DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Betty Wright Up)

“Shoorah! Shoorah!”
Betty Wright (1974)
#28 Billboard R&B, #27 UK
Recommended source: The Best of Betty Wright

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“Shoorah! Shoorah!” was not out of time. The writer, Allen Toussaint, was as hot as a pistol and specialized in southern funk with a slightly Caribbean undercurrent. His “Lady Marmalade,” cut with LaBelle, was one of the era’s signature hits.

Betty Wright herself was the founding queen of Miami’s soul scene. (One of these days I’ll have to do a post on the phenomenon of young women establishing a scene and then being forced to hang on by their fingernails when the boys step in to take over.)  She had a hit at fourteen with “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do,” then turned into a teen talent scout who eventually brought both Gwen and George McCrae to her label, Alton. Alton was the springboard producer/exec Henry Stone used to put Miami on the map, not with either of the McCraes or the later arriving KC and the Sunshine Band, but with Wright’s own “Clean Up Woman,” an across-the-board smash in 1971.

Like a lot of rough-voiced soul singers (especially those never associated with Memphis or Motown) Wright maintained a steady, if unspectacular, presence on the R&B charts, but barely dented the pop charts after her one big hit.

The failure of “Shoorah! Shoorah!” to make much noise even on the black charts while her disco-fied label-mates and fellow scenesters were conquering every chart and scene in sight, circa 1974/75, must have been….depressing. Here’s Wright on her attitude at the time: “I used to sit down and think of all the weird things I was gonna do to make me explode–chopping up a plane or something.”

A little extreme maybe, though maybe telling of the crucible that black life in America can be. And when you think about some of the records that have been hits over the years, you can see where she might have felt pushed against the wall.

What does it take to get a hit in this world!

…Just on a personal note, I once did a series of mix-tapes designed to cross all genres of beat music that ran to thirty tapes at ninety minutes each. “Shoorah! Shoorah!” wasn’t just the first record on the first tape. It was the record that gave me the idea. After the great CD selloff of 2002, when a few years passed and I was trying to find an organizing principle for re-constituting my CD collection on a limited budget, I decided to start by acquiring the music on those tapes.

It took me ten years. It also kept me sane.

Thanks Betty.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Dobie Gray Up)

“We Had It All”
Dobie Gray (1973)
Not released as a single.
Recommended source: Drift Away: A Decade of Dobie (1969-1979) (Highly recommended if you have the bucks. One of the era’s great undersung vocalists)

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This is a song that’s been done by Waylon Jennings (he had the country hit), Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, the Rolling Stones (as a late seventies outtake available on YouTube), Bob Dylan and a cast of thousands.

Like more than a few songs recorded by lots of people it was defined by Dobie Gray. Like every record defined by Dobie Gray that wasn’t “Drift Away” or “The In Crowd,” it was not a big hit. In this case, it was not even released as a single–probably because Waylon (or Waylon’s label) beat him to the punch.

It was a highlight of Gray’s debut LP for MCA, which was also his first attempt at cracking the black-man-in-Nashville code that, in eighty years of the town’s race-coded hegemony, has only been fully solved by Charley Pride and Darius Rucker.

When Dobie came to town, there was a whiff of unusual promise. The era saw established artists like the Pointer Sisters and Tina Turner (this was when she took her own fine crack at “We Had It All”) follow Ray Charles’ long-ago footsteps to the country capital. Better than that, fabulous singers with truly country roots and voices–Gray, Stoney Edwards, O.B. McClinton–came tantalizingly close to establishing themselves on country radio, a bond which, if ever fully formed, would have been bound to be long-lasting. No audience is quite as loyal as the country audience.

It didn’t happen.

I wonder where we’d be now if it had.

We can’t know, but Dobie Gray often sounded like a man who had already accepted the impossibility of catching the version of the American dream–the real American dream–he was chasing. Never more so than here, where every word smiles and every word aches.

(NOTE: The only singer who gave Dobie a run for his money when he dug in was Elvis, who matched him on “Lovin’ Arms” and “There’s a Honky Tonk Angel (Who’ll Take Me Back In).” I’ll give a dollar on a nickel he knew a fellow dreamer when he heard one.)

