POP SYMPHONIES (Segue of the Day: 4/4/17)

The way it was in ’65.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those of you who have been following along for a while here know I’m fond of Time Life’s year-by-year surveys of music from the fifties, sixties and seventies.

The foundation for it all is a handful of CDs a fellow at work gave me about twenty years ago in lieu of sending them off to Goodwill. They survived the great CD selloff of 2002 because the record store wouldn’t take them. First among those were 1965: Classic Rock and its companion volume 1965: The Beat Goes On.

With oldies’ radio now a distant memory in my market, these are my closest proxy. (Somehow, listening to “radio” on the internet, or my satellite TV package just isn’t the same.) And, while I almost always learn something when I listen close to any given volume, these are the ones that still startle me the most.

With the Beatles, Stones and Dylan all missing (due to their catalogs being jealously guarded), you could still pick any couple of the forty-four cuts on these two discs, where there is nothing close to a pedestrian side, and write a short history of the Universe.

Relax: I’m not gonna do that.

I’m just going to talk about the Supremes and the Shangri-Las, two of my favorite subjects anyway, and paired here on tracks 16 and 17 of The Beat Goes On.

Funny enough, I had never really noticed it before: “I Hear a Symphony” and “I Can Never Go Home Any More” set back to back. This…

which, given Diana Ross’s gift for finding seduction in the saddest, most desperate breakup songs and melancholy in the most joyous love songs, could just as well be about the guy who left Mary Weiss in this…

…the most wrenching tale in the Shangs’  own little universe, which has more wrenching tales than any universe I know.

It’s not implausible to think that, if Berry Gordy had grown up in Queens instead of Detroit, Wiess might have had a dozen #1s and Ross might have had one or none.

But it’s probably not that simple. Alternative universes never are.

Diana Ross would have been driven by ambition wherever she was born. Even before she was famous–or Berry Gordy’s squeeze–it’s fair to assume that each record was part of a larger plan.

Weiss’s genius was for making every song she sang sound like it might be her last. That’s not exactly a surefire formula for building a career.

These two songs running together on a comp made her and Diana sound like sisters who never quite got along and thus walked different paths that only crossed at commitment to something larger than themselves.

They used to call that culture and rock and roll existed to extend it, make it larger, let new voices from places like Queens and Detroit sing out and express whatever special quality they possessed. Culture is supposed to make the world larger.

Except when we’re fooling ourselves, we don’t call it culture or anything else now, because the essential thing that made these records possible has vanished like smoke. Not the technology or the musical training or the will or even the voices themselves. Just the belief that it matters to something more than the bank account.

These days, everyone has an eye on their career from the cradle to the grave, so no one gives too much away in any single moment.

Once you start down that path–where Mary Weiss can’t exist–then Diana Ross can’t exist either, because there’s nothing for her to measure herself against.

If you want to know what that sounds like, now that even the 70s are becoming a distant memory, you can turn on your car radio any hour of the day and let it run straight from the lowest number to the highest.

And if you think that’s depressing, just be glad I”m not giving you access to what went through my head concerning the Roger McGuinn picking vs. Jeff Beck shredding guitars on “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “I’m a Man!” because, except through a pair of cheap headphones, we can’t go back there either.

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take 9: The Supremes-Reflections-The Definitive Performances: 1964-1969)

Reflections, The Definitive Performances: 1964-1969. is a collection of period videos from the vintage years of the Supremes. It’s part of a series Motown put out about a decade back which included similar tributes to the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Marvin Gaye.

They’re all worth owning. What makes this one stand out is that it is just the videos. The others come with narration, structure, context. This is just the Supremes: Diana, Mary, Flo and a little Cindy, performing, as it were, naked, no matter how spectacular the gowns are.

The performances are all from period television (with a couple of turns from a stage show in Stockholm real standouts–in one of them they prove you can dance the “The Happening” which is on par with repealing the laws of gravity). Thus, the usual mix: Live vocals and backing. Straight lip-synching, with one or the other of the backing singers not always bothering to move her lips being just one of the tells of the massive tensions that simmered inside the group almost from day one). Live vocals to studio tracks. Live lead vocals to studio tracks including studio vocal backing. Promo videos. You name it.

If you like to have fun figuring out that sort of thing, this will keep you hopping. If you are looking for one stellar vocal or visual performance after another, I can suggest you stick with the other titles in the series, especially the one on the Temptations.

If you want to be thrown into an impromptu journey through the glory and chaos that was “the sixties,” this lays the others to waste.

