SUN RA – A COLLECTORS’ NIGHTMARE
[This piece is condensed from a three-part series which drew heavily upon my review of Sun Ra in its original appearance. I have edited out the redundancies with that review, saving the collectors’ information which was unique to the series.]
Sun Ra was a unique jazz musician. Born Herman Blount, in 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama, by the mid-1940s he was living in Chicago, and was playing piano in the Fletcher Henderson orchestra. (Henderson was the first black leader of a big jazz band, and he subsequently supplied the charts which led the Benny Goodman band to its 1930s success. But by the 1940s the Henderson band was long past its peak.) It was in 1948 that Sonny Blount, as he was then known, changed the name on his passport to “Le Sonyr Ra,” and announced that he was “Sun Ra, cosmic messenger.” In the 1950s he put together his “Arkestra,” the band which he would lead for the rest of his life – which ended on May 30, 1993.
While Sun Ra’s earliest recordings were for his own Saturn label, these are widely variable in terms of both the music and the quality of recording. His first release on another label was his Transition album, Jazz by Sun Ra (TRLP-10), which is now valued at between $70 and $200 – depending on its condition and the presence of the “liner notes” booklet which originally came with it. This, and the intended follow-up album for Transition, recorded in late 1957 and released as Sound Of Joy on Delmark in 1968, were the only two albums which Sun Ra did not record for his own label in the 1950s.
In Goldmine’s Price Guide to Collectible Jazz Albums 1949-1969, Neal Umphred states in his prefatory notes, “The original [Saturn] serial numbers are unfathomable to those not versed in numerology” – which Ra of course was. “Pressing runs could be extremely small [for the Saturn releases] – as few as 75 at a time! … Saturn albums were issued in a confusing variety of covers; many early LPs were sent out in blank covers, often hand-decorated.”
For example, Ra’s first Saturn LP, Super-Sonic Jazz, was issued in 1957 first with a blank cover, then with a silk-screened cover, and then in 1958 with a purple “keyboard” cover. All editions were SRLP-0216, but while the first and third are valued at $60 to $150, depending on condition, the second (with the silk-screened cover) is valued at $150 to $300! Saturn issued the album again in 1965 (blue or green cover) and 1968 (blue or green cover), the former with the original catalog number and the later as LP-204. Both editions are valued at $20 to $50. (Evidence has put this album on CD as Supersonic Jazz, ECD 22015.) The album sounds weak and tentative compared with those which followed.
Thus Sun Ra’s albums became collectors’ nightmares. An album like Jazz In Silhouette might be produced in a number of separate and different pressings, identified with different catalog numbers and sporting different covers. And each of those hand-drawn booklets was utterly unique, no two alike. The copy I bought of this album in 1959 has a handsome black, white and red, semi-abstract cover, credited to H. P. Corbissero. It has a gold label with the printing – including “SATURN” down its left side – in red ink. It is identified as K7OP-3590 on side one and K7OP-3591 on side two – the same matrix numbers stamped into the vinyl itself. Neither the booklet nor the jacket reveal any actual catalog number.
Jazz In Silhouette is credited by Umphred with three “editions” from Saturn – none matching my copy. The earliest listed is given as LP-5786, in 1958 (valued at $60 to $150, depending on condition), with two later editions (with differently-colored labels) in 1967 (both valued at $20 to $50). Interestingly, when Evidence put this album on CD (ECD 22012), it opened the album with the LP’s second side. (The album was also reissued in 1975 as an LP by Impulse.)
When Sun Comes Out (LP-2066) – first issued in 1963 – is credited with both a green cover with yellow sun, and a cover with a black amoeboid figure on it, both versions valued at $150 to $300. A 1967 edition, with a spaceman at the piano on the cover, has the same catalog number but is valued at only $80 to $200. The album was released on CD by Evidence (ECD 22068) combined with Fate In A Pleasant Mood. The latter was recorded in Chicago in late 1960 and early 1961, but not released until the mid-1960s (LP-202). The LP is valued at $14 to $35.
Collectors who want all the music Sun Ra recorded for Saturn will find it painstakingly compiled and annotated by Evidence on 16 CDs (including a double-CD of singles which roam the musical universe from jazz to R&B). Those who wish to collect the “original” LPs will have a more difficult time of it. Evidence has found albums issued by Saturn which are not in Umphred’s exhaustively researched book, and it is possible that there are yet others.
Sun Ra's “space music” has its own following and it constituted the vast majority of his work and recordings (from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s). Most of it was recorded for his Saturn label. But a recent check of auction sites turned up a copy of his Art Forms Of Dimensions Tomorrow – originally released on Saturn in 1964 and valued at $8 to $20 – being offered in a Thoth Intergalactic edition with a starting bid of $200! Neal Umphred notes that “from 1969 through the early 70s, many Saturn labels bore the motto ‘Thoth Intergalactic.’ These Thoth labels were black with silver print, or blue and white with black print.” The auction site seller identified the LP as a 1965 edition, which is probably wrong, and as of this writing no one has submitted an opening bid, which is hardly surprising at that price.
In addition to his many and confusing Saturn releases, Sun Ra released four albums on other labels in the 1960s, in addition to his Savoy album, The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra [reviewed elsewhere here]. Three were ESP-Disks: The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. 1 (1014) and Vol. 2 (1017), and Nothing Is (1045), the first two released in 1966 and the latter in 1969. Heliocentric was issued in both mono and stereo versions, and Vol. 2 in two different editions, one of which has African voices dubbed onto “The Sun Myth.” Copies are valued at $12 to $40, but the version of Vol. 2 with the voices added is worth only half that. These albums are now available on CD from the German ZYX label with their original ESP-Disk catalog numbers. (The CD version of Vol. 2 omits the overdubbed African voices on “The Sun Myth.”)
Much rarer is the 1968 LP, A Black Mass, on the Jihad label (J-1968), which exists with two different covers. The edition with a black and white cover is valued at $60 to $150, while the one with a color cover is valued at $40 to $100.
Collectors looking for Sun Ra memorabilia can have a field day with his Sun Ra Research bulletins (which numbered over 40), postcards, posters (a 11 x 17 orange poster printed for Sun Ra's west coast tour in 1985, for example) and t-shirts (one is peach colored, with “I’m An Angel” on the back, and a photo of Sun Ra on the front).
But collectors trying to track down every one of the Saturn LPs have a far harder time. By the 1970s Sun Ra was selling his albums in blank covers (with holes cut out to expose the labels) at his gigs, and the number of variant editions has given more than one collector nightmares.