THE ICE IS STILL SLOWLY MELTING: NANCY SINATRA HAS A TALE TO TELL (Found In The Connection: Rattling Loose End #30)

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The current issue of The Believer has an interview with Nancy Sinatra which continues a process of de-bunking one of the Fundamentalist Rock and Roll Narratives perpetrated by the Priesthood of the Svengali (an especially pernicious subdivision of the crit-illuminati).

Nancy was one of many pre-Janis, pre-Aretha female singers who were perceived as the product of some producer’s singular genius which would have worked just about as well with any other lucky girl said genius happened to pick from the bunch.

Over the last twenty years or so, the young women who (outside of their records) were given no voice in the early and mid-sixties when they re-made the world as surely as Elvis or the Beatles, have told their stories (the stories that everyone from Tom Wolfe to Rolling Stone assiduously ignored both in the moment and for a long time afterward).

Those stories have a lot of common themes, most of which are voiced below.

So, joining Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, Cher Bono, Mary Weiss and many others, Nancy once again assures us that, in the real world, people are not clay models or sock puppets being maneuvered about by mad geniuses (in her case Lee Hazlewood) however wonderfully talented those geniuses may have been. Unfortunately the entire interview is not available on-line, so I’ve pulled some choice quotes and highly recommend the issue (and the magazine generally) to those who can find and afford it:

On acceptance in the music industry:

NS: They had a lot of great artists join the label (Reprise) at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the womens movement or anything like that. They just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.

On an enduring myth:

BLVR: At what point did Lee famously instruct you to start singing ‘like a fourteen-year-old girl who screws truck drivers’? (NOTE: Now there’s the crit-illuminati mindset and value system in a nutshell for you.)

NS: I don’t know where that twisted version of what said came from. I know that that’s been floating around in various forms for a long time. He said much more gently to me, ‘You’ve been married, you’ve been divorced, and people know that. They know that you know what’s going on in life, so you’ve got to behave on the record like you do know.’

On the working relationship between herself, Hazlewood and musical director Billy Strange:

NS: Lee’s lyrics were the guiding light for us, because he wrote these wonderful fantasies. Billy took them and put them to music. And what I did was follow along. The beauty of it was that I added enough to it to make it happen. Lee had done a lot of this stuff with other people and he didn’t get anywhere with it. Lee’s muse in those days was Suzi Jane Hokom. Suzi Jane sang on all those duets. And he sang with Ann-Margret and several other ladies. But it just didn’t have the magic that Nancy and Lee had. So I told him in no uncertain terms over the years that he really owes me a lot, too. He wasn’t the Svengali that he thought he was. So it was a symbiotic relationship that turned out some pretty damned special music. I’m proud of all of it and proud of my contributions to it.

On those fashion statements (though not this one, especially):

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NS: All those clothes that I wore in the early 60′s were [Mary Quant’s]. I brought them from London to Los Angeles and wore them all around. At that point nobody knew what a miniskirt was, so I’d get people throwing me lines like ‘The tennis court is over there,’ stuff like that….And the fact that I ran into her when I was in London promoting those silly songs (from early in her career)–God’s hand must have been on my shoulder. I was at the right place at the right time. Little did I know that I would run into a song called “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and that I already had the outfits. I didn’t have to go shopping for them.

On her legacy:

NS: I’m very glad that I saw it and could take advantage of working with Lee. But I don’t know, honestly, if any other woman singing in those days would have tolerated the treatment from Lee that I put up with over the years. We had the classic love/hate relationship. I’m not ashamed to say that. I think he would say the same thing.

Just as a final note. Hazlewood passed away in 2007 from cancer. Like Shadow Morton and Sonny Bono and most of the others who either sought Svengali-hood or had it thrust upon them in that age-gone-by, he was a man who had his faults, many of which he owned up to in time. He was not, like Nancy’s close friend Phil Spector or England’s Joe Meek, a monster. Like all of them, man or monster, he made beautiful records….

 

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Last Spitfire….And What She Took With Her)

Paper Moon (1973)

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When I was a boy and went to carnivals, my father used to spend a bit more time than the average dad explaining how each game was rigged and how not to get taken for a mark. I think this started when I was maybe seven or eight, which meant he was on this particular case even before he got saved and became a minister.

He was warning me against the sharpers, of course, but he was also warning me against a younger version of himself–the version that was on the other side of the short con before he was transformed by meeting the woman who would become my mother.

All of which means I’m apt to feel a little closer than most to the con-man’s world of Paper Moon–and perhaps respond to that world a little more viscerally.

This might not have ever been quite my life…

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Nor this…

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But, allowing for a gender change, this certainly could have been…

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Or this…

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Or, among many other scenes, certainly this (even down to a five being changed for a ten, though, to be fair, my brother never reported being driven down this path, a sign that my father might have had at least a few more “scruples” than Moses Pray, even if they still belonged to somebody else)…

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And that’s before you get into dropping twenties or selling Deluxe Editions of the King James to widows.

Paper Moon was released in 1973, near the end (1968–74) of the New Golden Age in Hollywood, which–at least according to the standard narrative–began closing down rather quickly when the blockbuster success of Jaws in the summer of 1975 transformed both the business and the art of making movies.

Well, you know how fond I am of “standard narratives,” even when they do have a grain of truth in them.

So I’d just add that it was probably the culture that was being transformed and Hollywood did what Hollywood does–follow along.

But, in any case, Paper Moon–which I revisited for the first time in years this weeknow plays like a story reflected in a double mirror. A razor-sharp, but loving look at the old, mostly economic, Depression (which ended with World War II, more or less) just before the new, mostly spiritual Depression (which is with us yet) fully set in.

However many directions it moves in, it’s a comedy with poignant moments. Not having seen it for so long, though, I found myself both laughing out loud (which movies rarely make me do anymore, not even when I know I should be laughing) and wondering where it all went.

Because this movie is very much about the can-do spirit. It’s purely American not so much because it couldn’t have been set anywhere else, but because it couldn’t have been set anywhere else for purely spiritual reasons.

Namely, no other culture ever made Spitfires quite like the American Spitfire.

