Saturday, June 27, 2009

When Something Is Wrong With My Baby, Sam and Dave (1967)

"Even now he can describe a set of red suits worn by Sam and Dave the way some kids would lovingly remember a set of electric trains ... "Vented sides ... pegged pants ... matching patent leather boots." -- Gerri Hirshey, on Michael Jackson in Nowhere to Run

Back in the day, the Jackson Five opened for a lot of blockbuster soul performers and, from his position in the wings at venues like the Apollo Theater, Michael Jackson studied the minutiae of their acts as though his life depended on it.

In addition to learning how to dress for maximum effect, from Sam and Dave Jackson could have learned many things, not the least of which was how to all but surrender to the performance and wring every last bit of soul out of a song. And the Sultans of Sweat, as they were known, were the epitome of soul. "Unless my body reaches a certain temperature, starts to liquefy, I just don't feel right," Sam Moore told Hirshey.

Moore and Dave Prater met in Miami at a time when Jackie Wilson was influencing black singers reared in the gospel tradition to take their electrifying voices and use them in secular (and for the times, often shocking) ways. Sam, who was the son of a church deacon, was emceeing at a small club when Dave, then working as a short-order cook and baker's assistant, introduced himself during a break and the two quickly realized that their voices as a unit were gritty and pleasing all at once. (Sadly, the harmony that their voices achieved was limited to their voices alone; for various reasons they grew to despise each other, not speaking for years or looking at each other on stage.)

A rare Sam and Dave ballad, When Something's Wrong With My Baby showcased the duo's emotion-charged, gospel-infused talents like no other song that Isaac Hayes and David Porter wrote for them. Via Stax' partnership with Atlantic Records, which had signed them, Jerry Wexler matched their intense, scorching vocals with the instrumental artistry of house band Booker T & the MGs along with the Memphis Horns - the result became synonymous with Memphis soul and remains the gold standard for soul duos, with the possible exception of the Righteous Brothers.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

RIP Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

If you're a member of the baby boomer generation, you remember exactly where you were at the moment presidents, civil rights leaders and Beatles were assassinated. I'd wager many also remember where they were the night in 1983 when Michael Jackson performed Billie Jean live on the anniversary special Motown 25. I know I do.

I was in my apartment in Columbus, Ohio, and can still recall virtually self-ejecting from my couch when he began his performance; he had just completed some minutes of a crowd-pleasing medley of songs with his brothers. They walked off, Michael made a few goofy transitional remarks, then donned a fedora and launched into the vamp seen around the world. I know I stood and gyrated, literally awestruck, for the duration of the performance, while the Thriller held the audience of millions in the palm of his gloved hand. It was a seminal moment in the history of rock music.

I just saw a YouTube comment to the effect that Michael Jackson was our generation's Elvis Presley. I'd never thought about it before, but in many respects it's probably true. At his peak, he was a phenomenal musical artist who had powers over audiences that will probably be studied for years. I'm reminded of a recent visit to the Rock Hall, and the wing I entered where Billie Jean was suddenly pumped through the sound system. For a brief moment I pondered whether to maintain a modicum of decorum since other people were around, but in the end I told myself "you're at the Rock Hall, fool!" and, throwing my self-consciousness to the winds, I gyrated and thrilled to the song just as I had in 1983. I don't know who saw me, nor do I care.

Despite his status as a preteen, somehow when Jackson sang I Want You Back (1969) and I'll Be There (1970) it came across as right, not creepy and exploitative. For all his descent into childishness as he got older, as a youth he seemed a very old soul. Plain and simple, he had a luminous pre-adolescent voice and his confidence onstage just couldn't be denied.

I don't know why Jackson became the bizarre tortured ghoul that he was for far too many of his later years - or why, for all his money, no one ever stepped in to help him lead a more normal life. Perhaps that was impossible; maybe all superstars are destined to self-destruct. His abusive upbringing certainly had to have affected him at the most molecular level; that he had it within him to channel his life force the way he did is an amazing testament to the human being's ability to transcend the most life-obliterating circumstances.

Sad to say I can't help but think that's he's better off now. Rest in peace, Michael.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Dance to the Music, Sly and the Family Stone (1968)

Yesterday I couldn't have told you how I could possibly link guitar god Richard Thompson, who I saw in concert last night for the first time, and Sly & the Family Stone, but it turns out there's a perfectly legitimate linkage, and I'm about to make it.

The advent of Dance To the Music changed the game for my generation's music scene. Fusing psychedelia, pop and soul into a new genre characterized by a front-and-center rhythm section and high-energy vocal arrangements, funk music had arrived in the mainstream and there was no turning back.

Certainly it was impossible to remain in any kind of emotional funk when that song's horns blared and the beat pulsed. I was reminded of this just last week when it appeared on the playlist for a group of women who get together to shake their groove thing once a month at a local dance studio. (Thanks, DJ Dolli!)

Oddly, the group was reportedly never all that enthralled with Dance. When their debut album A Whole New Thing failed to capture the public's imagination, their producers urged Sly to orient their material more commercially. I suppose feeling somewhat railroaded into fitting into some sort of mold, the song ended up completely self-referential, but it doesn't change the fact that it was an extravaganza of sounds by a rainbow coalition of artists who, together, shook up the music industry, captivated young audiences and influenced other artists for years to come. (Just months later, Norman Whitfield used the success of Sly's Family - some of whom were actually family - as the inspiration for Cloud Nine, which began a run of psychedelic soul hits that extended the Temptations' performing life for years.)

Family Stone bassist Larry Graham - who began his career at 13 when he was brought onstage at the Fillmore West with Ike and Tina Turner to play Clarence Gatemouth Brown’s Okie Dokie Stomp - is credited with originating the slap bass form of playing, a gymnastic sort of fingerwork that creates a percussive groove that sounds like, well, percussion. To use his words, he "would thump the strings with my thumb to make up for the bass drum, and pluck the strings with my fingers to make up for the backbeat snare drum. It made sense to me because I had been a drummer in the school band."

The technique, which he called 'thumpin' and pluckin', became the defining underpinning of all funk music, and was epitomized in their later hit, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). Hearing it is one thing - seeing it done is another.

Which brings me to Richard Thompson (a member, during the late '60s, of the English folk-rock band Fairport Convention). This is a guy whose insane virtuosity with his instrument is suggestive of one man playing multiple guitars at once - at least you'd think so if you closed your eyes. When you open them, you actually have no idea what it is he's really doing. Last night, I now realize, he definitely had a slap bass beat going on in several songs. Using a pick on low strings and fingerpicking on high strings as is his signature technique, Thompson had my jaw dropping as he effortlessly created what could only be described as output with funk-like overtones.

Hard to believe, but later this summer will be the 40th anniversary of Sly and the Family Stone's performance of I Want To Take You Higher at Woodstock. If you haven't seen it in awhile, fire it up. No matter how you do it, finding your inner funkster is time well spent. Sly, Larry and the rest of the Family taught us how.