Vinyl ripping and processing by Flabbergast May/June 2012
Vinyl -> Pro-Ject RM-5SE turntable (with Sumiko Blue Point 2 cartridge, Speedbox power supply); Creek Audio OBH-15; M-Audio Audiophile 192 Soundcard ; Adobe Audition at 32-bit float 192khz; Click Repair light settings; individual clicks and pops taken out with Adobe Audition 3.0 - resampled (and dithered for 16-bit) using iZotope RX Advanced. Tags done with Foobar 2000 and Tag&Rename.
The trippy album cover design and the weird name are enough to make most people who stumble across this album think that it’s going to be a lost psychedelic funk freakout. It’s not. There’s barely any songs that crack the three minute mark and the only solos are taken by saxophone and trumpet (or in one case, harmonica); with the exception of the tune “Stuff I Uze” which seems to be a cuckold’s love song to a drug habit, there is very little here to even place this record in the hazy days of 1973. Even calling the album “funk” (as record dealers seem to have done) is misleading, unless we understand “funk” in the way it was thought of perhaps in the late 60s rather than the early 70s. Buck “D. D.” Black owes a lot to sweaty southern soul of early Stax and Muscle Shoals and none of these songs would sound out of place nestled in that body of work. The horn arrangements are meticulously written and executed, the rhythm section is tight as Botox, and Buck’s vocals cover a wide range of soulful.
Well then, why was this record totally overlooked and to this day (as far I know) remained without a reissue? Good question.
The first thing is probably that it was released on a private press label, which although given a catalog number ending in 07 has no other releases out there that I could find out about. A second reason might be the packaging, which I happen to love but which could have put off potential fans of this music by its slightly ominous ‘black cross’ design and graphic of a squatting naked girl with her feet nailed to a wooden plank and wrists nailed to.. something, maybe the graphic of the text above her head. Then there’s the weird vaguely occult sigil above her head. It’s good to remember that for every potential record buyer who stumbles across an album cover like this and says “What the fuck IS this? I have to have it!”, there are a hundred others who will stop at “What the fuck is this?” and then just keep looking through the record bin for the next Seals & Croft album. But the music isn’t nearly freaky enough to satisfy a lot of the people who fall into the first category, who probably brought the record home and listened to it once (like the copy I managed to find, which looks practically unplayed). The album gives the appearance of being some kind of concept album, supported by the verbose rambling about the albums ‘conception’ on the back cover, and the inner gatefold’s designation of the first side only as the ‘Bluze Mass.’ If you’re expecting the Electric Prunes, don’t. There really isn’t any overriding concept stringing these songs together unless it’s something so esoteric that only Buck Black could see it. I think the bottom line is that grand concept albums were all the rage in `73 and Curtis Mayfield had proven that they could be pitched to the Black American public.
Which brings us to what is the more crucial element that holds this back from true greatness – the lack of a real producer. The album could have used a southern-soul equivalent of a Curtis Mayfield or Donny Hathaway directing and shaping the whole project. Buck’s instincts are right, but he needs someone to help tie it all together. Take it easy, Buck, you’re working too hard, let someone else take charge for a while. I’m talking about things like pacing and song sequencing: the album eventually falls into a predictable pattern of fast song / slow song that makes the it seem much longer than its 30 minutes, even if it never falls into tedium. Although when taken individually each song is a gem in its way, after you put them all together the melodies can begin to sound too similar. What’s needed is someone to make the executive decision to cut one of them out, or combine two of the ideas into one song, or perhaps go one step further and write a bonafide HIT song for the album with the golden Mayfield or Hathaway touch and freshen up the proceedings. But I wouldn’t personally want to make those judgment calls. It should be stated that the record gallops off to a promising start in terms of variety and pacing in the first ten minutes: the uptempo “Love Is All” lyrically lectures us to love our fellow man regardless of the color of his skin or social standing, and that we’re all just a hair’s breadth away from standing in the welfare line (well, except for the 1%..), and the choruses are topped with punchy 8-bar brass runs that would have incurred the jealousy of many a horn-rock band like Chicago or Blood Sweat & Tears. They follow this up with the swamp-funk of Miss Veegalopps, a tambourine-driven gospel revival that involves a lot of jumping up and down of the protagonist, punctuated with the aforementioned harmonica solo. Then we get the first soul-infused ballad of the album, “Only A Fool”, which opens with descending piano chords plunked down alongside a pretty heavy rhythm section. Buck lets loose and shows us his vocal range, dipping into baritone and flying to falsetto in the same lines, preaching about how love blinds us even when someone is “running [their] low-down rotten stinky funky game” on us. Simple and effective.
