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:


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)


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!



“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.


ARETHA ARRIVES (Segue of the Day 12/19/14)

File under “Genius in Context”:


Fame was both a studio (in Muscle Shoals, Alabama) and a record label. It had the usual southern-soul dynamic–blues-drenched whites (led by owner Rick Hall) running the business end, an inter-racial mix of writers and session players, mostly black vocalists (a dynamic well demonstrated by the cover of Ace’s three-disc box pictured above).

The box is–no surprise–epochal. There are a few pedestrian sides on the first disc (early on, when the sound was still developing). After a few hits and misses, it kicks in and, from there, the set never flags.

There’s no shortage of stunning individual moments among the awe-inspring embarrassment of riches, not a few of them deriving from vocalists like Joe Tex (whose importance in the development of Southern Soul is fully demonstrated here by the quantum leap his first Fame-recorded hit “Hold What You’ve Got” represents over what came before) and Otis Redding (impossibly warm and winning on his version of “You Left the Water Running”) who were generally associated with other labels and/or studios (Dial, Stax, etc.)

On the third disc, there’s even a segue that would have been the peak of practically any other day: Clarence Carter’s “Patches” (about a poor black sharecropper’s son hanging on and pulling the family through because of a promise made at his daddy’s dying bed) sliding straight into Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” (about a poor “white trash” girl taking her mama’s death bed advice and getting out the only way she can–by becoming a prostitute). All that, plus a nice soul version of “Double Lovin’,” courtesy of originator George Jackson, which actually proves how great the Osmond boys really were and how foolish they (or their management) were to leave a studio that would have allowed them to compete with the J5 right down the line.

Right in the middle of all that–about a third of the way through the second disc, with the flood-tide of the era’s soul talent flowing freely–another quantum leap occurs.

It shouldn’t really have been a surprise. Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man,” was her first big hit, and everybody familiar with the period knows it represented lift-off–for her and for soul generally–after years of being a perpetually underachieving pop-oriented second-stringer at Columbia.

It was also the only master she completed on her contentious visit to Muscle Shoals (a visit specifically inspired by the success of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which as I’ve written elsewhere, makes Sledge one of the most important artists of the era all by itself). When it became the title track of her first monumental album on Atlantic, it was the third side. Thus, the permanent context was a slot following “Respect” and “Drown In My Own Tears.”

Not that it ever sounded less than great–there, on the radio, on the various greatest hits packages it so often led off–but nothing on earth would sound truly startling following those cuts.

So this was the moment when I was able to finally gauge its impact in its own time. Coming straight out of two of the greatest soul/funk go-rillas ever made (Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” and Clarence and Calvin’s “Thread the Needle,” this version featuring studio chatter to die for, not to mention copious amounts of Clarence Carter’s inimitable laugh of freedom), “I Never Loved a Man” raises the vocal stakes from the very first breath.

Stepping into a scene that was already producing some of the greatest music of the century–and represented the most exciting development in one of the most far-reaching artistic movements in the history of man, the very height of what I call “the revolution”–the voice alone sweeps everything before it.

“Here, now,” it says, “get ready to stand on the next mountain.”

Just like that. One minute, the mountain was somewhere around here:

Next minute it was just about here (sans chatter, unfortunately not available on-line)…

Then, in an instant, it was, definitively….here…where it stayed:





I’ve never had strong opinions on whether Rock and Roll is ‘”album music” or “singles music.”

The debate more or less opened up in the wake of Dylan and the Beatles way back when. I don’t know if it gets a rise out of anybody these days, when every music is “download music.” But I started thinking along those lines (again) after all these years, in response to some of the on-line Hall of Fame discussions, which often center around the general conflict between Commerce (almost always code for a string of hit singles) and Art (almost always code for critically acclaimed LPs).

Of course, there have been a handful of acts, from the Beatles onwards, for whom the distinction was virtually meaningless..

But, trying to wrap my mind around it from a twenty-first century, middle-age perspective, I started counting up who–in Rock and Roll and Rock and Roll only–I really thought of as “album” artists.

For the purposes of this little list, then, I’m leaving out quite a bit.

No comps or live albums (certainly no box sets). No pre-rock artists (which for me would be Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday and Doris Day, make of that what you will) or contemporary artists who aren’t considered Rock and Roll, even in my own strictly big tent version. And no playing favorites (that would, incidentally, be a different list by at least half).

With that for the context, I stuck to artists who have made five or more original, studio albums I know well enough to have what I call sequence response: That is, if I hear something from that album in some other context (radio, commercial, computer mix, etc.), I’ll likely get a little jolt of surprise when the next song I expect to hear–i.e., the next song from the original album–doesn’t follow.

I thought there would be at least ten Rock and Roll acts who met this criteria, possibly as many as fifteen or twenty.

Not even close.

I only made it to six.

Turns out five is a very high number, when it comes to making compulsory-listening albums.

And all those reasonable caveats I mentioned above do dwindle the list considerably.

Which sort of confirms a suspicion I’ve long had about my listening (and judging) habits.

I tend to go free-form (not just comps but multi-artist comps, or else a lot of running back and forth to the shelves)….or very, very concentrated (box sets, the bigger the better).

So a lot of artists who have a great box set, or made way more great tracks than required to fill five (or even ten) LPs, still don’t make my list of five actual albums–James Brown, Brenda Lee, Janis Joplin, the Impressions, Aretha Franklin (who almost made it anyway) all come readily to mind.

So do the Jackson 5 and Jackie DeShannon, if you really want to know how deep a fifty-great-tracks list might run.

One qualification that would not have expanded the list much, however, is including non-rock acts from the rock (or now post-rock) era.

Again, there are plenty of favorites who have a wealth of great sides (Bobby Bland, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, maybe a couple of dozen country singers, not just the usual–Merle, Loretta, Patsy, Waylon, George, Dolly, Buck, but lesser known geniuses like Don Gibson and Connie Smith as well). But, for any number of reasons–time and money preeminent among them–I’ve never really listened to many of their studio albums at length.

