FLORIDA BOY (Mel Tillis, R.I.P.)

In the days when Mel Tillis was as famous for being a reliably charming and hilarious talk show guest as he was for being a country singer, he liked to tell the story of his discovery by Mae Axton (Hoyt’s mother and co-composer of, among many others, a little tune called “Heartbreak Hotel”). She met him somewhere in Nashville, learned he was a sihger/songwriter, checked out his stuff and encouraged him to see a producer/executive she knew. Recognizing that his afterwards-famous speech impediment might be a problem during any formal interview process, she wrote a letter for him to take along.

The essence of the letter was this: “Never mind that he can’t talk. Good singer. Great writer.”

Of all the people who have ever been thus described to a Nashville Executive–by Mae Axton or anyone else–and who then carried the tag for a decade or more, while so many other people (Bobby Bare, Brenda Lee, Tom Jones, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers) sang his hits….

…only Mel Tillis emerged all the way from such deep and lengthy shadows to become a superstar in his own right. On the slow-moving Writer-Becomes-An-Unlikely-Singing-Star train, even Roger Miller had a shorter, faster ride to the Promised Land reached by so few.

Some of what allowed Mel to buck the Narrative was likability, some of it stick-to-it-tiveness, some of it elbow grease–all qualities prized by country audiences.

Most of it, though, was that he turned out to be a great singer as well, master of both comedy….

and melancholy…

..able to work nearly endless variations at both ends of the scale until it all meshed into a Sawdust-in-the-Suburbs world-view…

…one where country’s impoverished roots and middle-class aspirations were revealed as two sides of the same coin. By the seventies, when Tillis ascended to the top of the country charts often enough to become a presence in the larger culture, the assurances of the latter were still undercut by the memory (and shame, and guilt, and stubborn refusal to admit either) so inescapable in the former.

Most of that contradiction has been washed away now and what country music understood itself to be for nearly a century along with it. Now, the real impoverishment is spiritual…and hence not curable by either the dream or the reality of a split-level in the suburbs or a house in the Hills or even a recording contract in Nashville.

I had the pleasure of serving a couple of Mel’s daughters (not Pam, alas) breakfast, lunch and dinner at a girl’s camp in the summer of 1979. They were shy to a fault–even shyer than most shy kids, even shyer than I had been–and, if their stammering, stuttering father came from a similar psychological place and transcended it so thoroughly, it was a mark of character that makes me proud to have shared a home state with him.

And, speaking of Pam, she sang the harmony on the cut below, my pick for the greatest country record of the 80s….or, if there really could be such a thing, ever.

There was a lot of talk about outlaws back then.  And a lot of that talk–mostly from people who didn’t really like country music or its audience–said that outlaw was the “real” country.

Maybe along about here I should mention that the girls’ camp where Mel sent his daughters was at the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina.

Nobody ever called Mel Tillis an outlaw.

And  nobody was more country than Mel Tillis:

Born: Tampa (1932).
Raised: Pahokee.
Died: Ocala (2017).

Nobody.

RIGHT CROSS (Malcolm Young, R.I.P.)

It’s a little hard for a non-musician to say exactly what a rhythm guitarist adds to a rock and roll band but I’ve always assumed it had something to do with providing, you know, the rhythm.

If that’s true then few people have ever been a more hard core rock and roller than AC/DC’s Malcolm Young, who just passed away, twelve days after his older brother (and original producer), George, and three years after he retired from the band he founded with another brother, Angus, in the early seventies, as a result of complications due to early stage dementia. Because, before and after they were anything else, AC/DC were rhythm, rhythm, and more rhythm.

Yes, they wrote songs, including fifteen or twenty that became permanent radio staples and Malcolm had a strong hand it that, too. I suspect on some level, he played a role similar to John Entwistle’s in the Who–the steady hand, who took care of basic business, musically and otherwise, giving the more flamboyant personalities (in AC/DC, the head-banging, road-running, rhythm-rhythm-rhythm Angus, and the powerhouse rhythm-rhythm-rhythm lead singers Bon Scott and Brian Johnson) room to roam.

