“THE VOICE” IN CONTEXT (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #96)

Back when Phil Spector started hiding his soon to be wife, Ronnie Bennett of the Ronettes,  from the world (and the Beatles), John Lennon would ask him “Where’s the Voice?”

When Brian Wilson first heard “Be My Baby,” the Ronettes’ first big hit, on the radio, he pulled off the road, and has said more than once that he’s played it every day since. He’s also said it wasn’t Phil Spector’s production that made the impact.

Ronnie herself reported her first meeting with Spector in her autobiography and described his response to first hearing her sing as something along the lines of “That’s it. That’s the voice I’ve been waiting for!”

Phil also frequently described himself as the only person who could have made Ronnie. or any of his other discoveries, stars, or at very least famous.

After reading Ronnie’s memoir years back (early nineties’ I’m guessing), I built some vague ideas and questions that had been rattling around in my head for about a decade (about how long it had been since I first heard “Be My Baby”), into a conclusion.

The conclusion: Phil Spector was the only person who could have kept Ronnie Bennett from becoming a superstar, and he used a three-step process. He signed her. Then he married her. Then he–no other word for it–tortured her.

You can read the book and find out the details–including the day John Lennon visited divorce court as a friend of both parties and came face to face with who Phil Spector really was.

Knowing all that, I still never quite understood “Be My Baby” as anything more than a great record with a great vocal.

Today, though, listening to the final volume of the Bear Family’s bottomless survey of “doo-wop,” broadly redefined as the vocal music of Black and Urban Immigrant America from 1938 to 1963, prepared for “Be My Baby” to fit the concept just like so many others (especially the early Motown acts, even including the Supremes and the Temptations) who aren’t usually included in the narrative had done.

I was still prepared for it when the famous intro, courtesy of Hal Blaine, brought the usual smile.

I wasn’t prepared for the Voice.

Having heard it a thousand times didn’t prepare me for it to cut through not only Spector’s gargantuan production, but every record that preceded it, not only on this final disc, but every disc that covered the twenty-five previous years. Today, on the way back from the doctor’s office, it hit me the way it must have hit Phil Spector, John Lennon, Brian Wilson….as something new and startling in the world.

It hit me as something completely new, no matter how much its similarities to Frankie Lymon and Brenda Lee were still obvious. They never had to fight Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and none of those who did ever made it sound so easy to blast a clean hole through it.

Today, Ronnie did.

Maybe it was the Bear Family’s famously superior mastering or having surround sound in the car or just the mood I was in (getting past my annual with the endo is always a relief).

Maybe it was just that the sprinkling of girl group records in the latter volumes of the series had made me rediscover how different the quality of female yearning was from any attitude copped by the boys of that or any era.

Whatever it was, today, like no day before, she was the Voice, maybe because the Lost World she represented seemed even more lost than all the other Lost Worlds surrounding her.

Be sure to stay tuned for the conversation which, among other things, covers their plans for the upcoming “Christmas album” which would be A Christmas Gift tor You from Philles Records (later Phil Spector), the greatest Christmas album ever made and, of course, released the day John Kennedy was assassinated…the day John Lennon had to step in and save us from.

You  know. For a while.

I really recommend reading Ronnie’s book, but for those who would like a shorthand version, you can go here for the gist.

…IN FIFTY-EIGHT (Segue of the Day: 8/12/16)

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Slowly, slowly, as the budget allows, I continue to make my way through the Bear Family’s doo-wop series Street Corner Symphonies: The Complete Story of Doo Wop.

I’m up to 1958, which was just about when inspiration and formula (the nexus of art) became fully wed. The whole 34-track disc is staggering, from the Crests’ “16 Candles,” as familiar as an oldie can be, leading off, to the near-forgotten Kodoks’ “Oh Gee, Oh Gosh,”  featuring Pearl McKinnon, the world’s greatest Frankie Lymon soundalike, closing the show.

