A SERIOUS GAME….

Just off the top of your head, name the ten most important people in the History of Rock and Roll (individuals, not groups, though group members, including your favorite Beatle, are eligible). Not your favorites or who you think was the greatest, just the most important to the history of Rock and Roll America, however you define it. Here’s mine, in chronological order, by year of their first major impact (crazy game, so feel free to argue/substitute/debate in the comments. Just remember if you add somebody, you have to take somebody out!):

1) Fats Domino (1950) The Originator

2) Elvis Presley (1954) The Driver of the Narrative

3) Chuck Berry (1955) Rock and Roll America’s First Poet Laureate

4) James Brown (1956) The Visionary

5) Berry Gordy, Jr. (1960) Master of the Game

6) Bob Dylan (1962) Rock and Roll America’s Poet Laureate Redux

7) Jimi Hendrix (1967) Traveler through Time and Space

8) Aretha Franklin (1967) The Definer of Soul

9) John Lydon/Kurt Cobain (1976/1989) The Twinned Spirits of Destruction….neither complete without the other…and no, they didn’t need their particular groups the way John Lennon, Brian Wilson and Mick Jagger needed theirs.

10) Madonna (1982) The Solvent.

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring, 2017 Countdown)

10) Various Artists What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves 1967-1977 (2006)

Deep, yes. But also wider than any but the experienced might suspect before diving in and stroking for the far shore. “Soul Finger” and Aretha’s “Rock Steady” are among the few crossover hits. Big names like Curtis Mayfield and Earth, Wind and Fire, or those like Charles Wright, Lulu, Clarence Carter, Rufus Thomas, Dr. John, who might at least be familiar to fans of the period, are not represented by their best known hits. Most of the rest is really obscure (or was, until this was released as one of Rhino’s last great boxes in 2006).

At four discs, five hours and 91 cuts, this never even comes close to quitting. What might catch the uninitiated by surprise, in a hardcore funk collection, is the range of tempos.Plenty of fast stuff, sure. But who would deny this, where Patti Labelle sings “if I ever lose my BIG mouth, I won’t have to talk anymore” and you can feel the distance between the white man (then called Cat Stevens) who wrote the rest of it and the black woman who added the key word?

I also like it when you can smell the barbecue.

9) Fairport Convention Liege and Lief  (1969)

The third remarkable album released by Fairport in the Year of our Lord, 1969. This one, following the death of their drummer, Martin Lamble, (a death that had a similar crushing effect to James Honeyman-Scott’s on the Pretenders a generation hence), was almost all Sandy Denny. Numbed by loss, the others decided to follow where she led. That turned out to be a a labyrinth of English folk music from which it could be argued only guitarist Richard Thompson ever fully emerged. This isn’t the first time I listened, but I never really heard it before. Now I’m mini-obsessed. A couple of more spins and I might be up to a post on Denny in ’69, one of the most remarkable years any vocalist ever had. For now, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it. And I’m taking precautions, because I’ve realized that if you wander too deeply in these woods, you mightn’t find your way out.

8) Latimore Straighten it Out: The Best of Latimore (1995)

In addition to the two cuts I highlighted earlier in the week (novelties, but deep too), mostly a straightforward set of fine-tuned 70s R&B. A little funk, a little soul, a little big-voiced balladeering, a lot of traditional Love Man, all rendered with a mix of silk and grit that makes for good smiling and nodding music. No small thing these days.

My other standouts are an unlikely cover of “Stormy Monday,” and a deep take on George McCrae’s “I Get Lifted.” But it all goes down smooth.

7) Patty Loveless Up Against My Heart (1991)

Measure for measure. My favorite album by my favorite modern singer, possessed of a brand of fatalism Sandy Denny might have recognized. What might be forgotten now is that this record almost killed her career when it failed to go gold or platinum like her previous three. Nashville is famously unforgiving of slackers. Somebody is always ready to take your place, especially when you’re either an unrepentant honky tonker or a female, forget both. She pulled a fast one by switching labels and running up a string of awards which was modest next to Reba’s (before) or Miranda’s (after), but astonishing given how uncompromised her voice was. You can hear all of that here. “God Will” is an all time killer and “I Came Straight to You” the best smile in her catalog. But this time around, another one stuck deeper than usual.

