Thursday, 12 February 2015

Ten great Sun recordings unissued at the time - starting with "Put Your Cat Clothes On"

That is undoubtedly the greatest rock 'n' roll record not to gain a release around the time it was recorded. It had to wait sixteen years to see the light of day on on a compilation album - Sun Rockabillys: Put Your Cat Clothes On - released in the UK in 1973. The Perkins' track opened side one. I remember sticking the LP on my record player and thinking "Blimey! Where's this been hiding?" It's easy now to wonder what the hell Sam Phillips was thinking of - but it wasn't as if he didn't have an embarrassment of choice: the splendid "Matchbox" was recorded during the same session. (And, before you ask, yes - that is Jerry Lee Lewis on piano.)  

That wonderful, eye-opening compilation LP contained a slew of previously hidden gems, including this classic from The Killer himself:

Then there was this excellent 1957 version of "Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache" by Mr. Warren "Ubangi Stomp' Smith, the non-release of which is a genuine mystery:

More understandable, perhaps, was the non-appearance of this early Roy Orbison track - Orbison never really hit his stride at Sun, but he still managed to cut some great stuff:

I've known the first four tracks for decades, but I only became acquainted with the rest of the songs on this post after I started buying rockabilly compilation CDs from the HMV store in Oxford Street about eight years' ago. The best of the rest (for me, at least) is this   cool little rocker from Gene Simmons:

I've been meaning to cover this topic for months, and finally received the impetus to do so yesterday from an exchange with ex-KCS in the comments section of my recent post "Stranded in the Jungle" (here) which centred on Sun's secret weapon - slapback echo. The following song isn't part of my ten choices, because Sun couldn't have released it, as it was only 30" long. Known as "Unknown Tape Fragment", it's generally attributed to  Jimmy Wages, a singer/songwriter who recorded four complete tracks under producer Jack Clement, none of which were released. Wages didn't know whether that was him on this intriguing musical snippet - but he reckoned it could have been. As ex-KCS pointed out, the echo setting is odd, with the echo and the orginal sound at roughly the same level (obviously, the echo is usually quieter). Whatever was going on, I suspect that a full version would have been one of Sun's finest productions. As Hank Davis wrote on the That'll Flat... Git It! Vol. 17: Rockabilly from the Vaults of Sun Records CD sleeve:
Despite its fragmentary nature, the tantalizing snippet comes close to near-perfect rockabilly. The instrumental sound is wonderful and the swampy recording style only enhances the bluesy tension of the performance. 
Indeed. Here it is:

From what might have been back to what actually was. If that was Jimmy Wages, the guitarist would have been a chap called Ray Harris, who can be heard on his own unreleased Sun single, "Right Behind You Baby":

Here's hard-edged Sun stalwart Sonny Burgess rocking on out on the stomping "Find My Baby for Me":

Sun released two singles by Onie Wheeler, neither of them a patch on "Walkin' Shoes":

Jerry Arnold's "High Class Baby" was an example of a pre-recorded song bought by Sun, who held onto it for a while without putting it out. It eventually escaped into the wild via another label:


I was going to try to keep every artist to one track - but I can't resist including Jerry Lee Lewis and His Pumping Piano with "Let the Good Times Roll":


  1. In a sensibly run world, or indeed a sensibly organised BBC, you would have a Charlie Gillett type slot on Radio 6 to share your enjoyment of these classic obscurities, or more likely on Radio 3 given the tendency of the Beeb to put people who are genuine experts into the darker corners of its empire. I have a number of theories about why these tracks were never released.

    First, studio time and tape cost was prohibitive. From about the 50's on, there was the technical capability to multi-track and add effects but it was so expensive that it was reserved for film, not a passing phase.. Any Disney film from the same time has an outstanding quality soundtrack. Because of the cost, artists and their songs, particularly rock and rollers, were selected on a "right first time" basis on two track. For example, the Orbison song, while refreshingly short of the Orbo saccharine string overdose on which we have disagreed in the past, has some clown clicking sticks instead of a drum beat and a guitarist trained by Fred Prentiss on the scales of the first solo. One take and then "next please cos it is costing us". The second is about perceptions of sustainability, as management consultants might put it. Even a genius like Sam Phiilips woud never have expected that you and I would be listening to and diissecting this stuff 65 years later. It was thought to be ephemeral and that was why there was a quality control filter (also linked to the cost of production). In plain terms, only the best or most commercial would do in a market that they thought was finite in volume and longevity. I think they got it wrong sometimes. These Jerry Lee tracks are at least up there with his hits, showing what an effortless talent he was but I imagine even he went through the production line check and Sun decided that in the expectation that would last as long as the latest dance craze,

    A great post. I reserve the right to return on the Sun echo technique, if I can work it out. I am sure your readers can't wait!

    1. Thank you, fellow obsessive. It was such a pity that Charlie Gillett became interested in "World" music, which strikes me as a means of titlillation for music-lovers with jaded palates. Listening to his Radio London show in the late '70s was like studying Rock 'n' Roll at university. If you search for "rock and roll" on the BBC iPlayer, you get two local radio shows and, as far as I can see, nothing on Radio 2, which did a pretty good job covering it until about five years ago when Mark Lamarr left. I sometimes tune in to Radio 6 when I'm doing the ironing and "The Navy Lark" is on Radio Four Extra. Mixed bag, to put it mildly.

      The clicking sticks on the Orbison track sound good to me - the device was used a lot afterproducers realised that the sound of plucked double-bass strings strings slapping against the fretboard created an interesting percussive effect and it would be easy to recreate it to order - however, I agree that's it's better when it's natural, as on the Jimmy Wages fragment.

      I suspect the made-up guitar scales are partly the result of the use of jazzy scales in Western bop music (you can hear that influence on some Gene Vincent tracks featuring the sublime Cliff Gallup) - and partly the result of young guitarists panicked into filling in the spaces during live recordings. This also true of bass players - some of the bass parts on early rock and roll records are so bad they're laugh-out-loud funny. But, again, I think we should forgive these young folk (and the older folk trying to cross over from country), who were, after all, part of a great and slightly deranged experiment.

      You're right about Phillips - he turned into quite a pompous old pseud, and evidently loved the fact that the music he produced had lasted so spectacularly well, but at the time he was just trying to keep his little music label alive from week to week. Smart bugger, though - he invested in Holiday Inn right at the start.

      Jerry Lee Lewis - at Sun - could no wrong: it all sounds as natural as breathing.

      These discarded tracks were all made right at the start of the LP era (they existed, but not really for rock and roll at that stage) and - as far as I'm aware - before the compilation album had been invented. If Sun had been churning out LPs, you can guarantee that they wouldn't have discarded so much great stuff.

      If you can work out the Sun echo technique, please let us know. When RCA first recorded Elvis in their fancy, state-of-the-art studios, they couldn't recreate - nearly drove them mad.

  2. Oh and just to be clear to your younger readers: the Gene Simmons featured in this post is not the painted face untalented twat waste of space from Kiss. I know a sophisticated clientele like yours would realise this but I thought that nevertheless I should make the point.

    1. To avoid confusion, I should probably have given the rockabilly Gene Simmons his "Jumpin'" soubriquet, as opposed to the other Gene Simmons whose soubriquet should probably be "Wankin'".