Honoring a legend with regal rarities he helped to make a reality
There’s a scene in Easy Rider where we see a sign on a wall reading, “Death only closes a man’s reputation and determines it as good or bad.” If that’s true, there’s no doubt which side Jerry Moss came out on.
After Moss died on August 15, 2023 at the age of 88, there was no shortage of tributes to his musical legacy. As the M in A&M Records, he and his partner Herb Alpert brought a staggering amount of amazing music into the world, be it rock, R&B, jazz, or anything else they found inspiring enough to release. You’ll find the details of A&M’s biggest successes and of Moss’s career in plenty of other places.
But for a differently slanted salute to the mighty Mr. Moss, here are 10 great records you might never have heard if not for his label, all chosen from the period when he and Herb were still running the show at A&M.
Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart – Test Patterns (1967)
L.A. songwriting team Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart wrote Monkees hits like “Last Train to Clarksville” and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” as well as tons of tunes for other artists. But in the late ‘60s, they stepped into the spotlight for three albums of their own, with L.A. Wrecking Crew session heavyweights bringing their A game. The first, Test Patterns, makes it clear they were fully as capable of turning out gently psychedelic pop/rock classics as anybody who rode the duo’s compositions to the ‘60s pop charts.
AUDIO: Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart “I Should Be Going Home”
Tamba 4 – We and the Sea (1967)
This Brazilian band started out as the Tamba Trio in the early ‘60s, blending bossa nova with a bit of jazz. By the end of the decade they had evolved into Tamba 4. They retained some of their bossa nova and samba elements, but they ventured much further, flowing into cool jazz, post-bop and some additional, undefinable amalgams along the way. In terms of ‘60s Brazilian/American crossover, if the Getz/Gilberto “Girl from Ipanema” single was what your parents were bringing home, We and the Sea—produced by CTI sultan Creed Taylor and engineered by jazz giant Rudy Van Gelder—was what your weird, cool uncle smuggled into the house.
AUDIO: Tamba 4 “O Morro (The Hill)”
The Merchants of Dream – Strange Night Voyage (1968)
The lone album by The Merchants of Dream was as phantasmagorical as their name suggests. Driven by singer/songwriter Jack Murphy and producer Vinny Testa, it’s an orchestrated psych-pop concept album based on Peter Pan, and it’s as gloriously expansive and out-there as you might hope, coming off like an LSD-soaked musical theater piece. Murphy went on to form J.F. Murphy & Salt and eventually found his true calling as a theatrical composer. At the album’s closing, a child’s voice delivering bedtime prayers thanks, among others, Uncle Herbie and Uncle Jerry, i.e Alpert and Moss.
AUDIO: The Merchants of Dream “Sing Me Life”
Roger Nichols & The Small Circle of Friends – s/t (1968)
Roger Nichols wrote hits for Three Dog Night, The Carpenters and others, but before that he cut this soft-pop cult classic. Nichols hung with the cooler exponents of the ‘60s L.A. pop scene, like Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, et al. And he had the crème de la crème of L.A. arrangers for this record, including Nick DeCaro, Marty Paich, and Mort Garson. Besides his own tunes, he takes on songs by titanic teams like
Bacharach/David, Lennon/McCartney, and Goffin/King. But it all bears his wispy, breezy, irresistibly melodic imprint.
AUDIO: Roger Nichols & The Small Circle of Friends “Kinda Wasted Without You”
Sisters Love – “Now Is the Time” (1970)
Most people know Merry Clayton best for her soulful wailing in The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” and for better or worse, Odia Coates remains most widely recognized as Paul Anka’s duet partner in the eternally icky “You’re Having My Baby.” But they were both part of Sisters Love, an R&B vocal group who came out of Ray Charles’ backup singers, The Raelettes. Between 1968 and ‘73, Sisters Love had a long string of singles low of flash and high on fiery funk and soul. They never released an album but they busted into the R&B Top 40 with “Are You Lonely” and became part of Blaxploitation history when their 1970 single “Now Is the Time” was featured in the ‘73 film The Mack.
AUDIO: Sisters Love “Now Is The Time”
Byzantium – s/t (1972)
London band Byzantium never made much commercial headway, so they didn’t stick around for long. Today they’re probably best remembered for including Chaz Jankel, later of Ian Dury & The Blockheads, and Shane Fontayne, future guitarist for Bruce Springsteen. On their 1972 debut, they mixed pub rock, prog tendencies, harmony-heavy folk rock, post-psychedelia, and more, but their dazzlingly disparate array of sounds somehow blended together.
AUDIO: Byzantium “What Is Happening”
Ron Davies – Silent Song Through the Land (1970)
Ron Davies was the brother of country singer/songwriter Gail Davies but he had a rootsy, rocking sound all his own on his 1970 debut album. A number of the tunes were later cut by other artists, but “It Ain’t Easy” is far and away the most covered, the most famous version appearing on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album. L.A. session monsters like Leon Russell. Larry Knechtel and Jim Keltner help make Silent Song Through the Land a full-bodied experience.
AUDIO: Ron Davies “It Ain’t Easy”
Piper – s/t (1977)
Years before he burst out as a solo star, Billy Squier fronted Piper on both of their albums. Their mix of hard rock, power pop and glam never quite connected commercially, but they provided a stepping stone for Squier’s success. Their self-titled second album is a bit more fully realized than their debut, and you can really hear a rock star in the making on the original version of the insanely catchy “Who’s Your Boyfriend,” which Squier would re-record for his 1980 solo debut, The Tale of the Tape.
AUDIO: Piper “Who’s Your Boyfriend (I Got A Feelin'”
The Keys – s/t (1981)
British band The Keys only lasted long enough for one album, but they made it count. Their 1981 LP, produced by Joe Jackson, is not only one of the greatest A&M obscurities, it’s perhaps the ultimate power-pop lost classic, and that’s no hyperbole. The close, Beatlesque harmonies, the unassailably perfect, preternaturally catchy songs, and the sharp-shooting, hook-happy blend of New Wave and pop make it an essential rarity for any power-pop maven, but it’s never been reissued, so be prepared to shell out some bucks. Frontman Drew Barfield went on to write for/with Jackson, Paul Young, Cathy Dennis, Level 42, and more.
AUDIO: The Keys “I Don’t Wanna Cry”
Paul Kelly & The Messengers – Under the Sun (1988)
In his Australian homeland, Paul Kelly is basically Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty rolled into one, but in the U.S. he remains a cult figure. His 1987 album Gossip and its ‘88 follow-up, Under the Sun, are both stone-cold killers. (They first came out in Australia under the presumably Lou Reed-inspired band name Paul Kelly & The Coloured Girls, but by the time A&M came into the picture that was wisely altered). The latter album has the edge on account of smartly penned, organically produced roots-rock gems like “Dumb Things,” “Big Heart,” “To Her Door,” and “Desdemona.”
VIDEO: Paul Kelly “Dumb Things”
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