THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO…(Winter, 2016 Countdown)

10) Trio (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt) The Complete Trio Collection (1987-1999) (2016)

This collects the two albums the superstar “trio” made in the eighties and nineties, plus an extra disc of unreleased and alternate takes.

The released albums were always a little too pristine for my taste. Hearing the tracks all at once didn’t exactly reverse that judgment, though it did allow me to fully appreciate the sheer craft-work driven improbability of it all.

Given the restrictive natures of both Harris’s and Ronstadt’s art–we’re talking about two people who always had a hard time loosening up–it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the real keepers are on the throwaway disc. The women who were never all that comfortable with the spotlight light up when it’s off, while Dolly just keeps on being Dolly. In that context, it seems no more than natural that “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” a great song that’s been searching for a home for decades, would finally get the definitive take it deserves.

2) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Echo (1999)

A modern blues, filled with all the hit-maker’s recognizable touches and a lot of things too many people assumed he couldn’t do besides.

Maybe that assumption was rooted in not paying enough attention. If so, I certainly do not exempt myself.

One effect of getting to know this album in recent years has been a better understanding of just how deep those hits had to strike–again and again, back when it seemed they lived entirely on the surface–in order to reach one generation after another in a way that was almost unheard of for any other rocker of his generation. Singling out the first cut is a little obvious, but first cuts are for leading you in. This leads you in.

8) The Orlons Best of (1961-1966) (2005)

Auteurs of the Watusi and, you might think, the most faceless of the handful of girl groups  who sustained even a modest string of hits.

While I wouldn’t say personality was their strong suit, this still sustains easily over half a decade and twenty sides. “Wah-Watusi” aside, they may never have been trend-setters (even that was a cover). But they kept up, no small thing when the Pop World was moving as past as it did during the years in question.

And, as often happens with these “obscure” artists, there’s a knockout hidden in the shadows that will lay you flat if you have your back turned.

7) Fleetwood Mac Rumours  (1977) (2-Disc version, aka Ghost Rumours, released 2004)

I always loved the English spelling. Made it seem like it should be some kind of genteel sequel to a Cat Stevens album.

I know it’s sold a bajillion copies (thirty, forty million, like that) and been played to death…but it never wears out. Certainly not in 2016, when it sounded more contemporary than ever and stayed at the top of my playlist for the year. Another thing I like about it is that it broke contemporaneously with Punk Rock, which it buried then and buries now, not least because it’s a lot more “punk” than “God Save the Queen”…if by “punk” we mean  “alive.”

Of course, these days it’s become even stronger. This edition restores Stevie Nicks’s “Silver Springs” to its original running order (the 3-Disc version released subsequently puts it at the end for some reason) and includes a disc of outtakes that, for once, deepens and contextualizes the finished product. You can click on the link above for my full take on all that. But in case you don’t make it over there, this little killer should still not be missed.

6) Mark Chesnutt The Ultimate Collection (Complete MCA Singles: 1990-2000) (2011)

Playing next to Patty Loveless or even George Strait on the radio in his golden decade, Chesnutt seemed like a real if modest talent who reached an epic high now and then.

From this distance, across thirty tracks and a quarter of a century, he seems more like a minor miracle. He certainly wasn’t afraid of competition. He doesn’t embarrass himself on Don Gibson’s “Woman (Sensuous Woman)” or John Anderson’s “Down in Tennessee,” and bests Waylon on “Broken Promise Land,” which is one of those epic highs I mentioned.

It’s not like I didn’t know he had a solid best of in him. “Brother Jukebox,” “Bubba Shot the Jukebox” “It Sure is Monday”–the titles alone always could bring a smile. But this sustains, in part, because his most epic high point of all–as great a song ever written about the intricacies of not breaking up–came early and two long discs gives the listener time to develop some perspective.

If you click the link, be sure to crank the volume.

5) The Easybeats The Definitive Anthology (1965-1969) (1996)

Speaking of cranking the volume.