6) Tanya Tucker My Turn (2009)

Her 24th album, the first in six years at the time and still her latest to date. All of which  might help explain why, for the first time ever, she sounded relaxed. Relieved of the pressures of stardom for the first time since she was thirteen, she was able to bring something new to a bunch of classic country covers that included signature songs from Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell. All the songs her daddy wanted her to sing and nobody, but nobody, ever said she lacked guts.

5) Mel Tillis HItsides 1970-1980 (2006)

A beautifully constructed overview of the man at his peak. He broke into Nashville in the sixties with one of those good singer/great writer reps that were common at the time. Unlike almost everyone else who wore the tag he turned out to be a great singer too. Though he wrote only about a third of them, every one of these twenty-five cuts from his golden decade feels lived in.

The boundaries (neither of which he wrote)?

On one end, “Stomp Them Grapes,” which would have done Roger Miller proud. On the other, “Your Body is an Outlaw,” as deep and scary as anything by George Jones, which he sang with his eldest daughter a year after I served fish sticks and french fries to two of her younger sisters at the girls’ camp sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention in Ridgecrest, North Carolina.

Never let it be said that the South is an uncomplicated place.

(Oh, and he did write: “Detroit City,” “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” “Mental Revenge.” Like that.)

4) Candi Staton Evidence: The Complete Fame Records Masters (2011)

The “evidence,” presumably, for the case of someone who should have been a much bigger star. There’s plenty of that here. It’s hard to understand why anyone who looked and sounded as great as Candi Staton–and had so much talent surrounding her–didn’t really cross over until she went disco (helping create the paradox of the soul singer who used disco to reach a wider audience even as more famous soul singers were being wiped out left and right).

If I had to put my finger on it, I’d blame the material, which is good, but lacks that one killer that might have put her in heavy rotation at the pop stations and brought the rest into focus. The biggest exception is “Stand By Your Man” which did cross over (nearly as big as “Young Hearts Run Free”), but, unfortunately, left no trace, having already been defined for purposes of useful narrative by Nashville’s Tammy Wynette. Too bad, because Candi had a great deal more to add to the concept than Hilary Clinton, who stood by her man long enough for him to lock up half of Candi Staton’s neighborhood.

3) Paul Revere & the Raiders The Complete Columbia Singles (2010)

This wanders about…and intrigues. Over nearly a decade and a half, they developed a theme: Stomp. Then do something else (Brill Building pop maybe? Hot rod music?)

Then Stomp. Then do something else. (Psychedelia maybe? Country rock?)

Then….Stomp.

Then….something (anything!).

Then…

Stomp.

The essence of the Stomp is on The Essential Ride, a single-disc comp that focuses on the mid-sixties and includes the hits everybody loves, plus “Crisco Party.”  In the days when “Louie, Louie” was being investigated by a congressional committee, that one was too obscene even for a garage band B-side (hence is missing here). And if you just want the Stomp, you could go here.

You’d be missing a lot, though. Mark Lindsay was one of the great hardcore rock and roll singers. Everybody knows that (though just how much he sounds like Mitch Ryder before Mitch Ryder on some of the earliest sides here might still startle you). But he was one of the great pop-rock singers, too. And, whatever one thinks of “Indian Reservation” (I love it without reservation, but I know there are serious dissenters), you can also hear how much they had earned the right to a #1 Protest Record because, as protest records go, it’s not a patch on 1966’s “The Great Airplane Strike” (which sounds like it should be the title of a solemn documentary on union organizing and is a good joke) or 1967’s “Do Unto Others” (which sounds like it should be the title of a Lenny Bruce routine and is serious….and lovely).

