THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2020: Volume 2)

10) Rick Nelson Garden Party (1972)

A concept LP about the joys, perils, and traps of rock stardom from a man who had seen more sides of the story than anybody but Elvis and, like Elvis, would find the road ending in the trap of an early death. I suppose it was possible in 1972, with E and Chuck Berry also back at the top of the charts, to think there would be more hit singles like the title track and ho-hum. But there weren’t and Rick doesn’t sound like someone who took his “comeback” for granted, but suspected it was only a temporary bit of well-earned good fortune. One of the first LPs I bought, because I knew I loved the hit from the radio and because it was cheap in a cutout bin: When I found out, a few years later, that Christgau had given it a B- , it was the first sign that he and I were not exactly going to get along. And it’s greater now, when it’s no longer seemly or excusable to take it for granted, than it was then.

9) Various Artists Shagger’s Delight (1981)

A fabulous collection of “beach music,” a subset of 50’s R&B and light 60’s soul that Carolina college kids turned into their own little genre in the 70’s. This is heavy on the R&B, though the real keeper is the Kingpins’ “It Won’t Be This Way Always” from the early 60’s and a bridge to the future of a lot more than beach music.

8) Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club (1985)

 

Released 20 years after Cooke’s tawdry, untimely death, this is the LP that shocked everyone who hadn’t heard his gospel music. I’d heard his gospel. I wasn’t shocked. That’s probably why, although I bought it right away, it took me a long time to hear it for what it was: A sizzling live performance in front of a sympathetic black audience by one of soul’s greatest singers and master showmen. You want to know how and why his loss was felt so deeply by so many, this is the place to start.

7) Sam Cooke The Man and His Music (1986)

Which makes this the place to finish. If I just want to sing along to some Sam Cooke, I still pull 1962’s RCA Best of. But if I want to hear as much of the whole story as I can absorb in one sitting, this double-LP is better than similar length CD-only comps. His box set doesn’t have “A  Change Is Gonna Come.” I know it was a rights issue at the time…but any journey that long has to end there. This one does….without leaving off anything from “Touch the Hem of His Garment” to “Everybody Loves to Cha, Cha, Cha,” along the way.

6)  Various Artists A History of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues: Volume 1, 1950-1958 (1987)

Ya’ll know I like the democracy of the title–“a” not “the.” And this is the cream of that very large crop even it doesn’t have Fats Domino. The sound of his piano is all over this, even if he didn’t play a lick here (and it’s possible he played any number). What more do you need than that? Heck, the way Shirley and Lee start things off, you’d be halfway through a record of crickets chirping before you noticed anyway.

5) Cyndi Lauper True Colors (1986)

The version of “Iko, Iko” from the prior LP put me in mind of Cyndi’s brilliant use of it here so I listened to the whole thing….and was again reminded that it’s fine from beginning to end. There was a weird backlash at the time because it only had three hit singles instead of the five spun off She’s So Unusual. Because she had let the Rock side down by not becoming as popular as the Dance/Hip-Hop side’s Madonna at the last minute where those sides were anything like equal. And because it wasn’t the Greatest Album of the Decade! Funny, I thought there could only be one of those. Anyway, the singles were great, including her searing version of “What’s Going On,” (best heard here) which she fashioned as an answer record to Marvin Gaye’s where anyone else with her chops would have insisted on competing…and not even the Greatest Album of the Decade had a moment to match it segueing into an “Iko, Iko” to kill and die for.

4) Jackie Wilson The Jackie Wilson Story (1983)

My God he was great…”Reet Petite” and the rest of the early Berry Gordy-penned hits, which the Boss used to start Motown, right on through to the early 70’s. This beautifully chosen 2-LP set doesn’t miss a trick or slow down. It’s all great but my favorite is Side Two which kicks off with “Baby Workout” and then turns to his fabulous straight blues singing. The teenage Al Green got kicked out of his house because he couldn’t stop listening to this and Elvis and he redeemed himself by being the only man who could live up to either.

