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Bear Family Explores Washington DC’s Music Scene 1940-1960 (Part 1?)

Mark Smotroff gets some deep East Coast music education…

I knew that Washington D.C. had a music scene. But when I started exploring this amazing study from the good folks at Bear Family called R&B in DC 1940-1960, I realized I didn’t know much of anything about that area.

Musically, at least…

I mean… I knew Duke Ellington was born — and began his career — there.  And Frank Zappa was born nearby in Baltimore. One of my favorite underdog progressive rock bands called Happy The Man came from Virginia. But beyond that… well, it becomes a bit of a blur… 

When most people think of America’s Capitol they inevitably think politics, and the great leaders of our country. 

But did you ever consider that one of the groundbreaking early vocal rock ’n roll / rhythm and blues bands — The Clovers — came from there? They had the smash hit with “Love Potion #9” in 1959 and were one of the early R’n B / Doo Wop groups of the times.  They were one of the early signings to Atlantic Records founded by Ahmet Ertegun, who, by the way, we learn was also from Washington! 

The Orioles — whom some consider the first R&B vocal group came from Baltimore (named after Maryland’s state bird). Did you know that Patsy Cline and Roy Clark came out of the Washington music scene (getting their start on Jimmy Dean’s radio show according to the Wiki)?  Pop jazz singer/bandleader Billy Eckstine hailed from that area as well.  Heck, Marvin Gaye who is so supremely associated with Detroit’s Motown / Tamla Record labels was originally from Washington (where his name was Marvin Pentz Gay Jr) where he performed with The Marquees!

And that is the goal of R&B in DC 1940-1960, a genuinely massive new 16-CD ultra deluxe set, a dream for true students of music and fans of that particular geographical area because it’s exhaustive (and I mean that in the best possible way!).

From the official press release for the set we learn: “In assembling the release, music researcher and radio host Jay Bruder begins the process of setting the historical record straight by discovering the ties that linked the local musicians and vocalists with the music teachers, club and theater operators, and record company owners who tried to bring the R&B, rock ’n’ roll, and doo wop sounds of Washington to the world.

The set unapologetically focuses on vintage records that were the lifeblood of popular music in postwar America. Since the 1970s, Bruder has scrounged used record stores, flea markets, yard sales, and record collector swap meets looking for rare titles by Washington artists. Many collectors loaned one-of-a-kind discs to complete the project. Hundreds of rare records, for which no original master recordings survive, were painstakingly transferred and restored by audio engineer Doug Pomeroy to bring out the best sound possible. “

I’ve already listen to about half of the set so far and I feel like I’m just really scraping the tip of the iceberg! As we’ve come to expect from Bear Family, this is a beautiful and scholarly package chockfull of incredible details, rare photography and artwork. I’m still working my way through the book and the music — there is so much here! It is thoughtfully prepared, presenting useful contextual sociological information on how Washington became a magnet for African Americans even before the Civil War. 

Listening to a chronological set like R&B in DC 1940-1960 you get a sense of the transitions which took place as vocal pop, blues, jazz blended and morphed into R&B and emerging rock ‘n’ roll sounds. 

Take a moment to consider that this is just the Washington area. You could probably do this kind of a study with every major metropolitan market!

But enough history for now.  Following are some of my favorite tracks on R&B in DC 1940-1960  thus far. Go into this knowing that not everything on this set will be to your liking. All of it will be at minimum interesting, often enlightening and many times exciting and revelatory — part of the joy of discovery I’ve come to expect from Bear Family productions. 

Rena Collins’ playful vocal on Claude Hopkins Quartet’s “It’s Too Big, Poppa” is a fun frolic (and it is not about what you think it might be about!).  Paul Williams’ Sextette’s “Waxy Maxy” — which apparently was an important record store in Virginia according to the interwebs! — is one of those fine small group saxophone honkers which fit neatly between big band sounds and rock ’n roll. The Syncopators’ “Mule Train” is a fun romp for piano and vocal group with nifty clip-clop and bull-whip sound effects that is not quite country or blues or R&B. 

There are so many tracks by groups like The Cap-Tans and TNT Tribble there could easily be a dedicated album to each. The latter’s “Cocoa Moe Joe” is an upbeat jump piece in the vein of Louis Jordan. His “T.V. Boogie Blues” is an interesting ode to the then new technology starting to gain popularity. 

By the time you get to discs 7 and 8 the sounds are already transitioning to early Rock ’n Roll and Doo Wop flavors sounds such as The Rainbows’ “Mary Lee” and The Eagles “Such A Fool.”  The 3 Of Us Trio’s “Big Sid” is unusual blending its electric guitars, rocking drums and moody vibraphone textures leftover from the jazz and big band era floating the background.

And so this goes on R&B in DC 1940-1960. Again, this is a massive collection and I am hoping to write up another part to this review soon to highlight more favorite tracks from the next eight discs in the set. 

But I didn’t want to hold off on sharing the news about this much longer.  If you are a fan of vintage musics, a student of history or just curious about the musical soundtrack that drove our nation’s Capitol, R&B in DC 1940-1960 may be a worthwhile investment.

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