By Richie Unterberger
For most of its early history, the Elektra label concentrated almost exclusively on the album market. Prior to Love's "My Little Red Book" in 1966, they never had a significant entry on the national singles charts; prior to the same band's "7 and 7 Is" later that year, they never had a Top Forty hit. In 1967, this would change to some degree when the Doors' "Light My Fire" soared to #1, followed in the rest of the 1960s by several other Doors smashes and the Top Ten success of Judy Collins's "Both Sides Now." Yet even into the first half of the 1970s, Elektra's product and aesthetic would remain firmly geared toward the long-playing record.
That didn't prevent the label from often trying, however, to get both singles sales and AM radio airplay. From the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, Elektra issued quite a few singles, which included a surprising number of non-LP tracks. Some of them, in fact, were by artists who never managed to record an album for Elektra; many of the tracks have seldom or never been reissued since. On this compilation, Collectors' Choice Music gathers ten of the more interesting such non-LP sides from the mid-'60s through the beginning of the '70s.
Although it wasn't until Elektra began recording rock music in the mid-1960s that any of their singles attracted national airplay, the company's ventures into the singles market stretched back further than many realize -- indeed, all the way to its earliest days in the early 1950s, when it was recording little else but folk music. "There was [an] attempt to get radio airplay going back to the very beginning of the label," notes Elektra founder and president Jac Holzman. "In fact, we had a singles label at the very beginning called Stratford Records. We were originally called the Elektra-Stratford Record Corporation. They came out as 78s, this is how early they were." But after a few 78s (including efforts by Jean Ritchie, Frank Warner, and a young Glenn Yarbrough), "I decided that singles were a waste of time. So I stopped doing that immediately, and just concentrated on the LPs."
Still, Elektra never totally abandoned the singles field. Around the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were 45s by two of the label's more popular and mainstream folkies, Yarbrough and Bob Gibson. As the early '60s approached the mid-'60s, there were singles by Dian & the Greenbriar Boys, the Dillards, Fred Neil & Vince Martin, Judy Henske, and Judy Collins. In fact, Henske's "High Flying Bird," which verged on rock'n'roll with its drums and electric guitar, sounds like it could have even been a hit given the right push. For her part, Collins recalled in a 2001 interview that her single of Pete Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!" -- with a young, pre-Byrds Roger McGuinn on guitar -- "became a bit of a minor hit. I remember it was the first time that the Gavin Report took any notice of me; they wrote about 'Turn! Turn! Turn!,' and how terrific it was. And I began to show up on the Billboard and Cashbox lists, I believe."
"Turn! Turn! Turn!" would, of course, become a #1 hit in a folk-rock arrangement for McGuinn and the Byrds in late 1965, about a couple of years after Collins recorded it. It's still not widely known, however, that about a year before the Byrds took Seeger's anthem to AM radio, and about six months before they ignited the folk-rock explosion with a chart-topping cover of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," Elektra Records had issued the band's debut single. It's not widely known for a simple reason: the single was credited to the Beefeaters, a name chosen by Holzman "because I was enamored of what was going on with the British Invasion." Both sides of that obscure 45, "Please Let Me Love You" and "Don't Be Long," kick off this Elektra non-LP rarities anthology.
Of the five original Byrds, only McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby performed on this 45, recorded with the assistance of Los Angeles session men Ray Pohlman (on bass) and Earl Palmer (on drums). "Please Let Me Love You" showed the embryonic Byrds at their most Beatlesque, while "Don't Be Long" would be remade, in a more tightly arranged and well-recorded version, by the Byrds on their second album (under the title "It Won't Be Wrong"). Though simplistic and overtly Beatles-influenced, both sides (both penned by Clark, McGuinn, and their friend Harvey Gerst) were charming and catchy tunes, and intriguing (if naive and rudimentary) documents of the band's first steps toward their pioneering folk-rock fusion. The record made no commercial impact, however, and under the name of the Byrds, the band were soon recording for Columbia, where they'd quickly rise to stardom with "Mr. Tambourine Man."