3) Tanya Tucker Here’s Some Love (1976)

Tanya used to keep me up nights–and I mean until the sun came up–trying to figure her out. This was the LP that proved she didn’t need either Billy Sherill or Snuff Garrett to cut monster hits, her first really adult outing.  Her wild child image has been so enduring it’s easy to forget how much she contributed to the new style of Countrypolitan. This one contains a lot of hidden gems and, like many of her LPs from this period, is not on CD. Hey Bear Family, get with it. I wanna stay up all night again!

2) Gary “U.S.” Bonds Frank Guida Presents U.S. Bonds Greatest Hits (1981…I think)

If this wild ride through the swamp had been produced in New Orleans or Memphis or some other pre-qualified place it’s hard to imagine Guida, Bonds and Gene Barge not having higher profiles maybe even Hall of Fame profiles. Because it came from Norfolk, Virginia, no such luck. Too bad because it can make your day.

1) Raspberries Raspberries’ Best: Featuring Eric Carmen  (1976)

I swear I didn’t plan it this way, but this set ends where it began: with a 70’s-era concept LP about rock stardom. Only this time, it’s all about the dream of getting there, with “Overnight Sensation,” the consummate lyrical and emotional expression of the ideal, resting in the middle. It’s brilliantly programmed and every time I put it on the turntable and remember how close they came without quite making it, I have to laugh to keep from crying. Other people in my generation had “punk.” I had them. It was just enough. And this stops just short of Eric Carmen going solo and sending me into a black hole of depression!

If you want to know what it was like to live through the 70’s listen to War’s great albums If you want to know what the lost possibilities of the 70’s felt like, listen to this.

…Til next time!

SOUP TO NUTS TO NAZIS (Monthly Book Report: February 2019)

In January, as a New Year’s Resolution, I committed myself to read at least five books a month. In February, I decided to increase the goal to ten. Met it! Top of the world, Ma, and all that. With all the other irons I have in the fire, I doubt I can keep the pace, but, for now…

Barrack-Room Ballads (1892)
Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s famous collection of poems dedicated to the British Tommy at their Empire’s high tide (you know, the one we’ve tried to slavishly imitate). He knew that Empire’s sun-never-sets-blood-never-dries underbelly first hand. He also knew what and who maintained it, and that hey did so shorn of any glory except what a simpatico spirit such as himself could shed on them.

And, oh, by the way, nearly every line still sings. He wasn’t just a great popular poet, but a distinctly musical one, at least the equal of Stephen Foster for rhythm, power, and ingenuity. I imagine he taught the Beatles a thing or two, if only subconsciously.

He was far more political of course than either Foster or John Lennon. He had seen what was under the underbelly as well and, cold-eyed as he often was about what was glimmering up top (where the merchant and officer classes rubbed shoulders with celebrity, royalty and each other–sound familiar?), was still more wary of collapse than of decadence. At least until the Great War came along, he was the poet laureate of the Devil he knew and this is where he found his purest form of expression. Recommended as an antidote to Gilbert and Sullivan, and vice versa.

The Story of Motown (1979)
Peter Benjaminson

A publishing industry quickie (they proliferated in the late seventies) that serves as a sketch biography of Berry Gordy, Jr., one of the most important men in the history of 20th century America.

It’s earned a reprint because it catches Motown at the moment of its imminent decline, which, not coincidentally, was closely related to Gordy’s increased detachment from his creation. That is was Gordy’s creation, and a near-perfect reflection of his titanic strengths and not inconsiderable weaknesses for as long as he remained at its core, Benjaminson leaves no doubt. There’s no way he can do full justice to either in the space allotted and nobody in a position to provide that space was looking for a door-stopper tome on Berry Gordy or Motown in 1979. You have to put up with the usual narrative shortcuts (many of which I spend my blog-life refuting), but this is a good, swift introduction to a subject which, like the American Revolution, we can never know enough about.