The one exception is Patty Loveless, who is also the only artist of the last quarter century in any format whose albums I have any deep, consistent connection with.

It’s not that I don’t try–and not that I don’t find an occasional LP that moves me (Pink’s Missundaztood (2001) and the Roots’ Undun (2011) are fairly recent discoveries, for instance). But, if I said I heard great stuff all the time and probably just don’t have enough time to stay caught up (a frequent excuse as we get older), I’d be lying.

So I guess I could have included Loveless–on the grounds no one’s likely to be joining her on my little list.

I didn’t, though, because I’ve written extensively about her elsewhere and, again, I wanted to get down to the nitty gritty about specifically rock and roll album acts, So suffice it to say hers would be the longest list here, and would also cover the longest time-span, exceeding even Elvis. It’s possible–just–that compiling this list has sent my respect for Ms. Loveless (aka, “the Awesome One”) even higher. Which is fine, because compiling lists like this is partly an exercise in pinpointing what we value–and partly  an excuse to ruminate a bit on what it all means, not just to us, but to the Cosmos.

Which brings me to my last point:

Great rock and roll album acts–at least by my lights–tend to have a great run in them, which also tends to exhaust them on some level.

The most extreme example is the Rolling Stones. They made what I think is their greatest album in 1972, at the end of nearly a decade of sustained brilliance (and over half a decade of sustained album brilliance).

Then they were replaced by pod people.

That’s extreme.

But, except for Elvis (whose larger story is, in some ways, even more extreme), everyone on this list could be described by some version of the same story.

In rock and roll, when the real greatness goes, it tends to go fast, hard and for good (no matter how much “good” music is left–and often there’s quite a lot).

The same is true, incidentally–with little exception–for my near misses (Dylan, Aretha, Hendrix, Van Morrison, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin–see the complete list below).

These were acts that had three or four on my list and maybe a near miss or two.

The oddest cases were Dylan, who missed because I’ve never really connected with Blonde on Blonde and Morrison, who missed because I didn’t count his two fantastic albums with Them (which might be unfair, but I was sticking to the strictest criteria possible) and would have made it anyway if I’d ever connected with Astral Weeks or if my vinyl version of Into the Music didn’t have some weird fuzz on Side Two that made it unlistenable-but-unreturnable when I bought it new (and thus never replaced)!

I throw in that last to emphasize just how arbitrary such “judgments” are if you don’t get your records for free.

But I think the main point still holds. Except for Elvis (and Patty Loveless), everybody who made, or nearly made, this list, made their best five to eight (or even three to four) original albums in the space of a decade (usually much less). And that’s all irrespective of whether these are my six “favorite” artists or I think they are “the greatest.”….As it happens, my six favorite rock and roll acts, if somebody put a gun to my head, would probably look a lot different…only Elvis would be guaranteed (though the Byrds and Al Green would certainly be in strong consideration).

Make of that what you will.

In any case, I’d really like to hear from anybody who has a different take (or artists they’d put on their own list).

As you’ll see, I’m not exactly after rearranging the canon here!

(*Denotes what I think is the artists’ greatest LP, or, if you prefer, my personal favorite–order is chronological, from date of the first LP that qualified for my list).

Elvis Presley (Two gospel albums and a Christmas LP here….but I included them because that was his version of rock and roll. And he would have made the list anyway):

1957: Christmas Album
1960: Elvis is Back!
1960: His Hand In Mine
1967: How Great Thou Art
1969: From Elvis In Memphis*
1971: Elvis Country!
1975: Promised Land
1975: Today

The Beatles:

1964: Meet the Beatles
1964: The Beatles 2nd
1965: VI
1965: Help! (UK)*
1965: Rubber Soul (US)
1966: Revolver (UK)
1968: The Beatles (White Album)

[Note: Several of the early Beatles’ LPs, especially Hard Day’s Night, would almost certainly be here (perhaps substituting for US versions) if I had acquired the UK versions back in the days when I listened to them a lot more than I do now–I’m limiting these lists to albums I actually own (a function of finance), know backwards and forwards (a function of time spent), and happen to think are great listening experiences (a function of taste). See, I told you it was arbitrary.]

The Beach Boys:

1964: All Summer Long
1965: The Beach Boys Today!
1965: Summer Days (And Summer Nights)
1965: Party!
1967: Wild Honey*

and a fantastic live version:

The Byrds:

1965: Mr. Tambourine Man
1965: Turn, Turn, Turn
1966: Fifth Dimension
1967: Younger Than Yesterday
1967: The Notorious Byrd Brothers*
1968: Sweetheart of the Rodeo
1969: The Ballad of Easy Rider

The Rolling Stones:

1966: Aftermath (US)
1968: Beggar’s Banquet
1969: Let It Bleed
1970: Sticky Fingers
1972: Exile on Main Street*

Al Green:

1971: Gets Next to You
1972: Let’s Stay Together
1973: Call Me
1973: Livin’ For You
1974: Explores Your Mind
1977: Belle*

[Note: It’s worth mentioning that, in three of the six cases here, I thought the last great album on the list was the greatest. And, in the case of the Byrds, the two albums I list after Notorious Byrd Brothers were made with significantly different lineups. So, four times out of six, some point of crisis was reached. And the artists’ in question–be it faux-Satan worshiper Mick Jagger or the Reverend Al Green–were never really the same again. Something to bear in mind in any discussion where the spiritual cost of making great rock and roll happens to come up.]

(Near misses: Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, The Everly Brothers, Rod Stewart, Prince (if I only counted doubles as two!), Aretha Franklin, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, The Who, The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac and, a very recent discovery, Spinners–I guess it’s pretty obvious I don’t think albums have progressed much after about the early eighties, but then, neither have singles.)





