“All right, Meteor Blues,” I hear you say. “That’s Elmore James mainly, isn’t it? Got those sides. Great. Couple of other name acts on the label, weren’t there, not much else?” Well, I’m here to tell you there’s a lot more to it than that. A whole lot more. Meteor was one of those few great labels – small but, happily, imperfectly formed – that tells a multi-faceted musical story.
Ace Records has already furnished you with the white southern music: the acclaimed “The Complete Meteor Rockabilly and Hillbilly Recordings” (CDCH2 885). Now look out for the blues and the rhythm and the gospel. The two double-CDs just fit like gloves. Between them both you can get every single released (including the ultra rare ones) and you can listen through the whole label at one session if you feel like it.
Meteor Records operated in Memphis, Tennessee between late 1952 and 1957, and so it was in the ideal place, alongside Sun, to bring us a real picture of what was being played and recorded in Memphis and the Mississippi Delta at that time. And Meteor did do just that. Here we have the country blues of Woodrow Adams, the renowned one-man-band Joe Hill Louis (appearing here as Chicago Sunny Boy and not as just one man), the small group sounds of Sunny Blair and Baby Face Turner, alongside the more commercial R&B sounds of Earl Forest, Rufus Thomas, Little Milton, and Fenton Robinson.
Besides the music of Beale Street and the surrounding country towns, though, Meteor Records gives us much more. Meteor was not just a Memphis label – indeed at times it was hardly a Memphis label at all. It started off with Chicago recordings by the incomparable Mississippi exile, Elmore James, whose first record on the label, I Believe, was a big territorial hit and made the R&B charts in early 1953.
So how did Meteor get Elmore, when Sam Phillips or Chess or any of the other indies would have loved to record his powerful electrified update of the slide blues? Well, Meteor was part of a wider chain of labels based on the West Coast – Modern, RPM, Flair, Crown etc. – owned by the Bihari family; several brothers and sisters, all integrally involved bar one brother, Lester, who didn’t quite fit in. He was posted to Memphis to set up his own label, Meteor. It was Joe Bihari who made a number of wider connections for Lester, and it was Joe who recorded Elmore James along with the dextrous if bullfrog-toned saxophonist, J T Brown, in Chicago in late 1952. Initially it was Joe who helped Lester to issue an impressively eclectic array of talent on his Memphis label, many artists playing music far removed from the sounds of Beale Street.
First up is West Coaster Carl (Mr Broadway) Green, whose band had probably never been near Memphis. Next came Jimmy Wright’s Orchestra, based in Los Angeles, a white bandleader whose Scotch Mist was something of a hit. Leo Baxter was another bandleader whose sound was more at home in Texas than in the mid-South. Al Smith (later Jimmy Reed’s manager) was a bass player from Mississippi who appeared on a large number of northern recordings for Chance and other Chicago labels. His Beale Street Stomp is in the progressive jazz mode, as the name of his band explained. And then there was Leapin’ In Chicago by Buster Smith, a very rare tenor solo outing by one of the giants of jazz; he was the Texas alto saxophonist who had worked with the influential Blue Devils and with Count Basie and is credited with arranging a number of jazz classics including One O’Clock Jump.
When Lester Bihari’s out-of-town connections ran out, and after he started to have some success with local white hillbilly and rockabilly musicians, he returned to the Memphis black talent. He recorded a number of little-known local artists, including the Angel Voices, a fabulously together female gospel duo with the wonderful names of Burner Dene Jordan and Cliffie Mae Spike; and James Anderson & the Anderson Harmoneers. He also recorded Minnie Thomas, Walter Miller, and the Del Rios, a vocal group that included a young and assured William Bell on his very first recording. A top notch Smokey Hogg West Coast blues record suddenly appeared along the way.
So, Meteor was Elmore for sure (his still-born third single is also included here), but it really was a whole lot more than him. It’s fascinating to hear the sounds of Memphis evolve and also to see how they fitted into the context of other black music styles captured by the label.
Meteor closed down in 1957 and, apart from Elmore James, has been little-remembered since, either in Memphis or in the wider record industry, save for the small group of record collectors lucky enough, or clever enough, to acquire copies of the original discs. One of these was Dave Sax, whose incomparable knowledge of these discs has been unleashed in the marvellous 28-page booklet to be found within this double-CD package – and just drool at all those insanely rare labels, let alone the great photographs. The complex project has been expertly supervised by John Broven.
Before now, if you’d wanted to hear the whole label blues-related output you’d have had to pay mega-thousands to get the original 78s and 45s. Indeed, leading dealer John Tefteller reckons the total cost would be some $50,000, if you could ever find them all – and find willing sellers. Now, they’re all here as a label run in one handy package (and beautifully re-mastered by Duncan Cowell) for the price of a double CD. You know you’ve gotta have it – as well as the earlier “Rockabilly & Hillbilly” double.
By Martin Hawkins
Martin Hawkins wrote the notes to our first Meteor release. His new book “A Shot In The Dark: Making Records In Nashville 1945-55” is due to be published by Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville in late autumn 2006.