2) Kendrick Lamar Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012)

The World is a Ghetto, two generations on. Except that white critics cut Kendrick all the slack they never gave War, nothing’s changed. That might be why an outsider like me can’t tell whether it’s me or Lamar who feels tired.

One line stuck out, though: Hearing “I’ve never been violent…until I’m with the homies,” made me hear my old daddy quoting his Uncle Sam, speaking to him in the Tennessee hills in the twenties, saying “One boy is one boy. Two boys is half a boy. Three boys is no boy a’tall.”

I wish I could remember if Uncle Sam was the one who told my old daddy stories about chasing cows into the woods to hide them from the Yankees the night they drove old Dixie down.

Funny what you remember and what you don’t.

1) The Roots, Undun (2011)

The World is a Ghetto, two generations on. It even starts with a quote from the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me,” which, a generation back, was The World is a Ghetto one generation on.

Which leads to the question: Are all rap albums now rewrites of “The World is a Ghetto?” And if nothing’s changed, is it because we can’t change or we won’t?

Til next time.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Thirteenth Maxim)

This was almost going to be an update to The Story That Never Ends. Recent inductee Steve Miller’s call for more women artists to join him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has evoked a few responses here and there which makes me hopeful there is a groundswell developing that might ultimately benefit some long overlooked artists.

Then again, with friends like these….

Rolling Stone‘s contribution to the conversation is under a title-only-a-committee-of-future-commissars-could-conceive: “Fifteen Women Who Could Be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” (I think we’re about two elections away from whoever came up with that being put in charge of inducing famine in the northern plains’ states…but I digress.)

No, it doesn’t really name “fifteen women”–rather fifteen female acts (several being groups). But we’ll let that pass.

No, it doesn’t limit itself to redressing the legitimate grievance–that a number of actual “rock and roll women” have been given short shrift. It’s littered, instead, with crit-faves from other forms (Joan Baez from folk, Patsy, Dolly and Loretta from country–all good candidates for my recommended category of “Contemporary Influence” but not really credible as rock and roll performers). But we’ll let that pass.

And it does make a pretty good case for the Shangri-Las. That’s always welcome news around here. Admittedly, this phrase is passing strange: “…they’re perhaps the girl group most beloved of critics and rock fans.” I don’t know about fans, but if critics, who make up most of the nominating committee, loved the Shangri-Las more than any other girl group, they probably would have nominated them some time (as they have the Shirelles, the Supremes, the Ronettes and Martha and the Vandellas, all Hall members, or the Chantels or the Marvelettes, both at least nominated in the past). Of course, they should have done just that, but they haven’t, so that part in an otherwise not entirely incoherent paragraph, is gibberish.

But we’ll let that pass.

Have to, for now, because the very next entry is for Dionne Warwick and it reads like this:

Kicking off her career with the wounded, yet stalwart “Don’t Make Me Over,” the voice of Dionne Warwick defined the sound of R&B. Her delicate phrasing and gospel-inspired power resulted in some of the catchiest songs of the Sixties, including a series of collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and she became the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England in 1968, the same year that the Bacharach-David composition “Do You Know The Way to San Jose” scaled the charts. Warwick had her ups and downs during the Seventies, but her 1985 smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” which she cut with high-powered pals (and Hall of Fame members) Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, was one of pop activism’s higher points in an era filled with cause-minded tracks. 

I don’t normally do interpretations of cluelessness and Bad English, but since no one can be expected to swallow that whole, I’ll take a shot.

the voice of Dionne Warwick defined the sound of R&B…

Well, no one voice ever “defined the sound of R&B,” not even Fats Domino’s or Little Richard’s or James Brown’s or Otis Redding’s or Aretha Franklin’s. Dionne Warwick came pretty close to defining supper club soul, an honorable, if much derided sub-genre, which she more or less invented and which gave both soul and rock much wider audiences than they otherwise might have expected during the heart of the era when those forms dominated both the charts and whatever part of the culture still had meaning. So why not just say that?