Camino Island (2017)
John Grisham

Though I’ve seen several of the movies based on his work, and they’ve all been pretty good, this is the first Grisham novel I’ve read. I’m assured by those in the know that it’s atypical and would have guessed as much without those assurances. Even here, I can attest he’s the good popular novelist I always heard he was. It’s an easy read. The only thing missing is the necessary ingredient in any pulp that seeks to provide something more than a temporary diversion: a sense of danger.

It’s not that I didn’t want anybody to die. I didn’t. Or that I wouldn’t have felt sad if they did. I would have.

It’s that I never thought they would. I’ll read more in the future for sure, but I might choose more carefully.

The Dud Avocado  (1958)
Elaine Dundy

Dundy is known to Elvis fans for writing Elvis and Gladys, the best book about E’s relationship with his mother, and one of the best books about him from any angle.

This is her only famous novel and it has devoted fans across the board.

Now that I’ve finally read it, I’ll call myself a semi-devoted fan. It’s an American-in-Paris tale with a twist, the twist being not so much that Dundy’s protagonist is a woman, but that she’s a generation late (check the publication date) and knows it without quite being willing to admit it, even to herself. The comedy, quite sharp and satisfying, comes from the narrator’s understanding of how self-conscious and temporary it all is, not just for her, but for everyone. Add that to a sharp, satirical eye for physical and psychological detail and the act of reading it can be judged very much like seeing Paris once upon a time. It’s something everyone should do at least once.

Whether the necessity of reading The Dud Avocado in order to feel you’ve experienced one of life’s great pleasures will fade along with the idea of Paris itself is something we will discover when that idea is gone. For now, if you can’t quite feel the vitality of the idea itself, you can at least feel the echo as you read along, chuckling where you once might have laughed out loud.

The Heat of the Day (1948)
Elizabeth Bowen

I spend a lot of reading time in the company of good writers–the older I get the less patience I have for anyone who is less than good.

But it’s always a little shocking to find myself back in the company of a great one. The only previous novel of Bowen’s I’d read was Eva Trout. That was a long time ago and made enough of an impression that I knew I could never renew the acquaintance casually.

This one involves a strange menage-a-trois, the more interesting half of which is never consummated either physically or emotionally (hand a merely good writer that scenario and see if they can pull it off). It takes place in war-time Britain and portrays in luminous, hard-hearted detail a handsome widow’s relationship with the two men who seek the replace her husband, one a suspected spy, the other the government agent pursuing him. The plot is the plot, and a good one, but there are only three or four ways it can go, and it goes one of them. Any special notice the novel receives or deserves (and it has received and deserved quite a bit), is due to Bowen’s exquisite command of language, which is on a level with Mrs. Wharton and Henry James. If that’s your sort of thing, this is for you. If it’s not, you’ll have to be satisfied with never knowing what you’re missing.

Don’t be surprised if that includes Elizabeth Bowen having your number.

Don’t worry, though. You are hardly alone.

The One From the Other (2006)
Philip Kerr

Fifteen years after his Berlin Noir trilogy was a bit of a sensation in the world of hard-boiled crime fiction, Philip Kerr resurrected his Berlin-born detective, Bernie Gunther, in a post-war setting.

As often happens with successful pulp novelists, Kerr’s books got longer over time as his ambition grew.

As does not often happen, this one pays off. The length entails growth for a change. His post-Chandlerisms still don’t work. (Have they ever worked for anyone but Chandler?) But this one has an emotional resonance that goes beyond the milieu and the plot and touches the detective himself.

Post-War Germany as depicted here is a place where there is literally no safe harbor and Bernie Gunther’s attempt to find one ends in real tragedy. I look forward to finding out if Kerr resolved the danger Ross Macdonald–one of the few pulp writers who managed to go this far and further–identified as using up your character. MacDonald’s solution was to give his detective no dimension at all, to have him operate as a ghost in the machinery of his surroundings. Kerr has cut himself off from that possibility. Bernie Gunther now has dimension.

