FLORIDA BOY (Mel Tillis, R.I.P.)

In the days when Mel Tillis was as famous for being a reliably charming and hilarious talk show guest as he was for being a country singer, he liked to tell the story of his discovery by Mae Axton (Hoyt’s mother and co-composer of, among many others, a little tune called “Heartbreak Hotel”). She met him somewhere in Nashville, learned he was a sihger/songwriter, checked out his stuff and encouraged him to see a producer/executive she knew. Recognizing that his afterwards-famous speech impediment might be a problem during any formal interview process, she wrote a letter for him to take along.

The essence of the letter was this: “Never mind that he can’t talk. Good singer. Great writer.”

Of all the people who have ever been thus described to a Nashville Executive–by Mae Axton or anyone else–and who then carried the tag for a decade or more, while so many other people (Bobby Bare, Brenda Lee, Tom Jones, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers) sang his hits….

…only Mel Tillis emerged all the way from such deep and lengthy shadows to become a superstar in his own right. On the slow-moving Writer-Becomes-An-Unlikely-Singing-Star train, even Roger Miller had a shorter, faster ride to the Promised Land reached by so few.

Some of what allowed Mel to buck the Narrative was likability, some of it stick-to-it-tiveness, some of it elbow grease–all qualities prized by country audiences.

Most of it, though, was that he turned out to be a great singer as well, master of both comedy….

and melancholy…

..able to work nearly endless variations at both ends of the scale until it all meshed into a Sawdust-in-the-Suburbs world-view…

…one where country’s impoverished roots and middle-class aspirations were revealed as two sides of the same coin. By the seventies, when Tillis ascended to the top of the country charts often enough to become a presence in the larger culture, the assurances of the latter were still undercut by the memory (and shame, and guilt, and stubborn refusal to admit either) so inescapable in the former.

Most of that contradiction has been washed away now and what country music understood itself to be for nearly a century along with it. Now, the real impoverishment is spiritual…and hence not curable by either the dream or the reality of a split-level in the suburbs or a house in the Hills or even a recording contract in Nashville.

I had the pleasure of serving a couple of Mel’s daughters (not Pam, alas) breakfast, lunch and dinner at a girl’s camp in the summer of 1979. They were shy to a fault–even shyer than most shy kids, even shyer than I had been–and, if their stammering, stuttering father came from a similar psychological place and transcended it so thoroughly, it was a mark of character that makes me proud to have shared a home state with him.

And, speaking of Pam, she sang the harmony on the cut below, my pick for the greatest country record of the 80s….or, if there really could be such a thing, ever.

There was a lot of talk about outlaws back then.  And a lot of that talk–mostly from people who didn’t really like country music or its audience–said that outlaw was the “real” country.

Maybe along about here I should mention that the girls’ camp where Mel sent his daughters was at the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina.

Nobody ever called Mel Tillis an outlaw.

And  nobody was more country than Mel Tillis:

Born: Tampa (1932).
Raised: Pahokee.
Died: Ocala (2017).

Nobody.

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Fall, 2017 Countdown–All Vinyl Edition)

I’ve been in a vinyl mood this week. I listened to a couple of CDs as well, but, for the purposes of this list, I’m pretending I didn’t. Until the very end at least.

10) Johnny Bond Bottles Up (1965)

I found this at a local antique store (my town basically consists of such) and took a chance. Had to pull Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, which I had used the night before to cure insomnia, off the turntable to make room. One thing is for sure. Johnny Bond was way weirder than Steely Dan.  This album sounds the way the cover looks. What more recommendation do you need?

 

9) Kid Ory The Song of the Wanderer (1958)

And while I was there, I spotted this lovely little item, also cheap. I see a Kid Ory item I haven’t heard for five bucks, I’m gonna take a chance.

Ory was best known as a key associate of Louis Armstrong in the days when Pops was reorienting American music and, by exension, American life. This is not that. What this is, is a very pleasant, lovely and conservative jazz record from the fifties, which breezes along as though Bop and Rock and Roll had never happened, and almost as though the searing early New Orleans jazz scene, of which Ory had been such a vital component, never happened either. Music to read and smile by, then, right up until “The Sheik of Araby” comes on, at which point it is time to stop reading but not to stop smiling.

8) The Atkins String Company The Night Atlanta Burned (1975)

Generally referred to as a “Classical Country” album, with the classical part referring as much to Mozart as Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs. However defined, unique in the annals of American music.

This is a mix of standards and incidental mood music composed by John D. Loudermilk, based on his recollection of an old man from his home town who claimed to have learned scraps of what he taught the young Loudermilk from sheet music he found left in a music case (along with the mandocello the case had been built to protect) which had been rescued from the Atlanta Conservatory of Music after Sherman marched through in 1864 and since been lost again in a hobo camp. Loudermilk was wry enough to suspect every single bit of that might not have been true, but he, Chet Atkins, and assembled session players (including Lisa Silver, Paul Yandell and the legendary Johnny Gimble) made an album that deserved to complete the story. There are a few great albums that stop time, but none of them stop time in quite the same way as this one.

