by Brad Barrett
In The Days Before . . . Surf Music
On Van Morrison's 1990 album Enlightenment there is a song called "In The Days Before Rock & Roll" wherein Van and cohort Paul Durcan catalog all the music they heard coming over the wireless out of Luxembourg in the 1950s: Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, Elvis Presley, etc. Radio Luxembourg exposed a generation of Irish and English kids to a whole new kind of music they'd never even imagined as existing, and we all know where that eventually led. In the beach towns of southern California in the late 1950s the surf film was similarly instrumental in exposing its young audience to something other than the radio hits of the day. When movies like Slippery When Wet, Surf Safari, and Cat On A Hot Foam Board came out many of us were junior- or senior-high school students with not much more musical exposure than what we got at home from our parents or what we could glean from the just-burgeoning Top 40 radio stations. Out of seemingly nowhere, magically, we were hearing something that fit perfectly the exciting action and ultra-cool lifestyle we were seeing up on the screen and seeking to emulate: honking saxmen like Chuck Higgins and Joe Houston; the Dave Brubeck Quartet with Paul Desmond's soaring alto; the neo-Latin sounds of Cal Tjader; Bud Shank with his alternating flute and alto solos; Carlos Montoya's pop flamenco; Henry Mancini's scores for the Peter Gunn TV series; even a Woody Guthrie fiddle tune. A real hodge podge, and nothing resembling either our parents' bland "easy listening" tunes of a previous era or the rock 'n' roll fare that was taking over pop radio towards the end of the 1950s (not that that was a bad thing!). At this stage of the game "surf music" as a genre did not exist. Much of this "other" music widened its audience through the early surf film soundtracks, which weren't composed soundtracks in the usual Hollywood sense of the word, but were album cuts and 45s dubbed onto little Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorders and played during screenings of surfing movies over the junior high school auditorium P.A. systems where the movies were shown, the volume rising or falling depending on whether or not the film's maker was narrating the specific action appearing onscreen at the moment. This was pretty much standard operating procedure for the surf film pioneers of the late 50s and early 60s' Bud Browne, John Severson, Bruce Brown et al. Then Bruce Brown got the wild idea of having an actual scored soundtrack-like in a "real movie" for his first 16mm production Slippery When Wet and so approached Bud Shank, probably after hearing him play a gig at the Drift Inn in Malibu.
As Bruce tells it, after using up most of the Dale Velzy-financed film budget of $5,000 there was still a couple hundred dollars left for the music. Since they couldn't afford studio time the Bud Shank Quartet squeezed itself into the tiny office of World Pacific Records in Los Angeles and Bruce projected Slippery When Wet through the mail slot in the door onto a wall and Shank and crew improvised along to the screened action while the tape recorder rolled. Probably a bit of Bruce's penchant for exotic storytelling (a la his Cape St. Francis discovery story of a few years later) but a great scenario nonetheless and who knows, maybe it did happen that way. . . .
This new 5-CD set from Mosaic, a small high quality jazz reissue label that caters to the hard-core collector, is a real treat for surfers with an eye (or ear) toward our common history or just folks who like a good batch of meticulously remastered and nicely presented late 50s-early 60s jazz dropped onto their players.
For our purposes here we'll go directly to discs 4 and 5 as they contain the long out of print soundtrack albums to Slippery When Wet and Barefoot Adventure, Bruce Brown's first and third films (his second, Surf Crazy, relied on the aforementioned compilation approach) and return to the first three discs a little later. Neither of these albums have seen the light of day as vinyl LPs for decades (except on the shelves of record collectors) and they are rarely mentioned except as maybe a teeny footnote in some potted history of Bud Shank's career. Both LPs were reissued on compact disc in Japan a few years ago, the discovery of which by Mosaic's proprietors prompted this long overdue reissue.
1959's Slippery When Wet is the simple tale of five California surfers and their trip to Hawai'i in the late summer of 1958. Del Cannon, spurred on by Dale Velzy, recruits Freddy Pfahler and Henry Ford along the highway in Capo Beach; the three then sign up Dick Thomas who they figure has plenty of money since he's a lifeguard in South Laguna; they are joined by Kemp Aaberg, and after a warm-up session at Trestles the fivesome head for O'ahu via DC-8. The movie chronicles their surfing adventures and misadventures in the Islands that summer and fall. This is the backdrop for Bruce Brown's tongue-in-cheek narration and the Bud Shank Quartet's evocative soundtrack performances.
Much of the music on SWW is pretty laid back, which fits perfectly the lighthearted tone of the movie itself. To my mind the music holds the movie together as the five surfers along with Dewey Weber and others traverse back and forth between the North Shore and Makaha looking for rideable surf. In some of the film's flatter spots the music plays an integral role in keeping viewer interest and moving things along by virtue of its easygoing yet insistent groove.
Mention must be made here of Bud Shank's fine jazz flute as one of the highlights of this set, along with the smooth as butter guitar work of Billy Bean. Bud's flute works particularly well with the footage of Kemp surfing Pupukea by himself. Other highlights include the bluesy "The Surf And I" which accompanies the slo-mo Yokohama sequence featuring Aaberg, Pfahler and Thomas, and the flute-driven "Up In Velseyland" [sic] which tells the tale of a surf "battle" between Aaberg and Weber. Additionally there are two blues tunes that didn't make it onto the original LP issue but are restored here, "Blues In The Distance" and "Blues In The Surf," both featuring fine soloing by Bud on alto sax.
