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Part 3: BRANCHING OUT by Larry Benicewicz
In 1966 friend Ed Denson, who managed local act, Country Joe and the Fish, approached Chris, now ensconced in a small Berkeley house, about recording this artist as part of a Bay Area demon-stration and anti-Vietnam War march. Although not particularly his cup of tea as far as musical tastes were concerned, Chris agreed to do this favor and mounted an omnidirectional mike from the ceiling of his dwelling to record what then unbeknown to him would become the most memorable of 60s hippie battle cries which began with "Gimme an F....." When Joe asked Chris about his fee for this service, he said it would be gratis but (remembering the words of wisdom imparted by Eddie Shuler) wouldn't mind ascribing his publishing, Tradition Music, to the project, a request to which the folk guitarist readily gave his assent. The song in question complete with homemade sound effects, "I Feel Like I'm Fixing To Die," was released as part of a 45 rpm EP (their first of two rough-hewn extended play recordings before landing a major label) with a photo of McDonald and Fish member, Barry Melton (both who founded the band), as picture sleeve on Denson's Rag Baby label (named after a publication of his) and sold perhaps a couple of a hundred copies at the rally. And whatever peace activist who made such a purchase then is now the proud possessor of a hundred dollar collector's item.

In 1967, another noted blues producer and close acquantance of Chris's, Sam Charters, of Vanguard rerecorded Country Joe. Ironically, Charters (also eminently entitled to a thorough bio) who handled the blues end of Vanguard, including fine albums by Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and the magnificent trilogy - Chicago/The Blues/Today - here was on the unfamiliar turf of folk/psychedelic rock but acquitted himself nobly with the issue of this LP (9266), their second after Electric Music For The Mind And Body. Although the album, complete with a poster and the Fish Game inserts, fared substantially well in the disaffected youth market with Chris collecting a few royalty checks which kept him above water, the single (35112) and title track did not.

However, the Woodstock peace festival of late summer 1969 was to change Chris's fortunes considerably, as Bill Belmont (later with Fantasy records and who signed this group to his label in the mid-70s) thrust a guitar into spectator Joe McDonald's hand and induced him to lead an impromptu sing along (introduced by the decidedly not family oriented Fish cheer) which whipped the assembled multitude there into a frenzy. His heartfelt and inspired performance captured on film was included in the subsequent Woodstock movie and accompanying soundtrack, which all told may well have sold in excess of three million units. After this sensation ran its course, Chris was to realize a healthy $70,000 first installment in unforeseen profits, which he generously shared with McDonald. Adjusted for inflation today, the sum would be close to a quarter of a million dollars. Curiously, not on the LP but on the single, Chris's Tradition music shares the publishing with Joyful Wisdom Music, BMI, which evidently belongs to Denson, McDonald, and a handful of others.

Another such unexpected return followed close on the heels of the Country Joe episode. In their huge-selling 1971 LP (COC 39105, an Atlantic subsidiary) Sticky Fingers (with the notorious zipper fly cover), the blues-influenced Rolling Stones saw fit to include "You Got To Move," without assigning publishing credit (possibly with the assumption that it was Public Domain), little knowing that the only non-original composition (the rest were Gideon, BMI) of the lot would open a big can of worms, in that both Fred McDowell for Arhoolie (LP 1027) and blues singer turned street evangelist, Blind Gary Davis (Prestige Bluesville 819-B), both had previously recorded the number with with their respective copyrights. But it took quite a struggle, especially on Chris's part, who was by then a veteran plaintiff, to untangle this mess and recoup the royalties for Fred and Arhoolie. "After lengthy and expensive litigation and the help of our attorney, Peter Franck, and Rev. Gary Davis's manager Manny Greenhill, I was able to give Fred McDowell the biggest check he'd ever seen in his life," said Chris. In this regard, Bonnie Raitt, who adopted Fred in the early 70s and recorded some of his material was also able to contribute residuals to both Tradition Publishing Co. and the bluesman. Ironically, though, neither Fred McDowell nor Gary Davis had very much time left with which to enjoy this surplus income, as both passed on in 1972.

