Going solo is an ancient musical tradition. Probably there was a Gregorian monk whose yearning for the spotlight made him think, "I can do this chanting better on my own." Louis Armstrong's genius couldn't be contained by the Creole Jazz Band, Sinatra left the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Dion parted from the Belmonts. But the end of the 1960s ushered in a golden era for the solo project.
Bands fractured and fragmented. Some groups broke up, leaving their members free to venture out. Some artists just wanted to have temporary flings, take side trips into different genres, work with different musicians. Some felt confined by the internal dynamics of their bands, and needed space to stretch out unshackled, maybe earn some additional publishing money. And out of all this chaos came some of the period's most intriguing albums. Everything was getting more loosely defined, musicians were forming temporary alliances, record labels were investing in spin-off LPs, indulging all kinds of creative whims because the late '60s/early '70s was a boomtime for the LP and you never knew what might click.
Some of the era's more eccentric solo excursions—Skip Spence's Oar, David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name, Syd Barrett's The Madcap Laughs—have since become justly celebrated. Others, like Jim Capaldi's 'Oh How We Danced' and John Entwistle's 'Smash Your Head Against the Wall', have gone missing. Below are 10 lesser-known albums, all released between 1968 and 1972, in which a well known artist decided to venture out of his usual fold. Sometimes it worked well. And sometimes... it didn't.
Jack Bruce – Songs For A Tailor (1969)
Songs for a Tailor was the second solo album Jack Bruce recorded, but the first one released. While he was still in Cream, he cut an instrumental jazz album, Things We Like, with guitarist John McLaughlin, drummer Jon Hiseman and saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith. It's kind of a ball; they're all cutting loose, and it's not like a lot of jazz-rock coming from the rock side where it's blaring and corny and dumbed-down for audiences more accustomed to things like, say, Cream. You can see why it was kept on the shelf for a while, held back until Bruce could come out with an album that had a little bit more in common with Disraeli Gears, which was Songs for a Tailor (Bruce has said that a couple of the songs were submitted to Atlantic for that Cream LP, but were deemed not worthy). While his former Creammates Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker were slogging it out on the road with Blind Faith, Bruce released his album in the U.K. (it hit U.S. stores about six weeks later), and although guitarist Chris Spedding's playing is relatively restrained, probably to evade Clapton comparisons, and drummer Hiseman isn't as flashy as Baker, the music—all written by Bruce and his lyricist Pete Brown—is a smooth progression from Cream. (The Clearout does sound like a 'Disraeli Gears' castoff, and you can mentally superimpose Clapton riffs on Theme from an Imaginary Western, later done by Leslie West's band Mountain.) If your tolerance for Brown's pseudo-poetic wordplay is low, you might wince at tracks like Weird of Herminston and To Isengard, but it's nice to hear Bruce backed by the peppy horn section on Never Tell Your Mother She's Out of Tune (George Harrison is playing guitar on it, but practically inaudibly) and The Ministry of Bag (If you can forget the song is called "The Ministry of Bag.").
Zal Yanovsky – Alive And Well In Argentina (1968)
In the Lovin' Spoonful, Zal Yanovsky wasn't just the nimble, inventive lead guitar player and occasional vocalist. He was like a musical Marx Brother, wild and disruptive, always in motion on stage. Although the Spoonful made some excellent records after he left ( Six O'Clock, She Is Still a Mystery), some air went out of the balloon. Yanovsky's only solo album, Alive and Well in Argentina, came out a year after he and the group parted ways. He produced it with the guy who replaced him in the Spoonful, Jerry Yester, and it's a wacky artifact: he plays Floyd Cramer's piano instrumental Last Date on guitar like it's a distant cousin to Santo & Johnny's Sleep Walk (which it was), sings Little Bitty Pretty One in a nutty falsetto, unearths the Joe Jones novelty hit "You Talk Too Much." The title song is bizarre square-dance rock, and he does a sloshed version of the George Jones lament about divorce, Brown to Blue, which contains the perfect country couplet, "He changed your name from Brown to Jones, and mine from Brown to blue." After the album had been out for a while, it was repackaged, and the label added Zal's single As Long As You're Here, by the usually reliable hit-writers Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon (Happy Together). It was pop cacophony: big horns, girl singers, Jew's harp, a fleeting Dylan impression. At the end, the background singers ask, "Is it a hit, or a miss?" Well, a miss, but a joyous mess. On the flip side of the 45, it was the same recording, only played backwards.