Here’s fifty-six tracks that make a case for the boys who built the bones of Australia’s not-exactly-inconsequential rock and roll legacy by being the greatest garage band this side of Paul Revere and the Raiders.

I’m not gonna say they ever quite got up to “Friday On My Mind” again but not many got there once and, of those who did, few outside the legends sustained anything like this level of interest. Of course, they should never have taken on “River Deep, Mountain High,” but it brought a smile to think they had the nerve to try. And smile was what just about every other one of these fifty-six tracks made me do as I listened to them chase every trend of the era and catch one after another for the briefest, most transient, most exhilarating moment. Pick to Click: “Good Times” (which sure sounds like it cops at least one of its riffs from the Orlons’ “Don’t Hang Up”).

4) The Platters The Ballads (1953-1959) (2013)

Shelter from the storm.

If ballad singing is ever given its proper place in the Rock and Roll Narrative, the Platters’ lead singer, Tony Williams, will be as celebrated as Chuck Berry. Until then, you can search around for ways to hear him: this is the best I’ve found.

Great as any individual cut–or any short compilation–may be, you can’t really feel the weight of Williams’ accomplishment until you dig into something like this: thirty-three slices of heaven right here on earth.

And in one respect,Tony was even greater than Chuck Berry. Plenty of guitar players have forged out past Chuck on some ground or other that he broke open. No ballad singer has ever gotten past this anywhere…unless maybe it was Tony Wiliams.

.3) The Isley Brothers Givin’ It Back (1971)

A sly turn of the cards: Here, the Isleys cover mostly white acts, though not necessarily the ones who had spent the previous decade so profitably covering them.

It might have been conceived as a gimmick, but they dug in too deep for it to come across that way on record. “Ohio” meant more in their hands than any other, not just because they cross-bred it with Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun’,” but because they were from Ohio. Unlike say, Kent State survivor, Chrissie Hynde, who grew up being persecuted by the white middle class in Akron and got out as soon as possible, they never left home spiritually, no matter how far their feet roamed.

I wonder if that’s why I–who always heard “Fire and Rain” as a great record even in its callow original–find their cover illuminating far beyond the usual “black people are deeper” shuck and jive? I’ve stated it before, but this is the sound of some lost soul looking for his people over the next hill. Pick to click: “Cold Bologna” (the only cut besides “Machine Gun” that doesn’t “give back” to a white boy).

2) Dwight Yoakum Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1986)

Thus began the odd, often glorious career of Dwight Yoakum, slick traditionalist.

Right there at the beginning–too clever title and all–I don’t hear the concept quite working. Pleasant enough but not as inspired as its rep. So when I put this one on it’s mostly for background music.

Same thing this time.

This time, like every other time, I left what I was doing and came into the room for this.

1) Martha & the Vandellas Live Wire: The Singles 1962-1972 (1993)

Martha Reeves might be due a Vocalist of the Month essay pretty soon, so I’ll leave any deep thoughts for later. This beautiful thing was part of a three-artist series released in conjunction with similarly glorious 2-Disc sets on the Marvelettes and Mary Wells. There’s not a weak track on any of them.

What I hadn’t realized before was that if Dwight’s “South of Cincinnati” ever needs a sister record, it’s right here, in Martha’s finest vocal, equal to anything the powerhouses at Motown ever managed and, unlike most of the theirs and most of hers–which were only “Dancing in the Street,” “Heat Wave,” “Nowhere to Run,” “In My Lonely Room”– half-hidden by time.

 

 

 

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Dobie Gray Up)

“We Had It All”
Dobie Gray (1973)
Not released as a single.
Recommended source: Drift Away: A Decade of Dobie (1969-1979) (Highly recommended if you have the bucks. One of the era’s great undersung vocalists)

DobieGray1

This is a song that’s been done by Waylon Jennings (he had the country hit), Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, the Rolling Stones (as a late seventies outtake available on YouTube), Bob Dylan and a cast of thousands.

Like more than a few songs recorded by lots of people it was defined by Dobie Gray. Like every record defined by Dobie Gray that wasn’t “Drift Away” or “The In Crowd,” it was not a big hit. In this case, it was not even released as a single–probably because Waylon (or Waylon’s label) beat him to the punch.

It was a highlight of Gray’s debut LP for MCA, which was also his first attempt at cracking the black-man-in-Nashville code that, in eighty years of the town’s race-coded hegemony, has only been fully solved by Charley Pride and Darius Rucker.

When Dobie came to town, there was a whiff of unusual promise. The era saw established artists like the Pointer Sisters and Tina Turner (this was when she took her own fine crack at “We Had It All”) follow Ray Charles’ long-ago footsteps to the country capital. Better than that, fabulous singers with truly country roots and voices–Gray, Stoney Edwards, O.B. McClinton–came tantalizingly close to establishing themselves on country radio, a bond which, if ever fully formed, would have been bound to be long-lasting. No audience is quite as loyal as the country audience.

It didn’t happen.

I wonder where we’d be now if it had.

We can’t know, but Dobie Gray often sounded like a man who had already accepted the impossibility of catching the version of the American dream–the real American dream–he was chasing. Never more so than here, where every word smiles and every word aches.

(NOTE: The only singer who gave Dobie a run for his money when he dug in was Elvis, who matched him on “Lovin’ Arms” and “There’s a Honky Tonk Angel (Who’ll Take Me Back In).” I’ll give a dollar on a nickel he knew a fellow dreamer when he heard one.)

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Thirteenth Maxim)

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

Then again, with friends like these….

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

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

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

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

But we’ll let that pass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cause enough, all by itself, for this…

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

WHAT’S IN A VOICE? (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #64)

I don’t do a whole lot of lists, but I’m not immune to them. If I ever got really full of myself (or something stronger) and did one that was titled something like “The Ten Most Beautiful Records Ever Made,” Jeannie Kendall, who most of the world has never hear of, and is remembered by most of those who have for “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” and nothing else, would probably be singing on about seven of them.

One of those would be her recorded version of “Making Believe,” which would also top any list entitled “The Greatest Versions of ‘Making Believe.'”

And “Making Believe” is one of the few songs that actually has enough great versions to warrant a list. It’s one of those songs nearly every country giant (and not a few from other fields) has not only taken a crack at but done justice by. The great country women, either soloing or duetting (as Jeannie did with her father) have been especially drawn to it: Kitty Wells, Dolly Parton, Wanda Jackson, Anita Carter, Emmylou Harris, Loretta and Conway, Patty and Vince. That’s in addition to Merle Haggard, Connie Francis, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles.

You know, like that.

Just at the high end. Just for starters.

But on record, nobody made it cut like the Kendalls.

My improbable discovery of the past week was that they made it cut even deeper on Austin City Limits, way back when:

And my other not-so-improbable discovery of the week is that it still doesn’t cut as deep as “Just Like Real People” or “Put it Off Until Tomorrow” or “I’m Coming Down Lonely,” which is so obscure that it’s not even on YouTube.

So my final not-so-improbable discovery of the week is that we’re not living in a perfect world just yet.

But, you know, stay tuned. Anything could happen.

LINDA RONSTADT…ECLECTIC WEIRDO (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #47)

I’ve always thought the biggest mistake of Linda Ronstadt’s career (whether hers or her record company’s I can only guess) was not releasing “Roll Um Easy” as the first single from the next album after Heart Like a Wheel had transformed her from a huge talent to a huge star. It would have inoculated her against the criticism that she was merely mining oldies as a surefire commercial formula. It would have laid the “she can’t rock” nonsense to rest because the single that was released, a perfectly fine version of ‘Heat Wave” which plenty of people were predisposed to hate for any number of not very good reasons, would have stayed an album track and nobody would have cared about her admission that she had trouble getting a handle on it even if they had bothered to ask.

