LAST MAN OUT (D.J. FONTANA, R.I.P.)

There was plenty of rock ‘n’ roll in the early fifties. Some of the great records made between 1950 and 1955 had drums on them–almost always played by ace session men (think Earl Palmer on almost everything coming out of New Orleans, especially Fats Domino and Little Richard), though sometimes it was just a matter of a reliable road drummer keeping time during a studio stopover (think “Rocket 88”).

Some of the great records didn’t have drums at all: Think, for instance, Elvis Presley’s first records at Sun, few of which had drums, none of which had D.J. Fontana.

Though he had met Elvis and his band at the Louisiana Hayride, and had been on some road dates, Fontana didn’t get in the studio with them until the first RCA sessions, where, among other things, he added a softly brushed shuffle to the haunted comedy of “Heartbreak Hotel.” That was January of 1956, and, with it, the lineup of the basic rock and roll band–lead and rhythm guitars, bass and drums–had become attached to the era’s transcendent star and solidified into the shape it has held for six decades.

The vision–like most expansive visions in those days–was probably Elvis’s…but it wasn’t an accident that he chose D.J., a man who could bang out the biggest sound anybody could make…

….swing the coolest shuffles known to man…

…or lay in the weeds to accommodate the softest subtleties with an ease that bordered on aplomb.

He could take over a record or disappear inside it on demand.

Thus, it was no accident that the most visionary musician of the twentieth century–with a world to choose from–picked D.J. Fontana, a sufficiently graceful and modest man that he would have to get his accolades from fellow musicians and precious few others, to be his drummer during the most important part of his career.

D.J. Fontana was as good as it got.

And I don’t know if they really had a hell of a band in Rock and Roll Heaven before.

But they do now.

 

 

WHAT I FREE ASSOCIATE ABOUT WHEN I’M LISTENING TO MUSIC THAT WAS MEANT FOR DANCING

Since this is, among other things, an homage to the dancers who lit up the Hollywood Rock and Roll shows in the sixties (especially Hollywood A Go-Go), I’ll let this lovely photo of Roberta Tennes stand in for all of them. She passed away in 2015. Time is merciless. R.I.P.

I don’t know how many mix tapes/discs I’ve made in my life. Probably less than a hundred. Definitely more than fifty.

A modest number then. The point of a mix for me is to approximate the surprise juxtapositions you run into on radio or, these days, YouTube.

Of course, if you listen to a disc too often, the surprise element goes away. The sequence can become as ingrained and automatic as your favorite Beatles album…until you let it sit on the shelf long enough to forget.

And when you come back (in this case, after maybe seven or eight years, to a disc I originally put together as a tape in a series I called Cavern Classics, all based around music I could picture the Hollywood A Go-Go dancers dancing to at the Sock Hope at the end of the Universe), sometimes it makes you smile….

Here’s Volume 20 of the Cavern Classics…with stray thoughts attached:

“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” Elton John & Kiki Dee (1976): A sneaky good side-starter. Don’t go breaking my heart the guy says. I couldn’t if I tried, the girl answers. Wait….what? Next thing you know, feet start tapping. Somebody had been listening to a lot of Philly Soul.

“Jingling Baby” LL Cool J (1990): I still haven’t figured out quite what’s jingling. But I’ll always listen for the poetry of Taking out suckers while the ladies pucker/And rolling over punks like a redneck trucker. Oh, wait. He says its earrings that are jingling. Yeah, that’s probably it.

“Hawaii Five-O” The Ventures (1969): Of course it all has to make sonic sense. “Jingling Baby” to this: One of my top five transitions all time. Dance, girls, dance!

“The Boys are Back in Town” Thin Lizzy (1976): And here’s a song about somebody escaping the club and going downtown and driving all the old men crazy. I’m betting the late, great Phil Lynott–the second greatest Irish rock and roller after Van Morrison–had seen Hollywood A Go-Go some time or other.

