THE LATEST UPDATE FROM THE STORY THAT NEVER ENDS….

Wonders never cease and there remain glimmers of proof that the world is not going entirely to hell.

The “5” Royales are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Victor Jara’s killers are at least having to face a day in court. And now this, from p. 375 of Greil Marcus’s just released collection Real Life Rock:

Note; We were all fooled and none of us had done our homework: The show was a fake. Marge Ganser died of breast cancer in 1996.

That’s following the reprint of Marcus’s June 30, 2004 column for City Pages, which included a lengthy diatribe from Robert Christgau who was, at GM’s behest, reporting on a terrible concert supposedly given by Ganser and her daughter under the Shangri-Las’ name, shortly before.

Just for the record, my main objection was never so much to the factual error (not only was Ganser long dead, she had died childless), or even how easily taken in two such pros were by the highly dubious assumption that any Shangri-La would have been involved in such an enterprise (no group has ever been more fiercely resistant to having their name exploited, even if they haven’t been very successful at stopping it). The real capper was that Marcus and Christgau surely allowed themselves to be duped so easily because they wanted an excuse to feel superior to the great unwashed.

That said, this is a genuine and appropriate apology and, having gone straight to the index when the book arrived to check on this very possibility, I was pleasantly surprised and extremely glad to see it. The original column entry can be found here, along with some of my other objections.

The Shangri-Las, of course, had their response ready fifty years ago…They weren’t fooled:

 

THOUGHTS ON THE 2016 ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME NOMINEES

Since my first post on the Hall several years ago, at least a few of the acts I considered egregious oversights (Donna Summer, Linda Ronstadt, The “5” Royales) have found their way in. I’m confident I’ve had nothing whatsoever to do with this, except maybe cosmically, but the cosmos must be attended, so I take heart and keep plugging away. My lists of the most deserving not yet inducted are still very much the same and can be found HERE, HERE and HERE.

I try to do something a little different each year, simply because my relationship to each new batch of nominees is bound to change at least a little. This year, it’s a simple breakdown: 1) Acts (well, one anyway) who are in my own pantheon and therefore no-brainers; 2) Acts I have at least some strong feeling for, either because I think they filled some place in Rock History that can’t be entirely ignored or I just like their records a lot; and 3) Acts I don’t pretend to get.

So, in reverse order:

Acts I don’t pretend to get (or can at least easily eliminate from this particular ballot):

Nine Inch Nails and The Smiths: Charter members of the Gloom Squad, representativesof which, given the air of stagnation and hopelessness that began to dominate the culture in the late eighties and has continued to suck at our collective oxygen supply every single day since, we are almost certainly stuck with in perpetuity. If they are your thing, peace be upon you, but let’s do cancel the dinner reservations.

Yes: I really like “Roundabout.” But, as one record arguments go, it’s not exactly “La Bamba,” or “Summertime Blues.”

The J.B.s.: Very worthy. Please induct them immediately in the Musical Excellence or Sidemen category, as should have been done long ago. Can’t see spending a vote on them in the performer category.

Chicago: I’m at least a little torn on this one. I do like a lot of their records (more than I think I do actually, unless some event like this one forces me to focus). But I can’t say I’ve listened to them a lot so I just don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other. I will say their lack of critical respect and their capacity for annoying the crit-illuminati by selling millions of records hardly count against them in my book. That said, if the ice is beginning to thaw around the idea of acknowledging AM giants as a necessary and vital part of Rock and Roll History, give me Three Dog Night or the Fifth Dimension any day. Not to mention Tommy James.

Chaka Khan: I could see voting for her some time, especially if (as happened in the past) she was being considered along with her great interracial funk band, Rufus. But she might be one of those acts I can always consider voting for in theory who just never happens to crack the top five on any given ballot. Time will tell. BTW: Interracial funk bands have a way of getting overlooked by the Hall: Think War, Hot Chocolate, KC and the Sunshine Band. Apparently Sly and the Family Stone are enough for the “Hey I’m not really opposed to the concept” crowd. I’d like to see this change, so Rufus would be more likely to get my vote than Chaka alone.

