There wasn’t a ton happening for Record Store Day’s Black Friday event in 2021. Not for me, anyway. The Jason Isbell album of covers by Georgia artists was tempting and turned out to be really nice. My friend’s copy was well-pressed and was a generally engaging, fun listen throughout. There were a couple of compilations and soundtracks that looked interesting, but not enough to warrant any gambles or to displace any records on my overcrowded shelves. I didn’t even get in line. I just went to a local store after they’d opened and got all two records on my list. They were these: Little Feat’s Electrif Lycanthrope Live At Ultra-Sonic Studios, 1974, and The Twenty-Fifth Day Of December by the Staple Singers. No impulse buys this year. No regrets yet.
Let’s take it from the top…
I knew I was coming home with the Little Feat set, come hell or high water. And that was before I realized that Kevin Gray cut the lacquers. I still was not privy to that information when I dropped the needle for a first listen, and that act immediately sent me scouring through the liner notes in an attempt to figure out how things got so good so fast. This is, essentially, a cleaned up version of a bootleg that has been in circulation amongst Feat Fanatics forever. “Originally recorded for broadcast on September 19, 1974, over WLIR-FM, Garden City, NY, at Ultra-Sonic Recording Studios, Hempstead NY,” the show was part of a massive series of live performances that were broadcast on that station between 1972 and 1987. I’m curious to know whether or not any of the others approached this set’s level of rockingness. Because that’s about all that’s going on here. If music were food, this set would be a porterhouse.
The band’s fourth long-player, Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, had been born just a month before this show’s performance. I have a minty early-80s repress of that one that I rarely play because I always reach for one of the band’s astounding reissues by MoFi instead. But it’s deceptively great, and I have to imagine that some licensing issue got in the way of MoFi’s ability to work their magic on it. Or maybe the original tapes have been compromised. Or lost. Anyway, a fair proportion of the setlist from the Ultra-Sonic show is made up of Don’t Fail Me classics like “Rock and Roll Doctor,” “Oh Atlanta,” and “Spanish Moon.” Then, there’s “Skin It Back,” which is as thick and funky as anything from the era by any band outside the Meters. I’ve always thought that there was at least an implied connection between the two bands as Little Feat sort of morphed their way out of their Stones-y fuzz rock and moved towards a more swampy sound that nods towards New Orleans if not exactly submerging itself in gumbo. And Live At Ultra-Sonic Studios is a fine exemplar of that sound from that phase.
Enjoy this one with friends. I’ve had a hard time listening to much else since I purchased this set, and I’m always actively looking for a confederate to confirm how great it is. Listening alone is like seeing a walk-off homer to win the World Series by your lonesome. I’m stoked to have accessed one of the 5,000 copies that we’re pressed for the US market. The pressing is nearly flawless save for some background static during “Sailin’ Shoes.” Which sucks, but it’s not overwhelming, and I came here to party, so I’m just going to roll with it. Remarkable sonics, clarity, and warmth on top of the already incendiary playing throughout. This will likely supplant Waiting For Columbus as my go-to live Little Feat listen. That’s saying a lot. Secondary prices are hovering around the $70 range, and will likely increase. If you see one on the shelf at an independent record store, you can buy with confidence. You’ll be glad you did.
As always, it took me a few days with the Record Store Day Black Friday list to uncover the treasure within its contents. For a minute, I thought I could live with only the Little Feat record. But a closer inspection revealed that The Twenty-Fifth Day Of December, by The Staple Singers, was advertised as featuring “all-analog mastering from the original stereo tapes by Kevin Gray at Coherent Audio.” But it doesn’t. The album actually features “all-analog mastering from the original tapes by Jeff Powell.” This is not an inconsiderable deviation. Kevin Gray’s name carries as much clout in this industry as anyone’s I’m aware of. I mean, I’m sure that Jeff Powell is a swell guy, but a bit of sparkle sloughed off the title the second I saw the amended hype sticker.
And I’m more Scrooge than Santa when it comes to Christmas music anyway. It’s just never been my thing. But, as I did with the Grateful Dead, I felt like I should have some representatives available for listening. Perhaps a more well-adjusted, comfortable creature would simply allow their natural tendencies and interests to dictate the contents of their collection, but not me. I have to bend myself to my own weird will. And so, I take it as a challenge to find Christmas (and Dead) records that I can enjoy straight through. No skipping around. No filler. And the Staple Singers make that a breeze.
The Twenty-Fifth Day Of December was initially released in 1962 on the Riverside label. Craft Recordings owns the rights to that catalog now, and they’ve done some cool things with it. Their all-analog Chet Baker reissues (by Kevin Gray, for real) were a grand slam, and they’ve done some cool things in conjunction with Vinyl Me, Please too. Their collaboration on Sonny Rollins’s The Freedom Suite was especially tasty, and I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of The Hawk Flies High (Coleman Hawkins) too. And I could get as much out of The Twenty-Fifth Day Of December was the music less rooted in season. I’m not going to listen to Christmas music in April, whether I like it or not.
