DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Checkmates, Ltd. Up)

“Love Is All I Have To Give”
The Checkmates, Ltd. (1969)
Did Not Chart
Recommended source: Back to Mono 1958-1969

The Checkmates (or Checkmates, Ltd.) were a lounge act Phil Spector became briefly enamored of in the late sixties when he was making the first of his many “comebacks.”

The other comebacks never amounted to much. He liked to latch on to some established act (a Beatle if he could get one, it not, almost anyone would do–The Ramones, Leonard Cohen, Dion) and lend his name to what they were already doing, sometimes with a pistol-waving incident or two thrown in.

But he had something prove with Checkmates, Ltd. They were unknowns, and he had a history of making hits with unknowns, the better to put himself at the center of their achievements.

He found success, too. His second release on them was “Black Pearl,” a big hit featuring the group’s tenor, Sonny Charles, in a spectacular performance that was one of the subtlest and deepest of the era’s protest-soul records.

But their first Spector release, which had gone nowhere, was just as powerful. It featured the group’s baritone, Bobby Stevens, on a record he had co-written with Spector.

Given the wunderkind’s habit of moving on once he had gotten what there was to get out of any given act, it’s an open question whether “Black Pearl” would have received the same loving care if this had been recorded first (unclear whether it was), released first (it was) and been a hit (it wasn’t).

Stevens’ delivery was remarkable here–a rougher voiced Ray Charles. Ray without the genius if you like….

…which only makes the ache burn a little deeper.

And, yes, it still sounds like a Phil Spector record.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Latimore Up)

“There’s a Red-Neck in a Soul Band”
Latimore (1975)
Billboard R&B: #36
Recommended source: Straighten It Out: The Best of Latimore

Benny Latimore was a modest fixture on the soul charts in the 70s, with three top tens (two of which crossed over to the pop Top 40) and a string of mid-charters.

This was one of the latter. It deserved better. It deserved so much better that Wild Cherry copped the concept (the exact concept) a year later and rode it to #1 Pop and R&B. There’s no use hating on Wild Cherry–I’ve seen “Play That Funky Music” bring the races together on dance floors in some very odd places and as recently as five years ago. But it’s too bad this isn’t better known. Plenty of less witty (not to mention less soulful) novelties became bigger hits and even heavy rotation oldies. I’d like to hear this on the radio just once.

Sometimes life just ain’t fair. But, hey, that’s what YouTube and the Diamonds in the Shade category are for…

 

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Jim Stafford Up)

“Swamp Witch”
Jim Stafford (1973)
Billboard: #39
Recommended source: Jim Stafford

All I know is: Hattie don’t vote.

You ask me how I know?

Hey, I’ve been to that part of Florida.

I only wish there were available footage of ol’ Jimbo intoning this little story song on national television (his own variety show no less…that’s how strange the 70’s were!). Still this is a nice reminder that the age when there were stories–and songs–lasted to the edge of living memory.

Good ol’ Hattie.

Did she drop in from “Wooly Bully?” Escape from it? Does she want to go back?

That I don’t know.

What else I do know, besides Hattie don’t vote, is, come the Apocalypse, ol’ Hattie gonna be just fine. Swamp Witch magic still gonna be useful and good.

Still wonder about the rest of us, though.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Bay City Rollers Up)

“Rock and Roll Love Letter”
Bay City Rollers (1976)
Billboard: #28
Recommended source: The Definitive Collection

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Only the Rollers could inspire so much….plaid!

Well, we could all use a little happy. If you need a sign that the Apocalypse didn’t exactly start yesterday, though, consider that this not only stalled outside the top twenty in America, but some fool saw fit to not even release it in the UK, or half the other countries where Rollermania was a real thing.

That’s exactly the kind of stupidity that causes empires to fall.

This song has a lot of personal relevance for me because it contains my favorite misheard lyric. My original angst was bad enough, but now I find that “keep on rock and rollin’ till my jeans explode” was really “till my genes explode.”

