SOUL KALEIDOSCOPE: THE SOUNDS AND STYLES OF DON JULIAN

julian.jpg
This post has been years in the making, dating back to when I first picked up Don Julian’s soundtrack for Savage!. Apart from having a dope cover (which I jacked for a mix-CD), it’s also one of the best blaxploitation OSTs out there, which is to say: it doesn’t sound like every wanna-be Shaft ripoff out there. It still has its share of chicka-chicka-wow-wow moments, but the album is far more sophisticated than you might otherwise suspect.

That owes much to Don Julian, an important figure in Los Angeles’ R&B history (though still woefully under-documented). Julian began his career in the 1950s as a member of the doo-wop group, The Meadowlarks and after the band disbanded, he created The Larks in their wake and the group (fair or not) acquired the reputation as a one-hit wonder for the #1 single from 1964, “The Jerk.”

The Larks: The Jerk
From 7″ (Money, 1964). Also on The Money Recordings.

Like many groups of the time with a hit dance record, The Larks tried to milk it by recording a gazillion jerk sequels (“Mickey’s East Coast Jerk”!, “”Jerkin’ USA”!, “Soul Jerk!”. Most of these are what you’d expect – novelty knock-offs – but this compilation includes many non-jerk related Money recordings that otherwise only appeared on 7″, including some great slow jams like “The Answer Came Too Late,” and “Sad, Sad Boy.”

The Meadowlarks: Sad, Sad Boy
From 7″ (Money, 196?). Also on The Money Recordings.
1

Before I forget, Julian released these on an imprint he began in the early 1960s, Money Recordings, and besides himself and the Meadow/Larks, Money is best known as the label where Bettye Swann recorded her first hits.

The next full-length by Julian and the Larks didn’t come out until 1970: Soul Kaleidoscope. There’s much to love about the album, especially a surprising mix of styles. Listening to the first cut, “Brother What It Is,” you’d get the impression this was a real, slinky, funky flute jazz album but then the group follows that with a Julian original (which sounds like he had been listening to a lot of Nat King Cole en espaƱol), “I Love You” (which really should have been entitled “Te Amo”). And then, by the end of Side A, you get to what I’d consider to be a fairly straight-ahead cover of the standard, “On the Street Where You Live.” If I had said these had come from three different artists on three different albums, who’d likely disagree? (I’ll also toss in “I Want You (Back),” another fine Julian original that came out on both 7″ and the LP but isn’t on a CD that I know of).

The Larks: Brother What It Is
I Love You
From Soul Kaleidoscope (Money, 1970). Also on Shorty the Pimp

The Larks: On the Street Where You Live
I Want You (Back)

From Soul Kaleidoscope (Money, 1970)

Julian’s “best-known” (and that may be a stretch) LP of the ’70s was Savage! and as a I suggested earlier, it’s a pretty damn good album, especially compared to other, more lackluster efforts of the era, trying to capitalize on the blaxploitation craze. “Lay It On Your Head,” for example, is a sizzling bit of jazz-funk…yet with that weird bass solo in the middle which almost sounds like you’ve gone into a different song until the main rhythmic track returns after a minute or so. Then there’s the short, melancholy guitar solo “It’s a Sad Song” (which ends Side A). And “Janitzio” opens with a short monologue about cross-cultural solidarity between black and brown, which then, of course, leads in with a Latin-influenced soul track that sounds like one of the best damn things WAR never recorded.

Don Julian: Lay It On Your Head
It’s a Sad Song
Janitzio
From Savage! OST (Money, 1973)

Now…here’s the thing. Savage! was a real movie (though, from the looks of it, not real good):

However, in 1998, a “reissue” of Don Julian’s “lost” blaxploitation soundtrack, Shorty the Pimp was released. Almost all the write-ups I could find about the album have some variation on this story:

Shorty the Pimp was to have been a blaxploitation movie around 1973, but was never released due to various problems; supposedly, only one rough cut of the movie now exists, rumored to be in the hands of director Quentin Tarantino. This is the soundtrack album that would have accompanied the project, performed by journeyman Los Angeles soul band Don Julian & the Larks. The soundtrack was canceled along with the film, though most of this made it onto official releases (usually on the Money label).

I think part of this story might very well be true…but the entirety of it doesn’t pass the smell test. Some songs, especially “Super Slick” and “Shorty the Pimp” definitely sound like they were recorded for a movie soundtrack:

Don Julian and the Larks: Super Slick
Shorty the Pimp
From Super Slick (Money, 1974). Also on Shorty the Pimp
.

However, Shorty the Pimp (the album) sounds far closer to being a compilation of 1970s Money Recordings than anything resembling an actual soundtrack. For one thing, why would a 1973 blaxploitation soundtrack include covers of other people’s songs like “Message to a Blackman,” “Respect Yourself,” “My Cherie Amour,” and others? Plus, half of Shorty the Pimp‘s songs came out…three years earlier on Soul Kaleidoscope. Julian would recycle songs he recorded (many of them, again, covers), three years later?

