Saturday, October 16, 2010

Doo Wop at 51

Ok, so if you enjoyed the clips from Doo Wop at 50, you’ll really want to buy the Doo Wop at 51 DVD. In terms of production, it’s a quantum leap from the previous year. T.J. Lubinsky and PBS learned a lot to do some really fine tuning in this 2000 production. But I’m pretty sure that most of it is a result of PBS having more financial resources to put into this show. The previous concert was such a success, that the viewers must have made some heavy contributions to their local stations.

By far, this DVD is the best in the whole series. The stage layout and lighting were perfect, and the audio quality improved tenfold. Not only that, but Lubinsky continued to have success in getting many of the original artists to perform. It’s a shame to say that I didn’t know many of the groups until I bought these DVDs, but I’m glad to have seen them for the first time in such a grand way. Hank Ballard was one of the singers that I took notice of for the first time. His performance with the Midnighters was absolutely fantastic. I actually repeated his act two or three times before watching the rest of the concert.

Yes, I did think The Lion Sleeps Tonight was a song made for Disney’s The Lion King. At least, until I watched the DVD. Little did I know that The Tokens first recorded this song in the 60’s. It was also nice to see The Dubs sing Could This Be Magic, a song which I first heard on my Happy Days LP. 

The most memorable features that this DVD provides, though, are the historic encounters among the original singers of the 50’s and 60’s. You’ll see Bill Pinkey and Charlie Thomas, members of different eras of The Drifters, the four original Diamonds sing Little Darlin’ with Maurice Williams (who wrote the song) for the first time, the Teenagers sing Why Do Fools Fall In Love with Frankie Lymon’s brother, Louis, at the lead, and the best of all (in my opinion), members of the two formations of The Orioles singing the group’s biggest hit, Crying in the Chapel. This last one gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. Specially knowing that one of the formations dates as back as 1948.

Other groups featured on Doo Wop at 51 are: Jerry Butler, The Velvets, The Chiffons, The Coasters, The Crystals, Randy and The Rainbows, The Edsels, The Cadets/Jacks, Shirley Alston Reeves, The Dells, The Tymes, The Clovers, The Chiffons, The Excellents, Don and Juan, The Coasters, Mel Carter, Betty Everett, The Magnificents, The El Dorados, The Five Keys, and The Classics.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Doo Wop at 50

Ten years ago, I was randomly looking for DVDs online with search words like “rock and roll”, “soul”, and “R&B”. I always like to find CDs and DVDs that I’ve never heard about. It’s like online treasure hunting for the music fan. So, not finding anything interesting or new, I started searching for different music genres, such as “doo wop”. One of the results I got was a DVD called Doo Wop at 50. It was a 1999 concert produced by T.J. Lubinsky for PBS, to celebrate 50 years of Doo Wop music.

I was a bit skeptical, since I had seen a lot of DVDs featuring artists such as The Temptations, James Brown, B.B. King, but they simply weren’t very well made or the video wasn’t remastered in any way. But after looking at some of the groups that were on the DVD (The Penguins, The Platters, The Flamingos, etc.), I decided to give it a chance. When it arrived, I was extremely surprised as I started watching the concert. I did feel a bit disappointed when I first started noticing that most of the groups had new, young members. But after a while, it hit me. These groups have been singing for 40-50 years, so a lot of the original singers have passed away or simply don’t perform anymore. So I started realizing the historical importance of this concert in music history. Specially now, 10 years later, when a lot of the singers who were featured on the DVD have unfortunately passed away.

T.J. Lubinsky was inspired to create this first concert and the ones that were to follow from years of listening to his father’s records. He wanted to document an important style of music with its original performers before it was too late. Well, lucky for us, he took the initiative to create this series of shows in the time he did. The general rule was for each group to have at least one original member from the 50’s. Since this first concert was held in 1999, we get to enjoy a lot of the original lead vocalists singing their top hits.

Here’s the listing of the other groups that performed in this concert: The Del-Vikings, Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners, Gene Chandler, Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge, Lee Andrews and the Hearts, The Cleftones, The Capris, The Marcels, Jive Five, The Legends of Doo Wop, Earl Lewis and the Channels, The Cadillacs, Golden Group Memories, The Chantels, The Moonglows, Jerry Butler, The Harptones, and The Spaniels.

Although most of the original singers were well into their 60’s, they did a very good job. You can easily identify a lot of the lead vocalists, even though some are hoarse or simply can’t hit that high note anymore. But even so, is it worthwhile buying it? Let’s just say that later on, I bought another copy, in case something happened to the first one.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

One hit wonders: The Regents

During the 50’s/60’s, it was pretty common for vocal groups to have a hit and not be able to duplicate the success with other songs. They would simply burn out, and this would make it difficult for record labels dedicate too much time to them, since there were so many groups available. The Regents would turn out to be one of the vocal groups that unfortunately had this fate.