In the early 70s, Chris, now having the financial wherewithal, was finally able to move Arhoolie to its present location at 10341 San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito, and also began issuing his label's first newsletter, the highly regarded Arhoolie Occasional, a sporadically issued pamphlet which lasted until mid-decade. "I moved the warehouse from Jack's Record Cellar (which served as an early distributor of the label) in San Francisco but still had to contend with an upholstery business at the front of the building until about 1976. They damn near burned us down before they eventually moved out," said Chris. In January of that year, Chris founded the now-legendary Down Home Music store on the premises vacated by the furniture service (where it remains today) and with the initiative of Frank Scott, it also became a mail-order music outlet by 1978.

It's accurate to say that there was surplus money generated by the revenues from the soundtrack and copyrights, but better yet, a steady source of earnings from exports of Arhoolie to Japan and Europe, which also allowed Chris to continue in the 70s to pursue particular interests and record pet projects in blues and zydeco, despite the palpable decline in popularity for both genres of music. For example, when folklorist Dr. Harry Oster's label, Folklyric, became available in the early 70s, Chris jumped at the opportunity to add Oster's Alan Lomax-like ramblings through the Deep South of the late 50s and early 60s to his now burgeoning list of authentic field recordings, including the highly acclaimed Angola's Prisoners' Blues (CD 419), Angola Prison Worksongs (CD 448), the blind Crescent City guitarist, Snooks Eaglin (CD 348), and two volumes of twelve string blues of Angola inmate Robert Pete Williams (CD 394 and CD 395).

Some outstanding blues artists of this 70s vintage included soon to be expatriate Big Joe Duskin, the California-based Charles Ford band (featuring the young prodigy, Robben), stellar harp player Charlie Musselwhite, pianist Omar Shariff, San Francisco-based steel exemplar, L.C. "Good Rockin'" Robinson, Big Mama Thornton's (of "Hound Dog" fame that Chris also recorded in the 60s) guitarist, Bee Houston, K.C. Douglas, and venerable banjo/guitarist folk singer, Elizabeth Cotton (remember her now-classic "Freight Train"?), who won a Grammy for this live recording (1089). And not only did Chris stick by zydeco avatar Clifton Chenier, he added other acts of the more traditional French variety to the Arhoolie roster, including the late John Delafose and the Eunice Playboys and Lawrence "Black" Ardoin, son of legendary accordionist Bois-Sec and father of upstart Chris,who now heads the group, Double Clutchin'.

As the 70s dawned, Chris also began focusing his attention more on music with Mexican roots, the history of which he felt was long neglected, but he'd be the first to admit that he had his reservations about whether "gringos" would be attracted to it. Nonetheless, even if Chris did not have a lifetime love affair with norteno recordings, this species of music would be difficult to ignore in a state like California with such a huge Hispanic population and one would have to be positively myopic not to cater somewhat to the demands of this culture, especially when such charismatic leaders like Cesar Chavez, in an attempt to unionize migrant grape pickers, was leading his peaceful protesters (the Chicanos) into inevitable confrontations with authorities singing in Spanish these songs of resolve. And Chris never could turn a deaf ear toward this ethnic group's struggle for acceptance, even up to the present. Recently, Chris released a CD (9016) by accordionist Santiago Jimenez, Jr. entitled "El Corrido De Esequiel Hernandez," subtitled La Tragedia De Redford, Texas, wherein, the title track, a corrido (ballad), tells the story of an 18 year old Mexican-American goat herder who, mistakenly suspected of drug trafficking, was gunned down by a U.S. Marine on border patrol, a tragedy which eventually led to the reversal of American policy in this regard.

"I first became fascinated with Mexican music while still in high school in Santa Barbara. It was a small station further south in Santa Paula when I heard mostly mariachi[music of strolling bands] ranchera. But I also vividly recall the sound of accordion or conjunto music, as well, probably by Santiago Jimenez [Sr.], who had a couple of big hits in the late 40s - 'Viva Seguin' and 'Cada Vez Que Cae La Tarde,'" said Chris. Later while attending Pomona College, Chris would hear the strains of this genre of music from a jukebox of a tavern near campus and while attending U.C. at Berkeley would go over to a bar in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco and be serenaded regularly by another mariachi ensemble. His interest was further piqued in the 60s when he would drive through the American Southwest in route to a taping session in Texas and hear the broadcasts of this border music. But it was his obsession with record labels, here Corona, which led him to a real hot spot of Tejano music - San Antonio, where he was to make an important connection. "It was folklorist Archie Green who first introduced me to Jerry Abrams, who was just completing his law degree at the University of Texas in Austin. And Abrams, another enthusiast, was completely enthralled by this band out of Piedras Negras, Mexico, just a stone's throw from Eagle Pass, Texas," added Chris. So, in May of 1970, Chris issued his first Hispanic effort, Los Pinguinos
Del Norte (The Penguins of the North)& Trio San Antonio, entitled Conjuntos Nortenos, which became Arhoolie 3002, following the new numerical designation for the ethnic series.

