Personal Recollections of Sun Ra 1956–1967
by Ed Bland
In Chicago in the early 50s, a few years after moving from playing jazz to musical composition, I asked one of my jazz buddies if anyone was currently doing anything innovative in jazz around the city.
Sun Ra was brought to my attention because of his harmonic originality, arranging and orchestration abilities, and his informal lecture series held in Washington Park on the South Side.
In those sessions, attended by various jazz musicians, he preached that he was the Sun God of Jazz, Le Sun Ra. He, Le Sun Ra, descended from—or was related in some fashion to—the Egyptian Pharaoh Iknathon.
I was not interested in his lecture series but was interested in his musical achievements. His work seemed to me like a continuation of Ellington and Monk.
Awhile later, after beginning the pre-production phase of my film, "The Cry of Jazz," it became apparent to me that some of Sun Ra's music recorded on Saturn (his own record label started with Alton Abraham) would be quite appropriate for the sound track of "The Cry" to illustrate some musical points the narration was making.
I subsequently met with him and Abraham to arrange for the use of the music. We agreed that, in return for using some of his works recorded on Saturn, he would receive major credit, his band would be photographed performing the music, and he would figure in whatever publicity the film received.
This was a godsend to me because it meant that we (the producers of "Cry") had a substantial beginning for our musical tracks, that we had tracks of high musical quality, and that we had obtained them at no cost. Also, I was saved the time, work and cost of writing and producing the tracks myself.
When meeting with Sunny he regaled me about his being the "Sun God of Jazz". I ignored his preaching and concentrated only on what I considered his musical achievements. During this time, he heard some of my chamber music and remarked that I was "hip to space music also and wasn't bound to earth music".
It was apparent to me that in addition to his gift of musical originality he had a secure foundation in the craft of musical composition. During those years in Chicago I met Tom Wilson, who was recording Sun Ra for his label out of Boston. Tom had just gotten his MBA from Harvard and was one of the first Black Jazz record company owners I had met. Wilson later became the producer who brought to fame Terri Thornton, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Blues Project, and Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention.
"The Cry" was released in 1959. I moved to NYC in early 1960. In early 1961, I got a telephone call from Sun Ra from Canada where he and his Arkestra had been performing. He informed me that he and his group were on their way to NYC to live and could I help them in any way. I answered that I would help in any way I could, but that my funds and contacts were limited.
After they had settled in NYC, I introduced Sunny and company to the photographer and filmmaker Helen Levitt, and to Emile d'Antonio, the political documentary filmmaker. Pretty soon the Arkestra had a short gig at the Bitter End on Bleecker Street. I noticed that Sunny was stressing his "Sun God of Jazz" propaganda more than ever.
I was beginning to get record dates as arranger/conductor and was able to use Sun Ra and his sidemen on various sessions involving Tom Wilson and Curly Williams—another Chicagoan, composer of "A Whole Lot Of Shakin' Goin' On". Styles in these sessions ranged from Rhythm and Blues to Limbo, Ska, and Gospel Jazz. Often Sunny would pick up extra money by taking musical dictation from the songwriters involved.
One of the last sessions with Sun Ra and Tom Wilson was a "bootleg" Batman album done in 1966 for a children's record label that involved Sunny, John Gilmore, Ronnie Boykins, Pat Patrick, Blues Project members Danny Kalb, Al Kooper, and their drummer and bassist, with jazz players Jimmy Owens and Tom Macintosh.
As time went on, Sunny pushed his "Sun God Of Jazz" more vigorously and started showing up late for recording sessions. After several warnings from me about his tardiness, I had to stop using him on sessions, as it was reflecting on me in my capacities as contractor, leader and arranger/producer for my record company clients.
Our personal and professional relationships ceased shortly thereafter, sometime in 1967.
Ed.—Ed Bland has sent us the following addenda:
This is my recollection of a recording that Sun Ra and various members of his band participated in with me. It was done on Audio Fidelity Records or Dauntless Records (Dauntless was a subsidiary of Audio Fidelity). Tom Wilson was the producer. Curly Williams who wrote "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On" was a participant along with Wilson.
"The Limbo Queen—How Low Can You Go?"—Roz Croney, The Limbo Queen. I conducted and arranged, may have written a song. Circa 1963.
Side one: (solos noted and by whom as best I can remember)
1. It's Limbo Time (bass clarinet). Gilmore played it.
2. Limbo Like Me (guitar, steel drum, flute). Guitar Snaggs Allen, if it was a rock or R & B solo. Iff it was a Carribean type solo, it would've been Larry Lucie. I don't recall a steel drum or a steel drum player.
