POP SYMPHONIES (Segue of the Day: 4/4/17)

The way it was in ’65.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those of you who have been following along for a while here know I’m fond of Time Life’s year-by-year surveys of music from the fifties, sixties and seventies.

The foundation for it all is a handful of CDs a fellow at work gave me about twenty years ago in lieu of sending them off to Goodwill. They survived the great CD selloff of 2002 because the record store wouldn’t take them. First among those were 1965: Classic Rock and its companion volume 1965: The Beat Goes On.

With oldies’ radio now a distant memory in my market, these are my closest proxy. (Somehow, listening to “radio” on the internet, or my satellite TV package just isn’t the same.) And, while I almost always learn something when I listen close to any given volume, these are the ones that still startle me the most.

With the Beatles, Stones and Dylan all missing (due to their catalogs being jealously guarded), you could still pick any couple of the forty-four cuts on these two discs, where there is nothing close to a pedestrian side, and write a short history of the Universe.

Relax: I’m not gonna do that.

I’m just going to talk about the Supremes and the Shangri-Las, two of my favorite subjects anyway, and paired here on tracks 16 and 17 of The Beat Goes On.

Funny enough, I had never really noticed it before: “I Hear a Symphony” and “I Can Never Go Home Any More” set back to back. This…

which, given Diana Ross’s gift for finding seduction in the saddest, most desperate breakup songs and melancholy in the most joyous love songs, could just as well be about the guy who left Mary Weiss in this…

…the most wrenching tale in the Shangs’  own little universe, which has more wrenching tales than any universe I know.

It’s not implausible to think that, if Berry Gordy had grown up in Queens instead of Detroit, Wiess might have had a dozen #1s and Ross might have had one or none.

But it’s probably not that simple. Alternative universes never are.

Diana Ross would have been driven by ambition wherever she was born. Even before she was famous–or Berry Gordy’s squeeze–it’s fair to assume that each record was part of a larger plan.

Weiss’s genius was for making every song she sang sound like it might be her last. That’s not exactly a surefire formula for building a career.

These two songs running together on a comp made her and Diana sound like sisters who never quite got along and thus walked different paths that only crossed at commitment to something larger than themselves.

They used to call that culture and rock and roll existed to extend it, make it larger, let new voices from places like Queens and Detroit sing out and express whatever special quality they possessed. Culture is supposed to make the world larger.

Except when we’re fooling ourselves, we don’t call it culture or anything else now, because the essential thing that made these records possible has vanished like smoke. Not the technology or the musical training or the will or even the voices themselves. Just the belief that it matters to something more than the bank account.

These days, everyone has an eye on their career from the cradle to the grave, so no one gives too much away in any single moment.

Once you start down that path–where Mary Weiss can’t exist–then Diana Ross can’t exist either, because there’s nothing for her to measure herself against.

If you want to know what that sounds like, now that even the 70s are becoming a distant memory, you can turn on your car radio any hour of the day and let it run straight from the lowest number to the highest.

And if you think that’s depressing, just be glad I”m not giving you access to what went through my head concerning the Roger McGuinn picking vs. Jeff Beck shredding guitars on “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “I’m a Man!” because, except through a pair of cheap headphones, we can’t go back there either.

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 11: “People Get Ready”)

“People Get Ready”
1965
Artist: The Impressions
Writer: Curtis Mayfield

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The Impressions in 1965. Curtis Mayfield at far right.

“That was taken from my church or from the upbringing of messages from the church. Like there’s no hiding place and get on board, and images of that sort. I must have been in a very deep mood of that type of religious inspiration when I wrote that song.”

(Source: Liner notes from Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions: The Anthology 1961-1977, MCA, 1992)

“My mother always liked symphony music, and even as a youngster my foundation was out of the church, whereas my grandmother was the minister of the Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church….When I wrote ‘People Get Ready,’ I was of a spiritual mind I suppose. I can’t quite recall what I was doing but the honesty of my gospel upbringing probably had a lot to do with it. I’m so pleased that it can please all who might listen to it. It doesn’t matter what faith you may have, the lyrics are of value to everybody.”

