LITTLE MISS GIANT (Vocalist of the Month for 1/18: Brenda Lee)

(NOTE: I’ve been working on this one for a while and now present it as, I believe, the most in-depth appreciation of Brenda Lee that exists anywhere. If, by chance, that’s true, she deserves for somebody to beat it every day from now on.)

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First my story….

Back in the days when I measured my life in large part by the discovery of voices, I used to hit the good local record store every Friday after work the way other people hit bars, restaurants or movie theaters. There was a process, almost sacred. It differed from ritual only in that it involved making decisions. Lots of decisions. I like all kinds of music. Back in the days of good record stores in medium-sized towns, there were literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of records (later CDs) I wanted to hear.

I emphasize the word “hear” because, for me, that was always the point: the actual listening experience. I didn’t care about “collecting,” never cared whether a record or disc had any qualities beyond what I was actually going to hear when I put it on the appropriate playing device. I’m not saying I was never influenced by any other factor (I love album covers for all kinds of reasons…and I’m hardly averse to a bargain), but when the last measure was being counted, on a Friday night or any other time, where I put my twenty or thirty or, at a rare extreme, fifty bucks was completely controlled by what I wanted to hear when I got home that night. If that makes me sound like a junkie, well, I can see where there’s a certain obsessional affinity. (It’s one reason I never took drugs. I recognized my vulnerabilities.)

One day in the early nineties, I came home with this:

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I didn’t think it was any big deal. I just thought it was time. I knew who Brenda Lee was, and by that I mean I was certain I knew who Brenda Lee was. I was born in 1960, in the south. There was no way to avoid knowing who Brenda Lee was in that time and place, and, really, no way to avoid being certain that you knew.

Okay, I didn’t really know too many of her songs. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” was a holiday perennial. “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothin’s” showed up on an oldies’ station once in a while. I even had one of her greatest hits albums on vinyl. This one as it happened:

I hadn’t bought it, just acquired it in one of those stacks of records that record junkies acquire here and there (people are forever giving away their old albums, even to this day…the only ones you never end up with are the ones you were certain you would that invariably contain that one cherished item you can never find anywhere else…oh, wait, I think I may have just gotten this confused with life).

blee12I had listened to it. Nothing went on the shelf without getting a spin. For whatever reason it hadn’t made an impression. You listen to enough records and some of them get by you. That one got by me, maybe because I was certain I knew Brenda Lee so I knew I only had to listen with half an ear.

I liked her, of course. Who didn’t? She was big. She had a lot of hits in an era when that was hard to do without being good (though, of course, it wasn’t impossible…I’ll avoid naming names).

So I knew all that when I brought that 2-CD package home on a Friday night around 1994 or so. I also knew–was certain I knew–where Brenda Lee fit. She was one of those good singers from the fifties/early sixties. One of those singers like Gene Pitney or Brook Benton or Bobby Darin who made really good records and earned a certain level of respect that went so far and no further.

By which I mean I knew–was certain–that she wasn’t important. Not truly important. Not to people like me. She was too professional. Too inside the lines. Too cautious. Maybe even too slick.

blee24Now don’t get this wrong. I expected to enjoy the Anthology, was very much looking forward to hearing it. I even thought–took it for granted really–that I would be moved by a previously unheard track or two, that there would be a few new favorites to absorb into my personal pantheon. There almost always were and just because I had Brenda Lee pegged, didn’t mean I didn’t respect her. I mean, it was the nineties. Rock and roll was dead as a door nail (just like it had first been pronounced in the days when Brenda was having her first hits with her being, by some people’s lights, exhibit A…except this time it was real, because, among other things, it was happening to me, and, of course, I turned out to have the kind of cursed luck that means when it happened to me it really, really happened!), and even if it somehow wasn’t, I still knew not to take a sixties-era hit maker for granted because the stuff they had made sound so easy had long since proved to be anything but. Hey, why do you think those Friday night decisions in the record store were so hard? How do you think I had gotten twenty years into my record buying life without having a decent Brenda Lee collection on my ever-burgeoning shelves? A treasury of riches, that’s how. Always a little more gold to mine. Just keep digging.

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So the digging had finally gotten around to her. Specifically to a 2-CD set (minus box…they knocked five dollars off the price…that’s all it took!) entitled Brenda Lee Anthology: 1956-1980–surely the only Brenda I would ever need.

I bought other stuff, too. I don’t remember specifically what, but there were probably two or three other cheap CDs. The Anthology, though, was definitely the big purchase of the week, I do remember that. I remember that because it was my habit to save the big purchase for last. So the way it worked, I got myself something to eat, I puttered around, I watched part of the baseball or basketball game (whatever season it was).

I listened to the other CDs.

Then, when midnight drew near, I threw on the first CD of the Brenda Lee set.

My thinking was I could listen to a few tracks while I was getting ready for my shower (probably something similar to what I had done with that LP that got by me back when). Then, if it sounded like I might miss something important, I could pause it while I was in the shower and, if it didn’t, I could turn it up a little and keep it playing, pretty sure I would hear enough of what was going on over the stinging needles to do a playback if needed. I mean, it was the big purchase of the week but I knew Brenda Lee, had grown up with her being sort of around, heard her all my life.

I was pretty sure I could sneak in a shower.

So I listened to this while I was getting the towels out, changing into my robe…

And it was fine. Not Hank Williams (hell, she was eleven) but catchy. Then there was a another catchy one and the one after that was this one…

And I thought, “Gee, this is….something…”

Enough of something to get me to walk into where the stereo was and cinch my robe and take a seat.

Just for a song or two, you know.

Then the song or two went by and this came on…

And I thought…”What is this?” By which my subconscious meant something like “What’s happening here?”

An hour-and-a-half later, I was still sitting there in my robe, listening to this…

Thinking:

“What just happened?”

Well, by then the question was purely rhetorical. I knew what had just happened. What had just happened was I had been taken on a great journey through American music–rock and roll, country, rockabillly, R&B, the Nashville Sound, teen-pop, Tin Pan Alley–by one of its greatest singers.

And I wasn’t entirely happy about it.

Oh, I was happy about the music. Ecstatic in fact. Lifted in the way that only the discovery (or in this case, comprehension) of a great new voice could lift somebody who spent as much of his life searching for voices as I did.

But the ecstasy was cut, seriously, by anger.

I was angry at the people who had lied to me, who had managed to render somebody I had known all my life literally invisible, to somehow shove her out of reach, past what I had previously considered my very keen hearing.

And it was then–right then–that I began developing my Unified Theory of Rock Criticism as a specific conspiracy designed to drop Brenda Lee down the memory hole.

It took me about ten minutes to develop that theory. I’m still working out how I feel about it. Which is maybe why I put Brenda Lee’s picture at the top of my blog the day it started and waited six years to write about her.

I’m still working through my issues.

But this is a celebration of Brenda Lee, so I’m not planning to work through them here. What I’m planning to do here is place Brenda Lee in rock and roll history the way I hear it.

And the best way to do that is to leave my story alone and tell hers…

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First her life, then her art.

Her life went more or less like this….

She was born in 1944. Her family was literally dirt poor, moving constantly in and around the dirt hills of northeast Georgia. She was singing for candy in local stores at three, on what passed for the local stages at five, on local radio not long after. When her father died in 1953, she instantly became the family’s principal breadwinner, a journey that took her to radio stations in Ohio, Kentucky and, eventually, a local show where, upon hearing the voice John Lennon would later allegedly pronounce “the greatest rock and roll voice of them all,” Red Foley got “cold chills,” watched her get three encores, and signed her up for the Ozark Mountain Jubilee.

Soon she was commuting from north Georgia to southern Missouri every weekend, leaving Friday afternoon for a fifteen-hour ride with whoever was going, telling jokes to keep the drivers awake, performing live Saturday night in settings like this one….

Then returning on Sunday, arriving home Monday in the wee hours, just in time for school

More Mondays than not, her head hit the desk before lunch time. Her teachers let her sleep.

The hard-won professionalism that would, in part, keep several generations of critics, programmed to prize what they deemed “spontaneity” as the only true form of “authenticity,” from understanding her, paid off with a Nashville contract (Decca/MCA)  in 1955.

