Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Meet...The Servicemen

Like sand slipping through the fingers, this one at first can be hard to grasp, but ultimately revealing an extraordinary sound and story when one considers the powerful forces converging and layering over time. So what exactly do we have here? The facts, revealed in the liner notes by journalist Dan Nowicki, are scarce and we can only surmise at the background history which originally brought this smooth four-part R’n’B vocal group together at Luke Air Force Base in the scraggly desert-floor hinterlands outside of Phoenix during the ’66 & ’67 Vietnam War era. Moreover, the extant recordings reveal sounds which stylistically feel as if 10 years dropped out between the session dates of 1967 and the elaborate ‘50-ish vocal group harmonies which surface to the air. Nowicki relays that Hadley Murrell, a radio personality for KRIZ, was approached by group leader Jim Mitchell during a 1966 military dance. Mitchell furnished DJ Murrell a revelatory demo that had the Servicemen singing out their hearts-frequently in doo wop harmony like they were from a "back East" paved over with asphalt and surrounded by floor-to-ceiling echo-enhancing tile. However, this is not your garden variety doo wop group (sounds I also enjoy) who made the common jump from the high school hallways & street corners to the recording studios whose sounds have been endlessly reissued in the digital age by Collectables Records, but a group who musically bridged the 50’s and the 60’s with the entanglements of ‘Nam looming right over them.

Murrell, who also produced singles and long players by the Sect/Bliss and the Caravelles, was instantly impressed with the demo and quickly booked them and produced their sessions at Audio Recorders in Phoenix-first put on the musical map by Duane Eddy and Lee Hazlewood. The resultant songs and even the song titles will throw you for a loop. With a title “Are you Angry” one assumes this is going to be a smoldering song of desperation and confliction, but what transpires is a first single which bound outs of out of the speakers with a ska-like skip and girl- group backing not weighted down by the weight of the world-let alone the onus of war. Immediately following is an a cappella version of “Are you Angry” which highlights the sweeping 360 degree vocal interplay swirling around Jim Mitchell’s smooth lead at the epicenter. The flip “I Need a Helping Hand” retains the sweet ska horns swerving across punchy percussion and vibrant vibes while Mitchell dashes out lyrics which could be a theme for all of us. An a capella version “I Need a Helping Hand” flawlessly follows.

The track configuration of the a capella demo versions tagging the single versions works like a continuous hand-off of a baton around the curve of a track. I’m glad these demos were simply not appended to the end of the disc as bonus tracks. Instead of being possible afterthoughts, the pairings flow in unison and emanate their overall solidarity. Another standout is “I’ll Stop Loving You” which was issued as their 3rd single and aligned them closer to the Temptations and Four Tops than doo wop’s golden era of the previous decade. Their covers of the Five Keys and the “5” Royales finish off the disc in a fine way and had me recalling the weekly glories of the "Old 'n' Gold" rare oldies show on the former WDTR-then (late ‘90s) operated by the Detroit Public Schools. Lastly, the packaging is top rank and so lavish that I thought it was a Japanese release when I first pulled it out of the mailing package.

In a way, the Servicemen were courageously ahead of their time because vocal group harmony had most folks headed towards the exits in ‘66 and ’67 and the doo wop/50’s revival didn’t get going until 1969. The story of the Servicemen is remarkable that they could create such expansive urban sounds in the incongruous desert conditions bridging two decades of musical styles against the narrowing horizons imposed by Vietnam War. Then again, maybe this is the personification and manifestation of soul.

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