Sunday, December 26, 2010

Love Train, O'Jays (1973)

The older I get, the more I realize dancing is an antidote to aging. If you can muster up enough initial energy to shake a tail feather for even 5 minutes, those minutes will extend to an hour and nothing but good will come of it. In that vein, I've come to realize that some songs from my youth strike a bigger chord with me now than they did when they were released.

Example: the O'Jays' Love Train. In the current decade, anything that helps me overcome my natural lethargy gets a thumbs up with me, although in 1973, this song barely registered on my radar screen. Let's just say that I wasn't really doing that much dancing in college, being a disaffected hippie chick at that point. Plus, I didn't live in one of those cities where Soul Train was in first-run syndication (although I do now and would love to turn back the clock to see all of the eps). My view of soul was 60's music out of Detroit and Memphis, not 70's music out of Philadelphia and Cleveland.

If I had lived in 1973 where I do now, in Akron, Ohio, anything that the O'Jays did might have been a bigger deal to me. That's because they were from the city just south, Canton, and broke out in Cleveland, where WABQ DJ Eddie O'Jay was their first prime advocate (and later, manager) when they were still known as the Mascots.

But it was Love Train, the O'Jays only #1 crossover hit, and Back Stabbers, which put them on the map after more than 10 years of toiling in the trenches to scattered acclaim, mostly local/regional. (Lonely Drifter from 1963 was a major exception.) Opening at New York's Apollo Theater for the Intruders, one of the groups in Philadelphia's Kenny Gamble-Leon Huff stable, Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell got their lucky break. The Intruders (best known for the fabulous Cowboys to Girls), put a bug in the ear of Gamble and Huff, they recorded One Night Affair, and although its lyrics got it banned from some AM radio play, thus began a career where they were firmly at the vanguard of the Philly soul explosion for years and years.

A famous Soul Train line features the kids going ballistic over Love Train, and I wish I could post it here; it is a riot of uncontrolled exuberance. Unfortunately, Don Cornelius seems to have rooted out and taken down all of the decent clips that once existed.  But the Love Train is still considered a train worth getting on - Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert invited the O'Jays to perform the song at the October Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington; here is some clippage of that.  But this clip from a relatively recent Letterman performance is my favorite live one - they look and sound just great all these years later.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Big Eyed Beans From Venus, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band (1972)

RIP Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, who died yesterday.  For reasons unclear to me, my knowledge of this man and his music is virtually non-existent.  Earlier today my friend Harvey Gold, himself a fine, fine musician (google Tin Huey), wrote to me in a most heartfelt manner about the Captain's importance to him. So with his permission I've deemed it more fitting to concede the podium today to a guest blogger.
... I'm feeling his loss as I would a lifelong friend or a member of my family. I started unfashionably late with him, seeing him in 1972, on the Spotlight Kid Tour, the first of his albums that I really glommed onto.

On record, it's so easy to dismiss his music as brittle, a sometimes atonal novelty, what with him, on the surface, seemingly doing a Howlin' Wolf impression. The show I saw opened with the original 4 piece Little Feat which I was a big fan of, so it was a pretty amazing start. Then it happened. Rockette Morton came out in his floral suit and fedora, blowing into this weird snake dance while playing the shit out of his bass, ultimately going into the signature riff opening When It Blows Its Stacks. When the rest of the band came in, it was over for us all. Hearing what this truly Magic Band was doing at high decibel levels... like a Rock Band for God's sake... brought all the solidity, legitimacy, and dynamism of this music, nailing us right between the eyes.

By the time the set got to the place where Don did his requisite soprano sax 'solo' nonsense, we had to grab Mark Price and pin him to his seat, he being so moved as to tear off his zippered rubber galosh and attempt to throw it at the Captain from our vantage in the balcony to the side of the stage, in tribute to what he was doing to us.

That was the beginning but by no means the end. I'll openly admit I never really got to know Trout Mask Replica all that well, but when I hear it I chuckle and feel good.

But I digress: the next album was Clear Spot. For me this is a desert island album, without question. This band, adding Roy Estrada (original bassist for The Mothers of Invention and then original member of Little Feat), took the Spotlight Kid material to another level. One of the best albums I've ever experienced. Big Eyed Beans From Venus is one of the great song/performance moments in electric music history, I kid you not. (Editor's note: Holy mackerel!)

Anyway, my personal experience with him - seeing him in concert 5 times (all the bands, without question, Magic), the last, HIS last, at The Beacon Theater in NY, having met him at a concert once, and again when he stopped in for a visit as we made our album for WBS in LA back in '78 - are asides.

The four greatest musical influences in my life AS A MUSICIAN were The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart and The Soft Machine. They all changed me along the way, opening up possibilities, areas of challenge, and just as important, new areas of comfort.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Your Song, Elton John (1970)

I've resisted and resisted it, but the time has come when I must write about Your Song. For probably a year I've been trying to find any other output of Elton John's to write about - and there could be many candidates - but the truth is no Elton John song has ever affected me as pervasively as this one did. John's first true hit in America, it was - and is - the one song I most closely associate with falling seriously in love for the first time.

Your Song came out at precisely that moment when both of us were trying to pretend that we weren't really that important to each other. I was going away to college; he was staying home. It didn't seem like a recipe for success. Plus we were both weird and hung up. Falling in love, while exciting and an important rite of passage, was risky and made us very uneasy. 

Nonetheless, we did get together, and were a couple all through college and a year thereafter. But Your Song wasn't "our song," not by a long shot. It always had to be appreciated in the shadows, because my boyfriend loathed sentimentality, at least in music. So while we were both music aficionados - the more avant-garde the better - and following music was a significant way in which we bonded, Your Song was strictly my song. I doubt he was ever aware that I loved it and spent much time emoting and exercising my vocal cords over it - much less felt it represented anything pertinent to our lives. If I'd told him what it meant to me, I just knew he would have had a bad reaction.

But that's pretty crazy, when you think about it, so I'm coming out of the Your Song closet, as it were.  I have no earthly idea whether I was right about how he would have felt about it. So I will state it unequivocally for the record - Your Song is one of the most elegant, beautiful and heartfelt songs ever written or sung - at least during that era - about what it's like to have profound romantic feelings for another person when you're young and idealistic, and to feel "how wonderful life is while you're in the world."

A song carrying John's melodious, multi-layered tenor and piano virtuosity, along with the song's orchestral arrangement, made it a notable departure from what was usual for the time. Longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin made the first of what would be decades of appearances contributing unforgettable lyrics. But this wasn't a case, as so many are, of two childhood friends realizing their dream of fame and fortune. 

No, the stars merely aligned in 1967 when piano prodigy Reginald Dwight, who'd been playing since the age of 3 (he was later classically trained), and teenager Taupin, who had a way with words, were matched up by a British record label, Liberty Records. Liberty had placed an ad in England's music newspaper, New Musical Express, seeking songwriters. What the two had in common was a voracious appreciation for music of all genres. (Taupin has said Marty Robbins' El Paso was the catalyst for becoming a songwriter in the first place.) 

Initially they wrote for other artists, and John would sing on their demos. One such group was Three Dog Night, who generally performed songs written by outside songwriters. Until now, I did not realize that they recorded Your Song first (it was on their 1970 LP It Ain't Easy), but did not release it as a single, which cleared the way for John to have a hit with it the same year.   

Interestingly, the first artist to take a John-Taupin composition into the top 50 of Billboard's Hot 100 was Aretha Franklin. She and John had dueling versions of his Border Song but Aretha's version actually charted higher. (Here they are performing it together in 1993; I didn't know they had any connection at all until now.)

To say that the John-Taupin collaboration has been a fertile one is, of course, an understatement. No blog post can encapsulate all that has transpired since those early days, and how many lives they've touched with their respective musical talents. Someday, they should collaborate on the Broadway musical of their lives - now that would be a blockbuster.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hold What You've Got, Joe Tex (1965)

The prognosticators don't give it much of a chance, but if by some miracle Joe Tex is among the group of 2011 nominees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selected for induction this month (he's only been nominated FOUR times - what's the holdup?), it will be a case of justice served.  But I have such mixed feelings about inductions of people who are no longer with us and can't bask in the acknowledgment of their contribution. (The first inductions weren't until 1986 and Tex had died four years earlier, so I'm not faulting the Hall in that sense.)  