Then the real work began. How to sell an eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen-year-old girl who looked half her age to either a hard-bitten country audience that had never accepted anyone her age before, or a rock and roll audience that Nashville was scared to death of–and, despite a few hits for Frankie Lymon and Arlene Smith’s Chantels, hadn’t made anybody that young a major star either. One hit wonders of the type that proliferated throughout rock’s early dawn were virtually unheard of in country at any age. In Nashville, they were looking to build careers.

But, in order to build a career, you had to have a hit to build it on. Somewhere, some time. You can stand around and look cute. You can even go to Vegas…blee30

You can carry your family on your back, touring from town to town. You can sign with a one artist manager (just like Elvis!) who makes you the first truly international rock and roll touring star while Nashville’s A Team and crackest of crack producers (Owen Bradley), is still trying to figure out where you fit. You can smart talk the ace session men (“well goo-goo to you, too” she said, on the guar-an-teed last occasion when anybody talked down to her) and get everybody who knows you personally to love you enough that you’ll be something like the biggest star nobody ever said a bad word about…if you can only find a hit that makes you a star to begin with. Something more than a touring sensation. Something more than a girl the French make up stories about (“she’s really a thirty-year-old midget!”…that made more sense than the truth of that voice coming from a four-foot-nothing thirteen-year-old).

It must have been the longest four years anyone ever lived while, in some senses, having it so good. She was everybody’s baby. She was making a living. She was even already “Little Miss Dynamite” as great an earned nickname as anybody ever had or ever will.

She just wasn’t a hit-maker.

It must have been extraordinarily frustrating–to hear dozens (or hundreds) who weren’t as good as you have hits, even strings of hits, in and out of Nashville. Even for someone who had once moved eight times in nine years, seen her daddy die of old age in his forties (like so many then), carried her family on her tiny back for nearly a decade at the ripe old age of fifteen without achieving anything like the Shirley Temple/Judy Garland level of promised success that must have been whispered in her ear by managers, talent scouts, record producers, know-it-alls, know-nothings, from the time she was big enough to stand on the box that let her reach the microphone.

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The only picture I could find of Brenda with Patsy Cline

Frustrating all the more because she must have known she was already so much more than a pro. Being a pro was important, sure, but it only gets anyone so far. If you are being mistaken for a female midget, it may not get you as far as it does some others. And, without a hit, the greatest mentors and finest friends can’t keep you afloat forever.

Frustrating because, on top of everything else, you’ve managed to get better and better, to build, step by painful step, something authentically new in American music, the blend of Hank Williams, Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland you, and you alone, aimed for. Hard to do all that, and still get taken for a little girl.

Harder still if even this can’t bring you a hit (it didn’t get big until after she did)…

..and the specific style you’ve been groomed for, rockabilly, is beginning to fade. One day, you look around and Elvis is in the army, Jerry Lee’s in trouble for cousin-marryin’ (surprise, surprise), Buddy Holly just went down in a plane crash. Roy Orbison is thinking about how to get away from Sam Phillips. Charlie Rich is doing the same. And you?

…Then the Art

Well, you’ve been on a major label for nearly four years without cracking the Hot 100.

And, oh by the way, the word has gone out.

If you do, by chance, get a pop hit, Nashville won’t let any country stations play it. It’s not 1956 anymore. The world has moved on. They had shut out the Louisiana Hayride. They had shut out Elvis and the Everly Brothers. They had kept the colored people out.

Best behave.

Actually, that last part was sort of okay. She did behave. Maybe she didn’t quite always behave just exactly like the book said (and wouldn’t you like to get a peek at that book, the one you know is still somewhere in Nashville, locked away, consulted only on high holy occasions, its location and provenance known only to the few?) when she opened her mouth to sing, but, hey, that’s a chance you sometimes have to take. Does it matter really, where the records get sold? The profits come back to the same office don’t they, whether the next release takes off in Pittsburgh or Winnemucca….or Tokyo?

It could have gone on a while longer, the speculation about whether she would finally make it. Maybe not much longer. Certainly not forever. Even Nashville loses patience at some point. They lost patience with plenty of people, before and since, who had fewer shots at making it than Brenda did. Some of them were even big talents.

But maybe not quite as big a talent as she was. It wasn’t her professionalism or her toughness or her beyond-her-years ladylike demeanor that won her all that patience–seven singles in three years that combined for exactly one week on the country charts and zero weeks in the Top 40. It was her voice. Her voice and, I suspect, a general sense that the voice wasn’t the problem, that it couldn’t really miss if it was given the right setting.

What that setting was, nobody knew. We shouldn’t forget that. We shouldn’t forget what we have forgotten in the nearly six decades since, the decades that have brought us a long string of what I like to call Brenda’s Children, a line that, sticking only to white women and the most obvious, runs directly from Jackie DeShannon to Lulu to Tanya Tucker to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow to Pink and whoever comes next, casting a shadow the meanwhile on every single woman who has sung any sort of rock, country or southern inflected R&B.

We shouldn’t forget that Brenda Mae Tarpley made herself up out of Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland and that nobody before her sounded like her. We shouldn’t forget that, having heard that voice in literally hundreds of different throats since, we can take its place in the American soundscape for granted only because it was one of those voices that, when it did appear, made everybody go, “Well, of course,” and believe they must have heard it all their lives because it’s that kind of voice. I mean, a sound like that, what would keep it from existing in our national consciousness before, say, 1959?

Lots of things, actually. Musical things, cultural things, socio-political things. All that plus the absence, until the right moment, of an imagination sufficient to the task of calling the future into being.

If you are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, well-behaved, mistaken for a midget, a freak of “nature,” not interested in songwriting, most of all a girl-l-l-l-l, then you are not likely to be given credit for all that. Not even if, through all the sweat, all the grind, all the learning, you find your way, at last, to this…

…and make it sound as natural as breathing.

After that, the floodgates.

For one hot minute, she was alone. Then the minute passed–lightning quick, as rock and roll time demanded back then–and her imitators were everywhere. There was a reason I was ready for her all those years later in my apartment, stuck in my chair as if I were paralyzed, as if I had lost every sense but my hearing. I was ready because “Oh Me, Oh My” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart’ and “Landslide” and “Delta Dawn” and a hundred others had made me ready, ready to say “Oh, that’s where all that came from,” ready to go searching for where she had come from, a search that still goes on, because, if she came from anywhere, (even Edith Piaf, as some insist), it’s not likely she came from there anywhere near as directly as all those others came from her.

So the stardom everybody had predicted came at last.

And it came because she had put the essential rasp in the future of white women singing rock and roll.

And because she was a pro’s pro.

And then?

Well, she still had a life to live.

Like so much else, she didn’t live it the way anybody expected.

Chaperoned on dates until she was eighteen, she eloped with the first man she dated alone, (eloped so that her mother and her manager wouldn’t have a chance to talk her out of it). She had two kids. She left the road for a bit to raise them. She saw the British Invasion coming before anyone else. (But boys, where do you get these songs? she asked two lads whose band was opening for her on a German tour. John Lennon and Paul McCartney looked at each other and said, Well. We wrote them….. Oh my, she said. A lot of people would later claim they said something similar, but she was the only one who went home and told her record company they would be fools if they didn’t sign that band at once. It didn’t matter what kind of performers they were, the songs would be worth a fortune. The record company scoffed at her. I’m certain she was too much of a lady to ever remind them, after what she knew was bound to happen happened.)

What was bound to happen took as much out her career as anyone’s. She would always say she never changed, the world just turned. Right enough.

Because it was all more or less there from the beginning. It was there, not so much because she wasn’t forever polishing her style, but because the quality that marked her off even more than her remarkable timbre was the artist’s consummate empathy.

I’ll share what I’ve lived, her voice would always say.

And I’ll share what you’ve lived.

It was that last that made her a giant. It was why she could exemplify the rock and roll audience more deeply than anyone else, even though she had grown up as far inside Show Biz as Ricky Nelson (the only other major early rock icon who had grown up in Show Biz at all). The efforts her family–and, lest we forget, her culture–made to make sure she kept her feet on the ground, made a perfect fit with her nature. She was the little girl with the big voice and she was Little Miss Dynamite.

She was also every-teen.

She wasn’t chaperoned on dates when she was sixteen because she was selling millions of records. She was chaperoned because, in the world she came from, that was what you did. (It was the last moment when many did, but it was still what you did.)

She sold “Let’s Jump the Broomstick”–marriage as an act of rebellion–because that’s what she imagined others doing. A few years later she eloped.