And, while there’s no way to know these things of course, I’m pretty sure Ronstadt singing “eloquent profanity just rolls right off my tongue” over that arrangement in ’75 would have been a sure-fire number one. (“Heat Wave” did just fine, reaching #5, but, for all the album sales and steady selling singles, she never quite recaptured the chart momentum “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved” had given her.)

I’ll always think it was a mistake, then.

But lately I’ve been revising my opinion on whether it was her worst.

Because, in purely aesthetic terms, not releasing a live album has it beat all hollow.

Though she could sometimes be a touch stiff and uncomfortable in the spotlight and wasn’t always visually compelling, she was generally looser and freer vocally on stage than in the studio.

Sometimes she even took chances.

I was taken enough with her live concert from Los Angeles in 1975 to make it the first thing I’ve ever downloaded for repeat audio consumption (there’s no video available and it makes it easier to hear just how good she could be).

But there’s nothing in that concert, or any of several others available (all excellent to one degree or another) that matches what she did here, making Dolly Parton and Warren Zevon stronger for each other’s company. It’s a measure of her vision and, believe it or not, not something just anybody could pull off, then or now, even if they thought of it:

And anybody who thinks Ronstadt wasn’t some sort of genius should check out her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, available en toto on YouTube, where, with her own voice stilled by Parkinson’s, a dream lineup of Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow and Stevie Nicks were repeatedly overwhelmed by arrangements she once made sound as easy as breathing.

Somebody, please do a live box….or at very least a live single, on this woman. (And if she’s the one resisting, due to her well known obsessive perfectionism, somebody please talk her into it!)

MAMA SONGS (Segue of the Day: 5/19/15)

DOLLYCOVER1

Fans of country music of a certain vintage aren’t likely to forget Dolly Parton is a stone cold genius, no matter how hard she tries to hide it.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if even we don’t forget just a little.

One reason we might is that country albums of a certain vintage are not always easy to come by in the digital age. There are certainly gaps in CD-era reissues of blues, soul and pop (even a few here and there in rock). But outside of gospel, no important genre of American music has been as neglected as LP releases of country music stars of the sixties and seventies.

Thanks to the measure of her hard-earned (and harder kept) fame, Dolly’s been better served than most. Of her first ten albums–the ones that basically made her reputation–half have been released on CD one time or another, though by an assortment of companies with what I assume is varying degrees of care and quality.

The only one that’s made it to my collection so far is Coat of Many Colors, which, thanks to a knockdown sale in the local mall and my once a decade culling of my trade-ables, came to hand as part of a 2010-release three-pack with a couple of slightly later LPs, My Tennessee Mountain Home and Jolene.

All of that dealing brought me, at a pittance, the Duane Allman box I wrote about recently, a George Strait box I’ve been chasing for twenty years (waiting for the right price, though now that I’ve heard it, I confess it would have been worth paying full), the John Adams HBO miniseries (about which I may have something to say later) and a few various and sundry other items.

So I’ve been kind of busy. And Coat of Many Colors is the only one of the three Dolly discs I’ve listened to yet.

But it starts with two songs she wrote devoted to that hoariest of country traditions: Mother.

That’s a subject from which you wouldn’t have thought anybody could wring anything new, even in 1971.

You’d have been wrong. Because the two songs were this…

and this..

And finding gold in the dust?

Well, that’s just what geniuses do.

The completists at the Bear Family recently released all of Dolly’s duets with Porter Wagoner. Here’s hoping they, or somebody, gets on to the solo stuff soon. There’s a fine box set available, but hearing even this one album–led off by two cuts available on at least a hundred comps–reminds me that what’s available is barely the tip of the iceberg.

JUST HOW HARD IS IT TO BE CONSISTENTLY….GREAT

Very….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not even close.

I only made it to six.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to my last point:

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

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

Then they were replaced by pod people.

That’s extreme.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make of that what you will.