However, since the oddsmakers aren't betting on Tex to be one of the nominees getting the right number of votes again this year, allow me to discuss the Joe Tex legacy. In addition to being a talented singer-songwriter, he was one of the music scene's great characters. In every performance, he testified, he gave relationship advice, he commiserated with the lovelorn, he really had a point of view and a pervasive sense of humor.

One of the earliest practitioners of speaking over the music, Tex termed his style "rap." He had an album called From the Roots Came the Rapper. Not surprisingly, his music today is sampled by rap artists galore; examples abound at the fascinating site Who Sampled: Discussing and exploring the DNA of music. (For example, see how ODB and Killah Priest, in Snakes, sampled one of my favorite Tex songs, I'll Never Do You Wrong.)

I was going to highlight that song for this post, actually, but Tex's first hit, Hold What You've Got, distills the essence what was distinctive about the southern soul man. How that raspy voice coexisted in the same song with the one that could shatter glass is anyone's guess. And what stage presence. Still gives me goosebumps, and we're lucky to be able to see that Shindig! performance so many years later.

Tex's lyrics were perfect for the genre and his phrasing. How can you not smile at lyrics such as in, I'll Never Do You Wrong, "I hope I slip and break my hip/I hope a fever blister come on my lip/You know I love my hip and I love my lip baby/So you know I'll never do you wrong." (Tex's sense of humor saved him even after James Brown took up with his wife - then tried to give her back! Witness 1963's You Keep Her, which was a direct message to Brown. You've gotta give him credit for that one ... it's awesome.)

What a career he had. In high school he entered a talent contest in a Houston club and won a prize. Not just any prize, either - it was a trip to Harlem for a week in 1954 and the opportunity to compete in an amateur contest at the Apollo. The recognition he got there led to his first recording contract.  

Although he cut dozens of records for various labels for years after that and wrote songs for others (example: James Brown's Baby You're Right - before he ran off with Tex's wife), it wasn't until he ended up in Nashville that he found a true champion. There, producer Buddy Killen started up his own Dial record label just for Tex. More years went by, still no success, but a fortuitous decision to head to Alabama and do some recording at Muscle Shoals was the turning point.

That's where the harmonic convergence of FAME Studios and Jerry Wexler's Atlantic Records broke the cycle of futility. By that point Wexler was distributing Dial, and he believed there was a hit in there somewhere. He was right - Hold What You've Got hit the big time on both the pop and R&B charts.

With the exception of a five-year hiatus where he dropped out of the music industry to become a minister in the Islam faith, Tex continued to record and perform until the end of his life, which was too short - his heart failed at 49 just before he was to do a run in Las Vegas. I admit, in my heart, I will be rooting for his induction into the Hall. What a charmer he was.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Pretty Ballerina, Left Banke (1966)

Ever wonder what your life would have been like if your dad had been an in-demand session jazz violinist with his own recording studio in New York City in 1966, when you were 17? And you were a music prodigy of sorts?

I'll tell you what it would've been like - you'd have composed and enjoyed great success with the classic baroque pop hit Walk Away Renee, and followed up with my personal favorite, Pretty Ballerina. To hear this emanating from the radio in 1966 (well, both of them, really) was to feel instant ecstasy.

I think I had them pegged for British Invasion singles at the time, but it turns out they were all-American. Michael Lookofsky, aka Michael Brown, was the son of Harry Lookofsky, who was a trendsetter in bebop jazz violin. Harry had his own setup near the Brill Building in Manhattan, where Michael would help out and eventually start cutting tracks of his own with other young musicians who soon called themselves the Left Banke.

To the falsetto vocals by lead singer Steve Martin Caro and the haunting harpsichord (in the first instance) and piano (in the second instance) by Brown, add string arrangements by dear old dad, and these songs couldn't miss. Especially after Dad shopped Walk Away Renee all over the city until he found a record label that was interested. 

Everyone from Alice Cooper to Leonard Bernstein has paid homage to Pretty Ballerina, with Bernstein even analyzing and playing it on his TV show back in the day. Alice's version is quite, shall we say, unexpected.

The usual "creative differences" led to Brown departing the Left Banke after the first album, with all of the attendant animosities and dueling versions of groups with the same name.  He went on to form and leave at least three other bands (Montage, Stories - just before the awful Brother Louie - and the Beckies). The legends surrounding the dancer Renee are legion - whose girlfriend she was, if she was anyone's at all ... whether or not Brown had a debilitating crush on her - and from what I've read it's not safe to say anything with certainty because for every statement made, someone purporting to be close to the situation disputes it.

But none of that is important. What is important is that Pretty Ballerina pirouettes into my soul to this very day - lovely, lovely, lovely.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Steal Away, Jimmy Hughes (1964)

In the lexicon of soul musicology, a reference to Muscle Shoals conjures up recordings that were quintessential deep South, grittier than anything wafting in from Detroit or Memphis, and often referred to as "swamp" music. But if you're an aficionado of soul as I am, would you know the answer to the question: what was the first song released by the FAME record label (at the studio location that still operates today) that became synonymous with the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, sound?

Me neither.

I can't tell you how much fun it is for me when the backstory of a song I didn't know about is laden with people and places I do know about and I just have to piece all the strands together.  That's the case with the ultra-marvelous Steal Away by Jimmy Hughes, which, it turns out, was that first song.

I discovered it on - where else - Pandora, earlier in the week, on my Joe Tex station. I had to go lie down after I heard it - what a scorcher in both the vocal and the killer rhythm section which would become the Muscle Shoals signature. But who was/is Jimmy Hughes? Was this song a hit?

Yes it was, and it all ties back to one of my favorite musicians in the world, Dan Penn, about whom I've written numerous times. I hope he writes a book someday because he's led a glorious life and known glorious people. And most especially, heard and helped shape some of the most spectacular music ever recorded. 

Jimmy Hughes worked at ES Robbins, the maker of floor mats that's still based in Muscle Shoals, and had been singing lead in gospel quartet The Singing Clouds since he was a high school senior. He was keeping close tabs on his friend Arthur Alexander ("Anna"), who had suddenly catapulted to success with both the A and B sides of his first single (You Better Move On and A Shot of Rhythm and Blues), produced out of a makeshift studio by local bassist Rick Hall. Hughes wanted some of that success - and justifiably so.

Dan Penn - who would become one of the primary movers and shakers that made Muscle Shoals the crucible it was - was in the picture at this time because his group, the Pallbearers, was one of the backup bands for the Alexander songs. Penn, who has always had a knack for nurturing talented people in addition to having his own native musical abilities, prodded Hall to give a song Hughes had written a chance, believing it had a lot of potential. Hall didn't get religion right away, and it was two years before he got all his ducks in a row, opening the full-service studio that still stands today and dusting off and refining the Steal Away demo Hughes had earlier recorded.

By the time Hall was ready to be blown away by Hughes, the record companies Hall approached with the song weren't interested. It was time for his own label, FAME, to be born. Failure was not an option; the solution was a road trip. Hall and Penn schlepped a thousand 45s of Steal Away from one black radio station to another across the South, and they hit the jackpot. The DJs played it, everyone wanted it, and this was the beginning of the storied legacy of FAME, the seductive Muscle Shoals sound and the unbelievable number of artists who recorded and achieved success there.

What happened with the rest of Hughes' career has been chronicled in minute detail by soul musicologist extraordinaire Red Kelly, so I won't reconstruct that here; just surf on over to his blog post on the topic if you're really interested. What's great is that there is now a CD compilation, The Best of Jimmy Hughes, that packages 18 of his FAME recordings with a bonus two-hour roundtable discussion with him and the engineers, producers and musicians who midwifed the output of his heavenly pipes for us mere mortals. Happy birthday to me! 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tight Rope, Leon Russell (1972)

"I was surprised by the success I had.  I was not surprised when it went away. I knew about show business." - Leon Russell, Nov. 11, 2010 Rolling Stone interview

In the music business, there are those who demand to be noticed, whether they deserve it or not, and then there is Leon Russell.

