Straying into unfamiliar territory is always daunting, even more so, in outer space. A reader sent me questions about Saturn originals, in particular, Sun Ra’s 1966 album, The Magic City. A gap in my knowledge, I couldn’t answer. So I was determined to fill that gap, hence this Beginners Guide to Saturn, the Beginner in question being me. Let’s see where it goes, climb on board, strap in, ignition, Houston, we have lift off, destination Saturn!
Say again, Houston, how many light years to Saturn?
Sun Ra’s conceptual master-stroke was to fuse an impossibly distant Past (ancient Egypt 3000 BC) with an impossibly distant Future (interplanetary space travel), offering a temporary escape from the generally awful Present. All for the price of an entry ticket, now that is an attractive proposition
The costumes referenced the Past, the musical themes spoke to the Future, the economic driving force was Arkestra live performance, which brought the two together. Selling records after a gig was supplementary, and making hit records not on the agenda. The record collector has to decide what, if anything, is collectable, and the audiophile, what is listenable. Not everything is.
I had the pleasure of seeing the Arkestra, led by Marshall Allen, with a couple of friends a few years ago at East London’s Passing Clouds, Dalston – live photos with my new 50mm f1.2 lens on its first outing. A memorable theatrical performance it was, most memorable for the gap of may be four decades between us and the bulk of the audience. I think we were just a few years below Marshall Allen’s graduation class, though it was great to see so many youngsters enjoying the vibe.
Marshall’s 95th Birthday celebration party:
Original Saturn records have always been a non-starter for me, scarce and expensive, I have only ever seen one in the flesh. They have no audiophile dimension that I know of. Who was the engineer, and the recording studio? I have now discovered a name, more on that later.
The Saturn label was founded in 1957 by Alton Abraham, who managed much of the business side of Sun Ra, along with his brother Artis, who founded Saturn Research to record and distribute the albums. Over the following forty years, hundreds of group names were assigned to the Sun Ra Arkestra collective, permutations of Sun Ra and his …Intergalactic Astro-Infinity Solar Myth-Science Research Blue Universe … Arkestra. Even members of the collective had their names changed: one time Arkestra member Farrell Sanders had his name changed to the more imperial Pharoah Sanders.
Historical Context: Sun Ra’s musical career is broadly divided by time and geography (Wiki-links)
California and world tours (1968–93)
The Sun Ra discography is “one of the largest discographies in music history” (Wiki) said to include 150 – 200 albums. Robert L. Campbell’s definitive discography (2nd Edition) amounts to 850 pages, a co-author, Christopher Trent. They also author “From Sonny Blount to Sun Ra, The Chicago Years,” the most informative Sun Ra site on the net. See http://campber.people.clemson.edu/sunra.html..
I haven’t found a source for Saturn labelography. Saturn record labels are often conspicuously omitted as a label altogether to avoid its mind-boggling complexity. Making good the deficit, this Guide attempts to cover the main Saturn labels from the early years through to its effective disappearance in the mid ’80s.
Deep groove, simple text, mixed serif and sans-serif fonts. No copyright date assertion, but the Publisher always Enterplan – Enterplanetary Koncepts.
Deep groove, which was fast disappearing at the time. Introducing a new Saturn logo, in a distinctive Lateral Incised NF Font. Got to love the descriptive precision of typographic design: one side has been cut open. Didn’t last long in use, With Saturn design is disposable item.
Saturn circa 1965
Simple text typesetting appears at random. Note the large pressing die around the spindle hole, which it seems is present on around half of these vintage pressings.
White label/ black text,also other colours, Saturn logo: Extruded/ Shadowed Outline Font. Magic City, critically acclaimed by some as the high-point of Sun Ra titles. There is one common thread with many of these earlier pressings, the large central die impression on many of them, Perhaps someone knows this characteristic pressing die mark.
Who recorded, mastered and pressed Saturn? One chance label shot of The Magic City above captured this etching, with the letters BP in an unusual angular hand.
Discogs priceless Forum on common deadwax etchings turns up Indiana cutting engineer Bud Pressner, perfect match.
Bud Pressner, tenor saxophone and clarinet player, mastering and cutting engineer, owner-operator of Bud Pressner Music & Recording Service Studio and pressing plant based in Gary, Indiana. Pessner looks an unlikely denizen of Saturn, but who knows.
Some decades later, Pessner was dubbed godfather of Chicago House “music”, which in the ’80s caused lots of people to jump up and down, all night. According to insiders, his work for the Trax label was because “he was cheap and fast”. Sounds like two good reasons why Sun Ra might have used him.
