Reverse engineering Louis Armstrong’s record stash part 2

LouisHeadphones
I got a fantastic message about Louis Armstrong’s record collection on Facebook this week from my long time record pal and jazz archaeologist, Rob Chalfen. Way back in the early days of this blog, we (mostly he, truth be told) fantasized about the contents of Louis Armstrong’s record collection. Rob had a lot of informed (and musically annotated) ideas what records he might have had which I dutifully documented in my pre-wordpress LOVE beta site. Despite my ham handed coding, it’s a cool bit of research connecting Louis to Caruso via a horn line in Herbert L. Clarke’s “Showers Of Gold Scherzo” (1912) that shows up in Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” (1928). IF that was not enough, he traced connections to Bert Williams and minstrelsy via two Elder Eatmore routines that Louis versioned and flipped. As I read it now, it seems to stand up as a pretty decent bit of freestyle musicology.

At the time, I think we both assumed that this would always remain the realm of informed speculation, because of course, what are the chances that Louis’s New Orleans record stash remained intact? Right. What are the chances?

Rob recently decided to contact contact The Louis Armstrong House Museum and ask. As usual, he sure has a knack for finding old records.

Here was the original message Rob sent:

hey Ricky, on the subject of Louis’ records, this work of quasi-informed speculation might amuse you, from a buddy’s blog with me a few years ago LOVE1_4 libraryofvinyl.org Reverse engineering Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans record stash
If you have a concordance of Louis’ early 78s I’d love to see it!

And then the nearly unbelievable reply:

Hey Rob! Finally getting a chance to sit down and respond to your message. Your piece was great and interestingly, almost 100% spot on! How do I know? Because as the Archivist of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, Louis’s entire collection of records and reel-to-reel tapes is one room away from me. And better than that, when I was hired in 2009, my big project was to create an Online Catalog, which you can browse the link before. The accession number for all of Louis’s tapes and records is “1987.3” so you can search for any artist, just make sure you include 1987.3 as part of the list. So go ahead, search for “1987.3 Caruso” or “1987.3 Bert Williams”….you’ll feel like a prophet! Happy searching and thanks again! http://louisarmstronghouse.org/collections/online_catalog.htm Yours in Pops, Ricky
Louis Armstrong House Museum – Online Catalog
louisarmstronghouse.org
And Happy Birthday a day early!

Happy birthday indeed my man. And good ears, as always. Here’s to many more years of listening together. Keep on sharing what you find and I’ll keep on bloggin it up for the masses.

ChalfenListening

pace

Look out for the OVC (poster)

OVC poster by way of Saturn

OVC poster by way of Saturn

The other day, I walked into the front room and was flabbergasted to find a little-known piece of Boston’s Hip-Hop history casually laid out on Ken’s Klipsch speaker as if I were meant to find it. This would seem like a magical manifestation under almost any circumstances given my fascination with Boston’s Hip-Hop history and the mindboggling connections between the Jonzun Crew and Sun Ra represented by this little paper triangle. The fact that I had recently been dreaming of building Pyramidal subwoofers makes it seem more like an intergalactic message dropped there by the Man From Saturn himself.

Although there is now a fair bit of information available about the OVC, when I wrote my chapter on Boston Hip-Hop, Tompkins had yet to release the mindbomb How to Wreck a Nice Beach and there was almost no information anywhere about the cryptic reference in the title of the Boston electrofunk classic Pack Jam (Look Out for the OVC) by the Jonzun Crew.

PakMan_Boston_Intl_Records

As I did research for my article, I kept re-wondering “What the hell was this OVC anyway?!” Having whined about it enough to the right people, I learned the answer shortly after it was (re)discovered but swore a solemn oath to keep the story to myself. Which I of course did. Take my word for it, this whole OVC thing was seriously secret info only a few years back. Even now it’s a bit esoteric and the fact that the OVC is the link between Sun Ra and Hip-Hop still seems almost impossible. If you are not quite sure what the hell I am talking about, here it is in one ghastly sentence:

Boston’s Jonzun Crew was connected to Jazzman/Intergalactic traveler Sun Ra via the OVC (the Outerspace Visual Communicator), a light show-producing keyboard that was designed by MIT-affiliated inventor/funk keyboardist Bill Sebastian and used in several Boston Sun Ra Shows and one film.

Now even if you are not a Boston obsessed music obsessive like me, this is a pretty amazing story. For me, its fundamental. In fact, the whole Boston-Electrofunk-Sun Ra connection is a critical piece of evidence that Boston was an important (and overlooked) source for Hip-Hop’s electro/cosmic elements. Seriously, find me a place where early Hip-Hop and Sun Ra connect other than in Boston. Whatever your beliefs about the importance of the Bean in providing some of Hip-Hop’s deepest connections with intergalactic beings, at the very least the OVC deserves a special place in the story of the birth of Hip-Hop (and its Beantown roots).

Since I could not run this down in the chapter given my oath (and could never have done it better than Dave anyway), allow me to offer a few annotations to the now mythical story of the OVC. (Oh to have stalked the beast into the gloamy evening underbrush with Dave and Brian back in the dark ages of ’09…sigh.)

Sun Ra at Mass Art

But first of all, where did the poster come from? Did Sun Ra really show up and leave it up front? Most likely not. Originally, this poster was from a series of shows at Mass Art on June 26-29, 1980. Most recently, it arrived by way of Roger Miller who had it floating around in the Alloy Orchestra van. Being a fan of Sun Ra, a gobsmacked bandmate asked if he could have the artifact for his ephemera collection (since it was just laying around the van anyway). Apparently Roger gave it up gladly claiming “to have plenty of them”. Wha?! Sometime after that point the cosmic communique was left on the speaker where I found it. But frankly Ken did not seem entirely sure about any of this, really. Maybe its more plausible that Sun Ra did drop it off.

Wherever the thing came from, it got me sleuthing around again about the OVC. I returned to Dave’s book, of course. Then I went looking for digital crumbs on the internet which I have assembled together here for you. This re-search turned up the following known and semi-known bits of additional info arranged in a rough timeline of the OVC and its interconnections with the Arkestra via Bill Sebastian and the Jonzun Crew.

1973 – Keyboardist/inventor Bill Sebastian is playing with the Johnson Brothers and invents a keyboard light show that plays the band’s name in lights. Perhaps the fractal-electronic seed of the OVC had been planted. Go read the whole awesome interview with Michael Johnson (did you know he and Maurice Starr did a bunch of backing tracks at Sugarhill, for example?). That same year, Sebastian sees sun Ra play in Boston (where was this show?) and spends the next five years building the OVC.

Sometime before 1977 – Sun Ra and the Arkestra play at Paul’s Mall in Boston. According to Warren, they were promoting Space is the Place so this show had to be before 1977. Please go see his amazing pictures of this show. Here is one I borrowed for this post.

1977 – Sun Ra plays the Cyclorama in Boston. No info on this show yet.

1978 – According to Tompkins (p. 117), this was the year Bill completed the OVC in Ore City, Texas. At around this time, Bill was placed at the Starsystems Loft on Thayer St. in Boston. Apparently Sun Ra and Bill spent some time together there using the OVC.

1979 – Sun Ra plays The Modern Theater in Boston. This is a week (or two) long run at which The OVC appears for the first time. Waren’s recollection of the show contains a nice reference to the OVC:

“He [Sun Ra] was to perform at a now-defunct theater in Boston, and it was to be a week-long run in which the Arkestra was joined by light artist Bill Sebastian, who had crafted an extraordinary device (the Spacescape light organ) that gave a dazzling visual accompaniment to the music. The photos of Ra and the Arkestra on the back jacket [The Other Side of the Sun] were taken during the band’s two-week stint at Boston’s Modern Theater in 1979. (Obscure digression: if you happen to see the film The Verdict with Paul Newman — filmed in Boston around the time of these shows – watch for the distinctive triangle-shaped flyer for these shows next to him in the scene where’s he’s chatting on an outdoor payphone.) Anyway: Two photos on the rear jacket of this LP show members of the band playing in front of Bill Sebastian’s eyeball-melting Outerspace Visual Communicator, an amazing light-sculpting device”

Back of the Other Side of the Sun

1980, June 26-29 – Mass College of Art. The OVC was clearly in full effect at this point, as was its inventor, who apparently spun around dressed as some kind of space Wizard. Perfect.

1984 – Sun Ra visits a new “OVC-3D” at the Johnson Brother’s studio, Mission Control. Somewhat earlier in 1982, the OVC was placed at Sebastian’s Munster-esque mansion in Roxbury, MA.

1986 – Sun Ra’s “Calling Planet Earth” video is released. Bill and Jonzun worked on this video with the Arkestra and it contains the best footage I have seen of the OVC (though it is still a little unclear to me how many of the effects were done with the OVC and how many were post production). The video once lived on the YouTube, but the only version I can find now is this one which I scraped off of the web:

Can we get a reissue/better version of this, Bill? Anyone?

More recently, rumors have been circulating around town that Bill and/or Sun Ra may be rebuilding the OVC. There is a tantalizing video called “The Return of the OVC” that claims to be footage from 1986. I can’t be sure what it all means but I hope posters about it keep showing up.

I’ll be looking into all of this as soon as I get that Pyramidal Subwoofer built. In the meantime, keep your eyes out for the OVC (or at least another poster). It may be appearing soon at a future mythical reunion show near you.

Hip-hop in the hub

Its finally here. The day the book drops. I am heading over to Beat Research soon to celebrate with the Beantown massive and wanted to put up the article before I do.

There is so much to say about this piece of work that I can’t even really begin. It took longer and was harder than I ever could have imagined. But it was also the highest honor to be asked to write the first real academic piece on Boston’s hip-hop history. What would you say? Its a complicated tale to say the least. Well, this is what I came up with.

A few words of introduction are clearly in order. First, thanks to everyone who opened their lives, collections and memories to me. I could not have done it without you. Second, I know there are certainly going to be some errors, omissions, thoughts about other angles to highlight, etc. I welcome your suggestions (post them up here) and hope I can update this in a second version, later works, etc. This is certainly a first pass at a lifelong project. Finally, you may notice that the article leaves a lot of the recent history (and people) out. That’s not because I see it as less important, interesting, etc. Just that I had a chance here to tell some tales that have not been told, reach some people that are harder to reach, and dig a little deeper into the past. I also wanted to celebrate a scene that I have loved and been around (but not quite in) for my whole life. So, that’s what I did.

There are lots of things I would do differently if I could. But most of it, I would do the same way again. Visiting Rusty and Spice at Touch. The trip to Maine to see/hear the Lecco’s Lemma archives and talk to Magnus my old friend. Checking in with Skippy at his last remaining store and asking him about his first memories. Reconnecting the electro sounds coming out of Boston in the early 1980s to the birth of hip-hop. A lot. Anyway. I hope you enjoy reading it half as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Here it is with respect to all of you who lived it the first time around.

Hip-Hop in the Hub: How Boston Rap Remained Underground

For those of you who can afford the $165 price tag (nah, I don’t get any) its also available in the massive comp Hip Hop In America: A Regional Guide.

Thanks of course to Mickey for all the hard work putting out this massive compendium and inviting me to be part of it.