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.