One of Rock and Roll America’s receding ironies, once well-known, these days increasingly reduced to a secret, is the multi-racial nature of its blackest music: The southern soul and funk of the 1960s. The number of white people who signify their righteousness by preferring the “real” black music of Memphis and Muscle Shoals to Detroit’s Motown is…amusing. (For the record, actual black people have always preferred Motown.)
Amusing because the key Memphis band, Booker T and the MGs was split down the middle and the key Muscle Shoals band, the Swampers, was almost entirely white.
Except on record, it hardly made for Utopia. Aretha Franklin found her sound at Muscle Shoals, but left after a few days because her then-husband was accusing every white boy in the place of chasing her (with what credibility no one ever seems to have figured out).
She brought the musicians to New York to finish her first Atlantic album anyway.
They were the sound, not the place.
Two of the most prominent Swampers, keyboardist Donnie Fritts and ace guitarist Jimmy Johnson, passed away within a few days of each other in the past two weeks. They eventually wore many hats, including writing and producing. Listing their major accomplishments would take days.
Maybe all you really need to know is that Donnie Fritts wrote this (Elvis took a shot at it in 1973 and, by consensus of those present, was too overcome with emotion to finish it):
And Jimmy Johnson, doubling with Chips Moman (who also did a few other things), played guitar on this, ensuring it would be a massive hit and the era’s most enduring shout of freedom before the singer sang a note:
Their music is the closest we ever came to finding the real American Dream…and the only way back.
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]
One quiet thing I wanted to do last week on vacation was stop off at the Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center where I worked in the summer of 1979 and where, in the midst of an otherwise lovely experience, I made the worst decision of my life and thus acquired my most painful memory.
It doesn’t matter what the memory was. I wrote about it here, but it’s sort of incidental because this trip down Memory Lane is about the distance between memory, the present and the physical world that ties them together. The specifics matter to me, but I don’t want to get tangled up in them because I suspect everybody had their own set of specifics that could reach out and grab them at a given moment–I hope on that basis you’ll be able to relate.
You’d think if any place hadn’t changed much it would be a Conference Center run by the Southern Baptist Convention. Having not been near the place since the summer of 1982 (when I visited with my Dad for an actual conference week), any change was bound to deliver a bit of a shock.
Since, specifics or no, I was there to expiate the biggest mistake of my life, any change was bound to depress me, to make the mistake seem even larger and more irredeemable.
And I did expect those changes and those feelings.
What I didn’t expect was for the changes themselves to be so specific–to put new arrows in me because the only places that had been buried (as opposed to altered) by the expected changes were the places I wanted to see again.
The boys’ dorm is gone, under concrete now. The girls’ dorm is changed beyond recognition. I couldn’t even figure out where to park and the guest spaces were far too distant for me to walk (age and disease have sapped my legs).
So much for that side of the interstate, though I did make it into the building where reception and the check-in desk still remain, where they were nice enough to give me a map so I could find the place I really wanted to see, which was the softball field.
The only place I’ve ever written about what happened at the softball field was in one of my unpublished novels. Don’t worry, I won’t burden you with that scene. The important thing last week was that I wanted to see a place where I sat on a hillside.
The softball field is still there, more or less. It doesn’t look well-maintained but that could be because its the off-season.
The hillside is still there, just as I remembered, slanting steeply toward Interstate 40, which still divides the Boys Camp side from the Conference Center and Girls Camp side. The bridge you walk across to get from one side to the other remains.
It would have been great–and cathartic I think–to march half-way up that hillside (for that, my aching legs would have made the effort) and sit and think and remember a while.
Unfortunately forty years is a long time. Long enough for the hillside to have become covered with fifty-foot pines.
Which meant I did my thinking in my car, gazing across time, space, and the dilapidated softball field, listening, by pure coincidence if you believe in such things, to the very last music you should ever listen to when the memory of the worst mistake of your life is crowding in, namely the third disc of Rhino’s Lorraine Ellison box.
It consists of her singing/whispering demo versions of some of the haunting songs she recorded in the wake of the one song everyone knows her for if they know her at all.