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Rachel Sweet Up)

“Shadows of the Night”
Rachel Sweet (1981)
Not released as a single. #13 in Billboard for Pat Benetar in 1982
Recommended source: Fool Around: The Best of Rachel Sweet

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Rachel Sweet was too early and too late. Too late to be a straightforward heir of the Brenda Lee rasp (which, as of the mid-seventies, had been taken over by adults like Stevie Nicks), and too early to catch the wave of teen angel-dom she helped create (of which Tiffany and Debbie Gibson were the prime beneficiaries and formers of the bridge to Britney and Miley and whoever’s hustling the mall crowd right now, working for the day when they, too, are chosen) none of whom could sing like Rachel Sweet.

Her early records on Stiff excited some critics and a hardcore cult, just enough to ensure that a small, fierce, purely informal band would carry on even if she left the biz. I count myself an enthusiastic member.

Later on, she did indeed leave the biz–at least the rock and roll part of it. She grew up, graduated from Columbia (the university), and made a mint writing and producing for television. According to Wikipedia she was eventually worth enough to buy and sell one of Madonna’s houses for some ridiculous sum.

Good for her.

But those of us in the shameless cult still remember what might have been. She flirted with stardom throughout the late seventies and early eighties. Her cover of Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y” made the UK top forty. A slightly surreal duet with Rex Smith on “Everlasting Love,” after she signed with Columbia (the record label), did the same in the U.S. She scraped other charts here and there across the western world.

But, on the whole, her records worked best as secrets and the best secret of all was “Shadows of the Night.” Ex-pat Helen Schneider had a big, contemporary hit with her version in Germany and other parts of Europe. That may have been why Sweet’s American label didn’t release her version as a single.

Or maybe they were just stupid.

It took a lot of miscalculation to prevent Sweet from being a star. And, as my dad used to say about certain other inexplicable things, sometimes you have to assume it must have taken a genius, because no ordinary man could have done it.

The stupidity all around was exposed a year later when Pat Benetar had one of the biggest hits of a hit-machine career with a version that was half as good.

I’m glad Rachel got rich. I only wish it had been for the best of reasons and not just one more proof of a world gone sideways.

Stiff Records 1978

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Manfred Mann Up)

“Each and Every Day”
Manfred Mann (1966)
U.S. B-Side of “Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James” (neither side made the U.S. Pop Charts)
Recommended source: Chapter Two: The Best of the Fontana Years

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Manfred Mann was a keyboard playing English jazzbo bandleader who had a knack for finding fabulous singers to front his various aggregations. His first singer was Paul Jones, the raspy R&B fueled belter who lent anything from Brill Building ready-mades like “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and “Sha La La” to Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” an air of what might be called vulnerable aggression.

Remarkably, when Jones left in early 1966, Mann hired Mike D’abo, a completely different kind of singer–pop-oriented, all vulnerability, a hint of mystery–who delivered similarly spectacular results. Although only “The Mighty Quinn” (another remarkable Dylan cover…at one point Dylan reportedly said Manfred Mann was his best interpreter) broke out in the U.S., the band continued on with a steady string of big hits in the U.K.

“Each and Every Day” was not one of them. According to the band’s then guitarist, Tom McGuiness, “We originally wanted to issue it as an A-side in England but we never had much confidence in our own material (it was written by then member Mike Hugg). We always thought our own songs were too quirky to be hits.”

Mann’s confidence in covers was not exactly unfounded. He’d keep that faith right on through the mid-seventies, when the fourth major incarnation of his band topped charts all over the world with their version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded By the Light.” Mann’s particular gift ended up being an ability to hear anthems in other folks “personal” statements.

Somehow, he missed the anthemic quality in Mike Hugg’s own personal statement. Too close to home maybe.

“Each and Every Day” wouldn’t have changed the world, or even the shape of Manfred Mann’s own career.

But, sometimes, you just wish something had been a hit so you could encounter it at random now and then: On the radio, in a commercial, over the intercom at the mall or the grocery store. Hey, I’ve had epiphanies in all those places when something or other was in the mix just because it was a hit. And none were more perfect than this.

For the English working class, then. With the fire that is about to be trained on them from all sides, they’ll need every smile they can find.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Bill Medley Up)

“Brown Eyed Woman”
Bill Medley (1968)
#43 Billboard Pop
#37 Billboard R&B
Recommended source: The Righteous Brothers Anthology: 1962-1974

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(The cover of Bill Medley’s first solo album after leaving the Righteous Brothers. These days, you can buy it for sixty bucks used on Amazon…which means you should shop elsewhere!)

The hits came and went and came and went, but the Righteous Brothers always made great records, together and apart.

They were making great records when Phil Spector found them in the mid-sixties and put them in front of his own greatest record, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” where they easily held their own. They made great records with him. Then they made some great records without him (but very much in his style and spirit). Then they split up and made some great solo records. Then they got back together and made some more great records, straight on through “Hold On” in the mid-seventies (which I should have added to the secret treasure list in my Barry White piece a few days ago).

After that, they quit making records–dead stop–and became an on-again, off-again oldies’ lounge act, at which I do not doubt they were great as well.

Like a lot of duo acts, they had sort of a love-hate relationship, each man longing in some part of himself, to prove he could make it on his own.

“Brown Eyed Woman,” released in 1968 just after their first breakup, was the deep-voiced Medley’s second single. Why is wasn’t his first (the perfectly fine “I Can’t Make Alone” took the honor and went nowhere) is a mystery. But it might explain why this didn’t do better. Not much else does. When your really good first single, off your first solo album when you are trying to break away from a group identity, flops, it doesn’t do your really great second single any favors.

Medley never sang better than here, not even on “Lovin’ Feelin’,” which is the only pop record that has ever given me an out of body experience similar to a religious one (I’ve had them,, too, so I have a more than theoretical frame of reference). There’s not much information available on the recording itself. Medley took the production credits (with Barry Mann), as he had with later Righteous Brothers’ records. I assume he just assembled Spector’s old crew and applied what he had learned. Plenty good, too. Spector himself could not have done better.

But the shattering vocal is all Medley’s. One thing Spector didn’t do much in his otherwise obsessive-to-the-point-of-madness sessions was coach his lead singers. He was too smart for that. He was smart enough to know his greatest gift was as a talent scout.

He never found a bigger talent than Medley, and If the bass half of the Righteous Brothers had managed even one major hit in the late sixties, the rest of his career might have been very different. As it was, he must have known early on that it wasn’t in the cards. If this, a record I can imagine lighting a fire in his good friend Elvis just as he was about to remake the world again, didn’t make it, then what would?

He was certainly never going to beat it. And the singers, they always know…

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Tanya Tucker Up)

“The Jamestown Ferry”
Tanya Tucker (1972)
B-side of “Love’s the Answer”
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: Greatest Hits (Columbia)

“Horseshoe Bend”
Tanya Tucker (1973)
Album cut from What’s Your Mama’s Name
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: What’s Your Mama’s Name

“Greener Than the Grass We Laid On”
Tanya Tucker (1975)
#23 Billboard Country
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: Best of (Gusto/TeeVee)…as far as I know the only source released on CD

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Tanya Tucker hit Nashville as a force of nature and a challenge.She had a hundred-year-old voice in a thirteen-year-old body. What to do, what to do? Fortunately, Bette Midler (who  had sung a song on television after hearing it from Tracy Nelson, who had heard it from the song’s co-writer Alex Harvey) was not available to be signed to Billy Sherrill’s label, Columbia (she had just signed with Atlantic)  and Tanya was handed the song Sherrill definitely wanted to record on somebody, which was “Delta Dawn.” Turned out she knew just what to do.

But the road to figuring out how to follow it up was not entirely smooth. At least not artistically speaking. Since the teenager could sell anything–and would become, and remain, the youngest singer to ever be truly accepted by country radio (which had stacked the deck against Brenda Lee in the early days of rock and roll threatening Nashville’s hegemony)–the powers that be decided the rather mundane “Love’s the Answer” would be the followup.

It did fine, reaching #5 country.

In the world I lived in, though, nobody talked about “Love’s the Answer.” They talked about (and requested) the B-side.

The grassroots reaction to the song opened a vein of sorts and re-raised the central question. What to do, what to do?

Go with it.

Nashville was conservative but it wasn’t stupid. If the dirtiest voice in town was coming from a teenage girl, so be it. The audience wanted more. They got more: “What’s Your Mama’s Name,” “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone),” “The Man That Turned My Mama On.” One smash after another. Whatever those titles promised, the songs delivered. Whatever those songs promised, the voice delivered even more.

