Billy C. Farlow is best known as a bedrock element of the sound of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Farlow was the band's rhythm guitarist, harmonica player, chief songwriter, and principal lead vocalist. That said, only hardcore Cody freaks and rock history buffs know that Farlow had a career of sorts before the Airmen assembled in Ann Arbor in 1967 and 1968. Farlow was a Detroit transplant, from places like Alabama, Indiana, and Texas. His interest was in the blues, hard, pure country, gospel and rockabilly, as well as early jazz. This double-disc set of tapes from Billy C and the Sunshine documents his earliest recordings dating back to an acoustic guitar flapper number from 1964 and 1965 to his more accomplished sides as a bluesman with the Sunshine from 1967 and 1968. Disc two's post-Airmen version of the band, which included (briefly) Stu Cook and Doug Clifford, ex of Creedence Clearwater Revival
. Billy C and the Sunshine were the first all-white blues band in the Motor City to get work. Its individual members -- Farlow, drummer Lance Dickerson
(later of the Airmen and many others), pianist Butch Hamilton, and guitarist Larry Welker
-- played with many of the area's bluesmen both resident and traveling, from Sam Lay
and Charlie Musselwhite
to John Lee Hooker
, Eddie "Guitar" Burns
, both before and after the Sunshine's original stand.
Disc one starts out rough from 1964: it's just Farlow on guitar and friend Joe Masse on washboard, with both of them singing Will Shade
's "Overseas Stomp." Likewise, tracks two and three, "Don't Cry Baby," and "Baby Let's Play House," are just Farlow making a home recording. But from tracks four through fifteen, it's the Sunshine, playing a switchblade-tough, Detroit version of the electric blues. And while the recordings vary in sound quality, they are remarkably consistent in terms of performance. From "I Don't Know," (where the riff for "Green Onions" came from), it's the sound of Detroit in the '60s. This is garage blues, played astonishingly well, and with passion and spit. Farlow is already in mature voice, and the band is tight. They romp through B.B. King
's "Sweet Little Angel," Farlow's early original "Cousin James," and a jumping "One Way Out" that the young Rolling Stones
would have killed to be able to perform with this much grease and soul. It also predates the Allman Brothers
version by a few years. The final four cuts on the first disc are from a smoking live gig at Detroit's legendary blues club, the Chessmate, and feature Sam Lay on drums!
The second part of this set is sonically better and more polished. These are the "lost 70s tapes" the title of this volume refers to. The band on the first four cuts from 1976 (at Cosmo's Factory in Berkeley, CA) includes Clifford and Cook as well as an unidentified female backing chorus, pianist Billy Philadelphia, saxophonist Bruce Saxton, guitarist Don Magraf, and Danny Gleich on bass with additional percussion from John Franzblau. The remaining cuts feature a smaller group with drummer Billy Lewis, bassist Bob Bragg, and guitarists Keith Allen
and Jim Parber , and were recorded in 1979 in Palo Alto, mostly likely at a club gig. The personnel matters a lot less here. What does matter is that Farlow was still writing incredible songs; he penned all but two of the tunes. The influence of the Commander Cody band still fresh -- it would change the way he wrote forever -- Farlow proves to be enigmatic no matter who's backing him. There are tough tunes like "Everybody's Gotta Be Somewhere," "One of Those Nights" (written with Bill Kirchen
during the Airmen years and recorded on one of their albums), and "Piney Woods Funky Woman." Though the ragged but right tunes on disc one are more desirable for their crackling energy and youthful vigor, there isn't anything on the second one to put anybody off, and the performances are pretty much top-notch. This is essential listening for any hardcore fan of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, as well as of Farlow's . For music historians -- particularly those documenting the '60s in Detroit music -- this is indispensable.