THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2018, Countdown)

10) The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

After decades, this finally opened up for me in the last six months, thanks to the dual mono/stereo format in which the band’s albums now seem to be routinely released. Usually, I don’t have any trouble deciding which I prefer (especially with the Beatles–monomonomono!), but this one I go back and forth on. I wouldn’t say I’ve been listening obsessively, like I’m in the freshman dorm circa 1967, but I’ve finally been forced to pay attention to the stretch between “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Day in the Life.” That’s what life is for, I suppose. To live, to learn and to find oneself wondering if hearing the same thing in both ears is better than hearing different things in different ears. By Jove, I think they’ve finally got me!

9) The Rascals Anthology: 1965-1972 (1992)

This has always been more my speed. No shame there. The Rascals’ best music is as essential as anything in life and they never stopped being great–not something one can say for many bands who made the journey from 1965 to 1972 and actually tried to keep up. Even as a big fan, I still remember being shocked at how much force this had when I first heard so much gathered in one place.

I’m not shocked anymore–but it still hits hard, all of it. Their great theme was Love, in all its variants–good, bad, personal, political, lost, found. A classic case of someone being so completely of their time they transcend it. and remind all who attend them now of how much was lost when their time passed.

6-8) War All Day Music, The World is a Ghetto, Deliver the Word (1971, 1972, 1973)

No one has ever produced a greater trifecta. That these three albums, among the most radical ever made, went gold or platinum (The World is a Ghetto was the best-selling album of 1973) is still astonishing, as is the fact that singles as potent as “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “The World is a Ghetto” were even more powerful as isolated extended album cuts–and mind-bending in the context of their respective LPs. From this distance, there really isn’t any way to process the existence of such music, let alone the idea/reality that it once topped the charts. No music has ever been quite so successful in reaching from the last dead end street all the way to the sky–and you can’t feel the full effect unless you listen to all three at once. I promise…

5) Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)

As what I’m starting to hear as the most radical album ever released, this makes a nice followup to War at their peak. Astounding on so many levels, my favorite being that Lauper was the only singer who, as a singer, had a truly Punk ethos–she held nothing back, took more vocal risks than anyone since the fifties, more emotional risks than anyone since Janis Joplin, and meant to top the charts with it…which, oh by the way, she did.

Not the *&%$in’ British charts either.

More coming…eventually…I promise.

4) The Four Tops Anthology: 50th Anniversary (2004)

The first disc is devoted to the dark side of love and need. The titles tell most of the story: “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “7-Rooms of Gloom,” “Ask the Lonely,” “You Keep Running Away.”

But even when the words carry a hint of optimism–“Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Something About You,” even “I Can’t Help Myself”–Levi Stubbs’ voice and Holland/Dozier/Holland’s arrangements fill in the blanks. This man will never know happiness!

Second disc is good solid post-sixties soul music that starts near-great (like maybe he could be happy) and ends fair-to-middlin’-with-little-distinction (sort of sub-Luther Vandross), though “Catfish” is a hidden gem….an update of the Coasters, with whom the pre-fame Tops had competed in the fifties and as far from their persona as it was possible to get.

3)  The Stylistics The Stylistics (1971)

Speaking of post -sxties soul music, this is coming from the inspired angle. One of the great debut albums, from the era when Thom Bell could do no wrong, and it never quits. Odd, though, that the absolute killer was the only song Bell and Linda Creed didn’t write–and just possibly his greatest production. If there could be such a thing.

Also, just possibly Russell Thompkins Jr.’s greatest ever vocal.

If there could be such a thing.

2) Neneh Cherry Raw Like Sushi (1989)

It would be hard to overstate how hard “Buffalo Stance” hit the radio in the wasteland of the late eighties. It has lost nothing. It’s one of those records like “Eve of Destruction” which no one but a genius could ever follow up.**

Neneh didn’t turn out to be a genius and that was pretty apparent listening to Raw Like Sushi even then. She was, however, a talented hip-hopper, speaking from a street tough stance that the mainstream hadn’t seen much of at the time. These days, even in the wake of Mary J. Blige and a few others who could claim genius status, this still sounds fresh…and even Mary J. has never laid “Buffalo Stance” in the shade. Because nobody has and nobody could.

1)  Al Green Green is Blues (1969)

Al Green was always a genius. It was only with his next album (his third) that the world started to take notice, but all the elements were in place here: the Hi rhythm section, Willie Mitchell’s sure touch in the production booth, the startling taste in covers (here jumping from “Get Back” to “Summertime” at the close–Beatles to Gershwin in a bandbox Memphis studio with a bunch of little-knowns and unknowns in the late sixties, with psychedelia blooming all around. Nobody had done anything like that since, well that guy who walked into a bandbox Memphis studio in the mid-fifties. Of whom, as I’ve noted before, Green was the greatest descendant….and, as it turned out, Rock and Roll America’s last great hope.

