By Harold Ott
on Fri, Jan 8, 2016 at 10:57 AM
Harold Ott is the founder and primary researcher of Psych of the South, a record label dedicated to unearthing rare Arkansas pop history.
The Retreat Singers were a 1960s folk group based out of Little Rock's Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, who recorded a hauntingly beautiful album in 1967 about the life of Jesus Christ. Reverend Edgar Shippey, assistant to the cathedral dean, was assigned to the church's youth group in the mid-60s. During retreats on the Buffalo River, Shippey, who was in his late 20s, directed the teens in song. Some members brought guitars, and their sound blossomed under the guidance of Shippey, who had previously studied Jewish folk music. They started with eight members and began writing a performance piece that incorporated ancient melodies punctuated by readings — personal retellings of biblical stories. Many of the songs had no prior religious association, while others included a 1400-year-old melody from the Apostolic Church and songs performed in Hebrew and Aramaic. Most were somber, incorporating minor keys.
Their first show was at a dinner hosted by the dean, and through word of mouth the group began increasing in size, reaching 28 members by April of 1966. The teens came from five different high schools and needed name tags at first, but quickly became friends. On weekends, they worked at building a retreat cabin on land owned by the church.
Their first album was titled “A Folk Song Life of Christ,” and was recorded at E&M studio on Markham Street, where Earl Fox operated the label MY records. Their bus was dubbed the Holy Roller, and they took it on tour to Washington, D.C. to perform at the National Cathedral in the summer of 1966. From there they turned north to Moose Factory, Canada, to work among the Cree Indians, where they installed a church furnace and instructed over 400 children. In preparation of their trip, they were trained by the Red Cross in emergency rescue and midwifery. All along the way, the group stopped at cathedrals and performed. They wrote songs on the bus, including the folk rock flavored “I Can See.”
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In October of 1966, the group was featured in a Life Magazine story about modern religious music. (To some, even at the time, bringing guitars into the church was considered controversial.) That December, they filmed a half hour Christmas showcase for the local television station KARK. The cathedral sponsored the group’s second release, a double album titled "The Retreat Singers in Stereo." This follow-up included additions and improvements to the program in a much more refined style. The hard work was evident in the recording, also done by Earl Fox, who used a stereo microphone technique which captured the ambiance of the room. By the time of the recording, the group had swelled to over 50 members as local teens from other churches were invited to join. They added a second bus and named it the Exobus.
Their next mission trip was in the summer of 1967, where they traveled to Miami, and afterward departed for British Honduras — a country then steeped in border tensions with Guatemala. Their projects included building a chicken coop and repainting the Bishop’s offices. Most of the teens stayed at the local YMCA. They learned the regional song “Freetown Girl” and made it a regular part of their set.
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The Retreat Singers continued growing, topping 70 members by the time they planned a trip to England in the summer of 1968. The mission was centered around renovation work at Dolserau Hall in Wales, which would become a home for the aged. They worked together with a local crew and stayed on the property. While in Wales, they performed at the Eisteddfod Folk Festival and appeared on local television. They were asked to do a 30 minute TV special, which was aired all over Great Britain on the BBC.
They were invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Lambeth Conference in London, a meeting of Anglican Bishops, becoming the first group in 500 years to perform in the Great Hall. They traveled to Scotland and Scandinavia, where they performed for King Gustaf of Sweden. The king had an embargo on sound equipment, but he was near deaf, so the singers had to perform right in front of him.
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In the summer of 1969, they helped renovate cabins at Camp Mitchell on Petit Jean. They also toured the southeast and helped with the cleanup after Hurricane Camille. Following his divorce, Shippey was relieved of his duties with the Retreat Singers and relocated to Petaluma, California. The church assigned a new priest to the group, but never found another leader who could relate to the teens and their vision. The following summer, in 1970, the singers traveled to Bluff, Utah, to build a school for the Navajo near Monument Valley. They poured the concrete foundation and helped build a school located under a massive cliff.
In the summer of 1971, they took their final mission trip. Many of the original singers had left the group and they had minimal support from the church. The mission was at a fundamentalist orphanage in Hazard, Kentucky, but the teens clashed with the administration and left. The group kept traveling and found its way to Connecticut, where a friend helped set up performances throughout New England. Shortly after their return, the church officially disbanded the group.
The Retreat Singers had their first proper reunion in 1983. They met again in 2012, and each year since, the group — which has consisted of approximately 130 members over the years — has held a small reunion on New Year's Eve, at which they sing "Auld Lang Syne."
