WHEN VINYL rationing ended with the conclusion of World War II, new independent record companies popped up all over the map. One of them was Specialty Records, founded by Art Rupe in Los Angeles in 1946.
From the beginning Rupe specialized in African-American music neglected by the major record companies. He quickly signed up many of the best small gospel groups in the country and some of the top West Coast rhythm & blues figures of the late '40s. He was also one of the first to exploit the Louisiana music scene. Specialty is best known, though, for Little Richard, a berserk former female impersonator that Rupe and his right-hand man, producer Bumps Blackwell, tried to turn into the new Ray Charles.
Now, at long last, the best of the Specialty catalogue is beginning to emerge on compact disc, most of them with rarely heard bonus cuts, session information and biographical essays by R&B singer/fan Billy Vera. (For a catalogue, call Specialty Records at 800/888-7711.)
"The Specialty Sessions" (Specialty). Specialty has previously packaged its Little Richard singles, alternate takes, album filler and outtakes in seven overlapping albums. Now it has come up with a box set (five LPs or three CDs) that collects all 72 existing takes Richard Penniman recorded for the company plus a Royal Crown Hairdressing commercial. Arranged chronologically and remastered from the original master tapes, the set provides a fascinating look at rock 'n' roll's most unpredictable character.
The set includes a 32-page booklet with rare photos, three essays and complete session information. The sound is excellent and the rare tracks are interesting, but the heart of the Little Richard story is still the "Grooviest 17 Original Hits," as one Specialty album once summed it up. In fact, there may be no more exciting moment in rock 'n' roll history than Little Richard's introduction to "Tutti-Frutti": "A wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom!"
"Poet of the Blues" (Specialty). In some ways, this is a more important reissue than the Little Richard box set for Mayfield's recordings have been hard to find for years. Mayfield really was the "poet of the blues," the West Coast equivalent of Willie Dixon and Chuck Berry; his lyrics boast the vivid detail and dramatic irony that few of his contemporaries could match. Mayfield is best known for the songs he wrote for Ray Charles ("Hit the Road Jack" and many more), but his songs have also been recorded by Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Adams, Mose Allison, Dinah Washington, Lou Rawls, B. B. King, Nancy Wilson and Junior Parker.
Mayfield was also an accomplished artist himself, scoring seven Top 10 R&B hits between his 1950 number-one hit, "Please Send Me Someone to Love," and his 1952 near-fatal car accident. Despite a light voice, his sophisticated phrasing won him comparisons to smooth crooners like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. He was at his best during his 1950-54 tenure at Specialty, and this CD collects his 25 best sides for the company. Included are his eerie, suicidal meditations like "The River's Invitation" and "Lost Mind," some of the most unsettling songs in American music.
"Roy Milton & His Solid Senders" (Specialty). When World War II ended, the swing orchestras of the late '30s and early '40s had grown uneconomical and unpopular with dancers wanting a jumpier rhythm. Milton (like Louis Jordan, Johnny Otis and Joe Liggins) came out of the big-band era, but he adapted to the new circumstances by forming a small combo (bass, drums, piano and three horns) that played swing and the blues with a more pronounced rhythm. It was called jump-blues, and it paved the way for rhythm & blues and rock 'n' roll.
Milton's 1946 single, "R.M. Blues," was the much-needed smash hit that enabled Specialty Records to survive as a company. Milton went on to score 18 national hits during his 10 years with Specialty, and those songs are supplemented by seven others on this CD anthology. Milton was the drummer as well as the singer on the sessions, but equally important to these delightful classics were Camille Howard's boogie-woogie piano and Jackie Kelso's sinuous alto sax. Anyone who likes boogie-woogie piano or horn-based jump-blues should definitely pick up this Roy Milton set.
"Joe Liggins & the Honeydrippers" (Specialty). Like Milton, Liggins came out of the jazz field. He adapted to the new jump-blues sound and scored nine Top 10 R&B hits for Exclusive Records between 1945 and '48, including the smashes "Honeydripper" and "I Got a Right to Cry." When Exclusive folded in 1949, Liggins jumped to Specialty, cut faithful recreations of his previous hits and scored new hits with "Pink Champagne" and "Rag Mop."
Liggins rivals Louis Jordan as the favorite songwriter of today's R&B revival outfits; his lyrics are witty and his melodies are catchy. When Robert Plant invented a one-off R&B revival outfit, he called it the Honeydrippers. Though less consistent than Milton or Jordan, Liggins's top songs represent the best jump-blues anywhere, and his faithful sidekick, saxophonist Willie Jackson, was always the perfect foil for Liggins's piano and voice.
"Jimmy Liggins & His Drops of Joy" (Specialty). Joe's younger brother (by seven years) brought a wilder, more primitive approach to the jump-blues. A singer and guitarist, Jimmy came to Specialty in 1947 and quickly scored a hit with "Teardrop Blues" with the help of honking saxophonist Harold Land and florid pianist Eugene Watson. He subsequently scored hits with 1948's "Don't Put Me Down" and 1953's "Drunk" as well as ahead-of-their-time rock 'n' roll numbers like "Saturday Night Boogie Woogie Man" and "That's What's Knockin' Me Out." Jimmy wasn't as good a songwriter as his brother or Milton, but his loose, impassioned performances anticipated the coming frenzy of Little Richard far better than Joe Liggins or Roy Milton ever did.
"The Blues Balladeer" (Specialty). When Belvin died in a 1960 Arkansas car crash, his label at the time, RCA, signed Sam Cooke to fill the void. It made sense, for Cooke was also a Specialty alumnus, a gorgeously smooth crooner with unproven pop potential. Belvin wrote "Earth Angel" for the Penguins in 1954; wrote "Girl of My Dreams" for the Cliques in 1956 and scored his own R&B hit with "Goodnight My Love" in 1956. Belvin recorded for various labels with the Cliques, the Sharptones, the Shields, Three Dots and a Dash, the Sheiks and the duo Jesse & Marvin (with Marvin Phillips).
This anthology collects issued and unissued sides by Jesse & Marvin and by Belvin on his own for the Specialty, Hollywood, Cash, Ebb and Dolphin labels between 1952 and '58. This isn't all of his good stuff (it omits the RCA and Modern sides and most of his group work), but Belvin was a fine songwriter and a most seductive singer in the Clyde McPhatter vein.
"Bad Boy" (Specialty). Not only did two of the Beatles' best R&B covers came from an obscure Larry Williams single -- "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" backed with "Slow Down" -- but the Beatles also covered an even rarer Williams single, "Bad Boy." John Lennon's performances are a close copy of Williams's originals, which were a cross between Little Richard's raving and James Brown's funk.
A New Orleans native and a protege of Lloyd Price, Williams had two Top 20 pop hits in 1957 with "Bony Moronie" and "Short Fat Fannie." This CD anthology collects all five of the above songs plus 20 others from Williams's brief two-year burst of glory in 1957 and '58.