Holzman isn't sure why Elektra didn't record more with the Beefeaters/Byrds. "I don't know why we just got the single, and didn't get the album," he admitted in a 2001 interview. "[Byrds co-manager] Jim Dickson really wanted to be on a larger label. He was concerned that singles would be necessary, and Elektra had no track records with singles. I think they wanted to keep the band a little innocent, in case there was an opportunity to make a deal elsewhere. My recollection is that they were asking for far more money than I was willing to pay. Which, in retrospect, was stupid, 'cause I later paid that same amount of money for Love. But they also wanted a ton of stuff that I didn't want to get started with, stuff that was routine in the '80s. They were asking for this stuff back in the mid-'60s." Specifically, Dickson told me in an interview the same year, he and the Byrds wanted $5,000 from Holzman to buy instruments. He also said the tracks used on the 45 were sold to Jac with the understanding that Holzman select the name and not disclose the identity of the group. In Dickson's view, Jac broke that promise, although Holzman does not recall this.
Though it took a while for Elektra to fully immerse itself in rock, it continued to dabble in it with other non-LP folk-rock singles in the mid-1960s. In the early days of folk-rock, there was a boom in Bob Dylan covers, and Elektra entered the fray with Judy Collins's rendition of "I'll Keep It With Mine" in late 1965. "I'll Keep It With Mine" was, on paper at least, a hot item, being an unreleased song by folk-rock's hottest songwriter. In fact, Nico had wanted to record the song first, but Collins beat her to the punch, though Nico would release her own version on her debut album a couple of years later. Despite organ by Al Kooper (who also played on some of Dylan's best early folk-rock recordings, including "Like a Rolling Stone"), and despite being hailed by future Dylan biographer Robert Shelton in The New York Times as "one of the best folk-rock performances yet recorded," and despite Collins's stature as the most successful Elektra recording artist at that time, the single stiffed.
"There's a very good reason that it never made it onto an album," Collins told me in 2001. "It's not a very good song, particularly. Certainly not a Dylan song that lives up to its name. It doesn't really go anywhere, the lyric's kind of flat, and the singing is very flat." All the same, she added, "I love the idea that he said, at least said to me, that he wrote the song for me. Then he told Joanie Baez that he wrote it for her. There was some talk about that, as to who did what. Of course, he says in his retrospective album [Biograph] that he wrote the song for me."
Another established Elektra artist who used a non-LP single as an opportunity to dive into electric folk-rock for the first time -- with Al Kooper in tow again! -- was Phil Ochs. In its original acoustic folk guise, "I Ain't Marching Anymore" had already been the popular title track of Ochs's second album (as well as quickly becoming a vastly popular singalong anthem at antiwar demonstrations). With backing by Kooper's new rock band, the Blues Project (also including guitarist Danny Kalb, who'd played guitar on Ochs's first album), and production by Elektra stalwart Paul Rothchild, it translated quite successfully into folk-rock. Starting and closing with bagpipes, the song was exponentially more powerful in its new arrangement -- enough so that it seemed like it could have had a chance on AM radio. Yet it was only released in Britain when it came out in 1966, though it did make it onto a flexi-disc in the US folk magazine Sing Out! It would, in fact, be Ochs's only electric rock recording for Elektra, though he'd make numerous others in the following few years after moving to A&M Records.
"It was basically to test the waters," Michael Ochs, Phil's brother and (beginning in 1967) manager, told me in 2001. "He wanted to expand his music, and so he thought, 'Wouldn't this be great, to do a rock version.' I'm not sure that it was his decision to be careful and only put it out in England. Phil was very tight with Murray the K, and Murray the K was on [New York's] WOR-FM at that point, doing a very hip show. Every week he'd play like three new releases for major artists, and people would call in and pick their favorite. I know he played Phil's electric 'I Ain't Marching Anymore' against the latest Stones record and one other major one, and the calls that came in all said they loved Phil's record the best." Roger Daltrey of the Who, however, did not love the record; in his review of the single in Melody Maker's "Blind Date" column, he complained, "It sounds like a punished protest song. Turn it off, turn it off, turn it off! It's not even good for my grandmother."