But it wasn’t a simple matter of wish-fulfillment. Nobody could have sustained a career like hers on that.

She would learn–in the process of becoming the highest charting female act of the 1960s (trailing only Elvis, The Beatles, and, in some counts, Ray Charles)–to summon feelings no one would wish for.

She would learn to do it so well–to imagine herself in our shoes so thoroughly–that some of us would never wish for anyone else to take her place.

She would do that despite living no part of it herself. She would do it despite remaining happily married for life to the first man she ever dated without a chaperone.

And she would do it over and over again–wring every last ache out of the ballads that made her the Queen of Heartbreak:

…all defining (and being defined by) a sensibility that ended up in the same place, no matter which angle she started from…

Then the times changed and she woke up one day to find that her one-act manager had passed away, left her–a massive touring star who was the best selling female act of her era–in possession of her husband, those two kids, twenty thousand dollars and the deed to a split level ranch house. She made her husband-for-life her manager and determined not the repeat the mistake. That led to a fine second career on the country charts which finally welcomed her when she could no longer go pop. Somewhere down the line–some time after I had my epiphany, the honors came. The Halls of Fame (she’s one of four acts who is in both the Rock and Roll and Country Halls as a performer–the others are Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers….you  may have heard of them) came calling, better late than never. The inevitable embalming in Branson. The late career retrospectives and fond reminiscences.

And the secret tribute from the air, where her voice is still the foundation of a hundred others who may never have heard her or even of her. Now, they swaddle those voices in walls of suit-approved, machine-generated white noise, but, if you strip all that away, it’s still her voice at the core. You might call it the Other voice.

Because the great voices come in two kinds: those that can be readily imitated (even if never quite matched) and those that can’t.

Call it the Brenda Lee/Patsy Cline Paradigm.

Patsy’s influence is almost entirely inspirational because nobody can quite get in her space.

Same for Billie Holiday. Same for Janis Joplin.

Brenda Lee? Well, gee, lots of people sound like her, don’t they? Lots of people get in her space.

Sure they do.

And because of that, we’re prone to assume she just came from the air. That if she hadn’t conjured whatever she conjured, somebody else would have.

That’s how she gets dropped down the memory hole and also why she can never quite remain buried.

The air works like that.

Too many end up owing you too much. As long as anyone, anywhere wants to dig a little deeper–and as long as there’s air to breathe, someone will–it’s always you they’ll find at the root.

Brenda Mae Tarpley may have only grown to four-foot nothing.

But she didn’t know how to be small.

Little Miss Giant she was….

Little Miss Giant she remains.

WHAT’S IN A LABEL? (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #63)

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I use genre definitions/designations as much as anybody (though I frequently add a word like “ethos” or “aesthetic” to, I hope, broaden the scope). Like a lot of shady compromises, they’re a useful shorthand.  For instance, I’m not over-fond of the term “girl group.” There’s a kernel of truth in the phrase, but it’s also limiting on a lot of levels and not even entirely honest as straight description. That’s probably why Arlene Smith, Mary Weiss and others have, shall we say, found the phrase a little lacking (i.e., they hate it and think it’s ridiculous).

Still, when I use it, most people know what I mean, especially most people inclined to read this blog.

So, until somebody think’s of something better, “girl group,” or Charlie Gillett’s modesly preferable, “girl talk,” will have to do for a certain range of vocal styles widely practiced by young women from the late fifties through the mid-sixties. You can’t continually play with accepted usage sans constant nagging explanation without risking either mass tedium (when one explains) or plain and simple confusion (when one does not).

Genre labels we have, then. Often they bleed into each other: Prog/Art; Bubblegum/Sunshine Pop; Frat/Garage; Acid/Psychedelia, frequently causing hot debates among cognoscenti, who then  use the line between those who “get” it and those who don’t to make purely social distinctions. Incidentally, this seems to be mostly a “male” thing, which almost always begins in youth but often outlasts it. The finer the distinctions–that is, the more such minor differences are blurred or outright invisible to those outside the charmed circle–the more intense the feeling inside the circle.

“That’s not bubblegum, that’s sunshine pop!” might be all that’s spoken aloud.

The “You moron,” part is sometimes repressed–think where civilization would be otherwise–but it’s generally implied.

For the most part, as you can note from the This/That labels above, this takes place on the fringes. None of those genres, however defined, would take up more than few short pages in any standard history of rock and roll. Some wouldn’t get a paragraph.

There’s at least one distinction, though, that can’t be entirely related to quibbling among the quibblers..

What is Funk? And what is Disco?

No matter how meticulously or academically anyone makes specific musical arguments for exactly what elements set one record off from another–the funk record from the disco record–there’s simply too much ground in the middle for me to ever be truly comfortable with the limits placed on either side of the divide.

What is Funk?

And what is Disco?

Here’s one possible definition:

Funk is music crit-illuminati types are bound to respect, even if their preferred listening is the Grateful Dead.

Disco is music no one is bound to respect, even if their preferred listening is Funk.

Now, what any one person actually respects, and what anyone and everyone are bound to respect aren’t necessarily the same things. I’m sure at least some Grateful Dead fans genuinely love and respect funk and I’m sure at least some hardcore funk fans genuinely love and respect disco.

But the narratives have come down from on high. If you read a history of rock and roll that has a funk chapter and a disco chapter, you’ll almost certainly encounter a very distinct difference in tone.

Funk is pure, man.

Disco is…well, it might not still be crap…Disco has earned some respect.

But it’s…well, it’s not funk, now is it?

Unless, of course, maybe it is. (That “Punk” about half as influential and way less than half as commercial, generally gets about as much ink as Funk and Disco combined, is another topic for another day.)

Much to ponder–why the funkster need not explain himself, but the disco-lover still sort of does–but meanwhile, here’s a weird little test.

Which of these records always…ALWAYS…shows up on funk collections? And which of them always…ALWAYS….shows up on disco collections.

For the record, “I Get LIfted” is a funk standard and “Rock Your Baby” is a disco standard but I’d love to know just how that distinction was made, because I certainly can’t make it.

Oh, I can hear lots of differences in the records, but not one that defines that particular line or remotely suggests why/how the line has been made so hard and fast. I mean, did Miami club-goers in 1974 make this distinction? (I’m guessing not, but it’s only a guess.)

Did George McCrae, the singer, make the distinction? (Ditto.)

Did Harry Wayne Casey, the man who, with his partner Rick Finch, wrote and produced both records, and whose own hardcore southern funk band, which he led as KC and the Sunshine Band, and which all but single-handedly shifted the main action in southern music from Memphis to Miami, would soon, of course, be labeled “disco,” make the distinction? (Double ditto.)

No, if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say the main drivers in deciding who was who were marketers and critics, though they probably used “insiders” (producers, street-level journalists in particular scenes, etc.) to educate themselves on how best to exploit and play off one set of opinions against another for the sake of maintaining profit margins and the control they represent

Hey, the political system and the economy run that way, why not the record industry?

The way all of that worked out for Casey, Finch and the Sunshine Band was that they sold a ton of records, got some fame and fortune out of it (I’m guessing the producer/writers got most of the latter)…and got shoved under the “disco sucks” truck that was careening through seventies’ culture, wrecking everything in sight, up to and including what was left of Martin Luther King’s dream.

I wonder what might have happened if, instead, they had been labeled the legitimate and self-conscious heirs to Stax–right down to the multi-racialism, which was also running rampant at the time, very much threatening to make the Dream come true–who took a new and exciting twist on southern funk to places it had never gone before commercially?

I mean, compared to what might have been tossed away by the marketing departments making up their phony rules (without resort to cross-corporate collaboration, I’m sure) and the crit-illuminati safely playing along (real shock, that!), KC and the boys getting back-handed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee every year (whereas, even their late-arriving, oh-so-New-York counterparts, Chic, at least get repeated shots at being backhanded by the actual voters), is small potatoes.

If we’d ever gotten past those labels, though, learned to recognize, for starters, that, say, funk and disco were two sides of a very tightly melded coin, and needed no distinction, then who knows?

Or what if we’d just kept right on calling all R&B-oriented dance music “funk” and kept considering all of it something that everybody was bound to respect, instead of neatly separating out the half that sold the most records and attaching it to the word “sucks?”

Who’s to say we wouldn’t be closer to living the Dream, instead of watching it drift further and further away?

Maybe it’s all trivial, what we do with language and race and deciding who matters.