Acts I’d at least strongly consider:

Janet Jackson: She’s a strong candidate and, as someone who generally chides the Hall for seriously slacking on recognition of women and black people, she should be a natural. She was a major superstar and I even like a lot of her records. I can’t say I ever had that special “moment” with her, though. There’s no one record that makes me pull her records off the shelf at least every once in  a while. Since this is very rare for me with any rock and roll act who had even a modest run of sustained success I have to be at least a little bit suspicious. Why Janet? Why aren’t we connecting like we should? Why are Chaka and Chicago in the not-ready-for-consideration category when no record you ever made is on a level with “Tell Me Something Good” or “Just You ‘n’ Me?”  Why does life hold so many mysteries? Withholding judgment on this one…

N.W.A.: The other act on this ballot who are considered a likely slam dunk. Overall that’s a good sign. I can’t remember the last time the two favorites going in were African-American. Wish I liked their music as well as their story. I mean, should burnishing my street cred feel so much like eating my broccoli? Or reading my Chomsky? Withholding….yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

Chic: Yes, yes they should be in. I love “Le Freak” unconditionally (as well as a number of Rodgers and Edwards’ productions for other artists) so there is no problem with the “connection” missing in the previous two entries. And yes, I’m probably going to vote for them. I still don’t quite get why they’ve been on the ballot ten times and Barry White and KC and the Sunshine Band have zero nominations between them…But I’m probably still going to vote for them. Let’s wait and see.

Deep Purple: I was keener on them until I started listening to Joe South again and realized his version of “Hush” not only wastes theirs on the, you know, emotional level where you except a singer-songwriter to have an advantage, but actually rocks harder. Still, they had a real role in making hard rock “heavy.” And I wouldn’t want to put together the classic rock comp that’s going to play on the Celestial Jukebox at the End of Time without “Highway Star” or “My Woman From Tokyo” somewhere in the mix.

Los Lobos: They made one truly great album. That was enough for Guns N’ Roses, whose great album wasn’t quite as great (though it sold a lot more and caused a lot more head-banging). It’s enough for me to certainly put them under strong consideration. I wish they were a little less professorial, of course. But if rock and roll is truly democratic, surely there must be room for the professors too….Mustn’t there?

Steve Miller: The Hall is often perverse. Should we even be surprised that this very long in coming nomination is for Miller alone and not The Steve Miller Band, which is the title under which he made his records? Sure there were a lot of different people in those bands, but the Hall has made room for similar aggregations before, so who knows what the thinking is. As for the records themselves, I’m obviously putting him ahead of Chicago, even if it’s only a hair. I’m hazy on his early, more critically acclaimed work. It was out of San Francisco so familiarity with it, might make me feel more strongly for or against (in a Grateful Dead, no, Jefferson Airplane maybe, CCR or Sly or Janis, yes, sort of way). Which leaves me wondering if the lead-in riff to “Jet Airliner” is enough to make him worthy all by itself? I lived the Seventies. I very specifically lived 1977. And I have to say it’s a very close call.

Cheap Trick and The Cars: Gee, not a month ago I was gently lamenting that I clearly liked Power Pop a lot better than the Hall did, and here they go and put two of the Big Five on the ballot at once. Granted I don’t listen to either as much as Big Star or Raspberries or the Go-Go’s, but they’re both fine bands and the Cars have the additional lift of being the most popular band in the little-genre-that-couldn’t-quite-save-rock-and-roll-but-sure-had-fun-trying. Hall worthy? Definitely. Possible to vote for one and not the other? Tough call. I think I can manage it. I think I’ll probably have to. Which one?….Which one, knowing that the chances of the three even greater bands being considered in the future ride heavily on how these two do? Which one, knowing that these two have the decided advantage of being mysteriously accepted at “classic rock” formats?…Oh, God.

NO-BRAINER:

Spinners: The premiere vocal group of the seventies, the last decade when the competition was fierce and the distinction therefore amounted to an epic accomplishment. Stop the nonsense. Stop dumping on seventies R&B. Stop dumping on vocal groups. Put them in already, so I can start banging the drum for the Stylistics and the Chi-Lites! (insert maniacal laughter here!)

Final ballot:

Spinners…

Los Lobos…

Cheap Trick….

Janet Jackson…

Chic…

(and a Rodgers and Edwards bonus….)

