Earl's Closet: The Lost Archive of Earl McGrath 1970-1980

Various Artists

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Earl's Closet: The Lost Archive of Earl McGrath 1970-1980 Review

by Mark Deming

Some people rise to a position of importance in the music industry through hard work and business savvy. Earl McGrath was not one of those people. Instead, McGrath was a man of great charm and wit who had a gift for making friends with important and interesting people, and his circle of familiars included Andy Warhol, Steve Martin, David Hockney, Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger, and Joan Didion. (He even attracted people who hadn't become famous just yet -- Harrison Ford served as his fix-it man and marijuana dealer in his pre-Han Solo days, and described Earl as "the last of a breed, one of the last great gentlemen and bohemians.") Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary founder of Atlantic Records, was so taken with McGrath's charisma and taste that in 1971 he staked him to his own Atlantic-distributed label, Clean Records. While Clean failed to score any hits, in 1977 McGrath was named president of Rolling Stones Records, in large part just because Mick and Keith liked him. McGrath did have an ear for worthwhile music, even if he had little talent for marketing, and after his death in 2016, a large cache of reel to reel tapes was discovered in his closet. 2022's Earl's Closet: The Lost Archive of Earl McGrath, 1970-1980 brings together 22 previously unreleased performances from McGrath's informal archive, and it reveals he was a musical omnivore who appreciated outlaw country, rhythm & blues, well-crafted pop, proto-punk, urban folk, and upbeat funk, among many other things. The set includes early recordings from Texas roots rock legend Delbert McClinton when he was half of Delbert & Glen, one of Clean's signings, as well as a pair of rough and ready numbers from legendary Lone Star eccentric Terry Allen. McGrath discovered Daryl Hall & John Oates when they were still calling themselves Whole Oats, and "Baby Come Closer" and "Dry in the Sun" captured them as they were slipping away from Americana in favor of more soulful sounds. Jim Carroll's "Tension," written for but not included on his debut album, is a gloriously nervy slice of almost-punk wordplay, and the rough but playful rehearsal tape of David Johansen working out "Funky but Chic" captures the New York Dolls frontman in a swaggering mood. Just as intriguing are the unknown commodities: two demos from Shadow, a cool, melodic rock band featuring former members of the Amboy Dukes; a slow, emotive cover of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" from an otherwise unknown R&B vocal group called Blood Brothers Six; some upbeat country-folk material from a band whose name is lost to history (they're billed as Kazoo Singers here); and smooth, soulful from Johnny Angel, a Detroiter who worked with Jesse Ed Davis before drugs stalled his career. As the diversity of this set demonstrates, Earl McGrath may not have known how to sell things, but he knew what he liked, and Earl's Closet shows he was a tastemaker for the right reasons.

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