SEGUE OF THE DAY (12/13/13)–(So, Just What Are the Limitations of Popular Art Anyway?)

Explanations below, but, for starters, a salute to the late Ms. Robinson, who died of cancer in 2000 at the age of forty-five (complete with a Paul Williams intro that demonstrates just how far Show Biz hadn’t come while the culture was moving at light speed):

Now to the main point:

A few days ago, Terry Teachout posted a link to his current Wall street Journal column in which he opines on the “limits” of popular art. You can read the whole thing here but the gist is about what you would expect from a cultural conservative and he’s certainly not entirely wrong.

But it’s funny that no one ever seems to say much about the limits of High Art. I mean, one reason so-called popular art has taken up so much space in the Post-War era is that High Art has been failing so miserably.

And, of course, I spend a lot of time around here arguing that the point of “culture” at any level called “art” is to engage. That means history, politics, sex, religion, love, hate, war, poverty and so on and so on and skooby-dooby-doo.

Oooh-sha-sha.

See, there’s Popular Art giving me a voice. Engaging.

Believe me, I’d be very happy if what passes for High Art in the modern age managed to do the same.

Now, I didn’t want to stack the deck, so rather than respond to the ideas in Teachout’s essay by specifically seeking the safest available high ground (something like the Rolling Stones in 1969, or Robert Johnson in 1937, or Raymond Chandler in 1952, the first and last of those being things Teachout has evinced a limited understanding of in the past which suggests he probably hasn’t quite thought this thing all the way through) I decided I would just weigh in on the next thing that happened to pop up in the course of my day…see how far that would take me.

So, from a few nights ago, when the “next thing” happened to be a mix disc I had just assembled as a copy of an old mix tape (Volume Fourteen of a twenty volume set, and, please, believe me when I say, social relevance was the furthest thing from my mind at the point of original assembly, unless “social relevance” means imagining just how far my Theory of Shindig and Hullabaloo Dance could stretch), here goes (original recording dates in parens):

Soul Survivors “Expressway to Your Heart” (1967)–Epochal black producers (Gamble and Huff) have their first hit guiding a white group imitating a white group imitating a black group while Philly International was still a gleam in somebody’s eye.

Young Rascals “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” (1965)–The specific group the Soul Survivors were imitating. They happened to be white boys signed to a record label owned by white men who specialized in selling black music to, first, Black America and, later, White America as well, but weren’t above selling white acts to black people or white acts to white people if they could smell a profit. Would have made Beethoven’s head spin, I tell you, but they made it look easy.

Candi Staton “Young Hearts Run Free” (1976)–An exemplar of one of mid-period disco’s deeply mixed messages. These days, slick magazines are full of articles with titles like “Can Women Really Have It All.” Then as now, the answer was Yes and No. Sorry but I’d rather listen to Ms. Staton work out the ambiguities than read what our modern Platos have to say on the subject.

Wilson Pickett “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (1970)–A black man, who sounds like he knows he’s caught in a trap, begs–and begs, and begs–for a black woman not to leave him at the first historical moment when it was possible for her to even think about doing so.

Abba “SOS” (1974)–Swedish woman sings “I tried to reach for you but you had closed your mind” back to the man who wrote the lines for her to sing. He happened to also be her husband at the time. No, really.

John Waite “Missing You” (1984)–Okay, this is just a nice, pop-obsessive record about pretending not to miss someone who kicked your heart to pieces and who you would take back in a second if they would have you. Nothing High Art couldn’t handle in other words.

Cher “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” (1971)–A major star, singing in the voice of one who never got the chance, spits back at everyone who ever spit on her.

Cher “Half Breed” (1973)–Ditto. Only more so.

Styx “Too Much Time on My Hands” (1981)–I’m actually not sure what this is about. Possibly unemployment but I’m not gonna stake my reputation on it.

Roxette “The Look” (1988)–Pure confection. No discernible higher meaning except it was the-best-Prince-record-made-by-somebody-other-than-Prince, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

The Who “Who Are You” (1977)–English rockers lament/celebrate their escape from the lives the system had planned for them. Self-destruction caught up with the drummer shortly thereafter. Whether this record would still sound like it’s chasing him if he’d somehow never been caught is one of those nice existential questions that should be mulled in Philosophy 101 classes everywhere….but probably isn’t.

