Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Be Careful of the Stones That You Throw, Staple Singers (1964)

A tongue can accuse and carry bad news
Gossip is cheap and it's low
So unless you've made no mistakes in your life
Just be careful of the stones that you throw

This is the last post of 2008. It's been a year of tremendous highs and lows for me personally and for the world. Inasmuch as contemplating our navels - and our vices - is standard procedure on this day, I thought I'd end on a New Year's note of self-improvement, with lyrics that we would all do well to take to heart.

Mavis Staples was on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me a few weeks ago and there was some hilarious discussion about an aspect of her life about which I knew nothing - her former romance with Bob Dylan, who was such an admirer of hers that he once spontaneously asked Pops Staples for her hand in marriage. (He was told to ask Mavis directly, she said, and she declined, a decision she didn't sound entirely sure was the right one!)

The interview reminded me of a 1964 song of theirs, Be Careful of the Stones That You Throw, that I discovered only through Bob himself just this year, on his Theme Time Radio Hour. As it happens, it's also a song Dylan performed with members of The Band in 1967, and it appears on his Genuine Basement Tapes, Volume 1.

In any case, before the Staple Singers went mainstream as recording artists for Stax during the tumultuous civil rights movement in which they were fixtures, Pops (aka Roebuck) Staples and his children Cleotha, Mavis, Purvis and Yvonne made less secular roots records like the thrilling call-and-response version of this old standard, accompanied only by Pops' guitar. The use of a guitar when they performed at church services, as they often did, was groundbreaking, and in some circles thought to be inappropriate. But it was a signature element of the Staples sound, and eventually the objections were overcome.

Be Careful was written by a songwriter and steel guitar player named Bonnie Dodd. Originally recorded in 1949 by Little Jimmy Dickens, it got a good bit more attention when Hank Williams, Sr., performing in his gospel mode as "Luke the Drifter, " recorded it in 1952.

In the hands of the Staples family, it became another animal altogether. Music so drenched in the Mississippi delta from which Pops Staples came, like this and Why Am I Treated So Bad, wasn't very likely to get radio play back in those days. More typical was the likes of Respect Yourself, reflective of the ethos of self- and group-empowerment that exploded during the 60s, and which was likely better suited to crossing over from the R&B charts to the pop.

Hats off to Dylan and all of the zillions of music lovers who share their treasures on YouTube and make it possible to discover inspiring music that would otherwise remain in the history vaults. Pops once told an interviewer for Guitar Player magazine that his main objective musically was to "to sing a song that says together we stand and divided we fall." Let's hope that those words are somehow reflected in the events that we contemplate this time next year.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Gee Whiz, Carla Thomas (1961)

You begin to hear ordinary people, but ordinary people stepping forward with more will, desire, vehemence, self-presentation, confidence. - Greil Marcus essay in The Stax Story CD box set

Read or hear any recounting of the improbable origins of Stax Records and you'll come away with the sense that the whole thing was an alchemical combination of lucky breaks and people who worked really, really hard to convert the talent they had into gold.

Talent at running businesses, at recognizing and nourishing talent, at singing, at playing instruments, at composing, at working together in racial harmony ... the stars were all aligned when Stax incubated in a Memphis neighborhood that was rapidly shifting from white to black.

But before Stax became a soul mainstay, there was this little record label named Satellite. Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton co-owned Satellite, which started out as a producer of white pop and country music in a different part of town. With success eluding them, they moved to an abandoned movie house in a changing neighborhood of Memphis where prices could be kept low. The former candy concession was converted to a record store run by Axton, whose clientele began to reflect the demographic shifts. The Satellite Record Shop became a hub of activity for the neighborhood and, as history would show, the crucible in which the unmistakeable Stax sound developed.

Local radio station WDIA, where one of the popular DJs was Rufus Thomas, sponsored a singing group called the Teen Town Singers, featuring his teenage daughter Carla (Isaac Hayes also did a stint in this group). Word spread that the Satellite Record Shop's back door led to a recording studio, which prompted Rufus to stop around with some tape of their father-daughter duet 'Cause I Love You. As whites in a highly segregated city, Stewart and Axton knew next to nothing about black music, but figured they had nothing to lose by changing their marketing strategy. The song had respectable regional success.

This didn't escape the notice of Atlantic Records, which decided to distribute Satellite's product in the south. Next up: Carla Thomas' love poem Gee Whiz (it was actually a poem that she wrote when she was 15). The slow-dance-love-song arrangement together with Carla's crystal clear voice also did well regionally, and Atlantic put national distribution on the table for discussion.

With another company having claimed the Satellite name first, Stewart and Axton combined the first two letters of their last names and Stax was born. A re-release of Gee Whiz made it Stax' first hit under the Atlantic tent and infused the company with the resources needed to transform it into the powerhouse it was for 15 years.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You), Aretha Franklin (1967)

In 1939, the celebrated contralto Marian Anderson was denied the opportunity, by the Daughters of the American Revolution, to perform an Easter concert for an integrated audience at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. After much ado, other arrangements were made and she sang instead to 75,000 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Almost 70 years later, Aretha Franklin will sing to the multitudes at the inauguration of Barack Obama, a throng that is now anticipated to exceed 4 million. She performed at a concert post-Bill Clinton's swearing in, but this is on an altogether different plane. I can only imagine what it will feel like to be her on January 20. How do you even prepare for such an event?

Many people know that Aretha was the daughter of a Baptist preacher and that she had direct exposure to people like Mahalia Jackson. Although she was born in Memphis, her father's ministry took him to Detroit, and she became a lead singer in her father's choir at 12. Like a lot of singers with that kind of pedigree, she went from straight gospel to secular and finally to R&B which, if done properly, is something of a hybrid of the two.

I Never Loved A Man was Aretha's first million-selling song. Listen, and one gets a sense of absolute effortlessness, of a voice that seems to take wing and float from her being. Like Janis Joplin, she was not afraid to bare her soul to the world in regard to her suffering over men.

The song's bloodcurdling beauty was certainly due in part to Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, who in 1967 spirited Aretha away from Columbia Records, where she'd been packaged as a pop singer for seven years, teamed her with a wailing Muscle Shoals backing band that woos her note for note, and ripped the soulful intensity right out of her body for the rest of us to enjoy. As Wexler said, Atlantic was the "West Point for rhythm and blues," and clearly where she should have been all along.

Aretha, have the time of your life at Barack's inauguration. Sing your heart out, as you did for Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come. Oh yes it is.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, Shirelles (1961)

no he will not still love you tomorrow
but wonderful song.

- youtube commenter

It's a topic we can all go on and on about, but in little more than two minutes, Carole King and Gerry Goffin nailed in a song the emotional tightrope a girl (or woman) walks when she gives herself to a boy (or man) sans commitment with Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.

Fellow blogger and friend Cornbread Hell (thanks, Rick!) sent me something yesterday that told the story of how this song got written. King dashed off the melody and left it for her then-husband and fellow songwriter Goffin before going out to play mah-jongg! The song had to be ready to present to the Shirelles the next day, according to Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller.