The original Regents came together in the Bronx, in 1957.  The original members were Ernie Marseca, Chuck Fassert, Guy Villari, and Sal Cuomo. This lineup was first called The Monterays. A little bit later, they changed their name to The Desires, when they signed with Seville Records. They finally decided on The Regents, named after the cigarettes with the same name that Villari smoked, after adding Tony Gravagna and Don Jacobucci to the lineup. But life was tough for the group, as none of the songs they recorded were released. They had recorded Barbara Ann in only three takes, in 1958, but that didn’t guarantee them a recording contract. Eventually, they broke up.

It was not until 1961 that The Regents became known. As luck would have it, another group, called The Consorts, were in need of original songs for an audition. They ended up recording their own version of Barbara Ann. When the owner of Cousin Records heard the song, he decided to release the original version. The Regents reunited and the song was a #1 hit in New York, getting to #13 in the Billboard Hot 100. After this initial success, they recorded Run Around, which reached #28 on the pop chart. But after a royalties dispute with Roulette/Gee, who were responsible for worldwide distribution of Barbara Ann, the group broke up again.

In 1973, Guy Villari revived The Regents, although he was the only original member. Curiosly, Villari also wrote songs for other singers, like The Wanderer, recorded by Dion. Maybe if The Regents had recorded this song…

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pause for music: Hank Ballard

Answer quickly, who sang the original version of The Twist? Chubby Checker. Easy, right? Wrong. Although Chubby Checker was certainly the one responsible for the song to be known all over the world, and making thousands learn how to Twist, Hank Ballard was the one who wrote the song and was the first to record it. That was in 1959, one year before Chubby came out with his version. Hank Ballard never got to be a chart topper for a long time, but he wrote and sang other Rock n’ Roll tunes like The Hoochi Coochi Coo, Finger Poppin’ Time, Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go, and Work With Me Annie. One year after this last single came out, Etta James recorded The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry). Etta James and Hank Ballard wrote it, so there’s no question here that the difference between the songs were simply lyrics.

Born John Henry Kendricks, Hank Ballard started singing in a church choir during the 40’s. Later, in 1951, he was invited to become a member of The Royals. The group, which at sometime had Jackie Wilson and future Four Tops Levi Stubbs as members, was now composed of Ballard, Henry Booth, Charles Sutton, Lawson Smith, and Sonny Woods. In 1952 they signed with Federal Records and but it wasn’t until two years later that they had their first hit, Work With Me Annie. They also changed their name to The Midnighters, so as not to get them confused with another group, The Five Royales. Soon after that, they recorded another chart topper, Annie Had a Baby, an answer song to Work With Me Annie. They went on to record other hits, like The Twist, which caught the attention of Chubby Checker through American Bandstand’s Dick Clark. The streak ended in the early 60’s, and eventually The Midnighters broke up.
Hank Ballard went on to a solo career, and even had James Brown produce several singles for him during the 60’s and 70’s. In the 80’s, Ballard decided to form The Midnighters again. He started out with only female singers, but later changed to an all male group. In 1990, he was inducted as a solo singer to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for his innovative approach to R&B music. He continued to tour for two more decades until 2003, when he passed away due to complications from throat cancer.
In the video bellow, you’ll enjoy Hank Ballard and the Midnighters in the 2000 PBS special Doo Wop at 51. It’s part of a fantastic series of shows produced by PBS, which are available on DVD. I will get to that on a later post, as they’re really worth having.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Monarch TM-20: Marcel Breuer's microphone?

In 1919, Weimar, Germany, was home to the most famous fine art/design school there ever existed. Until 1933, it would be relocated two times, until the pressure of the Nazi regime caused it to shut down. It would turn into a center of artists, lecturers and teachers that would be known up to this day, such as Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Schlemmer, and Piet Mondrian. Their names may not be commonly known to everyone outside of the design world, but certainly many of their works and pieces are. Who has never seen a Breuer’s Wassily chair, if not only in a magazine? (Curious note: although many might think the name was given by Breuer to honor his Bauhaus colleague Wassily Kandinsky, it was actually given by an Italian manufacturer in the 60’s, because Kandinsky was one of the first to have a post-prototype model).

Marcel Breuer's Wassily chair
Coinciding in time with the boom of industrialization and the concept of mass production, along with the start of the Art Deco style, it was only normal that I remembered of Bauhaus as soon as I saw the Monarch TM-20 for the first time. If there ever was a music & technology department at Bauhaus, this microphone would have certainly been created there. Its lines are pure Art Deco, and just like the other microphones of its time, the design is a modern wannabe that became classical for us today.