Just be sure to hit “Play All.”

Rest assured, there are glories to behold, the aforementioned Stockholm performances and their “Love Child’ on The Ed Sullivan Show, featuring ghetto fabulous outfits, bare feet, and Diana wearing a tee-shirt that reads “Love Child,” principle among them.

Also, be sure to check the “Studio Audio” version of “Baby Love” from Shivaree, which jumps, and the way they redefine too-cool-for-school on the promo for “My World is Empty Without You,” standing next to a white orchestra in a recording studio that, through the magic of video, psychically connects white teenagers gobbling up albums in a record store with the auto assembly lines everybody at Motown would have been working on if Diana Ross’s beau ideal, Berry Gordy, Jr., had never been born.

But the essence is limned by the extremes.

This version of “Come See About Me,” where, for once, the glamour drops away, and not only are they still the sexiest things walking, you get to hear the neighborhood harmony that was the real reason they were able to fight their way from the streets to the palace–why Gordy, the anti-Phil Spector, who believed his artists should be stars who outshone him, couldn’t stop believing in them through all the months-turning-to-years of the “No-Hit Supremes” back-story that would have underpinned the obvious narrative if the DVD was designed to tell their story. Sure, Diana slept with the boss. Don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got the goods:

Then watch the pure joy of performance devolve into the spirit of anarchy…in a promo, no less, the kind of thing which was invented to suppress every suggestion of unease or disorder…this is the closest I’ve seen to them being allowed to act out. It almost doesn’t matter what song is playing under it.

Unless the song is “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”….

Mary Wilson wrote in one of her memoirs about the pressure the group was constantly under to be “blacker” and what a ridiculous and de-humanizing limitation that was–as though one’s blackness could only be authenticated by adherence to preordained expectations.

She was right.

But Gordy wanted to get all the way to true integration, all the way to the main part of the mainstream, the one place where a new America could finally be forged out of the old one, rather than in lazy, nihilistic opposition to it.

He thought the Supremes, and only the Supremes, were his ticket…and America’s.

He was right, too.

If it didn’t quite work out all the way–if we hove within sight of shore and then, inexplicably, with the harbor in reach, chose to steer back toward the wild, gloomy sea–that’s our fault, not his. Great and successful as all the other Motown acts were, the Supremes, with more #1 pop hits in the sixties than all those other acts combined, were the ones who cashed the ticket on Gordy’s very Rock and Roll dream.

So, in a way, the bare bones approach of this up and down collection is, as the kids used to say, right on time.

I imagine the real reason there’s no narration/context is the permanent tension between Gordy, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross.

But you could also look at it this way:

Given what’s here, what could anyone possibly add?

SMOKEY GETS HIS DUE….FROM HIMSELF (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #98)

A few days ago I caught the replay of last year’s Gershwin Award ceremony. This year’s honoree was Smokey Robinson. We’ll leave aside that he was the ninth recipient. I don’t want to get into the mindset that found eight people more deserving of an award devoted to recognizing of excellence in popular songwriting.

Let’s just talk about the show.

I caught it a few minutes in. For what seemed like the next seven hours or so, I listened to a bunch of contemporary artists killing it.

Literally.

One after another, they dragged out the Greatest Living Poet’s signature tunes and ritually stomped them to death right there in front of God, Smokey and everybody. By the time CeeLo Green closed down that portion of the program, he sounded like a genius just by failing to embarrass himself.

Then Smokey’s best friend, Berry Gordy, gave a nice, short speech.

When he finished I was left seriously wondering if even Smokey–who I wasn’t sure was going to sing–could redeem the hour those other fools had stolen from my life.

What was remarkable was not that he managed it–I have learned to expect miracles from him–but that he did so even before he sang a note. By the time he finished his speech, I didn’t even think he needed to sing.

Of course, that idea only lasted until he started singing. After a luminous “Being With You” he took on “Love is Here to Stay” and proved the heartfelt tribute he linked to his childhood memories of hearing Gershwin tunes growing up in a now-vanished upwardly mobile black Detroit was not confined to words.

Then the Poet–the one music man of the rock and roll era who was among the dozen or so greatest as a vocalist, songwriter, producer, arranger, band leader and live performer–showed a talent I didn’t know he had. He turned Conductor of Souls and humanized the Beltway crowd they always have for these things.

Trust me, it’s not a quality they could ever give themselves.

