YOU THINK IT’S BAD NOW? (Segue of the Day: 3/30/16)

Well, it is. Really bad. The New Puritanism, the New Jim Crow, the New Gilded Age and now, in direct response, the New Populism are bearing down upon the world and each other, merging with headlong speed.

Crackup impending.

The last time around, at the beginning of this vicious cycle, right before we all became, in the words of one of the very minor prophets, comfortably numb, content to wait for the fall, the radio was still a weapon, or at very least a shield.

It ain’t no more.

But I’ve been trying to get the feeling again, falling asleep for the last two weeks (more often than not) to another one of those Time Life comps, this one the second volume from 1973 in its Sounds of the Seventies series.

TIMELIFe19731

Yup. The cover”s that uncharacteristically ugly (most of their graphics are great).

But, allowing for a pedestrian James Taylor side (“Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”…just watch me) and a weak one from the Moody Blues (“I’m Just a SInger (In a Rock and Roll Band)”…no, you’re not), the music is stellar. It kicks off with Al Green and Dobie Gray, winds down with Spinners and Timmy Thomas’s never-answered “Why Can’t We Live Together” and peaks in the middle, with tracks 10 through 12.

I heard Gladys Knight on the radio singing this one the last time I drove through my long ruined childhood haunts, maybe twenty years ago. or twenty-something years after I left for good, and, ever since then, wherever it finds me, it always stops time, takes me back to then and then:

But the real killers follow straight on and here’s the weird thing. Neither this…

nor this…

…is anywhere near as devoid of hope as the happiest thing on the radio right now.

As I’ve mentioned before: You can’t say they didn’t warn us.

DIG THOSE GEORGIA PEACHES, THEY KEEP ROLLIN’ DOWN THE ROAD (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #61)

I’ve got a little tradition of highlighting female vocalists around here, especially the extremely young female vocalists of the late fifties and early sixties who were the catalysts for one of the most liberating and least understood chapters of the revolution…the freeing of the female voice in mainstream American life. I try to highlight it here because it’s been too little remarked elsewhere.

Since I’m always looking and listening for ways of understanding what they did, I occasionally bump into something worth sharing, in this case the remarkable (and remarkably similar) stories of Brenda Lee and Gladys Knight.

How similar?

This similar:

Gladys Maria Knight: Born May 28, 1944. Atlanta, GA

Brenda Mae Tarpley (aka Lee): Born December 11, 1944. Atlanta, GA

Gladys began singing, more or less professionally, when she was four.

Brenda began singing, more or less professionally, when she was five.

Gladys was first to television, on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, in 1952, at age 7 (without the Pips).

Brenda had to wait until 1955, when she was 10 and signed to Red Foley’s Ozark Mountain Jubilee.

Brenda recorded her first record, at age 11, in 1956.

Gladys recorded her first record, at age 14, in 1958.

Brenda had her breakout hit, “Sweet Nothin’s,” in December of 1959, just after her fifteenth birthday. It reached #4.

Gladys (with the Pips) had her breakout hit, “Every Beat of My Heart,” in early May of 1961, just before her seventeenth birthday. It reached #6.

In Joel Whitburn’s end-of-the-century edition of Top Pop Singles, the last to chart the rock and roll era proper, Lee ranked 32nd and Knight 41st among all acts who charted between 1955 and 1999.

Knight (with the Pips) was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Lee was inducted in 2002.

Like pretty much every female rock or soul vocalist before Janis and Aretha, they were/are vastly under-appreciated. Like nearly every one of those vocalists they had a tale to tell, only a small portion of which is included in these two interviews which I happened to stumble across on two very different journeys in the last few weeks.

Like anything either has ever said, whichever part of the tale they happen to be telling is worth attending:

And yeah, one was black and one was white.

But if we failed to become one, it wasn’t their fault…

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (When the Singers Ruled Motown and I Spy Goes Places We Haven’t Caught Up To Just Yet)

Hitsville U.S.A.: The Motown Singles Collection 1959–1971 (Disc One)

“Disc One” runs through the latter part of 1964. It’s nowhere near a complete record of the label’s hits from the period–not even of its really big hits. But it’s a telling overview just the same.

For anyone who may not know, “Motown” was the brain-child of Berry Gordy, Jr., who, along with Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, was one of the three truly essential men in the rise of rock and roll from a sub-genre of rhythm and blues to the cultural cataclysm that was already well established by the time the Beatles arrived in America.

