THE NAKED TRUTH (Great Vocal Events In the History of Rock and Roll: Volume 5)

As in….

BUBBLEGUMMUSIC

Yeah, it was (eventually) a marketing concept. Also (eventually) a “genre.”

But before, during and after all that, it was also an Aesthetic. That’s the history I’m trying to trace here (before I head into my multi-part dissertation on the vocal history of soul–I’m up to five categories and counting so we’ll just have to see how long that takes).

I’ll just add that, if the current charts are any real measure of such things, as plenty of people believe, then this is by far the most influential genre of rock and roll extant.

Make of that what you will.

Meanwhile…. (as always, I’ve linked a combination of live, synched and studio versions, with an eye toward balancing fun and education. And as always, some of the info on background singers is fuzzy to say the least. I’ve done my best but if you spot a mistake or can fill in any missing blanks, please give me a shout in the comments section and I will update accordingly.)

Proto:

LITTLEANTHONY

“Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop”–Little Anthony and the Imperials (Anthony Gourdine, lead vocal; Tracey Lord, Nathaniel Rogers, Clarence Collins, Ernest Wright, harmony vocals): Silly, smooth and sublime on every level. As good a place to start as any once I figured out Frankie Lymon was too rough around the edges.

“I Will Follow Him”–Little Peggy March: “The Producer” steps up, throws a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball. Singer takes a deep breath and hits a five-hundred-foot home run that lands at #1 Pop and #1 R&B, establishing a key dynamic of the Aesthetic whilst identifying its great theme: Hormones!

“Denise”–Randy and the Rainbows (Dominick “Randy” Safuto, lead vocal; Frank Safuto, Mike Zero, Sal Zero, Ken Arcipowski, harmony vocals): Ode to a Girl: Volume I.

“Hanky Panky”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): The Sun God in training, as a first-rank garage band singer. (Recorded,1964; #1 Pop, 1966)

“Let’s Lock the Door (And Throw Away the Key)”–Jay and the Americans: (Jay Black, lead vocal; Howard Kane, Kenny Vance, Sandy Deanne, harmony vocals): Doo wop pros from way back. They were often good. Just this once, they were as good as the Four Seasons. “Just this once” is a very key element of Naked Truth (not to mention “rock and roll”) aesthetics!

“Iko, Iko”–The Dixie Cups (Barbara Ann Hawkins, Rosa Lee Hawkins, Joan Marie Johnson, shared lead and harmony vocals): Chant power by way of New Orleans, which has to be in the basic DNA of this stuff somewhere. (Alternate: Lee Dorsey’s “Ya-Ya.”)

“I Want Candy”–The Strangeloves (Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, Richard Gottehrer, shared lead and harmony vocals): NY session pros pretending to be Aussies to cash in on the British Invasion. Hey, the hunt for cash is never far from any true rock and roll endeavor! If they had hooked up with Tommy James, they would have kicked this thing into overdrive three years early, because the singer is the only thing missing. (Notably remade by Bow Wow Wow, who took the whole naked part of the Naked Truth quite literally.)

“My Boy Lollipop”–Millie Small: Truth to tell, this is not a big favorite of mine, but it put Jamaica on the map in a way I suspect Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff or Toots Hibbert couldn’t have possibly done in 1965.

MONKEES2

Beatles? …We don’t need no stinkin’ Beatles!

“Last Train to Clarksville”–The Monkees (Mickey Dolenz, lead vocal; harmony vocals by “unknown”): Writer/producers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart have said this was essentially a Viet Nam record. David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren included it in their Heartaches By the Number (a terrific list of five hundred essential country records). Twelve-year-old girls went ape by the millions. Don Kirshner laughed all the way to the bank. None of them were wrong.

“Come on Down to My Boat”–Every Mother’s Son (Larry Larden, lead vocal; harmony vocals by “I ain’t real sure”): Signed as a “nice” garage band by the corporate overlords, they had one sly classic in them: about the hunt for poontang, naturally. Just what you’d expect from nice boys operating undercover.

“Snoopy and the Red Baron”–The Royal Guardsmen (Barry Winslow, lead vocal, Chris Nunley, harmony vocals…along with…possibly….others): More Brit-fakes, by way of Ocala, Florida. Actually, a derailed garage band. And, just vocally speaking, a perfect blend of the Monkees and the Swinging Medallions.

“Just My Style”–Gary Lewis and the Playboys (Gary Lewis, lead vocal, Ron Hicklin, bass and harmony vocal and, er, “vocal guidance”): Young Hollywood’s version of the malt shop. Meaning it’s so ersatz it hurts, but the bass vocal is a killer.

Prime:

TOMMYJAMES

(Tommy James, a.k.a. “The Sun God,” accepting an award from Hubert Humphrey, for whom he served as “Official Youth Advisor” in the 1968 presidential campaign. The Naked Truth was everywhere.)

“I Think We’re Alone Now”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): The Sun God finds His voice. The concept crystallizes. (Note: Best I can tell, various Shondells sang harmony vocals on all records by the group from this point forward but I can’t find an authoritative session listing so I’ll leave it at that.)