Meaning, gently, gently.

7) Iron City Houserockers Blood on the Bricks (1981)

A crit-fave from the late New Wave/Early Heartland phase of Rock and Roll’s decline. Listening now, it’s a lot easier to hear all the reasons they didn’t make it–lack of distinction in the singing, writing, playing and general Zeitgeist (which is derived from J. Geils and Southside Johnny, who did the same things better)–than why so many people were excited in the moment. This is typical fare, and just fine. But on this and every other side, what I hear most is “almost.”

6) Various Artists Stiff Records Presents:The Akron Compilation (1978)

This was a much better shot at sending Rock and Roll off in a new direction. There’s some failure on this record–songs or sounds that don’t quite finish somehow–but forty years on, it still sounds like something trying to be born on cut after cut. Never released on CD, It’s still the best place to hear every artist here but one. And it’s still the best place to hear that one’s greatest record (which, had it made her the star she deserved to be, might have redefined a lot of things in 1978).

5) The Beach Boys Sunflower (1970)

Commercially, the Beach Boys got swept out with the tide around the latter part of 1967. They kept on making great sides, year by year, but this was probably the best album they made between Wild Honey and Love You…and it doesn’t need to take a back seat to much else that was going on in 1970. I’ll take it over Let It Be eight days a week.

Somebody in the marketing department was either asleep at the switch or having their mind seriously altered by drugs. “Cool, Cool Water,” perfectly fine as a trippy album closer, was the least commercial single ever–and I mean ever–released by a major artist. The B-Side was one of the greatest records of their career–and definitive of the era’s often wistful secret ethos, so often lost among the noise. Sleep does these things. So do drugs.

Then there’s stupidity. For hardcore Beach Boys’ fans, a touchstone. For everyone else, a lost gem.

4) Various Artists Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill  (1985)

I don’t even remember how I first heard about this record, but it’s still my go-to for Kurt Weill, or just the Weimar mood transported.

Boy does it transport to now–even more than to 1985, which I once would have deemed impossible. As often happened with high middle-brow music of an earlier vintage, rock and rollers did better by it than anyone else, in some cases, maybe better than the music deserved. And the truest rock and roller did better by it than anyone. A fine companion piece for The Night Atlanta Burned, which is also born of defeat.

3) Various Artists Beserkley Chartbusters Volume 1 (1975)

Cheeky title for a cheeky collection. Unlike the Stiff label compilation above, this is almost entirely reactionary–rock and roll as it might have  sounded if it really were made by  entirely arrested adolescents obsessed with their older brothers’ record collection. Not without its charms mind you–older brothers tended to have some cool tastes ten years before this happened. I lean towards Earthquake’s heavier take on the whole, but the closest thing to a killer is Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” which almost justifies his rep when he starts speed rapping like the world’s whitest white boy.

There was, so far as I can tell, no Volume 2.

2) Various Artists Less Than Zero Soundtrack (1987)

The sound of rock and roll closing down for good. From here there was nowhere to go but Grunge (and from there, no way to go but the Exit). Afterwards it was every man for himself, but this still sounds of a piece. It’s everything the lame movie it supported wasn’t–loose, funky, cynical to a fault. And, at the last minute when the concept of “Loa Angeles” meant anything, definitive L.A., right up to the living end, when the Bangles show up and stomp all over everybody. Certainly Aerosmith and Public Enemy, who are at their sleaziest and most self righteous, (meaning best) respectively. But also “Goin’ Back to Cali,” which has a claim on being the greatest Hip Hop record ever. And even Roy Orbison and Glenn Danzig, who have claims on being peak Roy Orbison (no more need be said) and the greatest Scott Walker record not made by Scott Walker (who made damn few to match it). Even now, it kinda makes me wonder where the world might have gone if the movie had been better. (I can’t speak for the source novel as I haven’t read it. Based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel I have read, I can’t imagine it could have been made into a much better movie.)

1) Marianne Faithfull Broken English (1979)

Disco punk and, to be honest, I never came close to getting it.

Until now.

Maybe I didn’t get it because it turns large swathes of rock and roll–often the rock and roll I love most–inside out. When I’m listening now, Brenda Lee’s throb, always vulnerable, suddenly sounds like its coming from the bottom of a barrel just before somebody seals the lid. Girl group romanticism sounds like it must emanate from the dark side of the moon. The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, out the year before and on my CD player the night before I made the deliberate decision to make this the end of this list, now sounds like the Rape Record record they always had in them–the one where they’re finally so bored they could scream, and, for the last time, do.

Perhaps the news of the moment–rapists/harassers/assaulters being turned up and out everywhere you look–has given a tiny, pitiful bit of context to the rest of us that only a woman who had literally crawled out of the gutter of addiction and homelessness after being the Queen of Swinging London (i.e., the World) to ask “Why’d you spit on my snatch?” without succumbing to self-pity or psychoanalysis (if only because one or the other might kill her), could have comprehended, let alone communicated, at any previous cultural moment.