Sitting there in my car, I couldn’t hear the music at all. It was playing. My ears were aware of it, but my mind couldn’t shake the song everyone knows her for, and, a week later, it can’t shake the idea that the idea animating the song everyone knows her for was part of the reason I made the biggest mistake of my life in the Summer of 1979, even though I wouldn’t hear of Lorraine Ellison or any of her songs for another decade.
Time is like that. Fluid.
Real time I mean, not what we keep by clocks and calendars. If it were only that, it would come and go and leave us alone.
If any one emotion ruled me in the Summer of 1979 (and the several years that led up to and away from it, in turn), it was Fear.
If any one song has ever defined Fear, it’s the song Lorraine Ellison is most known for.
Her best-known song has two people in it–call them the Leaver and the Left Behind. My greatest Fear, in the Summer of 1979, was being either one of those people.
I spent the Summer of 1979 having a good time…and failing to deal with my Fear.
I spent an hour last week trying to decide–yet again, as I have, off and on again, for nearly forty years–whether I’d trade every good thing that’s ever happened to me (and there have been quite a few) for the chance to go back and face my Fear, not only for the sake of repairing the damage I did to myself but the damage I now suspect I did to someone else who hardly ever knew I existed.
Heavy, I know. But seeing those pine trees in that one spot where I really wanted to sit again and wonder if it was ever really all that big a deal, made me feel forty years was a thousand…and an eye blink.
I came to no new conclusions. One thing I do know. The song Lorraine Ellison is known for–recorded on the one afternoon where she was the greatest singer in the world, deeper than Aretha, more intense than Janis, a year ahead of either being known for anything worthwhile–is the only record that can make me believe, for three minutes at least, that I might possibly have done the right thing.
[Note: This is oh-by-the-way, but if anyone ever wants to know whether Rock and Roll Hall of Fame spots are sometimes purely political, I recommend listening to Lorraine Ellison, who, even without “Stay With Me,” is ten times the singer Nina Simone or Joan Baez ever were, and ask yourself why exactly they’re in the Hall and, if you brought up Ellison’s name at a Nominating Committee meeting, no one would even know what you were talking about.]
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You(1967)
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
Others will say their piece and, where the terms of her importance to the world are addressed, I can’t imagine anything will be left unsaid.
I’ll stick to the personal.
The first album of hers that I owned is still my go-to.
She did other fine things before and after, but that decade (1967–1976) was really everything that mattered. Almost anything she did inside it was greater than almost anything she (or anyone) did outside it. Which is by way of saying I’m glad I got to it first–in a bargain bin somewhere, I don’t remember where, circa 1978.
The impact of those recordings was profound, as it has been for millions before and since, however and wherever they find them.
I had a habit in those days of sticking my head next to the turntable (the speakers were built in, cheap as they come, and, in these halcyon days of Bose and digital, I still kind of miss them) and singing along with everything. I had only been buying records for a couple of years and was still in the process of discovering that, while I was nothing special singing on my own, I was an inspired mimic.
I took it very seriously, tried to get everything just right in my own head (what you heard in your head, was your business–I knew what I sounded like!), because I saw (or heard) it as a means of linking into other souls–souls I imagined were bigger and bolder than mine, who had faced things I had yet to face, or perhaps never would face, trying to reach the world through me and me through the world, who could carry me to higher ground.
Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, you can get carried away….and carried a long way up the mountain in a very short time.
When I got hold of Ten Years of Gold, I already knew I could do Frankie Valli, Diana Ross, Donny Osmond, all five Beach Boys (no matter how fast they traded off) not to mention the easy stuff like Elton John and the Beatles.
We needn’t speak of Buddy Holly. I was note perfect from the beginning, but since I was his reincarnation (as I’ve stated before, I’m sure I’m not the only one), that hardly counted.
One thing I was queasy about was singing “girl” lyrics. I loved female voices–anyone who has followed along here knows how much I still do. And I sang with them.
But I had trouble making a particular leap.