The Paragons were a group from Searcy, Ark., that in 1965 traveled to Sun Studio in Memphis to record a British Invasion-flavored rendition of “Black and Blue,” a song dating back to the 1920s. It had been famously adapted by Louis Armstrong to reflect the era's racial discrimination, and had also previously been recorded by Frankie Laine, who had a Top 40 hit with it in 1947. I spoke recently with Paragons guitarist Bill Benz, along with Doris James, who recalled Zay-Dee Records, her ex-husband George Whitaker's label, which had released the Paragons record in early 1966. /more/
The Playboys were a rockabilly-influenced garage band from Pine Bluff who recorded as Magnificent Seven for Vee-Eight Records in 1962. Jackie Hendrix was playing piano in a group with Happy Caldwell, who later became a famous pastor and founder of the VTN TV network. When most of the group moved away after graduation, Hendrix was left to put together a new band. /more/
“The Expectation” by the Dutch Masters has long been hailed as an amazing example of garage rock among record collectors, but the story behind the song has been elusive. I spoke to three original band members including Earl Denton, Buz Johnson and John Walthall, to shed some light on this Arkansas mystery. /more/
The Fourmations were a young garage band from Osceola, Ark., that formed in 1965. The star of the group was Tommy Jones, a natural on the drums at the age of 11. Chessie Jones, the owner of an auto repair shop in Osceola, was the stage dad behind the group as well as their manager. /more/
This week marks the 20th anniversary of an minor but nevertheless significant event in the history of Central Arkansas music: the (relatively small-scale) release of a compilation called "The Dogtown Chronicles," by Food Chain Records. The tape, available via the Bandcamp page for Harlan Records (a now-defunct label started in 1994 by Soophie Nun Squad member Nate Powell) is a time capsule of a punk scene that turns out to have been much weirder and more diverse than we've sometimes come to believe. Songs like Sacred Cow's "Hawaiian Apocalypse" or Hug's "Dead Roach, Motherfucker" or Pete's "In The End" don't have much in common with each other, except for a certain haunting tape-hiss quality (that makes it all sound a little like the strangest Guided By Voices concert ever) and the fact that they were all made by kids. /more/
Usually my work involves a quest to find information on Arkansas’ garage bands of yore. In this case, Jim Finch, the drummer of Robin and the Hoods, contacted me. He wanted to share a demo that his group recorded circa 1966, including this take on the Young Rascals' version of the Larry Williams tune "Slow Down." /more/
You think you know something, that you've been around and heard what there is to hear, and then you hear Doug Hream Blunt. Born in Arkansas, of course, Blunt is among our state's least appreciated musical exports. He was a collector of vinyl records — he particularly admired The Whispers and Jimi Hendrix. He was a frustrated musician, not in the sense that he couldn't produce, but in the sense that the results were frustrating to him. /more/
The Rock Candy mix of the week is a partial list of songs that mention the 1994 HBO documentary "Gang Wars: Bangin' In Little Rock." I've omitted local songs, because I'm more interested in the way the movie defined the city for outsiders in a strange, metonymic way. I'm sure I'm still leaving out plenty, feel free to suggest more in the comments. /more/
Dead on Arrival’s story starts in the San Francisco psychedelic scene and ends in Ashdown, Arkansas. Mike Hubrel was a pre-teen in the golden era of the West Coast sound and was born in South San Francisco. By age 11, he was soaking up the city's burgeoning music culture, frequenting the stores in the Haight-Ashbury district, and formed his own group, The Daytonas. They played a battle of the bands and won the chance to perform at the Cow Palace, an indoor arena on the Daly City border. He felt he was becoming a part of the legendary music scene that he adored. However, his father feared for his son amid the city's emergent drug culture, and in a bold decision to 'save' him from this path before it was too late, he moved the family back to his hometown of Ashdown in Southwest Arkansas in 1968, when Hubrel was 13 years old. /more/
Because I couldn't find one anywhere else, here is a mix highlighting the best (or so) of the Arkansas funk legend Monk Higgins, born Milton Bland in Menifree in October of 1936. He worked as a social worker, a music teacher, and making his way to Chicago and later L.A., he arranged and produced records for labels like Chess, Onderful, St. Lawrence, MCA, United Artists and, eventually, his own label, Almon. He produced singles by Etta James, Muddy Waters, Bobby 'Blue' Bland (no relation) and hundreds of others, including several albums by Blood, Sweat and Tears. As a solo artist, he released records with titles like "Extra Soul Perception," "Little Mama," "Heavyweight" and "Dance to the Disco Sax of Monk Higgins." /more/
The Paragons were a group from Searcy, Ark., that in 1965 traveled to Sun Studio in Memphis to record a British Invasion-flavored rendition of “Black and Blue,” a song dating back to the 1920s. It had been famously adapted by Louis Armstrong to reflect the era's racial discrimination, and had also previously been recorded by Frankie Laine, who had a Top 40 hit with it in 1947. I spoke recently with Paragons guitarist Bill Benz, along with Doris James, who recalled Zay-Dee Records, her ex-husband George Whitaker's label, which had released the Paragons record in early 1966.
The Playboys were a rockabilly-influenced garage band from Pine Bluff who recorded as Magnificent Seven for Vee-Eight Records in 1962. Jackie Hendrix was playing piano in a group with Happy Caldwell, who later became a famous pastor and founder of the VTN TV network. When most of the group moved away after graduation, Hendrix was left to put together a new band.
“The Expectation” by the Dutch Masters has long been hailed as an amazing example of garage rock among record collectors, but the story behind the song has been elusive. I spoke to three original band members including Earl Denton, Buz Johnson and John Walthall, to shed some light on this Arkansas mystery.
World wide weird duo Rural War Room (Donavan Suitt & Byron Werner) is celebrating 10 years of broadcasting and production here in Little Rock and abroad. RWR Radio on KABF 88.3 FM (10 p.m. Tuesdays or anytime on their website), features the duo alternating records in an effort to surprise one another.
BRASHER: Hello Arkansans, this is the first piece from us, Brasher and Rowe and we are some dudes who work in downtown Little Rock and we eat lunch and just talk about all the exciting things around here.
Ernest Dumas reaches into history, some personal, for moments in Arkansas's view of refugees. It was brought to mind by the current crisis in Europe and the political divisions over whether the U.S. should respond to the needs of the displaced.
Ledbetter, the former state Board of Education chair who cast the decisive vote in 2015 to take over the LRSD, writes that Education Commissioner Johnny Key "has shown time and again that he is out of touch with our community and the needs of the district." However, Ledbetter supports the May 9 vote as a positive for the district's students and staff.