…First alternate, the Cars…

If you want to participate in fan balloting you can access the Future Rock Legends site here (you have to scroll down a bit). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s actual ballot, which has a very small effect on actual voting (but, I suspect, may have a very real effect on considerations for future nominees) is here.

 

 

 

 

THOUGHTS ON THE 2015 ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES

Posting has been light the last couple of weeks as I’ve been crunching towards some self-imposed deadlines on a number of personal fronts…should be back to speed within the next few days. Meanwhile, I wanted to at least give a quick comment on this years class of RRHOF inductees.

For my thoughts on all the nominees and who I preferred you can go here.

For lists of un-inducted artists who I feel are most worthy (i.e., most “overlooked” you can go HERE, HERE and HERE. (The “5” Royales–who were merely back-doored, decades after they should have been voted in, can now join Donna Summer (who had to die) and Linda Ronstadt (who had to get Parkinson’s) in being crossed off the list.)

Inducted as “Performers”:

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble: Worthy as keepers of the flame. I didn’t vote for them on my five-nominee (unofficial) ballot, but they were a close call and, if I weren’t so concerned about the Hall getting whiter by the minute (even the blues acts are white now), I might well have voted for them anyway.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: Fine band, but I haven’t understood the nominating committee’s love for them in the performing category (this was their fourth nomination). They would have been a perfect candidate for my proposed Contemporary Influence category (though, even there, one could ask why not John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, who came first in the white-boy blues parade and were an even bigger cultish deal? Granted, I’m not anxious to see Eric Clapton inducted a fourth time, but still!) On the plus side, Mike Bloomfield needed to be honored some way (just wish he hadn’t needed to take up a “performer” space). And, it’s truly great that Elvin Bishop–one of rock and roll’s great characters–is going in. The Elvin Bishop Band were headliners at the only true “rock concert” I ever attended (a local act called The Fat Chance Band and pre-fame .38 Special were the undercard). I got in free (I’ve never been keen on spending money for transitory events when there are so many recorded events to buy…including a lot of awesome recordings of live events!) and nearly got thrown out for not having a ticket.  Other than that, I remember the smell of ganja, a couple of extremely beautiful girls who were dressed for the smokin’ seventies and looked bored out of their skulls (whether by their thuggish looking dates or the music I was, alas, never able to determine), a disco ball that lit up for the band’s big hit (“Fooled Around and Fell In Love”) and copious amounts of vomit, chicken bones and beer bottles strewn around the floor in the dressing room the next morning, (which the African-American cleaning crew at the Orlando-Seminole Jai Alai fronton was tasked with cleaning up–leaving me to wonder, then and now, if it is not out of such things that riots are made). For giving me all the “seventies” experience I really needed, Elvin Bishop, you are, eternally, the man!

Green Day: Can’t really say much. I kind of like Dookie, which is the only music of theirs I own. I don’t think they’ve been terribly harmful and, given when they came along, that’s saying something at least.

Bill Withers: The only inductee I voted for so, of course, I’m very happy to see him go in. I’ve only really gotten to know his music past the hits in the last year or so (an experience that began with what I posted here) and he’s both great and unique. If there’s a caveat, it’s that, in the great scheme of things, he’s not quite as worthy as War or Spinners, seventies’ contemporaries who remain among the Hall’s three or four most egregious oversights.

Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Not long after I wrote my piece on this year’s nominees, linked above, in which I noted that I’ve always liked the idea of her better than her actual music, I caught her lengthy interview/performance on Guitar Center. Look, with what she had to put up with, she’s very, very worthy. I take it all back! Suzi Quatro and the Go-Go’s can wait! But, beyond that, she does something that’s almost unheard of post punk. When she plays rock and roll, she acts, looks and sounds like she’s having the time of her life. Good on her!

Lou Reed: No particular objection, except that he’s already in for his even more deserving work with the Velvet Underground. Excepting really monumental exceptions (like Michael Jackson and, maybe, Eric Clapton) why, oh why, does the Hall keep nominating people who are already in? Oh well. At least Sting didn’t make it.

Inducted for “Musical Excellence”:

Ringo Starr: I, too, love “It Don’t Come Easy.” Also his drumming for a band that, believe it or not, has already been inducted. But…Wh-a-a-a-?