 Back in the 1950’s/60’s, a lot of smaller manufacturers shared the same microphone body of others, just changing the name plates. That happened with Shure and Stromberg-Carlson, with Electro-Voice and Ampex, and many others. I don’t know exactly how and why that happened, but it’s pretty common to be confused by trying to find out who made what microphone first. This is the case with this Monarch TM-20. I have a Lafayette 99-4581 that’s practically the same, except for the base. They were both made in Japan, and information on them are equally hard to come by. All I know is that its design is pretty distinct, and certainly stands apart most of the vertical and/or oval shaped microphones of the time. The DS rarity scale: 9/10.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

At the drive-in: Streets of Fire

 In the 80’s, singers like Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson were chart toppers. Pop music was at an all time high, and I Can Dream About You could even be included in that category, but it clearly had a Rock n’ Roll influence. Dan Hartman wrote that song and wanted Hall & Oates to record it. He told Daryl Hall that he had a song that would be a perfect fit for them, but they had just released their latest album, so they couldn’t do anything with it. Hartman, having already a famous disco hit Instant Replay, ended up recording it and releasing an album with the same name. What a lot of people don’t know is that I Can Dream About You helped the film Streets of Fire be what it is today for Rock n’ Roll fans.

Streets of Fire was supposed to be a blockbuster film in 1984, with future movie stars Diane Lane, Rick Moranis, and Amy Madigan. It also starred Michael Paré, in the leading male role, but unfortunately, his acting is the downside of the film. I was in my late teens the first time I saw the movie, and loved it. About five years ago, I bought the DVD and watched it again. Paré’s acting is a bit stiff, to say the least. In part, I think that is due to some of the lines, which are filled with wannabe clichés. I thought Paré had the right looks, the right voice, but something is just off. Maybe they could have used someone like Patrick Swayze or Matt Dillon for the part. But then again, if another actor had played the leading role, maybe the film wouldn’t have the cult status it has today. Anyway, the memorable acting was left for Willem Dafoe. He just oozes mean through his pores. He plays the part of Raven, leader of the motorcycle gang called Bombers. During a homecoming show of the now famous singer (19-year-old Diane Lane), Raven kidnaps her. Her ex-boyfriend and former bad boy (Paré) is called upon to come back to town and get her back.

Elizabeth Daily, Diane Lane, and Rick Moranis
Willem Dafoe
Diane Lane as Ellen Aim

Streets of Fire has a mysterious feel to it from the start. The action is divided in two places, the Battery and “the Richmond”, and you can’t really put a finger on the year it takes place. The looks of the cars, store signs, and most of the clothes are clearly 50’s. But when you listen to some of the songs, you know the makers of this film didn’t want a 100% oldies atmosphere.
It failed to be a box office hit, but the songs of the film had a great part in making it a home movie success. I for one, never seen it in a movie theater. The first time I saw it was at a friend’s “movie night” get together. A lot of songs were contemporary of the 80’s pop/rock. It stats off with an uptempo Nowhere Fast, which was a hit on radios and gyms at the time, and rolls along with Ry Cooder, the great Rockabilly band The Blasters, and more contemporary rock. The best track for the Doo Wop fan is Countdown to Love, recorded by Greg Phillinganes, and acted out by the fictitious group The Sorels. But for me, the climax of Streets of Fire is when The Sorels sing I Can Dream About You (recorded by Winston Ford for the movie), blending 50’s and 80’s dance moves. That’s when I got hooked on the film. “No more timing each tear that falls from my eyes, I'm not hiding the remedy to cure this old heart of mine”. Yeah, that’s Streets of Fire.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Pause for music: The Blasters

It was the early 80’s, and CDs were still a thing of a not so distant future. Nobody had personal computers and the internet was something nobody even thought would exist someday. So finding out about groups you’ve never heard before was something that would only happen through word of mouth, radio or magazines. If you were really interested in discovering a new sound or group, a good way to do that was to pay a visit to your local used record store. That was something I would do often, and although not everything I found would be a hit among teens my age, I usually discovered an unknown treasure.

Bill Bateman, Gene Taylor, Dave Alvin, John Bazz, and Phil Alvin.

