Sun Ra's secret singles
by JOHN SWENSON
UPI Arts & Entertainment -- It's Only Rock 'n' Roll
November 13, 1996, Wednesday, BC cycle
The musical visionary Sun Ra has had a subtle but profound impact on rock history, as bands from NRBQ to the Aquarium Rescue Unit have covered the rhythmically sophisticated space anthems he's penned, most notably ''Space Is the Place.'' He has appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, played various rock festivals and defined the avant garde with events like his legendary 100-piece concert and his 1980s residence at the Squat Theater in New York's Chelsea district. (+ see note) Sun Ra's influence on rock history is well documented, but few of his fans are aware of his own history as a producer and leader of pop and rock bands. This little-known side of Sun Ra comes out in an astonishing new CD on Evidence records, ''Sun Ra: The Singles.'' The collection of 49 singles shows Sun Ra leading bands through '50s doowop sessions, a Christmas song, a song for New Year's Eve, gutbucket R&B, Chicago blues, synthesizer music, soul, New Orleans R&B, rock and teen love ballads. The astonishing thing about this material is that it all bears Sun Ra's unmistakable signature. Though he began as a jazz musician in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., Sun Ra started experimenting with other forms when he moved to Chicago in 1946. During his first decade in the Windy City he played piano in a pre-rock jump blues band led by Wynonie Harris, arranged and played in Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, wrote arrangements for vocal groups and led strip-club bands playing blowsy blues. Most musicians would refer to such efforts as hardball dues-paying, but Sun Ra saw possibilities in the strangest places. In 1955, just as he was assembling his avant garde jazz Arkestra to play in Chicago clubs, Sun Ra started his own record company along with business partner Alton Abraham, Saturn records. Saturn, and its subsidiary Repeto records, would provide the outlet for some of Sun Ra's weirdest experiments. ''We were not about money,'' says Abraham, who survives Sun Ra. ''We were never about money. We were doing things the creator willed us to do: to awaken the people to turn to the creator, to prepare people for the new age, the Space Age, an age where all things are possible by creating a new art form.'' He wasn't kidding. Sun Ra's first foray into the pop world was a twisted Mills Brothers-style arrangement of George and Ira Gershwin's ''A Foggy Day In London Town,'' sung by The Nu Sounds. Ularsee Manor, a singer in the popular Chicago vocal group the Four Buddies, acknowledged Sun Ra's influence on the his town's vocal group tradition. ''He taught us standards,'' Manor said. ''We did 'A Foggy Day,' which I remember we sang at parties for some rich white people on the North Shore. He also taught us 'Deep Purple,' 'My Future Just Passed' and 'Summertime.' We didn't do any space songs, but Sun Ra did teach us this one song that imitated the sounds of traffic and the El.'' Some of the doo wop material recorded by The Cosmic Rays walks the thin line between parody and tribute. Then there are the wild rantings of Yochanan (The Space Age Vocalist) on the insane R&B of ''Muck Muck'' and ''Hot Skillet Mama'' and the ''Twilight Zone'' effects of ''The Sun One,'' ''The Sun Man Speaks'' and ''Message To Earthman.'' Even the teen ballads get a weird twist, as the echoey narrative that frames Juanita Rogers' ''Teenager's Letter Of Promises'' makes the listener believe that the green slime is about to snatch her just as she gets to the mushy part. Sun Ra leads a smoking rhythm section to back soul man Little Mack on ''Tell Her To Come On Home'' and ''I'm Making Believe.'' Of course, Sun Ra's greatest ''hit,'' ''Rocket No. 9,'' is included on the collection, but the most eye-opening piece here is the amazing ''Unmask The Batman,'' a song that would become one of the highlights of Sun Ra live performances later in his career. The original is included here, with Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy on rhythm guitar. It's hard to imagine how this side of Sun Ra, which makes so much sense in retrospect, has managed to remain hidden all these years. In the end, though, it's just another example of how far out and far ahead he was at the same time.
+ discography of Sun Ra at Squat Theatre: Ra to the Recue was recorded live at Squat Theatre, 1983
edition: Saturn IX/ 1983-220
Including tracks: Side A:
Ra to the Rescue (Chapter 1) (Ra)
Ra to the Rescue (Chapter 2) (Ra)
Fate in a Pleasant Mood (Ra)
When Lights are Dark (Ra)
They Plan to Leave (Ra)
Back Alley Blues (Ra)
Line up / Recording date:
Ra-p, syn, voc; Marshall Allen-as, fl; John Gilmore-ts, voc; prob. Danny Ray Thompson-bs, fl; June Tyson-voc; prob. Hayes Burnett-b; posib. Eric "Samurai Celestial" Walker-d; unknown -perc.
Squat Theater, New York, 1982.
Tracks A2, A3 and B2 also appear on "When Spaceships Appear"