“My own hope is that it somehow moves the mountain and convinces the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that if it can sacralize de facto one-hit wonder Percy Sledge and the noble yet overrated Stanley fave Del Shannon, perhaps it can conquer its own hidebound chauvinism and make room for the Cure, New Order, and the Pet Shop Boys.”
(Source: “Anti-Rockism’s Hall of Fame” Robert Christgau, BarnesandNobleReview.com, July 24, 2014)
“‘I love to sing a tearjerker,’ he (Sledge) told annotator David Gorman. ‘Like them ol’ country ballads.’ And that sums up this child of nature, who was country not as in Acuff-Rose, but as in going to town means picking up provisions at the general store. Saddled with a classic that transcends soul itself, Mr. Miserable never equaled ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ But neither did Mr. Pitiful, whose own songbook could have accommodated half these selections. The reason Otis Redding is an artist while Percy Sledge is a phenomenon is that Redding would have made ‘Out of Left Field’ sound happy, which is how it reads–a trick Sledge couldn’t have conceived with ‘Happy Song.’”
(Source: Robert Christgau “Consumer Guide Reviews,” Village Voice, 1998)
For the purposes of this post, I’m gonna leave Del Shannon and the Cure and New Order and the Pet Shop Boys out of this and concentrate on Robert Christgau and Percy Sledge (with a little bit of Otis Redding thrown in).
The first quote above is from Christgau’s recent, mostly laudatory, review of Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story of Pop Music From Bill Haley to Beyonce (which evidently proffers yet another take on the tired old Rock/Pop argument which has been irrelevant since Elvis backed up “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” with “Love Me Tender” and spent four months at the top of the “Pop” chart in the summer/fall of 1956 and exploded the whole false paradigm, but, hey, the crit-illuminati are nothing if not persistent).
The second quote is from his review of Rhino’s single-disc The Very Best of Percy Sledge.
I confess I got to the second quote from the first. One nice thing about Christgau is that he’s been so prolific for so long, you can just about bet he’s commented on whatever he’s commenting on now somewhere before, even if–as here–it’s only indirectly.
Which means if you’re of a mind to disagree with him, you can always dig down and find something else to disagree with. (Same for agreement, by the way, but where’s the fun in that?)
What got me fired up in the first quote was the abuse of language–which isn’t nearly as routine for Christgau as it is for most critics who write way too much.
Sorry, but there’s no such thing a “de facto” hit. Hence there is no such thing as a “defacto one-hit wonder.” I mean, a record is either a hit or it’s not. And the artist who has it has either had more than one or he hasn’t.
Percy Sledge had more than one hit.
If white oldies’ stations and rock critics’ memories can’t accommodate anything beyond “When a Man Loves a Woman,” that’s their loss.
But, however many hits Sledge had (14 in the Hot 100 and 4 in the top twenty–if you want to know how impressive that last number was for a southern soul singer, consider that Otis Redding himself only reached the top twenty once and that was posthumously) calling him a one-hit wonder (de facto or otherwise) isn’t nearly as nonsensical or far afield as insisting he’s not an artist.
Because you can come short of Otis Redding–which I’m not even sure Percy Sledge does–and still be that.
Percy’s problem–which I know is a problem because this is hardly the first time he’s been one of the first names mentioned when someone wants to run down the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being “hidebound” in its unwillingness to induct yet another group of white boy “faves” (the fundamental wrongheadedness of which I discussed at length here)–was that he traded in subtlety and specialized in ballad singing.
These are not qualities that tend to get you admired at the top of the critical food chain, where the demand for novelty is forever outstripping the supply, not to mention all other artistic virtues.
Here below, we’ve all got our own definitions of what makes an “artist.” The biggest part of mine is this: An artist should have a vision of the world that’s worth living up to.
On the fourth disc of Rhino’s Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, a distance at which plenty of great artists start showing some real strain, there’s a run that includes Percy’s covers of Dolly Parton (another artist who could tell you how falsely conceived that neat distinction between “Acuff-Rose” and “picking up provisions at the general store” really is), Gordon Lightfoot, Swammp Dogg and the O’Jays. He adds a little something at each stop along the Countrypolitan/Canadian Folk/Wild-Ass Soul/Philly International journey–and coaxes them all into a singular world-view that, if you decide to listen close, can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s.
Sounds like an “artist” to me.
And, lest that be considered some kind of fluke, the next batch of songs are from a live show that has him out-stomping Eddie Floyd on “Knock On Wood” and out-crooning the mighty Fleetwods on “Come Softly to Me.”
In Johannesburg, they got the message.
I can’t help wondering if the world might be a better place today had the rest of us done the same.
And that leads me to Maxim #8:
“Never look down when you really should be looking up.”
And here’s Percy, being all visionary….owning Buffalo Springfield in a style Acuff and Rose would have very much approved if he had been another color, and looking forward to the day when “corner store” types–who hadn’t been as worried about his skin color as some might have hoped–would welcome him with open arms on the oldies’ circuit: