“Outer-space beings are my brothers,” the enigmatic Sun Ra told writer Michael Shore back in 1979. “They sent me here. They already know my music.” Amazingly, it was hard not to believe him. Ra was born (transported might be the more accurate term) to this planet as Herman “Sonny” Blount on May 22, 1914, in Birmingham, Ala., and from an early age, he displayed an almost preternatural aptitude for writing and arranging music — at first for piano and eventually for entire ensembles. Although the popular big-band jazz of the '30s and '40s was his guiding muse, Ra was deeply interested in sound as an ever-expanding force and gravitated toward early electronic instruments (such as the Hammond Solovox monophonic keyboard attachment, released in 1940) long before anyone thought to fold them into a jazz context.
In 1946, Ra moved to Chicago and began recruiting musicians for what would become his Arkestra (later to acquire high-flying names such as the Myth Science Arkestra, the Astro-Galactic Infinity Arkestra and dozens of others). The group's personnel was constantly evolving, but at its core were saxophone prodigies John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, who under Ra's tutelage emerged as masters of improvisation in their own right. Fueled by a voracious appetite for knowledge in areas ranging from the occult and Egyptology (as evinced in his name) to comparative religion, number symbolism, science fiction and beyond, Ra made the Arkestra a living conduit for his radical musical ideas — a strange, otherworldly mixture of progressive jazz, musique concrète, lo-fi electronics and space-age exotica. As the years went by, the group adopted outrageously elaborate costumes and props that presaged the spectacle of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic's “Mothership Connection” by nearly a decade.
Space, in fact, took center stage early on as the operative theme in Ra's music. He founded his own El Saturn Research company in 1956 and began releasing albums on the Saturn label with titles such as We Travel the Spaceways (1956) and Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus (1960). As always, Ra was ahead of his time when it came to incorporating electric instruments into his sound. Not only were electric bass and guitar present on these early records but Ra himself was one of the first, along with Ray Charles, to record with the Wurlitzer electric piano. “I liked the Wurlitzer because it had a tender, lyrical kind of sound,” Ra said later. “It had the sound of a guitar or lute to me.” He also played the Hammond B-3 organ and the Hohner Clavinet D6; later, he even paid a visit to the workshop of Robert Moog, who gave him a prototype of the Minimoog synth a year before it was commercially released. Ra first used the instrument on My Brother the Wind, Vol. II (Saturn, 1970).
His forays into way-out recording techniques were equally futuristic. He was obsessive about documenting the Arkestra's rehearsals (at first on an Ampex 2-track machine) and experimented more with mic placement than most record producers would even dream of doing today. When his drummer, who doubled as recording engineer, stumbled onto a reverb loop by wiring the output of an Ampex 601 back into its input, Ra insisted on using the effect and later absorbed mic distortion, tape delay and other lo-fi sonic filters into his sound.
At the end of the '60s, Ra suddenly encountered a spike in popularity — much of it due to the sheer eccentricity of his music, which seemed tailor-made to attract all manner of acid freaks and hipster revolutionaries. Rolling Stone featured him on the cover of the magazine in April 1969. Among the major rock acts of the day, MC5 was the most prominent to take notice, sharing the stage with the Arkestra on several dates. In turn, the debt owed to Ra by budding psychedelic art-rock groups like Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead was not lost on those who were astute enough to sense the connection.
Although Ra remained essentially underground (he sometimes referred to it as “subunderground”) throughout his long career, the cult film Space Is the Place (1974), as well as the album that preceded it, marked one of his creative flashpoints — even drawing the brief interest of the venerable Impulse label. Part funky blaxploit, part sci-fi send-up, the movie is a riot of musical and philosophical references and sets the tone for later albums such as the 1978 Saturn release Disco 3000 (which featured Ra on a Crumar Mainman synth/drum machine) and Lanquidity (Philly Jazz, 1978).
A long-overdue meeting of the minds took place on John Cage Meets Sun Ra (Meltdown, 1986), uniting the avant-garde's “living pharaoh” with the godfather of abstract minimalism and confirming Ra's ascension — if it were ever in dispute — as one of the 20th century's most important experimental composers. Ra continued to tour and record almost right up until his “death” in 1993 at the age of 79. Many eagerly await his return from his native Saturn any day now.
For more on Sun Ra, read John F. Szwed's excellent biography Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Da Capo).