AC/DC “Get It Hot” (1979)–A salute to rock and roll. Good topic. Well played.

Heart “Straight On” (1978)–An epic blues played, sung, conceived and executed by seventies-era white people from the Pacific Northwest (who many sardonics of ill repute believe are the whitest people who have ever lived so go ahead and have your snicker) and also a late-feminist sequel to the Shangri-Las’ proto-feminist “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” that demonstrates just how far the earth had turned in a decade. If there’s been a novel or play that did as much, I missed it. If I happen to run into one somewhere, I bet I’ll have the bring up the fact that it doesn’t get the job completely done in four minutes.

Randy Newman “I Love LA” (1982)–Love and mockery, joined at the hip and permanently reinforcing each other.

Randy Newman “It’s Money That Matters” (1988)–The History of America in the New Gilded Age. (The ethics of which were so thoroughly and seductively appalling/appealing that, unlike the first Gilded Age, they have survived the inevitable economic bust. More than one in fact. Goodbye us, in other words. Thanks Randy!)

Jackie Wilson “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” (1967)–A call-and-response Top Ten hit and permanent radio staple that perfectly captures the last historical moment when it seemed possible for the Civil Rights movement to become a lasting social triumph as opposed to a purely legalistic one.

Steve Miller Band (1976) “RockN’ Me”–A rocker’s ode…whether to groupies or to the One Left at Home, I’ve never been quite certain.

Huey Lewis and the News (1983) “Heart of Rock and Roll”–A promise that rock and roll would keep on a goin’. Naturally it was already a bit ill, though a few years from being terminal. The song works because it is completely devoid of irony, self-awareness or any other complicating factor. Well that plus it has a good beat and you can dance to it.

Standells “Dirty Water” (1965)–The eternal, existential struggle between Puritanism and its discontents, distilled to one hundred and sixty-eight perfect seconds.

Blues Magoos “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet” (1966)–“Nothing can hold us, nothing can keep us down.” I bet High Art never manages to go anywhere that line doesn’t when it finally does work up its nerve and get around to explaining either the successes or the failures of “the Sixties.”

Tommy Tutone “867-5309/Jenny” (1981)–Stalker pleads with the Object of his Affection not to change her phone number. In other words, 7,000 guest shots on the Law and Order franchise, explained well ahead of time.

The Jacksons “Enjoy Yourself” (1976)–Or, as the full line goes, “Enjoy yourself, with me…You better enjoy yourself.” Question for the class: Whose enjoyment is more important? His or hers? Hey, that’s Michael on the lead. Does that make it any clearer? Or the “better” any more disturbing?

Vicki Sue Robinson “Turn the Beat Around” 12-inch Version (1976)–Broadway chanteuse speaks in tongues over a History of Poly-rhythms so complete it proves conclusively the inherent funkiness of the flute. In direct response to Terry’s essay, I consider this aiming very high indeed. (And just as an aside, I’ve never quite been able to forgive Gloria Estefan for later deciphering the lyrics. And I’ve really, really tried. And just as another aside: I once heard a music critic explain the superiority of seventies music over sixties music–and express complete contempt for anyone who might have even thought of disagreeing with him–by using the name of this record, plus the words “Come on!” as his entire argument. As an unabashed lover of the music of both decades, I’m an agnostic in that particular debate, but I’ll just say I did know what he meant.)

Ohio Players “FOPP” (1975)– “The rich can Fopp and, uh, so can the po’, you can Fopp until your ninety-fo’” Hey, it took a while (decades or centuries depending on when you prefer to start counting), but when Democracy finally started producing Manifestos like this, the Soviets were basically toast, regardless of who we elected President.

Rick James “Superfreak Pt 1″ (1981)–The groupie as Goddess. No ambiguity about this one.

