Sampler Daze: WB/Reprise Loss Leaders, Part 2
I didn’t really think through how I was gonna do this series of blog posts: Warners released about 34 of these LP samplers between 1969 and 1980, sometimes springing three or four of ‘em in one year. I don’t have all of them, so maybe I will try and survey them year by year. After the success of the first three samplers in 1969 (there was a single-disc collection we didn’t mention last time), Warners kept goin’ in the new decade with The Big Ball and Schlagers!
The label called these samplers “Loss Leaders” because while they obviously took some money and resources to produce and advertise, and they were selling them for a very cheap price (basically one buck an album) the company stood to lose money on the records. But they were an awesome promotional tool: mixed in with songs that were already hits and soon-to-be hits were selections from artists on the label that were a little tough to market. The samplers were a good way to put a taste of their tunes in listeners’ ears. If not for the WB/Reprise samplers, I probably would not have heard people like Joni Mitchell, John Cale or the Youngbloods. Samplers were certainly the first place I heard Little Feat, Black Sabbath and many others.
Anyhow – The Big Ball, from 1970, was a serious dose of rock and roll. This had some classics-to-be including Arlo Guthrie’s “Coming Into Los Angeles” (which he performed at Woodstock); Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well (Parts 1 & 2)”; Neil Young’s “The Loner”; and the Grateful Dead’s showstopper “Turn On Your Lovelight.” The Beach Boys had recently jumped over from Capitol and their first appearance on a sampler was here, with “This Whole World.”
The compilers must have had a hell of a lot of fun putting these together. They often bunched like-minded songs on one side of a vinyl LP, for party and private play: side four of Ball is one of these, with Ed Sanders of the Fugs kicking it off with his politically incorrect “The Illiad.” Later, you get Captain Beefheart with “Ella Guru.” Captain Beefheart is really poet/painter/musician Don Van Vliet, and in the late 60s and early 70s he was known for putting out music that was strained through blues and rock, but sounded pretty much like nothing else. His high point was 1969’s Trout Mask Replica, which had licks from jazz, blues, psychedelia and Zappa-esque weirdness. Captain Beefheart was later cited as an influence on American punk rock, and he retired from music in 1980.
Schlagers! was the second sampler from 1970 and it showcased the label’s middle of the road (non-hippie) artists like Frank Sinatra, Petula Clark, Trini Lopez, Theo Bikel and others although a few longhairs (Arlo Guthrie, Mason Williams) popped up. The label also gave Frank Zappa his own one-disc sampler Zapped, and he chose to feature Beefheart, the Mothers and young weirdo-in-training Alice Cooper.
So let’s jump to Looney Tunes - Merrie Melodies, the mother of all Loss Leaders and the only triple-disc sampler that Warner/Reprise ever issued. This one spent a lot of time on my turntable back in the early 1970s, and here’s why: “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath; “Sugar Magnolia” by the Dead; “Apeman” from the Kinks; the Beach Boys, Van Morrison, Little Feat, The Faces, Fleetwood Mac, Alice Cooper, the Mothers of Invention, Ry Cooder and Randy Newman. Plus some old cats gettin’ cool again – Little Richard howling on the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” and the Persuasions with “It’s All Right.”
The Persuasions were an all-accapella quintet who first got together singing on a street corner in New York City around 1961. Somebody in a New Jersey record shop was enthused enough to gather the boys in his store and have them sing over the phone to Frank Zappa in L.A. Zappa was a huge fan of doo-wop, and he knew he was hearing the real thing even through the long-distance connection. So Zappa produced the group’s first LP, Accapella, in 1970 and the Persuasions were on their way. To date, they have recorded about 25 albums and although the personnel has shifted a bit they still perform today.
Complete with a couple of radio commercials for Warner Bros. records in general, Looney Tunes-Merrie Melodies certainly spotlighted everything the label had to offer. There’s even a straight-from-the-vault, Lazarus-like appearance by the revered Jimi Hendrix, “Stepping Stone.”