Anyway, after sitting on my shelf for thirteen years or so (the town’s last vinyl store put dates on their price stickers) the find of the year.

And please don’t think I’m anything less than frightened by it.

TEN ALBUMS I WISH WERE ON CD…

It’s easy to assume that the digital age has preserved everything. Even the black and hillbilly stuff. But there are still more than a few holes in our Paradise’s memory banks. Here’s ten of the hundreds I’d like to see plugged. listed more or less chronologically. No bonus tracks needed. Just put them out. Bear Family. Hip-O. Raven. Ace. Somebody…

1) Louis Armstrong: The Louis Armstrong Story Volume 4: Favorites

A stellar collection of Armstrong’s early thirties’ ballads, which may have been even more influential than his smoking small band sides from the twenties. They were certainly more subversive and, while they’ve been collected numerous times in larger formats and this set has probably been approximated somewhere or other among the voluminous Armstrong re-issues, the precision of this particular collection is sufficiently burned in my memory to make me loath to accept any substitutes. I listen to these songs compiled any other way and they simply feel incomplete. In that respect, you might consider this the first concept LP. Of course “Black and Blue” is the all time killer, but for pure perversity, don’t sleep on “Shine.” which works in this context as a kind of answer record.

2) The Coasters Their Greatest Recordings…The Early Years

Still the best way to hear the Clown Princes of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Fourteen diamond hard classics that represent the cream of 50s’ era vocal group R&B, plus the songwriting and producing pinnacle of Leiber and Stoller’s not exactly one-dimensional career. Best CD Substitute is 50 Coastin’ Classics, which is fabulous and never quits either. But sometimes you just want a shot of Rhythm and Blues…not the whole bottle. Plus, it’s the only place you can find Barret “Dr. Demento” Hansen’s fabulous liner notes. Yet more proof, if any is needed, that record company comps can make their own irreducible statement.

3) The Everly Brothers: Wake Up Again With the Everly Brothers

Okay, so you’ll kind of have to take my word for it that that’s the name of it and it was a real thing. That picture is the best I could find. This collection was released on GRT records–one of those seventies’ era subsidiary labels of dubious virtue–and was the kind of mishmash you might have expected…except it was, by happy accident, also a superb overview of the brothers’ legend-making career on Cadence, where they made most of the records we still remember them by. Unlike pretty much every other comp restricted to that era I’ve seen on vinyl or CD, it’s spiced with a few cuts from their great Songs Our Daddy Taught Us LP. And, cheap knockoff or no, I swear it sounds great, too. If you wanted a CD that caught all the excitement of the early Everlys without having to listen to an entire box set, or all their period LPs at once, this would fill the ticket before anything else. GRT went bankrupt in 1979, so I won’t be holding my breath on this one. But I can dream, can’t I?

4) The Impressions: The Vintage Years

I’ve written at length about this one before. It blends half a dozen career phases seamlessly (Jerry Butler, early and late, the Impressions from doo wop to early sixties r&b to mid-sixties’ soul, capped off by Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly breakout) and tracks black music from the street corner where “Your Precious Love” was conceived to the street corner where Freddie, the small time loser headed for the graveyard in Superfly,  hangs out, without telling you whether it’s the same one or ever letting you forget it might be. No CD era reissue has come close, because none have fused all those careers together, let alone accepted them as being of a piece. If more people recognized this as the greatest concept album ever made, the world would be a better place.

5) Buffalo Springfield 

Not their eponymous first LP, which is readily available. This two-record retrospective was how most of us from the hinterlands, who discovered them in the late seventies when their regular LPs were a bit hard to find at Camelot or Record Bar, first heard them. It’s probably still the best way, outstanding though all the other ways be. But the real reason me and a lot of other folks want this to be on CD is because it still seems to be the only place you can find the long version of “Bluebird.” Except for YouTube, of course…

6) Fairport Convention: Fairport Chronicles

This superbly chosen and programmed two-record set, which can only be approximated now by buying five or six separate CDs by Fairport, Fotheringay. The Bunch  and Sandy Denny, then mixing them on the re-recording device of your choice, hasn’t even come close to being matched  by any CD era release. And this group, which cries out for a definitive box set that focuses on their early career and its various immediate off-shoots, is represented instead by sets that include their “entire career,” meaning due deference is paid to decades of fey folk music the in-name-only pros who kept the name alive made after Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny departed for their respective fates as aging eccentric and most-inevitable-young-corpse-ever. Their three definitive albums (What We Did On Our Holiday, Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief) are great beyond words (and easily available on CD). But this is by far the best place to hear Thompson’s “Sloth,” the Bunch’s revelatory covers of Dion and Buddy Holly, and Fotheringay turning Gordon Lightfoot into King Dread on “The Way I Feel,” all essential. This exercise is partly tongue in cheek…but this is one of those things somebody really should fix dammit!