In a recent story about Elton John petitioning the Rock Hall on behalf of Russell, a commenter writes, "In his day he was the top grossing act on the road, put on an incredible show, is a first class musician who has not just sat in on but arranged some seminal records, worked across ALL genres successfully, is an incredible singer, and written some of the most beautiful songs in pop history." 

Boy, what an underachiever. And yet, I plead guilty to being relatively unaware of all of his accomplishments myself, until now. Elton John wasn't successful this time around getting Russell nominated to the Rock Hall, but he sure has lifted the blanket of obscurity off the man by masterminding a collaboration between himself and the self-effacing Oklahoman he idolizes and was the opening act for when he first came across the pond. The result is a new recording, "The Union," which I'm just now discovering.

Born Claude Russell Bridges, Russell began piano lessons when he was 6, but unlike so many of us who considered music lessons a chore, he flourished. And because Oklahoma was a dry state, there were no laws to prevent him from playing in clubs as early as the age of 14. After graduating from Will Rogers High School (that is so much better a name than Walnut Ridge, my alma mater), he and his band, the Starlighters, went on tour with Jerry Lee Lewis.

Making his way to L.A., the 17-year-old Bridges morphed into Leon Russell, an outgrowth of the borrowed IDs and musicians' union cards he used to get work, the one for "Leonal Dubrow" being one of the most frequently deployed. He became part of the legendary session band The Wrecking Crew, he played on the Righteous Brothers' You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling and the Byrds' Mr. Tambourine Man, as well as for Rick Nelson, Frank Sinatra and on the weirdo hit Monster Mash (to name only a few of hundreds).  He was part of the house band for Shindig!  He was known for bringing an eclectic flair to everything he did, and for having a talent for producing and arranging.

In 1969, Russell met a guy who would change the course of his life - Joe Cocker's manager, Denny Cordell. He played on and co-produced Cocker's second LP, which included Russell's song Delta Lady.  Then Cordell and Russell formed Shelter Records and Russell started putting out his own material the same year he famously led the ebullient orchestra and choir for Cocker's 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. (Brief interlude to boogie down to Cry Me A River ... )

Someone who suffered from stage fright, Russell was able, through his flamboyant Master of Space and Time persona, to become a live performer in his own right. Probably best known for the wistful Tight Rope, he also wrote and performed This Masquerade and A Song For You, although both are probably more associated with their famous covers. I've previously written that he co-wrote Karen Carpenter's breathtaking Superstar with Bonnie Bramlett.

Although he has never really stopped working, with no care and feeding from good management, he receded into the background for decades. That's something Elton John couldn't countenance, the more he thought about it.  He approached T Bone Burnett, and Russell and John put their heads together over a Mahalia Jackson song, igniting a fire that became The Union. John's manager is now Russell's. What happens next is anyone's guess.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Without You, Harry Nilsson (1972)

No, I can't forget this evening
Or your face as you were leaving
But I guess that's just the way the story goes

While today we commemorate what would have been the 70th birthday of John Lennon, I'm going to cast my net toward another brief candle - one of John's contemporaries and great friends, Harry Nilsson.

Last week I finished up the tome Here, There and Everywhere by Geoff Emerick, who was the Beatles' recording engineer for most of their career and for some of their solo enterprises. I could write a book about the book (well, maybe an article), and one of the many things I learned about is the connection between Nilsson and Badfinger. Badfinger, of course, was one of the early acts in the Apple Records stable. I never paid that much attention to them because their big hit, Come and Get It, was exactly the sort of jaunty pop music that I never took a shine to and that Paul McCartney seemed hellbent on writing, producing or recording himself after the Beatles broke up.

How Nilsson and Badfinger are connected is via one of the great melodramatic songs of the 70s, Without You. Some may know that Badfinger recorded the song first; and since it was co-written by the group's two tormented lead singers, Pete Ham (the verse) and Tom Evans (the chorus), I guess that makes sense. Emerick, who worked for Apple after leaving EMI/Abbey Road, produced the No Dice LP that this song appeared on. I had never heard their version before now.

What this reminded me of is how little I know about Nilsson. In a few weeks that deficit is going to be corrected because a documentary about his life, Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? is coming out on DVD. It's gotten great reviews in the few cities where it's had a theatrical release.

I associate Nilsson, who was a prolific singer-songwriter, with just a very few things - Without You (which he didn't write), the Midnight Cowboy touchstone Everybody's Talkin' (which he also didn't write), and his so-called "lost weekend" with John Lennon that took place over the course of more like 78 weekends in Los Angeles (for John anyway) after John and Yoko Ono broke up once. Oh, and also that the Beatles once told the press that their favorite "group" was Nilsson. 

That's pitiful, and I'm looking forward to filling in all the blanks when the doc comes out. I could never really reconcile in my mind the image I had of the angelic looking guy with the three-octave voice with his reputation of being a debauched wild man who could drink everyone he knew under the table and died too young.

One of the extended sequences on the DVD details how Nilsson came to record Without You and how it became such a smash hit. I've read various stuff about it, but I think I'm just going to wait instead of writing about it now. As songs that take histrionics to the pinnacle, it has almost no peer. We've all felt the emotions this song lays bare, and the way Nilsson interpreted Pete Ham's and Tom Evans' anguish is one of his many legacies. In memory of his friend John, here he is singing one of his own beautiful songs, Remember.   

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Cry Baby, Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters (1963)

My new best friend, Pandora, continues to knock 'em out of the park, with discoveries daily without too much effort on my part. Today's offering is Garnet Mimms.

I love me a good torch song, and one of my favorites has always been Janis Joplin's Cry Baby. As it turns out, though, her version was a cover. The original torch singer on this was a man, Garnett Mimms, and the song was written for him specifically. The divine Mr. Mimms version charted first, and it landed high on the R&B and pop charts (this was just a year before I was really listening to music though so I never heard it). This guy had pipes! Why am I just now discovering him?  Everything I'm reading says he was "criminally underappreciated."

Ignorance of the provenance of many songs is rampant, and combating that ignorance - including my own - has become one of my greatest motivations for continuing this blog. I don't watch American Idol, but I just saw a piece stemming from a 2009 performance of Cry Baby by Allison Iraheta.  Simon Cowell referred to the song in front of 30 million viewers as Joplin's song. A gigantic missed opportunity to say whose song it really was, especially since he is still alive, and has spent many years since leaving the music business ministering to his own church flock in Philadelphia as well as to prison inmates.  

Mimms was born in West Virginia but moved to Philadelphia after high school graduation.  He idolized Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, and it shows. Around Philly, Mimms sang with various gospel ensembles and then made the usual move to secular music, forming a doo-wop group called the Gainors with Howard Tate (here's their biggest hit, The Secret). New York called to Mimms, though, where producers Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns wrote Cry Baby to showcase his spectacular gospel-inflected voice. It skyrocketed to success. (Ragovoy is the same guy who wrote Time Is On My Side and Piece of My Heart, songs that were recorded by black artists before they were covered by white.)

Just after that, however, something happened that conspired to keep Mimms in the background. Late in 1963, and continuing until early 1965, Billboard suspended its R&B chart, maintaining that the crossover phenomenon largely spurred by Motown's ascent made the pop chart fully representative of the spectrum of popular music at that time. An interesting concept, but a British Invasion-Motown collision in 1964 made it virtually impossible for other R&B acts to get the attention they deserved. And so it was with Garnett Mimms. 

Once Billboard restored the R&B charts, Mimms regained some traction with I'll Take Good Care of You, but getting singles on the radar screen was a losing enterprise after that. He went to the UK and performed with Jimi Hendrix there; he tried funk in the 70s. But he never again had the momentum that he did with Cry Baby.

Still, I have friends who not only remember him but saw him live in 1966. My music pals Jim and Chuck were two of those who were blessed to see Mimms in a big soul revue here in Akron, Ohio, headlined by Otis Redding. The mind reels just thinking about what the entirety of that experience must have been like. On the same freaking bill were the likes of James Carr, Percy Sledge and Sam and Dave. 

