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!

WORKING MAN (Kenny O’Dell, R.I.P.)

Kenny O’Dell started in Duane Eddy’s band and had some modest success as a recording artist. But he made his lasting mark as a Hall of Fame country songwriter who had a knack for scoring signature hits for era-defining country acts.

His best known song, “Behind Closed Doors,” made Charlie Rich a huge crossover star after Sam Phillips and a string of Nashville’s crack producers had been trying to put him over since the fifties. Released in 1973, the record probably did more than any other to open Nashville up to modern crossover and while that might have been a mixed blessing for those who liked to keep their country pure (it was only a year or two later that Rich himself, after reading John Denver’s name off a card that read Entertainer of the Year, proceeded to pull out his cigarette lighter and set the card on fire), it established an art and business model the town adhered to for the rest of the decade.

The New Nashville that emerged in the eighties was defined by the Judds if it was defined by anyone and O’Dell wrote their breakout hit “Mama He’s Crazy” as well.

Before, during and after all that he wrote a few dozen other hits and the several hundred other songs that won him every accolade a Nashville songwriter could hope for, from the Grammy on down.

One of those did something that meant as much to me personally as any record could. It was the first single Tanya Tucker released after she left Billy Sherrill (one of the aforementioned crack producers who had, incidentally, helmed “Behind Closed Doors”), Columbia Records and (for the time) Nashville.

Those were considered three very big mistakes at the time. Tucker was still a teenager and was supposed to know her place. The experience was not, in the end, entirely a happy one for her, either personally or professionally.

But the first single she released on her new label went #1 country, #7 on the Adult Contemporary chart and became her only single to reach Billboard’s Top 40. It laid to rest any question of whether she needed Billy Sherrill or Columbia or Nashville.

I missed all that. But a few years later the record was in constant rotation on the same weird little station that played the only Pop or Oldies format in my North Florida county and introduced me to Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My,” Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak”er” and “Black Dog,” Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugartown” and more than a few timeless others.

Nothing ever opened my ears more than waiting for that one song to come back around.

And out of all that, Tanya Tucker ended up being the only singer besides Elvis and Patty Loveless who ever kept me up all night.

Kenny O’dell passed away last week at 73. He outlived the wife he married long enough ago to leave five great grandchildren behind by less than a year.

God speed brother. I ain’t forgot.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Tanya Tucker Up)

“The Jamestown Ferry”
Tanya Tucker (1972)
B-side of “Love’s the Answer”
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: Greatest Hits (Columbia)

“Horseshoe Bend”
Tanya Tucker (1973)
Album cut from What’s Your Mama’s Name
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: What’s Your Mama’s Name

“Greener Than the Grass We Laid On”
Tanya Tucker (1975)
#23 Billboard Country
Did not make the American Pop Chart
Recommended source: Best of (Gusto/TeeVee)…as far as I know the only source released on CD

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Tanya Tucker hit Nashville as a force of nature and a challenge.She had a hundred-year-old voice in a thirteen-year-old body. What to do, what to do? Fortunately, Bette Midler (who  had sung a song on television after hearing it from Tracy Nelson, who had heard it from the song’s co-writer Alex Harvey) was not available to be signed to Billy Sherrill’s label, Columbia (she had just signed with Atlantic)  and Tanya was handed the song Sherrill definitely wanted to record on somebody, which was “Delta Dawn.” Turned out she knew just what to do.

But the road to figuring out how to follow it up was not entirely smooth. At least not artistically speaking. Since the teenager could sell anything–and would become, and remain, the youngest singer to ever be truly accepted by country radio (which had stacked the deck against Brenda Lee in the early days of rock and roll threatening Nashville’s hegemony)–the powers that be decided the rather mundane “Love’s the Answer” would be the followup.

It did fine, reaching #5 country.

In the world I lived in, though, nobody talked about “Love’s the Answer.” They talked about (and requested) the B-side.

The grassroots reaction to the song opened a vein of sorts and re-raised the central question. What to do, what to do?

Go with it.