This was pre-fulltime-Brill Building employment; he was working at a chemical company, she was home with their baby and they squeezed in the writing in off-hours. Arriving home, Goffin was inspired to give voice to the insecurities of a girl in love to put the finishing touches on a song that, for the times, was pretty out there in its direct allusion to sex outside of marriage and the risks thereof. (King's own version on the Tapestry LP is worth a listen.)

The Shirelles were the first American girl group to have a #1 hit; this was that hit. They'd been performing since 1958 out of New Jersey, appearing at the Apollo Theater that year and eventually becoming a sensation that influenced musicians who came after them, male and female alike, for years. It's a classic case of the magic that can ignite when people are fortunate enough to work well together and are blessed with the perfect material to showcase their talents. Soldier Boy, Dedicated to the One I Love, Baby It's You - all great songs that the Shirelles just knew instinctively what to do with. (Their first song to chart, I Met Him on a Sunday, they wrote themselves.)

Ten years after they were honored as pioneers by the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1994, David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer wrote a tribute in Rolling Stone in which he describes seeing three of the original four members - Shirley Alston Reeves, Beverly Lee and Doris Kenner - perform together at that event after a long hiatus. (Micki Harris was already deceased by then.) Describing how the years just seemed to slip away, it's clear the Shirelles lived the dream that many girls of my generation could only imagine - raising your voice in song and having others appreciate it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Something in the Air, Thunderclap Newman (1969)

Pete Townshend apparently needed a hobby back in 1969 (guess releasing a groundbreaking rock opera the same year was not enough) so he created a band for some of his friends to record songs that he would try his hand at producing. That's the genesis of the classic 60s song Something in the Air by Thunderclap Newman.

The friends were pianist Andy "Thunderclap" Newman and John "Speedy" Keen, a drummer, singer, and former roadie to John Mayall's Bluesbreakers/Townshend chauffeur who had also written their 1968 song Armenia, City in the Sky, allegedly the only song The Who ever performed written by someone other than themselves.

Newman was a postal worker who wanted to hold on to his pension and simply enjoyed playing jazz in his local pubs of an evening. Nonetheless, Townshend intended to make him a star, and teamed him up with Keen, who wrote and sang the song in a distinctive falsetto, and the teenage guitarist Jimmy McCulloch to make up the group. Newman's amazing piano boogie break is one of its fine features. Townshend himself played bass and adopted the persona Bijou Drains. With its members having only just met each other at the recording sessions, it was an experiment that fizzled within the year with no further hits and one underrated album.

Although the song was #1 for three weeks in the UK, surprisingly, given the times, it never got past #37 in the US. Yet for me it defines that protest-drenched time before and during my senior year in high school, a year that would end with the shameful shootings at Kent State University and general mayhem around the country. Angst over the Vietnam war was at an all-time high. Just a few months later, more than half a million demonstrators would march on Washington, D.C. calling for withdrawal from the war.

I still remember the fellow student who was the first kid in school to have a brother killed in combat. We wore black armbands, and were ordered to remove them by our ex-Marine principal. Freedom of expression was hard to come by at Walnut Ridge High School. And probably at a lot of others.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Dance, Dance, Dance, Beach Boys (1964)

After six hours of school
I've had enough for the day

I hit the radio dial and
Turn it up all the way

I gotta dance ...

It's foolhardy, I know, but thinking back to simpler times has a lot of allure right now, and Dance, Dance, Dance is the musical poster child for such a time. It was actually the first vinyl single I ever bought with my own money. I've always wondered about that - why it was the Beach Boys and not the Beatles, whom I idolized.

It's probably because this song is an elixir - those first 15 seconds! - and I was big on those in my preteens. No matter what the psychic torments of the moment were, a song like Dance, Dance, Dance could obliterate them, at least for awhile. With all of the world's trials and tribulations right now, wouldn't it be nice to just worry about what's happening after six hours of school? Though then I was typically overwrought, now it seems positively idyllic.

But there's a lot going on beneath the surface of this happy-go-lucky ditty with its exuberant arrangement and glorious harmonies, and it's that Brian Wilson had a crippling anxiety attack just days after Dance, Dance, Dance peaked at #8 on the charts. In fact, that meltdown took place on a plane enroute to Houston for a performance that would be his last live (non-televised) appearance with the Beach Boys for 12 years.

Most people weren't aware of the tremendous pressures on Wilson who, with his brothers Dennis and Carl, cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine, comprised the hugely likeable Beach Boys. The group had formed in 1961 with a focus on surfing and hot rods that resonated to some degree even with non-Californian kids whose lifestyles involved no such things.

They were like whirling dervishes with the schedule they kept, touring incessantly and releasing 6 singles before achieving their first #1 hit, I Get Around, earlier in 1964. The advent of Beatlemania and the British Invasion generally was a game changer for many American acts that had had the musical landscape pretty much to themselves to that point. Wilson bore the brunt of the need to churn out material and serve it up to the gaping maw of teenage demand, and though it was great, more broadly focused stuff, it took its toll.

The Beach Boys Today! album that Dance, Dance, Dance also appeared on the following year is thought to be an early manifestation of the album-as-cohesive-artistic-statement (in this instance, all up-tempo songs on side A, ballads on side B) that was arguably pioneered by Brian Wilson as he eyed and competed with the Beatles. It was his first effort as a studio-only musician after his life-saving decision to leave the road, and was the beginning of years of creative output that most consider to have been some of the most influential in rock music.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

634-5789, Wilson Pickett (1966)

The simplicity of a particular song can provide a canvas for many artists to interpret it their way while not diminishing the original one little bit.

I found this to be true yesterday when I stumbled upon the Wilson Pickett hit 634-5789. For a while there I was virtually mainlining it and several other versions (those of Tina Turner with the divine Robert Cray and Sam and Dave, specifically). Such a life-affirming, finger-popping, backbone-slipping song and greatly needed right now.

A product of the hands-down-great Stax writing partnership of Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd, concocted specifically for Pickett to follow up his smash hit In the Midnight Hour, 634-5789 and its braying horns boils over with soul - the happy kind. The "Wicked" Pickett, as he called his bad self, didn't care for it at first, to put it mildly. Gerry Hirshey relates the story in Nowhere to Run: Pickett threw the lyric sheet in the trash and he and Floyd "went down like scrapping bearcats, flailing at each other until Cropper managed to get them apart." Obviously he got over it.

Always rough and ready, Pickett left the Alabama cotton fields to live with his father in Detroit. For several years he sang in a gospel group called the Violinaires. In time he was lured by his neighbor Willie Schofield to put his raspy gospel stylings to work in a secular group that Eddie Floyd had formed in 1956, the Falcons. The depth of Pickett's remarkable talent just before it was unleashed on the larger world can be experienced in his singing lead as a Falcon on I Found A Love at the Apollo Theater; truly spine-chilling stuff.

After a record label that Floyd was later associated with in Washington, D.C. struck a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, which also distributed for Stax, it was just a matter of time before Floyd and Pickett were reunited in Memphis. Atlantic bought out Pickett's contract with the small label he had been recording for in Detroit after he left the Falcons, and fame and fortune became his.

Friday, November 28, 2008

You're Only Lonely, J.D. Souther (1979)

I'm not sure why J.D. Souther has eluded the limelight as much as he has over the past decades, but something reminded me of the gem You're Only Lonely today, so I thought I'd give him his due.

