Jul 13, 2009

Diggin' In The Crates "Belated Birthday" Edition

Since yesterday (July 12) was his 72nd birthday...

Artist: Bill Cosby
Title: At Last Bill Cosby Really Sings
Label: Partee/Stax
Vinyl: Somewhat thin black vinyl

This album is neither the Bill Cosby that was turning Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix songs into comic gold with the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band backing him up, and slipping those singles in with either serious covers of Jimmy Reed tunes (the whole first side of his first singing album, Silver Throat [Warner Bros. WS 1709 (1966)] is dominated by Reed covers) or tongue-in-cheek covers of Beatles, Stones, and Motown tunes (on Hooray For The Salvation Army Band [Warner Bros.-Seven Arts WS 1728 (1967)], nor the Cos that was composing and producing jazz sessions for Verve while The Cosby Show was mandatory Thursday night TV viewing, and it sure isn't the Bill C. that had pseudonymously led a more serious music album under the Badfoot Brown & The Bunions Bradford Funeral Marching Band name for Uni (two sides of improvised and funky music with Bill on keyboards, most notable for being sampled by A Tribe Called Quest on The Low End Theory). Nope, this little known "gem", if it can be called that, is so off the chart indescribable that it's probably a wonder that this mofo hasn't hit CD yet.

Cosby had longtime pal Stu Gardner (who would later help Cosby compose much of his first Verve jazz album Where You Lay Your Head) came up with nine tunes, grabbed a few Los Angeles session pros of the day, including Ray Parker Jr. (yes, that Ray Parker Jr.), recorded the whole thing, and offered it to Stax Records under the title At Last Bill Cosby Really Sings.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, there were several factors involved in this album pretty much disappearing not long after its 1974 release. For one, Stax Records itself was on its last legs, having been buttraped by an ill-fated distribution deal with CBS Records that did no favors for either Stax, who closed up shop before 1974 itself was a memory, or for CBS, who had balked on buying a 50% share of the label when it was first offered in favor of the distribution deal, then avoided many of the same outlets in the black community that Stax used to sell to and kept the label in the background as far as larger retailers were concerned so that they wouldn't undercut CBS's own R&B roster. For another, the album doesn't really live up to its title. Bill does a little crooning on "Kiss Me", and some goofy faux-African scat-singing on "Dance of the Frozen Lion", but what he does mostly on this album is either talk or yelp, and while those might qualify as vocals, they don't qualify as singing! Folks, Henry Rollins (who grew up on a lot of soul and funk music when he was a young boy in D.C., before the Ramones happened) could have a case of laryngitis awful enough to reduce his voice to a whisper, and he'd still be able to croak out successions of in-tune notes compared to what passes for Cosby's vocal work on most of this disc. Stax themselves probably did The Cos a favor by putting the record out on their comedy-oriented Partee imprint (the same label that Richard Pryor's That Nigger's Crazy album was originally released on) instead of on the regular Stax label or one of their other subsidiaries, lest they face thousands of angry fans ganging up on the label's McLemore Avenue headquarters with pitchforks and torches, demanding the heads of Al Bell and Jim Stewart (Stax's brain trust at the time), demanding to know why this travesty was released on the same label as "Hold On I'm Comin'" and Hot Buttered Soul.

Perhaps its fortunate that, presuming that they still own the master rights, this more oddball of Bill C.'s musical adventures has not yet been reissued on CD by Stax's current owners, Concord Music Group (Badfoot Brown was finally reissued last year by Dusty Grooves, while Wounded Bird digitized Silver Throat and Hooray...). But that's just my opinion; a perusal of the vinyl rip posted below should help in forming yours:


Samuel Weinstein said...

Yeah, Stax put out a lot of stuff before they went bankrupt. Badfoot Brown is a good improv album. Apparently the backup band for that was Charles Wright and Watts 103rd St. Band.

CJ Marsicano said...

That would make it the third time Cosby and the Watts 103rd collaborated, since they're the backing band on "Silver Throat" and "Hooray For The Salvation Army Band". I listened to both of those after I posted this - they're both great, although Cosby's vocals aren't as serious on much "of Hooray..."

Allan Greenwald said...

Link expired. Please re-post. Thank you.