HERE WE ARE (Track-By-Track)

Here We Are (1982)
The Jive Five

NOTE: I’m taking a little break from my slow progress through my twenty favorite vocal albums for this one. It could have easily been in that group anyway (such lists are always subject to the whims of the day they were compiled) and, since I missed lead singer/auteur Eugene Pitt’s passing in 2018, I offer this as tribute and R.I.P.

The Jive Five were one of the more successful doo wop groups (two-hit wonders!–double the usual!…but they did hang on through the 60’s) and Pitt was one of the genre’s greatest singer/songwriters. He kept some form of the Five alive for decades and this LP, recorded for Ambient Sound as part of a series the label produced in an attempt to revive and modernize classic doo wop, was the pinnacle of that series (which included the Harptones and Randy and the Rainbows) and of Pitt’s career.

It knocked my socks off in 1982.

It still does.

Here I Am”–A perfect updating of Pitt’s signature sound, a lugubrious predecessor of soul now translated for a post-soul generation. Pitt was one of the few singers of any era who was a serious collector of his style But his greatest influence was himself.

“Never, Never Lie”–This isn’t just an update but a sequel to “My True Story,” one of the group’s early hits. Remarkably, Pitt takes the opposite take from most singers recalling past glory and turns in a model of restraint, going off only at the end. Perfect.

“Don’t Believe Him Donna”–A call-and-response with “Arlene Smith’s Chantels” (not sure if Arlene was actually present or not, but the associations are powerful anyway). Any easy ride but it accomplishes its goal: I believe Donna should pick Eugene!

“Hey Nineteen”–A complete re-imagining of Steely Dan’s hit and worth their entire career. No shame in that. It’s worth a lot of careers. The loss of 60’s idealism and optimism was bound to be more painful for Black America than White. One need only glance around, in 1982 or now. One of the greatest vocals ever waxed and one of the greatest arrangements.

“Hey Sam”–1958 with a lightning volt running through it. Then it goes insane.

“Never, Never Change”–A nice change of pace. No showing off, just a nice ride in a gentle stream that, if you pay strict attention, takes you a little further than you thought it might.

“Chains”–A remake of the Cookie’s fine hit, lifted to another sphere by Pitt’s choice to arrange it as a baritone/tenor showcase for himself and a chorale/falsetto showcase for the group.

“Magic Maker, Music Maker”–Another ace arrangement using every trick in the doo wop ballad book with Pitt rising to the chorus like a man who hadn’t forgotten anything that happened in the decades since.

“Oh Baby”–Back to uptempo with glorious results. The most fun to sing along with.

“Say You’ll Be There”–Smooth. Very smooth.

“He’s Just a Lucky Man”–One last rocker, the greatest celebration by a loser you ever heard. Until the last verse calls losing into question…Sounds like the man just might be able to dance his way out of it!

“Baby You’re My Only Love”–Well, how would you close it down other than with a final plea? I believe him. Really.

Here We Are was, with the Persuasions’ Chirpin’ and the Belmonts’ Cigars Acapella Candy, one of the three great post doo wop albums that pointed to the path not taken–what might have been if other styles had not emerged (mostly from doo wop itself) and subsumed the founders. Eugene Pitt had a vision as clear and forceful as anyone’s and he remained true to it to the end. His passing means as much to me as Little Richard’s and I’m sorry it took until now to pay tribute.

TRACK-BY-TRACK: THE TEMPTATIONS SING SMOKEY

The Temptations Sing Smokey (1965)
The Temptations

Continuing with the in-depth presentation of my 20 favorite Vocal Albums. I’m up to #5 (And 1965, which is going to be a very big year for this concept):

Any list of competitors for the not-so-imaginary title of Greatest Rock and Roll Vocal Group doesn’t need your toes to count: The Everly Brothers, Beatles, Beach Boys, Mamas & Papas, Impressions, Spinners, Four Seasons. You can argue all day long about who’s #2.

There’s no argument about #1.

Close harmony might belong to one of the white groups (white musicians tend to prize order). But the Temptations, who were better than fine with close harmony, could do more of everything else and do it better while the Motown machine assured they would never lack for first rate material. If White America–well, the crit-illuminati anyway–hadn’t been so stuck on the auteur theory, developed for film but lying handy and transferable to anything, and been averse, consciously or subconsciously, to the idea that Black America could do more than dance and snap its fingers, the Tempts’ early albums (which I wrote about here) would have been treated as seriously as contemporary efforts by the Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys.

Since this was their tribute to Smokey Robinson, who may or may not have once been called America’s greatest living poet by Bob Dylan, but fit the bill in any case, it was the best material they ever got. Although the album was assembled from a putative hodgepodge–a hit from their debut album combined with material Smokey had written for himself, the Tempts and/or other acts–it coheres like a concept LP because Smokey was a conceptual artist and because this is the rare, possibly unique, “tribute” album where the subject of the tribute is producing it himself.

Call it their Rubber Soul….unless of course it makes more sense to call Rubber Soul, released nine months later, the Beatles’ natural answer to The Temptations Sing Smokey.

“The Way You Do the Things You Do”–Berry Gordy had been trying to break the Temptations (previously the Primes–the only better name change was the Primettes becoming the Supremes) for a while and finally gave them to his best friend with the instruction to “get some hits on these guys.” This was the breakout, with Smokey switching the emphasis from Paul Williams’ gravelly baritone to Eddie Kendricks’ ethereal tenor, and then using one of Marvin Tarplin’s indelible guitar lines and the Tempts’ own clever harmony arrangement (beefing up every other line in the verses, call and response alternating with close harmony in the chorus) to get Eddie within range of a Smokey Robinson lead. In the fifty-five years since, it’s never been off the radio.

“Baby, Baby I Need You”–One of the last sides recorded with original member Al Bryant just after Robinson took over the reins but before David Ruffin replaced Bryant. Did I mention they were just fine with close harmony? This is the closest the album gets to their doo wop roots and gorgeous.

“My Girl”–Smokey was determined to get a showcase for Ruffin. He got it. This is one of those records that’s now so deeply embedded in the culture it feels like it must have been breathed into being rather than composed but what’s really miraculous is how complicated the simple arrangement sounds. It fills the ear the way “I Get Around” fills the ear, but it’s devoid of spectacle, all nuance and shading. Well, maybe except for that opening guitar line (from Marvin Tarplin again).

“What Love Has Joined Together”–A straight remake of one of Smokey’s own hits with the Miracles. Not even Eddie Kendricks could match the purity of Smokey’s tenor, but he gets inside the song all the same and with the others answering in the background I’m sure no woman receiving the message was heard to complain.

“You’ll Lose a Precious Love”–Notable for David Ruffin using his tenor voice, bleeding into falsetto on the choruses. It was as beautiful as his rough baritone and hints at roads not taken. Tantalizing.

“It’s Growing”–Here, Ruffin, already firmly established, does something even Smokey couldn’t do, sliding from tenor to baritone to blue falsetto with miraculous ease, matching the movements to one of Robinson’s most trenchant lyrics. The group’s “Hey, hey, heys” would have stolen the moment from anyone else. Another hit.

“Who’s Lovin’ You”–Another remake of one of Smokey’s own hits. Here Ruffin, a Mississippi native who lived in the South until he was sixteen and whose family gospel group shared bills with the likes of Mahalia Jackson, shows why he could have cut it on the southern soul circuit. The others had all been born in the South, too, so they had no trouble keeping up. Gently, though. Gently. That’s the Smokey influence.