“Mony, Mony”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): The Sun God reminds everyone that He started life leading a gutbucket garage band. Then He considerably ups the ante.

“Little Bit O’ Soul”–The Music Explosion (Jamie Lyons, lead vocal): Actually quite a bit more than a little. This could fit the blue-eyed soul category or the garage band category or just the blow-your-throat-out category, but their bosses (a couple of guys names Katz and Kasenetz, see image above) were working up to something….so it’s slotted here.

“Incense and Peppermints”–The Strawberry Alarm Clark (Greg Munford, lead vocal): Munford was actually a sixteen-year-old ringer, hired for this session only. The rest of the band? “In their early days of touring, the band members would often sit on ‘magic carpets’ as their roadies carried them to the stage and drummer Randy Seol would rig up wrist gas jets to give the illusion that he was playing the bongos and vibes with his hands on fire. This last gimmick was soon abandoned when it got to be too dangerous.” If that ain’t the Naked Truth, there’s no such thing.

“Daydream Believer”–The Monkees (Davy Jones, lead and harmony vocals; Mickey Dolenz, harmony vocals): There’s a piece of the sixties residing in this record–and specifically in Davy Jones’s vocal–that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Would we be any better off if it did?God only knows.

“Savoy Truffle”–The Beatles (George Harrison, lead vocal, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, harmony vocals): Edges “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” for the chewiest cut from the Aesthetic’s greatest conceptual album–the concept being a double album which, before Charles Manson got hold of it, was a perfect and completely abstract celebration of….Itself! Also a splinter under the skin of the entire sixties. Sometimes, the Truth is a little too Naked.

“She’d Rather Be With Me”–The Turtles (Howard Kaylan, lead vocal; Mark Volman, harmony vocal): I wouldn’t call them mercenaries just because they were every bit as convincing here as they ever were at surf-rock or folk-rock or whatever you want to call that album just around the corner that included “Surfer Dan” (“He’s so ripped he can’t see you go by” and I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (“We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts”). I’d call them eclectic visionaries who could handle a line as tricky as “Some girls like to run around/They like to handle everything they see” with admirable aplomb and I’d put them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But then I’m not part of the Conspiracy-That-Rules-Us….am I?

“Indian Lake”–The Cowsills (Billy Cowsill, lead vocal, Bob Cowsill, Barry Cowsill, Paul Cowsill, Susan Cowsill, Barbara Cowsill, harmony vocals): Billy Cowsill hated his transcendent moment, which was forced on him by “management” (i.e., his abusive dad). According to Susan, Brian Wilson loved it. Brian Wilson knew best.

“Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” and (preferably) “Chewy, Chewy”–Ohio Express (Joey Levine, lead vocal): Er, remember Katz and Kasenetz? Well, they’re back and, okay, now it’s a marketing category. Joey Levine and whoever does that chirping on “Chewy, Chewy” save the day.

“This Magic Moment”–Jay and the Americans: (Jay Black, lead vocal; Howard Kane, Kenny Vance, Sandy Deanne, harmony vocals): Want to drive an Establishmentarian absolutely crazy? Make him hate you forever? Say this is as good as the Drifters. Doesn’t matter if it’s true. Just go ahead and say it anyway. Get Naked!

ARCHIES1

(Monkees?….We don’t need no stinkin’ Monkees!)

“Sugar, Sugar” and “Seventeen Ain’t Young”–The Archies (Ron Dante, lead and harmony vocals, Toni Wine and Andy Kim, harmony vocals): The Beatles had just done “Ob-La-Di, Ob-la-da.” Seriously, they needed to go. It was the Archies who broke up too soon. [Footnote: the Cuff Links’ “Tracy” didn’t quite make the cut, but it’s worth noting that Dante was the first (and I believe only) lead vocalist of the rock and roll era to have two songs in the Top Ten at the same time with two different groups. Of course he was!]

“Hair”–The Cowsills (Billy Cowsill, lead vocal, Bob Cowsill, Barry Cowsill, Paul Cowsill, Susan Cowsill, Barbara Cowsill, harmony vocals): Banned in Viet Nam. You bet. One of rock’s greatest productions and arrangements, (vocally and every other way)–created nearly as obsessively as “Good Vibrations,” courtesy of Bob and Billy (and the fact that little brother John needed fifty-something takes to get the drum part right…these days, he drums for, you guessed it, the Beach Boys). It sold two million plus and their manager Dad almost immediately kicked Billy to the curb, leaving the Jackson, Osmond and Cassidy families to reap the enormous benefits of the vacuum.

“Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)”–Edison Lighthouse (Tony Burrows, lead vocal; harmony vocals by some assemblage of British session singers): Ode to a girl, Volume II. The Secret Agent, a.k.a. Tony Burrows, arrives.

“United We Stand”–Brotherhood of Man (Tony Burrows and Sunny Leslie, lead and harmony vocals; Sue Glover, John Goodison and Roger Greenaway, harmony vocals): The Secret Agent under another of his many guises. Here trumped, for the only time in his career, by Sunny Leslie.