Al Kooper – I Stand Alone (1969)
Before I Stand Alone, Al Kooper had been at the center of two important East Coast bands, the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears. The notion of forming a rock big band with horns was his, and BS&T made a wildly impressive and eclectic debut, Child Is the Father to the Man, which combined soul, jazz, and Brill Building pop, and songs by Harry Nilsson, Goffin and King, Randy Newman, Tim Buckley, and Kooper. It was brassy in every sense. Kooper was elbowed out of his own band, replaced as lead singer by a lumbering hambone named David Clayton-Thomas. Kooper rebounded with the Super Session album that teamed him with Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills, and then he made his official solo debut. 'I Stand Alone' is the real continuation of the first BS&T album, far more than the hugely popular second album by the group that kept the name. Kooper picked up on another Nilsson song (One, a hit for Three Dog Night), covered a couple of R&B songs by Gamble & Huff and Hayes & Porter, did Traffic's Coloured Rain with the Don Ellis Orchestra, and easily surpassed BS&T.2's rendition of Traffic's Smiling Phases. Some of the tracks, including the title song, were done with Nashville studio guys that Kooper had worked with on the Dylan Blonde on Blonde sessions, and on Camille (cowritten by Kooper and Tony Powers), Charlie Calello's arrangement is like a beautifully berserk pop pastiche of the Four Seasons and the Four Tops (I'm betting it's Pretty Purdie on drums and Chuck Rainey on bass driving this runaway train). The whole album is over the top, overindulgent, and completely entertaining.
Bob Weir – Ace (1972)
When is a solo album not so much a solo album? Warner Brothers gave the members of the Grateful Dead the leeway to do things individually, and a few of them did. But Ace is a Grateful Dead album with all the songs sung and cowritten by Bob Weir (only one was written on his own), and that's fine. How you feel about 'Ace' depends entirely on how you feel about the Dead in the early '70s. Critic Robert Christgau called it "the third in a series that began with Workingman's Dead and American Beauty," and although it's not quite that (as you'd expect, the songwriting isn't as consistent) a bunch of the songs—Cassidy, Looks Like Rain, Black-Throated Wind—wouldn't be out of place on either of those first-rate Dead LPs. Where 'Ace' stumbles is on the more rocking tracks; I realize that One More Saturday Night and Playing In the Band became mainstays in the Dead repertoire, beloved by fans, but on their studio versions they come off as stiff and calculated. And as jaunty as Mexicali Blues is, this attempt by Weir to come up with his own El Paso or Me and My Uncle exposes a side of his writing (it's on things like Sugar Magnolia also) that's tone-deaf to its misogyny. Also, the whole "girl who's just fourteen" thing? Not cool. Sexism aside, there's just the klutziness of the writing. "All the French perfume you'd care to smell"? Still, 'Ace' is really the last Grateful Dead studio album of their Warner Brothers years, as a band they were at their peak, and almost all of these Weir–John Barlow and Weir–Robert Hunter songs were folded into the band's shows (check out any of the sets from the epic European tour of '72).
Colin Blunstone – One Year (1971)
The Zombies had bad timing. They decided to call it quits after their 1968 album Odessey and Oracle—now considered a psych-pop classic—didn't connect with the public, so when that LP's Time of the Season became a surprise hit, the group didn't exist anymore. Band member Rod Argent formed a band that he bestowed his surname on, and lead singer Colin Blunstone vanished for a little while before resurfacing with the beguiling 'One Year', the closest thing to a sequel to 'Odessey and Oracle'. Smokey Day, written by Zombies Rod Argent and Chris White, was a leftover that would have been on a subsequent group album (It surfaced on the boxed set Zombie Heaven), and you can certainly hear how Her Song and She Loves the Way They Love Her, both Argent-White compositions, would have made ideal Zombies tracks. Blunstone, who didn't write very much for the group (although he did come up with the terrific Just Out of Reach for their cameo film appearance in Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing), contributes four originals, including the lovely Caroline Goodbye, and his breathy tenor is perfect for Tim Hardin's Misty Roses and Denny Laine's Say You Don't Mind.