Inducted as “Early Influence”:

The “5” Royales: If you’ve been following along here, you know how I feel about this one. They were a direct, key influence on James Brown, Eric Clapton, Steve Cropper and many, many others. More to the point, they were artists who could easily stand tall in that, or any, company. They should have been inducted years ago, and as performers. I’m glad to see them inducted some way at least. And they did have important records before 1955 so this isn’t the complete stretch that Wanda Jackson was (God bless Wanda and I’m glad she’s in, but naming her an “early influence” which is supposed to be saved for pre-rock giants, was ludicrous). But having the nominating committee put them in, after the voters rejected them several times, is a sad commentary on the process.

Anyway, here’s to the most cosmic records/performances by this year’s inductees:

The obvious:

And the not so obvious:

 

FIFTIES’ R&B: Part I, 1950–1954 (Great Vocal Events In the History of Rock and Roll: Volume 3)

If you click on the links below, you’ll be hearing a lot of this man (more of him than anyone else). He’s obviously an unstable element–for one thing, he’s called Clyde–so consider yourself warned:

CLYDEMCPHATTER

 

Just to reiterate a point I’ve made here before: “R&B” (or “Rhythm and Blues”) is a covertly separatist marketing term, coined by soon-to-be Atlantic Records’ honcho Jerry Wexler when he worked at Billboard in the late forties and meant to replace the previous marketing term which was the more overtly separatist “Race.”

In other words, it was not initially designed to describe a particular style of music but rather a sales demographic. That being said, it came, over time, to have some rather specific musical application and, in current parlance, the phrase “fifties’ R&B” mostly conjures a variant of beat-oriented music, (generally hard-driving and rooted in Black America, but in any case succinct) that anticipated, then was absorbed by, then transformed from within, a larger, even more general, marketing concept first called “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (and, later, “Rock and Roll”).

That’s the series of inter-related developments I’m trying to trace here…year by year, in two parts.

This particular field is even more bottomless than usual, and, though you may have heard otherwise, the “R&B” chart in the fifties was mostly conservative (as nearly all charts have been in nearly all times) so these are some of the startling highlights that kept moving the train down the track, with a few standard items thrown in for the sake of providing a fuller context (though I’ve generally avoided the crooning of established stars like Nat Cole, Billy Eckstine, Roy Hamilton etc.–great music but not really what one thinks of when R&B is used as something other than a marketing phrase.)

(NOTE: Hat tip to the Bear Family’s Blowing the Fuse series, without which, this particular task would have been beyond my capacity–the only flaw in this mighty series is the failure to acknowledge the substantial and exciting white crossover that occurred in the mid-fifties and which marked a significant part of the revolution now all too conveniently ignored when it is not being attributed–without proof or resort to common sense–almost exclusively to the spending and listening habits of white teenagers, an issue I’ve addressed in part elsewhere (see the Elvis In the Fifties category at the right). So, trolling across the tip of the iceberg…

1950:

“I Almost Lost My Mind”–Ivory Joe Hunter: Proto-soul that predates Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter. If Hunter has been a tad neglected by history, it’s probably due to his being a balladeer who sought connections where others sought “identity.” We all know where that gets you–criminally ignored.

“The Fat Man”–Fats Domino: Domino’s first record was such a ludicrously perfect combination of swamp fever, industrial sweat and Old World hoo-doo it could only have happened in New Orleans. Something had to be born from it: turned out it was rock ‘n’ roll. You can argue forever about when, exactly, the train left the station. But Fats launching into his flight-to-freedom falsetto midway through this is the moment no power on earth could turn it around.

“Blue Shadows”–Lowell Fulson: Hints of languorous prophecy, which Elvis, among others, picked up on.

“Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere”–Joe Morris and His Orchestra (featuring Laurie Martin): The mighty Atlantic label’s first #1 R&B hit. Martin’s vocal is strident without being overblown, off-kilter and slightly disorienting in its peculiar style of intensity, much in the manner that Arlene Smith of the Chantels would achieve at the end of the decade when she was inventing the girl group ethos. Genuinely strange, a quality that was nowhere near as common to rock’s pre-dawn as modern romance would have us believe.

1951:

“Rockin’ With Red”–Piano Red: Remarkably prescient blend of laconic country vocal and rolling blues rhythm that kicked off Red’s career at the age of 40. Five years later, when younger men did it, it was called kid’s music.