Many of my first LPs, I bought without ever listening to them. I would just take a good look at the sleeve, at the names of the songs, and if there were photos of the group or singers, and they seemed like they played the type of music I liked, I would dig deep into my allowance and take it home. To think of somebody taking a risk like that these days is crazy. But back in those days, there wasn’t much you could do. If the record was used, I could get the store owner to play some of the tracks for me. But if it was sealed, forget it. Nevertheless, I have to say that 80% of the time, I made the right choice.
That’s how I bought The Blasters’ Non Fiction (1983) album. The cover screamed “rock n’ roll” to me, and when I looked at the individual photos of the band, the instruments they played, and the track listing, it just seemed like it was the right stuff. Let me get one thing straight before I go on. I was never just about rock and roll. Even though I have over 200 CDs from the 50’s/60’s, I was always very eclectic in terms of music. Actually, I was very much into pop music at the time. But when I first saw this album cover, I was very intrigued. I just had to check what this band was all about.
So when I got home, I started listening to the one of the best Rockabilly groups I have ever heard. I can’t say I’m an expert on Rockabilly, but I know the basic stuff: Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, (early) Elvis, Stray Cats, Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, etc. If I were to describe The Blasters in two words, they would be “contemporary” and “pure”. It’s honest, down to earth Rockabilly.
Lee Allen

The Blasters, which still tours today, was formed in 1979 by brothers Phil (vocals) and Dave Alvin (guitar), along with John Bazz on bass, and Bill Bateman on drums. In the beginning, they were fortunate enough to have tenor saxophone Lee Allen in the band. Before being part of The Blasters, Lee Allen recorded with Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Little Richard, the Stray Cats, and played three gigs with the Rolling Stones. He was part of the soul of The Blasters until 1994, when he passed away.
Since 1986, Dave Alvin has left the band, and some other musicians have come and gone. The Blasters might not be a mainstream group, but they are certainly well known for their one of a kind Rockabilly sound. Their songs were featured in Miami Vice, Six Feet Under, and the band made appearances in Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn, and the legendary cult movie Streets of Fire.

The Blasters in Streets of Fire

If you’re ever interested in purchasing a CD, I recommend Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings. It’s a 2 CD album, with 11 live tracks. It also contains all the songs from the Non Fiction album, and some tracks of the American Music and Trouble Bound CDs. On the clip bellow, you’ll be able to watch Phil Alvin and his trademark grin while singing Red Rose. This is an excerpt of the The Blasters Live – Going Home DVD, recorded in 2003, with the presence of Dave Alvin, back on lead guitar. Watch Phil’s smirk at the beginning of the song. Pure Rockabilly. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

At the drive-in: American Graffiti

A night in the lives of a group of teenagers of a small American town in 1962. That doesn’t say much for a plot, does it? Nor do words like “culturally significant” or “instant success” come to mind when we read that simple idea for a film. But when the hands and minds of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola are involved, you know something good will come out of it.

For those who have never seen American Graffiti, please watch what to me is the best 50’s themed movie ever made. When a movie is selected for preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress, in some sense it has to be worthwhile to watch. Not only that, but take in consideration the actors involved in this film, who were at the beginning of their careers: Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, and Charles Martin Smith.

Harrison Ford as Bob Falfa

One of the most famous cars in movie history: John's '32 Ford.
American Graffiti has all the ingredients that let you to know what the 50’s/60’s were like: a high school dance, the local drive-in, greasers, a favorite DJ, hot rods that you would love to have, and of course, rock n’ roll music. Forget the special effects, the present day big productions. This was film made with $775,000 as a budget (low, for 1973). But it was made by people who knew what they were doing. Even though the making of it had a lot of problems from start (from studios who didn’t want to touch it, to a town who backed out of their contract as a location, after just one day of shooting), it would turn out to be a masterpiece.

Sure, Grease is a great movie as well, but to me it was made in a much more 50’s fantasy world, and the characters were more comical. Don’t get me wrong, I love Grease. But American Graffiti is a down to earth and believable movie. It’s like it was based on the lives of thousands of teens from the 50’s/60’s. Not only that, but much of it evolves around “cruising”, a famous ritual kids back in those days had. Riding around at night in cars on the main road of your town, was for many, the way to flirt, defy other hot rodders for races, or simply look for trouble.
Wolfman Jack

The music selection of this movie was absolutely fantastic for any oldies lover. Not only it has many rock n’ roll “standards”, but the double CD soundtrack also has excerpts of DJ Wolfman Jack broadcasts that were used in American Graffiti. Whoever was lucky enough to buy the LP version, got a real gem. Only on the LP, do you get the extremely rare version of Ain’t That a Shame with female backing vocals. Somebody told me once the famous female vocal group that were credited to have recorded this version with Fats Domino, but I just can’t remember the name right now. If you want to hear this treasure, you can get it here.

I didn’t want to tell too much about the movie in this review, because I really don’t want to spoil the experience for people who are going to watch it for the first time. But there is one special appearance in the film. Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids sing a famous 50’s hit, At The Hop, in the high school dance scene as Herby and the Heartbeats. That, for itself, is worthwhile watching.

Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids as Herby and the Heartbeats.