GENIUS IN CONTEXT…SMOKEY FOR CHRISTMAS (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #94)

Well, I’ve finally assembled the last few volumes of the Bear Family’s Street Corner Symphonies, the company’s comprehensive overview of the vocal group music made by blacks and urban immigrants between 1938 and 1963 so I’m spending Christmas Eve listening to the 1960 volume and, all of a sudden, Smokey Robinson enters the scene, not as America’s Greatest Living Poet, but as just one more street kid trying to make it with his group (a status confirmed by Bill Dahl’s characteristically comprehensive notes).

The streets the Poet was trying to make it from were in Detroit, which, from 1938 to 1959, were barely represented in the history of what would come to be called Doo Wop (a nebulous concept which the Bear Family has extended beyond its insult-embraced-by-the-pure-of-heart-as-badge-of-honor meaning, though not so far as to include, say, Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover,” which, after hearing this set’s “Nobody Loves Me Like You,” by the Flamingos–as doo wop as doo wop got–I realize they easily could have).

After 1960, of course–more or less beginning with the Poet’s own “Shop Around”–Detroit would become so significant to the development of vocal group dynamics, it would birth its own category, in time to be called simply “Motown.”

When “Whos’ Lovin’ You”–first released as the B-side of “Shop Around”–shows up here, following a mini-set of cutting edge tracks from the Shirelles, Drifters, Coasters, it makes everything else sound reactionary. It’s as if the most exciting sounds of 1960 were already running backwards to safety and only the Poet could see around the corner.

Well, that’s why he was the Poet and why he could never have stayed just another kid trying to make it. And, of course, most of us already knew that. But it never slapped me up side the head and made me laugh quite like it did on Christmas Eve of the year Donald Trump was elected President of the current nation, while I was just sitting quietly with my book and my diet Root Beer, listening to some doo wop from the year John Kennedy was elected President of the imaginary nation Trump has promised to restore.

Time’s funny that way.

There are delusional souls, Berry Gordy among them, who believe Michael Jackson’s version of “Who’s Lovin’ You” is superior to Smokey’s (“He was kickin’ Smokey’s ass!” Gordy once said, whilst recalling the first time he heard Michael sing it).

Michael Jackson’s version is fine. It’s about the best version you will ever hear from a ten-year-old. Good on Michael.

On no day of his tortured life was he Smokey Robinson.

Merry Christmas ya’ll.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Temptations Fill In the Blanks)

MEETTHETEMPTATIONS

At the end of his first published “Record Guide,” which came out in 1981 and was devoted to the seventies, Robert Christgau added a list of his “essential” albums of the fifties and sixties. The lists were heavy on comps because, in Christgau’s words, “outside of the fab five–Beatles-Dylan-Stones-Who-Redding–great albums-as-albums were rare before 1967.”

When I first read that in the early eighties, I already knew it was a little hidebound not to at least include the Beach Boys and the Byrds. In the decades since, I’ve realized I would also, for starters, add James Brown, the Impressions, Elvis, Charlie Rich, the Everly Brothers. Once you get to that number, the whole concept of pretending great albums were the province of a benighted few in rock’s “rock and roll” phase, is pretty silly. Christgau was both parroting and shaping conventional wisdom so he was hardly alone in his assessment–he just had an unusually high profile. Effectively parroting and shaping conventional wisdom, i.e., telling us what we want to hear, is maybe one of the ways we collectively decide who gets to set the standards. For better and worse–and I can definitely see it both ways–nobody was more suited to standard setting than the Dean.

So, with that for a long-term back drop, this week (or rather, since I’m a day late posting this, last week), I was able to add the Temptations.

I found their first five LPs in a package on Amazon for fifteen bucks and decided even my budget could accommodate that. I certainly thought I’d add a few stellar tracks to the storehouse and I needed long time favorite The Temptations Sing Smokey on CD anyway.

TEMPTSSINGSMOEY2

So far I’ve only listened to the first three albums in the set (the fourth and fifth are a live album and The Temptations In a Mellow Mood, which is one of Motown’s supper club LPs). I’m sure I’ll like the others, but three is enough to set me straight on the old “Motown doesn’t do albums” canard. Thirty-six original tracks plus two bonus cuts and there’s nothing resembling a weak or pedestrian side. I mean, not everything can be this…

or this (my own favorite Tempts, with the quiet man, Paul Williams, out front)…

But the rest doesn’t ever fall much below something as semi-obscure as this…

or completely obscure as this…

And, as fine as any individual tracks may be, what’s really remarkable is that all of this “product,” despite the Smokey LP being the only one that is anyway thematic or even more than a grab bag, coheres beautifully.

