Sunday, November 4, 2012

Under the Boardwalk, Drifters (1964)

For people who don't live in a coastal region, or visit one regularly, the notion of a boardwalk probably means very little. 

But on Friday night, at an impromptu one-hour telethon to raise money for Hurricane Sandy relief, one of the first songs offered up was the perennial favorite Under the Boardwalk, sung by the likes of Steven Tyler, Jimmy Fallon, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.

As everyone by now knows, boardwalks along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard took a beating, and while they're collateral damage compared to the devastation suffered by people in their own homes and businesses, there's been a lot of chatter about the romantic role that boardwalks have played in people's lives. 

The song, which was a hit for the Drifters in 1964, conjures many things - summer, of course; young love; a seaside sanctuary from prying eyes and from urban heat islands. Throughout my life, I've vacationed at many Eastern Seaboard beaches - Hammonasset in Connecticut, Rehoboth in Delaware, Long Beach Island in New Jersey, Nauset and Skaket in Orleans, Cape Cod, Mass., to name just a few - and I feel lucky to know what it's like to revel in the freedom and wide open spaces that being by the sea affords.  

For the Drifters, the sea-celebrating song was the last top 10 hit for a group that had been around since 1953, and had many iterations, with as many as 25 different members over the years. In the lineup that sang Under the Boardwalk, Johnny Moore served up the soaring lead tenor that has wafted through more radio speakers than could ever be counted. The song's arrangement was unusual for the time - besides strings, there was a g├╝iro, which is an open-ended hollow gourd that's responsible for the odd percussive sound at the beginning, and a triangle.

The song was recorded under difficult circumstances, as the then-lead singer, Rudy Lewis (that's him on Up on the Roof), died suddenly, aged 27, the day before the session was scheduled. For whatever reason, the show went on; Lewis was replaced by Moore, who had been in the first lineup, when it was led by Clyde McPhatter and included Ben E. King.

What makes this song especially interesting to me is who it was produced by, because that may account for its appeal as much as the voices of the Drifters. Bert Berns was a producer and songwriter who had a knack for knowing great music. He succeeded Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller at Atlantic Records as staff songwriter, but he also later had his own labels, and produced everyone from the Isley Brothers and Solomon Burke, to Van Morrison (with and without Them) and Neil Diamond. 

What I didn't realize is that he has songwriting credits for all of these phenomenally great songs: Twist and Shout (Isley Brothers, Beatles); Cry Baby (Garnet Mims, Janis Joplin); one of my favorite songs of all time, Here Comes the Night (Them); Tell Him (Exciters); Piece of My Heart (Big Brother and the Holding Company/Joplin); and Cry to Me (Solomon Burke). He died of a heart attack at 38, so it's hard to fathom what his other contributions might have been. Any one of these songs would have been a legacy.

Returning to the subject of Hurricane Sandy, last week New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg endorsed President Obama, something no one expected him to do since the mayor had sat out the 2008 election. He did so citing his belief that climate change is fully upon us, and that Obama is the only candidate who is prepared to address the issue head on. Sitting here in Ohio, where there was a lot of Sandy-related activity but nothing compared to what happened on the coast, it's hard to wrap my head around the magnitude of the rebuilding effort that is needed there, combined with the realization that these kinds of incidents may become more commonplace.

If that's the case - and I have no doubt that our sustained abuse of the environment has had dire, likely irreversible, consequences - boardwalks may become nothing more than symbols of a more innocent time that will never come again. It's hard to feel optimistic about the future when whole regions can be transformed into a Third World country overnight.   

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Anyone Who Had a Heart - RIP Hal David

Knowing I love you so 
Anyone who had a heart 
Would take me in his arms 
And love me too

Every generation should have its celebrated songwriting teams - artists who churn out hit after hit that become part of the soundtrack of our lives. There's something comforting about knowing they're out there, working to reflect back to us our daily joys and sorrows, keeping us wondering what they're going to do next.