The current issue of The Believer has an interview with Nancy Sinatra which continues a process of de-bunking one of the Fundamentalist Rock and Roll Narratives perpetrated by the Priesthood of the Svengali (an especially pernicious subdivision of the crit-illuminati).

Nancy was one of many pre-Janis, pre-Aretha female singers who were perceived as the product of some producer’s singular genius which would have worked just about as well with any other lucky girl said genius happened to pick from the bunch.

Over the last twenty years or so, the young women who (outside of their records) were given no voice in the early and mid-sixties when they re-made the world as surely as Elvis or the Beatles, have told their stories (the stories that everyone from Tom Wolfe to Rolling Stone assiduously ignored both in the moment and for a long time afterward).

Those stories have a lot of common themes, most of which are voiced below.

So, joining Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, Cher Bono, Mary Weiss and many others, Nancy once again assures us that, in the real world, people are not clay models or sock puppets being maneuvered about by mad geniuses (in her case Lee Hazlewood) however wonderfully talented those geniuses may have been. Unfortunately the entire interview is not available on-line, so I’ve pulled some choice quotes and highly recommend the issue (and the magazine generally) to those who can find and afford it:

On acceptance in the music industry:

NS: They had a lot of great artists join the label (Reprise) at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the womens movement or anything like that. They just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.

On an enduring myth:

BLVR: At what point did Lee famously instruct you to start singing ‘like a fourteen-year-old girl who screws truck drivers’? (NOTE: Now there’s the crit-illuminati mindset and value system in a nutshell for you.)

NS: I don’t know where that twisted version of what said came from. I know that that’s been floating around in various forms for a long time. He said much more gently to me, ‘You’ve been married, you’ve been divorced, and people know that. They know that you know what’s going on in life, so you’ve got to behave on the record like you do know.’

On the working relationship between herself, Hazlewood and musical director Billy Strange:

NS: Lee’s lyrics were the guiding light for us, because he wrote these wonderful fantasies. Billy took them and put them to music. And what I did was follow along. The beauty of it was that I added enough to it to make it happen. Lee had done a lot of this stuff with other people and he didn’t get anywhere with it. Lee’s muse in those days was Suzi Jane Hokom. Suzi Jane sang on all those duets. And he sang with Ann-Margret and several other ladies. But it just didn’t have the magic that Nancy and Lee had. So I told him in no uncertain terms over the years that he really owes me a lot, too. He wasn’t the Svengali that he thought he was. So it was a symbiotic relationship that turned out some pretty damned special music. I’m proud of all of it and proud of my contributions to it.

On those fashion statements (though not this one, especially):


NS: All those clothes that I wore in the early 60’s were [Mary Quant’s]. I brought them from London to Los Angeles and wore them all around. At that point nobody knew what a miniskirt was, so I’d get people throwing me lines like ‘The tennis court is over there,’ stuff like that….And the fact that I ran into her when I was in London promoting those silly songs (from early in her career)–God’s hand must have been on my shoulder. I was at the right place at the right time. Little did I know that I would run into a song called “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and that I already had the outfits. I didn’t have to go shopping for them.

On her legacy:

NS: I’m very glad that I saw it and could take advantage of working with Lee. But I don’t know, honestly, if any other woman singing in those days would have tolerated the treatment from Lee that I put up with over the years. We had the classic love/hate relationship. I’m not ashamed to say that. I think he would say the same thing.

Just as a final note. Hazlewood passed away in 2007 from cancer. Like Shadow Morton and Sonny Bono and most of the others who either sought Svengali-hood or had it thrust upon them in that age-gone-by, he was a man who had his faults, many of which he owned up to in time. He was not, like Nancy’s close friend Phil Spector or England’s Joe Meek, a monster. Like all of them, man or monster, he made beautiful records….



THE SCOTTISH LASS GOES SOUTH (Vocalist of the Month for 3/14: Lulu at Atlantic)

“My only sadness is that it didn’t continue until the day I die.”

Lulu (on her time at Atlantic)

By the time Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie was signed to the Atco subsidiary of the American soul giant Atlantic Records in the fall of 1969 she was twenty years old and entering the third distinctive phase of her recording career.

In the first phase, which started when she acquired her stage name, Lulu, and fronted a band called the Luvvers, she had made the journey from Glasgow to London and become a British sensation with a knockout cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” (her version charted perennially on the British charts for the next three decades).

She was all of fifteen and, despite an occasionally ragged relationship with the beat that was common among the era’s youngest rockers (among true youngsters, only Brenda Lee consistently sang with anything like old-fashioned assurance–rock n’ roll was never as easy as the masters made it sound or the haters wanted you to think), pretty close to being the hardest soul singer the Isles produced. Her enthusiasm occasionally got ahead of her talent in those days but there were some scorching highlights. Her ballad singing was assured from the beginning (she did a particularly lovely job of re-imagining Van Morrison’s “Here Comes the Night,” as a torch song). And her knockout, hard-rock covers of “Dream Lover” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” are a long way ahead of pretty much anything the young Mick Jagger did in his pre-“Satisfaction” days. Say what you want about Lulu covering the classics but at least she never sounded like she had learned American English phonetically.

That said, the early period was uneven to say the least. Between production values that were oft-times barely professional (a bit of a general problem in England at the time), dicey material (“Choc Ice”…really?) and lack of a clear direction, the voice seldom got its due even on her best records.

That changed somewhat when she signed with Mickie Most (probably England’s top producer of the period), landed an acting gig in the Sidney Poitier vehicle To Sir With Love and entered her second phase with a bang.

