Something for every shade of Blues fan, from the Juke Joint to the Lounge. Includes 22 tracks making their debut appearance.
When I took delivery of 1500 reels of tape from the Music City label of Berkeley, California a decade ago, it was with an acute sense of trepidation. For decades the subject of rumour, conjecture and outright fantasy, the contents of this jealously guarded, long-coveted vault promised to reveal untold riches. After the last reel was spooled many months later, it was clear that this was all remarkable documentary evidence of how the local black music scene had evolved over the course of a quarter-century. Not that Ray Dobard had ever intended his relatively long-lived enterprise to have any cultural connotation. He was strictly a speculator.
As Lee Hildebrand explains in the historical notes, Ray Dobard did not record or release much in the way of hard blues. And therefore, save for ‘On My Way’, Al Smith’s excellent 1954 single on the label, most blues collectors have not paid much attention to Music City. To Dobard, pure blues was a form that was already somewhat out of favour with the clientele he hoped to cultivate, the more urbane black community who preferred jazz and adult-orientated “cool” blues, along the line of Nat Cole or Charles Brown. He soon found a more remunerative genre in the vocal group idiom, something that appealed far more to the ever-increasing horde of teenage consumers that came into his record store at 1815 Alcatraz Avenue.
But there is a fair tranche of blues amongst the Music City masters, the best of which have been brought together for this collection, and which together reflect the many colours of the blues during the 1950s. There is a noticeable difference between the smoother sound of the earlier cuts by Al Harris and Alvin Smith, many of which were taped at the principal pro facility available in the Bay Area, Sound Recorders in San Francisco, and the rough-hewn, dissonant recordings Dobard undertook. True to his brash, self-confident persona, in 1954 the fledgling record impresario tired of paying for professional studio time and instead purchased a basic monaural Ampex machine, threw up some egg cartons on the wall of a room adjacent to his store, and started to engineer sessions himself.
In his engineering and A&R capacities, Dobard frequently suffered from a lack of quality control, and this sometimes stretched to his blues recordings. There remain in the vault some intriguing but ultimately un-releasable recordings by K.C. Douglas and others. But in general the Music City sessions are up to the standard for many small studios and West Coast indies of the time and, at this far-removed juncture, they sport the sort of documentary feel that gives the listener a real inkling of the “street”. This was how the blues must have sounded in the juke joints and nightclubs of the San Francisco Bay Area of the early 1950s. Whether it be the mellifluous croon of ‘Here Lies My Love’ or the stentorian exhortations of ‘I Don’t Stand No Quittin’’, the finger-popping groove of ‘Brand New Baby’ or the colourful chaos of ‘Wrong Doing Woman’, it was the soundtrack of the era for the local black population.