Red label/ silver/white and gold text, Saturn logo: Inverted Shadowed Outline Font No deep groove.
Saturn 1966 – Plain text, mixed serif and sans-serif fonts, coloured label, deep groove.
Saturn logo in Lateral Incised NY font at bottom of label
Saturn circa 1967 , first sight of “EL SATURN RECORDS” – EL prefix.
Having been been in constant flux for a decade, Saturn sudenly found some consistency with a new Ankh logo. The Ankh, a cross with a teardrop top, is an ancient Egyptian symbol, “Keys Of Life”. It is placed in front of sun-ray radial black lines.The Ankh and radial sun-rays logo first appears on the Saturn label in 1969.
The record label name SATURN returned to the vertical text format of the original 1957-9 label, set on the outer left circumference, but now with prefix EL next to the logo, EL SATURN. It is not the hispanic El as in El Toro. The EL is a reference in medieval astrology to planentary deities and Saturn’s place in ancient cosmology. This is not just any old Saturn, this is new EL SATURN…
The Ankh and radial sunrays logo remained in use for almost a decade, until around 1978. Below are a selection from the Ankh label EL SATURN decade in no particular order. Reissues are mixed in among new titles. It is the nearest Saturn got to a consistent label design.
THOTH intergalactic (circa 1969)
At around the same time as the Ankh symbol label, another reference to ancient Egyptian mythology was introduced by Sun Ra, keeping up the mythic pressure, the THOTH label. Thoth was an ancient Egyptian deity, the god of wisdom, writing, hieroglyphs, science, magic, art, judgment, and the dead. Sounds like my kind of deity. Thoth was often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis.
In case you should bump in to him. Hey Thoth, how’s it going? I Iike the..um..beak, it suits you.Like the loin cloth – Aten Primark? You’re kidding me.
Note: Thoth is holding a spear with an ibis head in one hand, dangling an ankh with the other.
Circa 1978+ :Crayon Art
Dozens of titles, each title with unique designs. Members of the band apparently contributed some of the artwork. Allegedly many were pressed in small quantities to be sold to audiences at the end of concerts.(That is certainly what happened at the end of my Dalston performance, a small case of Sun Ra CDs, “which the band didn’t want to take home”)
Saturn 1980’s more ancient Egypt Connections
The ancient civilisation of Egypt dates back to 3000 BC, effectively a blank canvas for creative spiritual and mystical hokum, hieroglyphs, pyramids, Saturn’s rings.
Philadelphia Late 70’s – mid- 80s
The label address is now 5256 Monton Street, Philadelphia.PA 19144.
Another Ancient Egyptian symbol appears, the Eye of Horus, a symbol of protection, royal power and good health – I could do with some of that.
Combined on the label, the Eye of Horus with radial rays emanating from the top of a pyramid, a mixture of graphic art lettering and mechanical text ® 1985.
Labels increasingly hand-drawn.
In 1990 Sun Ra suffered a stroke, but kept composing, performing, and leading the Arkestra. When he became too ill to perform and tour, he appointed Gilmore to lead the Arkestra. Sun Ra died in hospital in 1993, age 79, his footstone reading “Herman Sonny Blount aka Le Sony’r Ra” the name he changed legally to in 1952.
His most endearing characteristic was that as an artist he never strayed from his lifelong adopted persona, not living the double life of an actor and performer, for all intents and purposes, he was Sun Ra.
Collector’s Footnote: Saturn/ Sun Ra Reissues
If Saturn original pressings are not your aspiration, reissues are the only accessible way forward, and there are many of these available, and the sound is typically CD quality, which is likely where they came from.
The reissue of Sun Ra recordings has been taken on by dozens of other labels reissuing earlier titles. The UK record company Art Yard has made an industry in Sun Ra reissues, and Evidence in PA.
Possibly one vintage vinyl issue to look out for is the two volumes Live at The Fondation Maeght, St Paul de Vence, France, recorded in 1970, and issued on the French Shandar label. Though I have not heard this, I have the Cecil Taylor (with Sam Rivers) recorded at the same French art gallery, and it’s a great recording and good pressing.
The same can not be said of the early ’70s ABC Impulse! reissues. Despite the strong alternative cover art, the sound quality is very poor. I bought several in quick succession before the disappointment hit home.
Wiki: A batch of the most significant recordings were licensed to Impulse! Records in the mid-1970s. They were not as successful as hoped, and were deleted from the Impulse catalog.