But in a way, he is in the limelight again, although until just this moment I didn't know how. Last week I woke up from a stuporous sleep in front of the TV to Joe Walsh's grizzled aspect and then the realization that I was looking at a live performance of the Eagles, who it seems have once again reunited.

And what the Eagles were singing was an early Souther composition, How Long, apparently the debut single from their first studio album in 28 years. Huh! And Souther recently released his own album, If the World Was You. I've been living under a rock, apparently.

Anyway, back in the 70s J.D. Souther was a talented singer-songwriter and sought-after session man in the burgeoning, oh-so-melodic Southern California scene that kind of defined that period in American music in my mind - Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt et al.

Souther and his buddy Glenn Frey had their own obscure acoustic band, Longbranch Pennywhistle, which released an equally obscure album in 1969. Frey went on, with Don Henley, to form part of Ronstadt's touring band, while Souther became a third of the country-rock supergroup Souther Hillman Furay Band, with Poco's Richie Furay and Chris Hillman of the Byrds, a marriage reportedly not made in heaven. Souther continued as a solo act and songwriter for others, especially the newly-formed Eagles. My favorite: New Kid in Town. Another is Ronstadt's cover of his White Rhythm and Blues, which was my introduction to that song.

Conventional wisdom has it that You're Only Lonely was an homage to Roy Orbison, who, like many, Souther admired, but on his website he describes the actual genesis thusly:

I actually didn't write "You're Only Lonely" with Roy in mind, but for a very beautiful singer and songwriter who, it seemed to me, worried herself into knots with language inappropriate to her real issue. She was, like many artists, simply insecure about being alone. The song was written to reassure this wonderful woman that she was not, probably had never been, and would not likely be alone unless she wanted it. ... when Waddy Wachtel and I were arranging songs for the 1979 album ... and he was trying to find a song of mine faster than a dirge and asked, as only he can something like: "What the hell, Jake, don't you have anything like, you know, a single?" I said, "Well, there's this little rockabilly thing but it has no bridge and no third verse. I played it for him. He looked at me like I was mental and I said, "But there's no third verse!" He said, "So sing the first verse again!" So I did.

Sometimes it's just that simple.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

She's About A Mover, Sir Douglas Quintet (1965)

Where have I been? All this time I thought Sir Douglas Quintet was a British Invasion band, and it took until today, when original member Augie Meyers and the West Side Horns appeared on Michael Feldman's Whad'ya Know? stop in San Antonio, for me to realize that the band has its roots in Texas.

But I was supposed to think that. The band's producer Huey Meaux consciously dressed up lead singer Doug Sahm, organist Meyers and the other members in the vein of a bunch of Liverpudlians to capitalize on the musical mania gripping the nation's youth. The story goes, according to the Vinyl Tourist website, that Meaux, determined not to be swept aside by the new arrivals, dissected every Beatles record to figure out why they were so popular and concluded that the beat had many similarities to a Cajun two-step. His counsel to Sahm and the newly-named band - write a song that fit the mold and get moptop haircuts.

Well, you coulda fooled me. The resulting She's About A Mover was very much of that time period, with a high-pitched Vox Continental organ riff that went right through you and vocals by Sahm that did not sound anything like American music at that time. According to Da Capo Best Music Writing 2003, edited by one Matt Groening, Simpsons creator, that style of organ was the only one in Texas. Meyers described She's About A Mover as a "polka with a rock and roll beat and a Vox organ. I played what a bajo sexto (a 12-string bass guitar) player in a Conjunto band would do." This from the guy Dylan has described as the "master of syncopation and timing."

SDQ was revered by Dylan and a precursor of groups like Question Mark & the Mysterians and Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs. Doug Sahm was a musical child prodigy who played pedal steel guitar among other instruments as a boy and performed onstage at the age of 11 with Hank Williams (the elder). The Austin Chronicle had 10 separate eloquent tributes to Sahm after he died prematurely in 1999. His career output in many different bands - synthesizing white, black and Hispanic cultures - was beloved by many. I had no idea.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Beatles (1968)

I look at the world and I notice it's turning
While my guitar gently weeps
With every mistake we must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps

Songs that are too big to contain only the material world are indeed something to be thankful for when one's heart is as battered and sore as mine is this week. Songs like that help promote a healthy catharsis because they annihilate our perverse preoccupation with ego and somehow put our suffering in its larger and proper context. That's how I feel about While My Guitar Gently Weeps, ostensibly a Beatles song that I don't think anyone for a minute believes is a true Beatles song.

No reason why they should. It's pretty well known that the other Beatles were initially less than enthused about George Harrison's contribution to what became known as the White Album (apparently originally conceived as an acoustic number), and it took pressing the reluctant Eric Clapton into service as lead guitarist to make it the transcendent song it became and remains today. (The above link is to the version the grieving Clapton unleashed during the 2002 memorial Concert for George, with Harrison's son Dhani - and many others - accompanying him in one of the most moving performances I've ever seen of any song. However, this Todd Rundgren/Joe Jackson/Ethel version from 2005 also blows me away.)

Why Harrison had to fight to get his stuff due consideration remains a mystery, but I guess it all worked out in the end - of the four Beatles, he was by far the most influential as a solo artist. Prior to this, Harrison's output was relatively meager and marginalized. I had always regarded the Quiet Beatle as a strong lead guitarist but that was about it.

'Guitar' was a game changer and his masterpiece. And it stood out like a sore thumb against most of the other 29 songs on the album; I maintain only a slender handful of the cuts can be defined as remotely exceeding mediocrity. I loved it from the start, but in being such an anomaly, it sounded a bit of a death knell for the Beatles as recording artists, which was a scary prospect at the time. The White Album was a messy concoction that seemed to belong to just one Beatle at a time rather than a synthesis of their talents as a group. Certainly 'Guitar,' as a harbinger of what was to come when the group dissolved and went their separate ways, was a revelation in this regard.

Forty years later, it's still a powerful spiritual balm. Despite this week's weeping, "I look at the world and I notice it's turning." And I'm learning.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Lookin' for a Leader, Neil Young (2006)

Walkin' among our people
There's someone who's straight and strong
To lead us from desolation
And a broken world gone wrong

I'm making an exception today in my song selection criteria because today is Election Day in the United States of America - a day in which we have a very real, albeit on some level surreal, opportunity as a nation to stop going down the tragic path we've been on for too many years and elect a president worthy of the title.

Neil Young's Lookin' for a Leader with its 100-voice choir crying out in hope, was about as prescient as a rock song can be, tapping Barack Obama as that leader at a time when nothing in the zeitgeist suggested anything of the sort could ever occur. In a few short hours we will learn the results of two years of hard-fought and masterful campaigning to secure what is right for the United States and the rest of the world.

The classic outsider and stranger in a strange land, Sen. Obama is most likely the one person who has what it takes to transcend the noxious and entrenched self-interest that has passed for governing these past 8 years. If he pulls it off, and all indications are that he will, the euphoria that will set in may last for weeks. I - and so many, many others - want to be proud to be American again.

