By now some of you may have figured out that I like physical media, for numerous reasons which I will delve into in future articles here on Audiophilereview. This notion came to life again for me the other night when I went to an event at the legendary San Francisco literary hub, City Lights Books, in the North Beach section of San Francisco. Inevitably, I gravitated towards the music section in the store and because I am a fan of his art, I noticed a fun book on the shelf which I had not seen before by R. Crumb. The book, R. Crumb's Heroes Of Blues, Jazz & Country, is a compilation of his classic "trading card" tributes to music legends of the past -- super cool bubble-gum trading card sized sets which no doubt I'd always liked. But, frankly, I secretly wished for a larger scale presentation of them. My wish was granted with a bonus -- I noticed that the book included a CD featuring music by 21 of the artists featured in the card collections (seven from each set)!
Now before we move ahead please note as you read this review that I have embedded many live "links" here for you, Dear Readers, to explore to learn more about Mr. Crumb and this wonderful music. So don't be afraid to click around when you see underlined text which will take you not only to online sellers of the book but also to informative Wikipedia pages and in some cases links to the music on YouTube and Tidal.
A little background to R. Crumb's Heroes Of Blues, Jazz & Country is in order for those of you not in the know, to connect some dots. First off, for the uninitiated, R. Crumb is a legendary artist who came to public attention in the late 60s and 70s creating amazing characters and artwork for underground comics, record albums and concert posters. Janis Joplin & Big Brother's major label 1968 debut on Columbia Records -- Cheap Thrills -- was drawn by Crumb. He created the original Fritz The Cat comic book character (later co-opted into a movie, and soon to be a picture disc on this years Record Store Day). Crumb also contributed artwork for a now legendary record label from the mid-1960s (and which came to some prominence in the 1970s) -- Yazoo Records -- which lovingly and creatively packaged / reissued rare recordings from the 78 RPM era for future generations to discover.
This leads to another important point to understand, secondly: R. Crumb is a huge fan of vintage music and a renown collector of rare 78 RPM recordings. R. Crumb is also a musician who even had his own band for a while called The Cheap Suit Serenaders which put out some recordings in the 1970s, some on actual 78s! Our editor Steven Stone has even written a bit about R. Crumb in the past (click here).
There is an amazing documentary about Crumb made by Terry Zwigoff (who wrote the introduction to this book).
So when he made a series of trading cards celebrating many of his music heroes in the 1980s -- which became popular among collectors of these sorts of things -- he created a fresh body of work which in many ways stands above his underground comics works (at least in a mainstream appeal sense). Crumb's love for the artists leaps off the pages of these drawings which were only available previously on these little trading card sets. On the back of each card was a bit of information about the artists. So, to have all those images in a larger format gives us an opportunity to better appreciate his lovely artwork.
And... we are treated to this wonderful collection of music curated by R. Crumb himself! Much of the music apparently hails from aforementioned collections issued on Yazoo Records.
How does it sound? Actually, Yazoo Records releases always sounded really quite good for vintage rare recordings taken off of old obscure 78 RPM shellac discs. These recordings are monaural and you'll hear surface noise, no doubt. But the passion of the music comes through.
From the Heroes of the Blues trading cards series R. Crumb included blues legend Charley Patton doing "High Water Everywhere" , a fantastic swampy blues romp. The Memphis Jug Band's 1928 version of "On The Road Again" features some long lost lyrics and language that might shock some in these oft-PC times but its also fascinating purely from a historical standpoint to hear such an early version of this song, a staple in country rock music circles.
From the Pioneers of Country Music trading card series, R. Crumb included a wonderful track called "Little Rabbit" by a group called Crockett's Kentucky Mountaineers which is notable for its remarkably distinct "Jews Harp" boing-boinging along with the string pickers with remarkable clarity for a song recorded in the (likely) late 1920s or early 1930s.
From the Early Jazz Greats trading card sets you hear an early recording of Trumpet legend Louis Armstrong performing "Sobbin' Blues," recorded in the early 1920s with "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. Oliver is known as one of the (if not the) first great jazz Trumpet players, a major influence on Armstrong who eventually got to be in the band with his hero back in the day. I really enjoyed the fun romp "Somebody Stole My Gal" by Frankie Franko and His Louisianians.
I haven't found this music on Tidal but I DID find a couple of recordings by R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders which is also great fun -- period music recorded in more modern times but in the style of the 20s and 30s. Singing in the Bathtub and Chasin' Rainbows are fun albums in CD quality which you might want to explore, especially if you like this type of music but have issues listening to scratchy old recordings with surface noise and such.
In a way, I do think it is great that this music is not up on Tidal because, Dear Readers, you really should go out of your person cave and get the book in the flesh (and perhaps some of the trading card sets which you'll probably find at stores which sell this). And as a bonus, you'll get the CD which comes with it. Of course, you can always click here to leap to Amazon to buy R. Crumb's Heroes Of Blues, Jazz & Country .
But do listen to the music while reading the book and you'll find these artists coming to life before your eyes and ears. And then if you decide you are into the individual artists, you can start collecting their music in depth (note: I added this obvious-to-some but oft-times lost notion for those who don't orgranically "get" the compilation album concept). You'll find some music by artists in the book such as Charley Patton, Eddie Lang and Big Bill Broonzy up on Tidal. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
A book like this is a great way to discover fantastic music and learn about music history. And if this isn't enough, I also heartily recommend the two CD set called The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of (subtitled The Dead Sea Scrolls Of Record Collecting) which also features wonderful cover art by R. Crumb.
This rich world of music discovery awaits you!