“What’s So Good About Goodbye”–Eddie takes on Smokey’s original again but this time the backing is stronger, more distinctive. If you can remove the memory of Robinson’s version (one of his most spectacular leads), this is beautiful on it’s own terms. The Tempts and their producer both knew how to play to their own strengths.

“You Beat Me to the Punch”–Paul Williams, the quiet man displaced by the spectacular Ruffin, accepts his assignment and gives it his special touch. The others were capable of reaching melancholy as required. Williams lived there, even on upbeat material like this, a hit for Mary Wells, who Smokey had already gotten a bunch of hits on.

“Way Over There”–Here Kendricks uses the rougher part of his voice to fine effect. The Tempts push hard, like a gospel group aiming for the charts. Good thing, because it took a might effort to get within ver-r-r-r-y close calling distance of Smokey’s original.

“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”–Poor Eddie. This was Smokey’s signature tune at the time, and the Beatles had done a superb cover. Everybody decided to take it easy, not to compete with the intensity the song had brought out of the lead singers in its two already famous versions. In context, though, it works, a setup for the close.

“(You Can) Depend On Me”–A coda, which nonetheless delivers. One of Smokey’s earliest efforts (so early Berry Gordy helped out with a co-write–a reminder that the Boss was no small genius as a music man), it floats where his original soared, but it’s a beautiful closer. Makes you want to start over…..Hey Marvin, what’s that guitar line again?

 

Note: The Temptations Sing Smokey, barely noticed by White America in 1965, spent 18 weeks at #1 on the newly instituted Billboard R&B album chart, a record that would not be surpassed until Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life spent 20 nonconsecutive weeks at #1 in 1976-77. Stevie’s record would stand (though tied by Rick James’ __ in 1981) until Michael Jackson’s Thriller arrived in 1983 and changed the game forever. Thriller struck deep, but new marketing techniques would soon allow LPs to spend a year or more at the top of the Pop or R&B album charts without leaving a mark on the culture crumbling around them. I don’t consider the inability/unwillingness to grant the final degree of creative license even to Smokey Robinson and the Temptations in their moment and the ensuing collapse the least bit coincidental. And throwing awards at those who survived to old age doesn’t make up for any of it.

Another of rock and soul’s many lessons for those who come after.

TRACK-BY-TRACK: NIGHT BEAT

Night Beat (1963)
Sam Cooke

(This is the fourth in my Track-By-Track sub-series on my twenty favorite vocal albums of the 20th century. Couldn’t go much further without Sam Cooke.)

Sam Cooke is sometimes referred to as The Man Who Invented Soul and, while no one singer could really invent Soul, Cooke certainly carved out a unique space, unifying certain disparate elements of black music and then pushing beyond boundaries that seemed inherent until he rendered them pointless.

This album is a perfect compendium of his artistry and his appeal: Lounge Blues shouldn’t really work. If this album didn’t exist there would be no proof that the concept was anything other than the oxymoron it seems.

But it does exist. No one else could have created it, let alone created it as a vital piece of an overarching genius for concentrating Black America’s aspirational essence at the peak of the Civil Rights movement into a vision that beckoned to a brighter future without forgetting a single instant of the sin-darkened past.

Know the rest. Unless it’s letting his gospel records wash over you, there’s no better life experience than listening to Cooke’s run of hits and no greater anthem of the American Voice than “A Change Is Gonna Come.” But you can’t know all of him without close attention to this consummate fusion of the sublime and the ridiculous.

“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”–If you’re gonna get po’ faced this is the number to do it with. It you’re gonna turn the concept on its head, this is the voice–and tempo–to do it with.

“Lost and Lookin'”–Take it from a lifelong insomniac and confirmed bachelor, 3:00 a.m. defined.

“Mean Old World”–An updating and re-imagining of a number Cooke had first tackled with the Soul Stirrers, the gospel group he fronted in the 60’s. He takes it at a more relaxed tempo. The miles made a difference. Anybody who thinks Cooke left something behind when he moved to Pop can get Lesson 101 about the real  journey here.

“Please Don’t Drive Me Away”–Along about here I should probably mention that this album is stuck on 3:00 a.m. Just in case you thought Night Beat only meant the sun had just gone down and the good times were about to roll.

“I Lost Everything”–This, on the other hand, is a cheerful little number. Hahahahahahaha.

“Get Yourself Another Fool”–Except for some blue notes at the end of a carefully judged line or two and an occasional touch of light melisma, Cooke adjusts his timbre to a lower register and phrases like a saloon singer from the days that rock and roll had put out of style. Just the sort of thing black people weren’t supposed to want to do. Interesting to think about where he might have taken this approach had he lived–and how the emerging cadre of white boy crit-illuminati would have taken him.

“Little Red Rooster”–And who else would shift from straight midnight cocktail music to a blues standard most closely associated with Howlin’ Wolf? And who else would play up the cocktail aspect? And who else would make it work?

“Laughin’ and Clownin'”–This is just in case you thought the previous head-snap was by accident….while segueing back to the theme, of course. It’s the old “I’m laughing to keep from crying” theme but rendered with a consummate degree of self-consciousness, registering a double awareness of the situation’s basic absurdity and real pain that isn’t the least bit common.

“Trouble Blues”–Here Cooke let’s the blues-and-soul techniques he’s been holding in check the entire album (which, at this point, feels more like an extended after-hours song to himself and the last three lonely souls at the bar than anything else) slip just over the edges. There’s a moment or two where you think he might even let loose. But he never does. The last three lonely souls at the bar don’t want to hear it.

“You Gotta Move”–Hear the way he switches back and forth from “gotta move” to “got to move” for a lesson in how a black man, or at least a black genius, can walk the line without toeing the mark.

“Fool’s Paradise”– This one’s in the spiritual DNA of everything from Elvis’s epochal take on “Merry Christmas Baby” to Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” It was a short life, but the Man Who Invented Soul never stopped moving.

“Shake, Rattle and Roll”– The old roof-rattler turned world weary. “Get out of that kitchen” sounds less like a command than a modest celebration of the wonder that is woman….which only heightens the lechery of “one eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store.” A perfect chaser.

Just as a final note, that album cover is one of the best ever. I can’t imagine what it was like to encounter it in a record bin in the mid-sixties and know there would be no more (it was his penultimate LP). Sam Cooke’s death was a tragedy, not just for Rock and Roll America or Black America, but America itself. I don’t know if the tawdry circumstances were arranged by Fate or darker, purely man-made forces. But either way, somebody was laughing, knowing what was about to befall us.

 

TWO STEPS FROM THE BLUES (Track-By-Track)

Two Steps From the Blues (1961)
Bobby “Blue” Bland

(This is the third in my Track-By-Track sub-series on my twenty favorite vocal albums of the 20th century. We’re up to 1961!)

There’s no one quite like Bobby “Blue” Bland. In the late fifties he invented a new blues voice, one that balanced shouting and crooning so effortlessly that he can be heard all over the voices who came behind him. Not much else connects the rawest Otis Redding to the smoothest Aaron Neville. Moreover Bland didn’t stay on the surface. He went as deep as any of his acolytes and, for the most part, he went there first. This, collecting sides he cut at sessions in 1960 and some modest hits he had recorded in the late fifties was his definitive statement. You won’t be able to tell which is which without a scorecard, nor do such distinctions matter to any but statisticians. It’s a concept album because Bland’s was a conceptual career. They called him The Sinatra of the Blues. I’d say, not lightly, the comparison flattered Sinatra.