Her delicate phrasing and gospel-inspired power resulted in some of the catchiest songs of the Sixties, including a series of collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David…

Her phrasing and power had nothing to do with how catchy her songs were. The catchiness was provided by the aforementioned writers (Bacharach did the melodies, David the lyrics). She inspired those songs and provided their heartbreak. So why not just say that?

…and she became the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England in 1968, the same year that the Bacharach-David composition “Do You Know The Way to San Jose” scaled the charts.

This is what’s called a non sequitur. Actually, since it finishes the sentence begun by the previous phrase, it’s at very least a double non sequitur. It could be a triple non sequitur, since the previous phrase quite possibly contains its own non sequitur (power and phrasing having nothing to do, strictly speaking, with the catchiness for which she was not responsible anyway), but my head already hurts so we’ll leave that alone, too. In any case, the catchiness of her songs has, in this purely linguistic context, nothing to do with her being the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England (which, in turn, has nothing to do with why she should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as the same honor might easily have befallen, say, Ella Fitzgerald or Nancy Wilson or any number of others who also sang catchy songs and exemplified the various ways in which African-American women could be supper club classy without coming anywhere near “rock and roll,” lest you think I was kidding when I said Dionne invented the “soul” part of that equation or that I failed to clarify that it’s the precise reason she should have been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long since), which, in turn, has nothing to do with “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” coming out the same year (that’s best called a coincidence, I think, though other descriptions might apply as well).

[Note: There was a time, not that long ago, when writing like this in a high school English class would have drawn a bunch of red marks and the student would have been required to write it over. There was a time, not that long ago, when the same thing might have happened at Rolling Stone….But we’ll let that pass.]

Warwick had her ups and downs during the Seventies, but her 1985 smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” which she cut with high-powered pals (and Hall of Fame members) Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, was one of pop activism’s higher points in an era filled with cause-minded tracks. 

Okay, I don’t really know what any of that has to do with Dionne Warwick’s worthiness for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (except that the writer(s) may have had a nagging suspicion they had somehow failed to clinch the case with their previous points of emphasis). But I think what it basically means is that they believe “That’s What Friends Are For,” godawful even by the standards of “cause-minded tracks,” is greater than this…

…one of the greatest records–and greatest vocals–ever waxed.

Cause enough, all by itself, for this…

The Thirteenth Maxim: Learn English so that thou wilt not make thy reader’s teeth grind and, in true non sequitur fashion, bring about the End of Days!.

VISIONARY (Maurice White, R.I.P.)

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I skipped Paul Kantner, in part because I didn’t have much to add to what was already being said, in part because I was enduring my annual Australian Open hangover (just now clearing), in part because I kept hoping the Death Train would pull in for a rest.

Alas, it rolls on, and now it’s coming for the prophets.

By the time he stepped out in front of Earth, Wind and Fire, one of the three or four greatest funk bands (and twenty or so greatest rock and roll bands) ever, Maurice White was really just claiming a space he had helped create.

As a Memphis-born, Chicago-bound session drummer, he played on lots of seminal records in the sixties, none more so than Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me,” the 1965 smash that paved the way for Aretha Franklin’s breakthrough two years later (Dave Marsh once accurately dubbed it “the greatest non-Aretha Aretha ever,” and, as he also noted, the more remarkable for coming first). After that, White joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio and, across a number of albums, laid down the bottom for the funk-oriented jazz that EWF would one day turn into jazz-oriented funk.

Thereafter, along with leading one of rock’s essential bands, he also found time to be one of the era’s most formidable record men, kicking off the career of Deniece Williams and making perhaps his finest record with the previously fair-to-middling Emotions.

But it with his great band that he left his deepest mark. As a quadruple in-house dynamo (singer/songwriter/drummer/producer) he was probably matched in the seventies only by Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham–and even Buckingham shouldered a bit less of the load than White did.

Eventually, there were a slew of Grammys and the usual assortment of additional honors, plus 15 gold or platinum albums between 1973 and 1988–impressive for anyone, staggering for a funk band.