“Ffun” Con-Funk-Shun (1977): Mystic chords of memory. They played Disney World the night of my senior Class Trip. I was elsewhere in the Magic Kingdom when they took the stage. Elvis wasn’t the only one who knew how to be lonely in the middle of a crowd. I don’t want to talk about it.

“It’s So Easy” Linda Ronstadt (1977): Dave Marsh once said he would prefer having records to masturbate to on his Desert Island to enduring Linda Ronstadt’s company in person. Back when this was on the radio, we used to have a word for guys like Dave: Afflicted. I think we should bring this word back.

“Mickey’s Monkey” The Miracles (1963): Okay, this is literally about spreading a new dance all around. The Cavern is not unaffected. From now on, girls, no matter what plays, everybody will be doing Mickey’s Monkey. (Warning: the video link is to the actual Cavern….this is where I learned that Rock and Roll America’s basic dances could be performed to almost anything with a beat.)

“Pay Bo Diddley” Mike Henderson & the Bluebloods (1996): No, you don’t get permission to stop! Not even for “Pay Bo Diddley.” Keep doing Mickey’s Monkey. Okay….maybe you can do a little hand jive, too. Yeah, and maybe a little of that other thing. Just keep those feet moving. What? No, you absolutely cannot do that! Not until Mike gets Bo paid. Speaking of poetry–is rhyming IRS and Leonard Chess Rock and Roll America’s funniest line? Now, I’m not gonna help you with the answer….

“Radar Love” Golden Earring (1973): The intro always damn near brings a mix to a halt. I’ve stuck it in a few, though. Because soon enough the shuffle starts (dance, girls dance!) And somewhere in there the singer’s gonna insist the radio is playing some forgotten song/Brenda Lee…coming on strong. It’s the absence of “is” that makes it.

“We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” “It’s My Life,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” The Animals (1965): Once in a while on these things, I do suites. Call this The Animals Suite. If “punk” really meant what the crit-illuminati like to pretend it means, it would mean the sound of Eric Burdon shouting “Don’t push me!” right smack dab in the middle of this suite.

Program Break (Note: Because I started with tapes, my mixes always ran about forty-five minutes. Feel free to go to the bathroom!)

“Summer of ’69” Bryan Adams (1985): Bryan Adams has tried to explain this song more than once. Shut up and sing Bryan. Play your guitar maybe. Lead your band. Count your money. Any damn thing. There are a few people who can get away with explaining perfection. You’re not one of them.

“Be-Bop-A-Lula” Gene Vincent (1956): Take Gene for instance. Gene’s not trying to explain. And he’s talking about a girl in her red blue jeans who’s the Queen of the Teens! Get it?

“Sweet Jane,” “Rock and Roll,” “Cool it Down” The Velvet Underground (1970): This is the Velvet Underground Suite or, if you like The Loaded Suite. Now I’m not saying these things are meant to define any band as great as the Animals or the Velvets. But by the time they hit the chorus of “Cool it Down” here, and all the girls are dancing like spinning tops in the Cavern, you might  be forgiven for thinking so. Singing along is permitted by the way. Did I forget to mention that?

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” The Rolling Stones (1968): When it was recently revealed that the FBI called its operation to “help” Donald Trump “Crossfire Hurricane,” there were many hilarious attempts to explain that “this is a reference to the Rolling Stones’ song ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ which was also the name of a Whoopi Goldberg movie.” And you wonder why Trump is rolling over these punks like a redneck trucker?

“Tear Stained Letter” Patty Loveless (1996): Sprightly. (This is supposed to let the people dance, remember? Look, they’re back to doing Mickey’s Monkey!) Putting this together in the late nineties might have been the first time I realized Loveless and the Stones had some sort of weird connection. It wasn’t the last. Now let me list all the other country singers I ever thought of sticking between the Rolling Stones and War on a mix disc….

Still thinking.

“Cinco De Mayo” War (1981): Did I mention War was coming up. Dance, girls, dance!

