THE WHITE BOY WHO GOT LOST IN THE BLUES….AND STAYED THERE (Gregg Allman, R.I.P.)

When Gregg Allman–of Nashville, Daytona Beach, Macon and Savannah–came back from the West Coast in the late sixties, to join his brother and some friends in yet another attempt to find a place in the rock and roll Cosmos, White Blues was a concept owned by Brits and Yanks.

He immediately gave the newly formed Allman Brothers Band a huge advantage over everyone else who had tried the concept. There had been a number of  formalist White Blues guitar players–Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green, Gregg’s brother Duane–who could match the skill and intensity of the great blues guitarists, while sounding like no one but themselves. Gregg Allman was the first formalist White Blues singer who could match the skill and intensity of the great blues vocalists…while sounding like no one but himself.

Aside from Ronnie Van Zant–of Jacksonville, Florida–he was also the last.

In the manner of singing like a black man, it evidently helps to actually know some black people.

Except for a brief romantic and professional liaison with Cher in the late seventies, who he was at the beginning remained who he was at the end–somebody determined to keep the spirit of what had moved him alive in the modern age. If that made him seem like an anachronism as time went on, it also made him a committed soul. At his best, from the beginning to the end, he embodied the spirit of the Southern Rock he helped invent–and threw off the chains that bind us.

Hope there’s a Skydog Reunion in the works somewhere tonight.

And I hope it’s still playing when I get there.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Wet Willie Up)

“Street Corner Serenade”
Wet Willie (1977)
#30 Billboard
Recommended source: Southern Rock Gold

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By the time Wet Willie released their first effort on Epic Records, the bone-hard Southern rock they had helped bring to prominence was dying out. The form couldn’t survive the death of its two biggest talents. Duane Allman had been killed in a motorcycle accident just as the concept was taking off in 1971. Ronnie Van Zant had gone down in the plane crash that took the heart out what was left in the summer of 1977.

Time for something new–even for a band as tried and true as Wet Willie.

So, a few months after Van Zant’s death, they came up with this weird idea for a record and it became the greatest of its type: The Southern Rock Post-Doo Wop Blue-Eyed Soul Celebration Lament With a Slightly Caribbean Lilt.

Okay, so far as I know, it’s the only record of its type, but it could have withstood some pretty heavy competition. It played wistful or celebratory in its too-brief moment, depending on what you brought to it on a given day.

It still does. It’s the most completely faked record I know of that is also completely true. Wet Willie was from Mobile, Alabama. It’s a big enough city to have an Italian contingent. Still, I rather doubt any “street corner” singing Jimmy Hall and the boys may have done involved guys named Guido.

Except maybe in their own imaginations. And, since imagination was in short supply on the radio by December of 1977 when this was released, one could overlook a few incongruities. It played true back then, for the five minutes it was on the radio. It plays true now, when you have to dig it up on YouTube or Amazon.

And if you think a smile was cheap in those days, you either didn’t live them or don’t remember. A hundred more like “Street Corner Serenade” and we still couldn’t have restarted the revolution. But hey, a hundred more like it and we might not have needed to…

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.

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

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

Lulu (on her time at Atlantic)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lots of amazing music then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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