It will be fun finding out where Kerr took it from here.

The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (1996)
Eugene Davidson

This is the second part of Davidson’s magisterial study in political character. The title is odd on the surface since the vast bulk of this lengthy book details (some might say ad nauseam) deals with what most would consider Hitler at high tide as, step-by-step he conquered or cowed all of continental Europe from the Enligsh Channel to the suburbs of Moscow.

But Davidson’s point–which he’s not alone in making, though few have gone to such lengths or addressed the issue with this much scholarship and erudition–is that Hitler’s weakness came from the same source as his strength. That the megalomaniac is always bound to overreach because every success can only tempt him to go further.

That’s a comforting thought I suppose for those who survived him. But, of course, tyrants just as evil, rapacious and ambitious (Hitler and Mao come to mind) have died in bed with all their dreams intact (as Mao’s still is).  By focusing only on Hitler’s words and deeds as they related to his accrual of first political, then military, then imperial, power, and avoiding speculation about the inner man, Davidson has certainly rendered an important service. It should make anyone who has the stomach for it want to look deeper…

Large tomes on Hitler, Stalin and Mao that promise to do just that have rested on my shelves for years.

I feel them beckoning.

The Plot Against America (2004)
Philip Roth

Philip Roth. Hmmmm…

Good writer. I might have guessed that from the only book of his I’ve read previously which was the slight-if-engagiing Goodbye Columbus.

Then again, my attempts to read a few others of his, plus my encounters with his generation’s other ponderous heavyweights (Mailer, Updike, Bellow), had put me off this for years, so any surprises I discovered regarding this late-period novel’s crisp delivery were pleasant ones.

The main problem is that he has set the novel in an alternate universe and he’s not the man for the job, even if he assigned it to a prepubescent version of himself (named Philip Roth no less). Philip K. Dick would have known that the story here was inside Charles A. Lindbergh, the man Roth has winning the presidency in 1940 and leading America down the path of isolationism, effectively siding with Hitler in his fight against the Brits and Soviets.

It’s not one of history’s more likely what-ifs. Despite being a leading spokesman for the original America First movement, and a well-known laissez-faire attitude about the Nazis when he wasn’t praising them, Lindbergh never expressed the least interest in running for office. There were many he could have had for the asking, though the presidency wasn’t one of them. He’d have had to fight for that, so to make his parallel universe persona credible we would need to be inside him.

Without that perspective, which Dick would have known was essential and Roth doesn’t even attempt, this impeccably-written novel would go nowhere even if the author had the stomach to bring his tragedies front and center instead of assigning them to the margins. They’re still felt, but more as an exercise in mental gymnastics than a gut-punch.

Not just what if, then, but merely what if.

Wasted opportunity then. All that good writing, too. Shame that.

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over  World War II, 1939-1941(2013)
Lynne Olson

All of which is why I’m glad I read The Plot Against America in tandem with this history of the wrangling between the interventionists and the isolationists in the years leading up to America’s entry into WWII.

Without resorting to the usual minutiae, Olson is able to get at the essential characters of the story’s two protagonists in a way that gives them just enough dimension to see them in the human terms such history usually deny such outsized characters. Somewhat alike in their icy aloofness and relative indifference to any damage they might be doing to the people closest to them, they differed in one key aspect: Roosevelt was a thoroughly political man who accepted socialization as part of the process while Lindbergh was a thoroughly apolitical man who found himself dragged into political situations because of his enormous fame and the area of his expertise (flying) which happened to coincide with military interests that couldn’t exactly be ignored with the world on fire and America bound to play some role.