7) Brenda Lee Memphis Portrait

See, I don’t even have this. I should probably just bite the bullet and spring for a cheap used version off Amazon or something. But Jesus, can somebody please release Brenda’s late-sixties and seventies albums in the new format? All of them? Any of them? The Bear Family doesn’t even have these recordings on a box. They and Ace have both done thorough jobs of making her prime hit-making years and before (1956 to 1963 roughly) available. The rest has been left to float in the ether. I’ve heard enough of it to know that shouldn’t be so.

8) Johnny Bush: Bush Country

I don’t have to speculate about this one. it’s been a staple of my collection since John Morthland turned me on to Johnny with his invaluable guide to the greatest country albums (that was released just as the CD era arrived). A couple of his other albums for Stop–where he was never less than inspired–have made it to CD but not this one, which is as hard as hard country gets and doesn’t have a wasted second. If nothing else, this–one of the greatest records ever made–deserves a home on some format more permanent than vinyl. But, really, the whole thing, including killer versions of “It’s All in the Game,” “Statue of a Fool” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” back-to-back-to-back, is up to the same standard. There’s no finer vocal album in any genre.

9) Tanya Tucker: Here’s Some Love

Along about now, you’ll be detecting a theme here–Nashville has not done a good job of taking care of its legacy. Such value as there’s been has mostly been provided by overseas reissue labels (with Bear Family preeminent, though by no means alone). No one, home or abroad, has yet stepped into the breach and released Tanya’s string of child-into-woman albums recorded between her departure from Columbia and her mid-eighties comeback. This is from early on (1976). The deathless title cut (a natural country #1) is readily available on numerous comps, and all these albums were a touch uneven. But they all had great, hidden things on them, too. “Round and Round the Bottle” is up to the standards of her early Gothics, and the two-step from “Gonna Love You Anyway” to “Holding On” used to keep me up nights.

10) The Kendalls: Old Fashioned Love

Yes, the whole list could have been devoted to lost country albums from the seventies. Heck the whole list could have been devoted to the Kendalls. If I wanted to put together a list of the ten most beautiful vocals ever recorded, I wouldn’t consider having Jeannie Kendall occupy less than half of it. That her greatest records (the four albums she and her father made for Ovation, beginning with Heaven’s Just a Sin Away), have never been re-released in any format is the kind of thing I like to point to when I talk about how civilizations decline and fall. That she is remembered, if at all, for even as great a cheating song as “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away,” is something like a national sin–testimony to how casually we throw talent away after having misunderstood it in the first place. Not that she ever sounded like she expected any better, especially on this, a concept LP about cheating as redemption. And yes, it blew everybody’s minds back when, especially the open marriage crowd at all the hip rock and roll mags, who suddenly decided they were Puritans after all. “PIttsburgh Stealers” wasn’t the half of it. They did plenty of good work before and after (I especially recommend Mercury’s Movin’ Train), but If anybody ever has the sense to release their four Ovation LPs as a box set, it will be one of the essential documents in country music.

Til then, Thank God for Vinyl.

ONE MORE BEFORE WE GO…

In the five-plus years I’ve been doing this, I can’t recall a reaction on social media as strong and across-the-board from every quarter as the outpouring of love and respect for Glen Campbell in the last day-and-a-half. It probably says as much about our fractious times and the natural desire to reach for something–anything–that speaks to a common culture, as it does about Campbell’s remarkable career. I might have more to say about that later.

But there’s one story I haven’t seen referenced anywhere else that’s worth repeating. This is from the liner notes of his 1976 Best of...which happened to be one of the first LPs I ever bought.

“Hank Cochran and Jeannie Seeley were out here, and they happened to fall by the studio for a visit. I happen to have a fairly good vocal range, and I was kinda showin’ it off that day. I was cutting ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ for an album and did the performance live. The performance came off so well that I started carrying the dub of it around with me. I was following Elvis into Vegas, and I said, ‘Hey man, I want you to hear this old song. I think it’d be a gas for you.’ And he said ‘A gas for me? I’d release it just as it is.’ And I thought, yea, I just might do that. And wouldn’t you know it, the record went Top 10.'”

Pop, Country and UK. Deservedly so…

No idea if Glen or Elvis pegged the 1958 original (Conway Twitty’s first big hit and one of the greatest vocals ever waxed) as the sublime best-Elvis-ballad-not-by-Elvis it was–the vocal delivering everything the title denied.

More likely they just knew a good thing when they heard it.

