The iconic status of Blue Note’s catalogue of LPs from the 1950s and 60s in the field of funky and soulful modern jazz is, of course, a testament to the high quality of its recording artists, the general excellence of the music and the production values instilled by owners Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff and perfected by audio engineer Rudy Van Gelder (RIP). However, it would be fair to state that the cover art, designed for the most part by Reid Miles, and with informative sleeve notes by the cream of contemporary jazz critics, together form an integral part of both the listening experience and the overall modernist package. Of those who own the vinyl, especially, who can disassociate the music of, say, John Coltrane’s Blue Train from its cover, or Dexter Gordon’s Our Man in Paris?
One consequence of this is that this most revered of labels tends to be valued for its 33 rpm products almost exclusively, something perhaps a little unusual for the world of mod music collectors. So it may come as a surprise to some (it was to me) to find out that, in addition to the 400+ LPs recorded on Blue Note between 1955 and 1972, the same period also saw something in the region of 350 7” 45 rpm singles released by the label. A handful of rare export copies came in picture sleeves, but on the whole we’re talking blue and blue and white label in paper bag territory.
The first thing to say is that virtually all the singles were sides already cut for an LP. Certainly this holds true for the ‘A’ sides, though a notable exception is the 1958 vocal version of Horace Silver’s ‘Señor Blues’ (see number two in list). The ‘A’ sides are overwhelmingly the ‘catchiest’ track on the LP, and in some cases, such as Horace Silver’s Tokyo Blues LP (1962), as many as three tracks were released on separate singles (as parts 1 & 2), such were the commercial possibilities of that finger-snapping record. Some tracks recorded in the studio for an album were edited in length for the singles or divided across both sides as ‘Parts 1 & 2’. Whether always the same take is something I haven’t yet been able to ascertain.
In future articles, we will look in more depth into the Blue Note singles catalogue (even acknowledging some of the 78s that were released from 1939 to 1955). This will involve examining the social context for their releases and their audience and reception compared with the albums. For now, though, here is an introductory selection of 10 major releases, many of which have been played over the years on the mod scene.
01. Sonny Rollins, ‘Decision (pts 1 & 2)’ (1957) – Blue Note-45-1669
After nine LPs for Prestige, New York-born tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins recorded four for Blue Note between December 1956 and November ’57. Four singles were culled from these sessions, including this marvellous mid-tempo slice of soulful hard-bop taken from the 1957 LP now known as Sonny Rollins, Vol. 1 (BLP-1542). A stellar line-up featuring future Miles Davis pianist Wynton Kelly, drummer Max Roach, bassist Gene Ramey and trumpeter Donald Byrd trace out over 8 minutes the transition from bebop to soul jazz.
02. Horace Silver Quintet (with Bill Henderson), ‘Señor Blues’ (1958) –Blue Note-45-1710
Horace Silver initially recorded this Latin-tinged tune as an instrumental in late 1956 for the 6 Pieces of Silver LP (BLP1539) and a shorter, alternate take was duly released as a single coupled with ‘Cool Eyes’ from the same session. Then, in 1958, a new lyric version, with a different line-up (though Donald Byrd remained) was recorded with Chicago-born actor and vocalist Bill Henderson. Apparently one of the labels best-selling 45s, ‘Señor Blues’ turned up on the excellent 1993 compilation Blue ‘n’ Groovy. Henderson, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 90, also recorded two singles with Jimmy Smith in 1958.
03. Herbie Hancock, ‘Watermelon Man’/ ‘Three Bags Full’ (1962) – Blue Note 45-1862
Covered by John Hendricks, Mongo Santamaría and Manfred Mann, among others, Chicago-born pianist and composer Herbie Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man’ is now a jazz standard both in this, its original form, and the electro-funk version he made over ten years later for the 1973 Head Hunters LP. Some see this track, taken from debut LP Takin’ Off as the first blueprint of one of the label’s key signatures of the next five or six years: the inclusion on an LP of at least one exotically-titled funky, latin-tinged soul-jazz number which, in edited form at least, could get dance floors moving. Featuring Dexter Gordon on tenor sax, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and, with Hancock, a rhythm section comprising Billy Higgins (drums) and Butch Warren (bass), ‘Watermelon Man’ was written with commercial success in mind and evokes from Hancock’s childhood the cry of a Chicago street vendor and the rhythmic beat of his wagon wheels.