Engineering by Ed Michel and Baker Bigsby is good credentials, but the sound does not live up to the cover art, thin gruel, lo-fi. May be it is the original recordings, wierdness and audiophilia don’t mix, or we have been spoiled by all the really good stuff, our expectations are unrealistic.
Last word to Wiki
As is the case with an artist whose output is so extensive, there is quite a bit of debate regarding Sun Ra’s “best” albums. Of all these recordings, many critics and enthusiasts feel that the 1959 big band album Jazz In Silhouette is the best entry-point into his work, with The Penguin Guide to Jazz naming the album as part of a recommended “Core Collection” for any serious jazz fan and as “one of the most important jazz records since World War II.
This is the one for the First Pressing Fundamentalists (first cover circa 1957-9).
This recording contains the wonderdful track “Enlightenment” composed by Ra’s trumpet player Hobart Dotson, the tune led by Pat Patrick’s surefooted baritone opening lament, joined by by James Spaulding alto and John Gilmore tenor, Jazz In Silhouette (review, DOL reissue 2014) with the second cover (right), probably among my top ten favourite jazz tracks ever. – now there’s a challenge, a theme to return to.
I enjoy Sun Ra’s Chicago late 50’s big-band swing with a twist, which include Jazz/Sun Song, Jazz in Silhouette, and Super-Sonic Sounds, inexpensive reissues of these early years are fairly solid performers.. The ensemble is Basie and Ellington style line-ups but repurposed by a different guiding hand to a different outcome.
The later Sun Ra material is not for me, and definitely not the moog/synthesiser and electronic effects, though I am sure it has a devoted following among those who find quirky Space Jazz “otherworldliness” attractive. I concede, given the state of the world today, off-planet may be not be a bad place to be.
Sun Ra’s album Lanquidity (1978) has been attracting a lot of attention, with a recent 4xLP “Definitive Edition” box set. Organissimo has a “Sun Ra Corner” which runs to 29 pages of comments, should anyone want for even more thoughts. A helpful navigational Guide to the works of Sun Ra has been set up on Bandcamp, who are assembling an online master archive of Sun Ra LPs just a small selection of which are shown below:I There are around 80 albums in the Bandcamp archive, all tracks free to stream (or buy/download). Outside of the ’50s material, sampling a few albums at random reminded me this is really not my music, of course, you are welcome to differ.
IT’S COLLECTOR’S SHOW-TIME!
To return to the origins of this quest, the search for the first original pressing of The Magic City (1966) which has several editions.
Popsike shows where the money goes, top auction prices by label, puts our friendly deity Thoth on top of the Leaderboard at $1,000, a strong showing by White label at $750, Red Label and EL Saturn bringing up the rear at just over $400. Of course, condition is king, so auction price may not tell everything. Or indeed anything.
LJC’s Saturn label chronology suggest the sequence below, over time, though it is a close call between White and Red, as both labels were in use in 1966, and both labels have been claimed by sellers to be the original. However Thoth is definitely out of the running, bummer for a supreme deity, and cosmology-based EL Saturn. White is my odds-on favourite.
Collector’s maxim: where there is doubt, seek a promo out. The deciding call goes to the white label, on the strength of this promo, which fetched only $300 at auction, but confirms the earliest release of The Magic City to be the white label, by a nose.
I am still a complete Beginner with Sun Ra and Saturn, but I’m prepared to make a start, a little smarter than when I set out, now more in tune with the astral plane:
If you can add anything, corrections, thoughts, the floor (space?) is yours.
Please correct the author’s credit for the Ra discography, The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (Robert L. Campbell, not Peter Campbell). That 850 page second edition also had a co-author, Christopher Trent. They also author “From Sonny Blount to Sun Ra, The Chicago Years,” hands down the most informative Sun Ra site on the net. See http://campber.people.clemson.edu/sunra.html. They, along with Hartmut Geerken, did the bulk of the most important research done on Ra in the course of the last 30-40 years.
Thank you, I have corrected the author’s name references and added your link to “The Chicago Years” the post
I can’t quite decide whether I am a Sun Ra sceptic, an ignorant but potential admirer…or simply someone who has been frightened off by the variability of the huge profusion of recordings. In fact, the only one I have is JAZZ IN SILHOUETTE in the early-70s Impulse reissue. When I think to play this – which isn’t very often – I enjoy it.
I like the Sun Ra myth and lore but I am aware that a little bit of me thinks that he has been talked up wildly by a certain kind of collector — prized for obscurity, bragging rights, what will sample well, what will work on the jazz-dance floor… None of those things are necessarily bad but they aren’t my interests and so I find myself yet again discouraged.
