From the farthest reaches of our universe come Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan to answer the burning question, "What would country music from outer space sound like?" At first it would seem that the "down home" cannot peacefully coexist with the "far out", but superior extraterrestrial technology makes all things possible.
This advanced technology includes synthesizers, of which Misty Morgan had a stack, full of oddball sounds. And then there were Blanchard's offbeat songs and studio effects, the latter of which recall the experiments of Joe Meek (another probable Alien Life Form, judging from his 1960 album I Hear A New World.) These things simply do not belong in Nashville, yet they arrived like silver discs from the sky to plant their strange, indie-label records and wait for the pods to grow.
Nashville Sputnik collects a clutch of rare singles featuring Blanchard and Morgan's projects going back as far as 1956. Many of these singles are so rare they don't appear in record guides or online databases, and none have ever appeared anywhere on CD. There's a palpable tension to these recordings as the creators alternately co-opt Nashville conventions and push them beyond their limits. They teeter precariously on the edge of country music, threatening at times to fall through a dimensional doorway into the dislocated otherworld of the Land of the Lost. Some of these cuts could have been hits -- after all, Blanchard and Morgan registered on the country charts over a dozen times in the 70's, and ultimately wound up recording for major labels -- but with these recordings, it was not to be.
Blanchard and Morgan's birthplace of Buffalo, New York, and their eventual migration to Florida, places them in an interesting position with regard to the expectations and traditions of country music. Although a handful of successful country singers came from the northern United States -- Maine's Dick Curless is one example -- the genre has always been strongly associated with the rural South. Florida, despite being located as far south as you can get in the United States without crossing into Mexico or falling in the ocean, is so heavily populated by transplants and immigrants that its name does not have the same Dixie-fried connotations as, say, Kentucky or Alabama. Culturally, stylistically and geographically, Blanchard and Morgan were destined to be outsiders in Nashville.
Accordingly, Blanchard made his recording debut on a New York pop single. He and a friend named Don Fronczak formed a vocal group, the Dawn Breakers, patterned after the vocal quartets that were ubiquitous in the mid-50's: the Four Freshmen, the Four Aces, the Four Lads, and the Hi-Lo's. The group recorded some acetates and took them to Buffalo radio stations hoping to attract attention. Phil Todaro, a local DJ who later became an adult film producer and X-rated theater manager, liked the group and took them under his wing. He secured a deal with Coral Records that yielded one single in 1956. "Boy With The Be-Bop Glasses (And The Suede Shoes)," the side that Blanchard wrote, connects with other teen songs about apparel that were popular at the time, such as Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" and Gene Vincent's "Bluejean Bop". The single preceded a flood of similar songs that became hits in the late 50's, from Dodie Stevens' "Pink Shoe Laces" to Bobby Pedrick Jr.'s "White Bucks And Saddle Shoes," all of which celebrated teenage consumer culture while pounding out the kind of snappy rhythms that American Bandstand's Rate-A-Record segment would likely approve.
"Boy With The Be-Bop Glasses" enjoyed some regional success, but didn't reach the national charts. The group toured around the area, and Blanchard recalls, "We even played a concert in the auditorium of the high school I was expelled from. The teachers served us snacks, and one was the teacher who had thrown me out. She didn't recognize me." The Dawn Breakers recorded for a couple of other labels thereafter, including Chess/Checker, but nothing was released. In a surprising postscript, Blanchard adds, "I recently learned that the Dawn Breakers, with one original member, toured for ten more years after the rest of us left to seek other fortunes."
After leaving the Dawn Breakers, Blanchard moved to Florida and joined an R&B group, Donel Austin and the Rockin' Impallas [sic] that played at the King O' Hearts Club in Miami where Sam & Dave got their start. The club was owned by Johnny Lomelo, who also co-owned a local record label called Mida Records. The name Mida was an abbreviation of Miami-Dade. Donel Austin had recorded for Mida, and Blanchard intended to do the same. He wrote the song "The King O' Hearts" as a tribute to the club in hopes of getting a single release, and it worked. Mida released the song in 1959 credited to Jackie Blanchard and the Rockin' Impallas, and Blanchard also co-wrote Donel Austin's song, "Baby You Are Mine Tonight," which came out a couple of months later on Mida.
The Mida sides were made at the Miami studio of Frank Linale, the founder of Viva Records and manager of a popular vocal and comedy group called The Vagabonds. Shortly before the session, Linale's wife and children were murdered, and Lomelo later went to prison for his own shady dealings (after he got out of prison Johnny Lomelo became the mayor of Sunrise, Florida, a small town with a big theater known for bringing in major stars like Frank Sinatra), so an atmosphere of crime and corruption surrounded these otherwise innocent rock'n'roll recordings.
