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.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Man in Black, Johnny Cash (1971)

Well, we're doing mighty fine, I do suppose / In our streak-of-lighting cars and fancy clothes / But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back / Up front there ought to be a Man in Black.

I was hoping after I finished watching the 2-DVD release of an anthology of Johnny Cash's TV show from 1969-1971 last week that I would have a better handle on what it was about the man that made him the icon he was.

Aside from the fact that he had the most incandescent smile I've ever seen on any man, which in itself would draw people to him, his love of all forms of music and musicians - and seemingly, of humanity in general - was returned in spades by everyone who encountered him.

Guests on his show ranged from a very young Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Roy Orbison, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Ray Charles to Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Jr. and Chet Atkins. It was clear he was tickled to the bone to host every one of these artists, and the feeling was mutual. There's one segment with Derek and the Dominos where Eric Clapton looks sidelong at Cash as though he can barely believe he's actually in the man's presence. It's quite something to watch when you consider that many people since have looked at Clapton the same way.

For baby boomers, Johnny Cash was the first recording artist who made it cool to examine country music. Because he gave voice to social justice concerns at a time when that mattered profoundly to young people, he crossed over in ways that other country singers did not. A prime example of this was Man in Black, a simple yet powerful song that he performed for the first time before a rapt college audience.

Cash used his prodigious talents as a singer, songwriter and guitar player to engage on the highest possible level with the full spectrum of society, whether it was with hardened inmates at Folsom Prison or students only just starting to become aware of the world around them. It was as though he alchemicalized his own considerable personal pain into an art form anyone could tap into and that connected us all to each other. He was our generation's Everyman.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Ask the Lonely, Four Tops (1965)

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.