TALL, COOL ONE (Tom Wolfe, R.I.P.)

Tom Wolfe, co-creator of the “new” journalism, and one of its ablest practitioners, was, more than any other of his breed, even Hunter Thompson, bound up in Rock and Roll America. He was first on the ground to Phil Spector, the Merry Pranksters (who rolled over every other square who tried to act like one of their own and accepted Wolfe and his white suits and southern gentility because he never pretended to be anyone but himself), the Black Panthers in their Limousine Liberal phase.

Later on he wrote about the Space Race and social dissolution in the Frozen Silence. How well, I couldn’t say, though if Frozen Silences should, by chance, deserve chronicling, I’m sure he was as well-suited to the task as anyone.

But when he made his real mark, it was mostly about speed, speed, speed. Verbal speed, the speed of sound, the need for speed (all kinds–wind speed, asphalt speed, pharmaceutical speed).

And at the back of the speed it was all about cars.

Cars, cars and more cars.

The cars that forced him to notice them….and make himself a reputation.

Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby Speed.

I have it on good authority that the butler who attended his last word heard a single syllable as the snow-globe fell from his dying hand and shattered on the hardwood floor.

Cars….

Well, then, I guess he should just ride on out of here.

WORKING MAN (Kenny O’Dell, R.I.P.)

Kenny O’Dell started in Duane Eddy’s band and had some modest success as a recording artist. But he made his lasting mark as a Hall of Fame country songwriter who had a knack for scoring signature hits for era-defining country acts.

His best known song, “Behind Closed Doors,” made Charlie Rich a huge crossover star after Sam Phillips and a string of Nashville’s crack producers had been trying to put him over since the fifties. Released in 1973, the record probably did more than any other to open Nashville up to modern crossover and while that might have been a mixed blessing for those who liked to keep their country pure (it was only a year or two later that Rich himself, after reading John Denver’s name off a card that read Entertainer of the Year, proceeded to pull out his cigarette lighter and set the card on fire), it established an art and business model the town adhered to for the rest of the decade.

The New Nashville that emerged in the eighties was defined by the Judds if it was defined by anyone and O’Dell wrote their breakout hit “Mama He’s Crazy” as well.

Before, during and after all that he wrote a few dozen other hits and the several hundred other songs that won him every accolade a Nashville songwriter could hope for, from the Grammy on down.

One of those did something that meant as much to me personally as any record could. It was the first single Tanya Tucker released after she left Billy Sherrill (one of the aforementioned crack producers who had, incidentally, helmed “Behind Closed Doors”), Columbia Records and (for the time) Nashville.

Those were considered three very big mistakes at the time. Tucker was still a teenager and was supposed to know her place. The experience was not, in the end, entirely a happy one for her, either personally or professionally.

But the first single she released on her new label went #1 country, #7 on the Adult Contemporary chart and became her only single to reach Billboard’s Top 40. It laid to rest any question of whether she needed Billy Sherrill or Columbia or Nashville.

I missed all that. But a few years later the record was in constant rotation on the same weird little station that played the only Pop or Oldies format in my North Florida county and introduced me to Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My,” Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak”er” and “Black Dog,” Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugartown” and more than a few timeless others.

Nothing ever opened my ears more than waiting for that one song to come back around.

And out of all that, Tanya Tucker ended up being the only singer besides Elvis and Patty Loveless who ever kept me up all night.

Kenny O’dell passed away last week at 73. He outlived the wife he married long enough ago to leave five great grandchildren behind by less than a year.

God speed brother. I ain’t forgot.

ALMOST WILD (Valerie Carter, R.I.P.)

Sometimes, one gets by me–I missed Valerie Carter’s passing a year ago. Having just learned of it (as usual while I was looking for something else) I wanted to say a word.

Valerie Carter had the misfortune to be born with lead singer talent, leading lady looks and the soul of a woman who preferred remaining in the shadows. Absent the first two qualities, she would have been left alone…and probably lived a much happier and longer life. Since she had those qualities in abundance, she was pushed to the front early and often–it must have taken an iron will to get back to the obscurity she preferred and stay there.

There was no more startling experience in late-seventies record buying than coming across either of Carter’s first two solo albums in a stack of vinyl somewhere. The eyes looked straight through whatever camera had taken her picture and, staring off the album covers, straight through you.

One of the few things that equaled that experience was getting the records home and finding out that the voice on the black wax inside was a match for those eyes.

