‘Strange’

For two days now, the Texas Gal has been out of commission with a head cold, and my internal monitors tell me I’m soon to join her. I have a meeting early this afternoon for which I need to be cogent, but I can tell that the rest of the day – before and after the meeting – I’ll be lucky if I’ve got the sense to pour a bowl of cereal.

So I’m turning things over to my little tuneheads Odd and Pop, and they’ve flipped a coin and decided that Odd gets to choose today’s featured tune. Pop laid one condition on the selection: “As long as you’re going to choose something strange, make sure that ‘strange’ is in the title.” Odd nodded as he happily wandered off to play in the digital shelves.

And he came back with a single from San Francisco, recorded in 1966 and released in 1967: “Stranger In A Strange Land” by the duo of Blackburn & Snow. I did just a little digging. Richie Unterberger of All Music writes:

One of the most interesting folk-rock acts of the 1960s to totally miss out on meaningful national exposure, the male-female duo of Jeff Blackburn and Sherry Snow had a lot going for them. Their male-female harmonies were nearly on par with those of the early Jefferson Airplane, and they boasted a wealth of fine original material by Blackburn that deftly combined folk, rock, country, and light psychedelic influences into a melodic blend that was both commercial and creatively idiosyncratic. What they didn’t have was a regular release schedule. Indeed, there were only two poorly distributed singles on Verve, including the classic “Stranger in a Strange Land,” before they split up in the late ’60s.

Unterberger notes that the duo did record an album’s worth of unreleased material, and that material, along with the tracks from the two singles, was released on CD in 1999 with the title Something Good For Your Head. Somewhere along the way, I stumbled across that CD release, and then I came across a slightly different version of “Stranger In A Strange Land” in the box set Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970. It was the box set version of the tune that Odd came across this morning.

A little more digging told me that, notwithstanding Unterberger’s praise for Blackburn’s writing, “Stranger In A Strange Land” was not Blackburn’s work. The writer was Samuel F. Omar, which was evidently a pseudonym for David Crosby. And that makes things even more strange, which is just fine this morning.

Strange or not, even Pop was pleased. “This coulda made the charts,” he said as he listened. Here’s what he heard:

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One Response to “‘Strange’”

  1. Yah Shure says:

    Great tune! My introduction to Blackburn & Snow came while browsing one early December day in 1985 at the Northern Lights University Avenue store in St. Paul. An album of questionable origin on the Phantom label, titled ‘Sounds Of The Sixties: San Francisco-Part 1′ caught my eye. It was number 026 of a “first and limited pressing of 500 copies,” the contents of which were noted only by the Xeroxed labels of sixteen 45s on the black-and-white back cover. I already owned one of those pictured 45s: the Vejtables’ “The Last Thing On My Mind.”

    The remaining cuts were completely unfamiliar, even if the labels themselves were not: Autumn, Galaxy, HBR, Uni, Mainstream, Double Shot and MTA. A couple of the artists – the Mojo Men, Count Five and Sly (Stone) – had had either earlier or later hits. But what sealed the deal for me was the Trident Productions logos on the two Verve singles shown on the LP: “Stranger In A Strange Land” and the Mystery Trend’s “Johnny Was A Good Boy.” Having remembered the Trident mark from We Five’s “You Were On My Mind,” I figured there might be more magic behind that badge.

    Blackburn & Snow provoked an immediate “why wasn’t THIS a hit?” reaction, becoming an instant favorite before the first verse had played through. But with eight cuts squeezed onto each side of the LP, all of which were sourced from original vinyl 45s, it took another dozen years or so to track down a better-sounding original Verve 45 (I don’t buy Richie Unterberger’s “poorly distributed” argument, when the real culprit was insufficient promotion and airplay. As an MGM-owned label, Verve had no distribution problems.)

    I couldn’t wait for the ‘Something Good For Your Head’ CD to arrive when it was released, but it proved a disappointment. As you’d noted, “Strange Land” had not been a Blackburn composition, and IMO none of the other tracks on the CD he did write came remotely close to capturing the single’s lightning in a bottle. The liner notes were perhaps the best part of the package, mentioning that “Strange Land” had remained in the can for nearly a year after being recorded. That song would’ve sounded awesome if it had been on the radio in 1966! Even a year later, it still didn’t miss a beat, but between Trident’s apparent lack of faith and Verve’s misplaced promotional priority, one can only wonder what might have been. Unfortunately, the CD probably answers that question pretty clearly: a one-hit wonder.

    By the way, as the liner notes pointed out, “Strange Land” was mixed to stereo for the first time in 1999 for that particular CD. The track on Rhino’s ‘San Francisco Nuggets’ box is from the same take, but it’s the original mono Verve single mix, which packs a much more focused punch than the diffused, thinner-sounding stereo mix. It’s not unlike “Strange Land”‘s later Bay Area cousin: Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love, where the sheer power of the tinder-dry, in-your-face mono mix makes one wonder what the hell went wrong with the mired-in-reverb stereo mess.

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