Not timbre (heck, if you can do Diana Ross, that’s never going to be an issue–and, no, I don’t have a high speaking voice–quite the opposite–life’s full of mysteries).
The trouble was lyrics.
If one just skipped by–say Come on boy see about me, that was maybe okay.
And, of course, plenty of lyrics are gender (or was it sex?…I never can remember which is supposed to be which) neutral.
Aretha Franklin was the first singer I loved and listened to close who forced a choice.
She wasn’t a girl…and nothing (by which I mean nothing) just skipped by.
I fought it for a while. A month probably. Maybe a little longer.
Sooner or later, I was going to have to decide–do I keep changing the gender pronouns while I’m singing?
You know, the way I had been.
I might imitate some girl…But was I going to make the soul-shift take her perspective?
Then one day, I was singing along with Aretha (who I could do like nobody’s business–Sweet Inspirations too–go figure….I once knew all the words to a song I’d never heard before and have never been able to remember them since…life’s full of mysteries) and I realized something,
If I’m worrying about changing the lyrics, I’m not being carried away.
And if I wasn’t being carried away….what was the point?
So I did it.
I pretended, for a few minutes, to be a girl. Better yet, a woman.
And never thought about it again.
It didn’t turn me effeminate or gay or queer or whatever the word was supposed to be then, when I tried to keep up, or is supposed to be now when I hardly bother.
She forced me to change to a new self…and to start at the top.
For me, it was part of a Christian journey (which, unless you have taken it, is not remotely what you think it is, peace be upon you), to a place where we not only see ourselves as others see us, but we see others as they see themselves, with all the beauty and terror that implies.
I like to think the preacher’s daughter understood.
And in case you are wondering if the song that opened the world was the one you think it was, you can stop wondering.
It was the song you think it was.
Like I said, she made me start at the top.
it was many a long year before I discovered the lyrics had been written by a man. (And mea culpa and R.I.P. to Gerry Goffin, who somehow passed away in 2014 without my hearing about it. Time does both fly and march.)
What was it the poet said…Memory believes before knowing remembers?*
Yeah, that was it.
I think I might want to crank up the Bose tonight.
“The thing that always amazed me about Sandy, was that she thought she actually could appeal to the masses. Of course she couldn’t….If you’re writing songs that people can shoot themselves to, you know you’re not going to be in the charts.”
(Linda Thompson, wife of Sandy Denny’s greatest band-mate Richard Thompson–quoted in The Guardian, May 5, 2005)
There have been times and places where writing songs “people could shoot themselves to” has been something that could get you “in the charts” in a heartbeat.
Ask Kurt Cobain. Ask Amy Winehouse.
Ask Billie Holiday (whose “God Bless the Child,” which, yes, she wrote, didn’t go in the charts but did inspire countless covers and suicides).
Maybe Sandy Denny was just out of her time.
Else too perfectly of her time.
If she was ever too perfectly in tune with times no sane person would have wanted to be in tune with, it was 1969, when, after taking the band by storm at her audition, she released three mind-bending albums with Fairport Convention, thus inventing an English version of folk rock which had no precedents and–once Sandy Denny left the planet in such short order–could have no heirs.
By her third album with Fairport, Liege & Lief, she had taken command.
Being the sort of whirlwind spirit you’d expect on the evidence of Linda Thompson’s quote, the music she made in ’69 (the year she almost made it in the charts) and every picture she ever took, she then moved on: to another band; to a solo career; to a duet with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant on his band’s most monumental album that was a match for any vocal in the history of sound.
And thence to a solo career and a downward spiral into alcoholism, depression, self-destruction, coma and death.
All within eight years.
Listening to her in ’69, when it must have been possible–for her or anyone–to think no one who sang with that much death in her voice could possibly fail to become an era-defining star while so much death was in the air, one is compelled to wonder whether her future, or ours, could have been different.
1969 was not just any year historically, nor was it just any year vocally.