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

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

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

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

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

The Beatles:

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

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

The Beach Boys:

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

and a fantastic live version:

The Byrds:

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

The Rolling Stones:

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

Al Green:

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

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

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

 

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN….(Volume Six)

“Rock And Roll Lullaby”
1972
Artist: B.J. Thomas
Writers: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil

B.J. Thomas “Rock and Roll Lullaby” (Studio recording)

“According to one theory, punk rock all goes back to Ritchie Valens’s ‘La Bamba.’ Just consider Valens’s three-chord mariachi squawk up in the light of ‘Louie, Louie’ by the Kingsmen, then consider “Louie, Louie’ in the light of ‘You Really Got Me’ by the Kinks, then ‘You Really Got Me’ in the light of ‘No Fun’ by the Stooges, then ‘No Fun’ in the light of ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ by the Ramones, and finally note that ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ sounds a lot like ‘La Bamba.’ There: twenty years of rock & roll history in three chords, played more primitively each time they are recycled.”

(Lester Bangs, “Protopunk: The Garage Bands,” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1980 edition)

“Like I said, that’s the saddest song I’ve ever sung. It’s supposed to be a true song, too. And I believe it. Back when I was a boy, if a girl got pregnant, she never did return home. Not pregnant and single. She just wasn’t welcome….It was the first song I learned, but I can’t hardly sing it now, because it’s so possible. Because it happened then, and it could still happen now.”

(Charlie Louvin, describing his childhood experience of learning to harmonize “Mary of the Wild Moor” with his brother Ira, Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, 2011)

In 1972, attempts to limit the world’s understanding of what “rock and roll” was, were becoming more self-conscious by the day. The paragraph above–written a few years later by the only rock critic with a legitimate claim on genius–exemplified these attempts as neatly as anyone ever could. Note how a “theory” of “punk rock” at the beginning of one sentence moves swiftly and inexorably to “rock & roll history” at the beginning of the next. Given the dubiousness of the premise–three-chord “primitivism” as the only rock and roll that matters–you can’t get any neater than that.

*  *  *  *

In 1972, everyone also knew what to think about girls who got themselves pregnant without catching a husband.

For the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve (who dominated the North Alabama world Charlie Louvin grew up in), she was a fallen woman.

For the Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate (who dominated the world Lester Bangs operated in as a critic) she was a social project.

For the vast Middle-Which-Does-Not-Rock-The-Boat-Ever (the world most of us live in, toiling along, forever getting the government we deserve) she was best left unnoticed. Out of sight, out of mind. To be spoken of in whispers if at all.

She had an ongoing place in the history of popular music to be sure–and one did not have to reach back to “Mary of the Wild Moor” to know where she stood.

As recently as 1969, Dolly Parton, just then establishing herself as a legitimate genius of country music, had written what would turn out to be likely the most powerful song of her career about the very subject. It was called “Down From Dover,” and Parton matched the death-dealing, heart-clutching lyric to one of her greatest vocals. She updated the social and musical traditions she had grown up on with the tenderest of all possible care. She brought all the pathos of the mountain ballads, mournful and endless, often stretching to dozens of verses, down to a manageable commercial length without sacrificing anything vital in the way of emotional impact or telling descriptive detail. She took a decided leap in a brilliant songwriting career that already included “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” “Just Because I’m a Woman,” “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” and “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy.”

What she did not do, was release it as a single.

What she also did not do–and which was probably related to relegating what she must have known was a song she would never better to an album cut–was break the cycle of pain and death inherent in the tradition.

Admittedly, in “Down From Dover,” it’s only the “illegitimate” child that dies. That was a merciful step past “Mary of the Wild Moor,” which killed off the mother, the child, and the grandfather who leaves them to freeze to death in the snow when his daughter attempts to return home.

But it was evidently still too strong for country radio, which, in those days, always had a place for murder ballads and such. I mean, 1973 wasn’t very different and, in that year, Tanya Tucker could top the charts with a chilling, off-hand reading of “Blood Red and Going Down,” which tells the tender tale of a ten-year-old girl (Tucker herself was fourteen at the time) tagging along behind her Daddy while he tracks down his wife and her lover and leaves them “soaking up the sawdust on the floor” in an Augusta bar-room.