The title song of To Sir With Love, written by a friend at the by-then seventeen-year-old singer’s request when she refused to sing what the studio had in mind, became Billboard’s official #1 record of 1967 after it was released as a B-side and American dee-jays flipped it. It was also one of the best sung records of the greatest era for vocal music we’re likely to know. One might have thought that Most would know what to do from there–namely run off a series of hit singles, as he had done for Herman’s Hermits, Donovan and the Animals previously (talk about covering some ground), and would do for Hot Chocolate later on.

Instead–and despite a handful of genuinely wonderful records which didn’t do much commercially–he steered her toward ever more banal material, finally climaxing with the already world-famous Lulu actually winning the Eurovision Song contest (usually reserved for those still chasing their fortune) for 1969 with a track called “Boom Bang-a-Bang,” which the singer herself has occasionally–and with some justification–referred to as possibly the worst song ever written.

Unlike most of the really good records she and Most had made together, it was a substantial hit, at least in England and Europe.

The disconnect between quality and success guaranteed a lot of sleepless nights, crying jags, and the absolute certainty that she would not renew her contract with Most when it ended a few months after the Eurovision win.

While all that was going on, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, the only female British singer who was a talent-match for Lulu (and who was, perhaps understandably, going by “Dusty Springfield”) had signed with Atlantic Records, a label known mostly for deep soul acts, and gone South to make an album which came to be called Dusty In Memphis. In addition to being one of the greatest albums ever made–“vocal” or otherwise–Dusty In Memphis produced a big hit single, “Son of a Preacher Man,” and set Atlantic mogul Jerry Wexler searching for more of the same.

It turned out to be an artistically satisfying venture which bore relatively little commercial fruit. Eventually, Jackie DeShannon, Betty LaVette and Cher would each get her turn. And Jackie and Cher at least got their records released (with Jackie’s being a classic in its own right…I haven’t heard Cher’s Atlantic sessions, though they eventually got a CD release on Rhino Handmade). Betty had to wait another thirty years and achieve an unlikely late-career discovery by the Public-At-Large for her fine sides to even see the light of day.

Lots of amazing music then.

But Lulu was the next in line and the music she recorded between the fall of 1969 and the summer of 1972 constitutes a body of work that bears comparison to anything that was going on anywhere in the period.

It probably helped that Wexler and others (Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, like that) still had the wind of Springfield’s success at their backs when they all went back South (Muscle Shoals this time…with Duane Allman sitting in) to record New Routes.

The album concedes nothing to Dusty in Memphis except that Dusty’s is perfect and New Routes has a misguided version of “Mr. Bojangles” that features an awkward gender rewrite which pretty much undermines an otherwise great sounding record. (i.e., Lulu couldn’t very well pretend to be sharing a jail cell with Bojangles, so they are in….a park! Ouch.)

But that album or the next (Melody Fair, recorded in Miami with another crack southern session unit, the Dixie Flyers), both long afterwards available only on reasonably scarce vinyl (my used copy of New Routes came with a sticker that read “Duane Allman!!!”…cool people, having received their values from the crit-illuminati need to know why a price has been boosted from the usual $0.99 to $2.99!!!), are, amazingly, not the entire point of the great 2007 package Lulu: The Atco Sessions, 1969-72.

There you get two discs–the first covering the two released albums, the second collecting various singles, alternates and unreleased material.

As a listening experience, it’s of a piece. Heartbreaking for itself (there is no more plaintive voice and it was never more consistently plaintive than here…you can ask Lulu fans like Aretha Franklin and Al Green if you need further testimony) and for the different kind of break it so definitively represents–a kind of last look back before the rise of the machines.

This package is the sound of a singer who had already successfully traversed hard-edged rock and R&B and classy pop and was now remarried to her first love: straight soul music.

From this distance, it’s easy to hear just how fragile the moment was. Between bombastic rock and sleek dance music, glorious though much of it would be, amplifiers and synthesizers were setting the stage for the re-caging of the liberating human voices which rock and soul had brought to the center of Pop Culture–which, as I occasionally note here, was already the only culture America had left.

I don’t think you necessarily need that context to hear the fundamental sadness-tinged-with-liberating-joy that characterized these sessions. But knowing the context makes that quality inescapable.

Maybe because she had such an oddly shaped career (she went from these sessions to a fling with David Bowie–studio only–that produced a few truly great sides but, again, no real overarching vision) Lulu is a bit of an odd duck historically: a respected singer who isn’t quite revered; a commercial singer whose hits are strung out here and there over a couple of decades; a fine live performer who was always in the moment but rarely on top of it.

But she was also the kind of singer who used to arrive on the charts on a regular basis–distinctive, soulful, possessed of a genuine ache that never descended into phony angst or belting for the sake of belting–and do not arrive at all anymore.

And her time at Atlantic, at least, was priceless. She’s not the only one who regrets that it didn’t continue until the day she died.

So, beginning with a track that was straight and hard enough to fit right in on the (equally priceless) What It Is!  funk box set a few years back and proceeding through the soul and pop part of our evening before finishing with a lovely and moving homage to shag haircuts:

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 7: “When A Man Loves A Woman”)

“When A Man Loves A Woman”
Artist: Percy Sledge
Writers: Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright (Percy Sledge uncredited)

Percy Sledge “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Live and Scorching on Television)

Shifting sands:

“It was shortly after (Wilson) Pickett’s first session that Fame’s studio musicians cut a record behind an unknown local singer named Percy Sledge. That record was ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ which, with its Bach-like organ, soaring vocal, and frequently imitated church feel might be defined as the quintessential soul sound. Then in February 1967, Jerry Wexler brought down a newly signed artist for her first Atlantic recording session….although she had been in the business all her life, she had never, it was said, lived up to her potential. The artist was Aretha Franklin…”

(Peter Guralnick, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1976)

“As Clarence (Carter) prepares for his set, Percy Sledge is recalling how he came to compose his biggest hit…

“He was moonlighting from his job as a hospital orderly, singing with a local band at a club in Sheffield, Alabama, and he was so low with woman troubles he couldn’t even make it through the Smokey Robinson and Beatles songs he had been doing at dances and clubs. He turned to bass player Cameron Lewis and organ player Andrew Wright and just asked them to give him a key, any damned key. He half sang, half bawled along in his mammoth, achy baritone, just a bunch of stray thoughts on the blindness and paralysis of love: ‘If she’s bad, he can’t see it….’