I had feared as much, but now the internet has confirmed it.

Not that either could replace “to my Jesus soul,” which was what I heard throughout my blissfully ignorant youth.

Oh, well, at least the Rollers (or their producer) had the decency to slur the blasphemy (and I don’t mean the part about Jesus, which was holy).

There are at lest half a dozen hipper–i.e., more clearly enunciated versions–on YouTube, including the original by the song’s writer, Tim Moore. This smokes them all. You really can’t beat the pros for this sort of thing. And, just on another personal note, I can state with complete certainty that if you segue this on a properly made mix-disc and bleed it out of Madonna’s laugh at the end of “Where’s the Party” it will make your head explode.

In a good, healthy, life-affirming, purely therapeutic way.

I promise.

Smile and be well.

And, yeah, I thought about doing this as a two-fer with “Yesterday’s Hero,”–the greatest “all glory is fleeting” record ever made–but, what with so many people on Suicide Watch just now, I didn’t want to be held responsible for some kind of wrist-slitting epidemic in case this went viral. The brave can find it easily enough.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose Up)

“Don’t Ever Be Lonely (A Poor Little Fool Like Me)”
Cornelius Brothers & Sister  Rose (1972)
Billboard: #23
Billboard R&B: #28
Billboard Adult Contemporary: #27
Recommended source: Classic Masters

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If you want to speak of artists who get little respect, speak of Supper Club Soul, a typically lilting, often ballad-oriented, variation on what came to be called “Beach Music” after the dance music preferred by Carolina shaggers in the sixties and seventies. Even at its most insistent (say, The Chairmen of the Board’s “Give Me Just A Little More Time”) the sound tended to be lighter and brighter than the main streams of Southern and Urban Soul that dominated both the charts and the critical discussion (such as it was) of what black people were up to in the period.

As little real understanding as the crit-illuminati evince of Stax and Motown, Supper Club Soul remains barely noticed at all. Its geniuses–Dionne Warwick, The 5th Dimension, Lionel Richie–collectively await a single nomination on those Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballots that, year after year, find room for artists (mostly white and male) from other genres who are, shall we say, less than genius.

I don’t know if Eddie Cornelius, the lead singer and songwriter for Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose, was a minor genius who just didn’t get the right opportunity to fulfill his entire destiny, or a superb craftsman who happened to be in the right place at the right time. I’m continually fascinated by those who walk up to the very edge of fame and then recede from our view, having left behind a few beautiful memories, but I don’t profess to understand why one voice goes on and another falls by the wayside.

I do know that Eddie’s vocal on this record is a great, forgotten moment in seventies soul–his characteristic dry, distinctive baritone on the verses gently pierced on the chorus by one of the loveliest falsettos this side of heaven, mounting to transcendence as it repeats.

It was the follow-up to “Treat Her Like a Lady” and “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” two monster hits (which he also wrote) that, in nearly half a century, have never left the radio. And it was every bit as good. Whether its air of melancholy–common to Eddie’s vocals but accentuated here into something that reaches just an inch or two further–was the cause of its slightly less impressive chart showing, or simply a cosmic indicator of the group’s subsequent rapid fade (which occurred despite a sting of fine releases which are collected on the comp recommended above), is impossible to say. But, sometimes, time is the best revenge. That might be worth remembering in the days ahead:

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Johnny Bush Up)

“Daddy Lived In Houston”
Johnny Bush  (1972)
Not released as a single
Recommended source: Bush Country (Vinyl Only)

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Country music is in one of its periodic funks these days. So my ears tell me.

This funk will last. So my common sense tells me.

Traditional music forms need traditional cultures to survive. When there’s nothing to affirm there’s nothing to rebel against either. And vice versa. Take away the limits tradition imposes and pretty soon you are pushing air.

Pretty soon after that you are sucking oxygen in a Brave New World.

