Thursday, December 13, 2012
Phil Alvin - Un "Sung Stories"
I was reminded of this incredible album during a conversation with my friend Mike, of KICK*ASS magazine fame. Can't remember how we got on the topic but he asked me if I was into The Blasters. What true rock & roll fan doesn't love them? We marveled at the talent of the Alvin brothers and the great musicians in the band. I'm sure they were all good players and singers from day one, but the real secret is that they were lucky enough to be mentored by real-deal cats like T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner. It also doesn't hurt when you have Lee Allen (you know, the guy that plays saxophone on all the classics by Little Richard and Fats Domino, to name just two) in your band. No doubt those experiences give you an advantage over anyone else. I'll never forget the first time I heard "American Music" by The Blasters on the radio. It totally stopped me in my tracks. The Stray Cats were a big band at the time and I appreciated their retro-rockabilly but it always
seemed a little too Fonzy for me. I was lucky enough to have an older brother who was a fanatic for Chuck Berry and all the other originators. When I heard The Blasters I knew here was a band I could learn a few things from.
And learn I did. They helped me figure out how rock music is the culmination of jump blues/rhythm & blues with country/western swing. It drives me crazy when people say that lame joke "I like both kinds of music - country & western." They really are two different things. Old country like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell are a lot different from the western swing boogie of Bob Wills. Anyone with ears can figure it out - drums! There are no drums on old country records. Bob Wills was not allowed to play the Grand Ole Opry because he used drums. Western swing is heavily influenced by the Kansas City swing of Count Basie, Jay McShan, etc but with guitar usually the lead instrument. Kansas City swing created jump blues which evolved into rhythm & blues. You let a bunch of little kids hear all this music on the radio who are also being exposed to gospel music in the church and blues music in the street, guess what happens. You get Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley,
Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, etc. It wasn't until later on with the English guys imitating BB King and Muddy Waters that the really overt blues influence came into play. That's a whole other story. The Blasters helped point me in the right direction to learn all this stuff, which wasn't easy back then. You had to talk to people, read books, buy tons of albums, go to shows, but most importantly, to listen.
Now that the history lesson is out of the way, let's talk about Phil Alvin's incredible solo debut album Un "Sung" Stories, released by Slash Records in 1986. A copy showed up from the label at my college radio station and I fell in love with it instantly. As music director I insisted that it be placed in heavy rotation in most of the programs whether it was rock, blues, jazz, whatever. The thing I love about this album is that, to steal Duke Ellington's highest compliment, it is "beyond category." That's great for me, but bad news for Phil. In 1986 (or today for that matter) not too many people were interested in a record that in 10 songs includes dixieland jazz, blues ballads, swing, rock n roll and a bunch of other stuff that's not easy to define. As far as I know, the record sank without a trace and was only reissued on CD just recently.
Not only is it musically diverse, but it's a real emotional roller coaster ride, too. "Someone Stole Gabriel's Horn" is pure gospel jubilation with incredible horn arrangements by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Phil's one-of-a-kind voice and solo guitar will give you goose bumps on "Next Week Sometime," "Titanic Blues" and "Gangster Blues." The one and only Sun Ra and his magical Arkestra come up with brilliant arrangements on "The Old Man of the Mountain" and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime." Most people would be shitting bricks to sing these songs with such heavy company but Phil's voice is confident and blends perfectly with them. His singing is great on the entire album but really shines on the chilling gospel "Death In The Morning" and the primitive country wail of "Collins Cave." I was introduced to the song "Daddy Rollin' Stone" through the New York Dolls cover of it, but I haven't been able to listen to it at all since I heard Phil's sophisticated,
uptown version of it here. I'm amazed that none of the songs from Un "Sung" Stories have never turned up in movies or TV shows. Actually, I take that back. The people who choose the music for that stuff are morons, so why would they want to use something really good?
Rediscovering this album after so many years is literally like reconnecting with an old friend. I have a feeling a lot of that is going to be happening over the next year or so following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. As I type these words the majority of my band's gear sits destroyed by the storm. That's nothing compared to what others have lost. My friend Mike lives on Staten Island which got hit very hard. Who knows when I'll talk to him again. Hopefully it will be soon. This Phil Alvin record has helped me through so many hard times and the fact that it's just reappeared in my life is an interesting twist of fate. Let's see what's next.