Basically, I speculate that Shorty the Pimp was never a realized film (let alone one in which, conveniently, the only surviving work-print resides with Tarantino) though some of the songs on here might very well have been recorded for a planned soundtrack (there’s obviously precedents for this). Instead, this album, which came out the same year Julian died (nearly a month before, in fact), is mostly a compilation of tracks from Soul Kaleidoscope and Super Slick (keep reading) plus a handful of songs that were probably rescued from the Money vaults.

This is not, by any means, a diss on my part or an attempt at “gotcha!” journalism. I could care less if Shorty the Pimp was a real film/OST or not. In fact, given that neither Soul Kaleidoscope nor Super Slick have been re-released on CD, it’s great to have a compilation that includes many (though not all) of the best songs from both. But yeah, I think it’s funny that in the age of internet-nerdery, I can’t seem to find many other folks whose fugazi alerts were set off by the story behind this.

In any case, here’s one of the songs that seems unique to the Shorty the Pimp CD:

Don Julian: Inner City Blues
From Shorty the Pimp (Southbound, 1998)
2

Nice though relatively loyal cover of the Gaye classic.

The last release in this era of Julian’s career came in 1974, with Super Slick. Shorty comped about 2/3rds of this and if there’s any grain in truth to the soundtrack story, it seems to make more sense that Super Slick rescued some of the songs from the soundtrack and then added a handful of other covers to fill out the album.

Personally, I gravitated less to the obvious funky blaxploitation stuff and more towards the crossover and sweet soul jams, especially their version of Al Wilson’s “Show and Tell,” and two Julian originasl, “(Ooh Baby) I Love You” (which is not the same as the aforementioned “I Love You”) and “A Woman Ain’t Nothing But…A Stone Trip.” These three are also on Shorty the Pimp but a few other songs are not, include passable (but not notable) covers of “Just My Imagination” and “Make It With You.” I did like, however, the group’s cover of “Let’s Stay Together.” It doesn’t come anywhere close to Green’s original but it sounds like something that an East L.A. group would have put together and I can never be mad at that.

Don Julian and the Larks: (Ooh Baby) I Love You
Show and Tell
A Woman Ain’t Nothing But…A Stone Trip
From Super Slick (Money, 1974). Also on Shorty the Pimp.

Don Julian and the Larks: Let’s Stay Together
From Super Slick (Money, 1974).

It’s taken me about…six, seven years to finally pull all three Money LPs together (hence why it took me this long to get around to writing about it). All said, I think all three of these are (pardon the pun), so money. Any of the three are worth the effort (and expense) to track down.3


Notes:

  1. This song sounds a lot like The Impressions’ “I’m So Proud” to me.
  2. Songs appearing on Shorty the Pimp that I didn’t find on any other Money release (vinyl) also included a cover of Mayfield’s “If There’s Hell Below,” “Just Tryin’ To Make It,” (not to be confused with the cover of “Make It With You,” on Super Slick), and “Vato’s Brew.”
  3. Savage! and Super Slick can both net over $100 each(ouch!) but Soul Kaleidoscope tends to get underpriced – relative to the other two titles – and I think it’s actually the strongest of the batch.

Comments

comment(s)

12 comments to SOUL KALEIDOSCOPE: THE SOUNDS AND STYLES OF DON JULIAN

  • gak

    Fantastic entry! This makes me primed to get some Don Julian in my life. Thanks!

    Minor nitpick: the MP3 link for The Larks: I Want You (Back) points to The Jerk.

  • Gak: Fixed it. Sorry about that.

  • What a super post! I am off to start tracking… thank you very much!

  • “Sad Sad Boy” is indeed based on an Impressions song, but not the one you thought. Instead it’s “Sad Sad Girl”, here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95HmYTPU_7w

  • OW

    ES: Ah – ha, I knew it sounded like a Mayfield composition. Thanks for clearing that up. In general, there’s a definite Impressions’ influence running through much of Julian’s songs through the years.

  • chuck money

    thanks o. have the shorty the pimp 45 and always wondered about it.

  • Nice post, Oliver. Totally agree Soul Kaleidoscope is underrated and historically relatively under-priced.

    Thanks also for reminding me they covered “If There’s a Hell Below”. Such a great version.

  • Andrew

    Thanks O., I think I bought my copy of Savage from you and kind of forgot about it; just dug it out and I’ll now be searching for some more Julian’s records. Great post.

  • d. cook

    i think “jerk”‘s the only thing i’d heard . . . struck me as so impressions-like–then i read the comments. duh.

    nice post, and some great tunes.

    d

  • d. cook

    and Sad, Sad Boy sounds like a slight variation on . . . I’m So Proud–main diff being the ladder being slower paced. Curtis certainly wasn’t above borrowing occasionally from his own bag.

    they both came out in ’63, the I’m So Proud being a much bigger hit.

  • Jim

    Awesome post! Thanks so much.

  • RJ

    Fantastic post – I loved everything about it.

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>