The Essential: Samplers
Despite often costing far less than a regular LP, many samplers have become highly collectible. Surely a definitive list of 40 is impossible? Step forward Mark Sampson…
The birth of the sampler album is generally attributed to Jac Holzman, the head of Elektra Records. With no budget for advertising, he looked for other ways of promoting his catalogue (then) of folk and world music. Always big on concepts, in 1954 Holzman hit upon the idea of “a compendium of carefully assembled material all on a 10“ album to sell for a bargain price of $2.”
It worked, and the canny label boss inserted a “sampler clause” in his artists’ agreements that enabled him to use one track from any album, royalty-free. Subsequently, the sampler became a commonplace means of showcasing a record label’s diverse wares. Arguably, the idea had peaked in the 70s, when labels such as Island and CBS used samplers as a way of promoting the kind of LP-oriented artists who didn’t get aired on commercial radio.
Often a fraction of the cost of a full-price album, these cheap and cheerful curate’s eggs usually had the kind of artwork that could induce a mild wave of nausea. But they enabled teenagers, students and cheapskates with limited funds to build their record collections and, more importantly, to open their ears to a wider range of styles and music genres. Series such as Virgin’s Front Line might even have played a role in forging that unlikely late-70s bond between reggae and punk.
Before the seismic shift triggered by the internet, every self-respecting record label had samplers in circulation. Some had “Son[s] of” and some had two- and even three-record behemoths. Here, then, is a chronological sample of some of the most historically significant samplers and others owned or coveted by this particular compiler. Under-priced and often under-valued, Mint copies are as rare as Old English Spangles. Unless otherwise stated, rarest entries refer to UK releases.
40 A Folk Music Sampler
The original big 10-inch record of “outstanding folk & ethnic recordings” was sold mainly through the post. A version of La Bamba by Cynthia Gooding reflected her own and her label’s interest in “music of the world”. Jac Holzman also provided a mouthpiece for black ‘folk blues’ artists such as Josh White and Sonny Terry, who is featured here on the evergreen Kansas City.
Rarest US £22
39 Folk, Pops ‘n Jazz
Truer perhaps to the spirit of the sampler, this 12″ successor demonstrated the wider variety of styles for which the label would be celebrated over the next two decades. Tracks by The New York Jazz Quartet, vibraphonist Teddy Charles and Art Blakey’s The Jazz Messengers bear witness to Elektra’s brief foray into the world of jazz.
Rarest US £5
38 The Rock Machine Turns You On
The first of the great CBS bloodline retailed at a penny under 15 shillings. Dylan, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen featured alongside lesser known material like Spirit’s Fresh Garbage, Taj Mahal’s Statesboro Blues, the United States of America’s gloriously entitled I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar and Can’t Be So Bad by Moby Grape.
Rarest £8 (stereo pressing with mono labels)
37 Listen Here! A Transatlantic Sampler
This small independent British label was best known for British folk, American jazz imports – and three best-selling sex education albums! The record showcased Ralph McTell and the label’s folk-jazz supergroup, Pentangle, whose celebrated guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch also feature separately and together. A new group, The Sallyangie, included Mike Oldfield and his sister, Sally.
36 This Is Soul
This album retailed for a mere song, but what songs it included! Here be Mustang Sally, Knock On Wood, What Is Soul, B-A-B-Y, When A Man Loves A Woman and Aretha’s I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You). Wilson Pickett’s version of Land Of A Thousand Dances closes the treasure chest, but look for the New Orleans-style original by Chris Kenner.
35 Soul Fever, 16 King Size Rhythm & Blues Hits
When Polydor took over the awesome back catalogue of Cincinnati’sKing label, they compiled some choice cuts in a truly tawdry package. Fortunately, the music spoke for itself. Little Willie John’s epic Fever, Earl Bostic’s raucous Flamingo and James Brown’s show-stopping Please, Please, Please are but three of the best. Otis Redding’s Shout Bamalama reflects a time when he was aping Little Richard.