Along with Judy Collins and Love, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band were the biggest sellers on the Elektra roster just prior to the emergence of the Doors. Though their sales came almost exclusively from album-buyers, they didn't totally ignore the singles market. In 1966, they came up with the non-LP 45 "Come On In," which boasted somewhat of a funkier rock-soul feel than their more customary electric blues approach. It should be noted, however, that the Butterfield Band were never purists, even if they started out playing nothing but the blues. By their second and best album, East West, they were branching out into a cover of the jazz standard "Work Song," the tour de force thirteen-minute psychedelic instrumental "East West," and even a pass at Mike Nesmith's "Mary, Mary." "Come On In" didn't give Butterfield a pass into the hit parade, but his band remained a popular Elektra act throughout the rest of the decade, even after the departures of ace guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, both of whom played on the single.
The Doors' phenomenally popular 1967 debut album, including the #1 hit "Light My Fire," launched Elektra into the psychedelic era with a vengeance. While the Doors were by far the label's biggest sellers in the 45 market, Elektra did land some other chart hits in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the biggest of them being Judy Collins's Top Ten cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now." Many people who own that single, however, are unaware to this day that the B-side was not issued on LP at the time. For the song on the flip was Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," which was used as the title track of her well-received late-'60s album of the same name. However, the recording used on the B-side of the single was an entirely different one than the LP version, which had a full-band production and a dramatic rising key change mid-song. In contrast, the B-side version featured a much sparser drumless arrangement minus that key change. For a non-LP B-side, it must be said, it did get around: it was also used for the film soundtrack of The Subject Was Roses, and later showed up on the 1972 Judy Collins greatest hits collection Colors of the Day: The Best of Judy Collins. And now, naturally, it's on this CD.
Collins had a great knack for introducing the work of as-yet-little-known songwriters to a wider audience via her cover versions, having been among the first singers to record compositions by such outstanding composers as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Robin Williamson, Richard Fariña, Eric Andersen, John Phillips, Fred Neil, Tom Paxton, Gordon Lightfoot, and Joni Mitchell. Sandy Denny was one of her lesser-heralded such discoveries, and it's a testament to Collins's adventurousness in recording up-and-coming writers that the song was recorded in the first place. For Sandy Denny, and even her late-'60s group Fairport Convention, were barely known in the United States when Judy recorded "Who Knows Where the Time Goes." As Collins remembered in her autobiography Singing Lessons, it was her producer of the time, David Anderle, who made her aware of the song. "One day David Anderle said, 'I have a tape to play for you,' and put on Sandy Denny's great song, 'Who Knows Where the Time Goes,'" she wrote. "I fell head over heels in love with the song and used it as the title song of the album...She was a great writer and I came to know and hang out with her later in England when Anthea Joseph, a red-haired fireball who worked for Polygram in England, introduced us. Sandy was pretty and blond, with a voice that could cut through a concrete wall or lull a baby to sleep. Her solos with the Fairport Convention are still hauntingly beautiful. On a visit to New York she once came to my apartment and we swapped songs. She sang me a great song called 'Solo,' which I would someday like to record."
In the late '60s, David Anderle was also producing another Elektra artist, David Ackles. Though his darkly theatrical brand of singer-songwriting generated a cult following among album-oriented listeners and some fellow musicians (most notably the young songwriting team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin), Ackles racked up few actual sales for the label. Elektra nonetheless did release a single of his in 1968, "Down River," backed by one of the oddest items in the company's whole catalog, "La Route a Chicago." A French-language version of "The Road to Cairo," one of the stronger numbers on his 1968 self-titled debut LP, it's one of the rarest (and strangest) tracks only to show up on an Elektra 45. "The Road to Cairo," incidentally, was one of Anderle's most commercial numbers, if there could be said to even be any such things; Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger, & the Trinity covered it on a single as the follow-up to their big British hit "This Wheel's on Fire," although it didn't make the UK charts.