Unlike the punks who rose beside them or the death metal bands who sprang up in their wake (and often cited AC/DC as an influence), the Young brothers knew there was more to rhythm–and hence to the “rock and roll” they always insisted was a good enough description of what they did when anybody bothered to ask–than just playing loud, fast and primitive. Yes, they rocked–and rocked and rocked and rocked. But they never forgot to roll. Which is why they were a truly great band and also why they blasted out of more radios than all the punk and death metal bands combined back when rock and roll on the radio was still the common coin of the culture.

I suspect their “rhythm” guitarist had something to do with that, as well.

Malcolm Young and his band knew who they were, they kept on being who they were come hell or high water and they never quit or tried to be anyone else.

Very few of us get to pass to the next stage knowing we managed all that.

I hope the final highway led some place other than Hell, but, if not, at least Malcolm Young will be one of the very few who reach the last stop with his eyes wide open.

 

HEAVEN SENT A STRING MAN (Paul Buckmaster, R.I.P.)

The personnel for Elton John’s breakthrough album. Paul Buckmaster second from the left.

Strange and disorienting serendipity because this Child of the Seventies is just now–literally this week–catching up to Elton John’s first five albums, where Paul Buckmaster was an insistent and insidious presence.

Buckmaster–classically trained instrumentalist, composer, conductor and ace arranger–was the definer of Orchestral Rock for Modern Ears. In other hands, that would almost certainly would have been a dubious distinction. On some of those Elton John records it was a dubious distinction.

But his fingers were on (usually all over) a number of wonderful era-defining records in the early seventies: “Space Oddity,” “You’re So Vain,” “Without You,” Terrapin Station, numerous projects that involved him working with everyone from John (for whom he arranged the breakthrough hit “Your Song,” and “Tiny Dancer,” the closest Sir Elton ever came to a statement of balladeering purpose and one that has grown with the years) to Leonard Cohen to Blood, Sweat and Tears to Miles Davis.

It may not be a coincidence that Carly Simon, Harry Nillson, Elton John and Mick Jagger all waxed tracks that were contenders for their finest vocals when Buckmaster was handing them arrangements that begged for something more than they themselves may have thought they could deliver.

Which brings us to this, the greatest album closer in the history of Rock and Roll if only because it closed so much more than an album…and ushered in a New Age where all concerned would be subsumed….Including, just today, Paul Buckmaster.

Him and God should be having a very interesting talk about now. I’m rooting for a better understanding.

R.I.P.

OUR MAN WITH THE BEAT DOWN UNDER (George Young, R.I.P.)

Australian rock and roll wasn’t really a thing until George Young and his fellow guitarist–and destined-to-be-musical-partner-for-life–Harry Vanda, wrote “Friday On My Mind” for their band the Easybeats. In the five decades since, Aussie rock and roll has never not been a thing, having been kept alive by many (including the vastly undersung Easybeats themselves) and at the forefront by Young’s younger brothers, who started a little band called AC/DC, for whom George produced the early albums that put them on the map.

His career had a theme, then, and that theme was Stomp. He was as much a pure rock and roller as Fats Domino, whose death, within twenty-four hours, was understandably bound to overshadow any but a fellow giant’s.

I can’t call George Young a giant–but he was an essential figure in the spread of rock and roll across the world and left behind a body of work us mere mortals can certainly envy.

And as long as there’s a Friday somewhere….

ENGINEER ON THE FREEDOM TRAIN (Fats Domino, R.I.P.)

People argue about the origins of Rock ‘n’ Roll and especially about the “first” Rock ‘n’ Roll record.

People have a thousand ways of making themselves stupid.

As music, culture or anything else that marked the moment when the future diverged from the past, Rock ‘n’ Roll–and, hence, Rock and Roll (think Elvis) and Rock (think Beatles)…and Anti-Rock (think Punk) and Post Rock (think Hip Hop)–began the first time Fats Domino’s left hand, a piano, and a recording microphone were in the same room all at once.

We’ve got an exact date for that: December 10, 1949.

