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Drifting Along From Haggard to Harris, Doo-Wop to Dinah

December 08, 1996|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

You can't go wrong with any of a number of roots-accented boxed sets that are waiting on store shelves. The only trick is knowing whether you're shopping for a fan of, say, Merle Haggard, Curtis Mayfield or Elmore James.

**** THE DRIFTERS, "The Drifters: Rockin' & Driftin'," Rhino (about $55). The greatest of all the early R&B groups, the Drifters went through all sorts of personnel and style changes. Thanks to the guidance of some remarkable producers, most notably Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the Drifters maintained a creative focus that enabled them to create gems in the earthy '50s style of R&B ("Money Honey" to "Such a Night") as well as the silky style of early '60s R&B ("There Goes My Baby" to "Under the Boardwalk"). Three discs, 79 selections.

**** MERLE HAGGARD, "Down Every Road: 1962-1994," Capitol Nashville ($55). Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson provide strong competition, but Haggard is probably the most complete country music artist since Hank Williams. He is an equally superb songwriter and singer whose tales of troubled times and undiminished dreams carry the timeless simplicity of folk music and the character of the blues. Though the emphasis is on his prime Capitol years, the box also includes samples of Haggard's later work for Epic, MCA and Curb. Four discs, 100 selections.

**** EMMYLOU HARRIS, "Portraits," Reprise ($45). Whether reaching back in country music history for songs by the Carter Family and Bill Monroe or reaching out to the pop-rock world for tunes by Paul Simon and Lennon-McCartney, Harris is the most rewarding female ever in country music. This splendid overview demonstrates both the consistency and daring of her inspiring musical vision. Three discs, 61 selections.

**** CURTIS MAYFIELD, "People Get Ready!" Rhino ($50). If Mayfield had enjoyed the promotional muscle of a label like Motown in the '70s, he might have become as big a name in pop as Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson. The quality and influence of his often socially conscious music, both on his own and with the Impressions, place Mayfield alongside his more celebrated rivals. Three discs, 51 selections.

*** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "The Doo Wop Box II," Rhino ($70). Don't let the "Box II" in the title scare you off. There are still plenty of familiar treats left after Rhino's 1993 "Doo Wop Box" to make this a prize package. Among them: the Clovers' "Fool, Fool, Fool," the Teen Queens' "Eddie My Love," the Drifters' "Ruby Baby" and Dion & the Belmonts' "Where or When." The real treat in this salute to the grand street-corner vocal tradition, however, is the chance to hear dozens of doo-wop tunes for the first time. Four discs, 101 selections.

**** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "The King R&B Box Set," King ($50). Syd Nathan's Cincinnati-based King Records never had the presence in the '50s of such high-profile rivals as Sun, Chess and Atlantic, but King and its affiliated Federal and DeLuxe labels produced some of the most influential and engaging music of the modern pop era. Four King acts (Hank Ballard, James Brown, Little Willie John and the Platters) have already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a fifth deserves to join them: Billy Ward & His Dominoes. The other hit makers include Roy Brown, the Charms, Ivory Joe Hunter and Bill Doggett. Four discs, 85 selections.

**** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "Mean Old World: The Blues From 1940 to 1994," Smithsonian/MCA ($70). This collection picks up where the Smithsonian's earlier set "The Blues" left off, and the artists represented on the first disc alone illustrate the range and depth of the exquisite collection: Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Leadbelly, Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker, Dinah Washington, Elmore James and Howlin' Wolf. It's a remarkable tribute to a landmark slice of American pop music. Four discs, 79 selections.

*** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "The Mercury Blues 'N' Rhythm Story: 1945-1955," Mercury Chronicles ($100). There's certainly a lot to appreciate in this handsomely designed set, but the selections are limited to the Mercury family of labels, making it more suited to filling out an R&B collection than occupying the center. Broken into East Coast, West Coast, Southwest and Midwest volumes, the set includes such celebrated artists as Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin' Hopkins, Johnny Otis and Dinah Washington. Four discs, 211 selections.

*

Albums and other items in the Gift Guide are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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