But I could. And I’d probably get away with it if The Twenty-Fifth Day Of December were called something else. Because you can almost miss the holiday connection if you’re not paying close enough attention. This is a Staple Singers album more than a Christmas collection. By that, I mean that I’m more fixated on Pops Staple’s snakey tremolo guitar than the subject matter.
A few years back, I was in the habit of listening to Gospel spirituals on Sunday morning while I cooked breakfast and cleaned my apartment. I have a couple of original Staple Singers records from the early ‘60s that fit the bill just fine, along with some compilations from Soul Jazz Records and the Numero Group. And The Twenty-Fifth Day Of December could slide into that program seamlessly. The Staples’ take on “Joy To the World” is the most by-the-book tribute on the record, and it’s also the least compelling offering on the disc. Too obvious. Not enough grit. The melody is too light, the burden that can be felt so clearly throughout the rest of the run time is too dressed up. But the rest is pure Staples stomp and groove. Pops’s voice makes you want to sit on his knee and beg him to tell you stories. The response from his progeny demands that you clap and sing back. The drums and the organ are pushed back in the mix so that the voices carry the tunes to the furthest ends of the grayest winter. And Jeff Powell dialed it all in perfectly. The heavy themes carried in on waves of such warmth and clarity. Like a sonic uncloudy day.
Oddly, 3,125 copies of December were made available. They’re still around online for a very reasonable $25. Memphis Record Pressing and Jeff Powell did such a stellar job that I immediately ordered a copy of their collaboration with Craft on the Staple Singers box set. If it’s of a similar quality, my Sunday morning listening is set for 2022.
Alrighty. The Staple Singers Christmas Extravaganza went so swimmingly that I went back to the well another time. I purged a Jazz Dispensary Christmas title from my collection last week, so I had room on the shelf for Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. This was a two-birds-with-one-stone kind of party because it gave me a chance to re-test the Acoustic Sounds Series’ goods too. I’ve had great luck with their offerings (Ray Charles, Gil Evans, John Coltrane) so far, so I went into this one with a ton of confidence. It was not misplaced.
Vinyl Me, Please did a AAA release of this in 2019, but I whiffed, and it got pricey pretty quickly. Looks like the average sale price on Discogs is right around $80, and that’s more than I’m willing to pay for any Christmas record, really. That one was “cut from the original tapes by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound,” and pressed at RTI. The Acoustic Sounds Series reissue (the one we’re here to discuss) was pressed at QRP, naturally, and Ryan Smith cut the lacquers for this one as well. But I don’t think the same parts were used for the two releases. There’s different info in the dead wax, and there are slight variations in the marketing language that I keep coming back to. The Acoustic Sounds take is “mastered from the original analog tapes.” Not “cut from….” And that’s true of the entire series. I’ve noticed that online retailers and commenters describe these records as “all analog” or “AAA,” but I’m not sure the description is indicative of that. I wish I had a copy of the VMP version to compare with the more recent (essentially Analogue Productions) release, but I don’t have access to the 2019 pressing.
I’m not sure how much more transparent this recording could sound though. It was originally recorded in 1959 and 1960. When I hear the slightest hint of distortion on Ella’s voice, I assume it’s either an issue with the original tape or that it’s just a part of the initial recording. On the one hand, it seems logical to assume that these types of issues would have been cleaned up if there was some digital component in the mastering chain. On the other hand, leaving it in could be an artistic choice. And finally, there really is no issue to begin with. There was some obvious distortion on the Genius + Soul = Jazz set by Ray Charles as part of this same series. The distortion on the Ella… Christmas record is more implied than evident. Still, I’d like to get the final word on whether or not these Acoustic Series titles are, in fact, all-analog productions, just for my own curiosity. They sound sublime, regardless.
Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas is 34 minutes of feel-good Christmas Swing. I mean, if you can’t enjoy this, then you must just hate Christmas. And probably most everything else. And, while I enjoy Christmas, I’ve already acknowledged that the music isn’t my favorite part. I have versions of “Run Run Rudolph” by Keith Richards and Chuck Berry in my collection. I have a mono reissue of A Christmas Gift For You From Phillies Records, the recently acquired Staples set that we just discussed, a 10-inch Record Store Day version of “Jesus Christ” by Big Star, and a run through “Mrs. Claus’ Kimono” on the Drive-By Truckers’ The Fine Print compilation. That’s it for me. Of them all, Ella’s is the most traditionally “Christmas sounding” of the lot. There are aspects of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” that I’m uncomfortable with lyrically, but overall I find this record to be an engaging listen from start to finish. I’m especially enamored of the old Christmas Classic, “Good Morning Blues.” And I think holidays should be fun. Even Christmas. I’m not really into staring at my shoes and sitting on uncomfortable benches for hours at a time listening to people mutter in Latin. This is very obviously Christmas music. It’s not disguised in any way, but it does, in fact, swing. These performances are more secular than solemn.
If you’re looking for disparate approaches to Christmas music, I’d recommend the two reissues we’ve explored here this month and the mono mix of A Christmas Gift For You From Phillies Records by Sundazed. Those three together cover a wide range of moods and styles, and they won’t make you want to cry in your egg nog from boredom and overwrought ceremony. However, whatever you choose to celebrate during December, I hope you’re safe, healthy, and happy.
May Peace Be Yours.