Prologue: I like to stretch my money as far as possible in used record stores. I gravitate towards the $1 bins, hoping to find something new and interesting on the cheap. For the last few years I’ve been especially interested in discovering music from outside of the US and other English-speaking countries. Even if I don’t end up liking the record, I usually earn something about the musical culture of the country the record is from. It’s like buying a history brochure for a buck.
In that spirit, I have created a game for myself that I’m calling Scratch Ticket Radio. The rules are simple. During a trip to a record store, I have $10 to spend on used 45s. Taken together, these become “the ticket.” Then, as if taking a quarter to a scratch ticket, I listen to each song to determine if it is a good tune or not. If I come out with more keepers than duds, the ticket as a whole can be considered a winner. There are several key stipulations. To make sure that I’m taking a risk (an essential aspect of scratch tickets and gambling more generally), I cannot select 45s by artists that I already know or that contain songs that I am already familiar with. That is, I can’t already know what’s there before I “scratch” it off – that would be cheating.
June 2019: “You Never Know”
#1: Johnny Guitar Watson
For a long time I have wondered about the personal histories of crossing guards. What did they do before they retired and decided to shepherd occasionally grateful pedestrians across busy intersections? This interest was piqued even further when I heard one crossing guard ask another if they had been at a certain party where a murder had taken place. The one asking had indeed been there and he was trying to jog his memory about who else might have been. How does this connect to music? Well, it has never left me that Irma Thomas worked at a Sears for over a decade after her career peaked in the late 60’s. She is one of my favorite singers of all time (I submit the people’s evidence #1 and #2), so it seemed absurd that she would be working a 9-5 gig. I imagine she helped many people who had no idea that she was that Irma Thomas. She later returned to recording. The lesson I took away from that was that you never know who you might be speaking with or listening to. To wit, Johnny Guitar Watson.
(B) Nothing Left to be Desired DJM (1977)
Per the rules of Scratch Ticket Radio, I had no idea who Johnny Guitar Watson was before I picked up this single. Turns out, he was very influential and a connection between various sectors of the music world. Watson cut his teeth in R&B, playing with folks such as Chuck Higgins, and then he played with a diverse crowd of musicians, including Little Richard, Herb Alpert and Frank Zappa. Zappa said that Watson’s early work inspired him to pick up the guitar and Etta James said she modeled her vocal style after him. He was an early adopter of electronic equipment and might have been one of the first to use a proto-vocoder. He also supposedly claimed that he was a father of hip-hop (which seems like a stretch).
This single was Watson’s commercial peak, if not his artistic one. I can understand musicians moving with the times to try and made a living , but unfortunately, I found the music to be somewhat generic polite mid-70’s funk. Forgettable, as is the B-side.
The music on this single would have never let me know how influential he was over the decades. I can only imagine what some long-time fans of Watson thought when he went in this direction. Or who knows, maybe they also dug this lite-FM funk. The sedate label also stands in sharp contrast to the LP cover.
Sadly, two down, but a respectful nod to Mr. Watson’s larger legacy.
#2: The Searchers
(B) I’ll Be Missing You Kapp (1964)
Listening to this single created a bit of an epistemological puzzle for me. One of my key stipulations is that I cannot select artists or songs that “I am familiar with.” In earlier entries I have disqualified a few sides because once I put the needle down on the record I realized, “Damn, I do know this song.” My response in previous cases was unequivocal, but not here. As I listened, I realized that I had perhaps heard the A Side once a long time ago, but I wasn’t ready to say that I was familiar with it. Does hearing it once or twice constitute knowing it if it didn’t leave some kind of impact? I’m going to give myself some slack here and not count it as a violation of my rules. In retrospect I am a bit surprised that I didn’t at least recognize the band’s name, but perhaps I’m a Beatles fan more than a British Invasion fan.