“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (12″ version) Santa Esmeralda (1977);  The twelve-inch version of Santa Esmeralda’s cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” runs ten-and-a-half minutes. I don’t know how many minutes of that Quentin Tarantino (coming along years after I got all those girls dancing in the Cavern, mind you) used in Kill Bill. It felt like seventy-five or eighty. All I know is, until I saw Kill Bill, I believed Leroy Gomez and company could make a sprayed roach lying flat on its back get up and dance. I still believe that. I just know even they couldn’t make me think I was watching anything but a sprayed roach lying flat on it’s back while Kill Bill was playing.

“Gloria” Santa Esmeralda (1977): “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” can never be part of a suite. It is its own thing (heck it’s even called that officially–“The Esmeralda Suite”). But nothing else can follow it to close out a mix. I like when the Latin guy makes the Irish guy’s “i-yi-yi-yi” sound like “ay-ay-ay-ay.” There might be a revolution starting in there somewhere. Have to think it over.

Okay girls, you can stop doing Mickey’s Monkey now.

Girls….I say there….Girls?

Wait, what do you call that now?

Don’t you make me….

GIT YER CLOTHES BACK ON!

The mind is a funny thing. I’m sure glad I didn’t waste mine.

I think I’m gonna dedicate a song to Roberta’s memory…

WHAT I MIGHT BE ABOUT TO GET UP TO….

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. The hardest part about blogging (for me at least) is deciding what to write about. I always have a few longing posts incubating. Some sit for months or even years before the mood to polish them off strikes.

But mostly, ideas come and go. Several times a day. Sometimes more. The hardest part is avoiding politics. I know I write about them here and there, especially the Age of Trump, but it’s not what I want this blog to be about. If I ever decide to go heavy on it, I’ll start another blog–probably called No Comfort here. That should put me at the top of the charts!

This week been more interesting than most, because I’ve become self-conscious about the process. Here I sit wondering whether I should write next about Cyndi Lauper (or just She’s So Unusual, or maybe Twelve Deadly Cyns, or just “Money Changes Everything,”) except I really need to get back to John Ford or Elvis and I’ve got that Handy Ten on Golden Age Westerns to finish off plus my favorite Various Artists box set (Philly Soul) and six or seven other topics to consider, when all of a sudden, just this morning (early, before the sun came up), I’m listening to the Byrds and thinking This, this is what I should be writing about, and then Vivien Leigh pops into my head and I ask myself how it’s possible I’ve been writing this blog for six-and-a-half years without ever attempting to do her justice (given that no one else has managed it, should’t I at least try)?

And, you know, the chances are at least fifty-fifty, the next thing I write about won’t be any of those things.

It probably won’t even be about the paradigm shift I see happening in the two major political parties which will either lead to a reversal of voting bases (like 1980) or priorities (like 1932) or the elimination of one or the other to be replaced by something new (like 1860).

It probably won’t even be my response to Terry Teachout’s long interview about the Band, where he opined, among other things, that their first two albums were the only “adult” music being made at the time (1968-70) in what I like to call Rock and Roll America.

Boy, will I have something to say about that some day….unless, by chance, all the “some days” become consumed by all those other things I’m sure I’ll have something say about…

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2018, Countdown)

10) The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

After decades, this finally opened up for me in the last six months, thanks to the dual mono/stereo format in which the band’s albums now seem to be routinely released. Usually, I don’t have any trouble deciding which I prefer (especially with the Beatles–monomonomono!), but this one I go back and forth on. I wouldn’t say I’ve been listening obsessively, like I’m in the freshman dorm circa 1967, but I’ve finally been forced to pay attention to the stretch between “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Day in the Life.” That’s what life is for, I suppose. To live, to learn and to find oneself wondering if hearing the same thing in both ears is better than hearing different things in different ears. By Jove, I think they’ve finally got me!

