In which a trio of LPs by legendary performers results in a keeper one may not expect.
Andy Griffith: Shouts the Blues and Old Timey Songs
Andy Griffith did quite a bit of singing in his television roles as Sheriff Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock, but on records his musical material often leans in a direction more in keeping with the comic monologues that launched his national career. (That is, at least outside the gospel world, in which he won a Grammy and sold a ton of records in the 1990s.) Griffith did play it mostly straight on an early long-player for Capitol, Shouts the Blues and Old Timey Songs.
Griffith's self-deprecating liner notes declare that "the blues is about the only kind of song I can sing," but he acquits himself just fine on the other numbers, too, which are in a Hollywood-ized old-timey mode. Griffith earns bonus points by bringing along Brownie McGhee to play guitar licks throughout the album; he also duets with Griffith in singing "Pick a Bale of Cotton." There's also a version of future rock standard "House of the Rising Sun," intriguingly credited to Paul Campbell, a pseudonym for the then-blacklisted Weavers. If you can find it, the stereo version is truly excellent sounding and well-balanced for a very early example of the format. (Capitol T/ST 1105, 1959)
John Kay: All in Good Time
Steppenwolf leader John Kay remains one of my all-time favorite singers, and I've never previously had to run from any recording he's on. Until now. On a first spin, All in Good Time elicited this knee-jerk response in an email chain with some friends: "So many things going wrong ... I don't even know how to describe what just went down in the break of one song. [It's] like Steely Dan barfing in each other's mouths or something. I have to take this off."
Well, it can't be that bad, right? I steeled myself and resolved to try again this week.
There's no escaping that the album begins with a track built on a disco backbeat and slathered with horns, not particularly a sound I would have expected to encounter with John Kay singing over it. This opening song ("Give Me Some News I Can Use") does include some lines which could serve as the manifesto of this album, however: "My agent called to tell me, my record's on the chart/it's number 90 with an anchor, I never said that it was art/I gotta eat too you know."
All in Good Time was produced by Clayton Ivey at his Wishbone Studios in Muscle Shoals, indicating Kay was taking a crack at a bit different sound -- one which certainly had a better chance at radio play in 1978 than Steppenwolf's hard rock. It's worth remembering that Kay's previous solo LPs were also different from Steppenwolf, and the band's previous album (1973's My Sportin' Life) had some pretty strong pop leanings. In context, the progression to a full-on modern rock-soul sound does make sense, as unexpected as it may seem at first listen.
Under the atypical musical backing, Kay's songs are just as good as ever, and there certainly ain't nothing wrong with his singing. What is jarring for me may be manna for other Kay/Steppenwolf fans, so your mileage may vary ... but All in Good Time leaves me wising Kay and Ivey had collaborated about eight years earlier. (Mercury SRM-1-3715, 1978)
Peter Yarrow: That's Enough for Me
Who didn't record at Muscle Shoals in the '70s? Peter Yarrow took a couple cracks at it as well, first with That's Enough for Me in 1973. At least, partly. The credits of this album reveal a strange patchwork; the majority of the basic tracks were recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound, but a few were done at Dynamic Sound in Jamaica. Layered on top are horn charts by Allan Toussaint, strings and backing vocals recorded at various places/times -- including a whole lot of Toots Hibbert and the Maytals at Dynamic. These disparate elements could add up to a complete mess, but in a weird way the horns and strings manage to hold the album together, rather than clashing with the basic tracks (particularly on the reggae numbers).
The best example of this melding is Yarrow's reggae take on the folk-era chestnut "Wayfaring Stranger," which somehow blends Yarrow's earnest singing style, Hibbert's non-stop interjections, and Toussaint's New Orleans horns and strings into an entertaining whole. In general, the reggae songs come across better to my ears than the somewhat too-MOR Muscle Shoals tracks. The confusion of recording and mixing at so many locations spilled over onto the album cover, as "Sitting in Limbo" is mentioned in the credits and included with the lyrics, but not on the LP! The song turns up instead on his Yarrow's next LP, Hard Times, an all-Muscle Shoals, rootsier proposition altogether. (Warner Brothers BS 2730, 1973)