It's still a mystery as to how this French version of the song came to pass. " I remember -- and it might have even been Jac Holzman -- but somebody thought that David would have a shot in France, because of the nature of Charles Aznavour and the French ballad singers," Anderle told me in a 2002 interview. "Somebody had a mention that his music was very remindful of French balladeer music. Jacques Brel, I think, was the person that was mentioned. It might even have come from Judy Collins, who I was producing at the time also. I think Elektra figured he would have a shot internationally. And so he did the French version of the song. Maybe it was paid for by the French office? I'm surprised we didn't do an Egyptian one, a Tasmanian one, and...we tried everything with that poor guy." Elektra did indeed try with three separate David Ackles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, though only the third of them made the Billboard charts, and then peaking at a lowly #167. "David Ackles was one of my great disappointments, that we weren't able to do better with him," admits Holzman. "I thought he was terrific. But then the person who admired him most wiped him off the map" -- that person being Ackles fan Elton John, whose songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, would end up producing that final Elektra Ackles album, American Gothic.
As another overlooked Elektra act of the late 1960s, Eclection put out just one self-titled album before breaking up. Though usually described as a British folk-rock group, only one member was actually British, the others hailing from Norway, Canada, and Australia. The Eclection album is one of the best little-known folk-rock LPs of the era, its strong male-female vocal harmonies and rich orchestral production at times making the group sound more like a California group than a British one. The record was promising enough to make collectors wish there was more, and in fact there is more, in the form of the non-LP B-side included on this CD, "Mark Time." The track could have fit into the Eclection album without a hitch, but didn't make that cut and never surfaced again, Eclection itself marking time before their possibly premature split. Eclection bassist Trevor Lucas would later team up with future wife Sandy Denny (as well as Eclection drummer Gerry Conway) in Fotheringay and a mid-'70s Fairport Convention lineup, while chief Eclection songwriter Georg Hultgreen would (as Georg Kajanus) join Sailor, who had a couple of Top Ten British singles in the mid-1970s.
"I loved that group," Holzman told me in a 2001 interview. "They were a fascinating group, a wonderful band, and I thought the records were wonderful. I think our mistake was not bringing them to the States, because they really needed to get out of England. There was too much other stuff competing in England, and in the States, we might have had an easier time. I don't know why we didn't bring 'em. I think, had we got 'em the right venues and gotten them some help with their show, it would have worked."
At least Eclection got to release an album, an honor denied the Stalk-Forrest Group, although the band recorded quite a bit of material for Elektra in the first half of 1970. Nowadays the outfit are primarily remembered for having evolved into Blue Öyster Cult. But as the Stalk-Forrest Group, they played a far lighter brand of psychedelic-folk-rock that fit in well with the Elektra roster, with some similarities to the sound of fellow Elektra artists Love and the Doors. Legendary rock critic Richard Meltzer was a friend of the band, and contributed lyrics to much of their material, as did fellow rock critic Sandy Pearlman, who also managed the group. For reasons that are still not totally clear, Elektra decided not to release an LP, though enough songs had been recorded to produce a fairly strong one. "I think I didn't like the group," Holzman frankly states. "Had I heard Blue Öyster Cult more evolved, that would have been another matter. They altered the personnel, and the group then became very solid." Before the band got dropped from the label, however, two tracks -- the A-side co-written by Meltzer and future Blue Öyster Cult keyboardist-guitarist Allen Lanier, the B-side by Meltzer and future Blue Öyster Cult drummer Albert Bouchard -- did eke out in July 1970 as a promotional single, of which only about 300 copies were pressed. Both sides of that 45, "What Is Quicksand?"/"Arthur Comics," conclude our Elektra rarities compilation, which in its own small way reflects the label's evolution as a whole from folk through folk-rock to psychedelia and the dawn of hard rock. -- Richie Unterberger
Unterberger , 2000-2010
unless otherwise specified.
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