When I'm finished writing this I will be headed out for my late-afternoon shift at the polls, where I'll be handing out sample Democratic party ballots and ensuring that voters are treated properly. Incredibly, it is sunny and in the 70s here in the battleground State of Ohio where, God willing, we will be one of a number of states that will put Barack Obama over the top and into the White House.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

All the Young Dudes, Mott the Hoople (1972)

All the young dudes (hey dudes)
Carry the news (where are ya)

Boogaloo dudes (stand up come on)
Carry the news

Songs that have anthemic qualities are usually great songs even if they're not your own particular anthems. Whenever I hear - or heard - the defiant, exuberant All the Young Dudes, I am/was drawn to it immediately, despite it having no particular relevance to my life then or now.

Written and produced for Mott the Hoople by David Bowie (who shared a manager with them) at a time when Bowie's career was really starting to ignite as he toured on a large scale for the first time (as Ziggy Stardust) , All the Young Dudes was named by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. It wasn't necessary to be an English working class adolescent to prick up your ears when it burst out of the airwaves.

Though they seemed like overnight sensations to many, Mott the Hoople had had three prior unremarkable LPs, and were in debt and on the verge of breaking up when bassist Pete "Overend" Watts approached Bowie seeking a spot in his band. Instead Bowie offered to produce them on his dime and throw in one of his own songs for them to record. Suffragette City was the first song proposed - Mott turned it down for whatever reason but agreed to record All the Young Dudes. (Bowie recorded it himself in a later cover.)

In many ways a bookend on the original squeakier-clean British Invasion, the song took the disaffected youth concept into a new realm, Ian Hunter and the band raising their voices in glorious unison to rail in solidarity not only against the Establishment but also the older young people and bands who themselves were seen as passé and conventional. Glam rock was on the rise.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

96 Tears, Question Mark & the Mysterians (1966)

One of my favorite ways to waste time in the mid-60s was calling up Washington/Maryland/Virginia radio DJs and making requests or trying to score an open phone line for a contest. In 1966, I finally was the '10th caller' and won my first vinyl 45. Damned if it wasn't 96 Tears by Question Mark & the Mysterians. Why do I remember that? Who knows - I just do.

I've always harbored a fondness for a certain kind of hard-bitten, testosterone-driven garage-ish rock. Give me quality fare by the Amboy Dukes, Bob Seger System or Standells and I was in some kind of heaven that helped me tap into the male side of my psyche, I guess. The Troggs, Them and Yardbirds from the other side of the pond had similar effects on me. Though a girl, I was as disaffected a youth as any, so the sensibility that oozed from the pores of this kind of music suited me just swimmingly. It wasn't trying to be pretty, it wasn't pretty, and yet it was alluring.

Question Mark and the Mysterians has been described as one of the first garage or punk-style bands to emerge in the U.S. and 96 Tears was a definite anomaly at the time it scaled the charts. The week it was #1, the group shared the Top 5 with the Monkees, Four Tops, Johnny Rivers and Left Banke. Like many such songs, 96 Tears started out as a local hit (they lived in Bay City, Michigan), but the British Invasion had opened up a mass market for bands that up until then were pretty much hanging out in their garages and basements. It got coveted airplay on CKLW in Detroit, and a recording contract with national distribution soon followed.

I loved playing it on my dinky turntable, especially because I knew my mother hated it, probably even feared it. That exotic Link Wray-like guitar (his theme song for the Batman TV show was big that year)! The organ riff! The seductive rhythm! They were Latino - even better! Nothing like my sanitized suburban existence - it just didn't get any better than that, some days.

Rudy Martinez (or ? as he is apparently legally known) and his Mysterians are still out there recording and performing, and have a bit of a following, although they never really had other commercial success of this magnitude.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

RIP Levi Stubbs (1936-2008)

It seems I've already written most of what I'd want to say about the soul paragon Levi Stubbs in my July 6, 2008, post about Ask the Lonely. So I'll just repeat it below and maybe a few new people will read it. By all accounts, Levi was an uncommonly decent and certainly talented soul, and his passing is a bittersweet reminder of those days of baby boomer innocence that seem so far away now, when his inspiring voice was so much a part of the musical backdrop of my own lonely existence. I'll just add in two other favorite Four Tops songs that were perfect showcases of the instrument Levi was blessed with: It's the Same Old Song and their beautiful interpretation of the Left Banke's Walk Away Renee.

Sometimes it's hard to believe what it takes for people with mammoth talent to hit the big time. If we had to guess, we wouldn't imagine, for example, that a Levi Stubbs, with his magnificently evocative baritone, along with his fellow Four Tops, would have had to spend more than a decade finding an audience when they started singing together after high school. But that is in fact what happened.

Along with his boyhood friends Duke Fakir, Obie Benson and Lawrence Payton, the Detroit-based Tops, originally known as the Four Aims, were the hardest working men in show business for years and years while they worked the club circuit, often as a backing group for the likes of Billy Eckstine, Brook Benton and Della Reese. One single each with Columbia, Red Top and Chess Records didn't even get them the exposure they needed.

As with so many talented acts, it took being discovered by Berry Gordy in 1963, taken under the Motown tent, and given the right material for the rest of the world to catch on. At first, though, the Tops were used in a jazz subsidiary Gordy had, which didn't pan out, and later contributed only backing vocals to other acts, as on the Supremes' When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes.

But in 1964, house songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland had the necessary epiphany and Baby I Need Your Lovin' launched them as an act to be reckoned with. All those years perfecting their dance moves and vocal arrangements paid off in ways even they probably could never have predicted. (Atypically for any successful act of that time, the Tops' original lineup remained constant for 40 years although they left Motown in 1967.)

Of all the Four Tops songs, I think Ask the Lonely, their second hit (not an H-D-H composition but rather written by Mickey Stevenson, Motown's A&R director, and songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter), woke people up to the group's enduring possibilities. I know it did me.

Though the many songs that followed generally charted higher than Ask the Lonely did, Stubbs' heartbreaking delivery and the silky smooth harmony line of Fakir, Benson and Payton made this one cathartic and downright irresistible. The Four Tops at their absolute best.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Oh, Pretty Woman, Roy Orbison (1964)

"With Roy, you didn't know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes ... He was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal ... His voice could jar a corpse, always leaving you muttering to yourself something like, 'Man, I don't believe it.'" - Bob Dylan, Chronicles

Roy Orbison died on my birthday, December 6, 1988. I was sitting in an establishment in Dayton, Ohio, where I was traveling for work, and the news came in over the TV. (What was to be his final performance had been two days prior, in Akron, where I didn't live then but do now.) I was absolutely stunned and kind of despondent for days afterward. I think I played Mystery Girl, his glorious posthumous album, until the vinyl reverted back to the original resin state.

From the perspective of an 11-year-old girl, Oh, Pretty Woman was a song with startling guitar riffs and a beat you could dance to sung by a decidedly peculiar-looking guy with a killer falsetto. Looking back at it now, really listening to it, I can see that it had a very complex and nuanced arrangement, especially for that particular time in rock's evolution, which is probably why it has stood the test of time and was such a chart-buster.

When he sang, Orbison barely moved a muscle, but the emotion came out in a deluge. It must have been intense being in his presence on stage. He had some similarity to Johnny Cash, in that musicians of considerable talent fell all over themselves wanting to be in his orbit and perform with him. In the above link to the Black & White Night special, watch the sheer delight of the assembled luminaries jamming with him; the Traveling Wilburys were another example of a star-studded crew who basked in being with Roy.

