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.

STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Eighteenth)

What I can’t understand is why Blacks can’t achieve royal status when it comes to forms that they have largely created? I mean there’s a White King of Rock n’ Roll, there’s a White King of Jazz, how come we can never achieve titles of royalty in these fields we are supposed to prevail in? They held a so called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the other night, where White judges credit people who resemble them with the invention of Rock and Roll. I didn’t even see Blacks in the audience.

There would be no Rock and Roll without Ike Turner, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, etc. Fake ghetto books and fake ghetto music. Elvis Presley, whom they idol, is merely a karaoke makeover of James Brown and Chuck Berry.

(Ishmael Reed, interview with Counterpunch, March 15, 2008. Interview can be read here.)

I’ll set the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jibe aside, except to note that all of the men Reed mentions had been inducted into the Hall years earlier. That’s just standard public intellectual ignorance.

And we’ll leave Paul Whiteman and the tendency of marketing departments to equate royalty with sales out of this.

As to the Elvis part:

Reed is, perhaps unwittingly, using a classic propaganda technique: criticizing fake narratives by utilizing a fake narrative.

I say perhaps unwittingly, without putting any percentages on it, because, like most fake narratives, this one is rooted in ignorance born of emotion.  Reed wants what he says to be true, therefore it is true. Or will be, if enough people just keep repeating it.

As to facts? Those stubborn things?

Sorry, but once in a while, we have to slog back through the actual record, tiresome though the march may be.

So-o-o-o-o…

Of the five men he mentions, only two of them had made a record before Elvis made his first.

Of those, Ike Turner was a band leader and session man who was indeed repeatedly ripped off by white business men (mostly Sam Phillips and the Bihari brothers, for whom Ike later claimed to have written more than seventy hits they copyrighted under their own names, which is probably even more tunes than Don Robey stole from Bobby Bland**) throughout the early and mid fifties. He did in fact lead the band for this enormously influential record:

The record was written and sung by Jackie Brenston. But Ike played the galvanizing piano part, which was a straight cop on the other man Reed mentions, Fats Domino.

Fats Domino, who had his first big hit in 1950, was the actual and undisputed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, at least in the sense he and Elvis understood the term before Elvis exploded the original definition into smithereens.

The way I know this, besides having ears, is Elvis said as much.

He said it at an obscure little international press conference forty years before Ishmael Reed (who, unlike Elvis, doesn’t know his history on this subject, and, unlike Elvis, clearly relates to the very specific “black people” he mentions as something other than people) got Fats mixed up with a lot of other guys because he was giving an interview in which he spent the bulk of his time criticizing (rightly, it should be said) a lot of other people for getting things mixed up.

And then he let what he heard somewhere and never bothered to check up on for himself rule his thinking.

Of course, most of what Reed says in his interview is true or at least plausible. I encourage you to follow the link and read the whole thing.

But a lie never does more damage than when it’s surrounded by truth.

Makes it seem, you know, credible.

Nonetheless, Elvis made this..

…and a lot of other “rock and roll” records before Chuck Berry or James Brown (the only person not in Elvis’ inner circle who was allowed to spend time with his corpse and who later wrote in his autobiography, “I wasn’t just a fan. I was his brother.”) ever made it to a recording studio.

Funny, it’s never occurred to me to accuse them of doing a “karaoke makeover” of Elvis just because they likely (in Chuck Berry’s case), or certainly (in James Brown’s case), heard him before he heard them.

And why not?

Because that would make me look stupid?

Yeah, that’s part of it.

But the main reason is this little creed of mine:

When the house is on fire, don’t strike a match.

Not even a little one.

No matter how good it makes you feel.

(**NOTE: Neal U. makes a good point in comments that theft in the record business was not limited to white businessmen ripping off black artists. He covers the main points in his comment which I encourage you to read. I’d only add that black businessmen ripping off white artists was uncommon because the dynamic just didn’t occur that often. With every other racial combination, copyright theft was rampant.)

THE NIGHTBIRD’S FLOWN (Allen Toussaint, R.I.P.)

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Allen Toussaint is probably the only man who could claim to be a Top Five (and probably more like Top Three) Record Man of both the sixties and the seventies. Even earlier he started out hanging with Huey Smith. Even later he ended up being sampled by half of the Hip Hop universe.

In between he was the Alpha and Omega of a certain brand of New Orleans soul: producer, writer, arranger, session man, piano man, and flat out honcho, from beginning (as producer)…

to middle (as writer and producer)…

to mind-blowing end (as writer)…

to, well, even more mind blowing end (as producer…of the original record anyway)…

And I know I sometimes say “better then,” and it sounds like it’s just my prejudices showing and I’m dissing this glorious modern age out of petty malice.

Well, okay.

But, believe me, when guys like Allen Toussaint were in charge…it was better.

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THE ARCHITECT OF ROCK’S EARLY DAWN… (Cosimo Matassa, R.I.P.)

 

COSIMOMATASSAThere are a lot of folks–an alarming number of them quite influential–who prefer to believe that “rock ‘n’ roll” was really a form of magic. That it simply “appeared” out of the ether somewhere in the American South and, as Ishmael Reed once sardonically put it: “Jes’ grew.”

Rock ‘n’ roll did not appear by magic. Like all of human history, whether for good or evil, whether transcendent or mundane, it was made exclusively by people. Mostly by very talented and ambitious people.

Not one of whom was more significant than the New Orleans record man Cosimo Matassa, who just passed away at the age of 88.

If rock ‘n’ roll–as both a distinctive sound and a challenge to the reigning cultural hegemony–was “born” anywhere, it was in his J&M Studio on Rampart Street. I’d pick Dec. 10, 1949, the date of Fats Domino’s first session (out of which came “The Fat Man,”) as the delivery date.

But if you wanted to slide back a little, to Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” (1947), or move forward a bit to Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” (1952) or Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” (1955), you still wouldn’t be wrong.

As the effective mentor of both Dave Bartholomew (pictured with Fats below) and Allen Toussaint–probably two of the top half dozen “record men” in the history of the music–the breadth and depth of Matassa’s influence was as least as sizable as those of far more famous men like Sam Phillips or the Chess brothers. Thankfully, he was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 (decades after he should have been…but at least he didn’t have to die first–we know that tune).

A much fuller account of the man’s achievements (and the genuine love that he–unlike almost every other hard-headed business man of that raucous era–inspired among the musicians who recorded for him) can be found here.

For those interested in knowing more, I’d also recommend Rick Coleman’s fine biography of Fats Domino and the very reasonably priced collections of Matassa’s music that were put out by Proper Records a few years back.

Not to mention, you know, “The Fat Man,” and “Tutti Frutti!” (both of which I highlighted in my recent vocal histories of 50’s R&B so, this being the kind of serendipity I could do without, I won’t link them here.)

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(And thanks to Rock and Rap Confidential for the heads up and the link!)