March 01, 2015

The Fairchild Enigma Revisited

I first discussed “Fairchild” as part of my big feature on the song’s vocalist, Willie West, back in 2008. Written and produced by Allen Toussaint, the song is the top side of a single that initially came out in 1970 on Josie Records, the New York City-based label that was also releasing the Meters' output at the time. It was Willie's only one for Josie. When I wrote that post, the only vinyl copy of "Fairchild" I had was Rhino’s ostensible reproduction of the original, part of a box set of reissued 45s they put out as an adjunct to their 2006 What It Is! multi-CD compilation of funky soul and rare grooves from the late 1960s into the 1970s; and the circumstances of that re-release wound up creating questions that proved to be hard to answer.

Not long after getting the Rhino sets, I heard the song as it first appeared, via audio from a vintage Josie promo 45, and discovered that it differed significantly from the vinyl and digital reissues. Promotional copies of the single, while not exactly common, do turn up from time to time; and, as I said in my earlier post, Larry Grogan put up the audio from one on his fine Funky 16 Corners blog. It was a white label promo with “fancy” font, vertical Josie lettering in black on the left side. DJ copies were less frequently issued in the stock color scheme, as well.

I was immediately knocked back by the arrangement of the song, which, unlike the reissues, includes an impressive horn section and much hotter mix , with everything mastered up near the tape saturation point, yielding an edgy, aggressive sound. In fact, the track seemed too imposing to me at first, in contrast to the simpler, subtle feel of the essentially unfinished take heard on the box sets.

Of course, as I listened, the questions began. Why would there be two divergent versions of the song nearly 40 years apart? And I wondered if the even rarer stock copy, which I had yet to see or hear, would sound like the promo, the reissues, or somewhere in between?

The difficulty in locating a stock copy made the answer to the second question very slow to come. As time passed, I kept looking for one on sale or auction, or for someone to at least make the audio available.  At one point I was assisted by an astute reader and contributor, anna b, who thought she had one tracked down. She found a post by a blogger in the UK who discussed the record and displayed a photo of a stock copy label; but, when she contacted him, he said he had sold it and did not recall if there were horns on the track or not!

Shifting forward a few more years, in 2013 I was contacted by Mr. Fine Wine, a mega-collector as well as esteemed producer and host of Downtown Soulville on WFMU in New York City. He let me know that he had heard both promo and stock pressings of “Fairchild” and could confirm their equivalence. So, with that verification, I updated the original post to reflect at least that fact and let the matter slide while pursuing my many other obsessive musical distractions.

Last year, I spotted the near mint stock copy of the Josie 45 you see below. It was up for auction on the ’bay. Unsure of its authenticity and without much hope of getting it anyway, I let fly with a bid that ended up winning the thing, much to my shock. I figured that, if I was a boot, I would just return it, but was pretty sure there were no known counterfeits floating around. After examining the record, I am satisfied that it is an original pressing (see details below).

With that happy accident, I thought I’d continue my return to posting by revisiting the single and discussing what remains unknown about it. I‘ve got audio up from both the Josie stock and Rhino-issued A-sides to let you hear the difference [the B-sides are identical]. So, listen and let the conjecturing begin anew.

“Fairchild” (Allen Toussaint)
Willie West, Josie 1019, 1970

“I Sleep With the Blues” (Allen Toussaint)

First off, my assessment of this record’s bona fides. The vinyl of the pictured stock copy [#1019] appears to be vintage, comparable in manufacture to other stock Josie singles in my archives [notably by the Meters] around this issue number. In the deadwax/runout area of each side, the matrix numbers are incised (by hand, it appears): Joz-672-1- and Joz-673-1-. Then, on the A-side, the letters AIA [very faint] and the much more legible DPS are incised, and on the B-side appear as (DPS) first, then AIA [also very faint]. Following those codes, SELECT SOUND [which should be the pressing facility] is stamped in. Also, there is an R incised about halfway around the record. The dead wax info is consistent with other Josie singles I checked, with minor variations. For example, on the preceding single in the catalog, #1018 (“Chicken Strut”/”Hey! Last Minute” by the Meters), following the incised matrix numbers (Joz 670-1 & 671-1), a faint A3A is incised above the SELECT SOUND stamp, but no DPS appears, and an R is again found about halfway around. Meanwhile, both #1013 and #1021 have only DPS between the matrix number and stamp, plus what are probably initials, LW, after the stamp. On some later Jolsie singles [when they were in their final days], Select Sound is incised rather than stamped, or not shown at all.

Likewise, the design, color and fonts on the #1019 label are very consistent with my stock copy of #1018, down to the placement of the information. It also lines up well with other stock #'s of that design. So, it looks like we have a genuine article, and in truly superb condition.

I’ve got the Rhino reissue single A-side label up again for comparison below. You’ll note that they did not match the label design, using the more common stock logo with a black oval containing lowercase yellow “josie” lettering, all over a multicolored background section. I’m not sure if Rhino did not have an original version to go by, or, simply ignored it. Maybe they did not want to pay for another design, since there are three more standard Josie label reproductions in the set.

Rhino reissue

Neither the record information provided with the 45 box or Oliver Wang’s notes to the CD set acknowledge Rhino's use of an alternate take on “Fairchild”. Wang, creator of one of the original and best mp3 blogs, Soul Sides, and a music scholar, certainly would have noted the fact, had he known it; but he did later post on Soul Sides about the issue, after he picked up a promo copy of his own, remarking on the discrepancy and linking to my original post about it.

What perplexes me still is why Rhino did not have access to the master tape of the original release. Obviously, someone found a version of the song saved prior to the horns being added and used that for remastering. Either the original was overlooked for some reason, such as being mislabeled, or it was accidentally destroyed at some point. There were only 14 subsequent singles issued on Josie before the label was shut down in 1971 due to the sale of its parent company, Jubilee Records. Things may not have been too stable at the time in their control of the masters. Roulette Records eventually acquired the catalog; and, in the 1980s, Rhino purchased the US rights. Time Warner assimilated Rhino about a decade later. So, in the progression of the Josie masters up the corporate food chain, I’m sure there were ample opportunities to lose track of a few with no one much around to notice.

[Note: As I mentioned in the update on my original post, Willie West told me that the instrumental version of the song he put his vocal on back in 1969 or 1970 did not have any horns. Recalling that fact makes me think of yet another scenario to explain the two versions of the song. Perhaps Sansu's principals, Toussaint and Sehorn, submitted the song to Josie in its stripped down form, meaning it to be the final master; but Josie balked on releasing it that way, wanting it to be goosed up to grab more attention. Thus Toussaint added the horns and pushed up the volume on the acoustic guitars in a rush to get the revised track up to Josie for release, not mixing it as well as he should have. If that were the case, Josie would have had both versions on hand. Then, somewhere over the next few decades, the master of the released version was lost, leaving only the hornless track to be found and used for the reissues. I really need to ask the producer/arranger himself what he remembers about all this, and will have to see if I can find a way to make that happen. . . .(Alas, I never did. . .and now it's too late.]

I certainly don’t think Rhino should be unduly faulted for this, one way or the other. It’s laudable that they put their What It Is! box sets together with such high quality. The record business being what it is, they probably didn’t make much on the hard copies - maybe downloads have done better. Anyway, it’s enough that they got a lot of good music back in circulation. Leave the geeks to help gather up the so-called trivia that slipped through the cracks. I just wish more fans could hear the impact of the original release of "Fairchild" with Toussaint’s mighty horn arrangement, which has become for me, after all these years, the definitive go-to version.