Ringo Starr – Beaucoups Of Blues (1970)
Ringo Starr was the first Beatle to release a non-avant-garde solo album, unless you consider his plunge into pop standards on Sentimental Journey a conceptual art-prank on the Yoko level (but give him credit for being decades ahead of Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan; Dylan is just now getting around to Stardust and Sentimental Journey). His second album came out in September 1970, a few months after Let It Be put the punctuation at the end of the Beatles' story, and between McCartney and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Beaucoups of Blues is a modest, casual collection of newly written country songs, cut in Nashville with producer Pete Drake and a crack lineup of studio sidemen, and although no one would ever consider Ringo's vocal abilities a threat to George Jones, the material crafted for him takes all that into account. Nothing too taxing here. The only hitch is that the songs aren't particularly memorable; they feel dashed-off by writers, including Chuck Howard and Sorrells Pickard, on deadline (Howard's Love Don't Last Long is a little reminiscent of the Bobby Goldsboro hit Honey, and that's not a good thing). The title song, a country waltz penned by Buzz Rabin, is the best track, and there's some nice guitar playing on $15 Draw (Jerry Reed?), but most of the others—Woman of the Night, Wine, Woman and Loud, Happy Songs, Fastest Growing Heartache in the West—are by-the-book. Bringing Ringo to Nashville wasn't a bad idea at all; what would have made it a better one was if he'd rummaged through the country catalog for better material. Maybe some Harlan Howard, Johnny Cash, or Buck Owens?
Tracy Nelson – Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson Country (1969)
The debut album by Mother Earth, 'Living With the Animals', introduced a back-to-the-roots blues-rock band, with a singer, Tracy Nelson, who could belt and sob. They delved into the Allen Toussaint catalog, covered Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim (whose song gave the band its name, and on which Mike Bloomfield played some stinging guitar), and on Nelson's signature song Down So Low, she proved that there were few singers who had her blend of power and nuance. The band may have been overshadowed on the San Francisco scene by Big Brother and the Holding Company, but in some key ways they were better. There wasn't much of a country influence on that first LP, so it was kind of surprising when the album Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson Country came out. A lot of artists were dipping into country in 1969, but Nelson's solo debut was the real thing. There are no production or musician credits on the original LP, but she made the album with producer Pete Drake (who later brought Ringo Starr out to the farm Tracy and her fellow Mother Earth members bought outside of Nashville; that's where the cover photo for 'Beaucoups of Blues' was taken), and among the musicians who contributed were the great fiddler Johnny Gimble, guitarist Scott Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana from Elvis' band, and the Jordanaires. Tracy Nelson is one of the lost singers from that era, and this album is a testament to her gifts as an interpreter. She has the moxie to tackle material that was the property of Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline, and holds her own, and there are excellent songs by Chuck Willis, Boz Scaggs, and Hank Williams. The country theme spilled on to one side of the second Mother Earth album, 'Make a Joyful Noise', with three Tracy-sung tracks, Williams' You Win Again, Doug Sahm's I Wanna Be Your Mama Again and Toussaint's Wait, Wait, Wait, that all would have fit snuggly on 'Tracy Nelson Country'.
