Now Spinning: The Other Side Of Sun

Opinions tend to vary among collectors when it comes to Record Store Day. And sure, while there’s plenty of silly novelty – from unnecessary rereleases (with originals available for a fraction of the cost just a few bins down) to a hectic shopping experience – I refuse to see something that draws so much additional traffic, interest and money for record stores as a bad thing. While I won’t wait around in line all night before my store opens, I’ll always treat myself to some special releases, tending to gravitate towards the unknown.

And I’ve learned to always look for the Sun Records Curated by Record Store Day series, with (currently) six LP’s of songs associated with the Sun Corporation as selected by record store owners around the country. Sun Records is, of course, remembered as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, the label behind the first hits of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. For Sun founder, Sam Phillips, who deserves as much credit as anyone for inventing rock ‘n’ roll, that success was a bit of a pivot. Having fallen in love with black blues and folk music in his youth growing up in Alabama and then working radio in Memphis, Phillips opened his recording studio with the vision of selling black recordings to white audiences.

It didn’t exactly work out that way. The heavy segregation of America would not allow for his early recordings of Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Ike Turner and more to find success, and he struggled to meet operating costs until fate drew Elvis Presley into Sun to record a demo for his mother’s birthday. A recording studio gave birth to a label and Sun quickly saw a meteoric rise at the center of the fifties rock ‘n’ roll boom. Then Elvis and Orbison left for RCA, Cash and Perkins left for Columbia, Jerry Lee was swallowed up by his demons and Sun declined into obscurity until being sold by Phillips to Shelby Singleton in 1969 and becoming a rock ‘n’ roll memory.

Which is exactly where The Other Side of Sun comes into the picture. Perhaps my only caveat with this album is the association with Sun Records, as the vast majority of these songs were not released on Sun, but instead discoveries pulled from Shelby Singleton’s S.S.S. label (and others he purchased) from the years immediately preceding and following the Sun acquisition.

Randy & The Radiants ‘My Way of Thinking’ appears to be the only song on the compilation actually released on Sun Records. The popular local band impressed the son of Sam Phillips, and they seemed destined for major success as ‘My Way of Thinking’ became a local hit with crunchy guitar and a strong chorus. Unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. The band broke up shortly after – but ‘My Way of Thinking’ crackles with a youthful energy that rivals the best garage songs uncovered by the famed Nuggets releases.

Although the history that brought these recordings under the Sun Records umbrella is deceivingly complicated, it doesn’t change the fact that this is a goldmine highlighting some sadly forgotten releases. Things lean heavily on underappreciated gems, with Bettye LaVette’s pleading, electrifying vocal on ‘Let Me Down Easy’ the lone exception. And despite the success of that song, which peaked at #20 on the Billboard R&B charts, she bounced between labels, falling victim to bad promotion and management, toiling for forty-plus years before finally receiving well-deserved recognition as a critically acclaimed household name of soul during a 21st century rebirth. Several recordings made at the peak of her powers, including would-be classic albums in 1970 and 1972, were not released due to record label disputes (1972 Muscle Shoals recordings were eventually released in 2006 as Child of the Seventies).

And that’s the story for the most successful artist from this compilation. Clearly, racism is an unspoken undertone throughout this collection of majority black artists, whose careers were roadblocked from developing to the full extent of their talents. Experienced silky-voiced session guitarist Alvin Robinson seemed to have everything going for him in the early sixties – especially once paired with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, famed producers of The Coasters and writers of Elvis’ classic hits. With an irresistible New Orleans horn groove and crooning vocal, ‘Down Home Girl’ seemed destined to be a hit. No luck, and Robinson retreated into session work, though the single did catch the ear of a few savvy English blues listeners, The Rolling Stones, who immediately covered it on The Rolling Stones No. 2. album. Johnny Adams did score a hit in 1969 with ‘Reconsider Me’ – though six years later, a mediocre version by a white country singer soared all the way to #2, becoming the most popular version. While Adams carved out a perfectly successful career for himself, he also found himself desperately searching for a label, with none willing to sign him for several years after Singleton shut down SSS in 1974. His finest performance, captured here, is perhaps one of the greatest vocal performances ever committed to wax, displaying a stunning falsetto over a piano-led country groove.

The husky-voiced Sam Dees and Mickey Murray bring to mind Otis Redding and Dave Porter, powerfully gliding over bursts of staccato guitar and grooving keys, but commercial success eluded them. The Soul Suspects ‘Handle It’ kicks off with a pounding rhythm, wah-wah guitar, horn and organ swirls mimicking police sirens and a ‘What up everybody – we from the poor part of town’ opening shout, this talking funk from 1971 could be considered one of the earliest hip hop treasures. Instead, the 7″ single goes down as the unknown Soul Suspects only release ever, on an equally unknown label, Black Prince, operated under Singleton’s S.S.S. corp. A sense of oh, what could have been if these artists received the support and promotion they deserved pervades throughout.

The Curated by Record Store Day Sun Records series is also astonishingly cheap. Subsidized by Tito’s Vodka, they typically sell for around the same price as a Record Store Day 7″ single. Despite the excellence of the series and limited pressing quantity, the Tito’s deal means they can still be found for steal prices on Discogs. Each cover a different theme, all worth a listen.

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