In human terms, this might not be entirely lamentable. No one could envy the narrator of Johnny Bush’s “Daddy Lived In Houston,” as he describes, in gimlet-eyed detail, his father’s abandonment of his rural family to chase money (and, doubtless, women as well) in Houston’s war-time shipbuilding yards.

That is, no one could envy his material circumstance. This is a song nearly any good country singer of Bush’s generation, or any generation that preceded it, could have sung with conviction. No singer of the current generation could sing it without taking a leap of the imagination. Even in the previous generation (the one that succeeded Bush’s), it’s hard to identify anyone but Patty Loveless who ever felt anything like the pinch of real poverty, which might be why Loveless’s voice predicted Appalachia’s current epidemic of meth-fueled White Death by a generation even as her New Nashville lyrics espoused conventional aspiration.

Surely that’s a good thing, though. No one wants anyone to starve. No one wants any child to have to clear rabbit traps every morning just so his family can eat.

Of course, you have to be careful what you wish for. A world without pain or want has ended up being mostly a world where people imagine new forms of victimhood. That’s what all the angst you hear on the modern radio–including modern country radio–is about. Look at me. Or, if you like, Listen to me. Isn’t my pain real? Here, if you think it’s not, I’ll take another deep breath and add twenty more rounds of melisma just to prove you’re WRONG!

“Daddy Lived in Houston” is a great record not least because its lyric does not preclude the notion that Bush’s narrator has grown up to be just like his daddy. Call it a blues. Half talking, half opera. Muted pain and guilt, then, and a thousand times more powerful than anything you’ll hear on the radio today, when pain can only be faked and guilt isn’t even a concept.

Bush, a good candidate for the most under-sung great country singer ever, had hits through the late sixties and the seventies, a long if mostly modest run, including a definitive “You Gave Me a Mountain,” and records as monumental as “You Ought to Hear Me Cry” and “Undo the Right.” This, never released as a single and, so far as I can tell, unavailable on CD, was his masterpiece. A sigh of relief that we don’t have to go there anymore….and a reminder that all of nature–including the human part–abhors a vacuum.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Smokey Robinson Up)

“Sweet Harmony”
Smokey Robinson (1973)
#48 Billboard
# 31 Billboard R&B
Recommended source: The 35th Anniversary Collection

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When Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet.” I think the general assumption was that he was referring to Smokey’s way with words and hence being modest in granting the title to someone else that so many had, rather justifiably, bestowed upon him.

And were it only a matter of words, I suppose there still might be an argument. I wouldn’t want to say a wordsmith responsible for, say, “Tracks of My Tears” or “The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage” ever had to take a back seat to anyone.

But words were only a fraction of what the words “Smokey Robinson” meant. If by “poet” one assumes the totality of an artist–in Robinson’s case, artistry that included words, melodies, arrangements, productions (of his own records and many others), vocals, iconography, performances (both live and in studios), assignations with the Cosmos, generosity of the spirit–then one does not need to reckon with Dylan’s modesty or his tendency to play mind games. The phrase “America’s greatest living poet” becomes literal enough and true almost to the point of inarguability.

All of that was well established by the time Smokey decided to quit the Miracles in 1973. Within a couple of years, he would define, and name, Quiet Storm, a new approach to adult ballad singing that would become the last important classic R&B radio format. Sort of what poets do.

In between, though, he released “Sweet Harmony” as his first solo single.

It should have been a natural smash: The most beautiful song ever written by the guy who had written so many of the era’s other “most”-whatever songs, sung to both break and lift the heart, as a tribute to his best friends.

For whatever reason, it wasn’t. The reason I recommend encountering it on the box set I linked above is that it means something different bleeding out of the fifteen years of  genius and sweat that preceded it. It’s gorgeous in any context, almost unbearably so in that one, where, more than ever, it sounds both a tribute to the entire era of soul music, just then beginning to pass into the night, and an attempt to heal the new divisions rising within, divisions that rend us still.

Those southern soul horn charts from the master of Motown couldn’t be there by accident. Not when the master was our greatest living poet they couldn’t.

