By Bruce Sylvester
During the original Candid label's mere four years, 1960-64, its 30-some LPs played a worthy role in fusing the period's music – mainly modern jazz but also blues – with its burgeoning civil rights movement. The label's catalog was recently acquired by Exceleration Music, whose reissue program starts with five expertly remastered albums: We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite (featuring Coleman Hawkins, Olatunji, and Roach's wife, Abbey Lincoln), Lincoln's Straight Ahead, and Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus plus, from the blues, Lightnin' Hopkins in New York and Otis Spann Is the Blues. They include prescient notes by the original label's producer and artists & repertoire (A&R) man, noted critic and civil libertarian Nat Hentoff.
Back on Columbia Records, bassist Mingus hadn't been allowed to put vocal passages caricaturing controversial Arkansas governor Orval Faubus on his 1959 LP Mingus Ah Um, so he made its “Fables of Faubus” an instrumental. Of course, he could say it all on Candid's Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, here retitling the piece “Original Faubus Fables” due to contractual concerns involving Columbia. Temperamental Mingus is quoted, “[A] lot of jazz records don't make it because guys almost unconsciously change their approach in a studio from what they do every night. I finally wanted to make an album the way we are on the job,” so the studio recording is presented as a stage show with Mingus even instructing the nonexistent audience and bar staff on proper behavior during his performance. As for “All the Things You Could Be by Now if Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother” (which borrows from “All the Things You Are”), Mingus once remarked, “The title probably came from the way the audience was reacting one night.” With his ensemble's ever-shifting lineup, Mingus was a kind of Lee Strasberg of jazz in Hentoff's words. Here he's backed by Ted Curson on trumpet and Dannie Richmond on drums, with Eric Dolphy (who'd soon leave Mingus) on alto sax and bass clarinet.
The tour de force among the five reissues is drummer/writer Roach's We Insist! spotlighting tenor saxman Hawkins, Nigerian drummer Michael Olatunji, and Lincoln on vocals. The lunch-counter cover photo — reflecting the early-60s sit-ins to protest segregated restaurants — captures the suite's intent: to present the Black experience from Africa to slavery in America to the present and onward with a look to Mother Africa. Set in 1863, “Freedom Day” refers to President Abe Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, whose centennial was approaching. Over the suite's five tracks (including “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace”) Abbey's arresting vocals extend to wordless vocalese as well as chanting African tribes' names in a duet with Olatunji,whose three drums include one carved from a tree trunk. Spontaneity was a key. Coleman's response to possibly editing out a squeak in his playing (back in the day of manual editing a session's magnetic tapes) was “No, don't splice. When it's all perfect, especially in a piece like this, there's something very wrong.” Sixty-plus years after these sessions, their power is still overwhelming.
Her fifth solo album but her debut on Candid, Abbey Lincoln's Straight Ahead is said to be her first to totally free her up as a vocalist.
Lightnin' Hopkins's audience, like Spann's, was then expanding to include White northeasterners, a transition beyond his fellow Black Texans that he seems to have been navigating with quiet grace on this eight-track, 43-minute studio disc done on his first trip of any length to New York. He was so happy with this Nov. 15, 1960, session that he proposed extending it to allow him to play the studio's piano — an infrequent instrument on his discs — even managing to do both piano and acoustic guitar (no overdubs) on “Take It Easy,” which is resequenced to begin the album. “Lightnin's Piano Boogie”is exactly that. Hentoff's candid liner notes and elements of Hopkins's tales may raise some eyebrows 62 years after the fact, but to me, they're rock solid.
Besides being Candid's first LP, Otis Spann Is the Blues was pianist/singer Spann's first on his own, apart from Muddy Waters' band. Robert Lockwood, Jr., a teammate with Mud, provides guitar and some vocals. Their singing's so real that listeners may wonder how much a song is autobiographical and how much it's in the voice of a fictional character. Barrelhouse and Chicago piano styles meet in Spann's hands. His frolic “Great Northern Stomp” gets its name from the studio they were using in New York's Great Northern Hotel. Does “I Got Rambling on My Mind #2” trace back to young Lockwood's lessons from Robert Johnson during his time with Lockwood's mother? This August 23, 1960, session led to enough extra tracks for a second LP, but it never appeared until 1972 on the Barnaby label, which by then owned Candid's catalog. I'll say more on Barnaby later.
So what's been Candid's evolution? It began as a modern jazz imprint of Cadence Records – one of the 50s' most successful indie labels – founded in 1953 by musical arranger Archie Bleyer. Its first hits, by crooner Julius La Rosa, came fast. Bleyer himself hit #2 on the pop charts in '54 with hipster tango “Hernando's Hideaway,” which even now still sounds cool. The Chordettes and Everly Brothers had gone hitless on Columbia, but scored big-time after switching to Cadence. In '55, Bill Hayes's single “The Ballad of Davey Crockett” was the highest-charting version (#1) amid kids' coonskin-cap/ Crockett frenzy. Andy Williams's first hits were on Cadence. Pianist Don Shirley reflected the label's range of interests. The First Family, a fond satire of the iconic Camelot-era Kennedys, sold hugely until Nov. 22, 1963.
The Candid modern jazz imprint was well received, but the financial times were a-changin'. The Everlys moved to the newly formed Warner Brothers label. Williams left for Columbia. When Bleyer put the company on the market, Williams wanted to buy his own masters. Bleyer insisted that he buy the whole shebang, which Andy did, then founding the Barnaby label to reissue some Cadence and Candid records (as well as previously unissued numbers from Spann's session) plus some new discs too. In the 1980s, Black Lion Records in England bought the Candid catalog, subsequently selling it to U.S.-based Exceleration Music, where jazz drummer Terri Lynne Carrington is involved with A&R. Candid's contemporary releases include Stacey Kent and Elaine Elias.
So what's in store now? Will Memphis Slim's two Candid LPs reappear? More Mingus? Cecil Taylor? We'll have to wait and see. Or wait and hear.