At the same time he was making space-age jazz that grew increasingly weirder, pianist and bandleader Sun Ra was putting out singles aimed at jukeboxes and radio stations. Many of his 45s had little in common with the art-jazz he was otherwise creating. He recruited wacky collaborators, backed doo-wop artists and recorded some truly strange stuff. Whether they were jokes or bona fide attempts at airplay and sales is a question for the scholars. Maybe he was hoping to pay the bills with some of these records, since few people were buying his albums. Or maybe he was putting everybody on. Given that this is Sun Ra we’re talking about, it’s probably a little of both worlds.
Strut Records has gathered what it claims is the definitive collection of Sun Ra’s 45s in a three-CD set (versions of it will also be available on six vinyl LPs or twenty 45s). Many of these songs have been available on previous collections, but some of them are being reissued for the first time. Taken in total, they present Sun Ra as one of the strangest fellows the world of music—not just the world of jazz—has ever seen.
Across these 65 songs is a cornucopia of genres: bebop, hard bop, doo-wop, R&B, ballads, free jazz, spoken-word and even Christmas music. It’s often not clear if we’re supposed to take the songs seriously, and that’s part of why they’re so cool. The first two tracks, “I Am an Instrument” and “I Am Strange,” rank among Sun Ra’s most out-there. He speaks over minimalistic noodling, and what he says should make little sense to anyone but him. His experiments in doo-wop—and there are many—seem mostly sincere. “Somebody’s in Love” (by Sun Ra and the Cosmic Rays) is street-corner-serenade pretty, and “Daddy’s Gonna Tell You No Lie”—two versions are included—is one of the hippest songs from the ’50s.
Some of his other doo-wop tunes seem like pranks; he sings off-key, probably deliberately, on “Chicago USA” and rambles on about going to Saturn on “Spaceship Lullaby.” Then there are his recordings with Yochanan, a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins-style “singer” (the term is used generously here) whom Sun Ra took under his wing. How Sun Ra ever thought he could get crazy numbers like “Message to Earthman” or “Hot Skillet Mama”—with such lines as “Her nose was like a elephant snout”—into jukeboxes is a mystery no one will ever solve. Likewise for “Nuclear War,” his profanity-laced last-ditch attempt to make a radio hit in 1982. What was he thinking?
Singles isn’t all novelties, though. Some fantastic, legit jazz is scattered about, from the bebop of “Saturn” and the hard bop of “Hours After” to a beautiful rendition of “’Round Midnight” featuring the soothing vocals of Hattie Randolph. There are moments of brilliance in Sun Ra’s own playing—his introspective acoustic piano on “Space Loneliness,” his bluesy banging on “State Street,” his groovy electric piano on “Last Call for Love.” Most importantly, key pieces of Sun Ra’s oeuvre are tucked in here, the better-known tunes “Rocket # 9,” “Enlightenment” and “Love in Outer Space” among them. So, too, are avant-garde pieces like “Saturn Moon,” which consists of people humming over an electronic keyboard, and “Disco 2021,” his you-can’t-be-serious stab at techno. Add it up and Singles is an essential item for Sun Ra collectors—and not a bad survey for casual fans, either.Originally Published