 

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE…THE LOST YEARS OF THE GO-GO’S EDITION

“Cool Jerk”
The Go-Go’s (1990)
#60 UK
Recommended source: Greatest

“The Whole World Lost Its Head”
The Go-Go’s (1994)
#108 Billboard
Recommended source: Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s

“Good Girl”
The Go-Go’s (1994)
Did not make the charts
Recommended source: Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s

“Beautiful”
The Go-Go’s (1994)
Album Track
Recommended source: Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s

Weird.

gogos1

Every once in a while when I’m noodling around, doing nothing in particular, I think of something from days gone by and then, being now properly programmed by modernity, I naturally think again. What I tend to think the second time is “I wonder if it’s on YouTube?”

One of the things I still can’t believe is not on YouTube, no matter how often I’ve thought “surely it must be there by now,” is the Go-Go’s’ MTV video for “Turn to You,” the last great single of their original incarnation, which ended in 1984. One reason I keep hoping it will be there is so I can do a “Not Quite Random Favorites” edition titled “My Favorite Video” because nothing else comes within a thousand miles. (That’s the one where they played a band at a sock-hop…and their own dates. Maybe they really did need a break.)

Anyway, last night I went looking for it yet again and found it still wasn’t there. There’s a mini-doc on the making of “Turn to You”–of course there is–but not the actual video.

Story of my life and all that.

But, this time, clicking around, I started thinking of other things that should be there, none of which I ever thought to look for before.

By which I mean videos from “the lost years”….those years between 1984’s Talk Show and 2001’s God Bless the Go-Go’s, when they popped in and out a couple of times and did what they always did, which was be perfect.

Sometimes, what other people did with and to them wasn’t perfect. Whoever put the extra disco-fied ‘effects’ on this wasn’t perfect. But I’m sure it wasn’t their idea. They were barely paying attention to themselves or each other when this came out in 1990. But having the video finally makes sense of it (in a way its inclusion on their first greatest hits package didn’t). What’s clear hearing–and seeing–it now, at least to me, is that Belinda Carlisle had turned from a singer who was right for her band to a singer who could carry any band. I missed that at the time so a mea culpa is in order.

They were paying a little more attention when they got together and recorded three new songs of their own for 1994’s full-blown retrospective Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s. Almost inconceivably, I had never even wondered if they made any videos attending that little project, so I went searching deeper and found this, for the lead single from the project….which isn’t much of a video (not nearly as good as “Cool Jerk,” let alone what they had done in their heyday) but is a fabulous record. Even if the faint tang of my disappointment in finally realizing that “Boston girls are getting down in bikinis” (a touch of poetry) was really “Muslim girls” (meh) remains, it’s failure to break out still serves as one of the Seven Signs of the Apocalypse…

…And it wasn’t even the best of the three sides they cut for Return.

This, for which they released a single but didn’t make a real video, was better, and has the new-and-improved Carlisle’s finest vocal…

..and I’m not even sure it was the best…depends on the mood I guess. It’s worth reading the quotes at the beginning of each song, but they won’t break any ties.

All in all, that should have been enough to re-start their career.

But it wasn’t.

God Bless the Go-Go’s came out a full seven years later and, instead of really promising more, its final track sealed the whole deal. Years of summer reunion gigs, Kathy Valentine’s departure, and one of those “farewell tours” (at least I think there was only one) formalized it.

But the end was right there in that final track, now commemorated in my favorite “homemade” video.

For some perspective, here’s a nice piece from Goldmine, circa 2011, before Valentine left the band, where, among other things, they debunk any notion that being an all-female band was actually some kind of advantage, post-punk. Turns out that, through no fault of their own, Fanny and the Runaways (both signed by big labels and given major publicity pushes in the decade prior) hadn’t so much blazed a trail as crapped the table.

I’m reading between the lines, of course.

Just more fuel for the argument I made at the time and have made ever since: they didn’t blaze all those trails because it was, as so many argued, “time” for an all-female band. They blazed all those trails because they were the Go-Go’s. It’s only in critical theory that the theories count. In the real world, it’s always the people who matter.