I’m guessing–just guessing–not.

 

STANDING TALL (Lesley Gore, R.I.P.)

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“Tom Doniphon, you listen to me. Where I go and what I do is none of your business. You don’t own me!”

(Vera Miles to John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–1962)

“Don’t tell me what to do/And don’t tell me what to say”

Lesley Gore “You Don’t Own Me” (1964)

DI: Fans have always told you how important song has been to them. Are you making “a statement” even today?

LG: No question about it. It’s the one song – after some 40 years, I still close my show with that song because I can’t find anything stronger, to be honest with you. It’s a song that just kind of grows every time you do it. It might mean one thing one year and “boom,” two years later, boy it can mean something else.

(Digital Interviews with Lesley Gore, May, 2003)

When the late Charlie Gillett published the first important history of rock and roll in 1969, he dubbed the flood of hit records by young women from the early and mid-sixties “Girl Talk.” However problematic that phrase was, it was positively enlightened compared to the “girl group” moniker which gained currency soon after and has been used as short-hand ever since by everyone from the boys’ club that re-defined rock ‘n’ roll’s quasi-official narrative in Gillett’s wake in strict accord with their own needs to those doctrinaire feminist scholars who are so often in the habit of accepting all the wrong things.

One group that never accepted the term was a number of the “girl group” participants themselves.

I don’t know how Lesley Gore felt about it, but Arlene Smith (14 when she basically invented the concept with the Chantels), Mary Weiss (15 when she defined the apotheosis with the Shangri-Las) and others always saw themselves as a vital part of a larger tradition and always understood that the term was meant, consciously or subconsciously, to segregate them from that tradition.

As it happened, it worked to separate them by more than gender.

Make of it what you will, but no other “genre” name in rock and roll or any other form of music has ever needed to not only cordon off its practitioners by gender, but also further subdivide them by race, age, number and anything else that can be brought to bear.

This was made somewhat easier by an odd circumstance. With the exception of Weiss, all of the concept’s signature lead group voices, were black (Smith, Shirley Owens, Ronnie Spector, Martha Reeves, Gladys Horton, Diana Ross, Darlene Love). Meanwhile, except for Dionne Warwick and Mary Wells, the signature solo voices were white (Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Petula Clark, Jackie DeShannon, Nancy Sinatra and, of course, Lesley Gore). So just in case gender wasn’t handy enough on its own, some of these voices could be conveniently cut from the bunch by race…or age…or number…or just vocal inclination.

Further divisions were managed by siphoning off various groups or singers into some other category (anything would do).

Wells, The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes were “Motown.” Clark, Springfield and Lulu (along with Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw, big stars in England who had limited success in the States) were “British Invasion.” Warwick was “Supper Club Soul” or “Adult Contemporary.” Lee and Francis were “Teen Idols” (or “Countrypolitan” or just “Pop”) and so forth.

None of this was exactly untrue. I make the distinctions myself at times.

But the trick to the official rock and roll narrative was that, once separated from the already hidebound ethos, these outliers were never let back into their moment.

I mean, if you wanna start a fight with a Rock Critic, try calling Dionne Warwick (twenty-one when she recorded her first big hit) or Brenda Lee (fifteen when she recorded hers) a Girl Group singer.

The effect, when used in tandem with the “male-producer-as-svengali” syndrome I’ve addressed pretty relentlessly on this blog, was and is to blunt the force and magnitude of the first mighty surge of cultural power ever spear-headed by a collective of young women in the history of American music.

Or, for that matter, pretty much any age women anywhere.

In any cultural (as opposed to social or political) context.

Ever.

The effect of the “girl talk” moment, both as symbolism and underlying reality, was of that part of the audience which had fought their way to the front rows at Elvis and Jackie Wilson concerts in the fifties (and, yes, fainted at Frank Sinatra concerts in the forties, though in those days they mostly stayed in their seats), literally stepping forth from the audience and taking the stage themselves.

Few of them wrote their important hits (Smith and DeShannon were rare exceptions). Even fewer produced and none ever received proper credit. So, mostly, they seized the moment by singing.

Sing they did. Brenda Lee, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Darlene Love, Arlene Smith, Mary Weiss, Ronnie Spector, Jackie DeShannon. No genre, style or sensibility, however named, was ever graced with greater voices, and, amongst that cacophony, it fell to then seventeen-year-old Lesley Gore, she of the perfect pitch and Sarah Lawrence pedigree, to sing their anthem, the one record that most assuredly marked the future off from the past, even as the storm of the British Invasion (a genre, like any but the one Lesley Gore was slated into, where no distinction needed to be made between groups or individuals, men or women, teens or twenty-somethings, no matter how many of its acts were four or five guys with guitars) seemed to wash every other future away.

‘You Don’t Own Me,” (it’s title and ethos copped from a John Ford movie even in the unlikely event the songwriters never saw it) wasn’t her biggest hit.“It’s My Party” made #1, while “You Don’t Own Me” was stopped at #2 by the symbolic-as-hell and real-as-hell phenomenon that was “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. It may not have even been her greatest vocal. I’m partial to “She’s a Fool” myself and there’s plenty of other competition.

But it’s the one that truly escaped time and found a life that was not and is not in any way bound by its original moment.

My memory plays tricks on me and I’ve never been able to track the quote down, but I’m willing to swear on anything you want that, somewhere, there’s an interview with Gore where she said it was also the one song she knew would be a hit.

When she was asked how she knew, she had a simple answer:

“Because I read my fan mail.”

Call her anything you want. Can’t mark the future off any plainer than that.

Time came for Lesley Gore today at 68.

Well…not really….

 

MORE UNDERGROUND NOTES FROM THE STORY THAT NEVER ENDS (Various Shangri-Las Misidentified….Shock Reverberates!)

TONYFLETCHERSHANGS

This photograph is reproduced in Tony Fletcher’s All Hopped Up and Ready to Go, published in 2009.

The caption in the book reads:

The Shangri-Las, comprised of identical twins Margie and Mary-Ann Ganser, and sisters Liz (not shown) and Mary Weiss.

Fletcher conducted the remarkable interview with the Chantels’ Arlene Smith which I linked here. He seems like a conscientious journalist and historian and a nice man. I’d like him if that interview was the only thing he ever did and it’s on the basis of the impression it made that I just acquired his book (a history of New York’s street music scenes from 1927 to 1977), which I’m very much looking forward to reading.

But….

You know how this goes.

Anyone who encounters this picture and caption in the state of pre-existing confusion I’ve written about periodically on my Shangri-Las’ page (accessible under SHANGRI-LAS FOREVER at the right), will have to assume that the (apparently-not-very-but-at-least-possible) “identical” Ganser twins mentioned here are the two girls on the right, and the girl on the left must, by process of elimination, be Mary Weiss.

Of course, the girl on the left is actually Marge or Mary Ann Ganser (I’m not sure which*), the girl in the middle is Liz Weiss (usually called Betty in the period when the picture was taken and definitely not “not shown”) and Mary Weiss, one of rock’s greatest voices, is on the right.

Mistaken captions are not the world’s most uncommon screw-up, of course, and very likely this one was not even Fletcher’s responsibility. It certainly isn’t going to color my anticipation of his book.

And it’s actually not the worst sin on the page where it appears, which has a photo of the Chantels with a caption that identifies Arlene Smith–quite possibly correctly but I can’t swear to it and why should I assume?–but does not name the other three girls, once more cloaking them–as they have been for half a century and counting–in needless anonymity.

I mean, how hard could it have been?

Apparently harder than misidentifying Liz Weiss as an “identical” Ganser twin.

Like I said….I’m not holding all this against anybody. Big project. Mistakes happen.

Funny, though, how these misidentifications of girl group singers generally–and the Shangri-Las in particular–keep cropping up, decade after decade.

It’s almost like we really, really don’t want to know.

(*UPDATE: Commenter Dazza B has identified the Ganser twin as Mary Ann. Much thanks!)

 

THE SHOCK OF THE NEW….NEW YORK CITY: 1956 (Great Quotations)

“When I heard his voice….I moved in and listened.”

Arlene Smith, on hearing thirteen-year-old Frankie Lymon for the first time on Alan Freed’s New York radio show.

(A nice sequel to Richard Barrett hearing Arlene, which I posted about here…quote is also from the linked interview)

 

 

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Ninth Maxim)

I’m still debating whether to do a full review of Greil Marcus’ latest, which I posted about here. If/when I do, I’ll doubtless be speaking yet again of the good and the bad.

