Saturday, May 10, 2014

Will It Go Round in CIrcles, Billy Preston (1972)

Some of the most interesting musicians for me are the ones whose long careers - or at least part of them - are spent working collaboratively with other famous musicians. It's always heartwarming to realize that the love of making music can overshadow the gargantuan egos that many performers possess. One such person was Billy Preston.

I'm unhappily winding down my thrilling read of Mark Lewisohn's Tune In, the first mammoth volume in the The Beatles: All These Years trilogy, and I just learned something that probably came to  others' attention at some point but escaped mine. And that's that Billy Preston's association with the Beatles began in 1962 when he was Little Richard's 16-year-old organist.

In 1957, Richard had quite dramatically renounced his former rock and roll debauchery, throwing a handful of his bling into a river in Sydney, Australia, and proceeded to devote himself to spiritual concerns and music. With the ministerial Richard as his temporary guardian, Billy joined his 1962 tour in England and Hamburg. Appearing with the early Beatles on this tour, there was reason to believe the audience would be served up at least a generous dose of gospel music even if they wanted Long Tall Sally, Good Golly Miss Molly and Tutti Frutti.

It started out that way, but the promoters pressured him and by the end of the first Liverpool performance he and the audience were frothing at the mouth from the frenzy he'd stirred up, the likes of which young Billy had not previously seen.

By all accounts Billy was a child prodigy, capably playing organ by the age of 10, and brought up in the gospel tradition. When he joined up with Little Richard, he had already been on tour with Mahalia Jackson and the Rev. James Cleveland. When he was 11 he dueted with Nat King Cole on the latter's variety show; as the video reveals, obviously very much in control of his talent not just as a keyboard player but also a vocalist.

Continuing to work in the industry in both spiritual and secular genres, he became a session player for Ray Charles. He remained close to George Harrison from their first meeting as teenagers, and it was because of this friendship that Billy ended up working on the Get Back sessions. The lads' interpersonal hostilities at this point in their career were destroying them; one day George walked out when the bickering got too much for him. He would only return if certain conditions were met, one of which was that he could bring a friend - Billy Preston. He was given a co-credit on the Get Back label, and played a calming role for the band which probably prolonged their tenure just a little bit beyond what it would have been otherwise.

Billy clearly thrived and was appreciated as a sideman, but after the Beatles broke up, Billy's solo star began to shine. His ebullient Will It Go Round in Circles became his first #1. I think of him as being one of the good things about music in the 70s. And so did others as he continued to provide keyboard services to bands galore for decades. 

After George Harrison died in 2001, Billy was one of the dear friends who had the honor of appearing in the tribute Concert for George. Among the two performances in which he featured prominently, his Isn't It A Pity stands out. Billy Preston did not have an easy life, and he died sooner than he should have, but when you watch him bask in the music you know how much he - and others - were blessed by it.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

She Loves You, the Beatles (1963)

Ringo Starr drum roll, please. The time is upon us. Tomorrow, February 9, 2014, it will be 50 years to the day since John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr took possession of the molecules previously known as Wendy Schweiger and rearranged them into a Wendy Schweiger whose veins suddenly coursed with more endorphins than she had experienced in all of the preceding years. 

I wasn't planning on it, being the morose sort, but I was powerless against it. Just be in the presence of a song like She Loves You, the third of five songs the Beatles sang on their first Ed Sullivan Show appearance - and tell me how it is possible to maintain the status quo after that.

This is a song that, after all this time, and with all of the sophistication that later developed in their repertoire, still represents the best of what the Beatles had to offer humanity. It started for me with their singing - a force of nature that shook me to my core. In those early days, the boys could sing in perfect unison, and then shift to vocals laden with counterpoint, where you can, say, pick out Paul's voice over John's though they are very interdependent and unison-like. It was - and is - like an elixir.

As regards Ed Sullivan, the anticipation had been building for months. I lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, where it happened that another girl in town, Marsha Albert, begged Carroll James, a DJ at WWDC, to get a hold of I Want to Hold Your Hand, after she saw a segment about them on CBS News. Somehow James managed to snag a copy of it from the UK before Capitol Records released it in the U.S., and the song took off like wildfire, putting Capitol in a bit of a pickle as they'd been dragging their feet on the domestic release. Although they'd set a date, it was a month away and they were royally hacked off at being scooped.

Between that and the news that the exotic Liverpudlian lads were coming to America in February, I was going a bit bonkers with excitement. To this day I'm not quite sure precisely what happened to cause such a furor in advance; whatever it was, though, I lapped it up like a person dying of thirst. It was a life force - the salvation of music that underpins my life to this day. 

Truly, what do you say about a song that you first heard when you were 11, and 50 years later, it makes you feel exactly the same as you felt then? That's She Loves You. Everything about it explodes with greatness - the vocals, the drumming, the guitars, the lyrics, the yeah-yeah-yeahs, the woos. They are so locked into each other, so tight as a band - they were just kids but beyond their years by the time they hit U.S. soil. And we paid them for their efforts in total adoration. When you listen to the performance on the show, the audience hysterics were at their peak for this song. Absolute pandemonium.

Yes, there were hormones involved. But 50 years later, with considerably fewer hormones in play, nothing has changed. NOTHING.

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. 

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.