The Doobie Brothers “China Grove” (1973)–Flannery O’Connor weirdness with a slightly better sense of rhythm and no room for the abiding contempt of the human species that intellectuals of all stripes seem to find so comforting.

Of course, each of these responses amounts to only one of several possible responses. No point in making High Art’s head spin trying to keep up.

BTW: High Art, I feel like I should give you a hug. You lost this round, but a week earlier and you might have come up against Volume Twelve. Bad, that. Would have meant dealing with “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Brother Louie.”

Count yourself lucky.

THE ICEMAN COMETH AND THE WORLD AWAKENS (Jerry Butler, Vocalist of the Month–June, 2013)

Since at least the early seventies, the phrases “Philly Soul” and “The Sound of Philadelphia,” which, given the city’s rich musical history might have meant any number of things, have meant something very specific. Namely, the vision put forth under the umbrella of the producing, writing and business genius of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (often aided and abetted by their frequent collaborator Thom Bell, who, in addition to all of the above, also vied with Brian Wilson and Smokey Robinson for the unofficial title of “greatest arranger of the rock and roll era”).

Because of their massive success and influence, Gamble and Huff are most frequently referred to by the standard Rock and Soul narratives as the true, seventies-era successors to Motown, the most massively successful and influential soul label of the sixties.

There is certainly some validity to that.

But in purely musical terms, G&H (with or without Thom Bell) owed more to the Chicago soul scene that thrived under the aegis of Curtis Mayfield.

That was the other scene that had been built largely on the unshakeable foundation of the nonpareil, heartbreak vocals provided by one Jerry Butler, Mayfield’s “big brother” from the Chicago streets (and the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers) in the doo-wopping (and church-going) fifties.

Butler’s career could be parsed a lot of ways. He was a major presence, either as participant, influence or both, in every major black vocal style from the fifties to whatever point in the future when the suits and their machines win their final victory over the human voice and “style” goes away for good.

But I’m going to focus on the sessions he recorded with Gamble and Huff in the late 1960s, all now collected on Jerry Butler: The Philadelphia Sessions, a single-disc collection released in 2001 that includes Butler’s two epic, game-changing albums of the period, The Iceman Cometh and Ice on Ice, plus singles and extra tracks he cut for a third collaboration (which was scotched when Butler’s then label, Mercury, tried to stiff Gamble and Huff on the royalty agreement–for yea, verily, I say unto you, the suits are with you always and the tactics, they do not change).

Like every other survivor of the fifties and early sixties, by 1968 or so, Butler was faced with the daunting task of negotiating the sea-change that had taken place in America, culture-wise and music-wise. Unlike nearly everyone else but Elvis–unlike singers as great as Ray Charles and Brenda Lee and Jackie Wilson, to name but a few–Butler not only survived but triumphed. The late sixties were a kind of golden age for epic vocal sessions: Elvis’ mighty comeback, Aretha’s early Atlantic period, Dusty Springfield hanging out with the Memphis Boys (Gamble and Huff would take particular notice of that one).

Even in that company, Butler’s “Philly” sessions (not all of which were actually recorded in Philly, though the strong majority were) stand tall.

To say they were a commercial success is an understatement. The twenty-five sides, most recorded in roughly a twelve-month span during 1968 and 1969, produced a run of eleven chart hits, including six that went top ten R&B and four that went top twenty Pop. Not overwhelming numbers for the Beatles perhaps, but impressive by any other contemporary standard and basically unheard of for a pre-Beatles R&B singer who represented a degree of musical, emotional and even political maturity (that dread word in post-war American life) which few of his contemporaries (certainly not the Beatles, for instance) could hope to match.

As usual, when something extraordinary happens, there were reasons.

The times certainly played a major role, as did the behind the scenes talent. Gamble and Huff were up-and-comers. They had already produced a big hit for the Soul Survivors (the blue-eyed soul classic “Expressway to Your Heart”) and some early successes for the Intruders, a modestly effective soul group led by Sonny Brown who were already signed to the duo’s early Gamble label (a forerunner of Philly International, their seventies behemoth).

According to the liner notes from The Philadelphia Sessions, Butler had heard the duo’s records–and heard something he liked.