“‘Wasn’t no heavy thought in it,’ he says. ‘I was just so damned sad.’

“Sometime later, when he had calmed down and refined the thing into a slow, anguished ballad, he gave Lewis and Wright songwriters’ credit. By then Percy had won an Atlantic recording contract by auditioning in a record shop in Sheffield for a local producer named Quin Ivy. The song was cut there, in Ivy’s South Camp Studios, with some personnel borrowed from Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in nearby Muscle Shoals. Percy grew up in Leighton, not ten miles from the Fame operation. So he says it all felt right–the musicians, the place, and the song. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ was Percy’s debut on Atlantic, and it sold more than 1 million copies in the spring of 1966 and stayed at number one on the pop charts for two weeks.”

(Gerri Hirshey, Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, 1984)

“Muscle Shoals burst upon the consciousness of the world at large in the spring of 1966 with a single record that was homegrown, home-produced, and would forever eliminate the necessity of Jimmy Johnson finding his way to Athens or anywhere else. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ established Muscle Shoals as a national recording center, brought Jerry Wexler directly from Memphis to Fame, and became the first Southern soul number actually to top the pop charts. It was also as significant an integrating factor in its way as Elvis Presley’s ‘That’s All Right,’ Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti,’ or Martin Luther King’s march on Birmingham of two years before. The artist was Jimmy Hughes’s cousin, Percy Sledge, from nearby Leighton; the engineer was Jimmy Johnson, who also played on the date along with the rest of the new rhythm section; the session, oddly enough, though, was neither recorded by Rick Hall nor put out on the Fame label, despite the fact that Rick played a major role in its release and reaped most of the benefits from it….

“‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ completed the process begun, really, by Joe Tex’s success of the previous year….Southern soul had at last entered the mainstream of pop in the unlikely guise of the ultimate make-out song, the kind of song that affected its fans so powerfully that, as Jimmy Johnson says, ‘I’ve heard stories of people driving off the road when they heard that record come on the air.’”

(Peter Guralnick, upping the ante, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, 1986)

If one goes to the liner notes of Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, the story takes on even more complicated and far-ranging dimensions which are beyond the scope of this essay (hey, anyone who has the money should get hold of the box anyhow).

The main reason I posted the quotes above is to show how stories surrounding certain records evolve–note especially the distance between the Peter Guralnick of 1975 and the Peter Guralnick of 1986–the difference between a passing thought and a consuming passion.

Well, that and to open the discussion of course…

*    *    *    *

Percy Sledge was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.

Ever since, he’s been a favorite whipping boy for anyone who thinks the Hall is too big, its membership requirements too lenient and/or vague, its methods insufficiently transparent, or that its very existence is a blight on the face of humanity.

Of course, just about everybody thinks Percy’s signature record is wonderful but…it was just one record!

And it wasn’t all that important!

And he wasn’t really rock and roll!

And he’s a journeyman!…At best!!!

And, and, and…

Well you get the drift.

As a result, Sledge routinely shows up on the lists of the undeserving–or of those who should be kicked out…or just excluded from alternative Halls developed in the imagination.

Mind you, he’s not the only artist so treated. But he seems to be the one about whom there is almost universal acceptance of his general unworthiness for such high honor (which most of those complaining are quick to point out is not really a high honor at all, since it extends to artists the caliber of, well….Percy Sledge! The crit-illuminati did not get where they are–in a position to bend so many impressionable minds–without developing a certain ability to frustrate the resistance.)

Alas, I’m part of that resistance, so I have to give it a try.

I think Percy Sledge belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think if he’s a “journeyman” then pretty much all soul singers who aren’t Aretha Franklin or Al Green are the same. Heck, I think he’s a no-brainer and always was.

I thought he always was, because I used to listen to his old Greatest Hits collection pretty religiously and knew he was a fantastic singer with a nice run of R&B and Pop hits (he had a dozen or so chart hits, including four that went top twenty on the Pop chart and top ten on the R&B chart so he wasn’t quite the one hit wonder (or no hit wonder) that many of his (mostly white) Hall contemporaries who don’t get complained about were.

Besides, anybody who can leave a deathless “best of” behind is Hall of Fame material in my book.

But in case I might have wavered, Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, which includes everything he recorded for the label from 1966 to 1973, laid any doubts to rest–because there you have a hundred or so sides that, with no more than half-dozen exceptions, live up to the quality of the dozen I already knew inside and out.

Anybody who could lay down seven years worth of great music while the revolution was still going strong is Hall of Fame material no matter how exclusive you want to make the membership.

In my book.

But actually none of that really matters.

Like Orson Welles used to say about great movies: “You only need one.”

Percy Sledge made a lot of great records. Some might have even been greater than “When A Man Loves A Woman.”

So he didn’t really make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the strength of one record. That’s a club reserved for fifties-era hard rock gods (Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, Ritchie Valens, Gene Vincent…all richly deserving, by the way…I’d make similar arguments for them if they needed defending).

Sledge made it because his voice is one of those special few that creates its own club.

He might not strike you at all, but if he does, he’s liable to strike deep.

That’s how mild-mannered black guys who sing ballads get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But if he really had made it on the strength of just one record, and that one record was “When A Man Loves A Woman,” he’d still be worthy.

*   *   *   *

For one thing, it is one of the rare great records that rose from quasi-mystical processes.

You can read the entry quotes above and get a taste of how that process works–how perfunctory “explanations” acquire depth and nuance (as I mentioned above, the liner notes of the box set take the story even further and make it far too complicated to pare down to a handy quote or two–highly recommended reading).