I'll play Mimms out with another great Ragovoy song that he recorded, As Long As I Have You, a dynamic ditty that one Robert Plant would probably have a lot to say about since he's covered it for years in Band of Joy, early Led Zeppelin and Priory of Brion. The rest of us have probably never heard of it, because it was no more than a forgotten LP track until the advent of YouTube. That's just wrong, but there's no time like the present to come up to speed. 

And I'm not done yet - two years ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a great story on Mimms and a new recording he was enticed to do, Is Anybody Out There?  Not sure what might have happened in the intervening two years, but I see I have more research to do ...  

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Nobody But Me, Human Beinz (1967)

Nobody can do the Shingaling like I do, nobody can do the Skate like I do, nobody can do the Boogaloo like I do, nobody can do the Philly like I do ... 

One of the many kicks of having this blog is discovering that songs I figured were original were actually cover versions. Sometimes a cover is a reasonably faithful interpretation of its predecessor; other times it's barely recognizable, so unique is the new incarnation.

The latter scenario applies to the Human Beinz' Nobody But Me, which tonight enjoyed massive exposure to new audiences kicking off the new season of The Office. Unbeknownst to me, until my friend Chuck pointed it out to me this morning, Nobody But Me was a cover of an Isley Brothers song.  To say that it was changed up a good bit by the moptop quartet from Youngstown, Ohio, would be an understatement.

A prime example of garage rock at its most exuberant and ferocious (unlike the weak original), the song repeats the word 'no' or 'nobody' more times in 2:16 than I care to count, working anyone who comes within earshot of its driving arrangement into a frenzy. They were apparently wildly popular in their neck of the woods, playing to enthusiastic crowds virtually every night of the week (or so they say on their official website). With that sort of frequency it was only a matter of time before a record label was tipped off to them. And so they were signed to Capitol Records, had the top 10 hit, and then performed and toured as a group for another several years before breaking up.

Rhythm guitarist Ting Markulin says that Nobody But Me was originally seven minutes long, with a lengthy jam in the middle that was cut, naturally, to conform to the two-minute rule that governed radio airplay in those days.  It's hard to imagine rocking out that hard for that length of time to just one song - the existing version has enough mojo as it is.  If you're interested in a deconstruction of the song, Markulin provides an in-depth look at how it saw the light of day on their site. 

I have no further associations of them beyond this song, but it turns out they had a larger repertoire, not all of it as down and dirty as Nobody But Me. YouTube has a lot of examples of their songs - check them out!  

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Say These Words of Love, Temptones (1967)

I hope that someday I can figure out how to have a chat with Daryl Hall.  Because that man has stories I want to hear about spending quality time with the Temptations, and in particular, my obsession Paul Williams.

For decades, I have wondered about the 1985 recording of Live at the Apollo, a performance by Hall, John Oates, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, long after the latter two had left the Temptations. Daryl Hall has a phenomenal voice and this particular recording had some killer stuff on it. There was a time when I played it right into the ground.  But I never really understood what the connection was between the two duos, if there was any at all. 

So there I was listening to all the great soul music on my George McGregor and the Bronzettes station on Pandora last week when what popped up but a total obscurity called Say These Words of Love by the Temptones. And guess who the Temptones were?  Daryl Hall's early Philly-based, entirely white, band, that's who.

Research Mode ensued.  And what a story it is.  I wish it were my story.

Daryl Hall grew up in a predominantly black community outside of Philadelphia that was vibrant with a veritable melange of musical influences. He moved to Philly proper when he was a student at Temple University and started hanging in the same scene that included the nucleus of people who became the architects of the Sound of Philadelphia - Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Thom Bell, the Delfonics, and the Stylistics. The Temptones was the group he formed with several other Temple students. Initially an a cappella quartet, they soon got a rhythm section, left doo-wop behind and moved into straight soul, with Hall as lead singer.    

The gigs the Temptones played were often in front of largely black audiences, which reportedly were stunned at the soul sound these white guys were capable of producing. They performed at soul spectaculars, blew other groups out of the water, and ended up with the chance to appear at the Uptown Theatre - which was to Philly what the Apollo was to New York - in a talent show sponsored by James Brown.  (They took 2nd place, ahead of the Delfonics.) It was there that Daryl Hall met his idols, the Temptations.

The Tempts were impressed with the Temptones - a rendition of their Farewell My Love (a pre-Ruffin ballad when Paul Williams was still co-lead singing with Eddie Kendricks) was particularly well received - and from what I've been able to dig up, Williams mentored them, even arranging an audition with Smokey Robinson.

Though dreams of Motown were not to be, a record deal with another label did follow, and they released a few singles, including Say These Words of Love, accompanied by many of the session musicians that would later back the O'Jays, Jerry Butler and the Spinners as the Sound of Philadelphia became a force to be reckoned with.  However, when two of the members got drafted to go to Vietnam, they called it quits. Daryl Hall had already met John Oates out and about, and the rest is history. 

So you can see why I want to have an audience with Hall - to learn more about his knowledge of Temptations history would send me reeling for a month, I'm sure. The story of the lifelong friendship of Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks has not been properly told - hell, it hasn't been told at all - and I believe I am the one who is destined to tell it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Tramp, Otis Redding and Carla Thomas (1967)

You know, Otis, I don't care what you say, you're still a tramp.  ... WHAT!?!?

One of the funkiest duets of the 60s was an unabashedly rural song that always seemed really out of its element but somehow caught on and became not only a hit but a classic. It was called Tramp, and was sung in inimitable trash talk by the charismatic Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. 

Stax co-founder Jim Stewart had the brainstorm to pair up the label's male and female pride and joy, as Motown was doing with Marvin Gaye and various girl singers, on an album of what was, in essence, covers. According to Soulsville, USA: the Story of Stax Records, by Rob Bowman, neither was too keen at first on dueting, but found they enjoyed it; Tramp was the first song they laid down, a suggestion by Redding, who encouraged Thomas to call him every name she could think of.  

Stax house drummer Al Jackson Jr. sets the table for Otis, Carla, Booker T. and the MGs, and the dy-no-mite Memphis Horns in this irresistible ditty.  The two ooze sass and strut their stuff like there ain't no tomorrow - it's a ridiculous song in every way but there's nothing not to love about it. The first time I deejayed my local Dance Dance Party Party group here in Akron, it was on the playlist from the outset. 

However, their version was not the original.  Tramp was originally recorded in 1966 by Lowell Fulson (and co-written with pianist Jimmy McCracklin). Born on an Oklahoma Indian reservation, Fulson migrated to Texas where he began to emulate guitarists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, which helped him become a sideman to traveling singer Texas Alexander. He landed in California where, with T-Bone Walker, he became known as the founder of modern California blues.

As a solo piece Tramp had an entirely different feel.  It was more of a showpiece for Fulson's guitar licks. Although this was released just a few months prior to Otis and Carla's and did almost as well on the charts as the duet, I never heard it.

But the Tramp fixation continued one more time that year - it was also recorded by Roy Head and Johnny Winter, of all people, with Head's band the Traits. Before he was discovered by Mike Bloomfield, Winter often served as an uncredited session musician at Gold Star Studios in Houston and there he became associated with Roy Head (of Treat Her Right fame), for a time leading his band.  It was during that brief stint as leader that they recorded Tramp. I can't find that on YouTube, but check out a later kick-ass bluesy version by Johnny Winter solo!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bad Time (To Be In Love), Grand Funk Railroad (1974)

Can I get a witness? Yeah!

Two bits of trivia for all y'all: First, 45 years ago today, the Beatles played Shea Stadium, the first-ever concert to be held in that type of venue, the original arena rock gig. Check out Ed Sullivan's elated smile while he's shaking hands with the lads as they took the stage - what a snapshot of history this 1:58 of video is! 

Tickets sold like hotcakes, of course, which in those days meant in 80 days!  But 6 years later, another group broke the Beatles' record for attendance and revenue generation at a Shea Stadium concert that sold out in 72 hours, and their Shea record has never been broken, nor ever will be.  The group: Grand Funk Railroad. 

