From the back liner:
About the cover artist:
By Peter Frank
Sam Steinberg is the unofficial artist-in-residence at Columbia University and the Brox’s contribution to the Art Brut quasi-movement of Jean Dubuffet. The 70 year old former ice cream vendor (he still sells candy bars) work prolifically in magic-marker-on-cardboard, with occasional forays into magic-marker-on-cloth, and is popular with the Columbia community for his boids, snakes, moimaids and low prices. His sister Pauline colors them in.
(More in Parts 1, 2 & 3)
Almost everyone hated the cover.
Marc, our non-Columbia friends, critics, everyone. No one thought it was appropriate for such a serious album. Distributors said we’d never sell albums with covers like this one, and, in the end, they were kind of right. Even though it was reviewed as the “electronic jazz record of the year” (no one called it “fusion” yet, thank goodness), there was a sense that putting a “cartoon” on the cover didn’t do the music justice.
Tom and I felt we were being as pioneering in the cover design as the music deserved. Art critic Peter Frank called Sam part of Jean Dubuffet's art brut movement (it’s called “outsider art" today) and we agreed, it was groundbreaking.
Part 2 (of 3) [Part 1, Part 3, Part 4]
Sam Steinberg at Ferris Booth Hall, 1973 (From the back cover of Friends)
Once we’d worked out payment I tried to explain to Sam Steinberg what an album cover is and that I needed a square painting from him, rather than his customary rectangles; he understood when I drew a pencil square on his illustration board.
When he came back with the painting (including his distinctive signature “Sam S.) in a few days it was with Sam’s typical joy and generosity. “I didn’t want to waste the space so I made an extra cat!” And sure enough, he’d painted (actually he sketched in pencil, and his sister Pauline did the coloring with Magic Markers) a circular “album” in orange on a square, solid, black field. Then, tucked in on the left was a yellow regtangle with one of his signature “catz,” his favorite subject.
Sam’s original painting.
We loved the whole thing. Not just the “album” portion, but the yellow & purple cat too. Could we save everything? I spent an awful lot of time on the phone with the printer at the pressing plant in Phoenix trying to suss out whether he could rearrange the elements so we could use all three catz, 20 years before Photoshop, when everything had to be done by hand with cameras and negative film.
At the last minute Marc decided the record shouldn’t be the first “Marc Cohen [Copland]” album; everyone had contributed too much. He came up the distressingly banal “Friends,” and arguments to the contrary, that was it. Sam didn’t really write or read so I tried my best to simulate his signature from the lower left corner of his paintings. We asked Columbia grad, art critic, and future museum curator Peter Frank to write Sam’s blurb* for the back cover, and I then did my typically bad job on writing and laying out the back liner (as The Oblivionettes) and the cover was finished.
"Hey mistah, I got paintings here! Or maybe you want a Hoishey bar."
Anyone who was on the Columbia University campus between 1967 and 1982 would hear Sam Steinberg touting his wares every weekday (thanks to Flo Grant for quoting Craig Bunch’s Folk Art article). Sam was a street peddler turned “outsider”, urban artist, and he was adopted by generations of Columbia students who bought up to 20 paintings each week from this man with a genuine vision. And, he only “exhibited” (aka “sold”) his work exclusively on the Columbia campus.
So, since leader Marc Cohen (aka Marc Copland) had been a Columbia student, and we were recording his first solo album at Columbia’s radio station, it seemed appropriate to use one of Sam’s paintings for the cover.
Oblivion was perennially broke and we’d never “commissioned” a cover before but Tom and I thought in this case it was justified. But how to price it? Sam was selling his work for $2.50 a piece (!) and it would be wrong to just pick one up and appropriate it. So, one winter day I approached Sam and offered him $10, plus something he really needed in life. “Shoes. I need a new pair of shoes.” We walked across Broadway into a shoe store and I shelled out my last $40 for a new pair of perfectly fitted, ankle high, warm shoes.
Sam seemed so happy in his new shoes. Imagine my surprise when a couple of weeks later he was back to his old pair (too large, with newspaper tucked in to make the fit). “They were too slippery on the ice.”
(More in Parts 2, 3, 4)
Marc Cohen played alto saxophone (he now is a pianist who performs as Marc Copeland) who graduated from Columbia in 1969 and went out with Chico Hamilton's band. He occasionally performed as a leader on the Upper West Side and would come by and do a live session on David Reitman’s “Journey to the End of the Night” on WKCR. One Wednesday night in May 1972 I was asked to engineer a trio session with Marc, acoustic bassist Glenn Moore (soon to be known as part of the Oregon quartet), and Stan Getz drummer Jeff Williams, and I set up Studio A expecting a typical acoustic jazz trio.
But Marc came in with his alto, a Maestro Echoplex, a small amplifier, and plugged in.
We all were familiar with electronically modified acoustic instruments in jazz from Eddie Harris to, most interestingly, Miles Davis and The Tony Williams Lifetime. We didn’t totally love Eddie’s try because the electronics didn’t really change the energy of the jazz, while Miles and Tony were more in the direction rock raised fans like us could relate to.
Marc wailed it like Eric Clapton in Madison Square Garden, while the rhythm section rocked along with all of the polyrhythmic finesse of Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. The perfect combo for music that was searching for the next steps beyond.
There was no doubt we were witnessing the future being made in front of our ears. Marc was bringing melody and rhythmic excitement to help solve two ends at the same time. The energy in jazz was being focused into the atonal descendants of Coltrane, Coleman, and Taylor, not particularly attractive to a wide audience. Rock was more popular, but desperately searching for improvisations that made more sense than 20 minute drum solos. Here it was with musicians who had no rock antipathy but enjoyed the open nature of jazz.