What that role would be was a question that consumed both men. Lindbergh ended up having his personal and historical reputation shattered by his belief (shared by tens of millions of Americans even after the fall of France and right up to Dec. 7, 1941) that no European war was worth what an American intervention would cost. Once the evils of National Socialism were fully exposed by its defeat, no one who had been blind to the known depredations of the thirties could expect to fully recover.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, by far the more devious of the two on matters of principle, was vaulted to near-sainthood by having his half-hearted commitment tuned into full-bore interventionism by events. (Before Dec. 7 he was all for things like conscription and Lend-Lease, but little more committed to the idea of American boys sacrificing their lives for the good of humanity than the strict isolationists Lindbergh represented, and often accused of dragging his feet by those who are always ready to commit someone else’s life to their latest cause. In other words, the political man was a political realist and the foot he kept in each camp might have ensured his reputation irrespective of Amerian’s involvement or noninvolvement, so long as neither prospect involved actually losing.)

Olson does a fine job of telling the basic story, and that job entails leaving a crucial aspect of Lindbergh’s character, his pursuit of a double-life, until the very end, where it damns him more thoroughly than even his most dubious public pronouncements (of which there was no shortage).

Whether Roosevelt himself is redeemed only by forces beyond his control or deserves full credit for such foresight as he possessed, given that it was just enough to preserve Western Civilization for a few decades past its sell-by date, is left to the eye of the beholder.

The Last Battle (1966)
Cornelius Ryan

The last leg (though second published) of Ryan’s epic trilogy of the Allied invasion of Europe from Normandy onwards. As the title indicates, this one is dedicated to the fall of Berlin.

The books are all classics of  the New Journalism Ryan helped invent, of history and of popular literature. Though unlike the others (The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far) this one did not contribute a common phrase to the English language, it is just as thorough, just as fast-paced and just as vital. If anyone has bested his accounts of the events to which he chose to dedicate himself, I’m not aware of it and in any case, it’s unlikely any serious scholarship going forward can fail to take him into account. He might end up being the Edward Gibbon of the Reich’s defeat.

I waited far too long to read them all. Ryan’s are among the rare books I can finish at my age and feel like I’m finally a little bit closer to being educated.

…And now I must go start working on next month!

TRACK-BY-TRACK: DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES–THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION

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.

How essential?

Consider this:

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.

“Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone”–“Into your arms I fell, so unaware, of the loneliness that was waiting there.” It’s what you might call a theme. #1 again.

“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.

“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (with The Temptations)–Pure product. And as irresistible as the Art that preceded it.

“Someday We’ll Be Together”–Their last release with Diana Ross and the last #1 single of the 1960s.

Of course it was.

Now excuse me while I hit replay.

**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. 

MY FAVORITE MOTOWN RECORDS (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

By major act (and as prelude to a piece on Motown’s real importance in the sixties–coming….some day!).

Since the object is to honor the records, I used mostly studio recordings or lip synchs. The major exception is Smokey solo on “Sweet Harmony.” You know, if you only click one, yaddah, yaddah. I included the important acts who passed through Motown on their way to bigger, better things, because, well, they made great records on Motown, too. I stopped with acts who were at least signed in the 70s.

And I added my favorite one shot at the bottom–because God knows there were plenty of those! 

The Marvelettes “Playboy” (1962)

The Miracles “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage” (1967)

Mary Wells “The One Who Really Loves You”(1962)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7ZSaebUhoE

Marvin Gaye “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” (1969)

Martha and the Vandellas “Honey Chile” (1967)

The Supremes “Reflections” (1967)

The Temptations “Don’t Look Back” (1965)

The Four Tops “Standing in the Shadows of Love” (1966)

Stevie Wonder:”I Believe (When I Fall in Love With You It Will Be Forever)” (1972)

Gladys Knight & the Pips “It Should Have Been Me” (1968)

The Isley Brothers “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” (1966)

Jr. Walker & the All Stars: “Way Back Home” (1971)

Marvin and Tammi “If This World Were Mine” (1967)

Spinners “We’ll Have it Made” (1971)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=agnhZ9O-GZw

The Jackson 5 “ABC” (1970)

Diana Ross (solo)  “Upside Down” (1980)

