Sunday, January 31, 2010

Seven Days Too Long, Chuck Wood (1967)

If you'd asked me two weeks ago what Northern Soul refers to, I'd have been pretty confident that it pertained to 60's soul music that came out of Detroit and Chicago.

Nice try, but wrong.  Once again, my frame of reference is proving to be rather narrower than it could be, and because I wasn't living in the UK during the 70's, I am now finding it means, in the words of Monty Python, something completely different.

It's become a bit of a magnificent obsession, or at least one song that typifies Northern Soul - and the artist who sang it - has.  It all began when fellow music buff Wade practically accused me of withholding knowledge of Seven Days Too Long from him.  But I was Not Guilty As Charged, because I had never heard of it either.  When I did hear it, I went crazy over it.  And needed desperately to find out why it was nowhere near any radar screen that I could lay claim to.

This is where it gets obsessional.  The song is everywhere online, but as many people commented in many venues, there was next to nothing about the singer, Chuck Wood.  Who was this "soul howler," as he was referred to?  Why such a dearth of information about someone whose song became #10 on the list of 20 Most Popular Northern Soul Songs?  For a research devotée, that was like laying down the gauntlet.  I had to find out about Chuck Wood and the genesis of Seven Days Too Long.  

I can't say I've completely figured it out.  It's a bit of a tough nut.  But with the help of two friends who also get their jollies doing research, J and Sheila, we've gotten closer to it than I believe anyone else ever has. 

It might be easier to tell the story if I start at the end.   

In the 70's clubgoers in the north of England developed a distinct penchant for American dance music that was soul in origin, but not commercial and definitely not Motown.  The rhythm was fast, the dance style involved "stomping," and the most prized songs were those that were by definition rare.  These clubs developed an all-night culture, and attracted frenzied, often drug-addled patrons by the hundreds. Several venues, most notably one called Wigan's Casino, became the hub for and synonymous with Northern Soul activity.

How the American records were unearthed would probably make a story in itself.  Suffice it to say that Seven Days Too Long met the criteria of non-Motown, non-commercial and rare.

Which leads to the next question - why was it rare?  Seven Days Too Long was a U.S. release on Roulette, a multi-genre label that by all accounts was always struggling to find success.  But somehow, with what promotion I don't know, the week of Sept. 16, 1967, the song was dubbed a "regional breakout" by Billboard magazine (though what region it does not specify), and by the following week it was #130 on the Billboard charts.  The week of Oct. 7, it had ascended to #119, and that's the last we hear of it, or at least the last mention I can find.
So that takes care of the "rare" part of its being a good candidate for Northern Soul; it wasn't commercially successful.  But it still leaves the question of, who in the hell was Chuck Wood?  Here is what I believe I know about him:

  • He was born in Tyler, Texas (the year remains in dispute as far as I'm concerned) but somehow made his way to Los Angeles where he attended Los Angeles City College.  
  • His first records were for Warner Bros.  One exceedingly bizarre one called Paula Bunyan can be heard here
  • We believe that it was customary for singers under contract with WB also to be put under contract as actors, and this appears to be what happened with him. Wood appeared in the Tarzan TV series, in the films Beau Geste and The Sins of Rachel Cade, among many other appearances.
  • He looked like this.  I believe this to be him only by connecting the dots between various comments on blogs that he also performed as Big Chuck Wood (and the Woodchuckers), discography lists I've found, and the knowledge that he was, indeed, an actor and would have needed publicity stills.  
  • He's also probably the Chuck Wood shown here as a singer in an outfit called the Calimbo Steel Band. In fact, an article about him in a 1966 Call and Post says he "performed for former president Eisenhower in Palm Springs, accompanied by a steel band," so it must be right!  His discography certainly suggests that he was not limited in his styles of music by any means.  However, I don't know for certain if the Chuck Wood on all of these songs is just one person. 
  • Is he still alive?  Not clear on that either.  A Tyler Texan named Chuck Wood is dead, but the date of birth just doesn't match up to the other ages that are given in various articles about him - unless he looked decades younger than he really was. 
In any event, I am hoping that more information will somehow be unearthed about Chuck Wood.  Nothing about the song's composers, J.R. Bailey and Vernon Harrell, gives me anything.  Bailey was a former Cadillac; Harrell used to perform with the Coasters. Bailey wrote Everybody Plays the Fool, popularized by the Main Ingredient. Any direct connection they may have had to Wood is unclear, other than that the b-side of Seven Days, Soul Shing-A-Ling, was also written by them.  

And with that, I bring this investigation to a close and move on to some other obsession!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Out Of Time, Chris Farlowe (1966)

This post could be subtitled "Six Degrees of Separation from Chris Farlowe." Or perhaps "#1 Artists I'd Know If I'd Grown Up in the UK Instead of the US."  Or just "Now I've Heard the Term Soul-Howler Twice in 12 Hours - About Two Different People." 

The first of the two soul-howlers will be a topic for another day (thank you very much, Wade, you fiend) - if I can find any information on him!  Today, our subject is Chris Farlowe, who I discovered a few hours ago listening to my Alan Price Set channel on Pandora.  One of his songs got my attention, but I'd never heard of him, so as is my wont I checked him out. 

Turns out this guy, who at 69 years of age is still performing, was a huge success across the pond with his #1 hit Out Of Time, a song I only knew as a Rolling Stones recording. This is where the first degree of separation comes in - his association with the Stones.  More on that in a minute. 

Farlowe got his teenage start when the skiffle craze was in full swing in England, but when rock & roll supplanted that musical genre, he formed a band called the Thunderbirds, which performed both rock and R&B (guitarist Albert Lee was a member), and had a record contract which produced singles destined for the trash heap. When that contract was up, however, a power broker stepped in: Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham saw potential in another white singer who had a voice tailor-made for R&B, and signed Farlowe as a solo act.  His first song to chart was the Jagger-Richards composition Think, which was also recorded by the Stones but not heard til a few months later as an album track on Aftermath. 

Next up - Out Of Time, which was a sensation as produced by Mick Jagger for Farlowe.  It was #1 in the UK two weeks after the Kinks Sunny Afternoon and two weeks before the Beatles Yellow Submarine/Eleanor Rigby. Here, we never heard it, only a Stones version on the Flowers LP - the following year!  Farlowe became such a soul persona that he was invited to appear on a special broadcast of Ready, Steady, Go! that spotlighted Otis Redding's visit to the UK; his cover of Mr. Pitiful got someone's attention. And wouldn't you know it - thanks to YouTube we can actually see what went on there - Farlowe singing It's A Man's Man's Man's World followed by a bit of Otis. Good God!     

His career went in fits and starts through the later 60's and 70's.  His last hit was Handbags and Gladrags, written for him by Manfred Mann's Mike d'Abo; he also ended up associated with Colosseum and Atomic Rooster. None of that panned out, but in the 80's he was featured in Outrider, Jimmy Page's debut album as a soloist (here he is singing Hummingbird on that). That led to a BBC radio live show that thrust him back into the limelight and onto the radar screen of a whole new generation.

Today, he's a special guest at concerts given by the likes of Van Morrison and yes, as recently as a few months ago, the Alan Price Set, which is of course how I got here in the first place. And he has something called the Norman Beaker Band to back him up at other times. Who knew?  This has been a revelation. Today, Farlowe's confinement in the 60's to the UK wouldn't have limited his exposure, and more people would have been able to appreciate him. I am constantly delighted by the myriad online resources that tell me in real time what people all around the world are listening to. One of the upsides of globalization ...  

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Certain Girl, Ernie K-Doe via Allen Toussaint (1962)

"Ten seconds like that can keep you going for a week." - Nick Hasted, reviewing Allen Toussaint's piano stylings for London's The Independent, in 2008

This blog is now more than two years old and one of its unending joys is the way it gives me a forum to share the research I've done about the songs and artists I knew growing up - but in many ways didn't know at all. 

An added benefit of being in research mode pretty much constantly is that I learn about the songs and artists of that time about which I didn't have even a glimmer of a clue. And because it's my blog and I can do whatever I want, more and more I'm writing about those songs and artists too even though I'm only really discovering them decades after the fact.

Thus today's post on Allen Toussaint.  A few weeks back Elvis Costello's Spectacle show on the Sundance Channel brought me an embarrassment of riches.  I was jazzed to see it because the insanely talented Richard Thompson was a featured guest.  I had the privilege of seeing him last summer in Kent, Ohio, after having won tickets through Twitter, of all things, from the online portal Folk Alley.  I said then and still say: I am a fan for life.  And his Spectacle appearance didn't disappoint.

But among the other guests on the same program was Allen Toussaint.  I recognized Toussaint's name, but did not associate him with anything in particular.  Talk about a gap in my musical education.  An abyss, really, of Grand Canyonesque proportions.  And with the awareness of that gap has come a fixation with learning everything I can about this elegant man who is a giant in the music industry not only in his native New Orleans but also just about everywhere else you can think of.   

Listening to my Alvin Toussaint 'radio station' on Pandora, I'm finding the breadth of his output staggering, both on his own and for others. To list even a fraction of it here would take up too much space. On Spectacle he related how The Band sought him out - in New Orleans, via a sheriff's deputy - because they wanted him specifically to contribute the horn charts for their live album Rock of Ages. (Check out old friends Toussaint and Levon Helm kicking it at the end of the hilarious A Certain Girl - I'm afraid I have resorted to mainlining this every day!)  He also produced and wrote for Lee Dorsey, whose Working in A Coal Mine and Ride Your Pony were always favorites of mine - they were so original for the time.

A Certain Girl was first recorded in 1962 by Ernie K-Doe, a New Orleans artist unknown to me although I'd heard his work. (If you know the quirky Mother-in-Law, you know Ernie K-Doe.)  Composed by none other than Toussaint using the pseudonym Naomi Neville, his mother's maiden name, Ernie K-Doe's version was a regional hit that didn't sell well outside the South.  But some people were aware of it - the result being a Yardbirds cover on the b-side of their first single I Wish You Could (with a bizarro Eric Clapton solo), and Warren Zevon vamping it up on his Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School album.  

But this popular fare is really only the tip of the iceberg for Toussaint, a protege of Professor Longhair whose history of producing, arranging, composing and performing in myriad genres goes on for days. Get to know him while he's still around, if you haven't already. And thank you, Elvis Costello.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Real Me, The Who (1973)

It's a new year - and decade - so today and over the next few weeks people are contemplating how to become the person they were meant to be instead of the one they are right now.  What better day to feature this post by a guest blogger, my good colleague Chuck, who recently told me of his fixation with a treasured album, Quadrophenia, The Who's follow-up to their earlier, better known and more accessible rock opera, Tommy.  My only stipulation:  in keeping with the format of the blog, he had to pick out one song on which to focus!

Well, at first I wasn't sure if I could do that, since there are so many great songs on Quadrophenia depicting the emotional range and depth of the opera's protagonist, Jimmy, and carried off with incomparable vocal range, depth and ferocity by The Who's lead singer, Roger Daltrey. Quadrophenia has it all: throttling hard rock, elation, pain and envy, introspection, social commentary including '60s revolutionary zeal, humanity, love, poignant supplication wrapped in beautiful, lyrical melodies, and many points between.

It's the story of an English teenager and his social, musical, emotional and psychological state of being. The work is set in London and Brighton in 1964 and 1965, as the notorious Mods and Rockers battled for primacy in London's damp back streets and Brighton's resort beaches.  The opera's name is a variation on the connotative definition of the medical term schizophrenia, but in composer Pete Townshend's version reflects Jimmy's four distinct personalities, each said to represent the personality of one Who member.

I studied in England in my junior year of undergrad school (1972-73) after the war between those Mods and Rockers had wound down.  While I didn't discover Quadrophenia until I returned to the States, I did get to experience first hand the back streets, beaches, cultural setting and a slice of the view Townshend had conceived.

I now realize that I could select one out of the whole if I had to, and that would be the rocking The Real Me. It's the song that sets the stage for Jimmy, the first full piece following the overture, I Am the Sea.

Daltrey wails, "Can you see the real me," appealing to those around him ostensibly charged with his care: mother, doctor, preacher. It is teen angst-charged identity crisis taken to its logical postmodern point:  outward bursts of anger and pleading, countered by self-reflective musings. The setting is violent cultural upheaval and when splintered teen identity and alienation are layered over the social backdrop, the protagonist's plea is more than aching, more than plaintive - it's all that and, most of all, demanding, commanding: damn you, see the real me

As the song ends it seems to subtly sample the stuttering, stammering voice from the earlier song My Generation: "Can you see the real me-me-me."  A more pronounced stammer is picked up again and is used as a bridge in The Punk and the Godfather deeper in the work, but run through a wah-wah pedal - "me, me, my, my, my g-g-g-generation" - perhaps to again create a memory-like, ethereal reference to the earlier work.

Not often do we talk about a rock album as the composer's "most important piece" - instead we describe it as a great collection of songs, hardest rock, best licks, etc. but this is certainly Townshend's most important piece. Four personalities, four leitmotif, or even better stated, the protagonist's multiple identities reflected in the four musical themes woven through the entire work, as Jimmy's story unfolds.  It is a masterpiece.