It was the year of Elvis Presley’s Memphis sessions, Dusty Springfield’s Memphis sessions (which were then re-created in New York), Jerry Butler’s Iceman sessions, Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, Merle Haggard’s usual three fine albums, Marvin Gaye’s “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby”–great enough to bridge “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and What’s Going On–and that’s just a sampling of the big names).
For life-defining vocals, no year ran deeper.
And Sandy Denny might have had the greatest year of all.
In any year, her combination of power and delicacy was unique. The number of vocalists who could go toe-to-toe with Robert Plant at full tilt is limited. Those who could then deploy a wistful soprano to dive as far inside a song as Billie Holiday make up a list of one.
It is hard to be one of anything.
It must have been something more than hard (and I almost wrote “worse” when I might have meant “better”–she’ll do that to you) to carry the spirit of Stonehenge single-handed into the Age of Aquarius.
Perhaps that’s why, as the year goes on–record by record–she sounds more desperate and more determined.
Bad news, bad news, come to me where I sleep she sings on the year’s midpoint second album (Unhalfbricking, which also contained her rollicking French version, definitive in any language and her one ride up the charts, of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”). The lines are Bob Dylan’s. The moment she sings them, you know they’ll never again belong to him or anyone else.
Except maybe the other version of Sandy Denny, who laid down another album or two’s worth of stellar work on the BBC in the same year she made What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Liege & Lief :
To listen to it all at once is to be swamped by the notion that sex and desire-the things rock and roll had seemed designed to liberate–have been turned into a series of dungeons under a world of prisons.
If that sounds like a fun place to be then the Sandy Denny of Liege &Lief, in particular, will be the love of your life and–except for maybe the Sandy Denny of other albums here and there–all substitutes will seem silly by comparison.
Even I, with my interest in singers who might have made a deal with the Devil, (because, darn it, deals with the Devil are inherently interesting even if they’re also inherently speculative), have to acknowledge something deeper than speculation is at work in Denny’s voice. Like God, Satan moves in mysterious ways…only the True Believers, the Fundamentalist and the Atheist, forever joined at the hip, manage to convince themselves of either his obviousness or his absence.
And, spectacular as her range was, it was only half the story. Calling her a hard soprano only goes part-way to explaining how she relentlessly, to the point of exhaustion, reached places unavailable to other sopranos. The rest is mystery.
Her first two Fairport albums drew plenty of comparisons to the Band, which was odd since the Band created musical excitement by trading rough-hewn voices, fitted into each other by thousands of nights on the road, while Denny’s band seemed built to contain her one minute and elevate her the next.
She and her mates were barely together a year-and-a-half and spent enough of that time in the studio to record three albums, the last in the throes of an accident that killed drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn–and I wonder if anyone thought Death wasn’t going to follow Sandy Denny around?
Not these people surely….
That’s where the Fairport/Denny collaboration started. In the space of two albums it went everywhere. Well, everywhere Death went anyway. In the beginning, Iain Matthews could lay down what I’ll swear to this day is a vocal nobody could snatch from under him–and no matter how many times I’ve heard it, I never believe even powerhouse Sandy Denny could take it away until the very moment, at the top of the third line, when she does….by going quieter….Or that anyone could grab it back after handing it back the first time….until, with a single powerhouse interpolation in the fade, she does.
All that plus her standard, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (which she’d already recorded with Strawbs in ’67, and seen become a hit for Judy Collins, who had every bit of Denny’s range and none of her mystery–none of her relationship with the Middle Ages, or her certainty, circa 1969, that the future was just one more past waiting to be reborn), and none of it really preps you for where she took the band, the world and herself on Liege & Lief.
Lief, released in December, Fairport’s third album in twelve months, is essentially a Denny solo record (albeit with strong support), and here at last is what she had probably had in mind all along–what Linda Thompson meant when she gave the quote above, years after Denny’s death. It’s an album filled with murder and other morbid sorts of ballads and a vocal approach so devoid of pop sheen it makes Music from Big Pink sound like The Archies Dig Christmas!
It’s not an easy listen, either aesthetically or emotionally. Getting it, even getting at it, requires a spiritual and physical commitment something akin to what the singer is putting in from the other side.