And no Spitfire was ever quite as definitive as Tatum O’Neal’s Addie Pray is in this movie.

In 1973, she was part of a long line that stretched back at least as far as Jo March and ran straight through to True Grit’s Mattie Ross, with stops along the way for characters as otherwise divergent as Scarlett O’Hara, Scout Finch and the Disney version of the tomboy (usually played by Hayley Mills in her honorary American phase).

That line–like so much else–ended in the seventies.

Here, actually.

There have been plenty of subsequent attempts to carry it forward. The concept has hardly died off. But, except for Tatum’s own subsequent reprisal in The Bad News Bears, there’s been nothing since that even approaches either iconography or a new twist on the theme.

It was interesting to learn, in the DVD’s “making of” documentary, which I hadn’t seen before, that–contrary to another standard narrative (or at least a standard assumption) Tatum was cast first.

Director Peter Bogdonavich’s then wife, Polly Platt, suggested her because of her “whiskey voice.” Despite her never having acted, Bogdonavich was intrigued enough to meet with her and liked what he saw (and heard). That the subsequent deal included her dad, with whom the director had just shared a big success in What’s Up Doc?, (on the set of which Platt had first encountered that whiskey voice) was a bonus.

Serendipity then.

Not a lot of eight-year-old kids have white-hot movie star dads (with the attendant “bone structure,” which gets such a nice run in the script here), access to whiz kid A-list directors and whiskey voices.

That late in the Spitfire game, all those aspects were probably necessary.

And, even with all that, it wasn’t a given that any kid so young would produce such a staggering performance. It was/is so good that Bogdonavich–as a certain style of male is wont to do with women of any age who have got to some place he can’t quite fathom–spent a lot of years claiming more or less full credit for it, though his commentary here suggests age and experience have tempered hubris (though not his very justifiable pride in the film itself).

Of course it was also so good that it probably wrecked a few lives, including Tatum O’Neal’s own.

Her dad never really met any version of my mom I guess. At least not in time.

And winning a well deserved Oscar at nine years old leaves a long way to fall. Maybe longer if your white hot co-star father and that whiz kid director are so miffed at being left off the list of nominees they don’t even bother to show up.

Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Peter Bogdonavich and Polly Platt all seemed to have entered a charmed circle in order to make this miraculous thing. At its conclusion, they were all officially on top of the world, where they might very reasonably have expected to stay for a long, healthy run.

Instead, none of them were ever quite the same again. They all did good work, here and there. None ever again reached quite so high.

Strange then, that of all that motley crew who “transformed” movies just before–coincidentally or not–movies went away, it was Bogdonavich (often, and I think wrongly, counted among the lighter weights next to Peckinpah, Coppola, Penn, Scorcese, et al) who provided the images that, in looking back, best anticipated the bleak moral consequences of the coming age, when short cons would rule far more than just traveling salesmen, carnival midways and Hollywood dreams.

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WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Eighth Maxim)

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“My own hope is that it somehow moves the mountain and convinces the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that if it can sacralize de facto one-hit wonder Percy Sledge and the noble yet overrated Stanley fave Del Shannon, perhaps it can conquer its own hidebound chauvinism and make room for the Cure, New Order, and the Pet Shop Boys.”

(Source: “Anti-Rockism’s Hall of Fame” Robert Christgau, BarnesandNobleReview.com, July 24, 2014)

“‘I love to sing a tearjerker,’ he (Sledge) told annotator David Gorman. ‘Like them ol’ country ballads.’ And that sums up this child of nature, who was country not as in Acuff-Rose, but as in going to town means picking up provisions at the general store. Saddled with a classic that transcends soul itself, Mr. Miserable never equaled ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ But neither did Mr. Pitiful, whose own songbook could have accommodated half these selections. The reason Otis Redding is an artist while Percy Sledge is a phenomenon is that Redding would have made ‘Out of Left Field’ sound happy, which is how it reads–a trick Sledge couldn’t have conceived with ‘Happy Song.’”

(Source: Robert Christgau “Consumer Guide Reviews,” Village Voice, 1998)

For the purposes of this post, I’m gonna leave Del Shannon and the Cure and New Order and the Pet Shop Boys out of this and concentrate on Robert Christgau and Percy Sledge (with a little bit of Otis Redding thrown in).

The first quote above is from Christgau’s recent, mostly laudatory, review of Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story of Pop Music From Bill Haley to Beyonce (which evidently proffers yet another take on the tired old Rock/Pop argument which has been irrelevant since Elvis backed up “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” with “Love Me Tender” and spent four months at the top of the “Pop” chart in the summer/fall of 1956 and exploded the whole false paradigm, but, hey, the crit-illuminati are nothing if not persistent).

The second quote is from his review of Rhino’s single-disc The Very Best of Percy Sledge.

I confess I got to the second quote from the first. One nice thing about Christgau is that he’s been so prolific for so long, you can just about bet he’s commented on whatever he’s commenting on now somewhere before, even if–as here–it’s only indirectly.

Which means if you’re of a mind to disagree with him, you can always dig down and find something else to disagree with. (Same for agreement, by the way, but where’s the fun in that?)

What got me fired up in the first quote was the abuse of language–which isn’t nearly as routine for Christgau as it is for most critics who write way too much.

Sorry, but there’s no such thing a “de facto” hit. Hence there is not such thing as a “defacto one-hit wonder.” I mean, a record is either a hit or it’s not. And the artist who has it has either had more than one or he hasn’t.

Percy Sledge had more than one hit.

If white oldies’ stations and rock critics’ memories can’t accommodate anything beyond “When a Man Loves a Woman,” that’s their loss.

But, however many hits Sledge had (14 in the Hot 100 and 4 in the top twenty–if you want to know how impressive that last number was for a southern soul singer, consider that Otis Redding himself only reached the top twenty once and that was posthumously) calling him a one-hit wonder (de facto or otherwise) isn’t nearly as nonsensical or far afield as insisting he’s not an artist.

Because you can come short of Otis Redding–which I’m not even sure Percy Sledge does–and still be that.