Smokey Robinson (solo) “Sweet Harmony” (1973)

Jackson 5 (solo) Jermaine: “That’s How Love Goes” (1972)

The Commodores “Sail On” (1979)

Rick James “Superfreak (Part 1)” (1981)

Lionel Richie (solo) “Deep River Woman” w/Alabama (1986)

And, my favorite one shot (or, if you like, one big shot), in a close run over Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” and R. Dean Taylor’s “Indiana Wants Me” (which I’m guessing not a lot of people remember was a Motown record):

Jimmy Ruffin “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (1966)

Always loved that there was no question mark.

A SERIOUS GAME….

Just off the top of your head, name the ten most important people in the History of Rock and Roll (individuals, not groups, though group members, including your favorite Beatle, are eligible). Not your favorites or who you think was the greatest, just the most important to the history of Rock and Roll America, however you define it. Here’s mine, in chronological order, by year of their first major impact (crazy game, so feel free to argue/substitute/debate in the comments. Just remember if you add somebody, you have to take somebody out!):

1) Fats Domino (1950) The Originator

2) Elvis Presley (1954) The Driver of the Narrative

3) Chuck Berry (1955) Rock and Roll America’s First Poet Laureate

4) James Brown (1956) The Visionary

5) Berry Gordy, Jr. (1960) Master of the Game

6) Bob Dylan (1962) Rock and Roll America’s Poet Laureate Redux

7) Jimi Hendrix (1967) Traveler through Time and Space

8) Aretha Franklin (1967) The Definer of Soul

9) John Lydon/Kurt Cobain (1976/1989) The Twinned Spirits of Destruction….neither complete without the other…and no, they didn’t need their particular groups the way John Lennon, Brian Wilson and Mick Jagger needed theirs.

10) Madonna (1982) The Solvent.

A PICTURE WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #38)

 

SUPREMES

The story’s well known now...Dreamgirls and all.

One singer (Flo Ballard, middle) had the talent. Another (Diana Ross, foreground) had the boss’ eye. Another (Mary Wilson, background facing mirror) was caught in the middle.

On some level, the well-known story is nonsensical.

Flo Ballard was indeed, a “better” singer. But Diana Ross was a far more distinctive one. And in rock and roll, at least when the revolution was young, being distinctive–having an inimitable appeal not just to the emerging world’s ear but its heart–was far more important.

Not like ever before, then. And not like ever since.

Understanding that was what made Berry Gordy, Jr. (the “boss” in question), one of four most important men in rock’s first decade (with Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry), and one of the ten most important people in the entire history of rock and roll.

Whatever Gordy’s reasons for putting the full weight of the Motown machine behind the Supremes–and later promoting Diana Ross as a solo superstar–none of it would have worked if Ross had been the mere puppet her critics (both inside the Motown family and in the world at large) presumed.

I never had Ross’ particular quality brought home more forcefully than last weekend when I happened to pause on the local college radio station (I had my battery changed about six months ago and haven’t gotten around to resetting the stations–that’s how things work in my world!) and caught “Some Things You Never Get Used To,” dropped, punch-in-the-turd-bowl style, right in the middle of all the usual angsty ready-made cultism.

Outside of truly free-form, fringe formats (like, yes, college radio), I doubt “Some Things” has been on the radio since it ended its brief run on the charts in the summer of ’68, when it reached #30 on Billboard’s Hot 100, the lowest charting single for the Supremes since “Run, Run, Run” had barely scraped the charts in the spring of ’64, when they were still being called the “no-hit Supremes.”

That had all ended with the release of “Where Did Our Love Go” in July of ’64.

In the four intervening years (and not counting a Christmas single in ’65), the group released fifteen singles. Fourteen of those went top ten, (the one that missed, “Nothing But Heartaches,” peaked at #11 and became an instant oldies’ radio staple, just like all the rest). Ten of those went to #1.