Death and Sex in other words.
You up for that?
If you are–and I was, once–be prepared to encounter not merely a bleak vision but an intricately defined twilight world, full of sharp detail one moment and movement in the shadows that never moves from the corner of your mind’s eye the next, where everyone’s trapped behind castle walls and the only viable sex is an endless cycle of rape and childbirth and revenge where and you will love your child is a curse.
You didn’t forget she had a deal with the Devil did you?
It turned out the Sandy Denny who chased stardom through three bands in four years and laid down tracks as scarifying as this along the way…
was only playing around.
Her voice had always been poised between acceptance and revenge.
I’ll kill myself…but only if I convince myself I can’t kill you instead.
There was always more than a hint of real terror in the concept and it’s heightened on Liege & Lief, where”Tam Lin” and “Matty Groves” go on forever…until you get them, after which you’re mostly just afraid for them to end.
This is not the silliness of something like The Handmaid’s Tale….a fantasy about a future world ruled by Fundamentalist Christians who have developed ideas about women and fertility that are remarkably similar to those of certain contemporary jihadis Margaret Atwood or the honchos at Hulu dare not call out for fear of discovering who the really dangerous people are. No, it’s dread that predates our modern ideas of merely having fantasies spoiled and calling it persecution.
At least that was how I heard it the last time I listened…maybe the first time I truly got it.
I could imagine the spell–that is the right word–breaking.
I could wake up tomorrow and find it gone. I could imagine never listening to Liege & Lief again (though, oddly, not “Nottamun Town.”) I could imagine being relieved if that were the case.
But I know I’d be a fool if I tricked myself into thinking I had reached a better understanding or gotten to the bottom of the dungeon.
What Sandy Denny produced in 1969–the way she used that hard soprano’s most startling and pitiless elements to invent a world as new as tomorrow’s gloomy sunrise and discover one as old as a cave painting–was a body of work any artist worthy of the name would kill for if only it could be got by bending to man’s baser nature.
Alas, 1969 was the peak.
Perhaps there was nowhere to go but down.
In any case, down she went.
There was another year, another band (Fotheringay). Then she rode high with Led Zeppelin in their finest hour (as their only guest vocalist and you can hear why even they might have been a little shy of taking it any further). She partied hard with the rowdiest English rock and rollers, determined to drink every one of them under the table. She made four solo albums.
There was a tempestuous marriage and a child who was soon taken from her for the child’s own good.
Then she took to making dramatic falls, some intentional, some not. Some down stairways, one of which finally damaged her brain.
Either that or the booze finally put her in a coma, where, in 1978, six weeks before I graduated high school, blissfully and painfully unaware of her existence, she died of old age at 31, still waiting, in some sense, to be discovered by the people who wanted to shoot themselves.
One more victim of the 60s. then.
I expect she’ll still be here–or there–when we’re all back where we belong.
The Definitive Collection
Diana Ross & the Supremes (2008)
Let’s start with this: The Supremes, in their various incarnations, have thirty-one comps listed on Wikipedia. I doubt that’s all of them, but it’s enough to suggest there is probably no such thing as a “definitive” Supremes collection. I have four, including the four-disc CD box, which stretches from the very beginning (when it wasn’t clear whether Diana Ross or Flo Ballard would be the lead singer) to the very end (by which time Mary Wilson had, for years, been the only remaining original Supreme and Ballard was in the boneyard). It sustains.
But for getting to the essence, it’s hard to beat this one–and the essence is as essential as anything in the rock and roll era.
In the 173 weeks preceding the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” reaching #1, (Oct. 3, 1961 to Feb 1, 1964) the top of the American pop charts looked like this:**
Weeks Total: 173
Weeks Black Artists spent at #1: 53
Weeks Motown artists spent at #1: 4
In the same length of time after (Feb. 1, 1964 to June 3, 1967):
Weeks Total: 173
Weeks Black Artists spent at #1: 32
Weeks Motown artists spent at #1: 26
Weeks the Supremes spent at #1: 19
Short summary: In the middle of what is supposed to have been Rock and Roll America’s most expansive period, absent Motown (meaning absent Berry Gordy, Jr.), Black America’s time at the top of the Pop Chart would have reverted to the pre-Elvis standard.