Percy’s problem–which I know is a problem because this is hardly the first time he’s been one of the first names mentioned when someone wants to run down the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being “hidebound” in its unwillingness to induct yet another group of white boy “faves” (the fundamental wrongheadedness of which I discussed at length here)–was that he traded in subtlety and specialized in ballad singing.

These are not qualities that tend to get you admired at the top of the critical food chain, where the demand for novelty is forever outstripping the supply, not to mention all other artistic virtues.

Here below, we’ve all got our own definitions of what makes an “artist.” The biggest part of mine is this: An artist should have a vision of the world that’s worth living up to.

On the fourth disc of Rhino’s Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, a distance at which plenty of great artists start showing some real strain, there’s a run that includes Percy’s covers of Dolly Parton (another artist who could tell you how falsely conceived that neat distinction between “Acuff-Rose” and “picking up provisions at the general store” really is), Gordon Lightfoot, Swammp Dogg and the O’Jays. He adds a little something at each stop along the Countrypolitan/Canadian Folk/Wild-Ass Soul/Philly International journey–and coaxes them all into a singular world-view that, if you decide to listen close, can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s.

Sounds like an “artist” to me.

And, lest that be considered some kind of fluke, the next batch of songs are from a live show that has him out-stomping Eddie Floyd on “Knock On Wood” and out-crooning the mighty Fleetwods on “Come Softly to Me.”

In Johannesburg.

In 1970.

In Johannesburg, they got the message.

I can’t help wondering if the world might be a better place today had we done the same.

And that leads me to Maxim #8:

“Never look down when you really should be looking up.”

And here’s Percy, being all visionary….owning Buffalo Springfield in a style Acuff and Rose would have very much approved if he had been another color, and looking forward to the day when “corner store” types–who hadn’t been as worried about his skin color as some might have hoped–would welcome him with open arms on the oldies’ circuit:

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (End of Days)

Boyhood (2014)

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I suspect if you sent a hundred people who had never heard a thing about this movie (which, admittedly, would take some doing) to a blind screening and asked them afterwards what the “key” scene was, you might very well get a hundred different answers.

Whether this is a good or bad thing is….well….who knows?

I certainly don’t. I sort of suspect that director Richard Linklater likes it that way–us not knowing.

I haven’t seen his other work, not even Dazed and Confused, but I gather he’s a laid back kind of dude.

Very nonjudgmental.

And, judging (oops, there I go, backsliding already) by the film’s near universal acclaim–not to mention the profoundly, even obsessively, realized non-message of the film itself–this has become the highest state to which humans can possibly aspire.

Everything’s cool. Or, at least the only thing that keeps everything from being totally cool is an occasional “asshole” (to borrow the film’s most common epithet), and the fact that “We’re all just winging it!” because, hey, given the universe’s faulty basic design, what else can you do?

And, hey, all the cool kids at all the cool magazines and newspapers and websites are flipping for it.

So, at last, the new, superior brand of non-judgmentalism has arrived.

Funny thing though. When you get past the surface, it looks a lot like old wine in a new bottle.

I guess since the old wine was really just nihilism wearing one of its friendly masks, this is sort of like a kinder, gentler nihilism.

Let me venture to say that one can admire the skill with which this film is made and still be frightened to death by it.

Yes, it’s wonderfully acted (especially by the unimpeachable Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and the director’s daughter, Lorelei, who unfortunately gets kind of written off and shunted to the sidelines about half-way through). Linklater definitely has a strong, identifiable style. And there are certainly moments of genuine warmth and humor in it.

But it’s finally empty.

If I was one of those hundred people I just mentioned, the scene I would nominate as an expression of the film’s raison d’etre would be one that takes place by a lake owned by the step-parents of the titular “boy’s” father (I believe that would make them his step-grandparents but don’t hold me to it).

The father (Hawke) is basically thanking his kids (Samantha, played by Lorelei Linklater), and Mason Jr., (Ellar Coltrane), for playing along, making nice to the old couple (his second wife’s aforementioned parents) who give Mason Jr. a bible with his name engraved on it (big laugh in the theaters) and a shotgun (no reaction here, but I’ve heard there have been both titters and audible anger expressed elsewhere) for his fifteenth birthday.

Somewhere in this sequence (I don’t recall if it was just before or just after the bestowing of the gifts–both nonsensical in the given context by the way**), Samantha looks at Mason Sr. and says:

“Dad, you’re not becoming one of those ‘God people’ are you?”

Not to fear.

Even though the brief scene inside the step-grandparents’ church, with a piece of a legitimate New Testament sermon being delivered, is by far the most authentic bit in this supposedly hyper-realistic movie, nobody’s in danger of getting religion.

Or anything else.

That would soil the concept, which is that life is devoid of any real happiness or unhappiness, it’s all real temporary, and, you know, “We’re all just winging it,” while time flows by like a river.

So just go with that flow and, in the words of another character, “You find your people.” (In Linklater’s Texas, this apparently happens in college–preferably at the really cool one in Austin.)

I’m not sure quite what Linklater set out to achieve here. The movie runs nearly three hours. It was very famously shot over twelve years, with the actors literally coming back a few days each year to film the next set of scenes as they aged, etc.

That made it a tricky concept. It’s supposed to represent life–and, after seeing both the movie and the intelligentsia’s incongruously Pavlovian reaction to it, my haunting fear is that it probably does.

So the work–plus the sheer audacity of the thing–really could have been its own reward. Gifted filmmaker pursuing his singular vision and all that.

Fine and dandy. That’s a journey anyone can respect.

But Boyhood has a philosophy, too, and that philosophy–which amounts to “nothing matters and what if it did” and has been wholly embraced by the crit-illuminati in a manner so unprecedented that one of the country’s preeminent film critics (Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times) felt compelled to assign his review slot to someone else because he couldn’t give the film a positive review (a development that, in it’s very different way, is at least as chilling as anything that happened in Ferguson or Mosul this week)–is deadly.

It’s a funny thing for me to be saying that, too, I guess, because I write a lot here about our collapsed culture (and about the likelihood that such a collapse makes the body politic unsustainable as anything but a leviathan-style security state resting on a feudal style of economic “security” which is itself illusory).