Interestingly with regard to Cash, it was he who may have propelled Roy and his then-band, the Wink Westerners, on to future stardom. They were minor celebrities on various West Texas TV shows, and met Cash on one such show, wherein he encouraged them to seek a contract with the legendary Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis, also Cash's producer. The story goes that they were rejected by Phillips at first, but eventually a relationship was forged and the rest is history.

For as many hits as he had, the full spectrum of his catalogue far exceeded what most of us have actually heard, and is just now being showcased in the new CD box set of 107 cuts, The Soul of Rock and Roll. I guess I should start dropping hints now at what a great gift that would be for the 20th anniversary of Roy's death and my next birthday!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Cool Jerk, Capitols (1966)

We all looked pretty goofy when we danced in the 60s, and never goofier than when we got down to the fabulous soul ditty Cool Jerk by the Capitols. But who cared - this song was pure kinetic energy that converted instantly to joy - which can happen when you're, as the song said, cookin' and smokin.'

The person we have to thank for this is Ollie McLaughlin, one disc jockey and record producer who refused to be dwarfed by the Motown juggernaut. Based outside of Detroit in Ann Arbor, not exactly an urban hotbed, McLaughlin started three record labels, named them after his daughters Karen, Carla and Moira, and started to turn out and promote artists that captured the attention of young America, including Del Shannon and Barbara Lewis.

Motown's house band, the Funk Brothers, were known to moonlight, and if the instrumental arrangement of Cool Jerk sounds vaguely familiar, it's because some of the Funk Brothers were serving it up in their spare time. That's Bob Babbitt on bass, Johnny Griffith on piano and Eddie Willis on guitar, and it was as tasty as tasty could be. The Capitols themselves were singer and drummer Sam George, guitarist Donald Storball (who wrote the song), and keyboardist Richard McDougall.

Nothing much happened for the Capitols after Cool Jerk, and I don't recall ever seeing them even perform it anywhere. However, Parliament/Funkadelic's Bootsy Collins gives it all he's got with the surviving Funk Brothers in their documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Catch it if you can.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Eve of Destruction, Barry McGuire (1965)

Yeah, my blood's so mad feels like coagulatin'
I'm sitting here just contemplatin'
I can't twist the truth, it knows no regulation.
Handful of senators don't pass legislation
And marches alone can't bring integration
When human respect is disintegratin'
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin'

And you tell me over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.

I've been wanting to write about this song for a while, and I won't wait any longer. Eve of Destruction blew the doors off people's complacency when it was released and caused a firestorm of controversy in the culture - was Barry McGuire the ultimate patriot or an enemy of the people, someone to be ostracized for having the gall to speak truth to power? Rarely has a song tried so little to sugarcoat what was happening in the world.

McGuire was working as a young pipefitter when he stumbled into a cafe in Laguna Beach, saw someone singing his heart out, and decided to pursue the musical life. After leaving the New Christy Minstrels in early 1965, McGuire found himself at a Byrds concert where he met P.F. Sloan (the song's composer) and the legendary producer Lou Adler.

One thing led to another, and Adler offered to produce a McGuire solo album. With only 20 minutes left in that recording session, McGuire pulled out the crumpled lyrics to Eve of Destruction, found them hard to decipher in places and delivered a roughish first take, fully expecting to perfect the vocal track later. Through a chain of events described on McGuire's website, that never happened, and the memorable raw version was on the radio just days later and exploded onto the charts. Few people who heard it could look the other way. The rage Sloan put onto the page and into which McGuire breathed life was palpable.

Let's see: what's changed in nearly a half century? Well, it took five years, but the voting age was eventually lowered to 18 so that the kids who put their lives on the line for us could also select the people who run the country they're fighting for. In fact, somewhere I saw that the lyrics to Eve were read on the floor of Congress when the legislation was enacted.

But the truth of the matter is that the times are, in many respects, even more frightening now than they were then, and sadly, Eve of Destruction doesn't feel all that dated to me. Who'd have predicted just 8 years ago that the United States would have devolved into a shadow of its former self, a house of cards mortgaged to the hilt, its citizenry plagued by social and economic problems that have been utterly ignored while a neocon agenda was unleashed on the world?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Gonna Take A Miracle, Laura Nyro and Labelle (1971)

Note: Another guest blogger, my friend who goes by the name of Mombi in the blogosphere, is on hand to contribute one of her most beloved tunes from 1971. Mombi was born in 1979, but she is the child of baby boomers, and so she was steeped in this stuff, and loves it as if she had been nourished on it, which, of course, she was ...

Gonna Take a Miracle was recorded by the earthy goddess Laura Nyro and soulful power trio Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash - aka Labelle - in a hurried, yet magical, one-week recording session in the throes of a 1971 Philadelphia summer heat of an album of Nyro's favorite "teenage heartbeat songs."

But just how did a little white Midwestern girl born in 1979 come into contact with such an eclectic album, pray tell? Well, I have my mother to thank for bestowing this precious gem upon me, as my mind has woven the family memories surrounding the whole album into the very fiber of my being.

So many nights as my mother and two sisters went about our daily lives, the deafening silence of our home would suddenly be broken with the album's opening track, and from all corners of the house, the background vocals would materialize. We would appear from our various hiding places to share in 34 minutes of joyful singing and dancing. I've always felt like this album was a little-known treasure to be protected, as if the very nature of it, so gentle and heartfelt, had to be sheltered from the world.

Originally recorded by the Royalettes in 1965, that version of Gonna Take A Miracle is outstanding in its own right, but comes across as a wee bit detached by comparison to the Nyro/Labelle version, which transports us between shock, loss and anger as we mourn the ending of a romantic relationship, and then come finally to moments of hope - either for reconciliation or the strength to carry on despite the dire situation at hand.

It begins by being blindsided by a lover leaving, never suspecting that something was wrong. At first she wallows in her sadness, but builds to frustration (Now I know I can’t get through to you / I promise I will show you how much you’re turning me around, destroying me / I’ll never be the same anymore!)

As if surprised by this outburst, she then follows with an almost apologetic plea (You must realize, you took your love and left me quite by surprise / I could have told you that it’s gonna take a miracle… to love someone new when I’m crazy for you), completing the full circle of emotions that goes along with grieving a failed relationship.

The sense of desperation and sadness is so deeply explored; yet again, faith in true love has been tested and failed. There’s not much more that crosses generations and races like knowing what it’s like to have your heart ripped out and fed to you, yes?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

I Got You Babe, Sonny & Cher (1965)

Today I've been wallowing in the past, 1965 to be exact, seeing as how present day America is so fraught with peril it's difficult to focus on it without succumbing to a sense of utter impending doom.

So I've been watching that classic screwball duo Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 in old episodes of the groundbreaking spy spoof Get Smart, which debuted in 1965, and thinking about another duo that hit the scene the same year, Sonny & Cher.

To a sheltered 12-year-old, I Got You Babe was a treat (and as it turned out, also a trick). Just as Agent 99 was a role model of sorts in portraying the exciting career working alongside a man she adored, so 19-year-old Cher provided a glimpse into a different, but just as enthralling, world - where she could live a "you and me against the world" sort of life singing and laughing with the man she adored. What was not to like about either one of those fantasies?