For the good….

The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs has a lot of the best sustained writing Marcus has done in years. The piece on Buddy Holly and the Beatles ranks with his best ever. The essay on “Money/Money Changes Everything” had me hearing new things in Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual after years of obsessive listening (and deepening my long-held conviction that it was the finest album released in the eighties and likely the greatest debut released by a solo artist in the rock and roll era). It turned me on to John Kaye’s The Dead Circus, which is the most fun I’ve had reading a modern novel in I don’t know how long.

He even admitted to now knowing Marge Ganser was long dead when he and Robert Christgau slandered her a few years back (see the link above) in the notes for a fine essay on Amy Winehouse and the Shangri-Las.

Then, for the rest….

Following up on my George Goldner post, there’s this:

“There would have been no rock & roll without him,” Phil Spector said when Goldner died, in 1970. Just months before, Goldner told the Rolling Stone writer Langdon Winner the story of how he got Arlene Smith, the seventeen-year-old lead singer of the Bronx quintet the Chantels, to do what she did–to go into the depths of doo-wop ballads like a maiden sacrificing herself to volcano gods. Winner had published a retrospective review of The Chantels, issued on Goldner’s End label in 1958, raving about Arlene Smith: “What’s so great about her voice? Well, to be frank, it starts where all the other voices in rock stop…When she reaches for a high note she just keeps going. There is never a hint of strain. Nothing drops out. Her tone expands in breadth to match the requirements of high pitch…Like a three-thousand dollar stereo system playing Beethoven’s Ninth, the highs, lows and mid range extend into infinity.”

“Shortly after the review appeared,” Winner wrote me in 2013, “I received a telephone call from George Goldner, legendary New York City record producer and businessman who’d recorded a number of early R&B, doo-wop and rock groups including the Chantels. He said he was coming to San Francisco on business and invited me to dinner. During a two-hour conversation, Goldner told a number of marvelous stories about Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Crows, the Flamingos, and other groups he’d produced over the years. It was clear that he was happy to be getting some notice in the pages of Rolling Stone and wanted to make sure he was receiving sufficient credit for his contributions to rock and roll. At one point, for example, he proudly explained that the ‘boy’ celebrated in the Ad Libs 1965 hit ‘The Boy from New York City’ was actually he himself.

“Eventually,” Winner went on, “I asked Goldner about the extraordinary intensity in Arlene Smith’s vocals. ‘Obviously, she has great natural ability and control of her voice,’ I said. ‘But she sings in a way that often seems right on the brink of emotional break down. Where did that come from?’ ‘You see,’ he said, ‘the Chantels were always very well prepared and sang beautifully. The first take of any of their songs was usually just about perfect. But I realized what a phenomenal talent Arlene Smith was. I wanted to push her to reach for something more. My strategy was to record two or three takes of a song and then storm out of the booth and start ranting. “This is horrible! Your singing today is lifeless, sloppy. Haven’t you been rehearsing? We’re just wasting our time here! What the hell’s the matter with you?” I’d look Arlene right in the eye and yell at her until she was nearly in tears, and then finally say, “OK, I give up. Let’s try it again.” The next cut was always the one I was looking for. The edge you hear in her voice, the tone of desperation approaching hysteria is what I was trying to pull out of her. And sometimes I succeeded.”

Marcus seems to swallow this version of events whole and–to some extent at least–view it with some approval.

That Arlene Smith herself might have a different view (as evinced in the link I provided in my last post, which has an hour-long interview with her from 2009 where, among other things, she goes to some lengths to stress that, while Goldner was sometimes present at her sessions, Richard Barrett discovered her, actually ran the sessions and approved final takes), seems to have never occurred to either Marcus or Langdon Winner.

Later in the book, Marcus says that Shadow Morton’s later history with the Shangri-Las sounds srikingly similar:

In the obituary (Morton’s) “Yeah, Well I Hear He’s Bad…” the journalist David Kamp recalled a conversation with Morton in the 1990s. “He kept talking about ‘the Ba-CAH-di’ that did him in…[He] seemed especially remorseful about his behavior towards Mary Weiss, the striking lead singer of the Shangri-Las; he said the Ba-CAH-di made him do some things to her so terrible that he didn’t want to go into them”–to my mind, the kind of things George Goldner did to Arlene Smith.

If, as seems likely, Goldner was feeding Langdon Winner a lot of hooey in 1970–doing what a lot of record producers (and movie directors) have done when a young woman is involved and transferring most of the credit for any magical results to himself–then, of course, it is not impossible that he patterned his memory after what he observed going on between Morton and Weiss (which Weiss, incidentally, has pushed back on to some degree on other occasions–not so much as to what happened [she did cry in the studio] as to why–personal pain, not harassment).

But what’s key here is that Marcus swallows the narrative he finds most appealing–does not question it or do due diligence in finding out whether this version of the story might be false, or at very least, incomplete. It’s not the first time he’s been guilty of same (I wrote about another instance here). But this time, it’s springing from a mind set that’s uncomfortably close to the one he evinces in the next quote– a sort of dark continuum from Goldner to his most famous protégé, Phil Spector:

Since 2009, when he was convicted of second-degree murder in the 2003 shooting death of the nightclub hostess, unsuccessful actress, and sometime blackface Little Richard impersonator Lana Clarkson at his mansion in Alhambra, California, Phil Spector has been serving nineteen years to life at a division of Corcoran State Prison. Amy Winehouse has been dead since 2011. If you listen to the Teddy Bears’ record now, and ignore what Spector did with the rest of his life, or even what he did in the few years after he made “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” his fate may not seem like such a tragedy. If you listen to Winehouse sing the song, you can hate her for what, as over a few July days she drank herself to death, she withheld from the world.

Now we’ve gone from the dubious to the unconscionable. From swallowing George Goldner’s brag about making Arlene Smith cry (for her own good of course–isn’t it always?), to Lana Clarkson being the cause of a tragedy that belongs not to her, a murder victim, but to her murderer–who wouldn’t have been a tragedy either if he hadn’t made such great records.

And, of course, to “hating” Amy Winehouse, for what “she withheld from the world.”

Bear in mind that this is what passes for serious discourse–and it’s nested rather casually inside writing that actually is serious discourse, like a snake hiding in the garden. The two things become indistinguishable, redolent of a spirit that is searching for some sort of emotional high and doesn’t care where it finds it.

If it can be found in the mystical link between Buddy Holly and the Beatles that’s wonderful.

If it can be found by de facto blaming Lana Clarkson for her own murder, because she was “unsuccessful” and did a bad Little Richard imitation, or hating Amy Winehouse for her suicide, while reserving the word “tragedy” for Phil Spector’s fate….well, evidently, that will do just as well.

All of which leads us, in a rather roundabout way, to the Ninth Maxim:

NO SYMPATHY FOR THE MURDERER.

No, not even if the murderer once lived the rock and roll dream so transcendently that he transformed himself from this…

Philspectorfirst

to this…

philspectorsecond

And, no, not even if, in the last moment before his genius gave way to his monstrous demons, he was responsible for this:

 

THE SHOCK OF THE NEW….NEW YORK CITY: CIRCA, 1957 (Great Quotations)

“He just stood there with his mouth open.”

The Chantels’ Arlene Smith, on the reaction of record man Richard Barrett (who was producer/label owner George Goldner’s talent scout/right hand man) when–at fifteen and on her way to creating an entirely new ethos in American culture–she auditioned for him on the streets of New York.

I’ll be pursuing this a bit in the next few days (Goldner, Smith, the Record Biz, that is) when I get back to some problems I had with Greil Marcus’ The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs.

In the meantime, I highly recommend the lengthy interview link below to anyone who is remotely interested in rock and roll in the fifties. From the street level, you might say:

 

 

EVERYTHING I REALLY NEEDED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM ROCK AND ROLL (Lesson #2: The George Goldner Story)

Weird.

Here’s a George Goldner time line, which I swear crystallized in my head for the first time last week, when I happened to pull some of his label-specific collections off the shelf where they reside, neatly, in chronological order.

For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Goldner was one of the truly great record men of early rock and roll. He was also what is, these days, most often described as an “inveterate gambler.” That’s a polite term for gambling addict, which is itself a polite term for gambling junkie which is itself a polite term for degenerate gambler, a phrase that is evidently no longer in use.