But I don’t embrace the collapse. I don’t think it’s “cool.” (The word that counterpoints “asshole” in Boyhood’s world view.) However weary I may sound at a given moment, I’m still here to carry a fight, marginal though it may be.

Because I think it’s not only not cool, but a shame.

A crying shame.

Our shame.

Boyhood wants us to lay back and enjoy the decline….or at least admit resistance is futile. So it’s fundamentally a critique, not so much of the decline itself (which, I really wish I could have made it out to be), but of people like me, who think resistance is vital and necessary and, in this time like any other, “winging it” is not an option.

Makes it all kinda personal I guess.

One thing I’ll bet though.

Nobody who was involved in making Boyhood–or in making it the crit-fave of the year–will ever admit to their own embrace of this film’s inherent dude-style nihilism.

Too judgmental.

[**--Take it from one who has received such things and holds them every bit as dear as my very cool record collection. Neither an engraved bible or a family heirloom shotgun (or, in my case, a hunting knife) is something folks like those depicted in Boyhood would ever be likely to bestow on a kid they hardly know just because their daughter married the kid's not-quite-deadbeat dad. Why would they, or anyone, bestow such permanent things on what are very likely to be impermanent relations?]

 

THE WORLD’S ON FIRE AND WORDS COULD NEVER EXPLAIN (Robin Williams, R.I.P.)

First the light heart:

Then the heavy heart:

I don’t doubt that Robin Williams was suffering when he hung himself a few days ago. I also don’t doubt that millions have suffered (and do suffer) far, far more without contemplating–let alone carrying out–the last deed.

But I think the extraordinary response to Willams’ death–a response that has gone far beyond the scope of his considerable fame or the necessity of appreciating of his undeniable genius–is probably rooted in something that runs far deeper than it should in a country as blessed as ours.

Granted, some of that response can be attributed to simple shock. I stand in grocery store checkout lines nearly every day. I make a point of reading the tabloid headlines so I know who’s on death watch.

Robin Williams wasn’t on death watch.

So there’s that.

Plus, he hung himself. Not something that happens in the small circle of A-list fame and fortune every day.

And he was, by all accounts, a gentle spirit, devoted to small acts of kindness in both his art and his personal life.

So there was bound to be a certain amount of he-was-really-too-good-for-this-world kibbitzing among both the professional mourning class and fans grieving for someone they felt understood them.

All of that definitely adds up.

And yet…

I can’t help feeling there’s just a little bit more to it this time.

For me, it comes down to this: As long as Robin Williams was alive, it was possible to believe there was at least one man out there–and a good man at that–who thought fast enough to stay one step ahead of this world we’ve made. In the age of the twitter bomb and the sound bite and the latest jihadi beheading transmitted worldwide by social media and the arrival of that moment in history where it is finally impossible to keep up with the false narratives that day on day, hour on hour, minute on minute, swallow each other literally at the speed of sound, at least one guy seemed like he had a handle on it and was willing to translate the confusion for millions who were otherwise overwhelmed.

That’s what I’ve heard/read in the responses of everyone from close friends to talking heads who were clearly even more confused than usual when it came time to put the completely irrational acts that are now permanently twinned–Robin Williams’ doing the unthinkable and the world he had decided to stop dealing with at all deciding at once that he yet deserves forgiveness–in something more than their usual callow perspective.

And underneath all that–for reasons that are certainly just as irrational (and just as compulsive)–what I kept hearing, and holding responsible for the death of a guy who, for all I know, may have just been fed up because the Viagra wasn’t working or his wife brought home the wrong kind of chicken soup, was that world we made. A world where a rich white American male multi-millionaire who had lived his dream and been given every possible accolade could hang himself in a closet and the most common response was: Yeah, I get that.

Is it entirely a coincidence that the two songs that have run through my head for the last three days are from ‘sixty-eight, the year America keeps trying to convince itself it has finally walked away from?

I don’t know. Maybe.

Then again, maybe not. I only know they won’t stop playing. Nine voices, seven of whom checked out early….five of them even earlier than Robin Williams, who would have heard these in high school, when the center was just beginning to crumble.

Which maybe goes to show you’re never quite as alone as you think you are.

 

FIFTIES’ R&B: Part I, 1950–1954 (Great Vocal Events In the History of Rock and Roll: Volume 3)

If you click on the links below, you’ll be hearing a lot of this man (more of him than anyone else). He’s obviously an unstable element–for one thing, he’s called Clyde–so consider yourself warned:

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Just to reiterate a point I’ve made here before: “R&B” (or “Rhythm and Blues”) is a covertly separatist marketing term, coined by soon-to-be Atlantic Records’ honcho Jerry Wexler when he worked at Billboard in the late forties and meant to replace the previous marketing term which was the more overtly separatist “Race.”

In other words, it was not initially designed to describe a particular style of music but rather a sales demographic. That being said, it came, over time, to have some rather specific musical application and, in current parlance, the phrase “fifties’ R&B” mostly conjures a variant of beat-oriented music, (generally hard-driving and rooted in Black America, but in any case succinct) that anticipated, then was absorbed by, then transformed from within, a larger, even more general, marketing concept first called “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (and, later, “Rock and Roll”).

That’s the series of inter-related developments I’m trying to trace here…year by year, in two parts.

This particular field is even more bottomless than usual, and, though you may have heard otherwise, the “R&B” chart in the fifties was mostly conservative (as nearly all charts have been in nearly all times) so these are some of the startling highlights that kept moving the train down the track, with a few standard items thrown in for the sake of providing a fuller context (though I’ve generally avoided the crooning of established stars like Nat Cole, Billy Eckstine, Roy Hamilton etc.–great music but not really what one thinks of when R&B is used as something other than a marketing phrase.)

(NOTE: Hat tip to the Bear Family’s Blowing the Fuse series, without which, this particular task would have been beyond my capacity–the only flaw in this mighty series is the failure to acknowledge the substantial and exciting white crossover that occurred in the mid-fifties and which marked a significant part of the revolution now all too conveniently ignored when it is not being attributed–without proof or resort to common sense–almost exclusively to the spending and listening habits of white teenagers, an issue I’ve addressed in part elsewhere (see the Elvis In the Fifties category at the right). So, trolling across the tip of the iceberg…

1950:

“I Almost Lost My Mind”–Ivory Joe Hunter: Proto-soul that predates Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter. If Hunter has been a tad neglected by history, it’s probably due to his being a balladeer who sought connections where others sought “identity.” We all know where that gets you–criminally ignored.