(Source: Liner notes from The Curtis Mayfield Story, Rhino box set, 1996)

Back in 1985 I was working for an ad agency and the owner liked to keep MTV running in his office because that was where the cutting edge of the soap-selling business was in those days. One evening before heading out I dropped by the office to say my good night and he and one of the layout artists were sitting in there critiquing the hot MTV item of the moment which was Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck’s cover of “People Get Ready.”

“This is great!” my boss said. The layout artist, who was in a rock band in his spare time, agreed. “Great guitar,” he said.

“It’s based on an old Negro spiritual,” my boss said.

“Well,” I said. “It’s really not that old. Curtis Mayfield wrote it. It’s from 1965.”

Now I wasn’t the known entity I later became, the guy who knew stuff about music from the sixties. I mean, I could have even told them the Impressions’ original hit #14 in Billboard--in those days I was very good with chart numbersbut there seemed little point since they didn’t even believe me about the Curtis Mayfield part or the 1965 part.

“Wait…the guy who did ‘Superfly’?” one of them finally said, after we had gone round and round for a bit.

“Yeah,” I said. “Same guy.”

That clinched it. I was crazy. Prone to making stuff up. Any chance of them believing me went by the wayside.

No way the Superfly Guy wrote that old Negro Spiritual, “People Get Ready.”

I told them it was okay. If I hadn’t known better I wouldn’t have believed it myself.

*  *  *  *

“People Get Ready” is one of those songs, like “Peace in the Valley,” (written by Thomas Dorsey in the 1930s), which doesn’t feel like it could have been written less than a few centuries ago. It feels honed out of some kind of folk tradition, passed from balladeer to minstrel and back again. Usually, these songs have some kind of gospel overtone, and that attendant “feel” of permanence, of having been inspired by something more than commerce, is, like religion itself, counted exotic among the crit-illuminati and all unduly influenced by them.

The nonbelievers are never quite so hard to impress as they make out.

I’m guessing Curtis Mayfield understood that. Like most of the early rock and soul pioneers, he was a believer. He grew up in church. His grandmother was a minister. His singing group, the Impressions, was modeled on a specific style of black gospel called “jubilee.” (His original group was The Northern Jubilees so the linkage was more than usually specific.)

All of that mattered to who Curtis Mayfield became in the context of both the Civil Rights movement and the soul music of the sixties and seventies. His catalog is shot through with Christian imagery and just about all the nonbelievers were impressed by his commitment even though exactly none of them–including the legion of black and white vocalists who have covered the song in the nonbelieving style of Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck–ever gave evidence of understanding the belief system that commitment rested on.

People get ready, there’s a train a comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.

Despite Mayfield’s own later suggestion (quoted above) that this was a universalist message, it’s really only “universal” in the sense that New Testament Christianity is indeed open to all.

All you need is faith, open the doors and board ’em
Don’t need no ticket you just thank the Lord.

Four lines in, and we’re already deep in the weeds of New Testament arguments worthy of St. Thomas Aquinas. The old fights have been closed down…faith is for all, Calvinism, the underpinning of both American individualism (good) and America slavery (bad), has been rejected for something higher. It’s a transformation Harriet Beecher Stowe, raised Calvinist, converted to Congregationalism and, after a beloved son’s death, a dabbler in forms of Spiritualism Curtis Mayfield’s grandmother would doubtless have recognized.

In the heat of the sixties, as “Uncle Tom” was being re-jiggered yet again to signify collaboration and weakness, Mayfield was now squarely in the middle of debates that were no longer going to be left to his own traditions. Not to Spiritualism. Not to Congregationalism. Not even to Christianity itself. As Greil Marcus would later write:

“With the Impressions and later as a soloist, Mayfield had been exploring a somewhat bland, Martin Luther King-style progressivism, for years, complete with open heart, boundless optimism, tortured lyrics, and brotherhood speeches to nightclub audiences.”

