked into the rhythm track.

Perhaps the most well-known and influential artist in dub was Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock. King Tubby is generally credited as the inventor of the “remix” and the man who turned sound engineering into a true art form. Tubby's at the ControlOne of the many “Versions” titled “Tubby’s at the Control,” this track produced for the Pantomine label, features signature King Tubby style, reducing the rhythm to a basic drum and bass pattern while splicing in stabs of melodic instrumentation.

Tubby’s At the Control: [audio:http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/09-Tubbys-at-the-Control.mp3]

 

King Tubby, before his murder in 1989, began focusing most of his energy on managing his Jammy Versionnewly built studios and developing his musical protégés, among whom were included “Scientist” and “Prince Jammy” (or depending on the stage of his career “King Jammy”). Prince Jammy is largely credited with ushering in the “dancehall” generation of dub and was an early innovator of using digital and electronic effects. This 1986 “Version” of King Kong’s “Trouble Again” is typical of dub’s turn towards the “ragga” dancehall sound.

[audio: http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Trouble_Again-Version.mp3|titles=Trouble Again (Version)|artists=Prince Jammy]

Other highlights include dub recordings from such famed labeled as the Hoo-Kim Brothers’ Channel One, Errol T. Records, Ja Man, Impact!, Techniques, Treasure Isle , Bob Marley’s 56 Hope Road studio, famed vocalist Gregory Isaac’s African Museum label, Selector Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes’ Volcano label (named after his renowned Volcano Sound System), and Sly and Robbie’s label, Taxi Records. It also includes tracks from legendary producers like Coxsone Dodd, Bunny Lee, Augustus Pablo, and many, many more.

With the donation of these records to the Marr Sound Archive, the estate of Tim Gillesse has preserved an important piece of music history and created a valuable resource for scholars, reggae enthusiasts and music lovers in general. While the names of producers like Scientist or King Tubby may not be as recognizable as Tosh or Marley, nevertheless, the influence of their “dub” studio innovations can be seen everywhere in popular music today. These early “dub” records have influenced everything from reggaeton and dancehall to British punk, post-punk and new wave, to the last 30 years of hip-hop, to the entire concept of a remix.

Innovations on the B-side: The Tim Gillesse Collection of Caribbean Music, Part 1

A Typical Jamaican Sound System

A typical Jamaican Sound System

These days we are all familiar with the concept of a “remix”. Listen to any pop radio station for more than 30 minutes and you’re likely to hear one. An increased tempo turns a slow country ballad into a dance club hit. A Jay-Z verse turns an R&B song into a radio-friendly single. R. Kelly even turns the last 30 seconds of his “Ignition” into a preview of its own remix.  But according to many music scholars, the roots of the “remix” can be traced back to the innovators and artists in the Jamaican music scene of the late 1960s. The newly established Tim Gillesse Collection of Caribbean Music at the Marr Sound Archive showcases some of the earliest instances of these recording innovations, which eventually led to the development of the reggae sub-genre known as “dub” and the ever-growing remix culture in popular music today.

In his exhaustive study titled Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae, Michael E. Veal explains that in order to trace the development of dub, one must understand the broader context of the Kingston music scene, specifically the importance of “sound system” culture. In economically depressed Kingston, Jamaica, few people could actually afford to purchase recordings, so music was experienced mostly in communal settings around mobile entertainment centers known as “sound systems.” In order to attract larger audiences and stand out from their competitors, the sound system DJs (known as “selectors”) were driven to consistently supply new and unique songs. To fulfill this need, sound system operators and studio engineers began to push the local recording studios to produce new material at a torrid pace.

lee_scratch_perry_black_ark_in_dub

Lee “Scratch” Perry in his famed Black Ark Studio

As a result of the fierce competition and drive for new music, studio engineers began to experiment with new mixing techniques, dropping out vocals or looping certain sound patterns from already popular reggae songs in order to create new recordings for the eager sound system operators. The engineers then began to record these versions onto 10-inch acetate discs known as “dub plates,” which normally were used only for test pressings and sent to record manufacturing plants. However, now, instead of waiting to send these acetate recordings to a manufacturer for pressing, engineers began to simply supply these “dub plates” directly to the sound system operators, thereby cutting out turn-around time and blurring the lines between the musicians, engineers, and the “selectors”. These discs were generally expensive one-off recordings and could only be played a limited number of times before wearing out. Initially, the dub-plates contained song versions in which merely the vocals or instrumentals were absent or would drop out, but as the dancehall crowds responded enthusiastically to these new unique song sound system versions, recording engineers began to experiment with more complex mixing techniques. Initially this practice was called “versioning” but it eventually evolved in to what became known as dub.

As studio recording technology advanced,  engineers and producers in Jamaica began to experiment with their new-found creative freedoms. Through the use of mixing board sound effects like reverb, looping, equalization, filtering, tape splicing, tape speed manipulation and other forms of editing, the pioneers of “dub” such as Lee “Scratch” Perry and Errol Thompson transformed the mixing board from a mere tool of soundrecording into a creative site of musical composition and arrangement. By stripping familiar reggae songs down to their most minimal elements, and then building new sound textures through studio effects, dub producers created new, raw and mesmerizing pseudo-electronic music out of pre-recorded instrumentation and vocals.

See Me Yah Version

A 1975 B-side “Version” mixed by King Tubby

The popularity of these “versions” led many of the Kingston record labels to begin including these tracks as B-sides on their 7” singles. Thus, on over 30 of the records in the Gillesse Collection, the B-side’s label reads simply “Version.”

In Part 2 of this post, I will explore a few of my favorite individual tracks from the Gillesse Collection.

Works Referenced: Veal, Michael E. Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007.