9) The Rascals Anthology: 1965-1972 (1992)

This has always been more my speed. No shame there. The Rascals’ best music is as essential as anything in life and they never stopped being great–not something one can say for many bands who made the journey from 1965 to 1972 and actually tried to keep up. Even as a big fan, I still remember being shocked at how much force this had when I first heard so much gathered in one place.

I’m not shocked anymore–but it still hits hard, all of it. Their great theme was Love, in all its variants–good, bad, personal, political, lost, found. A classic case of someone being so completely of their time they transcend it. and remind all who attend them now of how much was lost when their time passed.

6-8) War All Day Music, The World is a Ghetto, Deliver the Word (1971, 1972, 1973)

No one has ever produced a greater trifecta. That these three albums, among the most radical ever made, went gold or platinum (The World is a Ghetto was the best-selling album of 1973) is still astonishing, as is the fact that singles as potent as “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “The World is a Ghetto” were even more powerful as isolated extended album cuts–and mind-bending in the context of their respective LPs. From this distance, there really isn’t any way to process the existence of such music, let alone the idea/reality that it once topped the charts. No music has ever been quite so successful in reaching from the last dead end street all the way to the sky–and you can’t feel the full effect unless you listen to all three at once. I promise…

5) Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)

As what I’m starting to hear as the most radical album ever released, this makes a nice followup to War at their peak. Astounding on so many levels, my favorite being that Lauper was the only singer who, as a singer, had a truly Punk ethos–she held nothing back, took more vocal risks than anyone since the fifties, more emotional risks than anyone since Janis Joplin, and meant to top the charts with it…which, oh by the way, she did.

Not the *&%$in’ British charts either.

More coming…eventually…I promise.

4) The Four Tops Anthology: 50th Anniversary (2004)

The first disc is devoted to the dark side of love and need. The titles tell most of the story: “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “7-Rooms of Gloom,” “Ask the Lonely,” “You Keep Running Away.”

But even when the words carry a hint of optimism–“Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Something About You,” even “I Can’t Help Myself”–Levi Stubbs’ voice and Holland/Dozier/Holland’s arrangements fill in the blanks. This man will never know happiness!

Second disc is good solid post-sixties soul music that starts near-great (like maybe he could be happy) and ends fair-to-middlin’-with-little-distinction (sort of sub-Luther Vandross), though “Catfish” is a hidden gem….an update of the Coasters, with whom the pre-fame Tops had competed in the fifties and as far from their persona as it was possible to get.

3)  The Stylistics The Stylistics (1971)

Speaking of post -sxties soul music, this is coming from the inspired angle. One of the great debut albums, from the era when Thom Bell could do no wrong, and it never quits. Odd, though, that the absolute killer was the only song Bell and Linda Creed didn’t write–and just possibly his greatest production. If there could be such a thing.

Also, just possibly Russell Thompkins Jr.’s greatest ever vocal.

If there could be such a thing.

2) Neneh Cherry Raw Like Sushi (1989)

It would be hard to overstate how hard “Buffalo Stance” hit the radio in the wasteland of the late eighties. It has lost nothing. It’s one of those records like “Eve of Destruction” which no one but a genius could ever follow up.**

Neneh didn’t turn out to be a genius and that was pretty apparent listening to Raw Like Sushi even then. She was, however, a talented hip-hopper, speaking from a street tough stance that the mainstream hadn’t seen much of at the time. These days, even in the wake of Mary J. Blige and a few others who could claim genius status, this still sounds fresh…and even Mary J. has never laid “Buffalo Stance” in the shade. Because nobody has and nobody could.

1)  Al Green Green is Blues (1969)

Al Green was always a genius. It was only with his next album (his third) that the world started to take notice, but all the elements were in place here: the Hi rhythm section, Willie Mitchell’s sure touch in the production booth, the startling taste in covers (here jumping from “Get Back” to “Summertime” at the close–Beatles to Gershwin in a bandbox Memphis studio with a bunch of little-knowns and unknowns in the late sixties, with psychedelia blooming all around. Nobody had done anything like that since, well that guy who walked into a bandbox Memphis studio in the mid-fifties. Of whom, as I’ve noted before, Green was the greatest descendant….and, as it turned out, Rock and Roll America’s last great hope.

