The Three Suns
On A Magic Carpet
"Been abroad lately? Well, here’s your chance to fly now and be enchanted forever. You’ll be traveling first class all the way, on a magic carpet […]." What the liner notes and the front artwork of The Three Suns’ album On A Magic Carpet withhold is the fact that it’s a mighty large and stable carpet, with room for the whole band and their equipment. Released in 1960 on the RCA Victor label, the trio plays it safe and delivers more of the same Lounge or Easy Listening music they are known for. Due to the album title, the release date and most importantly the presented arrangements, it is also one of the band’s most glaring Space-Age albums, with Dancing On A Cloud (1961) and In Orbit (1962) being worthy contenders as well. Once the true Exotica afficionado is listening to a record by the band, he or she will nonetheless be puzzled about the actual players and band members, for the Three Suns were not only the first Lounge boyband, but also a brand, a signature label, and as such faced an ever-changing roster of different players, with many people coming and going. Their formation at live gigs differed eminently from the studio-related band setup, and since the players were usually omitted in the liner notes or the backside of the sleeve, you really should care way more about the music than the actual people involved. And yet does the 1960 incarnation of The Three Suns comprise of the then only remaining founding member, producer and guitarist Al Nevins, accordionist Tony Lovello who left the group after this record (see what I mean?) as well as pianist and second accordionist Joe Vento. Together with co-producer Don Kirshner the band comes up with 12 renditions of established Jazz material as well as relatively new compositions and up-and-coming classics. On A Magic Carpet is actually no Exotica album, but most of the band’s albums come close enough to be fitting inclusions in this section of AmbientExotica. Two reasons may justify things further: firstly, there is a surprising amount of mallet instruments intertwined, and secondly, the textures of the organs and the way of playing them aren’t just spacey, but also well-established in Exotica lands. I’ve chosen On A Magic Carpet for a third reason: seldom is the stylistic cleft between side A and side B of a record – any record – so expansive. This doesn’t mean that side A is far superior. In fact, side B has a different focus and is quite charming nonetheless. Read on if you want to know more about it, the carpet is ready to fly.
The journey begins up North, the carpet is moving swiftly towards the Canadian Sunset, a 1956 Jazz standard written by pianist Eddie Heywood. Deep staccato organ tones are accentuated by smooth shakers, but it is Al Nevins’ crunchy sunset guitar in tandem with Tony Lovello’s accordion stabs that make this a particularly gleeful, if a tad too saccharine trip. The inclusion of another theremin-like ascending lead organ adds a decisive Space-Age feel to this classic, but the remaining instruments are all perfectly warm and earthen enough to prevent the carpet from flying way too high. The next location on the list is Lisbon Antigua, and even though this piece by Raul Portela, José Galhardo and Amadeu do Vale exists since 1937, it isn’t added to this album out of the blue, for the 1956 arrangement by Nelson Riddle made this song truly famous. The Three Suns fire off the sunny vista with a Surf Rock-evoking four-note riff on a harpsichord (!), followed by stellar organ sweeps. The harpsichord remains a complemental device to the glowing guitar melodies and the sparkling glockenspiels. At the same time, this very instrument is the big problem of this arrangement, as it is way too unnerving and acidic; its timbre is perfectly mellow, but the quick succession of stabs and hits destroys the tonality and makes it overly comical.
The following Terry Theme is also known as Eternally and written by none other than Charles Chaplin. The trio delivers a dreamy, downbeat version of this classic with wonderfully glinting vibraphone droplets and world-embracing accordion bursts that work better than ever thanks to the many stops and bumps. It is the vibes that truly shine, and there’s a cascading bridge section where they float down languorously in a Far Eastern style. It’s an enthralling moment and leads to the main melody played on the already known spectral Space-Age organ which is counterbalanced by the warm guitar twangs. I really like the take of the Three Suns! While Dimitri Tiomkin’s composition High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me) of 1952 – also known as The Ballad Of High Noon – meshes a warped timpano with a galloping percussion in a Herb Alpert style and garnishes this construction with a legato main melody played by an accordion-organ couple, Moritat off Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera presents a particularly interesting arrangement, for the eleven-note base frame is played in lower regions on the accordion, thus injecting a decidedly French or Portuguese feeling. Surf Rock steel guitar accompaniments, plinking glockenspiels and colorfully wafting Hammond organs round off this uplifting take. Side A remains in Parisian airs, as it finishes with Poor People Of Paris and remains close to the world-famous 1954 adaptation by Jack Lawrence. The instrumental pool is widened right at the beginning, with the golden orchestra bells and sizzling-hot organs creating a majestic soundscape which is exchanged by the expectedly tipsy-jocular seven-note main motif on a great-sounding harpsichord and the accordion. Silky shakers underline the guitar-backed groove and make this an admittedly less exotic, but convivial interpretation of a good-natured ditty.