“I Will Wait”–The Four Buddies (Leon Harrison, lead vocal, William Carter, Vernon Palmer and John Carroll, harmony vocals): Bedrock doo-wop, right down to being a one-hit wonder.

“Black Night”–Charles Brown and his Band: One of Brown’s last great rides up the charts. A stark, noirish reminder of what those charts would soon have no more time for. At least not until Ray Charles–who had begun by imitating Brown–grew up.

“Rocket 88”–Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats: Brenston was a pretty standard issue jump band shouter and, truth be told, his vocal–fine but not terribly distinctive–is the least impressive thing about this record. The “Delta Cats” were basically Ike Turner’s band of the moment and they did what Ike Turner’s bands generally did, which was stomp and storm (coincidentally or not, he wouldn’t learn to swing until he hooked up with Tina a decade or so later). That, plus being recorded at the Sun Studio, has been enough to insure the record plenty of “first rock ‘n’ roll record” love from people who really should know better.

“Sixty Minute Man”–The Dominoes (Bill Brown, lead vocal, Clyde McPhatter, second lead, Charlie White and Joe Lamont, harmony vocals): McPhatter’s not-quite-novelty “response” vocal now sounds like a precursor of prison rape as both national scourge and national joke. On the whole, the record is thus a little more disorienting than any joke can afford to be–perhaps because McPhatter is responding to a lead by Bill Brown that has lost none of its quality as the supreme expression of matter-of-factly asserted sexual prowess. You know what they say: It ain’t bragging if it’s true!

“The Glory of Love”–The Five Keys (Rudy West, lead vocal, Dickie Smith, second lead, Ripley Ingram, Maryland Pierce and Bernie West, harmony vocals): A new kind of formalism and a new definition of beauty, inviting a thousand challenges and, as often happens with such things, remaining unsurpassed.

“Eyesight to the Blind”–The Larks (Alden Bunn , lead vocal, Thermon Ruth, Eugene Mumford, David McNeil and Pee Wee Barnes, harmony vocals): Blues-drenched lead counterpointed by elegant harmony straight out of squares-ville (Julliard, the barber shop, whatever). Hence, a forgotten bridge between the polished sound of urban blues a generation earlier (which was very square indeed) and the David Ruffin side of the Temptations a generation later (which stepped just over the line into the place where studied elegance wasn’t square at all).

“How Many More Years”–Howlin’ Wolf: Is it possible to sound a thousand years old and predict the future? It is if you’re a prophet.

1952:

“3 O’Clock Blues”–B.B. King: On the purely vocal side of his first big hit, B.B. wasn’t doing anything exactly new. He worked well within established norms. He just did it better.

“Cry”–Johnny Ray and the Four Lads (Johnny Ray, lead vocal, Connie Codarini, Frank Busseri, Jimmy Arnold, Bernie Toorish, harmony vocals): The white boy who could hang. This is the only record by a white vocalist to hit the top of Billboard‘s R&B (or Race) chart between Helen Forrest (fronting the Harry James Orchestra) in ’43 and Elvis in ’56. Come together over me. So saith the Nabob of Sob.

“One Mint Julep”–The Clovers (Buddy Bailey, lead vocal, Harold Winley (bass interlude), Matthew McQuater and Hal Lucas, harmony vocals): Polished as glass, but it’s the kind of glass that shimmers. It keeps revealing new colors depending on the light. Salty subject matter aside, this is the other side of the world from the hard, electrified blues that were proliferating in the early fifties and at least as accurate a predictor as the Everly Brothers or the Platters of the values that would one day rule “soft rock.”

“Have Mercy Baby”–The Dominoes (Clyde McPhatter, lead vocal, Bill Brown, Charlie White and Joe Lamont, harmony vocals): The one-man typhoon that was Clyde McPhatter (spotted in the distance on “Sixty Minute Man”) reaches shore…and then starts to dance and twirl on everybody’s head.

“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”–Lloyd Price: A slightly slowed-down version of the formula Fats Domino had by now perfected (Fats–a great session man in addition to everything else–played the memorable trilling piano here). Price’s voice had a slightly brighter tone that gave the formula–and the basic New Orleans sound–a new edge that still cuts. Though it didn’t reach the pop charts, it apparently sold enough in white markets to start giving the men who ran small blues-based labels some very interesting ideas.

