By Richie Unterberger

When the Elektra label started to record electric rock music in the mid-1960s, it did so with some baby steps. Really, it wasn't until the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album (in 1965) that they did a full-length rockin' electric platter, and even that LP was at least as rooted in blues as rock'n'roll. It took Love's debut album the following year to mark Elektra's first all-out step into the rock'n'roll LP market (and, with the band's "My Little Red Book," into the Top Forty singles charts). And it would take the Doors' best-selling debut album, and #1 single "Light My Fire," to put Elektra rock on the top  of the charts in 1967.

    Along the way, however, the company accumulated a bunch of intriguing unreleased rock recordings by artists who never made an album for the label, as well as some interesting outtakes by artists who did. Rather than keep them locked up in a vault, Elektra generously made 14 of them available to the public with the 1966 compilation What's Shakin'. Every cut was by an artist of note -- in fact one of the acts, the Lovin' Spoonful, could have barely been hotter at the time of its release, though unfortunately for Elektra, their string of mid-'60s smashes was issued on another label. Also on board were Elektra's hottest group of the time, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, as well as a single track each by Tom Rush (then just beginning to move into folk-rock) and Al Kooper (then just beginning to make his reputation as part of the Blues Project). Add three recordings by an ad hoc British supergroup with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Stevie Winwood, and lead Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones, and you had an LP of truly interesting odds and ends, even if they didn't match the best of what these musicians were putting onto their own albums.

    Elektra founder and president Jac Holzman confirms that What's Shakin' was sparked in part by the recent success of the Elektra sampler Folk Song '65. That record had included one song, "Born in Chicago," from the sessions for the first Paul Butterfield album (a different version, incidentally, than the one that appears on the actual debut Butterfield LP). Elektra was expecting sales of about 25,000 copies, but ended up selling 60,000, in large part due -- as Holzman's phone calls to stores confirmed -- "Born in Chicago." That was a huge success for what was at that point still a fairly small independent record label, and one that, as previously noted, had only barely begun to record electric rock.

    What's Shakin' did not dilly-dally around -- it was all electric rock, and if it wasn't the sensational sales success that Folk Song '65 was, as Holzman acknowledges, "it did fairly well. The recordings are from sessions that haven't been completed. In the Butterfield case, it was from the first iteration of [their first] album, which never got released. I had had a disappointment with the Lovin' Spoonful, a disappointment on not getting Clapton. These were things that were sort of made available to me because they liked me, and [the Lovin' Spoonful's] John Sebastian felt he owed me. Which he really didn't, but John's a good guy."

    Admits Holzman, "This was an album that had no organic reason for being. Absolutely none. It was material that was available to us, which we tried to put a wrapper around that was reasonably transparent. I don't think we tried to fool anybody. We were just taking advantage of what we could get." But although it sold respectably, he adds, "There was so much great stuff coming out in those days, and everybody could tell what the great stuff was. And nobody sounded like anybody else, for the most part -- not true today. I think people were reserving their money for the really good things. And [What's Shakin'] was okay. It's not stellar."

    The Paul Butterfield Blues Band were prominently featured with five tracks, all of which, as Holzman notes, date from around the time they recorded their debut album. The production of that record was quite troubled, with the first set of studio recordings getting scrapped. A subsequent attempt at cutting a live album also failed before the group re-entered the studio to put down what became the actual The Paul Butterfield Blues Band LP. (The whole convoluted story is told in Holzman's autobiography Follow the Music (co-written with Gavan Daws) and the liner notes to the Butterfield CD The Original Lost Elektra Sessions, which contains material from the initial, failed attempt at making a studio album.) The Butterfield cuts on What's Shakin', however, hardly sound like inadequate rejects. Indeed they could have fit into The Paul Butterfield Blues Band LP comfortably, with the Butterfield original "Lovin' Cup" and a cover of Little Walter's "Off the Wall" being particularly outstanding. By the way, two of the five Butterfield songs on What's Shakin', "Off the Wall" and "One More Mile," do not appear on The Original Lost Elektra Sessions or The Paul Butterfield Blues Band in any guise.

