Melodically, “In my Head” bears a resemblance to “Piece of My Heart,” which Erma Franklin released as a single in 1967 and Janis Joplin made her own. South Atlantic blues comes from, but Scott Fagan’s debut album is as special as his voice. A form of singer-songwriter album, it defies genre classification. On the second side, “Tenement Hall” starts along the southern spiritual lines. Then, that voice arrives – just as strange as before, but deeper. The singing grows increasingly intense as Fagan screams “this is crazy, there’s no life at all, living in the shadows of a hall of residence” before the song splits at its midpoint into a freak-freak-jazz dominated by an atonal. violin. After that, back to the song. It ends with the repeated statement, filled with echoes of the word “crazy.”
South Atlantic blues it was released in November 1968. Original stereo pressings are not rare and can be had in OK shape for just over £20. The promo-only mono version is harder to find, but still pretty cheap at around £30 or £40. South Atlantic blues last reissued on CD and vinyl in 2015, and this new LP edition (Fagan’s lyrics are carried over from the 2015 release – newly commissioned liner notes would have been nice) of an album with cult following written all over it all that is welcome. .
Fagan’s debut album was released on the ATCO label, whose hot band at the time was Vanilla Fudge. Last year, Buffalo Springfield and Sonny & Cher had been their big hitters. Mainly, ATCO dealt with jazz and soul. Otis Redding was on their books. What a wonder it is, South Atlantic blues sounds like something the Elektra or Straight labels would have released. Fagan’s route to ATCO was through Mort Shuman, the songwriter-producer who, with Doc Pomus, was behind the hits of Elvis Presley and The Drifters. When South Atlantic blues was released, Shuman was riding high as a result Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris stage show.
Born in New York City in 1945, Fagan grew up on the Caribbean island of Saint Thomas. His mother, who took him there, had been a jazz dancer and singer. He returned to New York in 1964 and began playing Greenwich Village. His songwriting caught the attention of Shuman, with whom he co-wrote Irma Thomas’ 1965 hit “I’m Gonna Cry Till My Tears Run Dry.” Fagan himself released a 1966 single on the Bang label: which also released Erma Franklin’s “Piece of My Heart” the following year – given how his “In my Head” sounds, Fagan apparently was paying attention to the label’s catalog. In 1967. Guy Darrell released a Fagan song “Crystal Ball”, which appeared on South Atlantic blues. Fagan, it seemed, was beginning to carve a path as a songwriter for others.
However, in the spring of 1968, the Verve announced that they had signed him. But it ended up in record stores at ATCO. Curiously, before his album came out, an ATCO test of September 1968, pressing songs put together by South Atlantic blues with clippings by Max Roach. If this was for marketing purposes, it suggests that ATCO was aiming Fagan at the jazz audience.
South Atlantic blues it wasn’t a seller, but judging by the amount of original albums about a fair amount were pressed. Despite low sales, the music business did not give up on Fagan, and several singles on Epic were released in 1969. The following year, he co-wrote the rock Soon. When it opened on Broadway in January 1971, Richard Gere was among its cast. It cast a jaundiced eye on Fagan’s brushes with the music biz and ran for just three performances. Fagan then re-emerged in 1975 on RCA with his second album. The year before, his single “Everybody Loves a Winner” was recorded for RCA by the disco/soul group The Brothers.
And that was pretty much until the late nineties, when collectors digging through the obscurities of the sixties found South Atlantic blues and rediscovered its special brilliance. There was another postscript. Stephin Merritt, who records as Magnetic Fields, learned in his mid-teens that he was Fagan’s son, a relationship his father knew nothing about. They met for the first time in 2013. The musical genes were passed on.
In 1968, a few weeks before it came out, the US trade paper Billboard review South Atlantic blues, saying (in full), “Singer-guitarist-songwriter Scott Fagan plays on his debut LP, a unique blend of folk-blues, lyrically fresh and unheard. A native of the Virgin Islands, Fagan plays and sings Shanty blues [sic], roaming freely through “South Atlantic Blues,” “Nothing But Love,” and “Tenement Hall.” Fagan’s special readings can rock the charts with the impact of a desperate, despondent Dylan.” Unfortunately, despite this, the tables did not shake. Perhaps, now, the best South Atlantic blues will find the audience it deserves.