34 15/5 And All That Jazz: A Prestige Sampler
The first 3,000 copies of this sample of the Prestige label’s catalogue of mainly 1950s jazz bear the wording “14/11 And All That Jazz” on the label itself, because they were pressed prior to an increase in purchase tax sending the price soaring. Never mind, there’s Mose Allison’s Parchman Farm here, along with that tonic for manic depressives, Thelonious Monk’s glorious Little Rootie Tootie.
33 Stax Soul Explosion
Stax Records 1968
926 E. McLemore Avenue, Memphis: home of Stax Studios, whence flowed a steady stream of incomparable Southern soul. Among some of the more obvious hits, such as Johnnie Taylor’s Who’s Making Love, are lesser known gems like William Bell & Judy Clay’s My Baby Specialises and Booker T. & The M.G.’s Soul Limbo, once used by the BBC for their Test Match Special broadcasts.
Taking its title from a Dave Mason song on Traffic’s eponymous sophomore album, the first of the Island samplers included such riches as Fairport Convention’s Meet On The Ledge and the phase-tastic Rainbow Chaser by the short-lived (British) Nirvana. Gasoline Alley, the last track, is by Wynder K. Frog, better known as Mick Weaver, alumni of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band.
Rarest £9 (1st press)
31 Wowie Zowie! The World of Progressive Music
A truly hideous cover and an equally ghastly title rather cheapen the world of Decca and its subsidiary, Deram. A shame, because there’s some good stuff here. The Moody Blues’ opulent Nights in White Satin might contain a little too much saccharine, but there’s earthier blues-rock from John Mayall and Savoy Brown. There’s a track, too, from soon-to-be-famous Genesis, but William R. Strickland anyone?
The Curious Case of Heavy Jelly
The likes of Blodwyn Pig and Quintessence may be largely forgotten now, but the Island label’s Nice Enough To Eat sampler contained one 100% proof obscurity. Who in the name of nasty-sounding desserts were Heavy Jelly? The final track on Side 1 was their I Keep Singing That Same Old Song. Clocking in at over eight minutes, it was at the time the longest single ever released.
It was also frankly a bit of a dirge.
Anyone who thought that it was the work of British blue-eyed soul singer-songwriter, Jackie Lomax, can be pardoned their error. Graduate of the minor Mersey Sound group, The Undertakers, Lomax recorded briefly for Apple under the aegis of George Harrison and went on to front (again, briefly) ex-Yes man Tony Kaye’s Badger. He did indeed sing (briefly, once more) for Heavy Jelly, but not Nice Enough’s Heavy Jelly. Island’s gelatinous band were in fact the Newcastle artists previously known as Skip Bifferty.
The song was written by their bass player, Colin Gibson, who went on to play with Van Morrison among others. The two Heavy Jellies sought to profit from the interest generated by a fictitious ad placed in Time Out. The originators of the hoax released a single and their manager registered the name, which effectively prevented the Island band from releasing any further productions. Lomax and the trademarked Heavy Jelly recorded an album that was never commercially released – due, irony of delicious ironies, to a contractual dispute with Apple.
30 Gutbucket (An Underworld Eruption)
A slumbering piglet and an uncompromising title presumably chosen to reinforce the blues orientation: whether it’s American artists such as Captain Beefheart, Canned Heat and Big Joe Williams, or home-grown talent such as Jo-Ann Kelly, Alexis Korner and the ultra-heavy Groundhogs, whose guitarist and singer Tony McPhee also features – in a version of Rosco Gordon’s classic R&B cut, No More Doggin’.
29 Nice Enough To Eat
Retailing at 14/6d and including tasty morsels by Traffic, Nick Drake, King Crimson (the wild 21st Century Schizoid Man from In The Court Of The Crimson King) and a young Mott The Hoople (their Dylan-esque version of Doug Sahm’s At The Crossroads), this was almost edible. Worth tracking down, too, for curios by Quintessence, Dr. Strangely Strange and the ultra-obscure Heavy Jelly.
28 Motown Chartbusters Vol. 3
Whereas The Big Wheels Of Motown was a Greatest Hits retrospective, the Chartbusters series sampled the label’s current wares. Volume 3 is the one to go for: not only for the obvious crackers – such as I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Get Ready, Dancing In The Street and Road Runner – but also for lesser known marvels such as Edwin Starr’s brilliant Stop Her On Sight (S.O.S.)