From this humble beginning came a veritable flood which continues unabated to this day of Mexican-related music on Arhoolie in all degrees of sophistication and in all configurations and over the years Chris has acquired access of sorts to several key defunct labels which has vastly increased his output, like L.A.'s Azteca (which he licensed for one CD) and Hymie Wolf's Rio, whose widow, Genie Wolf-Miri, ran the Rio record shop on Commerce St. in San Antonio and who first made Chris aware of the great Leonardo "Flaco" Jimenez, then with the obscure Los Caminantes. But by far the greatest contributor to this immense library of recordings is the Ideal label. Under the original supervision of Armando Marroquin of Alice and Paco Betancourt of San Benito, Ideal was the most significant of all Texas labels, having recorded all the icons of Tejano music from post-War until the 60s - the young Baldemar Huerta (Freddy Fender), Conjunto Bernal, Narciso Martinez, Tony De La Rosa, and the formidable Lydia Mendoza, billed as the "First Queen of Tejano Music." His purchase of Ideal in 1990 from an heir of Betancourt's is an amazing story in itself, a collector's dream of finding a treasure trove. And to this slew of recordings, Chris has also added two well respected documentary videos in the 70s - Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazon, filmed in conjunction with heralded cinematographer Les Blank which are still in print (via the catalogue) in video format. And Chris is far from finished in his quest to obtain yet more archival masters, having just returned from the border town, McAllen, Tx, where he is in the process of procuring a few more historic tapes originally produced by another label, Falcon.

Although Chris began delving into ethnic roots music in the 70s, he still had more ambitious schemes for his enterprise. In 1978, he inaugurated his Back Room Record Distributors, since its operations were in the rear of his establishment and he received quite a boost as far as start up stock was concerned when Tom Diamant and the late Jeff Alexson (who both had been distributing Arhoolie in the region via their Rhythm Research venture and who wanted to begin Kaleidoscope Records) made Chris an offer to unload at a modest price their entire inventory and even agreed to stay on as sales persons until replacements could be found.

"I began handling many of the domestic blues labels. You name it - Delmark, Alligator, Rounder. Even Moe Asch of Folkways would call here. It was like one cozy little family," said Chris. At one time in the late 70s and early 80s, Chris was the sole importer of blues and jazz labels from Europe, especially France. "I remember that [RCA] Victor France had some great stuff on their Bluebird label and also a Jazz Tribune series. One of our lucrative items that we just never seemed to keep on the shelves was the French Columbia double LP packages of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. We bought them fairly cheaply for a few bucks and they just flew out the door," added Chris.
According to French musicologist Guy Fay of Sucy-en-Brie, who worked for Paris-based import/export businesses over the years like U.S. Sound International, Dave Music, Joseph Gilbert, and, most recently, Copa Music in the famous flea market at the Porte de Clingnancourt, he was shipping one label in particular to Back Room - Musidisc, an eclectic concern which incorporated (after merger) the European Festival and Fantasy logos and which could offer both trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and John Lee Hooker. He also later exported to Back Room's descendant, Bay Side, the legendary Black and Blue, which was composed of mostly live recordings of American bluesmen - Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson, Memphis Slim, and Bill Doggett - touring U.S. blues figures backed by French house bands. Blues may have been dead in the U.S. during this time frame, but were still a hot commodity abroad. In fact, bluesmen like the late Luther Allison and aforementioned Big Joe Duskin were soon to make Paris their permanent address.