“The Fat Man”–Fats Domino: Domino’s first record was such a ludicrously perfect combination of swamp fever, industrial sweat and Old World hoo-doo it could only have happened in New Orleans. Something had to be born from it: turned out it was rock ‘n’ roll. You can argue forever about when, exactly, the train left the station. But Fats launching into his flight-to-freedom falsetto midway through this is the moment no power on earth could turn it around.

“Blue Shadows”–Lowell Fulson: Hints of languorous prophecy, which Elvis, among others, picked up on.

“Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere”–Joe Morris and His Orchestra (featuring Laurie Martin): The mighty Atlantic label’s first #1 R&B hit. Martin’s vocal is strident without being overblown, off-kilter and slightly disorienting in its peculiar style of intensity, much in the manner that Arlene Smith of the Chantels would achieve at the end of the decade when she was inventing the girl group ethos. Genuinely strange, a quality that was nowhere near as common to rock’s pre-dawn as modern romance would have us believe.

1951:

“Rockin’ With Red”–Piano Red: Remarkably prescient blend of laconic country vocal and rolling blues rhythm that kicked off Red’s career at the age of 40. Five years later, when younger men did it, it was called kid’s music.

“I Will Wait”–The Four Buddies (Leon Harrison, lead vocal, William Carter, Vernon Palmer and John Carroll, harmony vocals): Bedrock doo-wop, right down to being a one-hit wonder.

“Black Night”–Charles Brown and his Band: One of Brown’s last great rides up the charts. A stark, noirish reminder of what those charts would soon have no more time for. At least not until Ray Charles–who had begun by imitating Brown–grew up.

“Rocket 88”–Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats: Brenston was a pretty standard issue jump band shouter and, truth be told, his vocal–fine but not terribly distinctive–is the least impressive thing about this record. The “Delta Cats” were basically Ike Turner’s band of the moment and they did what Ike Turner’s bands generally did, which was stomp and storm (coincidentally or not, he wouldn’t learn to swing until he hooked up with Tina a decade or so later). That, plus being recorded at the Sun Studio, has been enough to insure the record plenty of “first rock ‘n’ roll record” love from people who really should know better.

“Sixty Minute Man”–The Dominoes (Bill Brown, lead vocal, Clyde McPhatter, second lead, Charlie White and Joe Lamont, harmony vocals): McPhatter’s not-quite-novelty “response” vocal now sounds like a precursor of prison rape as both national scourge and national joke. On the whole, the record is thus a little more disorienting than any joke can afford to be–perhaps because McPhatter is responding to a lead by Bill Brown that has lost none of its quality as the supreme expression of matter-of-factly asserted sexual prowess. You know what they say: It ain’t bragging if it’s true!

“The Glory of Love”–The Five Keys (Rudy West, lead vocal, Dickie Smith, second lead, Ripley Ingram, Maryland Pierce and Bernie West, harmony vocals): A new kind of formalism and a new definition of beauty, inviting a thousand challenges and, as often happens with such things, remaining unsurpassed.

“Eyesight to the Blind”–The Larks (Alden Bunn , lead vocal, Thermon Ruth, Eugene Mumford, David McNeil and Pee Wee Barnes, harmony vocals): Blues-drenched lead counterpointed by elegant harmony straight out of squares-ville (Julliard, the barber shop, whatever). Hence, a forgotten bridge between the polished sound of urban blues a generation earlier (which was very square indeed) and the David Ruffin side of the Temptations a generation later (which stepped just over the line into the place where studied elegance wasn’t square at all).

“How Many More Years”–Howlin’ Wolf: Is it possible to sound a thousand years old and predict the future? It is if you’re a prophet.

1952:

“3 O’Clock Blues”–B.B. King: On the purely vocal side of his first big hit, B.B. wasn’t doing anything exactly new. He worked well within established norms. He just did it better.

“Cry”–Johnny Ray and the Four Lads (Johnny Ray, lead vocal, Connie Codarini, Frank Busseri, Jimmy Arnold, Bernie Toorish, harmony vocals): The white boy who could hang. This is the only record by a white vocalist to hit the top of Billboard‘s R&B (or Race) chart between Helen Forrest (fronting the Harry James Orchestra) in ’43 and Elvis in ’56. Come together over me. So saith the Nabob of Sob.

“One Mint Julep”–The Clovers (Buddy Bailey, lead vocal, Harold Winley (bass interlude), Matthew McQuater and Hal Lucas, harmony vocals): Polished as glass, but it’s the kind of glass that shimmers. It keeps revealing new colors depending on the light. Salty subject matter aside, this is the other side of the world from the hard, electrified blues that were proliferating in the early fifties and at least as accurate a predictor as the Everly Brothers or the Platters of the values that would one day rule “soft rock.”

“Have Mercy Baby”–The Dominoes (Clyde McPhatter, lead vocal, Bill Brown, Charlie White and Joe Lamont, harmony vocals): The one-man typhoon that was Clyde McPhatter (spotted in the distance on “Sixty Minute Man”) reaches shore…and then starts to dance and twirl on everybody’s head.

“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”–Lloyd Price: A slightly slowed-down version of the formula Fats Domino had by now perfected (Fats–a great session man in addition to everything else–played the memorable trilling piano here). Price’s voice had a slightly brighter tone that gave the formula–and the basic New Orleans sound–a new edge that still cuts. Though it didn’t reach the pop charts, it apparently sold enough in white markets to start giving the men who ran small blues-based labels some very interesting ideas.

“Mary Jo”–The Four Blazes (Thomas Braden, lead vocal, Shorty Hill, Floyd McDaniel and Paul Holt, harmony vocals): A fascinating look at a direction the vocal group phenomenon that was about to explode might have taken. Braden sings traditional “shout” phrasing a la Wynonie Harris. But the group’s barber shop crooning tugs him back just enough to create a new space for a smooth, jazz-lite backing where the hard bopping used to be. It was a hit but the blend of musical reconciliation it pointed towards never quite arrived.