 

“Two Steps From the Blues”One month from the day I first met you, your promises proved to be untrue. Thus begins the journey. Isolated, desperate, yearning. All of that blues aficionados had heard before. What might have been new, even on a Bobby “Blue ” Bland record was the delicacy, the precision, the desire to make each rain drop land softly, softly, like a prelude to Chinese water torture….or the sweet relief of turning it off.

“Cry, Cry, Cry”–Why? So it could be continued for another minute or two before being followed by a hurricane shout? Hey, why not. What else could follow it.

“I’m Not Ashamed”Some people call me the biggest fool in town, but I’m not ashamed. He’s ashamed. He’s just helplessly, hopelessly caught in a trap which black women had been told for centuries they couldn’t possibly build strong enough to hold a man. They probably always knew better, but I bet it felt good hearing a man finally admit it.

“Don’t Cry No More”–Now the lyrics turn towards comfort, even as the voice gets rawer, deeper, faster. Towards the end, he starts to croon, probably to exclude all the men from the conversation.

“Lead Me On”You know how it feels, you understand, what it is to be a stranger in this unfriendly land. Possibly the loneliest record ever made. The rest of the album provides most of the competition. The phrasing and timbre on the last line give a clear guide to what this gut-bucket blues man learned from Nat “King” Cole.

“I Pity the Fool”I pity the fool that falls in love with you…and expects you to be true. The surging horns are a straight harbinger of 60’s soul. Bland turns the neat trick of shouting the verses and crooning the chorus. The playing under the final chorus presages jazz rock and contains everything useful it would ever be. He croons over that, too.

“I’ve Just Got to Forget You”–Now he tries to get over what we know by now you can’t get over. Certainly not while listening to Bobby “Blue” Bland.

“Little Boy Blue”–Told you so.

“St. James Infirmary”–Out of nine hundred versions, many of them classic, the only one you need. He closes by reminding the world she’ll never find a man like him, presumably not even in Heaven…and finding three ways to say She’s gone, none of which give away whether we should feel worse for her or him.

“I’ll Take Care of You”I know you’ve been hurt by someone else. I can tell by the way your carry yourself. Loneliness presented as a disease comprised of music, sound, arrangement, melody. The cure is ten percent words, ninety percent the voice singing them.

“I Don’t Want No Woman”–The closest he comes to a conventional reading of a conventional blues. Also, not coincidentally, the closest he comes to straight out defiance. l don’t want no woman telling me how to live my life. If the rest of this album didn’t exist, you might even believe him.

“I’ve Been Wrong So Long”–A complete summation of all that has gone before, including the shout of defiance…now sublimated, but, no matter what the words say, not entirely dismissed.

See, I told you it was a concept album!

After Bobby “Blue” Bland, certainly after this album, black music could never be the same. And, in the twentieth century, when black music couldn’t be the same, neither could America. All this we’ve forgot. But the journey goes on.

Bobby “Blue” Bland (far right) with Elvis Presley and Junior Parker

[Next up: Sam Cooke’s Night Beat]

HOWLIN’ WOLF aka THE ROCKIN’ CHAIR ALBUM (Track-By-Track)

Howlin’ Wolf (The Rockin’ Chair Album) (1962)

[NOTE: This is the second in my series of Track-By-Track appreciations of my twenty favorite vocal albums of the twentieth century.]

Howlin’ Wolf (born Chester Arthur Burnett) was the roughest of the post-war blues singers, the one closest in sound and spirit to prewar bluesmen like Texas’s Blind Willie Johnson and especially Wolf’s mentor the Delta’s own Charley Patton.

If he sounds slightly more accessible to modern ears, it’s likely due to better recording circumstances that improved on the primitive technology of the 1920s. Like all blues singers worth their salt, he wanted to be successful, to sell records, to escape plantation life. Unlike most–especially those who were incapable of the compromises that open most doors in the record business, the radio world, Las Vegas (whether someone, even the Wolf, is unwilling to make such compromises is another, perhaps unknowable story)–he was successful. Perhaps not by pop star standards, but he was able to make a living doing what he wanted to do.

For me, finding the Wolf among the blues singers was like finding Louis Armstrong or Elvis or Al Green or Patty Loveless elsewhere.

Aha, I thought. This is the one.

Where I found him was here, on the second collection of his 50s/early 60s singles put out by Chess records.

I was led to The Rockin’ Chair Album by the conventional wisdom which held that it represented him at his peak.

For once, the conventional wisdom was not just blowing smoke up my skirt.

“Shake for Me”–A lot of singers have expressed something along the lines of “shake it for me.” No one else made it sound like lives depended on it…his and hers.

The Red Rooster”–The Little Red Rooster, on the other hand, has all the time in the world. It’s not exactly as if it was given to him, it’s that he’s taking it anyway. Just try and stop him. The Wolf will laugh at you. Speed up the rooster? The one who’s too lazy to crow for day? Good luck with that.

“You’ll Be Mine”–An unholy noise, the vocal equivalent of a pile-driver. And yet, there’s a delicacy of feeling, a nuance of romanticism that belies the mighty yowl. In this reading, You’ll be mi-i-i-i-i-ine!, is equal parts joy of expectation, fear of loss, and something not quite definable. Terror of what he’ll do if it turns out she won’t be his perhaps? A lifetime of listening hasn’t yielded the answers. I wonder if I’ll be allowed to ponder it in the next life?

“Who’s Been Talkin'”–My favorite Wolf record, the very sound the Rolling Stones spent their early years chasing. The band may have even gotten there, and there would come a time when Mick Jagger had made enough deals with Lucifer to approximate Wolf’s capacity for excising everything inessential from a vocal. What he could never match–few could–was the ease available to a singer who dealt in souls himself. Ask me what My baby bought the ticket, long as my right arm means and I can’t tell you in words. But, in the place where words don’t count, I know exactly what it means.

“Wang Dang Doodle”–Like most of the songs on this album, this was written by Willie Dixon. Unlike most of Willie Dixon’s songs, here and elsewhere, this one is channeling “Young Goodman Brown.” Chester Burnett does Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Hawthorne descended from the Salem Witch Trial judge who never repented. Ah yes, it all makes sense now, this America!

“Little Baby”–Wolf turns ghost or is it stalker? He promises to follow the girl to church or jail. He swears he won’t let anything keep him from holding the money she wins at wages or playing the ponies. You go, and I’ll come with you, little baby.  So much for the light-hearted side.

“Spoonful”–Now you flip the record over and it gets deep. Deep enough to make the wicked guitar–wicked even for a Wolf record, maybe the very wickedest–take second place.

“Going Down Slow”–This is the one where he sings about having things kings and queens ain’t never had. Anybody else would be bragging, including the richest rock stars, especially the ones who settled for knighthoods. Silly buggers. They ain’t the Wolf. He ain’t bragging. Just telling it like it is.

“Down in the Bottom”–This is the one where he sings If you see me runnin’ you know my life’s at stake. What’s remarkable about the way he sings it–what turns it inside out and lands it on its head, and yours–is it sounds almost matter of fact. And it’s the “almost” that puts the smell of fear and danger in the air. Comic fear, sure. Comic danger. But the kind that whispers: Next time, you won’t be so lucky!

“Back Door Man”The men don’t know, but the little girls understand. Anything else you need to know?

