MISTER TIBBS AND THE END OF THE JTP (Monthly Book Report: January, 2017)

Last month’s reading was all crime all the time. I finally got around to reading a couple of John Ball novels that have been sitting around the house for a couple of decades (he was the creator of Virgil Tibbs of Sidney Poitier/In the Heat of the Night fame) and I finished the Josephine Tey Project.

 

 

The Cool Cottontail (John Ball, 1966)

Ball’s basic concept was a black cop, Virgil Tibbs, raised in the South, who lives and works in California. When the first Tibbs’ novel, In the Heat of the Night (1965), was made into a famous film, his home police force was changed to Philadelphia. No idea why.

It’s plain from The Cool Cottontail, however, why Ball preferred Tibbs to be a Californian. The main appeal of this novel (and presumably the series) was the character study of a black man adapting to the cultural changes of the Civil Rights era in a liberal, reasonably tolerant place. Not sure Philadelphia would have qualified. Cali certainly did. The plot here opens with an appropriate bang when a body is dumped into the swimming pool of a local nudist colony.

I’ve already forgotten who dumped the body, or whether it was even the same person who put the bullet in it, and Ball’s style is board-flat. But the picture of Tibbs’ cautious optimism and realistic view of the pace with which real change, if any, was likely to occur–of how far even the inhabitants of a nudist colony were likely to stretch the last boundaries of tribalism for the sake of anything other than celebrating their own boundless tolerance–remains indelible. To wit:

Tibbs wanted to explain that this was an official call, not a social one. He opened his mouth to do so and then had sense enough to close it again. These people knew that, but they were treating him as a guest anyway. He was a person just like them, welcome to go anywhere and do anything that anyone else might do. It was like walking through the gates into Paradise. 

He looked down at his ebony hands and hated them.

When there’s enough of that, you can get by with a mundane plot.

Then Came Violence (John Ball, 1980)

This was the last of the Tibbs’ series, published at the end of the New Deal coalition that had made a series of mainstream black detective novels either possible or necessary to begin with. It’s not a long drop from The Cool Cottontail. Ball’s style remained durable to the point of blandness. The basic plot again revolves around a sensational idea (Tibbs has to pretend to be the husband of a beleaguered African president’s wife).

But the main appeal of the series’ original concept–a black cop dealing soberly and rationally with sweeping social change–had lost its punch. There are still some telling asides, especially regarding Tibbs’ contempt for the black criminal class (by then hopelessly intertwined with the chic-est radicals). But, by now, it’s a story that could be told about anyone.

Worse, there’s a love story, predictable at every turn. Well, except for the part where the African president’s wife gets kidnapped–not by her husband’s political enemies (who could have perhaps been tied to one of the remnants of the radical movements then in their final state of collapse? was this too hard to manage?) but by two-bit hoods who have no idea who she is. When you are relying on coincidences that thin, you need a lot else going on to make any novel, let alone a thriller, sprint to the finish line. This one dawdles–to the starting gate, the finish line and every place in between. These books were important and Tibbs is a likeable man to spend time with. I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to it. But this one didn’t leave me with any burning desire to pursue the series further.

The Daughter of Time (Josephine Tey, 1951)

Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant is laid up in a hospital. Bored, he homes in on a portrait of Richard III brought in, with a series of others, for his amusement.

He starts asking his visitors and the hospital staff what they think of the portrait and studying their reactions when they think it’s an ordinary man versus when they are told it’s Richard.

Then he and a young scholar who is a friend of the actress who supplied Grant with the original portrait start discussing whether or not Richard might have been a victim of bad press from the likes of Thomas More and Shakespeare.

Eventually they decide this is the case and are a bit surprised to find that, every century or so since Richard’s death, someone else has come to the same conclusion.

That’s it. No bodies, no crime, no suspense. After the first few pages (where we meet the staff) not even any pithy characterizations. On top of that, it’s written in a stodgy, documentary style that had me considering toothpicks for my eyelids. Grant calls Thomas More “sainted” so many times I ended up liking More better than Grant. Which would be fine except the book is clearly not meant as a parody.