**The Turtles turned down “Eve of Destruction” because they thought it would be a huge, career-suffocating hit and turn them into one-hit wonders. Mary Weiss has stated that she felt the same about “Leader of the Pack” and was reluctant to record it for that reason. They both made the right choice. If Neneh felt the same about “Buffalo Stance,” she did too. Comes to that, so did Barry McGuire, who took “Eve of Destruction” to number one as an Old Testament warning LBJ and Robert McNamara failed to heed at their–and our–extreme peril.

BACK TO THE BEACH (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #131)

I ordered the replacement disc for China Beach (Season 2…Disc 3 was missing from my original box) and steeled myself to start watching again (resolution was required not because of the show’s quality, which is stellar, but because the subject matter is apt to cut close to the bone, unlike, say, I Dream of Jeannie or The Sopranos).

Good as the drama and the acting are, it’s the music that cuts deepest. The show does a good job of helping anyone who is forced to view the American experience in Viet Nam even from a short distance (I was born in 1960) understand the background against which the era’s music came to be made and why it remains so deeply embedded in the national psyche, as well as all those millions of psyches circumscribed by individual hearts and minds.

I’m still only in Season 3, where the killer so far was having my question of whether this ever really played on a single Viet Nam turntable (radio and the juke box being out of the question)…

….answered by the even more mind-bending notion that this just might have…

That’s a show that has some on the ball and is willing to take chances alright.

But I doubt any narrative moment will match the one at the end of Season Two, when Dana Delaney’s Colleen McMurphy, home on leave to bury her father, has half-convinced herself not to go back, but instead merge into a San Francisco underground where earnest peaceniks argue with wheelchair-bound returning vets over just who knows what war is good for.

I’m not even sure whether to recommend viewing this link to anyone who hasn’t seen the show. There’s a lot to be said for context, which, in this case, force multiplies the scene’s power by a factor of a hundred.

But it’s pretty powerful even as a detached clip so I’ll post it and let each decide for themselves whether to get hold of the series first if they haven’t seen it or even if it’s been a while.

I’ll just state for the record that it’s a rare honorable attempt–among a thousand dishonorable ones–to heal the wounds two decades after the fact (China Beach ran four seasons but the bulk of it seems to have taken place in 1968–it’s just possible someone knew it was the year we never walked away from) which still resonates another three decades on.

Resonates, harder, perhaps, knowing that whatever faint hope of a reckoning existed in 1989. has now vanished in the fog of time this scene blows away for a minute or two. Other than that, it’s just television.

EPIC B-SIDES…A HANDY TEN

This is the flip-side to my post on obscure b-sides (and sorry for the borken links–YouTube giveth and YouTube taketh away). As I noted before, three acts could easily qualify for their own “Handy Ten”–Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys. I left them off this list, too. Ten is such a measly number anyway. No need to make it harder.

I also left off b-sides that were hits (think Ricky Nelson’s “Helly Mary Lou,” which definitely would have been here otherwise, or Bruce Springsteen’s  “Pink Cadillac” which might have been). I also limited myself to one record per artist (else the Shangri-Las would have three or four).

And because I already covered the true obscurities, these are all by successful artists (as opposed to one-hit wonders)–most people know the acts, even if they don’t know the records.

What’s left is still a weird and beautiful secret history of rock and roll. If these were the biggest/best hits these acts ever had, the world would not have been the worse for it.

1959–“What About Us” (A-side: “Run Red Run”)
The Coasters

The Coasters/Robins were not exactly slouches in the B-side department themselves. I picked this one because, in combo with “Run Red Run” it’s an early example of the concept single, which a lot of crit-illuminati types think couldn’t possibly have existed before “Strawberry Fields” or, at the very outside, “Don’t Worry Baby.”