In any case Twitty’s early career was one of the first splits Nashville imposed on its artists–forcing them to choose between country and pop, a barely told story, which resulted in the likes of Brenda Lee and the Everly Brothers, who were literally Children of Nashville, being shut out of country radio. That story still has its fullest explanation in Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City, originally published in 1970, where he outlined a divide which, in the long night between Elvis going in the army in the spring of 1958 and Olivia Newton-John punching through the wall as a true “outsider” in the fall of 1973, only Campbell was able to bridge consistently. (Conway, who hit the Pop Top 40 five times in the fifties–including three Top Tens–didn’t hit the country chart until 1966. After which he never stopped hitting it, but had only one Pop Top 40–1973’s “You’ve Never Been This Far Before”–the rest of his decades’ long career. Yes, the wall was real. Upon his return from the army, Elvis himself had scant country success until 1974. Don’t ever let anyone tell you Olivia Newton-John wasn’t a working class hero.)

And, yeah, I still wish Elvis had cut it, too.

ON THE ROAD WITH VAN MORRISON AND OTHERS…INCLUDING MOST ESPECIALLY ME, MYSELF AND I

Van Morrison
It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1973)

So I go on the road, I drive, I get to listen close…Six hours to the airport (where I fly nonstop to North Dakota so I still save a few hours in the end by avoiding layovers).

The plane leaves at 7:00 a.m. so I leave the house before midnight.

On the way down, I listen to The Basement Tapes (which I’ve just got cranking when the local constabulary pulls me to tell me my tag light’s out, thank you very much!), Timi Yuro’s Complete Liberty Singles (worthy of its own post…how do we so easily forget Timi Yuro?), The Trouble With the Truth (one of several Patty Loveless albums I’m always convinced is her very best whenever I’m listening to it) and close with the real killer, Don Gibson’s A Legend in My Time (a superbly chosen Bear Family disc from his classic period), which I never have time to really focus on when I’m at home.

Twelve days later, I return in the rain. It’s one of those Florida rains which I know is not worth waiting out (for one thing, I’ll be asleep in the airport by then…it’s been a lo-n-n-n-n-g-g-g twelve days). So I hike to my car in the rain (it’s one of those ariports where, if you’ve parked a car, it’s a hike), get my shirt soaking wet, decide I might as well wait until I stop for gas to change it (by which time it will be dry enough not to bother….no matter how often I fly from this airport, I always forget how far it is to a gas station…or food!). Don Gibson is still in the CD player, so I listen again….

…and it’s still awe-inspiring. There’s nothing quite like hearing an hour’s worth of Don Gibson while you’re driving in a welcome-back-to-Florida rain.

And then, to tell the truth, I pull Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now for no better reason than because it’s sitting on top of the stack.

I only threw it in the box because I’ve had my new CD version sitting around the house for months, meaning to give it the listen I never quite gave it when I bought it cheap and used on vinyl twenty years back.That’s another thing driving trips are good for–catching up on stuff you don’t have proper time for when your life is gathered around you at home, where dishes need to be washed, the blog needs keeping up, the paycheck has to be earned, the book wants a polish.

Starts off fine. I have the usual reaction I have when I haven’t listened to Van in a while. He’s great, but nobody could be as great as Van is when I’m only listening in my mind, so I’m soon wondering if he’s merely great, and maybe not, you know, transcendent.

That’ gets me all the way to this…the ninth track on the first disc…

…and about halfway through it, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I  start thinking, no, it’s not possible to overestimate Van Morrison, even when he’s just being the crowd-pleaser his legend suggests he could never just be.

Of course, it could be that this is just the first song I know well enough to sing along–which means I can start edging towards ecstasy, especially if I’m driving along in the the still steady drizzling welcome-back-to-Florida rain.

Then he switches to Muddy Waters…

…and gets inside him, sneaky little bastard. Muddy Waters as lounge music that’s deeper and fleeter than the original and which, since I haven’t quite comprehended whether this first disc is supposed the be the entire original album (it’s not), may be closing the original concept down. It feels like it could do that. Driving along in the rain, it feels like it could close down the World…or the State of Florida at least.

But it’s just a set up. I’ve got the second disc cued up and, though I can’t tell if it’s bonus material or not (it isn’t), it doesn’t matter, because he jumps straight into Sam Cooke, who knew a thing or two about Vegas-ing the Blues himself. No more than Van, certainly…

…but maybe no  less. Either way, Van’s off into the mystic so to speak, because he jumps from there to “St. Dominic’s Preview,” which it takes me a while to recognize, by which time my mind has split in two and I’m doing some sort of mental dissertation on White Boys diving into the Blues and hearing snatches of Mick Jagger’s negotiations with Satan, circa 1974, about the time Satan started cashing Mick’s checks and draining his bank account and while most of the conversation drifted by, what with the rain and the Yes-Sir-Van-is-All-That singing going on, it did keep my mind running in Fake Stereo for fifteen minutes or so while Van got all the way to end of his personal Magnum Opus, “Listen to the Lion” which can never be added to on stage because he took the recorded version as far as anything can be taken.

And I figured that was probably that.

The rain had stopped by then. The sun was coming out, and Van went straight back into his crowd-pleasingist, crowd-pleasing mode, and we all know what that means….Time for a little THEM…

Starting with this…

which makes me wonder if he’s trying to steal it back from Lulu…

…who stole it from him in the Them days (she got it out first, they had the big hit, and somewhere deep down inside I think, listening to It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Van knows she found something to be afraid of in the night he was busy owning it…and still trying to own all those years later).

After which, of course, it’s on to the one he’ll never get away from…and which no one will ever beat him on…or find anything in that he didn’t find the first time…

And you’d think this would bring my poor ragged mind back to a single track, especially since I’m clapping, driving and singing at the same time.

Hey, don’t worry, no more rain, no problem. I’m VERY experienced at this.

But while I’m doing that, I also start conducting an (imaginary–I ain’t crazy you know) interview with Jimmy Page, where I ask if he minds focusing on his early session-man days (among which a number of Them tracks, and Lulu’s version of “Here Comes the Night” are rumored to be highlights…or maybe it isn’t rumored anymore and it’s either been confirmed or debunked by now, but in my mind I’m assuming young James did indeed play on some Them sessions and Lulu sessions, and he doesn’t seem to want to shatter any illusions).

But, instead of asking him about Van Morrison and Them, or even Lulu, I find myself asking if this was as much fun as it sounds like…

….and his imaginary face lights up for the first time, loses it’s professional cool. “Tried to throw her off with that discordant bit in the bridge,” he says. “Silly me…Gave me some ideas for later though.”

Wow. Heavy.

I might have pursued the conversation further…I WOULD have pursued it further. Nothing could have kept me from it.

Except maybe this.

The sun was shining bright by then. I was somewhere near Ocala. Still three hours from home, but the past is behind me and Van Morrison is speaking in tongues.

I’m whole again. My mind’s all put back together.

Welcome home.

SOME THOUGHTS ON A LIST…

I’m still recovering from the trip…And still being reminded I ain’t as young as I used to be. But I did want to comment on Rolling Stone‘s new list of the 100 Greatest Country Artists. It’s not the worst of its kind I’ve seen, not even the worst provided by Rolling Stone. You can read their own explanation for why they left off Elvis (who would be in the top ten of any real list). They don’t need to explain why they left off Brenda Lee and Linda Ronstadt and the Everly Brothers (had to make room for Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, among others). Or why they think Garth Brooks is “greater” than Lefty Frizzell (a judgment that will be considered at the level of a “what were they thinking” Communist plot when they update the list a generation hence).

But at least Patty Loveless made the list. Heck, she even came in three spots ahead of Taylor Swift, for which I imagine David Cantwell, who wrote Patty’s entry and is one of the few people on the selection committee who demonstrably knows anything about country music, can be thanked.

Why she’s fifty-two spots below Shania Twain, on a list that includes the words “Greatest,” “Country” and “Artists” in its title?

Well, there’s no explaining that. So I’ll just dedicate a song…from Patty to the rest of the selection committee:

 

“THE VOICE” IN CONTEXT (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #96)

Back when Phil Spector started hiding his soon to be wife, Ronnie Bennett of the Ronettes,  from the world (and the Beatles), John Lennon would ask him “Where’s the Voice?”

When Brian Wilson first heard “Be My Baby,” the Ronettes’ first big hit, on the radio, he pulled off the road, and has said more than once that he’s played it every day since. He’s also said it wasn’t Phil Spector’s production that made the impact.

Ronnie herself reported her first meeting with Spector in her autobiography and described his response to first hearing her sing as something along the lines of “That’s it. That’s the voice I’ve been waiting for!”

Phil also frequently described himself as the only person who could have made Ronnie. or any of his other discoveries, stars, or at very least famous.

After reading Ronnie’s memoir years back (early nineties’ I’m guessing), I built some vague ideas and questions that had been rattling around in my head for about a decade (about how long it had been since I first heard “Be My Baby”), into a conclusion.

The conclusion: Phil Spector was the only person who could have kept Ronnie Bennett from becoming a superstar, and he used a three-step process. He signed her. Then he married her. Then he–no other word for it–tortured her.

You can read the book and find out the details–including the day John Lennon visited divorce court as a friend of both parties and came face to face with who Phil Spector really was.

Knowing all that, I still never quite understood “Be My Baby” as anything more than a great record with a great vocal.

Today, though, listening to the final volume of the Bear Family’s bottomless survey of “doo-wop,” broadly redefined as the vocal music of Black and Urban Immigrant America from 1938 to 1963, prepared for “Be My Baby” to fit the concept just like so many others (especially the early Motown acts, even including the Supremes and the Temptations) who aren’t usually included in the narrative had done.

I was still prepared for it when the famous intro, courtesy of Hal Blaine, brought the usual smile.

I wasn’t prepared for the Voice.

Having heard it a thousand times didn’t prepare me for it to cut through not only Spector’s gargantuan production, but every record that preceded it, not only on this final disc, but every disc that covered the twenty-five previous years. Today, on the way back from the doctor’s office, it hit me the way it must have hit Phil Spector, John Lennon, Brian Wilson….as something new and startling in the world.

It hit me as something completely new, no matter how much its similarities to Frankie Lymon and Brenda Lee were still obvious. They never had to fight Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and none of those who did ever made it sound so easy to blast a clean hole through it.

Today, Ronnie did.

Maybe it was the Bear Family’s famously superior mastering or having surround sound in the car or just the mood I was in (getting past my annual with the endo is always a relief).

Maybe it was just that the sprinkling of girl group records in the latter volumes of the series had made me rediscover how different the quality of female yearning was from any attitude copped by the boys of that or any era.

Whatever it was, today, like no day before, she was the Voice, maybe because the Lost World she represented seemed even more lost than all the other Lost Worlds surrounding her.

Be sure to stay tuned for the conversation which, among other things, covers their plans for the upcoming “Christmas album” which would be A Christmas Gift tor You from Philles Records (later Phil Spector), the greatest Christmas album ever made and, of course, released the day John Kennedy was assassinated…the day John Lennon had to step in and save us from.

You  know. For a while.

I really recommend reading Ronnie’s book, but for those who would like a shorthand version, you can go here for the gist.

“THE ONLY WHITE WOMAN WHO COULD SING THE BLUES” (Kay Starr: R.I.P.)

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“The only white woman who could sing the blues.”

You don’t have to completely buy Billie Holiday’s judgment to recognize that Katherine LaVerne Stark, who made her way from a Texas chicken farm to a Bel Air mansion by way of a Memphis radio station and a host of big band gigs (Glenn Miller, Charlie Barnet, like that) where she was forever replacing or being replaced by someone more famous, was one of the key voices that bridged what came before with the new “fad” she celebrated in her biggest hit:

Her phrasing alone left a deep stamp on the styles of Patsy Cline, Connie Francis, Brenda Lee, and, through them, a thousand others. And, in the ferment of the early fifties, she crossed easily from Jazz to Pop to Country, giving a boost to the crossover ambitions of Tennessee Ernie Ford along the way.

Though she was often saddled with the era’s clunky arrangements, she established another truism which has carried down to the present day–the unique ability of the powerful female voice to cut through any “wall of sound” a male arranger/producer/computer designer can create.

Whoever called the amalgamation Hillbilly Jazz wasn’t wrong. But, in the end, like most great singers who cross so many boundaries, her style was more properly defined as something both broader and more specific.

Call it “Kay Starr.”

Six marriages and ninety-four years on, she passed this week, one of the few of her generation who could say the revolutions she set in motion are still spinning.

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DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Rachel Sweet Up)

“Shadows of the Night”
Rachel Sweet (1981)
Not released as a single. #13 in Billboard for Pat Benetar in 1982
Recommended source: Fool Around: The Best of Rachel Sweet

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Rachel Sweet was too early and too late. Too late to be a straightforward heir of the Brenda Lee rasp (which, as of the mid-seventies, had been taken over by adults like Stevie Nicks), and too early to catch the wave of teen angel-dom she helped create (of which Tiffany and Debbie Gibson were the prime beneficiaries and formers of the bridge to Britney and Miley and whoever’s hustling the mall crowd right now, working for the day when they, too, are chosen) none of whom could sing like Rachel Sweet.

Her early records on Stiff excited some critics and a hardcore cult, just enough to ensure that a small, fierce, purely informal band would carry on even if she left the biz. I count myself an enthusiastic member.

Later on, she did indeed leave the biz–at least the rock and roll part of it. She grew up, graduated from Columbia (the university), and made a mint writing and producing for television. According to Wikipedia she was eventually worth enough to buy and sell one of Madonna’s houses for some ridiculous sum.

Good for her.

But those of us in the shameless cult still remember what might have been. She flirted with stardom throughout the late seventies and early eighties. Her cover of Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y” made the UK top forty. A slightly surreal duet with Rex Smith on “Everlasting Love,” after she signed with Columbia (the record label), did the same in the U.S. She scraped other charts here and there across the western world.

But, on the whole, her records worked best as secrets and the best secret of all was “Shadows of the Night.” Ex-pat Helen Schneider had a big, contemporary hit with her version in Germany and other parts of Europe. That may have been why Sweet’s American label didn’t release her version as a single.

Or maybe they were just stupid.

It took a lot of miscalculation to prevent Sweet from being a star. And, as my dad used to say about certain other inexplicable things, sometimes you have to assume it must have taken a genius, because no ordinary man could have done it.

The stupidity all around was exposed a year later when Pat Benetar had one of the biggest hits of a hit-machine career with a version that was half as good.

I’m glad Rachel got rich. I only wish it had been for the best of reasons and not just one more proof of a world gone sideways.

Stiff Records 1978

AMERICAN…THAT’S ALL (Chips Moman, R.I.P.)

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“Legend” hardly cuts it.