“‘Kenny came up to me and told me he and Leon had cut the Intruders’ ‘Cowboys to Girls,’ and I said, ‘Man I like your sound.’ Butler recalls. ‘So they said, “Come on over.” When I did, Leon sat down at the piano and we wrote three songs right away–‘Beside You,’ ‘Lost’ and ‘Never Give You Up.’’”

What transpired over the ensuing months was an amalgam–equal parts unlikely and foreordained–that became one of those rare moments that bridge past and future. Butler himself called it “the marriage of jazz and the sanctified church.”

What he did not say–because he wasn’t that sort–was that he was almost certainly the only singer alive who could have made it stretch so far and mean so much.

*  *  *  *

For one thing–and for some obscure reason this has gotten lost in the same shuffle that has unfairly placed Butler a notch below his great one-name-is-all-that’s-required soul contemporaries: Otis, Aretha, Smokey, Stevie, Marvin, Curtis–he was a genuinely great writer.

The standard caveat that interpretive singers aren’t truly “creative” is utter nonsense, of course, and that’s a frequent topic here. But in Butler’s case it’s even greater nonsense than usual. For starters, he co-wrote (with Arthur and Richard Brooks) “For Your Precious Love,” the record that put him (and the Impressions, and Curtis Mayfield) on the map where they–and, except for Dion DiMucci and Marvin Junior’s Dells among their major doo-wop contemporaries, they alone–were destined to remain.

As a second act, he collaborated with Mayfield on a series of records that made him a big solo star in the early sixties (“He Will Break Your Heart,” “Find Another Girl,” “I’m A Tellin’ You”).

As a third act, he co-wrote Otis Redding’s signature record “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” (and later tossed Redding the key line that turned into “Respect,” which, after Aretha Franklin recorded it, became the signature song for all of soul music.)

Fourth act?

Well, for that, he wrote or co-wrote every single side of the G&H Philly sessions except the epochal “Got to See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” (about which, more later).

Other than that I guess he just sat around looking cool and earning his nickname.

Put it this way. The guy who wrote “For Your Precious Love,” “He Will Break Your Heart,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Moody Woman,” “Never Give You Up,” “I Stand Accused,” and “Only the Strong Survive,” for starters is as important a songwriter as Burt Bacharach or Henry Mancini (both of whom he interpreted brilliantly, along with everybody from Randy Newman to Don Covay to the team behind the Strangeloves, not to mention, you know, Curtis Mayfield and Otis Redding and Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff).

Frankly, there are “non-performers” in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who have achieved considerably less.

And what’s really amazing is how much all of that pales next to Butler’s accomplishments as a singer.

Having pushed–I think that’s the fairest word–Curtis Mayfield into building a bridge from the fifties to the sixties, he now pushed–still the fairest word–Gamble and Huff into building a similar bridge from the sixties to the seventies.

We shouldn’t really be surprised.

That’s the sort of thing that happens when great writer/producers come up against the challenge provided by great voices–a challenge that no doubt acquires an extra layer of possibility and excitement when the singer is a great writer himself.

I’m betting five minutes after Leon Huff sat down at that piano, he knew what Curtis Mayfield had probably learned back in the Cabrini-Green projects and Otis Redding had learned on the chitlin circuit.

If you wanted to hang with Jerry Butler, you better be ready to bring it.

*  *  *  *

So what about the “Iceman” sessions themselves?

Well they certainly played to Butler’s main strength. He was the master of the gentle ache. One need only think of the main lines from his two early signature hits–

…“Your precious love, means more to me, than any love that could ever be,”

or, better yet…

“He don’t love you…Like I love you.”

Can’t shoot an arrow any straighter than that.

But even when he was assertive it was from the shadows. “Find yourself another girl,” he sang on another early hit. “Who will love you, true, true, true.”

Instead of singing from the perspective of the stud telling his girl’s male friend to get lost–what we might expect from the first part of the line–he turns in the middle and seems to reveal a completely different position–that of sad experience advising a friend. Then the song takes yet another turn and, suddenly, from the position of one friend advising another, it turns out the singer is quoting the advice his own mother gave him, singing it back to himself over and over, all this accomplished with an ease and economy that the Gershwins might have envied.