Nashville was conservative but it wasn’t stupid. If the dirtiest voice in town was coming from a teenage girl, so be it. The audience wanted more. They got more: “What’s Your Mama’s Name,” “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone),” “The Man That Turned My Mama On.” One smash after another. Whatever those titles promised, the songs delivered. Whatever those songs promised, the voice delivered even more.

And it all happened in such a rush that quite a bit was left laying in between the cracks. A B-side here, an album cut there, a semi-hit that would have been much bigger if it hadn’t been caught up in a label change and gone unpromoted back over here.

Out of an album’s worth, these three end up forming a theme: lost girl, left girl, burned girl who may or may not be left standing because the voice never gives away the ending. It just stays right on the edge between the hurt (I want to die) and the defiance (no way in hell will I give in).

A lot of critics sniggered (and a lot still do). How could she know? Sadder days? Lying in the Alabama sun? Walking through a kingdom of honky tonks and bars? Grow up girl! We know you don’t know!

Mostly, over the years, Tanya has played along. That’s how you survive a wild child reputation in Nashville for forty years. I never bought her reticence myself. I knew plenty of girls who knew exactly what she meant back when–knew exactly how the protagonists she represented in these particular half-hidden stories felt. Pretty hard to believe that she struck exactly the right note, again and again, without also knowing exactly what each song meant.

How?

Well, if she weren’t a wild child female hillbilly who made it big at thirteen and lived it up in everybody’s face instead of learning to write bland, happy songs that fit on everybody’s bland, happy albums, we’d probably just call it art…

JUST COUNTRY ENOUGH (Billy Sherrill, R.I.P.)

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(Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Billy Sherrill)

There used to be what was thought of as a more or less eternal war in Nashville between “too real” and “too pop.” The war still sort of goes on but, unfortunately, it’s a little hollow now because, like everything else in this generation’s popular music the now eternal outcome has been decided elsewhere by people who don’t really feel a need to keep artists or audiences informed. You can turn on the radio and punch buttons straight across the dial if you’re interested in the results.

When the war was hottest and heaviest, the single figure most likely to produce hits, controversy or a way ahead was writer/producer Billy Sherrill. He had a broad-based, deeply nuanced formula. Nobody could have stayed at the top of the heap as long as he did–or straddled both sides of such a thorny fence as spectacularly well–if it had been simple.

But it’s probably fair to say it at least had simple elements. At it’s very best those elements tended to be the same: the lushest arrangements permissible (sometimes built up and then stripped back down, even in the same song…like I said, it wasn’t really simple even when it sounded the simplest) backing the very hardest country voices.

You know. Tammy Wynette, George Jones, David Allan Coe, Johnny Paycheck, Tanya Tucker.

Like that.

Even a cursory listing of his most famous productions (not a few of which he also wrote), reads like at least half of the short list people generally start with when they start writing or talking about “the perfect country record.”

To Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which gets the most run, you could add Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It,” Tucker’s “Delta Dawn,” David Houston’s “Almost Persuaded,” and maybe fifty others that would spring more readily to mind if those didn’t happen to already exist.

They all exist in the iconic form they now have not just because of Sherrill’s extraordinary skills as one of the dozen or so greatest record men of the twentieth century, but because he was a genuine visionary in a town and an industry that do not exactly encourage visions. If he was slagged for musical and (sometimes) political conservatism in what’s supposed to be the industry’s most conservative town, well, he didn’t let it bother him too much. And if being “conservative” was what it took to make the records he made–as opposed to what the New Conservatism, which prides itself on being anything but, now produces–then I’ll take a dose of it right now and go down smiling.

The obits are ubiquitous on line and I’m sure his most famous records (which would be too numerous to list in full anyway) will get plenty of play. So I’ll stick to a few of my own favorites, which maybe strike even deeper because they won’t be in everyone’s ear today and because, some time or other, they came for me in my own little personal shadow and made things a little brighter.

Owe you brother. More than I can say.

Maybe even as much as the other misfits you somehow made fit.