The older Sonny Bono had been working as a promoter for Phil Spector when he met Cher and helped her land a job as a session singer. (That was her in You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' by the Righteous Brothers, and Be My Baby by the Ronettes, among others.) He also was a songwriter, and it was his Needles and Pins (written with Jack Nitzsche), that cemented stardom during the British Invasion for the Searchers.

Having initially recorded Baby Don't Go as a duet, Sonny then wrote I Got You Babe for the two of them and gave it to KHJ Radio in L.A. exclusively, to be played once an hour. Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun was certain the B-side, It's Gonna Rain, was the greater hit, a view Sonny did not share (thank God, it's awful!) and he decided to head Ertegun off at the pass by promising DJs exclusives. Given that kind of saturation exposure, I Got You Babe was a smash hit in one week, the Stones' Satisfaction hanging just behind it at #2.

I have always been a sucker for songs with dramatic shifts in the vocal key, and Cher's modulation at the "and if I get scared, you're always around" verse still gives me the shivers. And few songs of that time provided such a platform for an intimate look at the lives of its performers.

Though we would later learn that their wholesome-yet-rebellious image was just as carefully crafted in some ways as images are today, nonetheless it had an element of authenticity to it that was very appealing. Sonny & Cher made you think they were singing just for us, wanted us (not our parents) to get to know them and accept them in all their hippie glory, and we did. Their particular chemistry, while it was good, was nothing short of delightful.

Friday, September 19, 2008

What A Fool Believes, Doobie Brothers (1978-9)

What a fool believes he sees / no wise man has the power to reason away / What seems to be / is always better than nothing

I'm teetering perilously close to the brink of what I would consider the end of the baby boomer music years with this, but I heard What A Fool Believes today for the first time in a long time and it was so laden with memories that I can't resist adding it to the Estivator catalog. (Plus there's a part of me that thinks it's quite relevant to our current political scene as well.)

The characterization by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins of the mindset involved in unrequited love packs such a punch; when this song was released in 1978 on the Minute By Minute album (and the following year as a single, for which McDonald and Loggins were honored with the Song of the Year Grammy in 1980), I was the fool believing, and it was impossible to look in the mirror of this song and not see myself. Yet it was also somehow tremendously comforting to be enveloped in the universal sensibilities that What A Fool Believes captured so perfectly.

Michael McDonald, late of Steely Dan, was recruited for the band when Doobies co-founder Tom Johnston left due to ill health. Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, another Dan veteran who had been absorbed into the Doobies when Donald Fagen and Walter Becker decided to retire into session musicianship, suggested his former fellow bandmate as a fill-in. McDonald's keyboards and unearthly tenor took the Doobies into another stratosphere, from the California hippie band that it had been to a true pop sensation with a kick-ass rhythm section.

According to veteran rock critic Dave Marsh, in the The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, McDonald had written a good bit of the song but was stalling on the bridge. Loggins, whom McDonald did not know but who had recently split from his partner Jim Messina, was suggested as a possible collaborator by Doobie Brother Tiran Porter (not sure where the thought process came from here, but OK), and the rest is history. As Marsh wrote, "For once, the Grammys spent its accolades where they were deserved. Carefully crafted, gorgeously sung, beautifully arranged and pristinely recorded, What A Fool Believes holds up as one of the finest examples of seventies L.A. pop."

No argument, Dave!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Together Till the End of Time, Spencer Davis Group (1966)

Note: Another guest blogger is haunting our midst today, one KarmaSartre, as he's known in the blogosphere. KS had the great good luck to grow up in and around San Francisco so he's a veritable font of knowledge and insight on my favorite topic. He's got one of the most wicked senses of humor that I know, but he takes his baby boomer music very seriously, so here he is on one of his favorites:

One of the most beautiful songs in the history of rock and roll, Together Till the End of Time was written by Motown producer and songwriter Frank Wilson and was the lead track on the Spencer Davis Group's Autumn '66 album. Like most of their great songs, it was stunning, pure Stevie Winwood. His 17-year-old pipes are magnificent. I had heard his version of Georgia on My Mind (why didn't he play Ray in the movie?) , so I knew his capabilities were even greater than his Force-9 performances on Gimme Some Lovin and I'm A Man.

If you can hear it through your tears, Together Till the End of Time conveys the youthful promise of love as the pathway out of this place ... and a better life in the future ... and "Wouldn't It Be Nice"... and young lovers at the edge of an absurd, madding, thoughtless society ... and "there's a new world somewhere, they call it the Promised Land" ... and holding tight to each other before spinning forever into oblivion. We have heard that before.

But the melody is almost painfully beautiful, and Stevie's vocal, the soulful wailing of a 90-year-old in the precocious body of a young man blessed with perfect pitch, an incredible range, and a supernatural sense of the blues, separates it from all the rest. It's a song to live for.

I saw Stevie perform with Traffic, right after Dave Mason had left. He played organ and ran the bass line with the foot pedals, then broke out his guitar for a perfect "Dear Mr. Fantasy" - he was radiant. Then, decades later, back in the high life, he nearly lulled me to sleep with the low spark of his high-heeled dirge. Oh, would that he had sprung Together ... on me.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Louisiana 1927, Randy Newman (1975)

Louisiana ... Louisiana ... they're trying to wash us away, they're trying to wash us away ...

As inconceivable as it is, New Orleans and the surrounding area is again in the eye of a storm that threatens destruction of such magnitude that almost 2 million people have been evacuated to avoid a repeat of the unspeakable catastrophe Hurricane Katrina left in its wake.

Our hearts are in our throats for people whose choices come down to, as one resident put it, "Do you leave it and worry about it, or do you stay and worry about living?" (According to today's paper, this person picked option 1, taking one of the last buses out of town.)

The last time this happened, Randy Newman's Louisiana 1927 became the unofficial anthem of those fellow citizens who were ravaged by Mother Nature and poor civil engineering - left to their own devices by every public official who could have lifted a finger and didn't. It appears that won't be the case this time; we won't watch in horror as the government "... sits on its hands while a major American city drowns before our eyes," as Barack Obama observed in his acceptance speech Thursday night. Amazing what can happen when indifference is replaced with competence, or at the very least, determination to do the right thing.

Newman's mother was from the city, and he found himself researching its history, including the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River that followed months of heavy rain - and the disgraceful, racist handling of that relief effort. I didn't know this song in 1975, only becoming aware of it when New Orleans native Aaron Neville recorded his deeply affecting version for the 1991 Warm Your Heart album and performed it live after he was driven from his home 15 years later by Katrina and another disgraceful, racist relief effort.

As pointed out in a New York Times article from earlier this year, Louisiana has become a folk song in that it has been adapted by other artists to make it more relevant to current events. References to President Coolidge changed to Bush, Evangeline morphed into Lower Nine, river became levee, and Newman's original acerbic lyric "cracker" is sometimes Creole, farmer or people ... However it's tweaked, it is vintage Randy Newman - simple, mournful, packing a huge punch.