And it all happened in such a rush that quite a bit was left laying in between the cracks. A B-side here, an album cut there, a semi-hit that would have been much bigger if it hadn’t been caught up in a label change and gone unpromoted back over here.

Out of an album’s worth, these three end up forming a theme: lost girl, left girl, burned girl who may or may not be left standing because the voice never gives away the ending. It just stays right on the edge between the hurt (I want to die) and the defiance (no way in hell will I give in).

A lot of critics sniggered (and a lot still do). How could she know? Sadder days? Lying in the Alabama sun? Walking through a kingdom of honky tonks and bars? Grow up girl! We know you don’t know!

Mostly, over the years, Tanya has played along. That’s how you survive a wild child reputation in Nashville for forty years. I never bought her reticence myself. I knew plenty of girls who knew exactly what she meant back when–knew exactly how the protagonists she represented in these particular half-hidden stories felt. Pretty hard to believe that she struck exactly the right note, again and again, without also knowing exactly what each song meant.

How?

Well, if she weren’t a wild child female hillbilly who made it big at thirteen and lived it up in everybody’s face instead of learning to write bland, happy songs that fit on everybody’s bland, happy albums, we’d probably just call it art…

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (David Lindley Up)

“Mercury Blues”
David Lindley (1981)
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: El Rayo-X

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Lindley was a founding member of Kaleidoscope, one of those highly regarded west coast bands from the crazy sixties who, like Love or Spirit, struck deep with the few they reached (and, to be clear, Kaleidoscope didn’t reach as many as Love or Spirit). When that band broke up, he fell into the Jackson Browne/Warren Zevon orbit, backing them and others on various albums and tours. All of that won him the chance to do his own thing. El Rayo-X was his first solo LP and it sold about as well as Kaleidoscope. It, too, struck deep with the few who found it. Soon enough, he went back to making a living the old fashioned way–touring, session-work, film scores.

All in all, there was no particular reason he should have had any sort of big deal solo career. El Rayo X is a good album, maybe better than good. But it was never designed to set the world on fire.

Except for maybe the one time it struck pure lightning, a piece of nimble hard rock that harkened back to the founding, whence the tune itself (a fine, rather polite rhythm and blues number in its initial late forties’ incarnation by K.C. Douglas which was nonetheless sturdy enough to withstand the thousand covers that stood between it and Lindley, with the most notable probably being Steve Miller’s) had come.

I’m not even sure if Lindley’s version of “Mercury Blues” was released as a single–it if wasn’t that just proves you can never overstate the stupidity of record companies which is to say, if it wasn’t, it should have been. But if ever a record earned the right to fail just so the future could condemn the unfairness of a past filled with all the mistakes that led us here….

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (The Hollies Up)

“Gasoline Alley Bred”
The Hollies (1970)
UK: #14
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: On A Carousel 1963-1974: The Ultimate Hollies

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The late sixties and very early seventies abounded with so many fin de siecle style records, subtle and unsubtle, that there was no way the charts could have accommodated all of them. That was especially true because the best ones–irrespective of any record’s given sensibility–usually consisted of sounds, not messages.

On a Hollies’ record, in this period or any other, you knew three things would always be top drawer: Alan Clarke’s lead (sometimes, in these years, abetted by a strong second lead from Terry Sylvester, as here); the three-part harmony; and a striking melody, usually carried along by secret agent Tony Hicks’  never-a-wrong-note guitar playing. Those elements were never more beautiful or blasted than here, on a song that’s nominally about breaking up with a woman and going back to a home which may or may not still exist somewhere other than as the  *ideas in our heads” that drive us to leave home in the first place.

Few bands or vocal groups could have carried the inherent ache so well in the realm of pure pop and, in England, the Hollies almost never missed the charts. In America, they hit and missed in about equal measure. Just about every one of the misses would have made our charts stronger, which is something I can say about only a handful of Brits in that or any other time. Of those we missed, this is probably the one I missed hearing on oldies’ stations for the next forty years the most. A sign of how rich the times were, no doubt, but our loss all the same.

