Music City Blues and Rhythm.

Label: Ace Records.

For anyone with even a passing interest in blues music, Ace Records’ new compilation Music City Blues and Rhythm will be of interest to them. It features twenty-eight tracks from the vaults of the Music City label, which was based in Berkeley, California. That was where the story started for Alec Palao who compiled Music City Blues and Rhythm with Roger Armstrong.

Around ten years ago, Alec Palao arrived at Music City Records  to pickup some tapes from the vaults. Little did he know that he was going to have to transport and then listen to 1,500 reels of tape. That should’ve come as no surprise as Music City Records was founded in the early fifties and was still active right up to the mid-seventies.

Ironically, when Ray Dobard founded Music City Records he never intended to run the label for the best part of a quarter-of-a-century. Instead, Ray Dobard hoped to make some quick music during the fifties and sell Music City Records. Ray Dobard was a businessman first and foremost and wanted to make money. However, as it turned out, Ray Dobard ran Music City Records for three decades, which explained the vast quantity of tapes.

Over thirty years later, and Alec Palao took away the 1,500 reels of tape and began looking through them and listened to them. This was obviously time-consuming, but was a labour of love, as the Music City Records’ archives are regarded by many connoisseurs of blues as the holy grail.

In an instant, he was transported back to the fifties, when Ray Dobard’s Music City Records was releasing an eclectic selection of blues music. Unlike many other blues labels, Music City didn’t release much of what’s regarded as hard blues. The exception is Al Smith’s memorable 1954 single  On My Way which features on Music City Blues and Rhythm. The rest of the compilation is best described as eclectic selection of blues music.

Music City Records’ founder Ray Dobard knew what type of blues people wanted to hear during the fifties, and it wasn’t the pure form of the blues that had once been popular. Ray Dobard paid attention to the blues music people were buying at his record shop at 1815 Alcatraz Avenue. He had noticed that different types of people were buying different types of records. 

The more urbane black community seemed to prefer jazz and the adult orientated cool blues favoured by Nat Cole and Charles Brown. While Ray Dobard catered for the needs of these record buyers, he soon discovered what type of music was the most popular and indeed profitable.

This was the vocal groups were growing in popularity amongst teenagers. They were coming into his record store for the first time and regularly buying records. Ray Dobard was determined to have the music in stock that they wanted to hear. Even if this meant releasing it on Music City Records.

Meanwhile, older record buyers were buying the different sub-genres of the blues. Some wanted the country blues that reminded them of home, while others wanted a more contemporary sound. Just like with vocal the teenagers who were frequenting his shop, Ray Dobard was determined to cater for the needs of blues fans. This included by recording new singles which he would release on Music City Records.

The only problem Ray Dobard was the prohibitive cost of hiring a recording studio. However, the recordings of Al Harris and Alvin Smith that took place at Bay Area, Sound Recorders in San Francisco were professional sounding and in many cases superior to what other smaller labels were releasing. While the sound quality of the music he was releasing was important to Ray Dobard, was the bottom line.

That was why in 1954, the forever self-confident Ray Dobard decided to build his own studio in a room next to his record shop. Build is a bit of an exaggeration. The only acoustic treatment Ray Dobard’s used for his nascent studio was sticking some egg boxes to the walls. This many musical impresarios like Ray Dobard thought was effective, as he began recording artists signed to Music Hall Records.

To keep costs to a bare minimum, Ray Dobard decided to engineer the sessions himself. The only problem was he had no engineering experience and the quality sometimes suffered in the early days. This wasn’t Music Hall Records’ only problem.

Music Hall Records was run by Ray Dobard who fulfilled every role in the company. While his engineering skills were sometimes lacking in the early days, so were his skills as an A&R man. He sometimes took a gamble on an artists, but sometimes they weren’t good enough. Others were talented and released singles with potential, but weren’t promoted properly and sunk without trace. However, Ray Dobard honed his A&R skills and he later became a good judge of artists.

Proof of that is Music City Blues and Rhythm, which featured twenty-eight tracks. This includes Alvin Smith,  Al Harris, Sidney Grande, Roland Mitchell, Jasper Evans, Johnny George, The Richmond Boys, Jimmy Raney, Pee Wee Parham and Little Willie Littlefield. Some of these tracks were released during the fifties and others have lain unreleased for over sixty years. There’s even some mystery songs by unknown vocalists. Music City Blues and Rhythm is a song where there’s highlights aplenty.

