Sampler Daze: Warner/Reprise Loss Leaders, Part 1
For my money, these were the best major-label samplers of the 1960s and 1970s. Warner Bros. and Reprise (the label founded by Frank Sinatra) was the place where you could find Frank, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Trini Lopez, Miriam Makeba and so on. But sometime around 1967 the label started to get hip, when it produced the debut album of a San Fransisco band thought to be “unmarketable” – the Grateful Dead. Warner/Reprise signed people like Arlo Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman, and experimented with rock acts like the Kinks, the Fugs and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Then it took a chance on a dude who was getting popular in England but hadn’t yet made a dent in the States: Jimi Hendrix.
So the freaks were lovin’ Warner/Reprise, and in 1969 the label decided to put out its first two-LP sampler, The 1969 Warner/Reprise Songbook, with 23 artists ranging from Hendrix and Zappa to Van Morrison and the Everly Brothers. The liner notes explained, “We have put this double album together not only for our own enjoyment … but hopefully to win new friends for some very creative people.”
Side three of Songbook had a caution: not for radio airplay! That was where you could find the Mothers as well as the Fugs. By the time this sampler appeared, the Fugs had already split up. They included Tuli Kupferberg, a playwright and a part-time professor at the Free University of New York, where he taught courses on the sexual revolution; Ken Weaver, a Texan; and Ed Sanders, a poet, novelist and former proprietor of the Peace Eye Pornographic Gallery of Art. The core trio was joined at various times by others, most notably Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber of the Holy Modal Rounders, and the Fugs’ music was scatalogical but hysterical. After all, “Fugs” came from a euphemism for “fuck,” as used by Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead. They also wrote and sang anti-war and other political songs, and various members of the Fugs have reunited intermittently over the years.
Warner wasted no time releasing a sequel to Songbook, the rather obviously titled 1969 Warner/Reprise Record Show (Son of Songbook). This one had more of the same, but it was a little less eclectic and a little more straight-ahead rock and roll: kicking off with Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl,” it featured selections from Peter, Paul and Mary, Ella Fitzgerald, the Pentangle, Jethro Tull and Fats Domino mixed in with your Fugs, Mothers and Kinks. OK, it was pretty eclectic, kind of like a free-form FM radio station. That’s the effect most of the WB/Reprise samplers created as the series continued.
Both of these 2-disc sets cost $2 apiece, and they came pretty quick in the mail. What a motherlode of music for a teenager in a Texas bedroom: for me, the WB/Reprise samplers opened the door to a big ol’ world of music and weirdness.