04. Jimmy Smith, ‘Can Heat’/’Matilda Matilda’ (1963) – Blue Note 45-1905
Taken from his penultimate Blue Note LP, Rockin’ the Boat (BLP4141), featuring Lou Donaldson on alto sax, ‘Can Heat’ is just one of over 40 singles released by Jimmy Smith on the Blue Note label between 1955 and 1972. This one, a nice slice of mid-tempo r & b/soul jazz, is classic mid-60s Smith, one for getting the dance floor bubbling as opposed to an out-and-out mover. A lovely tune, though, for relaxing to with a glass of cool beer or camomile tea for more adventurous souls.
05. Stanley Turrentine, ‘River’s Invitation’ (pts 1 & 2) (1965) – Blue Note 45-1917
Another stalwart of Blue Note’s soulful side, Pittsburgh tenor man Stanley Turrentine (1934-2000) had already recorded with R & B heavyweights Lowell Fulsom and Earl Bostic before teaming up with Max Roach in 1959. In 1960, he married organist Shirley Scott, going on to record with her for Prestige and Impulse! ‘River’s Invitation’, a sparkling orchestral version of Percy Mayfield’s gospel-drenched blues, is taken from Joyride (BST84201) and features Herbie Hancock and guitarist Kenny Burrell.
06. Lee Morgan, ‘The Rumproller’ (pts 1 & 2) (1965) – Blue Note-45-1918
Readers of our recent top 10 soul-jazz LPs will know that trumpeter Lee Morgan’s ‘The Sidewinder’ (both as single and LP) was a massive success for Blue Note in 1964. ‘The Rumproller’, released in late 65/early 66, was the follow-up single and LP (though in the meantime Morgan had recorded the excellent Search for the New Land). A funky blues in the ‘Sidewinder’ fashion, this track was written by pianist Andrew Hill, one of Blue Note’s more experimental artists whose LPs for the label are highly recommended.
08. Lee Morgan, ‘Cornbread’ (pts 1 & 2) (1965) – Blue Note-45-1930
Recorded at the end of the funky summer of 1965, the Cornbread LP (BST84222) reached the Billboard top 10 when it was finally released in early ’67. Featuring the great ballad ‘Ceora’, the record holds a special place in this writer’s heart as the first Blue Note LP he bought as a teenager. The title track, another infectious bit of bluesy funk, was released as a single.
09. Duke Pearson, ‘Sweet Honey Bee’/’Ready Rudy?’ (1967) Blue Note-45-1931
The next single in the catalogue after ‘Cornbread’, ‘Sweet Honey Bee’, by in-house Blue Note pianist and composer Duke Pearson was taken from a late ’66 LP of the same name. At this time, Blue Note was often pairing its funky players with modal modernists and here Miles Davis bassist Ron Carter provides a more spacious and contemplative feel to the rhythm section. Flautist James Spalding, though, dominates with the melody that structures this bouncy mid-tempo track.
10. Lou Donaldson, ‘Alligator Boogaloo’/’Rev Moses’ (1967) Blue Note-45-1934
Coming on like a slower-tempo ‘Hot Barbecue’ (Jack McDuff), with Lonnie Smith at the organ, this Lou Donaldson swinging groove remains a bona fide mod jazz favourite. Though the album version weighs in at over six minutes, the single, as can be seen from the picture, is an edited version of less than 3 minutes and thus ideal for the discotheque. However, many mods will want to find the (original) vinyl LP for the iconic cover of Peggy Moffitt wearing a psychedelic Rudi Gernreich gown.
11. Bobby Hutcherson, ‘Ummh’ (pts 1 & 2) (1970) Blue Note – 1966
And so into 1970! This list is completed with a brief homage to the late great vibes player Bobby Hutcherson (1941-2016). LA-born Hutcherson was a regular featured artist at Blue Note and played on key dates such as Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch (1964). His own series of dates for the label, including Dialogue (1965), Components (1966) and Happenings (1967) are among the most thoughtful and atmospheric in the entire catalogue. By the time of San Francisco (1970), he had moved from the fringes of the avant-garde into the realm of jazz fusion and funk. Taken from this album, Ummh (pts 1 & 2) features Jazz Crusader Joe Sample on electric piano, John Williams on fender bass, drummer Mickey Roker and tenor sax player Harold Land (he that inspired the title of a song by Yes). It is one relentless gargantuan groove which hopefully Bobby above is still playing along to.
In 1998, Dean Rudland compiled a selection of Blue Note 45s under the title ‘Blue 45s-the ultimate jukebox’. I don’t have a copy of this, but it might still be available and will no doubt have more useful information.
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