Hence–a little miniature history of rock and roll, seen through the prism of George Goldner’s career:

1947: Begins first record label, Tico, specializing in Latin music.

1953-4: Recognizing the rising popularity of R&B, he starts two new labels. The first is Rama. The second is Gee, named after Rama’s seminal hit recording with the Crows, which was one of the first R&B records to cross over to the white Pop chart.

1956: To pay off “inveterate” gambling debts, Goldner sells half interest in Tico, Rama and Gee to “mob associate” Joe Kolsky.

1957: Goldner and Kolsky partner with “mob associate” Morris Levy to start a new label. They call it Roulette (surely proving somebody–God perhaps–was not lacking for a sense of mordant humor). A few months later, Goldner, to pay more gambling debts, sells his interest in Roulette, plus his remaining interests in Tico, Rama and Gee, to Levy.

1957: After selling all his interests in the four successful labels he had already founded, Goldner begins two new labels. The first is called Gone. The second is called End. They are also successful.

1962: The inveterate gambler sells Gone and End. To Morris Levy.

1964: Goldner begins one last venture, becoming a founding partner, with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (two of the very few record men who were as accomplished as he was), in Red Bird records and its Blue Cat subsidiary. Like all of Goldner’s other labels, this one has hit records, makes lots of money.

1966: Leiber and Stoller are offered one dollar for their interest in Red Bird and Blue Cat. It is an offer they can’t refuse. Technically, they sell to Goldner, who promptly turns over his interest to Levy….to cover his inveterate gambling debts.

1970: Goldner dies of a heart attack.

1990: Morris Levy dies of cancer, two months before he is scheduled to report to prison, following conviction on two counts of conspiracy to commit extortion. The investigation which ultimately led to his conviction was begun as “ investigation into the alleged infiltration of organized crime into the record business.”. Of course it had.

Books have been written about this stuff (I just started Tommy James’ autobiography where he evidently describes his own relationship with Levy at length). There’s even an off-Broadway play about Goldner’s life.

But “The George Goldner Story”–and a large part of the history of corruption in modern America–really is in those first six label names.

Tico….Rama….Gee….

Roulette….

End….

Gone.

The loss was certainly not Goldner’s alone.

In the decade when the rock revolution’s enduring archetypes were being formed–roughly 1955 to 1965–there were four truly great sixteen-and-under vocalists.

One of them, Brenda Lee, ended up having a long run of hits and a mighty career as one of America’s greatest (if most unsung) vocalists.

The other three–Frankie Lymon, Arlene Smith and Mary Weiss–recorded for labels owned, in whole or part, by George Goldner.

They did not have careers.

Tico….Rama…..Gee….

Roulette….

End….

Gone.

I’ll be writing more about Goldner and his most famous protege–one Phil Spector–in the coming days. I just wanted to provide a little background for what I’ll have to say then.

For now I’ll just reiterate.

People make history.

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

 

FIFTIES’ R&B: Part I, 1950–1954 (Great Vocal Events In the History of Rock and Roll: Volume 3)

If you click on the links below, you’ll be hearing a lot of this man (more of him than anyone else). He’s obviously an unstable element–for one thing, he’s called Clyde–so consider yourself warned:

CLYDEMCPHATTER

 

Just to reiterate a point I’ve made here before: “R&B” (or “Rhythm and Blues”) is a covertly separatist marketing term, coined by soon-to-be Atlantic Records’ honcho Jerry Wexler when he worked at Billboard in the late forties and meant to replace the previous marketing term which was the more overtly separatist “Race.”

In other words, it was not initially designed to describe a particular style of music but rather a sales demographic. That being said, it came, over time, to have some rather specific musical application and, in current parlance, the phrase “fifties’ R&B” mostly conjures a variant of beat-oriented music, (generally hard-driving and rooted in Black America, but in any case succinct) that anticipated, then was absorbed by, then transformed from within, a larger, even more general, marketing concept first called “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (and, later, “Rock and Roll”).

That’s the series of inter-related developments I’m trying to trace here…year by year, in two parts.

This particular field is even more bottomless than usual, and, though you may have heard otherwise, the “R&B” chart in the fifties was mostly conservative (as nearly all charts have been in nearly all times) so these are some of the startling highlights that kept moving the train down the track, with a few standard items thrown in for the sake of providing a fuller context (though I’ve generally avoided the crooning of established stars like Nat Cole, Billy Eckstine, Roy Hamilton etc.–great music but not really what one thinks of when R&B is used as something other than a marketing phrase.)

(NOTE: Hat tip to the Bear Family’s Blowing the Fuse series, without which, this particular task would have been beyond my capacity–the only flaw in this mighty series is the failure to acknowledge the substantial and exciting white crossover that occurred in the mid-fifties and which marked a significant part of the revolution now all too conveniently ignored when it is not being attributed–without proof or resort to common sense–almost exclusively to the spending and listening habits of white teenagers, an issue I’ve addressed in part elsewhere (see the Elvis In the Fifties category at the right). So, trolling across the tip of the iceberg…

1950:

“I Almost Lost My Mind”–Ivory Joe Hunter: Proto-soul that predates Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter. If Hunter has been a tad neglected by history, it’s probably due to his being a balladeer who sought connections where others sought “identity.” We all know where that gets you–criminally ignored.

“The Fat Man”–Fats Domino: Domino’s first record was such a ludicrously perfect combination of swamp fever, industrial sweat and Old World hoo-doo it could only have happened in New Orleans. Something had to be born from it: turned out it was rock ‘n’ roll. You can argue forever about when, exactly, the train left the station. But Fats launching into his flight-to-freedom falsetto midway through this is the moment no power on earth could turn it around.

“Blue Shadows”–Lowell Fulson: Hints of languorous prophecy, which Elvis, among others, picked up on.

“Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere”–Joe Morris and His Orchestra (featuring Laurie Martin): The mighty Atlantic label’s first #1 R&B hit. Martin’s vocal is strident without being overblown, off-kilter and slightly disorienting in its peculiar style of intensity, much in the manner that Arlene Smith of the Chantels would achieve at the end of the decade when she was inventing the girl group ethos. Genuinely strange, a quality that was nowhere near as common to rock’s pre-dawn as modern romance would have us believe.

1951:

“Rockin’ With Red”–Piano Red: Remarkably prescient blend of laconic country vocal and rolling blues rhythm that kicked off Red’s career at the age of 40. Five years later, when younger men did it, it was called kid’s music.

“I Will Wait”–The Four Buddies (Leon Harrison, lead vocal, William Carter, Vernon Palmer and John Carroll, harmony vocals): Bedrock doo-wop, right down to being a one-hit wonder.

“Black Night”–Charles Brown and his Band: One of Brown’s last great rides up the charts. A stark, noirish reminder of what those charts would soon have no more time for. At least not until Ray Charles–who had begun by imitating Brown–grew up.

“Rocket 88”–Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats: Brenston was a pretty standard issue jump band shouter and, truth be told, his vocal–fine but not terribly distinctive–is the least impressive thing about this record. The “Delta Cats” were basically Ike Turner’s band of the moment and they did what Ike Turner’s bands generally did, which was stomp and storm (coincidentally or not, he wouldn’t learn to swing until he hooked up with Tina a decade or so later). That, plus being recorded at the Sun Studio, has been enough to insure the record plenty of “first rock ‘n’ roll record” love from people who really should know better.

“Sixty Minute Man”–The Dominoes (Bill Brown, lead vocal, Clyde McPhatter, second lead, Charlie White and Joe Lamont, harmony vocals): McPhatter’s not-quite-novelty “response” vocal now sounds like a precursor of prison rape as both national scourge and national joke. On the whole, the record is thus a little more disorienting than any joke can afford to be–perhaps because McPhatter is responding to a lead by Bill Brown that has lost none of its quality as the supreme expression of matter-of-factly asserted sexual prowess. You know what they say: It ain’t bragging if it’s true!

“The Glory of Love”–The Five Keys (Rudy West, lead vocal, Dickie Smith, second lead, Ripley Ingram, Maryland Pierce and Bernie West, harmony vocals): A new kind of formalism and a new definition of beauty, inviting a thousand challenges and, as often happens with such things, remaining unsurpassed.