That shouldn’t be really surprising. It’s not like Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson (who wrote and/or produced most of the tracks on all three albums) were exactly devoid of the Vision Thing.

But what really struck me, listening to all three albums in succession, with about an equal mix of familiar-as-familiar-can-be and completely-new-to-me tracks, was how much some of the expansive vocal groups of the mid-sixties are still slighted as creative entities.

Let’s face it, even the critical love given the Beatles or Beach Boys or Byrds, is mostly rooted in their songwriting or some level of hip iconography.

But nothing was more important to rock’s exploding cultural and musical reach in the mid-sixties than the incredible expansion of the great vocal traditions, an expansion which repeatedly reached limits that have not been challenged in the five decades since. And it’s obvious on these three LPs that the Temptations, along with the Impressions, were changing and challenging the black gospel and doo wop traditions just as radically and thrillingly as the Beatles and Beach Boys were the pop tradition, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas were the folk tradition and the Four Seasons were the bel canto and white doo wop traditions.

Sorry, but that’s as “creative” as anything that was happening on Highway 61 Revisited or Happy Jack.

Of course, the received point of singing this good is that it sounds so easy and natural it couldn’t possibly have anything like a thought process behind it. I mean, after all, you can’t even copyright it, can you?

Too bad. Because, believe me, every one of these sounds is built from years of sweat. And every one of them is something no one could ever steal.

TEMPTINTEMPTATINOS

 

THE TEMPTATIONS SCATTER…BECOME PROPHETS IN THE WILDERNESS (The Rising: Third Memo)

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The Temptations were one of those miracles only Berry Gordy could have wrought. At least three guys who were good enough to be stars in their own right ended up in the same vocal group with a couple of sterling backup singers (including a world class bass-man) and the cream of the Motown machine devoted to their success. Nothing quite like it ever happened before or has certainly ever happened since. Naturally it had to end some time and likely well before its time.

It did.

David Ruffin started the unraveling when he insisted on going solo in 1969 (evidently after Gordy, supported by the other Tempts, refused to give him the name billing Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson were by then enjoying with the Supremes and the Miracles.

It might have been a ploy for solo-dom on Ruffin’s part anyway, but in any case he got it (to be replaced by Dennis Edwards) and over the next few years, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams followed suit. Some years later, Edwards gave it a try as well.

There were varying degrees of success with Kendricks enjoying the most, Ruffin a distant second and the others having little luck at all.

Back in 1996, Gordy’s ongoing Corporation put together a double CD comp of the four singers’ solo work which by all rights should be about as inspired as that cover up there.

But time does change some things.

Four decades on from when most of this music was recorded, and two decades on from the comp being released, the shadow of what each man did inside the Temptations, mighty though it remains. doesn’t fall quite so heavy. It has become possible, almost imperative, for their solo efforts to be heard as what they are–further attempts by these superstars of Black America (whose names aren’t nearly so well known in White America, especially to later generations) to build some kind of bridge between their own ambitions and what the world was going through.

Heard in that context, these aren’t just honorable records, they’re illuminating. Especially since, as I may have mentioned before on here, we haven’t learned much in those interceding decades.

I always knew The Rising ran deep and the cost of ignoring it was and is steep.

Put simply, these men should have been much bigger stars. They should have achieved the kind of stardom worthy of men who were good enough to step out in front of the Temptations. There are a hundred reasons why they didn’t, not all of them avoidable. But we’re all the poorer for it just the same and while I mostly lament what used to get on the radio and no longer does, it’s also worth remembering what used to not get on the radio because one of those hundred reasons I mentioned is that the competition was incredibly fierce…Still:

And, oh yeah, all of it–the pleading, the preaching and the ignoring–was implied in the beginning, in David Ruffin’s first and biggest hit, which might as well have been sung to the audience he was about to be cut off from (sadly enough, by Berry Gordy himself, if nobody else stepped up to the plate…proving once again that no one is without sin):

GOOD GRIEF! (SPORTS MOMENT #13)

Marvin Miller, the most important man in the history of baseball’s last half-century, has once again failed to make it through the “expansion-era committee” and receive his rightful place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Baseball Hall is often cited as a model for those who believe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is too expansive/lenient/generous, etc.

So I’ll just say that, for the oft-despised Rock Hall’s powers-that-be to have brought similar shame on themselves they would have needed to keep someone the caliber of Sam Phillips or Berry Gordy waiting in the wings for decades without explaining themselves.

Say what you want, but that’s never happened. Bad things, yes. Inexcusable things, yes. But nothing on this scale.

Just saying.