“My Song”–Johnny Ace: There had been a few three-a.m.-of-the-soul singers before Ace, even some who made the charts. But none who had been quite this lugubrious.

“Goodbye Baby”–Little Caesar: Some guy who must have been listening to a lot of Johnny Ace shows up at his lover’s door, explains why he has to shoot her, then does. Then he shoots himself. Went top five on the R&B chart. Though he went on the be a working actor himself, Harry Caesar was no Richard Berry when it came to acting a part on record. But then again, a guy who sounds like a zombie might be just what the Method ordered for a record like this. A rare instance where the black charts really did get crazy! (Sorry I wasn’t able to track down the name of the female vocalist.)

1953:

“Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean”–Ruth Brown: They called Brown’s label (Atlantic) “The House That Ruth Built.” The manner in which she built it is best exemplified by this, her signature record, which showcased her twist on the lighter side of the great blues’ queens from a generation earlier. A little less gravitas, maybe, than her predecessors, but plenty of sass and a bright, brittle twinge in her voice that let the hurt show underneath.

“Baby Don’t Do It”–The ‘5’ Royales (Johnny Tanner, lead vocal, James Moore, Obadiah Carter, Otto Jeffries and Lowman Pauling, harmony vocals): Perhaps the biggest, shiniest link in the chain between gut-bucket blues and a funk-filled future. But this is also its own glorious thing, in large part because Johnny Tanner sang like a teamster driving the four unruly horses of gospel, blues, doo wop and vaudeville without so much as breaking a sweat.

“Gabbin’ Blues”–Big Maybelle (Rose Marie McCoy shared lead vocal): Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, fifteen years early…with Maybelle playing Otis.

“Hound Dog”–Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton: Menacing, wickedly funny and deeply wounded all at once. It’s too bad that this record has gotten caught up in the phony “culture theft” wars. (Just how “caught up” would require its own post so I’ll leave it there for now). Really too bad, because it’s one of the period’s greatest vocals–the sound of an unvanquished spirit doing a job of work in order to eat…and just maybe move the world.

“I’m Gone”–Shirley and Lee (Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee, shared lead vocals): The Sweethearts of the Blues arrive. The tempo was slow-medium, but Goodman’s quavering vocal style was entirely its own medium–a medium she would maintain faithfully, straight through to the Age of Disco, a quarter-century hence.

“Crying in the Chapel”–The Orioles (Sonny Til, lead vocal, Alexander Sharp, George Nelson and Johnny Reed, harmony vocals): Stylistically something of a throwback (the group had been scoring big since the late forties), but it achieves a degree of shimmering peace that was virtually unprecedented in its own time and has become all the more valuable in the long journey toward Babel since. (You could hardly find a better measure of Elvis Presley’s genius, incidentally, than his taking on–and fully measuring up to–both this and “Hound Dog,” a feat no one else would have likely contemplated in one lifetime, let alone pulled off.)

“Shake A Hand”–Faye Adams with the Joe Morris Orchestra: The sound of Sunday morning finally integrated, as something more than a hint or allegation, with a chart topping vocal and arrangement. Beautiful and revelatory.

“Honey Hush”–Big Joe Turner: Turner had been having hits pretty steadily for almost as long as there had been a black music chart (nearing a decade by this time). He was a mostly conservative presence–always entertaining but sticking to the basics. With this record he began to loosen up a bit and position himself to be the old fashioned shouter who was, improbably, best prepared to ride out the rock and roll storm that was coming–maybe because he never really sounded like he was shouting.

“Feelin’ Good”–Little Junior’s Blue Flames: Little Junior was Junior Parker, one of the era’s supreme band leaders. But he was also a sublime vocalist, a unique combination of “uptown” and “down home,” who made this sound so easy he ended up being a quiet influence on everyone from hardcore shouters to folk rockers (John Sebastian lifted part of this lyric for the Lovin’ Spoonful’s fabulous “Let the Boy Rock and Roll”…and also learned a thing or two from Parker’s deceptively laid-back vocal approach.)

1954:

“Gee”–The Crows (Daniel Norton, lead vocal, Harold Major, Mark Jackson, Bill Davis and Gerald Hamilton, harmony vocals): A new kind of vocal strut enters the room. Not flashy, but no wasted motion either. The Crows themselves were never able to repeat the success (which was one of the very early big crossover records). But the sharp new dynamics served as the true lift off for doo-wop and whatever lay beyond.

“Sunday Kind of Love”–The Harp-tones (Willie Winfield, lead vocal, Billy Brown, Claudie Clark, William Dempsey, Dicey Galloway and Raoul Cita, harmony vocals): The stuff dreams–and legends–are made of. Literally inimitable.

“The Things I Used to Do”–Guitar Slim: A huge hit, a wonderful record, and a sign of just how conservative the R&B chart was capable of being the year before rock and roll really broke loose. The record could have been sent back to 1938 and been just as big without changing a thing. Two years later, it would have been bringing up the rear with its tongue hanging out.

“It Should’ve Been Me”–Ray Charles (Ray Charles, lead vocal; Jesse Stone, response and backing vocal): A real oddity. Outside of straight Sinatra-style pop and big band throwbacks, Charles was by far the most conservative of the era’s true giants. For reasons that seem to have nothing to do with the records he actually made, he has been lauded as a dynamo of innovation (the same narrative has him being quite a bit more popular with Black America’s record-buying public than his solid but unspectacular chart success of the period would suggest). I mention all that because this novelty record was pretty indicative of where he was when all hell was getting set to break loose. Namely, goofing around, trying to find himself. This, incidentally, does not even take full advantage of his one startlingly original quality which was his spectacular and unmistakable timbre. But it did well enough to get him in solid with his bosses at Atlantic. And that was significant. I mean, they loved him to death and all, but they were definitely into seeing their faith repaid in coin of the realm.

“That’s All Right Mama”–Elvis Presley: Should we mention that, from a strictly vocal standpoint, this was the most exciting and revelatory record of the year in any format? And that it fit “rhythm and blues” as readily as anything else? It wasn’t a big hit–probably didn’t really break much outside the Memphis market. Then again, nearly everybody came to Memphis. So it’s impossible to know exactly who heard it and when…or how exactly those who did really responded to it. Just one of many reasons that it remains as great a mystery now as it was then.

“Work With Me Annie”–The Midnighters (Hank Ballard, lead vocal): A smile record for the grownups. Big whoop, though, if you were twelve, hiding the transistor under your pillow. Or so I’ve heard.

“I Just Want To Make Love to You”–Muddy Waters: It would take at least a decade for this to be fully felt as “influence.” But it carved its own path in the moment. Muddy’s towering vocal doesn’t sound quite like anything else that was going on at the time. He sounds like what he was. A man in his own world–not to mention his own league.

“Feel So Bad”–Chuck Willis: An easy ride, urban–and urbane–to the core. He was big, and, if there hadn’t been a revolution (and a visit from the Grim Reaper) right around the corner, it’s easy to imagine him being even bigger.

“Shake, Rattle and Roll”–Big Joe Turner: The big man finally wigs out.

“Oh What A Dream”–Ruth Brown: Lovely, but by now, she’d turned a little slick. Billie Holiday without the delicacy or the death rattle. Within a year, she would be officially, sweetly old-fashioned. A sign of just how fast the times would change.

“Riot In Cell Block #9”–The Robins (Richard Berry, lead vocal, Bobby Nunn, Ty Leonard, Carl Gardner, Billy Richard and Roy Richard, backing vocals): One of those “are you kidding me?” moments in rock’s early dawn. The ultimate in comic menace. Certainly more convincing (on both counts, the comedy and the menace) than anything Quentin Tarantino and his ten thousand fan-boy imitators have managed.

“Honey Love”–The Drifters (Clyde McPhatter, lead vocal, Bill Pinkney, Andrew Thrasher and Gerhart Thrasher, harmony vocals): The bass singing here (by the mighty Bill Pinkney) became such a touchstone of doo wop style it now sounds like it must have existed since the dawn of man. But, if it wasn’t actually invented here, it’s at least a good reminder that such things are always invented somewhere, by somebody. And up top the meanwhile? Clyde being Clyde.

“Oop Shoop”–Shirley Gunter & the Queens (Shirley Gunter, lead vocal, Lula Kennedy, Lula Mae Suggs and Blondene Taylor, harmony vocals): Gunter’s creamy lead is pretty standard, but the backing group offers a modest tilt toward a future where a new kind of intimacy awaited. I still think the British critic Charlie Gillett was right to call it “girl talk.”

“Gloria”–The Cadillacs (Earl Carroll, lead vocal, Bobby Phillips, Lavern Drake, Gus Willingham and James Clark, harmony vocals): By now, an awful lot of the vocal excitement in black music was being provided by groups. The dynamics were not quite where they would be in a year or two, but the bed of harmonies was allowing more and more extreme flights of fancy up top. And that bed was getting deeper by the minute–a once-sleepy pond growing into a roiling ocean.

“Hearts of Stone”–The Charms (Otis Williams, lead vocal; Bob Smith, Rolland Bradley, Joe Penn and Richard Parker, harmony vocals): Fine and dandy and fairly routine until all those daring no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no’s start suggesting a substitute for feminine sexual stamina that (in pop music at least) had previously been relegated to instrumental numbers (and would not, of course, be available to actual female vocalists for a good while yet). Not surprisingly, perhaps, the record’s producer/arranger, Henry Stone, became a heavy hitter in the disco era. And Williams? He ended up singing country. Some things are meant to be…and too perfect to make up.

So there’s a decent overview of where things stood just before the storm. There was excitement in the air and plenty of it…but (except for maybe Clyde McPhatter and Elvis) nothing resembling a threat to the existing order. That lay just around the corner and will be covered in Part II!

[NOTE: Trying to discern the exact personnel for the era’s vocal group recordings is often akin to tackling the mysteries of quantum physics. I’ve done my very best to be accurate, but, if somebody happens along and spots a documentable mistake, please let me know. I will happily make the change!]

PRELUDE…

In preparation for the latest post in my “Vocal Events in Rock and Roll” series, covering R&B in the first half of the fifties, I went hunting for some photos. I found these, showing the first two artists on my list. Between them, they both laid the foundation and set the parameters for most of the real excitement in the first half of the fifties.

Kinda’ fun to see what the Revolution looked like in 1950.

Ladies and gentlemen…Mister Ivory Joe Hunter:

IVORYJOEHUNTER

And Mister Antoine Domino:

fatsdomino2

You know what they say…It’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for!

 

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #5: Chirpin’)

PERSUASIONS

 

Once upon a time–way back in the eighties–record collecting was, shall we way, not like today.

Back then, especially if you lived in the hinterlands, there was no guarantee you would be able track down music you heard or read about…and no guarantee you would be able to afford it if, by chance, you found it.

When I went to Atlanta on a free-lance ad assignment in the late summer/early fall of 1986, I wasn’t actually looking for records–or even thinking there was any chance I would run into any by accident.

However, since I was with my dad (Braves’ tickets were part of the gig as I remember) we did end up going to an indoor flea market and, sure enough, there was a record bin. Pretty nice one as I remember. Good selection, cheap prices. Me, of course, with no money to speak of. The ad gig paid after the fact.

But I did have about twenty bucks to spend and it happened that I ran across two albums which I had been looking for since 1980 (six long years, oh the agony!) and, being confined to the Florida Panhandle, never even sniffed.

One of those LPs was Dusty Springfield’s Dusty In Memphis, which was (if memory serves) about eight bucks. Another was the Persuasions’ Chirpin’ which (if memory again serves) was either $2.99 or $3.99.

I bought them.

In life parlance this is what is known as “a good day.” A good day, the way learning to swim or going four-for-four is a good day. Only this is the sort of good day you can carry with you as something more than a functional skill or a memory. It’s the kind of good day that is going to enhance the rest of your life.

This particular good day, however, ended up doing something more than that.

It warped time.

