Paul Page – Castaway

After getting almost two inches of slush and a coating of ice, I find myself longing for some tropical beach somewhere so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this island tune has been on heavy rotation of late. Though Paul Page spent much of his career performing and recording music dedicated to the island life, he was born in landlocked Indiana and got his career in radio in Juneau, Alaska. Despite these decidedly un-tropical roots, Page always had an interest in Polynesian music and hosted the first Hawaiian themed TV show in 1949.

Though the show didn’t air for long, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Don the Beachcomber’s “tiki bar” became a trendy hangout for Hollywood stars around the same time Trader Vic’s was popularizing tropical drinks like the Mai Tai in San Francisco. Page became a popular performer of Hawaiian and Polynesian music at the many tiki-themed restaurants and bars that opened in California while also writing and recording songs like Castaway. He often worked with one of the masters of the Hawaiian steel guitar sound Bernie Kaai Lewis, a Hawaiian native, who he described in an interview with WFMU as “the best steel guitarist in the business.”

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The Crusaders – Look Beyond the Hill

Known originally as The Jazz Crusaders, The Crusaders rose from the ashes of Houston-area jazz groups which disbanded in the early 1960s. Shortening the name upon moving to Los Angeles around 1970, the original lineup of Joe Sample (piano), Stix Hooper (drums), Wilton Felder (saxophone), and Wayne Henderson (trombone) were soon joined by guitarist Larry Carlton and bassist Robert “Pops” Popwell. This would remain the core of the group throughout the 1970s, which was the groups most prolific and commercially successful period. The title track from their 1979 album Street Life reached #36 on the Billboard charts and is just an absolute jam. Henderson left the group in 1975 to focus on producing records full-time and and the group had all but disbanded by the mid-1980s.

Look Beyond the Hill was written by Wilton Felder, who played bass and marimba on the record in addition to saxophone. Felder was also a studio musician and his bass can be heard on Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, Billy Joel’s Piano Man, and Steely Dan’s Rikki Don’t Lose That Number to name a few. The group did put together a reunion tour of the founding members (minus Stix Hooper) in 2010. The group left behind a mountain of music to sift through so I can’t telly you where to start, but I can certainly recommend this album as a good place to start.

Greg Phillinganes – Lazy Nina

I had never heard the name of Greg Phillinganes before hearing Lazy Nina, but once I looked him up it called to mind how scientists describe their knowledge of dark matter: they couldn’t detect it directly, but evidence of it was everywhere. Scrolling through his Discogs page, it’s easier to find a legend of R&B/Soul that he hasn’t worked with. He appears on every one of Michael Jackson’s solo albums. He’s worked and/or toured with Herbie Hancock, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Donna Summer, Eric Clapton, just to name a few. That said, I’m guessing of all the legendary artists he’s recorded with though, he probably treasures his appearance on Billy Crystal’s 1985 Christmas Song most of all.

Lazy Nina comes from his second solo album entitled Pulse, released in 1985. In putting together this post, I found a recording of him performing the song on Soul Train where you can see Greg in action:

In 2015 he gave an interview as part of an oral history project with the National Association of Music Merchants where he discussed how he was able to work with so many different talented musicians:

How am I able to fit in with so many kinds of artists? Just understanding who they are musically and getting into their essence and the essence of their music. It says to the artist that I’m paying attention to them, I’m not just bringing me to their situation. I’m completely adapting to their situation.

All of Pulse is worth checking out if you like this song. It leads off with a cover of YMO’s Behind the Mask and if that’s not enough to hook you then stop reading this blog right now!!!

Jeff Parker – Here Comes Ezra

While I hadn’t heard Jeff Parker’s name before coming across this album, I had definitely heard him play before as a member of the Chicago post-rock group Tortoise. It was only after looking up his full discography that I realized how prolific he is as a guitarist. Here Comes Ezra comes from his 2016 album The New Breed, which was put out by Chicago label International Anthem.

After studying music at the Berklee College of Music, he moved to Chicago and got involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musician, which has been supporting avant-garde jazz and other improvised music since the mid-1960s. The AACM was closely aligned with art collectives on Chicago’s south side in the mid-1960s and continues to promote and support experimental and improvisational music from black artists. It’s interesting that the AACM would come about around the same time that the first American studio for experimental classical music was being put together just a few hours south of the city at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The AACM is all the more impressive because of its grassroots origins, and it continues to support experimental music by black artists in Chicago and elsewhere to this day.