For reasons that baffled me on a second read even more than a first, this novel (from the woman who wrote Miss Pym Disposes for Christ’s sake) was voted “number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers’ Association” (Wikipedia) and fourth on a similar list by the Mystery Writers of America. Several of Tey’s other novels (all fine and worthy) made those lists as well. For a woman who published only eight crime novels, to have half of them honored on such lists is remarkable and a measure of her worth.

Why her greatest novel, one of the finest in the English language made neither list, while this dead thing rides high, is a mystery far beyond any relegated to mere fiction.

The Singing Sands (Josephine Tey, 1953)

Mercifully, since this was Tey’s last novel (it was published after her death, at the age of 55, in 1952), this is a return to form. Grant is back on his feet, but suffering from some sort of psychological breakdown which leaves him frightened of closed spaces, boredom, and, most crucially, himself.

There’s a mystery, a classic nothing-that-gradually-turns-into-something very much in the grand Tey style. Again, it’s civilization, as much as any act of fate, that rides to the rescue.

The Tey of a few years earlier, right after the war, might have made the solution to the mystery be to Grant’s cost, rather than his salvation. But, since that would have been the end of him as a fictional character anyway, and she had no way of knowing she would die before she could resume his journey, it’s understandable that she would want to hold on to her meal ticket. And there’s one final flourish as a psychopath, who both does and does not escape Grant’s wrath, gives a glimpse into the places Tey had gone in order to blaze trails for the entire generation of “psychological” crime writers, Patricia Highsmith and Margaret Millar chief among them, who would follow. Here the killer describes the aftermath of a murder he committed on a train, which Grant, salvaged by his pursuit of a whim, is only able to really prove was not an accident by the receipt of the letter he is reading:

I removed the contents of his pockets and substituted Charles Martin’s pocket-book and its contents.

He was still alive, but he stopped breathing as we were running through the yards at Rugby.

Tey’s impulse, like Grant’s, was always toward the preservation of the social and political order.

But, somehow, I do not think she was quite able to convince herself, in 1952, that there would always be an England.

THE RISING….1975, WHAT A CONCEPT (Sixth Memo: Mixed Race Edition)

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As defined by that cover at the right (from Time Life’s invaluable Ultimate Seventies series and a rare failure from their usually inspired graphics department), 1975 was every crap-u-lous thing the punks said it was. It makes me want to take the shop-worn Survived-The-Seventies secret decoder badge out of my wallet and slip it into a wood stove with pine knots blazing.

Then again, there’s the music.

That’s trickier.

The mid-seventies were a troublesome time, a time when we had to either deal with the sixties or head down the path that brought us to this cozy little paradise we now enjoy. By 1975, what I’ve taken to calling The Rising–the attempt rock and rollers of various hues made to sustain the revolution that had begun in the fifties and perhaps even broaden it into a world where we would never be forced to admit we aren’t going to get along because we really don’t like each other very much–was cresting into what turned out to be its last wave. Within a year or two (or five), punk/alternative and rap/hip-hop would arrive full force, and, with some help from an intelligentsia programmed to believe its own self-contempt was the New Covenant, carry us back to our various tribes.

What a happy journey that’s been!

I mean, forty years later, radio is such an awesome void nobody even pretends to fathom it. The only thing blanker, less alive, is journalism.

Or maybe politics.

I wonder: Was 1975 so bad it really had to be this way?

I mean, forget politics. Culture dies (or simply withers away) first. The rest is detritus.

I wonder, was 1975 alive, or–as some would have it–dead?

Hmmmmm….How best to ponder?

I know. Let’s think of it as a concept.

And let’s think of Time Life’s edition of Ultimate Seventies: 1975 as a concept album.

Yeah. That’s always fun.

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(Linda Ronstadt and band, on the road in ’75)

Track 1: “You’re No Good” Linda Ronstadt

The 1975 journey begins. In 1963 actually. White boy (Clint Ballard, Jr.) writes song with who knows who in mind. White producers (Leiber and Stoller) cut it on a black woman (Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister). It goes nowhere. Black producer (Calvin Carter), picks it up with an idea of cutting it on a black man (Dee “Raindrops” Clark), then decides the lyrical message will be too harsh coming from a guy, so he gives it to another black woman (Betty Everett) who gets a top five R&B hit out of it, with modest pop crossover. Six months later, the Swinging Blue Jeans take their cover to #3 in England.

