Saturday, January 31, 2009

Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear, Alan Price Set (1967)

I may go out tomorrow if I can borrow a coat to wear
Oh, I'd step out in style
With my sincere smile and my dancing bear
Outrageous, alarming, courageous, charming
Oh, who would think a boy and bear
Could be well accepted everywhere
It's just amazing how fair people can be

I don't know what it says about me that my first blog post to follow the inauguration of President Obama is Alan Price's Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear, but there is a method to my madness. At least I think there is.

The euphoria of the unbelievable events of the past few weeks is wearing off and the harsh reality of what we're dealing with as a country is sinking in, at least in part because the man in charge is actually acknowledging it. With the fallout worsening daily, there will be a tremendous hunger for reasons to smile and laugh amidst the day of reckoning that's arrived with the departure of the Era of Anything Goes, Damn the Consequences.

What better duo to feature than Randy Newman, the king of the mordant outlook who wrote the song, and Alan Price, who is well known for swimming against the tide and, if necessary, saying that the emperor has no clothes? (Here's a Goldmine interview with Price where he clearly was a frustration to the interviewer because he reserved the right to answer questions the way he wanted to instead of fitting into some preordained mold.)

I wasn't aware of this song at the time it was a hit, probably because it was a hit only in the UK, where the British music hall tradition probably helped it, not in the U.S. My friend Barry sent me the YouTube link to it quite some time ago, and it made a lasting impression on me because it makes me smile every time I watch it. I never knew what became of ebullient keyboardist Alan Price, without whom the Animals would never have existed, after he left the group amid controversy. (See my post on House of the Rising Sun for a note on this.)

One of the things Price did, via his Alan Price Set, was showcase Newman's songs and establish his reputation. Newman was a professional songwriter for record companies for years, and I gather a bit of a reluctant recording artist. (Check out his own version of Simon Smith on his 1972 Sail Away album.)

As performed by Price, Simon Smith was the first Newman song ever to chart in the Top 10, and the B-side was also a Newman composition, Tickle Me. A subsequent Alan Price Set album, A Price On His Head, featured 7 Newmans, and Price has credited him with being the inspiration for taking more risks in his own songwriting.

Oh yeah, what is the meaning of Simon Smith? You be the judge. Or just smile.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Hit The Road Jack, Ray Charles (1961)

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. - Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963, The March on Washington

Day 3 of artists who've performed for the Obama inaugural. OK, Ray Charles is no longer with us, but his version of America the Beautiful saw Barack on the train into Baltimore over the weekend.

Was there ever a groovier song than Hit The Road Jack? Hands down my favorite Ray Charles and the ideal song to send George W. Bush packing - Lord, so often it has seemed like this day would never come - and usher in the Obama years.

Hit The Road Jack was written by Percy Mayfield, a singer-songwriter Charles had grown up listening to, and features the take-no-prisoners Raelettes. The delicious lead is sung by one of the originals, Margie Hendrix, with whom Charles was personally involved. The Raelettes lineup was a revolving door, at one time including the late Minnie Riperton; the musical tug-of-war between them and Charles was a critical ingredient of the success of this song.

But today's post is not so much about the song as it is about the historic events that are about to occur. Our long national nightmare, as Gerald Ford described the end of the Nixon years when he took the oath of office, is drawing to a close.

I, and millions of others, have been waiting for this for so long - waiting for a chance to hold our heads up high again, to stop the neocon madness that has wrecked this country and brought its people to their knees, thrown them out of their homes, deprived them of their jobs (and as Joe Biden said yesterday, their dignity) and their life savings if they had any, mortally wounded their sons and daughters or brought them back to civilian life damaged psychically and/or physically forever. And that's just a partial list.

I have supported Barack Obama for president from the beginning. I was never for anyone else, even when I thought there was no way in hell that he could win. He is an outsider in the truest sense of the word, someone who is not entrenched in the status quo, who is devoid of cynicism, who believes in contemplation and sorting through complexities, and is unwilling to cave in to special interests who care only for themselves and wouldn't know the greater good if it hit them upside the head.

That he is a black man on top of all that should be gravy, but it really isn't. Along with many others, I didn't think I'd live to see a person of color become President of the United States. I didn't think the pendulum could swing that far, particularly not after what we have had to endure these last 8 years. But it has swung. We will never be the same, and we shouldn't be.

It's time; way past time. On this, the 23rd Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I have never been more thrilled to be an American.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Jungleland, Bruce Springsteen (1975)

James Taylor yesterday, Springsteen today. I guess I'm writing about the artists who are participating in the Obama inaugural events!

Here's the thing about Bruce Springsteen. I wasn't that avid a fan. But the first time I heard Jungleland, I think I had an out of body experience, especially at the end with the primal scream. There may be other songs like it out there, but I can't think of one.

I haven't written about this before because it's been hard to imagine putting into words how this song affected - and still affects - me. Fortunately, I've just found an essay that Greil Marcus wrote for Rolling Stone at the time, about the Born to Run album in its entirety, that pretty much sums up my thoughts on the subject.

Marcus talks about how it's not necessary to know all of the lyrics of a song to understand what it's about. He's absolutely on the money when he says that, about this song or any other, for that matter. I am sure that for years I didn't know most of the lyrics of Jungleland and probably still don't (although I'm looking at them now in some liner notes from The Essential Bruce Springsteen).