27 Super-Duper Blues
Blue Horizon 1969
More dodgy sleeve art, the British blues label harboured a few US blues artists, such as Champion Jack Dupree and Johnny Shines, but it was Peter Green’s original Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack that were the real jewels in the label’s crown. The Shack’s vocalist and keyboard player, Christine Perfect, went on to marry Mac’s John McVie and find international superstardom with the group’s subsequent incarnation.
26 Picnic (A Breath Of Fresh Air)
EMI’s Harvest label never did things by halves. Gatefold sleeves bumped up the retail price, and their sampler was a bumper double. Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett were already famous, Deep Purple would be soon, and the Pretty Things, Roy Harper and Barclay James Harvest would bubble under seemingly forever.
25 Fill Your Head With Rock
Featuring The Flock’s bare-chested electric violinist, Jerry Goodman, on its cover, this double-header is crammed full of diverse goodies. There’s Laura Nyro’s impassioned Gibsom Street, Argent’s Dance In The Smoke, Moondog’s Stomping Ground and Black Widow’s controversial Come To The Sabbat.
24 The Vertigo Annual
Double samplers were clearly de rigueur in 1970. Among the label’s metal bands – like Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep and May Blitz – was a smattering of modern British jazz-rock in the shape of Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum, Ian Carr’s Nucleus and flautist Bob Downes. A certain Rod Stewart offered Handbags And Gladrags from his debut solo album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down.
23 The Age of Atlantic
From the rich diversity of the House of Ertegun came a sampler dedicated entirely to ‘white’ rock. MC5, Delaney & Bonnie, Yes, Iron Butterfly and Buffalo Springfield feature along with Led Zep. The fact that only a tribute concert to Ahmet Ertegun could prompt Led Zeppelin to re-form speaks volumes for the affection in which the label boss was held.
22 Garden of Delights
A double album rather than the heavyweight US triple must have seemed more appropriate for the smaller UK market. Both reflected a label that had by now evolved into one at the cutting edge of the American rock scene. Love’s classic Alone Again Or opens the proceedings, but strangely there’s nothing from the label’s biggest-selling rock band, The Doors.
21 Greasy Truckers Party
A sampler with a USP: United Artists recorded several of its highest-profile rock acts live at the Roundhouse. The first side is dedicated to the Welsh wizards, Man, whose Spunk Rock goes on… and on. Two Hawkwind numbers take up a further side, while quintessential pub-rockers Brinsley Schwarz contribute five pithier songs. Power Cut by No Artist is an actual power cut.
The Warner/ Reprise Loss Leader
A sub-genre of sampler albums in their own right, one could almost compile 40 essential ‘Loss Leaders’. Between 1969 and 1980, Warner Brothers sold these (mainly) double samplers solely by mail. The doubles sold for a mere $2 and averaged about 28 selections. You sent your completed coupon along with a cheque or money order to a PO Box in Burbank, California. You got back your sampler with its own title (like Days Of Wine And Vinyl) and selections from the “latest work, plus some extra collectors’ items (such as unreleased singles)” of artists of the calibre of Captain Beefheart, Randy Newman, Tower Of Power, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.
The tongue-in-cheek PR notes on the label’s regular inner sleeves explain that “we can get away with that low price because these celebrated artists and this record company has agreed not to make a profit on this venture”. Reading on, one arrives at a paragraph that sums up rather neatly the whole ethos of sampler albums: “It’s our fervent hope – after hearing one of the Loss Leaders – you’ll be encouraged to pick up more of what you hear on these special albums, at regular retail prices. That’s where the profit lies. We think.” Elektra’s Jac Holzman couldn’t have put it better himself.
20 Black and White Jazz Catalog
Volume 150 of the excellent Black & White collection was a double sampler that could serve as a history of jazz: from the earliest track (1918) by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band that opens Side 1 to the Algerian pianist, Martial Solal, whose Jazz Frit from 1971 concludes Side 4. The big bands of the 30s and 40s are particularly well represented.