“Montego Bay”–Bobby Bloom: The Naked Truth, Island style. Bloom split his time in the music business between singing jingles and engineering records for the likes of late period Louis Jordan. He shot himself in 1974, the year of the Apotheosis. Accidentally, of course.

“Sweet Cherry Wine”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): Hey, there had to be at least one great anti-war bubblegum drinking song. Who else was gonna provide it?

“Which Way You Goin’ Billy?”–The Poppy Family (Susan Jacks, lead vocal; Terry Jacks, harmony vocal): Once in a while, even the Naked Truth must stand before the Void.

MJACKSONIMAGE2

(Wait…now Motown is involved? This is getting serious…)

“I Want You Back,” “ABC” and “The Love You Save” (Michael Jackson, lead and harmony vocals; Jermaine and Jackie Jackson, second lead and harmony vocals; Tito Jackson and Marlon Jackson, harmony vocals): Biff. Boom. Pow. Courtesy of Motown. And, from there, the emergence of the concept’s transcendent star, who would eventually crack under the strain and rain sorrow everywhere he went.

“One Bad Apple,” “Double Lovin” and “Yo-Yo”–The Osmonds (Merrill Osmond, lead vocal; Donnie Osmond, second lead and harmony vocals; Jay Osmond, Alan Osmond and Wayne Osmond, harmony vocals): Biff. Boom. Pow. Courtesy of Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals and real competition for the J5 no matter what you might have heard. Then, of course, they decided to go it on their own. Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted.

“Tighter, Tighter”–Alive ‘N’ Kickin’ (Pepe Cardona, Sandy Toder, lead and harmony vocals): Side project for the Sun God. He gave them this one after He decided to keep “Crystal Blue Persuasion” for Himself. I’m still not sure He made the right call, though, to be fair, even He couldn’t have bettered this.

“I’ll Be There”–The Jackson 5 (Michael Jackson, lead vocal, Jermaine Jackson, second lead and harmony vocals, Jackie Jackson, Marlon Jackson and Tito Jackson, harmony vocals): So ethereal it really oughta float away. It’s Jermaine who keeps it on track and it’s the contrast between the two leads straining to live up to a concept supposed to be far beyond their years that makes it transcendent.

“I Think I Love You”–The Partridge Family (David Cassidy, lead vocal, Shirley Jones, Ron Hicklin, John Bahler, Tom Bahler and Jackie Ward, harmony vocals): While the TV show was on the air, the great photographer Lynn Goldsmith did a photo shoot with Cassidy. One night while they were walking on the beach, he said “You know, Lynn, I’m a legend in my own time.” The Aesthetic could do that to a guy.

“Indiana Wants Me”–R. Dean Taylor: Of course, in any Aesthetic this quintessentially, buck-chasing, All-American there had to be a murder ballad. And the complete lack of sociopolitical import–reflected in both the lyrics and Taylor’s superbly callow vocal–probably runs a lot closer to the true spirit of the sort of guy who ends up running from the law saying things like “If a man ever needed dyin’ he did/No one had the right to say what he said…about you,” than anything ever managed by Johnny Cash or Bruce Springsteen (who, for better and worse, has spent a large chunk of his life trying to re-write this).

“Ballroom Blitz”–Sweet: (Brian Connolly and Steve Priest, shared lead  and harmony vocals; Andy Scott and Mick Tucker, harmony vocals): Blitzkreig is more like it, “glam” being the Naked Truth’s logical next step. Recorded in 1973, a US hit in 1975.

“How Do You Do”–Mouth & MacNeal (Willem Duyn, a.k.a. “Big Mouth,” and Maggie MacNeal, shared lead and harmony vocals): Caveman and Cinderella. Cinderella’s two-line solo verse may be the Aesthetic’s finest vocal moment.

Apotheosis (1974):

(Elton John on Soul Train..it was that kind of time.)

“Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)”–Reunion (Joey Levine, lead vocal): The great rock and roll ear-worm Salvador Dali would have made if he’d been a singer (later brilliantly covered by Tracey Ullman).

“Rock Me Gently”–Andy Kim: The Apotheosis of the Apotheosis. By a former Archie, of course. (Would really like some help identifying the background singer(s) on this one!)

“Beach Baby”–First Class (Tony Burrows, lead and harmony vocals; Chas Mills, harmony vocals): The rumor was, this was the Beach Boys recording under another name. An Australian DJ played it for Brian Wilson who said it wasn’t the Beach Boys but it was definitely West Coast America. Actually it was recorded in London by a bunch of English session pros headed by the Secret Agent. But that’s just geography. I prefer to think Brian was referring to a state of mind…in which case he was dead on. (The link is fun and is the 45 edit…Full glorious version here (in particularly superb sound). I’ll leave the story of how this record was very weirdly linked to my first speeding ticket for some other day!)

