In addition to hundreds of studio albums, live recordings, and compilations, the Sun Ra discography also contains dozens of singles, many of them dating from the early days of the artist's career, before he really took off for the outer cosmos. His singles have been collected before, particularly on the 1996 double CD The Singles
, issued by Evidence Records. Strut's 2016 collection contains three discs' worth of material, but it isn't just a reissue of the previous set with a bonus disc tacked on. This one includes recordings that were unearthed since the '90s, including plenty of spoken word pieces. (Norton Records has released several LPs and singles of Ra's "Space Poetry" since the 2000s.) Not everything from the previous set is included -- the older one had a few more alternate versions as well as songs recorded with singer Juanita Rogers
and bluesman Lacy Gibson
(Ra's brother-in-law) that are missing here. Everything that is included, however, is completely essential.
Beginning with some of Ra's early spoken pieces, the set moves into several doo wop and rhythm & blues singles he recorded with vocal combos such as the Nu Sounds
and the Cosmic Rays
. The songs already touch on outer space themes, even if the music itself is often relatively straightforward. Ra did work with plenty of more bugged-out vocalists, however, including swing singer Billie Hawkins and the incomparable Yochanan
("The Space Age Vocalist"). There's also the weirdo Yuletide classic "It's Christmas Time" by the Qualities
. On the more straightforward side, there are two lovely renditions of Thelonious Monk
tunes sung by Hattie Randolph
, including a perfect "'Round Midnight." By the time the set reaches the mid-'60s, Ra and his Arkestra were recording skronky avant-garde pieces. Obviously, the single format doesn't have room for the lengthy freakouts of the Arkestra's concerts, but there are a few tastes of that madness here. There are also some of Ra's more well-known tracks, including the single version of his signature tune, "Rocket #9," which is much slower and bumpier than the fast version on the Space Is the Place
album. During the '70s, Ra explored the possibilities of electronic keyboards, resulting in bugged-out electro-funk like the nearly Raymond Scott
-sounding "The Perfect Man." While most of the tracks on this collection originate from 45s, thankfully the infamous "Nuclear War," released as a 12" single by post-punk label Y Records in 1982, is also included. The set ends with more spoken intergalactic wisdom and space poetry, including "I Am the Instrument," recorded at home near the end of Ra's life and posthumously released as a CD single packaged with a VHS tape.
The set contains much of Ra's more accessible work, making it an excellent (and very generous) introduction for newcomers, but there's also plenty of material that might've escaped notice from longtime fans.