We’ve got an exact place for that: Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studio on Rampart Street, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Where else?

You can go back a whole lot further than the beginnings of the recording industry–and range much further afield than Rampart Street–and find elements of what became Rock ‘n’ Roll (and then all those other things). You can find them all over the timeline and all over the map.

But the train didn’t leave the station until Antoine Domino recorded “The Fat Man” and unleashed it on a half-suspecting, and perhaps more than half-expecting world.

And once the train left, there was no turning it back. When Elvis pulled a then nearly-forgotten Fats into the press conference kicking off his Vegas comeback and introduced him as “the real King of Rock and Roll” he was acknowledging the enormity of Domino’s influence, but also his status as the biggest R&B act of the formative fifties, the real “revolution.”

As the only fifties’ R&B star, in fact, bigger than Elvis.

Time had already forgotten what Elvis reminded everyone of in 1969 (when most of the press present had to be informed of who, exactly, this Fats Domino really was.)

Time forgot again in the long years since, reminded only on those rare occasions when Fats made national news–a presidential honor here, a Katrina-sized flood in the New Orleans neighborhood he increasingly refused to leave there.

Once his passing–today, at 89–leaves the front page, Time will forget again, even if it never stops patting its foot.

Some of the forgetting was his own doing. I never came across any written or video evidence of Fats promoting himself as the Originator. He left that to the likes of Richard and Chuck and Jerry Lee–and the ever-insidious crit-illuminati who listened to them, rather than to Elvis.  Fats himself was more likely to shrug and say rock ‘n’ roll was just something they had been doing in New Orleans since forever.

Maybe.

But you can listen to “Blueberry Hill” being done by someone as great and visionary as Louis Armstrong and then listen to Fats, and decide that his humble take might be disputable.

You can also listen to a real New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll precursor like “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” (perhaps Armstrong’s greatest rhythm record, from all the way back in the twenties) and reach the same conclusion.

Fats Domino was the man who, as singer, songwriter, ivory tickler, drove the Engine that rolled down the track until it couldn’t be stopped. It ended up running straight through the last–and best–cultural explosion “America” will ever know.

Time forgot.

White America forgot.

Black America forgot.

I ain’t forgot.

SIGNIFIERS (Bunny Sigler and Ralphie May, R.I.P.)

Bunny Sigler was a key player in the Philly Soul revolution of the 1970s. He made an indelible impact as a singer…

songwriter….

…producer, instrumentalist, tastemaker…and that rarest of rare things, a quality that always shone through his best music: A generous soul.

He passed away at the age of 76 on Oct. 6, something close to the last of his kind.

Heart attack.

Ralphie May had two advantages over literally all of the dubious “comedians” he leaves behind. He told the truth and he was funny.

He also died on Oct. 6., at age 45 Also of a heart attack.

Also something close to the last of his kind.

Well, at least the next plane is funnier and more soulful these days.

Here, we’ll just have to carry on with YouTube and the memories.

LAST STOP (Tom Petty, R.I.P.)

“Time just gets away from us.”

–Mattie Ross in True Grit

I said most of what I could say about Tom Petty–and the effect he had on those of us who thought Rock and Roll was still worth living for as the Frozen Silence (1980–2016…whatever the Godforsaken future holds, it won’t be Frozen or Silent) set in–here.

I’ll just add that he’s been strangely on my mind this past year though I couldn’t quite figure out how to approach writing about him at length. There were too many things to say that I couldn’t get my head around with the Frozen Silence being melted by a Fire Next Time that certainly shows no signs of burning out on the day I have to get my head around Tom Petty dying.

The one thing I knew I wanted to say, never mind the angle of approach, was that every single artist I listen to regularly has a place they take me to when I’m sitting in my den with the headphones on–a place that’s better suited to their music than any other on the American Highway.

Some folks sound just a little more perfect on real or imagined back country roads in the Southland, some on L.A. Freeways, some while running between the rusted out towns of the Upper Midwest, some in the Smoky Mountain Rain, some in the Philly Ghetto and so forth. I drove or rode through all those places and more back when I traveled around for the fun of it, and one thing I found is that a place’s perfect voice is not always who you think it will be.