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(Belinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, Jane Wiedlin, Kathy Valentine)

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Wet Willie Up)

“Street Corner Serenade”
Wet Willie (1977)
#30 Billboard
Recommended source: Southern Rock Gold

wetwillie1

By the time Wet Willie released their first effort on Epic Records, the bone-hard Southern rock they had helped bring to prominence was dying out. The form couldn’t survive the death of its two biggest talents. Duane Allman had been killed in a motorcycle accident just as the concept was taking off in 1971. Ronnie Van Zant had gone down in the plane crash that took the heart out what was left in the summer of 1977.

Time for something new–even for a band as tried and true as Wet Willie.

So, a few months after Van Zant’s death, they came up with this weird idea for a record and it became the greatest of its type: The Southern Rock Post-Doo Wop Blue-Eyed Soul Celebration Lament With a Slightly Caribbean Lilt.

Okay, so far as I know, it’s the only record of its type, but it could have withstood some pretty heavy competition. It played wistful or celebratory in its too-brief moment, depending on what you brought to it on a given day.

It still does. It’s the most completely faked record I know of that is also completely true. Wet Willie was from Mobile, Alabama. It’s a big enough city to have an Italian contingent. Still, I rather doubt any “street corner” singing Jimmy Hall and the boys may have done involved guys named Guido.

Except maybe in their own imaginations. And, since imagination was in short supply on the radio by December of 1977 when this was released, one could overlook a few incongruities. It played true back then, for the five minutes it was on the radio. It plays true now, when you have to dig it up on YouTube or Amazon.

And if you think a smile was cheap in those days, you either didn’t live them or don’t remember. A hundred more like “Street Corner Serenade” and we still couldn’t have restarted the revolution. But hey, a hundred more like it and we might not have needed to…

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Bobby Fuller Four Up)

“Let Her Dance”
The Bobby Fuller Four (1965)
#133 Billboard
Recommended source: Never To Be Forgotten – The Mustang Years

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Dave Marsh has written that the Bobby Fuller Four had a claim on being the best rock and roll band in America in the mid-sixties. If you want to start such an argument, you can find enough evidence on the two small box sets that collect all the group’s work (especially the one recommended above) to get it going, though not enough to finish it. For that, Fuller would have needed to live a little longer and keep up the pace.

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Whether he could have, we’ll never know. He was found dead in his car a few months after “I Fought the Law” became a breakout hit in 1966. Among the wilder rumors that floated around in the years after the L.A. coroner checked both “accident” and “suicide” on his death certificate was that Elvis had him killed for refusing to sell that same car. For a more plausible explanation of Bobby’s death–and much else–I highly recommend John Kaye’s great novel The Dead Circus, which I reviewed here.

For my own take on just how good the Bobby Fuller Four was at high tide, you can go here.

But if you just needed one record to get you thinking about what might have been, “Let Her Dance” might do the trick. The world moved faster back then. What I like to call Pop Time moved at lightning speed. Who knows where Fuller’s career might have been twelve months later if “Let Her Dance” had broken out as it should have in the summer of ’65. Probably nowhere significantly different than where it was. But maybe, just maybe, it would have moved his life a hair to two to the left or right on the Dial of Fate–and just maybe it would have been the hair’s difference that would have let him live to old age.

Keith Richards has spoken about late night parties in Swinging London where John Lennon would get in his cups and say things like “If only Buddy had lived!” the kind of drunken philosophy which means absolutely nothing literally and absolutely everything spiritually.

Bobby Fuller was the closest anyone came to taking Buddy Holly’s place, literally or spiritually. Unfortunately, the proximation was bit too literal. But if you wonder where the ceiling was, try sticking “Let Her Dance” between “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” and “London’s Burning”  on the Universe of Stomp’s supremo mix-disc some time.

Then crank it to the max.

You might be surprised who sounds like the genius then.