Sunday, June 29, 2008

Suzie Q, Creedence Clearwater Revival (1968)

Forty summers ago, my parents ended their desperately unhappy marriage and I moved to Columbus, Ohio, with my father to embark on a new life. So I suppose it's not surprising that I remember so vividly all of the songs that were playing on the radio in those summer months as every aspect of my existence was undergoing a complete and much-sought-after overhaul.

At the top of that list is Creedence Clearwater Revival's phantasmagoric cover version of Suzie Q, written by Louisianans Dale Hawkins and Rock Hall sideman inductee James Burton. I've never been a big fan of the later CCR rockabilly fare, which always seemed so watered down to me compared to their early work, but in their debut effort, Suzie Q achieved a certain raw, spooky, mesmerizing quality that had the epic proportions corresponding to the sea change in my life at that time.

According to Bad Moon Rising: the Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival by Hank Bordowitz, the band realized that to break out, the original swamp rock creation that Hawkins recorded in 1957 needed to make good use of a psychedelic vibe that would get it lots of play on KMPX, San Francisco's major progressive rock station of the day.

John Fogerty's searing guitar combined with liberal use of feedback, the pounding drums and other special effects of the arrangement accomplished that goal in spades. I would go so far as to say CCR never achieved anything that was better than this song.

Interestingly, Fogerty also mentions in the book that using others' material at the outset made it easier to perfect the musicianship he was striving for with the band - he wasn't bogged down with the ego issues that would have accompanied putting his own stuff out there. Which is curious when I think about it, because the other song of CCR's that I most revere is another cover, Screamin' Jay Hawkins' I Put A Spell on You.

Friday, June 20, 2008

San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), Scott McKenzie, 1967

Happy summer, everybody. Today's post focuses on the quintessential song of the season, 1967's homage to the Summer of Love - Scott McKenzie's San Francisco.

It's hard for people to relate to now, perhaps, but at one time hippies were everywhere. I was one of them, and although I wasn't in San Francisco, this song seemed to reflect the zeitgeist of that time - a freewheeling kind of existence that took on many different forms but, no matter who or where you were, was a natural reaction to the increasingly worrisome and warmongering "Establishment."

McKenzie and Papa John Phillips were old friends from when they lived outside Washington, D.C. in Alexandria, Virginia. McKenzie wasn't interested in being part of the band that became the Mamas and the Papas, but he did agree to sing the uplifting song Papa John wrote, basically as a promotional tool for the Monterey International Pop Festival that Phillips and producer Lou Adler were spearheading to kick off the summer.

As with so many things, once a cultural ethos is commercialized, it's corrupted and in truth, the pilgrimage so many strangers subsequently made to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, the epicenter of the hippie world, did lead to a degradation of the life locals had basked in before it was elevated to the world stage. An interesting perspective on all this is in the San Francisco Sound chapter of Rock and Roll: A Social History by Paul Friedlander.

But the song had an extraordinary ability to mirror the emotions of various segments of society around the world. It became not only a freedom song in Soviet-oppressed Eastern European countries, but also a homecoming song to Vietnam vets arriving back home through San Francisco from 1967 on. McKenzie sang San Francisco in Washington in 2002 at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial 20th anniversary tribute to the more than 58,000 men and women who died fighting that "war" and the millions more who served and lived to tell the tale.

In a 1995 interview, McKenzie talked about how the song unexpectedly resonated with so many different groups of young people worldwide, especially our own soldiers.

"For Vietnam vets, it was what kept them going, in a lot of ways, for years, dreaming of coming home," McKenzie said. "They still come up to me. I carry a Bronze Star that a vet gave me, a combat patch that a vet gave me. I've talked to two POWs who told me how much it meant to them ... maybe some people our age don't know it either, realize that, whether we intended to be that much a part of what was happening - I didn't. I didn't have any idea I was gonna sing a song that would mean that much to anybody. But I did. That music is in the hearts of millions of people all over the world, and it represents freedom and dying for freedom, or doing what they thought was right and now they think it's wrong."

Thursday, June 19, 2008

For Your Precious Love, The Impressions (1958)

"The chicks would melt when we danced!!!" - YouTube commenter

Can you blame them? Probably the most exquisitely moving doo-wop song ever recorded was penned by Jerry Butler, the Chicago baritone who was briefly the lead singer for the Impressions.

Butler's ability to project an eerie serenity while singing intensely emotional songs earned him the moniker "The Ice Man." Nowhere is that talent more on display than in For Your Precious Love.

Starting out as the Roosters, the original Impressions were tenors Arthur and Richard Brooks, who put the song's music to Butler's lyrics, baritone Sam Gooden, and Butler and his childhood friend, the tenor Curtis Mayfield, both of whom performed with the Traveling Souls Spiritualist Church's Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Mayfield's grandmother was a pastor there.

But gospel wasn't their only influence - according to the history at the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, which inducted the Impressions in 2003, both Butler and Mayfield sang with secular groups on the side to supplement their families' incomes, Butler with the Quails and Mayfield with the Alphatones.

So these guys were probably destined to end up doo-wop singers.
Defined as a mixture of a capella singing and instrumentation, Butler explained the genesis of doo-wop in an interview with the Associated Press in 1999:

"When most of the groups started they didn't have instruments,'' he said. "So they used voices as instruments. The bass singer would sing a bass line, the tenor would sing what a saxophone might play and the lead singer would sing the lyrics. But then when they'd go to perform it in a studio, the producer would say, 'Let's use a real piano. Let's use a real guitar and maybe throw in a real saxophone.'''

On For Your Precious Love, the marketing whizzes at the Vee-Jay label felt the need to bill one group member over the others, to the dismay of the entire group (see Butler's memoir, Only the Strong Survive), and there was only one more single with Butler - Come Back My Love - before he went out on his own. Mayfield was Butler's guitarist and backing band musical director for awhile, and co-wrote some of Butler's early singles, including He Will Break Your Heart, but eventually returned to the Impressions where he remained throughout the 60s.

Butler, who has been a Cook County Commissioner in Chicago for many years, has been a tireless champion of rhythm & blues' influence in American culture - he is chairman emeritus of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation - and can often be seen on PBS as host of several different doo-wop specials. Almost 80, his inimitable voice is still incredibly strong and icy. I shiver every time I hear it.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

In the Still of the Nite, Five Satins (1956, 1960, 1961)

Maybe I've seen one too many PBS fundraising specials focusing on the great a cappella singers lately and I'm lamenting my lost youth. But in front of my house, which was built in 1930, is one of those old-timey lampposts - which works - and sometimes I fantasize starting my own doo-wop group to sing under it.

One of the tunes my group and I would sing is In the Still of the Nite by the Five Satins. I was too young to be aware of it when it was first released in 1956, however in 1960-61 it gained a new and enduring life when it was re-released and at some point I would have heard it on Washington, D.C. soul stations in the early 60s.

Ranked at #90 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, the song was written by lead singer Fred Parris, who is still performing, and was originally recorded in a church basement in New Haven, Connecticut.

In Gerri Hirshey's Nowhere To Run, Ben E. King, who was once a Drifter, describes the influence of songs such as this one: "We'd learn from the records, like everybody did ... If you could sing Moonglows, you could kill the neighborhood. They had great harmonies, the Moonglows. Or the Satins or the Clovers. We tried to pattern ourselves after the tight-harmonied groups."

What is the enduring appeal? King goes on: "You could dance to the stuff, kiss your girl to it. And, my God, more than a lot of this electronic stuff you have going on now, you could feel it. It was a human voice you picked up on. I guess I'd say you could get involved on a real emotional level."

And if you could kill the neighborhood in the bargain, so much the better!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Somebody To Love, Queen (1976)

“We’re the Cecil B. DeMille of rock and roll, always wanting to do things bigger and better.” - Freddie Mercury

Sometimes a song will happen along that is such a confection of vocal and instrumental sound that all you can think is what it would have been like to play a part - any part - in the making of it. One such song is the mondo-exhilarating Somebody to Love by Queen.

The multi-tracked chorale motif was Freddy Mercury's homage to the gospel stylings of Aretha Franklin, which is probably why it is my favorite Queen song. Watching the YouTube video, I just want to say, hey guys, can I sing too? Such fun.

Queen rose to stardom working not as most groups did paying dues on the club circuit but rather in private, building out the theatrical spectacles for which they were famous. The first time they performed publicly, it was for a small invited London college crowd, according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The campy-glam presentation that evolved didn't change the fact that Mercury, with a recorded vocal range of nearly four octaves, and his fellow members Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon were all accomplished songwriters and musicians who created some of the most complex songs the rock world has ever seen.

As an aside, and completely unrelated to the time period relevant to this blog, Queen and David Bowie wrote and recorded one of the few songs that I considered worthy in the 80s, Under Pressure. Check it out.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The House of the Rising Sun, The Animals (1964)

Continuing with our mini-theme of Music to Swelter By, today let's examine a song that was another summer hit and exudes steaminess with every bar, The House of the Rising Sun by the Animals.

I can't emphasize enough what a sophisticated song this seemed like when it was released. And by sophisticated, I mean raunchy. Given the nature of everything else that was a success when this was #1 - the next four chart positions were held by the Supremes, Dean Martin, the Dave Clark Five and Bobby Freeman - this thing was a revelation from start to finish.

