Roz Croney, Queen of the Limbo: How Low Can You Go? (Dauntless DM 6309)
Recorded at Mastertone Studio, New York City, January or February, 1963.
Released as Dauntless DM 4039 (mono) and 6309 (stereo) in 1963.
While Sun Ra was extensively recording Arkestra rehearsals at the Choreographer’s Workshop and exploring the outer realms of (im)possible music, there was little actual paying work in New York. Fortunately, Ra had developed two important connections over the years: filmmaker/auteur Edward O. Bland and (soon to become) legendary producer Tom Wilson, both of whom had worked with Sonny in Chicago. As soon as Ra found himself stranded in the big city, Bland and Wilson helped him out, resulting in the Savoy LP, The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961). Often working in tandem, Bland and Wilson continued to throw commercial work the Arkestra’s way during this crucial period – like, for instance, this limbo fad cash-in attempt rush-released in 1963.
Upon graduating from Harvard in 1954, Tom Wilson borrowed $900.00 to start the Transition record label which was devoted exclusively to the most progressive jazz. In 1956, Wilson released Cecil Taylor’s first record, Jazz Advance (CD on Blue Note 84462) along with Sun Ra’s first LP under his newly assumed name, Jazz by Sun Ra Vol.1 (later titled Sun Song) (Delmark DD-411). A second volume was also recorded and released as Sound of Joy (Delmark DD-414). As the nineteen-sixties progressed, Wilson eventually abandoned jazz for rock music went on to produce landmark albums by Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, Simon & Garfunkel, The Velvet Underground, Soft Machine and others. Wilson was one of the first and most successful African-American record producers but died tragically young at 47 in 1978.
Edward O. Bland was a radical young Chicago disc jockey and early supporter of Sun Ra who enlisted the Arkestra to participate in a short experimental film entitled, The Cry of Jazz (Atavistic DVD). Bland shrewdly convinced the band to work for free in exchange for whatever publicity the film might generate. The Cry of Jazz premiered at Roosevelt University in early 1959 and remains a crucial document of black cinema. By 1961, Bland had relocated to New York City and was working as a journeyman composer and arranger, sometimes (as here) in association with Tom Wilson.
Honestly, How Low Can You Go? is an example of the kind of imminently disposable, fashion-driven product that would appear to be the antithesis of Ra’s own (mostly unheard) music of the time: it is simply work-for-hire without any artistic pretentions whatsoever. But what is remarkable about the Arkestra’s (uncredited) performance is the complete lack of irony or condescension; it is professional to the point of anonymity. And upon close listening, one can confirm Gilmore’s raspy bass clarinet on “It’s Limbo Time” and Ra’s slinky organ work on “Bossa Nova Limbo” and “Whole Lotta Shaking Going On.” Of course, the limbo originates from a Trinidadian funeral ritual where the dancer moves to the rhythm under a stick held up by two persons without knocking or touching the stick; if successful, the dancer repeats the maneuver again and again with the bar being lowered each time. The symbolism of this triumphant dance of life over death surely appealed to Ra’s sensibilities, even if this LP was ultimately destined for the trend-conscious cocktail parties of the “space-age bachelor pad.” Sadly, little else is known about Roz Croney, Queen of the Limbo, beyond this obscure recording and the limbo conceit is fleshed out to album-length proportions with some truly dreadful material, including a limbo-ized take on “How Much Is that Doggie In The Window?” Needless to say, How Low Can You Go? has never been (and never will be) released on CD and is not really worth seeking out unless you’re a totally committed Ra-fanatic.
Again in 1963, Wilson and Bland hired the Arkestra for a pop/R&B session backing the (otherwise unknown) singer Richard “Popcorn” Wylie. “Marlene” b/w “Do You Still Care for Me” was released as a 45-RPM single on Epic Records (5-9663). According to Bland’s recollections at the Jazz Institute of Chicago:
I was notified by his office only 24 hours before the session was scheduled to hit. I had to transcribe 4 lead sheets from Wylie (who was musically illiterate) arrange and copy the 4 charts, and contract the musicians.
While I was working with Wylie (who was drunk) trying to transcribe the lead sheets, he vomited on me in the apartment of the Jazz trombonist / arranger / composer Tom McIntosh (who came to additional fame with the Jazztet, James Moody and the Shaft [motion] pictures). [McIntosh (along with Bland and Wilson) was also involved with the infamous Batman & Robin LP in 1966.]
Bland portrays Wylie as a helpless drunkard while Prof. Campbell describes Wylie as a “Sam Cooke wannabe” but the session isn’t quite as bad as all that. “Marlene” is a pleasant mid-tempo soul groove complete with crooning backup singers and Wylie’s own pleading vocals. Gilmore turns in an inimitably pithy solo on bass clarinet during the break making this worth a listen. On the other hand, “Do You Still Care For Me?” is a more pedestrian shuffle with some unremarkable horn parts honking away in the background. Someone (is it Popcorn?) whistles aimlessly at the end. Another curiosity in the discography!
Finally, another single was recorded in 1962 and eventually released by El Saturn sometime in the mid-sixties. The label of El Saturn 144M reads: “Presenting Little Mack” with “Le Sun Ra: Music Director.” According to Gilmore, Little Mack was an R&B singer who liked the Arkestra and financed this recording session which can be found on The Singles (Evidence ECD 22164). “Tell Her to Come On Home” is a plaintive blues with an unsteady rumba beat. Gilmore and Ra conjure up some cool riffing in support of Little Mack’s quirky but sincere vocals. On the other side, “I’m Making Believe” is an old fashioned torch song full of maudlin emotion foreign to Ra’s usual vibe. Even so, it’s a touching performance with Ra leading the way with some ornate piano, Gilmore filling in orchestrally on saxophone. According to Ra, Little Mack was a virtuosic singer, who would sing in different keys depending on the acoustic properties of the concert hall; but nobody seems to know what happened to him. Too bad.
It’s hard to imagine that any of these records made much money for Ra or his musicians beyond a minimal payment upon performance. It was perhaps enough to buy some groceries. 1964 would be an especially difficult year with several key band members leaving the Arkestra (if only temporarily) for greener pastures. The Arkestra would continue to perform commercial work here and there through the nineteen-sixties in order to survive. But Sun Ra was also active within the short-lived but crucial Jazz Composers Guild. The Guild, which included Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor among others, mounted a series high profile concerts in New York which planted the seed for the Arkestra’s future. Attorney Bernard Stollman was in the audience in 1964 and he would shortly thereafter sign Ra to his boutique label, ESP-Disk. Suddenly, things were looking up.