Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Merced Blue Notes - Get Your Kicks On Route 99

The Merced Blue Notes' career lasted about a decade and a half, but it resulted in few recordings, though apparently it did supply a whole lot of fun for live crowds in central California who wanted to groove to basic, energetic blues, R&B, soul, and rock & roll. That's what the band played on its handful of rare singles, on an assortment of labels, between 1961 and 1966. The group's music was in the stock R&B/blues-influenced rock & roll style, on both vocal and instrumental material, often putting organ and bluesy guitar to the fore, sometimes punctuated with sax and harmonica. In their later days they got into funkier grooves, in the manner that big acts such as Booker T. & the MG's were updating their sound, though they didn't possess the originality to gain a national audience.

The Merced Blue Notes formed in high school in Merced, CA, in January 1957, and would undergo numerous lineup changes over the course of their career, the constant element being singer/songwriter/guitarist Kenny Craig. They actually made their first contacts with the record industry back around 1958, when they auditioned for Specialty Records, with a young Sonny Bono in the control booth. Specialty only wanted to record their singer Roddy Jackson, however, Jackson making three flop 45s for the label in the late '50s. A couple of obscure singles came out on the Merced label in 1960, and they'd intermittently record over the next half dozen years for other companies, including Accent, Tri-Phi, Mammoth, and the Fantasy R&B subsidiary Galaxy. None of the singles caught on in a big way, though their 1961 Accent 45 "Rufus" got enough airplay in Detroit to get them some concert and recording work (the latter for Harvey Fuqua's Tri-Phi label) there in 1962.

With little success on record and a sound that was getting outdated by changing trends in rock and soul music, the lineup that recorded for Galaxy in the mid-'60s broke up in early 1966. Kenny Craig kept the group going with other musicians and continued playing live under the band name for several more years. The member of The Merced Blue Notes with the highest profile in subsequent years was Bobby Hunt, who recorded with the Seven Souls and also formed the trio Head West with fellow Seven Souls musicians Henry Moore and Bob Welch, playing keyboards with the group on several tours while Welch was in Fleetwood Mac in the early '70s.

 With ten tracks from rare 1961-1966 singles, three cuts that only appeared on a compilation, and 13 previously unreleased recordings (one of them a previously unissued alternate take of their single "Bad, Bad Whiskey"), this is a more comprehensive anthology of this obscure group than anyone could have envisioned. As exhaustive as the archivism might be, it's fairly routine early-'60s-styled R&B-rock (even on the mid-'60s recordings), anchored by bluesy riffs and a small combo organ-grounded sound on both vocal and instrumental numbers. In some ways it's similar to the energetic (if oft-unimaginative) grinds churned out by numerous Northwest bands in the same era, though the Merced Blue Notes leaned perhaps a bit more to the more modern, funkier grooves being opened up by groups like Booker T. & the MG's. Were these guys funky? Sure -- they spin out tough bluesy guitar licks, penetrating organ, occasional blues harmonica, and (on the non-instrumentals) raw vocals. Did they have interesting material? Not so much -- the tunes were often elementary and derivative. They shine brightest when the organ gets most assertive and the singing lets loose in a fashion that many rock and soul labels would have toned down, as heard on the unissued fast shuffle "Greyhound" or the 1966 instrumental "Rufus," where the Booker T resemblance grows. Booker T. & the MG's, however, to take one point of reference, had far better riffs and arrangements, and to be harsh it's not too much of a surprise that these cats didn't break out of their region, as much entertainment as they must have provided at local shows and dances.

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