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Count Basie: Rock and Soul


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The 1960s was a decade of reverse transition for Count Basie. When his Roulette contract ended in 1962, Basie signed with Reprise and began recording a series of swinging albums with Frank Sinatra. By decade's end, Basie was moving back into his commercial comfort zone, recording straight ahead swingers. But in between, there was plenty of experimentation—some successful and some not so much. Two of the most interesting albums of the period were rock and soul outings.

First the rock shot. Many people are unware that Basie recorded not one but two Beatles albums in the '60s—Basie's Beatle Bag (1966) for Verve and a lesser-known LP called Basie on the Beatles (1969). The latter was cut for Happy Tiger, a Los Angeles label owned by the Flying Tiger Line air-freight company that lasted only three years—from 1969 to 1971. During this time, Happy Tiger released just 27 albums.

Basie's Beatle Bag was largely a dud. Arranged by Chico O'Farrill, the album was an awkward and clumsy attempt to translate the Fab Four's excitement into swing-ese. O'Farrill was a brilliant arranger and ghosted often for major arrangers during the '60s. He had much finer artistic success on Basie Meets Bond (1965) for United Artists (UA), which distributed the James Bond and Beatles films in the U.S.

Whether the creative failing of the first Basie album was a result of Norman Granz's disdain for rock and his “let's get it over with" approach to recording is unknown. Given that UA meant Bond and Beatles, one might assume there was a deal struck by Granz for a UA Bond album a Verve Beatles album.

By contrast, Basie on the Beatles is an enormous artistic triumph. Arranged by Bob Florence, the album takes on impossible, late-period Lennon-McCartney songs like Hey Jude, Penny Lane and Get Back. The results are perfectly executed album that gracefully enters the Beatles space and lifts the songs without ever giving up the swing. It's a shame Happy Tiger didn't commission another one.

In between these two Beatles LPs, Basie recorded a marvelous, little-known album with electrifying soul singer Jackie Wilson. Manufactures of Soul was made in 1968 for Brunswick, Wilson's label at the time. On paper, this merger would seem like a forced fit—Wilson's growly, funky delivery with Basie's easy swing. But it works in a big way, largely thanks to Benny Carter's brilliant arrangements. [Pictured below, Count Basie with Benny Carter]

Carter fully understood the essence of soul and was able to transform soul's steamy energy into big band charts that didn't feel alien or painful. Instead, they neatly support Wilson, allowing him to do his thing and for Basie's band to swing with funky abandon.

Basie's experiments in the '60s were largely touch and go, and almost always at the mercy of the arranger hired to make sessions work. Florence and Carter were the rock and soul heroes who proved that Basie could make the scene—in the right hands. Watch me now!

JazzWax tracks: Miraculously, both albums discussed above are available as downloads. Basie on the Beatles in available here at Amazon, while Manufacturers of Soul with Jackie Wilson is available here.

JazzWax clips: Here's Count Basie playing The Fool on the Hill from Basie on the Beatles...

And here's Jackie Wilson with Count Basie singing Smokey Robinson's My Girl, from Manufacturers of Soul...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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