“Eyesight to the Blind”–The Larks (Alden Bunn , lead vocal, Thermon Ruth, Eugene Mumford, David McNeil and Pee Wee Barnes, harmony vocals): Blues-drenched lead counterpointed by elegant harmony straight out of squares-ville (Julliard, the barber shop, whatever). Hence, a forgotten bridge between the polished sound of urban blues a generation earlier (which was very square indeed) and the David Ruffin side of the Temptations a generation later (which stepped just over the line into the place where studied elegance wasn’t square at all).

“How Many More Years”–Howlin’ Wolf: Is it possible to sound a thousand years old and predict the future? It is if you’re a prophet.

1952:

“3 O’Clock Blues”–B.B. King: On the purely vocal side of his first big hit, B.B. wasn’t doing anything exactly new. He worked well within established norms. He just did it better.

“Cry”–Johnny Ray and the Four Lads (Johnny Ray, lead vocal, Connie Codarini, Frank Busseri, Jimmy Arnold, Bernie Toorish, harmony vocals): The white boy who could hang. This is the only record by a white vocalist to hit the top of Billboard‘s R&B (or Race) chart between Helen Forrest (fronting the Harry James Orchestra) in ’43 and Elvis in ’56. Come together over me. So saith the Nabob of Sob.

“One Mint Julep”–The Clovers (Buddy Bailey, lead vocal, Harold Winley (bass interlude), Matthew McQuater and Hal Lucas, harmony vocals): Polished as glass, but it’s the kind of glass that shimmers. It keeps revealing new colors depending on the light. Salty subject matter aside, this is the other side of the world from the hard, electrified blues that were proliferating in the early fifties and at least as accurate a predictor as the Everly Brothers or the Platters of the values that would one day rule “soft rock.”

“Have Mercy Baby”–The Dominoes (Clyde McPhatter, lead vocal, Bill Brown, Charlie White and Joe Lamont, harmony vocals): The one-man typhoon that was Clyde McPhatter (spotted in the distance on “Sixty Minute Man”) reaches shore…and then starts to dance and twirl on everybody’s head.

“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”–Lloyd Price: A slightly slowed-down version of the formula Fats Domino had by now perfected (Fats–a great session man in addition to everything else–played the memorable trilling piano here). Price’s voice had a slightly brighter tone that gave the formula–and the basic New Orleans sound–a new edge that still cuts. Though it didn’t reach the pop charts, it apparently sold enough in white markets to start giving the men who ran small blues-based labels some very interesting ideas.

“Mary Jo”–The Four Blazes (Thomas Braden, lead vocal, Shorty Hill, Floyd McDaniel and Paul Holt, harmony vocals): A fascinating look at a direction the vocal group phenomenon that was about to explode might have taken. Braden sings traditional “shout” phrasing a la Wynonie Harris. But the group’s barber shop crooning tugs him back just enough to create a new space for a smooth, jazz-lite backing where the hard bopping used to be. It was a hit but the blend of musical reconciliation it pointed towards never quite arrived.

“My Song”–Johnny Ace: There had been a few three-a.m.-of-the-soul singers before Ace, even some who made the charts. But none who had been quite this lugubrious.

“Goodbye Baby”–Little Caesar: Some guy who must have been listening to a lot of Johnny Ace shows up at his lover’s door, explains why he has to shoot her, then does. Then he shoots himself. Went top five on the R&B chart. Though he went on the be a working actor himself, Harry Caesar was no Richard Berry when it came to acting a part on record. But then again, a guy who sounds like a zombie might be just what the Method ordered for a record like this. A rare instance where the black charts really did get crazy! (Sorry I wasn’t able to track down the name of the female vocalist.)

1953:

“Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean”–Ruth Brown: They called Brown’s label (Atlantic) “The House That Ruth Built.” The manner in which she built it is best exemplified by this, her signature record, which showcased her twist on the lighter side of the great blues’ queens from a generation earlier. A little less gravitas, maybe, than her predecessors, but plenty of sass and a bright, brittle twinge in her voice that let the hurt show underneath.

“Baby Don’t Do It”–The ‘5’ Royales (Johnny Tanner, lead vocal, James Moore, Obadiah Carter, Otto Jeffries and Lowman Pauling, harmony vocals): Perhaps the biggest, shiniest link in the chain between gut-bucket blues and a funk-filled future. But this is also its own glorious thing, in large part because Johnny Tanner sang like a teamster driving the four unruly horses of gospel, blues, doo wop and vaudeville without so much as breaking a sweat.

“Gabbin’ Blues”–Big Maybelle (Rose Marie McCoy shared lead vocal): Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, fifteen years early…with Maybelle playing Otis.

“Hound Dog”–Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton: Menacing, wickedly funny and deeply wounded all at once. It’s too bad that this record has gotten caught up in the phony “culture theft” wars. (Just how “caught up” would require its own post so I’ll leave it there for now). Really too bad, because it’s one of the period’s greatest vocals–the sound of an unvanquished spirit doing a job of work in order to eat…and just maybe move the world.

“I’m Gone”–Shirley and Lee (Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee, shared lead vocals): The Sweethearts of the Blues arrive. The tempo was slow-medium, but Goodman’s quavering vocal style was entirely its own medium–a medium she would maintain faithfully, straight through to the Age of Disco, a quarter-century hence.

“Crying in the Chapel”–The Orioles (Sonny Til, lead vocal, Alexander Sharp, George Nelson and Johnny Reed, harmony vocals): Stylistically something of a throwback (the group had been scoring big since the late forties), but it achieves a degree of shimmering peace that was virtually unprecedented in its own time and has become all the more valuable in the long journey toward Babel since. (You could hardly find a better measure of Elvis Presley’s genius, incidentally, than his taking on–and fully measuring up to–both this and “Hound Dog,” a feat no one else would have likely contemplated in one lifetime, let alone pulled off.)

“Shake A Hand”–Faye Adams with the Joe Morris Orchestra: The sound of Sunday morning finally integrated, as something more than a hint or allegation, with a chart topping vocal and arrangement. Beautiful and revelatory.

“Honey Hush”–Big Joe Turner: Turner had been having hits pretty steadily for almost as long as there had been a black music chart (nearing a decade by this time). He was a mostly conservative presence–always entertaining but sticking to the basics. With this record he began to loosen up a bit and position himself to be the old fashioned shouter who was, improbably, best prepared to ride out the rock and roll storm that was coming–maybe because he never really sounded like he was shouting.

“Feelin’ Good”–Little Junior’s Blue Flames: Little Junior was Junior Parker, one of the era’s supreme band leaders. But he was also a sublime vocalist, a unique combination of “uptown” and “down home,” who made this sound so easy he ended up being a quiet influence on everyone from hardcore shouters to folk rockers (John Sebastian lifted part of this lyric for the Lovin’ Spoonful’s fabulous “Let the Boy Rock and Roll”…and also learned a thing or two from Parker’s deceptively laid-back vocal approach.)

1954:

“Gee”–The Crows (Daniel Norton, lead vocal, Harold Major, Mark Jackson, Bill Davis and Gerald Hamilton, harmony vocals): A new kind of vocal strut enters the room. Not flashy, but no wasted motion either. The Crows themselves were never able to repeat the success (which was one of the very early big crossover records). But the sharp new dynamics served as the true lift off for doo-wop and whatever lay beyond.

“Sunday Kind of Love”–The Harp-tones (Willie Winfield, lead vocal, Billy Brown, Claudie Clark, William Dempsey, Dicey Galloway and Raoul Cita, harmony vocals): The stuff dreams–and legends–are made of. Literally inimitable.

“The Things I Used to Do”–Guitar Slim: A huge hit, a wonderful record, and a sign of just how conservative the R&B chart was capable of being the year before rock and roll really broke loose. The record could have been sent back to 1938 and been just as big without changing a thing. Two years later, it would have been bringing up the rear with its tongue hanging out.

“It Should’ve Been Me”–Ray Charles (Ray Charles, lead vocal; Jesse Stone, response and backing vocal): A real oddity. Outside of straight Sinatra-style pop and big band throwbacks, Charles was by far the most conservative of the era’s true giants. For reasons that seem to have nothing to do with the records he actually made, he has been lauded as a dynamo of innovation (the same narrative has him being quite a bit more popular with Black America’s record-buying public than his solid but unspectacular chart success of the period would suggest). I mention all that because this novelty record was pretty indicative of where he was when all hell was getting set to break loose. Namely, goofing around, trying to find himself. This, incidentally, does not even take full advantage of his one startlingly original quality which was his spectacular and unmistakable timbre. But it did well enough to get him in solid with his bosses at Atlantic. And that was significant. I mean, they loved him to death and all, but they were definitely into seeing their faith repaid in coin of the realm.