Pared down to bare bones, however, the story goes something like this:

Somewhere, some time, in the mid-sixties, a virtually unknown club singer was on a stage, feeling lousy about a romantic breakup and he started riffing and making up some words.

Somehow, over the next several months he and his band-mates worked up an actual song and recorded it in a place that was about as out of the way as any place could be.

Then his producer sent it to a not-so-out-of-the-way place (New York) and a really big time record man (Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler) who gave said producer a call and said it was promising but they needed to re-record it to give it a more professional feel (or something).

After which, said producer (Quin Ivy) re-recorded the record, didn’t much like what he heard and re-sent the original disguised as the new recording.

Then Jerry Wexler called back and said something along the lines of “that’s more like it!”

Then the record was released on somebody or other’s label (Wexler’s, Fame owner Rick Hall’s, Quin Ivy’s….hard to say, for certain, but everybody seems to agree that Hall got most of the money and it was certainly his studio that benefited most directly).

However it got released, the record went to Number One on the Pop and R&B charts and has stayed on the radio for nearly half a century and counting.

And, as Peter Guralnick points out, it became a signature record of a specifically Southern brand of soul music, which was instantly and forever deemed more “authentic” than its northern counterparts (specifically Detroit’s Motown).

Dubious assertions of authenticity aside (Black America always preferred Motown, actually, and the margin was never close), the ripple effect was enormous.

Next thing you know, Detroit native and newly signed Atlantic artist Aretha Franklin came south and in one brief, rather chaotic session at Muscle Shoals, found her voice.

However the story gets told, it seems generally agreed upon that she came south looking for what Percy Sledge had found: a vibe, a sound, a group of musicians, the magic of a special place, a song.


And, however the story gets told, we have the music she made, which formed the basis of her national breakout and the core of her legend, to remind us of just how successful this unlikely process was.

But “When a Man Loves a Woman” doesn’t really need that sort of long shadow to justify it’s importance.

All it needs is itself.

These days we tend to think of “southern” soul as being half of that north/south equation I mentioned–one which usually gets boiled down to the phrase “Motown and Stax” (with “Stax” standing in for the entire swath of labels running along the Memphis-to-Muscle Shoals axis). That common phrase makes it sound like there was some kind of real balance between the two aesthetics in both art and commerce.

Well, the art thing can be debated, but there was a time when nobody had any illusions about the commerce aspect.

That time ended (and the illusions began) when Percy Sledge recorded “When a Man Loves a Woman,”–as deep a soul sound as anyone would ever wax–and it shot straight to the top of the charts.

Maybe it would have ended (and begun) some other way.

Maybe “Stax” would still have become a true cultural–and economic–counterweight to Motown by some other means. Heck, maybe those means would have even come by way of a record actually recorded on the Stax label.

God knows there was enough talent around. Maybe even some bigger talents than Percy Sledge (few as those would be).

Then again…maybe not.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” wasn’t the first deep soul record to gain national success, but it took the game to new heights–and those very heights, reached at a moment when, for a series of complicated reasons, black music that wasn’t recorded by Motown was having more trouble denting the white charts than at any time since Elvis broke out nationally, were what soul (all of soul, not just the southern brand) could and would aspire to for the next decade.

There are reasons we give credit to those who do, as opposed to those who might have done. The most important reasons revolve around just how slippery alternate universes can be.

But another reason is that those who do ultimately create and define reality.

The reality in this case is that the cosmic success (all time classic, #1 Pop, #1 R&B, still inspiring blog essays nearly fifty years later!) of Percy Sledge’s ultimate feel-good-about-feeling-bad record more or less directly brought Aretha Franklin to what may very well have been the one circumstance in the world that could allow her to tap what became transcendental genius.

And that reality is not unrelated to the specific genius of Sledge’s actual recording.

These days, it might not be too much a stretch to say that “When a Man Loves a Woman” is the “blackest” record to top the charts during the hey-day of what I tend to refer to around here as “the revolution”**

Of course, thanks in no small part to the revolution’s real, if ultimately limited, successes, we now have a rather different (though not necessarily more expansive) definition of what “blackness” means–in culture, in music, in the general phantasmagoria of intellectual life in a struggling democracy which really ought to be thriving by now. Once any record as black as “When a Man Loves a Woman” could actually top the Pop charts, the coming rearrangement of the Cosmos was inevitable even if the degree to which this particular monumental record informed–or was informed by–the overarching process is strictly chicken-and-egg, you-said-I-said, let’s-convene-an-all-expenses-paid-scholarly-panel-to-bat-this-about-on-CSPAN-shall-we affair.

What’s rather more clear is just why this particular record had the liberating impact it did.

It meant basically that the man who stood lowest on the political ecomony’s carefully constructed totem pole–a poor African-American from the dreaded rural south–could sing in a voice that called up centuries of pain, real and imagined, personal and cultural, intimate and epic–and channel it into a masterpiece of both technique (once you let go of the false notion that technique can and should be defined only in classical terms, a notion Percy Sledge had quite a bit to do with exposing as rather limited) and emotion (the very thing classical technique was developed to reign in).

The resolution between Sledge’s perfect discipline and deep reserve on the one hand and his access to liberating ecstasy on the other is the very definition of what the American experiment has always aspired to at its best. The idea that we’ll be better tomorrow if–and only if–we remember every single good and bad thing that happened yesterday only has a few transcendent definitions in art.

I don’t know of one better than Percy Sledge singing from the bottom of the well without ever losing his claim to the top of the mountain.

[**NOTE: That is, the musical and cultural revolution that began–as a revolution–the first time Fats Domino’s left hand touched a piano within range of a recording device and ended–as a revolution–the day Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. Others use different markers. Those are mine.]



