A few weeks ago—I recall the date exactly, as it was my birthday, so October 25th—I went downstairs at Shake It Records in Cincinnati, to their vinyl section, known as “Billy’s Basement.” A song had just started on the stereo: a slinky Latin-tinged psychedelic soul cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” As it went on, and on—it’s 7:35—I fell deeper and deeper under its jammy hypnotic conga drum-led spell. Not to imply any sort of improvisational looseness to the proceedings. The musicians were clearly professionals, the music was well-rehearsed and it was entirely planned out, not spontaneous in any true sense. It wasn’t like some hacky sack hippie jam band covering the Stones, but it wasn’t entirely obvious what it was. Or what vintage it was either.
“WOW! WHAT IS THIS?” I asked of Billy.
“It’s something called Music from “Lil Brown” by a group called Africa” he explained. “It’s obviously some sort of goofy reference to Music from Big Pink. Look at the album art.” He held up the cover and indeed on the front cover was a direct homage to the (Milton Glaser-designed) back cover of The Band’s album. On the back was a child’s drawing that echoed Bob Dylan’s Big Pink cover painting. The gatefold featured a group shot of assorted friends and family members labeled “Next of Kin” (another Band reference) and as if all that wasn’t crystal clear enough already, in tiny text at the bottom it read:
“Any similarity to any other album package was purely calculated and our thanks to all those concerned. Be sure and listen to the Band SKAO2955.”
The next song was a cover of the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” The first song on side two was a medley of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen!!!
WHAT IS THIS?!?
The record was still sealed—he’d been listening to it on YouTube trying to figure out what it was so he could put a price on it—and he priced it at $50. Normally I try to keep a lid on my vinyl purchases and cap it at $30 per record (a two-record set can sell for $60 and I can still justify the expenditure in my fevered, Gollum-esque brain) but this was actually a bargain for this sucker—$50 and up for a decent copy on Discogs and this was sealed and IT WAS MY FREAKING BIRTHDAY so yes, that record—MY PRECIOUS—is now MINE ALL MINE…
I didn’t care how much it cost, frankly.
Africa was comprised of some musicians who had longed worked together, mostly as performers in various Los Angeles-based doo-wop groups, with names like the Valiants, the Electras, the Alley Cats, the Del-Mars, the Ring-A-Dings and the Untouchables. Brice Coefield, Chester Pipkin, Ed Wallace, Freddie Wills, Gary Pipkin were aided in their music making by Mamas and the Papas producer Lou Adler (who would, of course, go on to release records by Cheech & Chong and produce Carole King’s Tapestry and The Rocky Horror Picture Show) who brought in a mobile recording unit to their little brown rehearsal space in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles.
There isn’t much more information out there about Africa, but the following was found on Marv Goldberg’s R&B Notebooks:
“Finally, in late 1968, they all became the soul group Africa, recording for Lou Adler’s Ode label (a subsidiary of Columbia). Africa consisted of (in various combinations): Billy Storm, Brice Coefield, Rip Spencer, Chester Pipkin, Gary Pipkin, Ed Wallace, Billy Mann, and Freddie Willis (second tenor/baritone).
The recording group, however, consisted of Brice Coefield (who does all the leads), Chester Pipkin (who also did the arrangements), Gary Pipkin, Ed Wallace, Freddie Willis, and Billy Storm, who shares the lead on “Here I Stand” (a song he wrote), They recorded eight sides for Ode, which were released on an album. “We used to rehearse at Gary Pipkin’s house and he had this little brown shack, a playhouse in the backyard, for his kids.” So, probably as a tribute to The Band’s recent album, Music From Big Pink, they decided to name the album Music From ‘Lil Brown’. (Strangely, Africa’s name didn’t appear anywhere on the outside of the album.) Lou Adler got a mobile recording studio, and the tracks were mostly recorded at Gary’s house. A large mural of Africa’s photo was painted on the outside of the Whiskey à Go Go on the Sunset Strip in order to promote the album; it remained there for several months.
Five years later, Africa recorded ten more tracks for MGM, but all remain unreleased.
Music from “Lil Brown” has never been (legally) released on CD. It should be. In the meantime the wax needs to be in the collection of every self-respecting DJ, stat. Have a listen for yourself.
Africa’s inspired take on “Paint It Black.”
“Light My Fire” goes much, much higher than either Jim Morrison or Jose Feliciano ever dreamed possible…
Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen are not two songs I would think to mashup in a medley, but you have to admit it really works great here, doesn’t it?