Fifteen or twenty years ago I contacted Tony Russell, the highly regarded Western Swing collector in the UK, who was responsible for a number of remarkable compilation reissues, suggesting that there should be a collection of the "best" of Bob Skyles and the Skyrockets. He agreed and indicated interest, but I got the impression that his project list was much like my own; meaning that those items below the top few are going to take a while to get around to. Many years later, the notion was still on my mind and something called the World Wide Web came along. So, on June 16, 1997, (nearly five years ago) I attempted to raise the profile of the Skyrockets by creating a web page devoted exclusively to the group.
Well, the web truly is "world wide" and not too long thereafter I was contacted by Duncan McLean, the Western Swing aficionado and researcher from the upper reaches of Scotland. The practicality of such a project was raised once again despite the observation that true fans of the group might number only in the single digits. Coincidentally, Duncan's book, "Lone Star Swing," was also published in 1997 and the recounting of his visit with Sanford Kendrick served to call further attention to the obscure recordings of the Skyrockets. According to Duncan, the one man in a position to undertake the Bob Skyles CD project was Kevin Coffey whose 1993 illustrated article "Forgotten Novelty: Bob Skyles & His Skyrockets," published in "The Journal of Country Music," was the definitive treatment of the subject.
At this point, my participation receded into the background. More years went by, but the wheels were silently turning. And now, straight from the efforts of the gentlemen just mentioned, the long-awaited collection is a reality. The release of Krazy Kat KK CD 29 now makes it possible for the general public to enjoy the music of this unique group. Entitled "BOB SKYLES and his SKYROCKETS 1937-1940," the CD was released in Europe early in 2002 and became available in the U.S. on February 26.
Before mentioning the highlights, I must say the most amazing "highlight" is the fact that this collection exists at all. The market for such a disc has got to be quite small, so my hat is certainly off to Messers. Coffey, Russell, Crump, McLean, and all the others who had a hand in this obvious labor of love.
The Skyrockets recorded more than 90 tunes during their all too brief career. Of these, 27 were selected for this collection. If one were to compile a "Best of Bob Skyles and his Skyrockets," many of the numbers included on this CD would certainly head the list.
I've Got A Crow to Pick With You was the first Bob Skyles record I ever heard and it still showcases the group about as well as any other. I had never heard anything like it. As with so many other Skyrockets tunes, it is always a surprise when an odd instrument solo pops up. Each solo (trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and fiddle) on this track is a delight. The "take it home" vocal and instrumental closing told me this was a group I had to have more of. Similarly, Turn Loose And Go To Town is arguably unsurpassed. And just in case you didn't know it -- "A hot dog always has a wiener; a hot band always an ocarina."
Take special note of Laughing Song, an oddly charming throwback to the boy's medicine show days. It's the only number they ever recorded that features a vocal by Doc Kendrick, the patriarch of the family. Other exceptional or surprising tunes include: Shake Up Your Gourd Seeds, Blue Accordion Blues, I Ain't Got No Girl (featuring a vibraphone solo, no less), and The Lavender Cowboy, with respect to which you may supply your own adjectives. Perhaps the most up-tempo number on the disc is a song entitled Slap It, Shake It. Following a lengthy instrumental introduction, this tune is built around the phrasing: "Shim, sham, ... slim, slam ... slap it, shake it, hang it on the wall." People at the time may have known what this means.
The collection also includes all three of the previously available (and therefor somewhat better known) numbers: Jive And Smile, Rubber Dolly, and Hot Tamale Pete. For my money, these three slots would have been better filled by tunes which, by their omission, still remain beyond our hearing. Speaking of "hearing," perhaps this is the point to say what a pleasure it is to hear all these recordings absent the click, pop and hiss of poor condition 78s or 3rd generation cassette tapes. Charlie Crump has done a fine job of remastering from the rare 78rpm originals. Kevin Coffey's extensive and engaging notes in the 24-page booklet are exemplary and the four pictures of the group are all new to me. Add this to full discographical information and you have a very handsome package indeed.
And now, as all reviewers must, I shall isolate a few nits and proceed to pick them. The main criticism of the Skyrockets has always been that their songs are all too much alike. While this is seemingly true, the fault is attributable to their recording producers (who felt that novelty tunes had greater sales appeal) than to any lack of creative talent in the group itself. Consequently, the diversity displayed in the Skyrockets' live performances found only slight representation in the group's recorded output.
More diversity does, however, exist in the group's discography and it would have been nice if this collection had included I Want To Live In Loveland, The Old Grey Goose (Go Tell Aunt Rosie), The Porter's Love Song and the instrumental Bazooka Stomp, to give a more balanced picture of the repertoire. The same could be said of the haunting I Like It Here Where I Am on which Lou Brown (Mrs. Sanford Kendrick at the time) takes a vocal turn. I also missed The Farmer and Country Cowbells, among others.
Perhaps my biggest disappointment is the exclusion of My Arkansas Bazooka Gal. Of all the unusual instruments employed by the Skyrockets (ocarina, musical saw, tuba), the "bazooka" was of the greatest interest. But you needn't despair. An MP3 version of this tune is available on the main Bob Skyles page. You'll find access to an MP3 of The Farmer there as well.
While it is always easy to be critical, much of this is a matter of personal preference. Also, a compilation of rare recordings depends as much on the availability of acceptable quality original material as on the taste of the compiler, so, particular omissions may have more to do with real-world restrictions than with desire.
Despite any shortcomings, this is a perfectly delightful collection, rescuing these wonderful entertainers from the ranks of the forgotten and preserving their performances for all the future generations whose someday discovery of Bob Skyles and his Skyrockets I truly envy.
So, should you buy this CD? My gracious, if you've read this far, can there be any doubt? Of course you should. Do it right now. As an import title, this CD is not easy to find, but the Internet's leading retailer does have it. Clicking on the Amazon.com image will take you to a page where you can search for it.
Go back to the Bob Skyles page.
This page created and maintained by Jim Lowe
First appearance: March 17, 2002
Last updated: March 17, 2002