Fast forward to the 1960's where Misty Morgan and Jack Blanchard were working as lounge pianists in neighboring clubs in Hollywood, Florida, and the story gets even more unusual. When Jack and Misty met, the similarities in their upbringings were remarkable. Both were born at the same hospital in Buffalo to parents named John and Mary, both had sisters named Virginia, and both spent time in southern Ohio before moving to Florida. In addition to these unlikely parallels, the compatibility of their musical visions would soon become obvious.
In the mid 1960s, Blanchard began producing recordings for himself, Misty, and other artists on their own independent labels: Zodiac, Marianna, Earth and (Those) Darn Records. These rare singles were not distributed, for the most part, but were pressed in limited quantities for promotional purposes. They included early pseudonymous singles by Misty that appeared under the names Jacqueline Hyde and Maryanne Mail, and others by Brad Wolfe (AKA Hank Malcolm), Blanchard's Rockin' Impallas bandmate Donel Austin, and Tom Carlile, the latter of whom went on to score a number of minor country hits in the early 80's.
The instrumental "Gemini" by the Jack Blanchard Group kick-started Blanchard's career as a producer. Inspired by the Tornados' hit "Telstar," the recording made enough noise regionally that the Ventures covered the tune. A subsequent single, credited to Jacqueline Hyde and the Moonfolk, featured Misty Morgan singing over "Gemini". Blanchard says, "After 'Gemini' got airplay, singers started coming to me to produce them. Most were leaning toward country. That's how I got to Nashville as an independent producer."
Blanchard's partnership with Morgan as Misty & Jack Productions hadn't solidified yet, but "on our Miami sessions," he says, "Misty had a lot of input, even though she wasn't getting producer credits at the time. She always has the final word on the mixdowns, and plays a lot of the keyboard and vocal parts, which she composed herself."
Having experienced a taste of success with "Gemini," Jack and Misty went to Nashville to use the Starday studios for Jack's independent productions. They didn't come to break into the formulaic studio system there -- they arrived to break Nashville free of its earthly moorings. Many of the recordings on this anthology feature well-known Nashville session players lending their talents to records that are quite unusual for their time and place. Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and the other outlaws won admiration for bucking the Nashville studio system and demanding creative control in the '70s, but most of the recordings here predate the outlaws by several years. Could Blanchard and Morgan have been the original outlaws? Or, more pointedly, the original out-(erspace)-laws?
Blanchard's use of the Starday studio in Nashville led to some deals in which Blanchard produced recordings independently and then Starday Records or other labels picked them up for national release. Hank Malcolm's original recording of "Yellow Bellied Sap Sucker," which contains the conceptual seeds of Blanchard and Morgan's 1970 chart-topper "Tennessee Bird Walk," was one such single.
The novelty orientation of many of Blanchard's productions from this time was adventurous but not without commercial potential. Hank Malcolm's "Monkey See Monkey Do" bore some similarity to Roy Drusky's 1964 hit "Peel Me A Nanner," and Rusty Diamond's "Skellykins" wasn't that far removed from Ray Stevens' "Laughing Over My Grave," also from 1964. Roger Miller, a similarly left-field talent, won six Grammys in 1965 with his mixture of outrageous novelties and serious ballads, so an audience existed for unusual songs in the field of country music. "When I was trying to figure how this voice of mine, and the way I write songs, would fit into the music business, Roger Miller was a great help to me," Blanchard wrote in 2000. "His voice and style of writing were in the same category as mine: None."
Hints of Miller's style can be heard in some of Blanchard's songs from the mid-'60s, but Miller's influence was mostly spiritual. Blanchard and Morgan moved beyond their influences to develop a unique and immediately recognizable style, particularly after teaming up as Jack Blanchard & Misty Morgan in 1967. From that point onward, they developed a reputation not only as purveyors of strange and delightful novelties, but as songwriters with an unexpected flair for writing sensitive and moving songs such as "Somewhere In Virginia In The Rain," which also became hits.
If the Nashville Sound of the 1960s and its tightly-controlled studio system resulted in country records that were oftentimes too uniform and predictable, then we can thank Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan for doing their part to shake up the Nashville establishment. And we can thank The Omni Recording Corporation for rescuing these strikingly original, do-it-yourself, outsider country recordings so that a new wave of audio adventurers can experience the exceedingly rare and largely unknown early years of Jack & Misty.
Liner notes © 2008 by Greg Adams. All rights reserved.
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