Back in 2012, High Moon Records proudly issued a vinyl edition of the long lost album by Love, Black Beauty. Now, High Moon is really going all out for Black Beauty by issuing the collection as a TrueSound Audiophile CD with six bonus tracks accompanied with a lush, 62-page Hardbound Eco-Book. The package includes 35 photos by Herbert W. Worthington and an essay by Ben Edmonds describing how Black Beauty was never released because Love’s label at the time, Buffalo Records, went out of business in 1973. As many other reviewers have already noted, the new edition prompts many questions. Had Black Beauty come out when it was recorded, would it have made any difference in the career of Love’s main motor, Arthur Lee? How would it have fared in a year where the charts were topped by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, Jackson Browne, David Bowie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Elton John, and Mott the Hoople? Hmm. I have another question. Is Black Beauty really worth all this belated hype and hoopla?
I’ve always thought of Love as being akin to another California band of the period, Moby Grape. Both groups had decent label support, both bands earned considerable critical attention, but neither ensemble reached a wide audience beyond their largely local cult followings. In the case of Love, they were a band that started out with promise. In 1966, they released songs like “My Little Red Book,” a jaunty version of “Hey Joe,” and “7 and 7 Is.” That was when Love included members like Johnny Echols and Bryan MacLean, who were valuable contributors both as players and co-songwriters. Then came the legendary Forever Changes (1967) and then everything indeed changed.
I stopped paying attention after that, and I wasn’t alone. I vividly remember picking up 1970’s False Start from a bargain bin and getting excited hearing the first track, “The Everlasting First,” mainly because of the blazing Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. The rest of the LP, well, I played it once and never again. Had Black Beauty come out in 1973 as intended, I likely would never have played it. I felt burned by False Start.
Well, that was then and this is now. I started reading publicity for Black Beauty a few months back and read terms like “classic” and “masterpiece.” I got excited all over again. I think my expectations got too high.
First, this version of Love, being Lee and guitarist Melvan Whittington, bass player Robert Rozelle, and drummer Joe Blocker, had been together a very short time. While produced by Paul Rothchild, Black Beauty was played by this rough and ready band with minimal polish. Of course, that was by design. This edition of Love could almost be described as punk/blues rock. I admit, there’s always been an audience for the bare bones approach, so that primitiveness wouldn’t necessarily have damned the LP in 1973.
True enough, there’s no avoiding the many comparisons critics are making between Jimi Hendrix and Arthur Lee. Certainly, there were many personal connections between Hendrix and Lee, and many have claimed the second song on Black Beauty, “Midnight Sun,” had Hendrix as a guest. Apparently not. But it’s clear Lee did his best to evoke the vocal style of Hendrix on this one. Other Hendrix touches are more subtle. One of the set’s best tracks, “Skid,” is nicely mixed with throbbing bass and jingling percussion with verses reminiscent of “All Along the Watchtower.” The aching soulful “Can’t Find It,” another highlight, is a tad reminiscent of “Little Wing.”
But it would be unfair to dismiss Black Beauty as merely being Hendrix-light. Lee and company touched a number of other bases along the way. “Walk Right In” sounds like what the Rooftop Singers hit would have become if the Grateful Dead had given it a try. “Beep Beep” is poppy calypso (not really reggae as some have claimed) and “Stay Away” is pure strobe light, garage rock psychedelia.
Other tracks make it clear Black Beauty can’t be really considered a “masterpiece.” In particular, the straining vocals of “Lonely Pigs” and “See Myself In You” are simply painful to listen to. Finally, the original album concludes with the live “Product Of The Times” which, again, harkens back to the approach of Hendrix, but the times Lee sings about had largely come and gone by 1973.
Speaking of live material, three of the bonus tracks on Black Beauty were recorded at the Electric Gardens in Glasgow, Scotland on May 30, 1974. For the most part, they show a rambling band that had moments of fire but little magic. To be fair, “Every Time I Look Up, I’m Down,” “Nothing,” and “Keep On Shining” (sadly from False Start) were not professionally recorded and the songs sound like they were captured on a personal cassette recorder.
One real nugget in the bonus tracks is the short title song from the motion picture Thomasine & Bushrod, a folky bit of early ’70s pop which Lee composed shortly after the Black Beauty sessions. We also get lengthy conversations between Lee and various radio jocks which outline the history of Love and what Lee hoped for with Black Beauty. He discusses his work with Hendrix and admits his lack of interest in touring helped contribute to Love’s low profile in the ’60s. Finally, we get one additional foray into garage rock, “L.A. Blues,” which Lee performed with Ventilator.
In the flier sent out to promo Black Beauty, a concluding note reads: “There will be a Love exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens in 2015. Love’s Black Beauty album will be featured in the exhibit.”
For me, that announcement feels a tad ironic. For the most part, Black Beauty is essentially an artifact from the distant past now available for public display. I suspect there is an audience for this one, mainly those who already love Love, archivists of that period, and those collectors who like interesting packaging. I won’t deny there are folks who will be delighted to hear this collection. For me, however, it’s another Love album I’ll play just once. It’s interesting, but not essential.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B0061YU8HE]