3. Bagpipe Limbo (flute, guitar). Flute probably Pat Patrick, guitar Lucie or Snaggs Allen
4. Doggie In The Window Limbo (Gilmore's soprano)
5. The Limbo Queen (guitar, flute). Flute probably Pat Patrick, guitar Lucie or Snaggs Allen
6. Everyday Limbo (piano, guitar). Piano Sun Ra, guitar Lucie or Snaggs Allen
1. Kachink Limbo (guitar, flute). Flute probably Pat Patrick, guitar Lucie or Snaggs Allen
2. Loop De Loop Limbo (piano, soprano sax, guitar). Guitar Lucie or Snaggs Allen, Sun Ra piano, Gilmore soprano.
3. Bossa Nova Limbo (guitar, organ). Guitar Lucie or Snaggs Allen, Sun Ra organ.
4. How Low Does Lulu Limbo (guitar). Lucie or Snaggs Allen.
5. What Makes The Limbo Rock (alto sax). Maybe Marshall Allen. I don't remember Marshall for his soloistic ability during that time
6. Whole Lot Of Shaking Going On (organ, guitar). Guitar Lucie or Snaggs Allen, Sun Ra organ.
Earl Williams was the drummer. He was the son of Paul Williams who wrote "The Huckebuck." I'm quite sure Ronnie Boykins was on Bass. The backup vocals were by Joe Lewis, George Tipton, Joli Gonsalves, and possibly others. The sessions took place at Mastertone Studios on 42nd Street between 6th and 7th Avenue.
Another pop/RB recordiing that I employed Sun Ra and some of his group on was on Epic 5-9663 in 1963(?). A 45 rpm single featuring Richard "Popcorn" Wylie.
I arranged and conducted "Marlene" and "Do you still care for me" The producer was Bobby Gregg. Gregg was also the drummer on many of the Dylan tracks from around the same time. Hanging out with Wylie during this session was Bob Bateman former Motown associate & writer of "Mr. Postman". At this time Bateman was an A&R Director / Producer for Capitol Records In NYC.
Gregg had put me on notice that I would be doing this session. But I was notified by his office only 24 hours before the session was scheduled to hit. I had to trancribe 4 lead sheets from Wylie (who was musically illiterate) arrange and copy the 4 charts, and contract the musicians.
While I was working with Wylie (who was drunk) trying to transcribe the lead sheets he vomited on me in the apartment of the Jazz trombonist / arranger / composer Tom Mcintosh (who came to additional fame with the Jazztet, James Moody and the Shaft pictures).
I did not get label credit. Because of the screw up on the label credit the producer, Gregg, felt guilty and didn't challenge my rather high bill.
Sun Ra was on Piano, Gilmore on Tenor and Bass Clarinet. (Gilmore may have taken a bass calrinet solo on one of the 4 charts) Pat Patrick on Baritone, quite possibly Marshall Allen was on Alto.
Tom Mcintosh on Trombone. Ronald Boykins on Bass. Boykins was on the Limbo album also. I also used Sun Ra's drummer at that time (I can't remember his name) But I do remember he showed up so late that Bobby Gregg the producer had to play drums on the recording of the first tune. In addtion to Sun Ra's men I'm sure there were other studio men involved like Snaggs Allen on guitar.
As best I can recollect the following recordings that I arranged, conducted and or produced had Sun Ra and/or members of his Arkestra as sidemen.
Eric Kloss—"Grits and Gravy" Prestige LP 7486 1966. Sun Ra definitely not on piano. Pretty sure Ronnie Boykins was on Bass.
Freddy McCoy—"Funk Drops" Prestige LP 7470 circa 1965/66. possibly Gilmore and or Pat Patrick on saxes, maybe Ronnie Boykins. No Sun Ra.
Lonnie Satin—"Watermelon Man" ca. 1963 probably Sun Ra on piano, Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Ronnie Boykins. Scepter records
Bobby Gregg—"Any Number Can Win" Epic Records ca 1964 Sun Ra, Gilmore, Pat Patrick, and possibly Boykins.
Bobby Gregg—"McDougal Street" Epic Records ca.1964. Sun Ra, Gilmore, Pat Patrick, and possibly Boykins.
Bobby Gregg—It's Good To Me" Epic Records ca.1964-Sun Ra, Gilmore, Pat Patrick, and possibly Boykins.
There was also a recording of "My Boy Lolliop" the first Ska hit, around '62 or '63, for Tom Wilson and Dauntless/Audio Fidelity. I forgot the artist but I do remember using some of Sun Ra's men on this session and probably Sonny on piano.
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