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Bear Family Explores Washington DC’s Music Scene 1940-1960 (Part 2)

Mark Smotroff strikes gold in lucky disc 13…

In a super deluxe box set featuring a 350-page hardcover book and 16 CDs jam-packed with tracks recorded between 1940 and 1960, I could probably sit here to write a full week’s worth of reviews highlighting many of the collection’s peaks. 

Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of space here but I did want to continue my review of Bear Family’s fabulous R&B in DC 1940-1960 collection – – and please click here to read Part 1 of my listening report if you missed it – – because I’ve discovered some more jams you might enjoy.   At minimum, you might want to seek out these tracks wherever you can find them on the Interwebs, but my hope is that collectively all this may intrigue you enough to hunker down and just get this super deluxe edition for your personal archive.

There are no doubt some great tracks on the latter discs in R&B in DC 1940-1960 but it really wasn’t until I got to album #13 — yup, lucky 13! —  where my ears perked up particularly as I hit a rich vein of gold which I felt compelled to tell you all about, Dear Readers. 

By this point in the evolution of music, the R&B artists had moved on from swing and jazz flavored tunes to early rock ‘n’ roll stylings. Some of their efforts are noble and compelling while others are at times jaw dropping for their lyrical content and wacky arrangements.

The disc opens with Pretty Boy — aka Don Covay — doing the epic-titled “Rockin’ The Mule (Back In Kansas), Swinging Like A Young Gray Mare” which sounds like John Mellencamp after a couple of packs of cigarettes singing a rewrite of Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.”  The book in R&B in DC 1940-1960 speculates as much as it dismisses the possibility that Little Richard’s road band The Upsetters actually played on this.  Covay shows up a little later under his own name doing the fun “Believe It Or Not.”

Phil Flowers’ “No Kissin’ At The Hop” is another Little Richard-inspired rocker with some ripping lead guitar soloing and Gene Vincent-esque production.  Sadly, they apparently haven’t been able to figure out who played the solo on this.  It is interesting — and at times kind of funny, even cheesy — to experience how many artists were trying their hand at anything that might become a hit. Later in the set Flowers does some very different sounding material which made me wonder if they were even the same singer on the two tracks!

“Sugar Jump” is a fun saxophone honker that basically updates the old form with upbeat, near-rockabilly lift.

The Coolbreezers’ “Eda Weeda Bug” is one of the strangest of Doo Wop infused rockers on R&B in DC 1940-1960 with an oddly timed break that continually threatens to derail the song (but some how doesn’t). What this song is about is open to interpretation, the chorus affirms that “Eda Weeda is a rock ’n roll bug.” I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a veiled reference to marijuana — note that it is spelled “Weeda” in the Bear Family book but the label photo shows it as “Weda” so, ultimately, who knows?!

Novelty records were popular in the 1950s in particular so its not surprising that tunes like “The Whatchamacallit” by Sam Harris and “Space Age” by Franke (Dual Trumpets) Motley and His Crew show up on R&B in DC 1940-1960 (the latter on disc 14).  The Jammers featuring Sonny Stevenson turn in a rollicking instrumental stomper with “The Thunderbird,” its march-step beat pre-echoing Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35” and bearing some searing guitar solos that might have made Mike Bloomfield smile.

Disc #14 also has some gems like the Bobby Parker B-side screamer “Stop By My House” and Stella Johnson’s roaring “Mama Don’t Allow (No Rockin’ N’ Rolling In Here).” So much great fun here.

And so it goes on R&B in DC 1940-1960. Again, this is a massive collection so there is no way I could really cover everything in it. But I hope that these two reviews have offered you a taste of some of the great music awaiting your discovery here. 

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