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Listen to "Alfred the King of Disco"

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Organ Magic
A Reader's Digest Boxed Set

Organ Magic--The record in all its naked glory

If you've ever spent more than a few minutes looking at records in a thrift store, you've undoubtedly come across one of the many boxed sets of records packaged and marketed by Reader's Digest magazine in the 1960s and 1970s.

Come across it and moved on.

Let's be honest. Names like Happiness Is!, soft focus cover photos of daisies or lovers strolling hand-in-hand through the park, and, above all, the Reader's Digest name do not shout out "Musical excitement! Adventures in listening!" They look more like the epitome of the Silent Majority Seventies, like what the deprogrammer put on when taking breaks from brainwashing the Hare Krishnas out of young Kenny's head. If Mantovani is easy listening, then this stuff must be inert listening.

And so it is, or at least most of it. Many of these sets represent some of the most professionally produced musical pablum ever recorded. The engineering standards are impeccable. They should be--most of the orchestral material was recorded in Europe using the best engineers, studios, and musicians a strong dollar could buy. The Europeans worked cheap (then) and the Americans paid big. They usually worked through a major label, such as RCA in this case, and hired superb arrangers such as Wally Stott (now Angela Morley) and Johnny Douglas. Or they hired people like Henry Mancini and let them re-record their best-known hits with a full orchestra.

In a few cases, they hired a variety of groups to come in and record 3-6 tracks of whatever the material needed to be. Broadway show tunes; big band era hits; or organ music, as with this record. They still stuck with solid names. On Happiness Is!, you'll find Billy May, Joe Reisman, Jack Jones, Harry James, and even Benny Goodman (who cringes audibly as he tolerates his way through "Spinning Wheel"). On Organ Magic!, we hear Glen Derringer, Don Baker, and Frank Renaut, all of whom released albums on one or more major labels in their own right.

And we hear Dick Hyman, the musical chameleon, who can sound like everyone from a roadhouse blues pianist to a classical organist, depending on what the job calls for.

Usually, however distinguised the performers may be, the stylistic effect of the Reader's Digest cachet is deadening. These renditions are almost always performed in a humorously straight-forward manner, avoiding any unusual orchestrations, dramatic attacks, jarring shifts in volume, rhythm, or tone, and individual interpretations. When the box promises a bunch of organ music for people who like organ music, that's what it delivers. A bunch of organ music played essentially anonymously by performers who might as be anonymous for what little personality they are allowed to sneak through.

But Organ Magic! is a 6-record set with 6 tracks on each side, for a total of over 70 numbers. And let us all thank the law of large numbers for the small gifts it brings us. Somehow in the course of assembling all these tracks, they must have run into a hole at the end of album 5 side 2 that they couldn't find, and grabbed something available to slap into it.

But they can't have been looking too closely. There is nothing anonymous about this tune. "Alfred, the King of Disco" is certainly not going to just blend in with the likes of "Two Hearts in Three-Quarter Time" or "The Way We Were." It's not only odd, it quite likely never make it out of the sound library until someone grabbed the tape.

And then there's the music. This is Hyman solo on electronic organ with rhythm effects and some kind of wah-wah peddle. In fact, it sounds as if some demo tape Hyman recorded to showcase his skills on the wah-wah, since at one point he dabbles with it to the point that the tune almost self-deconstructs. It's not that it's all that radical or jarring, but there is no way your local Republican precinct committeeman sat there complacently when his Zenith console stereo needle tracked over from Jane Jarvis' "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" and into "Alfred." Within 8 seconds, Hyman launches into his wah-wah fest, and he keeps getting more daring with his distortion contortions with each stanza.

Now before you run off to the Salvation Army to score your copy, let me caution that I found none of the other 70-odd tracks in this set worth a poop. The reason you see the record and not the cover of the box above is because I chucked it once I confirmed that Alfred was the only thing of royal pedigree in the set.

Who knows how this hallucinogenic hustle track ended up in an otherwise respectable collection of musical wallpaper. Let us just say, "Long Live King Alfred" and locomote our way out onto the dance floor.


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