But the knock-you-off-your-feet moment comes early, when this third track, with eighteen-year-old Jerry Butler and his Cabrini Green pals sounding impossibly deep and languid, as though time has actually stopped….

snaps straight into this fourth track, from eighteen-year-old Dion DiMucci and his buddies from Belmont Avenue, which flies by at the speed of sound…

Whenever I want to be reminded that the history of the post-war era is the history of Rock and Roll America’s reach for freedom, defined by thousands of previously excluded voices from every corner of the land, and the inevitable reactions any such reach is bound to provoke, a listen to early rock and roll usually serves as a slap to my fading memory.

Nothing is ever likely to hit harder or cleaner than that combo, provided by what were arguably (in an argument that can stretch until the end of the time Jerry Butler stopped) the two greatest vocal talents in the richest vocal tradition we’ll ever have, being pushed to their limits by the friends they grew up with.

Can’t wait to see what ‘fifty-nine brings.

Something better than 2016, I bet.

(NOTE: Good article on just how the never-ending “reaction” is panning out in Cabrini Green these days can be found here.)

TESTING THE LIMITS ON OPERA AND SPEED…DOO WOP IN ’56 (Segue of the Day: 8/26/15)

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Given where technology and “markets” (i.e., viable distribution systems) are headed, the various series the Bear Family has been putting out lately, dedicated to fifties’ R&B, country, sixties’ soul, doo wop and so forth, are probably going to serve future generations in a capacity similar to that provided by the Irish monks who preserved scripture in the Dark Ages.

I’ve spent this year working on the Street Corner Symphonies series and I’m up to 1956, which was even more of a watershed year than 1953 or 1954 (which I wrote about here) or 1955.

Bill Dahl, whose been an R&B historian for about as long as there has been such a thing, did the notes for the series, and he rightly notes that ’56 was the year rock and roll supplanted blues and gospel as the unifying force in the era’s vocal group dynamics.

But that just means those older styles were subsumed, not that they vanished. Here, they’ve moved from conscious to subconscious but their force is still present, the submergence creating a new dynamic that would last until the rise of punk and rap in the late seventies.

Just how much the world had opened up in the space of a year hit’s home in the distance covered by tracks 7 and 8, both uber-familiar, both as fresh as the day they were recorded.

First you get the Platters, with Tony Williams doing everything it’s possible to do with a pop ballad–everything anybody had ever done and everything anybody, including Roy Orbison, would ever do…

Then, without warning, you get the kind of head snap that put rock and roll in the center of the culture overnight and kept it there for the next thirty years. It took that long for the overlords to get their feet completely back under them. They’ve been stepping on us ever since and, absent a cataclysm no sane person will want to live through, I doubt they’ll let the boot slip again. But you can still listen to this, coming out of the song above, and know why it was so hard…and why a sliver of hope always remains.

I mean, who knew people were capable of this, the minute before it happened?

Certainly nobody in Tin Pan Alley.

That’s why, within a few years, the operative catchphrase for the same basic process had changed to “Brill Building” and the scene was being run by twenty-two year old kids with classical training they could utilize or discard at will.

No real surprise. After the segue above, the conservatory and the street were bound to meet somewhere above the old timers’ heads.

And all of that’s before you get the Cookies (who would soon be the Raelettes) pushing the dawn of the girl talk ethos back a full year before the Bobbettes and Chantels….

and the Six Teens offering proof of just how far Brian Wilson’s knowledge of the L.A. doo wop scene really extended….

and some guy named James Brown, showing up at the very end, sounding more “traditional” than anyone on this disc, and also pointing the way to a future that couldn’t be denied.

I’m done for now. I plan to quietly fold my hands in my robe in preparation for spending the rest of the day in meditation and perhaps copying a chapter or two from the Book of Judges.

STREET CORNER AMERICA (Segue of the Day: 5/13/15)

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A few years back there was a meme/thread going around among film bloggers who listed something like “Ten Movies that Explain America.” I missed it.