Above all that, there was an over-arching message, one that began in troubled times, lasted through the false “morning” of the eighties and still calls out to the future we threw away. Just in case we don’t manage to snatch it back, I hope the music will still be around to remind whoever’s up next of just what is possible.

Maurice White moved to the  next plane yesterday after losing a decades-long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

All he left behind, out of Africa and America, was a past worth reclaiming here and now and a future worth living for anywhere and any time.

As session man:

As proto-fusionist:

As producer and record man:

And as Mighty Mighty Man (singer, bandleader, front-man, record man, soul man):

Ah well, the train rolls on down here, but I have it on good authority that they’re dancing in heaven tonight.

mauricewhite5

THE STAPLES STEP OUT….THE WORLD TAKES LITTLE NOTE (The Rising: 4th Memo)

TheSlowDrag-TheStapleSingers

One nice thing about career-spanning comps is you can often hear history developing in front of your ears.

Maybe not just musical history.

One nice thing about CDs is they allow the journey to be a lot longer and deeper.

I’ve been listening to the Staples forever, but, until recently, I was limited to this…

staplesingers3

from vinyl days, and, wonderful as it is, I was pretty sure there was a lot more where that came from. So lately, lacking the moolah to spring for the new limited edition box set produced by the mighty Joe McEwen, I’ve been listening to this…

staplesingers4

…a two-CD set that goes much deeper without suggesting the catalog is anywhere near exhausted.

I doubt the new 4-disc box set, however great, will suggest any such thing either.

One thing that happens on The Ultimate Staple Singers: A Family Affair, however, which will never be defined more clearly, is the crystallization of the moment the Staples separated themselves from the pack.

The first part of the first disc covers their transition from a fine, but fairly typical, black gospel family singing group to a socially conscious folk-gospel blend of same–roughly the distance from “Swing Low” to “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.” They move along in graceful fashion through the first fourteen cuts (more than my old vinyl LP held altogether) with little suggestion that they will ever be better than good.

Then something happens. And on this set, at least, it happens very suddenly.

Somebody–Pops, Stax, the ghosts of ’68 (haunting us still), anybody at marketing who had noted the sudden stunning success of Aretha Franklin–realizes it will be a good idea to put Mavis out front a little more often.

And, once that happens, they arrive all at once. You hear the Staples not as they have been–a tad earnest to tell the truth–but as they would be ever-after, announcing themselves with a one-two punch:

 

Two things are remarkable from this distance.

First, they leave nothing behind from an already adventurous career.

Second, they sing as though the Civil Rights movement has not already peaked. As though the future is still beckoning amidst the riots and assassinations and wars and rumors of wars.

One other thing was less remarkable in the moment.

Nobody noticed. It would be three long years before “Heavy Makes You Happy” finally broke them on the soul charts, nearly another year before “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” took the same vision to the top of the pop charts.

It was hardly a straight line, but they must have known what they had. Because, from “The Ghetto” on, the essential part of the formula was clear to all concerned.

Make Art first.

Commerce will eventually follow.

In other words, start wherever you want, just make sure Mavis gets up front somewhere along the way.

 

DIG THOSE GEORGIA PEACHES, THEY KEEP ROLLIN’ DOWN THE ROAD (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #61)

I’ve got a little tradition of highlighting female vocalists around here, especially the extremely young female vocalists of the late fifties and early sixties who were the catalysts for one of the most liberating and least understood chapters of the revolution…the freeing of the female voice in mainstream American life. I try to highlight it here because it’s been too little remarked elsewhere.

Since I’m always looking and listening for ways of understanding what they did, I occasionally bump into something worth sharing, in this case the remarkable (and remarkably similar) stories of Brenda Lee and Gladys Knight.

How similar?

This similar:

Gladys Maria Knight: Born May 28, 1944. Atlanta, GA

Brenda Mae Tarpley (aka Lee): Born December 11, 1944. Atlanta, GA

Gladys began singing, more or less professionally, when she was four.