In that respect, Butler hadn’t changed his position when it came to the Gamble and Huff collaboration and confronting the late sixties–only deepened it. In its reliance on motherly wisdom about the eternal search for true love as a stand-in for something larger, “Find Another Girl,” in fact presages “Only the Strong Survive,” the signature record of these particular sessions, by nearly a decade.

Of course, things had changed dramatically in that decade. Patience wasn’t the painfully necessary watchword in Black America that it had been prior to the legal triumphs of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-sixties. There were plenty who insisted it was no longer even a virtue at all.

And it was within this state of being, caught in the permanent state of tension bound to forever exist between the cautionary tales Black America had told itself to survive three hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow (the tales which were Butler’s natural metier) and the seductive attractions of the emerging militancy of the period of these recordings that the Philadelphia Sessions took on their added significance.

That tension would, in fact, inform Gamble and Huff’s entire enterprise going forward–often overtly, sometimes awkwardly or even ham-handedly so. None of this emerged on the Butler sessions, because, whoever was nominally in charge of the studio when Jerry Butler sang, he remained a supremely covert artist.

His lyric specialty was lost–and occasionally found–love. The import of his vocal style was even more understated than that. Go on and have your riot, he seemed to say, over and over. When you’re finished, I’ll still be here, ready to get down to the business of surviving.

Hearing that in his voice, I think “Got To See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” stands as not only one of the strongest vocals in a decades-long catalog that does not include anything approaching a weak one, but as a supreme political statement–stronger perhaps, than even “Only the Strong Survive.”

It seems an unusual record to bear that weight. Its story is presumably pure corn-pone–more likely to have emerged from country music or the teen tragedy boom of the early sixties than deep soul. Maybe so, but Butler simply made any such notion of “categorization” irrelevant.

“I can’t go through life remembering alone,” he sings, after lining out the details of an early marriage, hardship, the pains of childbirth and backbreaking labor and his wife’s decision to leave him and his children. That’s a line that might well have drowned in self-pity, even in the hands of the great country singers it might well have been written for. But Butler never quite lets loose. He keeps his mighty instrument–as strong as any in the history of recorded music–in check and makes the first-person story not truly about himself but about the woman who–long before the singer arrives at the bridge she’s thrown herself from–we already know won’t survive to tell her children that, well, only the strong do. The irony might have been lost on those who were going through Bob Dylan’s trash in those days, looking for the meaning of life, but I doubt it was lost on Butler or his core audience.

A truly mature society might have used something like the Iceman sessions (and the other great vocal sessions of the period) as a means of drawing together.

Ours did not.

After the great voices of the fifties, Fats Domino to Clyde McPhatter to Ray Charles to Elvis Presley to Little Richard to the Everly Brothers to, yes, Jerry Butler, the opportunity was there, staring us in the face. After the political triumphs of the sixties, it was still there.

But it wasn’t guaranteed. It was going to take work.

What I hear in the Iceman sessions now–in a month when the decades-long attack on the hard won “permanent” changes of the sixties have, for the first time, been officially rolled back–is Butler, using the unique authority of his unmistakable voice, the voice of someone who had seen the worst of everything and still, somehow, clung to hope, telling us the most cautionary tale of all.

It took three hundred years to get here, he was plainly saying.

Don’t throw this away.

Don’t throw US away.

In 1969, with revolution all around, Jerry Butler’s greatest sessions were there to remind us–not just Black America, which had good reasons to find specific, deep resonance in the great vocalists of that moment, among whom Jerry Butler stood second to no one, but all of us–that even the most incremental progress is tenuous and that it remains so no matter how much the passage of time creates the illusion of permanence.

It’s obviously a reminder which, on the day when the Supreme Court has effectively gutted the key element of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we still desperately need.

And because it’s a particularly appropriate–and painful–reminder on this day, of what might have been…sung from the other side of that same mountain that almost didn’t fall on us: