Sunday, December 29, 2013

Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues, Bob Dylan (1961)

For quite awhile, I've been of the belief that just about every moment in time can be linked to a song in my mind. Usually, it's a song that I already know about; that would only make sense. But on Christmas earlier this week, I discovered my theory also applies to songs that I don't know about. Until I happen to unearth them.

It all began at my friend Jean's house, where a holiday feast was getting underway. Jean's 96-year-old mother, Virginia, and a friend from her assisted living facility, Marge, were regaling us with stories about the secretarial jobs they had when they were young women.

Ginnie was having a tough time remembering names of her employers, and it was bothering her, so I was taking the clues she was throwing out and Googling to figure out exactly where she might have worked and any other relevant details. In both instances we were able to figure it out, or most of it, anyway.

The one that is germane here pertains to her job as a bookkeeper for a beer distributor in Newburgh, New York, which is where Jean was born. One of the company's customers was the Bear Mountain Inn, a hotel and restaurant that had been in the area since 1915 (and still is there). The inn owed the distributor money, so Ginnie, armed with her ledger and her boss, took a road trip to collect. 

Somewhere in the course of looking up the inn, I saw a reference to a Bob Dylan song about Bear Mountain, entitled rather alluringly, Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues. What are the odds? If it was the same Bear Mountain, I had to know more.

Turns out in the early days of his New York residency, when no one knew him and he was swanning around Greenwich Village imitating the talking blues style of Woody Guthrie, his new friend Noel Stookey (later to become "Paul" of Peter, Paul and Mary) showed him a newspaper article about a chartered boat cruise up the Hudson River to Bear Mountain that had ended in mayhem because of counterfeit tickets and the inevitable overcrowding.   

The next day, as the story goes, Dylan came back with the song, which Stookey found to be quite amazing, since at that point Dylan had not yet fully emerged as a songwriter. Well, we know how that turned out for him. Dylan turned the folk music tradition of singing only songs that were handed down into something all his own - using his and others' present-day experiences as a crucible for his mad and often inspired creations.

The song, punctuated with his frenzied harmonica stylings and caustic wit, is hilarious, and in it you can see the genesis of Bob's distinctive phrasing, which has always been one of the aspects of his stuff that I most enjoy.

I hope the holidays have been bright with music for one and all!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Rock the Boat, Hues Corporation (1974)

Before we begin, I'd like the record to show that I hold my grocery store responsible for the following post. I've mentioned before that it pipes baby boomer music into the shopping experience at all times, a practice I'm very much in favor of as it puts me in a good mood even when I'm not.

So earlier this week, a song that, regardless of when I hear it, always takes me back to a specific time and place had me movin' and groovin' while I was picking up the essentials. It's a song that some will probably judge me for including in the blog. It's a song that some say heralded the birth of disco by being the first radio hit in that genre. It's a song that was at the top of the charts during this coming week in 1974. It's Rock the Boat by Hues Corporation. And its calypso stylings never fail to make me happy.

My college boyfriend and I had just moved to the Washington D.C. area (specifically Tacoma Park, Maryland) to bag our first post-graduation jobs. Hahahahaha. For those of you who aren't baby boomers, just know that a zillion of us were dumped in the job market just as the economy went to hell in a handbasket and it took a while to actually get jobs where we could put our educations to good use. And neither of them were in Washington D.C., I assure you.

We were on our own, though, and feeling sort of adult-like. Watergate was in full flower and in just another month Nixon would slink out of office in disgrace. Music was definitely in a state of flux and going in directions not entirely pleasing. Rock the Boat was on the radio ALL THE TIME. There were other songs I associate with that period, but this one is steeped in it.

What was so great about this song? I may have just discovered at least part of the reason - the bass player was none other than James Jamerson! At first I didn't believe it, but Motown at that point had moved to L.A., and I'm seeing this reference everywhere, so let's just go with that for now. It certainly would explain a lot. Just another one of the many things he never got credit for while he was alive.

But the song really wasn't a disco song when it first came out. In 1973, it was just one cut on Hues Corporation's first R&B album Freedom for the Stallion. (The title song had previously been recorded by Lee Dorsey, and was written by the inimitable Allen Toussaint but it didn't get much traction.) Rock the Boat was released as a single early in 1974 to follow up Freedom for the Stallion, and then a funny thing happened. The dance clubs in New York City started playing it, people started demanding it and it stampeded up the charts - disco by association. 

Hues Corporation's song still brings happiness to the populace - here they are much, much later (in 2004), still shaking their tail feathers while the crowd undulates with delight. Probably a very rewarding feeling for a group that got its first taste of success as an uncredited funky soul group in the 1972 blaxploitation film Blacula.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Only the Good Die Young, Billy Joel (1977)

In popular music, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. If you do produce and perform well into your 60s and 70s, you're ridiculed and compared to a dinosaur. If you don't produce and perform, choosing instead to just live your life, you're a wash-up. 

My local grocery store, for reasons unknown, plays baby boomer music at all times, which of course I appreciate to no end. Yesterday, Billy Joel's Tell Her About It was one of the songs on the playlist, and this morning, there's a huge interview with him in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. So it's probably about time for me to write about the man and his music, as I see that I never have.

The interview devotes far more time to grilling Joel about his mistakes and why he hasn't put out an album in 20 years than about the music that he did produce, which is unfortunate. When you look at the guy's discography, it's really rather startling how prolific he once was as a singer-songwriter, and what a great piano player and showman he was and is. To say nothing of the variety of styles and emotions his songs embodied.

Cases in point: the raw vulnerability of the lovely doo wop number, The Longest Time, to the outrageous swagger of one of my favorites, Only the Good Die Young

One of my most enduring memories of the song I owe to my then-boyfriend. Not being a Catholic boy myself, I wasn't really tapping into the lyrics at first, just the great rollicking vibe it had. But he was a boy who'd been brought up "by the nuns," as he always put it, and to hear him tell it, it was very scarring to him. (Drama queen.) Once I realized what the song was actually saying, and why it resonated so much with him despite the fact that he was well into his late 20s at the time and could have all the sex he wanted, I realized what a gloriously subversive song it was.

Decades later, I was on the board at the Cleveland Play House. By this time, Twyla Tharp's musical Movin' Out, which was scored with Billy Joel music, was a hot item, and for a fundraiser, we brought in Michael Cavanaugh, a Cleveland native who'd starred in the show for the first several years of its Broadway run. Through the night he sang and played one Joel song after the other. Finally he said he'd open it for requests.

Now you must realize that I was one of the youngest people on this board, by a decade or more. I love the theatre madly, but in Cleveland it's typically the well heeled that end up in these civic roles. So I was always kind of an anomaly there, trying to figure out how to make theatre relevant to younger generations, or even a broader spectrum of the populace in general. Suddenly I was seized by the realization that Cavanaugh had not sung Only the Good Die Young yet.

Could I get away with requesting it, in this crowd? I decided to go for it, and yelled out the song title. I will never forget it - there was a beat where something like shock reverberated in the room; I think even Cavanaugh paused for a minute. Then I remember a wave of relaxation and laughter coming over the room, and the then-managing director, Dean Gladden, flashing me his winning smile of approval, and suddenly we were off and running to the song. Ah, it was a great moment.

Anyway, the interview today shows that Billy's pretty much doing what he wants, regardless of what people expect of him. If he never puts out another record again or goes on a nostalgia tour, he will have done more than enough.  

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Double Shot (of My Baby's Love), Swingin' Medallions (1966)

Even today, when I hear the Swingin' Medallions sing “Double Shot (of My Baby's Love)," it makes me want to stand outside in the hot sun with a milkshake cup full of beer in one hand and a slightly-drenched nineteen-year-old coed in the other. - The late humorist Lewis Grizzard, 1993

I was checking out an old compilation mentioned in a recent Shindig! magazine called Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, and among the scores of songs to be found on the 1998 reissue was Double Shot (of My Baby's Love) by the nicely named Swingin' Medallions.

Now this crowd pleaser is a song that gets you up and at 'em whether you feel like it or not. Never mind that it juxtaposes what passes for "love" with having a monster hangover. I was never one to fixate too much on lyrics if the music was great, which it usually is if it has a 4-or-more-piece horn section.

Who were all these clean-cut white boys you see pictured above? I never knew. Natives of South Carolina, they got their start playing the college circuit and their reputation for fun, fun, fun spread like wildfire. Amazingly, a younger version of them is still out there, with their website pronouncing them "the party band of the South."

If you happen to be in the area of the Flip Flop Beach Music Festival in Greensboro, N.C., in September, you'll be able to see them, in fact. In 2012 they sponsored a 5-day cruise to Nassau! The only original member, John McElrath, founded the band in 1962 with drummer Joe Morris, who later invented the plastic tennis ball container. (I saw this in an old interview, and it's confirmed on his LinkedIn page.) Influenced by James Brown and Ray Charles, the inclusion of brass instruments in the band was never in doubt.

As performed by the Medallions, it was a cover of a much slower rendition several years earlier by a Louisiana band called Dick Holler and the Holidays. Fun fact: Holler was the composer of the Dion hit Abraham, Martin and John. His son David recently commented on YouTube that Double Shot was written by Don Smith and Cyril Vetter in a bowling alley. (All of them had been previously in a band called the Rockets, which at one time included such personnel as Dr. John.) In any case, the song was a local hit, but the label went belly up. When the Medallions came upon it, they tried out any number of arrangements before settling upon the one that soared to the Top 20.

Double Shot has long been a favorite tune of Bruce Springsteen. I'll close this stroll down memory lane with a 2009 performance by The Boss and the Medallions together onstage. Party on, Garth.