Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Programme about Parrot Records on Juke in the Back

While still Flamingos-minded after the previous posting, you can currently stream Matt the Cat's Juke in the Back episode about Chicago-based Parrot Records, the group's second label, on the PBX website here; sound quality is very good. There are only a couple of Flamingos sides featured but the show has a representative sample of the short-lived label's R&b and doo wop output and is an ideal introduction to its musical riches.

Parrot Records, a small label run "alone, almost as a hobby", by DJ Al Benson (above), nevertheless - or as a direct result? - produced some superb recordings, including the faultless output of the Orchids as well as eight sides by the Flamingos in between their time on Chance Records (Golden Teardrops) and Chess (I'll Be Home).

The Orchids are not featured in the show although Matt does demonstrate impeccable taste in singling out Gilbert Warren's contributions to recordings by the 5 Thrills.

In fact, listening to them again makes me wonder whether it's actually Warren doing the honours on You Have Two (I Have None), subject of a recent repost here. His voice has a nasal quality which doesn't seem so evident on that song. So possibly that's Buford Wright, whom the discography cited below lists another lead - although, to confuse matters further, in the sleevenotes to one 1993 compilation a friend of Billy Vera's recalls a lead singer named "Ralph." Any elucidation gratefully received.

But what can be stated with certainty is that all of Parrot's doo wop recordings are considerably enhanced by the backing. I don't know whether the musicians involved felt like they were slumming, but there are often musical subtleties which repay repeated listening, and there is a sense of looseness about the playing. The same applies to the Flamingos' recordings on Chance, which I believe often featured the same musicians. You can find an extensive online discography for Parrot Records, a real labour of love, here which details the players regularly involved.

I've writen about both the Flamingos and the Orchids in detail in earlier entries, and there is no shortage of information online, or indeed in book form (see below) about Parrot Records, so I will content myself with the observation that the  rhythm and blues tracks featured the show are equally enjoyable. Despite the looseness I referred to, there is no sloppiness evident on any of the sides.

I don't claim to know anything about Benson's methods. Was he, like Sam Phillips, somehow able to coax the best out of his artists? Or was there was just so much talent around in those days that it was difficult not to make good sides? Robert Pruter notes he used the city's club performers like saxophonists Paul Bascomb and Red Holloway on the vocal group sides.

The programme is really enjoyable because it gives you the outline of the Parrot Records story without getting bogged down in detail. But some points leap out, especially something noted at the end of the programme: Parrot Records was only active from 1952 to 1956. It only issued 40 singles and its sister label, Blue Lake, issued 18. Hardly sounds enough to constitute a legacy, does it? But its recordings, including some not issued at the time, are among the best doo wop sides you will ever hear.

If you haven't heard of Parrot Records before now, it may be to do with the "hobby" aspect of Benson's operation. In his book Doowop: The Chicago Scene, Robert Pruter says that when two group members complained to Benson they couldn't hear their records in Detroit,
Benson thrust some copies of the record into their hands and gave them the name of a distributor they might entreaty to secure a distribution deal. Needless to say, a company operating on that level was not long for this world. 
But it's ultimately a happy ending - at least for us:
Parrot and Blue Lake were failures in only one sense: as commercial enterprises. Otherwise the labels were a terrific success because they handed down to us a legacy of the most splendid recordings by bluesmen, solo R&B performers, and vocal harmony groups of the early 1950s.
So why not try the Juke in the Back programme, if any of the above genres might constitute your sort of thing? It's an ideal introduction to a great label.


When I googled "Donn Fileti" for further information about Parrot Records I came across an article in the NY Times from February of this year about the closure of a doo wop-dedicated record shop which may be of interest to those who have read this far. The piece concludes with some thoughts about why there has never really been a full scale revival after the British Invasion. Below is an abridged version of that final section: 
Doo-wop never attained any sort of retro cool or developed a new generation of musicians and devotees. ... “It has not proved exportable either to younger people or the rest of the world,” said Donn Fileti, who with a partner ran Relic Records ... “There was a cult of doo-wop in Spain for a while and in Japan, probably in the ’80s and early ’90s [14 Karat Soul found fame there], but it seems to have dissipated completely. Almost everyone who cares about it is in their 60s and 70s. It’s a dying art form.”

It is not quite dead. Every month perhaps 100 fans gather at the Pleasure Lounge, a frayed nightspot surrounded by warehouses, cheap motels and used-car lots off Route 46 in South Hackensack, for the North Jersey Rhythm & Blues and Doo Wop Party ...

Admirers say the best of the music, particularly the gospel-tinged music of the black groups viewed as doo-wop’s greatest artists, is a vital link in pop music that morphed into Brill Building pop and Motown soul. But whether because of an absence of charismatic individual stars, musical shortcomings or the way it has been relegated to “Happy Days” nostalgia, doo-wop has been marginalized as tacky music stuck in time.

“It’s music people tend to trivialize and make a mockery of,” said Christine Vitale, a rarity as a woman in her 40s in a field dominated by older men, who broadcasts the Group Harmony Alley on Sunday nights on WFDU at Fairleigh Dickinson University and puts on shows that mix doo-wop with other musical genres, whether Latin soul or blues.

“If people took more time to study the whole body of work,” she said, “there’s a lot of really good music, but it’s usually just dismissed as silly and immature.”
Find Christine Vitale's page on the WDFU site here - click on "Show Archives" at the top of that page to hear an edition of Group Harmony Alley. I do hope the Pleasure Lounge is still going ...

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