“That’s All Right Mama”–Elvis Presley: Should we mention that, from a strictly vocal standpoint, this was the most exciting and revelatory record of the year in any format? And that it fit “rhythm and blues” as readily as anything else? It wasn’t a big hit–probably didn’t really break much outside the Memphis market. Then again, nearly everybody came to Memphis. So it’s impossible to know exactly who heard it and when…or how exactly those who did really responded to it. Just one of many reasons that it remains as great a mystery now as it was then.

“Work With Me Annie”–The Midnighters (Hank Ballard, lead vocal): A smile record for the grownups. Big whoop, though, if you were twelve, hiding the transistor under your pillow. Or so I’ve heard.

“I Just Want To Make Love to You”–Muddy Waters: It would take at least a decade for this to be fully felt as “influence.” But it carved its own path in the moment. Muddy’s towering vocal doesn’t sound quite like anything else that was going on at the time. He sounds like what he was. A man in his own world–not to mention his own league.

“Feel So Bad”–Chuck Willis: An easy ride, urban–and urbane–to the core. He was big, and, if there hadn’t been a revolution (and a visit from the Grim Reaper) right around the corner, it’s easy to imagine him being even bigger.

“Shake, Rattle and Roll”–Big Joe Turner: The big man finally wigs out.

“Oh What A Dream”–Ruth Brown: Lovely, but by now, she’d turned a little slick. Billie Holiday without the delicacy or the death rattle. Within a year, she would be officially, sweetly old-fashioned. A sign of just how fast the times would change.

“Riot In Cell Block #9”–The Robins (Richard Berry, lead vocal, Bobby Nunn, Ty Leonard, Carl Gardner, Billy Richard and Roy Richard, backing vocals): One of those “are you kidding me?” moments in rock’s early dawn. The ultimate in comic menace. Certainly more convincing (on both counts, the comedy and the menace) than anything Quentin Tarantino and his ten thousand fan-boy imitators have managed.

“Honey Love”–The Drifters (Clyde McPhatter, lead vocal, Bill Pinkney, Andrew Thrasher and Gerhart Thrasher, harmony vocals): The bass singing here (by the mighty Bill Pinkney) became such a touchstone of doo wop style it now sounds like it must have existed since the dawn of man. But, if it wasn’t actually invented here, it’s at least a good reminder that such things are always invented somewhere, by somebody. And up top the meanwhile? Clyde being Clyde.

“Oop Shoop”–Shirley Gunter & the Queens (Shirley Gunter, lead vocal, Lula Kennedy, Lula Mae Suggs and Blondene Taylor, harmony vocals): Gunter’s creamy lead is pretty standard, but the backing group offers a modest tilt toward a future where a new kind of intimacy awaited. I still think the British critic Charlie Gillett was right to call it “girl talk.”

“Gloria”–The Cadillacs (Earl Carroll, lead vocal, Bobby Phillips, Lavern Drake, Gus Willingham and James Clark, harmony vocals): By now, an awful lot of the vocal excitement in black music was being provided by groups. The dynamics were not quite where they would be in a year or two, but the bed of harmonies was allowing more and more extreme flights of fancy up top. And that bed was getting deeper by the minute–a once-sleepy pond growing into a roiling ocean.

“Hearts of Stone”–The Charms (Otis Williams, lead vocal; Bob Smith, Rolland Bradley, Joe Penn and Richard Parker, harmony vocals): Fine and dandy and fairly routine until all those daring no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no’s start suggesting a substitute for feminine sexual stamina that (in pop music at least) had previously been relegated to instrumental numbers (and would not, of course, be available to actual female vocalists for a good while yet). Not surprisingly, perhaps, the record’s producer/arranger, Henry Stone, became a heavy hitter in the disco era. And Williams? He ended up singing country. Some things are meant to be…and too perfect to make up.

So there’s a decent overview of where things stood just before the storm. There was excitement in the air and plenty of it…but (except for maybe Clyde McPhatter and Elvis) nothing resembling a threat to the existing order. That lay just around the corner and will be covered in Part II!

[NOTE: Trying to discern the exact personnel for the era’s vocal group recordings is often akin to tackling the mysteries of quantum physics. I’ve done my very best to be accurate, but, if somebody happens along and spots a documentable mistake, please let me know. I will happily make the change!]

BECAUSE IT’S ABOUT TIME I INTRODUCED MYSELF…

First of all, I had a nice rebound in traffic during October after the expected drop in September. Thanks to all for hanging in!

I’ve been doing this for about eight months now so I’m going to spend the next few weeks periodically doing something I probably should have done earlier, which is give some sort of outline of what I value most, “artistically” speaking. (It says so much more than one’s politics, religion or culinary habits.)

Figured I’d begin at the beginning, so here, more or less chronologically (that’s world chronology, not personal….I probably knew Cyndi Lauper before I knew Clyde McPhatter)….

MY TWENTY FAVORITE ROCK AND ROLL SINGERS (and five representative performances which also happen to be building blocks for a better world)…First a nice intro:

Brenda Lee “Break It To Me Gently” (Studio recording…with some nice pictures)

Then on to the list…

Clyde McPhatter (Dominoes, Drifters, solo)–Money Honey; Three Thirty Three; Treasure of Love; Without Love (There Is Nothing); A Lover’s Question

Elvis Presley (solo)–Good Rockin’ Tonight; Heartbreak Hotel; It Hurts Me; Long Black Limousine; Reach Out To Jesus

Tony Williams (Platters)–Only You (And You Alone); The Great Pretender; (You’ve Got) The Magic Touch; Smoke Gets In Your Eyes; Harbor Lights

Bobby “Blue” Bland (solo)–I Pity The Fool; Turn On Your Love Light; Queen For A Day; Two Steps From the Blues; Lead Me On

Sam Cooke (Soul Stirrers, solo)–Jesus Gave Me Water; Bring It On Home; Cupid; That’s Where It’s At; A Change Is Gonna’ Come

Brenda Lee (solo)–Sweet Nothings; Break It To Me Gently; Heart In Hand; Coming On Strong; Johnny One Time

Roy Orbison (solo)–Only The Lonely; Running Scared; Dream Baby; Blue Angel; Crying

Jerry Butler (Impressions, solo)–Your Precious Love; Make It Easy On Yourself; Moody Woman; Only The Strong Survive; Western Union Man

Frankie Valli (Four Seasons, solo)–Walk Like A Man; Rag Doll; Silence Is Golden; Girl Come Running; Fallen Angel

Gladys Knight (Pips, solo)–Neither One of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye); Midnight Train to Georgia; I’ve Got To Use My Imagination; Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me; On and On

Smokey Robinson (Miracles, solo)–What’s So Good About Goodbye; The Tracks of My Tears; The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage; Sweet Harmony; Cruisin’)

Bob Dylan (solo)–Talking World War III Blues (live); Maggie’s Farm; Like A Rolling Stone; Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again; I Threw It All Away

Mary Weiss (Shangri-Las, solo)–Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand); Give Him a Great Big Kiss; Never Again; He Cried; Past, Present and Future

Aretha Franklin (solo)–I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You); Respect; (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman; I Say A Little Prayer; Rock Steady

Van Morrison (Them, solo)–Gloria; It’s All Over Now Baby Blue; Listen To The Lion; Almost Independence Day; Tupelo Honey

John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival, solo)–Fortunate Son; Lodi; Green River; Run Through The Jungle; Sweet Hitch-Hiker

Al Green (solo)–Tired of Being Alone; I’m A Ram; Here I Am (Come and Take Me); Take Me To The River; Belle

Ronnie Van Zandt (Lynyrd Skynyrd)–Tuesday’s Gone; Sweet Home Alabama; The Ballad of Curtis Loew; Gimme Back My Bullets; What’s Your Name

Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders)–Precious; Mystery Achievement; My City Was Gone; Middle of The Road; I’ll Stand By You

Cyndi Lauper (Blue Angel, solo)–Money Changes Everything; Time After Time; All Through The Night; When Sally’s Pigeons Fly; I’m Gonna’ Be Strong (solo version)

First Alternate: Arlene Smith (Chantels)

(Feel free to list your own….this is the fun part of the job!)