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.