Who knew? Grand Funk was, to me, the quintessential high-energy garage band of the early 70s. They hadn't crossed my mind for decades, probably, until a week or so ago when I was listening to a Jayhawks song on an old compilation CD I found.  It was Bad Time, and it elicited a flood of memories. For the life of me I couldn't remember who had sung the original power ballad at first, but I knew I'd always belted it out whenever I heard that first killer verse. And of course, the person I was belting it out with was Mark Farner, he of the open - or no - shirt and beautiful voice. (He has been called "a great communicator" by one of his protégés, Peter Frampton.)

As a live act, they had no peer in the minds of many (see this testimonial about the Shea concert from one who probably represents the consensus on this topic), and their music carried what is generally thought to have been a positive message. Read any interview with Mark Farner, old or new, and it's clear he always intended to be a change agent in society, not just a frontman, by encouraging young people to recognize their power and influence, albeit not violently.  It appears a lot of that ethos was misunderstood by The Establishment, and they were often marginalized and feared, including by the suits who ran American radio, even as the fans were welcoming them with open arms.

The group formed in blue collar Flint, Michigan, and its original members were Farner, drummer Don Brewer and Mel Schacher, who had played bass for Question Mark and the Mysterians. They had a publicity-savvy producer/manager in the early days, and after a rollicking show at the Atlanta International Pop Festival in 1969, were signed by Capitol Records (the Beatles' U.S. label). 

They achieved a meaningful chart position the next year with I'm Your Captain/Closer To Home. In 1972, they became a four-part band with the addition of a keyboardist, Craig Frost.  Their attempt to lure Peter Frampton for that fourth position failed due to his other contractual obligations. Frampton was well known to them; his earlier band Humble Pie had been a regular opening act for Grand Funk, including at Shea, and Frampton has credited the two bands' association with Humble Pie's ability to gain traction with audiences on both sides of the pond. 

Not until Todd Rundgren became their producer did they see a true hit, with 1973's We're An American Band, followed by The Loco-Motion, the Little Eva number written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.

I hadn't realized how interesting their story was, frankly; I've been reading stuff all afternoon, and I could write a lot more. Unfortunately, this is another bad break-up story, where the original members of the group fight in court over the right to use the group name after a split.  But they had a very good ride indeed.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Beware of Darkness, George Harrison (1970)

I was very jazzed to hear that Martin Scorsese has directed a documentary, due out next year, on the one Beatle about whom I know the least and want to know the most.  Living in the Material World will be sort of a co-production with George Harrison, in that it will contain footage that George himself shot for a documentary that he intended to make someday.

Watching Paul McCartney receive his Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress recently, I couldn't help but wonder what George's legacy would have been had he lived longer.  Because, of the four of them, George's body of post-Beatles work is more pleasing to me - by many orders of magnitude - than that of any of the others.  Paul's mostly goofy, saccharine songs ... John's mostly heavy-handed, take-no-prisoners songs ... Ringo's mostly, well, fluff songs - on the whole they've left me cold.  Not so with George's work, both as a solo artist and with his pals the Traveling Wilburys.  Marginalized though he was while a Beatle, I am convinced their sound would have been far less memorable without his particular touch, and that his musicianship was every bit as evolved, if not more so.

Beware of Darkness is just one of many examples of George's gift; I've already written about his masterpiece, While My Guitar Gently Weeps. His unusual nasal singing voice - pervasively Liverpudlian - and the breadth of the licks he charmed out of his guitars over the years were entrancing to me. A YouTube commenter called the song George's "musical instruction manual for living life." I never thought of him as preachy, but his songs always seemed to emanate from a deeper place, where he could transcend the madness of life as a Beatle, something he would always be to the rest of his days. 

The longer he was on his own, the more George seemed to become supremely comfortable in his own skin, whereas as a Beatle he always seemed quite the opposite. The others always projected an essential sameness - what they were like as Beatles, just more so.  Beatle George was "the quiet one," almost morose, he rarely smiled; he was the youngest, and he seemed no match in the charisma department for Lennon and McCartney. He looked like he didn't even want to try. It was always obvious that he was a guitarist of considerable talent, and his guitar leads were distinctive, to say the least, but it was a mystery why he was treated as a bit player by the two alpha dogs. (I'm sure I answered my own question there, but at the time ...)

So when the Beatles finally parted the ways amid tremendous acrimony, George went solo before the year was out. Talk about your pent-up demand!  He had a backlog of material that couldn't find an outlet as a Beatle, and the floodgates opened with a 3-album release in All Things Must Pass, a title probably chosen for its many potential meanings. Beatles fans didn't think the Beatles could break up; they were supposed to be permanent. Weren't they?

Sadly, no, and even sadder, George shuffled off this mortal coil in at the peak of his powers as an artist. It affected me badly - it was not long after my father died, so I was already predisposed to mourn, but I felt then and still do that we'd lost someone we hadn't known well enough. Those people he counted as friends - and there were many - did him proud when they joined Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall the next year for the memorial Concert for George, one of the most moving tributes to a musician I've ever seen. And left me feeling even more than this was someone we needed to know better than we did. 
Maybe that will be rectified with the Scorsese doc. According to his wife Olivia, George didn't throw much out, so we should be treated to things we've never seen or heard before from all stages of his career. All things must pass, but sometimes what people have held on to give us a pathway to get back to where we once belonged.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Suspicious Minds, Elvis Presley (1969)

Though it's only mid-July, I'm time traveling into next month because it is entirely too hot for my liking.  My estivations today take us to the topic of Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds, a song I will always associate with the dog days of summer for two reasons - the song was released on August 26, 1969, and Elvis died August 16, 1977, a day that this song was played into the ground by disc jockeys everywhere.   

I remember exactly what I was doing when the news came.  I was tooling around in my 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, baking with the sunroof open, on a day much like today on the temperature scale. Listening to the radio, as I always was. The song imprinted, and if I didn't associate it with high heat before, I did after that.

For someone my age, Elvis was a bit of an oddity.  I was too young to love him in his heyday, and then he became irrelevant for many years.  All that I knew of him when I was younger was that a family friend was mad about him and played Return to Sender endlessly, a song I found sort of catchy. I must have had no hormones at that point, because he was a terribly good-looking man with an electrifying smile and smoldering eyes (not to mention cheekbones that won't quit), as is evidenced in the photo on the above 45 sleeve (the last time he didn't look dissipated). In any event, to me he was more celebrity than musician.

In 1968, he staged what has been referred to as a "comeback," in a December unplugged concert special, a phenomenon of which I was completely unaware at that time. Since I was immersed in music then, why wouldn't I know about that?  The only thing I can think of is that the comeback occurred amidst a lot of other things that were more meaningful to me. The next year, he came out with the unforgettable Suspicious Minds, an operatic-style song deliciously long on melodrama that I truly loved.  I will never deny liking melodramatic songs if they're well done!

The song was written and first recorded by a Houston-based songwriter named Mark James. (I actually like his version too - a lot - which to me means it's a very good song at its core.) James was close friends with B.J. Thomas, and wrote Hooked on a Feeling for him; he was also the composer of Always On My Mind.  He recorded a demo of the song at Gold Star Studios, but nothing came of it.

James eventually left Houston to become a staff songwriter for the legendary producer Chips Moman at his American Sound Studios in Memphis. (I hate overusing that word, but Moman is legendary in the music business, so I don't know what other word to use.)  Moman was producing Thomas' stuff as well as, at that point, Presley's, and he presented Suspicious Minds to Elvis, having produced Mark James' earlier version to no particular effect. It was a collaboration that took Elvis further out of the wilderness that he had fallen into - way further. Suspicious Minds soared to #1, but it would be his last. 

Sadly, once he descended into drugs and Vegas getups, I never looked at him again while he was alive. Watching the comeback special, it's easy to see that, had I been just slightly older, I would have been every bit as much smitten as the rest. I will also admit to literally breaking down the first time I saw the video of him performing American Trilogy in the early 70's. (Watch to the end.) Already bloated and looking utterly ridiculous in his rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuit, he still had a voice that could possibly have rearranged the planetary order. His premature and unnecessary death is one of the many great tragedies in American music.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Temptation Is Hard To Fight, George McGregor and the Bronzettes (1967)

I can be very late to a party sometimes, and in the case of AMC's Mad Men, I'm late by exactly three cable television seasons.  In the run-up to the premiere of the fourth on July 25, I am devouring - that's the only word for it - the first three seasons so that I can be current and enjoy the fun in real time. For my trouble, I was treated yesterday to a soundtrack song that made me snap out of my supine position and say, WTF?

