Early in 1998 I arrived in Los Angeles to start a short-lived career with a new band, and within the first few days I found myself at Rhino Records in West LA, where I was handed a CD named “Downey Blues”. This was of paramount importance to me, as Downey Records had long been a sort of hobby of mine, and I was particularly interested in the R&B and blues material recorded by the company. Up until that point I only knew of a surf comp, issued by Dunhill in 1988, so the fact that someone had licensed Downey’s R&B was exciting. An article of mine on the Downey story was published in Goldmine back in 1991. For this I had researched in vain most of the R&B and doo wop sides issued by this enigmatic label. To make matters even more synchronistic the company who had just released the new Downey Blues comp was the Bay Area-based HighTone Records, with whom the group I was about to join had a contract. Not only that, but shortly after my arrival I did a recording session for another HighTone artist, whereby I found myself working with the legendary producer Bruce Bromberg.
These days we know quite a bit more about the blues and R&B artists who recorded for Downey; the “Downey Blues” CD is long deleted; Ace Records now has charge of the catalogue; and this new package (the fourth in the Ace/Downey series) brings you that HighTone collection with a tantalising sprinkle of extra flavour, in the shape of more previously unreleased recordings, and extensive newly-researched notes, plus everything beautifully remastered.
This CD features the fabulous voice of Little Johnny Taylor just prior to his great run of hits at Galaxy; some seldom heard T-Bone Walker Jr.; and some fine harp playing from Ace Holder. Our friend from “It Came From The Suburbs”, Jessie Hill, makes a welcome re-appearance too. There’s even a splash of doo wop.
Record collectors who travelled to Southern California looking for rare vinyl between 1972-2002, will have visited Wenzels Music Town. The more interesting stock, often commission items, was in the room to the left. Permission was needed to pass through into that room, which had all four walls racked out with 45s. This was where the Downey recordings had been made. The room all browsers need after a couple of hours digging through record racks was situated through another door, in a back store room. Collectors who knew the store always told newcomers to be sure to use the bathroom and look up above their head. There, on an old shelf, were piled the original master tapes from the Downey studio and label. It was part of the experience of visiting Wenzels. The masters remained there in the dark, apart from some selected re-issues, protected from the California sun, until the store closed in 2002, and now, after all these years, we have the opportunity of presenting some of these wonderful recordings in this series, including many unreleased gems. And on this particular selection, fine examples of some rarely heard rhythm and blues from the best Los Angeles had to offer.
By Brian Nevill