1964–“Silence is Golden” (A-Side: “Rag Doll”)
The 4 Seasons

I first heard this on a Seasons’ comp in the late seventies. I remember being shocked–I don’t think benumbed is too strong a word–to learn it was never promoted as a single (i.e., that there had once been a world where this could be relegated to a B-side because the A-side was only “Rag Doll”…and that, little more than a decade later, such a world no longer existed). Then I found out it had been a hit for an English group called the Tremeloes. Then I heard the Tremeloes’ version. Good God.

1966–“I’m Not Like Everybody Else” (A-Side: “Sunny Afternoon”)
The Kinks

This is in the conversation for the greatest record the Kinks ever made. If the conversation is with me, it’s not even a conversation. And yes, I’m aware of the extreme competition.

1967–“I’ll Never Learn” (A-Side: “Sweet Sounds of Summer”)
The Shangri-Las

Speaking of being shocked and benumbed…The record I think of first when I think of all that’s been lost in the fifty years since. Mainly the future that never arrived…and I don’t just mean Mary Weiss’s career.

1967–“I’ll Turn to Stone” (A-Side: “7-Rooms of Gloom”)
The Four Tops

No way a handy ten of epic B-Sides would be complete without Motown, but this is a new discovery for me. I came across it when I was researching a possible post on co-writer R. Dean Taylor. To think: “7-Rooms of Gloom” as the upbeat, radio-ready side! (And FWIW it replaced the Go-Go’s “Surfing and Spying” which is the proof that Charlotte Caffey was a walking encyclopedia of surf guitar and sadly missed. Like I said, ten is a measly number.)

1968–“Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)” (A-Side: “Abraham, Martin and John”)
Dion

I love “Abraham, Martin and John” unreservedly. But I can only imagine the shock that must have occurred to anyone who turned it over in 1968. It’s still shocking.

1969–“Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)” (A-Side: “Snatching It Back”)
Clarence Carter

A sermon on sex. Guilt-free, too. Until the end. Starts funny as Richard Pryor. Ends deep as James Carr.

1973–“Something” (A-Side: James’ nine hundredth version of “Think,” all necessary.)
James Brown

George Harrison’s favorite version….of hundreds.

1977–“Silver Springs” (A-Side: “Go Your Own Way”)
Fleetwood Mac

Left off Rumours as a casualty of the permanent psychodrama that was Buckingham/Nicks. Else they just didn’t have room (hahahahaha!). Restored to various versions of the album in the CD-era, with stunning outtakes added on the multi-disc release. The rare song left off a classic album which, when restored to its original running order (at the top of the second side), doesn’t just improve the album but force-multiplies its power.

1981–“Psycho” (A-Side: “Sweet Dreams.” What else?)
Elvis Costello and the Attractions

I was gonna go with Tanya Tucker’s “No Man’s Land,” which is scarier, but I decided to keep this an all rock and roll affair.

Love the cheering at the end. What else should one do after “Mama why don’t you get up?”

That seems an appropriate place to end this.

EVANGELIST (Billy Graham, R.I.P.)

In my world–among my people–he was as ubiquitous as Elvis and as universally beloved. In the world at large he was, after Martin Luther King, the most famous American Christian leader of the twentieth century.

I’ll leave the debate over his significance and the good vs. the bad to others. Of course he was not perfect. He walked with kings a little too often for the common touch not to wear off now and again. He should never have abetted Richard Nixon’s anti-Semitism even in private (some ways, doing it in private was worse, especially when he clearly did it to curry favor rather than from shared conviction). Even in old age, he should have been more resolute in the face of Islamic terror after 9/11. He was a bit soft on our own fundamentalists, too–soft enough to let them not only tie themselves up in party politics but become confused in the public mind not just with Evangelicals (of whom they are a small minority) but with Protestants (of whom they are but a fraction) and finally, all Christians (of whom they are a fraction of a percent). Some (not all) of this is on his head and one could go on.