You see, when I got home (after a five hour drive that same day…a Sunday) to my apartment, my dad decided to go on along…back to my parents’ house…where my mother was waiting.

Not too long after he left, long before he would have arrived at home, I played Dusty In Memphis and it was even greater than everything I had heard about it. And then I played Chirpin’ and–impossibly–it, too, was even greater than everything I had heard about it.

All of that would have made it a special day–maybe even a day that hung in memory.

But it hung longer–forever in fact–because something in the entire weight of the experience (along with a lot of other experiences, most of which can no longer be accesed by mere memory) laid down on me. In the ecstasy of listening, for the first time, to two of the greatest albums ever made, I realized that my mother–who had been sick my entire life–wasn’t going to live much longer.

It turned out that “not much longer” was eight or nine months and, of course, I never told her (or anyone else) of my premonition. No need. Death comes around soon enough. No call to poke it in the ribs.

But the really strange thing, was that, at the same time I was listening to Chirpin’ (on the back of Dusty In Memphis, which I’m convinced was an essential part of the chain that was starting to loop around me and is probably drawn tight around some part of me even yet), I also saw beyond all that.

I saw myself being healed.

I emphasize that I “saw” it–that state of coming to grips with a terrible event that had not yet happened–because, while I was feeling all that, I couldn’t keep myself from staring at the album cover pictured above. It wasn’t just part and parcel with the entire experience, it was the experience–a journey in and of itself. Without what that cover implies–about doo wop, about rock and roll, about singers and artists, about being alone and together in this world at the very same time–I don’t think I would have experienced any of what finally made that “good day” the very best and very worst of my record collecting life.

Which is to say, that, without the finest album cover ever made being constantly in front of my eyes, I would have still loved Chirpin’…but nothing on it would have warped time.

Not even this:

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Audiophilia Finally Reveals Its Uses!)

A Gathering of Flowers, The Mamas & the Papas (2013)

GATHERINGOFFLOWERS

Collecting comps drawn from the Mamas and the Papas’ four 1960s’ albums is a kind of mini-hobby of mine. (The less said about their early-seventies contractually obligated reunion album the better.) I’m now up to two collections on vinyl and five on CD, which, for me, given my budget and how much overlap there is in the musical selections, is a boatload.

I won’t bore you with my matrix of reasons for this quixotic little pursuit (though I should probably mention that these seven “collections” were acquired over a period of a mere thirty-seven years, so its not like I spent every waking hour on the task), but, at least since the dawn of the digital age, one of the reasons has been a search for “the best sounding version ever!”

Or words to that effect.

I’m a long way from being an audiophile. But some artists invite purely aural appreciation–reverence for purity of tone if you will–more than others. And the vocal sound of the Mamas and the Papas was/is the equivalent of a tone poem. Basically, anything that I think can help me get closer to the heart of the mystery is worth a shot.

To that end, I took a chance on Real Gone’s reissue of A Gathering of Flowers and I have to say that the job they’ve done in remastering this strange collection from 1970 is a revelation.

The set has its problems. For some unfathomable reason, it excludes any material from their fourth album and certainly no collection of this group can be definitive without “Twelve Thirty” or “Safe In My Garden.” And while the reminiscences from John Phillips and Cass Elliot, so close to the time of the original recordings, are invaluable (and entertaining), I’m never fond of overlapping the intros! Great for scholarship, maybe not so great for repeated listening.

But, man….I’ve read frequently through the years that the group’s original masters were lost, so, irrespective of whatever magnificent claims anyone might have made for restoring them, the general consensus has been that, unless you owned the original albums released in the sixties on clean vinyl, you weren’t hearing the real vocals laid down by what Cass herself was not shy about saying was the best vocal group of the era (and, laying aside the Temptations, who admittedly had an approach that was far enough afield to make comparison difficult in the extreme, I’m not shy about agreeing with her–or in repeating, as I often do, that it was the true golden age of American singing).

I think the consensus now is that if Real Gone’s Mike Milchner hasn’t recaptured the full glory of those lost masters, then no one ever will. I’m not going to do the usual link to a song, because nothing played on a computer would do it justice (even if I could be sure I was linking to Real Gone’s mix!).

But I will mention that I have another mini-hobby, which is playing seek-and-find with cool pictures and matching them to cool sounds. So I’ll just say Real Gone is a name I’m going to remember. Because they’ve produced a collection that’s a little like this photograph. No matter how much time you spend with it….you ain’t gonna get to the bottom.

CASSANDMICHELLE

…And is it too much to hope that they’ll redo the whole catalog? I mean, I’m willing to go eight!

(And one last note: A word of thanks to whoever it was at ABC/Dunhill who conceived this collection at the time. The intermingling of interviews, studio chatter, etc. was nowhere near as common then as now. And, especially given Cass’ early death, the value of that conception is priceless.)

NOT SO FORTUNATE SON (Richard Cowsill R.I.P.)

I was saddened to learn that Richard, the lone Cowsill sibling (six brothers and one sister) who was not a member of his family’s seminal rock band succumbed to lung cancer on July 8.

Though he never sang or played professionally, he was a powerful presence in the invaluable documentary The Cowsills: A Family Band (which I will get around to reviewing here soon).

As the documentary makes plain, Richard was prevented from joining the band by his tyrannical father, who instead packed him off to Viet Nam while the other kids were playing state fairs and the Ed Sullivan Show. The most harrowing footage in the film (abetted by extensive extras on the DVD) is of Richard, riding around in a van late at night (first with his brother Barry, soon to be lost in Katrina, then alone), telling his side of the story.

How many beatings he took for his brothers–who all took their share–from the father who hated him most is unknowable. But in that van, wearing the beatings and the PTSD and the resulting addictions on his face all those decades later, it’s easy to guess which will tend to have the most lasting effect–abusable substances, combat in a war where any ground you take is sure to be given back by leaders who are bound to blame anybody and everybody but themselves, or having your father use you for a punching bag.

Richard did occasionally join in with the group in later years. Much as I hope he’s found peace now, it would be nice to think that he found at least a little bit of it here (thanks to Family Band director Louise Palanker for making these “extras” available on YouTube):