Brenda began singing, more or less professionally, when she was five.

Gladys was first to television, on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, in 1952, at age 7 (without the Pips).

Brenda had to wait until 1955, when she was 10 and signed to Red Foley’s Ozark Mountain Jubilee.

Brenda recorded her first record, at age 11, in 1956.

Gladys recorded her first record, at age 14, in 1958.

Brenda had her breakout hit, “Sweet Nothin’s,” in December of 1959, just after her fifteenth birthday. It reached #4.

Gladys (with the Pips) had her breakout hit, “Every Beat of My Heart,” in early May of 1961, just before her seventeenth birthday. It reached #6.

In Joel Whitburn’s end-of-the-century edition of Top Pop Singles, the last to chart the rock and roll era proper, Lee ranked 32nd and Knight 41st among all acts who charted between 1955 and 1999.

Knight (with the Pips) was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Lee was inducted in 2002.

Like pretty much every female rock or soul vocalist before Janis and Aretha, they were/are vastly under-appreciated. Like nearly every one of those vocalists they had a tale to tell, only a small portion of which is included in these two interviews which I happened to stumble across on two very different journeys in the last few weeks.

Like anything either has ever said, whichever part of the tale they happen to be telling is worth attending:

And yeah, one was black and one was white.

But if we failed to become one, it wasn’t their fault…

LOSING THE PAST (More Notes from the Story that Never Ends)

“The spoken introduction [i.e., to “Johnny Reggae”] specifically recalls the Shangri-Las’ spoken introduction on their 1964-65 hit, “Leader of the Pack,” which reached number eleven on the UK chart in January 1965. Here the question is ‘Is she really going out with him?’ followed by, ‘Betty, is that Jimmy’s ring you’re wearing?”….Whereas the majority of American girl groups were black, the Shangri-Las were most likely Jewish and positioned as white (see Stratton, 2009, ch. 2). Their songs often expressed white middle-class teenage girls’ fantasies and angst. In contrast to this American melodramatic seriousness, “Johnny Reggae” sung in a London working class accent, reads humorously as English working class bathos.”

(Source: When Music Migrates: Crossing British and European Racial Faultlines, 1945–2010 Jon Stratton, 2014)

“We can now begin to appreciate the full irony of this Jewish group’s name, invoking utopian suburbia yet singing songs of family destruction.”

(Jews, Race and Popular Music, Jon Stratton, 2009)

Just so we have this straight: Stratton first definitively calls the Shangri-Las a Jewish group. Then, for the record, he goes on to build a serious argument around their Jewishness, or at least the thematic Jewishness of their songs, which were “mostly” written by Shadow Morton, who Stratton acknowledges is not Jewish.

Then, in a later book, he calls upon his own “research” as the foundation of a comparison/contrast wherein the Shangs are expressing “white middle-class teeenage girls’ fantasies and angst.”

That’s after he’s mentioned, in this later book, that they were “likely” Jewish (which, for the record, means he doesn’t know) but “positioned white” (which doesn’t mean anything to his “Jewish Blackface” argument, unless, of course, they are in fact demonstrably Jewish, in which case it might merely be banal).

Hoo-boy. Here we go again.

First, let me just state that I could care less whether any or all of the Shangri-Las were/are Jewish. But I’d never build an academic argument on the basis that they were and then admit that I didn’t know whether they were or not.

I mean, if I couldn’t find out for certain (and since it took me twenty years to determine whether Mary Weiss was indeed the lead singer, a journey I wrote about at length in the initial post for this blog, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if I remained in eternal ignorance on this other question in which I’m not terribly interested), then I would let it go.

Or just say I couldn’t find out…which might be an interesting story in itself.

I would be especially inclined to let it go if I was publishing “academic” books and therefore presumably had the resources to do a bit of checking beyond what’s available (or not) on the internet.

Mind you, I’ve long since got past the point where I expect that sort of thing from actual academics. I’m just saying that’s what I would do.