All very typical.

Everett’s record had just enough cachet to make it into some of the standard live sets of  the decade hence, including, circa the early seventies, Linda Ronstadt’s. Ronstadt, still chasing the real thing after a decade of not-quite-stardom, gave her first major performance of the song on a December, 1973 episode of The Midnight Special...where she was introduced as the country singer she still considered herself to be.

All still pretty typical.

Months later, after a tortuous process of layered guitars, studio tinkering and bitching about tempos amongst Ronstadt, her new producer, Peter Asher (a Brit keen on the Swinging Blue Jeans’ version), and the crack band she had assembled after granting the Eagles permission to strike out on their own, the song was recorded with a pop sheen that only enhanced what she had done on The Midnight Special, which was make the song’s deep mix of dread and liberation seem inherent and blow every previous version to smithereens.

It was released November, 1974 and reached #1 in Billboard, February, 1975.

Good start.

Leg up to ’75.

Track 2: “Jackie Blue” Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

By 1975, “Southern Rock” was a sufficiently big deal for some marketing genius to decide the form needed its own version of the Eagles.

Perverse genius? Or merely perverse?

Like so much else back then, and so little now, that’s for each person to decide.

Track 3: “That’s the Way (I Like It)” KC and the Sunshine Band

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Southern funk band goes full-blown “Disco,” forever blurring the distinction and making the newer concept a bigger deal than it had been previously. After them, it was inevitable somebody would make up stories about disco. And just as inevitable that the fakers would split the cut.

[Of note: KC was the first white lead vocalist to officially top Billboard‘s R&B chart since, weirdly, Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack” in 1963. (Also of Note: Along with a handful of record by black artists, Joel Whitburn lists the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” as an R&B #1 in 1964, when Billboard had temporarily suspended its R&B chart. The British Invasion of that year, perhaps helped by other things, soon necessitated the restoration of the pre-rock-n-roll order, which disco was threatening by 1975, thus requiring us to be “saved” yet again by our betters. First time around, we got Beatlemania. This time around, we settled for the Sex Pistols. To which I’ll only add that, between Herbert Wayne Casey and John Lydon, I know who the visionary radical was. Listen again.)]

Track 4: “Must of Got Lost” J. Geils Band

From Wikipedia: “The title, if correct English had been used, would be “Must Have Gotten Lost”. When a contraction is used, “Must Have” becomes “Must’ve”, which sounds like “Must of”, which is not correct English and makes no sense.”

And I was just going to complain that they don’t make blue-eyed-soul-garage-rock records like this anymore. Silly me, forever underestimating the present’s ability to stick a pencil in my eye.

Track 5: “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” War

Talk about a leg up to ’75. “I hear you’re workin’ for the C-I-A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” That’s everything rap ever wanted to be in a couplet and that’s not even getting into how they could sing and play.

Track 6: “Sister Golden Hair” America

What’s that you say? 1975 deserves every kick you can give it?

“Too, too hard to find?” you say?

Okay. Maybe.

But you know, I just say, “You’re no good, Jackie Blue, and that’s the way I like it, so I must of got lost and just why can’t we be friends sister golden hair?”

I also sing along every single damn time it comes on the radio.

Track 7: “Philadelphia Freedom” Elton John

Wait, the song about Philadelphia Freedom was sung by the bald, bi, English dude who could cut in on Soul Train? And programmed right after the song (cut with George Martin no less) by America, the band that so cheekily named itself after the country the bald guy was celebrating….assuming he wasn’t really putting all that pop genius into just giving a shout out to Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis team?

Of course it was.

But not to worry. That was “America” then. Nothing like that would happen now. Not even close.

Track 8: “Black Water”The Doobie Brothers

Slick West Coasters channeling Mark Twain. Literally. We’re riding along easily now. The spirit of AM Gold is achieving a touch of somnolence. Maybe the world really did need a wake up call?