“Howlin’ for My Baby”–This is the one where he takes a couple of minutes off to provide a prototype for a side of Otis Redding that never quite came out of Otis himself. If it had, he would have wasted Janis, Jimi, and the Who at Monterey. For the Wolf? A day at the office. Hey ya’ll, I think I just invented the future again. Make sure Mr. Chess gets my check now.

“Tell Me”–Trouble shows up at Wolf’s door….to tell him his baby is gone. He promises to forget in a voice that says he won’t. Oh, goodbye. Goodbye baby got to go. Trouble keeps knocking all the way through the fade. It knocks still. Wolf promises it will knock forever, whether he gets paid or not.

Next up: Bobby “Blue” Bland Two Steps From the Blues. (My complete review from 2012: “By which he means “not even two inches.” Should be fun!)

THE LOUIS ARMSTRONG STORY-VOL. 4: FAVORITES (Track-By-Track)

The Louis Armstrong Story-Vol. 4: Favorites (1956)

[Note: As far as I know, none of the four volumes in the Louis Armstrong Story series have ever been issued on CD. This is a review of Columbia’s vinyl release CL 854 in mono. No collection should be without it, even if you have all the music in other configurations or on other delivery systems.  As is, it’s one of the world’s few perfect things.]

Louis Armstrong is now so routinely called the greatest American musician of the twentieth century it has become hard to hear him through the fog of hagiography. It’s like hearing the Beatles forever described as the Greatest Rock and Roll Band. It might be true but enough already!

Whenever I need reminding of the power of Armstrong’s actual genius–to clear my heart and soul of the cant thrown up by a Crit-Illuminati filled with cramped spirits determined to shove him down my throat without demonstrating the least understanding of what they’re selling–I come back to this LP.

Assembled by Columbia Records in the 1950s as part of a “Golden Era Series” which, as the liner notes say was “produced and edited by George Avakin, noted authority on jazz, from original masters which he has assembled and preserved in Columbia’s vaults at Bridgeport, Conn.”.

I count nine raised pinkies in twenty-five words. Finger sandwiches at the dean’s house. Don’t be late.

If you can transcend that you can transcend anything.

Louis Armstrong didn’t always transcend, but when he did, he set the American century in motion.

The focus here is on the Pop side of Pops. Like Elvis and Ray Charles (and no one else) after him and no one before him, he could turn dross into gold. Like them, he sometimes abused supreme talent’s supreme privilege.

There’s none of that here. This is hardly everything you need to know. But it covers more ground than any other short version of his mighty career: twelve early-thirties’ sides bridging his cosmic Hot Fives and Sevens’ canon from the twenties, with the ingenious, perhaps necessary, masks he was forced to wear for the rest of his life. Inevitably some of them wore him. Here, he was in full control.

“Knockin’ a Jug”–Of course my favorite of Armstrong’s vocal LP begins with an instrumental, a little miracle of rhythm and ease that exemplifies its title with a surfeit of wit and no trace of irony. Call it a modest fanfare and if that sounds like a contradiction, well you might be getting the idea of what Louis Armstrong is about.

“Body and Soul”–Now he goes to work on the Great American Songbook….and finds depths the Tin Pan Alley geniuses probably didn’t suspect existed. They were masters of surfaces. Armstrong was a master of linking the surface to what lay beneath. Here he sets the boundaries of his early formula–a lengthy orchestral intro that turns out to be a setup. The way he sings I’ve lost my one and only turns the intro on its head.

“Star Dust” -1–A first take on what many consider the era’s finest popular melody (courtesy of Hoagy Carmicheal, Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics), here completely deconstructed and put back together as something rougher and more beautiful than even this most sublime of formal compositions.

“Star Dust”-2–Second take, with Armstrong’s improvised “Oh, memory” there to break your heart right before his horn lifts the pieces. It’s one of those interpolations nobody else could get away with.

“Black and Blue”–A vocal so powerful and pure (and rough) your oh memory might not hold the lengthy intro’s muted, painful playing or the pared-to-the-essence outro’s sudden burst of defiance. Ralph Ellison copped the words in between for the prologue of Invisible Man. Armstrong pruned the original Broadway lyric (the tune was Fats Waller’s) and until Aretha Franklin recorded Otis Redding’s “Respect,” it was the greatest cover in American music. Then again, it still might be.

“Shine”–Bottomless. A 1910 coon song dressed up as a lament (and based on a beating witnessed in a 1900 New York City race riot). Armstrong sings it like an ancestral memory, with the scatting that would later become schtick (because soon enough there was nowhere else for it to go and no way to let it go) used to say things that couldn’t be conveyed by words in 1931 any more than in 1900 or 1910 or this morning.

“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”–According to the liner notes, this was the “first in the familiar formula (trumpet-vocal-trumpet), with the band playing straight man to the star.” Though there were no less than eight hit versions, before and after, this wasn’t one of them, probably because it was too strong for the pop chart of any era. A lot of justifiable attention has been paid to his remarkable phrasing but there’s been too little appreciation of Armstrong’s limber timbre, which could funnel the lightest emotions into the deepest and back again by shifting a single piece of gravel in his throat the merest centimeter. Here he makes not being able to give you anything but love sound like being trapped at the bottom of a well he’s bound to escape from. Just because we can all relate doesn’t make it radio fare.

“Lazy River”–After a brief intro that lets you know the river in question is slow and sweet as molasses, he says “Yeah.” If that was all he said it would be enough, but of course he takes you on a tour, horn, lips, tongue and all and floats the world away. Its the kind of river that can only exist in the American south and Armstrong is the only man who could dream the Klan hiding on the banks away and make you believe it.

“Dear Old Southland”–The sound of longing for a home that went missing. Instrumental except for a few offhand spoken words but if you can’t hear his horn singing you might be spiritually deaf.

“If I Could Be With You”–Here he messes with the trumpet-vocal-trumpet formula, leading off with a baby-oh-baby-I-want-to-be-with-you-tonight before the trumpet plays. By the time he starts singing again he only needs to add a line to two to make his effect complete. Really baby. He wants to be with you tonight. The closest thing to a straightforward reading on the album which means it only has four left turns in it.

“I’m Confessin'”–A lovely, flowing reverie kicked off by a plucked guitar which quickly shifts to a blues and then shifts again to a Hawaiin feel (with light orchestra) behind the vocal which slides along until it’s time to give way to the trumpet.

“I’m a Ding Dong Daddy”–All setting up this hot little number. The song is barely there, an excuse to let loose. Let loose he does: as if to say “Haven’t I done enough?” Yes, Louis, you’ve done enough. And I done forgot the words works whether you think he really forgot the words or not and whether you think he thought the words were worth forgetting…or not.

[NOTE: Not long after I started The Round Place in the Middle, by way of introducing myself, I did a series of “favorites” posts. One was my twenty favorite vocal albums irrespective of genre. You can find the list here. Favorites was the first entry on the list. I’m planning to do track-by-track for the whole list, in chronological order. Hoping to do at least one a week, but in any case, I’ll get to them all eventually! NEXT UP: Howlin’ Wolf, The Rocking Chair LP]

THE BEST OF HAROLD MELVIN & THE BLUE NOTES (Track-By-Track)

If You Don’t Know Me By Now: The Best of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (1995)

Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were already a veteran soul unit, albeit one still searching for success when they signed with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International label in 1972. Success there was immediate and lasted through 1976 at which point the group signed with ABC records, left behind their incendiary lead singer Teddy Pendergrass, and, despite occasional action in the mid-reaches of the R&B chart, soon faded back into the woodwork.

