Pearl Reaves and Her Retro R&B: The Magical Obscurity of the Working Artist
A generically labeled 45rpm leads to unforeseen connections between an illegal squat, a ramshackle used record outlet, and an obscure R&B outfit that eventually lands at the Mount Olive Temple of Christ in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
It's all in the focus, what makes something sharp while conversely limiting its scope. This story is ostensively about a record, a 45rpm (“How Can I Tell" b/w “Change Me" by Pearl Reaves), but it widens its scope under the weight of coincidence, that uncanny aspect of the personal. An analog recording might involve far-from-well-known faces, but it inevitably accumulates personal details.
Though recorded music has greatly affected me, initially I hardly paid attention to its conveyance. I only invested in the records and was lucky if someone gave me a workable sound system or I recovered something from the trash. Sometimes I was unaware that one of the two stereo channels had been blown. The record came through a speaker and I heard it. I would cobble together bits and pieces, an all-in-one system or two mismatched turntables and a ratty mixer. But when the technology went digital I gave up. I wasn't about to start from scratch, to re-buy the digital version of the scratchy or lost vinyl that I had already re-bought, let alone a device to play it on.
Eventually someone gave me a CD player, a six-disc CD player, at a time when I was illegally living in my studio, really a century-old office building in Allston, Massachusetts, a space that I had previously used for an “alternative exhibition space", The 88 Room. It had also housed a short-lived pirate radio station, Radio Free Allston. When all other options had been used up I lived in the space for one year.
That year wasn't the easiest year of my life, though it didn't lack in adventure. I had the CD player and I played music at high volume in my illegal squat. I immersed myself in the drum and bass of the late '90s, the sounds of the turn of the century, CDs like Roni Size's New Forms. All my vinyl records were in the basement of the building as I was also the janitor, the handyman, a position that significantly lowered my rent. My records sat in the dank basement, unused, their future uncertain.
What brought the vinyl out of the basement was the discovery of a Newmark PT01 portable turntable, an electric or battery operated one speaker system, let alone that I had started a new chapter in my life, moving in with my future wife in a far more congenial apartment in Cambridge. With this tiny device and within the limited space I decided to focus solely on 45rpms, of which I had hundreds. I still retained my studio, but the building was up for sale.
Photo of Diskovery: Andrew Guthrie
Downstairs from my Allston base (at street level) was Diskovery a used book and record shop run by the ever friendly if always exhausted Yolanda. The shop visually exemplified the sensibility and feel of Allston: low rent, vital though somewhat disheveled, independent, a necessary thing in the overbearing economy. I decided to trade, with Yolanda's ready approval, some of my 12-inch vinyl records for Yolanda's buried boxes of 45rpms. I began digging.
Over a period of days I recovered (among many other things) the obvious if previously unknown: "Right on the Tip of My Tongue" by Brenda and the Tabulations; the utterly obvious but on its original label: “Crying" by Roy Orbison; and the obscure: “How Can I Tell" b/w “Change Me" by Pearl Reaves. All my exchanges had been easily confirmed by Yolanda, but when she came to the Pearl Reaves she hesitated but then shrugged and put it in the pile.
I have moved through playback technologies, from the analog platter to the digitized disc. I go back and forth. Now we loose the tangible product altogether, cutting a few anchors while making the entire trove accessible. Witness how we link to Youtube. One doesn't need to dig through Yolanda's crates, but trawl whatever streaming service is available. Ironically, what's now exciting is when one can not find something on Youtube, as there's a whole class of collectors -- particularly those of doo-wop, rare groove, reggae and Northern Soul -- that demand or pay a high price for the tangible object but who are otherwise incessantly posting sound files on Youtube.
With the Pearl Reaves 45rpm I realized that, as a record buyer, I was being influenced by the package's graphics as well as the musical content. A generic label indicates rarity if simple obscurity, rather than the well-financed worked-up logo. The low budget independent producer can only invest in the recording time, a master, and the pressing of records. Many of the records posted on Youtube, of the genres and by the collectors mentioned above, are generic, plain text on a plain background.
I distinctly remember my reaction when Pearl Reaves' came out of the Newmark PT01 speaker: “What the hell is this!?" It had an old-timey almost churchy R&B shout, but not from any direction I was aware of. The lyrical content concerned romantic confusion, the musical arrangement was competent if raw. Looking at the condition of the label, the plastic, it was hard to place it in a timeframe, though the sound evoked the late '50s or early '60s.
I had returned to vinyl, but ironically, only after I had purchased my first computer. Where else would I have found the information, the possible traces of an obscure generic labeled 45rpm? On the first try, I found scant information on a few long-gone websites. One location was offering the record for a mere $100, but one pertinent piece of information highlighted all the coincidences that had bestowed upon me various playback technologies, my own collection of recordings, and the location of my studio in relation to Diskovery's used 45rpms bins: the Pearlsfar label recording had originated DIY-style from a location in Dorchester, a familiar part of greater Boston only a few short miles from Allston.
Since then, Pearl Reaves, through the phantasmagoric agencies of crowd-sourcing, has been provided with a much expanded Wikipedia page. Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, she began her career by way of a talent contest in future husband Paul Farano's club in Rahway, New Jersey. In terms of R&B's female to male ratio, she stands out as a lead guitarist as well as vocalist. She and her husband's backing trio toured the east coast in the '50s and '60s and met with a reasonable amount of success. At one point the band included saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood, later to play with Jimi Hendrix, who states (in the Wikipedia article about Pearl Reaves): "Oh, we used to walk the bar, do everything!"
The are many stars, less superstars, and then millions of working artists. There are one-hit wonders that still, regardless of their current career trajectory, permeate the airwaves; and then there are the minor hits, regional hits, or why-wasn't-it-a-hit, precious records that have entered the sub-cultures of Youtube collectors or been resurrected by the British Northern Soul dance circuit. While all that indicates the luck-of-the-draw along with the wherewithal of the aficionado, it also says something about the power of major labels, their influence on what you get to hear, or what eventually or permanently becomes part of “the playlist".
Pearl Reaves was one such artist, a noteworthy but less-than-famous musician, plugging away at her chosen craft, making a living if not bundles of cash, until she took a common enough turn within the R&B spectrum and became a preacher at the non-denominational Mount Olive Temple of Christ in Dorchester. A lot of that happened, unbeknownst to me, in my hometown, until I stumbled across a 45rpm in the similarly noteworthy but far-from-well-known Diskovery second-hand record store.
And then I got to make a story out of it all. It's easy enough to imagine entering one or another of the available Boston dives of a certain era, colorful bohemian or neighborhood bars, the kind of places that had “entertainment", a small stage off to one side and coming across Pearl Reaves and the Paul Ferano Trio belting it out, and being impressed, mystified, engaged enough to shell out some meagre dollars for one of their self-produced 45rpms that a member of the band sells between sets. I might consider that occasion the closest I ever got to being in the same room with someone like Bessie Smith, or countless lesser-knowns who sincerely shouted the blues, offering momentary respite to a roomful of similarly obscure listeners.
* * *
In the next installment of Vinyl Archeology: When a knock-off is as noteworthy as the original -- Taiwanese bootlegs of the classic Shanghai Divas.