Clip: The Roots of Hightone
The Roots of Hightone
Sunday, September 24, 2006
"Welcome to the HighTone executive tower," Larry Sloven says with a
Sloven started the HighTone label, one of the most successful roots
music logos in the country, with his partner, blues music producer
Bruce Bromberg, in 1983. The "tower" is actually on the ground floor
of a small gray building near Jack London Square.
Sloven's office is a compact space dominated by his desk and decorated
with eye-dazzling Huichol yarn paintings, mismatched office furniture
and a bulletin board with a hodgepodge of personal and promotional
photos. For belonging to a record executive, the space is remarkably
well organized and clutter free.
"When we expanded our offices, we organized things, and I try to keep
it relatively neat," Sloven says. "The only posters on the walls are
Mexican music artists that aren't ours. I'm hoping that Mexican music
will be a bigger part of what we do in the future. In fact, this past
weekend I went to see one of the best live shows I've ever seen. Julio
Preciado, great banda singer."
Sloven goes into a detailed description of the gig, grinning and
speaking with great enthusiasm. In a business dominated by people with
an eye for nothing but the bottom line, Sloven's passion is unusual.
It's that passion for music that allowed High-Tone to develop and
maintain its substantial fan base.
"Bruce and I started HighTone because we both loved roots music,
blues, country, singer-songwriters," Sloven says. "We wanted to put
out records by artists we loved. We both had jobs and (the label) was
going to be a sideline."
Unexpectedly, the label hit pay dirt with its first album, Robert
Cray's "Bad Influence." The record got onto the Billboard Top 200, a
rare feat for any record on an independent label, much less a blues
album, but the triumph was not an overnight success.
"We were working full time and trying to get HighTone off the ground,"
Sloven says. "On my lunch hour I'd go home, or to a wooden phone booth
at Brennan's in Berkeley, and call distributors. In one year we moved
11,000 or 12,000 units, fantastic for a blues record in the '80s."
Cray's second HighTone effort, "False Accusations," did well enough to
interest Mercury Records, and his third album, "Strong Persuader," was
a HighTone/Mercury joint venture. It sold 3 million copies and put
HighTone and Cray on the map.
"Because of our success with Cray, people assumed we were a blues
label, but our first album was going to be a reissue of material by
Tommy Duncan, the vocalist for Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys,"
Sloven says. "When that fell through, I talked Bruce into putting out
the Cray record. He'd already produced it and was shopping it around,
but nobody wanted to put it out."
With Bromberg's production expertise and Sloven's business savvy, the
label carved out a niche in the roots-music style that would soon
become known as Americana.
"When we signed (Texas singer-songwriter and musical maverick) Joe
Ely, it gave us the impetus to pursue the music I was really a fan of
-- country rock, now known as Americana," Sloven says. "When they
finally started the Americana chart, HighTone had the first and
longest-running No. 1 Americana record ("Tulare Dust," a compilation
of artists singing Merle Haggard songs). A concert we had at the
Fillmore to support the record is one of the high points of running
the label. Haggard headlined, and six people on the album opened for
him -- Dave Alvin, Tom Russell, Katy Moffat, Rosie Flores, Marshall
Crenshaw and Billy Joe Shaver."
After more than 20 years in the business, HighTone decided to give
itself a present and put together "The HighTone Records Story," a box
that delivers five hours of roots music on four CDs and one DVD.
"I'm not sure why we did it," Sloven says with characteristic modesty.
"I thought we'd put out enough good music that we should document it.
We also wanted to show people that we don't do only one kind of music.
I'm proud of what we've accomplished and the box reflects our work.
Lee (Hildebrand, Oakland blues expert and frequent Datebook
contributor) did a fantastic job writing our history and explaining
what people are listening to or watching (in the 124-page book that
accompanies the set). (For the DVD), I dug out all the video masters,
some of them in formats you can't even look at anymore."
HighTone's foray into video production took place in the early '80s
when artists felt a video was a necessary perk. The set's DVD includes
performances by noir cowboy Russell and hard-core honky-tonk singer
Gary Stewart and provides a glimpse into the dawn of Americana.
"HighTone's video history was expensive and unsuccessful," Sloven
says, laughing. "They had such little effect it was daunting, but
putting them into the box was a revelation. Joe Ely's video got on MTV
a few times; the rest got shown in varying minor degrees on CMT
(Country Music Television). Almost none of them produced any return on
the amount of money we spent on them, but they're cool documents of
people making adventurous music -- Dave Alvin, the Lonesome Strangers,
Rosie Flores. The Dale Watson video has a lot of famous Austin
musicians in it -- the Geezinslaws, Cornell Hurd, the Derailers and
Ray Benson from Asleep at the Wheel."
In keeping with the label founders' hard-working ethos, "The HighTone
Records Story" doesn't include unreleased tracks, outtakes or anything
smacking of gimmickry.
"On our budget, we don't overrecord," Sloven says. "And it's not a
greatest-hits compilation. We used some obscure tracks to remind
people of music they may have overlooked."
The CDs are broken roughly into genres: blues, country, rock and folk.
The set includes Cray's "Smoking Gun," the single that gave the singer
and HighTone national credibility; "Fast Food Slow Death," a humorous
blues protest tune by Clarence Brewer; "American Music" by the
Blasters, one of the cornerstones of the Americana sound; "Sparkling
City" by seldom recorded Austin, Texas, harmonica-blowing songwriter
Ted Roddy; and "En la Central de Colima" by Oakland's Los Reales del
Rancho, featuring the hot guitar work of lead singer Chay Vazquez.
With "The HighTone Records Story" released, Sloven is back to the
challenges of day-to-day business.
"I'd be happy to get another big hit," he says, "but I'm happy having
a label where I can do what I want and know there's an audience that
shares my taste and lets me make good records for them. We've been
doing it for 23 years now. I hope to be able to do it for another 20
years or so."
j. poet is a freelance writer.