But as the 80s progressed, sales of traditional music slackened and Chris blames it all on the "new age" variety. "We had a carpenter who worked at the store, Bill Ackerman, a passable guitarist, who wanted to start his own label, Windham Hill, and wanted us to distribute it. He soon hooked up with a pianist, George Winston, and sales boomed," said Chris. Despite Chris's assessment of the music as "watered down Yuppie drivel," it outsold all the rest of his catalogue; so much so, that longtime label executives were complaining that they were being put on the back burner, so to speak, in deference to this hip new phenomenon. Actually, Chris agreed. "I was never so happy as when they were sold to B.M.G.[and later picked up by A&M records run by trumpeter Herb Alpert and record magnate Jerry Moss]. This seemed the beginning of this trend toward synthetic, studio created, artsy fartsy music and not only just jazz suffered. Dynamic, raw, authentic bluegrass became sweet grass - easy listening, geared to the masses. It was very discouraging, to say the least," lamented Chris, ever the purist in these matters. Even to this day, Chris doggedly swims against this popular tide, releasing quality traditional recordings like the 1995 live/studio album of the Treme Brass Band with drummers Benny Jones Sr. and Lionel Batiste, a hot New Orleans aggregate proudly represented as agent by yours truly.

Back Room as a corporate designation endured only a few years until July, 1981, when Chris replaced the logo with Bay Side Record Distributors. "I changed it for two main reasons. One was that there happened to be already another company by that name [which California recognized and thereby refused to grant him the trademark] and the other was that I was getting flack from labels expressing reservations about dealing with an outfit whose title had 'negative connotations,'like I was some shifty, shady character operating a dishonest house," said Chris. Nonetheless, in 1986 Chris sold his interest in Bay Side to Robin Wise, one of the original sales people who eventually became manager. And in 1992 Wise in turn relinquished this affair to worldwide megastore MTS/Tower. In a related development, Chris in 1990 divested himself of Down Home Music Mail Order (later called Roots & Rhythm) to the aforementioned Frank Scott, although Chris still retains ownership of the Down Home Music Store.

In passing, it would be less than candid to state that Chris is entirely out of the distributing mode in that he still imports both the Document label (a longtime relationship) of Austria and the Dutch Pan. The former operated by Johnny Parth advertises itself as being able to retrieve by reissue the "the complete recorded works of every pre-War blues and gospel artist" and he backs up this boast with a catalogue (free on demand at Arhoolie plus postage of $3) which contains hundreds of entries in this realm. Having had his hand in the production of a mind-numbing 700 releases, Parth intends to yet add to this impressive total by turning his attention to C&W material of that era. The latter, Pan, the self-billed "leading world music label" prides itself on presenting an international series of contemporary and traditional music, an ethnic assortment, Dutch language offerings, a choral component (a capella or monoponic vocal genres of ancient origins), and archival collections. From Pan, one could expect recordings as diverse as Lanna Thai, Frozen Brass (African bands), and Tuvala, the music of a Polynesian atoll society. Chris, no doubt, uses these two labels to both complement and supplement Arhoolie, to fill the lacunae, so that he could be of help to anyone seeking any folk foundations of music, as bizarre and far-fetched as those requests might be.

The 90s were quite an eventful decade for Arhoolie and probably the key word to characterize this time interval would be recognition for both Chris and his brain child. In 1993 Chris was given a lifetime achievement award for his role in preserving the blues as part of the Blues Symposium held in Memphis in conjunction with the Beale St. Music Festival, wherein he was a featured panelist (along with Tommy Couch of Malaco, Marian Leighton Levy of Rounder, and critic Robert Gordon) on Aesthetics and Ethics of Recording the Blues. In 1995, Chris was honored with an induction (with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead) into the NAIRD (National Association of Independent Record Distributorsand Manufacturers) hall of fame at the trade group's convention in San Francisco in April of that year, a selection that was duly reported in such prestigious publications as Billboard.

