THE SHOCK OF THE NEW….NEW YORK CITY: CIRCA, 1957 (Great Quotations)

“He just stood there with his mouth open.”

The Chantels’ Arlene Smith, on the reaction of record man Richard Barrett (who was producer/label owner George Goldner’s talent scout/right hand man) when–at fifteen and on her way to creating an entirely new ethos in American culture–she auditioned for him on the streets of New York.

I’ll be pursuing this a bit in the next few days (Goldner, Smith, the Record Biz, that is) when I get back to some problems I had with Greil Marcus’ The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs.

In the meantime, I highly recommend the lengthy interview link below to anyone who is remotely interested in rock and roll in the fifties. From the street level, you might say:

 

 

THE SHOCK OF THE NEW…MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE: Circa 1970 (Great Quotations)

“And I looked in the studio mirror–they had this glass right there–looking at the engineers and everybody was jumping up and jumping up and jumping up and I said, ‘I must be doing something right.’”

The Reverend Al Green, on recording “Tired of Being Alone,”–which became his first major hit–after taking his producer Willie Mitchell’s advice to “keep it mellow” (and after also talking Mitchell into recording a song Green himself had actually written–they had, among many other things, already taken a run at “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”)

I can’t link to it, but I can’t possibly recommend  the full interview from which the above quote is taken highly enough.

It’s available at the following:

Search for NPR Fresh Air

Click on Browse Past Shows

Go down to November 2003 (kind of tedious because you have to back track one year at a time) and scroll down to “Musical Legend Al Green” and pull it up and click on “listen.”

I promise it’s worth the trouble!

Green talks with NPR’s Terry Gross about much of his career, including how listening to Elvis and Jackie Wilson as a teenager set him on the road to stardom…by getting him kicked out of the house. Equally fascinating is his story of how he came to record “To Sir With Love” a decade after first hearing it–note the gentle way he completely undermines and deflates Gross’ condescension to the song without ever directly chastising her ignorance…That is the true nature of New Testament Evangelism at work…and I love the way he refers to the seventeen-year-old Lulu as “some English lady!”

If, by chance, you can’t get to that, then by all means link to this:

 

THE SHOCK OF THE NEW, FEBRUARY, 1964: IT WAS FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY…

…That the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, of course. And I would be remiss if I didn’t share my favorite quote from among the numerous American performers who had already witnessed them in Europe (and the only one, so far as I know, who actually made a tape to bring to her American record company–which informed her that neither their sound or their look would ever make it here).

“They were just a little band that started opening shows for me, and I thought they were fabulous….And every night they would do these different songs and at that point, the British Invasion had not come to America. So I thought, ‘Where did these songs come from?’ So I talked to John and Paul, and they said, ‘Well, we wrote all these songs.’ I’m thinkin’, ‘My Lord.'”

Brenda Lee, hitting the nail on the head, as usual. (Source: Great American Country, August, 24 2007)

And here’s a clip from the BBC (December, 1963), which–unlike the Sullivan shows–actually indicates what the fuss was all about…you know, beyond all those songs. As a live act, they were never going to be Elvis or James Brown (or Brenda Lee if it comes to that), but, even with John determined to show everybody just how much Music Hall there was in their schtick–and even with two of the three numbers being somebody else’s songs–both they and their audience were much looser and far less self-conscious here than they ever would be again:

 

PSYCHOLOGY 101 (Great Quotations)

Anybody who spends any time here at all knows I’m highly skeptical of the “Svengali” theory of rock (or just culture), which holds that pretty much every great vocal ever delivered by a “non-writer” in the last sixty years was coaxed by a record producer. This theory extends so far that it even takes in Elvis from time to time (especially in the Sun days).

But it is especially all-encompassing when it is applied to great records sung by young women of whatever ethnicity and produced by young white (or at least crit-illuminati approved) males. Read the standard rock “histories” and you might come away thinking that Mary Weiss and Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love and Mary Wells needed Shadow Morton or Phil Spector or Smokey Robinson to go to the bathroom for them.

Heck, even the likes of Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield weren’t immune, and, coming forward in time, neither were Donna Summer (who actually wrote many of her hits and produced more than a few, but that’s another story for another time) and Linda Ronstadt.

So it’s pretty funny to discover that, once upon a time, along about 1970, the one Rock-era, non-writing woman who pretty much is immune from this particular style of condescension found herself resisting a song that she didn’t think she could do anything with.

Here’s her producer, Richard Perry, from an interview in 2011:

“She wanted to cancel the session….I said ‘I’ll cancel the session right now if you want. But I can’t believe that Barbra Streisand would back down from a challenge.'”

The ploy worked. They didn’t cancel the session. And the challenge ended up being this:

The record (covering the great Laura Nyro) ended up being Streisand’s first top ten record since “People” in 1964, as well as the first (and best) of many rock-tinged hits (several of them duets with the aforementioned Ms. Summer) in the years following.

