HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 8: “Wake Up Everybody”)

“Wake Up Everybody” (Full-length Version)
Artist: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
Writers: John Whitehead, Gene McFadden, Victor Carstarphen

(NOTE: One of my New Year’s resolutions is to renew my commitment to some of my neglected categories here. This particular category was one of my principal reasons for starting this blog and I’m a little taken aback to discover I haven’t added any new entries for over a year. I’ve got the usual excuse: So much to do, so little time, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah! But I hereby resolve to do better…starting now!)

“Wake Up Everybody” is the closest anyone has ever come to putting a full-blown sermon on the charts.

There’s not a lot of critical exegesis available on the song so Dave Marsh’s take in his invaluable The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made is probably as good a place to start as any:

If uniting opposites appeals to you, then you’ll love this fusion of (producers) Gamble and Huff’s spit-polished and intoxicated disco narcissism and Teddy Pendergrass’s gravelly post-gospel sermonizing. Pendergrass’s insistence that “the world won’t get no better if we just let it be” in the face of the arrangement’s full-blown hedonism amounts to a doctoral thesis discrepancy. None of which implies an effective synthesis, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t get one. For instance, that guitar is fiddling with blues figures and Teddy’s singing matter-of-factly modulates between the Temptations’ David Ruffin and the Dells’ Marvin Junior.

Now there’s a lot I disagree with in that paragraph (though I give Marsh enormous credit for taking on what has never been a fashionable assignment–writing about singles, singers generally, and black singers in particular, as though they are deserving of serious exegesis). But the main place the analysis falls apart is in its clear misunderstanding of what, exactly constitutes “sermonizing.”

Because it’s not narcissism–“intoxicated” or otherwise–that’s at work during this winding-and-building seven minute epic (nor, I should add, in the edited-for-45 version which Marsh was specifically critiquing).

The pursuit of healing-through-ecstasy is not the same thing as hedonism and it’s not the same thing as narcissism.

At all.

Teddy Pendergrass’ vocal isn’t at odds with the production, even on the shorter version. And, in the long version, he uses that production as a springboard to vault both himself and anybody who cares to listen into something higher and purer.

Of all the things rock critics tend to misunderstand about the music they cover, their utter incomprehension of “gospel”–as either musical style, life experience or, you know, expression of actual religious faith–surely runs deepest.

When you are after redeeming a lost world, bringing light to the darkness, sustaining hope in the face of personal, communal or societal despair–when you carry the specific personal and communal burden of knowing none of this higher ground will be reached by anyone, ever, unless you reach it first–there are times when you have to abandon sense.

Occasionally, a preacher trying to reach his flock, simply has to find some way of saying, “Free your heart, and your mind will follow.”

So “Wake Up Everybody” is one of the deepest spiritual records ever made despite a lyric that sustains a complete and almost studied absence of profundity.

Intellectual profundity that is.

Preachers are not philosophers. They have to wed the message to the heart.

It’s only then that the head has a chance to follow.

Consider 1976, when this record peaked on the charts.

America had entered a period when peace and prosperity should have reigned but which had, instead, become a kind of national hangover from the nightmares of war and riot and assassination and scandal.

The seeds of our current rot had been planted, most of them (especially the economic ones) quite deliberately and with malice aforethought.

And what Blue Notes’ lead singer Pendergrass was tasked with, on what is arguably Gamble and Huff’s greatest production and Philadelphia International’s surest statement of visionary purpose, was facing down the future.

Blow by blow.

“Wake-up-everybody-no-more-sleeping-in-bed” flows like an old Chuck Berry line, with gospel (not “post-gospel” which is a nonsense phrase) fervor and desperation substituted for wit and wordplay.

And, lyrically at least, the song doesn’t get much deeper or more complicated than that opening line.

That’s because when you are facing down a future that will be very bleak indeed if hearts and minds are not moved in concert (and nowTODAY), there isn’t time for all that. Wit and wordplay are privileges for other times. Those times (say Chuck Berry’s fifties) may not be “better,” but they afford an inherent leisure. Play, “word” and otherwise, is a luxury the evangelist cannot afford.

The world might have been blown to smithereens in those other times, but a world blown to smithereens is an abstraction.

In the pulpit, the preacher cannot always and forever deal in abstractions. Some of the time, his message has to be about the here and now. And the here and now must be attacked fiercely, devoid of irony, that quality which, however sublime, has little mercy and cannot heal the sickness now being confronted.

Hence, this sermon, titled “Wake Up Everybody,” is concrete in its banalities: “Dope dealers….Stop pushing that dope! Dope users….Stop using the dope!”

And, from there, it proceeds to the abandonment of even literal sense.

“Preachers…stop teaching what you preach!”

Or is it, stop preaching what you teach?

Or start teaching what you preach?

Pendergrass’ choked reading is barely decipherable. I can never quite hold it in my mind, would trust no lyric sheet to set me straight, because, however I hear it–or remember it–I always find a disorienting absence of linear sense.

But I know exactly what he means.

And I suspect “everybody” else does, too.

Even the people who saw a world where the ripe fruit of the American Experiment was sucked to a dry husk–you know, the America they’ve made come to pass–as a dream to be fulfilled rather than a nightmare to be avoided.

They might turn their heads–boy did they, boy do they–but they can still hear.

So Teddy Pendergrass, the preacher, keeps shouting.

The way he lifts off in the temporizing part of this record–the part that makes for the “long edit” which, in those days, was usually understood to be strictly for dancers–makes it harder to ignore at the very moment most “disco” records have the non-dancer in me either nodding out or focusing strictly on what the bass player is getting up to.

The sermon goes on and on, then. It ebbs and flows.

But the spiritual underpinning never dissipates.

Instead, it starts firming up.

Then it starts rising, lifting the listener–he who WILL LISTEN RIGHT NOW–to the preacher’s own higher ground.

Teddy Pendergrass was the rare urban singer who was completely at home with southern-style testifying. Here, Gamble and Huff add to this already electrifying blend by double-voicing the lead (i.e., overlapping the end of one line with the beginning of another without switching vocalists–a form of speaking in tongues, by then becoming commonly available to modern studio wizardry, which every Pentecostal preacher then living might have benefited from investigating had they not been so busy denouncing both the music and the technology as tools of the Devil, often while seeking corporate sponsorship, of course). This has the effect of riveting we, the listeners–locking us into the message–at the very moment when we could reasonably expect a release to shout “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!”

So, yeah, it’s a sermon. Sure it is.

But none of the folks involved here ever forget they’re also making a record.

A record they expect to be a hit, even if–black radio having no real equivalent of white radio’s long formats, something that would, say, allow a bit of Celtic mysticism like “Stairway to Heaven” to be played as incessantly as a three-minute hit single and keep on being played (all nine minutes of it) for forty years and counting–they have to chop part of it off.

A hit record just the same, though, and one that will have a chance to bridge gaps in understanding. In this case, a hit record that constitutes a call, from the mouth of a Black America forever seeking existential justice (here, as so often, rooted in the New Testament evangelism which is the closest thing the two races have to a truly core, truly common culture), to the ear of a White America which has permanent difficulty getting past the particulars of whatever individual case is presently in question.

Hello, this year’s headlines.

This past year’s, of course.

But, really, any year.

Because, after double-voiced Teddy Pendergrass and the classically trained white orchestras Gamble and Huff arranged so seamlessly and magnificently into the sound of their street level politics (and, yes, Sunday morning sermonizing), have journeyed to the mountain top and taken us along–after somebody (lyricist, producer, singer, Holy Ghost) has nailed “You businessmen” with the one hammer blow (“Stop cheatin’!”) amongst all these “simple” remedies to evil that keeps repeating (six times to be exact–this after even dope got no more than a double-blow), because somebody wants to remind “everybody” just where the root of all that evil lies–this seven-and-a-half-minute record comes down, in its final minute, to Pendergrass alone, sounding like a man who can’t lie down and can’t take another step, caught between Heaven and Earth, Faith and Sin, looking yonder into the Promised Land, which is close enough to touch and a thousand miles away, saying just this:

It don’t matter…

Oh, what race…

Creed or color…

Everybody…

We need each other.

Here on Earth, there’s no more powerful reminder of the gospel’s twin purpose–to search for higher ground while providing shelter from the storm–than this record, which reached #12 on the Pop chart and #1 R&B, in 1976, when it must have seemed that we wouldn’t–couldn’t–possibly ever need its message more.

These days, when we’re living with the consequences of not having listened, I guess the hopeful New Testament evangelists of “we need each other” could wearily add an Old Testament coda.

“Don’t say you weren’t warned.”

 

THE WORLD’S ON FIRE AND WORDS COULD NEVER EXPLAIN (Robin Williams, R.I.P.)

First the light heart:

Then the heavy heart:

I don’t doubt that Robin Williams was suffering when he hung himself a few days ago. I also don’t doubt that millions have suffered (and do suffer) far, far more without contemplating–let alone carrying out–the last deed.

But I think the extraordinary response to Willams’ death–a response that has gone far beyond the scope of his considerable fame or the necessity of appreciating his undeniable genius–is probably rooted in something that runs far deeper than it should in a country as blessed as ours.

Granted, some of that response can be attributed to simple shock. I stand in a grocery store checkout line nearly every day. I make a point of reading the tabloid headlines so I know who’s on death watch.

Robin Williams wasn’t on death watch.

So there’s that.

Plus, he hung himself. Not something that happens in the small circle of A-list fame and fortune every day.

And he was, by all accounts, a gentle spirit, devoted to small acts of kindness in both his art and his personal life.

So there was bound to be a certain amount of he-was-really-too-good-for-this-world kibbitzing among both the professional mourning class and fans grieving for someone they felt understood them.

All of that definitely adds up.

And yet…

I can’t help feeling there’s just a little bit more to it this time.

For me, it comes down to this: As long as Robin Williams was alive, it was possible to believe there was at least one man out there–and a good man at that–who thought fast enough to stay one step ahead of this world we’ve made. In the age of the twitter bomb and the sound bite and the latest jihadi beheading transmitted worldwide by social media and the arrival of that moment in history where it is finally impossible to keep up with the false narratives that day on day, hour on hour, minute on minute, swallow each other literally at the speed of sound, at least one guy seemed like he had a handle on it and was willing to translate the confusion for millions who were otherwise overwhelmed.

That’s what I’ve heard/read in the responses of everyone from close friends to talking heads who were clearly even more confused than usual when it came time to put the completely irrational acts that are now permanently twinned–Robin Williams’ doing the unthinkable and the world he had decided to stop dealing with at all deciding at once that he yet deserves forgiveness–in something more than their usual callow perspective.

And underneath all that–for reasons that are certainly just as irrational (and just as compulsive)–what I kept hearing, and holding responsible for the death of a guy who, for all I know, may have just been fed up because the Viagra wasn’t working or his wife brought home the wrong kind of chicken soup, was that world we made. A world where a rich white American male multi-millionaire who had lived his dream and been given every possible accolade could hang himself in a closet and the most common response was: Yeah, I get that.

Is it entirely a coincidence that the two songs that have run through my head for the last three days are from ‘sixty-eight, the year America keeps trying to convince itself it has finally walked away from?

I don’t know. Maybe.

Then again, maybe not. I only know they won’t stop playing. Nine voices, seven of whom checked out early….five of them at ages even younger than Robin Williams, who would have heard these in high school, when the center was just beginning to crumble.

Which maybe goes to show you’re never quite as alone as you think you are.

 

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 (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.

 

CONTINUING WITH THE INTRODUCTIONS…Part Two

And now for the next update to my “value system”…

My TWENTY FAVORITE VOCAL ALBUMS: In rough chronology. Irrespective of genre. Avoiding comps when possible. I also did not consider “session” collections like the various longer editions of Elvis’ Memphis sessions. So these are all at least theoretically conceptual, confined by time and space if not theme…the classic LP format, in other words, retained so I could keep my mind wrapped around a small, round number like “twenty”.

If nothing else, you should be able to tell which years I refer to as the “golden decade of vocalizing!”