The other thing I found was that Tom Petty and his band were the only ones who sounded perfect everywhere. Maybe being a Gainesville redneck who dreamed of L.A. because that’s where the Byrds were–and then ended up making it there–had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, nobody else operating in the middle of the Frozen Silence made as many records that rejected its terrifying, life-sapping assumptions so completely.

Robert Christgau once sneered that Petty’s “one great virtue” was “his total immersion in rock and roll.”

Sorry, but if you have to spend your life immersed in the idea of shouting into a Frozen Silence the Crit-Illuminati did every bit as much as the mere politicians to create and sustain (not least by remaining immersed in the fakery of pretending there were still sides worth choosing), what other virtue do you need?

Hope you’ve got that room at the top of the world tonight brother. Because you’re sure as hell the only damn Gator I want to see when I get there….

CAST A COLD EYE (Hugh Hefner, R.I.P.)

There’s always something a little wistful, and a shade pathetic, about a man who outlives his time. Hugh Hefner outlived his time so thoroughly that he lasted just long enough for his definitive cheesecake mag, Playboy, to leave off with the nudes.

Fitting, perhaps, for a man who reportedly cried when he finally accepted the reality that his nudes were going to have to show pubic hair in order to keep low rent thugs like Bob Guccione and Larry Flynt from driving him out of business in a Nightmare Age which, like many a wide-eyed revolutionary naif before him, he had ushered in all unknowing.

There were comebacks and comebacks and comebacks ever after. But I suspect it was never the same from that moment. By the time all the public hair was shaved anyway, I doubt he cared a whit. I never even heard if they caved on tattoos and body piercing after he let go full control.

Perhaps he never did either.

That said, his contributions in delivering generous helpings of jazz and late-sixties rock and roll to audiences who might not have experienced them otherwise (including, in the age of YouTube, people like me) shouldn’t be forgotten. Nor should the fact that, when he was in charge of taste-making, taste at least still existed.

That’s nothing we need worry about now, seven sex revolutions later. There’s no cheese and no cake. Pretty soon, no men or women either. Paradise surely awaits, right here on earth.

It may or may not be what he thought he wanted. But, either way, Hell will be living to see it.

Wherever he is now-and I suspect it’s getting a little warm–he was at least spared that….

COUNTRY GENTLEMAN (Don Williams, R.I.P.)

I didn’t realize until I went down the YouTube rabbit hole after Don’s death was announced this week just who many of his songs I still knew by heart, or that he had provided the missing link between Jim Reeves and Randy Travis. He’s known to rock audiences (if at all) as a favorite of Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton (who had a hit with a cover of Williams’ best record, which neither he nor anyone else could hope to improve):

But everybody in country knew Don Williams’ worth, both as a songwriter and, especially, a warm, graceful stylist who both carried on and inspired traditions without ever being mistaken for anyone else.

His legacy was an indelible piece of what country used to be, almost in spite of itself….and what it will be no more, no matter how hard it tries.

But don’t let that fool you. In his own time or any other, nobody else wrote songs called “Good Ole Boys Like Me” and meant to invoke a world that assumed Hank and Tennessee Williams came from the same place, let alone carried it off without breaking a sweat. Charlie Daniels and Hank Jr. have their place and their uses. But Don Williams carved a niche for himself by being the Voice of Reason in the face of rage and resentment. The radio was better when he was on it and the world was better when he was in it.

IT ONLY TAKES ONE (Troy Gentry, R.I.P.)

Country music took a double hit today. I’ll try to gather some thoughts on the mellow giant, Don Williams, later on, but here I’ll note the passing of Troy Gentry, half of the duo Montgomery Gentry, who died in a helicopter crash in New Jersey this afternoon at the age of 50. I can’t say Montgomery Gentry were any big favorite of mine, but I wrote at length about their greatest record here.

And if you don’t feel like clicking over, this video–and vocal–by itself is good enough for any man’s epitaph.