 

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (The Commodores Up)

“This Is Your Life”
The Commodores (1975)
Billboard R&B: #13
Did not make the Pop Chart
Recommended source: Commodores Gold

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“This Is Your Life” was the Commodores fifth single. After some fair-to-middling success as a (first rate) hard funk band, it was meant to launch them as a ballad act, featuring their rather odd-looking and odd-sounding crooner in residence, Lionel Richie.

It didn’t. Their previous release “Slippery When Wet” had been their most successful to date, topping the R&B chart and reaching #19 Pop, outdoing even their debut killer “Machine Gun.” Maybe the shift was too sudden, but “This Is Your Life” was a severe comedown on the charts.

Their label, Motown, had once held a reputation for sticking with acts it believed in and having it pay off with legendary careers once the sweet spot was identified. But with the Commodores, it might have seemed that the sweet spot was already identified–a place next to Kool & the Gang and Ohio Players as purveyors of reliable funk to a devoted audience who could provide the basis for occasional pop crossover and a place to come home to once the crossover moment passed. And, anyway, what Motown had once done routinely, it was not so committed to doing at all by the mid-seventies.

And so there it might have stayed.

Except Lionel Richie had other ideas. In later years, he put it pretty simply: “I wanted us to be the black Beatles.” That meant doing all kinds of music and selling all of it to a multiracial audience.

“This Is Your Life” was his first reach for the stars and he more or less came up empty…at least on the charts.

He–or somebody–kept on believing. The followup single, “Sweet Love,” was the first from their next album. It went #5 Pop, #2 R&B, and sent The Commodores/Lionel Richie on a decade long run of crossover success that made them, if not the black Beatles, at very least superstars in their own right and, more significantly, last stand upholders of an aspirational cultural and political black bourgeoisie tradition that has since been lost at no small cost to us all. If it hangs around, waiting to be redeemed, it hangs around at least in part due to them and their ability to extend it a decade past its natural sell-by date.

That their contribution wasn’t lost in the cradle was due to persistence and belief.

Because “This Is Your Life” has every element that made Commodores’ balladry great (especially the killer arrangement). There was no good reason for it to fail and no good reason to keep believing future attempts at the same would succeed.

It wasn’t like even the greatest of them–not “Sweet Love,” not “Easy,” no, not even “Sail On,”–would be better. But believe they did….

(Note: This is the longer album version. Just because it’s better. Maybe the record company should have believed in it enough to avoid a radio edit!….Talk about an alternative universe.)

 

 

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (The Impressions Up)

“I’ve Been Trying”
The Impressions (1964/5)
Billboard: #113
Billboard R&B: #35
Recommended Source: The Best of the Impressions (Vinyl) or Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions: Anthology (1961 – 1977) (CD)

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“I’ve Been Trying” was recorded for the Impressions’ 1964 LP Keep On Pushing. Passed over for single release at the time, it was eventually relegated, the following spring, to the B-Side of the second single from the group’s next LP, which was only “People Get Ready.”

In 1985, around the height of my ad-copy writing career, I was in the office late one day shooting the breeze with another employee who was in a local rock band and the boss, who liked to keep MTV on 24/7. The video for Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart’s (pretty good) version of “People Get Ready” came on and, without going into gory detail, I found myself in an argument about the song’s origin. They insisted it was “this old gospel song.” I insisted, gently but firmly, that Curtis Mayfield (who they knew as “the Superfly guy?”) had written it in the mid-sixties. There being no internet in those days (it really is good for some things folks), the argument remained unsettled. They concluded I was delusional. I concluded, yet again, that facts are only as authoritative as their source.

I wasn’t deemed reliable.

These days, I think a whole lot more people know the origin of “People Get Ready,” thanks to it being consistently rated in the top hundred/fifty/ten/whatever in various “best ever” polls covering the entire history of song.

Rightly so.

But “People Get Ready” is not “better” than “I’ve Been Trying.” You can’t beat perfection. And, in its own heartbreaking way, the little album track relegated to a B-side is just as profound, just as inspired, just as socio-political.and finally, just as fine an example of Black America singing to itself and the world simultaneously, part celebration, part mournful cry.

The sixties were truly the best of times and the worst of times.

This is the part we should have held on to. Forever.

Or else gotten past.