For that, there was room.

Just not for unwed mothers–at least not those rendered as sympathetically and realistically as Parton’s.

Over at Top 40 radio–from a few years earlier–there was another recent twist on the theme–told from the perspective of the Supremes’ “Love Child.”

Nobody dies in that one, but–#1 hit or not–it’s clear from the dread and shame in Diana Ross’ voice as she’s fending off the advances of a potential baby-daddy, that no possible good can come of it:

“No child of mine will be wearin’, this name of shame I been bearin’”….

That was how it was in 1966–not to mention 1966 B.C.

It was no different in 1972.

*  *  *  *

I’m not sure how much better it is now. Maybe we really are a little more thoughtful and forgiving. Maybe we are more empathetic and civilized. Maybe it only seems that way from certain carefully guarded perspectives. It’s hard to turn a tradition thousands of years in the making on its head in an instant. And the uglier the tradition the harder the turning often is.

But Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil gave it a try.

They took on the truly momentous rock and roll responsibility (if you want to call it the burden of the revolution you won’t get an argument from me) of giving voice to the voiceless and then had the nerve to give their song a title evidently designed to make advocates of punk primitivism as the only rock and roll that matters grind their filed teeth to paste.

Then they wrote a song so powerful almost no one has ever bothered to deny its classic status even if it does turn the most comfortable narratives sideways and upside down–complete with a wash of “sha-na-nas” lifted from rock’s oft-despised (by everyone from the old Tin Pan Alley crowd to the new-left folkies to the mock-intelligentsia forever gathering ’round the Beatles and such to today’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee) tradition of nonsense group vocals.

Mann told the song’s producer Steve Tyrell that he heard “old sounds” in the lyric and suggested they get the session guitarist to play like Duane Eddy.

Tyrell heard old sounds, too.

He said, “why not get Duane Eddy?”

Things only got more ambitious from there.

What they ended up with was a record that sounded absolutely constructed, layer by loving layer–not just Eddy’s bottomless guitar part, likely the emotional pinnacle of his monumental career, but background support from Darlene Love’s Blossoms and ex-Diamond Dave Somerville, carefully modulated dead-ringer early-and-late Beach Boy arrangements, Barry Mann himself on the piano, the lushest possible orchestration–and also as if it had been breathed into the world in an instant.

Why Mann and Weil chose to write a song redeeming abandoned single mothers and their children–to that moment, possibly the most doomed and despised sub-group in the history of doomed and despised sub-groups–I do not know. That they even thought it was possible seems a bit nervy and mysterious–unless, of course, you know (as they certainly did) the actual history of rock and roll, which, more than anything else, is the history of speaking up. The few interviews I’ve heard or read from them over the years have–perhaps understandably given the full weight of their accomplishments (they wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” among voluminous others)–bypassed this particular record.

So maybe they had some special attachment to the situation…or maybe they just figured it was time.

I could be wrong, but somehow, I don’t think it was just that week’s assignment.

It says something, for instance, that they chose to write it from the perspective of the fatherless child, now grown up. That deliberately placed “the event”–and the teenage mother’s dilemma–closer to the social realities of the nineteen fifties than of 1972, when there might at least have been a commune waiting for her somewhere. It thus very specifically and pointedly pushed the concept of “rock and roll” back to its own beginnings–when the audience, more so than any self-appointed intellectual class or marketing department or even the artists themselves–was deciding not so much what rock and roll was (as a form of music) as what it was going to mean to their lives (which they were determined to make matter).

In a rhyme scheme as tick-tock perfect as any Tin Pan Alley ever produced, the Brill Building grads inserted the key into the secret chambers of the rock and roll heart and said, in everything but words, that “Love Me Tender” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream” were every bit as much “rock and roll” as “Jailhouse Rock” and “Tutti Frutti.” That the Platters and “In The Still Of The Nite” mattered just as much as Chuck Berry and “La Bamba.”