Just a Stone’s Throw Away, in particular, spent a lot of time on my turntable in the eighties, which is when I discovered Carter (she recorded these albums in the late seventies–I saw them in the bins several years before I bought them on Dave Marsh’s recommendation–for irony, see bellow). I used to think of her as a great lost talent–but I realized, from bits and pieces I picked up over the years, that she was one of those who maybe just wanted to stay lost. Her friend Linda Ronstadt was one who, a decade earlier, had been in the same boat. Ronstadt went through the whole process–the soul-killing compromises, the slings and arrows of jealous competition and even more jealous rock-crits (Marsh took it the furthest in Stranded, where he professed he would rather have the records he was taking with him than Ronstadt herself–now that’s bitterness–but he had plenty of company)–and made it to superstardom. I sometimes wondered if Linda ever put a word in Valerie’s ear suggesting it wasn’t really worth it.

Whatever happened, it was the world’s loss.

The lady could sing…

…a fact recognized by Ronstadt, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and the legion of others who kept her on speed-dial whenever they needed a backup singer for the next few decades.

And she was a pretty good muse too…

She died last year at 63, of complications that were doubtless rooted in years of the self-abuse so often endemic to those whose souls seek the shadows even if their talent begs for the spotlight.

From reading about her life, it doesn’t seem like she found much of the peace she brought to others while she was here.

I pray it’s hers by now.

EVANGELIST (Billy Graham, R.I.P.)

In my world–among my people–he was as ubiquitous as Elvis and as universally beloved. In the world at large he was, after Martin Luther King, the most famous American Christian leader of the twentieth century.

I’ll leave the debate over his significance and the good vs. the bad to others. Of course he was not perfect. He walked with kings a little too often for the common touch not to wear off now and again. He should never have abetted Richard Nixon’s anti-Semitism even in private (some ways, doing it in private was worse, especially when he clearly did it to curry favor rather than from shared conviction). Even in old age, he should have been more resolute in the face of Islamic terror after 9/11. He was a bit soft on our own fundamentalists, too–soft enough to let them not only tie themselves up in party politics but become confused in the public mind not just with Evangelicals (of whom they are a small minority) but with Protestants (of whom they are but a fraction) and finally, all Christians (of whom they are a fraction of a percent). Some (not all) of this is on his head and one could go on.

But against all that, and without even mentioning his legion of good works, I’ll say this: There are very few televangelists of any era I can count on to be with “my people” on the last day.

Him I can count on.

So, just this once….

TESTIFIER (Dennis Edwards, R.I.P.)

Dennis Edwards was one of the last great soul men–and, perhaps because he replaced another legend in the greatest call and response vocal group of the rock and roll era (there’s competition among the harmony groups, where they’re also in the running)–one of the least appreciated.

Like a lot of soul singers, he was the son of a preacher man. Very few brought as much raw gospel power to the world stage. He turned every venue into a revival, every microphone into a pulpit. If you need a measure of his quality, consider only this. The Temptations survived the departure of David Ruffin (whom Edwards replaced). They survived the death of Paul Williams. They survived the departure of Eddie Kendricks.

When Dennis Edwards left in 1977, they were finished as a major force in American music. By then, he had helped extend their legacy by nearly a decade. Shouting all the way, from his first mighty hit (which kept them firmly at the forefront of the changing times)…

to his (and their) last.. which might have been his (and their) mightiest.

Higher ground tonight brother. Every inch earned.

PATHFINDER (Hugh Masekela, R.I.P.)

Given the mellow nature of his career-defining hit, an instrumental version of “Grazing in the Grass” that topped the Pop and R&B charts in 1968, it was easy to take Hugh Masekela for granted. But for a very long time, he was the most famous musician from South Africa on the world stage and one of the most famous people. And he kept his country’s issues on the minds of anyone who would listen and walked the line between entertainer, artist and citizen of conscience better than a lot of others who were far more prone to making a big deal of never letting you forget how hard they were working at all three.

He was probably best known as a trumpeter, but he played several other instruments just as well, besides being an affecting (if occasional) vocalist, a formidable bandleader….

composer…

and lyricist.

Of course, for a lot of rock and rollers, his signature moment is probably his indelible trumpet playing on the Byrds’ “So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” There’s no shame in thinking so…as signatures go, few musicians ever left a finer one.

He died of cancer last week at 78, in Johannesburg. If there’s any cosmic justice he’s in that place where no one’s lying to the races, blowing up a storm.

 

“INTO ALL THE WORLD” (Edwin Hawkins, R.I.P.)

The story behind gospel choir leader Edwin Hawkins’ big hit “Oh, Happy Day” is one of the great American tall tales that just happens to be true and exemplifies the freewheeling spirit that defined record-making in the rock and roll era. I could never tell the tale as well as Mark Steyn does so I’ll just link to his piece.