Sam Samudio – Sam Hard And Heavy (1971)
More than five years after Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs' run of infectious singles that started with Wooly Bully and continued with Ju Ju Hand, Lil' Red Riding Hood, and a bunch of others, Sam Samudio made an unexpected solo comeback with Sam Hard and Heavy. Atlantic Records sent him down to Criteria Studios in Miami to work with producer Tom Dowd (who also recorded Derek and the Dominos down there around the same time), and he was surrounded by an exceptional assemblage of players and singers: the Dixie Flyers, the Memphis Horns, the Sweet Inspirations and, on two exceptional cuts, guitarist Duane Allman. It's a rowdy session, filled with terrific moments: the stomping Tex-Mex of Samudio's Don't Put Me On, Allman's sinuous playing on Relativity, Jim Dickinson's gospel piano on Boz Scaggs' Sweet Release, the Sweet Inspirations channeling the Raelettes on Doc Pomus' Lonely Avenue, the way Sam sings the word "burning" as "boinin'" on the slinky cover of Randy Newman's Let's Burn Down the Cornfield, the blare of the horns on Otis Rush's Homework. There are elements of swamp rock, boogie and blues, and on the whole album Samudio's vocals are raspy and authoritative. The album didn't get much attention at the time (although it did win Sam a Grammy for Best Liner Notes), which is a shame, but it's risen in stature over the years, and was reissued with a bonus cut, Sam doing Kris Kristofferson's Me and Bobby McGee with an assist from Allman. If you're a fan of the album Boz Scaggs made in Muscle Shoals in 1969, or Dr. John's early '70s LPs, or Doug Sahm's 'The Return of Doug Saldana' from '71, Sam Hard and Heavy is something you ought to check out.
Mark Lindsay – Arizona (1970)
During the mid-'60s, Paul Revere and the Raiders cranked out an impressive string of hit singles, and even in the later part of the decade, their records were compact and punchy: Don't Take It So Hard, Too Much Talk, Let Me. But they hadn't had a top 10 record since 1967's eruptive Him or Me – What's It Gonna Be, and with their rock credibility waning, the decision was made to position lead singer Mark Lindsay as a solo artist while keeping the group, now just called the Raiders, a separate entity. As a marketing strategy, it probably made sense. Lindsay said in an interview that he was told he'd "have a better future as a ballad singer," and he was put in the hands of producer Jerry Fuller, who was a go-to guy for Columbia Records' middle-of-the-road roster (O.C. Smith, Andy Williams, Mac Davis. Gary Puckett and the Union Gap). With the musical support of the Wrecking Crew, Lindsay and Fuller went to the songbooks of Jimmy Webb (an effective First Hymn from Grand Terrace that shows he could have gone down the Glen Campbell road), Bacharach & David, Kris Kristofferson, Rod McKuen. He scored with the Kenny Young song Arizona after the Webb single stalled, and the album named after the hit did pretty well, better than the Raiders album Collage that came out the same year. None of his subsequent solo singles matched the performance of "Arizona," and in hindsight, maybe it would have made more sense to release his Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian), cut with session guys, as a Mark Lindsay single instead of under the Raiders name. That went to #1, and was the last hit they, or Lindsay, had.
Michael Nesmith & The First National Band – Magnetic South (1970)
On the TV show, Mike Nesmith seemed detached from the other Monkees. He wasn't a goofball like Micky or Peter, didn't have a self-satisfied twinkle like Davy. He seemed mildly irritated by the strained antics, like he was watching his kid brothers act out at a family dinner and just wanted to go back to his room and play his guitar. In any other group, he'd have been the dominant force, writing the songs, steering the musical direction, but in the context of the Monkees, he was allowed only a couple of slots per album. They were usually high points: The Kind of Girl I Could Love on More of the Monkees, You Just May Be the One and You Told Me on Headquarters, Circle Sky on Head, Tapioca Tundra on The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees. When the phenomenon petered out, he was the Monkee best positioned for a solo career, and already had a stockpile of songs. Nearly half of the material on the debut album by his First National Band (Red Rhodes on pedal steel, John London on bass, John Ware on drums), had been at least proposed, if not recorded, as Monkee tracks (versions of Magnetic South songs like Calico Girlfriend, Hollywood and Little Red Rider are available on expanded album editions and Missing Links compilations). He'd even sung Nine Times Blue with Micky and Davy on The Johnny Cash Show. 'Magnetic South' is a landmark in California country music, with a lonesome prairie sound that's part Jimmie Rodgers (Nesmith even yodels a little on the hit Joanne), part Sons of the Pioneers, part Bakersfield. Its follow-ups, Loose Salute and Nevada Fighter—all three came out between 1970 and 1971—are just as good.