If you’re thinking about buying the DVD, make sure it has The Making of American Graffiti. It contains over an hour of many interviews, not only with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, but also with the whole cast and some of their screen tests. The DVD I have is the collector’s edition, if that helps.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Cadillac of vintage microphones

A 1939 Cadillac
When I wrote an older post about the Turner 33 series, I compared vintage microphones to the streamlined designs of 30’s-60’s cars. Well, after doing some research to write about the Shure 55, I found out that the microphone that would become so popular in live performances, radio stations, and famous speeches, was actually inspired by the front grille of the 1939 Cadillac. Like the vintage microphones, those pieces of art on wheels are in a category of their own, providing us with a design that we would never see again. Sure, there are really well designed cars today, but very few make us breathless. At that time, both the streamlined mics and cars flourished during what would probably be their golden age.

In the late 30’s, Shure engineer Benjamin Baumzweiger (who later changed his last name to Bauer), was working on a microphone that would solve feedback problems. Before he created the 55, the unidirectional microphones available were much heavier and had two elements. Bauer’s breakthrough was to become the first single element unidirectional microphone. Shure would call this model the 55 Unidyne (UNI = unidirectional, DYNE = dynamic).
Scene from The Temptations
A young Elvis with the Shure 55
In the beginning, the 55 would have model variations (55A/55B/55C) for different impedances. The one pictured on this post is a model 55, which substituted the need for different models, with a high/medium/low switch on the back. It would also vary in silk color (black, red, or blue). In the 40’s, there would be more two more models, the 555 and 556 shock-mounted microphones. On a curious note, the precursor of the 55S mic is known today as the fat Elvis mic. And no, the 55S, the thinner and smaller version which would make its debut in 1951, is not called the skinny Elvis mic. Nor Elvis on a diet.
Scene from La Bamba
Up to this day, the 55 is the most recognizable microphone in the world. Throughout all these years, it captured the voices of so many different people in such different areas, like: Elvis Presley, Indira Gandhi, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, General Eisenhower, Eva Peron, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx, Harry Truman, and was even present at the signing of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. The DS rarity scale: 8.5/10.

A promotional photo of Walk the Line

Friday, August 27, 2010

The father of Rock and Roll

Until the late 40’s, probably the type of music most heard on radios came from big bands such as Glenn Miller’s, Benny Goodman’s, Harry James’, Sammy Kaye’s, and famous crooners. When Rock and Roll exploded, so did the amount of vocal groups trying to make it to the top. Groups would be formed in schools, churches, or even street corners. Since that time, radio DJs represented a strong influence on who would hit it big, and who wouldn’t. Although it’s known that some DJs were paid off to play certain records, which would probably help the groups to get more airtime and turn into a household name, I’m pretty sure a song wouldn’t last long if it wasn’t any good. 

Alan Freed, a.k.a. Moondog, was the most famous DJ of that time. He got his artistic name from the New York street musician Louis Hardin, who had an instrumental song called Moondog Symphony, and was known by the same name. (Freed would later lose the right to use the name in a lawsuit Hardin accused him of using his nickname and song without permission). Nevertheless, Alan Freed is known to be the “father” of Rock and Roll, because he was the first to coin the name “Rock and Roll” on the radio, and helped categorize it as a genre of music.

In the late 40’s, while working at a radio station, Freed met Leo Mintz, who was a record store owner in Cleveland. At that time, Mintz told Freed how there was an increase in interest for R&B records. Some years later, Mintz proposed to WJW station to buy airtime for Freed to play R&B records. That would be the beginning of Freed’s success, and probably the start of a more hip and energetic way for DJs to direct themselves at the younger crowd. He was also responsible for promoting the first Rock and Roll concert. The Moondog Coronation Ball was to be held in March 21, 1952, including a five-act show. Due to overcrowding, it had to be shut down. After this happened, Alan Freed’s popularity went over the roof.

Eventually, he moved to New York and expanded his fame all the way to Europe, for originating the Rock and Roll craze, as Life magazine would put it. He appeared in 5 movies in a three year period: Rock Around the Clock, Rock, Rock, Rock, Mr. Rock and Roll, Don’t Knock the Rock, and Go Johnny Go! He also recorded segments for Radio Luxembourg, and also had his own TV show, The Big Beat. What seems almost impossible to believe these days, The Big Beat was canceled after Frankie Lymon of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers was seen dancing with a white girl.

What was to be a career that was meant to last way beyond the coming of new genres, ended in the late 50’s, when Alan Freed was rightfully accused of receiving money from record companies to play certain records (known at the time as payola). He lost his job at WINS, and in 1962 received a fine and a suspended sentence for two charges of commercial bribery. The law might not have been harsh, but the notoriety of the scandal was. His reputation was stained forever, and east coast radio stations wouldn’t touch him. He ended up working for KDAY-AM on the west coast, which didn’t let him promote any more Rock and Roll stage shows. From there, Freed did a two month stint on a Miami radio station. He died at 43, in 1965, from complications derived from alcoholism.

If you want to hear the type of shows Alan Freed hosted in his prime, I recommend the Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio CD. It’s a compilation of live radio broadcasts on CBS in 1956, with song introductions by Freed. Besides the Count Basie Orchestra, you will also hear Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, The Drifters, Otis Williams and the Charms, The Cleftones, The Cadillacs, The Chordettes, Ivory Joe Hunter, Gene Vincent, La Verne Baker, Etta James, The Platters, Clyde McPhatter, Chuck Berry, The Penguins, and Bill Haley and the Comets. It’s a pretty rare CD, but I found this link on the web.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A special guest for the Astatic 77

One of the things that immediately came to mind when I decided to create a blog which featured my vintage microphones, was to have some friends over to sing and record them using my mics. I thought it would be nice for people to listen to the sound the microphones provided, along with some entertainment offered by the guests. While I’m still trying to get some friends who have groups and CDs of their own, I had my niece, Aline, over for a test run on how I would do this. What I thought would be an easy task, turned out to be a bit more complicated. Since I was recording video with my digital camera, and audio that came from the mic on my notebook, I would have to sync them both together later on. That was the real challenge. I did it with one song, and it worked out fine. But I realized it’s too much work. Since she’s coming over again next week, next time I’ll connect the audio from the mic directly to a video camera.

Aline has been singing for two years now, and has been on a rock/alternative/indie band for just about the same time. She just got over a cold, so to her benefit, it wasn’t her best performance. We tried 4 or 5 microphones, but for now, I’m just posting a small taste of That Thing You Do!.

As for the mic, the Astatic 77 is definitely a really nice looking microphone. In the 40’s, Shure hit the jackpot in terms of microphone design, when they came up with the 55 line. It only got better when, in 1951, the slim version (55S) was created. The fact that to this day it’s still manufactured, says something. In my opinion, a lot of the other companies wanted to resemble the look, in order to compete in sales. Although it’s similar in shape, the Astatic 77 went beyond that. Astatic came out with a beautiful design of its own, and the proof to that are other later models (from Claricon, Lafayette, Calrad, Calectro, etc.) that tried to approximate the 77 design. Like the old Shure 55 models, the Astatic 77 also has a high/medium/low switch, but located on the bottom front.


A curious fact is that a lot people make the mistake of calling it Astatic 77A, because of the “A” (Astatic) logo next to the “77”. The DS rarity scale: 8.3/10.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pause for music: The Penguins

Clockwise from top: Curtis Williams, Bruce Tate, Dexter Tisby, and Cleve Duncan.

When Back to the Future came out in 1985, I was already well into 50’s music. I obviously knew that Johnny B. Goode was originally sung by Chuck Berry, but that was the first time I heard Earth Angel. I fell in love with it right away, and in my opinion it was right up there with songs like the Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes for You, and the Five Satins’ In the Still of the Night. Later, I went on to learn that the original version was sung by the Penguins.

The Penguins’ place in 50’s music fell into a category well-known as One Hit Wonders. At the time, rock n’ roll and doo wop were among the types of music most heard by young people. But that didn’t make it easy for vocal groups to strike hits. Earth Angel was a great hit, but they never managed to reproduce another song with the same success.

The Penguins were formed in 1953, when Cleve Duncan and Curtis Williams (ex-Hollywood Flames) got together with Dexter Tisby and Bruce Tate to form a vocal group. The group name came from Willie the Penguin, featured on Kool cigarettes' ads, which one of the members smoked. In those days, a lot of groups named themselves after birds, but as Cleve Duncan would say later on, what could be more cool than Penguins?

In 1954, they recorded for Dootone records, but it wasn’t until the next year that they started getting some attention. In September of ‘55, a single was released with Hey Señorita on one side and Earth Angel, which Curtis Williams had been working on even before the group was formed, on the other. Strangely enough, Hey Señorita was obtaining an initial success when, one month later, Earth Angel started being noticed. It was a slow climb, but eventually it reached #1 on the R&B charts. On a curious note, at the time, it was common for white groups would record cover versions of songs done by African American groups and end up having more success on the charts. The Crew Cuts did a cover of Earth Angel, and while they were #3 on the Pop Charts, the Penguins were #8 with the same song.

Cleve Duncan with G. Madison and W. Saulsberry
After changing labels to Mercury and then back to Dootone, the group never made the charts again. After break ups and having different formations throughout the years, since the 70's, Cleve Duncan tours with Glenn Madison and Walter Saulsberry as the Penguins.

For those looking for a good Penguins’ CD, I recommend “The Best of the Penguins – The Mercury Years”. It contains 21 songs and features a second version of Earth Angel recorded with Mercury, with some bells in the background, that came out really sweet.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A vintage microphone with an Italian flavor

When you look around the internet, or more specifically, Ebay, for vintage microphones, I’d say that about 80%-90% of the results you get are American made. The rest are Japanese, British, or some eastern European or Russian manufacturers that you get to know after a while (Tesla, Oktava, Sennheiser, Neumann, etc.).

Every once in a while you come across manufacturers that you never or rarely heard about. Geloso is one of those I discovered while looking through some online auctions. I had never seen the Piezo Elettrico Nº 1100 microphone before, and I thought it had an interesting design. Since the bids weren’t high, I gave it a try and ended up buying the Geloso mic. When I got it, I was surprised to learn that it was so small (12cm in height). It looked like a toy microphone. It was pretty battered, and the paint, which resembled something like a greenish metallic gold (if that’s possible), was falling apart. So I decided to do something I always thought about when I purchased mics with heavy pitting on the chrome, or ones with an ugly color. I sent it to get it chromed. But I must say, I don’t like to mess around too much with the microphones, in order to avoid the loss of their personality. In this case, the chrome was a good idea. It gave a new life to the Geloso, and now it gets noticed every time somebody looks at my collection.

John Geloso

Geloso was founded in 1931 by John Geloso, an Argentinian born to Italian parents. It was based in Milan, Italy, and produced a wide range of electronic equipment (radios, TVs, amplifiers, amateur receivers, tape recorders, professional lab instruments, etc.). After WWII, Geloso also started making microphones, although they weren’t the focal point of the business. John Geloso died in 1969, but remains today as a reference of innovations in electronics. At the time when electronics training centers and schools were rare, he printed free technical bulletins which contained information on how to repair Geloso equipment, along with tips, instructions, schemes and all the information needed for technicians and enthusiasts. He will also be remembered for creating tv and radio mounting kits, for people to assemble at home. Unfortunately, the company closed its doors three years after his death.
The DS rarity scale: 9.7/10

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tips on starting a collection and the DS rarity scale

For those interested in starting a vintage microphone collection, I have a few tips for you. Most of my microphones were bought on Ebay, but a few others were found on some other sites. I have to say that if you’re on a limited budget, Ebay is the way to go. You might find exactly what you want on some other sites, but you’ll pay a price for it. If you’re not in a rush, keep on the lookout on Ebay. Not only that, but you’re much safer there. But still, don’t go for the first auction you find of the model you want. Do a wide search of the model or of “vintage microphone”. For the first timers, it would be good for you to spend a week or two just searching for mics and evaluating the prices. I’ve seen a Turner 33x being sold for around $1,000 as if it were the last one on Earth, when usually you can get one for $100 or less. It may take some time, but always try to buy one that is in good shape cosmetically. Don’t risk buying from sellers that have blurred photos on their auction. If the seller only has a photo from a certain angle, don’t be shy on asking for photos of other angles and the interior of the microphone. And never buy from sellers with few or bad feedback. Another thing is to look for mics that work. A lot of sellers will sell microphones AS IS or UNTESTED. Take a look at the other things they are selling. If it looks like they came across one vintage mic to sell, but it’s really not within their field of expertise, it’s probably true. But if the seller sells a lot of vintage microphones and music gear, and he states in other auctions that a certain mic is working, then AS IS or UNTESTED probably means that it’s not working. 

A trick that some scam artists will try are to sell something outside of Ebay. Don’t go for that. Only buy microphones from other sites, not from other people. One site I recommend is Blues Mics. They are honest and fast shippers. But I must admit that there has been a considerable increase in prices, ever since I bought from them. I’ve also bought from Otoban Music. They’re located in Canada, and sell mostly musical instruments. Otoban Music is run by Philippe Chaput, who was extremely helpful during the many e-mails we exchanged until I bought a Rauland mic from him. I had done some research previous to contacting OM to see if there were any feedback from this online business. Some people had good things to say, others complained about the packaging. But that was easily resolved when I paid about $15 more for shipping and asked him to double box my mic. Considering it’s an old microphone made mainly of Bakelite and it arrived in perfect condition, I think he did a great job. Other sites that I know of, but have never bought from, are Cool Microphones and Ekkehart Willms Antiques. This last one has a fantastic collection of vintage microphones for sale, but they come at a very steep price.

In years of searching for vintage microphones and constant lookouts on Ebay, I accumulated a good sense of what microphones are hard to find. The DS rarity scale I introduced in the blog, is a personal evaluation of what I have seen throughout the years researching online sales. They may even be more scarce if you consider the cosmetic condition of the mic, and if they work or not. I hope it helps.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Better than a car

Have you ever encountered a new car on the street with a really good design on the front end, but when you looked at the rear, it wasn’t that cool? Well, some vintage microphones are the same way. Either the rear of the mic is the exact same thing as the front, or it’s nothing special. This is not the case of the Turner 33 series. (The 33D was a dynamic version, and the 33X was a crystal version, but on the outside they looked the same). The back is actually almost better looking than the front. It has some beautiful lines that remind me of some of the cars back in those days.
Today, it’s referred by many as the Roman Helmet mic. If you look at it sideways, the upper fin reminds us of the upper part of the helmets worn by the Imperial Roman guard.  It was made from the 1940’s until the 70’s, and has a satin chrome finish. The satin chrome was used on many microphones during that time, but now it’s used on just about everything. From doorknobs to water faucets, from lighting equipment to ball point pens. It is a type of dull chrome finish that doesn’t reflect as much as the most common chrome finish known to us today, like the one used on motorcycle parts.
The DS rarity scale: 6.8/10

My friend Joanatan, jammin' with a Turner 33.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Billie Holiday microphone

There were many beautiful black and white photographs taken of Billie Holiday during her career, but the one photo that immortalized both the singer and her microphone was taken by Herman Leonard, the greatest photographer of jazz artists there ever was. He is famous for taking memorable pictures of singers and musicians such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan Count Basie, Miles Davis, and many others. This particular photo of Billie Holiday and the Shure 730 became so notorious that it's on the front cover of one of the books on Herman Leonard's work. It was taken in New York, in 1949, with two elements that became a mark in some of Mr. Leonard's photographs, backlighting and cigarette smoke. Ten years earlier, she did have a picture taken with the same mic, at the Off Beat Club, in Chicago. Although not as famous, the photo ended up on the cover of the compilation CD Musical Romance, along with Lester Young.

The Shure 730 Uniplex Crystal microphone started being manufactured in the late 30's, and was advertised at the time as a low cost uni-directional mic. It was cheaper than the Shure 55 Unidyne, but it still had a higher price than a lot of mics produced by other companies. Although it had openings on the back, it was heralded as an efficient mic for enviroments with a lot of background noise and reverberation. You can download the spec sheet here.
The DS rarity scale: 8.5/10.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Pause for music: Ryan Shaw

Ryan Shaw with a RCA 77DX
These days it's common to see singers do cover albums of Soul and R&B classics. You have Seal’s Soul album, Rod Stewart’s Soulbook, Michael McDonald’s three Motown-inspired albums, and so on. They usually do a pretty good job, like Australia's ex-boy band Human Nature on their 3 Motown tribute albums. But every now and then, comes along somebody who was born to sing Soul and R&B music. Ryan Shaw really impressed me with his vocals and his adequacy to this kind of music. It’s like he could be warped through time travel directly onto the stage of a 60’s show and he would be an instant hit. This is not entirely a cover album, but better yet, an album that offers new songs with that classic soul flavor. (On the Japanese CD, you get two extra a cappella tracks: I Found a Love and I’ll Be Satisfied). This is Ryan Shaw (2007), is definitely a must have for the true Soul fan!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Electro-Voice and the Cardax

Over time, many of the vintage microphones have become famous and recognizable because they were photographed with well known artists. Some of them have even been informally renamed for the sake of being easily identified, like the Elvis mic, the Billie Holiday mic, etc. Others may not have had a famous patron, but they still got names to associate them with: Hammer, Birdcage, Pill mic, Roman Helmet, Spring mic, etc.

On that note, I want to introduce to you practically the only manufacturer who actually gave names to certain models they produced: Electro-Voice. EV was born in 1930, when Lou Burroughs and Al Kahn decided to abandon the servicing of radio receivers and decided to transfer their focus to audio products. At the time, microphones were an expensive commodity, and the quality of the ones available wasn’t that good. They started out making one per week, and before the decade was over, the company had grown from a two man business to a company with over 20 employees. To this day, Electro-Voice supplies audio equipment to groups and big events, like the Soccer World Cup in South Africa, and has endorsers such as Al Green, Devo, George Clinton, and Snoop Dogg.

The microphone you see at the top is the Electro-Voice 950, better known as the Cardax model. The very first time I looked at it, it reminded me of the Shure 55S, but with a more oval shape. I guess that when Nady decided to manufacture a mic with a retro look (as mentioned in an earlier post), it went for a shape that was probably a cross between the Shure 55S and the EV Cardax. At the time, the Cardax was made in Buchanan, Michigan.

It’s not a mic you see often in the movies or music videos. The only movie I saw that featured a Cardax was La Vie en Rose. In technical terms, it’s labeled as a crystal cardioid. And although some microphones from the 40’s-50’s had high/medium/low switches, this one offers a bass variation, which is quite unusual.

Scene from La Vie en Rose
The DS rarity scale: 7.5/10