This comp from the mid-nineties covers their essential work for Philly International, distills the best work of their four fine albums there, and is an essential part of any conversation about 70’s soul or the socio-political confluence I’ve dubbed The Rising.

Pendergrass stayed with Gamble and Huff and went on to a substantial solo career. Had he and Melvin not fallen out, it’s likely the group would be accorded its rightful place as a peer of the O’Jays and the Spinners. But, brief as it was, their stay with Gamble and Huff was both a cornerstone and peak of the last age when Rock and Roll America was still in the ascendancy. Coincidentally or not, their last stand marked the road to ours. This is an exemplary comp, programmed for maximum sonic, musical and social impact, chronology be damned.

Listen close.

“Cabaret” – Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Deep soul group goes Show Biz. Just to prove they can? Or to be ready in case Vegas calls? Maybe just to prove they’ve forgotten nothing.

“The Love I Lost” – Redolent of the paradox confronting Black America  coming out of the Civil Rights movement, faced with the possibility that only the laws had changed and that whether or not the rules would change might or might not be up to them–and that this moment was the last time anyone would have a chance to make it come good. Other than that, it’s just a song about lost love.

“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” – The record that introduced Teddy Pendergrass to the American pop charts in 1973. Except for Ronnie Van Zant, he would be the last great blues singer to find a place there. Ronnie could go deep but he preferred watching from a distance, living on the sly. Teddy didn’t have any “sly” in him. He was a pleader, a beggar, a demander. It might have been histrionic, except the quality of his pleading was too pure, his timbre too rough, and the stakes, as he surely understood them, too high. Other than that, it’s just a song about the fragility of the social contract called marriage.

“Don’t Leave Me This Way” – Somehow, Philly International failed to release this as a single in the U.S. With the possible exception of the O’Jays’ “Ship Ahoy,” a ten-minute curse on the slave trade that was hardly radio fodder, it’s probably the greatest record the label recorded that wasn’t a hit.  A few years later, Thelma Houston did a version on Motown that was both a monster hit and an answer record. Choosing between the two versions is a fool’s game. If they can be rated, it’s by this difference: in Houston’s version, her life is at stake. In the Blue Notes’ version, featuring Pendergrass’s greatest vocal until the far reaches of the vamp at the end of “Wake Up Everybody,” everything is at stake. Meaning us.

“I’m Weak For You” – Their features one of the soft soul/hard soul/Greek chorus tradeoff vocals (Pendergrass always took the hard soul part and the concluding improv vamp) that became the group’s signature arrangement style. You might argue it goes on too long, but I bet the black women who heard it being sung to them would argue it didn’t go long enough.

“Everybody’s Talkin'” – Fred Neil’s standard (a big hit for Nillson in 1969) starts wearing a new face when it’s sung by a multiplicity of black voices (yes, it’s soft soul/hard soul/Greek chorus again) blending into one man with his shoulders hunched against a gray, wind-blown sky that might be hanging over a ghetto, a newly minted black suburban neighborhood or a country road in the Deep South where the car in the distance might be a ride home or a Klan patrol.

“Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” – A lovely soul ballad, a duet between Melvin and guest vocalist Sharon Paige, that offers the hope of peace without quite making it a promise, even when–or especially wnen?–Pendergrass steps in at the end. In the mid-seventies, who could do more than hope?

“Bad Luck” – Just in case anyone was getting too comfortable there for a minute. Teddy preaches some at the end…getting ready for the climb.

“Where Are All My Friends” – A sequel to the O’Jay’s “Backstabbers.” Teddy doesn’t wait this time. He starts preaching right out of the box, stalkinng from one end of the tent-revival stage to the other, the pulpit unable to contain him. Climbing…climbing…seeking?

“Wake Up Everybody” – And then, carried by his label’s greatest arrangement, he arrives at the mountaintop. And just keeps reaching…and preaching. Until, standing on the mountaintop, with his shiny, sweat-stained preacher’s suit in shreds at his feet, he falls to his knees and sings “Oh it don’t matter….what race….creed or color. Everybody….we need each other.” If we didn’t listen then, brother, we never will.

“Yesterday I Had the Blues” – Then the slow descend, back to reality. The acceptance that life’s victories will be more pedestrian than dreams. And hard-won. And perhaps, just perhaps, worth it for all that.

“Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back)” – After all that, some swagger is in order. And it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.

“I Miss You” – It’s only the last few years that I could listen to this more than every few years. Possibly the most poignant record the Rising produced. And, for once, Pendergrass, giving one of his greatest performances, isn’t the center of the show, stepping out of the spotlight halfway through and taking a back seat to Melvin’s spoken-word monologue, softly rapped out over Teddy’s agonized blues shouting (the combination capping one of Thom Bell’s greatest arrangements). Again, white critics complained about the length when what they really meant was the shattering intimacy. Again, I doubt that black women either complained or failed to understand what it was worth to be missed.

“Tell the World How I Feel About ‘Cha Baby” –Coming out of “I Miss You” this feel bright, pedestrian. Like a false promise of happiness. But then so would anything.

“Keep On Lovin’ You” – Relatively slight though it is, this closes an epic set on the right note. It would have been nice if the battle really had been won and we could get back to love songs. There’s just enough desperation, even in Teddy’s seduction voice, to make you want to start over again….not just the album but the battle. Who knows? Maybe we’ll make it come right this time.

Harold Melvin 57 (1940-1997)
Lawrence Brown 63 (1945-2008)
Teddy Pendergrass 59 (1950-2010)
Bernard Wilson 64 (1946-2010)

R.I.P. brothers.

It costs.

THE AMAZING WORLD OF JOE MEEK (Track-by-Track)

It’s Hard to Believe It: The Amazing World of Joe Meek (1995)
Various Artists

[NOTE: I don’t know if this is the best introduction to Joe Meek’s music,  just that it was mine. It got away in the Great CD Selloff of 2002 and I eventually replaced it with a 56-track, 2-disc set, which I don’t hear adding anything new or vital to his vision.]

It pays to take care when tip-toeing around cults. I trust them a little more when the object of shared affection has achieved some legitimate Pop success. I trust them a little less when said object is a murderer.

One whiff of Death Chic and my horse manure detector goes straight to eleven.

The day Phil Spector was arrested for murdering Lana Clark (a murder which fulfilled a spiritual contract he had been threatening to carry out on anyone but himself for decades and for which he was ultimately convicted), I got in my car, put my cassette copy of this in the tape deck and took the long way to town and back.

I got home just as “Black Pearl” was cutting to the fade. I sat in my driveway, sang along with Sonny Charles the way I always do, then closed my eyes and listened to Bobby Hatfield close it out with “Ebb Tide.”

Then, eyes still closed, I shook my head and said out loud:

“Well, he wasn’t a murderer then.”

He also wasn’t someone who really needed Death Chic, or even the common air of carefully cultivated eccentricity with which he was already associated, to ratify the genius part of his Genius.

All you had to do was listen to the records.

With Britain’s Joe Meek the equation, musical or human, isn’t so easy.

He, too, was a murderer.

He, too, was some sort of genius. Perhaps just not a musical one.

I hear three great records below and they are very great indeed. I also hear a lot of interesting technology, near misses and talent seeking an identity.

The Death Chic odor that surrounds Meek, then, is an especially strong one. Unlike Spector’s, his murder occurred while he was still young and active. It’s not so easy to disassociate the evil act with which he finally defined himself from the music he made or the public’s affection for it.

He was definitely no talent scout. Having, at some point, turned down the Beatles, Rod Stewart and a young David Bowie (and for no other reason than they stank), he did discover one of England’s finest female vocalists, Glenda Collins, and a good rockin’ band with a hard-driving female drummer (Honey Lantree of the Honeycombs), with whom he even had some commercial success. But his preference, always, was for weird, quasi-musical sound effects and studly young males who couldn’t sing. It may have been that talent put him off somehow.

Anyway, back and forth I go…

Does a minor genius–one tormented by being a closeted gay in an England where homosexuality was still outlawed–deserve the same respect for his work as a major one?

Especially if, unlike Phil Spector, he at least had the decency to off himself?

And if, unlike Spector, he committed his evil deed without first spending decades convincing himself he wasn’t satisfied with making all those great records, that he wouldn’t really amount to anything until he had blood on his hands?

It’s a close call, with no easy answers.

I guess the best thing to do is promise to listen close before we decide…

“Telstar”The Tornados: #1 on both sides of the Atlantic in December, 1962. The first British rock and roll record to hit #1 in America, more than a year before the Beatles hit The Ed Sullivan Show. It deserved its place in history. It’s a furious, mad record, as exciting and unrepeatable as “Rumble” or “Eve of Destruction.”

“Johnny Remember Me”John Leyton: Meek’s first UK #1, from 1961. The production is already forward looking, especially given Meek’s preference for recording in his flat. It wouldn’t be the last time he got a unique sound out of his need to keep everything close and completely under his control. Nor would it be the last time he failed to find a singer who could live up to that sound.

“Tribute To Buddy Holly”Mike Berry & The Outlaws: From 1961. What this has going for it is sincerity. The singer has the voice to put that sincerity across, but doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with it. The producer seems more interested in cramming in as many sounds as he can than with producing an effective record. It did hit the top 40 in the UK.

“Chick A ‘Roo”Ricky Wayne & The Flee-Rakkers: This is a near miss. Somebody knew their Buddy Holly front to back. The only thing they forgot was  to come up with one of those great songs Buddy wrote like it was as easy as breathing.

“Night Of The Vampire”The Moontrekkers: All atmosphere. In keeping with the vibe that was coming from comic books and the cheapest horror flicks. It’s probably effective background music for something….I’m just not sure what.

“Paradise Garden” Peter Jay: Another great production in every respect except the vocal. If this was what Joe really preferred, one can hear how he missed on the Beatles. Paul McCartney would have killed this, if he could have been induced to sing it instead of one of his own little compositions.

“My Friend Bobby” Pamela Blue: A pleasant girl group entry from 1963. The singer does not live up to her name.

 “Swingin’ Low”The Outlaws: The Outlaws were sort of Meek’s house band. This is a nice little number, a little Duane Eddy twang, a little rockabilly flavor in the drums, some weird echo. The Wrecking Crew, they were not. This is one of many records where it’s fair to ask whether Meek lacked access to top session men or they simply didn’t yet exist in Great Britain….or whether he preferred it this way. The Outlaws (who later on featured Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple fame), did make a record called “Crazy Drums” which lives up to Meek’s reputation. It, uh, did not make the charts.

“Valley Of The Saroos”The Blue Men: In his liner notes for the EP on which this first appeared in 1960, Meek billed the music within as suitable for space travel. It was/is unclear whether the astronauts having it piped in their ear were supposed to be asleep, moon-walking or making out. Fun to speculate.

“The Bublight” The Blue Men: From the same I Hear a New World project. I don’t think anyone was supposed to make out to this one. It may have been for going a step beyond…with space aliens.

“Til The Following Night” Screaming Lord Sutch & The Savages: Still in 1961. Look the man was dedicated to his vision. Jungle music on the moon. Good story line, though, something about a fellow who goes about doing terrible things in the night but has to crawl back in his coffin during the day. One of Meek’s true fellow visionaries, David Sutch eventually founded the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in Great Britain and lost a record-breaking forty elections. I have no idea of his platform, but it’s hard to imagine the Brits being any worse off for him winning a couple.

“Just Like Eddie”Heinz: Heinz was the bass player for the Tornados. This was his big shot at solo stardom and did chart in the UK. He had a white-haired version of Pink’s cropped-head look down forty years early. Alas, he did not have Pink’s vocal chops. But there’s a moment at the very end where he reaches for Eddie Cochran’s spirit and style and, for about five seconds, grabs it. That and some nice early session guitar from the aforementioned Ritchie Blackmore keep things interesting.

“North Wind”Houston Wells & The Marksmen: This one is almost all the way there. The production and guitar work are arresting, the vocal is good. Its buried too deep in the mix for maximum effect, leading me to wonder if Meek was simply scared of good singers? He rarely signed them and, when he did, he failed to show them off. Was he afraid they would get the credit? Give Phil Spector credit for this much: Even Ronnie Spector (who received credible death threats from her former husband decades before Lana Clark met her fate) said the one person who had complete autonomy on a Phil Spector record was the lead singer. He hired great voices and showcased them. To this point, no one would accuse Joe Meek of that.

“Huskie Team”The Saints: British surf music. Very fine. It would have fit right in on a collection of obscure South Bay bands from the Dick Dale era, though it wouldn’t have stood out.

“Have I The Right”The Honeycombs: 1964 and at last it all comes together. Meek signs a good band with a distinctive singer (Denis D’Ell) and straight off comes up with a stomping masterpiece that goes #1 UK and Top 5 US. Despite a string of fine singles (a few of which scraped the charts on either side of the pond), they never came close to this level of commercial success again. Evidently, some ensuing copyright issues going all the way back to “Telstar” were a major factor in destroying Meek’s finances and helped put him in a murder/suicide state of mind. The court issue was decided a year after he killed his landlady, then himself, in 1967. Apparently, British courts run along the same lines as American ones: The process is the punishment. The Honeycombs’ sides, along with “Telstar” and the best work of Glenda Collins, certainly make him the greatest British producer who never worked with a major band.

“My Baby Doll”Mike Berry & The Outlaws: A straight-up rockabilly tribute–with what sounds like zippy strings. Another near miss that goes by swiftly and painlessly.

“Something I’ve Got To Tell You”Glenda Collins: I said what I have to say about Collins’ vocal here. It was the finest she delivered on a series of strong singles for Meek and the one moment when she was the equal of Brenda Lee or Dusty Springfield. I’ll just add that Meek’s beautiful production–recorded in his flat, like everything else–is just as great, the one moment he really could have been Phil Spector.

“I Take It That We’re Through”The Riot Squad: 1966 and Meek is back to his old tricks, but he’s certainly learned a thing or two. This is a good record and has some great elements, including a wild instrumental break played on God knows what. If there’s a tragedy for the rest of us in Joe Meek’s story, it’s that he was clearly getting better as the decade went on.

“Lost Planet”The Thunderbolts: I couldn’t find out anything about the Thunderbolts, or when this was recorded, but it sounds like it would have fit on a Tornados album from 1962. There are people who can’t get enough of this stuff. I’m not one of them, but a touch of it here and there is good for the soul.

“It’s Hard To Believe It”Glenda Collins: A British “Eve of Destruction,” which means it lacks a certain air of the Apocalypse, lyrically and vocally. Still a fine record and a great closer, bringing Meek’s sonic, emotional and political concerns together in memorable fashion…and when he goes full sonic at the end–dispenses with everything except his own mad take on the world–the Apocalypse arrives anyway.