The song itself is great. It has all the sonic markings of said British invasion, and the guitar tone and the vocals feel like something that I indeed should have been familiar with for the last five decades, but somehow missed out on. It was like finding a piece of comfort food you packed away and forgot about – not groundbreaking, but quite welcome. The same cannot be said for the B-side. It has the same engaging textures, but the song itself feels like an afterthought.
When You Walk in the Room was a cover of the original written and performed by Jackie DeShannon. The Searchers also had a hit with another song she performed, Needles and Pins (later covered by multiple artists). As with the first song, I think her version is superior to theirs. I also believe there is something wrong about a group putting out multiple singles covering the same artist, unless the songs in question are only one part of their legacy. Thus, I give the Byrds a pass for frequently returning to Dylan because they have a lot of their own influential material. Quiet Riot covering two Slade songs on the other hand, not so much. That seemed weak, as does the Searchers building their career on the shoulders of Jackie DeShannon.
One up, one down (though I can understand if you want to take exception to the latitude I’m giving myself).
#3: Brenda and the Tabulations
(A) Right on the Tip of My Tongue
(B) Always & Forever Top and Bottom (1971)
In reading up about Brenda and the Tabulations, I found myself rooting for them after the fact. They had a few hit singles (this was one of them), but they never became stars. However, it appears that they kept working at it, trying to find the combination and sound to break through in a bigger fashion. The group ran through members, and Brenda’s backups went from being all-male to being all-female by the time of this single. The Top and Bottom label was created by their manager and was one of several they were on.
Right on the Tip of My Tongue is fine. It was written by Van McCoy and it has an early 70’s Philly sound, perhaps not as polished as the music would be in a few years. As for the B-side, the title Always & Forever sounds like it could be a dozen other songs, as does the music.
One last thing about Brenda and the Tabulations – they did a serviceable cover of Walk on By. Here is the original by Dionne Warwick (warning: the video is truly a strange piece of choreography with Stepford Wives-like white folks). I remember hearing this song as a child and thinking that it sounded like “grown-ups music.” Now it is redolent of perfume, cocktails and other aspects of grown-up life that are not a part of my experience.
One up, one down.
#4: Jean Knight
(A) Mr. Big Stuff
(B) Why I Keep Living These Memories Stax (1971)
OK, with the Searchers I can make an argument that I didn’t really know the song because I had only heard it once or twice a long time ago. Here, I simply have no excuse for including this record in my Scratch Ticket Radio purchase. I have no idea what I could possibly have been thinking. How could I not recognize what song I was picking up when I bought this? This is the most egregious violation of the stipulation to date, so Side A is disqualified. Period. It may be an early sign of dementia.
Why Do I Keep Living These Memories of You is a mildly interesting slow-burner, but doesn’t really go anywhere.
One down and one major sign of cognitive decline.
#5: Detroit Emeralds
(A) Baby Let Me Take You (In My Arms)
(B) I’ll Never Sail the Sea Again Westbound (1972)
What do the Detroit Emeralds have in common with the Searchers, Yes, Asia, Foghat, Black Flag and RATT? No, it is not a debt to Jackie DeShannon. It is that all of these bands splintered and had two groups touring while fighting over a claim to the name. Some things don’t seem to change, regardless of the genre.
Nothing here really jumped out at me, but the Detroit Emeralds had a few songs make a dent on the charts. Apparently their song “Feel The Need In Me” was an early disco hit and still has devotees. To me, it sounds like music from a commercial for a shoddy product.
The quality of this Detroit Emeralds single was almost besides the point, because the main reason I picked it up was because of what it came in. This is some hardcore OCD record collecting here. Did Don Marcel get his sleeves from a company that had a template already designed, or did he design this on his own? How many records did he have in his collection? 1106? Did he track them all in this fashion? So many intriguing questions that will never be answered.
Total: 2 out of 10
Musically almost a total bust, especially compared to previous Scratch Ticket Radios that have included songs that contended for placement in my year-end mix. However, historically, this was a welcome filling in of some gaps in my knowledge. How useful that information is in the end is not a question for today – doing the research was enjoyable enough on its own.
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