Tomming, in other words. Rather like Martin Luther King himself before his common honorific was transformed from the spiritual “Reverend” to the secular “Doctor” (and before the “Reverend” was subsequently transferred to Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, the better to mock the belief the honorific was meant to represent).

Funny how, in the world of the nonbeliever, it’s always optimism that’s uncomplicated.

And easy to identify.

Marcus’s  seventies-era cynicism (he was juxtaposing Mayfield’s Negro Spiritual mode with his Superfly mode) was later replaced with rank sentimentalism. Cynicism–the rejection of optimism’s naturally complicated state in juxtaposition to the inherent cruelty of faith’s alternatives in time, space, nature, “reality”–usually turns out that way.

That’s the trick to throwing down with the Sermon on the Mount.

Once you claim it, you’re either on the train or not.

So people get ready, for the train to Jordan
Picking up passengers, coast to coast.
Faith is the key, open the doors and board ’em
There’s hope for all, among the loved the most.

And that’s what keeps throwing the torch-bearers of Left (New or Old) and Right (Alt or Old).

Faith is the key.

And within that context–and that context only–there’s hope.

There’s no in between for the believer. The in between is for those Mayfield took on next, those whom all practitioners of the New Testament’s evangelizing faith, Spiritualist, Congregationalist and Calvinist alike, know Jesus promised to spew from his mouth:

There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner.
Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own….Believe me now!

Now it’s getting specific. Now it’s down to cases, where belief is the hardest master and true tolerance, the New Testament kind, is the hardest master of all. All those nonbelievers who thought they didn’t need the ticket just because it couldn’t be bought now find themselves right where the Spiritualist minister’s gently remonstrating, jubilee singing grandson wants them: between the rock of “hopeless sin” (i.e., all sin not specifically forgiven by faith in the one God) and the hard place of the belief they might have been forgiven for thinking could be purchased without cost, what with not needing any baggage and all.

Easier still, to get confused, considering that Mayfield and his soulmates (Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, now swapping leads, now in close harmony) have remained cool in the face of Pentecostal transcendence. The sound is seductive, backing the spirit of the original promise.

The sound remains so.

The promise does not.

Have pity on those, whose chances grow thinner
For there’s no hiding place, against the kingdom’s throne

Yes, find the pity within yourself, just before you remind the sinner how pitiless his fate is–a fate that knows no hiding place.

No hiding place from what again?

The kingdom’s throne. That’s what.

The one that brooks no hiding place.

So now the first verse repeats, not as an assurance, but a warning. The nonbelievers who jumped on the train in the first verse are invited to jump off.

So said the prophet in 1965, even if, in later years, he sometimes forgot the force of his own warning….in interviews if not his music.

In 1965, there was a world coming where elections, let alone “debates,” would become affairs devoid of meaning, a jousting between sets of nonbelievers who think paradise, having been transferred by the Reformation (it’s unfair to call it “Protestant” since a Catholic Reformation accompanied it, each multiplying the force of the other into Christian Europes’ five-hundred-year winning streak, for which the slave trade that brought Curtis Mayfield’s ancestors to the New World–and the New Testament–would stand as the serpent in the garden) from the Golden Past to the Golden Future, can now be claimed in the Golden Present, if only we vote the right party to power…or, better yet, eliminate all its opposition!

Curtis Mayfield would have other songs that spoke to the dangers of all that. The Superfly soundtrack wasn’t nearly as far from “there’s no hiding place against the kingdom’s throne” as either Greil Marcus or my Reagan-lovin’ boss at the ad agency thought.

Sad part is, being nonbelievers, they probably still think there’s a hiding place, somewhere, waiting just for them.

MY FAVORITE BO DIDDLEY COVER (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

One Bo Diddley cover?

I need to have my head checked.