“Mary Jo”–The Four Blazes (Thomas Braden, lead vocal, Shorty Hill, Floyd McDaniel and Paul Holt, harmony vocals): A fascinating look at a direction the vocal group phenomenon that was about to explode might have taken. Braden sings traditional “shout” phrasing a la Wynonie Harris. But the group’s barber shop crooning tugs him back just enough to create a new space for a smooth, jazz-lite backing where the hard bopping used to be. It was a hit but the blend of musical reconciliation it pointed towards never quite arrived.

“My Song”–Johnny Ace: There had been a few three-a.m.-of-the-soul singers before Ace, even some who made the charts. But none who had been quite this lugubrious.

“Goodbye Baby”–Little Caesar: Some guy who must have been listening to a lot of Johnny Ace shows up at his lover’s door, explains why he has to shoot her, then does. Then he shoots himself. Went top five on the R&B chart. Though he went on the be a working actor himself, Harry Caesar was no Richard Berry when it came to acting a part on record. But then again, a guy who sounds like a zombie might be just what the Method ordered for a record like this. A rare instance where the black charts really did get crazy! (Sorry I wasn’t able to track down the name of the female vocalist.)

1953:

“Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean”–Ruth Brown: They called Brown’s label (Atlantic) “The House That Ruth Built.” The manner in which she built it is best exemplified by this, her signature record, which showcased her twist on the lighter side of the great blues’ queens from a generation earlier. A little less gravitas, maybe, than her predecessors, but plenty of sass and a bright, brittle twinge in her voice that let the hurt show underneath.

“Baby Don’t Do It”–The ‘5’ Royales (Johnny Tanner, lead vocal, James Moore, Obadiah Carter, Otto Jeffries and Lowman Pauling, harmony vocals): Perhaps the biggest, shiniest link in the chain between gut-bucket blues and a funk-filled future. But this is also its own glorious thing, in large part because Johnny Tanner sang like a teamster driving the four unruly horses of gospel, blues, doo wop and vaudeville without so much as breaking a sweat.

“Gabbin’ Blues”–Big Maybelle (Rose Marie McCoy shared lead vocal): Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, fifteen years early…with Maybelle playing Otis.

“Hound Dog”–Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton: Menacing, wickedly funny and deeply wounded all at once. It’s too bad that this record has gotten caught up in the phony “culture theft” wars. (Just how “caught up” would require its own post so I’ll leave it there for now). Really too bad, because it’s one of the period’s greatest vocals–the sound of an unvanquished spirit doing a job of work in order to eat…and just maybe move the world.

“I’m Gone”–Shirley and Lee (Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee, shared lead vocals): The Sweethearts of the Blues arrive. The tempo was slow-medium, but Goodman’s quavering vocal style was entirely its own medium–a medium she would maintain faithfully, straight through to the Age of Disco, a quarter-century hence.

“Crying in the Chapel”–The Orioles (Sonny Til, lead vocal, Alexander Sharp, George Nelson and Johnny Reed, harmony vocals): Stylistically something of a throwback (the group had been scoring big since the late forties), but it achieves a degree of shimmering peace that was virtually unprecedented in its own time and has become all the more valuable in the long journey toward Babel since. (You could hardly find a better measure of Elvis Presley’s genius, incidentally, than his taking on–and fully measuring up to–both this and “Hound Dog,” a feat no one else would have likely contemplated in one lifetime, let alone pulled off.)

“Shake A Hand”–Faye Adams with the Joe Morris Orchestra: The sound of Sunday morning finally integrated, as something more than a hint or allegation, with a chart topping vocal and arrangement. Beautiful and revelatory.

“Honey Hush”–Big Joe Turner: Turner had been having hits pretty steadily for almost as long as there had been a black music chart (nearing a decade by this time). He was a mostly conservative presence–always entertaining but sticking to the basics. With this record he began to loosen up a bit and position himself to be the old fashioned shouter who was, improbably, best prepared to ride out the rock and roll storm that was coming–maybe because he never really sounded like he was shouting.