Significantly, fourteen of those fifteen singles, also featured Ballard and Wilson as backup singers (with the other featuring Wilson and a session singer, presumably because some episode in Ballard’s tormented personal life kept her from making the session).

After Ballard was essentially fired for failing to meet Motown’s exacting professional standards one too many times, the group charted an additional eleven singles before Ross left for a solo career.

Two things changed with the breakup.

First there wasn’t nearly as much success.

On three of those last eleven singles, they were paired with the Temptations (and only one of those went top ten).

Of the remaining eight, only three reached the top ten with two (“Love Child,” and “Someday We’ll Be Together,” both monumental) reaching #1.

A great run by most people’s standards, but a significant drop-off for the Supremes.

The second thing that changed was that Wilson and Ballard’s replacement, Cindy Birdsong, were no longer used as studio singers on the group’s own singles’ sessions.

That policy-of-exclusion included “Some Things You Never Get Used To,” which featured Ashford and Simpson (who were also taking over the reigns from the just-departed Holland-Dozier-Holland team that had been at the controls through the Supremes’ glory years).

What that meant, in effect, was that Ross was suddenly a separate entity, uprooted from the producers/writers who had lifted her group to the top, but also, and I think even more significantly, from the heartbeat harmonies of the women who had fought their way out of the projects at her side.

I think that told. It left her in an unprotected place and, while the public didn’t  immediately respond as it had before, there was no diminution of her art. The first two singles after Ballard’s departure, “Forever Came Today,” and “Some Things You Never Get Used To,” were very nearly on a par with her finest recorded vocal, 1967’s “Reflections” which, coincidentally or not, was delivered just before the break with Ballard.

After that came “Love Child.”

So “Some Things You Never Get Used To,” fell between the cracks, relegated to compilations where its quality was evident, but never quite so forceful as when it dropped on college radio last week and left the half-dozen indie bands in the rotation around it huffing-and-puffing to keep up.

And failing.

It was just by chance that I found the picture above around the same time, Sheila O’Malley having linked it in a post about her visit to the Morrison Hotel Gallery.

As powerful as the picture is by itself, devoid of any context, it struck a thousand times deeper because of the caption at the Morrison sight.

It says just this:

1965.

Not ’67, when the facade was beginning to crumble, or ’63, when the dream was still being chased, but right smack dab in the middle of a run of success that was on a level with Elvis and the Beatles.

Everything that had been, everything that was, everything that would be, right there in black and white in some shoe-box sized dressing room in the middle of some not-quite-purely-symbolic nowhere.

Right smack dab in the middle of the journey from this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izzKUoxL11E

To this:

..with America–not just college radio–running to keep up.

And, yeah, failing.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (When the Singers Ruled Motown and I Spy Goes Places We Haven’t Caught Up To Just Yet)

Hitsville U.S.A.: The Motown Singles Collection 1959–1971 (Disc One)

“Disc One” runs through the latter part of 1964. It’s nowhere near a complete record of the label’s hits from the period–not even of its really big hits. But it’s a telling overview just the same.

For anyone who may not know, “Motown” was the brain-child of Berry Gordy, Jr., who, along with Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, was one of the three truly essential men in the rise of rock and roll from a sub-genre of rhythm and blues to the cultural cataclysm that was already well established by the time the Beatles arrived in America.

What is less well known–or at least recognized–is how much early Motown depended almost completely on singers.

Mind you, this is before the Temptations or the Four Tops or the (generally underrated) Supremes. And before Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder or even Smokey Robinson became the powerhouse geniuses of later years. This was the era of the Marvelettes and Mary Wells and one shots like Barrett Strong and the Contours.

But on the first fourteen tracks of this particular collection, which run from Strong’s “Money” to Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips–Part 2″ and cover four full years, there is not a single case where the lead vocal isn’t the strongest element on the record (with only the wild, doo-wopping vocal arrangement on the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” coming anywhere close to one-upping the lead).

Mind you, a good bit of the writing, producing and arranging talent that would mark mid-Sixties’ Motown’s glory run was already in place.

So were most of the crack session men who became known as the Funk Brothers.

But none of them were quite there yet, especially in the first year or two, when any new label’s very survival is at stake.

What was there was a glorious run of fantastic lead vocals. If the Supremes are underrated (far too often dismissed as producer’s pets–as though that has ever really opened a door for anyone who didn’t have the talent to step through it to begin with), then the Marvelettes and especially Mary Wells are, outside of the usual cult circles, criminally neglected.

Later on, even singers as great as the Temptations or the Tops’ Levi Stubbs or Marvin Gaye did not have to CARRY records the way the label’s early vocalists did. Beginning with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” in the summer of 1963, the rest of the label’s talent pool began rapidly catching up. By the time the label’s really big acts broke through, the instrumental tracks alone on records like “My Girl,” or “Come See About Me” or “Uptight” or “Heard It Through the Grapevine” could have carried many a lesser talent to the top of the charts.

But there at the foundation, Barrett Strong (whose vocal on “Money” is every bit as great as John Lennon’s on the epic Beatles’ remake–it’s the rest of the track that comes short) and the young, still unpolished Smokey Robinson and Gladys Horton and Mary Wells and all the rest had to put it over on their own.

And they did.

The rest of the box lets you hear how much Berry Gordy learned from the experience–how deeply he understood the importance of voices. Because he spent the rest of the decade not only developing the locals (Tempts, Tops, Supremes and so forth) but rounding up singers like Gladys Knight and Ronnie Isley and the Spinners from afar.

Then, of course, he forgot.

Not only did he let much of that talent slip away at the end of the decade (with Knight, the Isleys and the Spinners becoming three of the biggest acts of the seventies elsewhere) but he lost the knack–or perhaps the will–to seek out new talent of the same caliber. From 1970 onward, only the Jacksons and the Commodores came anywhere close to matching the singers of Motown’s earliest days, let alone its peak.

Not coincidentally, they were the label’s biggest acts as it passed–also not coincidentally–from being an iconic cultural force to being that greatest of all American Dreams….a successful business enterprise.

Pity, that.

I Spy: Season One (1965)

The Robert Culp/Bill Cosby spy series has been sitting on my shelf for a few years, saved for a rainy day. Lots of rainy days this week, so I began working my way in.

Nicely done for its period, meaning for any period. Of course it has weaknesses, but good things are always good. Played by two white guys it would have been just as enjoyable, assuming the second white guy was as gifted and relaxed in the role as Bill Cosby–unlikely but not entirely impossible.

But what’s really striking about this “groundbreaking” series is that, unlike pretty much every other dare television has ever taken (including, I suspect, the ones it is taking right-now-this-very-minute-in-case-you-hadn’t-heard!), it’s precisely the groundbreaking element–the easy, natural relationship between the two leads–that hasn’t dated.

I don’t mean that their relationship feels contemporary. Just that it feels like a world that never arrived.

Robert Culp’s commentary on several early episodes stresses that this particular sort of interracial relationship “had never been done,” (at least on television) and he’s right about that. The closest any white/black relationship had come anywhere on-screen to feeling so naturalistic was actually the Mammy/Scarlett duet pulled off by Ms. McDaniel and Ms. Leigh in you know what.

But Culp and Cosby went that one better because they stepped outside of the time-space continuum and made the impossible–a black American and a white American interacting on a daily basis in a public space with no sliver of race laying between them, as though history had never happened–seem easy as pie.

Culp says in his commentary that it was a conscious decision between himself and Cosby to make race a nonissue–that their statement would be to make no statement.

Fair enough.

But I don’t think he gave himself and his co-star enough credit. There is nothing harder than making a statement by making no statement and this particular nonstatement statement has never been made quite as convincingly since.

So good for them. Good for Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, who turned out to be a couple of splendidly unique human beings.

Shame about the rest of us.