Rarest France £3
19 This Is Reggae Music
Licensed from Island, whose astute founding father Chris Blackwell re-processed The Wailers for the UK market and transformed Bob Marley into an international star. Here, on the first of two volumes, are I Shot The Sherriff and Concrete Jungle, with which Bob, Peter and Bunny captivated viewers of The Old Grey Whistle Test. Toots & The Maytals’ delirious Funky Kingston, however, steals the sampler.
Phillybusters Vol III
The Sound of Philadelphia1975
Like Motown’s Chartbusters series, the Phillybusters promoted what was happening currently at Sigma Sound Studios, Philadelphia. The first four killer tracks – by the O’Jays, Harold Melvin, People’s Choice and Archie Bell & The Drells – give the third volume the edge over the other three (nevertheless fine) compilations. As in-house songwriter Bunny Sigler sang, Shake Your Booty. You bet your socks!.
17 The Front Line
Although a couple of further volumes would follow, the original Virgin reggae sampler – “an album for the price of a single” – is owed a debt of gratitude for helping to fuel the UK’s conversion to Jamaican roots music, and for kicking off with the title track of The Mighty Diamonds’ Right Time album, one of the treasures of the vocal harmony trio sub-genre.
16 All Platinum Gold
Label boss Sylvia Robinson appears twice on this compilation of the New York soul and disco All Platinum label: once as a solo artist (Pussycat) and once in the exalted company of The Moments (Sho’Nuff Boogie), who provide the kitsch classic Girls. Sylvia and husband Joe would go on to launch Sugar Hill Records, whence cameth Rapper’s Delight. And the rest, as they say…
15 A Bunch Of Stiff Records
“If they’re dead, we’ll sign ‘em,” the cover of this Stiff Records sampler suggests – and Stiff certainly had a way with slogans and a knack for unearthing talent. There’s no Ian Dury here yet, but early label stalwarts Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello put in appearances. Both of them had links to Brinsley Schwarz, the pub-rockers once managed by Stiff’s co-founder, Dave Robinson.
14 Return To Casablanca
Founded by ex-Buddah chief Neil Bogart, and acquired eventually by the Universal Music Group, this double sampler is the only one to bear an image of another Bogart, Humphrey, on its cover. Named after the film, the label enjoyed just over a decade in the sun, thanks to artists like KISS, Donna Summer, Cameo and Parliament, the hornier string to George Clinton’s heterogeneous bow.
Rarest £8 (US)
13 The Charly Black Music Sampler
Charly Records 1981
It seemed at one time that the UK’s Charly label owned the rights to just about every smaller specialist black music label from the 1960s. No wonder they needed to release a sampler. The second side is dedicated to the blues, while the first side cherry-picks mainly from Chicago’s VeeJay label and such acme New Orleans recordings as Irma Thomas’ soul-drenched In Between Tears.
12 Windham Hill Records Sampler ‘81
Windham Hill Records 1981
If you like country with a boogie beat, then this sampler isn’t for you. Synonymous with the kind of mellow instrumental acoustic music that would be branded New Age, the Californian label became a byword for equally tasteful packaging. Even its samplers were discreet. Moon, by its best-selling artist, pianist George Winston, follows Robbie Basho’s Variations On Clair De Lune. Mmmm, nice programming.
Rarest £5 (US)
11 Sub Pop 100
Sub Pop 1986
Short, sharp and decidedly lo-fi, only 5,000 copies of this sampler celebrating the US North-West’s burgeoning grunge scene were printed. Which of course makes it eminently collectable. We’re too early for Nirvana, but not for Sonic Youth, Skinny Puppy and the Wipers (with Nothin’ To Prove other than a coincidental relation to The Undertones). “Unauthorized duplication will be met with the iron fist of the law.” You havebeen warned.
Rarest £15 (US)
10 Blue Bossa
Blue Note 1986
The first of the multitudinous and multifarious themed compilations from the Blue Note vaults is probably still the best of the bunch. This one sampled the many artists who rode the new wave of bossa nova in the 60s. The wider Latin remit renders the title misleading, but given Kenny Dorham’s Afrodisia and house guitarist Grant Green’s effortless Mambo Inn, who’s really complaining?
