Sunday, November 29, 2009

Everlasting Love, Robert Knight (1967)

I'm not usually one for sappy songs, but for reasons I can't explain, Everlasting Love - the version originated by Robert Knight - has thrilled me from the very first time I heard it at 15 and it sends waves of pleasure through my being to this very day. 

I never knew anything about this song's genesis, and it was only after I moved to the Cleveland area in the early 90s, where the oldies station plays only a version that was recorded by Carl Carlton, that I realized any other version existed.  I remember feeling disoriented the first time I did hear it, it was so off kilter from the original, and not in a good way.

My research about the song and those involved with it turns up intriguing threads of all kinds.  And this is just some of them:
  • It was written by Buzz Cason and Mac Gayden. Cason founded a group called the Casuals which is generally thought to be Nashville's first rock and roll band.  They were pegged by Brenda Lee's management as of high enough quality to become her backing band. 
  • Gayden was a talented guitarist and sought-after studio musician who played on Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde sessions.  
  • Cason had a new record label in Nashville, Rising Son. Gayden discovered college student Robert Knight singing with his then-band, the Fairlanes; putting Knight under contract as a solo artist, he had an immediate hit for the new label with Everlasting Love, which Gayden had been tinkering around with for years but never completed. 
  • Let's see, can we find a Temptations connection to the song? Yes!  After David Ruffin departed the group in 1968, he embarked on a solo career, and he recorded Everlasting Love, putting his inimitable stamp on it, for his My Whole World Ended album.  Wow.
  • Detroit native Carl Carlton, who was a friend of Ruffin's, was unfamiliar with the Knight version of the song but loved David's, and wanted to record it himself.  He did, and it became a huge hit in 1974.  I, however, never heard a note of that version until I moved to the Cleveland area almost 20 years later.  
  • Cason was also the mastermind behind Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms), popularized by American soul artist Arthur Alexander, an early influence on the Beatles. (He wrote and recorded the early Beatles cover Anna, a song I always liked - by them - but knew nothing about.) On the Live at the BBC compilation of unreleased performances from BBC appearances in 1963-65, we can hear the Lads singing Soldier of Love.  NEVER heard this before in my life. Amazing!
  • Not that it's relevant, but Cason also voiced the original Alvin of Chipmunks fame.  Random internet discovery ...
Robert Knight continued to record; his Love on A Mountaintop became a huge hit in the UK.  So while I always thought he was a one-hit wonder, he really wasn't after all.  

Friday, November 27, 2009

Willin', Little Feat (1971, 1972)

Now that we've observed the most American of holidays, I thought it appropriate to give a wave of the turkey wishbone to an artist who this fall was posthumously bestowed the President's Award by the criminally under-promoted Americana Music Association - Lowell George, founder of Little Feat.

An event that's been described as " ... always more about the celebration of music than it is about stars and egos," naturally the awards ceremony is nowhere to be seen on any television channel, but everything I've read about it over the years indicates it's something we're all the worse off for having missed.  Held at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, it's a veritable cornucopia of jams and all-around collegiality among musical greats of all stripes. 

Americana, in the context of music, is one of those terms that defies description, but to the extent that it's possible to define it, it connotes contemporary music deriving its sound from myriad roots influences. The AMA gives the President's Award to someone considered to have been a pioneer in this genre, if you want to call it that.  Previous winners in this specialty category have been Jerry Garcia, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, John Hartford, the Carter Family, Gram Parsons and Doug Sahm. For the first time next year, Americana music will have its own category at the Grammy Awards. 

Lowell George's fate may have been sealed when he appeared, at the age of 6, on that most American of early TV shows, Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, playing the harmonica with his brother. I used to watch that with my grandmother; for all I know, I saw him.  But that was just the beginning for the little prodigy - George played many instruments, including flute, slide guitar, saxophone and sitar.  (For a real hoot, see him giving guitar lessons to who knows who in this priceless YouTube video.) 

In his capacity as Little Feat's leader, George is most often associated with the world-weary but glorious ballad, Willin.'  The legend about this song goes that Frank Zappa kicked George out of the Mothers Of Invention (he can be heard singing and playing on Weasels Ripped My Flesh) over it, so opposed to drugs and alcohol was he.  Zappa wasn't alone - the song, once it became a Little Feat staple, was pretty much banned from radio airplay due to those references.  

The song was recorded three times in the 70s - a version with just him and Ry Cooder on steel guitar for Little Feat's self-titled debut album; a full-out version with a glittering Bill Payne piano solo and the band's lovely multiple harmonies on their next album, Sailin' Shoes, and then in 1978, as part of their live album Waiting For Columbus. 

Over the years, no one really knew where to place Little Feat genre-wise - was it blues rock? country boogie? comedy funk?  I guess that what made them Americana in the best sense of the word, and Lowell George deserving of his President's Award:  they took what they liked of all their influences, stirred them with a wooden spoon, and served the resulting gumbo to their adoring audience - who could have cared less how to define it.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Jealous Guy, John Lennon (1971)

I can't say how often it happens, but from time to time something reminds me of John Lennon and I am overcome with sadness and missing him.  That happened tonight as I was watching a PBS documentary about the photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Although I grew up with John as a nearly constant presence in my life after the age of 10, I can't pretend to understand what made the man tick.  If ever there was someone who lived out his contradictions, laid bare his emotional struggles, and acknowledged how painful life could be, he was that someone. 

Famed for his hard-bitten irreverence, inability to suffer fools gladly and determination to buck unreasonable authority at all costs, he also had a tender and vulnerable side that was sometimes uncomfortable to watch play out in public.  The Leibovitz program examined his willingness, for example, to expose himself in the shoot for what became the defining cover photo of Rolling Stone's January 22, 1981 issue, the one where he clings, stark naked, to Yoko Ono - his muse, his mother, his healer, his all-of-the-things-she-was-to-him. 

It was an image that baffled and disturbed many, I think, myself among them.  That it was taken just hours before he was shot to death made it all the more jarring.  I'm sitting here now looking at my tattered and yellowing copy, and I'm still baffled.  And yet ... 

The first time I heard Jealous Guy I broke down crying.  I went looking for it tonight because I think it best exemplifies John's genius as an artist.  He took whatever he wanted to communicate, and boiled it down to its essence.  That meant a lot of his stuff was simple. 

He commented on this in a 1970 interview he did with Jann Wenner - " ... a reviewer wrote of 'She's So Heavy': "He seems to have lost his talent for lyrics, it's so simple and boring." But when it gets down to it, when you're drowning, you don't say, "I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me," you just scream. And in 'She's So Heavy', I just sang I want you, I want you so bad, she's so heavy, I want you, like that. I started simplifying my lyrics then, on the double album."

Whether it was Jealous Guy, Imagine, Instant Karma or any one of the scores and scores of Beatles songs that will forever tap into our inner joy, capture the essence of the human condition, or nail exactly what it felt like to be left, hurt, insecure or jealous, John Lennon made an indelible mark.  He long ago acknowledged - in that same Wenner interview - that he believed he was a genius, and he probably was. 

In my youth, killing larger-than-life people seemed to be the way things were. The day John was the one killed, I heard the news on the radio.  I was alone in my apartment and had to lie down on my bed, it just knocked the stuffing right out of me.  It's hard to believe that in a few short weeks, he will have been gone 29 years.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

It Tears Me Up, Percy Sledge (1966)

Recently, the children of the late Jerry Wexler, the legendary Atlantic Records producer and coiner of the term "rhythm and blues" when he worked at Billboard, put on a memorial concert in New York to coincide with the festivities surrounding the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert.  

One of the performers at the event was keyboardist Spooner Oldham who, along with the virtuoso songwriter Dan Penn, wrote the definitive, the most raw, anthem to love's anguish, It Tears Me Up.  Drenched in pain, the song is a portrait of someone quite simply reeling from betrayal.  Many have sung it but the great Percy Sledge was its first interpreter.  

Wexler was probably the single reason we even knew about Sledge.  Wanting to establish a recording base in the Deep South for Atlantic, Wexler decided to distribute Sledge's signature song, When A Man Loves A Woman, at a pivotal time in Atlantic's A&R evolution.  It became a sensation.  (My prior post on that story is here.)

After that, Wexler began to send more and more artists to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record. Oldham was one of the session musicians working there, which gave rise to hit after hit.  Said Sledge in Gerri Hirshey's Nowhere To Run, "What drew everybody to Muscle Shoals ... well, it sits right at the bottom of the mountains. ... When you got mountains standing that high up over you, all the way around for, like, fifty, sixty miles, then you've got a bass track."  

The partnership of Penn and Oldham was one of the most fertile out of that southern crucible, that also included Memphis.  Penn, who once said, "I can't tell where Spooner stops and I begin when we write a song," is a gigantic (and, I feel, unsung) talent - a man through whose songs every emotion no one wants to feel can be experienced.  A Woman Left Lonely, I'm Your Puppet, Out of Left Field and Cry Like A Baby were other songs the two co-wrote, and Penn has written many, many more that everyone recognizes with numerous other collaborators. 

More recently, Penn took on a new project,  producing western soul men the Hacienda Brothers, based out of Tucson.  I have never heard a more heartwrenching or redefining version of It Tears Me Up, bolstered particularly through its use of pedal steel guitar where horns were in the original version. You could be the happiest person alive and you'll want to slit your throat after hearing it.  Find their 2007 album What's Wrong With Right and prepare to suffer.