From here on out, it’s love songs of one variety or another. There’s the swinging, almost jump-blues of “You No Longer Care For Me” and the up-tempo soul nugget of “If I Had You.” But it’s on the album’s second side that the fast/slow pattern I mentioned before actually kicks in. Again, on their own, each of these songs carries their weight, but in the context of what’s come before they seem a bit like a rehash. Repeated listens have mitigated this impression somewhat as I’ve come to appreciate each tune’s merits, but first impressions are important in the fickle music world, and the impression still holds in this case. It’s not until the regal chord changes of the penultimate song, “Back Home To You” that I feel really engaged with the album again. This is Buck’s songwriting as its peak, belting out a soul ballad worthy of the repertoire of an Otis Redding or Sam Cooke. I can’t see why a song like this wouldn’t have been recorded by a ‘star’ if it had been offered as a demo to a major studio. But it’s obvious Mr. Buck Black has his sights set on grander things. The final track is one hell of a closer. Melodically distinct and saddled with a propulsive groove, it also makes us realize we haven’t heard a vocal harmony on the entire album – probably a key failing on a record like this. Here we get Buck harmonizing with himself, which is pretty obvious even if you don’t read the album credits. It works nicely but other voices are also nice on a good soul record. But the lyric “there ain`t nothing that Buck wouldn’t do” should perhaps be taken literally. This is 100% his project. The credits list a Jackson Howe as the producer, who has some engineering and production credits with Muscle Shoals and some folk-rock-country artists. But I get the impression that Buck was kind of a control freak, and/or that Howe didn’t have much inspiration to take control – to add to the sonic impression, there is a somewhat hilarious photo of him with his head bowed and cradled in his hands at the mixing board, an image of studio frustration if there ever was one.
Nothing has been said yet about the identity of Buck Black, because he’s an enigmatic figure about which I know next to nothing. He has a vocal credit on the album “Gris Gris” by Dr. John, but you wouldn’t know this from THAT album’s jacket because everyone there has a bizarre nickname (a tradition that Buck carries onto this album). Thanks to info picked up at another blog, I figured out that his real name was Dave Dixon (‘D.D.’) and confirmed that he is in fact credited on Gris-Gris. That album was recorded in Los Angeles, in spite of all its hoodoo swamp atmosphere. Mississippi Bluze Mass was actually recorded in Mississippi, but mixed in “parts West” in unspecified studios. It’s recorded and mixed remarkably well, in fact sonically it’s a joy to listen to, although it is a shame that it was pressed on cheap OPEC-crisis era vinyl which produces a high-pitched whine in between the tracks.
So what was Buck’s aka Dave Dixon’s story? Maybe someday we’ll learn it. I’m thinking he lived on the West Coast for a while pursuing a career in the music business, grew frustrated and moved back home to Mississippi and eventually made this album. From the photos, he appears to be a man in his forties, perhaps even fifties. But if this is a debut album it doesn’t sound like the work of a novice – this guy was drawing from lots of experience, playing and singing and bands and writing songs, somewhere.
So, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a “lost masterpiece” but maybe an unjustly forgotten near-miss. There are a lot of obscure, private-press records from the early 70s which are obscure for good reason, and whose appeal rarely reaches beyond the type of folks who read the Head Heritage `zine. “Mississippi Bluze Mass”, though, could have reached a broader public if it had more guidance in the studio. Whether it might have lost some of its charm in the process is a question that can’t be answered.
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