Godspeed to all who are facing the trials and tribulations of the upheaval, and to all who decided to stay.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dancing Queen, ABBA (1976)

Note to the reader: Today's post is by 20-something Ali. She and 50-something Estivator are sisters under the skin who work together in the public relations field.

I recently had a musically stimulating conversation with Estivator; it went something like this:

Me (in my office, dancing in my chair and singing loudly while working)

Estivator (walking by): What on earth are you listening to?

Me: The Mamma Mia! soundtrack ... Don't you just love ABBA? You should cover it in your blog!

Estivator: Um, no. I don't think it fits within the time frame I write about.

Me (searching Google furiously): Oh, but it does!! It was released in 1976 ... so now will you cover it?

Estivator: I don't like ABBA. Well, except for Dancing Queen. I love Dancing Queen!

However, Estivator remained unenthusiastic about writing about Dancing Queen. She suggested I take on the daunting task of being her first guest blogger.

Although I wasn't alive when Dancing Queen was released, it doesn't matter. It takes me right back to the night I turned 17 and was celebrating my birthday on a cruise in the Caribbean for Spring Break. A friend on the cruise sang the sweet "she's only 17" lyrics to me as I twirled around on the dance floor "having the time of my life." I love the song for the role it played in creating that memory, and I love that every other person who hears it most likely has a similar memory of dancing and twirling around a dance floor in their youth.

Featuring the shared lead vocals of Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad and an awesome keyboard glissando, the first 40 seconds of Dancing Queen (that I'm sure are in your head right now) are said to make up one of the most identifiable sections in pop music history. ABBA had already released three albums and was well-known in Europe when the song hit the big time internationally.

But don't just take my word about how amazing Dancing Queen is; Rolling Stone gave it a #171 ranking on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Does that make you feel better, Estivator?

So get singing and dancing and having the time of your life. You know you want to.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Catch the Wind, Donovan (1965)

Contrary to conventional wisdom, in which easy comparisons to Bob Dylan abounded, I always thought Donovan Leitch was an original.

He had a lightness and whimsicality about him that was very refreshing - certainly helped along by his Scottish lilt - but not something I personally ever confused with Dylan, his harmonica and acoustic guitar notwithstanding.

Donovan's recording career began when he was 19 years old with Catch the Wind, a song of unrequited love that is so beautifully lyrical it almost makes you overlook the unrequited love part. His gentle, even delicate, manner was typical of a folk singer, but as time went on it became apparent he was an artist who had something more to say. He spoke out directly against the Vietnam war in his music before it was fashionable, notably with The War Drags On, The Ballad of A Crystal Man and his memorable cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie's Universal Soldier.

In a 2005 interview, Donovan revealed that he was brought up to be a socialist by his father, who was a strong union man and bohemian poet, and he was already familiar with Woody Guthrie by the age of 16. When Dylan heard Donovan for the first time (they were introduced in England by, who else, Joan Baez, and became friends), he commented that Donovan reminded him of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who had been a Guthrie disciple even before Dylan was, according to Donovan's autobiography, The Hurdy-Gurdy Man.

Soon enough the folkie repertoire gave way to more experimental fare in the Flower Power vein that had overtaken the music industry, with many signature songs over the next few years such as Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow. He continued to record the more ethereal songs like Atlantis and Lalena into the later 60s, however. Whatever it was he was into, it was always intriguing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Can-Utility and the Coastliners, Genesis (1972)

Back in the day, Genesis was Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks and Phil Collins before he became a glorified lounge singer. Most of the time I had no idea what their songs were about, but that didn't stop me from being drawn in by them just the same.

Genesis was the king of progressive rock while I was in college. I went to several of their concerts with my boyfriend - they started to tour the U.S. after Foxtrot was released - who idolized them and particularly Gabriel's theatrics and costuming. Though all that posturing left me cold, few other groups of the time were as artistic in their musical output, and I remember being quite mesmerized by the sheer tonnage of their instrumental capabilities and the way they were used to create a panoramic emotional experience.

As I've listened to the albums more recently, I've found a lot of the music hasn't really stood the test of time; it's all too precious somehow. (My actual favorite album overall was Genesis from 1983 - but that time frame is outside the approved realm of this blog.)

There are exceptions, though, and one of them is Can-Utility and the Coastliners, an underrated song from Foxtrot that caused my heart to soar then and does now. I used to take dance, and in my first apartment after college I remember dancing almost ecstatically to it. Phil Collins is a great drummer and he is inspired on this, as are the rest of the band on however many instruments are involved here - Mellotrons, bass pedals, 12-strings, organs - it's so intricate that it's impossible for me to tell what all's in the mix.

But it is without question one of the best of early Genesis, and I'm glad I rediscovered it. Interpretive dance, anyone?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

RIP Isaac Hayes (1942-2008)

The news just came in about the death of a man whose legacy in American soul music is as profound as it gets.

Although Isaac Hayes was best known for scoring the 1971 film Shaft, and in particular its funky-fabulous theme song, for a number of critical years he, along with his songwriting partner David Porter and Booker T & the MGs, formed the lifeblood of Memphis' Stax Records. Together they served as Stax's in-house production powerhouse, writing and producing hundreds of songs, and nurturing some of the label's key artists, particularly Sam & Dave and Carla Thomas. Jim Stewart, Stax's co-founder, credited Hayes with being one of the main sources of what became known as the Memphis sound.

Hayes began at Stax as a keyboard player, and it was he who, on his very first session, played on Otis Redding's Respect and I've Been Lovin' You Too Long. But his prodigious talent as a songwriter could not be denied. Some of my favorite Stax-era songs include Hold On, I'm Coming, Soul Man, I Thank You and, most especially, When Something's Wrong With My Baby for Sam & Dave, and Let Me Be Good To You for Carla Thomas. The man was soul personified, and knew how to bring it out in others.

In 1969 he emerged into the light of day beyond Memphis as a solo artist with Hot Buttered Soul, which had just four cuts on it. His lush signature style is sampled by many young artists today - witness the fact that he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 by Alicia Keys, who here describes how his work inspires and has informed hers.

Hayes had a complicated and diverse life, about which much will be written in the days to come. For me, it's enough to note that the man who was born in the grinding poverty of a sharecropper's family was a man of extraordinary determination to make his mark - and make his mark he did. I'll play him out with one of my favorite later songs, Don't Let Go.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart, Reflections (1966, 1967), The Supremes

It's taken me this long to
narrow down the Supremes' music catalogue to just two songs that I feel represent Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson at their absolute pinnacle.

Each of these songs, Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart, and Reflections, showcases the Supremes in their finest moments. And I think I selected these in the end because neither of them is from the usual mold from which, let's face it, so many of their songs were cast.

No Holland-Dozier-Holland composition was ever arranged into a sassier and more hard-driving record than Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart ... it exudes sensual energy of the most life-affirming kind. The blending of Ross' wail with Ballard's and Wilson's surging backing ooh-ooh-oohs puts me into the same frenzy 42 years later as it did as a teenager. The Funk Brothers' Benny Benjamin's 4/4 stomp alone ensures its place in the pantheon of kinetic history and what's up with Jack Ashford on the tinkling vibes? It just doesn't get any better than this, and it was never duplicated, unlike so many of the other carbon-copied hits. Inexplicably, one of the few Supremes hits not to chart at #1.