It hardly needs to be said that Slippery When Wet works just fine as a jazz album: low key, mellow, West Coast grooving. I've been driving around listening to a tape of it in my car and it really evokes the easygoing life of a surfer and helps relieve my soul of the crazy rush going on all around me.
While the soundtrack to Slippery When Wet is a laid back affair, the soundtrack for Barefoot Adventure, recorded just two-and-a-half years later in November 1961, is much more muscular in tone. From the first staccato notes Da DA Da Da DA Da, Da DA Da Da Da . . . as little footprints travel up and down the screen introducing the title and opening credits to the moment when the rest of the band jumps in you know this movie and its accompanying score is going to be a stoker. Bud Shank is working with a sextet this time around with only bassist Gary Peacock on board from the SWW sessions; Dennis Budimir replaces Billy Bean on guitar, and the addition of Carmell Jones on trumpet and long-time Shank associate Bob Cooper on tenor contributes to a fuller, tougher sound. Shank himself alternates between alto and baritone this time out and when he and Cooper trade riffs the results are inspired. I used to wonder if this Bob Cooper could be the [surfer] Bob Cooper and I would compare photos from the back cover of the album with photos of Bob Cooper surfing Makaha shorebreak in the first Surfer to see if all that coolness could be rolled up into one guy. It wasn't but both Bobs were very cool nonetheless. As are the rhythm section of Gary Peacock and drummer par excellence Shelly Manne.
The movie sets up its premise as the "Barefoot Adventure" theme wails in the background. We see Del Cannon's feet walking down a La Jolla sidewalk, across streets, over lawns, through dogshit, onto the beach, and finally hanging off a Velzy & Jacobs tailblock as he paddles out.
One of the highlights of the soundtrack album is the second cut "Shoeless Beach Meeting," a blues featuring unison playing by Shank and Cooper accented by Shelly Manne's drumming and a nice guitar break by Budimir. In the film this piece accompanies a short sequence showing the beautiful turquoise water and unmakeable waves of Yokohama Bay. Memorable.
My other favorite is the Latin-flavored "Ala Moana" featuring alto and light percussion; it was used for shots of Joey Hamasaki and Rich Chew on a nice shoulder-high day at Ala Mo. The music conveys perfectly Brown's narration remark, "Summer surf in Hawai'i is almost as much fun as you can have on a surfboard." This tune epitomizes surfing for me as well as any I've ever heard.
The lighthearted "Well 'Pon My Sole" was used for several sequences in the original film, most notably for a small day at Makaha featuring the shorebreak wipeouts and antics of Paul Strauch and Del Cannon. There is an extended guitar solo by Dennis Budimir near the end that is just wonderful.
"How High The Makaha" was used for a longish sequence of medium sized Sunset Beach; it features some tough baritone and tenor, the cacophony of the horns supplying just the right amount of tension for Sunset. Fine guitar by Budimir on this one also. "Bruce Is Loose," with tough sax, spotlights Huntington Pier under santana conditions and the indelible image of Jack Haley's famous backside arch just before he shoots the pier. The screaming "Dance Of The Surf Monsters" closes out the album on a strong uptempo note. It was originally used at midpoint in the movie for scenes of two beaters sliding through 20 miles of mud around Kaæena Point on the way to excellent point surf at Makaha with Joey Cabell.
The Barefoot Adventure album was a huge hit at the time, selling in the neighborhood of 10,000 copies. This was so far beyond Pacific Jazz's expectations (and resources) that they couldn't pay Bud Shank the royalties due him. So they went out and bought him a deluxe sound system on credit, components of which he still owns to this day.
Sharing the fifth disc with Barefoot Adventure is the bluesy album New Groove, recorded six months prior to Barefoot Adventure with a similar lineup, basically the band Bud was holding forth with at the Drift Inn during the same time period. This grouping introduces trumpeter Carmell Jones, and Shank plays both alto and baritone as if unaware that "West Coast jazz" is supposed to be "neat but not greasy." More fine guitar from Budimir who contributes a smokin' solo on Gary Peacock's "Liddledabllduya."
Discs 1-3 present Bud and his quartet on several mid-50s sessions that originally yielded four albums and several anthology tracks. The first disc contains Bud's 1957 album The Bud Shank Quartet, a boppish affair recorded shortly after he and pianist Claude Williamson left the Lighthouse All-Stars to form the Bud Shank Quartet. His style may have been somewhat derivative of his early influences but he sounds great and this stuff really cooks. His third Pacific Jazz LP Bud Shank Plays Tenor is an album of standards and is a switch from the usual alto and flute back to his earlier instrument.
If you own copies of the Bruce Brown video reissues of Slippery When Wet and Barefoot Adventure and like the music contained therein, or own worn copies of the original soundtrack LPs, you should enjoy all the recordings in this set. Some of the earlier sides have as much charm as SWW and as much ballsiness as BA; there is excellent, exciting playing by all involved, in particular Gary Peacock, Dennis Budimir, Bob Cooper, and Shelly Manne on the later sessions; Claude Williamson's bop piano is particularly welcome on the earlier albums.
And if you want a real slice of surf music history then you must
buy these recordings. I'll bet you will find yourself listening over
and over to these discs, not only out of a sense of nostalgia or a desire
to check out the historical context but as classic, vital music that'll
get and keep you stoked. You may just find yourself paddling out
somewhere and as you drop into that hot little left or right, "Ala Moana"
or "The Surf And I" will be playing in your head as you come cruising out
of the hook. See you at the "Shoeless Beach Meeting."
c. 1999 by Brad Barrett, all rights reserved, reprinted by permission.
Originally published in The Surfer's Journal, Volume 9, Number 1, Early Spring 2000.
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