9 What’s Happening Stateside?
If a little late in the day, EMI’s 16 Sample Cuts From The Legendary Stateside Label served the uninitiated with the Isley Brothers’ lovely acoustic version of Who’s That Lady, Lou Rawls’ proto-rap about the Windy City, Dead End Street, and Z.Z. Hill’s excellent version of the Bobby Bland staple, Ain’t Nothin’ You Can Do. Not even to mention Professor Longhair!
8 Greensleeves Sampler
The parent that sired volume after volume of reggae samplers. Founded in 1975, the UK’s Greensleeves label arguably ruled the world of reggae and dancehall. Volume 1’s cup runneth over with talent: Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru, the underrated Wailing Souls and extraordinary Eek-A-Mouse. To quote Yellowman: “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng”.
7 Kick It! The Def Jam Sampler Volume One
Def Jam Recordings 1987
Long before Universal merged Def Jam with Island, Mercury and other independent labels to form the Island Def Jam Music Group, the label was distributed by CBS – with ‘previous’ when it came to samplers. Old-school beats predominate, including one of the label’s earliest releases, the Beastie Boys’ Rock Hard. Public Enemy and L.L. Cool J. feature along with er… Oran ‘Juice’ Jones.
6 The Riverside Jazz Sampler
Among the many labels Ace Records acquired for distribution were Riverside, specialists in jazz since 1953 and with whom Thelonious Monk stayed for five years before Columbia acquired the quirky composer. Monk isn’t on this one, so there’s space for some of the lesser-known Riversiders, like trumpeter Blue Mitchell, guitarist Mundell Lowe and the resurrected semi-legendary Bebop pianist, Joe Albany.
5 Doing It For The Kids
Creation Records co-founder Alan McGee’s “label of love” put out this jamboree of indie-spensables for the price of a 7″ single. It includes tracks by some of the label’s biggest hitters, such as Primal Scream, The Weather Prophets and My Bloody Valentine, along with rather more obscure releases such as The Jazz Butcher’s Lot 49 and Momus’ A Complete History of Sexual Jealousy (Parts 17-24).
4 Hey Drag City
Drag City 1994
A double helping of magnificent left-field alternative fare from the Windy City label. Pre-dating Drag City’s release of Scott Walker’s Tilt, the album is “Scott Free” (to quote the Burnout track featured), but includes Pavement’s typically concise Nail Clinic and Silver Jews’ Famous Eyes, alongside Smog and Royal Trux. The label that stood defiantly against streaming would go on to diversify into print and comedy (via the likes of Andy Kaufman).
Rarest US £8
3 94 & 10th – A Decade Of Fourth & Broadway
4th & Broadway 1994
This double-album compilation knocks the original sampler of 1988 into a cocked hat. Island (again) sampled its subsidiary label in an Uptown and a Downtown LP. Both positively sizzle with a multitude of dance classics: Skipworth & Turner’s Thinking About Your Love, Drizabone’s Real Love, Trouble Funk’s Go Go staple, Drop The Bomb, and Freakpower’s Turn On, Tune In, Cop Out to name but four.
2 Brazilian Love Affair 2
Far Out Recordings 2001
The UK’s leading Brazilian music label, founded by London DJ and record producer Joe Davis, put out four double samplers that helped to introduce listeners to the boundless delights of Brazilian music. With little to choose between them, quality-wise, the spotlight falls on Volume 2 partly because label-favourite Marcos Valle’s irresistible Freio Aerodynamico exemplifies Far Out’s quest for the best in dance music.
Custom can never stale the infinite variety of the ultra-hip label from Madrid. Among this double jamboree of soul, funk, cumbia, Latin jazz and rhythm & blues are three tracks by artists with a Motor City connection: Andre Williams (who once managed Edwin Starr), Dennis Coffey (guitarist with Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers) and the little known but ice-cool guitarist, Eddy Senay.
Rarest Spain £20