“Feelin’ Good”–Little Junior’s Blue Flames: Little Junior was Junior Parker, one of the era’s supreme band leaders. But he was also a sublime vocalist, a unique combination of “uptown” and “down home,” who made this sound so easy he ended up being a quiet influence on everyone from hardcore shouters to folk rockers (John Sebastian lifted part of this lyric for the Lovin’ Spoonful’s fabulous “Let the Boy Rock and Roll”…and also learned a thing or two from Parker’s deceptively laid-back vocal approach.)

1954:

“Gee”–The Crows (Daniel Norton, lead vocal, Harold Major, Mark Jackson, Bill Davis and Gerald Hamilton, harmony vocals): A new kind of vocal strut enters the room. Not flashy, but no wasted motion either. The Crows themselves were never able to repeat the success (which was one of the very early big crossover records). But the sharp new dynamics served as the true lift off for doo-wop and whatever lay beyond.

“Sunday Kind of Love”–The Harp-tones (Willie Winfield, lead vocal, Billy Brown, Claudie Clark, William Dempsey, Dicey Galloway and Raoul Cita, harmony vocals): The stuff dreams–and legends–are made of. Literally inimitable.

“The Things I Used to Do”–Guitar Slim: A huge hit, a wonderful record, and a sign of just how conservative the R&B chart was capable of being the year before rock and roll really broke loose. The record could have been sent back to 1938 and been just as big without changing a thing. Two years later, it would have been bringing up the rear with its tongue hanging out.

“It Should’ve Been Me”–Ray Charles (Ray Charles, lead vocal; Jesse Stone, response and backing vocal): A real oddity. Outside of straight Sinatra-style pop and big band throwbacks, Charles was by far the most conservative of the era’s true giants. For reasons that seem to have nothing to do with the records he actually made, he has been lauded as a dynamo of innovation (the same narrative has him being quite a bit more popular with Black America’s record-buying public than his solid but unspectacular chart success of the period would suggest). I mention all that because this novelty record was pretty indicative of where he was when all hell was getting set to break loose. Namely, goofing around, trying to find himself. This, incidentally, does not even take full advantage of his one startlingly original quality which was his spectacular and unmistakable timbre. But it did well enough to get him in solid with his bosses at Atlantic. And that was significant. I mean, they loved him to death and all, but they were definitely into seeing their faith repaid in coin of the realm.

“That’s All Right Mama”–Elvis Presley: Should we mention that, from a strictly vocal standpoint, this was the most exciting and revelatory record of the year in any format? And that it fit “rhythm and blues” as readily as anything else? It wasn’t a big hit–probably didn’t really break much outside the Memphis market. Then again, nearly everybody came to Memphis. So it’s impossible to know exactly who heard it and when…or how exactly those who did really responded to it. Just one of many reasons that it remains as great a mystery now as it was then.

“Work With Me Annie”–The Midnighters (Hank Ballard, lead vocal): A smile record for the grownups. Big whoop, though, if you were twelve, hiding the transistor under your pillow. Or so I’ve heard.

“I Just Want To Make Love to You”–Muddy Waters: It would take at least a decade for this to be fully felt as “influence.” But it carved its own path in the moment. Muddy’s towering vocal doesn’t sound quite like anything else that was going on at the time. He sounds like what he was. A man in his own world–not to mention his own league.

“Feel So Bad”–Chuck Willis: An easy ride, urban–and urbane–to the core. He was big, and, if there hadn’t been a revolution (and a visit from the Grim Reaper) right around the corner, it’s easy to imagine him being even bigger.

“Shake, Rattle and Roll”–Big Joe Turner: The big man finally wigs out.

“Oh What A Dream”–Ruth Brown: Lovely, but by now, she’d turned a little slick. Billie Holiday without the delicacy or the death rattle. Within a year, she would be officially, sweetly old-fashioned. A sign of just how fast the times would change.

“Riot In Cell Block #9”–The Robins (Richard Berry, lead vocal, Bobby Nunn, Ty Leonard, Carl Gardner, Billy Richard and Roy Richard, backing vocals): One of those “are you kidding me?” moments in rock’s early dawn. The ultimate in comic menace. Certainly more convincing (on both counts, the comedy and the menace) than anything Quentin Tarantino and his ten thousand fan-boy imitators have managed.