In addition to his solo releases, Parker has scored a number of films which you can see here. You can purchase his albums on his site as well. Tortoise most recent album The Catastrophe has been in pretty heavy rotation for me as of late, and they recently put out a book of pictures from their tour.

Margo Guryan – The Hum

When Margo Guryan released her first album Take A Picture in 1968, it seemed all but certain that this was just the beginning. Though it sold well, Guryan was uninterested in the hustle and bustle of touring and Bell Records subsequently stopped promoting the album. Between Guryan’s witty lyrics and the baroque production, it’s like a burst of sunshine that was heavily influenced by Pet Sounds, which was released just a couple years earlier. While that album is great, I’ve really been enjoying this compilations of demos appropriately titled 25 Demos, which was released in 2001 by the reissue label Oglio.

Take a Picture might have been the beginning and end of Guryan’s music were it not for a renewed interested in 1960s sunshine pop in Japan around the turn of the millennium. Maybe that’s why when I first heard Guryan it reminded me of the Pizzicato Five’s Baby Love Child. Based on that uptick of interest, Oglio issued the demo compilation that features The Hum along with many other great tracks. It was also released on cassette by Burger Records in 2014 under the title 27 Demos, which I mention because one of the songs added on the Burger release is Under My Umbrella, which was one of the finalists when picking a track to feature. The many resonances with contemporary events finally tipped the scales for The Hum, but it wasn’t an easy call.

Guryan released two new compositions in 2007 under the title 16 Words, which comments more directly on political events. She also released a set of variations for the popular tune Chopsticks titled The Chopsticks Variations in 2009 which have also been published as sheet music by Hal Leonard.

Duster – Stratosphere

Stratosphere is the title track off Duster’s first full-length album, which was released in 1998 on Up Records. Around the same time the members of Duster released an album called Hier Kommt Der Schwartze Mond under the name Valium Aggelein, which has a very similar feel to it and is also excellent from start to finish.

The group didn’t leave much behind in terms of an online presence and its members don’t have too many credits once the group disbanded with the exception of drummer Jason Albertini, who would eventually join the lineup of Built to Spill. Duster released one more album called Contemporary Movement in 2000 and from the looks of Discogs you’d be lucky to get your hands on any of them but if you do and don’t snatch it up yourself please be in touch. On a side note, there has to be a specific German word for the feeling of discovering a group like this in the post-What CD era, as the Valium Aggelein material doesn’t seem to be accessible anywhere.

F.J. McMahon – Black Night Woman

F.J. McMahon recorded Spirit of the Golden Juice following his return from a tour in Vietnam with the U.S. Air Force. The record rarely made it outside of California and even within the state the distribution was minimal so he stopped trying to make it as a musician and starting repairing computers. Over time it became something of a cult classic for fans of folk rock from that era. His story is similar to that of another artist I’ve written about here, Robert Lester Folsom, and in fact the largest and most accessible reissue of both McMahon’s only record and Folsom’s come courtesy of Anthology Records.

In June 2017 McMahon performed all of Spirit of the Golden Juice with the band Quilt in support of the re-issue and also gave an interview where he talked about his career and life after music. He had played up and down California with various groups, and in the interview he talks a little about that scene:

I started playing a few old clubs and getting with some old friends to play bar-band gigs for weekend money. But I was also heavily involved in the anti-war thing, so I was trying to get my buddies who hadn’t gone yet not to go in the military. I didn’t want them going over there, so I was involved. Music was a big part of that movement. Everything was music at the time. There was a feeling in the ’60s that, if you saw somebody else with long hair, you knew they felt more or less like you did. There was a feeling guaranteed between the two of you that music could change the world. That may be naïve, but it was an honest-to-God feeling we had.

When asked whether he is surprised that the songs resonate with contemporary audience, he had this to say:

The overwhelming feeling I get today is that all these kids who are going out to the far corners of the earth and getting themselves killed, they’re doing it because there are no jobs. That thought devastated me when I was singing that song. I wrote [Five Year Kansas Blues] 50 years ago about guys who went to jail instead of going to war. That was their choice. But now I’m thinking about the kids who can’t get a job, so they go into the Army and they get shot up. That’s not okay. So things haven’t changed very much at all.

He hinted at future performances in the interview, though there’s no indication he’s got more songs to record. At the very least we might start hearing more of his stuff in Vietnam movies instead of the ubiquitous Creedence Clearwater Revival.