Before the group had packed up I asked Marc whether we could edit the sessions (each jam was over 15 minutes long) and release them on Oblivion. When he called me back a few days later he was excited to having his music released but felt like the playing could have been better on the composed parts of the tunes. Could he come back for more sessions that could be master takes?
Sure thing. WKCR’s Studio A was due for a complete overhaul, including brand new stereo machines and better soundproofing. Marc would be back in town right after the construction. We were set to go.
Columbia University Radio Club, the WKCR ancestor, 1942
The station was enduring the same radical transformations as the University at large (and the culture, for that matter). When I arrived in 1969 the station was justly proud of it’s traditions of classical and folk music, news gathering (they’d received a ton of awards and attention after the campus riots of 1968), and a smattering of jazz and rock. My generation came in and tossed the place upside down, with jazz replacing classical as the station’s raison d’etre (my classmate Phil Schaap, one of the world’s great jazz scholars and crumudgeons, is still on the air there), and a rigid heirarchy of stuffy student management in turmoil.
I was determined to serve the greater and high minded cultural aspirations of the station (I produced several jazz, blues, and progressive music shows) and, at the same time, to use it to my own high minded ends. That meant using the equipment in every way possible to further my ambitions to produce records.
Whether it was absconding with remote equipment I had no official access to, or pushing the studios beyond their limits to make live music broadcasts (all the stuff had been idealized for news gathering), I commandeered the place in service to the upper classmen who needed recording help (thanks, David Reitman). When a particularly well done recording (if I do say so myself) for David’s radio program of the avant-garde composer/performer Gunter Hampel, showed up as an independent LP with my engineering credit, I was completely hooked and determined to get onto more LPs as an engineer or, better yet, as a producer.
Starting in 1971, with the recording of 'Mississippi Fred McDowell: Live in New York' (Oblivion OD-1) and continuing through our release of a WKCR live broadcast on the Sharif Abdul Salaam (neé Ed Michael) show of vocalist Joe Lee Wilson (Oblivion OD-5) we made most of our records in Studio 3 in the front of the station. Whenever possible I cajoled the station into improving our technical lot (we replaced all the mono equipment with new stereo decks in late 1972). And I locked anyone and everyone out of the place whenever we needed to make a release deadline.
During these years, I ran into some student opposition (they felt I had no right to use university facilities for my own stuff), but more so some lifelong friends, and made a lot of enduring recordings. I daresay, we probably recorded some valuable cultural history. Thanks Columbia. Thanks WKCR.0 comments Tagged: Blues from the Apple, Columbia University, Friends, Joe Lee Wilson, Marc Cohen, Mississippi Fred McDowell, OD-1, OD-3, OD-4, OD-5, WKCR, origins, Live in New York, Livin' High Off Nickels and Dimes,.
Both of these tracks were recorded by virturally unknown artists in a spare studio at my college radio station, WKCR-FM, at Columbia University in New York City. It’s the classic story of the indie, a small crappy room, shitty equipment (two track, when the standard was 16; a humming board held together by spit and rubber bands; OK, the mikes were top notch because they were stolen by one of my classmates from a good studio), and unbelievable talent to spare. The Charles Walker track was the result of months of mishaps, good planning gone awry, and a throwaway magic moment.
Joe Lee Wilson, on the other hand, was a quick one-off, a live performance of a college radio show, never meant for anything other than a low visability (great) artist looking for a little promotion. Joe Lee’s album did pretty well by Oblivion standards. Charles’ stiffed, no matter which way you look at it.
"It’s Changin’ Time" was written by Ann and harp player Bill Dicey. It’s got a classic blues instrumental rockin’ groove, arranged by my partner and Charles Walker blues instigator, Tom Pomposello (if he hadn’t, it would’ve been as big a mess as every other session this band ever had). Ann and Bill are on fire, but the thing that catches me every time is the rhythm section: our buddy, recruited at the last minute, David Lee Reitman on bass, but particularly Ola Mae Dixon on drums. Ola was short, broad, and totally solid. She’d show up at the studio straight from the subway, with her kit on her back, everything packed into the bass drum (!). Her eight bar solo rocks the whole record for me.
Tagged: Charles Walker, Columbia University, Joe Lee Wilson, New York, OD-4, OD-5, WKCR, blues, guitar, jazz, jazz vocals, Blues from the Apple, Living High Off Nickels and Dimes,.
"It’s You or No One" was among my earliest experience with a jazz singer tackling a standard. Written by the irrepressible Sammy Cahn and his partner Jule Styne, Joe sings the hell out of this song. There’s not too much more to say. He walked into this crummy college radio studio with his band on a humid, July night, set up, and just hit it. Perfectly. Beautiful melody, a lyric completely believed, high notes and low notes sung clear as a bell. Sexy. OK, enough. Tom Pomposello, Dick Pennington, and I started Oblivion Records because we thought there were too many artists in oblivion, all puns intended. We wanted to bring them out into the light. As a company, we pretty much flopped. But artisically, we couldn’t have succeeded more.
Foxy Ann Yancey, at WKCR, 1974 Photographed by Roy Langbord
Foxy Ann Yancey is the guitarist on one of my favorite tracks from our time in oblivion. Looking at this picture —contrasty, scratches and all— taken by my great friend, Roy Langbord reminds me of why the whole experience of having this label was worth it.
You can’t tell everything from the cropping in the picture. The session was in the middle of the day’, but that didn’t stop Ann with dressing up in a then unfashionable evening dress, black with silver spangles, and those rhinestone earrings.
I can’t tell you much about Ann. Google doesn’t turn up a thing, and at the time we just stayed out of her way. She seemed too tough for kids from the suburbs like us.
It’s Changin’ Time > featuring Foxy Ann Yancy on guitar