Do Not Sell At Any Price, Van Ronk, Levey and C.L. Franklin

Many years ago while visiting Jack’s Record Cellar in San Francisco, I was engaged in a conversation with Norman Pierce, the proprietor, when all of a sudden he stopped. He looked around the room, eyeing his stock, and declared that he had decided to cut the price of LPs in half and double the price of 78s. When asked about the decision and why he would do such a crazy thing, he replied that “LPs weren’t really records”.

Doubtless, some of us have entertained that thought for a moment, however brief. In DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE by Amanda Petrusich (Simon and Schuster, 2014) we come into contact with collectors, who not only believe it, but don’t think that it is a crazy idea. Why a seemingly normal woman would end up chasing the rarest Paramount 78s with obsessed collectors such as John Heneghan, Christopher King, John Tefteller, Pete Whelan and Joe Bussard makes for a fascinating tale.

Eccentricity is the norm amongst these mostly blues, folk and country collectors. Ms. Petrusich attended The Collectors Bash one year, early in her quest, and came away relatively unscathed but I wonder how she would have dealt with likes of Ken Crawford, Jerry Valburn or Harold Flaxer. In my early years as a collector, I was introduced to Bill Russell, Merrill Hammond and Boris Rose-all imminently reasonable people. But the more I think about it, perhaps the word reasonable no longer applies to collectors. Perhaps it never did. Recommended.

Dave Van Ronk thought of himself as a failed traditional jazz player. After years of perseverance, he emerged as one of the finest folk/blues stylists of the late 20th century and someone who, more than any other, was a reminder of the folk music boom that swept New York and later the whole country in the early 60s. Van Ronk died in 2002 prior to the completion of THE MAYOR OF MacDOUGAL STREET so the work was tied together in expert fashion by Elijah Wald. Originally published in 2005, the paperback which followed a year later has now been reissued courtesy of Da Capo Press.

Van Ronk’s own singing wears very well fifty years after its heyday. During his first brush with fame, he recorded three albums for Prestige Folklore-one with The Red Onion Jazz Band-and there are some interesting negotiations with Bob Weinstock included. There are also very revealing portraits of young Bob Dylan, a just as young Joni Mitchell, a never young Moe Asch and other assorted hustlers, boosters and good guys. As one might suspect, Van Ronk is a wonderful story teller. Recommended.

STAN LEVEY: JAZZ HEAVYWEIGHT by Frank R. Hayde (Santa Monica Press, 2016) is the best biography of a jazz musician in quite a while. A slim volume, it is 224 pages including index and discography (plus a nice selection of photos) and there is not a wasted word to be had. The work alternates between Levey’s first-hand accounts and the author’s third person narrative. It is a seamless linkage and one that should serve as a model for other such endeavors. The title refers not only to his percussive ability but the fact that he was a boxer who fought professionally for several years.

It is easy to forget Levey when discussing modern jazz drummers because he retired in 1973. Consider the fact that he was a part of the Dizzy Gillespie Rebop Six that brought modern jazz to Los Angeles in late 1945 and also was a key contributor to the 1953 Stan Kenton band. He was not as ubiquitous as Shelly Manne on LA sessions but he was on lots of great Bethlehem albums (including two of his own) from 1954-1956 and also recorded with Stan Getz, Ben Webster, Bill Harris and Chet Baker.

As one might surmise, given his pugilistic abilities, Levey pulls no punches. He provides warts and all encounters with Charlie Parker (with whom he roomed in New York), Ben Webster, Sonny Stitt, Al Haig and more. He is frank about his drug use and the prison time he served.

The one good guy, throughout, is his old Philadelphia pal, Gillespie. As his career involved more and more commercial music, Levey decided to get out and work on his career as a photographer. Diagnosed with cancer in 1988, he undertook a risky operation, survived, and lived another seventeen years.
The best kind of jazz reading is a book that provides plenty of information you didn’t previously have but also makes you reassess things you did know. STAN LEVEY: JAZZ HEAVYWEIGHT is such a book. Highly recommended.

SINGING IN A STRANGE LAND by Nick Salvatore (University of Illinois Press, 2006) is a biography of the Reverend C. L. Franklin, father to Erma, Carolyn and Aretha Franklin and one of the truly legendary preachers of the black Baptist church. The biography follows Franklin from his humble Mississippi roots to pastoral duties in Memphis (where Aretha was born), Buffalo and Detroit where he presided at New Bethel Baptist Church for more than thirty years.

To a certain extent, prominent preachers were treated like star entertainers by their constituents. Their choice of vehicle, the cut of their clothes and their circle of friends all reflected the success of their endeavors. His recorded sermons were in great demand and he recorded fifty-eight LPs (as well as fifteen 78rpm albums) worth of sermons for Chess. Record sales helped make Franklin a wealthy man. There is a considerable discussion of “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest”, his most famous sermon, one that he repeated on many occasions.

His involvement with civil rights brought him into contact with major political figures. He generally avoided mixing in local Detroit politics but he would endorse candidates when he felt it appropriate. Like many other preachers, Franklin also liked the ladies. While there is not a lot of detail, his peccadilloes are noted rather than avoided. He was friendly with major entertainers such as Lionel Hampton, Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke and Arthur Prysock-many of whom stayed at his mansion while working the Motor City.

Franklin was shot during a home invasion in 1979 and while he lived until 1984, he was never the same. There will never be another one like him. Recommended.
BTW, I found this at a Barnes & Noble stocked with new editions so it is probably still available