The Baby Boomer generation was lucky to have two prolific teams who put their distinctive stamp on our times - John Lennon and Paul McCartney, of course, and Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Bacharach and David were the classic style of team - one wrote the lyrics, the other composed the song. As lyricist, Hal David, who died yesterday at 91, had a knack for putting words together that captured the feelings we all had.

They wrote so many songs it would be impossible to pick my favorite. Their songs were everywhere when I was growing up, and I associate different ones with different things. But where lyrics alone are concerned, I did zero in on one when I heard the news of David's death, and that is Anyone Who Had a Heart from 1963. It makes me cry every time I hear it, like right now, and why? Because it just nails heartbreak. It's the simplest composition, but the words he selected were the perfect ones. There were no better ones.

Bacharach-David songs never seemed formulaic, and looking on Hal David's website, I believe I've found at least half of the reason for that. Here are his own words about how he wrote lyrics:

In writing I search for believability, simplicity and emotional impact. Believability is the easiest of the three to accomplish. One thing a lyricist must learn is not to fall in love with his own lines. Once you learn that, you can walk away from the lyric and look at it with a reasonable degree of objectivity. I often discard a good line because it is inconsistent with the basic idea. If the line happens to be witty or sad in a particularly fresh way it hurts me to take it out. But that's part of the pain of writing. 

Simplicity is much harder to achieve. It is easy to be simple and bad. Being simple and good is very difficult. The sophisticated Cole Porter, the earthy Irving Berlin, the poetic Oscar Hammerstein, and the witty Lorenz Hart all have one thing in common - simplicity, the kind that is good. I must also mention a special favorite of mine, Johnny Mercer. Whether he is being poetic or humorous, he is never complicated. I seek this elusive thing called simplicity always. I hope I sometimes achieve it. 

Above all, I try to create an emotion to which others can respond. Unless I can create an emotion to which I can respond, I throw the lyric away. Although I cannot know how others will react, I assume that if it moves me it may do the same for them. Sometimes I am right, sometimes I am wrong. 

Anyone Who Had A Heart had many things going for it - a brilliant composer in Bacharach and the sublime voice of Dionne Warwick, for starters. But David hit the trifecta here with his lyrics - they had believability, simplicity and emotional impact in spades. 

I won't recount his life here - there's a good obituary on him in today's New York Times, with many facts about him that I did not know. RIP Hal David.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Some Misunderstanding, Gene Clark (1974)

But I know if you sell your soul to brighten your role
You might be disappointed in the lights

This morning on NPR there was an interview with Adam Brent Houghtaling, the author of "This Will End in Tears: The Miserablist Guide to Music." Believing that it's completely acceptable to feel sadness and to inhabit it, accompanied by the healing assistance of music, Houghtaling has assembled an intriguing compendium of melancholy songs and the artists who brought them to us.

I looked at the book's table of contents on Amazon, and found it odd that twice in one week I was staring at the name Gene Clark, with a list of miserable songs that includes the startling Some Misunderstanding. The first time happened when a fellow music aficionado, Henry Scott-Irvine, posted a video on Facebook featuring Clark and the Textones' Carla Olson singing 1987's Gypsy Rider.

One of 13 children raised in Missouri and a former New Christy Minstrel - it's hard to imagine the time in our history when this sort of music resonated (Clark is at the far left in this) - Gene Clark left that "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" prepster scene when his world, like everyone else's, was upended by the arrival of the Beatles. The commercial folk scene's days were seriously numbered when the mop-topped Lads from Liverpool emerged on this side of the pond. 

Upon arrival in L.A., the harmonic convergence of Clark's talents with that of two other folk refugees, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and David Crosby, led to the formation of the Byrds, with Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke soon following. Their first producer/manager Jim Dickson insisted that, rather than being mere Beatles mimics, they needed to set themselves slightly apart by injecting a more singer-songwriter ethos into the mix. This is what led to the plan in 1965 to electrify Bob Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man, using session musicians from The Wrecking Crew, an idea none of them took much pleasure in at first. Only McGuinn played his 12-string Rickenbacker.