But of course, what I really always find fascinating is just how much confusion proliferates around the Shangri-Las specifically, even years after Mary Weiss finally came out of the shadows and gave a bunch of interviews that clarified just about everything except their ethnicity.

For instance, one of the other arguments Stratton makes is that “Past, Present and Future” is about rape, with the implication that this gives it a special hidden power (or words to that effect…it’s all wrapped up in dystopian angst suffered by an oppressed people trying to reach the American dream and finding only a nightmare, but then you knew that).

Just in case you didn’t happen to listen to the interview Weiss did with Suzi Quatro in 2007 (before either of Stratton’s books were published), she specifically said (as she had repeatedly done elsewhere) that such theories were news to her and (as she has done elsewhere) found them a touch ridiculous.

But what does she know?

Taken to that extent and no further, Stratton’s comments are only the usual bilge. That is, they wouldn’t be terribly illuminating even if the Shangri-Las (all famous attendees of a Catholic grammar school and a public high school) really were Jewish (which is, of course, still possible). And they hardly do more damage than dozens of other trite or false statements made over five decades and counting.

But, in this case, the fundamental fakery runs deeper than that.

For being “positioned white”–meaning positioned to take full advantage of their skin color by hiding their Jewishness and bleaching the sound and/or lyric themes of the “mostly black” girl groups–the Shangri-Las certainly had an interesting history.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, James Brown hired them for his revue on the assumption they were black. As I’ve mentioned several times before, Weiss had a Houston cop draw a gun on her before one of those shows when she insisted on using a “colored” bathroom (she used it anyway).

As I may not have mentioned before, they were also this:

shangs

And, as I almost certainly have not mentioned before, they were virtually the last white group of the rock and roll era to cross over in any meaningful way to the R&B charts, and, so far as I can tell, the only group to do so who emerged after the British Invasion essentially re-divided the Pop and R&B charts along specifically racial lines that soon resembled 1954 (though the existence of Motown effectively disguised just how thorough the Pop bleaching otherwise was–one of several reasons that calling Berry Gordy, Jr., one of the five or six most important men in the history of rock and roll is probably underselling him…with the difference between the way the Supremes, or even the Marvelettes, were managed versus the way the Shangri-Las were managed probably being reason enough all on its own).

In other words, their songs did not appeal merely, or even mainly, to white middle-class teenage female fantasies.

To believe that, we’d have to dismiss some history.

Like the fact that on October 10, 1964, in a year when Billboard was not publishing an R&B chart because, absent the unforeseen arrival of the Beatles, the Pop and R&B charts had become so blurred as to make keeping a separate chart more trouble than it was worth, there were exactly three records by white artists in Cash Box‘s R&B Top Fifty.

The Kingsmen’s “Death of an Angel” was sitting at #29 (only God knows why).

The other two songs were “Leader of the Pack” (which had just entered the chart at #38, a slot above Aretha Franklin’s latest) and “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” which was at #9, sandwiched between Jerry Butler and James Brown just above and Dionne Warwick and Sam Cooke just below.

Not that he’d have thought there was anything wrong with doing so, but I guess James could have been forgiven for assuming they weren’t merely pandering to white middle-class teenage girls..or otherwise “positioned as white.”

You know, when he saw their name next to his on the only chart that was keeping up with what Black America was listening to in 1964.

Just remember folks. The same sort of minds that come up with these little gems cover politics, write history and work in “science” departments.

So remember to trust no one just because they say so.

Well…almost no one:

 

BOYS AGAINST THE GIRLS (Segue of the Day: 5/25/15)

TIMELIFE19652

I’ve mentioned my fondness for Time Life’s old rock n’ roll collections from the eighties and nineties before. (They’ve been recycling the concepts to ever diminishing returns ever since.) They don’t exactly make up for the collapse of radio, though I suppose they might if I accumulated enough of them.