Louis Armstrong–The Louis Armstrong Story – Vol. 4: Louis Armstrong Favorites (1956): Put together by the record company long after, but the recordings are all from the same basic period (1929–31) and they certainly do adhere. This is where Armstrong earned the right to spend the rest of his life indulging his bottomless genius for minstrelsy.

Howlin’ Wolf–Howlin’ Wolf “The Rockin’ Chair LP” (1962): One of those albums small record companies used to put together after an artist had released enough singles to fill one–in this case, all sides released between 1960 and 1962. The great man’s peak, which is saying a mind-warping earful.

Bobby “Blue” Bland–Two Steps From the Blues (1961): By which he meant “not even two inches.”

Sam Cooke–Night Beat (1963): Cooke was shot and killed about a year after this album was released and in extremely tawdry circumstances. Conspiracy theories have abounded ever since. I don’t why it’s such a big mystery. The first time I heard this album I cracked the case. Sinatra obviously ordered the whole thing…and it was clearly self-defense.

The Temptations–The Temptations Sing Smokey (1965): Surely this needs no explanation beyond the title.

The Byrds–Mr. Tambourine Man (1965): I don’t know what it sounded like when it was released. By the time I heard it in the late seventies, it sounded like they had seen the whole thing coming. Which is how it still sounds.

The Beach Boys–Party (1965): Before which all other “concept” albums pale in comparison. The chatter that surrounds and bridges the sequence where the definitive version of “The Times They Are A’ Changin’” literally gives way before the definitive version (courtesy of Dean Torrence) of “Barbara Ann,”–is probably the purest example of surrealism anyone got on record, film, page or canvas in the sixties.

Aretha Franklin–I Never Loved a Man the Way That I Loved You (1967): She followed this with half a dozen albums that were just about as good, but there’s nothing like the sound of self-discovery–especially when it syncs so perfectly with a national sense of same.

The Everly Brothers–Roots (1968): Nashville’s lost children, cut adrift in the year the center refused to hold (and no, I don’t mean “almost”), recollecting what was about to be lost.

Dusty Springfield–Dusty In Memphis (1969): Where there was clearly something in the water.

Elvis Presley–From Elvis In Memphis (1969): On the basis of this alone, one can readily forgive the masses for assuming he could bear any burden we might put on him.

Led Zeppelin– Led Zeppelin IV (1971): Lest we forget, the once-and-forever dictionary of hard-rock singing and the height of absurdism.

The Rolling Stones–Sticky Fingers (1971): Their first studio release after Altamont, framed by their pretense of being unaffected by the whole affair. The affect holds until about midway through “Moonlight Mile” (the final track) and then breaks apart completely. They put it back together for one more album, after which the mask of cynicism stuck permanently to their faces and they began the shockingly brief march toward embarrassing themselves. Either that, or they were replaced by pod people.

Rod Stewart–Every Picture Tells a Story (1971): For one impossible moment, Bob Dylan with Sam Cooke’s pipes. Only if Dylan had been a layabout instead of a full-fledged bohemian and Cooke had spent his formative vocal years in bar bands instead of gospel choirs.

Van Morrison–Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972): I think this was actually an attempt to sum up the history of singing. Also, possibly, of religion. Irish dude. Little so-and-so’s are like that.

The Persuasions–Chirpin’ (1977): A capella group singing as though every bit of human history mattered, except the invention of musical instruments. And making it sound as though they might have a point.

Fleetwood Mac–Rumours (1977): Once upon a time, Dusty Springfield and Brenda Lee fetched up in a band with Brian Wilson. Only now, all of their sensibilities had been formed by the sixties rather than the fifties. Inevitably, sexual politics ensued….

Al Green–Belle (1977): Green made one more album after this before becoming the Reverend Al Green full-time. Trust a preacher’s son on this…It was either that or suicide.

Cyndi Lauper–She’s So Unusual (1984): The long-awaited, album-length sequel to the Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” and the last rock and roll singer who carried that claim to the top of the charts.

Patty Loveless–Only What I Feel (1991): The end of her first great album cycle and–like all her other numerous great albums–the sound of Appalachia arriving in the suburbs at the very moment when middle-class erosion caused that to be a distinction without a difference.