And to the record, of course….

…which was one of the last examples of the New Testament trying to breathe life into the Pop Charts before a different sort of tide washed everything away.

Except the next world, of course, where Brother Edwin now resides.

Better then.

SCENE STEALER (Dorothy Malone, R.I.P.)

In Hollywood from the early forties, Texas-raised Dorothy Malone got her first big break in 1946, when she played a bookstore clerk in the Bogart/Bacall classic The Big Sleep. Ever after, the world has been divided into two kinds of people. Those who think, no matter who killed the chauffeur, the movie should have been about her….and the rest of you schlubs.

Stealing scenes from Bogey didn’t turn into anything big. Even winning an Oscar for Written on the Wind a decade later didn’t turn into anything really big because Hollywood still didn’t know quite what to do with her. The closest she ever came to being a household name was starring in the TV version of Peyton Place and even that level of fame didn’t last. Who now watches reruns of Peyton Place? Not enough to insure immortality I’ll bet.

She deserved better and probably knew it, but she kept a sense of humor about it. On screen, no matter the part, she had the kind of presence that can only come from those who don’t take themselves any more seriously than is required to not be taken for a sucker.

She probably left her deepest imprint on fifties-era westerns (I can highly recommend the tense, chamber-piece Quantez but she was also the best thing going in Warlock, among many others). The Texas accent she once quipped about losing as the big accomplishment of her days as a contract player at RKO may not have left a mark on her speech but the upbringing behind it gave her a no-nonsense quality that fit the genre hand-in-glove. In the movies I’ve seen, she never struck a false note. I doubt she knew how. When she was tired of Hollywood, she went back to Texas, where she passed away this week at 93.

No doubt still casting a cold eye on the inherent silliness of fame and the fleeting nature of all glory.

TRAPPED BY A THING CALLED SEX (Denise LaSalle, R.I.P.)

Denise LaSalle’s life read like a book of the blues. Born Mississippi, moved to Chicago, recorded in Memphis (for a Detroit label), died Jackson, Tennessee.

Though she benefited from the space Aretha Franklin opened up in the American narrative when she came south for a brief session in Muscle Shoals, LaSalle carved out a space all her own. Her entire career–as singer, persona, writer (of her own biggest hit “Trapped By a Thing Called Love” and Barbara Mandrell’s country standard “Married, But Not To Each Other” among dozens more…the titles tell all)–was dedicated to the deceptively straightforward place where sex, love and obsession meet.

Her voice, measured but gritty, made those simple themes worthy of a lifetime of exploration and, across nearly five decades, there was no year she could stand when she couldn’t hit the road and pull a crowd in some juke joint somewhere. She probably deserved bigger and better than she got (and she was plenty big at times), but she was a rare talent in a style that, devoid of the moral authority lives like hers brought to it, no longer exists except in memory. The style doesn’t exist because, for better or worse, the lives don’t exist.

Time does that. Catches up, overtakes us.

Hey time….Catch this.

NOW MUSCLE SHOALS THEY HAD THE SWAMPERS….(Rick Hall, R.I.P.)

…and, yes, they were known to pick a song or two.

But the reason the Swampers, and the little Alabama hole in the wall recording studio where they shook the world, were in Muscle Shoals was because Rick Hall, trying to make his mark outside of Memphis, without resorting to Nashville, fetched up there and set up the third point of American music’s great Southern triangle. Rick Hall was Fame Studios and Fame Studios was Rick Hall.

They both ended up being a lot of other things. A whole lot of people contributed. Mostly black artists and mostly white session men with a mix of songwriters, all trying to prove each other to each other in the classic Southern style while George Wallace’s Alabama (where Hall made a point of frequenting local diners in the company of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett) tried to turn back the clock all around them.

But it was Hall’s vision and once he took hold of it Southern Soul and the world it was born to save were never quite the same.

It was from Hall’s place that the careers of Arthur Alexander and Percy Sledge and Clarence Carter and Joe Tex and Candi Staton were launched and those of Etta James and Aretha Franklin (specifically chasing Sledge’s success) were reborn. And that was just the tip of a mighty iceberg. Shamefully, he died without entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (can’t blame the voters for that one–nods to visionary producers and label owners are in the hands of the Hall’s own committee).

Doesn’t matter. I just got the playlist from the Entrance Commission at the Pearly Gates.

I’m hearing it’s the greatest night ever. Smoked Jerry Wexler’s entry party and they’re swearing even Berry Gordy’s gonna have to run to keep up…(The Wilson Pickett cut is live and not to be missed).

Hope your vision comes all the way true where you are now brother….Because it sure is lying in tatters down here.