Pretty much everything I'm about to write here I didn't know about the song until now. A traditional folk song of uncertain provenance, it's been adapted and performed by a range of performers since the 1930s (and possibly longer ago than that), including Roy Acuff, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Glenn Yarborough, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Odetta, Joan Baez ... the list goes on. Much has been written about which version Eric Burdon first heard that inspired him to want to perform it when the Animals began touring with Chuck Berry in England. Some sources say Dylan's was the version, but more say Josh White. I can't find that one, although it's on his Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 6, but here is White performing some other tunes.

The song was rescued from possible oblivion by music historian Alan Lomax, who was recording and compiling favorite traditional American folk songs as sung by ordinary people in their natural habitats for the Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Culture (today a part of the Library's American Folklife Center). A Kentucky coal miner's daughter named Georgia Turner offered up a version of the song entitled Rising Sun Blues, sung from the perspective of a fallen woman instead of a man.

Lomax had a missionary zeal for preserving real people's voices for posterity and once commented, ''We now have cultural machines so powerful that one singer can reach everybody in the world, and make all the other singers feel inferior because they're not like him. Once that gets started, he gets backed by so much cash and so much power that he becomes a monstrous invader from outer space, crushing the life out of all the other human possibilities. My life has been devoted to opposing that tendency.''

Thanks to his efforts, the Animals and many others have discovered it anew and made it their own. The fact that their version got any airplay at all in 1964 at its full 4+ minute length is notable since it just wasn't done at that point, and indeed at first Columbia Records balked at doing it, choosing to first release Baby Let Me Take You Home before taking their chances with House.

An unfortunate sidebar to the story - The arranger's credit for the Animals' recording went to Alan Price only for his astounding organ turn on this, despite Hilton Valentine's luscious lead guitar work here being every bit as defining to the song's success. The hard feelings that this caused among band members were deep and lasting. I've seen various reasons why this occurred to begin with but I don't know what the real explanation was.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Summer in the City, Lovin' Spoonful (1966)

Though it's not yet summer, here in Ohio the dog days have descended suddenly so I don't feel the need to wait for further estivation to spotlight Summer in the City, a bit of an anomaly among the many earnest Lovin' Spoonful Top 10 singles that pleased us between 1965 and 1967.

The only "dirty and gritty" Spoonful hit, Summer in the City was notable for its distinctive use of organ, electric piano and rhythm section as well as sound effects mimicking the characteristic noise of a sweltering urban setting. John Sebastian tells the story that they hired an old sound man to punctuate everything with car horns, traffic and a jackhammer. To this day I can't hear the song without feeling as if I'm stewing in my own juices in a hot car, which is especially resonant at the moment as my car's air conditioning has decided to die.

New Yorker Sebastian and Canadian Zal Yanovsky were brought together by one Cass Elliott for a viewing of the Beatles' first appearance on Ed Sullivan. Enjoying their experiments melding folk style fingerpicking with electric guitars, the two for a time were members of the short-lived Mugwumps with Cass and Denny Doherty. The Mugwumps' breakup spawned two new groups, the Mamas and Papas and the Spoonful, with Sebastian and Yanovsky recruiting bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler to round out the band, which was determined to break through the British Invasion-Motown domination of the charts at that time.

Few record companies exhibited interest until Phil Spector and Brill Building songwriters showed up at their Greenwich Village performances and the spreading word led to a contract and their irresistible first feel-good hit, Do You Believe in Magic?

Indiana boy John Mellencamp, inducting the Spoonful into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, said of Summer in the City's influence, "I never got tired of hearing it. Poetic and beautiful in its course. Sexy and poignant in every breath that the singer sang. The song I assumed was written about New York City. I'd never been to New York City, but here I was in a town of 4,000 people and I related to every word that guy sang."

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Change Is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke (1964)

It's been a long, a long time coming / But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will

Forty years ago today, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in California after winning the Democratic primary for president. How many of us never cease to wonder how our world would be different had he lived and won the election?

Last night, Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for president, something I never thought I'd see in my lifetime. With all due credit to Mike Dorning of the Chicago Tribune, here are the first few paragraphs of his story this morning:

"Within the living memory of many in this country, the simple act of encouraging black Americans to reach for a vote - never mind an actual political office - was enough to risk a brutal death and a shallow grave.

In some of the arenas Barack Obama has filled by the tens of thousands in his historic campaign for the presidency, he once would not have been able to take so much as a sip from the water fountain.

Yet in a country with a tortured racial history - institutionalized slavery, a bloody civil war, wrenching Supreme Court rulings, riots in the streets and the modern realignment of its political parties - the victory by the 46-year-old senator from Illinois writes a new chapter in the American story."

Rather than belabor the obvious symbolic congruences between what Robert Kennedy's legacy might have been and the promise of healing so many injustices that Barack Obama's campaign inspires, I'll end now and simply refer you to a YouTube video on Obama's life that's set to one of the most significant and enduring social protest songs of my generation, the great Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come.