But she didn’t need to wait for the charts to validate her response to Perry’s challenge. To finish the quote:

“After we did the first take…I called her in for a playback because it was clear that this was going to be a very special record….And while it was playing, she whispered in my ear ‘You were right and I was wrong. But it’s nice to be wrong!'”

Okay, as Svengali moments go, it wasn’t exactly Phil Spector locking his wife in the house and making her watch Citizen Kane every single day, but I’m glad Perry was on the job this particular day…and I bet Barbra is too!

(NOTE: All this was brought to the forefront of my ever-wandering attention this week after Streisand’s “Back to Brooklyn” special ran last weekend during the local PBS station’s pledge week. She spent the first part pulling off an outfit that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Shangri-La in the year she hit with “People.” And both her voice and her singing (which way too many people need to be reminded aren’t quite the same thing) were better than I’ve ever heard them be. Which is saying something….And just as a final note, the intro to the video here is a tad strange, but I loved the sound….A needle dropping on Promo vinyl of a classic 45 and then running in the groove. Doesn’t get any better than that. UPDATE: Scratch that last, the video disappeared. Perils of YouTube. But you can still enjoy the record!)

THE SHOCK OF THE NEW…MUSCLE SHOALS, ALABAMA: 1970 (Great Quotations)

“…Ronnie Van Zant’s voice mesmerized me. When he’d go ‘Yeaaaaow,’ it just wiped me out. I couldn’t wait to work with him because I’d never worked with an artist that distinctive. He had that fingerprint sound man, and nobody sounded like him, nobody!”

Jimmy Johnson, original Muscle Shoals “Swamper.” (Source: Liner notes to Skynyrd’s First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album, 1998)

Bear in mind that Johnson, as ace session guitarist and some-time producer and engineer, worked with practically everybody: Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Etta James, the Rolling Stones, Mavis Staples, Linda Ronstadt, Jimmy Cliff and so on and so forth–and had worked with most of them by the time he first heard Ronnie’s voice. I mention this only because I don’t think a lot of people put Ronnie Van Zant in that same class of vocalist and, frankly, they should.

Of course Van Zant, likely the last truly epic blues singer, white or black, who will ever find a mass audience, eventually repaid Johnson’s faith in him (and gave a rousing shout back) in the Swampers’ chapter of a little epic called “Sweet Home Alabama.” The Swampers’ chapter, for those who don’t recall, came right after the chapter where the shout-out to George Wallace went, “Boo, boo, boo!

Which–since it emanated from a working class southern white boy whose habit of performing in front of a Confederate flag was not likely to be forgiven just because he confounded so many other stereotypes, up to and including making a record called “Sweet Home Alabama,” which was taken into the stratosphere as much by a chorus of black female background singers as by its famous stone cold riff or Van Zant’s own powerhouse lead vocal–was/is automatically stereo-typed by many as being pro-Wallace.

Oh well. We really did all do what we could do.

Lynyrd Skynyrd “Sweet Home Alabama/Don’t Ask Me No Questions” (Performing in Studio–1974)

THE SHOCK OF THE NEW….SHELBY, NORTH CAROLINA–EARLY 1980s (Great Quotations)

“They started their set with Pat Benetar, Linda Ronstadt, Journey, .38 Special, Bonnie Raitt…[The singer] was incredible. She came out with this red spandex outfit and Joan Jett kind of hair and I was blown away by the talent in this little hole-in-the-wall bar.”

Music Exec John Alexander recounting a visit to a Carolina bar in the early eighties. The singer was future country star Patty Loveless, who turned out to be the finest American popular singer since Al Green and has always credited her years as a rock singer for forming a large part of her “traditional” style…I’ll have more to say about all this in the next week or so, but it’s never too early to post a Patty Loveless video or two!  (Source: Country Weekly…thanks to the great PattyLoveless.net website for uncovering this little item.)

Patty Loveless “He Hurt Me Bad (In a Real Good Way)” (Live on Television)

Patty Loveless “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” (Live on Television)

Sorry to say that Patty’s version of “Lovin, Touchin, Squeezin” is not yet available…

SOMETIMES THE ARTIST KNOWS BEST (Great quotations)

“There’s always events you kind of mark your lives by . . . And I always remember where I was, I was living on this farm, when a friend of mine called me and told me that Elvis Presley had died. I guess it was hard to understand how somebody who came in and took away so many people’s loneliness could have ended up so lonely . . . because he deserved a lot better.”

(Bruce Springsteen, 1985. Source: Troy Yeary, The Elvis Beat #3,–complete copy now posted at Troy’s ever-invaluable website.)

 

THE DARK LADY PROVIDES SOME SERENDIPITY (Great Quotations)

Thanks to the Criterion Collection’s usual due diligence in pursuit of excellence, a high quality print of Purple Noon, Rene Clement’s 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is now available to folks like me. I liked the movie just fine and I’ll probably like it even better on future acquaintance now that I know before it starts just how far the ending strays from the source (haven’t been taken so far aback on that score since the first time I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

The French critic interviewed in the supplements says Clement was aiming closer to Dostoevsky than Highsmith and I’d say he got closer to Poe than either. To be fair, though, Ripley was as unfilmable as it got in 1960….But my how quickly things changed.