“Honey Love”–The Drifters (Clyde McPhatter, lead vocal, Bill Pinkney, Andrew Thrasher and Gerhart Thrasher, harmony vocals): The bass singing here (by the mighty Bill Pinkney) became such a touchstone of doo wop style it now sounds like it must have existed since the dawn of man. But, if it wasn’t actually invented here, it’s at least a good reminder that such things are always invented somewhere, by somebody. And up top the meanwhile? Clyde being Clyde.

“Oop Shoop”–Shirley Gunter & the Queens (Shirley Gunter, lead vocal, Lula Kennedy, Lula Mae Suggs and Blondene Taylor, harmony vocals): Gunter’s creamy lead is pretty standard, but the backing group offers a modest tilt toward a future where a new kind of intimacy awaited. I still think the British critic Charlie Gillett was right to call it “girl talk.”

“Gloria”–The Cadillacs (Earl Carroll, lead vocal, Bobby Phillips, Lavern Drake, Gus Willingham and James Clark, harmony vocals): By now, an awful lot of the vocal excitement in black music was being provided by groups. The dynamics were not quite where they would be in a year or two, but the bed of harmonies was allowing more and more extreme flights of fancy up top. And that bed was getting deeper by the minute–a once-sleepy pond growing into a roiling ocean.

“Hearts of Stone”–The Charms (Otis Williams, lead vocal; Bob Smith, Rolland Bradley, Joe Penn and Richard Parker, harmony vocals): Fine and dandy and fairly routine until all those daring no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no’s start suggesting a substitute for feminine sexual stamina that (in pop music at least) had previously been relegated to instrumental numbers (and would not, of course, be available to actual female vocalists for a good while yet). Not surprisingly, perhaps, the record’s producer/arranger, Henry Stone, became a heavy hitter in the disco era. And Williams? He ended up singing country. Some things are meant to be…and too perfect to make up.

So there’s a decent overview of where things stood just before the storm. There was excitement in the air and plenty of it…but (except for maybe Clyde McPhatter and Elvis) nothing resembling a threat to the existing order. That lay just around the corner and will be covered in Part II!

[NOTE: Trying to discern the exact personnel for the era’s vocal group recordings is often akin to tackling the mysteries of quantum physics. I’ve done my very best to be accurate, but, if somebody happens along and spots a documentable mistake, please let me know. I will happily make the change!]

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The “5” Royales Prove Dangerous To My Health!)

Soul and Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales 1951–1967 (2014)

5ROYALES

Five discs. Six hours of music. Eight record labels. Three distinct phases–gospel/r&b/soul. Too many personnel changes to count.

One concept: Hardcore.

Whatever they did, they did to the limit. The cast of characters changed but the basics remained. Hard-edged vocals (Mostly from Johnny Tanner in the first decade-plus and mostly from Eudell Graham at the very end.) Equally hard-edged blues-with-a-difference guitar slinging from Lowman Pauling, who also wrote the bulk of their material.

They had a small run of hits in the fifties. Seven top tens on the R&B chart, a single bottom scraper on the Pop charts. And they kept trying, year after year, without any drop in quality and without any further success. Eventually, they all, even Pauling, who should have had one of the most lucrative catalogs in the world (“Baby Don’t Do It,” “Tell The Truth,” “Dedicated To the One I Love,” “Think,”…like that) died broke and in obscurity, working as night watchmen, janitors and so forth.

The music got into practically everybody’s head. Steve Cropper. James Brown. Ray Charles. Eric Clapton. Then, you know, whoever they influenced. Pauling’s guitar playing is the absolute bedrock of both funk and the not-as-far-disparate-as-you-might-think garage band ethos (just how absolute even I, a longtime fanatic, didn’t realize until I heard all of this in one place).

The excellent notes for this model reissue, which collects not only every Royales’ release (plus a number of unreleased and alternate sides) but all the various side projects that Pauling was involved with, posit them as the principal source of soul music and a fifties equivalent (and forerunner) of the Rolling Stones.

All very true.

But what amazed me across this incredible journey was the sheer consistency of shared vision in the pursuit of the purest possible gutbucket.

I mean, I listened to all six hours this week and I don’t want to say it was down and dirty but, as of yesterday, I’ve taken up smoking and I’m going to run by a clinic on Monday.

I think I might need a shot of penicillin.