For those who want to seek out more information on Joe Meek’s life and career, there are a number of interviews and footage from documentaries on YouTube (just search “Joe Meek interview” or “Joe Meek documentary”).  There’s also a fictionalized biopic based on his life (Telstar: The Joe Meek Story). Might make a good Rock and Roll Screening some day.

TUSK (Track-By-Track)

Tusk (1979)
Fleetwood Mac

Tusk was the third album released by what had already become the most famous version of Fleetwood Mac. The history is well known but bears repeating.

The group started out in the mid to late sixties as a first rate English blues rock outfit, distinguished from dozens of others, and even most of the better ones, by Peter Green’s scintillating guitar, the rock solid rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie and some better than usual songwriting.

With Green’s departure, the early seventies’ version of the band brought on several new members–Christine McVie (née Perfect) and Bob Welch preeminent among them–and gravitated towards a mellower soul-pop sound.

The first version had kicked up some serious dust. The second version hung around.

Eventually it, too, fell apart and Fleetwood found himself in recruiting mode again.

This time, he happened on an up and coming guitarist and vocalist named Lindsey Buckingham, who already had a record out with his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks. Fleetwood and the band offered Buckingham a job. He said he would take it but only if his girlfriend could join too.

There was a big meeting–laughable in hindsight–to determine whether the two women could get along.

In the years to come, the two women would be just about the only ones who got along. But what the new Fleetwood Mac did over the next four-and-a-half years, as they were cutting each other to shreds, was remarkable by any standard.

The new unit’s first album, Fleetwood Mac, was released in 1975 and to date has sold seven million copies in the U.S. alone. Their next album, Rumours, made that, and nearly everything else released in the decade, look like chump change.

Both albums deserved their status as massive sellers and era-defining records. Good thing, because by the time they were done, Stevie Nicks was no longer Lindsey Buckingham’s girlfriend and Christine McVie was no longer John McVie’s wife.

It seemed they had taken sexual politics as far as it could go–further than the Mamas & the Papas, who had shattered under similar strains in the sixties and left a legacy in the arena other romantically entwined male/female outfits (Jefferson Airplane, Abba, Fifth Dimension) who had gotten in between couldn’t touch.

On Rumours, Buckingham and Nicks in particular, has blasted past all that, answering each others insults face to face and voice to voice on the album,  the radio, and stages all over the world.

There really should have been nowhere to go.

But selling albums in the tens of millions, as opposed to mere millions, brought a whole new perspective.

How could they break that up?

And, after Packing up, shacking up’s all you want to do and Players only love you when they’re playing, how could they not break it up?

A million dollars, a studio built especially for the ask, and many obsessive months later, Tusk was the answer. One which, in effect, bound them together forever, and from which they would never recover.

“Over & Over”–Gently, gently, Christine the Bystander leads us into the house of horrors. It’s placement at the top of the album might have been designed to mock the jump-start openers on their previous two albums. The mood Lindsey the Boyfriend was in, I don’t doubt such placement was deliberate. Lindsey the Producer was savvy enough, though, to give this the full late-sixties Beach Boys vibe and Lindsey the Guitarist was sensitive enough to provide a gorgeous fade that evokes a clear blue mountain lake, glimpsed through a high window.

“The Ledge”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend puts the lines You can love me baby but you can’t walk out and six feet under in the same song. He didn’t put them next to each other, but he was singing this one himself, so there’s no mistaking the meaning, which would have been the same if he had just sung the lyrics to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

“Think About Me”–Wait, we better put a hit single on here somewhere. Let’s throw it to Christine the Bystander! And Christine delivers, except, as hit singles go, Baby once in a while, think about me is not Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow or Over my head and it sure feels nice. Top twenty sure, but by this time that was counted a flop. They didn’t play it in concert for twenty-five years. If you listen close, you can hear the stinger in the lyric. That part about not holding you down and maybe that’s why you’re around.

“Save Me a Place”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend turns philosophical. He’ll come running. He promises. If you’ll love him. If you don’t, it’s all on you, because he needs to be amazed.

“Sara”–Stevie the Ex is finally allowed to get a word in edgewise and the very first thing out of her mouth is Wait a minute baby...Then she pretends to be the someone else he wanted her to be while she’s explaining how he tricked her into thinking he was the someone else she wanted him to be. Somebody understood. It went Top Ten and became the album’s only radio staple. Must have been the part about drowning….in the sea of love….where everyone….would love….to drown. The sentiment was sure fire. It had worked for Phil Phillips and Joe Simon in times past. But the hesitations were new. Very 1979.

“What Makes You Think You’re the One”–Something struck deep. Lindsey the Boyfriend is starting to hone his attack. It’s not entirely clear that the attack will be limited to words. By the end, it sounds like he’s thrown every dart he can get his hands (or tongue) on at the Stevie the Ex’s back. And if she doesn’t turn around? What then?

“Storms”–Or worse, what if she turns around and sings a lullaby? What if it’s impossibly lovely and wounded, the sound of a broken flower? What if it ends with I have always…been a storm. Watch out, she’s hesitating again.

“That’s All For Everyone”–I spent a lot of years not looking at the titles on this album so I always heard Last call for everyone. Last call for me. And that’s still what the voice says, lyric sheet be damned. Already the album is veering towards things words either can’t say or can say but better not.

“Not That Funny”–And just in time, too, since this is the sound of a man breaking into his ex’s house and telling her to stop making him do it while he punches her in the face, and the way he sings don-n-n-n’t bla-a-a-me me-e-e hardly belies the air of menace.

“Sisters of the Moon”–At which point Stevie the Ex, bound to think this might have something to do with her, is forced to turn herself into a ghost who walks through walls. When she gets to the next room, she turns and watches her temporal body from a distance, not really wanting to look, but not daring to go too far either. There is serious competition, but arguably her greatest side. The key is how she makes In-tense si-lence sound like in-tense violence…Lindsey the Producer’s grasp of the mood helps as does Lindsey the Guitarist’s blistering fade.

“Angel”–The morning after: Peace, and a powerful, lilting suggestion that what came before was just an ugly dream….or a suppressed memory. (And I’ll bet if Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend had known there would one day be compact discs and streaming services that obliterated side breaks, Lindsey the Producer would never in a million years have granted Stevie the Ex two songs in a row.)

“That’s Enough For Me”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend hears what he did the night before transmuted into something he can’t recognize or understand. He senses this might give him an edge and swears it’s all he ever wanted! Damn convincing, too.

“Brown Eyes”–Clearly personal, but because Christine the Bystander, who’s got problems of her own, isn’t involved in the main drama, she has to bury her personality under an abstract vocal, which sounds like it’s coming from that room where Stevie’s ghost wandered. Only Christine can’t walk through walls, which means she can’t leave.

“Never Make Me Cry”–Hear what I mean?

“I Know I’m Not Wrong”–Don-n-n-t bla-a-a-me me. Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend cries. You can see him clinching his fists, staring at them, wondering what they might be capable of if somebody else doesn’t take the blame very, very soon.

“Honey Hi”–Christine the Bystander still can’t get out of that room because she still can’t walk through walls. She’s started to sound more like a ghost though.

“Beautiful Child”–The memories are now so suppressed Stevie the Ex has reverted all the way to childhood.

“Walk a Thin Line”–Lindsey, knowing he will never again be the Boyfriend,  that being the Producer and the Guitarist will never again mean as much as they did before, perhaps horrified by what he has done or thought of doing, perhaps torn apart by the ex’s retreat into a vocal beauty so pure he ca never hope to comprehend it, walks the thin line between loading every chamber and playing Russian Roulette. No one was listenin’….