That, in fact, this had been the point.

So, in addition to pushing back against the cruel tide of human history, “things were bad and she was scared but whenever I would cry, she’d calm my fears and dry my tears with a rock and roll lullaby,” also pushed back even harder against the increasingly hide-bound–and increasingly suffocating–mantra of its own moment, and, in doing so, asserted in no uncertain terms that rock and roll, more than any art that preceded it, offered something very like salvation for its audience.

All of its audience–not just the part recognized by white boys fighting out its “meaning” in college dorm rooms and the pages of Rolling Stone.

What resulted was a record that seemed, on the surface, too perfect to not reach the top of the charts and take its place as a permanent staple at oldies’ radio.

Of course, surfaces often tantalize and delude and that sort of inevitability often rides a curse.

“Rock And Roll Lullaby’s” fate certainly proved all that.

Well on its way to the fate it richly deserved, its distribution was undone by the financial collapse of B.J. Thomas’ record company, Scepter–a fate Scepter shared with many of the other record labels which had turned out the doo-wop and girl group sounds “Lullaby” was invoking, including, most particularly, Red Bird, the failure of which had destroyed the career of the Shangri-Las, who had surely given Mann and Weil a Zeitgeist to play into if anyone had. (If anyone wants to hear how a sixteen-year-old girl with a backbone ends up alone–pregnant or otherwise–they can listen to Mary Weiss singing “Never Again”–that’s the one where she begins by telling the boy he better not walk out on her again and ends by walking out on him–and get a pretty direct idea.)

The record ultimately stalled at #15. Not bad, and plenty of records, including Thomas’ own “The Eyes of a New York Woman” (which had topped out at #29 a few years earlier) have stayed in heavy rotation for decades following even less initial success.

But none of those records were fighting history.

So “Rock And Roll Lullaby” fell in between the cracks. A bit too popular (and Populist) to be a true cult item, far too strong to fit easily into any nostalgia format. Doubtless there are stations somewhere that play it. Maybe even a few that play it a lot. But in thirty-five years of listening incessantly to oldies’ stations across the country, I’ve never heard it on the radio once.

I’ve played it enough at my house to know it doesn’t really matter. A thousand random encounters between here and the grocery store or in rental cars on the way to Cleveland or Fort Worth or Memphis or Winston-Salem couldn’t possibly have dimmed it.

*  *  *  *

There’s a special reason for that last, a reason why the record simply can’t fade. A reason why the only way to deny its power is to throw up deliberate defenses, which might include “oh, we’re past all that now”…defenses you can bet will be broken down the minute you stop minding them. A reason found in a quality that actually transcends the perfect song Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote–a reason that skips right past two swift verses, a luminous bridge and a simple chorus repeated three times, gently, gently, ever-so-gently telling anyone who ever turned their back on need: “Shame on you.”

That reason was specific to rock and roll as well. Simply put, “Rock And Roll Lullaby” was B.J. Thomas’ genius moment.

Now even in rock and roll, not every good singer gets one. But it does happen more often in rock and roll than anywhere else (and by “anywhere else” I don’t mean just other forms of music).

You have a career. You make some good records, maybe quite a few. You practice your craft honorably and well. You build a loyal following that sticks with you for years, or even decades.

But you aren’t a genius. Not really.

So far, you could be doing anything.

But if you sang rock and roll while the revolution was still on track, there was always a chance that once or twice, somewhere along the way, you would be better than that. That sooner (say Carly Simon on “You’re So Vain”) or later (say Neil Sedaka on “Bad Blood”) or somewhere in between (say Dobie Gray on “Drift Away”) you would, for three or four minutes, be as great as anybody has ever been or ever will be.

Heck, sometimes you didn’t even have to be good or honorable or anywhere near having a career.

