Sunday, January 16, 2011

Whipping Post, Allman Brothers Band (1969)

The Allmans were without question the first great jam band, and they took the jam to heights that it had not previously reached. They played traditional blues mixed with their own unique brand of rock & roll, and there was nothing but strength in that group. - ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, in his write-up for Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Today's New York Times has a piece on "Low Country Blues," a new Gregg Allman project with - who else? - T-Bone Burnett (and Dr. John!) which prompted me to open up an Allman Brothers station on Pandora. Which in turn served up the song that Gibbons went on to describe as his "all-time end-all" song, Whipping Post.

Gibbons was referring to the legendary extended live version performed at the Fillmore East in 1971 that would forever endure on vinyl and its successive formats, not the 5-plus-minute studio version from 1969, but I don't think that really matters. Live or not, Whipping Post is one of the best examples of the way in which great music provides a channel for the expression of emotion so intense that those who listen to it are likely to have their own catharsis.

The song also led me to reminisce about a very specific time in my history of listening to music on the radio. Although I graduated from Ohio State in Columbus, I spent my first two years at Hiram College, located in the Cleveland radio market. I didn't realize it then, but the station I tuned into in 1971-72, WNCR-FM, was breaking ground in the way FM stations were being programmed. (In the early days of FM, stations simply simulcast what their sister AM stations were broadcasting, but the FCC changed that in the late '60s.) What I was hearing was amazing long-form music, often entire album sides, and certainly many more individual songs that lasted longer than 3 minutes.

Whipping Post was typical of the kind of song that received that airplay. In the early days FM stations weren't selling many commercials - although once the AOR format took off, and it did, commercials started to intrude. The NCR DJs had great laid-back voices, a far cry from the hyper AM style, and they prided themselves on seamless segues from one song to another if they weren't doing album sides.

It made for a most pleasant listening experience, with one disadvantage - unless you happened to be present on those rare occasions when the DJ would chime in with the names of the artists and songs you'd been listening to for the past 20 or 30 minutes, you might have no idea of the playlist you'd just been treated to.

I believe a consequence of that was I did not appreciate artists like the Allman Brothers when they were at their peak. In those days you couldn't go online and get the playlist as you can now with stations that stream their audio. So the songs would vanish into thin air and that would be that. I knew a lot about certain music, but I also knew next to nothing about other music - this blog project has taught me that, if it's taught me nothing else.

Some years later I realized, after he was already dead and gone, what a virtuoso Duane Allman was as a guitarist, and that there was a powerful blues-infused rock sound that had its roots in the South. Thanks to all of the resources we have today I can bone up on the entire Allman Brothers Band oeuvre. Maybe even catch them on a tour, since they're still out there four decades later doing what they love.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

I Feel Like Going Home, Charlie Rich (1973)

"I don’t think I ever recorded anyone who was better as a singer, writer and player than Charlie Rich. It is all so effortless, the way he moves from rock to country to blues to jazz." - Sun Records founder Sam Phillips

"I feel like it makes me stale if I stay in one particular category." - Charlie Rich, to Terry Gross in a 1992 Fresh Air interview

Levon Helm explained it well in The Last Waltz - paraphrasing him, he observed that there's a part of the country - the low middle - where the myriad indigenous musical influences, if they converge, result in a sublime gumbo of rhythms and musical styles that defies categorization.

So true this is that the website run by Charlie Rich's business interests intriguingly presents five alternate versions of his biography. Clicking through, you learn how he developed into an artist who wrote and performed in each of the following genres: country, rhythm & blues, gospel, jazz and rockabilly. I've never seen anything quite like it - it's very well done and written.  

But due to this seemingly innate ability to write, sing and play piano in any genre, Rich had a difficult career at best. He worked his whole life but enjoyed success only in brief spurts. I knew him because of the two songs, Behind Closed Doors and The Most Beautiful Girl, that crossed over onto the pop charts in the '70s and got radio airplay, lots of it. On the strength of those songs I wasn't moved to investigate further. Like a lot of people of my generation, I wouldn't have been caught dead listening on purpose to country music (or what I thought of as country music), and that's what I labeled Rich's stuff.

If I had investigated, though, I might have discovered many beautiful tunes, including the breathtaking song I spotlight today, I Feel Like Going Home, which actually was the B-side of The Most Beautiful Girl single (it has since appeared in various forms on other recordings). I only know about it now because my friend Wade sent me a link to it last year out of the blue. It stopped me in my tracks. Who was the Silver Fox, really?

Well, he didn't start out as a country singer. Charlie Rich, born and raised in the Arkansas delta 30 miles from Memphis, became the gifted and versatile musician he was out of influences as diverse as his God-fearing, piano-playing mother and CJ Allen, a sharecropper who worked the Rich family's 500-acre plantation by day and played honky-tonk blues piano by night, often with Rich's dad, who played guitar. He especially loved big band music, played sax in the high school band, and was drenched in gospel at church.

As an enlisted member of the Air Force stationed in Enid, Oklahoma, in the early '50s, Rich started his own group, the Velvetones, which built upon his jazz and blues origins. Upon completion of his service, he began performing in Memphis clubs and writing his own songs. This exposure got him a job as a session piano player for Judd Records, which was owned by Judd Phillips, the brother of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, the man who launched the careers of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. 

Unbeknownst to Rich, his wife snuck a tape of his to Sam Phillips, who found the material to have no commercial value whatsoever. He handed her some Jerry Lee Lewis records and suggested Rich put in an appearance when he could "play that bad." Nonetheless, Rich was hired at Sun, playing piano and writing, his first exposure to country music as it was thought of then. Eventually he was given the opportunity to record his own songs, and on the third try, Lonely Weekends ended up with a decent chart position. 

Years passed with lots of recording, trying to fit his square peg into a round hole, but with little traction. He moved from one situation to another until the producer Billy Sherrill found a formula that "worked." But although those years in the '70s where Rich was everywhere would be considered success in most people's book, I get the feeling from what I've read that Rich found it unbearably limiting. He eventually went into seclusion, coming out one more time before he died with a jazz-influenced album, Pictures and Paintings, on which he played whatever the hell he pleased. 

In the Terry Gross interview, Rich acknowledged that it's difficult to be successful when people have pegged you as one thing or another, but you don't want to be pegged. As my appreciation of music has broadened immeasurably from what it was when I was younger, I wonder why this phenomenon even exists. Whether it's books, film, music ... why do people have to know what to expect before they experience it?  Sameness in art and performance is a crashing bore. Here he is as bluesman, with Why Oh Why. Great, great stuff.