But against all that, and without even mentioning his legion of good works, I’ll say this: There are very few televangelists of any era I can count on to be with “my people” on the last day.

Him I can count on.

So, just this once….

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

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

blee38

First my story….

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

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

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

bleealbum9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I listened to the other CDs.

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

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

I was pretty sure I could sneak in a shower.

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

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

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

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

Just for a song or two, you know.

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

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

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

Thinking:

“What just happened?”

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

And I wasn’t entirely happy about it.

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

But the ecstasy was cut, seriously, by anger.

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

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

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

I’m still working through my issues.

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

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

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First her life, then her art.

Her life went more or less like this….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She just wasn’t a hit-maker.

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

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The only picture I could find of Brenda with Patsy Cline

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

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

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

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

…Then the Art

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

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

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

Best behave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and make it sound as natural as breathing.

After that, the floodgates.

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

So the stardom everybody had predicted came at last.

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

And because she was a pro’s pro.

And then?

Well, she still had a life to live.

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

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

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

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

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

And I’ll share what you’ve lived.

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

She was also every-teen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call it the Brenda Lee/Patsy Cline Paradigm.

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

Same for Billie Holiday. Same for Janis Joplin.

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

Sure they do.

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

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

The air works like that.

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

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

But she didn’t know how to be small.

Little Miss Giant she was….

Little Miss Giant she remains.

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME CLASS OF 2018….WITH CAVEATS

This is a bit belated. I expressed my concerns about this year’s ballot here and I guess there wasn’t much likelihood of this being one of the more sterling classes. Still, it needn’t have been such a hot mess. Putting Link Wray in would have made up for a lot.

Anyway, those inducted as performers were Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, The Moody Blues and Nina Simone. Sister Rosetta Tharpe received a much deserved (and long overdue) induction as an Early Influence.

All well and good, except…

Nina Simone should have been inducted in the nonexistent Contemporary Influence category I’ve been calling for for years. There’s no reason she should take up a Performer slot when so many others who are more deserving in that category (Spinners, War, Dionne Warwick, the aforementioned Mr. Wray…one could go on) are left hanging. Like last year’s inductee Joan Baez, Simone’s influence and legacy were more political than musical. They deserve inclusion, just not in the Performer category, because very little of what they performed was Rock and Roll even in the broad definition I prefer.

In the best Purist tradition, her best-known songs were epic….and done better by others….

Bon Jovi continues a discouraging trend toward white boy bands (Journey, Chicago, Yes) who sold a hundred million records and left little trace on the culture. There aren’t that many left and I’m not averse to honoring them. But where’s the sense of priority that a self-anointed Hall of Fame owes History? They are also the first act ever inducted in the Performer category who never made a single record I love (yes, even the Grateful Dead and the Sex Pistols reached me a time or two). But that’s just a personal note. I’d feel a lot better about it if somebody could demonstrate just how Rock and Roll would have been the lest bit different if they never existed. They did do one record I almost liked…Sounds like Poison. Wish I knew if that was the point.

The Cars are worthy. They were the most popular Power Pop band and also one of the best. I have a preference for acts who either helped define a major genre or helped invent an important minor one. The Cars fall just short of either, but they’re close enough to doing both that I feel they are one of those bands who still carved out a worthy place all their own. That holds up on the radio, because of all the thousand times I’ve heard one of their many hits whilst driving around, I never once mistook them for anyone else. (They’re also the only act I voted for who actually made it in, so, the ballot being what it was, no complaints).

Dire Straits is an odd case. The band was faceless except for Mark Knopfler. I would have put Knopfler in the Musical Excellence category (which hasn’t been utilized enough anyway). That would have honored his band’s handful of epic sides and his stellar work as a session guitarist with an unmistakable touch, best heard here:

The Moody Blues are another white boy band (albeit one with a great name!) who the Nominating Committee flirted with for years before putting them on the ballot. They’re more deserving than Bon Jovi (or a few others already in), so at least they don’t lower any standards. And I was happy to see Denny Laine included in the Hall membership, because–even though I’m not even a little immune to the considerable charms of “Nights In White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon”–their initial hit single, on which Laine provided the lead guitar and vocal, was their greatest, and one of the best records of Rock and Roll’s greatest era. Besides, he got gypped when Wings weren’t inducted with Paul McCartney.