**The Turtles turned down “Eve of Destruction” because they thought it would be a huge, career-suffocating hit and turn them into one-hit wonders. Mary Weiss has stated that she felt the same about “Leader of the Pack” and was reluctant to record it for that reason. They both made the right choice. If Neneh felt the same about “Buffalo Stance,” she did too. Comes to that, so did Barry McGuire, who took “Eve of Destruction” to number one as an Old Testament warning LBJ and Robert McNamara failed to heed at their–and our–extreme peril.

I, TOO, WANT TO RUN….BUT THERE’S STILL NOWHERE TO GO (Memory Lane: 1998, 1966–1974)

Detroit Tiger slugger Hank Greenberg, the first great Jewish-American baseball star. Also subject of the fine documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, whereby hangs a tale, of identity…and other things.

I found this (which I strongly recommend to all my readers) linked to a Terry Teachout re-tweet.

The original tweet read, in part: “I have had two Jewish friends in the last week tell me that their families have moved money out of the UK ‘just in case we have to leave’.”

I imagine the feeling in the rest of “civilized” Europe is, if anything, more widespread.

Should this general unease turn to panic (rational or irrational), Jews will be down to, at most, a few destinations: Israel, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, and here.

The tweet, and Mr. Jacobson’s column, brought to mind a memory.

About twenty years ago, Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers’ baseball star of the 1930s and 40s (despite missing three years serving in WWII, he led the American League in home runs and RBIs four times apiece), was the subject of a good documentary which made the rounds of the art-house circuit.

There was a theater in Tallahassee (now long gone, alas) which showed offbeat movies, so I had a chance to see it on the big screen. The nominal narrative thread was Greenberg’s 1938 pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record (60, set in 1927–Greenberg’s attempt, which came up two short, perhaps because umpires wishing, for especially unsavory reasons, to preserve Ruth’s record, squeezed the strike zone on him in the season’s final weeks, was the last real run at it until Roger Maris broke the record in 1961).

But the movie’s real reason for being was to showcase Greenberg’s struggles–and triumphs–as the first great Jewish-American baseball star.

I saw it with a close friend. When we were walking out, she asked if I had ever heard of Hank Greenberg before (she hadn’t). I had been a baseball stat freak in my youth so, yes, I had heard of him.

“I never knew he was Jewish, though,” I added.

“Seriously?” she said. “Greenberg?”

“Sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t raised to pay attention to people’s names.”

It’s true. I wasn’t.

She still found my ignorance a little hard to believe, so, for proof, I gave her another, better, example.

My first eight years of public school, in any class where seats were assigned alphabetically (which was most of them), I was always seated next to a girl whose last name was Roth. She was quiet, soft-spoken, studious, got exceptional grades. Her best friends were other girls–not always as soft-spoken–who also got exceptional grades. But even among them, she was counted elite. Not just by girls. The same boys (who also got exceptional grades–their fathers were doctors, lawyers, NASA engineers) who were awed by my ability to recite the batting and home run champions for every year the National and American Leagues had been in existence, were even more in awe of her–every single day.

I moved after the eighth grade and it was only years later, after I saw the Godfather movies (one of which featured a Jewish gangster named Hyman Roth) and read a novel called Goodbye, Columbus, a plainly autobiographical story by an author named Philip Roth, that I realized it was just possible the girl I sat next to all those years was also Jewish.

To this day, I don’t know it for sure. It just seems a pretty safe assumption.

Had I known it then, I wouldn’t have thought anything about it.

Except to note it as an interesting anecdote about my childhood (that I probably sat next to a Jewish girl in school without having any clue she was Jewish), I don’t think anything about it now.

Like I told my friend: I wasn’t raised to pay attention to people’s names.

Assuming she was Jewish, though, my knowing it would have made one possible difference.

It would have meant that, if she was ever attacked or insulted for her Jewishness (or any other quality that left her in a lonely minority), it would have been my duty to come to her defense.

Whether I would have had the courage to do so–or the wit or strength to do so effectively–there is no way of knowing. Of all our motley public school crew, I may have been the only person less likely than she was to speak without being spoken to, to break my own public persona and assert myself in a circumstance where all of us–not just the studious ones–were expected to be quiet.

Had I acted according to my conscience, it would have been a supreme act of the will.

Instinct and my nature would have played no part.

My instinct–then as now–was to stay in the shadows, and observe.

As it happens, it never came to that. If the girl I sat next to in the deep South of the 1960s and 70s was ever made uncomfortable for having a Jewish name–and I don’t say she wasn’t–I wasn’t aware of it.

But if it had come to pass that she was insulted for being Jewish, and I knew it and failed to defend her, I would have been both keenly aware of my failure and ashamed of it. I would have known I needed to ask forgiveness for the sin of forgoing my faith in a testing hour.

I was raised to pay no attention to people’s names. and I was raised to ask, of my own volition, without prompting by ritual, for forgiveness of my sins–all sins, conscious (as this would have been) and unconscious–from the God of my faith.

And to seek to redress the consequences of those sins where possible. That would have included apologizing to Miss Roth and making my future willingness to stand by her side known to any possible tormentors.

Else living with immense guilt and a moral assurance that I was a coward.

It was a hard school, my faith.

It still is.

These days, it is most often called Evangelical Christianity. How it came to be called that in common parlance (when we never used the term ourselves in any church I attended growing up), and then came to be mingled with, and deliberately mistaken for, any number of other things–including, most ridiculously, the Shadow Force that runs the Republican party–is a subject for another day.

I will only say for now that, having known literally thousands of my fellow “evangelicals,” and having been made familiar with their carefully deliberated core beliefs in the most stringent intellectual and moral circumstances (among other things, my father attended a bible college when I was in high school–that was the reason we left the place where I had sat next to Miss Roth in school all those years), I have always found it amusing to note the tendency of the great thinkers of the age to mock us for our unwavering support of Israel one minute and accuse us of the rankest anti-Semitism the next.

That, too, is a story for another day.

Don’t worry. If I live long enough, I’ll get to all of it sooner or later.

These days, however, reading stories like Mr. Jacobsen’s, I find it all a bit less amusing, a bit more alarming.

Well aware as I am of my tribe’s actual sins–more aware than any without it, and most within it I assure you–I take cold comfort in knowing that, of all the tribes who might produce a person likely to spit on a Jew, in modern England or anywhere else, none is as unlikely as mine.

But, as we are all forced to contemplate the next run for the shadows–as Evangelicals themselves begin wondering, not without some justification, whether we’ll be left standing when the world is through with accusing us of being the secret cabal that runs everything and thirsts for the Apocalypse (supposed to be the real reason we support Israel, for instance)–I still haven’t forgotten my tribe’s most valuable lesson, one I’d have learned from no other that operated in my world, not even Miss Roth’s or Mr. Jacobson’s, concerned, as they must be, with their own interests and their own survival:

When you raise your children in the way they should go, teach them to pay no attention to people’s names.

And, like those who are not afforded this luxury, be ready to depart for some other land–or the next life–at a moment’s notice.

EPIC B-SIDES…A HANDY TEN

This is the flip-side to my post on obscure b-sides (and sorry for the borken links–YouTube giveth and YouTube taketh away). As I noted before, three acts could easily qualify for their own “Handy Ten”–Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys. I left them off this list, too. Ten is such a measly number anyway. No need to make it harder.

I also left off b-sides that were hits (think Ricky Nelson’s “Helly Mary Lou,” which definitely would have been here otherwise, or Bruce Springsteen’s  “Pink Cadillac” which might have been). I also limited myself to one record per artist (else the Shangri-Las would have three or four).

And because I already covered the true obscurities, these are all by successful artists (as opposed to one-hit wonders)–most people know the acts, even if they don’t know the records.

What’s left is still a weird and beautiful secret history of rock and roll. If these were the biggest/best hits these acts ever had, the world would not have been the worse for it.

1959–“What About Us” (A-side: “Run Red Run”)
The Coasters

The Coasters/Robins were not exactly slouches in the B-side department themselves. I picked this one because, in combo with “Run Red Run” it’s an early example of the concept single, which a lot of crit-illuminati types think couldn’t possibly have existed before “Strawberry Fields” or, at the very outside, “Don’t Worry Baby.”

1964–“Silence is Golden” (A-Side: “Rag Doll”)
The 4 Seasons

I first heard this on a Seasons’ comp in the late seventies. I remember being shocked–I don’t think benumbed is too strong a word–to learn it was never promoted as a single (i.e., that there had once been a world where this could be relegated to a B-side because the A-side was only “Rag Doll”…and that, little more than a decade later, such a world no longer existed). Then I found out it had been a hit for an English group called the Tremeloes. Then I heard the Tremeloes’ version. Good God.

1966–“I’m Not Like Everybody Else” (A-Side: “Sunny Afternoon”)
The Kinks

This is in the conversation for the greatest record the Kinks ever made. If the conversation is with me, it’s not even a conversation. And yes, I’m aware of the extreme competition.

1967–“I’ll Never Learn” (A-Side: “Sweet Sounds of Summer”)
The Shangri-Las

Speaking of being shocked and benumbed…The record I think of first when I think of all that’s been lost in the fifty years since. Mainly the future that never arrived…and I don’t just mean Mary Weiss’s career.

1967–“I’ll Turn to Stone” (A-Side: “7-Rooms of Gloom”)
The Four Tops

No way a handy ten of epic B-Sides would be complete without Motown, but this is a new discovery for me. I came across it when I was researching a possible post on co-writer R. Dean Taylor. To think: “7-Rooms of Gloom” as the upbeat, radio-ready side! (And FWIW it replaced the Go-Go’s “Surfing and Spying” which is the proof that Charlotte Caffey was a walking encyclopedia of surf guitar and sadly missed. Like I said, ten is a measly number.)

1968–“Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)” (A-Side: “Abraham, Martin and John”)
Dion

I love “Abraham, Martin and John” unreservedly. But I can only imagine the shock that must have occurred to anyone who turned it over in 1968. It’s still shocking.

1969–“Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)” (A-Side: “Snatching It Back”)
Clarence Carter

A sermon on sex. Guilt-free, too. Until the end. Starts funny as Richard Pryor. Ends deep as James Carr.

1973–“Something” (A-Side: James’ nine hundredth version of “Think,” all necessary.)
James Brown

George Harrison’s favorite version….of hundreds.

1977–“Silver Springs” (A-Side: “Go Your Own Way”)
Fleetwood Mac

Left off Rumours as a casualty of the permanent psychodrama that was Buckingham/Nicks. Else they just didn’t have room (hahahahaha!). Restored to various versions of the album in the CD-era, with stunning outtakes added on the multi-disc release. The rare song left off a classic album which, when restored to its original running order (at the top of the second side), doesn’t just improve the album but force-multiplies its power.

1981–“Psycho” (A-Side: “Sweet Dreams.” What else?)
Elvis Costello and the Attractions

I was gonna go with Tanya Tucker’s “No Man’s Land,” which is scarier, but I decided to keep this an all rock and roll affair.

Love the cheering at the end. What else should one do after “Mama why don’t you get up?”

That seems an appropriate place to end this.

NOT HAVING A TV….GOOD THING? BAD THING? (CD Review)

The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)

I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).

But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.

First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.

Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?

Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?

I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.

But, my God, what a missed opportunity.

Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”

One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.

That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.”  That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)

Well, none of that happened.

Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)

Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.” Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).

And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”

Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.

One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.

Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.

Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.

Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.

Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.

Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.

And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.

Take it Mavis:

 

 

MY FAVORITE MOTOWN RECORDS (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

By major act (and as prelude to a piece on Motown’s real importance in the sixties–coming….some day!).

Since the object is to honor the records, I used mostly studio recordings or lip synchs. The major exception is Smokey solo on “Sweet Harmony.” You know, if you only click one, yaddah, yaddah. I included the important acts who passed through Motown on their way to bigger, better things, because, well, they made great records on Motown, too. I stopped with acts who were at least signed in the 70s.

And I added my favorite one shot at the bottom–because God knows there were plenty of those! 

The Marvelettes “Playboy” (1962)

The Miracles “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage” (1967)

Mary Wells “The One Who Really Loves You”(1962)

Marvin Gaye “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” (1969)

Martha and the Vandellas “Honey Chile” (1967)

The Supremes “Reflections” (1967)

The Temptations “Don’t Look Back” (1965)

The Four Tops “Standing in the Shadows of Love” (1966)

Stevie Wonder:”I Believe (When I Fall in Love With You It Will Be Forever)” (1972)

Gladys Knight & the Pips “It Should Have Been Me” (1968)

The Isley Brothers “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” (1966)

Jr. Walker & the All Stars: “Way Back Home” (1971)

Marvin and Tammi “If This World Were Mine” (1967)

Spinners “We’ll Have it Made” (1971)

The Jackson 5 “ABC” (1970)

Diana Ross (solo)  “Upside Down” (1980)

Smokey Robinson (solo) “Sweet Harmony” (1973)

Jackson 5 (solo) Jermaine: “That’s How Love Goes” (1972)

The Commodores “Sail On” (1979)

Rick James “Superfreak (Part 1)” (1981)

Lionel Richie (solo) “Deep River Woman” w/Alabama (1986)

And, my favorite one shot (or, if you like, one big shot), in a close run over Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” and R. Dean Taylor’s “Indiana Wants Me” (which I’m guessing not a lot of people remember was a Motown record):

Jimmy Ruffin “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (1966)

Always loved that there was no question mark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they did.

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

Then, of course, he forgot.

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

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

Pity, that.

I Spy: Season One (1965)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair enough.

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

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

Shame about the rest of us.