The song was the outro to the second episode of the second season, and its ominous, haunted sensibility was scene-perfect. Doing some quick research, I learned that the song was Temptation Is Hard To Fight, by the musical obscurity George McGregor and the Bronzettes. And so it was off to the races for me.

Another one of those situations where the backstory isn't at one's fingertips, in all likelihood the Mad Men people excavated this song from the Eccentric Soul anthology of CDs (cover above), specifically the one called Twinight's Lunar Rotation.  I have a few of these Numero Group treasures but I didn't have this one - up until a few hours ago, when I rectified that by running over to the The Best Damn Independent Record Store in the Land, Akron, Ohio's Square Records!

The Twinight label was Chicago-based. While the label was prolific in scouting and recording local soul acts, the vast majority of its history is bound up in artists who could have been contenders for the public's attentions, but never were.  Whatever the formula for success might have been, it eluded these artists, many of whom got the most airplay in the wee hours.

The preamble of Twinight's Lunar Rotation companion booklet paints the picture: "It's a slot for high school talent show winners, major label cast offs, minor label upgrades, and girlfriends with decent voices. A few hits might squeak through, but for the most part it's the long, dark night of soul. The DJs call it lunar rotation, broadcast lingo for radio limbo, all-night airplay for 45s with no chance of making the charts, a nice time for a disc jockey to make good on that fifty dollar handshake. It's hope, but not much. Between 1967 and 1972, Chicago's lunar landscape was littered with Twinight labeled 45s. Of the 55 singles released ... only eight charted, and only one of those wasn't by Syl Johnson."

That's a damn shame, where Temptation Is Hard To Fight is concerned. The entire production - from instrumental flourishes, to George McGregor's anguished delivery, to the wails of the backing Bronzettes - is gritty and British Northern Soul-esque in its sound (for a minute I thought of dear old Chuck Wood).  What a find.  

Hailing from Alabama, George McGregor and his more famous brother Billy started their secular Chicagoland musical careers in 1960 in the Antennas and later Shirley and her Squires. Originally gospel singers, the need to make some real money led to soul music after Billy returned from the army in 1959. (Billy, as much a songwriter as a performer who worked in the steel mills his entire life, is perhaps best known for Mr. Shy. I myself never heard it, but regionally it achieved fame.)

Believing his brother had the greater singing talent, Billy wrote the song for George, and teamed up with his friend, steel guitarist Jimmy Jones, to craft what could have been - but wasn't - George's breakthrough. On the B-side, as the McGregor Brothers, they served up Every Time I Wake Up. With no promotion or distribution, and barely any airplay, the single went by the wayside.  George McGregor continued to open for other artists, but was murdered in 1979. Thanks to Mad Men, his spirit lives on.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Such A Night, Dr. John (1973)

If I don't do it, somebody else will. - Dr. John

Here we are again watching New Orleans in the eye of another storm, this time one that is an unnatural disaster of mammoth proportions and that likely will have consequences as unfathomable as the depths of the ocean floor where the catastrophe lurks. 

As they always do, the musicians of NOLA are responding with everything they've got, and one who's on my radar screen right now thanks to his dazzling appearance performing Such A Night in The Last Waltz is Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John. It's not that typical of me to have a wide smile pasted on my face, but there are exceptions to everything. What a sweetheart.  And once again, I knew next to nothing about him, except that he is a contemporary of another local jewel, Allen Toussaint. 

Dr. John came on the Big Easy scene early when as a youth he began hanging around in the recording studios of Cosimo Matassa, who helped put the New Orleans sound on the map and launched many careers. Then a guitarist, Dr. John's constant presence led to his sitting in on the sessions of Professor Longhair and Joe Tex alongside more seasoned musicians such as Red Tyler and Earl Palmer.

Paying his dues all around the Gulf, his guitarist gig was cut short when he intervened in a fight involving a friend and his left index finger was nearly shot off.  Not one to cry over spilt milk, he merely reinvented himself as a piano and keyboard player. In the early 60's the city was reeling under the iron fist of District Attorney Jim Garrison, who was cracking down on anything he deemed to be morally corrupt.  This had a chilling effect on the bar and club scene in town, so many musicians said "westward ho" and repaired to California.  There, Dr. John became a much-sought-after session player. 

Legend has it that Sonny and Cher gave him some free studio time at the end of the sessions he worked on, and in 1968 he cranked out the tracks that became his first album, Gris-Gris, melding the influences of his roots with a bit of California psychedelia. It didn't do at all well at the time, although much later it became the darling of the critics, and today is on Rolling Stone's Best Of ... album list.

It wasn't until 1973 that he hit the jackpot with the mondo-funky Right Place, Wrong Time (produced by Toussaint), and people outside the music industry took notice. For whatever reason, he never gained much momentum from that (Such A Night charted but not as highly), at least not on a mainstream basis.

But he has never been at a loss for friends, and he headed for Houston, where he and the notorious record producer Huey Meaux of SugarHill Studios (the impresario who made Doug Sahm a star with Sir Douglas Quintet) laid down the original recording of the album The Night Tripper (his nickname), which is out of print but available for 14.20 pounds on UK eBay. Meaux also captured tracks that weren't released for decades - first as Dr. John: The Crazy Cajun Recordings and again as Hoodoo: The Collection. (Meaux's vaults became a gold mine from which master tapes were licensed to British labels by his accountants to pay off the debts from his conviction on various drug and sex offenses.) 

Dr. John's musical style is a true gumbo of influences that I don't feel merits the attempt to describe it in a neat little package. It's eclectic and versatile, and often described in terms of voodoo. I don't know what that's supposed to mean. He's had a very uneven career, but over the years, he's written film scores, won Grammy awards, played in front of and behind a long list of rock luminaries, produced and arranged the work of others, been a New Orleans booster and railed against the various injustices it's endured, and has lately become involved in the David Simon HBO series Treme (said Simon, "This guy has the whole history of New Orleans music in his head").

His last album City That Care Forgot, with his band The Lower 911, is a blues beauty. When that was nominated for a Grammy (it won), he said, "If it helps anybody down there to get any of their piss-offedness out, if it helps anybody down there in any way - good.  This is a record I just could not not do. I couldn't have lived with myself if I didn't make this record." Doing press in conjunction with a May 17 benefit, Dr. John vented his rage over the current state of affairs in a James Carville-like outburst. One can only imagine what will emerge from him musically in connection with this latest devastation of his beloved home.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Stage Fright, The Shape I'm In, The Band (1970)

As is happening a lot these days, I've come late to the party on yet another fixture of my youth - The Band. 

It's totally cliche, but a few weeks ago I was nursing a Labatt Blue in a local honky tonk listening to a friend's band; it was getting late, I was tired and thinking of leaving. But then the opening strains of The Weight wafted into my consciousness - the way they played it, it was like I was hearing it for the first time. Let me tell you, the impact of the individual elements of its nuanced intro are pretty remarkable when they creep up on you like that. It made me sit up and take notice. You rock, Fred!

Then I remembered that I had the DVD of The Last Waltz sitting at home ready for viewing.  I'd never seen it, and truthfully my interest in seeing it was sparked largely by something Richard Thompson said last year on Elvis Costello's Spectacle, where Levon Helm was also a guest. RT said that when Music from Big Pink came out in 1968, roots music was unfashionable, but it showed him and others the way to develop music that had direct ties to one's own culture.

I remember clearly when The Weight came out - it sounded like nothing else out there at the time. Aspects of its musicality were intriguing, both in the singing and the instrumentation, but overall I wasn't pulled into being a Band fan.  That's changed now.  Something about The Last Waltz, which I watched twice, seized hold of me. I wanted all the back story on the group.  I mourned the untimely deaths of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko.

I always thought of them as being a Canadian band, and certainly 4/5 of its members were. But the group's provenance came from Elaine, Arkansas, Helms' birthplace not too far from Memphis. Inspired as a very young child by the bluegrass great Bill Monroe, Helm started out on guitar, but the instrument of choice changed when he got a whiff of the drummer in the traveling tent show F.S. Walcott Rabbit's Foot Minstrels, and Peck Curtis, who drummed for Sonny Boy Williamson.   

Helm, in an interview from The Last Waltz, explained that his middle of the country stomping grounds was where the convergence of bluegrass, country music, blues and show music has a propensity to transform itself into a genre all its own, "if it mixes there with the rhythm and it dances."  He joined up with rocker Ronnie Hawkins, who although Arkansan had found the Canadian club music scene much to his liking and where four other guys from various parts of Ontario - Manuel, Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson - were destined to join in the party.  Hawkins became known for identifying and grooming musical talents in Canada, and various iterations of his band, the Hawks, would be the proving grounds. (This was also the genesis of Janis Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band and the great guitarist Roy Buchanan.)

Soon enough they quit Hawkins, wanting to do their own thing with broader musical influences.  Performing as either Levon and the Hawks or the Canadian Squires, they found a following.  In 1964, they released their first single, Leave Me Alone. The ultimate follower, Bob Dylan, heard about them (there are various stories as to how - probably a research project unto itself), and asked them to be his backup band in 1965 as he prepared, in what would set off a firestorm of criticism, to amplify.  Thus the group was in the hot seat when Dylan made his electric debuts on both sides of the pond. Helm had a bad reaction to the hostility that ensued and left the group for a while.

After Dylan's near fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, the whole lot of them repaired to Woodstock, New York, in the "Big Pink" house, including Helm. The music they made there was released nearly 10 years later as The Basement Tapes. (Here's You Win Again.)

In 1968, as The Band, they concocted something of their own, what would today be called roots music, the album Music from Big Pink.  So began a not-quite-10-year run as a group of superstars who did music their way. The Last Waltz, while having a questionable focus on Robbie Robertson to the exclusion of the other members, and not nearly enough history for my liking, still was a crash course on a group whose striking vocals and harmonies, proficiency with their instruments and overall panache cannot be denied. 

Although there are any number of songs that could be showcased from their oeuvre - and I have much yet to discover - I've picked one each that's stuck soundly in my head, in honor of their respective late lead singers, Stage Fright (Danko) and The Shape I'm In (Manuel).  

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hot Smoke and Sasafrass, Bubble Puppy (1968)

Armchair musicology, as it turns out, is an optimistic avocation.  Which is a good thing, because I am not optimistic by nature. Every time I think I've exhausted all the ideas for a blog post, one thing leads to another and new doors open. That's exactly what happened with Bubble Puppy.  

In this instance, the door was Pandora-based. I don't even remember which "radio station" it was now, but in the rotation was an arresting song by someone named Billy Wade McKnight called Trouble's Comin' On.  So obscure was this that it wasn't even on YouTube. But a search by my friend Wade (no relation to B. Wade McKnight) unearthed a compilation called Never Ever Land: 83 Texan Nuggets from International Artists Records 1965-1970 and lo ... three CDs worth of uncharted territory presented itself to me.

Sure enough, there that guy was, with two singles, but so was Bubble Puppy, whose big hit Hot Smoke and Sasafrass I'd forgotten about completely.  My indie record store-owning friend Dave ordered the box set for me, and I've been listening to it obsessively like an acid head for days now.

The thing about psychedelic music was, I didn't always like it.  The sound bending that went along with the mind bending wasn't very musical - although it could be.  Hot Smoke was.  The instrumental bridge alone is worth the price of admission, that drummer, David Fore, was 17 when he played it. 

Bubble Puppy's roots were in San Antonio and Corpus Christi; one of its precursor bands, fronted by guitarist Rod Prince, was the Bad Seeds (not to be confused with the name they later migrated to, the New Seeds; Nick Cave's Bad Seeds; or the Seeds of Pushin' Too Hard fame), which had a locally popular following with such songs as Taste of the Same.  Check out Prince's solo - certainly a "taste" of what was to come later.

Eventually the seed persona lost its luster, however; once coming under the influence of Jimi Hendrix and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, they latched upon Bubble Puppy as a variant to a phrase in the book. They got their big break as performers when their then-manager invited the Who, then on tour in Texas, to spend some of their down time in the Puppy's rehearsal venue (as Rod Prince described it, "a godsend to a touring act"). Being up close and personal led to an invitation to open the San Antonio show. Happenstance like that is a thing of the distant past in this age of LiveNation. 

Moving on to Austin and then Houston, they were seen in a psychedelic club called Love Street Light Circus and signed to International Artists. (Although the club no longer exists, its legacy continues as a nonprofit organization where local acts raise money for children's causes in Houston.)

They became IA's most successful group. Unfortunately IA's lack of a head for business, apparently legendary, made it impossible to do right by its acts, which also included the 13th Floor Elevators. The tales are so many and varied it would be pointless to try and summarize them, but the music industry was as unsavory then as it is now, suffice it to say. Rod Prince himself described IA as a organization of "no-talent lawyers, thugs, and the spawn of the shallow end of the gene pool - clueless all."

After a tour with Steppenwolf, Prince and company were convinced to relocate to California, where another literary allusion - Hermann Hesse's novel Demian, one of my absolute favorite novels of that time - led to a name change so that they didn't have to fight with IA over the use of Bubble Puppy. Here's Love People, a vastly mellower sound but just as pleasing.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Two of Us, Beatles (1970)

The final months of high school for your typical Class of '70 baby boomer will always have certain associations - the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the resulting widespread student demonstrations against the Vietnam War; the killing of students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio and by state law enforcement officers at Jackson State University in Mississippi; the first-ever Earth Day; the Beatles' announcement they were breaking up; and the release, 40 years ago this weekend, of their final album together, Let It Be.

I'm sure there are teenagers who didn't care one whit about the Beatles.  I'm always surprised when I talk to people today - my peers - who profess to having had no particular interest in them. I tell myself that these people are few and far between. 

For me, the breakup of the Beatles was about as traumatic as it could possibly be. It was like a death, not that I'd had any experience with death at that point.  Nonetheless, I had a very difficult time grasping the fact that four people who had clearly loved each other, were better as a unit than they were separately, and changed the world with their magnificent music no longer cared to be associated - and in fact would probably have done some real damage to each other if forced to remain together a minute longer.  I felt like I was being abandoned, truth be told.

Graduating from high school is a scary time under the best of circumstances.  From an historical perspective, this was not the best of times, clearly, to be contemplating setting foot on a college campus (when I arrived, three months later, I was treated to a recipe for a Molotov cocktail on the front page of the student newspaper), and from a personal perspective - well, my parents were going through a terrible divorce and the fallout from it was grotesque on so many levels.

Plain and simple, in my unhappy pre-teen and teen years, the Beatles had been a source of joy.  Always joy.  Pan Am flew them in at a time when we were reeling from the assassination of our President, and when I was in dire need of something that let me know there were other emotions besides the ones I generally experienced. Those four boys from Liverpool, England, were how I spelled relief.  I was in awe of them - their talent, their exuberant life force, their good looks and humor, the songs they cranked out year after year as they grew and changed with the times.

It never occurred to me that it could take its toll.  And that they were human.

Let It Be was far from my favorite album, especially because I knew they'd had such angst producing it.  But like every Beatles album, it had songs I wanted to hear.  Here's one of them.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

I Found A Love, Falcons (1962)

Remember Wilson Pickett?  Remember the Ohio Players?  Well, this is the post wherein I show that there is only one degree of separation between them.

Back in 2008 when I wrote about Pickett and his 634-5789, I learned that he had been, for a time, the teen-aged lead singer of a Detroit-based group called the Falcons - his first foray into secular music after a life entirely oriented to singing gospel. In my post, I embedded a YouTube video of him stopping the show with the Falcons at the Apollo, the very embodiment of the term "soul howler." I've not been able to stop thinking about that song.  

Of course, Warner Music Group took the video down eventually and I've had a terrible time finding any online version of it - until just this week when I resurrected this gem from an mp3 on someone's now-defunct blog.  The song, I Found A Love, was a smash hit on the R&B charts for the Falcons, which included Eddie Floyd and Mack Rice, who eventually wrote Mustang Sally and Respect Yourself. 

The Falcons, formed in 1955, were one of the first 50's groups to make the jump from a doo-woppy R&B sound to the harder-edged soul that exploded in the 60's.  In 1959, they had their first catchy hit, You're So Fine. The following year, Wilson Pickett replaced Levi Stubbs' brother Joe as one of the two lead singers (Floyd being the other) and turned up the heat quite a few notches with songs like I Found A Love, which Pickett co-wrote.  As a matter of fact, in the lyrics, a reference to "in the midnight hour" foreshadows his later hit, co-written with Stax' Steve Cropper. (Pickett recorded I Found A Love as a solo artist in 1967.)   

So how do the Ohio Players enter into this?  Weren't they the 70's funk group known for such finery as Love Rollercoaster?  They certainly were.  But before morphing into the Ohio Players, they were known as the Ohio Untouchables, and it is they who are the remarkable backing band to I Found A Love.  I only know this because since I've become a frequent user of Inter-Library Loan and order up all kinds of crazy music books that I would otherwise never have access to, I am now in temporary possession of an amazing volume called Joel Whitburn Presents Top R&B Singles 1942-1999.    

Never mind what's in this 700 page delight - most people would die of ennui just glancing at it.  But for me, it's a gold mine. And I thought, why not look up the Falcons, and see what it says about their hits?  Maybe it could lead me to excavate I Found A Love from ... somewhere.  Mission accomplished!  There with the notes about when the song charted and other arcane items was a reference to the Ohio Untouchables as the "band."  What the what?  Being the Ohioan I am, I had to see what I could find on this outfit, which led me eventually to the mp3..

The Ohio Untouchables was founded in Dayton, Ohio, in 1959.  In 1961, they joined the small Lu Pine label that had been launched by a relative of the group's founder, guitarist Robert Ward (this relative, Robert West, was also apparently related to Eddie Floyd); at first they mainly accompanied other Lu Pine acts, which included the Falcons. In certain circles, Ward was much admired for his magnificent guitar work, which produced a distinctive vibrato sound using a Magnatone amplifier.

Most of the original members of the Ohio Untouchables, including Ward, eventually moved on, but Clarence Satchell, who played sax, bassist Marshall Jones, and vocalist Bernie McCain returned to Dayton and formed the Ohio Players in 1967.  The times they were a-changing.

Ward's career had its ups and downs after that, and he eventually got caught in a downward personal spiral that included some prison time. He was re-discovered in 1990 after years in obscurity - an independent record producer made it known he wanted to find him at all costs, and when Ward happened to walk into Fretware Guitars outside of Dayton one day, phone calls were made. The result was he produced some electrifying work with the Fear No Evil LP (plus two others) before his death in 2008.  I'll play myself out with his Lord Have Mercy On Me.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I'll Take Care of You, O.V. Wright (1968)

"He's one of the greatest singers that I've ever heard.  He had a tone in his voice that was unimaginable." - the late Memphis music producer Willie Mitchell

Continuing my quest to learn about the music that somehow passed me by, I bring you Overton Vertis (O.V.) Wright.

In the 60s, there were two kinds of soul music - the kind that "crossed over," as it was euphemistically called, and all the rest.  O.V. Wright didn't cross over to the white audience and I didn't know a damn thing about him, despite growing up in the Washington D.C. area, until I heard him singing the otherworldly Eight Men, Four Women (from 1967) on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour a few years ago. They call his sort of soul music deep soul, and with good reason - it is drenched in a gospel tradition, it is gut wrenching, and it is authentic.  As much as I love Motown, that description doesn't fit much of its music. Berry Gordy consciously developed it for a mass audience, and it succeeded in the biggest possible way.

However, black music that was more raw and impassioned was less likely to find champions in the music industry. It wasn't always the case, but the deep soul sub-genre faced challenges in reaching the masses. Its emotional intensity - in both vocals and instrumental backing - was arguably too much for the casual listener. (Not me - I specifically gravitate toward that kind of anguish!)

Thus, depending on where you were, it wasn't easy to follow Wright's recording career when he was alive. It took place in large part in two recording meccas - first Gold Star studios, based in Houston (then the largest city in the South), which was the first enterprise of any heft to make a business of the music of black artists, and then Willie Mitchell's Hi Studios in Memphis. 

Wright began singing gospel in church at the age of six, and such was the quality of his performance that he made an early life as a regular on Memphis' gospel circuit, performing in various groups, the last of which was the Sunset Travelers.  With them, he recorded his first music with the Duke-Peacock label, one of those that rented Gold Star's studios in Houston. (The Duke label had originally been in Memphis but was acquired and merged with Houston's Peacock.)

As typically happens in these situations, someone discovers the gospel singer and starts to imagine him or her in the secular world, and with Wright it was no different.  Songwriter Roosevelt Jamison was instrumental in getting Wright signed to Memphis' Goldwax label, which released There Goes My Used To Be (A-side) and That's How Strong My Love Is (B-side). This did get airplay in some places, especially the B-side, but not long afterwards, Otis Redding covered That's How Strong ..., and Wright's version receded into obscurity.

In conjunction with this, Don Robey, who was the impresario of the Duke-Peacock label, sued Goldwax, claiming that Wright was still under contract to Peacock as a member of the Sunset Travelers. The court concurred, and Goldwax activity screeched to a halt.  Robey started a subsidiary specializing in soul music called Back Beat, and it was then that Wright started to receive some recognition.  But here's where it gets perplexing.

Except for the period between Nov. 30, 1963 and Jan. 30, 1965, Billboard has always maintained two music charts for pop music and R&B. According to Top R&B Singles 1942-1999 by Joel Whitburn, Billboard felt that this time period, during which Motown established itself, saw too much similarity in the two charts due to crossover and so stopped the practice.  However, by early 1965, the British Invasion re-established the gulf. Anyway, I was one of those odd kids who looked at the chart listings in the newspaper each week, and I remember always thinking it peculiar that the R&B/soul and pop charts were separate.  I listened to everything, or so I thought. 

The week of August 28, 1965, Wright's Back Beat recording You're Gonna Make Me Cry made the top 10 soul singles, charting at #6. All nine of the other songs on the soul list - Papa's Got a Brand New Bag, Same Old Song, Tracks of My Tears, Since I Lost My Baby, Baby I'm Yours, The "In" Crowd, In the Midnight Hour, Can't Help Myself, and Nothing But Heartaches, were well known to me and played in heavy rotation on the stations I listened to in Washington/Maryland.  (The pop list for that same week was very different, with two exceptions - the Four Tops' Same Old Song and James Brown's Papa's Got a Brand New Bag each crossed over, landing at #5 and #10, respectively, on that chart.)

What happened to You're Gonna Make Me Cry?  I never heard it - anywhere. How did that happen? I'd have to be able to access the playlists of my stations (I listened to several) to figure that one out, I guess.  It must have been one of those "regional" hits that I keep realizing existed.  

Of the many songs I've listened to in catching up on the Wright canon, I'll Take Care of You (composed by Brook Benton) has really burrowed into the fiber of my being.  The collaboration of Wright and Willie Mitchell reaches a zenith here, in my opinion, one that lasted to the end of his short, unsung life. (Mitchell had produced the Back Beat recordings as well as the Hi Records ones, and their friendship went back to their earliest days.) 

Although O.V. Wright had a profound influence on fellow musicians and his fans alike, his life should have been much longer. He developed a drug habit that resulted in some prison time and poor health, and died of heart failure in 1980, at 41.  When, decades later, two writers and soul enthusiasts, Preston Lauterbach and Red Kelly, realized that Wright had an unmarked grave (Willie Mitchell paid for the funeral expenses, according to his widow, but insurance money for the headstone never materialized), they mounted an online campaign to raise enough money to memorialize him in the manner he deserved.  That commemoration took place in 2008 after funds poured in from around the world.

I'll never know why I was oblivious to Wright's existence when he was alive, but the lapse has now been rectified.