    The four Lovin' Spoonful tracks on What's Shakin' -- never to be included, in this form or as re-recorded versions, on subsequent releases by the band -- also took a circuitous route to commercial availability. The group had come close to signing with Elektra in early 1965, although they ultimately decided to go with Kama Sutra. The four cuts that made it onto What's Shakin' are, a little surprisingly, more roots rock'n'roll than folk-rock, including covers of the Coasters' "Searchin'" and Chuck Berry's "Almost Grown." Of the two John Sebastian originals, "Don't Bank on It Baby" shows a similarly heavy R&B influence. Only the self-descriptive "Good Time Music" really flashed the original brand of good-time rock that was the Spoonful's forte. (As a footnote, it subsequently scraped the bottom of the Top Hundred on a single by the Beau Brummels.)

As to why the Spoonful didn't stick with Elektra, various of the principals offered various explanations when interviewed for this writer's book Turn! Turn! Turn!: The Folk-Rock Revolution. Bassist Steve Boone: "Jac Holzman, obviously, was a friend of John's and Zally's [Spoonful guitarist Zal Yanovsky] and Erik's [Spoonful producer Erik Jacobsen]. I had a lot of respect for the Elektra label, just because of the artists that I knew to be on it at the time. But we as a group, and our management and production, all agreed that going with Jac Holzman and Elektra was risky in that we wanted to be clearly identified as a rock band. We wanted the benefits of being on Dick Clark, we wanted to be in Teen Beat magazine, we wanted to ride around in limousines and act like rock stars. We really felt that Elektra would be a label that would deliver the quality that we were looking for, [but] couldn't deliver the oomph in the rock'n'roll department."

    John Sebastian: "If we had only gone with Jac, what a different world it would have been. I don't know if the music would have been that different. I think that part of our decision was that we didn't want to change horses in midstream. All of our little practice runs had been with Erik Jacobsen."

    Erik Jacobsen: "I think the reason we did the four songs for him was because we felt a little bit guilty. We had kind of hung [Holzman] out to dry just a little bit on that somehow, and allowed him to have those sides."

    Jac Holzman: "Nothing would have been different with the Lovin' Spoonful [if they'd signed with Elektra], except insofar as [Paul] Rothchild might have produced. I'm not sure whether Rothchild [who would go on to produce Love and the Doors] would not have been a bit too strong for them. I don't know whether Paul would have let John do what John did without there being some blood on the studio." What, then, would have been different? Holzman: "I ran into John Sebastian, he was performing at Central Park many, many years after I had left the business, probably the mid-'80s. I went backstage to see him, and he gave me a big hug, and said, 'What a mistake we made. We would have sold no fewer records on Elektra, and we would have been paid.'" Jacobsen confirmed that at Kama Sutra, "We were taken to the cleaners, like very few people were in the subsequent era."

    As for the two artists represented by just one song apiece on What's Shakin', Holzman believes Tom Rush's cover of Fats Domino's "I'm in Love Again" is an outtake from the sessions for his 1966 album Take a Little Walk with Me. That seems logical as that record was split between one entire LP side of acoustic folk, and one LP side dominated by electric full-band covers of rock'n'roll oldies; "I'm in Love Again" could well have been recorded for consideration on the oldies side. As for Al Kooper's "Can't Keep from Crying Sometimes," it's been speculated that this was also recorded around the time of the Take a Little Walk with Me sessions, as Kooper had taken a prominent role on the LP's electric cuts as a pianist and guitarist. Kooper would record a tougher version of the same tune -- an adaptation of a Blind Willie Johnson number -- later in 1966 as part of the Blues Project, who made it the opening track of their second album, Projections. The What's Shakin' version is actually itself something of a Blues Project recording, as it was cut by the trio of Kooper (on vocals, keyboards, and guitar) and Blues Project rhythm section Andy Kulberg (bass) and Roy Blumenfeld (drums), though the later Projections recording boasted a considerably fuller arrangement.

