In 1960, When Creed Taylor pitched his idea for a new jazz label to Harry Levine at ABC-Paramount, he knew exactly what he wanted. The new Impulse label would use a dramatic black-and-orange color scheme, spines would be thicker to command attention, and jackets would open as gatefolds. What's more, the covers would be as glossy as wet seals, adding a luxurious feel and visual to superbly recorded jazz.
When Levine asked about the label's launch, Creed said he wanted to go big and wide. Rather than release just one album in early 1961, Creed pushed to roll out four albums at once. The goal, he said, was to establish a big marketplace footprint needed to commit record dealers, distributors and retailers. A master of the corporate pitch, Creed also said he wanted to use Ray Charles, who was handled on the pop side of the label. After winning everything he wanted, Creed set to work recording his first four Impulse albums and planning a marketing strategy.
In today's installment of my interview series with Creed, the jazz producer reminisces about Ray Charles' Genius + Soul = Jazz, the last of the four Impulse albums to be recorded in advance of an early 1961 release, as well as Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth:
JazzWax: Whose idea was it to frame One Mint Julep as a funky cha-cha-cha?
Creed Taylor: Quincy's. He was the album's architect.
JW: One Mint Julep's riff was and remains pretty addictive to the ear.
CT: I know. It became a hit 45-rpm. During recording sessions back then, producers rarely went out into the studio while the musicians were there. Everything was worked out with the date's leader, conductor or arranger in advance, and that person was in charge of that turf. But when I heard One Mint Julep's break, I had an idea and had to come in.
JW: What did you do?
CT: I went over to Ray and whispered in his ear, “On the break, try adding 'Just a little bit of so-da,' " because a mint julep has soda in it. It felt natural, and we needed something there. But when tape rolled, at the break Ray said instead, “Just a little bit of soul, now.” Which was fine with me. It certainly fit better than “soda.”
JW: What made you think of adding that?
CT: I guess I was thinking about hooks.
JW: Did you decide that One Mint Julep was going to be a single before the session or while you were hearing it in the booth?
CT: While I was hearing it in the booth. The single entered the Billboard pop chart in March 1961 and rose to #8. It was huge. It was on the chart for 13 weeks.
JW: Did you know right away it was going to be hot?
JW: A hook was pretty important for a single?
CT: Oh, yeah, you want that repetitious groove. That’s what I was looking for. That’s what radio was looking for. And that’s what listeners were looking for. A hook is a direct communication with the audience, letting them know that “this is it, now.”
JW: So you'd know going into a session that a single needed a hook?
CT: Hooks were really forced on the record industry by radio. Back then, a single had to say its piece and get out. If you didn’t have something that sounded like “Wow, what is that?” you didn’t have a hit record. The market wanted simplicity. If you have a groove going, you don’t mess around with it until it has made a statement.
JW: Who came up with the album’s title?
CT: I did. Ray’s nickname was The Genius. Since I was going to release four albums at the same time to inaugurate Impulse, what better way to propel the launch than to have Ray Charles’ nickname on there on one of them. Genius was Ray, soul was what Ray was all about, and jazz was what Impulse was selling. The word jazz and Impulse put the whole package together. The title seemed so obvious at the time.
JW: Did you talk to Ray about the date beforehand?
CT: Not at all. We didn’t have any lengthy conversations. We spoke briefly in the control room about what we were going to do before we started recording. Ray knew exactly what all of those musicians sounded like, even though he was predominantly an r&b artist and they were big band pros. Quincy [Jones, pictured] did most of the arrangements, with Ralph Burns writing a couple.
JW: How did the organ Ray played wind up with such a punchy sound?
CT: Rudy [Van Gelder] did some adjusting on the inside so the keys had a more percussive effect than a normal one. It was a Hammond B3 doctored by Rudy. He had done this on organs before for other recording dates. The result was a more definite attack than a normal organ.
JW: What was Ray like to work with?
CT: He was a very friendly guy and very smart. There were no problems even though he had a habit when he was there. But it didn’t affect his playing at all. All of the guys on the date were swinging players, but they all were savvy about r&b and they dug Ray Charles. Music was music. It wasn’t like a bunch of musicians had come in who hadn’t a clue about the style Ray wanted. These guys were well versed in all the genres. Ray loved making that session. He told me so after the date.
JW: The fifth album you released in 1961 was Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth.
