As recently as the first half of the 70s, many record companies were still ardent archivists. Both independents (Specialty, Chess) and major corporations (Atlantic, United Artists) were devoted to the roots of rock 'n' roll, as evidenced, not only through quality reissue series, but also in what motivated their contemporary releases -- pure traditionalism, a belief that rock 'n' roll was indeed worth preserving.
Yet most of the record companies simply didn't -- and still don't -- know how to properly collect their vintage material. Ironically, the definitive compilation of a particular American rock 'n' roll or R&B artist's work is usually British, French or German. Chess tried -- which is more than one can say for most other labels, which in the late '70s constantly sacrificed the marrow of rock history for the muck of folk simps and stodgy metalloids.
Except for the excellent King/Gusto anthologies (the Midnighters, the Dominoes, et al), no label currently has a more scholarly, better-designed series than Arista's R&B reissues from the vaults of Savoy (a rather minor label formed in Newark, N.J., by Herman Lubinsky around 1942).
Savoy was known exclusively for rhythm and blues; it also released a good supply of jazz (Charlie Parker) and black gospel music (Clara Ward). Yet Arista's series is so meticulous and well-defined that it makes the Savoy story (and sound) seem as significant as that of Atlantic, Motown or Stax.
Enttitled the "Roots of Rock 'n' Roll," the Arista/Savoy series has included eight volumes in less than three years, all sporting classy jackets and literate liner notes by astute musicologists such as Marvin Goldberg and Robert Palmer.
The initial two-volume album, "The Roots of Rock 'n' Roll" (Savoy 2221), is a must, a compendium of all the following volumes, featuring everybody from Big Maybelle to Johnny Otis. Volume 2, "Have No Fear -- Big JoeIs Here" (Savoy 2223), and Volume 3, "The Ravens -- The Greatest Group of Them All" (Savoy 2227), also are highly recommended as Definitive collections.
Often, nothing is drier than a "definitive collection." But Vol. 6 of the series, "Honkers & Screamers" (Savoy 2234), a party album to end all parties is guaranteed to blow a home up into a zillion flaming fragments. It's an anthology of ranting saxophone R&B, that maniacal screeching and squawking constructed upon but always piercing the basic blues riffs of the Southwest, eventually adopted and distorted in the name of art by free jazz exponents like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler.
However, not even John Coltrane captured the savage delights of a saxophonist's squeal (the primitive urge to torture with noise) like Big Jay McNeely, his unholy music given an entire side (perhaps for the posterity of licentiousness itself). Consider these simple titles from Big Jay -- "Man Eater," "Cherry Smash," "Cool Blood." Like Adam, one cannot escape their temptations.
The exhibitionism of modern musicians, whether funk or new wave, owes much to these exuberant edtroverts. Walking -- leaving the stage and strolling through the audience, often into the street -- was as essential to the R&B saxophonist's style as being able to bite down on the reed and blow hot notes. Big Jay was a master of the walk, as was Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams, also featured prominently on the collection. Williams was such a showman that he hired a midget to do the hucklebuck beside him, while he walked the bar, as customers tossed do-re-mi into the bell of the sax.
The R&B work of the famous sax seasion-man, King Curtis, can be heard on Sam Price's "Rib Joint" (Vol. 7 of the "Roots" series, Savoy 2240), a showcase for Price's boogie tickling of the ivory keys. What Curtis lacked in the moxie of earlier session honkers (say, Lee Allen and Sam "The Man" Taylor, available on "Honkers & Screamers"), he compensated for with the plaintive expression of an alien studying the cosmos, his horn merely an extension of his innermost musing. Unlike the delirious saxophonists, Curtis' sound could be smoothly integrated into an ensemble, which is why, undoubtedly, his playing is so prevalent on countless Atlantic R&B hits (Chuck Willis, Coaters, La Vern Baker). Culled from four late-'50s sessions, "Rib Joint" contains not only some of Curtis' prime yawping but also the dexterous work of guitarist Mickey Baker. (The innovation of his guitar break on Mickey and Sylvia's "Love is Strange" puts doodlers like Eric Clapton to shame.)
Like the sax squawkers, Sam Price's piano shuffling is also based upon the riffs of the Southwest blues. Thus, like a bear on the prowl, Price simply barrels right along while his band follows in his tracks.
Harking back to the Ravens' anthology, the most recent album in the Savoy series is "The Vocal Group Album" (Vol. 8, Savoy 2241), a goldmine of black group harmony -- magical, albeit minor, recordings by primarily doo-wop artists struggling in the shadows of the Orioles, the Dominoes, the Drifters and Frankie Lymon and the Teen-Agers. The collection has been assembled with love and care, packaged with elegance and documented with authority.