Leroy Anderson’s Blue Tango from 1951/52 launches side B, but the version of The Three Suns is both a little letdown and considerable at the same time: the symphonic original is completely transformed into a accordion-heavy song with an attached dance rhythm, but even though the various different states of Anderson’s five-note theme are intact, the trio’s take could well be interpreted as an insult, boosting the grandeur of the original to the maximum and creating a grotesque, with all too iridescently gleaming glockenspiels and syrupy accordions. I don’t like this experiment at all, but I do understand its appeal for contemporary listeners, no doubt about that! Meet Mr. Callaghan is next, and sure enough is it the theme of the titular movie from 1954. The jumpy accordion is nerve-racking, but the sine wave organ really causes everything to collapse and pulls the magic carpet to the ground thanks to its claustrophobic tone dial-like setup. Al Nevins tries to rescue the scene with surprisingly vitriolic guitar licks that encapsulate the slightest scents of dolefulness, but it’s already settled: Meet Mr. Callaghan is the worst song of the album. Side B can only get better, and indeed does the dreaminess of The Song From Moulin Rouge (also known as Where Is Your Heart?) by Frenchman Georges Auric serve the album well, as Joe Vento is finally allowed to use his second signature instrument, the piano, to full effect, its spiraling notes whirring in the background, with dark accordions and a Hammond organ oscillating between creepiness and tenderness counteracting against the solemnity in the background. This ambiguous setting isn’t pure genius, but cheeky enough to raise the hat. While Ruby, the theme by Heinz Eric Roemheld of the film Ruby Gentry is the best and most luxurious piece of side B with another piano layer, careful double bass backings, vibraphone twinkles, dreamy guitars, rose-tinted accordions and a hockey game-like organ, the Third Man Theme by Anton Karas is made-to-measure for the trio as they take away the focus from the murky darkness of the original and reside on the eupeptic side of the spectrum with less harsh guitars and an accordion-organ couple illuminated in technicolor. The final Fleur De Paree is a dull pun on the saying Fleur de Paris, but ends the album with the expected kitsch of French legatoed accordions, a whistling organ and yet another euphonious performance on the piano by Joe Vento. As the song morphs between a winterly lethargy and joyful Summer memories, it perfectly pinpoints the various shades and waning qualities of side B.
On A Magic Carpet is no Exotica album, but its travelog theme and – back then still fresh – Lounge and cocktail charm allow or suggest the categorization into the Space-Age genre, especially so because of the theremin-like organs, their whistling brethren as well as the various mallet instruments and chimes that are unexpectedly interwoven. Both the accordions and organs have always been the signature instruments of the band, or rather brand, but it is the latter that truly shine on here, though not always for the better: their textures are often overwhelmingly vibrant and well-saturated, but at times do the organs destroy the quieter passages of a composition and seem to come straight out of hell, Blue Tango being the best example. This is all the more curious since quiescent or romantic songs are usually the primary domain of The Three Suns, but what worked in their eighteen-track opus High Fi And Wide of 1956 is less convincing here. Sure enough can the changing times be blamed for this assertion as people approached the swingin’ 60’s, but the changing band setup is probably the most logical reason. Side A and side B both have their distinct qualities, but rarely have I reviewed a record where the stylistic discrepancy is this palpable; while side A focuses on organ, guitar plus accordion and offers the better material overall, side B opens the gate and adds many an instrument that was amiss on side A or used far less, among them enchanting vibraphones, auspicious pianos and proper orchestra bells. Alas, as much as the quantity of instruments increases, the quality of the arrangements wanes, as there are too many counteracting tone sequences and timbres clashing. However, this isn’t a bad thing per se, and you might well be more intrigued by these quirky design choices than I am. They do give this supposedly clear-cut Easy Listening album a whole new spin. Since I have my strong favorites on this widely available album – Terry Theme, Poor People Of Paris and the only marvel on side B, Ruby Gentry – I would be glad if the quirkiness was accepted elsewhere.
Michael David Toth’s illustrated article about The Three Suns, their rich history and ever-changing lineup is a must-read for fans and highly enlightening. Despite the many unknown faces on the official (!) band photos that haven’t been pinpointed to a name, some serious research went into Toth’s essay and his whole website in general. This review would not have been written in this way if Toth did not do the detective work. Kudos!
Exotica Review 130: The Three Suns – On A Magic Carpet (1960). Originally published on Oct. 6, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.