CT: We recorded it in February. Oliver was so smart. He was like a university professor who just happened to be able to play, compose and arrange. He and I had the same hobby, HO-scale model trains. In my basement I had built a prototype of the Norfolk and Western Railroad from Norfolk, Virginia, to the Ohio coalfields. Oliver built a prototype of a lumber camp, with the trains taking the logs from the mountains to the mills at the bottom. We were both detail oriented. [Photo of Oliver Nelson with Creed by Chuck Stewart]
JW: Did you realize at the time that Blues and the Abstract Truth was going to be a classic?
CT: Sure. The album was an epic in my life. Freddie Hubbard had the most magnificent solos on there, Eric Dolphy and Bill Evans also were tremendous. [Photo of Creed with Freddie Hubbard by Chuck Stewart]
JW: Did you know Bill Evans?
CT: Yes, I knew him very well. When I first moved to New York in 1954, I rented a place in a brownstone on West 86th St. One night there was a party in the parlor room downstairs and Bill was playing piano there. I grabbed my trumpet and went down to jam with the group. Someone later told me that the pianist was Bill Evans. I mentioned this to Bill sometime later. He had a big laugh. He remembered it clearly. He had a memory that wouldn’t stop. I avoided asking him what he thought about my solo, though [laughs]. [Photo of Creed, Gary McFarland and Bill Evans by Chuck Stewart]
JW: How did the Blues and the Abstract Truth session go?
CT: There were only seven musicians on the date, yet Oliver’s band sounded 10 times larger. Everything fell right into place. One run through and one take on most tracks. The whole album was recorded in one session. If you look at the personnel, you can see why. And none of the players had any personal problems.
JW: Who came up with the title?
CT: I did. I thought we should make a statement about the music. It was the blues, but it was an abstract blues that you hadn’t heard before. It was Oliver Nelson’s impression of the blues. Given the music, we had to package the record in a different way. The blues is supposed to be 12 bars and down and dirty. Here we had something like an architectural structure of something that existed in 12 bars but surely was abstract. And the music wasn’t trying to put anyone on. There was nothing contrived. It was the truth. Oliver meant every note he wrote. I’ve always liked that title.
Tomorrow, Creed takes us inside the recording booth, providing detail about what he was listening for and how he ensured standards would be high. He also talks about John Coltrane's arrival at Impulse, his decision to leave ABC-Paramount for Verve in 1961 and editing Africa/Brass with Coltrane at his Verve office.
JazzWax tracks: Genius + Soul = Jazz was recorded on December 26 and 27, 1960. One Mint Julep is a critical recording in that it combined four different genres in one song. Julep was modeled after Perez Prado's Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White and Patricia, both of which hit No. 1 on Billboard's pop chart in 1955 and 1958, respectively.
One Mint Julep also was one of the first jazz-funk-soul-Latin crossover singles and went on to influence Mongo Santamaria's seminal recording of Watermelon Man in 1962 and other boogaloo pop hits to follow.
The all-star cast of musicians on the December 26th session were: Ray Charles (organ), Phil Guilbeau, Thad Jones, Joe Newman, Clark Terry and Snooky Young (trumpets), Henry Coker, Urbie Green, Al Grey and Benny Powell (trombones), Marshal Royal and Frank Wess (alto saxes), Frank Foster and Billy Mitchell (tenor sax), Charlie Fowlkes (baritone sax), Freddie Green (guitar), Eddie Jones (bass) and Sonny Payne (drums).
The following day, a different personnel was used to record four tracks that included One Mint Julep. Joining Ray Charles were John Frosk, Phil Guilbeau, Jimmy Nottingham, Clark Terry and Joe Wilder (trumpets) Jimmy Cleveland, Urbie Green, Keg Johnson and George Matthews (trombones), George Dorsey and Earle Warren (alto saxes), Budd Johnson and Seldon Powell (tenor saxes), Haywood Henry (baritone sax), Sam Herman (guitar), Joe Benjamin (bass) and Roy Haynes (drums). The CD is available here.
Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth was recorded in one day on February 23, 1961. The album featured Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Oliver Nelson (alto and tenor saxes), Eric Dolphy (alto sax and flute), George Barrow (baritone sax), Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Roy Haynes (drums). The CD is available here.
JazzWax clips: The influence that one hit has had on another fascinates me, as long-time readers of this blog know. So let's connect the dots: Listen to Perez Prado's Patricia here. Then dig One Mint Julep here. And now hear how the baton was passed to Mongo Santamaria's Watermelon Man here. After Watermelon Man, the dots connect to Lee Morgan (The Sidewinder), James Brown (Papa's Got a Brand New Bag) and Joe Cuba (Bang Bang). You can spend hours drawing lines from these artists to all those who followed.
Clearly, Ray Charles' One Mint Julep was more significant than most people realize and highly under-appreciated as a fusion hit.