I have been tempted by the LANQUIDITY DEFINITIVE box set but again part of me thinks, do I really need a four LP box set (“cut loud at 45rpm”) when I have never bothered to explore even the single-LP version?
As I age I find my tastes narrowing rather than widening. Rather than wanting “some of everything” I now find myself focusing increasingly on jazz that I consider essential — records that I can’t live without rather than records that might represent only a passing interest.
I say all this only really in an effort to try and work out in my own mind why I am not more attracted to Sun Ra and don’t try harder… As you can see, I haven’t really come to any conclusion — but I’m glad to be prompted to think about this again. Thanks, LJC.
Wonderful post and very informative. Over the past few months I have been fortunate to be in the middle of my own Sun Ra frenzy. An old friend / customer is selling his 30+ Saturn titles through me. I have a few anecdotal observations that may be interesting to you. First, this is a wonderful time to be selling Sun Ra titles. Almost all the pieces we’ve put up for auction have sold for more or near the highest recorded sale price. I see that this is the case for others who are listing now as well. Also, the majority of sales are to Europe and none are to Japan. Maybe that’s just me, but it is unusual to have such big ticket items with no interest from Japan. A number of the pieces were bought from the Band at concerts. Most of these are blank covers and labels with minimal writing. For example, on one called Dance Of The Innocent Passion the generic cover is blank and the hand written otherwise blank label reads “Sun Ra” “El Saturn” “1981”. I’d like to show you a picture but I’m not sure how. Lastly, my friend has kept detailed notes about all his records and is happy to show me all the Saturn originals he bought from me in the 70s and 80s for $6-$10! LOL. I know that $10 in 70s money is a bajillion or at least a thousand today, but still, the highest priced records in those days were $10.
Sun Ra and his acolytes moved to Philadelphia in 1968. It was cheaper to live there than in New York City. The band has been based there since, now led by 97 year old Marshall Allen. Sun Ra himself returned to his birthplace of Birmingham Alabama in 1992 and died there soon after. I attended one of their concerts in Philadelphia, led by Sun Ra himself, and it was quite a mixed-media extravaganza – hours of great music with singers, dancers, a parade – a joyous occasion indeed. I enjoyed your entry, had some mixed feelings about the snark, but that’s OK – no doubt Sun Ra had a sense of humor himself.
After decades of frustration trying to match the reputation of Ra to the very hit and miss vinyl output I jumped in the deep end . Firstly I purchased Robert L .Campbell’s book “The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra”. which covers everything that opens and shuts with recordings ( but does not cover label design). I wanted to steer away from the lo-fi stuff so I collected titles that were either marked as studio or rehearsal recordings. The book also resolves the chronological track mixing Ra indulged in up until the mid 1970’s. (eg “What’s New” 1962 and 1975 material.) You really cannot judge his musical development without this guide ,release dates are no help. Looking at the vast amount of recordings it was interesting that Ra stopped recording standards around 1963 but started again in 1975. That says to me he was following the musical trends of the time. Anyway , for what it is worth these well recorded albums are my all time favourites are ” Rocket number nine take off for planet Venus”, “Omniverse”, “God is more than love can be”
“Sleeping Beauty ” and “Mayan Temples”. Good luck with your quest.
Wow, this is an ambition undertaking! I am woefully ignorant of Sun Ra’s output but the first two gold label LPs from 1957-59 appear to be pressed by RCA from the matrix numbers on the labels.
P=12” Mono 33 1/3 rpm
P=12” Mono 33 1/3 rpm
At one point I had 29 Saturns; now I’m down to just 4 but am expecting a recent acquisition in the mail soon – “sound sun pleasure” which contains tracks from the 1959 “jazz in silhouette” session.
Curiously the last Saturn I sold was “the magic city”; I can confirm it was a first press with white labels and folkways style cover with red textured part near the record opening. A key session but one I hardly played.
The first time I saw Sun Ra and the Arkestra, over 30 years ago now and in North America, the band were selling Saturn LPs at the break from the bandstand. Like an idiot I passed as I had just bought my first CD player and was totally avoiding vinyl ! If my memory is correct both Gilmore and Allen were doing the honours with the cash-only sales.
That performance was an amazing experience though. Went on for well over 3 hours with multiple breaks.
I am by no means a Ra-ologist, but I dabble, and I love the man and his music. Best advice is always this: Sun Ra did not play any kind of jazz. He played all of jazz and most other things too. There is something in his output for everyone. Reach far. Try much.