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Clip: The Roots of Hightone

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  • Carl Z.
    The Roots of Hightone j. poet Sunday, September 24, 2006 Welcome to the
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 24, 2006

      The Roots of Hightone

      j. poet

      Sunday, September 24, 2006

      "Welcome to the HighTone executive tower," Larry Sloven says with a
      slight smirk.

      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.
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