“Rock On”–David Essex: Re-channeling the fifties was a very big part of the Naked Truth. Never better than on this record which made the fifties sound like they could have only happened in a glam-rock dream. I mean, it’s so fake it’s kinda….real.

“Rock the Boat”–The Hues Corporation (Fleming Williams, lead vocal, St. Clair Lee and H. Ann Kelly, harmony vocals): Lifted by the discos, which only proved the Naked Truth was getting around. Or maybe just that certain forms of perfection really are undeniable.

“Benny and the Jets”–Elton John: Star looks audience dead in the face and plays the me-looking-at-you-looking-at-me-looking-at-you game, sans cynicism or naivete.

“The Locomotion”–Grand Funk (Mark Farner, lead vocal; Don Brewer, Craig Frost, Todd Rundgren, harmony vocals): If you turn it up to eleven and listen all the way through, you might feel like you’ve just been bludgeoned to death with a ball peen hammer on the set of a bad seventies-era cop show. But if, for any number of reasons, you should find yourself in need of identifying the prime source for hair metal, this is as good a place to start as any.

“Hooked on a Feeling”–Blue Swede (Bjorn Skifs, lead vocal; harmony vocals? I dunno. A steam packet?): Ooh-ga-cha-ka, Ooh-ga-cha-ka, Ooh-ga, Ooh-ga, Ooh-ga-cha-ka. I think I had this in philosophy class in Junior College. I think it was part of a multiple choice test where all the options were this or “I Want Candy.” Aced that test! No, really, I’m sure I did.

“Waterloo”–Abba (Agnetha Faltskog, Anna-Frid Lyngstad, lead and harmony vocals; Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, harmony vocals): Couple of guys teamed up with their manager to write lines like “I was defeated, you won war” for their significant others to sing back to them in a song contest. Thus was Euro-pop born.

“Billy Don’t Be a Hero”–Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (Sorry, couldn’t find any solid info on the lead or backing singers..Help, I need somebody!): Okay, so this was a little late to the Age of Viet Nam Protest. Let alone the age of Civil War Protest (to which it was supposedly referring). But you could argue Bo and the boys were really protesting the next war. Which might make it the most Naked Truth of all. (Note: This song was originally done by an English group, Paper Lace, who hit #1 about the same time with “The Night Chicago Died,” one of the strangest records ever made. I didn’t include it only because I found trying to formulate actual thoughts about it made me more than usually inclined to just give up a life of abstinence and become a drinking man.)

“Kung Fu Fighting”–Carl Douglas: “In fact it was a little bit frightening.” A little bit? Hey the Establishmentarians had to come up with punk rock to combat this stuff. It was clearly getting out of hand.

“Rock and Roll Heaven”–The Righteous Brothers: See what I mean? Necrophilia in the top five. Isn’t that just what the Velvet Underground was after all along?

Post (What Came After):

“The Proud One”–The Osmonds (Merrill Osmond, lead vocal; Donnie Osmond, Jay Osmond, Alan Osmond and Wayne Osmond, harmony vocals) : One last improbable shining moment for the brothers, courtesy of Bob Gaudio, Bob Crewe and harmonies only a shared womb can produce.

“It’s OK”–The Beach Boys (Mike Love, lead and harmony vocals; Dennis Wilson, second lead and harmony vocals; Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, Marilyn Wilson, Al Jardine, harmony vocals): Really guys? It took you this long?

“Boogie Fever”–The Sylvers (Edmund Sylvers, lead vocal; Foster Sylvers, second lead; Olan Sylvers, Charmaigne Sylvers, J.J. Sylvers, Ricky Sylvers, Angie Sylvers, Pat Sylvers, harmony vocals): You know how you can tell if something fits the Aesthetic? When the lead singer can sing a line like “You know she ate a pizza, dancing to the beat,” with the purest conviction.

BAYCITYROLLERSPLAID

(The Aesthetic now brimmed with such confidence that teen idols even came in…plaid. This may have been hubris.)

“Saturday Night,” “Rock and Roll Love Letter” and “Yesterday’s Hero”–Bay City Rollers (Les McKeown, lead vocals): The most perfect three-act script in the history of rock and roll. The records are great, I mean truly great…but all you really need is the titles.

“More, More, More”–The Andrea True Connection (Andrea True, lead vocal): Abba. Blue Swede. Then this. What was it with the Swedes and the Aesthetic. Even their porn stars got into the act. They’re obviously a strange people.

“That’s Rock and Roll” and “Hey Deanie”–Shaun Cassidy: The last blast of the teen-pop ethos kick-started by the Cowsills. Shortly after, the switch flipped. I think it had something to do with Reagan being elected and the end of politics. But it’s possible I’m paranoid.

“New York Groove”–Ace Frehley: Hey, KISS didn’t miss by much, themselves. KISS’s guitarist cashing in on disco by calling on the spirit of the Sun God? That goes straight to the heart of the matter. (Worth visiting this update here…In case you’re wondering what a recording studio can do for a fella. To be fair this is the very first time I’ve ever paid the least attention to the words.)