The highlight of the release by far (including the movie itself), is an interview with Highsmith, conducted (in French) for French television, circa 1971.

A few posts back I wrote about the dangers of what now might as well be called Tarantino-style amorality, a danger Highsmith–a writer with a fair claim on being the greatest crime novelist of the only century likely to produce any serious contenders for the honor–has been regularly accepted as having aided and abetted.

And, of course, that acceptance has always been intended as a supreme compliment.

So what did she have to say about it here?

Well, for one thing, this (in English translation):

PH: Since I always write about guilt, I often think my books are old-fashioned, because today no one worries about guilt.

This makes me kind of curious to know just how “old-fashioned” she felt by the time she died a quarter-century later…Curious enough that I now feel a much stronger need than previously to track down her biography on the chance it has something to say about this.

Meantime, there’s this other quote to chew on, which is more to the point of a few things I’ve been posting here lately regarding the triumph of critical “interpretation” over mere artistic intent (and how the temptation offered by such notions has been overwhelming reason for quite a long while).

PH: It’s easy to write about young men like Tom Ripley because it’s basically a joke. Honestly, crooks always win. It’s hard to catch crooks. [Note that she says “crooks” not “a crook”–big difference.]

Interviewer: In fact, he’s a very likable criminal.

PH (clearly bemused): “Likable” is an exaggeration. He can’t be likable if he kills his best friend.

Really? He can’t?…I love that the interviewer says “In fact,” which would, of course, make the rest of her statement undeniable, on the order of deciding what number comes after the equal sign if what’s in front says two plus two.

Then again, she could be right.

After all, what did good old-fashioned Patricia Highsmith really know about Tom Ripley?

All she did, poor thing, was invent him.

(NOTE: The whole thing will probably be up on YouTube in short order so those interested in hearing the interview but not able or willing to pay for the DVD might want to keep an eye out. Among other things, Highsmith professed that she preferred living in the country because people were more honest there, a statement that will doubtless have various members of the crit-illuminati making all kinds of excuses for her once word gets around….I can hear it now. “Well she always was a bit eccentric you know….”)

UPDATE: KayJay has kindly pointed out to me that those who have Hulu may be able to access the film at least Link here...Including a blurb that says Purple Noon is “less judgmental” than the modern version with Matt Damon. Goodness (SPOILER ALERT dead ahead). Purple Noon is so judgmental that Ripley gets caught! When his not getting caught is the whole point of Highsmith’s vision for the character–not just in the source novel but in the whole series. I assume this comment is from the school best descrbed as “the-French-are-so-much-more-inherently-sophisicated-than-us-they-must-always-have-the-superior-take”…and the superior take is the ‘nonjudgmental’ one, of course, even if the person being judged is a psychopathic murderer.

The modern version doesn’t go quite as far as Highsmith’s novel because it suggests (though it does not spell out) that Ripley might have a conscience hiding down there somewhere in the pit that passes for his soul. But it certainly isn’t as “judgmental” as Purple Noon (which actually needs Ripley to be caught so badly it finally makes him stupid–can’t get any further from the source than that). Don’t get me wrong. Clement’s film is excellent. It’s just deeply misleading to suggest it is less conventional than the version Hollywood made in the nineties when indeed the reverse is true.

IT’S THE SINGERS STUPID….(Great Quotations)

Dionne Warwick “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (Television Performance)

“Without these limitations….Suddenly you know…Hello! She can go that high. And she can sing that low. She’s that flexible and she can sing that strong and that loud and be so delicate and soft, too. And the more you saw that, the more I was exposed to that, musically, the more risks, the more chances I could take.”

(Burt Bacharach, discussing Dionne Warwick, The Songmakers Collection DVD, 2001)

As I’ve stated before on this blog, any narrative of rock and roll which moves singers and singing out of the center is a false one. The great voices matter most. The great voices don’t date. The great voices were by far the most powerful element that was set free by the rock and roll revolution. And, in rock and roll, the great voices set the parameters and imaginitive limits for the great writers and producers–not the other way around. This is about as bluntly as I’ve ever heard his particular truth put (though Shadow Morton has said similar things about Mary Weiss in recent years and Phil Spector and Brian Wilson said similar things about Ronnie Spector once upon a time).

ADVICE WE’LL NEED TO REMEMBER IF WE EVER EXPECT TO REACH ANY HIGHER…(Great Quotations)

…Naturally one can only expect this sort of clarity from a rock and roll grandson of a preacher:

“We all carry a certain amount of prejudice and probably a certain amount of prejudice is okay. But it’s only when one becomes biased and have hate in their heart and won’t allow themselves to relate or sit down at the table and converse does it look bad for us all.”

Curtis Mayfield (Source: “Curtis Mayfield on Superfly,” Superfly DVD Extras, released 2000)