Sunday, October 23, 2011

I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know, Blood, Sweat & Tears (1968)

I've just finished Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, a thoroughly engaging memoir by Al Kooper, who, among many, many other things, founded Blood, Sweat & Tears.

As a junior in high school, I mainlined the group's eponymous second album, and then had to backtrack to learn that there was a debut LP called The Child is Father to the Man. As with Fleetwood Mac, the original group and the one that became wildly famous were two very different enterprises. Until now I never really knew why.

I defy anyone to read about Kooper's life and not come away with a head swirling under the weight of his extravaganza of experiences. He loved music in all of its iterations so much that he couldn't ever settle into any particular genre and became the poster child for eclecticism, creating music so original and working with so many artists that you wonder how he kept it all straight.

If there's a common thread to Kooper's life in music, it's that he was driven to explore new frontiers. With guitar greats Steve Stills and Mike Bloomfield he began the first so-called "supergroup" after each member departed his prior band; he worked for record companies in A&R; produced artists from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Nils Lofgren to the Tubes and even Dylan; taught music at Berklee College of Music; wrote scores for The Landlord film and Crime Story TV series, and though he has slowed down due to myriad health problems, he's still working and writing a great column for The Morton Report, New Music for Old People, the purpose of which is to "fill the gap for those of us who were satiated musically in the '60s and then searched desperately as we aged for music we could relate to and get the same buzz from nowadaze." He also includes obscurities from back in the day that he feels deserved more attention than they received.

By his own description, he was prone to biting off more than he could chew. Sometimes disaster ensued, but boy, did his penchant for throwing caution to the winds often pan out, as evidenced in the event he is somewhat immortalized for, playing the distinctive organ riff  on Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone recording session - essentially an interloper with slender experience in the instrument he played it on. By this point a well-known session musician, he'd been invited to observe, but brought along his guitar and planned to insert himself into the session somewhere. A Hammond organ wasn't in his plans, but one thing led to another and ... well, read the book.

No shrinking violet, he was a guy who always had a vision. In the rock world, no one was doing horns in a big way until Chicago made the scene. Blood Sweat & Tears was Kooper's attempt to integrate the thrilling energy of jazz into a blues-rock format after the demise of his previous gig, The Blues Project.

To his new band members, Kooper stipulated that he was the bandleader and that the group's repertoire and arrangements would be determined by him alone. The "majority rules" policy of The Blues Project had driven him to distraction; he needed to be the impresario. All of the members agreed to this at the outset, he says, but it didn't sit well for long and Kooper was actually ousted by the band before a second album, which led to the eventual selection of David Clayton-Thomas as lead singer and a new, more commercial direction for the group. 

I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know was Kooper's homage to the artistry of James Brown and Otis Redding. As fate would have it, the first recording session for the album was scheduled for the day after Redding tragically died in a plane crash (on my 15th birthday). Kooper insisted on laying down I Love You ... first, and it was accomplished in one impassioned take on the part of all of the players, according to his memoir. Kooper has never been known as a great singer, and his weaknesses show here, but from start to finish the song is a powerhouse of musicality and emotion.

Just for grins, here's a list of Al's top 100 greatest recordings of all time, selected primarily for best engineering and production values, and minus anything on which he was a performer or producer. It would be so much fun to have a beer with him and shoot the breeze. I can't recommend the book highly enough.  

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Count Me In, Gary Lewis & the Playboys (1965)

Writing for so long about the music of "my time" (as my darling Millennial friend Melissa likes to call it) has shown me that I can easily play "Six Degrees of Separation" with certain people, especially if their names are Al Kooper or Leon Russell.

I'm reading Kooper's memoir Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards right now, and my next several dozen blog posts could be inspired by the intersections therein. As my friend Mark observed to me earlier in the week, Kooper was the Zelig of the 60s and 70s, and as such he had a dizzying array of experiences producing, writing and playing with seemingly everyone. Russell's background in a similar capacity I've written about previously. Which brings me to Gary Lewis & the Playboys.

Son of the comedian Jerry Lewis, Gary Lewis got a drumset when he was 14, formed a group and got a gig playing at Disneyland. He also got a producer, Snuff Garrett, and a recording contract, for himself and his group, the Playboys. This led to an appearance on Ed Sullivan's show, where they became an overnight sensation with This Diamond Ring, a song co-written by none other than Al Kooper and heavily arranged by Leon Russell. It went to the top of the charts and stayed in that vicinity for weeks and weeks.