I’m excluding Bo Diddley covers that weren’t actually Bo Diddley covers, all those hundreds of songs (some as improbable as the Byrds’ cover of Jackie DeShannon’s “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe,” some as obvious as half of George Thorogood’s career, about which more later) built around the beat associated with his name. Bo may or may not have originated that beat but he certainly inserted it into the American bloodstream, where it has done all manner of good.

From a list of thousands, then, most to mostest, favorite at the bottom, with a little comment on what makes each of these stand out a little:

Warren Zevon “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger” (1981)

From Zevon’s monumental live album Stand In the Fire. It’s unleashed at the end, where it reveals Bo as the secret force hiding in the shadows of the album itself and perhaps in the shadows of the performer’s entire persona. Zevon didn’t even have to sing the one that said “I’m just twenty-two and I don’t mind dyin’.” to get the message across. Don’t let his managing to see 56 fool you. He lived that line if anybody did…

The Gants “Crackin’ Up” (1966)

The secret, unholy post-war pact between the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners played out as deadpan comedy, right down to the disturbingly accurate soul scream at the top of the bridge. Just a little Mississippi frat-boy humor ya’ll.

Mike Henderson and the Bluebloods “Pay Bo Diddley” (1996)

Henderson was a cult figure who probably had some experience at not getting paid. He sounds even sorrier about Bo being shafted than Bo did. His guitar, on the other hand, sounds like it has come to collect.

The Yardbirds “I’m a Man” (Live on Shindig, 1965)

I might have put the studio version in the top five anyway, just on the basis of Jeff Beck’s famous string-bending (and mind-bending). But on this live version, everything–especially Keith Relf’s harp playing–is on fire. Which just means Beck’s soloing has to rise even higher to keep from being incinerated.

George Thorogood and the Destroyers “Ride On Josephine” (1977)

Leave it to a keep-it-simple sort like George to best understand the aesthetic that underpinned every element of Bo’s deceptively sinuous sound and his serio-comic faux resignation and thus produce my very favorite Bo Diddley cover.

And what was that aesthetic called?

What else.

Stomp!

NEXT UP: My Favorite Shangri-Las Record…Not By the Shangri-Las

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (The Impressions Up)

“I’ve Been Trying”
The Impressions (1964/5)
Billboard: #113
Billboard R&B: #35
Recommended Source: The Best of the Impressions (Vinyl) or Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions: Anthology (1961 – 1977) (CD)

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“I’ve Been Trying” was recorded for the Impressions’ 1964 LP Keep On Pushing. Passed over for single release at the time, it was eventually relegated, the following spring, to the B-Side of the second single from the group’s next LP, which was only “People Get Ready.”

In 1985, around the height of my ad-copy writing career, I was in the office late one day shooting the breeze with another employee who was in a local rock band and the boss, who liked to keep MTV on 24/7. The video for Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart’s (pretty good) version of “People Get Ready” came on and, without going into gory detail, I found myself in an argument about the song’s origin. They insisted it was “this old gospel song.” I insisted, gently but firmly, that Curtis Mayfield (who they knew as “the Superfly guy?”) had written it in the mid-sixties. There being no internet in those days (it really is good for some things folks), the argument remained unsettled. They concluded I was delusional. I concluded, yet again, that facts are only as authoritative as their source.

I wasn’t deemed reliable.

These days, I think a whole lot more people know the origin of “People Get Ready,” thanks to it being consistently rated in the top hundred/fifty/ten/whatever in various “best ever” polls covering the entire history of song.

Rightly so.

But “People Get Ready” is not “better” than “I’ve Been Trying.” You can’t beat perfection. And, in its own heartbreaking way, the little album track relegated to a B-side is just as profound, just as inspired, just as socio-political.and finally, just as fine an example of Black America singing to itself and the world simultaneously, part celebration, part mournful cry.

The sixties were truly the best of times and the worst of times.

This is the part we should have held on to. Forever.

Or else gotten past.