Rock and roll did that, too (here, I’ll let you fill in the name of your choice–no sense ticking anybody off!) It was a bit rarer than the romantic legends would have it, but it did happen.

I’ve always been fascinated by that other main chance, though. The professional’s main chance.

In a way that was a greater, rarer moment, because while it’s possible to believe that “Louie, Louie” or “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love)” or “The Book of Love” (okay I went ahead and named some but surely nobody could be ticked of by those examples!) really could have happened for almost anyone, “Rock And Roll Lullaby” could only have happened for someone very like B.J. Thomas–or maybe only for B.J. Thomas specifically.

In The Heart of Rock and Soul, his mostly invaluable celebration of the old-fashioned single, where he gave “Rock And Roll Lullaby” a deservedly high place, Dave Marsh described Thomas as being “not much better than a B-level country-rock hack on every other record he made.”

Sorry, Marsh wrote a wonderful book, but on this particular point, he’s dead wrong.

Thomas was a first-rate vocalist in the greatest era of recorded vocal music we’ve yet heard. No, he wasn’t a genius. Not usually anyway. But he had kicked off his chart career with a cover of a Hank Williams’ song that was both commercially successful and emotionally true. The first guy who tried that, fifteen years earlier, had only managed the easier half of the equation and he only turned out to be Tony Bennett.

So no, B.J. Thomas was not a genius, but he was damn good.

No “hack” could have stood in front of all that was going on in “Rock And Roll Lullaby’s” production–or gotten behind all that was going on in back of its lyric–and made it so thoroughly his own.

Neither could any one-off.

Maybe a genius could have done it…but even a genius couldn’t have made it sound as if they knew this was their lasting moment. Geniuses can’t afford to feel that way. That’s part of how they get to be geniuses: by believing that they can always go further and higher, or, at very least come back, again and again, to the furthest, highest place.

For “Rock And Roll Lullaby” to be as great as it is, though, it almost certainly needed to be sung by someone who sensed (even if they didn’t care to admit it) that the moment might never come again for them–that they would never reach any higher than this.

It took a pro for that–the very kind of craftsman who has been so often written out of rock history by those who decided rock and roll would be better off in the margins, untainted by the wearing and tearing necessities of compromise and other impurities inherent in social (as opposed to personal) relevance, and who, incidentally, have seen their wish come true.

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil have a claim on being geniuses. Duane Eddy has a claim on being a genius. So does Darlene Love.

They could all rightly, if arguably, claim this as the greatest record they ever worked on.

But of all the wonderful records that come from a particularly tricky place–the place where talent becomes genius for one precious, irreducible moment–“Rock And Roll Lullaby” is likely the greatest…and boldest.

And, though he has no other claim on being a genius himself, you can thank B.J. Thomas for that.

 

SEGUE OF THE DAY (7/1/12)

Patty Loveless/Dolly Parton

Patty Loveless “Blame It On Your Heart” (Live)

Dolly Parton “Jolene” (Studio)

Riding across Georgia on a Sunday afternoon with the radio on scan. In that part of the land where soul-sucking modern country and talk radio now combine to suffocate about ninety percent of the bandwidth I happen across “Blame It On Your Heart.” Which means that whatever follows it will be knocked down, because country is–or was–about voices and, for the last twenty-five years, getting knocked down is what happens to pretty much anything that follows Patty Loveless, even when she’s singing her middle-of-the-pack radio-fodder.

Surprise, though, because this turns out to be one of those “classic” country stations so “Jolene”–which can’t be knocked down by anything–comes on next. Beautiful. The desire to experience another similar epiphany kept me glued to the station for another hour’s worth of I-75.

I stayed with it until the station turned to static and the heavyweights stepped in the ring one after another, gloves at the ready–Merle Haggard, George Strait, Randy Travis, Tom T. Hall, Travis Tritt, Moe Bandy.

With that lineup, you would figure the law of averages would kick in and let somebody measure up–if not to Dolly in genius mode, then at least to Patty on cruise control.

Nobody even got close.