In the days before FM radio, a well-crafted song of any kind was always a pleasure to listen to, and This Diamond Ring was well crafted to be sure (although Kooper had had the Drifters more in mind when he banged it out, he says). But their next song Count Me In is my favorite of their short-lived canon. It's just a perfect pop song, although not a Russell composition. It was written by Glen Hardin, who was once a member of the Shindig! house band, the Shindogs (as was Russell), and who himself worked with the likes of Elvis, Gram Parsons, Roy Orbison, Emmylou Harris and many others.

Believe it or not, the buzz about Gary Lewis & the Playboys back in those days was huge. Their record label, Liberty, had an agreement with Ed Sullivan that the next song released by the group would debut exclusively on that iconic variety show, that's how much buzz there was. (According to an old Billboard article I found, that plan was thwarted by Los Angeles radio station KBLA, which had an anguish-inducing habit of breaking singles before their national release dates.)

I didn't know it then, of course, but it's pretty obvious to me now that Russell, as sideman, arranger and sometime songwriter for the group, had a big hand in expertly concocting songs that could have been pure sap into glorious pop songs. But their run of seven hit singles was cut short when Lewis was drafted at the end of 1966. When he returned two years later, he found a music scene starkly different from the one he had left behind, although he continued to record and perform for awhile. In the mid-80s, when the 60s made a comeback permanently, Lewis got back into it with a vengeance and a form of the group has been performing ever since.

And just because I can, I will end with this gem of a video of a young Leon Russell on Shindig! Where would musicologists be without YouTube?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Say It, 5 Royales (1957)

Yeah I know, I was 5 when Say It came out. And I wasn't aware of it when I was 15, 25 or any other age I've been that ends in 5, either. The truth is, I've only just in the last month discovered the song and the 5 Royales, thanks to Steve Cropper and his recently-released salute to the group, Dedicated.

Cropper has assembled some impressive music business luminaries to interpret the 5 Royales' canon. He wanted to pay homage to Lowman Pauling, the axe man who first ignited Cropper's lifelong passion for the guitar and all that could be done with it, and who wrote most of their records, including Say It. 

If Pauling can be deemed responsible for giving us Cropper, I'm all for him and want to know more. That's because Steve Cropper, in one way or another, was involved in virtually every record that came out of Stax in Memphis during its 60s heyday - as guitarist, A&R man, Otis Redding's and Eddie Floyd's songwriting partner, founding member of the Stax house band the Mar-Keys and then Booker T & the MGs. He is the Steve of the "Play it, Steve" interjection by Sam Moore on Sam & Dave's Soul Man.

As an underage youth, Cropper heard the 5 Royales in a Memphis club and was enthralled with the sound Pauling created as well as his style. Pauling was a showman of the highest order, but what he could wring out of the guitar - in both a lead and a rhythm capacity, depending on the need - blew Cropper's mind.

"He was one guitar player doing it all, rhythm to back up the singer and fills as a soloist, back and forth," Cropper said in an interview. "He'd play a lot of what we call shuffles. Then when he felt like putting in a lick, it would take him a second to reach down and then get back to it. That separation between rhythm and lead, and never stepping on the vocal, really got my attention. I kind of designed my own playing to stay out of the way of the vocal, too."

The opportunity to shine a light on Pauling, who Cropper never met despite having seen him live, was appealing but also humbling. And what a job he did with the project. Not being familiar with anything other than the classic Dedicated to the One I Love, which was covered by the Shirelles in 1961 and by the Mamas and Papas in 1967, I found this well-crafted compendium to be a priceless education on a group that influenced not only Cropper but also James Brown and many others. (Brown's hit Think was originally a 5 Royales hit.)

The North Carolina natives came together in the 1940s as a gospel group, the Royal Sons, but as R&B gained a foothold in the 50s, they started to secularize their music, often quite provocatively, and were among the first to do so.

I'm sure Cropper went ape over Pauling's licks on Say It, but what I have fixated on in most of the cuts on Dedicated is the songwriting itself. The Five Royales could be heart-rending, swinging, and downright goofy as far as their lyrics went. In the gut-busting interpretation of Bettye LaVette, Say It (her version thus far is not on YouTube) pretty much falls into the heart-rending category.

Most of the rest of Dedicated is just as enthralling, whichever end of the emotional spectrum it puts you on. Whether it's Buddy Miller's nuttily addicting rendition of The Slummer the Slum or my man Dan Penn's inspiring Someone Made You For Me, this is not to be missed by those who thirst for knowledge about our music's history. 

In 1992 the then-surviving Royales - the two lead singing brothers Johnny and Eugene Tanner and Jimmy Moore - were bestowed the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award. It was to be their last performance together. Here's a priceless video of that stirring occasion.