In October of 1995, Chris celebrated the 35th anniversary of Arhoolie by throwing a huge party at home, an extravaganza of three days which included lectures on such topics as "The Corrido as Popular Literature and Unofficial History" conducted by professors James Nicolopulos and Guillermo Hernandez at Berkeley's International House, entertainment at the Great American Music Hall presented by Cajun exemplars Marc and Ann Savoy, zydeco exponent C.J. Chenier, son of Clifton, Piedmont guitar picker extraordinaire, John Jackson, norteno/conjunto act, Flaco Jimenez (accordionist lately of the Texas Tornadoes), and panel discussions of divers subjects, including the aforementioned Floyd Soileau of Jin/Swallow records of Ville Platte, LA, Dick Spottswood of the Library of Congress, R&B impresario, Johnny Otis (whose band also performed), the previously mentioned Harry Oster, who formerly ran Folklyric records, Orrin Keepnews of the tasty jazz label Riverside (Charlie Byrd, Bobby Timmons, and Cannonball Adderly) and Larry Cohn of Sony/Columbia. The multi-faceted jamboree was a huge success and if the local populace was not previously aware of Arhoolie and what it stood for, it certainly became more than well apprised after its finale. But certainly the icing on the cake, so to speak, of the 90s was Chris's acknowledgement (I might add rather belatedly) by his peers of the Memphis-based Blues Foundation, which led to his invitation to attend a gala thrown at Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center on March 16, 1999, wherein he would be inducted with talent scout/producer/publisher Lester Melrose (in a non-performer category) into the Blues Hall of Fame along with Texas fiddle and guitar legend, Clarence "Gatemouth Brown," and the late barrelhouse pianist, Roosevelt Sykes. With MC's such as Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas and guest speakers such as Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, and a glittering cast of Capitol Hill movers and shakers, Chris, despite his inordinate bashfulness, could not help but finally be thrust into the national spotlight, especially after effusive video biographies accompanied each presentation.

But if someone were to ask Chris what his proudest achievement was in the 90s, he would probably mention the undertaking known as the Arhoolie Foundation. By mid-decade, Chris had selflessly donated his enormous roots music collection (in excess of 13,000 78's and 16,000 45's of Mexican- American recordings) to this non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of archival disks of this sort (by transferring 78 rpms to DAT for example) and, again, if one were to talk about recognition in the 90s, one need look no further than the recent N.E.A. grant to show proof of the Arhoolie Foundation's consequence for posterity's sake.

As if Catalog 2000 isn't enough of an accomplishment to cap off four decades of Arhoolie's existence, Chris intends to create a real keepsake to mark the occasion. According to Hilda Mendez, Chris's publicity and promotions director (and resident Spanish translator), Arhoolie will in the fall release a five-disk, 100 song compilation representing the finest of Chris's personal field recordings in a handsomely packaged boxed set, a fitting testimonial to a lifetime spent conserving folk music. But the jet-setting Chris is far from throwing in the towel after this milestone is reached. At the end of each year he publishes a newsletter which he sends to "artists, friends, and relatives," documenting all his junkets to record buying hunts, his trips showcasing new acts like the gospel blues (Sacred Steel) of the Campbell Brothers or Willie Eason, his journeys soliciting funds for the Foundation, or his peripatetic travels as talent scout. Pushing 70, he still does not show signs of slowing down or is it that the newsletter just appears to be growing in length with each passing year? And time doesn't seem to dampen his natural curiousity and openmindedness about accepting new challenges, even new directions for the label. This man of boundless energy most certainly will be here for Arhoolie's golden jubilee in 2010.

I asked Chris if he regretted moving away from the original bread and butter of Arhoolie - the blues (although he had recorded some excellent tracks (CD 393) of the recently late Swamp Boogie Queen, Katie Webster, as late as the mid-80s). "As far as the real folk blues is concerned, probably every rock has been overturned. I just don't think there is anyone out there of any substance that hasn't yet been discovered. And modern blues? I absolutely have no desire to get into the 24 or 36 tracks and the artificial layering of sound going on in today's studios. I know it's what the public probably is accustomed to or, heaven forbid, even wants," said Chris.

But blues fans rest assured. If some artist like a Robert Johnson - the real thing - has somehow managed to slip through the cracks and still exists, perhaps hidden in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee or the Everglades of Florida and Chris gets wind of him, he'll drop everything except his trusty Magnecord and record him for the ages, just like in the good ole days. And you can bet your bottom dollar that he'll appear on Arhoolie first. After that initial session, if he decides to sign with someone else, Chris will claim no responsibility for the outcome. Even if they cry, "What have they done to my song?"
Larry Benicewicz

Katie Webster and B. Houston, Washington D.C. 1988
John DeLafose (Rounder Rec.)
CLARENCE "Gatemouth" BROWN, Photo Brian Blauser, ctsy Alligator Records
TREME BRASS BAND, Baltimore 1992, Photo Larry B.
THE CAMPBELL BROTHERS, with KATIE JACKSON, Photo Robert Stone, ctsy ARHOOLIE Records