But I am devastated every time I hear it, blown away by the futility in the story being told, the horror of a life force wasted and pretty much no one caring - a story that plays out every day in jungles of one kind or another all over the world. All of that is conveyed in the music alone, in Clarence Clemons' doleful sax solo, in Roy Bittan's heavenly piano, and in Bruce's utterly unbearable howl at the end. It's not unlike going to an opera that's performed in Italian and has no surtitles (or you just don't look at them), yet the emotions you have in response to what you're witnessing are exactly the ones you should be having.

Marcus notes that, at the same time, the Born to Run songs are "exhilarating." Why that should be the case is hard to fathom. Certainly this song has nothing but tragedy written all over it. But the musicianship on Jungleland is so astonishing that it quite simply is experienced as a small miracle. A phenomenal degree of care was taken in its creation (in The Words and Music of Bruce Springsteen by Rob Kirkpatrick, it's stated that Bruce spent the better part of a day with Clemons going over every note of the solo, for example.)

So we're getting blood, sweat and tears, not just in the story but in the backstory.
It's a 9-1/2 minute opera and it is as close to perfection as anything in rock history gets.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Handy Man, James Taylor (1977)

Here is the main thing that I want to say
I'm busy 24 hours a day
I fix broken hearts, I know that I truly can

As often happens, doing research about my favorite songs reveals something interesting that I didn't know about its composer. Handy Man by James Taylor is one of those songs.

I was never a James Taylor fan. Mellow sounds weren't my thing, and he was so downbeat - not a good combination for me. But Handy Man stood out.

I never knew anything about that song; for all I knew Taylor wrote it. But he didn't; it was written by Otis Blackwell with a 50's doo-wopper named Jimmy Jones. Jones had a big hit with it in 1960, a completely different approach to the song, as did Del Shannon in 1964. I've heard Jones' version before (not my cup of tea) and can honestly say that I never associated it with Taylor's Handy Man, although of course now I realize that the lyrics are identical. Taylor's arrangement is so diametrically opposite the previous two versions it's hard to imagine the thought process that was involved in transforming it. The acid-tongued Robert Christgau, in his Rock Albums of the '70s: A Critical Guide, called it a "transcendent sex ballad."

But it works! One of the best parts of Taylor's cover is the harmony, which was provided by Leah Kunkel, who was Cass Elliot's sister and wife of Russ Kunkel, one of the longtime members of his backup band.

I'd never heard of Blackwell before, but it turns out he was one of the founding fathers of what pop music came to be in the '50s. He wrote a slew of immortal songs: Great Balls of Fire, All Shook Up, Return to Sender, Don't Be Cruel, Fever ... these are just some of the blockbusters from his repertoire. He grew up hanging around the Apollo Theatre and idolized Tex Ritter, so his influences were - to say the least - eclectic. (As a teenager he worked at a movie house that played singing cowboy movies.)

Blackwell was also a singer in his own right, although that part of his career never amounted to much. A Who cover, Daddy Rolling Stone, was his first release, but it didn't chart. He did perform on the demos of the songs he wrote, however, and they came to the attention of people in Elvis Presley's inner circle, which was his big break. Over the course of his career, Blackwell's output numbered more than a thousand songs. But, as happened to so many talented songwriters, his star faded when the music scene began to favor groups who wrote their own material.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Don't Mess With Bill, Marvelettes (1965)

Yesterday I received a cryptic message from my friend Barry - almost like a cry in the wilderness! - asking for a Marvelettes song. His wish is my command.

Motown, which turns 50 this month, had a hierarchy for its artists, and the A-list got most of the attention, a list that was more or less constructed on the basis of Berry Gordy's sense of who had the greatest crossover potential into the largely white pop charts. With that in mind, consider the "marvelous" Marvelettes, who were second tier at best, but still given songs such as the sultry, even menacing, classic Don't Mess With Bill. Written and produced by the master, Smokey Robinson, with uber-funk rhythm provided by the man some called the greatest bass player who ever lived, James Jamerson, this song reaches out and hooks you from the first note.

First, there's that priceless, take-no-prisoners title. On that basis alone, it was a single destined for the charts. But that aside, the song stands out in its directness, its absence of sugar-coating.

Under the heading of "where's the justice?" I'm wondering why the group who delivered Motown's first-ever #1 hit and put the company on the map - Please Mr. Postman, the week of December 11, 1961 - ended up on that second tier. The group had two equally strong lead singers - Wanda Young Rogers and Gladys Horton (it's Young on Don't Mess With Bill, Rogers on Postman) - and seemingly as much star power as any of the other girl groups. Everything I've been able to find on this indicates there were a lot of internal politics and competition between them and the Supremes, who were viewed as more refined than the Marvelettes and thus easier to groom for pop stardom. (They hailed from a rural area outside of Detroit.) One source even reveals that the Marvelettes declined to record Baby Love in 1964, for what reasons I do not know.

Although the Rock Hall has not seen fit to recognize their seminal influence (eligible since 1986, they've never even been considered, according to, a fascinating repository of commentary on the decisionmaking of the Rock Hall powers-that-be), they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004.

A curious related YouTube find is a fellow from the UK who channels Jamerson, and demonstrates the bassline in numerous videos of Jamerson signature songs, including this one. He has many appreciative fans who can't get over his mastery of Jamerson's improvisatory style, which involved plucking the strings with only the index finger of his right hand while adding embellishments that no one had previously heard.

As Don Was says in the Standing in the Shadows of Motown documentary, "You have to be absolutely fearless to play those notes in that place and yet be responsible for the bottom of the groove like that." Although the public knew little about him or any of the other Funk Brothers until the documentary was released, his work inspired many bassists who came after him including Paul McCartney, who, in an interview with Bass Guitar magazine, called Jamerson his "hero," because he was "so good and melodic."

Now go sway to Don't Mess With Bill.