Without the Supremes, even Motown would have made little difference in this respect (something Berry Gordy understood better than anyone).
This was after a period–supposedly rock’s most limited and fallow–when Black America had sustained enough chart action over the entirety of the early Rock ‘n’ Roll era for both Cashbox and Billboard to experiment with ending the R&B (or “race”) chart–an experiment a year’s worth of the British Invasion ended for good. So much “for good” that recent years when White America dominated the Hip Hop chart–including one year (2013) where white acts occupied the top spot forty-four out of fifty-two weeks–have not revived the concept.
“Race” dies hard.
If the Supremes had not existed–had not been what and who they were–the shape of the dream that is receding behind us, the restoration of which will be the bedrock of any future revival of anything worth either living or dying for, would be a great deal smaller and meaner.
I listen to them hard and often. Always have. Always will.
Lately, when I listen, I listen to this–because I hear the perfect shape of something America responded to like no other version of ourselves that existed in their time. Hit play:
“Where Did Our Love Go”–By the time they broke out, in the summer of ’64, it was Diana Ross’s show. But the other key elements were already in place. The neighborhood harmonies, the pounding rhythm, Holland-Dozier-Holland’s gift for tying memorable melodies to stringent-but-far-from-simple lyrics that turn on the subtleties of Ross’s timbre: “I’ve got this burnin, burnin, yearnin’ feeling inside me” had never been followed quite so smoothly and irresistibly by anything as turned-on-its-head as “Ooooohhhh, deep inside me….and it hurts so bad.”
“Baby Love”–In true Motown style, the hit formula was copied closely on the subsequent release. Unlike all the other hit formulas, this went straight to #1 again. (Nice story, which I’ll paraphrase: Years ago, I heard all three members of HDH interviewed on public radio. One of them told a story about hanging out on the porch at Motown’s Hitsville after a long, not especially fruitful day of songwriting. He happened to overhear Gordy telling someone that, after the years-in-coming success of “Where Did Our Love Go,” he was going to put all the company’s promotional muscle behind the Supremes because they were the ticket to the white mainstream he had been seeking. Back inside, the eavesdropper went to the room where he had been working with the others, locked the door, hooked a chair under the knob, told his partners what he had heard, and said “We’re not leaving here until we write three number one hits for the Supremes.” “Baby Love” was the first.
“Come See About Me”–This, a fair bid for their finest hour, was the second. And #1 again. However great it was in conception, it grew by leaps and bounds when Ross got hold of it. There’s no question in your mind that he’ll come see about her. Who wouldn’t! Hers is the only mind filled with doubt.
“Stop! In the Name of Love”–This, a fair bid for their finest hour, was the third. And #1 again. Their signature stage song–Rock and Roll America produced nothing more iconic than their hand-motion choreography for this one and Rosanna Arquette fit a lost world into her five-second imitation in Baby It’s You–and for the first time James Jamerson’s bass emerged from the mix so powerfully that it became its own voice, counterpointing Ross’s desperate lead with a sound that seems to lead her down a path where hope and fear are forks in a road with no signs. To listen close is to be forever lost on that road….where you can never know if the path taken is right or wrong, no matter how many times it put a smile on your face when you were just singing along with the radio.
“Back in My Arms Again”–And, just like that, they were personalities. “And Flo, she don’t know, ’cause the boy she loves is a Romeo!”…And #1 again.
“Nothing but Heartaches”–A brilliant record, featuring some of the most haunting and complex harmonies found on any Motown record, plus the usual sterling qualities all the way around….and a flop! After five straight #1’s, this only got to #11. Not sure oldies radio ever made a distinction–but the Corporation noticed.
“I Hear a Symphony”–And went back to basics. The beat’s BIG again (especially that bass!), the harmonic lines cleaned up and deepened, the booting sax from ’64 restored to the bridge. Plus a lyric that’s a straightforward Ode to Joy. Back to #1!