I pretty much lost track of Clark when he departed the Byrds after an eventful but stormy two years - the lush harmonies they served up vocally and instrumentally bore no resemblance to how they got along under the pressures of the music business. At heart a singer-songwriter, he had absolutely no appetite for the band's infighting or for being an American rock and roll star on a par with the Beatles, which led to other problems, and he never found the niche that he could comfortably occupy while making the music that he loved.

Over the following 20 or so years Gene Clark turned out music as a solo artist and in collaboration with others that I am only just now discovering, some of it quite miserable but also beautiful. I found an ebook about him, Remembering Gene Clark, that is jam-packed with details of his story and the reminiscences of others, that is very interesting reading.

Unfortunately, his health and mental health became a shambles from multiple issues and worsened by drug and alcohol abuse that he could never overcome. He died in 1991 at the age of 46. As Chris Hillman said in John Einarson's "Mr. Tambourine Man: the Life and Legacy of the Byrds' Gene Clark," the business "... was not supposed to be for him. It killed him, it really killed him ... a sweet soul was just stomped on. It's a brutal place for many people, Hollywood. It really sees them coming."

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Rescue Me, Fontella Bass (1965)

I reacquainted myself last week with Taxi, an old album of Bryan Ferry's that he produced with Robin Trower, and on that he's got an intriguing cover of Rescue Me. Which led me to ask myself the musical question, "whatever happened to Fontella Bass?" Or for that matter, who was Fontella Bass? - because I never knew a thing about her to begin with other than that she had a fabulous name.

Chess Records' first million seller since the Chuck Berry days 10 years prior, Rescue Me was all over the charts in 1965. And Bass didn't see one thin dime in royalties from the song, which she co-wrote - typical in those days, especially for a black female who had scribbled the lyrics on a piece of paper she no longer possessed. About which - more later, because she snapped when American Express started using Rescue Me in a commercial at the same time she was in dire financial straits, in 1990. 

The shocker for me is that Bass has been performing for decades, and I've heard exactly none of the songs I'm now listening to and marveling at. Why am I just now discovering Talking About FreedomHold On This Time? Soul of a Man? This woman has got pipes, and wonderful feel to go along with it. Why didn't she have a career as big as Aretha Franklin's, for whom she has often been mistaken, and who found fame several years later? It's not entirely clear.

Bass' mother was a member of the Clara Ward Singers, a gospel entourage for Franklin's father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin. (Her brother was the late gospel singer David Peaston, with whom she is seen singing here in 2002.) Equipped with this pedigree, Bass began playing piano in church at the age of 5, accompanying her grandmother who was also a singer, often at funerals. And she went on the road with her mother as well. But by the time she was a teenager, the secular life beckoned to young Fontella and she started sneaking around to the clubs. She became the house pianist at a St. Louis nightspot, and auditioned for a spot in a 2-week carnival show that stopped in St. Louis. There, Little Milton and his bandleader, sax player Oliver Sain, discovered her.

There was a lot of competition among bandleaders in St. Louis in those days; the notorious Ike Turner led the pack of those with his band the Kings of Rhythm. Sain and Little Milton were giving Turner a run for his money, though. They were recruited by the leading blues label, Chicago's Chess, and began putting out records on that label. Soon Bass was not just playing piano but also singing.

After Milton and Sain parted ways, Bass joined Sain's soul revue. Enter Bobby McClure, with whom she had a hit, Don't Mess Up a Good Thing. Here she is much later dueting on the same song with a young Lyle Lovett, of all people, on Jools Holland's UK show. And somehow she was able to work with Ike Turner as well, because a song Sain wrote, but Turner produced, Poor Little Fool, led to a duet with the inimitable Tina. Talk about your six degrees of separation with this woman ...

The deep groove of Rescue Me, with its bouncy bass line by Louis Satterfield and drums by Maurice White (both eventually to join Earth, Wind & Fire) and backing vocals from Minnie Riperton, made it distinctive for the times as far as crossover music went.  

Returning once again to the subject of royalties and absent songwriter's credits, Bass finally rose up against the exploitation of her talent for the enrichment of others when, decades later, she took on American Express and its ad agency after she heard Rescue Me on TV promoting financial products. The details are a bit hazy but from what I'm able to tell, Bass ultimately struck a deal with MCA, which by then owned the Chess catalogue, having made the argument that the parties had violated an AFTRA agreement requiring performers' consent for commercial use of recordings to which Chess was a signatory. With a reported $50,000 in back royalties and damages, that's some rescue.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Funky Worm, Ohio Players (1973)

Certain historical events are gifts that just keep on giving. Coming of age in the 60s and 70s, Watergate holds that distinction for me; call me a Watergate junkie if you want to. It happened at a time when music seemed headed for places I didn't feel like going. Example: Funky Worm by the Ohio Players, which was topping the charts in May of 1973.

That same month, my budding interest in public affairs and journalism was galvanized by the live theatre that was the televised Senate investigation of the Watergate break-in. I lived briefly after college graduation in Washington, and will never forget opening my apartment door the morning of August 9, 1974, greeted by the beefy Washington Post emblazoned with the momentous 2-inch headline, NIXON RESIGNS.

Sens. Howard Baker, Sam Ervin getting it done
Watergate's dramatis personae have always been a source of fascination to me. So Thomas Mallon's historical novel, Watergate: A Novel, fictionalizing some aspects of the scandal as it unfolds from the perspective of selected characters, was high on my reading list. Like other Mallon works I've read, it did not disappoint.

They're all there, from Nixon on down, including two with whom I've had actual interactions - Jeb Stuart Magruder and John Dean. Magruder, who found redemption in becoming an ordained minister after doing time for his role heading up the aptly-named CREEP (the Committee to Re-Elect the President), became the pastor of a church in Columbus, Ohio, where I was once a member of the flock. I'd been thinking of leaving, but no way was that going to happen with a Watergate conspirator giving the Sunday sermons!  I also commiserated about investigative journalism then and now with John Dean, the hapless White House counsel, when he spoke to the City Club of Cleveland about his book Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush a few years ago. Like me, he couldn't understand how the media had fallen asleep at the switch during that entire administration.

Mallon's flair for both dialogue and narrative meticulously weaves together the stories of Rose Mary Woods, Nixon's ultra-loyal secretary and eraser of tapes; Pat Nixon, his long-suffering wife; Fred LaRue, one of the least well-known but most embedded cover-up conspirators; E. Howard Hunt, one of the "plumbers," and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the ancient daughter of Teddy Roosevelt who was a major Washington wag. The overwhelming sense I get is that, as with so many things, actions that could just as easily not have been taken led to calamity that ruined lives. Tragedy in the best Shakespearean tradition ensues.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Blues So Bad, Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars (1977)

I try to drown 'em in drink
But what do you think
The blues can swim
They don't sink

I've been away from the blog for too long, working on "other projects," as we say, and I'm itching to get back to it. While I was AWOL, any number of music greats passed on, and two of them - Levon Helm and Duck Dunn - just happen to be featured in Blues So Bad, from an album, Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars, that escaped my notice at the time.