I’ve thought since, about assembling a “Ten Albums that Explain America.” Given how few movies that aren’t westerns (and by no means all of them), or “concert films” from the sixties, have had anything to do with “America” as either an idea or an actual country with a specific history that marks if off from the general run of nation-hoods humans have assembled through the ages, I think this would make a least a little more sense.

And I might still get around to it…in the meantime, just having the idea buzz around in my head is keeping me alive to the possibilities of what I might include. This week the buzzing lit on my latest acquisition from the Bear Family’s exhaustive series on doo wop, Street Corner Symphonies.

As of now, I’m up to 1954, which was the consolidation year after the quantum leap of 1953. 1953 had the Drifters doing “Money Honey,” the Orioles’ “Crying in the Chapel,” the Harp-Tones’ “Sunday Kind of Love,” the Prisonaires’ “Just Walking in the Rain,” the Crows’ “Gee” and the Clovers’ “Good Lovin’,” just for starters. With the music trying that hard to keep up with itself (and the world starting to take notice), 1954 was bound to find everybody catching their breath.

And, at least the way the Bear Family disc is sequenced, that’s pretty much what happens, even on sides as luminous and epochal as “Earth Angel” and “Sh-Boom.”

Then, without warning, out of the foggy night of long ago, the final three tracks emerge and they are this…

and this…

and this…

I mean, who needs albums (or movies) to explain America?

And who needs ten?

The mystery, the warning, the sweetest possible epitaph.

How much further could you go, really?

And remember, it’s fine to disagree with me…But, if you click over, failing to listen to the end is a crime that can’t be punished except by itself.

POP IN THE SHADOWS (Segue of the Day: 5/1/15)

Heavy listening this week and a lot catching up and careening around. Various avenues leading to various places (some of which I do intend to write about): early Conway Twitty, Swamp Dogg, more Fleetwood Mac, the 5 Royales, War, Hot Rocks, Al Green, Sheryl Crow, Roots of Funk, Staple Singers.

The usual mix, more or less, just a little...intensified.

And in that busy week nothing stuck quite as deeo as a couple of gorgeously off-hand little items from unexpected places, the first from the Bear Family’s new release celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Herman’s Hermits (which literally got here day before yesterday)…

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and the second from 2007’s box set of the Stiff label, imaginatively titled The Big Stiff Box Set, which has been sitting around my house for at least a year, waiting on my not-very-persistent New Wave mood to strike…

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I picked up the Hermits’ set in lieu of some generic greatest hits package or waiting until I could afford the complete Mickie Most sessions, which I wasn’t even sure I needed. I’m still not sure I need it, but the 66-track Bear Family treatment certainly has its deep pleasures, including a new shine on the few tracks I already considered essential (“I’m Into Something Good,” “A Must to Avoid,” “No Milk Today”) and a new level of intimacy made available by the gods of re-mastering that allowed me to hear qualities I’d missed in say, “End of the World,” and “This Door Swings Both Ways” that strengthened my abiding sense that Peter Noone was really a girl-group singer in disguise and gave me an entirely new sneaking suspicion that he might have been a first-rate one.

Better than I expected, in other words, and I can also say the same for the Stiff box, which yielded Devo’s re-imagination of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Dave Stewart’s re-imagination of “It’s My Party” among a slew of fine originals (plus re-visits with old friends like Rachel Sweet and Tracey Ullman…if I’m relying a tad heavily on “re-” it’s probably because listening to a lot of New Wave all at once always re-reminds me of its limitations as well as its joys).

And, emerging from the haze, two keepers that sound like lost soul-mates speaking to each other across a pop generation.

Neither was a hit.

In a better world, both would have been a whole lot bigger than “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” or “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.”.

Here’s the once-famous Hermits, from 1966:

And the never-famous Jane Aire and the Belvederes, from 1978:

For now…another reminder that rock and roll is bottomless.