Chips Moman was born in Georgia (LaGrange) a few years before Otis Redding (Dawson) and a couple of years after Elvis Presley was born in Mississippi (Tupelo).

Like them, and many, many others, he made his way to Memphis (his family moved there when he was a teenager, or he hitchhiked at seventeen….like a lot of Memphis stories, it varies).

And after that?

Well he hooked up with Johnny Burnette’s road band, then Gene Vinent’s. Then (like Johnny, like Elvis) he made his way to California. After a while, like Elvis and oh so many others who didn’t die (like Johnny), he came home.

Maybe it was something in the water. In those days, a lot sure did happen in Memphis.

But, of course, it’s wasn’t really the water. The water’s still there. But there ain’t much happening these days.

In Memphis, as elsewhere, It was always the people. And of all the people who made things happen in Memphis it was damned few who made as much happen as Chips Moman.

Go ahead and starting counting on your fingers.

Don’t worry if you only have one hand. You won’t need the second one.

Because here’s what happened when Chips Moman came back to Memphis:

He hooked up with a man named Jim Stewart, who was in the process of founding a record label (Satellite) that would eventually be called Stax. It was Moman who found the grocery store that became Stax’s legendary studio; Moman who pushed the label towards R&B; Moman who produced the label’s first three hits, which were only this…

this…

and this…

Promising as all that was, there wasn’t much chance of the relationship lasting. Chips Moman wasn’t really cut out to be a hired hand. Soon enough he had his own studio. Soon enough after that he had his first big hit, which was only this…

The royalties from that one allowed him to hire a secretary, who soon enough brought him a demo she had recorded, which he soon cut on her when he couldn’t lure a bigger name all the way to Memphis (in those days, big names came from Memphis, not to it, an equation Chips Moman would reverse for good). It only turned to be this…

By then, Moman had a flourishing studio and a budding reputation. Pretty soon people started calling him, wanting to record in his studio.

Big names even.

Pretty soon after that he had a bigger reputation.

What he didn’t really have, what he never really had, was much of a “label.” He tended to lease his studio’s recordings  Which may be why Moman’s “studio” could produce 120 hits in a decade without being legendary, in the way of Stax or Motown, anywhere except inside the music business. Meaning he could write/record/produce or just auteurize records like these into being…

…and literally a hundred more.

You will notice there are no boundaries: pop, soul, country, garage rock, country-pop, soul-pop, country-soul, country-soul-pop-a-top (okay I made the last one up). Those are just a few of the terms thrown around in the various obits today, every one of which mentioned that Moman’s famous studio was called American and not one of which emphasized that it was freaking called “American.”

To go one better and get really specific, it was called “American Sound.”

As in, “You want the American sound, you come to my little hole-in-the-wall studio.”

You can think about the amount of chutzpah it took to call your studio that and you can maybe laugh and shake your head or maybe lift your nose in the air and say the nerve.

But you shouldn’t forget that it ain’t braggin’ if you back it up. A brag is hardly without risk. These days, the band America, is a punchline. They’re that even if you like their music. The nerve!

Chips Moman? American Sound Studio?

Nobody’s laughing.

In the course of Moman backing up the biggest and truest brag in the history of the music business, or maybe just the history of the whole American idea, there were, inevitably, monster moments…

and I’ll just say that it was not entirely an accident that the greatest vocal sessions of the American century–mind-blowing even by Elvis’s unmatched standards–were recorded in a studio called American run by Chips Moman, or that, just as inevitably and non-accidentally, there were private treasures along the way…

And of course, later on, in a world that was rapidly forgetting both American Studios itself, and the rock and roll vision Chips Moman forged there, and had, almost alone,  sustained through the turbulent sixties to such a degree that when Elvis (and oh so many others) were looking for a place to hang on against the rising tide and even fight back, it was all but guaranteed they would make their way to his studio, whether they had to walk across the street or, like Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark, fly half way around the world, he could still do this…

or this…

…for public consumption. And still provide those private treasures…

Not bad for a country boy getting back to the country, as they say.

But for all his specific genius as a songwriter, a producer, a businessman (always an underrated gift), Chips Moman was more than the sum of his monumental parts. There were things recorded in his little Memphis studio which had nothing to do with his specific talents. He didn’t write them or produce them or do anything at all for them….except create the physical and psychic space they needed to breathe.

Those records could be as great and iconic as this…

or even this…

But if I had to pick only one that summed up the ethos, one record to say goodbye on, it would be this one…

Other people could have written it (others did). Somebody else could have produced it (somebody did).

As with a few hundred other records, though, many famous, just as many obscure, only one man could have envisioned the space where so much American happiness and so American pain could fight it out on a daily basis and somehow manage to co-exist within a sound that excluded nothing and no one.

One man did.

That was America. If we ever manage to amount to anything again, the memory of the music made in that one man’s little studio, which never looked like more than this…

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and is now reduced to no more than this…

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…will play no small part.

So long brother. You did good. You did real good.

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