    The most enigmatic recordings on What's Shakin' were the three tracks credited to Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse, subsequently revealed to be a studio-only supergroup of sorts. With Eric Clapton (then in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and months away from joining Cream) on lead guitar and Stevie Winwood (then in the Spencer Davis Group) on vocals, the band also included bassist Jack Bruce (then of Manfred Mann), Manfred Mann lead singer Paul Jones (on harmonica), pianist Ben Palmer (who had played with Clapton in a band during a brief interval in 1965 when Eric left the Bluesbreakers, and would later roadie for Cream), and Spencer Davis Group drummer Pete York. For contractual reasons, Winwood was credited under the pseudonym of either Steve Anglo or Stevie D'Angelo on the original LP. It wasn't hard for anyone with a decent knowledge of the British pop scene to recognize his voice, however, and in the October 29, 1966 issue of Melody Maker, Clapton admitted that "Steve Anglo" was indeed Stevie Winwood. (Winwood would also use the pseudonym of Steve Anglo on a November 1966 recording with John Mayall, "Long Night," which was issued shortly afterward on the various-artists Raw Blues compilation.)

    Probably recorded in March 1966, the three Powerhouse songs on What's Shakin' include Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," which Clapton and Bruce would bring to rock audiences as two-thirds of Cream, and the instrumental "Steppin' Out," which Clapton recorded on his sole album as part of the Bluesbreakers (and which Cream would record in concert and for the BBC). The third item, "I Want to Know" (credited to "MacLeod," possibly a pseudonym for Paul Jones or the group, as Jones's wife was British author Sheila MacLeod) would not resurface in Cream's repertoire, although Ten Years After did it on their first album. That album, funnily enough, included two songs done by other acts on What's Shakin' ("Spoonful," which had been one of the Butterfield tracks, and "I Can't Keep from Crying Sometimes"), making one wonder if Ten Years After had been influenced by the Elektra compilation. Incidentally, in a March 1968 interview (printed in 1992 in the Eric Clapton issue of Best of Guitar Player), Clapton said that an unreleased fourth track, identified only as a "slow blues," was also recorded. "The slow blues was never issued, so they must have it on tape at Elektra somewhere," he revealed. "It was pretty good, too."

    The Powerhouse cuts were recorded in London at the prompting of Joe Boyd, a young American who would soon go on to become a top producer, often in the British folk-rock field, for Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, and others. "Elektra had an 'electric blues project' in preparation and I was opening a London office for them," he told researcher Christopher Hjort when interviewed for Hjort's upcoming book on John Mayall. "I suggested that we include an English blues band in the project. Paul Jones came to see me at Elektra and I told him of my difficulty in finding an unsigned blues band for the project. He suggested putting together an all-star group, and we made out the lineup together in my office."

    This original proposed lineup was the same as that used on the eventual session, Boyd continued, "only with Ginger Baker on drums. But he was away on tour, so we used Pete York instead. Jones approached them, then I worked with Clapton, Winwood, and Jones to choose repertoire -- a track to feature each one of them." This was, he added, his first recording session in the United Kingdom as a producer, "but Holzman showed up and insisted on taking the tapes to New York to mix, so I didn't get credit." Clapton and Bruce, of course, would within about three months be working together in Cream, a trio completed by the intended drummer for the Powerhouse project, Ginger Baker. Clapton would also play, though only briefly, with Winwood in another top-selling rock band, Blind Faith.

    Hard as it might be to imagine today, Clapton and Winwood were not well known in the United States when What's Shakin' came out. Cream had only just formed and had yet to put out a record; Clapton had not toured in the United States; his pre-Cream band, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, were virtually unknown in America; and he'd left his pre-Mayall band, the Yardbirds, before they'd chalked up their first hit. As for Winwood, while the Spencer Davis Group were already huge in Britain, they wouldn't have their first significant Stateside hit until early 1967. Of course, had Clapton and Winwood already been international stars when What's Shakin' was compiled, they might not have even had the time or inclination to get together with other musicians for the Powerhouse session in the first place. Instead, they supplied one piece of the puzzle for this intriguing grab bag of tracks by present and future '60s stars, of which even many fans of the artists remain unaware. -- Richie Unterberger

                                                                                                        contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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