It’s Music City Jump an unreleased instrumental by Alvin Smith that opens Music City Blues and Rhythm. This dancefloor filler sounds like the type of music that would be heard in a local juke joint in the mid-fifties. Another unreleased track from Alvin Smith is Brand New Baby where he takes charge of  a vocal that veers between joyous to boastful as he sings of his newfound love. Very different is On My Way, which was the B-Side to Alvin Smith’s 1954 single My Last Letter. It’s a welcome addition to the compilation and is a truly memorable blues. These tracks are joined by three more unreleased songs. There’s Traveling Time which has a rawer sound and  Don’t Know Where I’m At which features a despairing vocal and rasping horns as the song swings. It’s joined by Low Down Dirty Ways which is a tale of love gone wrong. Here it sounds as if heartbroken Alvin Smith is telling the story in his local juke joint as he combines his slurred vocal with a singalong chorus.

Go To Bed With A Worry was released by pianist Chick Morris and His Band in 1953 and featured a vocal from Bay Area vocalist Golden Boy. Jazz-tinged and bluesy it’s one of the best of the early singles released by Music City Records. 

Gloria Jean Pitts released the rocking blues I Don’t Stand No Quittin’ in 1955. However, the version on Music City Blues and Rhythm is an alternate take featuring another vocal powerhouse from Gloria Jean Pitts.

Tin Pan Alley was recorded by Sidney Grande but never saw the light of day until Music City Blues and Rhythm was released. It features  a wistful, bluesy arrangement and a vocal from Sidney Grande that is full of emotion and hurt. When this is combined it’s part of a three-minute musical soap opera.

She Moves Me was released as a single by Jimmy (Mr. T-99) Nelson in 1956. By then, Ray Dobard was recording singles at what was a basic home studio. However, this song has a much more professional sound than some of the early recordings Ray Dobard made. This is thanks to Jimmy (Mr. T-99) Nelson’s vocal, piano and growling horns. Together, they’re part of what was one of the best songs on Music City Blues and Rhythm which was recorded at Ray Dobard’s home studio. Jimmy (Mr. T-99) Nelson’s other contribution is the unreleased track No More Any More which features a rueful, hurt-filled vocal as rasping horns punctuate the arrangement.

In May 1955, Jasper Evans recorded Wrong Doin’ Woman for Music City Records He also recorded the boisterous sounding alternate take that features on Music City Blues and Rhythm. It swings and then some.

Another unreleased track is The Richmond Boys’ You Gotta Be Mighty Careful. It features a much more understated and rawer arrangement, while the vocal is almost delivered blues shouter style.

Roy Hawkins dawns the moniker Mr Undertaker on Take 1 of Here Lies My Love. He lives the lyrics and is accompanied by a talented band on this hidden gem.

Your Money Ain’t Long Enough was released on Delcro in 1953 by Que Martyn’s Orchestra, and featured a vocal by Del Graham. Her vocal plays a starring role as the horn led arrangement swings.

Pee Wee Parham contributes two unreleased tracks to Music City Blues and Rhythm. This includes the ballad To Be Alone which features a vocal full of despair. Then the tempo rises and Pee Wee Parham and band deliver a swinging take of Ease My Mind. Just like so many tracks recorded for Ray Dobard’s Music City Records horns play an important part in the arrangement.

Gene Lee and The Blues Rockers released You’re The One in 1957. It’s slow and bluesy, with the band adding an element of drama. Playing a leading role are the drums, piano and horns, while Gene Lee delivers a deliberate and powerful vocal.

Closing Music City Blues and Rhythm is Who Did It which is one of the mystery tracks. Sadly, the identity of the singer is unknown, which is a great shame as it’s another of the hidden gems on the compilation.

Music City Blues and Rhythm which has just been released by Ace Records takes the listener back to the fifties when Ray Dobard had just founded Music City Records. These tracks are a reminder of the early days of Music City Records, which Ray Dobard ran for three decades.

Initially, Ray Dobard’s Music City Records specialised in the blues, and took great care to release what he thought people wanted to hear. Rather than focus on the hard blues or pure blues, the blues music that Ray Dobard recorded and released on Music City Records was eclectic.  Different sub-genres of the blues were released in an attempt to turn  Music City Records into a profitable venture.

This worked and Music City Records was in business for the best part of a quarter-of-a-century. However, in the early days Ray Dobard released a lot of blues music. Just like a lot of labels, Ray Dobard recorded more music than he could release, and much of it has lain unreleased for sixty years. Now a tantalising taste of the riches to be found in the vaults of Music City Records can be heard on Ace Records new and lovingly compiled compilation, Music City Blues and Rhythm.

Music City Blues and Rhythm.

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