Alec Palao In The Bay Area
It would be safe to assume that all of Ace Records' illustrious staff got into the reissue game as an extension of their passion for record collecting (a certain Mr Carroll would be first and foremost). And the collector mentality continues to inform much of the way we all go about searching for vintage source material; from the way discographies and master numbers are studied like auction lists, via the browsing of tape libraries as one would racks of vinyl, through to that ultimate moment: the fondling of the master tape.
Since joining the Ace team I've had the good fortune to fondle quite a few master tapes. These have ranged from the wilfully obscure (the perfectly preserved garage band reels of Bill Rase's lo-fi operation in Sacramento) to the justifiably sublime (poking my nose through Norman Petty's extensive archive in Clovis, New Mexico). Why, just the other day I journeyed to the storage facility on the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles, to search for some elusive Chess material on behalf of my colleagues. Leaving nothing to chance, I announced my intention to forego the vaults incomplete computer database and instead, eyeball every shelf laden with Chess tapes. The curator Lynn, an incredibly sweet - and tolerant - lady, flashed me a nervous smile that made it quite clear she believed me to be a few marbles short. But a few hours later I emerged, somewhat glassy-eyed, with a handful of the missing tapes. Some might look upon such a task as an excruciating torture (Lynn certainly did) but for myself it was a breeze and just another days work in the wild and wacky world of Ace Records.
But when pressed as to my favourite expedition into the vaults, I have to admit it was the occasion several years ago when I had the great honour to visit Frank Werber, manager of the Kingston Trio and a major player in the San Francisco music scene of the 1960s. For many, many years I had been aware of Frank's pioneering role in chronicling the nascent Bay Area rock scene, via his Trident Productions and purpose-built North Beach studio, Columbus Recorders. There were wild rumours of full unissued albums by Trident signings the Sons Of Champlin, Blackburn & Snow, and Mystery Trend, all of whom had only been afforded singles releases back in the 1960s, and my mind boggled as to what other goodies he might have. When I first got a hold of Frank, he was amiable but somewhat cautious in admitting to possession of any tapes; but over the course of several months correspondence and phone conversations we got to know each other, and eventually when he casually extended an invitation to visit his New Mexico ranch to look at what he had, I jumped at the chance.
Blackburn & Snow
One Sunday morning my wife Cindy and I loaded up the rental car with tape recording gear and set off from the Bay Area, not really knowing what we'd find when we got to the tiny town on the edge of the vast Gila National Forest, only a short distance from the Mexican border. After perilously navigating long thin winding roads through the desert hills, we arrived at our destination. Though Frank's ranch was outside of town, his archives were stashed in nothing less than the old Post Office, an imposing building largely consisting of a huge main room full of dusty bric-a-brac, furniture and a Mini Cooper parked inside the back door! Frank rose to greet us from his downstairs quarters and after an hour or so of pleasantries, directed me to the former safe room. As he turned the lever to open the door, my heart jumped, as I could tell it was jammed to the ceiling with crates of tape boxes, the tops of which were clearly marked "SOC", "MT", "B&S" etc. With some help, I began to unload the contents of the safe out onto the main floor, and as the boxes spilled out I slowly realised that this was the tip of an incredible iceberg of untapped vintage rock. Observing my wide-eyed excitement, Frank chuckled and commented "for guys like you, this is probably better than sex!" I normally wouldn't go quite that far, despite my earlier comment about fondling. However, at that precise moment I could do little else but nod in tacit agreement.
We stayed a week in a nearby hotel, and every morning, while Cindy would go off to rummage in the local thrift stores, I would walk up the small hill to the post office, where I had set up my equipment in a room adjacent to the vault. I'd spend the day methodically auditioning and then copying hundreds of master reels and session tapes. My hunch had been correct: not only were there the full albums I'd hoped by the Sons, Trend etc, all were of eminently releasable - and often stupendous - quality. There were further recordings by Trident acts that had been signed but not issued, such as garage bands the Front Line and Immediate Family, as well as outtakes by Frank's other big act, We Five. But what I was not prepared for was the vast amount of additional material by acts that recorded at Columbus. Demo sessions by teen acts like Beau Brummels, Tikis and Mojo Men. A whole unreleased album by the ubiquitous Dan Hicks, recorded before he split from the Charlatans. Several tapes attributed to Sly Stone, recorded in the twilight interim between his Autumn Records days and the Family Stone (one being a fascinating proto-funk version of ‘You Really Got Me’!) An abortive session by a very drugged-out sounding Tim Hardin. Recordings by many of the major SF acts of the late 1960s who used the studio, such as Steve Miller, Country Joe and Quicksilver, the latter of whom auditioned for Trident in May 1966, their first time in a recording studio. And scads of fascinating material by more obscure folk, rock and R&B acts, waiting to be discovered. Not to mention a whole wall of Kingston Trio tapes, including their very first rehearsals at the Purple Onion in 1957.
The tapes weren't the end of it either. In the basement of the Post Office there was a large room full of cardboard boxes, each stuffed with the day-to-day materials of Frank's former empire: a mountain of paperwork including contracts, session sheets, press packs and clippings, as well as hundreds of photos, negatives and colour slides of the Trio and other acts he represented. Plus mementos of other Werber pursuits, such as motor racing trophies, and memorabilia from his very popular Sausalitorestaurant, The Trident. It dawned on me that this was a one of a kind archive, a complete and fascinating window into the music industry of the 1960s.
What to many others would have been an exhausting week seemed to fly by. It was capped by a visit to Frank's ranch, secreted within its very own canyon out in the middle of the wilderness and accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicle. We sat and listened attentively whilst Frank puffed on a doobie [joint] and regaled us from his hot tub with eye-opening tales of his years in the biz. As we set off back to California, with tape copies safely in hand, I could only murmur in amazement at what I'd uncovered.
The Trident Family
But wait! In an episode worthy of our own Ted Carroll, the record collector in me did briefly surface. Taking a break from the tape copying one afternoon, I strolled down the street to the only shop in town that appeared to sell vinyl. It was a small store and the heavy metal posters didn't look promising. But as I looked through the racks, I couldn't believe my eyes. There was an abnormal quantity of unpriced original British 1960s LPs, by the likes of the Sorrows, Sounds Incorporated, Cilla Black and other beat era acts, all in stone mint condition. Most had factory sample stickers on the back, so I knew this was probably an unplayed stash. But how on earth did they end up in rural New Mexico? Eventually I wandered up to the bored twenty-something clerk and inquired as to the price of the records. He looked through my stack. "Sorrows. Vocal group, right?" Right! "OK, five bucks each". I made out of there like Ronald Biggs.