“You’re the One That I Want”–Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta: Suzy Creamcheese and Boy Toy smoke themselves, each other, the charts, whatever else happens to be standing near.

“B-A-B-Y,” “Shadows of the Night”–Rachel Sweet: The link between Carla Thomas and Britney Spears (there had to be one, didn’t there?) and teen-rock’s great lost voice. (Pat Benetar having the hit with “Shadows of the Night” was one of the seven signs of the Apocalypse. And, yes, I know which one, but I’m not allowed to tell.)

“Mickey”–Toni Basil: Ode to a Boy, Volume I (subsequent volumes….pending). “I Want Candy” from the other side of the fence (even further than Bow Wow Wow’s actual remake of “I Want Candy,” if only because it was a natural smash.)

“Uptown”–Prince: The Sun God’s natural heir and an all but official sequel to “Sweet Cherry Wine.” (Sorry, couldn’t find a useful link.)

“Jessie’s Girl”–Rick Springfield: The greatest record ever made by a soap opera star. And one of the greatest records ever made by anybody about that strange place called L.A. At least in the sense that, despite it’s universal lyric theme, it’s sense of helpless, plasticized doom couldn’t possibly have been conceived anywhere else at the time. These days, plasticized doom being such common coin of the realm, it couldn’t be conceived anywhere at all. Strange, that. Has all the markings of a Security State plot. I’d investigate further but, hey, I don’t want to end up like this guy.

“Jump”–Van Halen (David Lee Roth, lead vocal): Somebody once described “Dance the Night Away” (perfectly) as “the Archies meet the Rolling Stones.” For this one, they ditched the Stones.

“Pour Some Sugar on Me”–Def Leppard (Joe Elliot, lead vocal): I’ll let this interview with the great Toni Wine speak for itself.

roxette2

(Dressed for success…in a Beatles’ t-shirt. “This is the end. My only friend, the end.”)

“Dressed for Success”–Roxette (Marie Fredriksson, lead and harmony vocal; Per Gessle, harmony vocal): If somebody asked me for one record to define the eighties, you know, the end of Politics in the West, this would be it. The Swedes again. Is anyone surprised? But, hey, at least the end sounded wonderful. It had a good beat and you could dance to it.

“Rhythm of the Night”–Debarge (El DeBarge, lead vocal; Bunny DeBarge, Randy DeBarge, Mark DeBarge, James DeBarge, harmony vocals): Light as a feather and God love ’em. You start with the J5 (or, if you like, Little Peggy March) and by the time you get to here, the Naked Truth is virtually….indistinguishable…from…anything….else. Catchy at least.

“TLC”–Linear (Charlie Pennachio, lead vocal; Wyatt Pauley, Joey Restivo, Trevor Anthony and Billy Griffin, harmony vocals ): The new paradigm. Hip-hop style, rock image, Aesthetic vocals, catchy marketing (“Latin Freestyle”). It never quite took hold. This, in fact, was as far as it got Aesthetically speaking. Too bad….But if there could only be one, at least it was perfect.

“Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong”–Spin Doctors (Chris Barron, lead vocal): Years down the line, Archie finally tells us what he really thinks about Veronica. From that day, it was inevitable things would come to this.

ARCHIEDEAD

“MMMBop”–Hanson (Taylor Hanson, lead and harmony vocals; Isaac Hanson, Zac Hanson, harmony vocals): The most exciting teen-and-under vocalist since Michael Jackson. And, after this fell from #1, there was absolutely nowhere for him to go. Need some semblance of a culture for that particular sort of career development, so goodbye to all that. Singing I mean. Teen-pop lives on, of course. Heck, it rules. But it’s the (mostly white) quasi-hip-hop version now. And hip-hop, quasi- or otherwise, belongs to suits and producers, not singers. After this, the men in charge finally figured out a way for teen-pop to permanently be both crust and filling, instead of the cherry on top.

Hello auto-tune.

Hello Robin Thicke dry-humping Miley Cyrus…not as anything resembling the Truth (Naked or otherwise) but as empty gesture.

Goodbye us.

Thanks for the memories.

For further reading, (and a kinder, gentler take on the updated, post-Hanson Aesthetic) I highly recommend:

NAKEDTRUTHCOVER

 

ARETHA ARRIVES (Segue of the Day 12/19/14)

File under “Genius in Context”:

FAMEBOX

Fame was both a studio (in Muscle Shoals, Alabama) and a record label. It had the usual southern-soul dynamic–blues-drenched whites (led by owner Rick Hall) running the business end, an inter-racial mix of writers and session players, mostly black vocalists (a dynamic well demonstrated by the cover of Ace’s three-disc box pictured above).

The box is–no surprise–epochal. There are a few pedestrian sides on the first disc (early on, when the sound was still developing). After a few hits and misses, it kicks in and, from there, the set never flags.

There’s no shortage of stunning individual moments among the awe-inspring embarrassment of riches, not a few of them deriving from vocalists like Joe Tex (whose importance in the development of Southern Soul is fully demonstrated here by the quantum leap his first Fame-recorded hit “Hold What You’ve Got” represents over what came before) and Otis Redding (impossibly warm and winning on his version of “You Left the Water Running”) who were generally associated with other labels and/or studios (Dial, Stax, etc.)

