alvinMost music fanatics have that one cherished LP or old homemade cassette taped from said LP, which hasn’t made it to the digital world, falling through the cracks for one reason or another. The first solo album by Blasters vocalist Phil Alvin is a classic example.

One year after the release of Hard Line, the Blasters broke up after spats between band members, mainly brothers Phil (the vocalist) and Dave Alvin (the songwriter), became unbearable. Dave joined X and co-founded the Knitters, as Phil Alvin released his first solo LP Unsung Stories on Slash in 1986.

While the Blasters had incorporated rockabilly, R&B, blues, New Orleans R&B, country, and boogie woogie, Unsung Stories allowed Alvin to pay homage to swing-era jazz, work with horn charts, and direct larger ensembles. To achieve that delicate balance between tradition and revitalization he called on the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Sun Ra Arkestra. Both conjure up the unique perseverance it takes in maintaining and handing down that particular style of American music.

As a young man in the early '70s, Phil Alvin hung out in bars, soaking up the live music by those he initially heard on old 78s and 45s. Alvin received hands-on training in music and the music business from would-be friends like Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Lee Allen, and Sonny Terry. Somewhere along the way he also encountered Sun Ra. Not only did Ra and Alvin share a deep passion of swing-era music, but an interest in semantics/mathematics; Alvin earned his PhD from UCLA, while Ra incorporated it into his myth omniverse.

During the recording of what would become Unsung Stories -- according to Arkestra saxophonist, tour/business manager, and percussionist Danny Thompson -- the band went to the studio immediately after a gig at Sweet Basil, arriving around 7 a.m., (the date didn’t “officially” begin until 8:30 a.m.), and went on till 1:30 a.m. the next morning. Thompson also noted that Ra left the piano only three times during the session. Ra wrote out the entire arrangements of three tunes associated with Cab Calloway, based on indications provided by Alvin: “Ballad of Smokey Joe,” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” and “Old Man of the Mountain.”

Following the release of the album, Sun Ra and Phil Alvin planned to bring college musicians and their elders together in order to keep the expansion of this pioneering art form active. Unfortunately Sun Ra passed away before they could begin in earnest to officially implement that program.

The appearance of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans continued in the same spirit with their punchy horn arrangement on “Someone Stole Gabriel's Horn.” The band also went on to help Alvin with his second solo CD County Fair 2000 in 1994 on Hightone, which thankfully is still in print.

county fairAdding to the album’s diverse nature, Alvin performed solo with guitar on “Next Week Sometime,” “Titanic Blues,” and “Gangster's Blues.” Violinist Richard Greene is added on “Collins Cave,” the Jubilee Train Singers help on the gospel "Death in the Morning," and a quartet featuring original Blasters pianist Gene Taylor and Alvin Brothers’ childhood friend Gary Masi on guitar is featured on a rocking “Daddy Rolling Stone.” Upon release, Unsung Stories seemed like the farthest thing from what the Blasters had done. In reality it was the exact same thing, just a different way of presenting it. It IS American music.

For the time being, legal reasons and disagreements between Slash and Alvin make this set almost impossible for release on CD; vinyl copies are still floating around on the web at decent prices. Hopefully, someday, Unsung Stories will get a second wind on CD, or whatever the next format is, allowing the evolution of this American music to continue.