“My World Is Empty Without You”–The lyric complexity returns. Is she pleading for forgiveness, extending it, or admitting she doesn’t care? The track retains the back-to-basics feel. The chart split the difference. It peaked at #5.
“Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart”–A fair bid for the sexiest vocal ever recorded. I don’t think it’s her heart that’s itching. Deeper than you might think, even so. The charts noticed (else fatigue was setting in)–this, as great and joyous as anything, settled for #9.
“You Can’t Hurry Love”–No way to stop this one, even if it plays like a sequel to “Love is Like an Itching in My Heart”–straight-up itching traded for Mama’s advice. By itself, that might have thrown the radio audience, but it was #1 by the time the bass intro reached the third note.
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On”–A shock. Still. Decades of radio play could never wear it smooth. The track itself was so compelling that Kim Wilde’s note-for-note copy went #1 two decades later…and was promptly forgotten. What neither Wilde nor anyone else could match was Ross’s combination of intimacy and distance–as if she’s finally grown terrified of a version of herself it would cost her life to reject. And across those same decades, seven thousand white boy critics echoed each other with some version of “Why doesn’t this weak women just leave the bastard?” Gee, all that liberation theology, all those leftover groupies, and they still never heard about the thing called Sex. #1 of course.
“The Happening”–Okay, here’s why there will never be a perfect Supremes comp. It’s another #1 (and therefore can’t be left off) and a good enough record that I could imagine it gracing a run of hits by someone else and not interrupting the flow. But this is the Supremes. And it’s only 1967. The quality doesn’t matter. It will just never fit. (Click the link, though. It’s the Sullivan appearance where Ed forgot the name and just introduced them as….”the girls!” Plus, they could dance. In case anyone forgot.)
“Reflections”–The themes reach culmination–loneliness, despair, the Morse Code of heartache, reflection. My pick for their greatest record, and Motown’s. It’s given extra weight by being so close to Flo Ballard’s last gasp (she would last only another six weeks before being fired). Somehow, this most perfect intimation of its time and place only reached #2. And that after even “The Happening” had gone to the top. One of life’s little mysteries. It’ll be worth every step of the hard road that ends with both feet inside the pearly gates to have that one explained.
“Love Child”–With Ballard gone, Mary Wilson was frozen out of the studio and backing vocals were turned over to the thoroughly professional Andantes. Three fantastic singles followed “Reflections” (to diminishing chart returns–with Ballard gone, they fell from the Top Ten like a stone). I feel their loss. But hearing “Reflections”bleed into this one elevates both. Which in the abstract, I wouldn’t believe was possible. And back to #1.
“I’m Livin’ in Shame”–A “Love Child” sequel and nearly as good. Standing on it’s own, it can slide by you and you can hear why it only reached the Top Ten. But placed here–and knowing the end is near–it gains weight, as the kitchen-sink details that lay hidden between the grooves of its predecessor are filled in and turned into pure loss. “She never got out of the house, never even boarded a train.” It’s all in the voice–Ross’s sly ability to shift between Ghetto Child and Worldly Sophisticate Looking Over Her Shoulder without losing the plot–and no record caught Black America’s then emerging, still unresolved, cultural dilemma better.
**NOTE: I chose the period of 173 weeks based on Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” marking a new era for Black America in terms of reclaiming the charts….The other non-Motown acts who reached number one between the arrival of the Beatles and the week “Respect” topped the chart were Louis Armstrong, the Dixie Cups and Percy Sledge. I wrote about the significance of Percy’s record here.
This is a bit belated. I expressed my concerns about this year’s ballot here and I guess there wasn’t much likelihood of this being one of the more sterling classes. Still, it needn’t have been such a hot mess. Putting Link Wray in would have made up for a lot.
Anyway, those inducted as performers were Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, The Moody Blues and Nina Simone. Sister Rosetta Tharpe received a much deserved (and long overdue) induction as an Early Influence.