Reflections was the Supremes grown up and responding to shifting musical trends. Opening with an oscillator that led to its being pegged "psychedelic soul," it was just a beautiful song and an indication of what the girls could have done together if Berry Gordy had left well enough alone. It will forever symbolize the Supremes on the cusp of demise, being the first song on which Gordy put Ross on a pedestal and gave her top billing, and the last on which Ballard appeared. I'll admit its place in my heart is in part secured because of its inspired "casting" as the opening theme song of China Beach, one of the best ensemble TV shows ever made on any subject and certainly on war, in this instance the Vietnam war. The character of Colleen McMurphy, for me, was every bit as influential as that of Mary Richards in embodying young women's stories at that time in our evolution.

But in terms of the Supremes' story, much has already been written: Three close friends from the Detroit projects, in their own girl group called the Primettes (a sister act to the Primes which, featuring Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, was the Temptations precursor group), busting out with the knowledge that they had something special to offer as performers and dreaming of being discovered by Motown. Ross's lesser, shrill, voice but greater capacity for showbiz exploitation eclipsing the possibilities for powerful tenor Ballard and alto Wilson (both of whom could also sing lead more than competently) and setting up a chain of circumstances that led to Ballard being fired from the group in 1967, losing a lawsuit against Motown over that dismissal and ultimately dying, destitute, of a heart attack at the age of 32. And on and on ... it's a great American success story turned turbulent and tragic ... ambition gone awry. My generation was lucky to bask in it while it was good.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Woman Left Lonely, Janis Joplin (1971)

Managing expectations - This post is going to be more about the co-writer of this song (with Spooner Oldham), the almost unbearably-talented Dan Penn, than it will be about the singer.

Since I started this blog, I've been trying to determine which of Janis' songs best showcased her ability to unleash her unbridled pain. I keep coming back to A Woman Left Lonely. And now I know why. Dan Penn - singer, songwriter and producer extraordinaire - wrote it.

Those who don't know Penn need to rectify that situation, as he is still alive and kicking. Among the insanely sublime songs he wrote for others:

Don't Give Up on Me (with Carson Whitsett and Hoy Lindsey) for Solomon Burke
I'm Your Puppet (with Spooner Oldham) for James & Bobby Purify
The Dark End of the Street (with Chips Moman) for James Carr (but Penn singing his own masterpiece trumps it, in my opinion - don't listen to this on a day when you're not pretty strong - it could kill you)
Do Right Woman, Do Right Man (with Spooner Oldham) for Aretha Franklin
Cry Like A Baby (again with Spooner Oldham) for the Boxtops; he also produced but didn't compose The Letter
Is A Bluebird Blue? (at the age of 15!) for Conway Twitty

I'll stop now. I'm afraid I'll find even more. The man's output is staggering.

A native of Vernon, Alabama, Penn is one of a handful of white musicians who was lucky enough (his characterization) to work side by side with black musicians to create some of the most significant soul music of our time. Working out of the crucibles of Muscle Shoals, Memphis and Nashville (where he still lives), Penn time and time again has excavated primal emotions and unfurled them in ballads that approximate perfection.

It's hard to say from whence his talent for working across color lines comes. Fresh Air's Terry Gross tried, in an interview with Penn in 2001, to get at the magic formula, but like most artists, he couldn't really articulate his gift. He did say, however, that after Martin Luther King was assassinated, the peaceful co-existence of black and white artists in the studio all but evaporated, something I've heard Stax' Steve Cropper say as well. One of many side tragedies emanating from the original one.

Penn does perform on his own and with Spooner Oldham upon occasion, has released several recordings (Nobody's Fool and Do Right Man are two) and continues to produce - most recently, the Tucson-based Hacienda Brothers. If he appeared anywhere within a hundred mile radius of me right now, I'd be there in a minute.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Jeweler, Pearls Before Swine (1970)

"Usually when I'd write a song, I get the feeling first, the mood and then it's like they say about sculpture; you chip away at everything that's not the mood and you're left with this song that was meant to be." - Tom Rapp, from a 1994 interview in Dirty Linen

Feeling and mood were the stock in trade of Pearls Before Swine, a lyrically potent band based originally in Florida that developed a small but rabid following among those of us who enjoyed a good metaphor in our music.

Considered by many to be this LP's most beautiful cut, I became aware of The Jeweler at a deeply melancholy time in my life when just about any well-crafted song had the capacity to undo me.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "Poetry teaches the enormous force of a few words." In The Jeweler, Tom Rapp's sorrowful voice, the haunting piano and the story of a solitary craftsman conveyed in less than 3 minutes a moving homage to the unseen humanity of all of the world's loners. I wouldn't call it an anthem, but on some psychic level it surely was.

What became of Tom Rapp, who really was Pearls Before Swine? This 1998 story from the Washington Post is a fascinating read about the evolution of his life; as the writer notes, during the time that Pearls was on the scene, Rapp " ... spent all his time writing music that pleased him, and no time at all doing all the things musicians do to get noticed and rich." But the music has experienced a renaissance of sorts, and for some time there have been efforts afoot to ensure that Pearls' works survive their relative obscurity and that the recorded legacy be made available to others to enjoy. The latest on that effort is here.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Lookin' for a Love, Bobby Womack (1974)

I'm lookin' here and there ... I'm searchin' everywhere ... and I'm lookin' ... I'm lookin' ... I'm lookin' ... I'm lookin' ...

I have been trying valiantly to identify one song from 1974 - any song - that I could say I really liked. Something was in the water that year and nothing at all from the playlists looks good to me.

I had only to look locally - Bobby Womack's interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air a week ago reminded me of the seductive gospelesque rhythms and vocals of Lookin' for A Love which, as luck would have it, was released in 1974! The Womack family was from Cleveland and caught the eye of Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers when the brothers were singing gospel in church under the watchful eye of their father.

Lookin' for a Love was originally released in 1962 by the brothers, who by that time were named the Valentinos, recording for Cooke's label and touring with James Brown. (The song was also recorded and released by the J Geils Band before Womack re-released it in 1974, a version completely devoid of soul.)

When Womack was 15, he and his sister-in-law Shirley wrote and the Valentinos recorded It's All Over Now, later to be covered by the Rolling Stones in a much more well known version that launched their career. In his interview with Gross, he makes no secret of his disdain for the fact that, in those days, it generally took white recording artists to ignite the creative output of black artists as far as the commercial marketplace was concerned.

So when informed that the Stones were interested in recording the song, having heard an advance copy, he described his reaction: they should "get their own song." He came to be convinced, by Cooke himself, that allowing the cover to go forward - and beat his version to the charts - would be a good career move from a royalty perspective. He still emphasizes in the interview, however, that "Mick Jagger can't out-sing me!". Tell it, Bobby!

The left-handed Womack's many talents include playing guitar upside down, and the wah-wah line in Sly & the Family Stone's It's A Family Affair is his. I realize that I don't know as much about this multi-talented artist as I should; the fact that Cooke hand-picked him to play guitar in his band and for all intents and purposes made Womack his protege until his violent death in 1964 was all new to me. I'm going to check out the recent CD compilation, The Best of Bobby Womack: The Soul Years, to see what I've missed.