What is less well known–or at least recognized–is how much early Motown depended almost completely on singers.

Mind you, this is before the Temptations or the Four Tops or the (generally underrated) Supremes. And before Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder or even Smokey Robinson became the powerhouse geniuses of later years. This was the era of the Marvelettes and Mary Wells and one shots like Barrett Strong and the Contours.

But on the first fourteen tracks of this particular collection, which run from Strong’s “Money” to Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips–Part 2″ and cover four full years, there is not a single case where the lead vocal isn’t the strongest element on the record (with only the wild, doo-wopping vocal arrangement on the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” coming anywhere close to one-upping the lead).

Mind you, a good bit of the writing, producing and arranging talent that would mark mid-Sixties’ Motown’s glory run was already in place.

So were most of the crack session men who became known as the Funk Brothers.

But none of them were quite there yet, especially in the first year or two, when any new label’s very survival is at stake.

What was there was a glorious run of fantastic lead vocals. If the Supremes are underrated (far too often dismissed as producer’s pets–as though that has ever really opened a door for anyone who didn’t have the talent to step through it to begin with), then the Marvelettes and especially Mary Wells are, outside of the usual cult circles, criminally neglected.

Later on, even singers as great as the Temptations or the Tops’ Levi Stubbs or Marvin Gaye did not have to CARRY records the way the label’s early vocalists did. Beginning with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” in the summer of 1963, the rest of the label’s talent pool began rapidly catching up. By the time the label’s really big acts broke through, the instrumental tracks alone on records like “My Girl,” or “Come See About Me” or “Uptight” or “Heard It Through the Grapevine” could have carried many a lesser talent to the top of the charts.

But there at the foundation, Barrett Strong (whose vocal on “Money” is every bit as great as John Lennon’s on the epic Beatles’ remake–it’s the rest of the track that comes short) and the young, still unpolished Smokey Robinson and Gladys Horton and Mary Wells and all the rest had to put it over on their own.

And they did.

The rest of the box lets you hear how much Berry Gordy learned from the experience–how deeply he understood the importance of voices. Because he spent the rest of the decade not only developing the locals (Tempts, Tops, Supremes and so forth) but rounding up singers like Gladys Knight and Ronnie Isley and the Spinners from afar.

Then, of course, he forgot.

Not only did he let much of that talent slip away at the end of the decade (with Knight, the Isleys and the Spinners becoming three of the biggest acts of the seventies elsewhere) but he lost the knack–or perhaps the will–to seek out new talent of the same caliber. From 1970 onward, only the Jacksons and the Commodores came anywhere close to matching the singers of Motown’s earliest days, let alone its peak.

Not coincidentally, they were the label’s biggest acts as it passed–also not coincidentally–from being an iconic cultural force to being that greatest of all American Dreams….a successful business enterprise.

Pity, that.

I Spy: Season One (1965)

The Robert Culp/Bill Cosby spy series has been sitting on my shelf for a few years, saved for a rainy day. Lots of rainy days this week, so I began working my way in.

Nicely done for its period, meaning for any period. Of course it has weaknesses, but good things are always good. Played by two white guys it would have been just as enjoyable, assuming the second white guy was as gifted and relaxed in the role as Bill Cosby–unlikely but not entirely impossible.

But what’s really striking about this “groundbreaking” series is that, unlike pretty much every other dare television has ever taken (including, I suspect, the ones it is taking right-now-this-very-minute-in-case-you-hadn’t-heard!), it’s precisely the groundbreaking element–the easy, natural relationship between the two leads–that hasn’t dated.

I don’t mean that their relationship feels contemporary. Just that it feels like a world that never arrived.

Robert Culp’s commentary on several early episodes stresses that this particular sort of interracial relationship “had never been done,” (at least on television) and he’s right about that. The closest any white/black relationship had come anywhere on-screen to feeling so naturalistic was actually the Mammy/Scarlett duet pulled off by Ms. McDaniel and Ms. Leigh in you know what.

But Culp and Cosby went that one better because they stepped outside of the time-space continuum and made the impossible–a black American and a white American interacting on a daily basis in a public space with no sliver of race laying between them, as though history had never happened–seem easy as pie.

Culp says in his commentary that it was a conscious decision between himself and Cosby to make race a nonissue–that their statement would be to make no statement.

Fair enough.

But I don’t think he gave himself and his co-star enough credit. There is nothing harder than making a statement by making no statement and this particular nonstatement statement has never been made quite as convincingly since.

So good for them. Good for Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, who turned out to be a couple of splendidly unique human beings.

Shame about the rest of us.

 

BECAUSE IT’S ABOUT TIME I INTRODUCED MYSELF…

First of all, I had a nice rebound in traffic during October after the expected drop in September. Thanks to all for hanging in!

I’ve been doing this for about eight months now so I’m going to spend the next few weeks periodically doing something I probably should have done earlier, which is give some sort of outline of what I value most, “artistically” speaking. (It says so much more than one’s politics, religion or culinary habits.)

Figured I’d begin at the beginning, so here, more or less chronologically (that’s world chronology, not personal….I probably knew Cyndi Lauper before I knew Clyde McPhatter)….

MY TWENTY FAVORITE ROCK AND ROLL SINGERS (and five representative performances which also happen to be building blocks for a better world)…First a nice intro:

Brenda Lee “Break It To Me Gently” (Studio recording…with some nice pictures)

Then on to the list…

Clyde McPhatter (Dominoes, Drifters, solo)–Money Honey; Three Thirty Three; Treasure of Love; Without Love (There Is Nothing); A Lover’s Question

Elvis Presley (solo)–Good Rockin’ Tonight; Heartbreak Hotel; It Hurts Me; Long Black Limousine; Reach Out To Jesus

Tony Williams (Platters)–Only You (And You Alone); The Great Pretender; (You’ve Got) The Magic Touch; Smoke Gets In Your Eyes; Harbor Lights

Bobby “Blue” Bland (solo)–I Pity The Fool; Turn On Your Love Light; Queen For A Day; Two Steps From the Blues; Lead Me On

Sam Cooke (Soul Stirrers, solo)–Jesus Gave Me Water; Bring It On Home; Cupid; That’s Where It’s At; A Change Is Gonna’ Come

Brenda Lee (solo)–Sweet Nothings; Break It To Me Gently; Heart In Hand; Coming On Strong; Johnny One Time

Roy Orbison (solo)–Only The Lonely; Running Scared; Dream Baby; Blue Angel; Crying

Jerry Butler (Impressions, solo)–Your Precious Love; Make It Easy On Yourself; Moody Woman; Only The Strong Survive; Western Union Man

Frankie Valli (Four Seasons, solo)–Walk Like A Man; Rag Doll; Silence Is Golden; Girl Come Running; Fallen Angel

Gladys Knight (Pips, solo)–Neither One of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye); Midnight Train to Georgia; I’ve Got To Use My Imagination; Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me; On and On

Smokey Robinson (Miracles, solo)–What’s So Good About Goodbye; The Tracks of My Tears; The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage; Sweet Harmony; Cruisin’)

Bob Dylan (solo)–Talking World War III Blues (live); Maggie’s Farm; Like A Rolling Stone; Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again; I Threw It All Away

Mary Weiss (Shangri-Las, solo)–Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand); Give Him a Great Big Kiss; Never Again; He Cried; Past, Present and Future

Aretha Franklin (solo)–I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You); Respect; (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman; I Say A Little Prayer; Rock Steady

Van Morrison (Them, solo)–Gloria; It’s All Over Now Baby Blue; Listen To The Lion; Almost Independence Day; Tupelo Honey

John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival, solo)–Fortunate Son; Lodi; Green River; Run Through The Jungle; Sweet Hitch-Hiker

Al Green (solo)–Tired of Being Alone; I’m A Ram; Here I Am (Come and Take Me); Take Me To The River; Belle

Ronnie Van Zandt (Lynyrd Skynyrd)–Tuesday’s Gone; Sweet Home Alabama; The Ballad of Curtis Loew; Gimme Back My Bullets; What’s Your Name

Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders)–Precious; Mystery Achievement; My City Was Gone; Middle of The Road; I’ll Stand By You

Cyndi Lauper (Blue Angel, solo)–Money Changes Everything; Time After Time; All Through The Night; When Sally’s Pigeons Fly; I’m Gonna’ Be Strong (solo version)

First Alternate: Arlene Smith (Chantels)

(Feel free to list your own….this is the fun part of the job!)