Tomorrow would have been Helm's 72nd birthday, so this is highly appropriate, but the way I found the album had nothing to do with him (I wrote about him in a previous post). I was looking for information on Henry Glover, a pioneering music executive whose name I ran across when I wrote about Steve Cropper's Dedicated some months back. On that tribute album to the 5 Royales was a touching cover sung by the glorious Dan Penn, Someone Made You For Me, which had been written by Glover, just one of 20 pages of songs that his entry on AllMusic shows he wrote or co-wrote over his long career. Glover, also the first black record executive in America dating back to the 1940s, was, with Syd Nathan, the brain trust behind Cincinnati's King Records, and helped make that company a trailblazer in not profiling white and black music, merging its "race music" label, Queen, into King in 1947. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

If You Don't Think (That I Love You), Frankie Pighee & the Soulettes (1967)

Numero Group has done it again - excavated soul music that would otherwise have remained dust in the wind, and it blows in from my own backyard. The Boddie Recording Company box set brings together scores of songs by mostly unsung performers that a husband-and-wife team, Thomas and Louise Boddie, lovingly recorded and pressed into vinyl for more than 20 years in an old dairy on property they owned on Cleveland's East Side. The building at 12202 Union Avenue remains, its imposing metal sign with eighth notes for the two Ds still intact.

Thomas was a wizard with electronics, and graduated second in the class of '42 at Cleveland's East Technical High School, where he was the lone black student. After WWII army service, he became an organ repairman and bought a music recording machine. Thus was born the first black-owned recording studio in Cleveland.

As described in the accompanying booklets, Boddie seems to have been set up and operated on a wing and a prayer, but it was a nexus of activity at a time when cities made things - and pressing records was one of them. The box set is an astounding representation of that output, dubbed a "who's who of who's that?"

The Boddie clientele at first was gospel and jazz performers, with soul singers following in droves as that style became pervasive in the early 60s. The Boddies had no money to meaningfully promote this music, and never pressed more than a thousand copies of anything, but hoped that the recordings could at least serve as demos for their clients. In all, there were seven labels, the most enduring of which was Soul Kitchen, and on this compilation is a stirring cut by Frankie Pighee & the Soulettes, If You Don't Think (That I Love You). Pighee's catchphrase, "Boy, that's cookin'!" was the inspiration for the label moniker.

Although you could mistake Pighee's raw dynamic voice for a male's, as I did, the singer was a 400-pound woman early in her career (she later had weight reduction surgery that altered her voice considerably). She cut her teeth at church. Then she made friends with Leo Frank, whose Leo's Casino was the venue to which the big-name soul acts of the day flocked. That friendship led to Pighee opening for the O'Jays, the Temptations, Otis Redding and Jackie Wilson. Her recording career seemed to be held back by her imposing frame, but the surgery negatively impacted her voice and strength. She died in a car accident in 2002.

Like all Numero box sets, it is a work of art and craft. The Boddie set, comprised of 58 soul and gospel tracks on three CDs, also presents delightful artifacts like old photos and advertising flyers. The Boddies freely promoted their sidelight business, on-location recording services. One flyer says: "If you are tired of terrible sound, call us, for block partys, picnics, parades, conventions, bazaars, carnivals, political rallies, re-unions, mobile sound advertising, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc." Yes, there are five etceteras.

The Boddies became recyclers in 1973 when an OPEC oil embargo imposed restrictions on the petroleum that's a primary feedstock for vinyl. Thomas' supplier informed him, according to one of the Numero booklets, that as a minority he would be serviced last, if at all. Flagrant discrimination couldn't have come at a worse time, as the need for their pressing services was at a peak. Ever resourceful, Thomas bought a grinder, which meant he could reuse inventory from dead labels as well as from jobs where the customer simply disappeared. Even after the embargo ended, he continued the practice.

When Thomas Boddie's industrious life ended in 2006 following a brain aneurism, Louise shuttered the facility with its contents left to molder intact. Years later, Ohio-based archivist Dante Carfagna convinced her to help him sort through the priceless flotsam and jetsam of Cleveland music history. Thanks to him and Numero Group, a stunning box set now documents the hard work of so many young hopefuls and the couple determined to give them their place in the sun, if only for a moment. A must-have for music history devotees.