All well and good, except…
Nina Simone should have been inducted in the nonexistent Contemporary Influence category I’ve been calling for for years. There’s no reason she should take up a Performer slot when so many others who are more deserving in that category (Spinners, War, Dionne Warwick, the aforementioned Mr. Wray…one could go on) are left hanging. Like last year’s inductee Joan Baez, Simone’s influence and legacy were more political than musical. They deserve inclusion, just not in the Performer category, because very little of what they performed was Rock and Roll even in the broad definition I prefer.
In the best Purist tradition, her best-known songs were epic….and done better by others….
Bon Jovi continues a discouraging trend toward white boy bands (Journey, Chicago, Yes) who sold a hundred million records and left little trace on the culture. There aren’t that many left and I’m not averse to honoring them. But where’s the sense of priority that a self-anointed Hall of Fame owes History? They are also the first act ever inducted in the Performer category who never made a single record I love (yes, even the Grateful Dead and the Sex Pistols reached me a time or two). But that’s just a personal note. I’d feel a lot better about it if somebody could demonstrate just how Rock and Roll would have been the lest bit different if they never existed. They did do one record I almost liked…Sounds like Poison. Wish I knew if that was the point.
The Cars are worthy. They were the most popular Power Pop band and also one of the best. I have a preference for acts who either helped define a major genre or helped invent an important minor one. The Cars fall just short of either, but they’re close enough to doing both that I feel they are one of those bands who still carved out a worthy place all their own. That holds up on the radio, because of all the thousand times I’ve heard one of their many hits whilst driving around, I never once mistook them for anyone else. (They’re also the only act I voted for who actually made it in, so, the ballot being what it was, no complaints).
Dire Straits is an odd case. The band was faceless except for Mark Knopfler. I would have put Knopfler in the Musical Excellence category (which hasn’t been utilized enough anyway). That would have honored his band’s handful of epic sides and his stellar work as a session guitarist with an unmistakable touch, best heard here:
The Moody Blues are another white boy band (albeit one with a great name!) who the Nominating Committee flirted with for years before putting them on the ballot. They’re more deserving than Bon Jovi (or a few others already in), so at least they don’t lower any standards. And I was happy to see Denny Laine included in the Hall membership, because–even though I’m not even a little immune to the considerable charms of “Nights In White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon”–their initial hit single, on which Laine provided the lead guitar and vocal, was their greatest, and one of the best records of Rock and Roll’s greatest era. Besides, he got gypped when Wings weren’t inducted with Paul McCartney.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Even when the Hall gets it right, they often get it wrong. Sister Rosetta deserved induction long ago (for her impact on Elvis alone) and Early Influence is the proper category. But she was included on the ballot in this year’s Performer voting category, presumably pulling votes from others (Link Wray perhaps?) and, in any case, taking a place on the ballot from some other deserving performer when she was going to be put in by the Hall Nom Committee anyway (reminiscent of what they did with Wanda Jackson a few years back).
Well, if anyone could have appreciated the absurdity of it all, it would have been the woman who walked the line between the sacred and the profane straighter and truer than anyone….
Denise LaSalle’s life read like a book of the blues. Born Mississippi, moved to Chicago, recorded in Memphis (for a Detroit label), died Jackson, Tennessee.
Though she benefited from the space Aretha Franklin opened up in the American narrative when she came south for a brief session in Muscle Shoals, LaSalle carved out a space all her own. Her entire career–as singer, persona, writer (of her own biggest hit “Trapped By a Thing Called Love” and Barbara Mandrell’s country standard “Married, But Not To Each Other” among dozens more…the titles tell all)–was dedicated to the deceptively straightforward place where sex, love and obsession meet.
Her voice, measured but gritty, made those simple themes worthy of a lifetime of exploration and, across nearly five decades, there was no year she could stand when she couldn’t hit the road and pull a crowd in some juke joint somewhere. She probably deserved bigger and better than she got (and she was plenty big at times), but she was a rare talent in a style that, devoid of the moral authority lives like hers brought to it, no longer exists except in memory. The style doesn’t exist because, for better or worse, the lives don’t exist.