SUN RA

Spaceship Lullaby: The Vocal Groups: Chicago 1954-60
Atavistic Unheard Music Series UMS243CD

Undoubtedly one of the most — if not the most — bizarre items in the massive Sun Ra discography, this CD showcases the pianist and infrequently members of his Arkestra backing up three pro-am Chicago vocal groups.

While there’s some grotesque fascination in listening to some of the 37 [!] songs the three sets of singers — the Nu Sounds, the Lintels and the Cosmic Rays — perform, you have to realize that many of the 74 plus minutes of music are merely of rehearsal tape quality. Plus true appreciation of the results must come with a certain tolerance for schmaltz. Before he took his band and cosmic visions to New York and later Philadelphia, Sun Ra was very much part of Black show biz in the Windy City. Thus much of the singing is given over to a cross section of pre-rock’n’roll standards and originals, some as cringe-inducing as “A Perfume Counter (in Paris)” and “The Wooden Soldier & The China Doll”, both sung by the Lintels.

Don’t expect soulful blues, refined jazz arrangements or Africanized space chants either. The three all-male vocal groups were aiming their efforts at the general public and depending on the year and the vocalists, the style emulated ranges from late Ink Spots-Mills Brothers to the first stirring of doo-wop. The former tunes feature a burbling bass singer and a semi-conversational tenor lead; the later street corner harmonies, teen angst lyrics and closely-voiced harmonies where “cha cha cha” are the most common backing syllables.

There are some highpoints, however. “Chicago USA”, sung by the Nu Sounds, was Ra’s entry in a contest to write new theme song for that city. Especially on the second run through, you can hear glimmerings of what, with a bit more seasoning, could have been a major city song like “New York’s My Home” or “Do You Know What It Means?” When the pianist’s flat handed expanse replicates the sound of waves splashing off the shore of Lake Michigan, veteran drummer Robert Barry gooses the beat with his cowbell and Pat Patrick’s baritone saxophone becomes the sound of the EL the association with Ra’s later work is strong as well.

You can even speculate why this ditty, that asserted that “no place on this earth compares to this Midwest paradise”, didn’t win the prize. Maybe Chicago already has too many anthems? Citizens of less musically favored places such as San Diego, Boston or Toronto wouldn’t mind a catchy number like this associated with their burg.

Although most of Ra’s later preoccupations were kept to a minimum in the days reflected o this CD, the lyrics and sentiments of the title tune could easily have fit in with the Arkestra in its salad days with June Tyson rather than the Cosmic Rays singing.

Powerful Patrick bari work and rattling, stuttering drum beats from Barry and timpanist Jim Herdon give the Cosmic Ray’s version of “Africa” some musical testosterone, while Marshall Allen’s flute and the riffing of the Arkestra reed section behind the bass singer give “Black Sky & Blue Moon” added heft.

That song and “Honey” are also performed by the Nu Sounds with only Ra and Barry accompanying them. However beefed-up instrumental backing and perhaps the passing of a couple of years make the Cosmic Rays’ version superior.

First time through, the arrangements seem to give collateral sophistication to nonsense syllables chanted by the back-up singers. Dual hand drumming and a unison vamp from Allen, Patrick, alto saxist James Spaulding and John Gilmore on tenor saxophone enliven the over-four minute second version. But the overall sonic picture is a lot muddier, as if the primitive tape machine was destabilized and couldn’t record all the sounds created by the singers’ close harmonies and the augmented instrumentation.

Other than all this, there’s a certain fascination in eavesdropping on Ra at the piano singing along and taking the raw singers — especially the unknown members of the Lintels — through their paces as he tries to shape something resembling professional harmonies from the groups. It’s also instructive to hear how the Mills Brothers harmonies and Mario Lanza pseudo operatic tenor lead of the Nu Sounds are supplanted by the Lintels’ rawer street corner tones which presage falsetto singers like Frankie Valli, when the Cosmic Rays’ lead singer heads into counter-tenor range.

Without the other instruments Barry and Ra stick to shuffle rhythms and cocktail piano accompaniment. You see why when Ra tries to teach the Nu Sound an original arrangement of his favorite “St. Louis Blues”, a tonal clash between his southern blues styling and their incipient northern doowooping is palpable.

Sun Ra completists will have to have this album and it may also interest those with a quirky fondness for offbeat singing. Others should approach it with caution, even if they’re familiar with other parts of the Ra legacy.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Spaceship Lullaby 2. Stranger in Paradise 3. Just one of those things 4. Honky Tonk 5. Haunted Heart 6. Evelyn 7. Honeysuckle Rose 8. Honey 9. Black Sky & Blue Moon 10. Ra coaching Roland Williams 11. Holiday for Strings (Ra dynamics demo) 12. Holiday for Strings 13. I Fall Asleep Counting my Blessings 14. Nice work If You Can Get It 15. Somebody Loves Me 16. Chicago USA 17. Chicago USA* 18. C’est Si Bon 19. Blue Moon 20. Baby Please Be Mine 21. Blue Skies 22. My Only Love 23. A Foggy Day 24. A Perfume Counter 25. Love Is… 26. Wordless Piece 27. I Was Wrong 28. Louise 29. St. Louis Blues 30. The Wooden Soldier & The China Doll 31. Africa 32. Somebody’s In Love 33. Bye Bye 34. Black Sky & Blue Moon 35. Honey 36. Honey 37.

Come Rain or Come Shine

Personnel: [Track 1-17, 23-30] Pat Patrick (baritone saxophone)*; Sun Ra (piano); Robert Barry (drums); The Nu Sounds: Roland Williams, John, Kalil (vocals); [Tracks 18-22] Ra, The Lintels: singers unknown (vocals); [Tracks 31-37] E.J. Turner (trumpet); Marshall Allen (alto saxophone and flute); James Spaulding (alto saxophone); John Gilmore (tenor saxophone); Pat Patrick (baritone saxophone); Sun Ra, piano, (Wurlitzer electric piano); Bebop Sam Thomas (guitar); Ronnie Boykins (bass); Robert Barry (drums); Jim Herdon (tympani); The Cosmic Rays: Calvin Barron, Matt Swift, Lonnie Tobert and one unknown (vocals)