THE ICEMAN COMETH AND THE WORLD AWAKENS (Jerry Butler, Vocalist of the Month–June, 2013)

Since at least the early seventies, the phrases “Philly Soul” and “The Sound of Philadelphia,” which, given the city’s rich musical history might have meant any number of things, have meant something very specific. Namely, the vision put forth under the umbrella of the producing, writing and business genius of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (often aided and abetted by their frequent collaborator Thom Bell, who, in addition to all of the above, also vied with Brian Wilson and Smokey Robinson for the unofficial title of “greatest arranger of the rock and roll era”).

Because of their massive success and influence, Gamble and Huff are most frequently referred to by the standard Rock and Soul narratives as the true, seventies-era successors to Motown, the most massively successful and influential soul label of the sixties.

There is certainly some validity to that.

But in purely musical terms, G&H (with or without Thom Bell) owed more to the Chicago soul scene that thrived under the aegis of Curtis Mayfield.

That was the other scene that had been built largely on the unshakeable foundation of the nonpareil, heartbreak vocals provided by one Jerry Butler, Mayfield’s “big brother” from the Chicago streets (and the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers) in the doo-wopping (and church-going) fifties.

Butler’s career could be parsed a lot of ways. He was a major presence, either as participant, influence or both, in every major black vocal style from the fifties to whatever point in the future when the suits and their machines win their final victory over the human voice and “style” goes away for good.

But I’m going to focus on the sessions he recorded with Gamble and Huff in the late 1960s, all now collected on Jerry Butler: The Philadelphia Sessions, a single-disc collection released in 2001 that includes Butler’s two epic, game-changing albums of the period, The Iceman Cometh and Ice on Ice, plus singles and extra tracks he cut for a third collaboration (which was scotched when Butler’s then label, Mercury, tried to stiff Gamble and Huff on the royalty agreement–for yea, verily, I say unto you, the suits are with you always and the tactics, they do not change).

Like every other survivor of the fifties and early sixties, by 1968 or so, Butler was faced with the daunting task of negotiating the sea-change that had taken place in America, culture-wise and music-wise. Unlike nearly everyone else but Elvis–unlike singers as great as Ray Charles and Brenda Lee and Jackie Wilson, to name but a few–Butler not only survived but triumphed. The late sixties were a kind of golden age for epic vocal sessions: Elvis’ mighty comeback, Aretha’s early Atlantic period, Dusty Springfield hanging out with the Memphis Boys (Gamble and Huff would take particular notice of that one).

Even in that company, Butler’s “Philly” sessions (not all of which were actually recorded in Philly, though the strong majority were) stand tall.

To say they were a commercial success is an understatement. The twenty-five sides, most recorded in roughly a twelve-month span during 1968 and 1969, produced a run of eleven chart hits, including six that went top ten R&B and four that went top twenty Pop. Not overwhelming numbers for the Beatles perhaps, but impressive by any other contemporary standard and basically unheard of for a pre-Beatles R&B singer who represented a degree of musical, emotional and even political maturity (that dread word in post-war American life) which few of his contemporaries (certainly not the Beatles, for instance) could hope to match.

As usual, when something extraordinary happens, there were reasons.

The times certainly played a major role, as did the behind the scenes talent. Gamble and Huff were up-and-comers. They had already produced a big hit for the Soul Survivors (the blue-eyed soul classic “Expressway to Your Heart”) and some early successes for the Intruders, a modestly effective soul group led by Sonny Brown who were already signed to the duo’s early Gamble label (a forerunner of Philly International, their seventies behemoth).

According to the liner notes from The Philadelphia Sessions, Butler had heard the duo’s records–and heard something he liked.

“‘Kenny came up to me and told me he and Leon had cut the Intruders’ ‘Cowboys to Girls,’ and I said, ‘Man I like your sound.’ Butler recalls. ‘So they said, “Come on over.” When I did, Leon sat down at the piano and we wrote three songs right away–‘Beside You,’ ‘Lost’ and ‘Never Give You Up.’’”

What transpired over the ensuing months was an amalgam–equal parts unlikely and foreordained–that became one of those rare moments that bridge past and future. Butler himself called it “the marriage of jazz and the sanctified church.”

What he did not say–because he wasn’t that sort–was that he was almost certainly the only singer alive who could have made it stretch so far and mean so much.

*  *  *  *

For one thing–and for some obscure reason this has gotten lost in the same shuffle that has unfairly placed Butler a notch below his great one-name-is-all-that’s-required soul contemporaries: Otis, Aretha, Smokey, Stevie, Marvin, Curtis–he was a genuinely great writer.

The standard caveat that interpretive singers aren’t truly “creative” is utter nonsense, of course, and that’s a frequent topic here. But in Butler’s case it’s even greater nonsense than usual. For starters, he co-wrote (with Arthur and Richard Brooks) “For Your Precious Love,” the record that put him (and the Impressions, and Curtis Mayfield) on the map where they–and, except for Dion DiMucci and Marvin Junior’s Dells among their major doo-wop contemporaries, they alone–were destined to remain.

As a second act, he collaborated with Mayfield on a series of records that made him a big solo star in the early sixties (“He Will Break Your Heart,” “Find Another Girl,” “I’m A Tellin’ You”).

As a third act, he co-wrote Otis Redding’s signature record “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” (and later tossed Redding the key line that turned into “Respect,” which, after Aretha Franklin recorded it, became the signature song for all of soul music.)

Fourth act?

Well, for that, he wrote or co-wrote every single side of the G&H Philly sessions except the epochal “Got to See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” (about which, more later).

Other than that I guess he just sat around looking cool and earning his nickname.

Put it this way. The guy who wrote “For Your Precious Love,” “He Will Break Your Heart,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Moody Woman,” “Never Give You Up,” “I Stand Accused,” and “Only the Strong Survive,” for starters is as important a songwriter as Burt Bacharach or Henry Mancini (both of whom he interpreted brilliantly, along with everybody from Randy Newman to Don Covay to the team behind the Strangeloves, not to mention, you know, Curtis Mayfield and Otis Redding and Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff).