On the third disc, there’s even a segue that would have been the peak of practically any other day: Clarence Carter’s “Patches” (about a poor black sharecropper’s son hanging on and pulling the family through because of a promise made at his daddy’s dying bed) sliding straight into Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” (about a poor “white trash” girl taking her mama’s death bed advice and getting out the only way she can–by becoming a prostitute). All that, plus a nice soul version of “Double Lovin’,” courtesy of originator George Jackson, which actually proves how great the Osmond boys really were and how foolish they (or their management) were to leave a studio that would have allowed them to compete with the J5 right down the line.

Right in the middle of all that–about a third of the way through the second disc, with the flood-tide of the era’s soul talent flowing freely–another quantum leap occurs.

It shouldn’t really have been a surprise. Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man,” was her first big hit, and everybody familiar with the period knows it represented lift-off–for her and for soul generally–after years of being a perpetually underachieving pop-oriented second-stringer at Columbia.

It was also the only master she completed on her contentious visit to Muscle Shoals (a visit specifically inspired by the success of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which as I’ve written elsewhere, makes Sledge one of the most important artists of the era all by itself). When it became the title track of her first monumental album on Atlantic, it was the third side. Thus, the permanent context was a slot following “Respect” and “Drown In My Own Tears.”

Not that it ever sounded less than great–there, on the radio, on the various greatest hits packages it so often led off–but nothing on earth would sound truly startling following those cuts.

So this was the moment when I was able to finally gauge its impact in its own time. Coming straight out of two of the greatest soul/funk go-rillas ever made (Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” and Clarence and Calvin’s “Thread the Needle,” this version featuring studio chatter to die for, not to mention copious amounts of Clarence Carter’s inimitable laugh of freedom), “I Never Loved a Man” raises the vocal stakes from the very first breath.

Stepping into a scene that was already producing some of the greatest music of the century–and represented the most exciting development in one of the most far-reaching artistic movements in the history of man, the very height of what I call “the revolution”–the voice alone sweeps everything before it.

“Here, now,” it says, “get ready to stand on the next mountain.”

Just like that. One minute, the mountain was somewhere around here:

Next minute it was just about here (sans chatter, unfortunately not available on-line)…

Then, in an instant, it was, definitively….here…where it stayed:

 

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 7: “When A Man Loves A Woman”)

“When A Man Loves A Woman”
1966
Artist: Percy Sledge
Writers: Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright (Percy Sledge uncredited)

Percy Sledge “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Live and Scorching on Television)

Shifting sands:

“It was shortly after (Wilson) Pickett’s first session that Fame’s studio musicians cut a record behind an unknown local singer named Percy Sledge. That record was ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ which, with its Bach-like organ, soaring vocal, and frequently imitated church feel might be defined as the quintessential soul sound. Then in February 1967, Jerry Wexler brought down a newly signed artist for her first Atlantic recording session….although she had been in the business all her life, she had never, it was said, lived up to her potential. The artist was Aretha Franklin…”

(Peter Guralnick, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1976)

“As Clarence (Carter) prepares for his set, Percy Sledge is recalling how he came to compose his biggest hit…

“He was moonlighting from his job as a hospital orderly, singing with a local band at a club in Sheffield, Alabama, and he was so low with woman troubles he couldn’t even make it through the Smokey Robinson and Beatles songs he had been doing at dances and clubs. He turned to bass player Cameron Lewis and organ player Andrew Wright and just asked them to give him a key, any damned key. He half sang, half bawled along in his mammoth, achy baritone, just a bunch of stray thoughts on the blindness and paralysis of love: ‘If she’s bad, he can’t see it….’

“‘Wasn’t no heavy thought in it,’ he says. ‘I was just so damned sad.’

“Sometime later, when he had calmed down and refined the thing into a slow, anguished ballad, he gave Lewis and Wright songwriters’ credit. By then Percy had won an Atlantic recording contract by auditioning in a record shop in Sheffield for a local producer named Quin Ivy. The song was cut there, in Ivy’s South Camp Studios, with some personnel borrowed from Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in nearby Muscle Shoals. Percy grew up in Leighton, not ten miles from the Fame operation. So he says it all felt right–the musicians, the place, and the song. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ was Percy’s debut on Atlantic, and it sold more than 1 million copies in the spring of 1966 and stayed at number one on the pop charts for two weeks.”

(Gerri Hirshey, Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, 1984)

“Muscle Shoals burst upon the consciousness of the world at large in the spring of 1966 with a single record that was homegrown, home-produced, and would forever eliminate the necessity of Jimmy Johnson finding his way to Athens or anywhere else. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ established Muscle Shoals as a national recording center, brought Jerry Wexler directly from Memphis to Fame, and became the first Southern soul number actually to top the pop charts. It was also as significant an integrating factor in its way as Elvis Presley’s ‘That’s All Right,’ Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti,’ or Martin Luther King’s march on Birmingham of two years before. The artist was Jimmy Hughes’s cousin, Percy Sledge, from nearby Leighton; the engineer was Jimmy Johnson, who also played on the date along with the rest of the new rhythm section; the session, oddly enough, though, was neither recorded by Rick Hall nor put out on the Fame label, despite the fact that Rick played a major role in its release and reaped most of the benefits from it….

“‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ completed the process begun, really, by Joe Tex’s success of the previous year….Southern soul had at last entered the mainstream of pop in the unlikely guise of the ultimate make-out song, the kind of song that affected its fans so powerfully that, as Jimmy Johnson says, ‘I’ve heard stories of people driving off the road when they heard that record come on the air.’”

(Peter Guralnick, upping the ante, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, 1986)

If one goes to the liner notes of Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, the story takes on even more complicated and far-ranging dimensions which are beyond the scope of this essay (hey, anyone who has the money should get hold of the box anyhow).

The main reason I posted the quotes above is to show how stories surrounding certain records evolve–note especially the distance between the Peter Guralnick of 1975 and the Peter Guralnick of 1986–the difference between a passing thought and a consuming passion.

Well, that and to open the discussion of course…

*    *    *    *

Percy Sledge was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.

Ever since, he’s been a favorite whipping boy for anyone who thinks the Hall is too big, its membership requirements too lenient and/or vague, its methods insufficiently transparent, or that its very existence is a blight on the face of humanity.

Of course, just about everybody thinks Percy’s signature record is wonderful but…it was just one record!

And it wasn’t all that important!

And he wasn’t really rock and roll!

And he’s a journeyman!…At best!!!

And, and, and…

Well you get the drift.

As a result, Sledge routinely shows up on the lists of the undeserving–or of those who should be kicked out…or just excluded from alternative Halls developed in the imagination.

Mind you, he’s not the only artist so treated. But he seems to be the one about whom there is almost universal acceptance of his general unworthiness for such high honor (which most of those complaining are quick to point out is not really a high honor at all, since it extends to artists the caliber of, well….Percy Sledge! The crit-illuminati did not get where they are–in a position to bend so many impressionable minds–without developing a certain ability to frustrate the resistance.)

Alas, I’m part of that resistance, so I have to give it a try.

I think Percy Sledge belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think if he’s a “journeyman” then pretty much all soul singers who aren’t Aretha Franklin or Al Green are the same. Heck, I think he’s a no-brainer and always was.

I thought he always was, because I used to listen to his old Greatest Hits collection pretty religiously and knew he was a fantastic singer with a nice run of R&B and Pop hits (he had a dozen or so chart hits, including four that went top twenty on the Pop chart and top ten on the R&B chart so he wasn’t quite the one hit wonder (or no hit wonder) that many of his (mostly white) Hall contemporaries who don’t get complained about were.

Besides, anybody who can leave a deathless “best of” behind is Hall of Fame material in my book.

But in case I might have wavered, Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, which includes everything he recorded for the label from 1966 to 1973, laid any doubts to rest–because there you have a hundred or so sides that, with no more than half-dozen exceptions, live up to the quality of the dozen I already knew inside and out.

Anybody who could lay down seven years worth of great music while the revolution was still going strong is Hall of Fame material no matter how exclusive you want to make the membership.

In my book.

But actually none of that really matters.

Like Orson Welles used to say about great movies: “You only need one.”

Percy Sledge made a lot of great records. Some might have even been greater than “When A Man Loves A Woman.”

So he didn’t really make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the strength of one record. That’s a club reserved for fifties-era hard rock gods (Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, Ritchie Valens, Gene Vincent…all richly deserving, by the way…I’d make similar arguments for them if they needed defending).

Sledge made it because his voice is one of those special few that creates its own club.

He might not strike you at all, but if he does, he’s liable to strike deep.

That’s how mild-mannered black guys who sing ballads get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But if he really had made it on the strength of just one record, and that one record was “When A Man Loves A Woman,” he’d still be worthy.

*   *   *   *

For one thing, it is one of the rare great records that rose from quasi-mystical processes.

You can read the entry quotes above and get a taste of how that process works–how perfunctory “explanations” acquire depth and nuance (as I mentioned above, the liner notes of the box set take the story even further and make it far too complicated to pare down to a handy quote or two–highly recommended reading).

Pared down to bare bones, however, the story goes something like this:

Somewhere, some time, in the mid-sixties, a virtually unknown club singer was on a stage, feeling lousy about a romantic breakup and he started riffing and making up some words.

Somehow, over the next several months he and his band-mates worked up an actual song and recorded it in a place that was about as out of the way as any place could be.

Then his producer sent it to a not-so-out-of-the-way place (New York) and a really big time record man (Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler) who gave said producer a call and said it was promising but they needed to re-record it to give it a more professional feel (or something).

After which, said producer (Quin Ivy) re-recorded the record, didn’t much like what he heard and re-sent the original disguised as the new recording.

Then Jerry Wexler called back and said something along the lines of “that’s more like it!”