Track 9: “Love is a Rose” Linda Ronstadt

Maybe. And perfectly fine. But it’s no “You’re No Good.”

Track 10: “How Long” Ace

Yes, I feel myself fading. Bobby Womack and Rod Stewart were among the many who later tried to kick this to life. They, too, were defeated.

Track 11: “Dance With Me” Orleans

And if I’m asleep, this isn’t likely to wake me.

Not that sleep is a bad thing. Necessarily.

Track 12: “Freebird” Lynyrd Skynyrd

A bit of life stirs. Not my favorite Skynyrd, actually, but it’s the real life Huck Finn singing about the real life road so it always pulls me in in the long run. And that’s even before the guitars start playing…and playing…and burning.

Track 13: “You Are So Beautiful” Joe Cocker

Okay, now I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. I’ve slept a bit and I’m up and ready to engage the past, the present, the future. And god knows I’ve got time, listening to Joe, who always could make two minutes sound like ten.

Wish they had gone with Tanya Tucker’s version.

Track 14: “Feel Like Makin’ Love” Bad Company

A true taste divider. To some, meh. To others, the incarnation of every-wrong-mid-seventies-thing.

What I hear is a great white blues and a natural answer record to Betty Wright’s “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker,” which had gone top ten R&B in the fall of ’73.

Track 15: “Lady Marmalade” LaBelle

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And while we’re at it, why not a natural #1 (Pop and R&B) about a hooker suckering a chump down in old New Orleans? (And if you only link one video here…)

Track 16: “Pick Up the Pieces” Average White Band

Or maybe a funk masterwork by a bunch of Scotsmen?

The more I think about it, the more I’m aware that there was no way this sort of thing  was going to be allowed to stand. All that peace, harmony and funk breaking out everywhere? The Overlords must have really been asleep at the switch. No wonder they hit back with such a vengeance.

Track 17: “Island Girl” Elton John

A natural answer record to “Lady Marmalade,” in which the chump goes home, falls for a Jamaican hooker being pimped by “the racket boss” and, given a chance to tell his side of the tale, turns out to be even more of a chump than the lady thought….because nobody (the girl, the chump, the “black boy” in her island world) can save her and he’s the one who can’t stop asking himself why.

Just in case that’s not enough confusion, the Jamaican girl’s background ghost-voice was provided by Kiki Dee.

Of course it was.

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Track 18: “Some Kind of Wonderful” Grand Funk

Yes, they had dropped the “Railroad.”

A straight rip and scary in its efficiency. White boys who helped define corn-fed midwestern stadium rock take on the Soul Brothers Six and their straight-from-the-soul-shadows mind-bender and do it note-for-note, lick-for-lick. And get an earned hit. That’s not the way it was supposed to happen. Ever. Not even in ’75.

Get away from me ’75!

Track 19: “The Hustle” Van McCoy

Okay. Come back ’75. Let Van McCoy celebrate his career by naming an era-defining dance after it and tripping the light fantastic.

Track 20: “Let’s Do It Again” The Staple Singers

Which brings us all the way around to the song that was sitting at #1 when the year ended.

By 1975, one of the mixed blessings of the decade’s first half–the blaxploitation flick–had started to come a box-office cropper, and so the curtain was about to be drawn on one of the period’s unmixed blessings, the blaxploitation soundtrack.

Even the best of those movies never lived up to the best of their music, and, though I’ve never seen the Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby vehicle that provided the excuse for the Staples’ to formally close down the southern soul era (and Stax records), I have no reason to suspect it was among the best of anything.

Even if it was great, though, I’ll feel safe betting it wasn’t this great, because, whatever else it was, it wasn’t a reach for the heavens, let alone a reach which was about to have its fingers stomped by Brits in boots, pretending to preach freedom.

Speak to me ’75!

And, if you’re gonna go down, go down swingin’. Hey, If sitting through “Jackie Blue” and “Dance With Me” is the price of the ticket, I’ll pay it every time.

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(The Staple Singers…reaching for higher ground)

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

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

Lulu (on her time at Atlantic)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lots of amazing music then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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