[NOTE: Don’t miss Neal Umphred’s experience with the RRHOF. He had a chance to be a voter. And then, this very Moody’s related experience happened.]

Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Even when the Hall gets it right, they often get it wrong. Sister Rosetta deserved induction long ago (for her impact on Elvis alone) and Early Influence is the proper category. But she was included on the ballot in this year’s Performer voting category, presumably pulling votes from others (Link Wray perhaps?) and, in any case, taking a place on the ballot from some other deserving performer when she was going to be put in by the Hall Nom Committee anyway (reminiscent of what they did with Wanda Jackson a few years back).

Well, if anyone could have appreciated the absurdity of it all, it would have been the woman who walked the line between the sacred and the profane straighter and truer than anyone….

ENGINEER ON THE FREEDOM TRAIN (Fats Domino, R.I.P.)

People argue about the origins of Rock ‘n’ Roll and especially about the “first” Rock ‘n’ Roll record.

People have a thousand ways of making themselves stupid.

As music, culture or anything else that marked the moment when the future diverged from the past, Rock ‘n’ Roll–and, hence, Rock and Roll (think Elvis) and Rock (think Beatles)…and Anti-Rock (think Punk) and Post Rock (think Hip Hop)–began the first time Fats Domino’s left hand, a piano, and a recording microphone were in the same room all at once.

We’ve got an exact date for that: December 10, 1949.

We’ve got an exact place for that: Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studio on Rampart Street, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Where else?

You can go back a whole lot further than the beginnings of the recording industry–and range much further afield than Rampart Street–and find elements of what became Rock ‘n’ Roll (and then all those other things). You can find them all over the timeline and all over the map.

But the train didn’t leave the station until Antoine Domino recorded “The Fat Man” and unleashed it on a half-suspecting, and perhaps more than half-expecting world.

And once the train left, there was no turning it back. When Elvis pulled a then nearly-forgotten Fats into the press conference kicking off his Vegas comeback and introduced him as “the real King of Rock and Roll” he was acknowledging the enormity of Domino’s influence, but also his status as the biggest R&B act of the formative fifties, the real “revolution.”

As the only fifties’ R&B star, in fact, bigger than Elvis.

Time had already forgotten what Elvis reminded everyone of in 1969 (when most of the press present had to be informed of who, exactly, this Fats Domino really was.)

Time forgot again in the long years since, reminded only on those rare occasions when Fats made national news–a presidential honor here, a Katrina-sized flood in the New Orleans neighborhood he increasingly refused to leave there.

Once his passing–today, at 89–leaves the front page, Time will forget again, even if it never stops patting its foot.

Some of the forgetting was his own doing. I never came across any written or video evidence of Fats promoting himself as the Originator. He left that to the likes of Richard and Chuck and Jerry Lee–and the ever-insidious crit-illuminati who listened to them, rather than to Elvis.  Fats himself was more likely to shrug and say rock ‘n’ roll was just something they had been doing in New Orleans since forever.

Maybe.

But you can listen to “Blueberry Hill” being done by someone as great and visionary as Louis Armstrong and then listen to Fats, and decide that his humble take might be disputable.

You can also listen to a real New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll precursor like “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” (perhaps Armstrong’s greatest rhythm record, from all the way back in the twenties) and reach the same conclusion.

Fats Domino was the man who, as singer, songwriter, ivory tickler, drove the Engine that rolled down the track until it couldn’t be stopped. It ended up running straight through the last–and best–cultural explosion “America” will ever know.

Time forgot.

White America forgot.

Black America forgot.

I ain’t forgot.