Then the record was released on somebody or other’s label (Wexler’s, Fame owner Rick Hall’s, Quin Ivy’s….hard to say, for certain, but everybody seems to agree that Hall got most of the money and it was certainly his studio that benefited most directly).

However it got released, the record went to Number One on the Pop and R&B charts and has stayed on the radio for nearly half a century and counting.

And, as Peter Guralnick points out, it became a signature record of a specifically Southern brand of soul music, which was instantly and forever deemed more “authentic” than its northern counterparts (specifically Detroit’s Motown).

Dubious assertions of authenticity aside (Black America always preferred Motown, actually, and the margin was never close), the ripple effect was enormous.

Next thing you know, Detroit native and newly signed Atlantic artist Aretha Franklin came south and in one brief, rather chaotic session at Muscle Shoals, found her voice.

However the story gets told, it seems generally agreed upon that she came south looking for what Percy Sledge had found: a vibe, a sound, a group of musicians, the magic of a special place, a song.

Something.

And, however the story gets told, we have the music she made, which formed the basis of her national breakout and the core of her legend, to remind us of just how successful this unlikely process was.

But “When a Man Loves a Woman” doesn’t really need that sort of long shadow to justify it’s importance.

All it needs is itself.

These days we tend to think of “southern” soul as being half of that north/south equation I mentioned–one which usually gets boiled down to the phrase “Motown and Stax” (with “Stax” standing in for the entire swath of labels running along the Memphis-to-Muscle Shoals axis). That common phrase makes it sound like there was some kind of real balance between the two aesthetics in both art and commerce.

Well, the art thing can be debated, but there was a time when nobody had any illusions about the commerce aspect.

That time ended (and the illusions began) when Percy Sledge recorded “When a Man Loves a Woman,”–as deep a soul sound as anyone would ever wax–and it shot straight to the top of the charts.

Maybe it would have ended (and begun) some other way.

Maybe “Stax” would still have become a true cultural–and economic–counterweight to Motown by some other means. Heck, maybe those means would have even come by way of a record actually recorded on the Stax label.

God knows there was enough talent around. Maybe even some bigger talents than Percy Sledge (few as those would be).

Then again…maybe not.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” wasn’t the first deep soul record to gain national success, but it took the game to new heights–and those very heights, reached at a moment when, for a series of complicated reasons, black music that wasn’t recorded by Motown was having more trouble denting the white charts than at any time since Elvis broke out nationally, were what soul (all of soul, not just the southern brand) could and would aspire to for the next decade.

There are reasons we give credit to those who do, as opposed to those who might have done. The most important reasons revolve around just how slippery alternate universes can be.

But another reason is that those who do ultimately create and define reality.

The reality in this case is that the cosmic success (all time classic, #1 Pop, #1 R&B, still inspiring blog essays nearly fifty years later!) of Percy Sledge’s ultimate feel-good-about-feeling-bad record more or less directly brought Aretha Franklin to what may very well have been the one circumstance in the world that could allow her to tap what became transcendental genius.

And that reality is not unrelated to the specific genius of Sledge’s actual recording.

These days, it might not be too much a stretch to say that “When a Man Loves a Woman” is the “blackest” record to top the charts during the hey-day of what I tend to refer to around here as “the revolution”**

Of course, thanks in no small part to the revolution’s real, if ultimately limited, successes, we now have a rather different (though not necessarily more expansive) definition of what “blackness” means–in culture, in music, in the general phantasmagoria of intellectual life in a struggling democracy which really ought to be thriving by now. Once any record as black as “When a Man Loves a Woman” could actually top the Pop charts, the coming rearrangement of the Cosmos was inevitable even if the degree to which this particular monumental record informed–or was informed by–the overarching process is strictly chicken-and-egg, you-said-I-said, let’s-convene-an-all-expenses-paid-scholarly-panel-to-bat-this-about-on-CSPAN-shall-we affair.

What’s rather more clear is just why this particular record had the liberating impact it did.

It meant basically that the man who stood lowest on the political ecomony’s carefully constructed totem pole–a poor African-American from the dreaded rural south–could sing in a voice that called up centuries of pain, real and imagined, personal and cultural, intimate and epic–and channel it into a masterpiece of both technique (once you let go of the false notion that technique can and should be defined only in classical terms, a notion Percy Sledge had quite a bit to do with exposing as rather limited) and emotion (the very thing classical technique was developed to reign in).

The resolution between Sledge’s perfect discipline and deep reserve on the one hand and his access to liberating ecstasy on the other is the very definition of what the American experiment has always aspired to at its best. The idea that we’ll be better tomorrow if–and only if–we remember every single good and bad thing that happened yesterday only has a few transcendent definitions in art.

I don’t know of one better than Percy Sledge singing from the bottom of the well without ever losing his claim to the top of the mountain.

[**NOTE: That is, the musical and cultural revolution that began–as a revolution–the first time Fats Domino’s left hand touched a piano within range of a recording device and ended–as a revolution–the day Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. Others use different markers. Those are mine.]