December 7, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Spaceship Lullaby (Atavistic UMS/ALP243 CD)

The Vocal Groups Featuring Nu Sounds, The Lintels, & The Cosmic Rays
Recorded in Chicago, IL 1954-1960

When Evidence released The Singles (ECD 22164) in 1996, it came as something of shock (to me, anyway) to learn that Sun Ra had been actively involved with doo wop vocal groups prior to the establishment of the Arkestra. In fact, the very first release on the fledgling El Saturn label in 1955 was a 45RPM single featuring the Nu Sounds covering Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day” on the A-side and The Cosmic Rays contributing to a Sun Ra ditty entitled, “Daddy’s Gonna Tell You No Lie” on the flip. Amazingly, Ra continued to record scattered singles with vocal groups up until about 1960. Of course, vocal performance would go on to assume a significant part in the Arkestra’s Cosmo Drama, especially in group space chants and the incantations of June Tyson and Sun Ra himself. But this stuff is something different: an obvious attempt at commercial pop that some Ra aficionados will find downright hokey. But, Sonny would likely reply, “This hokey shit is somebody’s hopes and dreams…don’t be so hip!” (Szwed p.352). In any case, this being Sun Ra, any pop sensibility is decidedly skewed towards the weird and utterly lacking in the kind of vapid slickness that might have aided any entry into the marketplace.

Released in 2003 on Atavistic, Spaceship Lullaby shed more light on this mysterious period in Ra’s discography, gathering together several never-before heard rehearsal tapes of some of the various vocal groups Ra worked with in the mid-to-late 1950s. The Nu Sounds and The Cosmic Rays were both (semi)professional groups and their repertoires are remarkably diverse: jazz standards, show tunes, pop numbers, and Ra compositions that range from the proto-space-chant,“ Spaceship Lullaby” to the virtuosic “Chicago USA.” Apparently written for a contest to determine Chicago’s new theme song, it’s a tour de force of rich imagery and onomatopoeia. The Lintels, on the other hand, were clearly amateurs, probably just young kids taken in off the South Side streets and introduced to disciplined arrangements and enforced self-respect by intergalactic community organizer Sun Ra. You can hear Ra working with them, getting them to try some odd harmonies before calling it a day. Nothing else is known about the Lintels beyond this snippet of tape – not even their names. What remains is a tantalizing glimpse of the kind of street-corner doo wop culture that has been long lost.

Most of the tapes are home recordings with only Ra’s prodding accompaniment on the piano. Occasionally, some spare percussion joins in on the first Nu Sounds session (and Pat Patrick contributes some bari-sax train sounds on the second take of “Chicago USA”). However, a few tracks with The Cosmic Rays feature the entire Arkestra. “Africa” would appear in wordless form on Nubians of Plutonia (El Saturn 406/Evidence 22066 CD) and here is a mere fragment, suggesting an interesting alternate approach to this seminal Ra composition. The sound quality is rough overall, but somehow that only contributes to this record’s considerable charm. Perfect for a Sunday evening.

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