For now, I make do with what I have. Want to listen to the oldies? Be reminded why they matter, how much they still have to say about where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re likely headed? Well, you could do worse.

Today, the second volume of 1965, from the “Classic Rock” series–classic rock, in this case, meaning a more or less random selection of the best top 40 music from any given year.

And, lo and behold, what develops out of not entirely thin air while I’m bopping around the den, is a kind of battle of the sexes.

The White Boy Ravers against the (mostly black) Girl Talkers.

There are other cuts that confuse the issue. Aren’t there always?

Black men  crooning or pleading (Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Marvin Gaye) or at least not raving (Levi Stubbs, always in supreme control, no matter the tempo). Appropriating Girl Talk space rather than assaulting it. Like the white men harmonizing or rhapsodizing (Byrds, Beach Boys, Beau Brummels, Turtles).

But that still leaves an album’s worth of thematics: Barry McGuire’s Old Testament prophecy of doom on “Eve of Destruction” (itself a nice juxtaposition with “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the Byrds’ insistent plea on behalf of the New), followed by Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me.”

The world ending in fire versus Bass playing John the Baptist to Aretha Franklin’s Jesus.

And that’s just the warm-up.

Later on, the Kinks crash through “All Day and All of the Night” only to have Martha and the Vandellas hammer out a warning on “Nowhere to Run.” Roy Head leers “Treat Her Right” like treating anybody right is strictly for suckers. The Ad Libs dream right back, the lead singer imagining “The Boy From New York City,” who sounds like the kind of guy who was born not needing Roy Head’s advice, will love her until she dies.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

And then the apocalypse. Seduction as the sound of a freight train. Try protecting your girly, intimate space from this (or anyway, try wanting to)…

Or this…

And, if you think it can’t be done, that the space can’t possibly be reclaimed, you might try this, which I confess until now I never really heard for the push back it surely is…

Or this…which always sounded like it was pushing back against a lot more than Ravers invading the intimate space….

After that, the Gentrys’ “Keep On Dancing,” which sounds great in just about any other context, ain’t got a chance.

Space preserved.

Girls win…this time. Proof of the verities: When in doubt, pull out the Shangri-Las.

Happy Memorial Day!

MIGHTY, MIGHTY MAN (Ben E. King, R.I.P.)

beneking

“Most of us got out of there (the Brill Building era) with no money at all. A lot of beautiful rooms and a lot of yachts and lots of limousines was bought and a lot of private jets was bought as well, but we got none of those. But we got everlasting music. So if I had a chance to go back and change anything I would change nothing. Because those that have the yachts and the houses and the private planes and stuff, they still got to listen to my music when they turn on the radio. I beat ’em anyhow.”

(Ben E. King, from Hitmakers: The Teens Who Stole Pop Music, 2001)

The vocal bridge from fifties’ doo-wop to sixties’ soul was built by a multitude. The single voice that sank the foundation so deep in the sand it couldn’t possibly float away with the tide belonged to Benjamin Earl Nelson, who took the stage name Ben E. King somewhere along the journey that turned his group, the Five Crowns, into a version of the by then long Clyde-McPhatter-less Drifters that could finally carry on something more than the name.

King’s best known vocals (“There Goes My Baby,” “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance For Me,” “Spanish Harlem,” and especially “Stand By Me”) are so monumental that they’ve tended to overshadow the incredible depth and breadth of his accomplishments, including co-authorship of some of those very records that defined him for the public imagination.

But it’s as a singer he’ll be most remembered. There was something deceptively modest in his ease of delivery, I think, which invited other great singers to cover the same turf or even the very same songs. In later years, John Lennon hit with a spectral version of “Stand By Me.” Tom Jones did yeoman work on “I Who Have Nothing.” Aretha Franklin her own self offered a luminous version of “Don’t Play That Song For Me,” and a thunderous re-imagining of “Spanish Harlem.”

But even Aretha’s searing, soaring vocals could do no more than match Ben E. King.

They weren’t better, you see, because, in this world or the next, nothing really can be.