Frankly, there are “non-performers” in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who have achieved considerably less.

And what’s really amazing is how much all of that pales next to Butler’s accomplishments as a singer.

Having pushed–I think that’s the fairest word–Curtis Mayfield into building a bridge from the fifties to the sixties, he now pushed–still the fairest word–Gamble and Huff into building a similar bridge from the sixties to the seventies.

We shouldn’t really be surprised.

That’s the sort of thing that happens when great writer/producers come up against the challenge provided by great voices–a challenge that no doubt acquires an extra layer of possibility and excitement when the singer is a great writer himself.

I’m betting five minutes after Leon Huff sat down at that piano, he knew what Curtis Mayfield had probably learned back in the Cabrini-Green projects and Otis Redding had learned on the chitlin circuit.

If you wanted to hang with Jerry Butler, you better be ready to bring it.

*  *  *  *

So what about the “Iceman” sessions themselves?

Well they certainly played to Butler’s main strength. He was the master of the gentle ache. One need only think of the main lines from his two early signature hits–

…“Your precious love, means more to me, than any love that could ever be,”

or, better yet…

“He don’t love you…Like I love you.”

Can’t shoot an arrow any straighter than that.

But even when he was assertive it was from the shadows. “Find yourself another girl,” he sang on another early hit. “Who will love you, true, true, true.”

Instead of singing from the perspective of the stud telling his girl’s male friend to get lost–what we might expect from the first part of the line–he turns in the middle and seems to reveal a completely different position–that of sad experience advising a friend. Then the song takes yet another turn and, suddenly, from the position of one friend advising another, it turns out the singer is quoting the advice his own mother gave him, singing it back to himself over and over, all this accomplished with an ease and economy that the Gershwins might have envied.

In that respect, Butler hadn’t changed his position when it came to the Gamble and Huff collaboration and confronting the late sixties–only deepened it. In its reliance on motherly wisdom about the eternal search for true love as a stand-in for something larger, “Find Another Girl,” in fact presages “Only the Strong Survive,” the signature record of these particular sessions, by nearly a decade.

Of course, things had changed dramatically in that decade. Patience wasn’t the painfully necessary watchword in Black America that it had been prior to the legal triumphs of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-sixties. There were plenty who insisted it was no longer even a virtue at all.

And it was within this state of being, caught in the permanent state of tension bound to forever exist between the cautionary tales Black America had told itself to survive three hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow (the tales which were Butler’s natural metier) and the seductive attractions of the emerging militancy of the period of these recordings that the Philadelphia Sessions took on their added significance.

That tension would, in fact, inform Gamble and Huff’s entire enterprise going forward–often overtly, sometimes awkwardly or even ham-handedly so. None of this emerged on the Butler sessions, because, whoever was nominally in charge of the studio when Jerry Butler sang, he remained a supremely covert artist.

His lyric specialty was lost–and occasionally found–love. The import of his vocal style was even more understated than that. Go on and have your riot, he seemed to say, over and over. When you’re finished, I’ll still be here, ready to get down to the business of surviving.

Hearing that in his voice, I think “Got To See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” stands as not only one of the strongest vocals in a decades-long catalog that does not include anything approaching a weak one, but as a supreme political statement–stronger perhaps, than even “Only the Strong Survive.”

It seems an unusual record to bear that weight. Its story is presumably pure corn-pone–more likely to have emerged from country music or the teen tragedy boom of the early sixties than deep soul. Maybe so, but Butler simply made any such notion of “categorization” irrelevant.

“I can’t go through life remembering alone,” he sings, after lining out the details of an early marriage, hardship, the pains of childbirth and backbreaking labor and his wife’s decision to leave him and his children. That’s a line that might well have drowned in self-pity, even in the hands of the great country singers it might well have been written for. But Butler never quite lets loose. He keeps his mighty instrument–as strong as any in the history of recorded music–in check and makes the first-person story not truly about himself but about the woman who–long before the singer arrives at the bridge she’s thrown herself from–we already know won’t survive to tell her children that, well, only the strong do. The irony might have been lost on those who were going through Bob Dylan’s trash in those days, looking for the meaning of life, but I doubt it was lost on Butler or his core audience.

A truly mature society might have used something like the Iceman sessions (and the other great vocal sessions of the period) as a means of drawing together.

Ours did not.

After the great voices of the fifties, Fats Domino to Clyde McPhatter to Ray Charles to Elvis Presley to Little Richard to the Everly Brothers to, yes, Jerry Butler, the opportunity was there, staring us in the face. After the political triumphs of the sixties, it was still there.

But it wasn’t guaranteed. It was going to take work.

What I hear in the Iceman sessions now–in a month when the decades-long attack on the hard won “permanent” changes of the sixties have, for the first time, been officially rolled back–is Butler, using the unique authority of his unmistakable voice, the voice of someone who had seen the worst of everything and still, somehow, clung to hope, telling us the most cautionary tale of all.

It took three hundred years to get here, he was plainly saying.

Don’t throw this away.

Don’t throw US away.

In 1969, with revolution all around, Jerry Butler’s greatest sessions were there to remind us–not just Black America, which had good reasons to find specific, deep resonance in the great vocalists of that moment, among whom Jerry Butler stood second to no one, but all of us–that even the most incremental progress is tenuous and that it remains so no matter how much the passage of time creates the illusion of permanence.

It’s obviously a reminder which, on the day when the Supreme Court has effectively gutted the key element of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we still desperately need.

And because it’s a particularly appropriate–and painful–reminder on this day, of what might have been…sung from the other side of that same mountain that almost didn’t fall on us:



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

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

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

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

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

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

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