“Tusk”–The sound of the fantasy rape that takes place when the Boyfriend, jilted or otherwise, has had enough! Recorded live at Dodger Stadium, with the USC Trojan band accompanying. Top Ten in the moment. Kept off my radio ever since by those very forces that put so much effort into making it easy for us to assume they don’t know what they’re doing.

“Never Forget”–None of this ever happened. It’s really just an album folks. Listen again. Right now. You’ll see.

TRACK-BY-TRACK: I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVE YOU

I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)
Aretha Franklin

Aretha deserved every encomium she’s received, alive or dead.

But I found it curious, in the wake of her recent passing that I didn’t read much that really tried to place her in time–it was as though she was always there, or bound to be there. Her simultaneous arrivals at Atlantic Records, the altar of Artistic Genius, and the apex of Soul were noted but only as signposts along some inevitable road.

There was nothing “inevitable” about it.

When Jerry Wexler took his latest signing down to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the first weeks of 1967, hoping to catch some of what Percy Sledge had laid down there a year earlier, he had already pronounced that he was going to “let Aretha be Aretha.”

A fine sentiment, but it was no-wise clear, to him or anyone else, what that even meant.

Aretha had been a gospel prodigy, then a semi-successful purveyor of supper club pop, gaining a reputation as a singer’s singer while releasing nine modest sellers at Columbia records in the first half of the sixties.

The record on how committed she was to making it as a pop singer is mixed–my guess is Aretha would have been more than a little satisfied if those records had sold well enough to make her the new Sarah Vaughn.

But there was a world beyond her (or anyone’s) ambition, and the world of 1967 was roiling with social and political cross-currents that left a lot of people wondering if the center would hold.

In the year of there’s something happening hear what it is ain’t exactly clear, and Janis, Jimi and the Who torching (literally and figuratively) the stage at the Monterey Pop festival (Rock and Roll America’s first serious turn toward paganism, coming soon to a theater near you!), not to mention relentless bad (or anyway nervous) news from Viet Nam, the inner city, the college campus, I Never Loved a Man was a strange sound indeed.

When the white boy critics who still make up the vast bulk of the crit-illuminati  write and speak of Gospel, they have a habit of setting if off from the world, as though it were some form of exotica, like third-world cuisine or the day they discovered the Kama Sutra.

One more way Black America is both eminently exploitable and not-quite-real.

Dollars-to-doughnuts not one of them is capable of holding the meaning of “gospel” (or Gospel) in his head for more than five seconds.

Adding a few actual black people (or women) to the mix has not altered this dynamic in the least.

They’re all still proudest of their atheism (i.e., their distance from belief).

I Never Loved a Man is, among many other things, the last shout of the gospel-based Civil Rights Movement. (By 1967, the old, non-violent, New Testament coalition was already strained at the seams by the New Militancy. Whether Martin Luther King could have held it together is an open question. Making sure it stayed open long enough to become a faded, not-quite-real, memory was the biggest reason so many people who had means, motive and opportunity wanted him dead.)

That’s appropriate enough. Gospel means the same whether it’s lower or upper case.

It means Christian revelation.

Or Revelation.

Every day of the week, including Saturday night.

Since it entered History, it’s  been the source of every move towards liberation History offers.

Same in 1967 as it ever was.

The preacher’s daughter knew. By 1967, she already had a lifetime of experience, in and out of the church.

Listen again:

“Respect”–Aretha “stole” Otis Redding’s song (his word, not mine) by taking the sound straight back to church and thereby lifting the lyric from the personal to the universal. If you listen deep enough you’ll hear why the Gospel message spread like wildfire through the ancient world from slave’s mouth to mistress’s ear. In the eyes of the new god, every man was suddenly a king, every woman suddenly a queen. Maybe the message had been around before. If so, it had failed to convince. No longer. R-e-s-p-e-c-t. Find out what it means to me in other words. And that’s not even counting the part about not wanting all your money.

“Drown in My Own Tears”–Sunday morning piano backing a confessional vocal devoted to worldly abandonment. You get it reverend.*

“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”–Sex presented as the thing Jesus most needs to save you from. The question stays in the air for the length of the song: Can He? Can even He? A decade later, singing “Belle,” Al Green answered in the affirmative. Aretha left it open-ended. Neither approach can ever wear out, because it’s an (if not “the”) eternal question.

“Soul Serenade”–Dave Marsh was one of the few critics who later picked up on the value of Aretha’s pop career. Church singing aims for abandonment, pop is built around avoiding that very temptation. This is a perfect blend. It starts quiet–a consummate display of discipline–and builds as if the singer and her audience…er, congregation…are lifted, moment by moment.

“Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream”–A reverie that almost slides by. Smooth right until the end, when she takes off for the sky.

“Baby, Baby, Baby”–Is reach out for me boy still directed at the man she loved the way she loved a man before? Either way, she’s the guilty one….but only if loving him is a crime. Believe me, that’s a Pentecostal voice. No surprise she wrote it with her sister.

“Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business)”–The church piano reasserts itself. There’ s no build. She jumps right in. Sometimes you have to grab ’em right off. Wouldn’t want anybody nodding off in the back pew…let alone the front pew. This is the Sex Sermon folks. Second Sunday of the month! Wake up!

“Good Times”–Perhaps its time to mention that the girl had guts. Taking on–and taking down–Otis Redding might be enough for some people, but not for Aretha Franklin in 1967. She set her sights on Sam Cooke too. And if nobody could ever take down Sam Cooke, she certainly looked him in the eye on the way to higher ground. With an Ode to Saturday Night of course!

“Do Right Woman–Do Right Man”–Great as the vocal is, a surer sign of Aretha’s command of the studio (doubtless another benefit of the Columbia experience) is the overdubbed organ and piano, both played by her. I Never Loved a Man wasn’t only a vocal triumph, after all. She was in the process of proving herself a brilliant keyboardist and arranger as well.

“Save Me”–If there can be such a thing as a hidden gem on an album this popular, epic and influential, this would be it. A gut-bucket lick. A wailing vocal. The simplest arrangement on the record…and it just explodes. And somebody–maybe even the record company–knew albums exist for set ups….And the only song that could close this epic was….

“A Change is Gonna Come” –After the heartfelt intro–he had been a family friend, she didn’t have to pretend–Aretha didn’t add anything to Sam Cooke’s original, either temporally or spiritually. No one could. She sounds like she knows it–this is as reverent of its source as “Respect” was irreverent. But she also sounds like she knows that the moment could add something–that, two years after Cooke’s death, the idea that change was not going to come, had already reasserted itself. To turn that reassertion on its head was, perhaps, to rage against the dying of the light. Else affirmation of the sinner’s doubt. Given all that was at stake, no one who felt the loss, then or now, could blame her for trying too hard.

Aretha Franklin used the I Never Loved a Man sessions to set herself free–to insist that anyone not reaching for Higher Ground will soon be walking on the Devil’s dirt. The brilliance–and the resistance to the tides of History–flowed for a decade before the weight of carrying a burden no one should have to carry alone overwhelmed her. Being Queen proved as lonely as being King. At some point she retreated to the safe harbor of professionalism. There was no long fall and she always retained the capacity to, now and again, lift the heart.

But every reason she ever mattered was born in 1967, at the sessions, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and New York, that produced this album.

Whether she–or any of the tiny number who could ever be called her peers– lived and sang in vain will, alas, be up to us.