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.